Finn McCool’s Causeway

In a recent post this year I said how much we liked to go off the beaten track and find Ireland’s gems hidden away among the narrow boreens of West Cork and elsewhere. But sometimes it’s also worth going to the better known hotspots around the country – and being prepared to regard them objectively in spite of the sometimes intrusive crowds that you might meet along the way.

Last summer our trip around the coast of Northern Ireland took us past the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. I had never been there before (Finola had) so I was keen to see what all the fuss is about. After all, I knew the causeway had been built by one of Ireland’s greatest heroes – Finn McCool – and that it once extended all the way to Scotland: the other end of it can be seen at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa (Staffa is a Norse word meaning ‘Pillars’ and is named from the rock formations there): the Gaelic name for the cave is An Uaimh Bhinn, meaning ‘the melodious cave.’ It has been suggested that the name ‘Fingal’  is linked to the name ‘Finn McCool’ possibly after an 18th century Scots poet, James Macpherson, wrote an epic poem loosely based around the Finn story. Later, the composer Felix Mendelssohn visited the cave and celebrated it in his Hebrides Overture. It’s worth looking at this Youtube video of the piece as it is well illustrated with dramatic views of the Scottish end of things:

Before leaving Scotland – and this atmospheric music – I was intrigued to find mention of a tradition that the Staffa cave is fully illuminated by the sun on only one day of the year: on or around the 16th of December (quite close to the winter solstice), and the teller of this tale will point out that it was exactly on that day – 16 December – in 1830 that Mendelssohn completed his overture . . .

Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway has been a popular tourist destination for as long as there has been tourism in Ireland. I hadn’t realised that it had been served by a dedicated tramway since the 1880s (the photo above dates from that time). The line, running from the mainline railway at Bushmills, was the world’s first to be powered by hydro-electricity – fed by a generating station at Walkmill Falls near Bushmills via 104 horsepower 78 kW Alcott water turbines providing 250 volts at 100 amps. Sadly, the line closed down in 1949 but has been revamped over the final 3.2 km of the original tramway during the main tourist season, carrying its first passengers at Easter 2002.

Another modern development is the tourism and visitor centre, which opened in 2012: the previous building was burned down in 2000. As an architect (happily retired!) I always take an interest in large public buildings and their design. This one was very controversial when it was mooted, partly because there was concern about the way it was being commissioned – initially it was to have been privately financed and run. In the end funding was raised from the National Trust (who own the site), the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the UK Heritage Lottery Fund and public donations. I think it is a successful building: it has gravitas while also being quite playful with the references to the hexagonal basalt formations of the Causeway. It has to achieve a difficult job: handling thousands of tourists (in 2016 there were 851,000!)  as efficiently as possible while providing a good informed experience.

Top – the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre has a well designed interactive information area. Above – Fare on offer at the Visitor Centre includes basalt column-shaped chips, and souvenir travel sweets!

The popularity of the causeway has ensured that it has been well recorded by artists, topographers and postcard publishers. Here are a few examples, beginning with one of our favourite antiquarians, George Victor Du Noyer.

Top to bottom – George Victor Du Noyer c1850; Thomas Rowlandson c1812; Susanna Drury, c1740; tourist postcard from 1907

The Giant’s Causeway was supposedly discovered by the Bishop of Derry in 1692, and announced to the world the following year when Sir Richard Bulkeley, a fellow of Trinity College Dublin, presented a paper on it to the Royal Society . . . I wonder if he mentioned Finn McCool? Just in case you don’t know this story yourself, here’s a good version of it, narrated by Tom Purves and beautifully accompanied on the Uillinn pipes:

We went fairly late in the season (October) and on a wet and windy day. It was a worthwhile visit and I do recommend it: the Antrim coastline is spectacular enough to warrant the journey, even if the causeway wasn’t there – but what a legend! It links one of Ireland’s best known heroes with the nearby Scottish coastline, and credits him with the creation of both Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest inland mass of water) and the Isle of Man. Today it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site – in fact the only one in Northern Ireland.

Edifying and Eccentric – The Earl Bishop

Finola had always wanted to visit Mussenden Temple and the ruins of the nearby great house on the Downhill Demense: it’s only a few stones’ throws from Nead an Iolair, so off we went on a stormy Sunday – the first day of October.

The house was built by the eccentric Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803). Being the third son of the even more eccentric Lord John Hervey, he did not expect an inheritance and tried law (unsuccessfully) before entering the church. His eldest brother George was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1766 and, although he never set foot in the country, he managed to engineer Frederick’s appointment as Bishop of Cloyne then, shortly afterwards, Bishop of Derry, one of the wealthiest Irish sees. While in this post Frederick had the notion to establish a huge estate (apparently with the help of Diocesan funds) on a windswept clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Dunbo, County Londonderry – now Northern Ireland.  Dunbo derives from the Irish Dún Bó, meaning ‘fort of the cows’.

It looks bleak today, and must have been in the Bishop’s time, although his plans for the new demense included classical landscaping and the planting of 300,000 trees: there’s not much sign of them now on that windswept terrain.

Both of Frederick’s older brothers died without leaving heirs and, in 1779, he found himself the Earl of Bristol and in control of a considerable fortune which helped greatly in the realisation of his plans for the Dunbo project, which he named Downhill Demense.

Everything about the Earl Bishop and Downhill Demense is ‘over the top’. Even though it is now a ruin, cared for by the National Trust, its former splendour is obvious. The residence was huge and grand, and Frederick went through a number of architects (beginning with Michael Shanahan of Cork) and including Placido Columbani from Milan, who was supervising plumbing and the installation of water closets – a considerable innovation at the time.

One of the most striking surviving buildings at Downhill is the Mussenden Temple, based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, near Rome. It was built close to the cliff edge, but with enough land to enable a horse and carriage to be driven around it. When we looked out of the windows facing the sea we were shocked to see that the building is now teetering right on the cliff edge! Also, a railway line runs right underneath it near sea level, over 100 feet below – you can see the tunnel entrance in the header picture above.

The Temple was an ‘overflow library’ to the house, some distance away. It was constantly heated by a fire always burning in the basement room below, so the books didn’t get damp. The Earl Bishop was a great traveller and collector, and in its heyday the house was full of paintings, statuary and furniture. Students of the Northern Regional College together with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the University of the Third Age and the Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group have put together a wealth of information and some reconstructions of the house, included here. Their website is a mine of good information.

Reconstruction by the Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group of the Temple dome (upper picture) and (lower) the ‘raw’ brick dome visible today

It’s sobering to stand in the driving rain – as we did today – on this deserted site and imagine the treasures that were once on display in this great edifice. On the Earl Bishop’s death the Demense passed to his cousin. It stayed in the family and survived a devastating fire in 1851, although restoration was not completed until 1876.

Upper picture – Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group reconstruction of the main gallery in the house and (lower) poignant piles of rubble on the site today

The family left the house in the 1920s and in the 1930s the house was empty and had been stripped of furniture. During World War 2, Downhill was requisitioned and occupied by the Royal Air Force. In 1946 a request was made for permission to demolish the building, thus avoiding a large rates bill. Consent was refused because …the castle is of general local interest… A tenant was found – Mrs Belgrave – who was the last person to live in the house – but briefly; by October 1949 the entire property had been gutted and the windows and roof removed. The building was listed in 1977, and was acquired by the National Trust in 1980 which has been engaged in continual efforts to preserve the remaining fabric ever since.

Upper picture – Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group reconstruction of the Temple interior and (lower) today the Temple is a significant landmark on Northern Ireland’s main tourist route

Wherever you are on the island of Ireland it’s just a hop and a step up to the North: the coastline is stunning, and a journey there will be punctuated, as always, with fascinating history. Well worth a visit!

An excellent detailed article by The Irish Aesthete on the Earl Bishop and his Downhill Demense can be found here

All Silver and No Brass

title page full

Henry Glassie’s book has been sitting on my shelves for 40 years, waiting to be dusted off and revisited. As a Mummer myself, I eagerly searched out any book on this then neglected subject, and was pleased to find this volume which concentrated on the Mumming tradition in Northern Ireland. It is written and illustrated by Henry Glassie, a Professor of Folklore at Indiana University Bloomington, and is the product of an extended field trip to County Fermanagh in the early 1970s.

Henry Glassie – born 1941 – has written many books about life and traditions in Ireland. His first was All Silver and no Brass, published by The Dolmen Press in 1976

…Winter nights in Ireland are black and long. A sharp wet wind often rises through them. Midwinter is a time to sit by the fire, safe in the family’s circle, waiting for the days to lengthen and warm. It is no time for venturing out into cold darkness. The ground is hard, the winds bitter. But for two and a half centuries, and possibly for many years before them, young men braved the chilly lanes, rambling as mummers from house to house, brightening country kitchens at Christmas with a comical drama. Their play, compact, poetical, and musical, introduced an antic crew and carried one character through death and resurrection…

(From the Preface to All Silver and no Brass by Henry Glassie)

here comes I

saint patrick

Glassie stayed in Ireland during the Troubles, and deliberately chose a community that was close to the upheavals of those days.

…Mumming was neither my project nor my goal. My project was the creation of an existentially grounded ethnography of people in trouble… We settled next to the barbed-wire bound barracks in the southwest Ulster town of Enniskillen, in the County Fermanagh, about twelve miles north and east of the burning border. I began quickly, luxuriously conducting my study on foot. I came to know every dog, bog, path and field in a small area south of the town, lying west of Upper Lough Erne, its waters as bright, its isles as green as promised in the old ballad of the Inniskilling Dragoon…

Enniskillen, from a photograph dated 1900, and Henry Glassie’s illustration of the mummers ‘Doin the Town’ as remembered in the 1970s

I like the way the book is set out. One section transcribes a number of conversations that Glassie has with people who remembered – and had been involved with – the mumming tradition.

…Most of the kitchens at the centers of those white houses were opened willingly, generously to me. My Americanness set me outside the local social categories, so I got on well with people of opposed political and religious persuasions. More of the people were Catholics than Protestants, more were men than women, more were old than young. Almost all had made courageous adaptations within the terrors that frame our lives. That was what interested me most: how daily life passed sanely, even artfully, despite armored cars hurtling down the country lanes, despite bombs that cracked the air and rattled the windows. I had forgotten all about mumming. Then one evening Mrs Cutler and I were chatting about Christmas and she mentioned the mummers’ arrival as the season’s high point. Suddenly excited, I asked if any of the play’s performers were still alive, and she listed people I knew well. All of them were men in their sixties and seventies who had begun to stand out in my thinking as exceptionally energetic, outgoing, and articulate. From that time on, I asked many questions about the drama, its performance, meaning, and purpose. I learned that the memory of mumming is cherished…

wren-boys

Upper picture – Wrenboys from Athea, Co Limerick, 1946 and below – ‘Mummers hunting the wren’ in Macroom, Co Cork, around 1950

Glassie talks at length to two brothers, Peter and Joseph Flanagan, who have very clear memories of taking part in the mumming.

“…We’d just take every house that we faced, whether we’d be admitted or not. We’d just take every house that we’d face. Of course, there was people on the other hand that wouldn’t admit them because it might frighten the youngsters, you see, or cause some confusion. That’s the way. That’s the way it goes now. So, You all stood at the door and…”

He twists and rapidly knocks five times on the table.

“…’who’s there?’

“…’Captain Mummer. Any admission?’ Yes, aye, or no: that was the way. ‘Any admittance for Captain Mummer and his men?’

“and if the person was pleased to admit you, well, they’d open the door. Throw it wide open for you.

“And Captain Mummer walked in.”

Peter moves quickly from his seat and down the kitchen. His heavy boots sound sharp on the floor. He closes the front door behind him, raps on it thrice, and re-enters. He strides ten feet into the kitchen and stands to deliver his lines, turning his torso to project to the audience assembled in a semi circle that runs from the front table past the hearth to the back table. Joe and I are fixed upon him…

“Here comes I, Captain Mummer and all me men.

Room, room, gallant room, gimmee room to rhyme,

Till I show you some diversion round these Christmas times.

Act of young, and act of age, the like of this were never acted on a stage.

If you don’t believe in what I say, enter in Beelzebub and he will clear the way.”

Frowning, Peter returns to his stool. It has been years since he has thought of the rhymes. “Let me see now,” he says, and sits repeating the speeches of Beelzebub and Prince George under his breath. Joe picks up the large turf out of the fire with the tongs and sets them at the front of the hearth. He sweeps the thick ashes off the iron to his side with a besom, places new turf against the backstone, and arranges the old coals next to them. The smoke and glow increase as the new turf ignite. Joe, too, went mumming, but he went out less often than Peter and cannot remember the part he played. He sits back as Peter starts in again…

Henry Glassie’s drawing of ‘how a mummer’s hat is made’ together with two examples from more recent times

Glassie’s writing goes on to describe the recollections of the play from those who undertook the performances. It is an invaluable record: his informants have now passed away. They would probably be surprised to know that their plays have not been lost: a new generation is performing in the north – and elsewhere on the island of Ireland. They would be even more surprised, perhaps, to learn that their own play breathes again: there is a Mummers Centre in Derrylin and the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers (Aughakillymaude translates as the wooden field of the wild dog) perform regularly in the area around Christmas time once more, while at other times they travel across Europe keeping the spirit of mumming in Ireland very much alive:

aughakillymaude-mummers

Aughakillymaude Community Mummers in full cry (above)  and (below) Henry Glassie’s reconstruction of the performance before the hearth

the performance