Snapshots into the Past

All photos are in the public domain.

While looking for images for this site, I found some wonderful old photos from the National Library of Ireland. You can see examples in Casement’s Last Stand and Are Ye Right There, Michael? I couldn’t resist sharing some more of their historic photos from along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Oh I do like to walk along the prom

Promenade, Lahinch, Co.Clare

This photo was taken “between 1896 and 1914”. Lahinch opened up for tourism in the 19th century thanks to the West Clare Railway, but it wouldn’t become a prime surfing spot until the late 20th century. No idea if these are visitors or locals out for a stroll; that woman with the pram (mother? nanny?) is probably just trying to get the child to sleep. Hard to tell the weather from this photo; everyone seems well wrapped up, but most people were in Edwardian times.

Grazing on the edge

Achill Island

From “circa 1910”, but if it wasn’t for the woman’s dress, this could have been taken yesterday. Achill Island is still a wild place. It’s the edge of Europe, “next stop America” (or to be specific, Newfoundland). I love the way the woman and the cow on the left are both striking a pose for the camera.

Market day

St. Nicholas’ Church, Galway, taken by Robert French c.1890
St. Nicholas’ Church, Galway, taken by B. Lawlor in 1990

Here are two photos from the same spot — outside St Nicolas’ Church in Galway — taken 100 years apart. The dress and transportation has changed, and the tree has grown significantly, but otherwise there’s a similar energy about the two scenes. The Saturday market is still going strong in the same area, a great place to buy your olives and woolly hats.

Further reference

There are loads more photos on the National Library of Ireland page on Flickr. Be careful: you could lose yourself for a long time in those archives.

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.

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.


The Hunger Road

Louisburgh, County Mayo

Photo of Mayo churchyard by P.J. McKenna

On last Friday, 30th ult., Colonel Hogrove, one of the vice guardians of Westport union, and Captain Primrose, the poor law inspector, arrived here on that morning for the purpose of holding an inspection on the paupers who were receiving outdoor relief in this part of the union.
— Letter from “A Ratepayer” to The Mayo Constitution, April 5th, 1849

March is said to go “in like a lion, out like a lamb”, but at the end of March 1849, the weather showed no signs of easing.

The people were exhausted. Three years of failed harvests had starved them; waves of diseases such as typhus and cholera had further weakened and winnowed the population. The rebellion of the previous year had reduced any residual pity the British government had for the destitute population of Ireland.

There was still some pity in the world, however. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, provided soup and medical attention across Ireland. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Choctaw nation donated $170, the equivalent of tens of thousands today. It was an extraordinary sum; the Choctaws were themselves in dire straits, having been forced to leave their own homes the previous decade in the “Trail of Tears”.

But such isolated acts of charity were not enough. Many thousands in Mayo were depending on outdoor relief to stay alive. An inspection was due to take place at Louisburgh to determine who was eligible, but the two men from the Board of Guardians decided that they would much prefer to go hunting at Delphi Lodge instead. The locals were told that the inspection would take place in Delphi at 7am the next morning.

The distance was only 12 miles (19km) to the south, but for starving people on foot in atrocious weather it must have seemed like the other side of the country. Perhaps the Board of Guardians thought the journey would discourage those indigents from claiming from the public purse, but they underestimated their desperation.

Hundreds of these unfortunate living skeletons, men, women and children, might have been seen struggling through the mountain passes and roads for the appointed place.
— Letter from “A Ratepayer” to The Mayo Constitution, April 5th, 1849

Throughout the night, hundreds walked the soggy goat path along the shores of Doolough lake. Their starved flesh hung loosely and their bones had little protection against the bitter March wind. With little strength in reserve, some slipped along the scree that lead down to the lake. Parents carried children, children carried younger siblings, older adults leaned against the young and upright.

Photo of Doolough from National Library of Ireland

That morning, there were already bodies on the picturesque road along the Doolough valley. In the opulent surroundings of Delphi Lodge, the inspectors sat down for breakfast. When the starving hordes arrived, they were sent away empty-handed, back down the road from which they’d come.

The bodies of these ill-fated creatures lay exposed on the road side for three or four days and nights, for the dogs and ravens to feed upon, until some charitable person had them buried in a turf hole at the road side.
— Letter from “A Ratepayer” to The Mayo Constitution, April 5th, 1849

No-one knows how many died that day. A “ratepayer” reported in the Mayo Constitution that seven bodies were found and nine more people were never seen again. Other eyewitnesses claimed that over a hundred fell by the wayside. It was just one story of many in a famine that killed over a million and sent the same number fleeing abroad.

A Celtic cross now marks the scene of the Doolough Valley tragedy. In 1990, the first annual Famine Walk between Louisburgh and Doolough was held to commemorate the event. Among those present were members of the Choctaw Nation, descendants of those who had made such a generous donation to Ireland in its hour of need.


Are Ye Right There, Michael?

Kilkee, County Clare

Photo of 19th-century Kilkee from National Library of Ireland

You may talk of Columbus’s sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee

– Are Ye Right There Michael (Percy French, 1902)

The railway boom in the 19th century brought many societal changes. Towns that had kept their own idiosyncratic time, marked by the passage of the sun and the church clock, now needed to standardize their hours in line with train schedules. The paperback novel took off as a source of mass entertainment, sold at stations by the likes of WH Smith. Distances that had once daunted all but the most intrepid travellers were now open for middle-class day trippers.

Even the remote area of West Clare was affected. Kilkee became a seaside resort in the 1820s, when a paddle steamer service from Limerick to Kilrush was launched; the author Charlotte Brontë spent her honeymoon there. But when a narrow gage railway was built between Ennis and Kilkee in the 1890s, the tourist trade expanded and the town became known as “the Brighton of the West”. In summer, holidaymakers brought buckets and spades, taking to the waters in their billowing Victorian swimwear.

In 1898, a concert was advertised in Moore’s Hall. At 8pm on the 10th of August, the townsfolk would be treated to a performance by Percy French, one of the most popular entertainers of the day. Famous for his magic lantern shows and his comic songs like Phil the Fluter’s Ball, he would have been a big attraction. French was due to arrive by train at 3:30pm, which would give him plenty of time to prepare.

Unfortunately, his train got as far as Miltown Malbay, some 30km (19 miles) away, and stayed there. Weeds were in the boiler and the driver was afraid it would explode. The replacement train didn’t arrive until 5 hours later, by which time the driver was probably afraid Mr French would explode. By the time French made it to the hall, most of the audience had given up and gone home.

French was later awarded £10 expenses from the West Clare Railway, and the song he wrote about the experience became one of his most popular.

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’
That ye couldn’t say for certain’
Still ye might now, Michael,
So ye might!

– Are Ye Right There Michael (Percy French, 1902)

The company tried to sue French for libel. He turned up late to court, with the excuse that “Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway”. The case was thrown out.

The West Clare Railway was eventually closed in 1961. A short portion of the railway was reopened for tourists in the 21st century, and you can now take a 15-minute trip from Moyasta Junction on the “Slieve Callan” steam engine.


The Boy Who Lived

Skiberreen, County Cork

Scene at Skibbereen. By James Mahoney for The Illustrated London News, 1847.

Oh son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Till a blight came o’er the praties; my sheep, my cattle died,
My rent and taxes went unpaid, I could not them redeem
And that’s the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.
Skibbereen, traditional song (Attributed to Patrick Carpenter 1880)

When blight struck successive potato harvests between 1845 and 1847, the resulting famine caused death and devastation all over Ireland, but the townland of Skibbereen suffered more than most.

Six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man.

– Letter from Nicholas Cummins to The Duke of Wellington (Published in The London Times, December 1846)

The prospects of any child entering Skibbereen workhouse was bleak, with hunger and disease killing more than half of them. That day in 1848, like too many before, the emaciated bodies were piled onto a cart and pulled to the mass grave at Abbeystrewry. As they were thrown into the burial pit, one small child was hit by a shovel and groaned.

Three-year-old Tom Guerin was alive!

They pulled him from the grave, but the shovel blow left him crippled for life. He grew up to scrape a living as a beggar, travelling the country during the summer months and returning to the workhouse for winter. Despite this, he remained a cheerful man and a well-known character in West Cork, trading on his celebrity as “the boy who rose from the dead”.

In later life, he applied to the guardians of the workhouse for a new pair of shoes, supporting his case with a poem:

I rose from the dead in the year ’48,
When a grave at the Abbey had near been my fate,
Since then for subsistence I have done all my best
Though one shoe points eastwards and the other points west.
I roam o’er the world admiring each scene,
And a tax on the ratepayers I have never been,
I only appeal to you now for a pair
Of brogues, and I’ll vanish again into air.
– Tom Guerin, date unknown

Tom got his shoes. He died at 65, an impressive age for someone who lived a hard life and was left for dead as a child.