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.


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.