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

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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

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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

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St. Nicholas’ Church, Galway, taken by Robert French c.1890
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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.

The Emergency Corridor

Bundoran, County Donegal

Photo of Tullan Strand, Bundoran by Brittni Stasiuk, licensed under Creative Commons

Is it smugness or insurgency
That makes them say ‘Emergency’?
I feel it lacks the urgency
Of World War Two
— ‘Be Careful not to Patronise the Irish’, song from Improbable Frequency

In April 1941, the men at an Irish army observation point watched as a fishing boat approached Tullan Strand near Bundoran. This would have been a normal sight, except the catch of the day was not herring but a Saro Lerwick sea-plane. Its pilot, British Army Officer Denis Briggs, had been forced to ditch when he ran out of fuel off the coast of Donegal.

Ireland was officially neutral during World War Two; the impact of the European conflict was dealt with under the Emergency Powers Act of 1939 and the situation in Ireland was therefore dubbed “The Emergency”. At various spots along the coast, the word EIRE was spelled out in large white stones, warning Allied planes that this was not the place to land and Axis planes that this was not the place to bomb.

So as Briggs and his plane were brought ashore, the local Irish army thought they knew what to do. They impounded Briggs’s plane and brought the crew to the nearby Finner Army Camp.

They were not aware that an under-the-table deal had been made between the British and Irish governments. British planes could use the air route over north Leitrim and south Donegal that linked the Atlantic Ocean to Northern Ireland, so long as they kept above a certain height, avoided the Finner camp, and didn’t make a nuisance of themselves. This route would become known as “The Donegal Corridor”.

Officer Briggs had, through no fault of his own, breached the accords of the “Donegal Corridor”. However, after a certain amount of diplomatic wrangling, a camouflaged aircraft lorry arrived from Northern Ireland with aviation fuel and the crew could take off again. Media censorship ensured that the news didn’t travel far, so Ireland’s neutrality was officially kept pure.

Three years later, the crew of a British Halifax aircraft was not so lucky in their flight through the Donegal Corridor. They were gathering weather-forecasting information that was essential to the war effort, so they were forced to go out despite atrocious conditions. Tragically, the plane hit the cliffs near the Fairy Bridges at Bundoran, and all ten men were killed. A monument to the Halifax crash can be seen today at Tullan Strand.

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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.

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

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A Soft Landing

Clifden, County Galway

Photo of Alcock and Brown in Clifden, public domain

15th June 1919. The two airmen flew eastwards into the dawn. The heating in their flying suits had stopped working a few hours after they’d taken off from Newfoundland, so they warmed themselves with whiskey-laced coffee. Lieutenant Arthur Brown and Captain John Alcock had survived several close calls, flying part of the way upside-down in freezing fog.

When the sun appeared, Alcock stripped the gloves from his freezing fingers and measured their location using the sextant. They were on course, but the controls threatened to freeze up if they didn’t move into warmer air. He pushed the joystick forward and descended into the cloud, where there was no visibility beyond the nose of the plane.

The two men were soon sitting in a puddle as the ice in the cockpit melted. But then, to their exultation, they spotted land! They had intended to fly direct to London, but under the circumstances a touchdown in Ireland seemed like a good idea.

Alcock flew towards Clifden at a low height, circling the streets as he looked for a convenient field. The locals strained their necks and dropped their jaws as this strange, noisy machine buzzed above them in the sky! Out by the Clifden wireless tower, some men waved towards the plane, as if inviting it to land in the green meadow beyond.

Alcock didn’t realise their waves were a warning about the bog he was about to land in. The Vimy Vicker, veteran plane of the Great War, ploughed a deep furrow before burying its nose in the mud of Derrygimla Moor. After 16 hours and 3040 km (1890 miles), Alcock and Brown had become the first aviators to make a non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

The men who’d tried to warn them jumped from one grass tuft to another as they made their way to the plane.

“Anybody hurt?” they asked. “Where are you from?”

“America,” said Alcock.

The crowd broke out in laughter. Brown gave one of them an orange from Newfoundland as proof this wasn’t an elaborate joke.

News of the landing was relayed from the wireless station, just short hop from where the plane had crash-landed. When Tom “Cork” Kenny got a message at the offices of the Connacht Tribune in Galway, the journalist knew this could be the scoop of his life. He jumped into his V8 car and drove to Clifden to pick up the pilots, keeping them away from other newspapermen until he had his exclusive.

Alcock and Brown spent the night at the Railway Hotel (now the Meyrick) in Galway, and received a hero’s welcome the following day despite the heavy rain. But they were in a hurry to get to London and collect their prize. The Daily Mail had offered £10,000 to ‘the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland’. At the London Royal Aero Club, Captain John Alcock handed over a bundle of letters that had been entrusted to him by the postmaster in Newfoundland. Air mail was invented!

Alcock and Brown were knighted by King George V for their achievement. Sadly, Alcock didn’t enjoy his success for long; that December, he was in a fatal air crash in fog over France. But the inhabitants of Clifden would never forget the day two men dropped out of the sky to meet them. Today, the Alcock and Brown Hotel takes pride of place in the town square.

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To the Waters and the Wild

Spiddal, County Galway

Photo of The Waterboys, Open East, 2013 by Nick, licensed under Creative Commons

In the winter of 1987-88, Mike Scott was looking for inspiration. His band, the Waterboys,  had started out as a rock band, but fiddler Steve Wickham was bringing a traditional Irish influence on their music. Scott and Wickham wanted to tap into some primeval Celtic spirit for their next project, and so they drove westwards from Dublin.

The full majestic expanse of Galway Bay now opened on our left, while to our right lay a strange, rocky land of hills and ancient stone walls. I began to get goosebumps. The wildness of the land and the light on the bay did something fateful to me and I turned and said to Dunford, with a sudden certainty ‘This is the land of my soul!’

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

They found the perfect place at Spiddal House: the wood-paneled lounge became the control room with the mixing desk, while the dining room was transformed into a recording studio.

The core Waterboys at that stage sounded like the lineup for a joke: an Englishman (Anthony Thistlethwaite), a Scotsman (the aptly-surnamed Scott), a Dubliner (Wickham), and a Northern Irishman (Trevor Hutchinson). Other musicians were drafted in as needed, the huge kitchen table accommodating the rotating bunch. On fine days, the front lawn became a football pitch. In the evenings, the band played sessions with locals in Hughes’ pub.

To avoid cabin fever, the band lived in holiday homes throughout the village. That spring, Mike Scott started each day with a deep breath of clear Atlantic air before hopping on his bike and pedaling to Spiddal House. As he entered the doors, he heard his bandmates playing drums and fiddles. There was no phone or TV in the house, and they kept to a strict timetable. In this atmosphere, the Waterboys produced tracks like When Ye Go Away and A Bang on the Ear.

It was not all magical dreamtime. The cook was a local gay man named Bandy Donovan, and  his unrequited passion for these leather-trousered troubadours finally turned his head. When he got his first wages, he downed several drinks along with his anti-depressant pills and marched on the house with a double-barrelled shotgun. Producer John Dunford tackled him to the ground and broke the loaded gun across his knee. Scott emerged from the recording studio to find Dunford dragging Donovan from the house, the hapless cook asking “should I go in and make the dinner now?”

As we approached the end of the sessions, spring gave way to summer and a spell of gorgeous weather enfolded the west of Ireland. This and the long light evenings impacted on us like a draught of magic and turned us what in older, more innocent times would have been termed fey.

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

Perhaps the most ambitious number was a recording of W.B. Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child. They recruited Scottish musician Colin Blakey of We Free Kings to play the flute. The expected drummer failed to appear, but fortunately Padraig Stevens of the Sawdoctors was in the area. Stevens couldn’t make the drums work with the tune, so he borrowed some little brass bells from the neighbours to evoke the fairy feeling.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

— The Stolen Child, W.B. Yeats (1889)

Scott sang the chorus of The Stolen Child, but he didn’t like the way his voice sounded in the spoken verses. A few months earlier, he’d bought a cassette by local sean-nos singer Tomás Mac Eoin, and now he sent Hutchinson and Thistlethwaite up the coast to Carraroe to persuade the old man to perform on the track.

We went into the studio, the rock ‘n’roller and the sean-nós singer, and sat facing each other across the gulf between our different worlds… When the music started playing I gave Tomás a gentle signal with my hand a split-second in advance of where I imagined each line of the poem falling. And he responded, his giant of a voice rolling out the rich syllables on cue like an old god pouring wine down a mountainside.

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

On their penultimate night in Spiddal House, the Waterboys held a jam session until 8am, when the roadies arrived from Galway to haul away the mixing desk and other gear. The next evening a party began in Hughes’ bar and finished up at Hutchinson and Thistlethwaite’s bungalow. At the end of the night, a chorus line of musicians and Spiddal folk smoked reefers and kicked their legs up in a can-can.

The Waterboys’ third album, Fisherman’s Blues, was released that October. Critics were divided, some bemoaning the band’s change of direction, others proclaiming it their best work yet. But the air of Spiddal had done its magic;  Fisherman’s Blues  would be their biggest selling album, and their next tour was a sellout.

The Waterboys themselves would never be the same after the summer of 1988. A young accordionist called Sharon Shannon joined them for a while, but after a disagreement in the direction of the band, she left along with Wickham. Hutchinson eventually became a full-time trad musician, while Thistlethwaite returned to Galway to join The Sawdoctors and raise a family.

By 1993, the Waterboys were no more, although Scott re-recruited Wickham and resurrected the name with new members in 2000. The Spiddal sessions had been so productive that, in 2001, he was able to release a new album (Too Close to Heaven) with the leftover material. The band returned to their favourite Sligo poet as an inspiration for their 10th album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats.

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Surf’s Up

Lahinch, County Clare

Photo of Lahinch Surfer by TOF2006, licensed under Creative Commons

Let’s go surfin’ now
Everybody’s learning how
Come on and safari with me
– Surfin’ Safari, song by The Beach Boys (1962)

In the summer of 1972, an international group of surfers held their boards upright on the sands of Lahinch in County Clare and looked despairingly at the sea. The day was unusually calm and the waves were barely six inches high. The sea at Lahinch, usually turbulent enough to provide optimal surfing conditions, might as well have been a lake.

Surfing at that time was a very new sport in Ireland. Indeed, it barely existed until 1963, when Kevin Cavey picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest.

One day I read in the Readers Digest about the sport of the Kings in the Hawaiian Islands, and saw a picture of them riding head height waves, the sort of which I had often seen in the west of Ireland. I immediately determined to put Ireland on the map as a surfing country. So as to test if surfing would work, I built an 8 ft long plywood and aero foam board and launched it in Bray in August 1964. I immediately formed Ireland’s first Surf Club and called it ‘Bray Ireland Surf Club’.

– Kevin Cavey

He linked up with other interested surfers in Ireland and the U.K., and organized “surfaris” to places like Tramore, Strandhill, Enniscrone, and Lahinch. He even established networks in Northern Ireland, a remarkable instance of cross-border co-operation at the height of “The Troubles”.

By 1970, Ireland boasted about 400 surfers. Irish surfers competed abroad and started to win, and in 1972 it was decide to hold the European Surfing Championships at Lahinch. Surfers travelled from Britain, France, and Spain for the chance to ride the Atlantic waves.

Unfortunately, the waves didn’t co-operate and only the junior competition went ahead.

The day after this anti-climax, there was a swell off Spanish Point, produced by a reef that had never before been noticed.  The French contingent had already left, but those remaining became the first to ride this newly-discovered reef. They followed this with a “surfari” to Donegal, and most of the surfers returned home with exciting tales of the wild and unpredictable surf on the west coast of Ireland.

Surfing continued to grow in popularity. The 1997 the European Surfing Championships were held again in Ireland, this time in Bundoran, County Donegal. Today, there are around 40 surf schools and 20,000 surfers in Ireland. Kevin Cavey is now known as “the grandfather of Irish surf”.

***

I’ll end this post on a personal note. In September 2006, my work colleague told me he was going surfing in Lahinch with his brother and a friend, and asked if I’d like to join them. I didn’t have anything better to do that weekend, so I accepted the invitation.

The sea that Saturday was just as calm as it had been for the European Surfing Championships in 1972. We ended up walking the beach, drinking smoothies, and enjoying the sunshine. My colleague’s friend had a lovely smile and, as we chatted away along the beach, our companions decided to give us some space to get to know each other.

Two years later, P.J. and I were married. So I owe a great deal to the fickle waves of Lahinch.

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Casement’s Last Stand

Banna Strand, County Kerry

Photo of Roger Casement from National Library of Ireland

As the sun rose on Good Friday, April 21st 1916, three soaking men pulled a wooden rowboat to shore at Banna Strand in County Kerry. Roger Casement and his companions had been set down by a German U-Boat but their dinghy had overturned in the waves.

The sandhills were full of skylarks, rising in the dawn, the first I had heard for years – the first sound I heard through the surf was their song as I waded in through the breakers, and they kept rising all the time up to the old rath at Currahane.

— Roger Casement in a letter to his sister, 1916

51-year-old Casement was exhausted and unwell. When he collapsed on the sand, the two other men — Robert Monteith and Daniel Bailey — realised he could travel no further.

They had come from Germany, by way of Northern Scotland and Rockall, a long and dangerous route during wartime. But Casement had travelled still farther in his life. When he’d been born into a prosperous Anglo-Irish family at Sandycove in Dublin, most would have assumed he’d have a comfortable future. But Casement’s restless nature would not let that happen.

Most Europeans who went to work in the Congo Free State were able to ignore the atrocities that made their lives there possible. Casement could not. Initially employed as a clerk, he was later commissioned by the British Government to investigate exactly how King Leopold had been running his fiefdom in central Africa. The truth was more shocking than anyone had imagined. His report outlined the “enslavement, mutilation, and torture of natives on the rubber plantations“, and the international pressure eventually forced Leopold to relinquish his personal holdings.

He’d first contracted malaria in the Congo. As he struggled onto Irish shores for the first time in many years, he was suffering a relapse of that disease. His companions left him in the shelter of an ancient rampart known as McKenna’s Fort, and they went to find the local branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

As he curled in on himself, shivering with cold and fever, did he think about those days in the Congo? Did he also recall his later investigations into the abuse of the Putayamo Indians in Peru? He was known as a great campaigner whose searing words brought injustice to light. Would his admirers see him the same if they knew of his other activities, of the furtive pleasures he took with young men he met on his travels?

When did his razor-sharp sense of injustice begin to focus on his native land? He must have known, when he tried to persuade German government officials to provide arms and training for the IRB, that the British authorities would seen him as the worst kind of traitor. But the Germans provided far less equipment than was needed, and now his main aim was to contact the Irish rebels and advise them to call off the uprising.

He waited, surrounded by 2000 German rifles, listening to the skylarks, watching the primroses and wild violets that bloomed in the prehistoric ring fort. Did he wonder about the strange, circular fate that had brought him to this place?

Now the R.I.C. were hunting
For Sir Roger high and low,
They found him in McKenna’s fort;
Said they: “You are our foe”,
Said he: “I’m Roger Casement,
I came to my native land,
I mean to free my countrymen
On the lonely Banna Strand”.

— Lonely Banna Strand, song by The Wolfe Tones

The local Irish constabulary arrested Casement at McKenna’s Fort. The uprising took place on Easter Monday without the German weapons, and ended after six days with the surrender of the leaders.

Casement was tried for treason in London. His impassioned speech from the dock gained him new admirers around the globe, including in other parts of the British Empire who saw parallels in their own national situations. But during the trial, the British Government circulated passages from the “Black Diaries”, accounts of Casement’s homosexual activities in Congo and Peru. Nationalists protested that these diaries must have been faked, but they succeeded in their aim of tarnishing Casement’s reputation and turning off would-be supporters.

Roger Casement was hung at Pentonville Prison on August 3rd 1916. His remains were returned to Ireland nearly 50 years later.The old fort by Banna Strand has been renamed Casement’s Fort.

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