Thursday, July 08, 2004

Thoor Ballylee

Glendalough -- the valley of the two lakes. In spite of its popularity with coach tours, the place still has a quiet spiritual feel to it. St. Kevin founded the monastery in the sixth century and it was in use for over a thousand years. The tower was built as a defense against the Vikings. If you look closely you'll see that the entrance is nearly a third of the way up the side. When they were under attack the monks would shinny up a ladder with all their valuables and the last man would pull up the ladder after him. The Viking raiders were left to gnash their teeth below. Around here was the O'Byrne country, a place of mountains and deep inaccessible glens from which the Gaels mounted raids on Dublin. It was in nearby Glenmalure in 1580 that Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne dealt a crushing blow to an army under Lord Grey de Wilton . . . .

Grey said victory was sure,
Soon the firebrand he'd secure
Till he met at Glenmalure
With Fiach MacHugh O Byrne

Curse and swear, Lord Kildare! / Fiach will do what Fiach will dare
Now Fitzwilliam have a care / Fallen is your star low --
Up with halberd, out with sword / On we'll go for by the Lord
Fiach MacHugh has given the word / Follow me up to Carlow!"

I know, I know. Nothing is forgotten (good rousing song, tho').

We did go up to Carlow, after a brief stopover to visit Russborough House near Blessington. It was a comment in the guidebook that decided us: "Russborough epitomizes the great flowering of Anglo-Irish confidence before the Act of Union deprived Ireland of its Parliament, much of its trade and its high society (thereafter, the rich Anglo-Irish spent much of the year in London). No expense was spared . . . and the over-the-top plasterwork on the stairs has been described as representing the ravings of a lunatic, and an Irish lunatic at that." (my italics). Tempting, you'll admit, so off we went to have a look. Ravings, hmmm? ...

We drove to Carlow Town afterwards where we had a brief stop for a pint and then it was on to Kilkenny. The castle over the river Nore still dominates the town which is the most medieval-looking place in Ireland. The Butlers who were one of the great Anglo-Norman families ("Old English" as apart from the Tudor "New English") ruled here from the 1390s as the Earls of Ormond. The last of them turned the castle over to the state as recently as the 1960s, or so I believe. It's a fairly impressive heap of stones with a Long Hall full of family portraits -- and companion pieces to the tapestries in the Old Parliament building in Dublin. The town was home to a famous witch, Alice Kyteler, and her old stone house still stands as (what else?) a bar and restaurant. I was down here when I was in the FCA (Defence Force) and spent two weeks in the barracks.

We spent the night in a farmhouse B&B near Inistioge. (Mrs P with whom we had stayed twice before was full, unfortunately, but we stopped by for a chat.) Dad and I drove into Graiguenamanagh ("Rock of the Monks") where we had a few pints, and landed in a place with a bit of music.

We didn't get very far at all the next day. After a stop at the bank in Waterford -- Ireland is not cheap! --we headed along to Dungarvan. I was keen on seeing the Blackwater valley and so we drove on through Cappoquin to Lismore. The place is lovely. It's a quiet little backwater these days but it used to be the diocesan seat of some quite influential bishops in the past. It was settled by Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork, (one of the "New English" and the epitome of the Elizabethan settler-adventurer: one of his sons was Robert Boyle, the scientist, remembered now for 'Boyle's Law') which may account for the domesticated rather English-y look of the surrounding country. Sir Walter Raleigh owned land here as well. The weather was glorious and we decided to call a halt for the day. While on a visit to the castle we found our lodgings for the night. A local man walked up to me having overheard me asking about places to stay. He and the wife were opening a guesthouse the following week, it wasn't ready, mind, but if we'd care to have a look . . . ? So we did and we stayed, the first guests. They were a lovely young couple with small children; they charged us only 10 quid a head and wouldn't hear of taking anything for the kids. Only in Ireland? -- maybe not, but it's good to find the old easygoing ways are alive and well. We went for a picnic down by the river and later on in the day drove up to the Gap, a pass in the Knockmealdown mountains with a view over all of Tipperary.

We avoided Cork city the following day and took the turnoff for Blarney Castle. I must have kissed that damn stone half a dozen times for all the good it's ever done me . . . anyway, as N, the sister-in-law, was with us, and as this was her first trip to Ireland, off we went. At this point let me digress and tell you of the sad demise of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. He was a saintly and beloved Dublin original who lived at the turn of the century, an intellectual, a writer, a campaigner for women's rights, a vegetarian, a labour union supporter, an anti-recruitment agitator in 1914. He went out in the streets during the Rising to reason with the poor who had come streaming out of the slums, not with any intention of fighting the British Army, not at all, but to loot every shop in sight, drink the pubs dry, and have a marvellous hullaballoo. "Please, chaps. It's not RIGHT," says Francis, "You'll feel AWFUL in the morning. Go along home now like good fellows." Along comes an English officer, arrests him, puts him up against a wall and blows his brains out. This officer was clearly off his head and had been since the fighting began. After considerable pressure the officer, J.C. Bowen-Colthurst, was brought to trial: he was found guilty but insane, released in 1918, and ended his life as a bank manager. Bowen-Colthurst's family at one time owned Blarney Castle.

In the Gaelic days all this area was under the Great McCarthy, one of the most formidable chieftains of the south. The castle itself was built by Dermot McCarthy in 1446 but the legend of the stone dates from a later member of the family who was the Lord of Blarney and a vassal (supposedly) of Queen Elizabeth. Whenever she commanded him to do something he sprang to attention and did nothing at all, but always with the best of good reasons and excuses, until in the end she jumped up and cried: "Blarney, Blarney, Blarney! All I ever hear is Blarney!" So when you kiss the stone, it's not just the gift of the gab you get but the flow of the bullshit as well . . .

The Cork and Kerry mountains

On through West Cork. There was a famous ambush down here during the Troubles when Tom Barry's Flying Column took on a truckload of Black and Tans and (according to the song) "made s-- of the whole effing lot." All of this part of Cork was controlled by the IRA in those days which is why so many of them came out against the Treaty. We turned off the Macroom road for Inchigeala and wound our way down to the lake at Gougane Barra. There are a number of remote places in the world with an air of deep mystery and this is definitely one of them. Naturally (in the Irish context) it was the home of a saint, Finbar, who set up his hermitage and chapel on the island in the sixth century. The place has a strangeness to it still. Along one of these roads lived the Tailor from "The Tailor and Ansty" (a book of his recorded stories and sayings that became famous throughout Ireland) who believed, among a lot of other things before the priests got to him, that the Boer general de Wet was an Irishman. Dia dhuit (day gwet) means "God be with you" in Irish.

Glengarriff, and a godawful place it is these days. It's packed with dreary pubs and caravans selling chips and hamburgers. We spent the night in a pink and white guesthouse near the road for the Beara Peninsula. That's all I have to say about the place.

Tim Healy's Pass was shrouded in fog the next morning and we had to inch our way over it. When it cleared we had a silvery view down to the sea. Tim Healy was the first Governor-General under the Free State, and, according to a recent biography of Michael Collins, may have been an informer for the British during the Tan War. Collins was known to be investigating him just before he was killed The news could hardly blacken his reputation since he will always be remembered as the man who betrayed Parnell.

I left the others romping about the town while I hunted up lodgings in Kenmare, no easy task. On the third or fourth attempt I was in luck and was directed to Finnihy Lodge on the Killarney Road. We unloaded our bags and set off for the Ring of Kerry with a stopover (couple of pints) at the Great Western Hotel in Parknasilla. Just beyond it is Derrynane, the ancestral home of Daniel O'Connell. We got as far as the Butler Arms in Waterville, a place of pleasant memories from the last two trips. Waterville and Ballinskelligs Bay form the setting for one of the more wayward Irish legends. Here we go: "When the Biblical Flood was imminent, Noah's son Bith and his daughter Cessair found that there was no room for them in the Ark. So they and their retinue set sail for Ireland which, Cessair was advised, was uninhabited, free of monsters, reptiles and sin, and would therefore escape the flood. However, although 49 women survived to land along with Cessair in 2958 BC, only two men besides Bith made it. The three men divided the women between them, but when Bith and Ladra, the pilot, died, Fintan, the last man, was overwhelmed, and, to his eternal shame, ran away; upon which Cessair, who loved him, died of sorrow."

It's a long haul around the Ring and as the day was getting on we decided to head back through the centre of the Iveragh Peninsula to link up with the mountain road to Kenmare. It's wild and desolate country up there and we had it all to ourselves, apart from the odd sheep and goats. We had a grand dinner at Foley's in the town that evening and went on to one of the pubs to listen in on a "session". The lad on the fiddle worked in a music shop and sold me a bodhran (goatskin drum) the next day, and I've been banging away happily on it ever since in our local Irish band.

(some good Kerry photos)

Clare and the West

The next day was Monday and we drove past the fabled lakes of Killarney, through Tralee and Listowel, and at Tarbert took the ferry across the Shannon to Clare, the "banner county". I used wonder why it was called that. It comes down to elections -- and some crucial ones at that (banners flying). O'Connell and Dev spring to mind. O'Connell was the big one back in 1828, the first Catholic to stand and be elected to Parliament since the enactment of the Penal Laws. Catholic Emancipation came in the following year as a direct result of the pressure exerted by O'Connell and his army of followers; in 1829 he was easily re-elected. (The house where he stayed during both campaigns belonged to the O'Gorman Mahon and is now a B&B where we dump all our guests -- brilliant place with canopied beds -- and where we have stayed many times ourselves when the cousins were full). Again, in 1917, de Valera won a landslide victory in East Clare as the abstentionist Sinn Fein candidate. Sinn Fein MPs refused to take seats in the British Parliament, claiming it had no right of jurisdiction over Ireland. The same policy of standing in elections but refusing to enter Parliament is followed by Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland today. Now they have 3 duly elected but abstentionist MPs.

After a stop overlooking the strand in Kilkee for the driver's two pints -- a welcome top up every 50 miles or so -- we drove along the coast past Spanish Point (where the Armada galleons were wrecked) to the Cliffs of Moher. At Liscannor I discovered that the publican Joseph McHugh had recently died. He was a local character and a well-known song about him had made him famous throughout Ireland. We arrived at the Hill in time for tea. Mary was there from Zimbabwe with her little boy James. The three kids got on famously. The driver went after the gooseberries in the garden. Lord, how I miss them!

With Mary and Dad staying at the Hill it was a full house so we had arranged rooms at the B&B I mentioned above. This house was new in 1650 or thereabouts. It's a grand old rambling place set in its own grounds and once belonged to the man that had nominated O'Connell for the Clare election in 1828. O'Connell stayed with him here during the campaign. The family that own it now have had it since the turn of the century with a brief spell of exile after the Civil War.

Once Dad had arrived at Kitty's at the Hill he dropped out of the caravan, no doubt with a sense of relief. Since the trip began in Dublin we were forever faced with delays of one kind or another, usually to do with the two small kids. "Can you not control these women?" said Dad to me at one stage. "No" I replied, truthfully.

Off we went to Connemara, taking the Leenane road from Maam Cross. They were showing "The Quiet Man" in the pub, and seemed to be showing it on a loop, continuously, with John Wayne (Dear God) and Barry Fitzgerald, and Maureen O'Hara. 'If Hollywood makes a fuss over this place, sure, we must be OK' sort of reasoning. Yerra, bollix. Here's something that's REALLY local:


It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother said to me not to be talking to you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith's forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon; you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

(from the Irish, trans. by Lady Gregory)

Kylemore Abbey. It's a fake, really, since it was built only in the last century by a Liverpool shipping magnate, some rich Englishman, in other words, with medieval fantasies. But it's an impressive fake, given the surroundings. The nuns have got hold of it now and made it into a girls' school, something truly medieval, with sweet damn all to do and nowhere to go for miles around. Reminded me of my own single-sex equivalent in the thundering wastes of Kildare.

Kylemore was to come back to haunt me. I arranged to send 2 students every year from my school in Japan after a preliminary trawl through a half dozen Irish schools in the summer of '96. Kylemore seemed the best of the lot for teenage Japanese girls who couldn't speak English. I had to protect them, OK? I had no notion of the agony to follow. We sent off our girls, starting in '98, and everything was fine except the school would never respond to letters, faxes, or e-mails and wouldn't send crucial documents needed for university entrance after the kids came home. They only wrote when they wanted more money. I don't want to get into the details. They were driving me insane. We finally yanked the kids and put them into an equally good school in Killiney for half the price and a total stop to the aggravation. It's a pity because it was a great school -- 5 of the 10 kids who went there have returned to Ireland on their own time.

Our second teacher at the time was from Ballinasloe and was home in Ireland for the holidays. I'd promised to drop in and say hello, particularly to the parents, and so that was our next stop. Lashings of tea and hospitality, as you can well imagine. We made our way to Aughrim afterwards and spent the night at Hynes', a dreary little place altogether. Aughrim itself is pretty horrible, -- grim, in fact. It's the site of the great battle, the last of the Williamite wars, where the Irish got well and truly thumped and stayed thumped for the next two hundred years. It might have gone either way, interestingly enough, if the commander of the Irish forces (a French general) hadn't been killed at the height of the battle. What followed was the Siege of Limerick, the flight of the Wild Geese, the Penal Laws -- and the death of Gaelic Ireland.

That my old bitter heart was pierced in this black doom,
That foreign devils have made our land a tomb,
That the sun that was Munster's glory has gone down
Has made me a beggar before you, Valentine Brown.

That royal Cashel is bare of house and guest,
That Brian's turreted home is the otter's nest,
That the kings of the land have neither land nor crown
Has made me a beggar before you, Valentine Brown.

(from the Irish, trans. by Frank O'Connor)

Valentine Brown was the name of Lord Kenmare, one of the new Anglo-Irish gentry thrown up by the defeat, hence the bitter repetition of his name by the Kerry poet Egan O'Rahilly (1670-1726) who would formerly have sought patronage with the McCarthys.

The Lament for Art O'Leary

In the century of persecution that followed, one of the most famous of all Irish poems, the "Lament for Art O'Leary", was written by his widow after Arthur or Art O'Leary, a colonel in the Austrian army, was outlawed and killed in Carriganimma, County Cork in 1773 for refusing to sell his famous mare to a Protestant named Morris for £5 (Catholics were not permitted by law to possess a horse of greater value than this).

My love and my delight,
The day I saw you first
Beside the market-house
I had eyes for nothing else
And love for none but you.

I left my father's house
And ran away with you,
And that was no bad choice;
You gave me everything.

There were parlours whitened for me,
Bedrooms painted for me,
Ovens reddened for me,
Loaves baked for me,
Joints spitted for me,
Beds made for me
To take my ease on flock
Until the milking time
And later if I pleased.

My mind remembers
That bright spring day,
How your hat with its band
Of gold became you,
Your silver-hilted sword,
Your manly right hand,
Your horse on her mettle
And foes around you
Cowed by your air;
For when you rode by
On your white-nosed mare
The English lowered their head before you
Not out of love for you
But hate and fear,
For, sweetheart of my soul,
The English killed you.

My love and my calf
Of the race of the Earls of Antrim
And the Barrys of Eemokilly,
How well a sword became you,
A hat with a band,
A slender foreign shoe
And a suit of yarn
Woven over the water!

My love and my darling
When I go home
The little lad, Conor,
And Fiach the baby
Will surely ask me
Where I left their father,
I'll say with anguish
Twas in Kilnamartyr;
They will call the father
Who will never answer.

My love and my mate
That I never thought dead
Till your horse came to me
With bridle trailing,

All blood from forehead
To polished saddle
Where you should be,
Either sitting or standing;
I gave one leap to the threshold,
A second to the gate,
A third upon its back.

I clapped my hands,
And off at a gallop;
I never lingered
Till I found you lying
By a little furze-bush
Without pope or bishop
Or priest or cleric
One prayer to whisper
But an old, old woman,
And her cloak about you,
And your blood in torrents -
Art O'Leary -
I did not wipe it off,
I drank it from my palms.

My love and my delight
Stand up now beside me,
And let me lead you home
Until I make a feast,
And I will roast the meat
And send for company
And call the harpers in,
And I shall make your bed
Of soft and snowy sheets
And blankets dark and rough
To warm the beloved limbs
An autumn blast has chilled.

My rider of the bright eyes,
What happened you yesterday?
I thought you in my heart,
When I bought you your fine clothes,
A man the world could not slay.
Tis known to Jesus Christ
Nor cap upon my head,
Nor shift upon my back
Nor shoe upon my foot,
Nor gear in all my house,
Nor bridle for the mare
But I will spend at law;
And I'll go oversea
To plead before the King,

And if the King be deaf
I'll settle things alone
With the black-blooded rogue
That killed my man on me.

(from the Irish, trans. by Frank O'Connor)

She is said to have followed up her husband's murderers as she threatened and to have had the soldiers who shot him transported. Morris himself was shot in Cork by O'Leary's brother.

Yeats' Tower

After a night in Aughrim we stopped the following morning to look at the early fourteenth century Kilconnell Friary nearby. Along came Maura's father in his car and we were hauled back to the house for more lashings of tea and hospitality. A good bit later we headed on for Clonmacnoise on the Shannon, the largest and one of the best-preserved monastic sites in Ireland. Its central location, far from the coastline, had a lot to do with its prosperity since it was beyond the usual range of the Vikings (but they attacked it anyway). It was used as a burial ground for many of the Gaelic chieftains:

In a quiet water'd land, a land of roses,
Stands Saint Kieran's city fair;
And the warriors of Erin in their famous generations
Slumber there.

There beneath the dewy hillside sleep the noblest
of the clan of Conn,
Each below his stone with name in branching Ogham
And the sacred knot thereon.

There they laid to rest the seven Kings of Tara,
There the sons of Cairbré sleep -
Battle-banners of the Gael that in Kieran's plain of crosses
Now their final hosting keep.

And in Clonmacnois they laid the men of Teffia,
And right many a lord of Breagh;
Deep the sod above Clan Creidé and Clan Conaill,
Kind in hall and fierce in fray.

Many and many a son of Conn the Hundred-fighter
In the red earth lies at rest;
Many a blue eye of Clan Colman the turf covers,
Many a swan-white breast.

-- T.W. Rolleston (from the Irish of Angus O'Gillan)

What in the name of God, you may be asking yourself, is going on here, with all this poetry? Ah, well, it's just by way of getting you warmed up for the next stop on the tour, the tower Yeats lived in at Thoor Ballylee:


An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farmhouse that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;

A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
A candle and written page.
Il Penseroso's Platonist toiled on
In some like chamber, shadowing forth
How the daemonic rage
Imagined everything.
Benighted travellers
From markets and from fairs
Have seen his midnight candle glimmering.

Two men have founded here. A Man-at-arms
Gathered a score of horse and spent his days
In this tumultuous spot,
Where through long wars and sudden night alarms
His dwindling score and he seemed castaways
Forgetting and forgot;
And I, that after me
My bodily heirs may find,
To exalt a lonely mind,
Befitting emblems of adversity.


Yeats is Ireland's greatest poet of the modern age. In nineteenth century Ireland there was tremendous poetic energy but no centralizing force or spirit until the passionate vision of Yeats provided focus and unity. The Irish literary revival at the turn of the century (and particularly the dramatic expression of Synge and O'Casey through the Abbey Theatre) would have been unthinkable without him. He recognized that Ireland is always capable of treachery and squalor, but he was also aware of its capacity for heroism and nobility -- "A terrible beauty is born" was how he described the Easter Rising -- and he exhorted the coming generations to be, and to continue to be, the "indomitable Irishry".

Back to the Cromwellian splendour and the horses and peacocks of New Park. The girls had a go at the shops in Ennis the following morning (Thursday) while I renewed my acquaintance with Considine's and the lounge of the Queen's Hotel. Leopold Bloom's father stayed here in "Ulysses". ( He never left, in fact, since it was here he committed suicide.) We went out to the Hill when the girls returned and in the afternoon took the road past Quin and Knappogue Castle to the Craggaunowen Project, a reconstruction of an ancient "crannog", or lake dwelling. The "Brendan" on display there is a leather-hulled boat built to specifications found in a ninth century manuscript. In 1976 Tim Severin and a crew of four successfully sailed the Atlantic in it, showing that the legend of St. Brendan's discovery of America might have been based on fact. Good bye, Columbus.

On Friday morning (August 2) we dropped N and her young son at Shannon for their flight back to Japan. Later in the day, after stopping by Kitty's, we made our way back to Dublin by way of Killaloe on the Shannon. This place, picture-pretty and small as it is, has had a number of peculiar and colourful bishops. We passed by my old school behind a field of haystacks in the county Kildare. It can bloody well stay there.

Come on, the lads

I left the car back on Saturday and we went into town to do some shopping. The following morning we went with K. for a sung Mass at the Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough Street. After that I was off to Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-finals in the hurling, Tipp v. Galway and Antrim v. Kilkenny. The Tipp - Galway match was the big one but far more interesting was gutsy Antrim in the yellow taking on the striped Kilkenny Cats. To be a hurler in Antrim is a political statement and half the county had descended on Dublin for the day. I started off neutral but couldn't keep it up -- COME ON, ANTRIM!! They played a blinder but lost by a few points in the last five minutes of the match. On the way home all the pubs in Drumcondra were packed to the rafters and I must have heard "The Green Glens of Antrim" more than a dozen times that afternoon.

Monday bright and early I set off for Belfast and the Black North on the 8 o'clock train from Connolly -- a two hour trip to another planet.