Wending the Boreens

Only in Ireland can you wend your way along boreens. The Irish word is bóithrín, – a small bóthar (road). We are surrounded by them in our West Cork townlands. In these days of Covid19 restrictions, they are our whole world. With a maximum walk of 5 kilometres allowed, we can only ever be on boreens. But that’s no hardship – mostly they are beautiful (in fact they are all beautiful), and we enjoy every step we can take. So today’s post is simply a celebration of what is around us. But I have also combed the RWJ archives to look for boreens outside of our local area, for a bit of variety and comparison. Rest assured that any illustrations beyond our present limits were taken in other – normal – times!

Of course a ‘boreen’ or small road doesn’t have to be in a rural location, This fine boreen in Eyries, on the Beara Peninsula, is in fact a well used highway through the town, but you can’t deny that it is as atmospheric and picturesque as many of the rural byways shown here. It’s a moment in time captured for all time.

The photo at the top of the page is special for us: it’s the view we get when we turn out of Nead an Iolair, heading down towards Rossbrin Cove. And there (above) is our first glimpse of the sheltered harbour, overlooked by the medieval castle that was the home of Clan Chieftain Fininn O’Mahony in the 15th century. Not only do we have all the wonders of West Cork’s landscape on our doorstep, but we also have deep history as well…

How much closer can you get to nature than this ‘green’ boreen just a short walk up the road from where we live in Cappaghglass? The stone hedge banks have become completely assimilated into the surroundings, and are a haven for so many native species of wildflowers, as Finola will readily point out to us!

And just a few yards from that last green trackway is the boreen that takes us down into our village of Ballydehob. Those are apple trees flourishing as part of the natural hedgerow.

We have very little woodland around us here. This slightly mysterious tree-lined boreen was found on our travels near Glendalough, in County Wicklow, last year.

Close by the little harbour of Glandore (in Irish Cuan D’Ór – Harbour of Gold) in West Cork, we found a secluded boreen which pointed us towards an oddity: a pyramid in a graveyard – well worth a visit. Read about it in this post from two years ago.

Returning to our own neighbourhood these two recent photos, taken only a couple of days ago, show how you can never quite know what you are going to find just around the corner or over the brow of the next hill. That’s Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle in the upper picture, and Cape Clear Island (on the horizon) in the lower one.

In contrast, here’s a little trackway that takes you up to the summit of the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois. This historic site with a view is associated with momentous events in the history of this country: in the painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is depicted as taking place at the now ruined Great Hall on the Rock. You can find the whole story of this most critical juncture in Ireland’s history in Finola’s post here.

Even further afield – in Ballymoney, Co Antrim – is this spectacular avenue of beech trees planted on the entrance driveway leading to an eighteenth century Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. This boreen – open to pedestrians – is known as the Dark Hedges, and we visited it when we explored the North of Ireland three years ago.

Although in normal times we travel a lot – on major roads and motorways, as well as boreens – the places we like the best are near to home. How could we not be impressed by the winding boreen that climbs to the top of Mount Gabriel, the highest point on the Mizen? Look at the spectacular views (above). The preacher Caeser Otway travelling in this area in 1822 wrote:

. . . On my way to Bantry I passed the dark and lofty Mount Gabriel and took my way over a dreary, comfortless tract of country. Let no one say after looking at these moors , studded over with cabins crowded with children, pigs, goats, cocks and hens that an Irishman is not an industrious creature . . . Men, women, boys and girls toiling up the mountainside with seaweed and sea sand in baskets on their backs . . . See them reclaiming from amidst rocks and bogs, patches of ground on which to cultivate their only food, the potato; and no one witnessing this struggle of human industry against nature, but must acknowledge that the Irish are a most industrious race . . .

The 400 year old road that crosses the mountains from Cork into Kerry north of Bantry has to count as a boreen, as it’s single track for much of the way. The Priest’s Leap sign (above) marks the point at which the two counties meet. Although we have travelled all over Ireland in our explorations, this is still one of our favourite routes, and always will be. We so look forward to being able to go there again, when the present ‘lockdown’ is lifted.

Another glimpse of the Priest’s Leap ‘boreen’.

This elegant woodland boreen is a fine example of regency landscaping, being part of the Ballyfin Demesne in Co Laois. Like so many of Ireland’s fine luxury hotels, Ballyfin remains closed until the Covid19 restrictions are lifted.

We’ll finish this post where we started – near to home in West Cork, with happy memories of unrestricted rambles with friends along the quietest and most beautiful of Ireland’s boreens . . .

The Rock of Dunamase and Ireland’s Most Iconic Painting

The ruins on the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois date mainly from the 12th century, very shortly after the Norman Invasion of 1169. That invasion was led by Richard DeClare, Earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow, and it was at the invitation of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster. MacMurrough had been ousted from his kingdom by Tiarnan O’Rourke and his allies, partly because MacMurrough had abducted O’Rourke’s wife Devorgilla (although some accounts say she went willingly). His request for help to King Henry II was welcomed, as the King was hoping to provide distraction to some over-ambitious knights, including deClare.

One of MacMurrough’s incentives to Strongbow was the promise of his daughter, Aoife, in marriage. The marriage took place in Christ Church Cathedral in Waterford in 1170 and following the death of Diarmuid in 1171, Strongbow declared himself King of Leinster.

The summit of the Rock commands views of several counties

So where does the Rock of Dunamase come in? It was one of the MacMurrough strongholds, and accordingly was part of Aoife’s dowry when she married Strongbow. Thus, it is inextricably associated with the most turbulent events in Irish History. For some of the later (and indeed earlier) history of the Rock, I refer you to The Irish Aesthete’s excellent post A Rock and a Hard Place.

The Barbican Gate, with the curtain wall and corner tower above and behind

The fortifications and buildings at the Rock are in a ruinous state, of course, but enough remain to give you a good idea of what a strategic site this was and how the defences were designed. The first entrance was a barbican gate behind which was a small area known as the Inner Barbican. Once there, you were at the mercy of archers situated on top of the inner, or curtain wall, shooting down from their crenellated parapet.

From the OPW informational sign

The curtain wall ran around the entire top of the rock. For three quarters of its length it was impossible to attack or breach with the weapons of the time because the wall was built at the top of a steep slope.

The more gentle slope of the east side necessitated the additional defence of the barbican gate. From the inner barbican a massive gatehouse with two towers gave access to the bawn or ward, while two corner towers guarded the northerly and southerly extent of the wall.

Looking upwards towards the Great Hall from the massive Main Gatehouse

There are indications of other buildings inside the curtain wall, but all that is really significant today  is a large rectangular building known as the Great Hall. This was subject to reconstruction in the 1700s by the then owner (a grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell) but the building project was never completed.

The main result of this reconstruction is to obscure and confuse original versus later parts of the fabric of the Hall. Everywhere you look what appears to be a gothic window embrasure is suddenly sporting red brick.

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is the title of an enormous painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland (see the final photograph for the complete painting). It is, in fact, the largest painting in the Gallery, and has been completely conserved in recent years – a series of videos recording this massive process is available on YouTube (just Google ‘Strongbow and Aoife conservation’). But start with this video, in which Dr Brendan Rooney talks about the painting itself.

According to Dr Rooney, the background to the painting is of the City of Waterford, the city on which the marriage took place. The use of this backdrop (rather than, say, the interior of a church)  is used to dramatise the conflict between the Normans and the Irish Chieftains and the consequences of the invasion. He points out a round corner tower that appears to be based on Reginald’s Tower in Waterford, and asserts that the arched gateway calls to mind ‘similar’ gateways in New Ross and Drogheda.

Even if the backdrop is intended to convey a picture of Waterford it seems obvious to me that it is inspired by and based heavily on the Rock of Dunamase. This makes perfect sense from both an historical and a visual point of view. First of all, Maclise was depicting a catastrophic moment in Irish history that is closely associated with the Rock, in that it was the seat of the MacMorroughs, transferred to Strongbow as part of Aoife’s dowry, and which allowed him to subsequently claim succession rights to the Kingship of Leinster.

Secondly – look at it! While there may be echoes of Reginald’s Tower and other Irish medieval sites (such as a round tower) in the painting, it is clearly the Rock of Dunamase that is being depicted. Waterford is essentially flat: there are still stretches of its town walls extant, but they are on level ground. Maclise was known for meticulously researching his subject matter and it seems obvious to me that the marriage is being consecrated in front of the Barbican Gate, while above and behind are the ramparts of the curtain wall. There are a few Irish Norman castle sites that are built on a rocky prominence, but the most dramatic of them is the Rock of Dunamase.

Maclise’s The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is one of our most iconic paintings and has been one of the most beloved because of the subject matter. At the same time, the Rock of Dunamase is central to the most critical juncture on our history. They belong together – don’t you agree?

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), ‘The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’, c.1854. © National Gallery of Ireland