Skibbereen – Ireland’s First Gigabit Town!

Ludgate poster

On Friday, the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen was officially launched.

Minister and Field

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and John Field of the Ludgate Board

We’ve been watching the progress of this wonderful initiative since last November when we attended the National Digital Week in Skibbereen. Robert wrote then about Percy Ludgate, the re-discovered computer pioneer, and about the plans for the Ludgate Hub. This week, those plans fell into place and gave Skibbereen the distinction of being Ireland’s first 1Gigabit town.Minister's Speech

The Hub was declared open by Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, in front of a capacity crowd that included representatives from some of the e-commerce giants operating in Ireland, such as Google, Vodaphone, Glen Dimplex, and Siro. The cheering section also included many local faces we recognised, all there to celebrate this initiative: John and Sally McKenna, the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, a couple of bishops, our local political representatives, Dee Forbes (newly appointed director of RTE, who’s on the Board), and Lord David Puttnam, Ireland’s Digital Champion, who never misses an opportunity to support West Cork.Board

Lots of people spoke, everyone enthusiastically, about the boon this building would be to Skibbereen. But to my mind, the speech of the day was the one given by John Field. John is the Director of Field’s Supermarket, a beloved and respected local institution. The Ludgate Building was the former Field’s bakery. Although the grocery business was established about 150 years ago, the Field family has been running it since 1935. They are committed to stocking the best of locally produced food and indeed they have a fantastic collection of artisan and locally grown produce that is second to none.

Old and new technology

Before it was Field’s bakery, the building was a cinema: the projector is a nod to its historic past

John’s words were simple and direct – we already have excellent local business, but we need to attract and retain more entrepreneurs and young families to West Cork. We can’t do that unless we can provide the most up-to-date technology, and nowadays that means the highest possible broadband speeds. The Ludgate Hub provides exactly that  – a 1000MG fibre-optic connection, to be exact. Lightning speed! They provide single and group work spaces, state-of-the-art video conference rooms that can utilise Google Hangouts, and a variety of meeting and presentation facilities.

Ludgate front

You can’t miss the Ludgate Hub! Below: the colourful entrance, with an informal meeting space above it; Grainne Dwyer, the Hub Project Director, and Robert chat in the coffee room

We attended a talk by the photographer John Minihan in the Hub earlier this week, where we had a first-hand demonstration of the kind of digital presentations possible now (enormous screens that you touch to advance!) and we hope to use a hot desk ourselves in the future, as we develop our ability to produce 3D images of rock art. The local Coderdojo club has been welcomed into the Hub – their Facebook page has a great image of the kids working on a Minecraft project in one of the conference rooms.

Clockwise from top left: Oliver Farrell (Chairman & Co-Founder of Vilicom and a Board member) shows us the desk area; John Minihane, photographer, gives a presentation during the Skibbereen Arts Festival; an informal seating area beside the servers; a conference room;

The building itself is inviting and colourful – in the best West Cork tradition. The staff is young and helpful and energetic. If you’ve ever wanted to live in West Cork (and who wouldn’t!), but needed excellent connectivity, wait no more. Come on down, meet the Ludgate folks, and drive by some of those properties you’ve been drooling over on those online property sites.

Bill Brown

At the opening we met Bill Brown. Bill has a security firm with offices in Belfast, Naas and London but manages to live in West Cork using the Ludgate Hub to provide the connectivity he needs to his business

Oh, and sign up for National Digital Week. Yes, they’re doing it again, in November!

Below: Percy Ludgate beams benignly down on visitors to the Hub

Percy

Gigabit town

Rossa: The Skibbereen Years

Rossa aged 32

This is the third post in a series about Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. In the first, March Back in Time, I introduced the man and described the thrilling re-enactment of the famous 1863 demonstration in Skibbereen. In the second, O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist? I looked at his activities in America and the British bombing campaign he coordinated, as well as the influence of the Fenians in general on American and Canadian history. For more on the question of whether he can be considered a terrorist or a freedom-fighter, or both, I refer readers to the excellent research of Shane Kenna, author of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Unrepentant Fenian. In particular, Kenna’s  thoroughly researched article available on The Irish Story website, ‘One skilled scientist is worth an army’ – The Fenian Dynamite Campaign 1881-85 is a useful summary of the arguments.

The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is an incredible resource for local history and specialises in the Great Famine. Their Walking Trail and its associated app and book have been immensely helpful in preparing this post (and many others).

My aim on this post is to outline the events in Rossa’s young life that led to his radicalisation and, since much of that time was spent in Skibbereen, to see what traces remain in this West Cork town that can help us to understand the man.

2012-05-19 16.04.23

We have to start with the Great Famine of 1845 to 1850, although that’s a hard place to begin. It’s hard because it’s almost impossible to read about it without welling up with emotion and rage. The details are harrowing in the extreme and Skibbereen was the epicentre of the disaster. When Rossa arrived here, aged 16, to live with an aunt, he had witnessed his father die of famine fever after being forced to labour on one of the infamous Board of Works schemes. As was happening all around him, his widowed mother and his siblings were evicted from their home for non-payment of rent, and made the wrenching decision to emigrate. He had had a normal happy childhood and now everything was torn from him under the most appalling conditions.

Cillín near Durrus

Famine graveyards full of mass burials and unmarked graves are scattered throughout West Cork, like this one near Durrus

In Skibbereen, in Black ’47, the 16 year old saw the worst of the Famine – the carts piled with bodies taking them every day to mass graves, the soup kitchens, the sickness and despair.

Famine soup Kitchen

This building in Skibbereen was used as a soup kitchen during the famine. Thousands of people were fed a watery soup that had little nutritional value but had the advantage of being cheap to make

Meanwhile he saw that tons of food was being exported from the surrounding countryside. He helped an old friend to bury his mother, Jillen Andy. Later, in prison, he would hold that memory and write a moving poem about the experience. It’s a long poem and it begins this way:

 ‘Come to the graveyard if you’re not afraid,
I’m going to dig my mother’s grave. She’s dead,
And I want someone that will bring the spade
For Andy’s out of home, and Charlie’s sick in bed.’

2013-10-20 13.44.38 HDR

Rossa became a shopkeeper in Skibbereen while at the same time founding and organising the Phoenix National and Literary Society which, although supposedly a educational group, had the aim of liberating Ireland by force of arms. It eventually merged with the Irish Republican Brotherhood after Rossa formed an alliance with James Stephens. ‘Fenians’ was the general term applied to the IRB and other such nationalist organizations.

Phoenix Soc meeting place

Philip O’Regan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre leads us on a walking tour. One of the places he points out is the meeting rooms above what is now a hairdressers, where Rossa and his fellow members of the Phoenix Society used to gather

Business and politics didn’t mix well and life was a constant economic struggle. His store is still there, now a jewellers run by the genial Mr O’Leary.

Rossa shop

Rossa married a local woman, Honora Eager, and they had four sons, before her untimely death. I can find no image of Honora, known as Nanno, and can only imagine the devastation to the little family caused by her demise.

Ellen BuckleyThe following year he met another local woman, Ellen Buckley, who was only 18 at the time and who married him despite the fierce opposition of her parents. She was beautiful and well-educated – and strong willed, obviously. She took on the task of being a mother to his four sons and she bore another son, known as Flor Rossa. But then she also died, leaving Rossa devastated once more. He was in America when it happened and she was buried in Castlehaven graveyard. Her grave is marked with a large headstone – which bears no reference to Rossa, only to her parents. Flor was eventually buried there too, having died as a young man.

The remote and beautiful Castlehaven graveyard, final resting place of Rossa’s second wife, Ellen Buckley. Note that her gravestone makes no reference to Rossa.

annie-mays-bar-skibbereen-920x450

Members of the Buckley family still farm near Skibbereen and run Annie May’s bar and restaurant, a favourite with locals. Photo courtesy of Skibbereen.ie

Rossa’s third wife was Mary Jane Irwin from Clonakilty. Once again, she was young, well-educated, and married him despite the opposition of her parents.

The young Mary Jane Irwin, and Mary Jane in her mourning dress at Rossa’s funeral. Still beautiful. She supported the family with her poetry readings and recitals while Rossa was in prison

She would go on to have thirteen children with Rossa and they would be married for over 50 years – by all accounts a successful and happy union. Their happiness was short-lived at first. Rossa spent several years under atrocious conditions in English prisons, while Mary Jane wrote poetry and speeches and travelled across America and Ireland raising money for the cause and supporting the family.

Rossa and daughters

Rossa, Mary Jane and their daughters.

Shortly after his third marriage Rossa moved from Skibbereen and only returned once, in 1904. This was the occasion of the unveiling of the Maid of Erin statue: a fascinating monument that commemorated two failed uprisings against British rule, while Britain still ruled!

North St and Maid

The Maid of Erin statue was originally in the middle of the intersection but was disruptive of traffic so was moved closer to the town hall

But the Rossa family connection to Skibbereen remains strong, and this summer we were delighted to meet two of his great-grandsons, Williams Rossa Cole and Ross Williams Cole, in town to record footage on the Rossa commemorations for a documentary they are making on the life of their great-grandfather. You can read more about them in this Examiner article. And take a look at the trailer for the documentary!

Rossa boys in Skibbereen

The final stop on any Rossa trail in Skibbereen has to be the park that is dedicated to him. Robert recorded the grand opening by Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland. It’s a striking monument in stone and steel reflecting the unbending and steadfast commitment of Rossa to his own brand of patriotism, forged in tragedy and hardened in the crucible of prison.

Rossa Memorial

The steel columns have cut-outs of quotes and images silhouetted against the sky. Among these quotes are the poignant final words of Jillen Andy. The poem was composed in prison, not written but memorised because he had no paper. It was a talisman he held close to his heart for when his courage faltered: he conjured up again the image of the wasted body of Jillen, dead of famine sickness as a result of the egregious lack of compassion and mismanagement of resources by the British Parliament and it cemented his resolve once more.

How oft in dreams that burial scene appears,
Through death, eviction, prison, exile, home,
Through all the suns and moons of twenty years,
And oh! How short these years compared with years to come.
Some thing are strongly on the mind impressed
And other faintly imaged there, it seems;
And this is why, when reason sinks to rest.
Phases of life do show and shadow forth in dreams.
And this is why in dreams I see the face
Of Jillen Andy looking in my own,
The poet-hearted man, the pillow case,
The spotted handkerchief that softened the hard stone.
Welcome these memories of scenes of youth
That nursed my hate of tyranny and wrong,
That helmed my manhood in the path of truth,
And help me now to suffer and be strong.

The complete text of Jillen Andy is here.

Welcome these memories

Perhaps we can leave Rossa now to the judgement of history. And perhaps with one last image of him and Mary Jane in happier times. Rest in Peace, you Unrepentant Fenian.

Rossa MJ ans 2 daughters

Scratched Stone – Scratched Heads

stone scratches

Aultagh Ogham Stone

One thing always leads to another – that’s something you can be sure of when we are on our archaeological adventures. A case in point was a recent expedition to have a look at Ballynacarriga Castle (not far from Dunmanway, County Cork: 16th century – notable for having a Sheela-na-gig carving built high up into the outer masonry wall, and some unusual carved inscriptions on the internal stonework).

Ballynacarriga Castle (left) with its Sheela-na-gig (right)

Perhaps these various stone scribings turned our minds to the subject of Rock Art (easily done). Our excellent guide on that morning, Margaret Murphy of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, offered to show us an Ogham stone not too far away, in the townland of Aultagh. How could we refuse?

finding the stone

Assistance required in finding the stone!

Our goal was beside an ancient track in Aultagh Wood (Coil an Ailtaigh), approached from a private driveway. Margaret knew the owner who readily gave us permission to have a look. In fact, he provided sterling service after we had searched in vain for the elusive rock – opportunely arriving with a pole to clear the thick undergrowth, and soon revealing this modest boulder to our eager gaze.

stone discovered

Stone uncovered…

The stone lies close to a drainage ditch and has possibly arrived there from another location at some time in its history. In one area the surface of the rock has been damaged, affecting part of the scribings: it may be that it was once standing – now it is prone with carved marks clearly visible on the upper surface.

stone in context

The Aultagh Ogham Stone in context

The last time I wrote a post about ogham (here it is) I gave a very general overview of the subject. Ogham stones are concisely described by the Irish National Monuments Service as:

…upright monoliths or recumbent slabs, onto which ogham script has been incised. Ogham script consists of groups of 1-5 parallel lines and notches cut along the side or across the edge of a stone to represent the sounds of the Irish language. It is usually read up the left angle. The inscription gives a person’s name (usually male) and immediate antecedent/s or tribal ancestor. The stones may have functioned as memorials, grave markers or territorial markers and date from the late 4th to the early 8th century AD.
Fine examples of ogham stones in Ireland

Here’s the entry in the National Monuments Service records for our Aultagh stone:

Description: On a W-facing slope, in Aultagh Wood. Fallen stone (L 1.1m; 0.7m x 0.3m) with inscription on flat face. According to Macalister (1945, 75) ‘fashioned by an illiterate artificer, copying by rote from a wooden model cut for his guidance’ and reading UBEDABO ALTASI.

MacalisterThat’s quite a bald statement from Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister who was Professor of Celtic archaeology at University College Dublin from 1909 to 1943, during which time he compiled and edited the catalogue of all known ogham inscriptions from Britain and Ireland. Macalister’s theories on ogham are generally out of favour today (some commentators have claimed that his interpretations are gibberish) but he seems to accept the Aultagh stone as being within the early medieval ogham tradition. Yet it seems to me very different from many of the other stones we have seen: it is very sharply incised, obviously with a fine-tipped metal tool, whereas a majority of the traditional or ‘classic’ ogham stones are larger and more robustly carved.

Possible ogham stone at Maulinward, West Cork (left) and others from the Stone Corridor at UCC

When you begin to delve into modern literature on ogham you realise how very many varieties of examples there are, and also how many differing interpretations there are of how to ‘read’ the script. This was monumental writing, labour intensive and time consuming to undertake. For this reason it is generally supposed that ogham was ostensibly reserved for marking important graves or places, and that the inscriptions are all names.

Aultagh Inscribed completeAultagh Ogham Stone – ‘classic’, ‘scholastic’ – or ‘fake’?

There are suggestions that ogham inscriptions for more general – and less monumental – usage were once carved on wood, and might have been language primers for the bardic poets. Later inscriptions are sometimes termed ‘scholastic ogham’ deriving from the fact that the inscriptions are believed to have been inspired by manuscript sources, instead of being continuations of the original ‘monument’ tradition. Hallmarks of scholastic ogham are the median line and scribings being on the flat face of a stone (as at Aultagh) rather than on the edge. Ogham was occasionally used for notes in manuscripts down to the 16th century, and the burgeoning interest in all things antiquarian from the 18th century onwards led to  a popular ogham revival. A typical example, from the graveyard in Ahenny, Co Tipperary, has an English inscription dated 1802 and this in ogham: FA AN LIG SO NA LU ATA MARI NI DHIMUSA O MBALLI NA GCRANIBH, interpreted as ‘Under this stone lies Mary Dempsy from Ballycranna’. Macalister takes the view that this inscription, and others like it, were written “with much more zeal than discretion”, while some scholars have suggested that this more modern usage of the scribing should be termed ‘fake ogham’.

Aultagh Incised Stone

My own drawing of the Aultagh inscribed stone – traced from detailed photographs

You may like to have a go at translating the inscription at Aultagh for yourself. Firstly you will need to select your decipherer: a quick internet search will show that there are many, and also a whole lot of inconsistencies. But perhaps this is all part of the head-scratching: and also part of the whole fascination of a historical subject where many of the elements can only be guessed at…

ogham-alphabet

The Great Hunger

2012-05-19 16.04.23

Skibbereen Heritage Centre

Skibbereen Heritage Centre

I have mentioned the Irish Famine in previous posts. West Cork and the area around Skibbereen in particular was greatly affected by this national disaster. In the period of the failure of the potato crop between 1845 and 1850 it is estimated that one in three people in this area died through starvation or disease. A million people perished in the island as a whole while another million emigrated. By the end of the nineteenth century the population of Ireland had halved, from just over 8 million to just over 4 million, as a traumatised race filled the Coffin Ships to America, Canada and Australia, or took the mail boats to Britain. This time in Irish history has left deep wounds in the Irish soul, and a legacy of distrust of Britain that fuelled much of the subsequent nationalistic fervour.

The Heritage Centre in Skibbereen has an excellent, if harrowing, Famine exhibition. Even more moving, perhaps, is the Abbeystrewry Graveyard, site of mass and unmarked graves of thousands of victims.

2012-05-19 16.02.27

In 1997 when events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Famine were being planned new research turned up many previously unknown stories of the time. While most, understandably, turned on the wretchedness of the people and the political and social context, one small tale fired the imagination of the historian who discovered that the Chocktaw Indians of America had made what must have been for them an enormous donation to hunger relief. Having been deprived of their ancestral homeland, and with their population decimated by European diseases, this faraway people collected and sent $710 to the starving Irish. Since this discovery, a special relationship has been nurtured between the Chocktaw and the Irish.

Tim Tingle, Chocktaw Story Teller

Tim Tingle, Chocktaw Story Teller

We were lucky, recently, to be present at a session by Tim Tingle, a Chocktaw writer and storyteller, in the Skibbereen library. Relaxed and humourous and with the aid of his drum he told us of his people and their relationship with the land and the animals. Slowly he drew us in to a deeper story from the time of the Chocktaw Trail of Tears: a story universal in its appeal and its humanity. His message: “Look ahead, keep moving forward.”