Posts Tagged With: history

The Puck Fair, Co Kerry. A 400-year old tradition.

Some institutions in Ireland die hard.  One is the Puck Fair.  Held annually in Killorglin in Co Kerry in August, it is surely one of the country’s longest running public events.  As with many of these things though, the written record is scant and it is not clear exactly how old it is.  There is a reference in 1613 to a local landlord, Jenkins Conway, collecting a tax from every animal sold at the ‘August Fair’ and even earlier there is a record from 1603 of King James I granting a charter to the existing fair in Killorglin.  So let’s just say it is well over 400 years old.

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The main street of Killorglin is choked for the Puck Fair

Puck derives from the Irish Phoic, meaning He-goat.  Again, when the fair became associated with the goat is also shrouded in mystery.  The story I like tells how in 1808 the British Parliament made it unlawful in Ireland to levy tolls on cattle, horse or sheep fairs.  The landlord of the time lost his income and on the advice of then budding lawyer Daniel O’Connell (yes, that Daniel O’Connor), proclaimed it a ‘goat fair’ and charged his tolls as usual believing it was not covered.  To prove it was indeed a goat fair a Phoic was hoisted on a stage and proclaimed King Puck.

Whatever the truth, a male wild goat is still today crowned King and hoisted in a cage up a tower where he remains for three days before being released back into the wild.  The crowning of the goat though, I have to say, was a disappointment. Conducted on a stage under the tower, with its steel barrier that restricted vision, the goat was held by two burly yellow-coats and surrounded by photographers.  A young schoolgirl, the ‘Queen of the Fair’, placed the crown on its head.  Well, I think that’s what happened.  It was really just set up for the publicity shots, as the audience could see nothing.  Placed in the cage the goat was then hoisted up for all to see, its crown a little shakily slipping below its horns.

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Behind that phalanx there is a goat getting crowned

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The King of the Fair is hoisted up the tower

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King Puck

The fair brings out the crowds for a great day out.  There is a horse fair in a nearby field, with all the usual horse-trading that happens.  I happily spent an hour wandering here clicking away.  There was plenty to keep me enthused and bemused.

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The horse fair is held in a field adjacent to a ruined church and graveyard

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Now that’s style

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Like father like son

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You have been warned.

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The cheapest pee in town.  Just a half a cent!

There are rides, a parade and plenty of characters to fill the pubs and the streets. Every vantage point was taken.  The bright sunshine, when I visited in 2015, provided an opportunity for the colleens  to strut the summer fashions. I love the way traditional music is never far away from an Irish event, with entertainment on stage and in teh nearby pubs, dancing in the street or a brush dance in a pub.

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The long and the short of it.

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A great vantage point

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Even manequins are keen to strut their stuff

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Dancing in the streets

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Well known piper, Brendan McCreanor, from Co Louth entertains the crowd

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Swept away by a brush dance

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A chance to dress up

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A chance to dress up II

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Defying gravity

The Puck Fair is always held on 10, 11 and 12th August so mark it in your calendar.

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

Scandals & Scoundrels. The Early Days of WA’s Golden Mile.

In a former life I was, for three years, Chief Geologist at the Super Pit,  Australia’s largest gold mine consuming what’s left from undergound mining of Kalgoorlie’s Golden Mile. The richest concentration of gold in the world. Mining has been carried on continuously here since 1893, when gold was first discovered by one Paddy Hannan, from the village of Quin in County Clare.

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The Golden Mile in 1905.  Photo JJ Dwyer.  WA Museum

The Golden Mile in 2017.  The Super Pit.  Eastern Goldfields Historical Society

Don’t get me wrong, Paddy was not a scoundrel; I’ll talk about those characters in a bit.  Paddy Hannan led a party of three Irishmen that changed the history of Western Australia, starting a rush that populated the desert and rescued a depressed economy.  There are many reminders of the man – Hannan Street, Hannan’s Hotel, Hannan’s Lager (now sadly defunct) and a statue in the main street erected in the 1920s.  Before the name was changed to Kalgoorlie the place was even called Hannan’s.

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Paddy Hannan, taken in the mid 1920s.  Photo Battye Library WA.

 

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Hannan Street, Kalgoorlie, Postcard from 1907.  Coll. Bob Singer

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Crowds gather in Hannan Street, said to have been made wide enough to turn a bullock dray. Coll. Bob Singer

It’s a great story.  Briefly, Paddy emigrated to Australia in 1863, escaping post famine Ireland.  Eventually his six brothers and sisters followed him.  Not an uncommon thing. He started in the mines of Ballarat, but prospecting was in his blood and after limited success in New South Wales, South Australia and the Southern Cross field in WA, he ended up in Coolgardie, the site of the first major gold rush in WA, in 1893.  He was too late there and in June 1893 headed further east into unknown country.

John McMahon takes up the story in ‘Ramblers from Clare and Other Sketches’ (1936).

“At what is now Kalgoorlie, one of their horses strayed. During the search for the horse they found gold in some quantity.  On the nearby ridge of Mount Charlotte they found water, an essential prerequisite for their work. Then Paddy found a series of gullies where gold was clearly visible. Within two days they had unearthed 100 ozs. of gold. [that’s nearly $200,000 worth in today’s value]  Paddy Hannan rode to Kalgoorlie to register his claim and was awarded the space of ground which became known as “The Hannan Award”  [Hannan’s Reward].  News of the find spread like wildfire, within two days they were joined by 400 men and in a week this had grown to 1,000.” 

Prospecting in those days was not for the faint hearted.  Searing temperatures, dust, flies, desert and lack of water and supplies meant many privations.  The well resourced had camels.  Most, like Paddy didn’t, but rewards such as these he, Flanagan and O’Shea found were the reason men (and women) travelled to the remote unknown on the other side of the world.  Paddy was one of the lucky ones.

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Prospecting near Coolgardie, WA.  Photographer unknown c1894.  Coll Bob Singer

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Prospectors using the technique of ‘dry blowing’ to search for traces of gold.  Photographer unknown. c1894.  Coll. Bob Singer.

While Patrick Hannan, Thomas Flanagan and Dan Shea started the rush to Kalgoorlie, they did not discover the real wealth of the Goldfield.  This lay a mile or two to the south and the real hero of the Golden Mile was Sam Pearce,  another emigrant prospector from England.  Just a few weeks after the Hannan’s rush he found the Ivanhoe reef, then the phenomenally rich Great Boulder mine and over the next four months, with others in his syndicate, he pegged Lake View, Royal Mint, Bank of England, Iron Duke, Iron Monarch, Associated, Consols and the fabulous Golden Horseshoe and many more.

Thus began a boom which led to the blooming of the twin cities of Kalgoorlie and Boulder, the railway arriving in 1896 and a monumental water pipeline constructed in 1903 by another famous Irishman, Charles Yelverton O’Connor (from Co Meath).  His achievement of building a 350 mile pipeline from Perth to the desert was one of the great engineering  feats of the day and sadly under intense public criticism of the scheme he took his life before the water arrived.

There was no denying the incredible wealth of the place but from the very beginning  it attracted all kinds of financial speculation.  Inevitably this led to many sharp practices and resulted in a number of financial and corporate scandals which severely damaged the reputation of Western Australia and the Golden Mile in particular.  That’s what I want to talk about here.

It took only two years from Paddy Hannan’s discovery of gold at Kalgoorlie in 1893 for the first speculative bubble to take hold.  The full potential of the finds was slow initially to become apparent.  There was free gold, yes, but most of the gold was locked up in pyrite or in rare minerals called ‘tellurides’, containing the element Tellurium, which formed alloys with gold, making it hard to extract.  Further the gold went deep very quickly.  So the gold could only be extracted by deep underground mining and complicated metallurgical processes.

This need for capital created a massive market for opportunistic floats.  The preferred place to raise money was on the London Stock exchange.  In 1895-6, alomost 700  West Australian gold mining companies were floated.  Some had real ore bodies but most amounted to little more than what we would now call “address pegging”.  So long as the company had, somewhere in the name, a reference to one of the big producing mines or something associated with Kalgoorlie (or both) it was guaranteed success for the promoters.  The most popular name to include was of course Hannan’s.  A quick look at the lease maps prior to 1903 reveals dozens of companies using Paddy’s name linked with some of its producing neighbours to lend some credibility.  Names like Hannan’s Proprietary Dev Co, Hannan’s Paringa GM Ltd, Hannan’s Brown Hill GM Co, Hannan’s Brown Hill South GM Co’,  Hannan’s Star GM Ltd, Hannan’s Reward & Mt Charlotte Ltd, Hannan’s Find Gold Reefs Ltd, Hannan’s Kalgoorlie Ltd.  You get the picture.  None of them had anything to do with Paddy who was long gone.

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Share Certificate Hannan’s Paringa GM Ltd.  1897  Coll. Bob Singer

There were also many “cashbox floats” where large sums of money were raised with no operating mines.  For example the grandly titled Western Australian Gold District Trading Corporation raised £500,000, an extraordinary amount of money.  In today’s terms it would be the equivalent of around $300 million.

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Share Certificate West Australian Gold District Trading Corporation 1896. Coll. Bob Singer

Despite having no discernable business and no operating mine the company declared a dividend of 100%.  This attempt by the directors  to ensure a high price for the sale of their own shares landed Managing Director Mr L H Goodman with an 18 months prison sentence with hard labour  for “conspiracy to defraud, obtaining money by false pretences, publishing false statement and misappropriation.”

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A Lease map of the Kalgoorlie Gold Mines (c1897). Kalgoorlie town is at D4.  Hannan’s discovery is marked as Hannan’s Lode at D3.  The richest mines of the Golden Mile stretch from B6 to B9

The common feature of all these floats, even the legitimate ones, was that of the money raised, most went to the promoters and vendors with very little going as working capital (a familiar story also in later gold booms).

The London market during the ‘Westralia’ Craze was ripe for plucking by over zealous prospectors, wily WA based promoters, less-than-honest Mine Managers and  so-called “experts” all feeding off one another and playing into the hands of unscrupulous London- based promoters and fuelling a frenzy among a rising middle class that we would find hard to imagine today. The only thing remotely similar but on a much smaller scale was the Poseidon nickel boom in WA in the early 70s

This activity prompted prominent author and financial journalist, JH Curle, to comment in his book ‘Gold Mines of the World’, in 1902 that

“West Australia, since the beginning of the mining there, has been a synonym for all that is bad in gold mining” and

“of the boards of directors in London I do not trust one in twenty”.

The climate was ripe for exploitation and none strode the stage larger than Whitaker Wright and Horatio Bottomley.

Whitaker Wright was born in England in 1845 and gained some formal training in chemistry and assaying in his youth. He was active in mine promotion in the US from 1875 and made and lost a fortune before returning penniless to England in 1889. Undaunted, he set to work building up his companies again and by 1897 was a millionaire for a second time!

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Whitaker Wright.  Contemporary newspaper sketch c1904.

His return to England coincided with the ‘Westralia’ boom and he was an active participant with his companies – the West Australian Exploring and Finance Corporation  and the London and Globe Company, holding extensive share investments in WA companies.

In March 1897, Wright merged the two companies into the London and Globe Finance Corporation which had an issued capital of £1.6 million and an elite Board of notables ensuring respectability.

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Londond & Globe Finance Corporation Ltd.  1898. Note signature of Whitaker Wright.  Coll.  Bob Singer

The company had considerable real assets including Lake View Consols and Ivanhoe mines on the Golden Mile.  These he used to boost the value of many of the more speculative ventures in the portfolio.

Wright used his knowledge of his mines’ operations to indulge in what we would now call “insider trading”.  He also however engaged in much more sinister activities of market manoeuvring by manipulating output from the mines, especially the Lake View Consols.

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Lake View Consols GM.  The jewel in the Whitaker Wright empire.  Coll. Bob Singer

With the profits from his ventures, Wright became extremely wealthy.  He  acquired over 9,000 acres in Surrey and built  a sumptuous mansion (Witely Park), complete with thirty two bedrooms, eleven bathrooms, landscaped gardens, a private theatre and  an observatory.

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Witley Park mansion.  Home of Whitaker Wright’  Including an observatory. Photographer unknown

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Witley Park Mansion. Photographer unknown

But most notable of his endeavours was a huge domed glass and steel room under a lake which he constructed.  This is probably one of the world’s greatest follies.   Termed a ‘ballroom’ it was actually used to house a billiard table.  It was said he loved to play in the flickering light that filtered down through the murky water and  the yellow glazed ceiling.

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Recent photo showing the top of the ‘ballroom’ in the middle of the lake. Photographer unknown

 

Off the billiard room is a smoking room-cum-aquarium, where you could puff on a cigar while watching the giant carp.  Atop this is a  giant statue of Neptune, poking above the surface, and appearing as it walking on water.  This folly required 600 workmen to dig out four artificial lakes and remove hills that spoiled the view.

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Neptune statue atop the domed roof. Photographer unknown

For Wright, It all came spectacularly undone in 1899 when the Lake View Consols mine hit a rich patch of ore known as the “Duck Pond”. Wright at first withheld a report on the find while he sought to manipulate the market. Then, once it became public, the share price soared to £10 then £20 and ultimately to £28.  Maintaining the share price at these levels depended on maintaining production which could not be done once the shoot pinched out. Whether it was Wright or the Lake View Manager who withheld the vital information that the shoot had come to an end is unclear but the resulting collapse found London and Globe, and many of its shareholders, insolvent as Wright desperately bought shares as they plunged to try and prop up the market.

The clamour for his prosecution grew, especially when official inquiry revealed that the deficiency in his companies totalled about £7.5 million. On hearing this he hid himself in the icehouse at Witley Park for a week, and then fled to New York via Paris travelling under a false name.  Unluckily for him, the technology of the day meant that the warrant for his arrest was ready and waiting when he landed!

Wright was arrested and extradited to London where he faced trial and was found guilty. On 25 January 1904, he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment but before he could be imprisoned he swallowed a cyanide tablet which he had smuggled into the court and was dead within minutes.

The court proceedings revealed a trail of deceit, misinformation and fraudulent accounting all within the framework of company promotions and operations on the stock exchange.  His activities were allowed to prosper because of the complicity and complacency of his shareholders who were happy to receive the benefits of very abnormal profits, without question, relying implicitly on Wright and his directors.

And then there was the wonderfully named, Horatio Bottomley.

Horatio Bottomley was born in London in 1860. He grew up in an orphanage and had no formal training, starting work as an office boy in a legal firm.  His first excursion into company promotion was in 1885 in printing and publishing and he was embroiled in immediate scandal with £85,000 disappearing from the company. Remarkably he was able to avoid charges. In 1888 he founded the Financial Times primarily as a vehicle for promoting his own ventures.

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Horatio Bottomley

Fresh from this triumph, Bottomley got in early in the ‘Westralian’ gold boom on the London Stock Exchange. His companies  West Australian Joint Stock Trust and Finance Corporation and the Western Australian Loan and General Finance Corporation were reconstructed four times each time making Bottomley a fortune. As the boom accelerated late in 1894 he was in the forefront, promoting around twenty companies in the space of just five years. Many companies were floated with worthless leases on the edge of the Golden Mile, often obtaining these leases from the Associated Gold Mines Ltd (which ran the very successful “Australia” Gold Mine) a company of which by a remarkable coincidence,  Bottomley was Managing Director.

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Prospectus for the Australia Gold Mine of which Bottomley was to become Managing Director.  Coll.  Bob Singer

His tactic was to promote to build vendor profits, by pushing the stock price for a short time, issuing a 20 per cent dividend and then letting it decline to liquidation or reconstruction. Thus, almost without exception, Bottomley’s companies were liquidated within a short time with most of the capital going to the promoters

Besides using the vehicle of promotions, Bottomley invested extensively in Associated Gold Mines of Western Australia and in the Great Boulder, companies that gave him a very handsome return as well as lending the appearance of substance to his activities.  Many of his companies included the word “Associated” in their name.

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One of Horatio Bottomley’s financing vehicles.  Note signature of Bottomley.  Coll.  Bob Singer.

Bottomley’s brief but profitable career in the Australian mining sector of the London market was soon to end. The initial boom had waned and the gold mining industry on the Eastern Goldfields of WA was seeking to develop mining on a large scale.  In July 1897 Bottomley changed tack and floated the West Australian Market Trust which he claimed would have “large and, perhaps, controlling interests in many of the best things in the West Australian market”. However, by the next year it was in serious difficulty with Bottomley losing heavily as the share price collapsed.  Without the equivalent of Wright’s Lake View Consols or Ivanhoe mines in the Trust’s stable, public confidence in it evaporated and by the end of the year Bottomley was forced to reconstruct the company.

Like Wright, he also manipulated production at the Associated mine and stock in the company in order to promote his other company interests and to add to his personal fortunes. Late in the 1890s production at the Associated yielded spectacular results when the mine manager was instructed to stockpile rich ore for strategic processing. In mid-1900 when the deception was clear, it was reported that reserves of payable ore had been overestimated by 75%. As well, Bottomley had successively issued new capital in the company, using part to finance dividends. When production declined and the extent of overcapitalisation became apparent, the inevitable market bears (including his nemesis, our old friend Whitaker Wright) ended Bottomley’s “mining” of this section of the “stock market stope”.

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Share certificate for Associated Southern Gold Mines Ltd, a Bottomley company.  Coll. Bob Singer

From 1893 to 1903 it is estimated that Bottomley launched about fifty mining and finance companies with a nominal capital of between £20 and £25 million. His personal wealth at the time was estimated at about £3 million.

Bottomley maintained a superficial respectability as a businessman but remained a superlative con man.  He escaped prosecution for his deeds during this period and later went on to indulge in further nefarious activities which resulted in bankruptcy three times (1912, 1921 and 1928), losing his seat in Parliament (twice) and serving seven years in prison for fraud, eventually becoming an alcoholic and losing everything before dying intestate in 1933.

Bottomley and Wright and a host of other speculative promoters, had negative consequences that hampered the early development of gold mining on the Golden Mile for many years, making it extremely difficult to raise capital for the legitimate operations.  It also set in place a tradition and reputation which continued to be enhanced by the activities of Claude deBernales in the 1930s and Alan Bond and “WA Inc” in the 1980s.

But that’s another story.

 

 

Categories: Western Australia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The stunning beauty of Harry Clarke’s windows. St Barrahane’s, Castletownshend, Cork.

Eight kilometers from Skibbereen in West Cork is the village of Castletownshend, the historic seat of the Townshend family.   St Barrahane’s Church, built in 1827, sits on a hill above the village. It is accessed by 52 steps. One for each Sunday of the year. It is an elegant building with many original interesting architectural features and some fine detailing, both internal and external, including timber paneling and an organ gallery.

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St Barrahane’s Church

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The last 13 of the 52 steps to the church

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Simple and elegant interior

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The organ gallery

Of greatest interest though to visitors is the addition in the early 20th century of six magnificent stained glass windows.

Three of these are by Harry Clarke, a book illustrator and Ireland’s most famous stained glass artist, who died in 1931, and three are by Powells of London. It is not hard to pick those by Clarke.  They are characterised by beautiful, finely crafted, elongate figures and his use of deep rich colours. the wall to the right of the altar has three windows with the Clarke window, on the right, being quite distinct and obvious.

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The Harry Clarke window is on the right.

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The Louis and Martin window by Harry Clarke

This window depicts French Saints Louis (who was Louis IX, King of Spain) and Martin and was commissioned in memory of a Colonel Coghill in 1921. A window of two lights, the first light depicting St. Louis who was an ancestor of the Colonel. The figures above his head represent the poor who he often fed at his table. The first of the tracery lights depicts a ship in which King Louis sailed to the east to fight the infidels. The second and third tracery lights depict two angels who offer protection to both saints. The fourth tracery light shows St. Martin’s flaming sword, denoting his patronage of soldiers,  The second light depicts the meeting between Saint Martin of Tours, dressed as a soldier’s garb, and a beggar who asks him for clothing.  Again the imagery is imaginative, stunningly crafted and in glorious deep colours.

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Detail of St Louis

The largest window, known as the The Nativity window, was commissioned in 1917 in memory of the Somerville family.  This window has three lights, with separate depictions of the shepherds paying homage to the Christ child, the holy family and the magi but with linking elements such as Mary’s dress and the crib that create a unified picture. They are exquisitely decorated in shades of blue, pink, green, red, purple, magenta and gold. The tracery lights depicts three saints, Brigid, Fachtna and Barrahan in gorgeous detail.

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The Nativity window

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Detail of the Nativity window

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The three Saints in the Nativity window

When you look at these windows from outside the church, you can have no expectation of how stunning the images are when back lit.

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The Nativity window from the outside

If you a visiting West Cork you really must take a peek. Or look for Clarke windows in Dublin and many other locations in Ireland and England.

He completed over 130 windows.  You can find where they are here  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Clarke

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The Colorado Rockies 4. Independence – a Ghost Town.

Independence ghost town

In my last blog on my road trip through the Colorado Rockies, I talked about Independence Pass and its close connection with the discovery of gold. Gold in this part of Colorado was discovered on 4th July 1879 at Roaring Fork River about four miles from the top of the Independence Pass and a town soon sprung upon the banks of the river and in the shadow of Mt Independence. It started as a tent city and one year later there were 300 people living in the camp.  The following year a single company, Farwell Mining Company, had acquired the leading mines such as Independence No 1, 2 and 3, Last Dollar, Legal Tender, Mammoth, Mount Hope, Champion, Sheba, Friday, and Dolly Varden.

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The ghost town of Independence at the foot of Mt Independence in the valley of the Roaring Fork River

Various competing interests battled over the name of the town.  During its short life it was variously known as Belden, Chipeta, Sidney, Farwell, Sparkhill and in its fading days optimistically Mammoth City and Mount Hope.  Ironically though and for obvious reasons, it was widely known as Independence though there was never a post office of that name.

By summer of 1881 there were 500 people and many permanent buildings including grocery stores, boarding houses and three saloons. It reached its peak in 1882 when there were 90 buildings containing 40 businesses and a population of 1,500.

As with most mining booms, the bust followed quickly when the gold ran out and by 1888 there were only 100 citizens eking out an existence at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet and under a blanket of snow from October to the end of May.  The worst storm in Colorado’s history hit in 1899 and those residents still there were completely cut off for months. Running out of food, they dismantled their houses to make skis and 75 residents skied their way to Aspen. Only one resident remained after this. Jack Williams was caretaker of the stamper battery and treatment plant.  In 1912 Jack finally left and that was the end of the town of Belden-Independence-Chipeta-Sidney-Farewell-Sparkhill-Mammoth City-Mount Hope.

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A restored miner’s cabin now used as a summer residence.

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Incredibly a number of buildings have survived to varying degrees in this spectacular location. Some remain relatively intact and have been restored and some are piles of timber or just depressions in the ground. Ted Ackerman’s Hotel was one of five during its hey-day. Little remains of this establishment where miners could find a room for $2 a day.

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Ruins of Ted Ackerman’s Hotel

A general store stands proud, restored in the 1980s and a remarkable testament to the courage of these men (and a few women) and the lure of gold.

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Restored general store

As a geologist with a strong interest in the company history and social history of gold mining in my home country I have seen many Australian ‘ghost towns’ from the gold rush days. They were much more transient and rarely does any structure survive as here. Australians built with hessian and stone and corrugated iron, rather than timber, which is so abundant here, and material was transported to the next town following abandonment.  You’d have to say that heat was more of a problem than cold generally.  Its hard not to be impressed though by the simplicity of construction of the log cabin and its durability.  140 years later the v-notch joints still hold the structures together.

 

Just downstream from the town is the timber framework of a large stamper battery and on the slopes above there is a bit more mine infrastructure, the head of a mine shaft and a patch of Aspen covering what was obviously a spoil dump.  I would love to have had time to explore more.

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Remains of a  large stamper battery.  The treatment plant would have been on the flat area below.

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An old mine site.  The mound in the distance was the head of a shaft and the patch of aspen covers a spoil dump.

Preservation of these sites is essential.  They are one of the few tangible links to a hugely important part of the development of countries such as USA and Australia.  As in Australia, mining was responsible for opening up large tracts of the country and for the beginnings of many towns, some gone like Independence, some still surviving like Aspen, Leadville or Cañon City.  I’ll come back to this in a later blog.

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Of Magic Mushrooms and Ancient Ireland

There are a number of major ancient Royal Sites in Ireland but the four important ones were the seats of the four provinces. These are Cashel for Munster, Navan Fort for Ulster, Dun Ailinne for Leinster and in Co Roscommon, Rathcroghan for Connaught. . There was also Tara with its special status as the seat of the High King.  There is evidence of activity at these sites from deep in the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age to the height of power in the Iron Age and into Medieval Christian times.

I visited Rathcroghan recently. Before the coming of Christianity this was the religious, ceremonial and political heart of the Kingdom of Connaught. There is a wealth of archaeology scattered over 6 square kilometres with 240 sites recorded of which 60 are listed. I visited the ring barrow mound of Rathbeg, probably continuously used over this entire period, the great mound at Rathcrogan, the site of major royal celebrations and the medieval raised ring fort of Rathmore. Not easy to photograph from the ground, where they appear as grassy mounds but their sheer size and concentration are impressive.

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The ring barrow fort at Rathbeg

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The ceremonial mound at Rathcroggan

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The ring fort at Rathmore

But I wanted to talk about something else.

I met a fellow at Rathbeg. I’ll call him Patrick.  I’d watched him slowly walking the fields around the mound, head down searching. Is he looking for stone axes or ancient relics?

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Patrick searching the fields around Rathbeg

We had a chat and the answer was not what I expected. He was searching for psilocybin better known as magic mushrooms. Patrick had a little bag full after an hour of searching. He told me he takes one dried every four days to manage his headaches and migraines and has been doing so for sixteen years. We searched together for a while but the slender bulbous fungi proved elusive.

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A magic mushroom pokes through the grass

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Part of Patrick’s harvest

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Detail of magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms are among the oldest recreational drugs that human beings have ever used. They are believed to have been used for over 5,000 years down to the pop culture of today.

Hard evidence of its use in ancient Ireland is scant but this is hardly surprising. Indirect evidence however suggests widespread use in neolithic times. The rock art in Knowth and Newgrange is thought by some archaeologists to reflect the psychedelic state of the artist. Many traditional Irish tales seem to disguise the psychedelic experience in metaphor. For example hazelnuts accidentally ingested by Fionn mac Cumhaill, which gave him wisdom and pleasure, are though by some to be liberty cap or amanita muscaria mushrooms. Old stories of St. Brendan, refer to .him finding “fruits” – some poisonous, some euphoric that staved off hunger. Visions of faeries are so strongly associated with mushrooms that the Gaelic slang for faeries and mushrooms is the same: ‘pookies’. A magic mushroom trip has you “away with the faeries.” Or “off with the pixies.”

But what I found really interesting was Patrick’s comment that he has found the best place to find these mushrooms was at Ancient Sites. His idea was that it was the reason the sites were there and that mushrooms formed a fundamental part of their religious, cultural and social fabric.

An intriguing thought.  I left him to his searching.

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An Ancient Coast and 5,000 years of Irish history. Maghery in Beautiful Donegal.

One of the things I love about touring in Ireland is that you find so much to enjoy in the most unheralded and remote corner of of the country.  You don’t need to join the throngs of visitors kissing stones, ticking boxes and visiting interpretive centres to enjoy the ‘real’ Ireland.

Take the village of Maghery in the the area know as The Rosses near Dungloe in west Donegal.

What drew me there was a sunny Donegal Saturdayin late autumn and a vague knowledge of some sea arches at nearby Crohy Point, a spot favoured by photographers.

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Clohy Sea Arches

But I found far more.

Yes there was the Bristi Stack and the Clohy Sea Arches. Unique land forms such as these are found dotted up and down the Irish coastline. It was easy enough to find the location along a scary single lane cliff road. And I mean scary; you have no choice but to rely on the other driver to be doing the right thing.

The Clohy Sea Arches are marked on GoogleMaps but not on the ground. Clearly they don’t want people stopping. There is space for two cars to park on the verge and you can’t actually see the rock formations from the road. Feeling that sense of welcome provided by a locked farm gate you climb it and follow a track that leads toward the coast and down the hill where you get your first look at the unusual triangular arch.

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Panoramic view of Clohy Sea Arches

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The Bristi Sea Stack

Nestled in a small bay it is accompanied by a number of pinnacles which are the remains of similar collapsed arches. There is another quite different arch attached to the mainland at the other end of the bay where the rocks are dragged into near vertical by a fault which has since eroded out.

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Natural bridge formed by erosion of fault fill material

The Bristi stack was first climbed by professional sea stack climber Iain Miller in 2011. If you are contemplating it you need ropes, a dinghy to get there, amazing skill and a whole lot of heart.  Not for me but have a look at this video on climbing Bristi Sea Stack

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That’s Iain Miller stands on Bristi Sea Stack.  Unknown photographer. Unknown date

For more sedate pleasures I drove back to the village. Past the 1804 Signal Tower, like many others that dot dozens of remote headlands and islands along the west coast of Ireland. Built to give warning of an impending invasion by Napoleon.  This one looks to be in excellent condition. I wasn’t up to the hill walk to get there this day. Thanks be to long lenses.

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View in the vicinity of Maghery.  Napoleonic signal tower.

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Napoleonic signal tower

The village itself lies adjacent to a beautiful wide sandy strand. This Saturday it was empty except for the local equestrian group practicing their show jumping in this idyllic location. Happy horses indeed.

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Maghery nestled in the bay

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Practicing show jumping on the beach at Maghery

 

Hand painted signs on slate placed by the roadside led me to other points of interest. There is an impressive stone circle just north of the village.  Again you are left to your own devices; there is no marker on the ground and no directions as to how to get there.  Twenty metres in diameter and a bit overgrown but some diligent searching found this 4-5,000 year old monument. These circles are very rare in west Donegal, I believe.

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Termon Stone Circle

From here you get a sense of that Donegal wildness as you look to the north east across Dungloe Bay towards Mt Errigal 23 km away on the horizon.

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View across Dungloe Bay to Mt Errigal

Nearby is Termon House built in late 18th century and once owned by the local clergy sits on its own glorious beach. It is available as a luxury holiday rental.

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Adjacent to the house are some impressive walls built as work relief for those affected by the famine of 1847.  Hence ‘Famine Walls’.  Apparently the government refused to support the then landowner who ended up footing the £1,500 cost of paying his labourers 1d a day to build the wall. Beautifully constructed though they remain standing 170 years later.

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The afternoon was closing in and I could hear  the ringing sounds of twenty fiddles filling my head with mazurkas and schottisches so it was time to return to Glenties.  I was well satisfied with this little village that delivered a slice of Donegal’s wild coastal scenery and its human history of over 5,000 years.

 

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Dursey. An island at the end of Ireland.

Dursey Island lies at the end of the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. It has been inhabited since antiquity and though it lies only 200 m from the mainland it has always been one of the most remote and inhospitable places to live in in the whole country.

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Dursey Island looking towards the mainland.

It had a tortured early existence and was the site of one of the most horrific events in Irish history.  Following the Battle of Kinsale and the defeat of Donal Cam O’Sullivan at Dunboy in early 1602, the English moved to clean up the last of the rebels.  Many of the O’Sullivan Clan’s non-combatants had been sent to  Dursey to keep them out of harm’s way.  An English force attacked the small garrison guarding the island. They butchered the entire population of the island, women, children and the garrison. Three hundred people executed on the cliffs and their bodies (some were still alive) cast into the sea.  O’Sullivan survivors from the whole of the Beara Peninsula, about 1,000 of them, then marched 550 km north to seek shelter from the O’Rourkes of Leitrim, but that’s another story.

As with the rest of the west coast of Ireland, Dursey suffered during the famine with a 30% reduction in its population in the 1840s.  Its subsequent and continuing depopulation reflects that of many other Irish islands but its survival displays the resilience and strength of its people. In 1860 the three villages of Ballynacallagh, Kilmichael and Tilickafinna,  a population of around 240 eked out a lonely life on the treeless but well pastured island.  By 1969 this number was down to 53. A feature of the island now is the large number of abandoned houses from these times.  This eloquently tell the story of a disappearing population, but they also give the island its remarkable character.

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Abandoned village

Up until 1970 the only way to get on and off the island was by boat across the channel.  A channel that could become so treacherous with storms and a tidal surge  that for a month and a half each year the island was completely cut off.  Considering that there was no electricity, TV, doctor, priest, food supplies and no hall or pub, life must have been very bleak indeed.   After much agitation from islanders the Government agreed to build a cable car to provide a lifeline and, while that did save it from the same fate as the Blaskets, which were abandoned in 1953, it did not stop the population drain until, by 2011, there were only three permanent residents.

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Treacherous tides and surges made this channel very dangerous to cross.  Not these days.

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Approaching the island

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Anticipation. A picture window.

But the cable car opened the island to the tourist.  6.5 km in length, there is much of interest.

To walk the island takes at least 4 hours but I spent over 6 hours ambling and rambling, getting lost and finding myself again.  Just absorbing the ambiance and grateful for the glorious sunshine and the warm breeze that accompanied me. It is glorious to walk either along the sometimes paved road (which despite the alarming speed sign is almost devoid of vehicles;  I saw only one) or across the hills but best to stay on the marked paths unlike me.

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There is a marked walking trail across the hills.  Looking across to the mainland.

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If you leave the path walking through thick vegetation and across stone walls can be a challenge.

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I can never understand Irish speed limits.  100 kph!?

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Looking from the western tip of the island back towards the mainland.  A signal tower stands on the highest point.

On your walk you will come across the remains  of St Mary’s Abbey, a Napoleonic signal tower, historic ruins, spectacular views, rocky cliffs, birds galore, native orchids and your best chance  in Ireland to see dolphins and whales.

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St Mary’s Abbey

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Cliffs on the southern side of the island

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Dolphins

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I tracked this pod of dolphins for over half an hour down the coast

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Native orchids are common

At the western end of the island are three small islands.  Well, rocks really.  They are known as Calf Rock, Cow Rock and yes, you guessed it, Bull Rock.

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Looking west across Dursey to the imposing Bull Rock, two miles off shore

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Cow Rock and Bull Rock

A lighthouse was established on  Calf Rock in 1866.

Less than three years later a storm damaged the lighthouse.  This led to another tragic event in the saga of Dursey.  The Keeper, on Dursey, thought he saw distress flags and six boatmen were dispatched.  Those on the island were safe however, on the the return trip, the boat capsized and all six were lost

On 27 November 1881 in another  violent storm the the tower and lantern just snapped off above the steel base and fell into the sea. No one was hurt but it took two weeks to extract the four men stranded on the island. You can still see the base of the tower to this day.

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Calf Rock with the remains of the steel base of the light tower. Wrecked in 1881

To replace this lighthouse one was built on nearby Bull Rock, work commencing in  1882.  The light didn’t open until 1888.  It is worth pondering the challenge of constructing this on an island of precipitous cliffs measuring 230 m by 160 m and rising to 90 m above sea level.

The station consisted of an octagonal lighthouse tower, dwellings for the Keepers, and an oil-gas works.   This was a massive undertaking and the optic was the biggest in Ireland.

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Bull Rock with its lighthouse.  You can also see a gull colony and the entrance to a natural tunnel that goes right through the island.

The light still stands proudly today though it was automated in 1991. The island is swarming with gulls.  Also noteworthy is a natural tunnel that goes right through the island.  You can see the eastern entrance in the picture above.

That’s Dursey.   Take everything you think you’ll need because there are no supplies on the island and not even a toilet. And it won’t always be mild and sunny as it was for me; go prepared for bleak and wild.

But don’t miss it.

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Story time. Of copper at Doonen, arches at Reenroe and a picnic on the bay.

You hear the words ‘hidden gem’ so many times in Ireland but more often than not they are not hidden and nor are they a gem.  I try to avoid the expression especially when it appears on tourists’ must-see lists (hardly hidden then).  But actully they do exist and when you find one part of you wants to scream and shout about it and another part says ‘Shhh! Let’s keep it hidden’

The Arches at Reenroe are one such place. I had been to Allihies on the Beara Peninsula three times but not heard about it.  That’s the downside of my penchant for arriving blind to a place to discover it on my own.

Spectacular as the arches are, I want  first to tell a bit of a story, about how I discovered it and the adventure I had on the way.  Stories such as this so typify, for me travel and living in Ireland and the way things just unfold here. Surprise upon serendipitous surprise. The people, culture and place are interwoven like nowhere else.  These experiences are truly the hidden gems.

Let me start at the beginning. Or even a bit before the beginning.

It was a gorgeous sunny June morning (yes, this is Ireland) and I was visiting the location of the Dooneen Copper Mine.  This is a marked tourist spot on the Wild Atlantic Way a few kilometres from Allihies, so it has the squiggly iron marker to let you know that it is worth stopping. And to a lapsed geologist such as myself that is indeed true. This is the site of the first of Puxley’s copper mines discovered in 1812.  Because of its location on the coast, it struggled both technically and commercially, but the upside of this is that the site is largely intact and we can get a unique insight of how it must have looked before it was exploited.

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A google maps satellite image with the copper lode at Dooneen outlined. Looking north

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The ore zone at Dooneen is a distinctive promontry.  Obvious for its shades of cream, brown and orange representing oxidised rock.

The cliffs here are a series of headlands of Devonian sandstone. One of these promontories is in shades of orange and cream rather than the more normal greys. It is about 80 m long and up to 10 m wide. This unique coloration is due to oxidation of what was essentially a quartz sulphide rock. As you walk along the narrow path you see traces, under your feet and in the walls, of bright green staining. This is malachite, copper carbonate and a telltale sign that deeper down there are copper sulphides.

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Looking east along the ore zone.  Note the patches of green malachite in the cliffs

Walk onto the next headland to the north and look back. Now you see it in it’s full glory. Brilliant green patches tell of a very rich lode. But why is it still there considering it contains such valuable minerals?

At the eastern end at sea level is an adit and there appears to be another in the adjacent cliff at the western end.  These would have been where the miners first chased the copper but constant inundation made it impossible. A shaft was sunk on the land side but again flooding meant more and more sophisticated machinery was needed to keep on top of the pumping.  Eventually the elements won and in the 1870s the mine was abandoned never really making much money.  But this has left us with this magnificent example of a virtually untouched outcropping ore body.

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Looking from the south,  Adit above the high water mark visible at the left.

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As it looked 200 years ago.  Except for the tunnel at the western end.

But I digress. In the car park I met Viv Kelly, visiting from Dublin, with members of her family. She said they were going to look for what they called the Arches and headed off on foot. I was intrigued and headed off in the same general direction. But for me the search proved fruitless and I actually had no idea what I was looking for.

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Viv and some of the Kelly Gang.  Beautiful synclinal fold behind them.

So I continued my explorations, by car, of what is one of my favourite drives, between Allihies and Eyries. The road snakes through sculpted hills, twisted rocks and abandoned houses and at one point the highway (if you can call it that) drives through someone’s yard with the house on one side and the barn on the other. Harking back to the time when living right on the road would have been hugely desirable.  There were panoramic vistas, bicycles and bog cotton.

Satisfied, I headed back to Allihies to join an afternoon session with two legends of Irish music – Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch. I soon forgot about arches and such.

It was now about 6.30 pm the music had ebbed away and I was sitting outside O’Neill’s Pub pondering my next move.  I was approached by a lady who became my immediate best friend after she complimented me on my fiddling.   She mentioned she had been that day to visit some sea arches!  Those same arches that Viv had told me about.  She reached for her phone to show me some pictures.  I politely covered her screen (I hate spoilers) and asked instead for directions after telling her of my earlier vain search.

Basically it appears I was in the right place.  ”Look for a white cottage on the left and opposite you will see a wooden gate with a blue rope and a sign saying ‘please shut the gate'”.  That seemed simple enough so I had another go. At about the spot she indicated I saw a white building, more of a bungalow really and it wasn’t on the left it was on the right and I couldn’t see a gate, so I was confused and drove on. Fruitlessly.  Now the Irish are not great on giving directions so I went back to that bungalow thinking maybe ‘left’ meant ‘right’, and sure enough there was a gate, my view blocked by a beautiful old vintage Mercedes. The gate had a blue rope and a hand written sign saying ‘please shut the gate’. Finally.

I headed along the well worn track, passing a group of picnickers. They had selected an idyllic spot.  Smoke rising from a fire and the smell of cooking chicken. I was just a little jealous but I apologised for intruding and after getting a little sage advice on what I was looking for, I continued my search.

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Picnicking.

Not far ahead I came across the first arch. You don’t actually realise you are on it until you make your way down to the shore and look back. Way grander than I’d imagined.  Tantalisingly the calm water in the chasm disappeared to the left.  You knew there was more.

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Back up to the top and I continued across the fields until I reached a rocky headland. Here there are more arches. Two precarious bridges span a steep sided chasm.  One looks like it is about to collapse into the ocean as one day soon it inevitable will. Real selfie territory.  They have formed by selective erosion of softer rock (probably along a fault) in places leaving the remnant bridges of rock.  I had brought a sandwich and doughnut with me and enjoyed my own little picnic.

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“Can you step back a bit?  Can’t quite get you in the shot”  Arch no 2

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Two bridges span this chasm.  Arches no 2 and 3.

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My little picnic

I felt there had to be more and sure enough I found a number of other narrow steep sided arches and then a perfectly protected and wave free channel passed under another series of bridges. This turned out to be the other end of the channel under the first arch.  I followed it back and observed two land bridges over this channel.

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View east along the main channel (arch no 1)

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View west along the main channel.  (Arch no 6)

In total I saw six arches.  It might make more sense if you look at the google map image. The major channel has essentially created an island with two natural bridge accesses (nos 1 and 6). This has followed a major east west fault.  The other arches (numbered 2 to 5) have formed on softer shaley bands within the sediment sequence so they parallel bedding.

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Google satellite image showing six arches referred to above.  Main channel is marked in red. North to top.

I absolutely loved this place.

That should have been the end of my story but it wasn’t.

I must have been exploring for an hour and a half. Heading back past the picnickers I was surprised at being asked to join them. They plied me with wine, crab claws, chicken, potato and roasted seaweed.  The burgeoning friendship nearly ended though when they offered me a hot rock to sit on!  Brian, from Edinburgh, a scholar in all things gaelic, explained that the picnic was in memory of a time when they ‘cooked’ a salmon in this very fire 20 years ago. Sashimi salmon in the dark was the outcome.  No fish this time though.

I met Cormac Boydell and his partner Rachel, who live next door to that white bungalow overlooking this dramatic bay.  Cormac is a renowned ceramic artist.  I wished I had time to have a closer look at his work.  But what was really interesting was that in a previous life he was a geologist.  Spooky enough but, hey, he worked in Australia during the nickel boom of the 70s and, get this, he worked for CRA, the first company I worked for.  And he was based in Kalgoorlie in western Australia, where I lived for six years.

We talked for ages as darkness descended and until the lure of the music back in Allihies became palpable.  I took my leave, happy that my search for the Arches, initiated by a chance meeting with Viv from Dublin had ended with such a rewarding encounter.

These days are truly the hidden gems of Ireland.

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The Fergus. Ennis’ Forgotten River.

Many Irish towns are built on a river. This had obvious logistical, transport and strategic benefits and of course is not unique to Ireland.  Ennis’ name pays homage to this and derives from Inis Cluana Rámhfhada, an island formed by two forks of the river.  That river is the Fergus.  It rises west of Corofin and enters the Shannon Estuary after a journey of 60 km.

One dull April day, with spring making a late attempt to burst through, while I waited for my car brakes to be fixed yet again (one of the prices you pay for being shrouded in salt spray on the edge of Ireland), I decided to walk the Fergus River.  This proved to be more difficult than I thought.

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Fergus River looking south to the bridge at Abbey Street

While the river twists its way through the town, for most of its length it is well hidden.  It struck me that maybe Ennis doesn’t regard it as something to utilise or promote,  just an obstacle to be crossed.  Indeed six bridges cross it and the layout of the town is very much controlled by the loops of the river.

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Bridge at Bank Place looking west.

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Footbridge over River Fergus

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Clon Bridge

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Victoria Bridge

Where you can find it, the banks of the river either have a high stone wall that restricts view and access or are hideously overgrown and littered. Yes I know the river floods but surely space could be found for a park or a bit of open space where you can sit. And if there are seats they are facing the other way or you stare at a wall. You can’t even get to the river at the historic Steele;s Rock.

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Steele’s Rock on River Fergus

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Building on the banks

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River edge on New Street

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Riverside seating.  You need eyes in the back of your head.  Converted cornstores in the distance

In the town proper only very short bits of the river can be approached.  The one exception is the River Walk a part of which is a designated Sculpture Trail.  The walk runs from a car park near the town centre (unfortunately much of the river edge is used for car parking) to the Old Mill and then the short distance to Victoria Bridge. There is quite a bit of interest along the way in addition to the sculptures, including apartments converted from old cornstores, sluice gates and the remains of the Old Mill. But it’s all too short.

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Sculpture ‘Fishy Tale’ by Carmel Doherty on the Sculpture Trail

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Sluice Gates on Fergus.

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Sluice Gates.  Another view.

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Remains of the Old Mill.

If you try and follow the river the other way (to the east), you soon lose access.  It is built up all the way to the Clon Bridge.  Beyond this a small walkway runs parallel to a set of rapids but the weed covered banks seem only useful as a repository for abandoned shopping trolleys.

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Walkway on the Fergus near Clon Bridge.

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Cascades on the Fergus near Clon Bridge.

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Weeds and lost trolleys

I couldn’t help but notice one large area of apparent wasteland between St Coulmba’s Church and the river. There is direct river frontage,  and the geese and ducks seem to be the only inhabitants this time of the year. This would make a perfect Riverside Park. I asked a young traveler lad I met along the path why it wasn’t. “Too boggy” he said dismissively.  Maybe; but if there was a will I’m sure it could be overcome.

Unfortunately I found only one spot in Ennis, near Clon Bridge,  which you could loosely call a park and even it was walled off and paved with gravel.   Anyway just saying. It’s what this town needs.

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Suitable for a Riverside Park?

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A wide area of open land

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with direct access to the river… paddle boats?

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and with a beautiful backdrop

 

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Open space on the river edge near Clon Bridge.

Lastly there is hardly anywhere to eat or enjoy a coffee on the river bank except The Rowan Tree which is a wonderful exception and maybe O’Briens Cafe.  But again there is a wall. I hear it everywhere though.  ‘Ah, yes but what about the weather?’  but, hey, when the sun shines where do you go?

C’mon Ennis.  Embrace your river.

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The Rowan Tree Cafe.  Riverside dining.

 

 

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Scattery Island, Co Clare. An Irish Time Capsule.

At the southern end of West Clare, on an island just off the coast near the town of Kilrush, lies one of country’s best kept secrets.  But that’s changing. The word is out. Last year it was awarded a prestigious European Destination of Excellence award for Ireland for offering a ‘tangible cultural experience’ and visitor numbers are dramatically increasing.  In 2016 870 people visited the island.  This year they are expecting up to 6,000 people.

Before 2016 visiting the island was unpredictable.  If there was enough interest then a boat trip was organised.  That changed with the setting up of Scattery Island Tours two years ago.   They have just commissioned a spanking new ferry that comfortably accommodates 70 against the old one, which took 12, and this is certainly helping  but don’t let that put you off.  I spoke to Irene Hamilton, one of the principals of the company, about the her desire to open the island to a larger audience and at the same time preserve what it is that makes it special.  The island has so much to offer and you can tailor the experience to your own needs.  Join a guided tour and have the stories of the island explained or explore on your own.

Irene comes from a line of island residents.  Her father was born on the island and was a sea pilot as was his father.  This link and the remarkable foresight of the people of Kilrush has put the Company at the forefront of placing Scattery  as one of the must-see destinations of Clare.  Her vision is that visitors don’t just zip past on the way to Loop Head but stop overnight in Kilrush and explore the place at leisure.

So why is it special?  There’s actually nothing else like it.  A now uninhabited island with a continuous occupation that started over 1,500 years ago, beautifully preserved, easily accessed and in a spectacular location.

I had been trying on and off for a while to get onto the island but it just never happened. During an unusual warm spell in late May I tried again. The Gods were smiling this time and on a bright blue Thursday I boarded the An Breandàn for the short trip across the channel from Kilrush.  Irene told me that the boat was named for her father and it is no coincidence that Breandàn is also the patron saint of the sea.

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Boarding the ferry to Scattery

Actually the most time consuming part of the journey was in the lock at the entrance to the Marina. It was fascinating to see the water rush in as the gates opened to maintain the level in the Marina

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Water enters the lock

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Irene Hamilton, owner of the ferry company chats to patrons.

Once through the lock you see the island and its signature Round Tower rapidly approach you and in less than 15 minutes you are there. We were well looked after by  the efficient and friendly crew which included Irene’s sister Martina.  Irene was a mavellous host spending much of the time, when she wasn’t performing seafaring duties, chatting with patrons and and answering questions or helping with family photos or making cups of tea.

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Approaching the island.  The Round Tower dominates.

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The view from the pier,   The white cottage on the left is the Visitor Centre, Keane’s Castle is in the centre and the Round Tower can be seen in the distance.

When we arrived we were handed over to  Michael who acted as our guide. The guides are provided by OPW who manage the island.  They also maintain a small visitor centre.  The tour is roughly an hour and you visit all the monastic and archaeological sites with the exception of the lighthouse and the Battery.  This was certainly worth it as Michael has a wealth of background knowledge that fleshed out the story.   Next time however I will explore it on my own but I would certainly recommend the tour as a first time experience.  And anyway it’s included in the price of the ticket.

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The guided tour begins

The story of Scattery starts with the birth of St Senan, in 488AD in Molougha, a townland about 5 km from Kilrush in Co Clare. After a life of religious study including time in Rome he set up a monastery on Inis Cathaig in 532AD.  This is the original Irish name and over time it became anglicised as Scattery.  The name relates to the presence of a monster known as the  “The Cathach” which was said to inhabit the island.  On Senan’s arrival he apparently faced the monster and ordered it, in the name of the Trinity, to depart. Such was Senan’s power that The Cathach obeyed and retreated to Doolough Lake at the foot of Mount Callan.

Little is known of Senan’s life or life under him in the monastery.  Many miracles are attributed to him however and his grave has continued to hold a sacred place among the people of West Clare and beyond. The grave is supposed to be the site of miraculous cures.  Stones from St. Senan’s Bed were regarded as relics and a protection against diseases and especially drowning.  Water from St Senan’s Well had restorative powers.

We do know his rule on the monastery was austere and women were banned from even setting foot on the island.  St Senan died in 544, but it would appear that the monastery continued unimpeded until the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland in 795.  Scattery which lay on their route to Limerick was sacked between 816 and 835, being severely damaged. In 968 the Vikings were expelled from Limerick by Brian Boru and retreated to Scattery. Boru however pursued them and three years later the island was raided with up to 800 people being slaughtered.

In 1057 the Vikings had another go with the Dublin Danes plundering the island. Then again in 1101 Magnus, king of Norway attacked. The Normans arrived in 1176 and this led to an attack by William Howell, not even sparing the churches.  By 1189 the last Bishop of Scattery had died and the Diocese of Scattery was abolished. The English  now took possession of the island.  The end came however following the 1537 introduction of  the Suppression of the Monastries Act by Henry VIII.

Phew! That is some story.  It seems to have been touched by every major historical event that Ireland experienced.  There are many reminders of this tortured time in the ruins that can be seen on Scattery.  Churches that date back as far as the 8th century, the round tower built between 10th and 12th century,  St Senan’s well,  St Senan’s Bed.  I found this all totally absorbing.  Come with me on a virtual tour.

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St Mary’s Cathedral and Oratory.  Built in 8th Century and added to until the 15th century. The Round Tower in the distance.

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The eastern window of the Cathedral.  The carved stone head is said to be St Senan.

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View of the Cathedral from the west.

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Western doorway of the cathedral.  Note the tapered shape of the door under the heavy lintel.  The stone to the left is thought to be a balaun stone.

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A distant view of the Round Tower and the Cathedral.

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The Round Tower built between 8th and 10th Century. Note the unique doorway at ground level

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View from inside the Round Tower

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The Round Tower doorway.  Note the thick walls; over 1 metre.

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St Senan’s Well. During a drought St Senan prayed for water and an angel guided him to this spot.  The Sanit plunged his staff into the ground and water sprung forth.  

 

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Distant view of Cnoc an Aingeal (Hill of the Angel), One of the earliest surviving churches built on the site where Senan set foot on the island.

 

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Remaining early wall of the church on Cnoc an Aingeal.

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St Senan’s Church.  12th Century Romanesque style

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St Senan’s Bed, a small church built over the grave of St Senan.  The iron bar is supposedly designed to keep women from walking in.  Women who entered according to tradition will be cursed

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View of the Round Tower from the entrance to St Senans Church

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A stone table found near St Senans Church.  Thought to be a medieval grave slab carved with a beautiful celtic cross and with an inscription saying Or Do Moenach Aite Mogroin. (Pray to Moenach the teacher of Mogroin).

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Teampall Na Marbh (Church of the Dead). Built 14th and 15th Century.

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View across the graveyard of the Church of the Dead towards Cathedral and Tower

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Modern graves at the Church of the Dead

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The graveyard at the Church of the Dead continues to be used for burials.

But the island’s story did not end with Henry.  Its strategic position meant it was always in the centre of events.  The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a tower house constructed in the late 1500s can be seen at the pier.  The driver at this time was the invasion by the Spanish Armada and the Irish Rebellions which threatened English rule. Remains of gun installations are evident.

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The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a Tower House built in the late 1500s

The next phase of activity on Scattery though did not begin until the end of the 18th century. The French supported the Irish Rebellion in 1798 and in 1814 the impressive Artillery Battery was built by the English as part of the extensive defenses erected on the west coast of Ireland. Unfortunately I did not get to visit this time.  Or the lighthouse which was built later in the 19th Century.

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View of the lighthouse and Arillery Battery from Cnoc an Aingeal

In the early part of the 19th century secular settlement of the island picked up with the construction of a village to house families of river pilots who were based there.  This was when Irene’s descendants came.  The island replaced Kilbaha as the pilots base.  Considerably less rowing of the currachs was required now to reach the ships.

By 1881 the population had reached its maximum of 140 people.  Most of the residents lived in a small area known as ‘The Street’.   Many of these structures still remain and though boarded off  from visitors the closely spaced buildings give us a real feel for what was a comfortable and prosperous community until its eventual demise.

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The Street.  The village that housed pilots and their families from the early 1800s

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The Street.  Another view

Through the 20th century the population continued to decline especially after the pilots were transferred to the mainland in 1954. The last two residents eventually left the island in 1978.  This fact somehow puts the whole story of the island into context.  Its settlement is still in living memory.

There are many reminders of this time aside from the ruins of  The Street and elsewhere.  Many of the gravestones at Tempall Na Marbh, which although being  the youngest of the churches on the island  (14th or 15th century), are beautifully preserved.  Many date from pre-famine time and contain symbolic representations that not only represent religious iconography but tell the story of residents lives.  Though the church ceased to be operative centuries ago many descendants chose to be buried there and they still do today.

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Beautifully engraved gravestone at Church of the Dead.  Dating from 1828

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Engraved symbolic representations on a grave stone including images of a three masted ship and a hooker and perhaps shipwright’s tools.  Presumably the deceased was a mariner.

Following the end of settlement the island lay empty for many years,  This could have been the end of the story as the island eventually passed into the hands of a developer with grand plans for a marina.  Luckily this came to naught and the island was eventually sold to a Belgian group. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a group of Kilrush residents who pushed hard to regain ownership and ultimately bought the island back.  These residents still own the island and they ceded management to the State.

That is a great outcome.  It is not hard to imagine that in years to come Scattery will become one the essential Irish monastery sites to visit; right up there with Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.

Put it on your agenda for your next visit.

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