Posts Tagged With: history

Tom Carmody – Home in a box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Categories: Real Ireland, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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The beach at Allihies

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

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

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

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A glorious setting and safe.

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Sand, water, rocks and sky

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

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

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Coarse sand.  Lots of quartz and rock fragments

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Thick banded sand.

So where did it come from?

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

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

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The mouth of the river.  Some unusual giant ripples.

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

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

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Tranquil and empty.  Mid June.

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

 

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

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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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Stone Walls of Aran. A Triumph of Adaptability.

 

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

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

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

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Lush paddocks surrounded by Aran walls.

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

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Walls form a continuous blanket over the landscape

 

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

 

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

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Dun Aonghasa.  Ancient wall from 1000BC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Open lace wall using regular vertical ‘mother’ stones

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Open Lace wall in very slabby terrain.

 

 

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Closer packed lace wall with some larger and more regular stones

 

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Tight lace wall with even sized stones.  

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Tight lace wall.  Very few gaps.

 

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

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Feiden wall

 

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

 

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

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Note the narrow walled roads between the fields.

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My friendly companions

 

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

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St Ruth’s Bush

 

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

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Attibrassil Bridge

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Ruins of Aughrim Castle

 

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

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

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Life wasn’t meant to be easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Waves of Tory

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Magheroarty Beach, where the ferry departs to Tory Island

 

 

Tory Island. Those two words resonate loudly in my ears.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s when I played in Bush Bands in various remote parts of Australia, one of the favourite dances was the Waves of Tory. Well our version of it. With that lovely descriptive name reflecting the motion of the dancers with high potential for total chaos yet at the same time conjuring up romantic notions of a windswept wild wasteland in the North Atlantic.

As far away from the beautiful windswept wild wasteland of the Australian desert as could be.

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Waves of Tory

 

Well now I have ridden the Waves of Tory and the imagined and fanciful has become real. It is wild and it was windy and those waves were something to behold but it was not a wasteland. It is surprisingly different to the other inhabited islands I have visited here such as Achill, the Aran Islands and Sherkin.  It is stunningly beautiful.

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Tory Island as seen from Magheroarty Beach

Tory Island, or just plain Tory, lies about  14km off the coast of Bunbeg in western Donegal. On the day I decided to go the ferry had already left from Bunbeg but I had time to drive to Magheroarty and catch the 11:30am.

 

I picked my day and was lucky. The forecast was spot on with sun predicted all day because I really wanted to photograph it in a clear light. But I forgot to check the ocean conditions and boy was there a mighty swell which made for a very rough trip.

We were warned to be back at the boat by 2pm, much earlier than scheduled,  and if we didn’t get it we would be there for at least four days as storm conditions were expected to prevent the boat sailing for that time. This gave me about 1 ½ hours on the Island . I was disappointed but it is amazing how much I could see in that time, albeit fleetingly.

So back to the Waves Of Tory. We took the smaller of the boats, the romantically named Whispering Dawn, that usually do this run and it was filled with returning residents, with their shopping and all sorts of oddments that can only be got on the mainland. There was plenty of Guinness and whiskey and a massive birthday cake. Well that was what I guessed it was by its shape and the way they were carrying it, and a big bag of helium filled balloons which said 40th.  So many things to plan for with life on a remote outpost. Goods were passed down the steps in a human chain, as they probably were since the boat started sailing there.

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Everyone joins in to load the boat.

 

So the boat was packed finally, though a few late comers forced us to turn around after we had already headed out to sea. Wouldn’t happen with the Manly Ferry! When we finally got going it was rough. we were tossed around like one of those toy boats in a bathtub that Hollywood used to simulate a violent storm.  Except this was real. Waves would swamp the deck as we listed first one way then the other.  The Captain doing a marvellous job to turn the boat into the massive waves to avoid them hitting us broadside. Photography was pretty difficult with salt on the camera and the cameraman, but I got a few. Remarkably I didn’t get sea sick.

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Ploughing through the waves on the way to Tory

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All kinds of passengers

 

The Island loomed into view so slowly. The eastern end looked rugged and mountainous while the western seemed more topographically restrained. We pulled into the wharf with some relief and the passengers disappeared into their little slice of this Island world.

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I knew Tory had a King.  The current king is local artist and musician, Patsy Dan Mac Ruaíri.  Elected by popular vote of the Islanders he has ruled since 1993. I was expecting to be met by him and his accordion.   Every account of a visit to Tory talks about the King. Well not this one, because he just wasn’t there.  Perhaps he was engaged on other official duties.  I can only assume that it was of the gravest urgency to have kept him from meeting the boat and welcoming me.

The Island is fringed with granite boulders and slopes gently up from the seashore with a treeless plain that heads off to the horizon where there are a few rocky knolls.

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There is a cluster of houses which is the main village and in the distance I could see other smaller clusters with only a few scattered houses in between. Much of the land seems barren and empty but you are drawn to explore.

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The village is just a lovely higgledy piggledy jumble. Nothing is straight. The main road snakes around and the houses are built at different angles to each other. One suspects people here over time have just done what they pleased. Many vacant and ruined houses sit next door to beautifully painted and maintained cottages. In the centre of it all is the remains of a round tower, a bell tower from the 7th century and the only remaining part of a Monastry founded by St Columcille as a sort of getaway from the no doubt stressful life of being a saint. Prominent in the town is a generator and you are reminded of what it must be like to live here.  Especially in winter.  Indeed, in 1974 a massive storm cut the island off for two months.  The response of the Government was to attempt to resettle the 130 residents on the mainland, but the islanders resisted and won the right to remain.  A pyrrhic victory as there are virtually no facilities remaining.

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The 6th Century bell tower is the only remains of the original monastery

 

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Boats share the main street with houses

 

It’s maritime connection is never far away. Old boats are scattered through the village most unlikely to see their hull in water again, now part of the permanent streetscape.

They must be a special breed, the people who live here.

I loved the feel of the place. The hand painted signs, the unpretentiousness. The rawness reflecting a life that this particular day’s relatively benign weather temporary masked.

I had less than an hour left and I had no idea what the Island had to offer. I could see a light house in the distance but no time to go there.  I should have done my homework I suppose but I went there on a whim. After walking through the town I kept seeing those knolls and ridges in the distance; so I headed across the bare paddocks.

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A view towards the lighthouse

 

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Wind assisted. When I got there the ground suddenly dropped away into preciptious cliffs. I had to work hard to avoid being blown off into the Atlantic. The view was stunning.

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Land bridge in quartzite cliffs

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Stunning, sublime, arresting, breathtaking.  Substitute any other hyperbolic synonymy and you still won’t be able to describe it adequately. Some of the cliffs were of granite and some were of quartzite. And they were different to each other and to the cliffs of Clare. The granite cliffs were smoother, more rounded and with boulders perched precariously. Those of quartzite which formed the high cliffs of the northern end of the island were jagged and irregular with many offshore stacks and islands and even a land bridge. I continued to walk along the cliff edge and each corner would reveal another spectacular vista of rugged bays and pinnacles.

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A quick look at the time and I had twenty minutes left to make it back to the boat. Got there no problem but disappointingly no sign of King Patsy to say goodbye to me and reluctantly just a handful of us embarked for the mainland.

But the trip back was not very pleasant. We had a bigger boat (Turasmara ) which seemed to handle the waves better but the sensible Islanders remained behind, ensconced in their homes in front of their warm fires while the few of us returning to ‘civilisation’ struggled with effects of the Rolling Waves. Some lost the battle. I fully expected to be a victim but somehow by standing outside in the open and clinging to a door handle with my legs braced against each wave and my eyes fixed on the receding Tory I rode it out

Forty five minutes later with heavy clouds moving in as if on cue, to announce the end of the journey, we were back somewhat unsteadily on land.

With my legs regaining their function I left the Kingdom of Tory behind and it was back to Bunbeg for a warm fire, a settling whiskey and a tune.

Two hours was definitely not enough. Next time I will stay and explore this remarkable place at my leisure. Definitely overnight.

Maybe I’ll even get a royal audience.

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The Torr Road Drive, Co Antrim. Lime Kilns, Game of Thrones and sublime beauty.

Travelling by car along the north coast of Antrim is spectacular to say the least. As seems to be the way of the world the drive has to have a label. So this is the Causeway Coastal Route because it features the Giant’s Causeway. I will blog on this and other places in due course because they warrant attention. But after Ballycastle, if you are heading east, the Causeway Coastal Route turns inland (away from the Coast – go figure!) towards Cushendun and Cushendall.  So most travellers miss a little pocket of Antrim that is staggeringly beautiful. This is the Torr Road which hugs the coast to Cunshendun.  Ireland is noted for its green of course but in many parts that green turns brown and red in winter.  Not here.  In this part of Antrim you seem to get the Forty Shades all year.

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View from the Torr Road, Antrim

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Green and gold.  Just add sunshine.  Torr Road.  Antrim

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Green slopes that run down to the sea.  Torr Road, Antrim. That current looks pretty treacherous.  Scotland is visible on the horizon.

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Coastal view, Torr Road.

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Fences need repair whatever the weather.  Torr Road, Antrim.

Of course the road leads to Torr Head.  This is the closest point to Scotland and from here you look across to the Mull of Kintyre.  It was very cold this morning, so I resisted the temptation to climb to the top. At the top of the headland is a tower which watches over the Sruth na Maoile (Straits of Moyle), a former haunt for privateers, and acted as a signal tower, passing on messages of ship movements to Lloyds of London.  There is also a now ruined, customs station which was abandoned in 1922. Its stark ruin brings an evocative supernal element to the gorgeous views both along the coast and back towards the hinterland.  Awaiting you, at the end of this drive at Cushendun, is the gateway to the Glens of Antrim, but that’s another story.

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Torr Head.

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Ruined Customs House, Torr Head.  Antrim.

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Ruins of Customs House, Torr Head

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Phone Box looking towards, Torr Head.

On my first drive along this road I went past a turn off to Murlough Bay. It was an inconspicuous sign and nothing drew my attention to it. If it hadn’t been for my B&B hosts that night at Teach an Cheol, just out of Ballycastle then I would have missed this little gem entirely. They insisted I go back there before leaving Antrim. Thank you  Micheál and Catherine.

The single lane road to Murlough Bay snakes off the Torr Road across brilliant green paddocks, and then suddenly drops off the plateau winding both perilously and picturesquely down to the sea. Remarkable views open up.

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Limestone cliffs at Murlough Bay.

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I passed a solid stone structure which intrigued me, so I dragged my eyes away from the view.  It was like nothing I had seen before and I later discovered it was a lime kiln where broken limestone rock was melted to produce quicklime. This was used for mortar or for agriculture. It was a thriving industry wherever limestone and coal (for fuel) was found.

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Lime kiln near Murlough Bay.  Front view.

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Lime Kiln from above.  Showing hole where lime and coal are loaded.

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Limestone cliffs

A little simple chemistry.  Limestone with the application of heat breaks down to lime with the release of carbon dioxide gas as in the following reaction

CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2

The reaction requires about 1000 °C. They were extremely common around Ireland and Britain, indeed in the mid 1800s there were believed to be 23,000 in Cork alone. There was plenty of limestone here with the surrounding cliffs. I’m guessing there was also a good supply of coal nearby too. I am always impressed by the beauty and solidity of the industrial architecture I come across here in Ireland. The stone work of the multiple arches over the air intake is stunning.

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So continuing down towards the coast I see a sign reminding me that this area was used to film episodes of Game of Thrones that hugely successful television series, still running. Of course you can see why. Film tourism has always been a big thing in Ireland what with The Quiet Man, Ryan’s Daughter, Father Ted, PS I Love You, and it continues with Game of Thrones and Star Wars.

Murlough bay is a place of singular beauty. You leave the car and walk along the track which follows the coast to a whitewashed cottage with the most perfect location in Ireland. There is a second small abandoned cottage; padlocked but in reasonable condition. A peek in the window and I can see some bottles of disinfectant and cloths suggesting a level of optimism by the owner. What a place for a holiday batch. Nearby there is another lime kiln.

This place is everything that makes Ireland beautiful. Cliffs, washing waves on rocky shores, boulder beaches, jagged headlands, green fields rolling into the sea, craggy islands, little coves. The surprising variety of landscape is a result of a rich geological melange which I might talk more about at another time, but I saw metamorphosed schist and gneisses, basalts, sandstone and conglomerate, limestone and of course the ever-present carpet of bog over it all. A geological history of 600 million years on display in this little bay.  Again a sign tells us a little cove here was used in another episode of GOT.

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Distant view of Murlough Bay

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Murlough Bay looking east.

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Murlough Bay looking west.

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Basalt outcrops forming islands and bays

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Murlough Bay.

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Murlough Bay.  Sandstone rock platform with narrow bands of conglomerate.

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Murlough Bay.  This view has sandstone, basalt, gneiss and limestone.  A geological melange.

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Murlough Bay.  Abandoned cottage on the shore.

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Another lime kiln on the beach at Murlough Bay.

Again a sign tells us a little cove here was used in another episode of GOT.

It is hard not to use clichés in describing this spot. I was the only one there and it was so quiet and so still. the only activity was a fishing boat, way out in the channel and the only noise was the ripples lapping the shore and the occasional squawk of a gull. There was an undisturbed equanimity and you could feel tension disappearing with the tide. Just me and my thoughts. I didn’t want to leave. I have been to so many beautiful places in Ireland, but not felt this way before. Surrounded by natural beauty, yet somehow otherworldly.

Extraordinary.

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Categories: My Journey, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Glenties and the Blue Stack Mountains; The beating heart of Donegal fiddle music.

I hadn’t planned on going to Glenties. Don’t get me wrong it’s a delightful place in the west of Donegal set in mountainous country and its lovely leafy village setting is a surprising contrast to the treeless wild of this part of the world.

I had just spent a wonderful week of music at the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair (a winter school for traditional music at Gweedore) and was ready to go home. It was the last night and the final session was coming to a natural exhausted conclusion. I was saying my goodbyes when Sile Friel of the renowned Glasgow/Donegal based Friel Sisters asked if I was interested in attending a session the next night. This is how the conversation went.

Sile        “I’m trying to organise a session with a few of us and the Campbells at Glenties”

Me         “Um. Who are the Campbells?”

Sile        “You’ve never heard of them? Jimmy and Vince are fiddling royalty up here”

I felt embarrassed by my ignorance. But my interest was of course piqued and my travel plans instantly changed.

Next morning I headed south taking a detour to the Glengesh Pass (between Glencolmcille and Ardara), which ironically I had visited earlier in the year on a miserable summer day in stark contrast to this glorious winter’s day. Well worth the detour.

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Glengesh Pass.  On a sunny day in the middle of winter.  January 2017

 

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Glengesh Pass.  The same view on a foggy day in the middle of summer. August 2016

 

But my main objective was a little pub a few kilometres from Glenties in the middle of the Blue Stack Mountains.

I spent the afternoon discovering the Blue Stacks, also known as The Croaghgorms. It is the most significant mountain range in Donegal, separating the north from the south. Typical bare, rounded hills with the characteristic remote wilderness feel to it that makes Donegal so appealing. The special winter russet colour which takes on a red tinge when the sun shines.  And not a tree, except the occasional pine forest.  I took random roads, which turned into random lanes and then random boreens. It was beautiful but scary. The roads were so narrow that there was no chance for two cars to pass and there was bog on either side. And being so remote there were few houses and fewer laybys. I drove in fear of meeting someone and having my reversing skills challenged over distances measured in hundreds of metres.  This world though is well off the commuter trail and the major road traffic was of the four footed kind.

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I arrived at the Glen Tavern (everyone calls it Dinny’s despite that name not appearing anywhere on the building) a respectable period before the nominated time of 7 pm. Of course I should have known better.

I had plenty of time to get to know the owners, Annie and Mary because it was at least an hour before the first patron arrived let alone musician. And then some. Of course, I was made to feel very welcome. I guess an Aussie fiddler tuning up was a bit unusual.  Or maybe it wasn’t.

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Mary and Annie.  Mine hosts at Dinny’s

 

The first surprise is that you enter the pub through a little shop. Just your basics mind you, but a shop nonetheless.

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Open for business.

 

As well as a shop and a bar it is also a residence. A door to the right took me into the now empty bar. Cosy and inviting with those corner lounges so typical in Ireland just waiting to be filled with musicians. This looked like a great place for music. But not right now.

I settled down for a chat with Mary and Annie and a glass of Jamieson and heard the stories of this place and its music. In my ignorance I had not realised that these mountains and this pub were at the beating heart of Donegal fiddle music.

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A bar with an house fiddle is my kind of pub.

 

The legendary itinerant master tinsmith and fiddler Johnny Doherty lived in these parts and played here and the Campbells (who Sile had mentioned) are a direct link to that legacy. Vince and Jimmy learnt their music from their father who played with him. Johnny had stayed with the Campbells as he had in many houses across the mountains.  I had inadvertently walked into this time capsule.

Gradually people arrived. Peter Campbell, Jimmy’s son, also a fiddler and Condy Campbell; not sure where he fitted in but he took up what looked like his regular spot in the corner and settled in for the night.

Two hours now and the musicians who were coming from Gweedore had yet to arrive. Occasional texts from the Friels advised they were ‘on their way’. But this is Ireland. Turns out they called in to visit Danny Meehan, another legend of Donegal fiddling and he wouldn’t let them go. I’m sure there’s a great story there.

So it was well after 9.00 pm when they finally arrived and then another half hour before the tunes began.

The place had gradually filled (I’m sure there were a few more Campbells among the crowd) as the pipes and fiddles took over. Joining Sile Friels on pipes and sister Clare on fiddle were brothers Fionnán and Iarlaith Mac Gabhann, from Dublin, on pipes and flute.

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Peter Campbell, Fionnan Mac Gabhann, Clare Friel, Sile Friel and Iarlaith Mac Gabhann at Dinny’s

 

The music was sensational. We were in full flight with, of course, a heavy smattering of highlands, mazurkas, flings and a waltz or two, which , for the most part, I had to sit out. We even played Donegal’s only polka. Well that was what I was told. We got the story of that tune from Condy but I have to be honest, I can’t tell you any of it because with his thick, but delightful, brogue, I didn’t get a word.

The musical visitors had decided to move on so about 11 they started to pack up ready to go. Then Jimmy Campbell arrived. That changed everything. “Just one for the road”.  Jimmy insisted that they keep playing and he just sat and listened. In that peculiarly endearing Irish way he would interject with “lovely”, “lovely”, which is surely the ultimate accolade. And it was meant.

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Jimmy Campbell watches and listens.

 

He was persuaded eventually to grab a fiddle. “I can’t play” he said wryly. “I can’t play like that”.

But he did and he could! No one joined. It was our turn to admire and just listen. He played solo and he played with son Peter.  The boys from Dublin had never been to Donegal before and I could see the reverence and joy writ all over their faces at hearing this music. I felt the same. Here was a whole world of playing I knew nothing about.

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Father and son.

 

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A good tune followed by a good laugh.

 

Of course no one left and the musical conversation continued until 1:30 am. Even the goodbyes took an hour.

I had the chance to sit and chat to Jimmy. A nicer gentleman would be hard to find. Nearly 80. He had left Donegal and lived in London much of his life but was now back home. His son Peter, born in England, followed him back. He is full of tales. A session with Jimmy is an experience. It is beyond now. Every tune has its moment. Often there are no sets. Just a single tune. We hear about where he learnt the tune or who wrote it or the story behind it or where the name came from. The tune is a window into a social history. With his words it ties us to people, time and place.

It was a special evening. Two worlds meet with both embracing each other. Music was just a facilitator for people to connect at completely different levels. A good session is more than just playing tunes together. This was a good session.

The beauty is though that I can take something away with me. On the wall is a framed musical notation of a tune, The Jack in the Tavern, written by Jimmy. It’s on my to-learn list now.

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To think that but for a chance conversation with Sile I would have missed this. That’s how it is in Ireland.

Happenstance and serendipity.

There is a music weekend every year in the Glen Tavern in September and I have marked it in my calendar already. Try and keep me away.

Hopefully I will have learnt Jimmy’s tune and a few more highlands and mazurkas by then.

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Categories: Sessions, Stories, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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