Glencree

On our most recent trip to the east of this beautiful country – County Wicklow – we experienced the first snows of winter lining the edges of the remote roads that penetrate the mountains here. It’s a magnificent although often bleak wilderness: immersed in such vast, empty tracts of moorland you feel as far away from the civilised world as you can get without leaving these shores, yet Dublin city itself is just a stone’s throw distant – another of Ireland’s remarkable idiosyncrasies.

The 1790s was an era of conflict and change across the western world. News of independence in America and revolution in France inspired Catholic and Presbyterian communities in Ireland. In 1791, the Society of United Irishmen was founded, with the hope of uniting all religious persuasions in pursuit of Irish independence. In the late 18th century, the wild, inaccessible Wicklow mountains provided ideal shelter for insurgent groups who set out to disrupt British and loyalist forces. The deep valleys and fast strongholds of the natural terrain hid rebels from reprisals long after the United Irish forces had succumbed in other areas of the country. This group of ‘outlaws’ was so troublesome that the authorities resolved to forge a road across the impenetrable landscape:

. . . Construction of the road began in 1800 through parts of the county “infested with insurgent plunderers”. The road commenced from Rathfarnham in Dublin to Killakee and continued over the Featherbed Mountain to Glencree, where a major camp was formed. There were four work parties of fifty men each. Soldiers were paid a shilling a day and overseers earned five shillings daily; but very few local civilians could be induced to accept work and no “dependence” was placed on those that did . . .

http://www.glencree.ie

The Sally Gap and Wicklow Gap roads built by the British are still the main roads through the Wicklow Mountains today. The network of military barracks that they link are still to be seen at Glencree, Laragh, Glenmalure, and Aughavannagh. Intended to stop local unrest, ‘Wicklow Military Road’ is today a scenic reminder of the dramatic events of that time.

Built originally as a British Army barracks, the settlement at Glencree has gone through several mutations. This photo from the nineteenth century (above – courtesy Glencree.ie) shows St Kevin’s Reformatory, established on the site of the then abandoned barracks in 1858 and running through to 1940. One suspects it was a grim place: there are few records existing. It housed up to 300 boys.

Many of the buildings survive today, when Glencree has become the home of The Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Founded in 1974 in response to the conflict in Northern Ireland, Glencree played an important role in the Irish Peace Process, bringing together those in conflict for confidential dialogue and helping to build relationships across divides. This Irish-based, independent, non-governmental organisation has evolved its expertise on a global basis, and this has been shared in more than ten conflict and post-conflict countries around the world.

There is so much to discover in Glencree. You may be surprised – as we were when we first visited – to come across a German cemetery. Set in a landscaped former quarry, the German Military Cemetery is one of the many German war cemeteries in Western Europe. The bodies of 134 German military servicemen and civilians are buried here, dating from both World Wars. It is a secluded, peaceful garden of memory, marked by art and poetry, and kept in immaculate order.

You could ponder at length on this little graveyard: there are many historical connections. After the nearby Reformatory School closed, the buildings were used for a time as a refugee centre for German children following the bombing of Dresden in 1945. In 1954 the German Legation sent a letter urging the Irish authorities to give consideration to a single cemetery for German war dead in Ireland. These would include German soldiers and sailors washed up on Irish beaches, wrecked or crash-landed after being shot down during the Second World War. Six graves at Glencree remember German soldiers who died in British prisoner-of-war camps in Ireland during the First World War. All the bodies were re-interred here after this cemetery opened in 1961. In pre-Covid times, there would be a series of commemorative events in Glencree every November to pay respect to all victims of all wars.

There is added interest, for us, at Glencree: a grotto established (as far as I can ascertain) in the Marian Year of 1954, dedicated to Our Lady of Reconciliation. It is reached from a path and steps which descend into the stream valley below the church.

The ‘cave’ is much visited, and – as in many other locations in Ireland, particularly holy wells – petitions for the good health of individuals, and personal relics are in evidence.

Glencree is a place apart. You might, as did we, come across it by accident and get drawn into its many strands. You should certainly visit this secluded haven of tranquility in Wicklow, and consider the implications of its transition from a base of an occupying military force in a wilderness haunted by outlaws to a modern-day centre of reconciliation.

Planning a Plantation: Jobson’s 1589 Map of Munster Part 1

The sixteenth century was a desperate time in Munster. Two successive Desmond Rebellions (read about them here and here) had resulted in a devastated countryside where, according to the Annals of the Four Masters the lowing of a cow, or the whistle of the ploughboy, could scarcely be heard from Dunquinn to Cashel in Munster. The power of the FitzGeralds, Lords of Desmond, and their allies among the Gaelic chieftains, had been broken.

The Tudor government determined that what was needed was a complete colonising effort, that would bring the benefits of English civilisation to the lawless Irish. William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, set about planning the Plantation of Munster. 

In June 1584, a commission surveyed southwest Munster, mapping out the lands belonging to a swathe of Irish lords associated with the rebellion, which were then granted to a small group of wealthy English Undertakers.

John Dorney: The Munster Plantation and the MacCarthys, 1583-1597
Jobson’s dedication – to the Right Honourable the Lord Burleigh, Lord High Treasurer of England

What a project like this needed, of course, was an accurate map and they were hard to come by in medieval Ireland. Francis Jobson, a free-lance cartographer, set himself the task of producing such a map, and in 1589 he inscribed this one, The Province of Munster Map (the subject of this post), to Cecil. The original is in the library of Trinity College and I have been given permission to use it in our blog (see end of post for complete citation.)

Jobson’s signature

George Carew, one of the primary planters, the first President of Munster, was a man who asserted he had an ancestral claim to large chunks of Munster. To back up his various claims, he collected papers and maps in support of the colonising efforts, and these maps later found their way to Trinity College in Dublin, to form part of a collection called the Hardiman Atlas, after the nineteenth century librarian who recognised what they were and bound them together.

The Province of Munster Map is but one of this collection, now digitised and available for viewing in the Digital Repository of Ireland. And an excellent job they have done of it – the high-resolution image is so clear that it allows us to zoom in and see lots of detail. Here is the complete map.

The first thing that strikes the modern viewer is that Ireland is on its back – that is, instead of north being at the top, west is. This wasn’t unusual for the time. JH Andrews, one of Ireland’s foremost cartographic historians explains it thus, With east at the bottom, Dublin, the Englishman’s point of entry to Ireland, is the point on the map nearest him. To provide a more normal orientation, I have turned the map sideways, below, so you can assess how accurate it is.

The task facing Jobson was to provide as clear information as possible for the colonising effort. Any kinds of fortifications, where the Irish could defend their territory, were important, as were transportation corridors, by sea, river or land, as well as barriers to movement, such as mountains or dense forests. Control of the fisheries had generated great wealth for the Irish chieftains so it was important to have details of coastal areas. 

Speaking of Jobson’s Map of Ulster, Annaleigh Margey says

His maps are crucial to our understanding of England’s changing relationship with Ulster at the end of the sixteenth century. As the Nine Years’ War began, Jobson provided representations of the Gaelic lordships in Ulster, but also imposed England’s vision for the creation of a new county system onto the provincial landscape. In Jobson’s 1598 map, now at Trinity College, Dublin (p. 42), this framing of the new political geography is obvious. Throughout Ulster, the various Gaelic lordships are denoted by the lord’s name and a line defining their boundary. Settlements such as castles and churches that could be integrated into English settlement plans are displayed by small replicas in red across the map.

Annaleigh Margey: Visualising the Plantation:mapping the changing face of Ulster
History Ireland, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Volume 17

She could well have been speaking of the Map of Munster. The principal families and their territories are all presented, as well as their main castles. While West Cork is not rendered accurately, we can see what Jobson felt was important to include. The O’Mahonys (Mahound) are there and the castles shown for them are Dunbeacon, Rossbrin and Ardintenant, which is labelled C o mahoun, as befits the castle of the Chief (see my post on Ardintenant here). The whole of Ivaha (now the Mizen Peninsula) is assigned to Mohon (spelling was approximate in these maps) and Crookhaven is indicated, probably because it is an excellent harbour.

The O’Driscolls are shown at Baltymore, with Castles also on Sherkin (Ineseyrkan) and Cape Clere. The Ilen River is shown as the Ellyn ff (ff or flu is often found on old maps to designate a river). Interestingly, the whole of the Sheep’s Head has no detail on it and only one word – Rymers. The O’Dalys were the traditional bards of several Irish families and they had their bardic school near Kilcrohane – they are The Rymers! The Abbey in Bantry is noted (in fact it was a Franciscan Friary) – and even Priest’s Leap is on this map. Once the only land route between Bantry and Kenmare, it is now a steep, treacherous and extremely scenic back road.

We have only just started looking at this map. The next post will continue the journey. Meanwhile – have a look yourself and see what you can see. I have lots of questions about it – for example, about the scale that Jobson uses (above) – I am hoping our readers might have some answers!

I am grateful indeed to Michelle Agar, Cataloguer, Digital Collections, at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, who gave permission to feature the map from the Hardiman collection in this blog. Also to the kind office of Dr Áine Madden, Communications and Engagement Coordinator with the Digital Repository of Ireland at the Royal Irish Academy. The complete citation for the map is as follows: Jobson, Francis, & Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin. (2021) The Province of Munster, Digital Repository of Ireland [Distributor], Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin [Depositing Institution], https://doi.org/10.7486/DRI.rb69b272p

One Acre – Four Years On

Since I decided to try to grow a wildflower meadow, I’ve been documenting the wildflowers on my one West Cork Acre each year. You can chart my progress by taking a look at One Acre, One Acre – One Year On, and One-Acre Three Years On. (Hmmm – what happened to Two Years on?) 

I’ve found new flowers and learned something new each year and this year was no exception. I’ve set aside a portion of my garden as a perennial wildflower meadow. My strategy, based on my reading of best practice, is not to cut it until the autumn, and then cut and rake it once everything has more or less finished blooming. The raking is important, since leaving the cut grass fertilises the soil, and what you want in a wildflower meadow is soil that is as impoverished as possible.

A perennial wildflower meadow is what happens when you provide minimal intervention – just sit back and let whatever comes up, some up. But when a lawn has had years of cutting, and the grass is thick, one intervention that is recommended is to scatter the seeds of Yellow Rattle (above and below), a native wildflower that helps keep the grasses sparse, allowing other flowers to gain a foothold among those thick, tough roots.

This year, the meadow flourished. The Yellow Rattle had seeded itself very successfully last autumn – so much so that I was wondering if I now needed to thin it a bit – oh the irony. Along came my young friend Niamh and patiently harvested as much of the seed as we thought she should. Some of it went to her house, and the rest I scattered an area of the meadow I seemed to have missed before. 

The other thing that happened was that I discovered that bracken had invaded part of the meadow (above). Left unchecked, bracken will take over and choke out everything else. It’s an important plant in its natural habitat and provides food and shelter for several invertebrate species – but it’s vital to manage it in a situation like this, if you can. Niamh pulled out what she could and stamped down the rest. I will need to keep on top of this or my meadow will drown in bracken.

The wildflower meadow is only small one part of our One Acre. For the rest, I try to cut as little as possible and just about every day I wander around, trying to record what’s coming up. I was so entranced at what was happening in May that I made a little slideshow called Lying in the Grass. Here it is again – every single flower was photographed in one week in May this year, all on my one acre .

The months of June and July are the height of the wildflower season and all parts of the acre sprout flowering plants – the lawns, the stone walls, the hedges, the gravel driveway and the boreen that our neighbour uses to get his cattle across the top of our property – it’s where the Chamomile grows.

I continue to be delighted at what comes up all over our acre – the colour and variety is amazing, and I feel like I am doing my part for our pollinators. But mostly it’s just – beautiful!

Revisiting BAM

BAM is the Ballydehob Arts Museum, and regular readers will know that this is a project which has involved us over the past few years. The Museum was curated to collect, conserve and celebrate the work of artists who came to West Cork and – particularly – Ballydehob during the second half of the twentieth century, some of them settling in the hills around the village and living a Bohemian lifestyle based around the principles of John Seymour’s seminal work Self Sufficiency published in 1973. At that time I was involved in running an eccentric small bookshop in rural Devon, and that book was our all-time best-seller!

That’s John Seymour and his family in 1973, when the book was first published (upper picture) while the lower picture is a John Hinde postcard from around the same period showing Ballydehob. It looks a thriving, lively place with its coloured houses and shops, and I think those ‘Bohemians’ who are still with us today – and still have their homes in the village – would agree that it was in those days the centre of a very special world – of artists and craftspeople making a living and producing some exceptional work. Work that is being recognised, now, for its quality and unique character.

This is a wonderful photograph from the Museum archives: here you see four of the ‘Bohemians’ who were crucial to the Ballydehob project. On the left is John Verling – he and his wife Noelle produced the two plates on the header, Tree of Life and Jellyfish, and were central to the community, establishing their pottery at Gurteenakilla just outside Ballydehob in the early 1970s. John died in 2009, but Noelle still thrives in the area. Next is Pat Connor, still living and working – as an award winning ceramicist and sculptor – in West Cork. Beside him is Brian Lalor who, since those Bohemian days – has established a formidable reputation in Ireland as print-maker, artist and writer. Also, very relevant to this post, he is a co-founder and Curator of the Ballydehob Arts Museum! Fourth in line in the photo is watercolourist, David Chechovich, no longer with us. Here’s a photo from a couple of years ago showing Brian (left) with Leda May, another early arrival in Ballydehob and living and working right in the village to this day; also Pat Connor, and Carol James, who came over from England in 1974 and stayed on. They haven’t changed a bit, have they?

The Museum has a permanent home in Bank House, right in the centre of the village. As you might expect, it was once the local bank but – after closure – it was bought by the community and is currently finding fresh uses. This montage (above) is by Brian Lalor: he and I are imagining the building being livened up by a mural from Brian’s brush. Unfortunately, Covid has put a check on the Museum’s development over the last couple of years. But we are looking forward to getting things going again with a new exhibition for 2022. The photo below shows the Museum interior set up for the 2019 show.

Here is an article – well worth reading – on the West Cork artists and our Museum (thank you, Peter , for pointing me to this). Mentioned in the article are the subjects of our next proposed exhibition, to be held in 2022, if all is well. They are Ian and Lynne Wright. They arrived in West Cork in 1973 and established their home, ceramics studio and an environmentally sound habitat at Kilnaclasha, Skibbereen. They are still there, although Ian spends much of his time on another environmental project in Tobago. Using the name Cors’ it’s Ceramics they experimented with body casting slipware and began to produce specialised one-off bathroom fittings – humorous and often erotic. They were hugely successful. Here’s a pictorial review of some of their work to give you a taster:

Ian and Lynne (above, from one of their bathroom product catalogues) gave up their ‘cheeky’ ceramics in 2002 but both are still producing; Lynne with large, colourful bowls and Ian with body casts (pics below). BAM hopes to show a significant selection of examples from their lifetime of work. It promises to be a spectacular exhibition: Roaringwater Journal will keep you up-to-date with progress.

You can find out more about the Ballydehob Arts Museum on the dedicated website, here

Ardintenant Castle

Home of the Taoiseach, or Head of the Clan, Ardintenant was one of the most important of the O’Mahony Castles of Ivaha (or what we now call The Mizen). Fortunately, it is relatively intact and we can observe and record much about it. The drawing above was done by James N Healy for his magnificent book on The Castles of County Cork. This post is another in my series on The Castles of Ivaha.

First the name – Ardintenant has been variously interpreted as coming from Árd an Tine (Ord on Tinneh, Height of the Fire), Árd an tSaighneáin (Ord on Tye-nawn Height of the Flash, or Beacon) or Árd an Tiarna (Ord on Teerna, Height of the High Chief). Any of these would be apt, since tower houses by the sea like this one (viewed from the sea, above) could be used as navigation beacons, possibly with a fire on the battlements. We also know that it was the residence of the head of the O’Mahony Clan, even though it was not the largest or most elaborate of the O’Mahony castles. Locally, it is also known as White Castle, which may refer to the white render that once made it stand out in the landscape (for more on render and castle colours, see the discussion on Kilcoe Castle). The photograph below demonstrates that it was prominent on the landscape and close to, although not right on, the sea.

It now stands in the middle of a working farm, surrounded by stone buildings that are picturesque and notable in their own right.

Ardintenant is typical of castles built during the 15th century by Irish clan chiefs – wealthy and powerful and anxious to assert their claims on land and sea.

Dermot Runtach (the Reliable) succeeded in I400; his life and the lives of his sons spanned the Fifteenth Century. He was celebrated as a ‘truly hospitable man, who never refused to give anything to anyone’ . . . The period of 1400 -1500 was the most peaceful and prosperous period in the history of the clan. The Ivagha peninsula was protected by the sea on three sides and the family became wealthy from the exaction of dues from the continental fishing fleets; trade also enriched them, causing long-standing enmity with the citizens of Cork. Tradition relates that the majority of the O’Mahony tower houses in Ivagha were built by or for the sons of Dermod Runtach. The date of Dermod Runtach’s death is recorded in the Annals of Loch Cé as 1427.


THE TOWER HOUSES OF WEST CORK
MARK WYCLIFFE SAMUEL, 1998

Dermot Runtach’s sons were the castle builders. Conor Cabaicc succeeded his father in 1427 and remained Taoiseach for 46 years, embarking on an ambitious program of construction to provide castles for his sons and brothers, beginning with Ardintenant. He died in 1473, by which time probably all of the castles of Ivaha were built and occupied by various members of his derbfine (extended family). Cabaicc means of the exactions (or forced tributes), although it is possible that Conor was more benignly known as Cabach – meaning talkative. His brother, Fineen, the Táiniste (heir-in-waiting) built Rossbrin Castle, about which Robert has written, and which is the castle in our view at Nead an Iolair. Rossbrin and the remains of a small tower on Castle Island are both visible from Ardintenant.

While there is evidence that other O’Mahony castles were built on pre-existing fortifications such as promontory forts (see Three Castle Head, for example) or ring forts, this is most visible at Ardintenant, where the ring fort can still be seen as a circular rampart around the tower house. You can make out part of it in the photo above. Another unusual feature is the survival of a single flanking tower, along the line of the ring fort and across from the tower house, although there may have been more than one originally, since the 1840s OS map shows what could be a second one – the leftmost building on the line of the ringfort below. Note that farm buildings also dot the site even at this early stage.

The possible second flanking tower had disappeared by the time the next series of maps were produced, around the 1890s. The farm buildings have changed as well.

In his marvellous paper on Ardintenant Castle in Mizen Journal 11, 2003, John Hawkes investigates the history and construction of the castle and provides elevation and plan drawings. I am grateful for his scholarship and thoroughness, which has informed the following description of what is left at this site, as well as provided illustrations.

The presence of the ringfort raises an intriguing prospect since it appears that instead of the usual rectangular bawn, surrounded by a stone wall (see the illustration in this post), we have a round bawn, with the stone wall built on top of the bank of the ringfort. Although that stone wall is not obvious now, it is noted in the description of the ring fort in the National Monuments survey. Thus, what we have here is a hybrid ring fort/tower house – a sensible adaptation of a pre-existing fortification and a continuation of the site as a high-ranking residence. The National Monuments survey also refers to an external fosse, although traces of it are hard to see on the ground. If it was originally a substantial ditch, another possibility is that the bank was surrounded by a moat. 

As with all of the O’Mahony Castles, Ardintenant is the type of tower house known as Raised Entry, that is, the ground floor door allows access to the public areas of the castle, while the door above it, originally accessed via a wooden stairway, gives on to a set of steps up to the private area.

The first two-and-a-mezzanine floors are covered by a vault. This set-up was partly defensive – the upper floors could only be accessed through this raised doorway and staircase – and partly for security, in that the vault was a barrier should a fire break out on the lower floors. The doorway to the left leads to a garderobe, while on the right are two deeply splayed window embrasures.

At Ardintenant, as with Dunmanus, the ground floor has been in use as a cow byre. It is normally impossible to access the upper floors, although those who have done so report that it is in good condition. That floor is reached by means of a mural staircase that rises from the raised entry.

A second staircase, in this case a spiral, gives access from the upper floor to the wall walk. This was not a castle built for comfort – in common with the other 15th century O’Mahony castle it had no fireplaces and very few windows.

Above the vault was what Hawkes calls the Great Hall. One large room, accessed via the mural staircase, the only notable feature of which is are deeply splayed window with seats in the embrasure. Picture the Lady of the house seated here, trying to catch whatever light she could as she bent over her handwork. 

In one corner of the Great Hall, the spiral staircase led up to the wall walk (what Hawkes calls the Allure). While nothing remains of these battlements now, we can assume that there was a walkway around the roof, perhaps with Irish crenellations and a sentry box.

The flanking tower (above) is covered in ivy, so it’s hard to make out details. It may have looked a bit like the one Westropp called The Turret, at Dunlough.

It’s much smaller than the castle, rectangular, and three stories high. The illustration above, by Jack Roberts, indicates the relative sizes. The way in was from the level of the curtain wall and each floor was connected by a ladder, except for the wall walk/allure, reached by a spiral stone stairs. 

Hawkes tells us that “its function appears to have been to accommodate hostages.” He bases that on the absence of a ground level entry (the current hole on the ground level having been broken through in more recent times), so that the ‘dungeon’ was accessed through a trap door from the room above, which in turn he calls a ‘detention room.’ See my post on Dunmanus for a discussion of possible functions for rooms like the ‘dungeon.’

Ardintenant is still standing and intact, but a lot of the base batter – the broad stone base that gives it its strength and stability – is missing and holes have been punched through the walls in the past.

Along with the other extant O’Mahony castles, its continued survival cannot be taken for granted. It’s a listed monument on private land, and Ireland’s complicated heritage laws means that it can’t be deliberately damaged, but conversely, there is no onus on the landowners to conserve it at their own expense. All fingers crossed that it remains standing for ages to come.

Brian Lalor’s sketch of Ardintenant Castle from 1987, from his field notebook

The Wild One

We are past November Dark – traditionally a ‘low’ time of the year when the effects of the approaching cold months begin to displace autumnal skies and spectacular sunsets: the term traditionally refers to the appearance of the new moon of the month (which happened this year on the 4th), but is probably inspired by the preceding nights when no moon is visible. For us at the moment, on the shores of Roaringwater Bay, the dark time is emphasised by a constant pervading mist which clings and covers everything in films of moisture, especially the myriad cobwebs on the gorse bushes which surround us. Gone – for now – are our fine views out across to the islands, and there is a feeling of being marooned and suspended in a lifeless grey tract which encompasses sea and sky.

November Dark has brought with it tragedy to our garden. In explanation, I should first paint the idyllic picture of what we like to call our ‘peaceable kingdom’. For many years we have considered this domain a haven. Do you remember our fox – Ferdia – who was a constant companion to us in the first few years here at Nead an Iolair? He visited on a daily basis – often waking us by barking outside our bedroom window at dawn, and presided over a mixed community of birds and animals who share our territory – without any conflict.

Ferdia was happy enough to co-exist with the bird and pheasant families, the rats and mice, and the occasional cat that dropped in. I have a memory of fox and cat sitting side by side on our terrace, clearly having a conversation with each other: I would like to have eavesdropped, but whatever mutual language they share was not available to me! Ferdia vanished from our garden a few years back – gone to his happy hunting grounds no doubt; but the pheasants have remained with us through much of the decade we have been here.

In the upper picture Finnbarr and his young wife, Fidelma, patrol our garden some five years ago. The lower picture was taken just before the start of the Pandemic, in March 2019. The couple have been a daily feature of life outside Nead an Iolair. They always appreciated feeding time, when they got a share of the seeds I put out on our patch for the many bird visitors, small and large. The picture below taken during the summer of last year shows a family group: pheasant chicks have been seen but rarely.

The idyll abruptly ended yesterday, when a bomb hit the garden – in the form of a small but fierce force of nature: only inches long but terrifying. I glanced out of the window where, minutes before, the two pheasants had been foraging as usual along the stone boundary wall. I was shocked to see Fidelma lying on her back, wings flapping, being dragged along the ground: there was a commotion among the small birds and Finnbarr had vanished. At first I could not see the attacker, but as I rushed outside I caught a glimpse of brown fur with a hint of white and black. My first thought – a rat! – could not have been borne out: we have lived side by side with rat families for years: they only ever appear to share the bird food, and are never aggressive.

You can see the conditions that prevailed on this worst of days from Finola’s picture (top), taken from indoors through the windows. And – below that – the brazen culprit, who danced around the garden at breakneck speed, very ready to threaten me if I made a wrong move! It was our first sighting here on our land of an Irish Stoat. Having now read the books, I know in hindsight what a shocking phenomenon had hit us. Although fearing the worst, I quickly removed Fidelma to an indoor refuge and then watched the rampaging of this fur powerball traversing our territory at lightning speed; leaping from walls, trees and bushes and aiming for any likely food source.

Finola has done her best to clarify the images in the photos she rapidly took through streaming wet glass (above) on this appalling day. The weather did not in any way impede the progress of the animal which circumscribed our whole acre, it seemed, in record time.

. . . The Stoat is often called the Weasel in Ireland, but although the weasel (Mustela nivalis) is very similar in appearance to the stoat, it is not native to Ireland and has never been introduced here. In Ireland the stoat or ‘weasel’ was regarded as a very intelligent animal, but also vengeful. For example, since they were believed to understand human speech, if a stoat was encountered the correct thing to do was to greet them politely. In County Clare the custom was to raise one’s hat in greeting, or even to bow. The person who insulted them, on the other hand, or pelted them with stones, could expect to lose all their chickens before too long. Deliberately killing a stoat was most unwise, since it caused all the deceased animal’s relations to descend on the house of the culprit and attack with great savagery . . .

Ireland’s Animals – Myth legends and Folklore, Niall Mc Coitir, The Collins Press, Cork 2010

The Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – gathered in the 1930s – has numerous entries referring to the stoat. Above is an example from Co Carlow. When I was sifting through these, I was struck by the fact that similar stories about stoats are repeated over and over again, but from different parts of Ireland. I could write a volume based on these accounts, but will choose only a few:

. . . One time there was a girl who was very fond of going to the seaside. One day she went to the seaside and lay down and fell asleep. Ten weasels went down her throat. So she awoke when the last one was going down. She went to the doctor and the doctor said she would need to undergo an operation and then she would die. One day she was going to the shop and her granny knew all about cures. So she went into the granny. Her granny told her to get two pounds of salt and eat all the salt and go to the seaside and drink no water and keep her mouth open and the weasels would have to come out for a drink. So this she did. The weasels came out for a drink. The girl counted them. There were ten in it and the girl came home cured . . .

William O’Donnell, Cabra Glebe, Co Donegal

. . . One day long ago two men went to cut the meadow with scythes. They cut away for a while until they came to a weasel’s nest where there were four young weasels out of the nest and left them near by on the ground. After a while the mother of the weasels came home and found her young on the ground and was very angry, She hesitated for a moment and then understood what the men had done. Now the men had had a can of milk with them for a drink which they left near the weasel’s nest, the old weasel saw the can and went to see what in it. When she saw what was in it she spat into it because a weasel’s spit is poison. When the men saw this they were terrified and put back the young weasels into the nest, and the old weasel was pleased and went back and upset the can and spilt the milk from fear the men would drink of it and be poisoned . . .

James Gormley Senior, Aged 82, Commeen, Co Roscommon

Note that the term ‘Weasels’ is used far more often in these accounts than ‘Stoats’. There can only be the one animal, however, as there have never been true ‘weasels’ in Ireland. The story above, from Co Roscommon, is the most common of all ‘weasel’ tales in Ireland, and variants of it have been recorded from all parts.

. . . Many years ago an old woman lived by herself. There was a nest of weasels under the hearth in the house in which she lived and every day the old woman fed them until they became quite tame. When the young weasels were reared they went off but the old one remained in the hearth. One day the woman was sitting by the fire when the old weasel came out and sat with her. The weasel was continually looking up the chimney and at last the woman said “What the dickens are you looking at?” and at the same time looking up herself. She saw a little bag hanging in the chimney and took it down. To her surprise and joy she found it was full of gold. This was the weasel’s reward for her kindness to her and her family . . .

Mrs L Millett, Fiddaun Lower, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny

. . . The Swarm or Drove of Weasels: the following story or rather fact come from a reliable source to wit a teacher in Ballyshannon. In the end of August or about that time some distance outside Ballyshannon a great whistling was heard as if a number of little birds and a mighty drove of Weasels was seen heading for the mountains. An old man said that he heard that weasels used make for the mountains during the Grouse Season. The Priests housekeeper saw or heard of the same thing in Antrim . . .

J Clarke, Navan, Co Meath

. . . Some time about forty years ago there were children playing on the side of a hill and they saw a few weasels. They started to run and cry. They looked round and saw thousands coming after them. Only they got away the weasels would have devoured them . . .


Written by Kathleen McKenna Bragan, Co Monoghan 25th November 1938

I couldn’t resist that little foray into weasel stories from the Folklore Collection. There are many many more pages full of them! Interestingly, stoats are a fully protected species in Ireland. If stoats are proving a problem, by killing chicks or other domestic animals, you must solve the problem by using good fencing; it is illegal to kill a stoat.

A possible reason for the attention which stoats attract in folklore is the fact that they can change colour, which adds a sense of the supernatural to them. In countries which have harsh winters the coat of the stoat becomes white in those months, offering a level of protection in the open landscape. The fur from the white – or ‘winter’ – stoat we call ermine, and the white fur is considered so precious that only royalty or nobility traditionally wear it. In the drawing above, the white stoat is wearing a cloak on which are printed the symbols of the flag of Brittany (below), which was an independent kingdom in medieval times. The white background represents the ermine fur, and the black markings are said to be based on the black tip of the tail which the animals retains, even in the winter.

Here (above) is another example of the Breton ermine representation: a finely worked silver antique brooch. In Ireland, the species of stoat which has evolved – Mustela erminea hibernica – does not usually turn white in winter, although examples have been noted. The animal is said to have been resident in Ireland from the post-glacial period and, in the present day, the population numbers are unknown: it is not a threatened species.

In spite of our attempts to care for Fidelma, she did not survive. Sadly, I decided to let Nature have her way and laid the body close to a fox-track above the house. Later, I noticed an assembly of corvids gathered in the area. When I returned there in the evening all traces had gone – just a few scattered feathers told the tale.

This morning, Finnbarr was absent from the garden. I did catch a glimpse of him wandering the distant pastures – forlorn and bereft. At least, those are the feelings my human soul projects onto him. He will find another mate, of course, and we hope they will continue to share our little bit of paradise. We will keep a lookout for unwelcome visitors, but we will always have to pay our respects to the ‘weasels’. If our stoat does return we will have to honour him with an Irish name: I am inclining towards Fiáinín – which means Little Wild One.

Lady with an Ermine, painted 1489–1491 by Leonardo da Vinci. The subject is said to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s Milanese employer, Ludovico Sforza. The Ermine is symbolic, rather than realistic – in fact it is pictured much larger than in real life. It has been suggested that the ermine in classical literature relates to pregnancy, sometimes as an animal that protected pregnant women. Around the time of the painting’s creation, Cecilia was known to be pregnant with Ludovico’s illegitimate son.