O’Donovan Country (Sweet Ilen – Part 6)

Here’s a forerunner to Roaringwater Journal (above)! Philip Dixon Hardy lived from 1794 to 1875 and described himself as a poet, bookseller, printer, and publisher. He was the first to use a steam-powered printing press in Ireland and was the editor of The Dublin Penny Journal which was published every Saturday between 1832 and 1836. If you scroll through the contents you will see articles on all aspects of Irish life and accounts of many of his travels through the Irish countryside, including a series of ‘Rides through County Cork’. He was undoubtedly a man after our own hearts!

Continuing our own series of travels, exploring the Ilen River, we can’t help comparing our impressions of Castle Donovan (above) – which overlooks the Ilen after it has cascaded down from the summit of Mullaghmesha and broadened out to cross the plains of Cork County – with those that are recorded by Philip Dixon Hardy as he journeyed over the same terrain in 1828, almost two centuries ago.

The upper picture is taken from the Ilen plain looking north, with the castle tower set against the high mountains beyond. Above is our earliest known photograph of the castle: it comes from the Lawrence Collection, Nation Library of Ireland, and could date from the 1880s. Juxtapose this with the Dublin Penny Journal view, 50 years before that, shown under our header at the top of the page. Bear in mind that Hardy carried out most of his travels on foot:

. . . We will now suppose the the tourist who rejoiceth in the splendour of a wheel carriage has proceeded without any interruption to Bantry. We will act in the charitable capacity of guides to the humbler pedestrian. Him we would advise to select the old, or northern road, leaving Dunmanway to the west. Thence it proceeds to the lofty hill of Mielane, and surmounting a rising ground beyond this eminence, the vale of Castle Donovan (which forms the subject of our sketch) opens on the sight. It is hard to conceive of any thing more wild, more desolate, more lonely, than this savage vale. … I reached the eminence which commands it from the east, about two in the afternoon of a warm sunny day. Trees there are none in this district, and the heathy covering of the hills was incapable of showing any marks of the advancing season. In the centre of the vale beneath me, was the tall, castellated tower; an extensive marshy meadow lay beyond it, bounded by the steep rocky hills of Mullaugh-Nesha, and its peaked brethren. . .

Philip Dixon Hardy, 1828, from The Dublin Penny Journal

The Castle itself has a fairly well recorded history, although its origins are unclear. James N Healy – The Castles of County Cork, The Mercier Press 1988 – suggests that the first fortification on this site dates from the early 13th century, but the present building is more likely to be 16th century. There is a carved stone in a window embrasure on an upper floor which bears the date 1626, but Healy suggests that this marks a later restoration of the castle, and gives a probable date of construction between 1560 and 1584.

The castle was traditionally the seat of the Clann Cathail sept of the O’Donovans, and was first named ‘Sowagh’. I can’t find any origin for this name. Healy gives an intriguing story:

. . . A local story is told of how O’Donovan and his ally MacCarthy Duna hanged a protestant woman at the castle in 1641, as a result of which the curse of a corroding drip from the main arch was placed on the building. This would not cease until the demise of the last of the family: the castle does not appear to have been lived in again.

James N Healey – 1988 The Castles of County Cork

It is recorded that Cromwell’s officers attacked the castle and it was left in ruins. Returning to The Dublin Penny Journal, Philip Dixon Hardy describes his exploration of the remains:

. . . I diverged from the road to examine the old castle; it is founded on a rough rock whose surface, forming the floor of the vaulted hall of the castle, retains all its original inequalities. Strange notions of comfort must our ancestors have had! Here were men, possessed of a large tract of country, sufficiently wealthy to build several castles; and in this one, the constant residence for many years of a principal branch of the family, the floor of the hall is bare rock, which never has been levelled, and which is intersected with two or three ridgy indentations, nearly two feet in depth, and extending almost the whole length of the apartment!

PHILIP DIXON HARDY, 1828, FROM THE DUBLIN PENNY JOURNAL

This is what Hardy is referring to – in fact it’s not ‘the vaulted hall of the castle’! It’s the lowest floor – at ground level – and was in all likelihood a store or cattle shed. It might even have been a dungeon. The main ‘hall’ of the castle is on an upper level.

The castle structure was stabilised by the OPW and public access to the grounds was granted in 2013. Restoration works included the replacement of key elements of the masonry to prevent further decay. The ‘peep-hole’ above allows a view by a sentry located just inside the entry door of who might be standing outside: perhaps an undesirable character (below):

When you visit Castle Donovan, look over the low wall to the west of the tower itself. You will see an archaeological feature which is quite rare today, but was once common all over Ireland from early times: a cereal-drying kiln (also called a corn-drying or grain drying kiln).

What is a cereal-drying kiln? Here is a good summary, from Irish Archaeology. It looks almost megalithic – and the earliest one dated so far goes back to the Bronze Age, but there are many that are medieval, and this one at Castle Donovan is likely to be contemporary with the castle itself. The structure has a fire-pit (below) and trays of cereal were placed above the fire, and in this case under a capstone, presumably protecting the corn from wind and rain.

This extract from the 25″ Ordnance Survey map (late 19th century) shows the castle overlooking the Ilen River and, to the south, the bridge and the old school. To finish off this episode in the Ilen series, we will pause at this bridge. There’s plenty to see – good views back to the castle from the arches of the stone bridge; the site of the old National School. There is no sign of the building today, but there is a memorial stone:

This is from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, dating from 1937:

. . . Walkers: it was no uncommon thing for people to walk to and from Cork in olden times – often carrying baskets. Tradition has it that a woman Magg Hourihan of Deelis did the double journey on foot in one day (approximately 90 miles). Biddy Regan of Castledonovan is credited with the same feat – The occasion in both cases being the payment of Rent (which at that time was often paid through Cork butter factors). Herewith is a direction given to people who were unacquainted with the road – Bí ag dul soir, soir, soir – go bfeidir séipéal ar thaobh do láimhe deise ni fada uait Corcaig annsan.


Seán Ó Súilleabháin, múinteoir Deelish Co Cork

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4 : Sweet Ilen – Part 5

Ireland 50 Years Ago: February 1971

Several years ago we were the fortunate recipients of a complete set of Ireland of the Welcomes from the 1970s, and guess what? That’s exactly 50 years ago! So I am going to try to chronicle 1971 for you from our vantage point of half a century later, as we go through this year, using the articles in the magazine. Call it recent history, call it nostalgia, call it an exercise in compare and contrast.

Every issue from 1971 to 1979, six issues a year

The magazine is still flourishing – indeed, it’s one of the longest periodicals of its sort in the world – and continues to put out 6 issues a year. The website describes it thus: Each issue features lavishly-illustrated articles on Irish beauty spots, regular features on Ireland’s extraordinary millennia-spanning history, remarkable literary talent and history, music and dance traditions, as well as folklore, festivals, events and so much more… The photography nowadays is superb.

Flying Pan Am into Ireland – 1970s Mad Men-style advertising

Although published by a private company now, in the 1970s Ireland of the Welcomes was an official publication of Bórd Fáilte, the Irish Tourist Board. Aimed at the overseas market, it was nevertheless also deservedly popular in Ireland. My father, who worked in marketing in Aer Lingus, brought home each issue as it came out and we poured over it. It showed us what others might find interesting about Ireland and therefore what we ourselves could be proud of. Ireland was so different then – but Ireland of the Welcomes was chronicling the emergence of who we are now.

Each issue contained pages of small ads for shops and hotels and there is a poignancy to many which have since disappeared, such as the beloved Cork institutions of Cash’s and the Munster Arcade

Because this is part of a tourism campaign, selling Ireland as a happy destination, you won’t find a mention of The Troubles in Northern Ireland here, even though killing had become an almost daily occurrence there, bombing was commonplace and internment prisons were being set up. South of the border, we are told in these pages, all is calm and friendly and everywhere you go you will meet poets, wits and artists, ready to befriend you and pour you a pint.

The couple in this ad had been able to fly to Ireland, hire the car for two weeks staying in hotels and guest houses, all for $298 per person. That’s the equivalent of $2,000 per person today, or $4,000 in total. – that €1600/3200. How does that compare?

But this was no ‘shamrocks and leprechauns’ representation of Ireland – it showed a country transitioning into the modern world, while fiercely clinging to what made us unique. Articles on heritage jostled with pieces on modern farming methods; biographies of bygone artists contrasted with a description of Rosc, the famous modern art show that everyone of my generation visited; wildlife photographs vied with pen-and-ink drawings of inviting pubs.

Two swanky hotels of my childhood – the International in Bray, long gone, and the La Touche in Greystones (currently being reborn as equally swanky apartments)

All the best people wrote for Ireland of the Welcomes: I think they must have paid well. Familiar names from the time crop up: the 1971 issues include writing by John Montague, Gerrit van Gelderen, The Knight of Glin, Maurice Gorham, Hilary Pyle, Bryan MacMahon, Mary Lavin, Terence de Vere White, Benedict Kiely, and Niall Sheridan (husband of Monica). Even the American writer, Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate), then living in a restored Georgian pile in KIlkenny (below), wrote a bon-viveur series on restaurants and hotels.

So let’s get started with the issue that was published exactly 50 years ago – January-February 1971. I turned 21 in 1971 and went from being an undergraduate to a graduate student at UCC. I was living between Cork and Dublin, with forays to Newgrange and Kerry. I spent the summer in Malahide, studying for my BA finals at the National Library and at Trinity College Library, ducking out for lunchtime concerts at St Anne’s in Dawson Street. In the autumn I set up in my very first independent flat in Cork with my friend Bessie and embarked on my Master’s in Archaeology, paying my way with what was then charmingly called a ‘Demonstratorship’ at UCC. The world was my oyster.

What the well-dressed Demonstrator was wearing in 1971

That whole sense of emerging into a modern world was true for Ireland as well in the 1970s. Anybody who lived in Dublin in the 70s will remember the Dandelion Market – it was the place to see and be seen on Saturday morning, full of hippies and trendies selling antiques, tat, artwork, crafts and lots of cool clothes. No tweed suits here – those fringed waistcoats were more my style! Take a look at RTE Archives footage from around then. Were you there? Recognise anyone?

Some of the photographs of the Dandelion Market that accompanied Maeve Binchy’s article

And guess who wrote about it in the January-February issue? Maeve Binchy! in 1971 Maeve was years away from a successful career as a novelist, but she was already a well-known columnist and editor of the women’s pages for the Irish Times. She and my mother, Lilian Roberts Finlay, shared a stage at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival in the 90s and I got to know her a little then, and as a friend of Mum’s. She was everything you imagine – warm, witty, wise and great company.

The wonderful Maeve Binchy (right), my mother, Lilian Roberts Finlay (left) and our great friend Ingrid, Vancouver, 1998

The Dandelion piece was followed by an article, Some Unexpected Ballad Writers, by Grainne Yeats. I wasn’t sure who Grainne Yeats was so I looked her up. She was WB’s daughter-in-law but that was not her claim to fame. An accomplished harpist and speaker of Irish, she was a music historian and virtuoso singer and player, performing all over the world, and an expert in the music of Turlough O’Carolan. She singlehandedly revived the playing of the kind of traditional wire-strung harp that O’Carolan would have played. Her obituary in the Irish Times spells out her many achievements, while a short YouTube clip gives you a flavour of the sound of the harp.

Her article is about a form of song that was not common in Ireland until the eighteenth century, but was then heartily embraced – the ballad. She tells of Oliver Goldsmith who, while a student at Trinity “lounged about the college gates, wrote ballads for five shillings, and crept out at night to hear them sung.” Yeats wrote ballads because he wanted his poetry to be ‘popular’ – in the sense of poetry that would belong to the people as a whole. She mentions James Joyce, Davis, Mangan, Terence MacSwiney, Arthur Griffiths. I append Yeats’s ballad, Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites, at the end of this post – read it in conjunction with this Irish Times post that lists Jack B Yeats’ illustration for this ballad as a selection for Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks.

One of several pages about the Shannon River, with detailed maps

A huge section in that same issue was devoted The Lordly Shannon. Shannon cruising was emerging as a holiday idyll and photographs showed cheerful boaters negotiating locks and fishermen hauling in salmon, interspersed with monastic ruins and enticing pub signs. It was a successful campaign – Shannon cruising is popular today and indeed by all accounts makes for a superb vacation.

The final section for Jan-Feb was devoted to the Lawrence Collection of photographs. Anyone who has ever searched for or seen old Irish photographs  will be familiar with the Lawrence Collection, now housed in the National Library. If you’re up for a good browse, take a look at their photostream on Flickr, but be warned, it’s addictive.

Robert French’s photograph of Adare in the 1880s or 1890s. The second photo was taken in 2015, just before fire destroyed some of the thatched cottages. Some or all have since been restored

Although I know about the Lawrence Collection, and had lost myself in it a few times, I wasn’t really aware that the ‘view’ photographs, 40,000 of them, had not been taken by William Lawrence himself. “The man to whom he entrusted the task of photographing Ireland was an employee named Robert French who worked anonymously for the Lawrence firm all his life.” The article, by Kieran Hickey, rescues French from that anonymity and points to the personality behind the camera, the chronicler of the social history of his time. “Despite the inflexibility of a heavy camera, a cumbersome tripod and individual glass negatives, the images are unerringly composed, never reframed in printing, and taken at the precise moment which shows the photographer’s eye to be selective, observant, patient and alert.”

1 Leinster Market, Dublin; 2 Galway City; 3 Dublin Quays; 4 and 5 Tourists in Connemara

Lawrence’s studios were destroyed in the 1916 Rising, with the loss of all the human subject photographs and negatives. But French’s enormous body of work had been stored elsewhere, which is why it is still available to us. In its sharing of this priceless collection, the National Library is meticulous in crediting Robert French as the photographer – a fitting tribute to one who laboured unrecognised for so long and contributed so much to our visual history.

My aim is to update this series every month or two with a 50 year retrospective. We’re off to a good start!

Ancient Irish Art – Moone High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, we look for the routes which will take us past sites rich in history and archaeology. Finola wrote a while ago about places to visit close to the M8, which links Cork to Dublin. Last week we discovered a real gem, in County Kildare, about 40 kilometres east of the motorway – well worth the diversion.

Just outside the village of Moone is the finest medieval high cross that we have seen in Ireland. It is on the site of Moone Abbey (above right – a sketch from 1784 by antiquarian Austin Cooper), where a church is believed to have been founded by St Palladius, who came to Ireland in 431. It was later dedicated to St Columcille. The abbey ruins date from the 13th century, but the site must have been an important religious foundation long before this as the high crosses (there were once four here) are very much older. Historical sources differ on their age – I have found them variously attributed to the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th centuries! It’s safe to say they are at least 1100 years old.

Early views of the High Cross at Moone: left – an engraving from 1857 and right – a photograph from the Lawrence Collection dating from the 1890s. Both images show the earlier reconstruction, before the centre pillar was discovered and added

The Abbey was ransacked and burned along with the nearby Castle by Cromwellian forces in the 17th century and the high crosses were probably buried at that time. Two sections of the one we can see today were rediscovered in the Abbey grounds in 1835 and re-erected in the Abbey by the Duke Of Leinster. In 1893 a further section was uncovered and added to bring the full height of this cross to 5.3 metres. This is not quite the highest high cross in Ireland – Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice is 5.5 metres – but Moone is visually more impressive because it is so slender, and beautifully decorated.

The west face of the Moone High Cross seen in its present context in the ruined Abbey. The site has been well laid out and presented with the fragments of other carved stones discovered during excavations. A protective roof has also been constructed in a non-intrusive simple style

The carvings on the granite Moone cross are in relatively good condition and all the panels can be clearly seen. They are fine examples of medieval Irish art: stories from the Bible  are mingled with Celtic knotwork and some enigmatic bestiary. The figurative work is simple and stylised – yet somehow very modern in its execution.

Stories told in stone: Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the Flight into Egypt. The header image is a wonderful representation of the Loaves and Fishes

The Crucifixion, SS Paul and Anthony breaking bread in the desert and The Fiery Furnace

Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and the Temptation of St Anthony the Hermit

A six-headed monster? Probably not a Bible story…

The site is very well interpreted by the Heritage Service: there are comprehensive information boards describing every carved panel.

Interpretation boards include full annotation for the panels on the High Cross, together with projected reconstructions of the other findings on the site

Top picture – looking towards the east face of the High Cross; below – the east and west faces of the cross wheel

Left – an interesting conjecture showing that the panels may have been coloured in; right – the friendly Keeper of the Cross!

Be sure to visit this site – and don’t forget to purchase your guide book at Wall’s Mini Mart in the village!