Sliding into Kerry

view from the road

My musical acquaintances might think that this post is all about Kerry slides – lively tunes which get aired sometimes at our session: here are some fine examples played by Éamonn O’Riordan, Tony O’Connell, Brian Mooney and Gearóid Ó Duinnín…

But they would be mistaken: this is the tale of a little wintry but sunlit exploration which Finola and I undertook on the eve of St Gobnait’s feast day. It involved crossing the border into Kerry, something which is not lightly done by Corkonians because of traditional rivalries (mainly on the Hurling and Gaelic Football fields). So we had to ‘slide’ over into the Kingdom and hope that none of our friends noticed our temporary absence.

Sheep flock on road

We had things to do in Kenmare (have a look at Finola’s post), but afterwards we took to the byways. We knew there is a remote, lonely and very beautiful road winding up over the mountains, shared only by a few wandering sheep, and determined that would be our way home. We headed off to the tiny settlement of Kilgarvan and there saw a signpost that said Bantry 25: we turned on to the boreen that follows the Roughty and Slaheny Rivers and immediately entered another world.

Macaura's Grave signpost

We hadn’t gone very far along the road before we were intrigued by a brown signpost – beckoning us along an even smaller boreen. Macaura’s Grave: neither of us had any idea who Macaura was, so we had to go and investigate. After about ten minutes of twisting and turning and trying to guess which of the unmarked and unsigned lanes to take whenever we came to a junction, we found ourselves back on the road we had just left! By now we were determined that Macaura was not going to get the better of us, so we flagged down a young lad who was in charge of a fine red tractor. He was very forthcoming, and told us that the grave was well worth a visit, then proceeded to give us a set of instructions that involved turning this way and that – signifying to the air which ways these were. Not a little confused, we drove off again.

View from near grave

It was no hardship to be exploring the magnificent countryside in south Kerry: the views were breathtaking and the variety of colours on the mountains in sunlight and shadow this early spring day was astonishing. A bit more head scratching and a few more twists and turns down a stony trackway and we were there!

Modern sign

Now we knew. Not only had we found the grave of Macaura – that’s the old Irish way of saying McCarthy – but we had come across the site of one of the most significant battles in Irish history! The Irish chieftain, Finín McCarthy (named as the ‘King’ of Kerry – and that’s why Kerry is known as The Kingdom), joined up with the O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork and the O’Donoghues from Ross Castle to rout the Normans, who were led by Sir John Fitzgerald. This battle took place in 1261. 1261! Over eight hundred years ago… This confirms my thesis that you can’t go anywhere in Ireland without stumbling over history. The Anglo-Normans had claimed their stake in Ireland from 1169 when Strongbow (Richard de Clare) arrived with the blessing of Henry II (and the Pope – who saw the Irish church charting its own course and not following Rome!). Reasonably, the Irish chieftains objected to the Norman invaders, hence this confrontation.

Grave Inscription

In the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1961, Volume 66, there is a comprehensive – but not entirely enlightening – article by Diarmud Ó Murchadha on The Battle of Callan:

…Finghin Mac Carthy had learned much from his opponents during his years of conflict, while he had the added advantage of knowing intimately the territory over which he fought. At Callann he chose his battleground, at a spot where a mountainy river called the Slaheny joins the Ruachtach, close by the castle of Ardtully. No doubt he reckoned that here the heavily-armoured cavalry of the invader could be used to the least advantage. Battle was then joined and Finghin mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh emerged victorious… Unfortunately no details of the conflict – apart from the names of those slain – are available. Incidentally, the fullest account of the battle is given, not by the Munster annals, but by the Annals of Loch Ce and Annals of Connacht:

AD 1261 – A great war was waged, and numerous injuries were committed in this year by Finghin, son of Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, and his brothers, against the foreigners.There was a great hosting by the Geraldines into Desmond, to attack Mac Carthy, but it was Mac Carthy attacked them, and defeated them…

The Annals go on to record the fact that Finghin followed up his victory at Callan by attacking and destroying every Norman castle and stronghold in Munster. As the sign over Macaura’s Grave tells us: …he liberated the Kingdom of South Munster from Norman domination forever…

battle-of-callan-site

But who is it that the Macaura Grave celebrates? ‘Donal, Chieftain of the McCarthy Fineens’… Presumably this is not the Finghin, who, according to the Annals, went on after the battle to rout the Normans out of Munster: the Finghin who is known as mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh – ‘son of Domhnaill MacCarthy’. Could it be his father (Donal is an Anglicisation of Domhnaill)? In which case it was the clan chieftain who died in the battle and his son who went on to clear the Normans out of Kerry. There are a few accounts of the battle, but none of them clarify this. It all happened a long time ago, of course, and memories fade. In fact this site was all but lost: an article in The Kerryman takes up the story, illustrated by this photograph:

1981-clearing-the-site-of-the-grave

…The men of Kilgarvan were busy in November 1981 – making a road fit for a king! The king in question is Finín McCarthy who died in 1261 after being the first Irish king to defeat the Normans, thus giving Kerry the name of the Kingdom… Legend has it that after the battle, McCarthy stood on a ditch to survey the battlefield, when a dying Norman killed him with an arrow. McCarthy was buried on the spot, and a large slab was used as a headstone. The grave now lies on a narrow little road in Callan beside Tom Healy’s farm. When retired Dublin civil servant Frank Shanley spent a recent holiday in Kilgarvan he went looking for the grave, which was buried by shrubs and bushes… He decided to organise a meeting of the local men to try and get them to improve the grave and access to it…. It was Dan O’Sullivan, Down, Tom O’Donoghue and Michael Teehan, who were slaving away widening the roadway from eight feet wide to 16 feet, when he visited in November 1981… Apart from the narrow roadway and the briars and trees, there was also a steady stream of water running over the grave, but the men got the pipes to divert the water in another direction. There was no actual inscription on the grave that the men could read, but there were a series of lines and crosses on it, which they hope will be examined by an expert…. They hope that when they have the roadway to the grave cleared, they can erect signposts to the grave, and notices around the grave telling the history of McCarthy’s death in the battle of Callan…

Macaura's Grave

So we have the ‘men of Kilgarvan’ – back in the 80s – to thank for leading us to this now tranquil but historically turmoiled and fascinating spot. There is still the puzzle of which McCarthy is commemorated: perhaps we’ll never know for sure. But it’s not bad to have access to a story which has survived for the best part of nine hundred years – just about within living memory by Irish standards! After this excitement we continued our journey over the spectacular Coomhola road through the mountains towards Ballylickey and gently slid back into West Cork. If you can cope with very narrow roads (it’s not so bad – we only saw two other vehicles, both local farmers, in the whole 25 kilometres!) it’s one of the great road trips of Ireland – with the added bonus of a history lesson to be taken in.

Beyond the tunnel

Sheep on the edge

The Winding Road

Molaga of the Bees

bees!

I know I’ve said this before – but, wherever you find yourself in Ireland there’s history on the ground, and a story to be found! Recently we ventured into North Cork: so large is this county that it is a good half a day’s journey from Nead an Iolair, here in the far west, to Mitchelstown, beyond which lie the wild frontiers of Tipperary and Waterford. The purpose of our journey was exploration – archaeology, history, folklore – and we found ourselves drawn back into the time of the Saints.

1400 AD

Artist’s reconstruction of the site at Labbamolaga as it might have looked in 1400 AD: the smaller building on the right is the saint’s original oratory, dating from the seventh century. Note the antae – the projecting stone walls on either side of the entrance, supporting the huge verges. These features represent the builders’ wish to recreate in stone the very earliest timber churches: in every age of Christian church building the aspiration was to hearken back to ‘the time of the Saints’, whatever era that might have been . The building on the left is a later medieval Parish Church known as Templemolaga (image from Dúchas – The Heritage Service)

Well off the beaten track we found ourselves at an ancient site known as Labbamolaga, in the townland of Labbamolaga Middle. Labba Mollaga: it means ‘the bed of Molaga’, who was a saint living in the 7th century. He is said to have founded a monastery on this site and the earlier building here could have been his original church.

7th c entrance detail

through the portal

A seventh century oratory? Upper picture shows the entrance elevation with its pronounced antae, and the doorway which seems to be constructed from monoliths. It has been suggested that these stones could have been robbed from the megalithic monument which lies in a field to the south of the site. The middle picture looks through the entrance to the prostrate stone against the south wall: this is known as Molaga’s Bed: tradition states that the saint would lie on this stone at the end of each day’s work. It is also said to be his burial place and has curative powers, particularly for rheumatism. The lower pictures show the saint’s bed in 1905 (left) and in the present day (right) with its strange carving, which has been described as a volute

The architecture is fascinating: here we have one of the few examples remaining in Ireland of this most ancient church form, albeit in a ruinous state. In 1975 a similar ruin in Connemara was reconstructed to its likely original form at St MacDara’s Island, Carna. This gives us some idea of what St Molaga’s oratory could have looked like.

The oratory on St MacDara’s Island – early photograph (left) and 1975 reconstruction (right)

The site at Labbamolaga has much more more to attract the curious. There are the nearby megaliths: we would assume they considerably predate everything else, yet local lore tells us that they are four villains who stole the chalice and holy relics from the saint’s oratory but were caught in mid-flight and were turned into four pillars of stone by him! A further legend noted by John Windele, the Cork antiquarian and historian, in the 19th century relates to a holy well which once existed – some say under the saint’s bed:

…There was formerly a beautiful well of clear spring water here, but one day an old woman profanely washed her clothes in it; that night the well disappeared and was seen never more…

stone alignments

stones in graveyard

Upper picture: four standing stones in a field (known as Parc a Liagain, ‘Swardy Field of the Pillar Stones’ to the south of the ecclesiastical site – supposedly petrified villains who robbed the monastery. Lower pictures: the monastery site has become a burial ground – strange and fascinating stones abound. The centre stone is an ancient looking Celtic cross; the circular pile is an enigma – burial vault or old well house? The site also once contained Cursing Stones, but these are said to have been removed

What of the saint himself? He has a recorded history: born in Fermoy of parents who were well past child bearing age (a miraculous sign), he travelled to Scotland and then to Wales, where he became a follower of St David. Returning to Ireland he founded monasteries at Timoleague, West Cork (the name means House of Molaga), and at this site in North Cork. Sources say that in Wales he learned the craft of bee-keeping, and a colony of bees attached itself to him on his journey back to Ireland: the same sources credit him with introducing bees to Ireland, but the earlier Saint Gobnait – patron saint of bees – also has this reputation. Some mixing of hagiographies here, perhaps. Also confusing is the information given in catholicireland.net which gives the name St Modhomhnóg as ‘Irish Saint of the Bees’ and tells a similar story, although this saint returned to Ireland from Wales (with bees) and set up a community in Bremore, near Balbriggan, County Dublin – today known as the Church of the Beekeeper but also connected with St Molaga, who is there said to have procured his bees from St Modhomhnóg. To add to the confusion, the feast day of Saint Gobnait is on 11 February, while that of Modhomhnóg is on 13 February.

molaga

We hadn’t realised until we unearthed these stories that we have the saint’s name in our larder! Our favourite honey is known as Molaga – we get it from our local supermarket. There is nothing on the jar to explain the name (this is one of various spellings), but the honey is distributed from Timoleague (the house of Molaga) in West Cork. There is much more to the story of this slightly elusive saint, perhaps to be told another day.

Many thanks to Brian Lalor for gifting us his copy of The Capuchin Annual 1944. It is wonderfully illustrated with cameos of monastic life drawn by ‘Father Gerald’: the header is one of these. The 1983 postage stamp illustration below is by Michael Craig

postage stamp

Saint Oliver

plunkett window close

We revisited Inchigeelagh, in West Cork, as we remembered that the church of Saint Finbarr and All Angels had some fine examples of stained glass: Finola is preparing a talk on that subject and our travels are revealing an unexpected abundance of this art in our little bit of Ireland’s furthest reaches. Our last visit to Inchigeela was to inspect the unusual ‘rock art’ that has been built into the wall of the grotto just by the church door.

rock art inchigeela

We are none the wiser about the meaning of the ‘rock art’: suggestions include a dove of peace flying over mountains – but I have yet to be convinced. However, it was a good day for looking at the windows: the sun was streaming through the south facing glass panels and creating a kaleidoscope of colour on the surrounding walls.

There was plenty to occupy my attention in this church: I had to admire the bear of St Columbanus. This Irish saint spent most of his life on missionary work on the continent and stories about him include taming the bear and yoking it to a plough, and establishing friendships with wolves. I’m not quite sure why, but St Columbanus is the Patron Saint of motorcyclists.

the bear

There was one window I had failed to notice amongst the panoply of saints on my previous visit to Inchigeelagh – tucked away at the back of the church: it’s the one at the top of this page – Saint Oliver Plunkett. In some ways it’s the most extraordinary of the windows as it depicts the gruesome death suffered by this Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland at the hands of turncoats and perjurers – and it’s a far cry from rural West Cork. Plunkett was born in 1625 in Loughcrew, County Meath and died at Tyburn, London: hanged, drawn and quartered, in 1681.

Gallows

He was a victim of the Popish Plot, concocted by Titus Oates, an English clergyman who contrived a story that Plunkett was to lead an uprising involving 20,000 French soldiers. Whichever account you read, it seems that no-one believed the story: a trial was held in Dublin but there was no conviction. Plunkett was then sent to Newgate and put on trial again: again the trial collapsed. A third trial, at which Plunkett had no counsel, found him guilty after the jury had retired for fifteen minutes. That it was a monumental miscarriage of justice became evident very quickly: Plunkett’s accusers were arrested – the day after his execution.

Perhaps the reason why Oliver Plunkett appears in Inchigeelagh is topicality: he was canonised in 1975, thus becoming the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years. Above is his shrine in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth (his head is on display) and his Canonisation picture. St Oliver is the Patron Saint of Peace and Reconciliation, which in the mid-seventies was timely for Ireland. As ever, it’s timely for the world today. The Oliver Plunkett window was made by Abbey Stained Glass Studios, Dublin in 1992 and the artist was Kevin Kelly.

plunkett-15-stamp

Clonfert, St Brendan – and the Ghost of British Fascism

yew walk 2016

Clonfert, Yew Walk

The yew walk at Clonfert  – ‘a great cathedral of natural growth’ – which Tom and Angela Rolt found so impressive on their visit to Clonfert, Co Galway, in 1946, during their travels around the waterways of Ireland. Their photograph is above; 70 years later we followed in their footsteps and took the picture at the top of the page

We were following the Rolt’s journey described in the book Green & Silver – this post is the sixth instalment of the Travel by Water series. We would certainly have included Clonfert in our own itinerary, as we could not have missed the incredible 12th century doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, a high point of Hiberno Romanesque architecture – that deserves a future post of its own. The Rolts walked to Clonfert from their mooring on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour, a round journey of over a dozen miles; we drove to Clonfert and managed to get thoroughly lost in the maze of tiny roads in that part of rural County Galway.

st brendan's grave inscription

The twelfth century doorway to Clonfert Cathedral – a medieval architectural masterpiece – and the grave of St Brendan which it faces

…Close behind the cathedral and sheltering with it among the fine trees which make Clonfert an oasis in the bogland, stands the Bishops Palace, now a lay residence. Having been courteously granted permission to explore the grounds, we found Clonfert’s celebrated yew walk which is reputed to date back to early medieval times. The yews have attained unusual stature, and their interlacing branches curve outward and then upward towards the light to form a series of those ogee curved arches beloved of the Gothic revivalists of the Strawberry Hill period. As the main walk runs from east to west with two short transepts radiating from a central crossing, the effect is truly remarkable and represents nothing so much as a great cathedral of natural growth. Moreover, the light within was appropriately dim and religious, the dark foliage excluding most of the light from the overcast sky. We found the silent twilight of this great nave of ancient trees strangely impressive, more so, in fact than the man-made cathedral close by. In spite of the difficulty involved we decide to make this the subject of our pictorial record of Clonfert rather than the often-photographed west doorway… (LTC Rolt, Green & Silver, George Allen and Unwin 1949).

nuns walk sign

Tom Rolt, the navigator of canals, devotes several passages in his book to Saint Brendan ‘the navigator’ and his many voyages all over the world until …having completed ninety three years… Brendan set out fearfully and alone upon his last voyage while his body was brought home to Clonfert for burial… (Green & Silver): …There is much evidence to support the belief that Brendan reached America nearly a thousand years before Columbus, that Newfoundland was his first landfall, and that he sailed from thence down the coast to the Bahamas and the everglades of Florida… Rolt goes on to admire the conjectured boat which Brendan and his small party of monks would have used: …The hull of this vessel of AD 551 bears a remarkable resemblance to that of an ice-breaker boat which I saw re-timbered at the yard of an English canal company in AD 1943. She was massively built of oak, iron fastened to the ribs, with a high prow and a whaleboat stern equipped with a steering paddle (the rudder had not then been invented). She was decked fore and aft, while the mast stepped in the well amidships bore a single lug sail. Her timbers were possibly skin-covered as the wooden curraghs of Inishbofin are today covered with canvas. She had considerable freeboard, and she shipped no oars but depended on sail alone. In this small but stoutly built craft, of which the Galway Pookawn of to-day is probably the direct lineal descendant, Brendan set forth to sail into the sunset…

Fascinating and curious juxtapositions in the offerings left at St Brendan’s Tree in Clonfert

The Rolts did not mention St Brendan’s Tree, which we encountered on our way to the yew walk. We don’t know how ancient or how recent this manifestation might be. It’s a horse chestnut and it is festooned with all the offerings one would find at a holy well – and more! In addition to statues, rosaries, cards, coins and ribbons there were toys, musical intruments, shoes – and underwear. We were guided to the yew walk by a forester working nearby: we expressed curiosity at the tree, wanting to know its history and efficacy but his response was pragmatic: “I’m Church of Ireland myself and wouldn’t be knowing anything about this sort of goings-on”.

Brendan made several voyages. Rolt continues the story: …It was upon Brendan’s return from his second voyage that he founded his monastery and college at Clonfert – Cluain Fearta Breannain or the meadow of Brendan’s Virtus. This was destined to become a great European University of three thousand students rivalled only by the similar institutions of Clonard and Bangor. Clear thinking was the liberal aim of education at this period… Fifteen years elapsed before Brendan once more set sail to Scotland, and Wales, visiting the great Welsh scholars Gildas the Wise and Cadoc of Llancarvan, and from thence to Brittany and the Cornwall of King Arthur… Where Brendan voyaged after this is uncertain, but rumour and legend associate the name of this indefatigable traveller with the Canary Islands, Teneriffe, Egypt, Palestine and the Isles of Greece. Yet the patron saint of seafarers returned to Ireland to die in the convent of his sister Brigh at Annaghduin…

Bishops Palace

Palace Interior

We found the Bishop’s Palace, which Rolt mentioned as being a ‘lay residence’ – presumably in good order – in 1946. 70 years later it is ruinous. We were intrigued and I determined to seek out its recent history. In doing so I chanced upon a whole section of Irish and British relationships which startled me, and seemed somehow to make entirely poignant the time span of 70 years which I have been observing in this series.

Discarded robin

A poignant moment – discarded robin and broken statue in Clonfert graveyard

I quote from an article in The Dublin Review, issue No 26, Spring 2007. This is an excellently written and comprehensive account of matters well beyond the remit of this little post, but I commend anyone who is interested in history – and the state of the world today – to read it. This extract continues the story of the Palace at Clonfert:

…In 1951, John Arthur Burdett Trench – obsessive huntsman since the age of eight, polo player and, in his mid sixties, possessor of a memory of having ridden home the winner of the Grand National at Fairyhouse at a time when English officers could still relax in the grandstand – sold Clonfert Palace near Eyrecourt in Co. Galway to an English family not long arrived in Ireland. The house had belonged to the Trenches for generations and had once been the residence of Church of Ireland bishops. It stood on the flood plain of the Shannon, a short walk from Clonfert Cathedral, hidden away behind its famous avenue of yew trees, an inconspicuous island of Ascendancy civility on the frontier of the vast bog. Like many other ancient mansions, its comforts and refinements had not survived the privations of the twentieth century and it was badly in need of restoration. Every day for months the new lady of the house would drive across the bogland roads from her temporary accommodation in Tipperary to supervise the installation of bathrooms, electricity and central heating, an Aga in the kitchen. Word spread that Clonfert Palace was being returned to its former glory and that there was work to be had from the new owners. They turned the ballroom into a drawing room and brought a carpenter from Banagher to build bookshelves that covered an entire wall. They filled the once-dilapidated rooms with fine furniture, replaced the broken sash cords on the windows, draped curtains made to measure in Dublin and hung paintings of their ancestors on the wall. They recruited a gardener, a housekeeper and a cook. Occasionally the lady’s husband would arrive in a large, exotic Buick driven by a French chauffeur.

Soon, it became known that the family bringing Clonfert Palace back to life was Sir Oswald and Lady Diana Mosley and their two sons. On the fifteenth of February 1952, the Westmeath Independent carried a short item entitled ‘Distinguished Residents’, disclosing that the previous Friday the Mosley family had ‘moved into occupation’ of the palace. ‘Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley, who have a large staff, are charmed with Ireland, its people, the tempo of its life and its scenery,’ the paper related, dutifully informing readers in a final sentence that ‘Sir Oswald was the former leader of a political movement in England’…

Frightening reminders of a world in chaos – less than a lifetime ago. Left – a poster from 1939 (Oswald Mosley led the British Union of Fascists) and – right – Mussolini and Mosley meet in Italy in 1936 (image from http://www.panorama.it/)

After the war, the Mosleys were virtually outcasts from Britain. Neutral Ireland seemed to offer them a retreat and a measure of civility. The Dublin Review continues:

…Sir Oswald would take his breakfast in bed. The Irish Times and Financial Times would be delivered from Eyrecourt. Lady Mosley would give her orders for the day to Mrs Swan, the cook. When Sir Oswald surfaced he might go for a long walk along the Shannon, passing the barges hauling cargoes of porter, coal or flour. On return he would set to work in his study. Nicholas Mosley has written about his father’s attachment to ‘the hierarchical … classless patterns of life … in the semi-feudal grandeur’ of the estate where he grew up in Staffordshire; in Clonfert Mosley seems to have replicated this idyll. Just as his grandfather had produced wholemeal bread, Sir Oswald supervised the growing of vegetables and ploughed the paddock to plant lucerne, a clover-like plant used for fodder…

bishops palace from neswpaper

This newspaper photograph of the Bishop’s Palace at Clonfert could have been taken around the time of the Rolt’s visit (1946) or after restoration by the Mosleys

The ‘idyll’ did not last too long. The Dublin Review again:

…One foggy night a few weeks before Christmas 1954, while Diana was visiting London, the Mosleys’ neighbours the Blake-Kellys were woken just before two o’clock by the whinnying of a pony in their stables. From their window they could see flames and smoke billowing from the Palace next door. Mrs Blake-Kelly sent her son to bang on the Mosleys’ front door and within minutes Sir Oswald, Alexander and their servants were standing on the lawn watching the flames consume their house. A French maid, Mademoiselle Cerrecoundo, rushed back into the house to fetch some clothes and was trapped at an upstairs window. Sir Oswald, Alexander and the chauffeur, Monsieur Thevenon, held a blanket under the window and she leaped to safety, hurting her back and her hand. Monsieur Thevenon drove to the Garda station in Eyrecourt and from there fire brigades were summoned from Ballinasloe and Birr. It took an hour and a half for the engines to arrive and by then more than half the house was lost to the blaze. The firemen cut through the roof with their axes to create a barrier to the advancing flames…

The story does not quite end there: as if some sort of retribution of biblical proportions were needed, even the land was punished. The Dublin Review concludes:

…By morning, when the firemen had finished their work and stood gazing at the hole rent through the roof of the house, cold westerly winds were gathering strength. It was the beginning of the worst storm in the midlands for a hundred years. Rain, sleet and snow poured down on the smouldering ruins of Clonfert and the winds reached hurricane force, knocking trees across the roads and felling the electricity wires that had been strung only in the last few years. Within a few days thousands of acres of land by the Shannon were flooded. The army came to evacuate farmhouses which were under three or four feet of water and drive cattle to high ground. Stone outhouses were washed away, corn stooks submerged and the swollen bodies of cows and pigs that could not be saved were left bobbing in the water…

protect

I was born in 1946, just when Tom and Angela Rolt were planning their exploration of Ireland’s waterways, but also directly after the turbulence of an awful global war which caused the deaths of over seventy million people. One of the elements which led to that war was the rise of fascism in Europe. In my lifetime to date I have seen fascism largely invalidated and the creation of a European Union whose members have worked towards common and positive aims. For seventy years there has been ‘peace in Europe’. Now – in 2016 – I have reason to worry about our children’s future; some things which should have been buried forever in the pages of history seem to be stirring. I desperately hope my foreboding is misplaced.

brendan stamp

The Navel of Ireland

eyes of the goddess

Today we happened upon the Navel of Ireland. That’s the name given to the Hill of Uisneach in the townland of Loughanavally, in the barony of Rathconrath, in the county of Westmeath. It’s an archaeological centre of powerful cultural significance, one of (possibly) six ‘royal’ sites in the island of Ireland.

palace rendering

Seen in the developing visitor centre below the Hill – an artist’s reconstruction of the ‘Royal Palace’ on the Hill of Uisneach, County Westmeath

Today, Ireland is divided into four provinces: Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht. The Irish word for this division is cúige, which literally means ‘fifth part’. That’s confusing, until you learn that there was, before the Norman invasion, a fifth province, known as Mide. The Irish word Midhe means ‘middle’. Mide has survived as a county – Meath; but this large county was divided in two during the time of Henry VIII, and we now have both Meath and Westmeath.

Justin the guide 2

catstone in context 2
Upper picture – Justin, our tour guide, explains the significance of the earthwork known as the ‘Royal Palace’. Lower picture – approaching the Navel of Ireland, the focal point of the Hill of Uisneach

Uisneach was probably the ancient headquarters of the fifth province, but was also particularly important because it was the place where all the provinces came together. The provinces were formerly administered by the dynasties, or ruling families of the day, and it is likely that they met up here to ensure that laws were fair and consistent through the whole of the land, and also to exchange news and stories, to feast, and to hold contests. In that latter context the tradition survives – rugby and hurling contests between the provinces in Ireland are madly important events – and their followers positively tribal!

ancient trackway 2

distant fort 2

Upper picture – an ancient trackway appears to lead to another circular enclosure on a distant hilltop (shown in the lower picture)

Uisneach is privately owned – and a working farm – but we are fortunate that the owner fully appreciates the significance of the place and allows access – by permission – through the services of a number of guides who are well versed in its known history and traditions. Our tour guide today was Justin – a complete Uisneach enthusiast. We followed him for two hours and were shown many of the currently accessible sites. There are very many more: access to others is being worked on, as is a small visitor centre, so a visit to Uisneach is an evolving experience. Some of the hill was excavated, intermittently, over a period of years during the 1920s by R A S Macalister and R L Praeger. In 2001 a long term project was started by Dr Roseanne Schot  of NUI Galway: this is continuing. Future plans for the archaeological investigations include aerial Lidar surveys which could uncover hidden features and artefacts without excavation.

Justin talks about the first archaeological excavators of the Hill (left) and (right) describes the ‘wood henge’ which has been found by laser scanning on the Hill’s summit

While the science of archaeology is being focussed on Uisneach, the equally important investigations of folkore and mythology (the stories of the hill) are also in full swing. Naturally, St Patrick made an appearance on the hill back in the day (we were shown his stone ‘bed’) and I was fascinated to read, later, that Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 11th century History of the Kings of Britain tells how stones from Uisneach were magically transported to Stonehenge. From the top of the hill it is said that you can see twenty counties – and all four (five?) provinces. The day of our visit was not quite clear enough for this, but we did ascend to the summit, where we could see the remains of a passage tomb – perhaps five thousand years old – although these had been disturbed and disbursed by the Ordnance Survey, who placed a trig point there back in the 1800s.

walking to the catstone

Our visit to The Catstone, an enormous glacial erratic which became the meeting place of the chieftains of all the provinces of Ireland

The goal of our little expedition was the Navel of Ireland – by tradition the centre of the whole land, and the place where the meetings of dynasties took place. It’s a little way on from the summit of the hill and only enjoys some of the views, but it is marked by an enormous natural boulder set into a circular earthwork of human construction: Justin painted a word picture for us of each of the chieftains sitting at the head of his own province on the banks of the earthwork and facing the stone while all the important affairs of state were discussed. Culturally this was where the provinces met. In relatively modern times the boulder has been called The Catstone: some say this is because it resembles a cat, others would have it that a cat is a traditional symbol for a place where our world meets the ‘otherworld’.

decorating the goddess

Upper left – the entrance to Uisneach symbolises the Bealtainne Fires which have been celebrated on the hilltop. Upper right – an image of Lugh on the shores of the lake (middle pictures) where he is said to have met his end. Lower picture – Eriu being adorned with autumnal hues

On our way down from the hill we met with a large crowd coming up. They were off to the Catstone for a ceremony of their own which involved drumming and singing – and, possibly, making contact with the ‘otherworld’ themselves. I think there’s a continuity here: a gathering place imbued with some deep significance and referenced to Irish mythology through Eriu, a goddess who gave her name to Ireland, and Lugh – a god or ancient hero who, according to the stories, met his death in a lake near the summit of the hill. Whatever your beliefs, there’s no denying that the Hill of Uisneach has been an empowering place in ancient times, and remains so today.

With thanks to Justin for such an erudite and enthusiastic tour of the Hill, and great appreciation of the interest and generosity of the Clarke family in allowing the Hill to be researched and visited

Below – off to the ceremony on Uisneach Hill

ready for the ceremony

Gary, Paul, and Nana’s Soup

Rowers Return

Two local lads, from Lisheen down the road, have stolen the hearts of everyone in West Cork. Everyone in Ireland, actually, and beyond.

On the stand

Gary and Paul rode the open-topped bus into Skibbereen on Monday night and then spoke from the stage at Fairfield

Gary and Paul O’Donovan won a silver medal in Rio in their rowing pairs class. They row for the Skibbereen Rowing Club, a local club that punches way above its weight in national and international competitions. The coach credited with that is the brilliant, but mono-syllabic, Dominic Casey. Taking Gary and Paul under his wing, he turned them into the hard-working athletes they are.

MUM AND NANA

In  the window on the left, the boys’ mother, Trish O’Donovan, and their grandmother (Nana), Mary Doab

Their parents’ devotion was sterling. Eoghan Harris’s Independent interview with their Mother, Trish, is perhaps one of the most revealing pieces of journalism about the O’Donovan Brothers phenomenon and what it takes to support an Olympian.

Waiting for the Open-Topped Bus

Gary and Paul are also dream interviewees – every sentence is a sound bite, delivered in pure West Cork accents, with artless but articulate insouciance. Their interviews are now the stuff of legend – but if you haven’t already seen them, take a look at this one done before the final race. What shines through, and makes them so endearing, is that they take their training, but not themselves, seriously.

Pub Window

Above: Left, Stella and Hugh sporting their ‘occasion wear’; Right, this young man let me take his photo in his Shteak and Spuds shirt. Below: Many of the Skibbereen merchants had decorated their windows

The classic quotes have already been immortalised and the T-shirts have been selling like hot cakes in Skibbereen. The night of their homecoming it seemed like the whole of West Cork turned up to welcome them, including us! It was great fun to be there, in the streets, waiting for the open-topped bus, and then to see them on the stage, with Dominic Casey, so obviously having the time of their lives.

Replay

We, thousands of us, re-lived their big moment on an enormous screen in the Skibbereen Fairfield

Someone who came in for special praise in one of their interviews was the boys’ grandmother – their Nana (the first of the interviews on this page). Coming in cold and hungry from rowing, they gratefully wolfed down her home-made soup and ‘brown cake.’ Here in West Cork when we talk about a ‘cake of bread’ – what we mean is that solid round mass of white or brown home-made soda bread that is one of the staples of our diets, and that tourists have come to love.

Following the Bus

It  seemed like the whole of West Cork turned out to greet them

In honour of Gary and Paul and their Nana, and using only locally grown and organic vegetables purchased at Levis’s of Ballydehob Wednesday Farmers’ Market, here is my recipe for Nana’s Soup. It’s vegetarian and gluten-free – and totally delicious! Serve with a wedge of brown bread if gluten is OK for you. (I’ve become more sensitised to gluten issues recently as a dear little niece has been diagnosed with coeliac disease.) 

Levis market

Local growers sell their fresh vegetables at Levis’s pub in Ballydehob on Wednesday mornings

NANA’S SOUP: THE RECIPE

Vegetables: I used kabocha squash, onions, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and green beans, but you can use any robust vegetables that are in season.

Other ingredients: 1 can organic tomatoes, tapioca starch, vegetable stock (I used Marigold Swiss Veg Bouillon, but Knorr Veg Stock Pot is also gluten-free)), fresh or dried herbs.

Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds and roast in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Leave to cool. Once cool, scoop out the flesh of the squash and chop roughly.

Peel and roughly chop the onions, potatoes, carrots and parsnips. Top and tail the green beans and cut in half or thirds. Chop the herbs (I used parsley sage, oregano and fennel from my garden, but any combination that suits you is fine).

Sweat the onions over medium heat in butter or olive oil until translucent. Over the onions, scatter about 2tbs of tapioca starch (this make it gluten-free, but if gluten is not a problem, just use flour) and stir until well mixed and starting to thicken. Pour in a can of organic tomatoes, the herbs, and a cup or two of vegetable stock. Stir until well mixed, then add all the vegetables. Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for at least an hour, preferably two or even three.

Soup and brown cake

After a bowl of this, you too can Pull Like a Dog!

Gary and Paul aren’t intimidated by a ‘bit of wind’. This is why – Skibbereen Rowing Club is on the beautiful , and breezy, Ilen River