Monthly Archives: August 2019

Dowth, Co Meath. An history time capsule. From megalithic tombs to John Boyle O’Reilly.


View of Dowth Chapel and Manor, Dowth Castle, Dowth school and the Dowth church 

The picture above I took in July 2019.  I didn’t realise it at the time but in that one photo I captured eight hundred years of history and the Irish struggle.  An history that includes the rise and fall of the great Anglo-Norman families, Oliver Cromwell, J B O’Reilly and the struggle of the Fenians, penal servitude and escape and the diaspora; and as if that wasn’t enough the destruction of a 5,000 year old megalithic treasure. Left to right is the Netterville Chapel, Netterville Manor, Dowth Castle, Dowth school house (the low stone building with the gabled roof) and the ruins of Dowth Church on the far right.  Here’s another view.


View of Dowth Manor, Dowth Castle and the Dowth church and graveyard

And a couple of hundred metres to the right, too far away to get into the picture, is the Dowth passage tomb.


Dowth Passage tomb mound viewed from the church.

Let me explain a bit more.  Stay with me and I’ll try and keep it brief.

Dowth in Co Meath, lies near the banks of the Boyne River in the famous Bend of the Boyne, where is the world heritage site of Brú na Bóinne and the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth.  As I referred to briefly, there is also a passage tomb at Dowth.  I’ll come back to that, but my story starts with Dowth Castle, the ancestral home of the Netterville family, who were granted the estate in the 13th century.


Dowth Castle.  Home of the Nettervilles

In 1641 during the civil war, then Viscount Netterville was declared an outlaw for supporting the Confederates and deprived of his estates. Ten years later he was pardoned by Oliver Cromwell.  And then in 1655 another Netterville was imprisoned in Dublin Castle as a traitor but escaped death pleading that he was held by the rebels against his will.

Subsequent Nettervilles displayed all the eccentricities you would expect of these ruling families.  The incumbent Lord built a Manor house in 1780 and moved out of the castle.  It was complete with elaborate gardens, ramparts and walks around the House and Castle.  He built a tea house on top of the passage grave mound and attended mass remotely with the assistance of a telescope focussed on the church.  Unfortunately, the Viscount was also unknowingly complicit in the destruction of the tomb.  With money he donated to excavate the ruins before his death,  members of the Royal Irish Academy in 1849, used, can you believe it, dynamite and destroyed the mound leaving a crater you can still see today. I’d like to think he would have been horrified at what was done.


Crater at the top of the Dowth Mound

While we are talking of the Dowth mound, it is not on the tour agenda of Newgrange, but it is worth visiting separately to get a feel for what they may have looked like in the field.  There is no reconstruction here (just destruction it seems!). There were 115 kerbstones of which half are visible.  Fifteen are carved including the spectacular Stone 51, known as the Stone of the Seven Suns. Also surviving are two passage entrances.


Some of the surviving visible kerbstones at Dowth mound. Stone 51 is the fourth stone from the right.


Stone 51.  The Stone of the Seven Suns.  


A drawing of Stone 51 by archaeologist, Martin Brennan.  


Back to my story.  In 1826, the property was bequeathed for the construction of an ‘alms house’ for aged women [alms houses are a Christian charitable tradition whereby accommodation is provided for poor, old or indigent people].  The magnificent Victorian Gothic red brick structure was built as part of this endowment in 1877 along with the chapel.   I particularly love the decoration in the brick and over the windows and doors highlighted with blue bricks.


Part of Dowth Manor Alms House.  Beautiful red brick with details outlined with blue brick and limestone.

I’m not sure how long it lasted as an alms house, but it has had a variety of uses since then in the 20th century.  During the 1960s the house was the headquarters of the Newgrange excavations (hopefully without dynamite this time).  It has been owned by the Hearst Family and was once occupied by a group of Buddhists, and more recently as a venue for weddings and conferences.  It was up for sale in 2015 at €2.25 M.

All that is truly fascinating but for me it is the connection of the property with J B O’Reilly that makes it come alive.

John Boyle O’Reilly was a man of his time.  A charismatic man who in his short life may well have been the best know Irishman across three continents.  He was an Irish hero and made his mark in many fields.

His name was well known to me through his authorship of the novel, Moondyne, an Australian classic, and his involvement in the spectacular Catalpa rescue of Fenian prisoners from Fremantle Jail.  What I didn’t know is anything of his life in Ireland and America, which is littered with monumental achievements.

It was only by accident that I stumbled on the connection.  After inspecting the passage tomb I was drawn to the ruins of a church a little distance across the paddock.  There I discovered a memorial to him at the back of the church. The monument was erected in 1903.


Memorial to John Boyle O’Reilly at the back of the Dowth church.


J B O’Reilly memorial built 1903

It turns out he was born in the tower house, then occupied by his father, a schoolteacher.  Indeed the school was next door in a low stone building adjoining the tower house. 


The school house at Dowth attended by John Boyle O’Reilly until he was 11.  His bust and a plaque are on the wall.  

So I brought myself up to speed on his life story.  His achievements are many and his impact profound and there is not space here to cover it all but here are a few highlights from his extraordinary life.

  • Born in 1844 into the middle of the Irish Famine. Being born into privilege he survived.
  • Leaves school aged 11 to take on an apprenticeship as a printer at the local Drogheda newspaper
  • Goes to London at 13 to work as a stenographer
  • Returns to Ireland at 19 and became a soldier in the British Army
  • Soon after he joins the Fenians at the invitation of the IRB and infiltrates the British Army
  • Arrested at 21 and sentenced to death for treason. Commuted to 20 years hard labour because of his youth.
  • At age 23 he and sixty-one other Fenian prisoners sent to Fremantle, Western Australia.
  • At age 24 escapes from Fremantle on a whaling ship. Fakes his own suicide to avoid capture at Mauritius.
  • At age 25 arrives in US via London, on the run. Moves to Boston; works for The Pilot newspaper.
  • At age 31 becomes owner and editor of The Pilot. It becomes second biggest Boston newspaper after the Boston Globe.
  • Becomes a spokesman for Irish immigrants, a well-known poet, orator, sportsman, and activist for political causes.
  • At age 31 helps organise the rescue of six Fenians from Fremantle, again using a whale ship, The Catalpa.
  • Becomes one of Americas foremost poets.
  • At 34 writes Moondyne, a semi-autobiographical novel set in Australia.
  • At 35, acknowledged leader of the “Irish cause”
  • Dies at 44 from an accidental overdose of his wife’s sleeping pills

Wow!  Admired and revered on three continents at the time, his work has been criticised subsequently, especially Moondyne, as presenting degrading portraits of Aborigines and glowing praise for capitalist exploitation by the British empire, with racist overtones.  Yet the novel was a landmark.  It scoffs at hypocrisy, and deals with redemption for the downtrodden and forgotten in society and among other things offers solutions on the Australian penal system, the Irish land question, and America as a model for the future.

So there it is.  A huge part of the story of Ireland reflected in this collection of buildings in a beautiful valley in County Meath.  And to think I could have just driven straight past it.


Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Will you meet me on Clare Island?

The Saw Doctors exploded into my life in 1991, when I first heard the album If This is Rock and Roll I Want my Old Job Back.  I eagerly awaited each new album through the 90s.  As someone mad about Ireland their songs helped to define my view of the country and in particular its western seaboard.  Their ability to paint simple word pictures and tell stories of daily life in Mayo and Galway resonated with me.  I saw them once in concert in Adelaide and they were as good as I had hoped.  Anyway, ever since I heard their song about Clare Island, I’ve wanted to go there.

Will you meet me on Clare island,
Summer stars are in the sky.
Get the ferry out from Roonagh,
And wave all our cares goodbye.

Let’s put aside for the moment that in my ignorance, at that time, I thought Clare Island was in Co Clare and had no idea for that matter where their home of Tuam was or what N17 meant.   Don’t know why I mentioned that.  Anyway, finally at the end of July 2019, I got my chance to visit the island which I had, by this time, worked out was off the coast of Mayo.  Turns out that I didn’t have to go to Roonagh, as the song said, as once a week there is a ferry service from Achill Island.

I discovered this when I was on Achill for the wonderful Scoil Achill which I try to get to every year.  “Booking essential” the brochure said. But when I rang the number y’r man said “just turn up”.  So turn up I did in the misty rain with a crowd of other day trippers that soon filled the boat.  I was lucky to get on.  Many were first timers like me but there were also Achill islanders such as Orla, travelling accross for a break with friends and family.  I like that; islanders taking a break on a nearby island.

The boat leaves from the Cloughmore Small Pier (I guess there’s a Cloughmore Big Pier) near to the Kildavnet graveyard and church and Grace O Malleys Castle.  I found the graveyard at Kildavnet a moving place with its many reminders of famine times and I will post on it separately as I had spent time there the previous day.  The Castle was one of a number of Grace O Malley’s haunts. Grace also known as Grainne Ni Mhaille, was a giant figure in these parts, a pirate queen, who ruled the seas of Clew Bay.  We would see another one of her castles on Clare Island.    This day the castle looked inimidating on its point jutting into the sea and as we sailed off, we watched it  become rapidly engulfed in the mist and the driving rain.

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Kildownet Castle, Achill Island.  Built by Grainne Ni Mhail (Grace O’Malley)

Things did not improve on the island.  This was looking to be a rather disastrous day for sight seeing.  I stood with others huddled under a shelter wondering whether to wait or brave it.  But I snuck in a quick visit to the other Grace’s castle, which dominates the view of the Quay.  It has battlement parapets over the entrance so that objects could be dropped on attackers and two well preserved  bartizans,  These protruding structures allowed the defenders to fire down and around the corners at intruders.  These are roofed now as was the whole structure when it was converted to police barracks in 1826.

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Another Grace O’Malley castle greets you at the Pier at Clare Island.
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Everyone is welcome to Clare Island.
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Undaunted by the weather, these two ladies enjoyed a swim at this secluded cove.
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The main beach at Clare Island

I should talk a bit more about Grainne NI Mhaille.  She came to prominence about 1540 and in the latter half of the sixteenth century made Clare Island her stronghold.  Sea traffic to Ulster and Scotland or to Munster and  Spain had to pay a toll or have their cargo seized.  She terrorised the British but in 1593 went to London to petition Queen Elizabeth I  among other things, for a pardon.  Successful, she returned to Clare Island but apparently realised the futility of being nice to the British and continued her wicked ways until her death around 1603.

I took a punt and I set out walking to the west, trying to sneak in a few pictures between the raindrops.  Why do I always talk about the weather on these posts?  You have to love the scenery.  White cottages, as in Achill, dot the hills at a distance indistiguishable from the sheep.  Fields with furrows from potato farming are everywhere.     Letting a tour group of older people from Switzerland stride past me,  I chatted to a couple from Wexford who had been on the island for three days so they were a font of knowledge.

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Fields once used for potato growing
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Lord of the manor
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Visitors from Switzerland off to climb a mountain in the rain
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A Clare Island vista

They were headed to the Abbey so I walked with them.  They had visited the previous day and were told to collect the key from the local ‘store’ (which happened to be owned by an O’Malley).  It was closed.  No backstop there, so no visit.

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Heading to O’Malley’s store to pick up the key to the Abbey.  Better luck this time

They had better luck this day.  Key in hand we walked to the Abbey. It’s not really an abbey.  A tiny Cistercian monastery it was established around 1220AD.

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Clare Island Abbey with its Early Christian carved cross

The remarkable thing about this place, and something I wasn’t prepared for, is the vaulted ceiling of the chancery with its coloured mural paintings dating from before 1500AD.  They were in serious decay and being destroyed by damp in the 1990s when the building was roofed and the art was cleaned and conserved.  Interestingly while it is no Sistine Chapel, these paintings are as atmospheric and astonishing as those of Michelangelo, being painted interestingly about the same time.  While Michelangelo was depicting elaborate religious scenes here we have a mix of simple secular and sacred themes with everyday images of horses and riders, wrestlers, harpist, archers and hunters, along with fantastical animals such as dragons and serpents.  The whole is housed in a simple whitewashed building which ceased as a monastery in the 1600s.  I took the photos included here before I read the sign that said No Photography.  Apologies to whoever for that but I hope they stimulate my readers to go and have a look for yourselves.  Outside the church is a much older inscribed cross which seems to indicate this was an Early Christian site before it became a monastery

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The chancery at Clare Abbey.  The ceiling is covered in 15th century frescos.  On the left is the O’Malley tomb
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Clare Island Abbey.  Chancery  ceiling
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Grainne Ni Mhaille is said to be buried in Clare Abbey.  This plaque is next to her tomb.

It was brighter now and I decided to return by a different route.  Heading north with the island’s highest hill on my left Knockmore at 460m the views are marvellous out over Clew Bay.  On the other side of this hill are inaccessible cliffs that provide some of the best nesting sites for sea birds in the country.  I’ll climb it another time.

I continued walking and on my right I saw a walking trail which I surmised would take me back to the more settled part of the island.  The scenery was magical – agreen treeless bog covered island, following a green highway as if a green carpet had been laid out for me especially.  Not another soul to be seen and this the middle of summer.  Unfortunately I had to amble with purpose as my return ferry would leave at 4 pm but I could have stayed out there all day.

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Looking west over Knockmore
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Following the green carpet back to the boat
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View of the north coast of the Island showing salmon farms, which I was told produces among the best in Ireland.

By now there were sunny breaks and the island was now showing off as I arrived at the Community Centre (or should I say the C M Unity Centre – took me a while to work that one out), one of the two places on the island you can eat and settled into a late lunch of traditional home baked Irish lasagne.  For the 140 or so residents of the island this would be the CBD and the main meeting place.  I am reminded that this is still Ireland and that you make your own life in these remote outposts as I watch the lads (and that includes girls) ferociously go at each other on the football ground.  No doubt vying for a spot in the All Island Championship (not a spelling error! seriously there is a GAA sponsored competition that is held every year and includes nine islands:  Inisheer, Inishmore, Inishman, Bere, Whiddy,  Inishbofin, Aranmore, Inishturk and of course Clare Island. )

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The C M Unity Centre.  Stop for a Lasagne.
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A game of gaelic football in progress.  

Another quick walk along the coast back to the wharf completed my introduction to Clare Island, on the way discovering a secluded beach and some sea arches and getting a real sense of the beauty of the place now drenched in sun.

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The eastern coastline.  Walking back to the ferry
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A friendlier view of the Castle than when I first arrived.
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A hidden cove with sea arches. 

Back at the wharf I had another look at Grace’s casttle.  Now bathed in sunshine and really looking the part from its vantage point on the hill

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Grace’s castle and the beach and wharf at Clare Island
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Grace’s Castle in the sunshine

Somehow the one boat we had arrived on morphed into two and with limited space at the wharf the boats pulled in side by side three abreast and people and animals were shepherded across two boats to get aboard the third.

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All aboard!

It was a very different trip home.  Dry and under a dramatic cloudscape.  But still we managed to get wet.  The boat we were on was known as the ‘fast boat’ and those of us  in the back were drenched by waves created by the wake of the speeding craft.  This was no problem for Orla and her sister who had the time of their lives with what was surely the highlight of their island adventure.

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The trip home
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Orla and her sister enjoying the trip back to Achill. 
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Why do my visits to Ireland’s islands never fail to deliver an unforgettable experience?

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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