Real Ireland

Here today, gone tomorrow? The reappearing beach at Dooagh, Achill.

Achill, Acaill, Ecaill, Eccuill, Akill, Akle, The Aukilles.

These are some of the names recorded historically for Achill Island in West Mayo. The original meaning of the name however is unknown.  This is perhaps fitting as the Island itself is somewhat enigmatic.  I am constantly surprised, as I was on my most recent visit in July 2017.

Dooagh is one of a number of pretty villages on the island.  It has variously prospered and faded over recent centuries.  It became a hub when it received villagers who abandoned their homes in Slievemore during the mid 19th century.   The village is nestled on the Atlantic shore and its wellbeing has always been connected with the sea.  Fishing, seaweed and the hotels and guest houses that lined its sandy beach.  Then in 1984 the sand disappeared.  A wild storm stripped it away to the bare rock.  The decades passed and Dooagh had resigned itself to its beach’s fate until in April 2017 the sand returned.

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The world went just a little mad, but this is a  perfectly natural event and has apparently occurred many times before.  John O’Shea, who has lived in a house on the beach for 46 years explained “When the wind is up north the sand builds up, when the wind’s sou’ west the sand goes out.”  It happens with Keel, Dooagh and Keem Bay, he said, and it happens regularly.  But this time seems to be different. The story has gone global.   John has had phone calls from Texas, Netherlands, New Zealand asking what’s going on.  A group of Chinese came – they didn’t want to see the Cliffs of Moher they wanted to see the New Beach!  Irish Times reported it and since then the story has spread.  Al Jaziera, The Times and more recently the Guardian did a six page spread.

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A particularly high tide and favourable marine conditions along with the northerly winds has brought back the sand and boulders that had been waiting below the low tide mark.  The world has taken notice and the tourists have come.

Beaches are a dynamic environment.  Man’s desire to live close to the beach creates conflicts that are often resolved by serious intervention in the natural process.  Huge quantities of rock are sometimes dumped to protect buildings or infrastructure and prevent erosion of the land and sometimes sand is ‘shifted’ from elsewhere to maintain  a ‘beach’.

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What has happened in Dooagh however shows that if we just leave things alone, Nature will find a way to restore equilibrium.  Beaches disappear.  And they come back.  We should celebrate with the people of Achill the return of  its sixth beach and hope that it lasts a long time.  But if it doesn’t last and the tides and winds sweep it away, we should celebrate that too.  These natural rhythms are on a planetary time scale and rarely on a human one.

Please take note Mr Trump.

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Life is a beach. Keel is a beach.

My camera and I spent a few hours on the strand at Keel on Achill Island in Co.  Mayo.  I thought I would share some of those moments with my blog readers,

Life is a beach
Keel is a beach
Keel is Life
Keel is sand, sun, grass, clouds and mountains
Keel is hitting a ball
Keel is walking or running
Keel is reading and thinking
Keel is wheels
Keel is long shadows
Keel is a dune of cobbles
Keel is lost in clouds
Keel is reflections
Keel is people
Keel is light

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Keel is sand sun grass cloud and mountains

 

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Keel is hitting a ball

 

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Keel is walking

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Keel is running

 

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Keel is reading

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Keel is wheels I

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Keel is wheels II

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Keel is long shadows I

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Keel is long shadows II

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Keel is a dune of cobbles

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Keel is lost in clouds I

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keel is lost in clouds II

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Keel is reflections

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Keel is people

 

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Keel is light

 

 

 

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Music Today 3pm.

This is a little story of a hidden Ireland. It’s not really hidden you just have to take the blinkers off every now and then and follow your nose. Sorry about the mixed metaphor.
I spend quite a bit of my time in County Clare just driving around some of my favourite places, the Burren, the coast around Spanish Point, the hills behind Doolin. Just looking. I love to head down a boreen I’ve never been or follow a hunch in the hope of finding something new.
As I was doing just this on a wet and not terribly inviting midweek day in July, I drove past the beautiful Kilshanny House just outside Ennistymon. A sign caught my eye. Music Today 3pm.   How could I drive past that. I always have the fiddle with me. I live in hope.

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I have been here many times. I know host Mary Butler and it is a great venue for a session though these day they happen rarely.   But this was really unusual.  Of course I went in. Mary explained that she was having a busload of visitors, from New York as it happened, and she was putting on a meal and entertainment, She was happy for me to stay and even to put up with me taking a few photos.

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The coach arrives

What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, As the bus pulled up driven by the irascible Gerry, the visitors entered Mary’s wonderful stone-walled and comfortable space, lined with books, ephemera and priceless reminders of Irish culture, heritage and especially music. And speaking of music They were greeted by fiddles and piano and songs provided by two Clare musicians of the highest quality, Sharon Howley who plays with the Kilfenora Ceili Band, probably the most famous Ceili Band in the world, and Therese McInerney, who has just released a cd.

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Clare musicians, Therese McInerney and Sharon Howley

 

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I watched as the guests took their seats and feasted on Mary’s wonderful food, home made Irish bread and a choice this day of fillet of salmon or loin of pork, fuelled by liberal supplies of Guinness and wine.

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Host Mary Butler serves home made bread.  

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Your salmon sir.

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Or the pork

 

 

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Dinner in the library

 

Gerry, ever the perfect host turned out to be a great singer and he cajoled other singers from the floor including yours truly.  I well and truly gate crashed the party and joined the musicians for a few tunes with my fiddle. Now that was fun.

 

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The multi talented Gerry.  Bus driver, singer and raconteur

 

 

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Bliss

 


This is Ireland. An afternoon of pure music, food and good company that came out of nowhere. These tourists, who lingered over the meal for three hours, went away very happy and I am sure many will be back.

Music Today 3pm.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A taste of Connemara

In early July I was at a traditional music festival at Spiddal in Co Galway.  I’ve been to this Festival every year and each time I was able to get into the hills and explore bits of Connemara.  Well this time the music kept me pretty busy and the weather was very changeable so no road trips.  But in a way I tasted a lot more of what makes Connemara unique.

The organisers of the festival found me some accommodation in a traditional Connemara cottage on the outskirts of Spiddal, which, due to the owners being away, I had to myself.   It was a time capsule. Made from large blocks of granite, covered in a thick coating of white and with a thatched roof.  It was like a picture postcard.  There was a second thatched cottage linked to the first with a glass walled room creating a rambling, many levelled, mix of old and new.

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The cottage near Spiddal where I stayed

 

In original condition the main cottage had the characteristic low doors, constantly collided with the top of my head. Something I struggled to adjust to.  There was no internet, but somehow this seemed appropriate.  I was told that the traditional design of the cottage was to have the front door aligned with the back so the wind would ventilate the house and blow away the chaff making life easier for the residents and the cohabiting animals.  Both doors were there with the front door though now converted to a window and the back door having wooden half doors and being the current main entrance to the cottage.  It was easy to imagine a house full of people and livestock seeking shelter from the bleak winter.  Life would have been tough.

 

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Original front door, now converted to a window

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Original back door, looking through to front.  

 

The cottage is part of an unplanned scatter of houses, old and new, lining a winding lane twisting through the granite outcrops towards the bare plains above. Very different landscape to what I am familiar with in Clare.  On these slopes there is thick vegetation attempting to reclaim the land. Giant granite boulders probably dropped by glaciers.  Hedges, some well trimmed others not.  Lovely gardens and as usual carefully maintained cottages next to carefully preserved but ignored ruins. My every move was watched by the happiest cows in the world.

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Then I find myself on a narrow boreen,  running through an open treeless bog land covered in bog cotton, piles of carefully stacked turf, granite boulders, the inevitable encroaching windmills and a misty view back over Galway Bay.  The lane draws me on and I pass a man and his dog, a figure that could have walked out of the 1800s.  The rain returns however and I cut my trip short.

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Just a taste this time but I will return soon for the full degustation meal.

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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.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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