Road Trip!

Image from Google Maps

I wrote another article for Ireland Before You Die: Galway to Donegal in 5 Days. Includes:

  • Connemara
  • Doolough Valley
  • Achill Island
  • Yeats Country
  • Donegal


The Achill Avenger

Achill Island, County Mayo

Photo of Achillhenge by P.J. McKenna

Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain some 4000 years ago over a period of generations. An equivalent structure in concrete was thrown up on Achill Island in November 2011 over one weekend.

Joe McNamara was no stranger to controversy. The year before, he had driven a mixer truck into the gates of Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament), the words ANGLO TOXIC BANK emblazoned on its drum. This was a reference to Anglo Irish Bank, the institution the centre of the Irish banking crisis. McNamara, a hotel developer who lost millions when the bank pushed his business into receivership, was soon dubbed the “Anglo Avenger” by the press. While he was waiting to be charged with criminal damage and dangerous driving, he drove up again to the Dáil, this time in a cherry-picker from where he blasted Lady Gaga along with other protest songs. He received a warning but not a prison sentence.

No-one was sure why he decided to create a 4 metre-tall, 100-metre round concrete structure on a piece of common ground on his native Achill Island.Was he inspired by other Stonehenge homages, such as Carhenge in Nebraska or Fridgehenge in New Zealand? He didn’t have planning permission; he tried to claim exemption by saying it was an “ornamental garden”, a “place of reflection”. While work was still ongoing, Mayo County Council served him an order to stop construction, but the structure was completed and McNamara was again in court. This time he was served with 5 days in prison.

Opinion on Achillhenge is divided. Locals are more than willing to direct curious tourists in its direction, and hand-painted signs point the way up the mountain path towards the structure. Archaeologists complain that it’s too close to a Bronze Age site. It has been described as an eyesore, a place of contemplation, a daring piece of art, and a monument to the Celtic Tiger.

It is meaningless – in a way – so each of us can put our own meaning on it.
— Achill resident, quoted by the BBC News

A poll in a local newspaper showed a majority of residents wanted Achillhenge to stay. In 2013, it was used for a temporary art installation, “Our Nation’s Sons”, twelve-foot drawings of young Irish men adorning each pillar.

In 2015, McNamara struck again, this time in the heart of London. Several other Irishmen helped him to erect the unauthorized structure beside Tower Bridge: a 7-metre high sword driven through a heart-shaped Union Jack. This one lasted just one weekend.

Achillhenge, nearly 5 years after its unlawful construction, remains in place.



Galway City

By Aisling Keogh

Photo of Galway scene by P.J. McKenna

Nicola put me on the bus that day. Dublin makes me tired, and I was glad at her insistence.

“It’s no trouble,” she said. And she must have said it a half dozen times before I agreed to let her take me. That’s us Irish for you, we say “no” when what we really mean is “That would be great, thank you.”

Whiny air-conditioning, children with twitchy legs kicking the back of my seat, and the pure lack of consideration from the sun — who insisted on shining in a head splittingly bright fashion — meant I could not sleep. But there’s still something about heading west at the end of a day, something about driving towards the light. It makes a soul feel hopeful again.

Soon. I’d be home soon.

And good ol’ Galway, she welcomed me back with a solid two fingers to Dublin’s purposeful stride. Outside Logue’s shoe shop, two young ones were singing alongside a busker with a guitar and a fold out fishing stool. I couldn’t say what they were singing, but it sounded good to me. Even better was the fella who stood in the shadows opposite Eason’s bookstore, his sweet voice ringing out on the chorus — “this years love it better last.” Above his head, seagulls circled, swooped and hovered, waiting to scream him down — while I did my best to capture the setting sun peeking through the gap between Deeley’s Menswear and St. Nicholas’ Church.

While I was on the bus it occurred to me, the best way to get Dublin off me was to do the most Galway thing possible, so I was on my way to McDonaghs for fish and chips. In hindsight, Supermacs on Eyre Square might have been a better bet.

The lad on the counter in McDonaghs looked at me like he was asking something far more important than “what drink?” He handed me my cutlery — actually put it in my hand, instead of leaving it on the counter for me to take — and our fingers touched. The warmth of his skin, and our awkwardness, made me smile.

In among the wooden tables and low stools, and the scraping of wood on tile, an American lady talked in a particularly strident tone about a new acquaintance she had dinner with recently. She talked through her nose and her arse about that other woman, who had “cold parents,” picked “the wrong man” who “left her and took all her money.” Cliche bingo, and I was on the bus. I played along for a short while, then wandered off into old memories, about how important I felt once considered old enough to stay up late and watch “Dallas.” And how happy I was then, in our brown and beige sitting room, drinking tea and eating biscuits with Mam and Dad while my little sister slept in her little pink bed.

I sat in the window while I ate, and sorted passerbys into two categories, “from here” and “not from here.” Yellow trouser suit? Definitely not from here. Fuschia pink garland of fake flowers? Also not from here. Mother of the Bride, I concluded, and an unwilling participant in some hen night shenanigans. Good luck to her.

Hunger sated, I steered for the Spanish Arch, then on across Wolfe Tone Bridge, and feck, the breeze that came down the river fairly bit at my nose and cheeks. I shivered and quickened my pace. Around past The Salthouse, I gave a nod and a wink to Monroe’s, and to Vinnie’s takeaway — some other time, lads! They belong to some other night, and dancing until 3am.

On Dominick Street, some woman stopped me, and asked “Where’s La Tosca?” and I was so lost in my own city, I couldn’t say.

The Sports ground was up-hill all the way from there, a gentle enough incline, and not without its highlights. A hen party stopped in the middle of the street, debating what direction to take, and the doorman on “Taafes” pub called to them and told them “The Kings Head” was two doors down, if that’s what they were looking for? I cracked a smile, he went back to his cup of tea. Galway folk are fierce helpful like that.

It had its lows too. Photos of two young men, unknown to each other, stuck to lampposts,asking passersby “Have you seen this man?” I wished for all I was worth that I had. I was playing at being missing from my life. They were for real. Most likely, the tide would bring them home.

The thought might have crushed me, but a waxing moon, snow white in a deep lavender sky, promised something good. “Hold on,” she whispered, “all will be well.”

I was past the coach station and city hall, when the town suddenly roared. “Connacht 25, Munster 14,” a mid-Atlantic drawl stated. Another roar, subsided to a hiss like an old steam engine, bounced off the walls of buildings along College Road, and inside those buildings, through their windows, I could see television screens showing the green pitch that was only metres away from any of them. “The Fields of Athenry” sounded like a battle cry.

Nose and lips already numb from the cold, I chose a seat on a wall outside the ground to wait for my lift. “Go on in,” a steward on the gate beckoned me over, then pointed, “there’s a wall there you can stand on, get a view.”

At first, I shrugged. The Clan stand was shaking with the stamping feet of supporters baying for the oppositions blood, but a light hand on my shoulder ushered me towards that wall. “Keep moving,” the owner of the hand said, “otherwise you’ll freeze.” And that’s what I love about Galway, she doesn’t just invite you in, she insists you accept the invitation.

Originally posted at

The American and the Bishop

Inch Beach, County Kerry

Photo of Inch Beach by Jerry Dohnal, licensed under Creative Commons

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough sold over 30 million copies and became a hugely successful mini-series. Part of its attraction was the scandalous relationship between the Irish priest Father Ralph de Bricassart and a younger Australian woman, Meggie Cleary. Their relationship was finally consummated on a tropical beach.

When Annie Murphy travelled from America to Ireland in 1973, she (like Meggie Cleary) was looking for a retreat from a broken marriage. She chose, not a tropical island, but the quiet green of County Kerry. A family friend was sent to meet her at the airport. Eamon Casey had first met Annie (as Father Ralph had first met Meggie) as a child. She was now 25. He was 45, the Bishop of Kerry.

When Eamon picked me up from the airport that day in 1973, a light went on, there was a spark, that was it.
– Annie Murphy in an interview with The Irish Independent, 2012

Anyone who met Bishop Casey remarked on his energy and charisma. He was a hard man to dislike, even for those who disagreed with him. He was seen as progressive, working for Irish immigrants in Britain, supporting those who protested against the apartheid regime in South Africa, opposing U.S. foreign policy in Central America. He loved to drive fast, to put his foot to the pedal, to push limits.

Casey, Casey, you’re the divil
When you get behind the wheel
– Casey, song by Christy Moore

Red Cliff House was an 18th century hunting lodge which had become a summer residence for members of the Catholic hierarchy. Nearby was the long sandy stretch of Inch Beach, where Ryan’s Daughter had been filmed four years earlier. For Eamon and Annie, Red Cliff House became a hideaway from the world and Inch Beach a place for romantic walks.

Like Rosy and Doryan from Ryan’s Daughter, like Meggie and Father Ralph from The Thorn Birds, Annie and Bishop Eamon became lovers. And like Meggie, Annie became pregnant.

Wear a condom, just in Casey
– T-shirt slogan

The romance ended with her announcement of the pregnancy. Casey insisted that Murphy was in no position to care for a child. Not long after she gave birth, he presented her with adoption papers for their son. She refused to sign and instead returned to America to raise Peter with the help of her parents. Casey sent regular payments for his upkeep, some of it from church funds.

The world didn’t find out until 1992, when Murphy’s partner took the story to The Irish Times. The scandal echoed around the world. Casey resigned as bishop and went to Ecuador as a missionary. Murphy was suddenly in the limelight, roasted on air by talk-show hosts. Later commentators would see it as one of the turning points where the Catholic Church began to lose its grip on the nation’s identity.

Gay Byrne: If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.
Annie Murphy: I’m not so bad either, Mr Byrne.
– The Late Late Show, 1993

The Bishop Casey affair has long since been overshadowed by more disturbing priestly scandals. Few are still shocked by the tale of a bishop who had a consensual affair with a grown woman. Today, he is in a nursing home in County Clare, suffering ill health and dementia. Annie Murphy lives in California, far from Inch Beach.

Update: Eamon Casey died at Carrigoran nursing home on 13th March 2017 at the age of 89. His son Peter joined other relatives in paying tribute to his father.


Sucking Diesel

Mizen Head, County Cork

Photo of Mizen Head by Colleen Jones

On the early morning of July 2nd 2007, Michael O’Donovan heard a knock on the door. He wasn’t expecting visitors to his remote farmhouse in West Cork, especially not when the wind was howling up a storm. He certainly wasn’t expecting to open the door to a shivering man in a dripping wet tracksuit.

The man spoke with an English accent and said his name was Gerard O’Leary. His boat, the Lucky Day, had crashed in the stormy bay that was overlooked by the farm. Michael fetched dry clothes and asked about any others on board. There were three, said Gerard; two had come ashore with him and the other was still in trouble.

“I’ll have to ring the coastguard station to get help,” said Michael. “He won’t last long in the water.”

But the Englishman was strangely reluctant to call anyone. Michael gave him a cup of tea and went outside to look down on the bay. He saw a rubber dingy that seemed to be in trouble just off Mizen Head, and decided to call the Irish Coastguard anyway.

Dermot Sheehan answered the call, and on his way out to the O’Donovan farm he met two men coming in the direction of the shore.

“There is a guy down there in the water in a lifejacket,” one of them told Sheehan, looking towards the sea. “And he needs saving now.”

Sheehan would later describe their body language as “evasive”. They really didn’t want to talk to him, but their friend’s life was in danger and they had little choice.

Lifeboats and a helicopter were sent to rescue the floating man, Martin Wanden. His rescuers had to move some packages aside before they could winch him from the sea. They initially assumed that the packages were buoyancy aids from the boat. Wanden was rushed to Bantry General Hospital to be treated for shock and hypothermia.

On July 3rd, the Lucky Day was found abandoned at Durrus pier, as well as a jeep with blacked-out windows parked nearby. The boat had come all the way from Barbados, and it seemed strange that it had failed so close to shore.

There is an Irish phrase — “now you’re sucking diesel” — which means you’re in luck. The Lucky Day should have been sucking diesel, but it wasn’t. One of the gang had fueled it with petrol instead, causing the engine to stall. This mistake was to cost them dearly.

On July 4th, the remaining men  — Perry Wharrie and Joseph Daly — were found wandering dazed on a country road, surrounded by a herd of mooing cows.

62 “buoyancy aids” were recovered, and were found to contain white powder marked with the logo of a Columbian drugs factory. The cocaine had purity level of 75% and a total value of €440m. It was the largest drug haul yet to be seized off the coast of Ireland.

Perry Wharrie and Martin Wanden were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Joseph Daly got 25, and “Gerard O’Leary” (whose real name was Gerard Hagan) got 10.

The day after Gerard was sentenced, an even larger seizure (worth over €700m) was made off the coast of Bantry. The corrugated coastline of West Cork remains a tempting location for smugglers, in this era as much as in previous centuries. No-one knows the value of the shipments that have made it through.