Posts Tagged With: Clare

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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A Musical Week in Clare, Ireland

I have lived for the past 2½ years on the coast near Spanish Point in County Clare. There has been a constant stream of visitors during this time. Some were family, some good friends but some were strangers. Some stayed for a night, some for more than a week. All leave as life long friends.  I have hosted 76 guests, many more than once.

They are all people I meet through music, or the music session, or during my travels in Ireland. They have come from Ireland, Australia, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, United States, UK, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Denmark and Czech Republic and each has a story. Every single one of them has enriched my time here and it has been a joy to have met, enjoyed their company and shared a shared passion for things Irish.

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French Windows

 

Just last week I hosted three wonderful friends, Julie, Romain and Anna from Carcassone in the south of France. Of course we played tunes, that’s what they came for, but we cooked, imbibed, sampled cheese (sorry, fromage!), and exchanged stories.

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The sun came out on the last day.  Lunch on the porch.

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Cheese, wine and bread from Carcassone.  View from Caherush. 

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It didn’t matter that it rained. I am grateful that we were able to experience an ideal slice of Clare music and musicians in the week they were here. This is what is so special about this place. So many memorable moments, but come next week and it will be the same, but completely different.

So many highlights. Sunday. A pub session in Miltown Malbay at Hillery’s with Conor Keane and Jackie Daly firing on all cylinders, Julie and Romain brought some elegance to the proceedings as they danced a mazurka, French style. Monday.  Fitz’s Bar in Doolin, Tuesday. The cosy Cooley’s House in Ennistymon. On Wednesday a trip to Ennis – a chilled out session at Brogans did little to prepare my guests for the madness of Moroney’s in Ennis where the victorious young Clare hurling team were in full voice and there was some fiery sean nos style dancing from Canada, US and Ireland. A visit to the Burren Thursday and sharing some tunes stories, songs and poems in the kitchen of the irrepressible Oliver O’Connell . And they joined in on my regular Thursday house session with some local West Clare musician friends. The craic went until 4am.  Situation normal.  Oh and what a way to finish! A phalanx of pipers led by Blackie at the Friday Piping Heaven Piping Hell session in Ennis.

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Sunday.  Jackie Daly, Conor Keane and Dave Harper at Hillery’s Bar in Miltown Malbay.

 

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Sunday. A French mazurka in an Irish pub.

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Monday.  Tunes in Fitz’s Doolin.  Photo Anna. 

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Monday.  Fitz’s

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Tuesday.  Cooley’s House.  Ennistymon.  Photo.  Anna.

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Wednesday.  Eoin O’Neill, Brid O’Gorman, Jon O’Connell.  Brogan’s Ennis

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Wednesday.  Anne Marie McCormack, Marcus Moloney and a member of the young Clare hurling team.  Moroney’s Ennis.

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Thursday.  Joining Oliver O’Connell in his kitchen.  Photo Anna.

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Thursday.  House session at Caherush.  With John Joe Tuttle, Ciaran McCabe and J-B Samazan. 

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Friday.  Piping session, Blackie O’Connell, Tom Delaney and friends.  O’Connell’s Bar, Ennis,

 

For me these musical experiences are enhanced immeasurably when I am joined by those who approach the music with the same ardor as me. It is my privilege indeed to host such people.

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New friends.

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Blue and green. 

 

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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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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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The Singing Circle at Kilshanny, Co Clare. Entry to another world.

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Early in November I went to my first organised singing session since I came to Ireland. I know that’s a terrible admission especially as my start in Irish music came from my interest in folk singing back in the 60s. It was from singing Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger and Ewan McColl, and then traditional Australian songs, that I discovered the original “protest” songs coming from Ireland and Scotland. Of course the fiddle sort of took over but I still love singing and squeeze the odd song into a trad session if I get the nod.  My knowledge of the singing session was scratchy to be sure and probably an entrenched stereotype.   You know; finger in the ear stuff and all 47 verses of Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor.

So when Mary Butler, proprietor of Kilshanny House near Ennistymon, asked me to come along to the once-a-month Kilshanny Singing Circle, I had no great expectations. It was certainly a world away from the Pub Trad Sessions, my natural habitat.  

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Mine hosts,  Aidan and Mary.

A crowd slowly gathered on the chilly November night. Many turned out to be singers but others were just there to listen. Indeed there were at least 25 singers (actually 24 singers and one Singer – sorry that’s an attempt at humour), some sitting in a circle as you would expect in a session but many others just hovering or sitting at the bar in relative anonymity.

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The night was masterfully run by local Ennis based singer, Noirin Lynch with a velvet glove.

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Noirin Lynch

Just an aside. It is the bane of singers in Trad sessions that everyone talks through songs. Sometimes no amount of shushing or whooshing or glass tinkling will shut up the crowd and many a great performance is lost. Not so here. Every person in the pub this Friday had come to listen or sing, so all that was needed were a few gentle reminders. To some this is not the atmosphere they want, and maybe that’s you, but that’s the beauty of Ireland. There are plenty of options; plenty of other pubs where the TV is blaring and you can turn your back to the music. But if you want to hear wonderful singers at their best in total silence then there is no better place than here.

The concept of the Singing Circle is far more democratic than the more ad hoc music session.   Noirin identifies all the singers, in the room,  sees who wants to sing and calls on them to do so at the appropriate time. Always conscious of mixing it up and giving everyone a fair go.  She is constantly roving the room looking for new additions.

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Noirin’s list

These nights of music are a celebration. For me, mainly of the incredible talent that lurks hidden in the cottages of Clare. And I have to say whatever I am exposed to another layer of the culture and performing arts in Clare it comes from deep in the soul of the people here.  Nothing special, it’s just part of their makeup.  In West Clare and North Clare I have many times seen spontaneous sean nos dances from kids of all ages up to 90,  I’ve seen sets and half sets where there shouldn’t have been room and I have heard gems and disasters of songs from people sitting quietly all night waiting to perform their party piece.

While there were many widely known singers from inside and outside Clare here this night,  the majority were just unsung (no pun intended) heroes for whom singing is just part of what they do between selling real estate, farming or driving trucks or bringing up their kids. The special guest for the night was Roisin White from Miltown Malbay (honoured with a Gradam Cheoil for singing in 2015) and she treated us to a wide range of material, strongly and beautifully delivered.  

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Roisin White

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Roisin White

There were  other visitors, Ciarán O’Maoileoin,  Aoife Caomhnach and the well known, Ann Skelton  from Dublin.  And regular Clare visitor Steve Brown from England and Jan van der Klei from Holland.

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Ciaran O’Maoileoin and Aoife Caomhnach

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Ann Skelton

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Steve Brown

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Jan van der Klei

But as I said I was most impressed with the home grown talent.  Noirin Lynch herself set the tone of the evening with the anthemic Nora Daly which she learnt from the singing of Micho Russell and Peggy Macmahon.

My name is Nora Daly from the Parish of Kilmaly

and my father is a farmer and the crossest man in Clare

If he saw you here beside me I’m in fear that he might chide me

so please go down and walk a bit before we reach the fair. 

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Noirin Lynch

Everyone sings along with this one.  In fact if you are from Clare, I bet you hummed along as you read it.    There was a preponderance of songs on subjects of local interest. I couldn’t possibly talk about each singer, so let me mention just a few. John Casey, originally from Lisdoonvarna grew up with the travellers and remembered them vividly as a child. Sixty years later he met one of them again and was inspired to write his song “The Tinker” which he sang for us.  John told me later that a cousin from Australia was the extraordinary Father Ted Kennedy who did remarkable work with the Aboriginals in Redfern. When he died in 2005, 1,500 people attended his funeral.  Interesting synchronicity there with the status of Travellers and Aboriginals. 

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John Casey

 

We had Gerry Devitt with that marvellous song about Joseph McHugh’s from Liscannor. And the delightful and much loved John Joe Scanlon from Fanore, who treated us to a wonderful bit of the, almost lost, art of lilting. 

The fantastic songs of Micheal Marrinan got an airing with  Ciarán O’Maoileoin singing Miltown to Sweet Ennistymon and The Binding Twine sung by Steve Brown complete with with prop of a roll of genuine binding twine!

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Ciaran O’Maoileoin

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Steve Brown and the Bundle of Twine

With the memory of the death of local football legend Anthony Foley still fresh there was a heartfelt and powerful recitation from Michael Scanlan of Killaloe of his own song and, further reflecting the place GAA takes in Irish culture, we had Marian Egan sing ‘Cuchulainn’s Son’  a song about Wexford hurler Nicky Rackard from it’s golden era in the 1950s. It was written by Marian’s late cousin Tom Williams.  Marian is now a Clare woman living in Kilfenora since 1997.

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Michael Scanlon

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Marian Egan

We had some delightful comic songs;  Sean Maclaghlan with  Big Bellies and Spare Tyres (though I have to say that only with some reluctance did he get the ladies to answer back with the ”spare tyres” bit)  and that old favourite, the Lottery Ticket.  from James Blackwell of Ennistymon. 

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Sean Maclaghlan

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James Blackwell

The tone of the night was best illustrated with the welcome received by newly arrived Ursula. An occasional singer from Dublin but now living in Kilshanny, she must have been surprised at the warm reception.  She was introduced around and sat down in the inner circle and coaxed into singing a couple of songs which she carried off with aplomb. What better way to welcome someone into your community than to share a song with them.

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A warm welcome

I really like the photo I captured of Ursula with a cup of tea in her hand beside a framed photo of Robbie McMahon of ‘Spancil Hill’ fame. Turns out he is Mary’s uncle.  Don’t you just love the connections in this place. I think I’ll call it The dreamer and the Dreaming

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The dreamer and the Dreaming.

And they even had room for some Aussie guy who had the cheek to sing an Irish song about a road that “runs down to the sea”.

There were of course many others and here are some more photos. Singers are difficult to photograph. Always moving unpredictably, eyes closed, bad light. I think though I have captured the mood with these shots.

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Almyn Wilson

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Joe O’Connor

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James Blackwell

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Emer Ni Mhaoileoin

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Paddy Williams from Kilshanny

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Patsy Carrucan from Fanore

Singing Circles as they are called, abound in Clare. They are generally held once a month, but you could easily attend one or two a week if you wanted. The better known ones are in Ennis and Cooraclare and there is also an excellent Sunday singing session at the Crane in nearby Galway.  So if you come to Clare and want to try something different, you can be assured of a warm welcome.

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I’ll definitely be back to Kilshanny House.

And one final word. Why is respect demanded and given for a song but not always similarly for a tune?

Categories: My Journey, Sessions, Trad Irish Music, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

A Visit to Ralahine, Co Clare. A Failed Experiment.

Ireland was a troubled country in the early part of the 19th century. Under the firm rule of the Crown, most Irish land at this time was owned by absentee landlords either in Britain or Dublin. The farms became a hotbed of discontent with tenants living in misery. This prompted organised groups such as the Ribbonmen, who launched deadly attacks on landlords and their tithes. Rural Ireland was not a happy place.

One man decided to try to change this. He believed he could bring peace to the land with a cooperative farm where he would rent the land to the labourers and they would work it under their own authority. This man was wealthy landowner John Vandeleur and a man of considerable influence in Clare.  He had been High Sherriff in 1823.  He found an estate of 638 acres at Ralahine near Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare and with socialist backer Englishman Edward Craig running it, started the colony with 40 farmers and their families. They had a school, a laundry and a pooled kitchen. All the capital (buildings, stock etc) was provided by Vandeleur and was communal property. There was no private ownership.  All 4 legged animals, even dogs, were the property of the group.  He charged rent in the form of farm produce.

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Ralahine Estate as shown in the 1842 Survey map.  The location of buildings still standing is marked,

There were strict rules governing the running of the farm. It was no socialist Utopia. New members could only be admitted by ballot. Work was 12 hours per day. There was no gambling and no drinking.  There was however enshrined freedom of expression and religion.  If there was a proposed marriage to someone outside the colony, and the members did not approve, then both were excluded. There was no money. Labour was paid for in Labour Notes which could be exchanged for provisions.

It all seemed to work and the colony expanded after one year to 81. People came from all over the world to see the contented colonists. Then it all came crashing down.

Mr Vandeleur’s wealth was gone. He had lost his fortune, ironically through gambling and drinking. He fled from Ralahine. The arrangement with the members had no legal basis and all the assets were seized and the bold experiment came to an end after two years.

I wanted to see how much of Ralahine was left. It was easy to find; just a short drive out of Newmarket-on-Fergus. I met local farmer Niamh, who pointed out some of the original buildings from 1830 which are still standing. There is the old mill, very much intact and a long whitewashed building, which at first I thought was stables, was the old working mans’ cottages. Each “house” has a single room with a fireplace,  Probably very comfortable for its day. .

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Rear view of the Old Mill

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Front view of the Old Mill

 

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Workmans’ Cottages

 

There are a number of other buildings and many walls which also appear to date from the same time but these mostly seem to now be used for storage. And of course looming over it all is the Rathlahine Castle, a previous home of one of the MacNamaras,  possibly looking a little worse for wear now than it did then.

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Ralahine.  View to Rathlahine Castle.

 

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Rathlahine Castle

 

The original house, the residence of Vandeleur,  was apparently demolished in the 1940s. Niamh said it was due to the windows tax, but this sounds a little fanciful as the window tax ended in the 1850s.

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Ralahine.  The site of the original Rathlahine House.  Nothing remains. 

 

I found a few very old apple trees near the mill, laden with fruit and it would be nice to think that these date back to the days of the colony.  So maybe John Vandleleur, if he is looking down on his life’s work from his vantage point above, may take some solace in the fact that among the crumbling ruins of his dream apple trees, his farmers planted 185 years ago, are still bearing fruit.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sheela na Gigs of County Clare: An embarassment or a treasure?

I was shown my first Sheela-na-Gig way back when I first arrived in Ireland. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it wasn’t pointed out to me.  High above the entrance door on the ruins of the Kilnaboy Church in North Clare. It was difficult to make out and my guide was perhaps too embarrassed to explain it in detail. However this first exposure aroused  my interest (ha, no pun intended).

Indeed my introduction to the Sheela was perhaps symbolic of the historical ambivalence and difficulty their existence has caused in Irish culture. Embarrassment at talking about them and trying to explain them and tolerance and acceptance of them in very public locations and seemingly incongruous places such as churches and castles.

So what are they?  As in most of these things much is conjecture with theories of their origin falling into two camps.  Firstly it is thought they came from Europe in the 11th or 12th Centuries and were introduced into areas of Ireland conquered by the Normans.  In this case their location on churches and the grotesque features of the figures, even by medieval standards, suggests that they represented female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting.

An alternative theory is that they may be of pagan origin and represent  Goddess-like figures that are in some way symbolic of fertility and fecundity. They seem to appear in 11th-12th century churches but are reused in structures built much later.  They may even date back further at least to the time of the Irish conversion to Christianity.

The name seems to be Irish (‘Sila’ means girl but can mean Hag or witch) and one translation is ‘Woman of the Breasts’. The name however is modern, probably dating from 1840.  No one is sure what they may have been called contemporaneously.    There is an interesting Australian connection here.  The slang term ‘Sheila’ is a generic term for a woman or girl.  “She was a bonzer Shiela!”.  It is thought to have come over with Irish convicts.

The Sheelas are usually very explicit female exhibitionist figures with legs wide apart and the vulva displayed, sometimes spread by the fingers.  There are similar goddess-like figures in other cultures but here they are unique and identifiably of Celtic/Irish origin.

Why they are placed above doors in churches or castles is not definitively known and it is possible that in medieval times their original significance was lost and they were used simply as a warning against evil and sin.

It is a miracle that some actually remain in situ. Most have been removed to a less public place, or hidden in a back garden, or disposed of or made their way to private collections or a museum. Many are missing.

Clare has nine known Sheelas.  Three are in situ as near as one can tell. One is in the Museum at Ennis, one was relocated into a bridge in 1796, one has been moved to another location in a castle, one has been moved to the back garden of a bank and two are missing.

So that is seven.  I decided to visit all seven.  This little adventure on its own told me a lot about Ireland and the Irish.  So here is the result of my endeavours.

I have already mentioned Kilnaboy.  Kilnaboy is one of the better known and most accessible in situ Sheelas in Ireland.  The parish lies in the heart of the Burren and is close to many well known megalithic monuments including Ireland’s best known portal tomb at Poulnabrone.  The church is highly significant and is said to date back to the 11th-century but was repaired in 1715. It has a number of interesting features including a large Cross of Lorraine in raised stonework on one gable and the ruins of a round tower in the grounds.  The Sheela is located over the arched entrance to the Church.  It is a little worn but complete and in remarkably good condition considering it may have been exposed to the elements for 900 years!  There is no fanfare, no sign and if you  didn’t know about it you could easily miss it.

 

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Kilnaboy Church. Sheela na gig located over arched entrance

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Kilnaboy. Sheela na gig. Detail.

Rath lies between  Ennis and Corofin and is near Dysert O’Dea castle.  Here lie the ruins of a monastic site that dates back to the 6th Century. The current church buildings date from the 15th century but incorporate stonework from the 9th or 10th century. The Sheela na gig is located in a large fragment, originally used as a window sill, and possibly dating from the 12th century. The stone is inserted upside down in a wall of the church and shows a female figure outside the main intricately carved dsign. It is considerably worn but recognisable.

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Church ruins at Rath

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Carved stonework block in wall of church at Rath.  Block is upside down.  Sheela na gig is on the right side.

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Detail of carved stonework.  Rotated back to upright.  Sheela na gig is on left

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Drawing of carved stonework

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Sheela na gig at Rath.  Detail.

At Clenagh, close to the bank of the River Fergus near Newmarket-on-Fergus is the ruins of the Clenagh Castle. This is a large reasonably well preserved Tower House which was the home of the McMahon family. Date of construction is not clear but it was last occupied 200 years ago. The tower is now surrounded by farm buildings and locked gates and the yard is incongruously used for storage of bales of silage and farm machinery. Luckily on this wet and windy day the gate was unlocked and I could sneak in.

The Sheela wasn’t located where I thought it would be – near the well preserved entrance. It took quite a bit of searching.  I found it close to the ground carved into a quoin at the corner of the structure. There is no way of knowing the date but the style appears unique with spindly legs.  It is reasonably well preserved with a very clear outline but details are worn. There is evidence of rubbing. To me it looks like this is carved in situ into the stone which would make it much younger than the others. But hey I’m no expert.. Again no signage, and definitely no invitation to view.

 

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The castle at Clenagh.  The grounds are used to store silage and farm machinery and it is not open to the public.

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Clenagh Castle.  Sheela na Gig is located on corner of building near a more recent brick wall.

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Clenagh Castle.  Sheela na Gig.  Detail.

 

Ballyportry is a Tower House from the 15th Century. It is near Corofin. Formerly the seat of the O’Briens. I visited it but as it is privately owned could not gain access. Of course I could have stayed there for 2-3,000 Euros for three nights. But no point really as the Sheela na gig from here is on public display in the Clare Museum. It was found in the castle grounds and removed in 1942. I checked it out. It is very well preserved and has many unusual features. An over large head, teeth being bared, big rounded ears and holding open what appears to be her anus.

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Ballyportry Castle.  Privately owned.

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Sheela na Gig from Ballyportry Castle.  Now on display in Clare Museum.

Killaloe sits right on the eastern edge of Clare and is separated from Ballina in Tipperary by the Shannon River.  It is the ancestral birthplace of Brian Boru.  And there is also St Flannan’s Cathedral. Across the road from the Cathedral is the AIB Bank. So what you ask. Well in the back garden of the bank is a Holy Well and next to this, leaning against a stone wall, is part of a Sheela which purportedly came from the Church.

To get access I spoke to Rebecca at the Customer Information desk and after much rooting around she found the key and I was given admittance. No special treatment, just another service offered by the bank. Seriously, I was amused that an historic treasure would be located in the grounds of a bank and that, amazingly, tourists find their way there and are given access. Ireland!

This figure is headless and considerably worn. but large and, depending how you catch the light, quite detailed.

 

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The AIB bank in Killaloe viewed from the grounds of the church.

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Holy well in the back garden of the AIB Bank, Killaloe.  Sheela na Gig fragment is on the right of the entrance.

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Killaloe Sheela na Gig. Detail.  Head is missing.

 

Bunratty is a very well known Castle and Folk Park and a major tourist attraction in Clare not far from Limerick. High up in a wall in the Great Hall of the Castle is a Sheela. It is in good condition but its location is such that it is hard to view. I am guessing it was moved from somewhere, perhaps an earlier castle structure and relocated during the construction of the current Castle to a place where it was not so conspicuous.

Interestingly the current castle is the fourth on this site and was built in 1425 by the MacNamara’s (again!)  but then greatly expanded by the O’Neills (again!) around 1500. The earliest castle is believed to date to 1251, though the site had been settled since 977. Exactly where the Sheela na Gig fits in is unknown. It is somewhat insensitively painted black and stands out starkly from the lime washed wall so the tourists can see it.  It seems to be in good condition.  This was the most unsatisfying Sheela I saw.  I hated that you had to put a telephoto lens on to see it.  And for feck’s sake – painted black!

 

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Bunratty Castle

 

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Bunratty Castle.  Sheela na Gig

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Bunratty Castle.  Sheela na Gig.  Detail.

Lastly, there is a doubtful Sheela inserted as a panel into a bridge at Clonlara.  The panel is inscribed ‘1769’ which relates to the date of construction of the bridge.  The Sheela comes from an unknown site and is quite defaced.  Only the head and arms are distinct.

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Bridge at Clonlara

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Clonlara.  Sheela na Gig on stone panel inserted into wall of bridge.

 

 

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Clonlara.  Sheela na Gig.  Detail.

A final thought.  I find it fascinating that the Church has placed these extremely confronting figures at their portals for centuries and yet preach a moral purity. It seems a trifle dissembling. But I suppose we should be grateful that this unusual window into medieval and pre-medieval thinking and practice in Ireland has been preserved at least in a fragmentary way.

 

Anyway Ireland is full of mysteries and Sheela-na-Gigs are another one. I suggest if you come to Ireland you make a point of chasing down your nearest Hag in the Wall.  There’s sure to be one near you.  There are 140 of them.  The search will be as much of an adventure as the discovery.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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