East Coast Archaeology

We often find time to visit the east side of the country – where we see everything from a different perspective! But we are just as interested in history and archaeology over there as we are here in our own West Cork. Today I am bringing together three sites from three different eras – all equally fascinating, and all within a stone’s throw of each other, hovering on the borders of South County Dublin and County Wicklow.

From the high ground in these two counties you find stunning views to the north out across Dublin Bay, with Howth in the distance. The twin striped chimneys on the right of this picture are protected historic structures: they date from 1971 and were built to serve the Poolbeg electricity generating station. At 270m they are amongst the tallest artificial structures in Ireland and are a visible feature on the skyline from many parts of the city. The power station closed in 2010.

The first site we are visiting in this little tour is the wedge tomb in Shankill townland, County Dublin. It lies below Carrickgollogan hill, and commands distant views to the two distinctive Sugar Loaf peaks, which are situated in County wicklow. Or – let’s say – it should command those views, but it now reposes in a rather neglected state, engulfed by a modern hedge boundary, which you can see below.

The picture above is taken a little to the west, to show the full skyline profile. The monument is not in good shape: the photo below (courtesy Ryaner via The Modern Antiquarian) shows the tomb in 2006, when the capstone remained intact on its supports. In less than two decades the capstone has fallen, as you can see from our photos taken a few days ago.

It is quite difficult to penetrate the undergrowth to see what remains of this structure, which probably dates from between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. It seems a shame that such an ancient survival is not cared for in any significant way by our State. The tomb was recorded (as a ‘dolmen’) by the archaeologist William Borlas in 1897. Just over a century later, it has significantly deteriorated. The extract (below( from the first edition 6″ OS map gives it the title ‘Cromlech’ – and also shows nearby a substantial ring-fort: there is no trace of that remaining today.

We leap forward about three thousand years for our next archaeological site, but we are only a short distance away as the crow flies – in Fassaroe, Co Wicklow, less than half a kilometre. This was a great discovery for me: a very fine carved cross, likely to date from the 12th century. Although it has been moved from its original site, it is cared for, and easily found right beside a strangely deserted modern traffic roundabout with little sign of habitation nearby.

The granite cross face is carved with a crucifixion, but there are also ‘bosses’ on the back, sides and base stone. These are believed to be heads, well worn now but in good light some features can be seen: a pointed ‘ceremonial’ head-dress, and beards.

The clearest view of the carvings (above) is illustrated in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 88, 1958. An article by P Ó hÉailidhe discusses this cross and others nearby. The carving is popularly known as St Valery’s Cross as it purportedly came from the nearby demesne of that name. Some archaeologists theorize that it was originally brought to that estate from elsewhere.

This extract from the first edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey map (c1840) shows the location of the cross, not far from St Valery.

It’s about 7km from the Fassaroe Cross to the last stop on our journey. We have to head north on a road that takes us through The Scalp.

. . . Within an easy drive of Bray is a wild ravine known as the Scalp. The road runs over a shoulder of Shankhill Mountain and through this ravine; it presents a very wild appearance, enormous masses of granite being heaped up in grand and picturesque confusion on either side. It looks as if nature, in order to spare man the trouble of blasting a road, had by some mighty convulsion torn a rent through the mountain just wide enough for a high road . . .

Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, Richard Lovett, 1888

The view above accompanies Richard Lovett’s 1888 account. In spite of the topological interest of the Scalp road, our journey took us on and forward a few hundred years to our last stop – the lead workings on Carrickgollogan hill, Ballycorus townland. The hilltop mine chimney which forms our header picture is a well-known landmark in this part of the country.

The mine was established in the early nineteenth century. Many of the lead works buildings remain today in the valley below the landmark chimney, mainly converted to modern dwellings: the photo above (courtesy Joe King via Wiki Commons) shows a distant view of the converted buildings and ‘shot tower’. The ‘Shot Works’ can be seen on the 25″ OS extract, above. This also show the location of the Lead Mine flue and chimney, which was the destination of our archaeological journey. That’s us (below) climbing the hill towards the chimney that’s on the 220m contour line, and offers views towards Dublin Bay.

Open-cast mining commenced in 1807. The Mining Company of Ireland took over the site in 1826 and began to carry out underground extraction. A 2 km long flue (shown in red on the map above) was laid out from the smelting facilities to the great chimney at the summit of the hill. You might think this was an acknowledgment of the poisonous fumes which lead working released, and an attempt to divert those fumes from the main site – but no!

. . . A process had been discovered in the 1770s whereby additional quantities of lead could be extracted from the fumes emitted by reverberatory furnaces if the vapours could be trapped long enough to precipitate the lead. To this end a flue 2 kilometres long running from the lead works and terminating at a chimney near the summit of Carrickgollogan was constructed in 1836. The precipitated lead deposits were scraped out of the flue by hand and many of the workers subsequently died of lead poisoning, giving the surrounding area the nickname “Death Valley”. . .

Wikipedia

The lead mine chimney remains – although a brick upper section was removed in the twentieth century for safety reasons (see lower picture) – and so does much of the enclosed flue. A public trail follows its course to the top of the hill. The remaining chimney is a fine granite structure, in reasonably good condition. It’s certainly much visited: Finola – who grew up in Bray – has fond memories of cycling out there with her two brothers, and finding ways to climb part way up the spiral staircase which accessed a viewing platform, in spite of key parts of the stair structure being missing!

All three examples of archaeology we have studied today have one thing in common: they are constructed of local granite. Thousands of years separate the oldest and the most recent, but the inherent strength of the material has ensured survival, at least in part. As with West Cork and all other parts of Ireland, the temporal history is rich, and much of it is largely intact. We have so much more to explore!

Portobello

We have been spending a little time over on the east side of the country, not too far from Dublin. We like exploring, and the built-up areas have much to offer in terms of history so I’m returning – for a brief moment – to one of my favourite subjects: the canals of Ireland. You may remember my forays back in 2016 to seek out the journeys taken by L T C Rolt seventy years before that, and recorded in his classic book Green & Silver. You can find all those posts here. Earlier this year I added a further post to the series, examining in greater detail the meeting of the waters of Grand and Royal Canals, within Dublin. Today I’m simply concentrating mainly on one place, to the south of the city: Portobello.

This wonderfully drawn map (the two extracts above) dates from 1797, and was complied by William Faden (1749-1836) and Samuel John Neele (1758-1824): it was published in London and Dublin. You can see from it that the Grand Canal at that time virtually created the southern boundary of the city, with the canal basin at Portobello being a significant location to serve the growing conurbation south of the River Liffey.

This extract from the 6″ first edition of the Ordnance Survey shows Portobello Harbour with its significant warehouses, the ‘City Basin’ and a lock and bridge – known as La Touche Bridge. We have encountered the La Touche family in an earlier post – Glen of the Downs – and learned there that the family had built a big house – ‘Bellevue’ – on their estates near Greystones and Delgany.

The bridge (photo courtesy of excellentstreetimages.com) was named after William Digges La Touche (1747–1803), a director of the Grand Canal Company. The waterway was, of course, an important business venture in its heyday, contributing to the prosperity of the city merchants. Prior to its construction the area was farmland, and the name Portobello is said (curiously) to have come from the Irish Cuan Aoibhinn, meaning ‘beautiful harbour’. Note the ‘City Basin’ marked on the OS map: this was used from 1812 to provide a drinking water reservoir for the south side of the city. In the 1860s the water was found to contain a high concentration of sulphuric acid, and this source was eventually superseded by the new reservoir at Dartry, in Co Wicklow.

This is a fine early print of the Harbour, showing the Grand Canal Hotel designed by James Colbourne and opened in 1797. In the foreground is a passenger or ‘packet’ boat. We might forget how important the transport of people was in the early days of canal transport, before the advent of railways (see Trollope’s account in my post here): roads were often in a poor state and the boats provided a smooth – if not exactly speedy – way of getting about.

…the company’s hotels were simply the posting houses of this water-road …There was considerable interchange of passenger as well as goods traffic at Shannon Harbour. Travellers changed here from the Dublin passage boats into Bianconi’s ‘long cars’ which operated between Birr, Shannon Harbour and Athlone in connection with the boats. Alternatively they might board the paddle steamers The Lady Lansdowne or The Lady Burgoyne which plied between Killaloe pier head and Athlone, calling at a jetty on the river near the mouth of the canal. Smaller craft sailed from Killaloe pier head to the transatlantic port of Limerick, and so the Grand Canal became a link in the route between Dublin and America…

L T C ROLT, Green & Silver, 1949

The hotel at Portobello was one of five constructed along the length of the Grand Canal: all were fine buildings – probably state-of-the-art in terms of accommodation for travellers by water. You will find a post which I wrote about them here. On the header picture is a view of a packet boat at Harcourt Lock, and you can see a stage-coach there waiting to transfer passengers. The Portobello hotel closed in 1835 but the building has survived to the present day through many incarnations.

This is a great photo if you are a transport history enthusiast! It must date from the 1940s, as the Dublin tram system declined at that time, the last one in the city being phased out on 9 July 1949. The bridge and former canal hotel are clearly seen.

Portobello House – the canal hotel in the 1960s. Some fine classic cars in this picture! At this time it was a nursing home: one of its elderly residents was Jack B Yeats, the celebrated Irish painter who currently has a major exhibition in the National Gallery.

The former canal hotel was completely refurbished in 1972 (the photograph above dates from that year) and survives today – in good order – as a private educational establishment. Here it is again (below), as you’ve never seen it before – through the eagle-eye of Google Earth!

I can’t resist finishing with this plate from from The Graphic, a British weekly newspaper set up to rival the popular Illustrated London News. Published on May 13, 1882, this shows “. . . the lighting of tar-barrels in Portobello Harbour, on the Grand Canal in Dublin, to celebrate the release from prison of Charles Stewart Parnell and two colleagues . . .”

Casino Marino

It’s a perfect little building: a gem of Irish architecture. It lies in an oasis of parkland on the outskirts of Dublin city – all that’s left of an expansive eighteenth century country house demesne, now all but engulfed by housing estates. But – perhaps in homage to the eccentric conceiver of this environmental idyll – the housing estates which have stood below it since the 1920s are quite out of the ordinary. Have a look at the layout on this contemporary plan of Merino townland, carved out of the larger Donnycarney which was granted to the Corporation of Dublin following the dissolution of The Priory of All Hallows in the reign of King Henry VIII. 

This plan is showing the location of Casino Marino, with the green areas around it being the remnants of a 238 acre demesne. The housing below the surviving Casino was Ireland’s first example, in the newly formed Irish state, of an affordable housing project and was the first local authority housing estate in the country. It was heavily influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement, originating in the UK with the two revolutionary developments at Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City. This Dublin estate of about 1300 houses was built on the site of a planned formal garden for Marino House and the original design was followed when the streets were laid out. This gives the Marino estate its symmetrical layout. When it was first built, purchasers of houses were restricted to large families, while alcohol and dogs without leads were banned from the parks, as were children after dark.

Ebenezer Howard, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform – diagram of the ideal city, dated 1898

Back to the eighteenth century, and the heroes of our piece today: James Caulfeild, 1st Earl of Charlemont (1728 – 1799), and his friend, the architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796). James (left, below – a portrait by Pompeo Batoni) was a cultivated man who disregarded the conventions of court and openly pursued Irish nationalism, having taken a leading part in the formation of the Irish Volunteers. He was the first President of the Royal Irish Academy and was a member of the Royal Dublin Society. In 1783 he was made a founding Knight of the Order of St Patrick. Like most of the wealthy young gentry of his time he went to Italy on The Grand Tour: he fell in love with that country and classical Roman culture and stayed away for nine years. When he returned he determined to bring the spirit of Italy to Dublin. Acquiring tracts of land by the coast that afforded unrivalled views over the entire bay and city, he poured his energies into creating an ideal landscape: he named his demesne ‘Marino’.

William Chambers (on the right, above – this portrait by Joshua Reynolds is in the Royal Academy) was also a great traveller: he was born in Gothenburg to a Scottish father and visited and studied architecture in China, Paris and Italy – where he met Charlemont. He established a practice in London, where he was appointed architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales, later George III. As the leading classicist of his day, it was unsurprising that Charlemont should turn to him to realise his dream of an Italian arcadia in Dublin. It was a commission that took many years to come to fruition, partly because of the Earl’s seemingly limitless ambitions and his attention to fine detail.

Charlemont’s Marino estate enjoyed fine unrestricted views across Dublin Bay. The culmination of the Earl’s work on his estate (and now the only surviving element) is the Casino, and this is sited on the highest point on the land: the painting above shows the view from the roof of the Casino, which was fully accessible from the building interior. So – what is a casino? It’s simply the Italian for small house, and in this case has been built as a garden room or, perhaps, a gazebo. Ornamental, but eminently functional. From the outside it appears small, but exquisitely detailed on all its elevations. In fact, the simple building houses 16 rooms over three storeys – plus the roof terrace.

Exercises in architectural scale. Upper – an almost contemporary view of the Casino painted by William Ashford (1746-1824), National gallery of Ireland: here the building seen in its landscape context looks like a miniature folly. Centre – a close-up of the roof detailing includes life-size statuary. Lower – Ava and Hugo, willing participants in our expedition to the Casino, help to give an impression of its true size.

The Casino is guarded by four large lions. Originally they were intended to be fountains – as you can see from the original architect’s drawing, above. In this drawing you can also get a good sense of how the designer plays tricks with scale: the doorway is perhaps three times the height of a normal door, and only a small section at the bottom is, in fact, an opening.

Symbolism and hidden messages abound: the architect, Sir William Chambers, left his signature – in the form of a ram – in many parts of the house. Every moulding, coving, frame detail has a meaning in terms of architecture and freemasonry – and also pays homage to the Greek and Roman classical orders – at the behest of the client. The parquet flooring is magnificent – and is at present kept covered by a vinyl replica to protect the original exotic woods.

The detailing of every element has been fully considered. I was impressed with the curved timber doors, which follow the line of circular wall partitions inside. And, particularly unusual, is the use of vertically curved glazing which causes reflections when seen from the outside, meaning that no shutters or blinds are needed at the windows.

Look carefully at these windows: they are crafted with vertically curved glass which make them reflective externally!

Examples of the plasterwork within the Casino include agricultural harvest symbols, every classical moulding motif and Apollo the sun-god. It would take several visits to absorb and catalogue the complete variety of images: every room has a different visual character.

There are hidden elements – and enigmas – to the building. These include ‘secret’ tunnels in the basement: one was used by Michael Collins to test-fire submachine guns during the War of Independence. The picture above shows a reconstruction. The basement of the Casino, including the tunnels, is currently undergoing further restoration and refurbishment and was not accessible during our visit. It is said that there are many other tunnels, including one that linked the Casino to the big demesne house (now demolished) – and some that, according to legend, run to the coast – miles away!

Charlemont was a liberal and believed that everyone should have access to his parklands: there were no gates. He was so protective of his project, however, that he married in middle age, having been a confirmed bachelor. He had overheard his then presumed heir (his brother) talking about how he was going to exploit and commercialise the demesne once he got his hands on it: this prompted Charlemont to ensure he produced an heir that he could have some direct influence over! Evidently, the marriage was a happy one. The image above shows the Casino in a sad state of disrepair around 1900: the estate was broken up by the third Earl in 1876.

The Casino was adopted as a National Monument in the 1930s, and a full restoration was begun in the 1970s. A further phase of this restoration is currently under way, and the property is only open on limited occasions when suitable areas are accessible: we were fortunate to get there on one of those times. If you plan to visit, contact the Office of Public Works to make sure that you will get in. Charles Topham Bowden made the journey in 1791, and recorded it in his journal A Tour Through Ireland: here is an extract:

. . . This is one of the most beautiful and elegant seats in the world, happily situated, and in a demesne improved in the highest taste, comprehending 238 acres, laid out in plantations, lawns, and a delightful park . . . The temple is situated in the park – a monument of his Lordship’s refined taste. The Gothic room is a very curious and beautiful structure. The hermitage is nature itself. Art and nature unite in rendering this a most desirable residence. What obligation are not the citizens of Dublin under to his Lordship for having the gates of this terrestrial paradise opened to them whenever they chuse [sic] to walk through it . . .

A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland

Cork City in the eighteenth century (represented above and below in Cork’s Nano Nagle Centre) had an unhealthy reputation, according to one commentator – Frenchman Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye – who travelled through Ireland in the 1790s and happily left us with some written descriptions of his journey.

Born into an ancient noble family in Nantes in 1767, de La Tocnaye fled the French Revolution in 1792 and self-exiled himself to idle London (his words). Then – armed with a sheaf of letters of introduction to people who might be useful along the way – he set out on a walking journey which lasted for ten years, through England, Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia. Remarkably, he was able to get his writings published as he went along and we are fortunate to have some of them preserved, after a fashion, through a translation into English by John Stevenson in 1917 of Promenade d’un Français dans l’Irlande 1796 – 1797.

It is necessary to quote from the preamble set down by this translator before we embark on the writing itself. Apologies if you feel – as I do – we might be missing out on a few of the more colourful observations from de La Tocnaye on Ireland because of Stevenson’s reservations. The end result is of great interest to us nevertheless.

. . . A word about the author’s style. He has none. A well-educated man, at home in the highest circles of society, and doubtless a brilliant conversationalist, he is evidently unaccustomed to writing . . . Therefore, in the rendering, it has been necessary, at times, to convey what he intended to say rather than what is actually set down . . . 

. . . He has a weakness for using the swear words of the country of his sojourn, and uses them unnecessarily and unwarrantably. Second-hand matter, in the form of stories ‘ lifted ‘ from Irish authors, or antiquarian information inserted out of compliment to his friends, has been omitted as of no interest to the reader of to-day; and certain little sallies in the French manner, innocent enough, but which in English print might wear the air of indecencies, have been modified or suppressed. For the rest, the translation is as literal as a care for readability in English will allow . . .

. . . Travelling on foot over the island, east, south, west, north, his whole baggage in his pockets, in two silk stockings from which he had cut the feet, or in a handkerchief slung en sautoir on the end of a combined sword-stick and umbrella, which he said ‘made the girls laugh’ he got to the very heart of Irish life . . .

Sackville Street and Gardiner’s Mall, Dublin c1750. Attributed to Joseph Tudor 1695–1759. (courtesy National Gallery of Ireland)

De La Tocnaye’s writings on his travels in Ireland alone amount to 90,000 words! Today I am taking just a few extracts to give you a flavour of what life was like here in the late eighteenth century – seen through the eyes of one observer. I have no doubt that more of this journal will follow on these pages in time.

Leaving Dublin, de La Tocnaye made a stop in County Wicklow:

. . . Following the course of the stream which flows from the lake, I came to Glendalough, a word which means ‘the valley of the two lakes’. It is remarkable that there is not a single ancient name in this country which has not its special signification. The appropriateness here is evident, for there are really two lakes, which join at the portion of the valley called ‘The Seven Churches.’ It is here in this desert place that are to be found the most ancient remains of the devotion of past centuries, remains whose antiquity reaches back to the early ages of Christianity. St Kevin here founded a monastery in the third or fourth century of the Christian era, probably on the ruins of a temple of the Druids, who sought always the wildest places for the practice of their cult. This was for long a bishopric, but now it is united to that of Dublin. Here are still to be seen the ruins of seven churches, and one of those round towers of unknown origin which are so common in Ireland . . . 

High Cross at Glendalough

De La Tocnaye goes on to pronounce, at length, on round towers (and Irish pishogues):

. . . They are all alike, having a door fifteen or twenty feet from the ground, generally opening eastward, some narrow windows, and inside not the slightest remains of a staircase, unless this may be found in a few projecting stones which may have served to support floors in which there must have been trap doors to allow of passing from one to another by means of ladders. These towers are always found at some distance from a church, and entirely isolated . . . Whatever these ancient buildings may have been, the Irish have now for them the greatest possible veneration. They come here from afar for pilgrimages and penitences, and on the day of the Saint, which is June 3, they dance afterwards and amuse themselves until nightfall. In this sacred enclosure are to be found remedies for many ills. Have you a pain in your arm ? — it suffices to pass the limb through a hole worked in a stone, and you are free from your trouble. There is another stone on which for another ailment you shall rub your back, and another one against which you shall rub your head. And there is a pillar in the middle of the cemetery which, if you can embrace, will make you sure of your wife. The Saint’s Bed is a hole about six feet long, hollowed in the rock — a very special virtue belongs to it. It is only to be reached after much trouble in scaling a steep slope of the mountain above the lake, but whoever has enough strength and resolution to climb to it, and will lie down in it, is sure never to die in childbirth. Belief in this virtue makes a great number of wives, and of girls who hope to become wives, come here to pay their devotions . . . All this seemed to come in very fitly at the beginning of my travels. I pushed my arm through the hole in the stone. I rubbed my back against the rock which cures the troubles of the back, and my head against another, thus ensuring my health for the remainder of my journey. I even tried to embrace the pillar, but I cannot tell with what result. As to the Saint’s Bed, I thought there was little danger of my dying from the malady against which it insures, and therefore I did not climb . . .

Round tower at Glendalough

Returning to de La Tocnaye’s comment about Cork City:

. . . I arrived at Cork, the dullest and dirtiest town which can be imagined. The people met with are yawning, and one is stopped every minute by funerals, or hideous troops of beggars, or pigs which run the streets in hundreds, and yet this town is one of the richest and most commercial of Europe . . .

View of Cork 1760

. . . There is no town where there is so much needful to do to make the place agreeable to a great number of the poor inhabitants. The spirit of commerce and self-interest has laid hold of all branches of the administration. For example, it would be very easy to furnish the town with a public fountain, but the person or company which has the privilege of bringing water in pipes to the houses thinks that by the building of such a fountain there would be lost a number of guinea subscriptions. Therefore, in order that the avidity of an obscure individual should be satisfied, thirty thousand inhabitants must suffer . . . I have seen poor people obliged to collect the water falling from the roofs on a rainy day, or to take it even from the stream in the streets. All the time there is perhaps hardly a place which it would be so easy to supply with water as Cork, by reason of the heights which surround it. There is even a spring or fountain about a mile away, which is called Sunday’s Well, which appears to me to have sufficient water for the supply of a public fountain in the centre of the town . . . The dirt of the streets in the middle of the town is shameful, and as if that were not enough, it would seem as if it were wished to hinder the wind and the sun from drying the filth, for the two ends of the street are terminated by prisons, which close the way entirely and prevent the air from circulating . . .

Cork Prison 1831 – engraving by W J Bartlett

Lest the people of Cork be offended, today, by de La Tocnaye’s descriptions of yesterday, rest assured that he had similar reactions to other places. Take Wexford, for example:

. . . From here I proceeded to Wexford, and without wishing it harm, I may say that it is one of the ugliest and dirtiest towns in the whole of Ireland. The excessive exercise in which I had indulged, and to which I had not been accustomed for a long time, compelled me to remain here eight days with a fever . . .

In spite of the title, this is a representation of Whiteboys from the 1780s. (courtesy National Library of Ireland)

That’s probably quite enough insults for one week! I have avidly ploughed through the writings of de La Tocnaye as he proceeded on his journey through Ireland, and there is much of considerable interest: we get from him a very good picture of life here two hundred years ago. Finola is writing today on the complexity of religious history in Ireland: I’ll close with a view from our French traveller:

. . . In every country of the world the peasant pays tithe with reluctance ; everywhere it is regarded as an onerous impost, prejudicial to the spread of cultivation, for the labourer is obliged to pay on the product of his industry. In Ireland it seems to me a more vexatious tax than elsewhere, for the great mass of the people being Catholic, it seems to them hard that they should be obliged to maintain a minister who is often the only Protestant in the parish, and who exacts his dues with rigour. Beyond the ordinary tithe he has a right, over nearly the whole of Ireland, to one-tenth of the milk of a cow, one-tenth of the eggs, and one-tenth of the vegetables of the gardens. One can easily understand that these conditions may be very severe when the minister exacts his dues in kind, and especially when it is considered that these poor miserable folk have, as well, to supply a subsistence for their own priests. They have often made complaints and claims in connection with this subject, and to these it was hardly possible to give attention without overturning the whole of the laws of the Establishment, as it is called; that is to say, the Established religion. From complaints and claims the peasants came to threats, and from threats to the execution of the things threatened. They assembled at night in great numbers in certain parts of Ireland, and in order that they might recognise each other safely, they wore their shirts outside their clothes, from whence came the name of White Boys. In this garb they overran the country, breaking the doors and gates of ministers’ houses, and if they could catch the cattle they mutilated them by cutting off their tails and ears. All the time they did no other violent act, and a traveller might have gone through the country with perfect security . . .

Tailpiece: Wexford Town in 1796 (courtesy Laurence Butler)

Viking Traces

If you want to find some remote Irish history which is a long way off the beaten track, try the city of Dublin! Just a few minutes’ drive from the edge of this bustling metropolis (and down a long, rough and muddy farm track) is a collection of carved stones which have their roots in the time of the Vikings.

Here, in the barony of Rathdown, the remains of a small ruined church date from the twelfth century, but a monastic settlement was set up long before that by St Comgall of Bangor, who lived from 520 to about 600 AD. There is the stump of a round tower here, known locally as the Skull Hole, as bones from the surrounding graveyard were thrown in here. Some say, also, that it is actually the entrance to an underground tunnel going down to the coast: furthermore, a piper was once seen to enter the tunnel playing his pipes – but was never seen again!

There is another piping tale connected with a nearby site: Puck’s Castle. A fairy piper is often seen jumping from rock to rock while also playing his pipes. We watched and listened, but in vain . . . Here are some of the noteworthy ‘modern’ gravestones in the cemetery at Rathmichael:

But the real treasure of the place are the carved stones which date from Viking times, and which are probably early Christian grave markers. They are generally known as The Rathdown Slabs. Some of these we would classify as ‘Cross Slabs’, even though, on some, the cup marks and concentric circles make us think of Prehistoric Rock Art. Well worn by time and weather we can still make out the various motifs – and we are fortunate to have good drawn records of these stones dating from a study carried out by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and published in volume 87 of the Journal of that Society in 1957.

Rathdown Slabs (top to bottom): 1 and 2; 8 and 9; 3 and 4 – as classified by P Ó hÉailidhe in his 1957 study

From around 850 AD we find mention of Norse names: Amláib (Olaf the White) arrived in Dublin in 853 and ruled jointly with Ímar (Norse Ívarr inn beinlausi – ‘Ivar the Boneless’). Amhláib was a Norwegian but Ímar may have been a Dane. Ímar is mentioned as ‘king of all the foreigners in Ireland’ at his death in 873. The grave slabs at Rathmichael probably date from the time when Viking settlements were established in the Dublin area, and – although we tend to think of the Vikings as plunderers of monasteries – it seems that they began to follow Christian practices once they settled in Ireland. 

Top – Rathmichael Church with its round tower and Viking graves was established on an ancient Rath or fort, in fact one of the largest in the locality: you can see the probable circular outline of the fort in this extract from the National Monuments Service Archaeological Survey Database; middle – ruins of the medieval church at Rathmichael and, lower – fragments of Bullaun Stones at the church site

Other – probably related – inscribed slabs from the wider area are recorded by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe (below): Dalkey Castle Heritage Centre displays one of the finest of them all (left), while the Tully Slab (right) is assumed to have come from another remote church ruin close by – however I cannot find any record of its current whereabouts. If anyone can throw light on this, please let us know.

Dalkey and Tully grave slabs – drawn by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, 1950s

I have used the drawings by Ó hÉailidhe because they are so clear: we visited the Rathmichael site this week and were struck by how faded much of the inscription seems to be. It could be that we were not seeing the carvings in a good, clear light. Worryingly, it may also be that the stones are suffering from accelerated weathering (much as our unprotected medieval high crosses appear to be) due to acid rain and pollution. You can see for yourselves by comparing the drawings above with our own photographs, a selection of which form the tailpiece of this post.

Betjeman in Ireland – Poet and Spy?

1970s st enodoc

I remember well the day they buried Sir John Betjeman. The graveyard of St Enodoc’s Church (above, from a 1970s postcard), is close to the Cornish village of Trebetherick – his home for many years. On that day in May 1984 there was a downpour of torrential proportions, and all that could be seen when they laid him to rest was a sea of black umbrellas. The poet himself would have loved the very English spectacle of it.

Left – the larger than life 2007 bronze statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras Station, London: the sculpture is by Martin Jennings (photo Christoph Braun). Betjeman was a founding member of theVictorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture: his campaigning was responsible for saving the Station and the Chambers from demolition in the 1960’s. Right – the headstone of Betjeman’s grave in Cornwall

The poet is well known for his accessible and, often, highly amusing writing: perhaps less well-known are his Irish connections. During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’ in Ireland), John Betjeman was posted to Dublin, ostensibly as a press attache in the British embassy, tasked with planting British propaganda in newspapers and trying to counter the activities of Deutsche Nachtrichten Büro – the German Press Agency which, in 1939, appointed its own official representative in Ireland, Dr Carlheinz Petersen. As the war got under way British media were swamped with propaganda stories against Irish neutrality: for example, it was suggested that German submarine crews were being entertained in remote villages in the west of Ireland, and that wireless transmitters up in the mountains were at the heart of a vast espionage system against Britain. When Ireland refused to lease back its ports to Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic, the idea began to take hold in Britain that ‘neutralit’y was a wilful act of hostility against the allies. John Betjeman was drafted in to the Ministry of Information to help calm the situation. Betjeman’s job was to rein in these anti-Irish fantasies. Luckily for future Anglo-Irish relations, he managed to put a stop to a Ministry plan to disseminate propaganda leaflets in packets of tea, soap and toilet paper. Betjeman recommended “the stopping of anti-Irish articles and cartoons”. Instead, propaganda should concentrate on backing De Valera “and showing the tightrope he is walking”. Although De Valera was convinced Germany would win the war, the poet said: “There is no doubt that he and most of his ministers feel that the better interests of Eire will best be served by a British victory. For this reason Mr de Valera is Britain’s best friend in Ireland.”

Betjeman and family Dublin

A surviving photograph of John Betjeman (left) in Dublin during the war years – note the two pipers; the context is unknown

It’s hard to know whether Betjeman was actually a spy – even his biographer can’t clarify that. But the IRA thought so, and dispatched two men to permanently put him out of action. Diarmuid Brennan was the IRA army council’s head of civilian intelligence in 1941, and he was approached by two gunmen from the second battalion of the Dublin IRA who were looking for a photograph of …a fellow called Betjeman… These second battalion types were known to us as the Edward-Gees of the IRA, after Edward G Robinson… 26 years later Brennan wrote to John Betjeman telling him about the plot: …I got communications describing you as ‘dangerous’ and a person of menace to all of us. In short, you were depicted in the blackest of colours…

However, Brennan was interested to know more about this condemned man and began to read his poetry. The story goes that Brennan was swayed by reading Continual Dew, a 1937 volume that contains several poems about Ireland and another about Oscar Wilde, as well as Slough, in which he implored the Luftwaffe: 

…Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow…

Brennan decided that someone who was as passionate about poetry as Betjeman should be given the benefit of the doubt and aborted the assassination. There’s no doubt that Betjeman liked Ireland – and had some appreciation of the Irish outlook on life, in particular the love of literature. He was a lifelong friend of the poet Louis MacNeice and also of Patrick Cavanagh, who wrote a poem for Candida – Betjeman’s daughter – in celebration of her first birthday in 1942:NPG x78423; Candida Lycett-Green; Sir John Betjeman; Penelope (nÈe Chetwode), Lady Betjeman; Paul Betjeman by Bassano

Candida is one to-day,
What is there that one can say?
One is where the race begins
Or the sum that counts our sins;
But the mark time makes to-morrow
Shapes the cross of joy or sorrow.

Candida is one to-day,
What is there for me to say?
On the day that she was one
There were apples in the sun
And the fields long wet with rain
Crumply in dry winds again.

Candida is one and I
Wish her lots and lots of joy.
She the nursling of September
Like a war she won't remember.
Candida is one to-day
And there's nothing more to say.
The Betjeman family: John, Candida, Paul and Penelope 1948 (Bassano)

Betjeman is also particularly remembered for the part he played in bringing Laurence Olivier to Ireland to film Henry V on the Powerscourt Estate. This film, itself a piece of wartime propaganda, brought a short period of prosperity to County Wicklow in 1943. The doughty yeomen who faced the French in the Agincourt battle scenes were actually Irish farmers: these ‘extras’ each received an additional pound if they brought along their own horse!

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Battle scene – Agincourt in Ireland, Powerscourt, Co Wicklow

The small towns of Ireland by bards are neglected,
They stand there, all lonesome, on hilltop and plain.
The Protestant glebe house by beech trees protected
Sits close to the gates of his Lordship’s demesne.

But where is his Lordship, who once in a phaeton
Drove out twixt his lodges and into the town?
Oh his tragic misfortunes I will not dilate on;
His mansion’s a ruin, his woods are cut down…

(from The Small Towns of Ireland, John Betjeman)