Glen of the Birch Trees

Glenveagh Castle, County Donegal

Photo of Glenveagh National Park by P.J. McKenna

And even the longest winters rain,
Can’t wash away all the suffering and pain,
Of the Evictions at Derryveagh.
– The Evictions, song by Goats Don’t Shave

When John George Adair arrived in the remote Derryveagh area of Donegal in 1857, he was “enchanted by the surpassing beauty of the scenery”. As well he might be, for the place possessed an imposing if bleak beauty reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. Adair, originally from County Laois, had made his fortune on land speculation in America. Ten years after the Great Famine, land in Ireland was going cheap, so he proceeded to buy up 28000 acres in Donegal.

In the land around Lough Veagh, he purchased “fee-farm” rights, which meant the right to collect rents but not “sporting” rights (hunting, shooting, fishing). He decided the remoteness of the estate meant he could ignore the rules, but some of the tenants objected, beating the bushes and forming a ring 50 paces around him to disrupt his hunt. He threatened them with his fowling gun and swore “they would pay dearly”.

Tragically, he was soon in a position to make that threat real.

In 1861, Adair took full possession of the land and houses in Derryveagh. To the local authorities, he pleaded fear of local reprisals and received a special force of over 200 constabulary; in addition, he hired a 10-man “crowbar brigade” from County Tyrone. The tenancy grew justifiably nervous.

To fit with his Highlander theme (his home would later be built in the “Scottish Baronial” style), Adair had imported Scottish sheep and Scottish shepherds. These men were distrusted by the locals, both as outsiders and for their connection to the bad-tempered Adair. One man, James Murray, was particularly hated. When Murray’s bloody body was found dead on the estate, there were too many suspects to pin the blame on anyone. Adair decided that his entire tenancy were responsible for sheltering a murderer.

Between the 8th and the 10th of April 1861, he sent the constabulary and his own heavies in.

Forced to discharge an unpleasant duty, the sheriff entered the house and delivered up possession to Mr. Adair’s steward, whereupon a Crowbar Brigade of six men who had been brought from distance immediately fell to with right good will to level the house to the ground. The scene became indescribable. The bereaved widow and her daughters were frantic with despair and throwing themselves on the ground, they became almost insensible, and bursting out in the old Irish wail – then heard by many for the first time – their terrifying cries resounded along the mountains for many miles.
—  Londonderry Standard, 1861-01-10

244 people were evicted in all, including 159 children. Once the cottages were unroofed and the former tenants turned out onto the road, there was a deathly silence over the area. Some found shelter with neighbours, while others were forced into the Poorhouse for survival.

The news reached all the way to Australia. Michael O’Grady, representative of the London Insurance Company in Sydney, founded the Donegal Relief Committee to gather funds. In January 1862, many of the younger residents took up the offer to start a new life Down Under. Accompanied by parish priest Father James McFadden, they took the train to Dublin and from there a boat to the other side of the world.

glenveagh_cropped_pj
Photo of Glenveagh Castle by P.J. McKenna

Adair married an American heiress and the two of them built the imposing Glenveagh Castle, whose name translates as “Glen of the Birch Trees”. It became a fashionable residence where they invited friends and celebrities to go hunting, shooting, and fishing. But to the locals that remained and those forced to emigrate, the name “John George Adair” remained bitter on their tongues.

Adair died in 1885 on return from a business trip to America. His wife inscribed a rock on the Glenveagh estate with her husband’s name and the words “Brave, Just and Generous”. One stormy night, the rock was struck by lightning and sent crashing to the bottom of Lough Veagh.

 Links

A House by the Sea

Renvyle, County Galway

Photo of Renvyle Peninsula by P.J. McKenna

No easeful meadows or delightful springs,
Nor visionary islands lure it best;
But far off on the margin of the west,
A sea-grey house, whereby the blackbird sings
— Non Blandula Illa, Oliver St. John Gogarty

Oliver St John Gogarty was a man of some standing in the world. During his student years in Dublin, he caroused with James Joyce and became immortalized as “Buck Mulligan” in Ulysses. He was a successful ear, nose and throat surgeon by the time he married Connemara woman Martha Duane.

In 1917, the Gogartys went looking for a country residence in Martha’s home county, and they purchased Renvyle House “out of the proceeds of my teetotalism” as Oliver wrote to a friend. Far out on the Renvyle peninsula, a bockety car ride along the barely-functional road from Clifden, it was almost the perfect retreat. Almost, because their slumbers were often disturbed by strange footsteps and the sudden quenching of candles — Renvyle House, it appeared, had a ghost.

Among the earliest guests of the Gogartys were W.B. Yeats and his bride, Georgie Hyde-Lee, who spent their honeymoon in Connemara. The new Mrs Yeats fancied herself as a psychic and took it upon herself to communicate with the restless spirit. He identified himself as “Athelstone Blake”, who’d died the previous century at the age of 14, and he promised to stop causing disturbances once he was “placated with incense and flowers”.

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
— Easter 1916, W.B. Yeats

Gogarty was a well-known nationalist and had supported the rebels in 1916. But he supported the 1921 Treaty and so, when the Irish Civil War broke out, he found himself on the opposite side to many of his former comrades. In January 1923, he was having a bath in his Dublin home when a gunman broke down the door. Pulling on his clothes and a fur-lined coat, he was bundled into a car, driven to a house in Chapelizod, and interrogated in a dark cellar.

He eventually told them they needed to let him outside or there would be an unpleasant puddle on their floor. Standing beside the roaring Liffey, he handed the heavy coat to his two guardsmen — and plunged into the icy river. At the Phoenix Park, he climbed up the banks and reported to the Police Station, shivering and wet but otherwise well.

Shortly afterwards, Gogarty moved to London where he could feel safe. But his enemies struck out by setting alight his family home in Connemara.

So Renvyle House, with its irreplaceable oaken panelling, is burned down. They say it took a week to burn. Blue china fused like solder…
Memories, nothing left now but memories. In that house was lost my mother’s self-portrait, painted when she was a girl of sixteen, her first attempt in oils… Books, pictures, all consumed; for what? Nothing left but a charred oak beam quenched in the well beneath the house. And ten tall, straight towers, chimneys, stand bare on Europe’s extreme edge.
— As I was Going Down Sackville Street, Oliver St John Gogarty

Gogarty’s first thought was to abandon Connemara altogether, but his wife was having none of that. Throughout the long fight for compensation, Gogarty decided that he had looked down enough noses and throats for a lifetime and would reinvent himself as a travelling lecturer, with his wife as hotelier. The Renvyle House Hotel opened with a great ceremony on the 30th April 1930.

There are a lucky few who have discovered that West Galway is an unrivalled place for their own and their children’s holidays, and to those who appreciate natural beauty and the delights of sea and mountain, no more perfect spot in the British Isles could be found than the modern and extremely comfortable Renvyle Hotel, near Clifden.
— Connemara’s Glories, “The Queen” magazine, February 1934

It still runs as a hotel today. In 2011, my brother Paul and his wife Edda celebrated their wedding there. Many of the guests stayed awake until the early hours of that morning, partying in the same rooms where Oliver and Martha Gogarty once entertained their guests. There was no sign of Athelstone Blake or any of the other ghosts.

paul_edda_wedding_pj
Happy couple in the gardens of Renvyle House, photo by P.J. McKenna

Links

 

The Ferocious O’Flahertys

Aughnanure Castle, County Galway

Photo of Aughnanure Castle by P.J. McKenna

Fortune favours the strong
— O’Flaherty family motto

The O’Flaherty clan could hold a grudge. They once owned land near the mouth of the River Corrib, but the Norman De Burgh family arrived in the 12th century and persuaded them by means of pointed implements that they should leave. That land became Galway City, populated by 14 Anglo-Norman families who were eventually known as the “Tribes of Galway”.

The O’Flahertys never quite forgave the De Burghs or the other “tribes”, and they would be a thorn in the city’s side for centuries.

The O’Flahertys still had extensive holdings in Connemara (then known as lar-Connacht), and they decided to copy the Norman custom of building defensive castles. Aughnanure Castle, near Oughterard on Lough Corrib, was built in 1490 and was perhaps their most impressive. It was a pleasant location, built over the River Drisheen, surrounded by a forest of yew trees (Aughnanure in Irish is Achadh na nlubhar, “field of the yews”). Lavish banquets were held here, with chieftains from Connacht and further afield coming to enjoy the rich food and the strumming of musicians in the gallery.

20160710-P1090167
Window at Aughnanure Castle, by P.J. McKenna

If you arrived at Aughnanure without an invitation, you could be assured of a more challenging passage. There was a river to cross, then two layers of walls with guardsmen firing arrows at you. If you somehow got through the two thickly-reinforced front doors, you’d find yourself underneath the “murder hole” from where O’Flahertys and their servants would pour boiling water or oil on top of you.

But as a wise man would later say, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”. The O’Flahertys had good reason to be paranoid of their neighbours, as much as their neighbours had good reason to be paranoid of them.

On one occasion, the De Burghs decided that an attack on the castle would be suicidal and they should instead starve the O’Flahertys out. After a long siege, the O’Flahertys promised to pay a tribute  of corn, cattle, and wool to the De Burghs if they’d just go away.

Three years later, this tribute was yet to be paid, and De Burgh sent his son to demand it. The young man arrived in the middle of a banquet and was invited to join the guests at the special seat of honour. Unfortunately for him, he brought up the subject of the tribute. The trapdoor beneath the seat was activated, plunging him into the river below.

Young De Burgh’s body was fished from the water and beheaded. O’Flaherty’s youngest son rode on horseback towards Galway city, the head swinging in a bag by his side. When he reached Tirellan Castle, home of the De Burgh clan on the outskirts of Galway, he was assumed to be bringing the tribute and the drawbridge was pulled down.

“Tell my Lord Earl,” young O’Flaherty yelled. “That this is the only tribute the O’Flahertys of lar-Connacht will ever pay to the De Burghs!”

At this, he threw the bloodied bag over the drawbridge and turned his horse to ride for his life. The De Burghs chased him out of town; a spear pierced his horse’s flank, but he managed to ride on until the animal collapsed. The De Burghs thought they had their man, but a large O’Flaherty force came over the hill. Only a few of the De Burgh men returned to tell their account of the resulting massacre.

From the Ferocious O Flaherty’s O Lord deliver us
— Plaque on the walls of Galway City

The De Burghs abandoned Tirellan Castle soon afterwards, never feeling quite safe there.

The O’Flahertys survived at Aughnanure until the Cromwellian invasion. O’Flaherty remains a common surname in County Galway. If you know someone of that clan, you’d do well not to cross them.

Links

The Red Lady of Leamaneh

Leamaneh Castle, County Clare

Photo of the Burren by P.J. McKenna

In the early 165os, refugees wound their way westwards across Ireland, displaced from their homes in a policy known as “to hell or to Connacht.” Long years of war and slaughter had culminated in Cromwell’s conquest. Many Irish people were “ethnically cleansed” from the best land and resettled in the poor soil of Connemara and the Burren.

A country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.
— Edmund Ludlow (1652), describing the Burren

Maire Rua Ní Mahon (Red Mary MacMahon) already lived in the Burren; she was a Clare-woman born and bred. She watched from the window of her home at Leamaneh Castle, and then looked at the children who now depended on her alone. She was in her mid-30s and already widowed twice. Her first husband, Daniel Neylon, had been an arranged match to bond families together, but her second, Conor O’Brien, was her true love. Now he lay dead, carried home from a battle against the Cromwellian soldiers, nursed by his wife until his final breath.

Her future looked grim. When Conor organized ambush gangs against the invading army, she rode alongside him and killed men with her own hands. So not only would Conor’s estate be forfeit by his actions, but if anyone identified Maire, she could find her neck in a hangman’s noose. She had already lost two daughters to the plague that travelled with the conflict. Her remaining children — three by Daniel and six surviving by Conor — could end up as paupers.

But Maire had a plan. She called her servants and made them dress her in her finest gown and jewels. She must have been an imposing sight: tall, with the red hair that gave her the nickname Rua. She travelled by carriage to Limerick, to the garrison of the invading army, and offered to marry the first officer who was willing.

English soldier John Cooper stepped up to the challenge, becoming the third husband of Maire Rua and master of Leamaneh Castle and its estate. He and his wife had a son together and became wealthy through land dealings, although they eventually overstretched themselves and were forced to leave Leamaneh.

One legend says that John made the mistake of taunting Maire about Conor’s death while they were on the third storey, and she responded by pushing him out the window. Another legend has it that she made him ride a horse over the Cliffs of Moher. Neither is true; both Maire and John lived into old age, although in later years they lived separate lives.

Other unflattering legends attached themselves to the notorious Maire Rua. She was supposed to have had 25 husbands and to have murdered each one. It was said that a maid who displeased the mistress of Leamaneh would be hung by her hair from the castle tower. The locals found it hard to forgive a woman who slept with the enemy instead of allowing herself and her children to starve as any decent woman would.

Donough O’Brien, Maire and Conor’s oldest son, moved the family home to Dromoland Castle, which remained in the O’Brien family until the 20th century. Maire Rua died in 1686 and was most likely buried alongside Conor at Ennis Abbey. Leamaneh Castle fell into ruin, and rumour says that a red-haired ghost still haunts there.

Links