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.

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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.

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The Sea Queen of Connacht

Clew Bay, County Mayo

The Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley by Tracy Feldman

 Tá Gráinne Mhaol ag teacht thar sáile,
Óglaigh armtha léi mar gharda.

Gráinne Mhaol is coming over the sea,
Armed warriors as her guard.

—  Óró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile, by Padraig Pearse (1914)

The castle on Clare Island had a perfect view. When she stood on its ramparts and looked eastwards, she could see the mainland ahead of her, Achill Island to her left, the holy island of Caher to her right, and the restless seas running between them. Her clan, the O’Malleys, controlled these waters; their motto was “powerful by land and sea”.

Her name was Gráinne Ní Mháille. The English would call her Grace O’Malley. She had grown up on Clare Island,  and as a child she’d asked her father to bring her on a journey to Spain with him. He told her that her long hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes. Ever practical, she’d shaved her head and snuck on board with the boys, and thereafter was known as Gráinne Mhaol (“Bald Gráinne”), or Granuaile.

Her parents arranged a useful political marriage between their teenage daughter and one of the Ferocious O’Flahertys, a pugnacious young man known as Donal An Cogaigh (“Donal of the Battles”). They had two sons and a daughter together, but Donal was better at getting into fights than at ruling a clan territory, and Granuaile was the de facto chieftain during their marriage.

Predictably,  Donal An Cogaigh died during one of his ongoing disputes.The young widow returned to the family home on Clare Island, which became a lucrative pirate base. Granuaile’s crew came from multiple clans who were normally at war with one another. The fact that they put aside their differences to unite behind one woman is testament to her abilities and charisma.

She had strongholds on her headlands,
And brave galleys on the sea
And no warlike chief or viking
E’er had bolder heart than she.
— Granuaile, traditional song

February 1st was Saint Brigid’s Day, a time of pilgrimage to the holy well on Clare Island. Granuaile may have felt a connection to the formidable Saint Brigid, who had stood strong in her own time against the prejudices of men. As Granuaile walked towards the well, a messenger stopped her with news of a shipwreck off Achill Island. There was plunder to be had, and neither religious duty nor bad weather would stand between Granuaile and plunder!

Her crew sailed hard into the wind across the narrow strait between the two islands. A ship was foundering off Achill Head and a young man clung to the rocks. He was Hugh de Lacey, son of a Wexford merchant, a handsome fellow at least a decade younger than Granuaile. She took him home with the rest of the booty, and the two became lovers in her castle on Clare Island.

This romantic interlude was sadly short. Not long afterwards, Hugh went hunting deer on Achill and was killed by a member of the MacMahon clan. Granuaile was heartbroken, the warmth of her love turning to a cold fury that demanded vengeance.

Another pilgrimage was due to take place, this time on the little island of Caher. From her castle she watched the MacMahons disembark from their boats, and then her own fleet swooped in to surround and overpower them. She killed Hugh’s murderer with her own sword, but her thirst for revenge was not slaked. The ships set sail for the MacMahon heartland of Ballycroy and captured Doona Castle for herself, further strengthening her hold on the Mayo coast.

Sometime later, Granuaile married again, to Richard An Iarainn (“Iron Richard”) Bourke. He brought her the Bourke family connections and another strategic holding on Clew Bay: Rockfleet Castle on the mainland. It was another political match, but this time she was the one to negotiate the terms. She married him under the traditional Brehon custom of “one year certain”, a form of trial marriage after which either could withdraw from the arrangement.

On their first wedding anniversary, Richard returned to find himself locked out of Rockfleet Castle. His wife shouted down at him from the topmost window.

“Richard Bourke, I dismiss you!”

Despite the divorce, Granuaile and Richard cooperated when it suited them. They had a son together, Tibbot Na Long (Tibbot of the Ships) Bourke, and they both needed each other to play the political game.

There came to mee a most famous femynyne sea captain called Grany Imallye… she brought with her her husband, for she was as well by sea as by land well more than Mrs Mate with him… this was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.

— Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sydney, 1577

Granuaile remained “powerful by land and sea” into middle and old age. She was 60 when her sons and her half-brother were captured by the governor of Connacht, but this didn’t stop her sailing for London and meeting with Queen Elizabeth I to negotiate their release. To everyone’s surprise, she approached the English Queen as an equal; and to even more astonishment, Elizabeth was impressed enough to order the freeing of Granuaile’s relatives.

The English authorities in Ireland were none too pleased with what they saw as their queen’s capitulation, and they didn’t trust Granuaile’s promise to refrain from further piracy. On this last point they were correct, because the Pirate Queen, despite her advanced years, resumed her clandestine activities on the western seaboard.

The English Queen and the Sea Queen of Connacht died in the same year. Granuaile’s last days were spent at Rockfleet Castle, and she was buried in the abbey on Clare Island.

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