Real Ireland

Tom Carmody – Home in a box.

I first met Kerry accordion player Danny O’Mahony in Birmingham in 2016 at a Festival, where he surprised with an amazing set in concert with renowned fiddler, Liz Kane. I then heard him again more recently at Ballyferriter in West Kerry. It was here he played his mighty Tom Carmody accordion. It was hard not to notice it. As dazzling as his playing.

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Intrigued, I chatted to him afterwards about this instrument, and my interest was piqued so we agreed to meet at the Rowan Tree Café in Ennis for a chat. I want to write here about the story that unfolded. It is a story of a tradition that spans time and continents. Of happenstance and passion. Of connections and stewardship. And of rescue and revitalisation.

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I have to start somewhere so who was Tom Carmody? Danny explains. Tom is not well known today but he was a master accordion player born in 1893 in Dromlought near Listowel in Kerry and emigrated to New York in 1925. He immediately made an impact and during the Irish recording boom of the 1930s appeared on many 78s with James Morrison.  New York was a melting pot of Irish melodies; and new tunes and new influences made for a vibrant scene. Indeed, Danny says that Tom introduced James to the tune “Stick across the Hob” which was to become the famous ‘Morrison’s Jig’. One can only assume Tom was in much demand as he became the first to play Irish music at the Waldorf Astoria and was employed to organise music there.

Flashy players required a flashy instrument. And Tom had the flashiest. He commissioned an Italian maker in New York, F Iorio, to make this instrument for him. It was loud and brash as was its exterior. Gaudily decorated with the Irish and American flags and detailed inlays in mother of pearl on the fingerboard incorporating a harp and shamrocks. The name TOM CARMODY is boldy emblazoned across the instrument where it will have maximum exposure. It is a work or art. But the story behind it is just as interesting. It was nearly lost.

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Tom returned to Kerry in the 1970s and died in 1986. This was the year Danny started to play the accordion. Danny grew up with no knowledge of this Kerry man, despite the fact he was a distant relative. He is a grand nephew. Growing up, Danny tells, his father was an accordion player with a overriding passion for the instrument. There were three gods in his house. As in most Irish homes silence was demanded for the Angelus when it came on the radio but in the O’Mahony home, silence was also demanded if there was a tune from Joe Burke or Tony McMahon.

Twenty years later Danny discovered the legacy of Tom Carmody and in 2006 he found the location of the Tom Carmody box. Following the death of Tom’s wife in the 90s it had passed to Denis Moran, her nephew. Denis did not play and it lay forgotten in a shed behind his cottage.

Danny approached Dennis to ask if he could borrow it with a view to photographing it. What he discovered was the accordion in its original case in a very sad state. It was all there but held together with binding twine and caked in dust and grime and a home for live insects.

It was almost too late. Its fate was somewhat ironic. From what we know about Tom and from contemporary photos he was a very dapper and meticuluous man, always well presented and his instrument always in immaculate condition. No doubt he would not have been pleased to see it now.

Denis agreed to let Danny take it away. It was cleaned it up and this revealed it to be in marvellous condition externally but totally seized up. Seeing it now Danny, was desperate to get it back to playable condition. Further negotiation ensued and with some trepidation it was agreed to let Danny take it for two weeks to see what he could do. With the help of accordion guru from East Clare, Charlie Harris, they feverishly went to work and brought it back to life, carefully cleaning and tuning the original reeds which were underneath it all in perfect condition. The only part that needed replacing was the left hand leather strap!

It must have been a remarkable experience to hear that box sing again just as it did in the 1930s.

Danny was concerned that it would continue do deteriorate if kept under the same conditions. He broached this with Denis asking him if he, Denis, could keep it in his bedroom with him so it was not subject to extreme temperature variation. The answer was “Oh no, I couldn’t do that”.  But Denis had done his homework and was happy that Danny would be a suitable custodian of the instrument and gave it to his care.

Danny also obtained valuable material on Tom including photos and all his recordings so since then he has researched his legacy and Tom’s tunes on Tom’s box are a feature of some of his concerts. The work of this forgotten box player lives on.

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I love stories like this. But it could have been very different but for Danny’s persistence and a little bit of luck. If you get the chance to hear him, go listen.  You might be lucky and hear him play the Tom Carmody.

Meanwhile you can check out his website at http://www.dannyomahony.com/

 

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The Beach at Allihies, Co. Cork. A Beautiful Legacy of Ignorance and Indifference.

Allihies is a very photogenic village near the tip of the Beara Peninsula. I have blogged on it before (click here).   There I gave an overview of the whole Beara Peninsula as well as highlighting the extensive history of copper mining in the area,  but I didn’t mention the pretty beach near Allihies, which I didn’t visit last time.

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The beach at Allihies

Back in the Beara recently, I had a bit more time and found myself on the strand during a break in the bleak weather.  This beautiful place has a very interesting back story and an unexpected connection to the mining operations located high up in the hills above the village.

The beach is a surprise.  It seems like it shouldn’t be there. The whole coastline here is rugged and rocky and apparently too wild for sand to accumulate.  And yet there it is, an extensive thick accumulation of golden sand in a protected inlet.

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The inlet at Ballydonegan with the Allihies Beach, the village in the background and the Caha Mountains

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A glorious setting and safe.

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Sand, water, rocks and sky

A close look however shows all is not what it seems.

The sand is very coarse.  It is also very uniform in size and it only comprises fragments of quartz and shale.  There are no organic bits or shell fragments as you would expect.  In fact is unlike any beach sand I have seen.  There are no dunes; just a thick deposit of banded unconsolidated coarse sand.  And due to the lack of fines, it is not compacted as might be expected. It is very hard to walk on and especially hard to climb its slopes.

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Coarse sand.  Lots of quartz and rock fragments

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Thick banded sand.

So where did it come from?

This is where the mining comes in.  Copper mining took place at Allihies for over 70 years starting in 1813.  In its day it was the largest copper production centre in Europe.   Allihies was remote and there were no environmental or safety controls and the Mine Captains pretty much did what they liked.  So rather than build an expensive dam to contain the tailings they were pumped into the local rivers that eventually found their way to the coast at Ballydonegan.  Standard practice then.  Environmental vandalism today.

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Tailings sand deposited among the rocks near the mouth of the river

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The mouth of the river.  Some unusual giant ripples.

So what are tailings?  In hard rock mining the rock containing copper minerals is brought to the surface for processing.  The total percentage of copper minerals may only be about 2-5% so over 95% of the rock mined must be disposed of.  It is crushed and then the copper minerals are separated with the remainder of the rock disposed of.   It was lucky that the processing this time didn’t involve toxic chemicals so the tailings was reasonably clean.   It accumulated at the mouth of the river and eventually the Atlantic Ocean converted it into a beach.  The vast majority of visitors are probably totally unaware that it is man-made.

It is a pretty place.  A great safe swimming beach and stunning views.  It is ironic though that in the 21st century it is one of the attractions of the area whereas two centuries ago it would have been a major blight on the landscape and that a place of such beauty exists because of man’s indifference and ignorance.

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Tranquil and empty.  Mid June.

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Not quite empty.  Holiday makers from the popular adjacent caravan park

 

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The Vandeleur Walled Garden, Kilrush. Of Fragrance and Famine.

 

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The Vandeleur Walled Garden is located near Kilrush in the south western corner of Clare. I visited it in the middle of Spring when it was at its charming best. It is a formal garden space within high walls and is now a place of calm, peace and reflection. Especially reflection.

Historically it was the private garden of the Vandeleurs, who were the largest landowners in the area. It is completely surrounded by enormous stone walls and was located close to the family home, which was destroyed by fire in the 1890s and demolished in the 1970s and is now a car park.  The rectangular design was oriented to catch maximum sun so today Mediterranean plants thrive.

The original garden design was simple and functional as it was mainly used for produce, fruit and supplies for the household. It also included a large greenhouse. All that is gone and the garden lay forgotten for decades. Restoration commenced in 1997 and it was opened in 2000.   It has been redesigned as a recreational space with lawns, an horizontal maze, an hedge maze, plantings of exotics and an arboretum. It is a lovely space. There is a red theme throughout with furniture and installations matching some of the plantings.

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Remnants of the supports for the roof of the greenhouse

 

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Lawns and plantings cut by gravel paths

 

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Mediterranean plants thrive.

 

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Vigorous growth under the high walls

 

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The Garden has a red theme

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Red theme reflected in plantings.

But despite all this beauty as I stroll around my mind remained troubled.

Near the entrance is a small plaque.  It says “Dedicated to the memory of the people evicted from the Estate of Landlord Hector Stewart Vandeleur. July August 1888”. The effect is somewhat diminished though with the tag “Erected by the Kilrush Tidy Towns committee April 2010”

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Memorial plaque near entrance to Garden

I suspect most people just walk by and give only a passing thought to this hint of the awful history that accompanies the family responsible for this garden. I   wonder further how many people actually are aware of what happened in this place during the 1800s, as their children skip and play on the lawns and chase each other through the hedge maze or as they wander along gravel paths and admire the plantings from all over the world.

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skip and play

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Children take a short cut across the Horizontal Maze

There is no information provided so I too was in the dark. My interest piqued though I explored further a little later.

So who were the The Vandeleurs? Descended from Dutch merchants, they settled in county Clare at Sixmilebridge in the early 17th Century.  In 1712 the Earl of Thomond leased the Kilrush estate to the family who eventually purchased it in 1749,   The lands amounted to almost 20,000 acres spread over a very wide area of West Clare.  John Ormsby Vandeleur played a major role in the development of the town of Kilrush in the early 19th century and built Kilrush House (to which the garden was attached) in 1808. Later the Vandeleurs gave land for the building of the Catholic Church, convent, a fever hospital and, ironically, the workhouse.

The family however is remember more for the large number of evictions that took place in the famine years and then again some forty years later.

As I said the brochures you collect at the entrance make only passing reference to these events with the words that “history must never be repeated”.  But behind this is a painful picture of despair, cruelty and terrible injustice.  I am sure all my readers will be well aware of the Famine. An event that killed one million people and forced another million to flee to other lands. But as I dug deeper the sense of injustice increased and I think it is worth retelling the story at least as it impacts the Vandeleurs.

As the Famine took hold in 1847 and tenants were unable to pay rent mass evictions began. Not just by the Vandeleurs but by landowners all over the country.

County Clare however had the highest level of evictions, relative to its population, of any county in Ireland and Kilrush Poor Law Union had the highest level of mass evictions in Clare. So the Vandeleurs were right in the centre of it.

We are lucky that the records of Captain Kennedy who was the administrator for the Kilrush Union are available and they make extraordinary reading. Captain Kennedy was extremely disturbed by what was going on and though he was diligent in administering the regulations he did what he could to alleviate the plight of those affected and destined for starvation, disease and the workhouse.

A quick word on Kennedy.  He was a good man caught in terrible times.  He later went on to be Governor of Western Australia but he never forgot Kilrush and regularly sent money back there.

In early 1848 he observed in one of his regular Reports.

“I scrutinized a list of 575 families here, and saw each individual; On one estate alone, little short of 200 houses have been ‘tumbled’ within three months, and 120 of this number, I believe, within three weeks! The wretched, houseless, helpless inmates, for the most part an amphibious race of fishermen and farmers, scattering disease, destitution, and dismay in every direction. Their lamentable state of filth, ignorance, destitution, and disease, must be seen to be comprehended.”

In July of that year things were desperate:

“Twenty thousand, or one-fourth of the population, are now in receipt of daily food, either in or out of the workhouse.

“I may state in general terms, that about 900 houses, containing probably 4,000 occupants, have been levelled in this Union since last November. The wretchedness, ignorance, and helplessness of the poor on the western coast of this Union prevent them seeking a shelter elsewhere; and to use their own phrase, they “don’t know where to face;” they linger about the localities for weeks or months, burrowing behind the ditches, under a few broken rafters of their former dwelling, refusing to enter the workhouse till the parents are broken down and the children half starved, when they come into the workhouse to swell the mortality, one by one. It is not an unusual occurrence to see 40 or 50 houses levelled in one day, and orders given that no remaining tenant or occupier should give them even a night’s shelter.

“I have known some ruthless acts committed by drivers and sub-agents, but no doubt according to law, however repulsive to humanity; wretched hovels pulled down, where the inmates were in a helpless state of fever and nakedness, and left by the road side for days.

“As many as 300 souls, creatures of the most helpless class, have been left houseless in one day, and the suffering and misery resulting therefrom attributed to insufficient relief or mal-administration of the law: “

I could go on. In total there were close to 7,000 evictions. The event, of course, changed the nation. It was surely inconceivable that it could happen again. But extraordinarily it did; and the Vandeleurs were in the forefront.

A series of bad harvests plagued the country from 1870. This had led to a movement in the next decade for tenants’ rights and land reform with the foundation by William O’Brien of the National Land League.   The ‘land question’ caused major upheaval in the county and people flocked to Ennis in 1880 to hear Charles Stuart Parnell make his famous “Boycott” speech.

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Irish Land League poster from the 1880s

By1885, bad weather, poor harvests, falling prices and declining markets had again taken their toll, and thousands of tenants, especially in the western parts of the county, found themselves unable to pay rents.

The National League introduced the Plan of Campaign in 1886. This was adopted by many tenants who got into trouble. Where a landlord refused to lower his rents voluntarily to an acceptable level the tenants were to combine to offer him reduced rents. If he refused to accept these, they were to pay him no rent at all, but instead contribute to an “estate fund”.

Vandeleur’s tenants adopted this strategy, which was summarily rejected and negotiations went nowhere. And after a long stand off the evictions commenced in October 1887. But the main evictions of the Vandeleur tenants were not until July 1888. It was a massive operation. A procession moved from house to house that comprised hundreds of men and was 1¼ mile in length.  It included detachments of police, hussars, government representatives, the landowners, Emergency men, Infantry, cart loads of observers, visitors and a massive battering ram. It is estimated that up to 10,000 people were there on some days.

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The Irish Collection

23144955540_e65c53e0ef_hThe mob was resolute in its intent and ruthless in its implementation. Here is a description of the demolition of the house of Michael Cleary, near Moneypoint.

Cleary had strongly barricaded the house and was clearly prepared to resist. First of all cordon of police and soldiers were drawn up about the house, but at some distance. Smoke was coming from the chimney – and the first action taken was to block the chimney with straw. Possession was then demanded and the only reply heard was a laugh from some girls inside. The police were now ordered to fix their bayonets, while the bailiffs got to work with crowbars and hatchets, but to little effect. An attack on the door moved it only slightly and hot water was thrown out. The tripod and battering ram were then brought up – and after a long time eventually made a breach in the wall. A shower of hot water was thrown out through the breach.

Finally, a large section of the wall crashed down to a cheer from the Emergency men. Two girls and their two brothers who were in the house were seized by the police The house was then knocked to the ground.

The eviction of Mathaiass Macgrath from Moyasta a week later received the most attention as he resisted strongly and was brutally beaten. His mother, watching this, collapsed and died that night. The evictions ended two days later.

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These Vandeleur evictions were on a much smaller scale than those in the Famine years. only 22 houses were destroyed compared to the many thousands previously. However, Because the event was so well documented and photographed and because of the resistance of the tenants it received wide publicity. This was a factor in reaching a settlement which led to the tenants being able to resume their land a year later.

The photographs above and many others were taken by Robert French and are now in the collection of the National Library in Dublin. They were a major factor in changing perceptions. Maybe more would have been done if the public had been better appraised of what was happening during the earlier evictions.

So back to the garden. Earlier I commented that there was no informaton on these events. But I am now in two minds. Perhaps we don’t need an Interpretive Centre to tell us of these terrible events.  Perhaps it is a place for people to enjoy in their own way.   For some just to walk and contemplate and for others to run and play.

And for others it is a place to honour and respect an extraordinary formative time in Irish history. To reflect on inhumanity and injustice. To ponder on the harm man can do to their own. To contemplate and to evince hope for the future.

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Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way! Avoid it?

I don’t really mean that – I just wanted to get your attention.  Now that I have it……

Well, actually I sort of do mean it. Let me explain.

The Wild Atlantic Way was inaugurated in 2014. It is a 2,500 km coastal route that extends from Kinsale in County Cork to the tip of Donegal. Of course the roads were always there and nothing much has changed except lots of blue signs with a wiggly white line. It has been a roaring success as a focus for visitors to the western counties and has become one of the great coastal drives in the world.

So this is good but my concern is that it funnels people along those coastal roads and it means that travellers become a bit blinkered and are less likely to visit the many gems that lie off this road and away from the coast.

The coastline is magnificent.  I won’t sing its praises here because there are many who have done that already. But it’s only one Ireland. There are others and the best way to see them is to leave the N-roads and take the R’s and L’s.  Sticking to the coast in Clare for instance you will miss Miltown Malbay, Ennistymon and Lisdoonvarna, not to mention Corofin, Kilfenora, Ennis and all of East Clare.

This was highlighted to me the other day. I regularly drive from my home near Quilty to Ennistymon. I habitually take the coastal route through Spanish Point and Lahinch, which happens to coincide with the WAW.  This time though I sought an alternative and Google Maps in her infinite wisdom sent me inland through Miltown Malbay along the Ballard Road and then along a number of boreens to Ennistymon, avoiding Lahinch. It was only 2 minutes longer. I was amazed that I hadn’t come this way before.

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It was stunning countryside.  Rolling hills, stone walls, full of those fabled forty shades of green that defines this country. It benefited from being that little bit higher with stunning vistas to the ocean and Aran Island in the distance. There was no traffic. The narrow lanes entice you to take your time and soak it in and maybe even get out and walk. You can guarantee you will discover the unexpected.

As US poet Robert Frost put it:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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The Stone Walls of Aran. A Triumph of Adaptability.

 

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The Aran Islands are one of the harshest environments in Ireland. Hardly a tree, little natural soil, plenty of rock, no surface water.   But it does have, for Ireland, a relatively benign climate and its greatest resource – a resilient and enterprising people.  It once supported 3,500 people in the 1840s but how has around 1,300.

The islands (Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, Inis Oírr)  are stunningly beautiful but the feature of the landscape that strikes you most when you visit the islands. are the walls and the limestone pavements so typical of the Burren. The two go hand in hand.  There are over 2,000 km of stone walls on the Aran Islands. This is mind boggling considering the total area of the islands is only 46 square kilometres.  I doubt that there is such a concentration of stone walls anywhere else in the world.

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A typical Aran scene.  Narrow walled roads and houses on a treeless landscape.  

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Lush paddocks surrounded by Aran walls.

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In fact at ground level staring out over the paddocks often all you can see is stone walls forming a continuous covering of the landscape.

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Walls form a continuous blanket over the landscape

 

Most of the walls were probably built in modern times (since the 1820s). They are made of limestone gathered from the adjacent fields, Of course in our mindset we tend to think of these walls as boundaries of land holdings. Most are not.

 

But first. The oldest surviving walls on the Aran Islands are those associated with the famous ring forts. At Dún Aonghasa,  one of the most impressive forts in Europe,  the earliest of the walls appear to date from 1100 to 1000 BC, that is Late Bronze age though considerable additions and modifications were made in medieval times (c800AD). Extensive further additions and repairs were made in the nineteenth century in the name of conservation. Clear differences in the masonry or these three periods are apparent. Especially obvious are the buttresses which were controversially added in the 1800s to ensure stability of the earlier walls. The stone for the walls here was quarried nearby, as revealed by the regular shapes. The quality of the stonework is amazing, especially the oldest parts of the wall,  and much of it has been in place for 3,000 years.

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Dun Aonghasa.  Ancient wall from 1000BC

 

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But back to the other stone walls.  Up until the 1840s there was a system of shared common land ownership in the west of Ireland, known as the Rundale System. So there was no great need for farm boundaries. However following the abandonment of this system, stone wall, ditches and hedges were used to define land boundaries.

 

However the farm walls on Aran, as I have already aluded to, are largely not the boundaries to land holdings. The paddocks are too small and irregular. They appear to be a method of handling waste rock gathered from the fields to improve the quality of the pasture and to enable soil improvement by the use of seaweed and to allow the growing of potatos. They define manageable parcels of land and protect the soil from being blown away by the wind. Quite brilliant really.

 

They are always built without mortar – the ‘dry stone’ technique and require constant maintenance. A number of styles are apparent and these may be a response to the availability of source rock, the type or shape of the source rock, the needs of the site or the skills of the craftsmen.

 

For me the most striking and beautiful are the Lace Walls. They are essentially see-through and come with lot of variations presumably at the whim of the builder. Some have large gaps and some are tight.  All are so called single walls unlike the double walls more characteristic of other parts of Ireland.   By the way, there have never been professional stone masons on the islands.  The walls are all built by residents who acquire the skills as a normal part of their farming tool kit.

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Open lace wall using regular vertical ‘mother’ stones

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Open Lace wall in very slabby terrain.

 

 

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Closer packed lace wall with some larger and more regular stones

 

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Tight lace wall with even sized stones.  

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Tight lace wall.  Very few gaps.

 

Feiden Walls (from the Irish for ‘family’) are characteristic of Aran and the west of Ireland. They are built with a ‘family’ of stacked stones. Often there will be vertical slabs (mother stones) which act as a frame within which smaller stones (children) are stacked.  There are countless variations.

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Feiden wall

 

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Two stage wall with Feiden wall at base and tight lace wall at top.

 

Between the fields are narrow roads know as róidín but access is usually across fields rather than around them. This seems strange as there are very few gates. This didn’t really hit me at first but most fields appear to have no access. A closer look however reveals “phantom gates”. A ‘gap’ roughly filled with stone. These are called bearna, or “Aran gaps”.   Many are filled with rounded stones as they are easier to dismantle and roll away. There are many variations and again, they appear to be unique to the west of Ireland.

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Note the narrow walled roads between the fields.

 

 

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A bearna.  Stones in ‘gate’ were removed to gain access and then replaced after.

 

Each time you visit these islands you see more.  It’s like reading a book over and over and seeing something different each time. Initially the sheer scale and quantity of the walls is a little overwhelming. But they are a aesthetic and functional marvel and a wonderful example of man’s ingenuity in adapting to his/her environment.

Stone, earth, land, climate, food; all intricately woven together, driven by remoteness, resilience and the need for self sufficiency has created something truly unique.

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Kilkee, Co Clare. The Rhythm of the Waves.

 

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Kilkee is a small resort town on the west coast of Clare. One of its major attractions are the cliff walks. Every bit as dramatic as the more famous Cliffs of Moher but no Interpretive Centre and no entry fee! If you take the walk west from the Diamond Rocks Cafe along the coastal trail you are rewarded with striking cliff vistas and easy access, with concrete stairs, to the rock platform in a number of places; something you can’t do at the other Cliffs.

One glorious March day I visited with my camera. I descended one of these stairways towards the shore. There was much of interest. A ‘blow hole’ where you could see the swirling ocean underneath through a hole in the rock layers, perfectly preserve ripple marks reminding us this was once an ancient shallow sea in the Carboniferous. And of course spectacular views in all directions. If you keep walking west on this massive and smooth ledge you come to a point you can go no further. I’ll call this Valda’s Rock.

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I met Valda there. She was sitting on the edge where it drops off into the sea. I could tell she wasn’t a tourist and she had that look that she was waiting for something. I have learnt a lot by taking my cues from locals, so a polite distance away I sat and watched and waited too.

It was a perfectly calm day. There was nothing breaking the surface of the ocean. It sparkled with the glint of the sun bouncing off the ripples. Together but separately we waited and watched. IG3C5245

 

Then without warning a series of waves arrived and the ocean came alive. You couldn’t predict where they would arrive from or where they would break and they had me turning this way and that. There were waves reflected from the cliffs and this added extra complexity. Some would smash against the rocks and the spray would ride up, at least on one occasion sending some foolhardy visitors scurrying. It would only last a couple of minutes and then the energy dissipated and all was calm again. She snapped photos on her phone, while I clicked away on my beast making full use of the burst function. Then she plugged her earphones in and went back to her waiting. After a while though I disturbed her peace and we struck up a conversation.

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She had grown up in Kilkee though now lives and works in the ‘City’, as she called it (Limerick), but returns home every weekend and comes down to this very spot regularly. She told me she had been watching these waves since she was a little girl. She talked about what she called ‘the rhythm’. You wait and the big waves come. Not regular but they come. Interrupting our chat was the next big set.

 

Each set was uniquely different and some were well into ‘Wow’ territory. You just couldn’t leave as you wanted to see what the next one would bring.

 

But she did leave. After all it was Mother’s Day and she was supposed to cook dinner.

 

I had enjoyed meeting Valda but I stayed. Another hour. I tried to pick a pattern but there was nothing obvious. There must, I thought, be something driving this. It’s like the earth’s beating heart sets off mini tsunamis somewhere in the distant Atlantic and they pulse into waves that eventually funnel into this bay at Kilkee; the kinetic content released explosively as it meets land for the first time.

 

So thanks Valda for introducing me to this very special place.

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Life Wasn’t Meant to be Easy Part 2. The Search for St Ruth’s Bush.

I recently blogged on my troubles finding the Bealin Cross. Well not wanting to labour a point but on the same day I had a similar interesting experience trying to find St Ruth’s Bush.

Really I knew nothing about St Ruth’s Bush, except that it is the name of a lovely reel.  Of course in my ignorance I imagined it was referring to a Saint in the mould of St Brigid.  Perhaps the Patron Saint of Gardening.  But I made no enquiries.  Well I was wrong.  Not only was Saint Ruth not a Saint but she wasn’t a she!  I’ll come back to that in a moment but first a bit of Irish History.

Driving in Ireland I like to travel off the motorway as much as possible so coming home from the North on a recent road trip, just past Balinasloe in Co Galway, I saw a turnoff to Aughrim.  Aha my chance to visit the site of the Battle of Aughrim.  Another tune name but to my shame I knew nothing about this battle.  In fact it was the definitive battle of the War of the Kings, the battle between the Jacobites, supporting Catholic James II and the English/Dutch backed Williamites.  The battle was fought on July 12th 1692 and ended badly for the Irish and their French allies.  A total of 7,000 were killed in the worst massacre on Irish soil. Ironically, the battle was going well for the Irish until fate intervened. Firstly they had been supplied with the wrong musket balls which didn’t fit their guns, but even worse their leader was decapitated by a stray and fortuitous canon ball. Leaderless, the Irish disintegrated and the battle was lost.

Their leader was Charles Chalmont,  The Marquis de St Ruth.  Saint Ruth.

This defeat led to a series of devastating events for Ireland. The surrender at Limerick, The Treaty of Limerick, the repudiation of that Treaty by the Protestant dominated Irish Parliament, and the subsequent penal laws and centuries of British domination of Ireland.

So back to St Ruth and his Bush.  The Bush was planted in an open field and reputedly marks the spot where St. Ruth fell from his horse after his head was blown off.  I was determined to find this bush.  It was marked on the self guided battle tour and referred to in all the guide books.  No problem I thought.

So I get myself to the right area and find a sign adjacent to a field.  This must be it.  Looking for some guidance I saw none but started wandering aimlessly across the paddock.  Looking for a bush.  Not looking promising as I was rescued by a voice from an adjacent house.  “Can I help you?”

“Oh  you won’t find St Ruth’s Bush there.  It’s too boggy.  No one goes that way.”  She directed me back up the road I had come to a yellow house and told me to walk through an adjacent gate and across the paddock.  So I did this.  Mind you there was no signage here but there was a beautiful steel stile,  which took me into an empty paddock.  In the distance I saw another stile, so I headed that way.  No bush anywhere.  Now I was joined by a flock of friendly sheep very keen on following my progress.  Across that stile I was in another empty paddock.  No signs and no bush.  I walked to the other end of the paddock.  Nothing.  My companions were no help.  I was perplexed and retraced my steps.  I then caught a glimpse of a stile in a side fence and this proved to lead to the holy grail.

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My friendly companions

 

Here there was a sign.  However this was just a viewing platform and in the middle of the paddock in the distance was a fenced off compound surrounding some very unimpressive weeds.  I had found it.  The memorial to this pivotal event in Irish History and the worst military disaster in the country was some straggly undergrowth in the middle of a boggy field.

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St Ruth’s Bush

 

Sorry but the photo is just as unimpressive.  It was raining and as it got heavier, I hurriedly retreated.  With a mixture of satisfaction though that I had found it and sobering reflection on its significance.  There are a number of other sites to visit in the vicinity and each in its own way takes you back to the horrible events of that day and the devastating significance to the Irish people.  A lonely bridge, a ruined castle and empty paddocks all tell a sordid but sad story.

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Attibrassil Bridge

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Ruins of Aughrim Castle

 

When I play the evocative tune The Battle of Aughrim now, it is hard not to think of those 7,ooo souls and the millions who suffered as a consequence.

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Life Wasn’t Meant to be Easy Part 1. Finding the Bealin Cross

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Life wasn’t meant to be easy.

These were the infamous words of a former Opposition leader of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, back in 1975 as he engineered the dismissal of the Labour Government of Gough Whitlam and had himself installed.  That’s not really important here but his words came to me as I scoured up and down the wet, foggy hills of Westmeath looking for a High Cross.

I had no particular reason to seek out this cross and I knew nothing about it but my trusty road atlas has a spot marked called Twyford Cross and it wasn’t much of a detour so I thought I would visit.

First though, it is nowhere near Twyford.  It was closer to Baylin on the map, so I went there to start my search. Google Maps has no mention of it so I was in the dark but I thought the gods were with me because as I approached the village there was one of those nice brown signs for naïve tourists like me which said Baylin Cross.

That’ll do. I headed down the lane until it stopped abruptly at two locked gates, after just a few hundred metres. No sign of anything that resembled a High Cross. How could I have missed it? I drove back and forth a couple of times. There was nothing that would indicate a cross.  This was just a rural, suburban street.

Ok time to Google it. I found a couple of brief descriptions of the Bealin Cross, which I assumed was the same. One seemed helpful. It described at length, how this guy went on a goose chase looking for it until he asked someone, who told him to cross a stile and it was on a hill behind the houses. This guy found it, why couldn’t I?  I went up and down a couple more times looking for a stile. No stile. It was wet and foggy and miserable (have I already mentioned that?) and I saw no one around to ask. Not wanting to give up I pulled off the road to have a think. In front of me was a spanking new cattle drenching pen and a bright red gate to the side. Cattle drenching pen? Stile? Just maybe!

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The access point for the High Cross.  Through the red gate.

So on a hunch I went in there. Round the corner and aah there’s a hill. Fifty metres further walking I saw the cross.

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I know I have been long winded but I just wanted to stress that sometimes if you want to find something in Ireland, it can require persistence and a dose of luck. I love it that there is heritage everywhere. Megalithic monuments, ring forts, dolmens, ruined castles, abbeys and crosses. That of course is one of the reasons to visit Ireland. The Irish have preserved these monuments and are generous with access to them. Many are on the major tourist itineraries and have bold signage, car parks, interpretive centres and entrance fees. Many do not. These are the ones I like to visit. But as in the case of the Bealin Cross it can be a challenge. It almost seems to me that while farmers and the ‘authorities’ are happy to allow you access, they are not going to make it easy for you by telling you where it is; so no parking, no signs and definitely no interpretive centres.

So Bealin Cross. Was it worth the effort? It is called the Bealin (Baylin) Cross because it was once in Baylin but it was moved to the townland of Twyford. It is around 2 metres high it is beautifully decorated though somewhat worn. After all it is believed to have been constructed in around 800AD. Yes I haven’t left a ‘1’ off the front. It is 1,200 years old. It is thought to have been built originally for nearby Clonmacnoise.  There are interlaced creatures with birdlike heads running up the East side and a stunning celtic knot at the centre.

Though they are hard to make out other images include a hunting scene with a dog biting a deer’s leg. Each side has different images.

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Personally I find it remarkable that it still exists and sits on a hill exposed to the elements. Not hidden away in a museum or church but in its ‘natural’ environment for anyone to discover and enjoy (if they have suitable orienteering skills).

The photos are pretty ordinary as was the weather and once I found it, my time there was short as the heavens opened up.

Of course it was worth it but on this occasion perhaps the journey was more interesting than the destination.

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All is not what it seems. A little story from the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast of Clare.

I live in a remarkable spot and I have written of it and photographed it many times. Point Caherush lies between Quilty and Spanish Point along the spectacular west coast of Clare.  Indeed it was spectacular before it became part of the Wild Atlantic Way but now of course it is legitimately spectacular because it has a label with the word ‘wild’ in it. Anyway I live at the end of a one kilometre long boreen known locally as the Clogher Road. My front door looks out over Quilty and Mutton Island. Here’s a reminder.

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My little cottage nestled on the rocks at Pt Caherush

 

The rocks at my feet though are similar to the rest of the West Clare coastline from Loop Head to Doolin, and comprise shallowly dipping interbedded sandstones and shales.  For the whole time I have lived here I assumed that I was living at the edge of a wilderness (that’s the ‘wild’ in Wild Atlantic Way!). A thin strip of pristine land beyond the rolling green that is everywhere so heavily moulded by man.  I surmised, somewhat romantically, that only the hand of the sea had sculpted the shore. Despite this I was troubled by some observations I could not explain. Perfectly circular holes in the rock sometimes with radial joint patterns around them were disturbingly reminiscent of what I had seen in open cut mines. This made no sense. There was nothing to mine in these barren sandstones.

But I didn’t think of the sandstone itself.

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Perfectly circular holes and radial joint patterns on the rock platform at Point Caherush

 

One day I was chatting to Mikey Talty, a resident of this place all his long life. I have written about that day in a previous blog, when three generations of the Talty family were harvesting kelp from the bay. Mikey is full of wonderful stories but he really got my attention when he mentioned working as a young man in the 1950s at a massive quarry operation on the Point. He showed me where the crushing plant was and described how truckloads of rock were carted away to build roads as far away as Kilrush and Kilkee. This mining it would seem had changed the shape of the headland and much of the protection of the bay was lost.

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Mikey Talty talks about Caherush in his youth.

 

With this new knowledge I now see the evidence everywhere in my wanderings. Of course the drill holes were for the explosives, some still showing their perfect shape and probably unexploded, and others with radial shatter patterns showing they did their job. There are rock exposures that are not natural and there is angular rubble strewn, that has yet to be smoothed out by the ocean.

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Blasted face at limit of quarrying

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Quarried rock face and blasted rubble

 

It is hard now to understand the thinking that would have led to the locating of a quarry here when there would have been plenty of locations away from the coast. I would like to think that in ‘modern’ Ireland it would be impossible to conceive of permission being obtained today for mining on the seashore. Perhaps planning approval wasn’t needed then and certainly priorities would have been different.

I can find nothing in the literature about this operation and maybe the memory of it is only now with those who lived or worked here. But the record will stay in the rocks for hundreds of years and I am sure it will confuse and intrigue future generations of geologists and non-geologists, who wander around Point Caherush, as it did me.

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Oliver O’Connell, Man of the Burren and the Track of Tears.

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.

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View across the Burren National Park

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.

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Satellite image of Famine Road.  Shown with red arrow.

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1842 Map showing same area as satellite image above.  Famine Road is clearly marked.

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.

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The start of the Famine Road near Aughrim.  Part of the Burren Way.

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View to the north along the Famine Road

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Cobbles forming the road base

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Detail of cobbling

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Detailed satellite view of portion of the Famine Road

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Jagged rocks standing upright form part of a wall along both edges of the road

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.

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Oliver with the O’Connell Family Tree

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Detail of portion of the Family Tree

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.

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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.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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