Ireland is a very popular destination with visitors. And for good reasons. I have met so many who have come here for a week and have rushed around to tick Dublin, Dingle, Cliffs of Moher and Galway off their list and happily report back home that they “did Ireland”. Don’t get me wrong most people genuinely enjoy Ireland, in fact love it. What’s not to love? There is of course wonderful scenery, friendly people, ruined castles, trad music, Guinness, bacon and cabbage, sheep on the road. Everything that brings people here. But very few of those short-term visitors would have tapped into the ‘real’ Ireland. Ireland’s real treasure is its people. It’s through the people of Ireland you discover the Hidden Ireland.
I spent a day recently with one of these people. Oliver O’Connell may be known to some of you. Perhaps if I say he is Blackie O’Connell’s dad that may twig a few responses or the guy who started a session on an Aer Lingis flight last year, the video of which went viral; but really he should be better known as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Maurice O’Connell ‘The Transplanted’. I’ll come back to that.
Oliver lives in an extraordinary spot in the middle of the Burren which is the beating heart of County Clare. Ten kilometres from Corofin. You look out his kitchen window towards Mullaghmore , across a barren, stark tortured, limestone plain and you cannot see a single house. And at night the only light is the faint reflected glow from Galway City way to the north.
Oliver is as much part of the Burren as the megalithic tombs and glacial erratics that dot the landscape. He took me for a little walk to show me a favourite spot of his; the so-called Famine Road. A little used part of the Burren Way walking trail.
Now I thought I knew what a ‘Famine Road’ was. The walking tours of The Burren will take you to one and tell you these roadways were built as an assistance scheme to keep people out of the Workhouse. This may indeed be the case but this one is different as Oliver tells it. This road was here way before the Famine. Indeed the 1842 map of Clare shows the route as a road in use and on the exact same line as the satellite image. So it certainly well predated the Famine.
Oliver explained that it is called the ‘Famine Road’ for a very different reason. The route was used by a number of families attempting to escape the deprivations of those terrible years but many did not survive. They are buried somewhere along the route in unmarked graves. It struck me as unusual that the road fell into disuse even though it would shorten the trip considerable from Corofin to Kinvara. Oliver thinks the road has been there for perhaps a thousand years. If this is true then it is a tribute to the engineering capabilities of the early residents. It is roughly cobbled and raised in places, the summer grasses partly hide it now but its unique stone walls bounding it still stand proud today. They have regularly spaced jagged vertical stones. The road is straight as a die in places and it traverses the country peacefully and silently.
So why was it no longer used?
Oliver is a poet. One whose poetry is raw, and highly descriptive. It is personal and it is heartfelt. It comes to him quickly almost as a stream of consciousness. He doesn’t massage it and as a result it doesn’t sound the least bit contrived. In a poem he wrote about this road he describes what he calls the Track of Tears, thus:
Here in this place “bothar na muinne, ait ciunas gan uaigness”.
Where silence screams at you but the spirits of our people radiate a comforting presence as they lie here in peace in their final resting place.
You tread on their footsteps and on their tombstones as you weave your way through sacred structures and vertical stone walls in this land of myth and magic.
(‘bothar na muinne, ait ciunas gan uaigness’ translates to a ‘place of silence without loneliness’)
The silence screams. It quite literally does. Not a bird, no wind, no animals Just the sound of our footsteps and our breathing. It’s as if the Gods with quiet reflectance continue to mourn those who didn’t make it. And it is surrounded with a landscape of harsh but tranquil beauty described so well in Oliver’s poem.
It is perfectly fitting that the road is no longer used and it is tempting to think that this was by design as a memorial to those lost.
I was moved by the story of the road and this window into a distant Ireland. Distant struggles, yes, but it recalls the many battles endured before and since by the Irish people.
But Oliver has a bigger story to tell.
He has spent fifteen years trying to unravel it and his journey has as many twists and turns as a good detective yarn.
Oliver’s forebears have been in Clare since 1653. He has been able to trace them back continuously to Maurice O’Connell (The Transported) who led 59 members of his family from their home in Kerry, from where they were expelled by Cromwell. Those who survived resettled near Inagh and Liscannor. Clare was then part of Connacht and the expression To Hell or Connaught comes from that time and relates to this exodus. The barren plains of the Burren was the equivalent of being sent to Hell. But survive they did and Blackie’s children represent the fourteenth generation of O’Connell’s to live in Clare. But it’s even more interesting than that.
Oliver has managed to trace Maurice O’Connell’s antecedents back to 1340 when they were a well connected and important family in Kerry and Limerick and even earlier to Connaill Gabhra, “Connaill of the Swift Horses”, King of Munster, in the 1100s. What a fabulous heritage. Nearly a thousand years!
What is unique about this story is that documentation exists continuously since the 1300s. As Oliver explained most Irish families can only go back to the 1820s. Prior to that records were kept by the British only for Protestants and Military. The O’Connell’s have a long hsitory of military service so the story is still there for those with the patience and energy to root it out.
Oliver as well as being a poet and raconteur is a musician and has links to a generation of musicians sadly disappearing fast. He is full of stories all told with zest and enthusiasm, such as how Blackie started on the pipes, but I will leave that for Oliver to tell sometime as he surely will.
How else would you end a day such as this but with some tunes, So I sat on a chair in the kitchen, a chair that I’m sure that Oliver’s old friend Finbar Furey would have sat on and it just seemed so perfectly logical that the fiddle and the box together would shatter that Burren silence.
Oliver has invited me back to see this place in a different mood. When the frosts arrive.
Keep me away.