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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The Ferocious O’Flahertys

Aughnanure Castle, County Galway

Photo of Aughnanure Castle by P.J. McKenna

Fortune favours the strong
— O’Flaherty family motto

The O’Flaherty clan could hold a grudge. They once owned land near the mouth of the River Corrib, but the Norman De Burgh family arrived in the 12th century and persuaded them by means of pointed implements that they should leave. That land became Galway City, populated by 14 Anglo-Norman families who were eventually known as the “Tribes of Galway”.

The O’Flahertys never quite forgave the De Burghs or the other “tribes”, and they would be a thorn in the city’s side for centuries.

The O’Flahertys still had extensive holdings in Connemara (then known as lar-Connacht), and they decided to copy the Norman custom of building defensive castles. Aughnanure Castle, near Oughterard on Lough Corrib, was built in 1490 and was perhaps their most impressive. It was a pleasant location, built over the River Drisheen, surrounded by a forest of yew trees (Aughnanure in Irish is Achadh na nlubhar, “field of the yews”). Lavish banquets were held here, with chieftains from Connacht and further afield coming to enjoy the rich food and the strumming of musicians in the gallery.

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Window at Aughnanure Castle, by P.J. McKenna

If you arrived at Aughnanure without an invitation, you could be assured of a more challenging passage. There was a river to cross, then two layers of walls with guardsmen firing arrows at you. If you somehow got through the two thickly-reinforced front doors, you’d find yourself underneath the “murder hole” from where O’Flahertys and their servants would pour boiling water or oil on top of you.

But as a wise man would later say, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”. The O’Flahertys had good reason to be paranoid of their neighbours, as much as their neighbours had good reason to be paranoid of them.

On one occasion, the De Burghs decided that an attack on the castle would be suicidal and they should instead starve the O’Flahertys out. After a long siege, the O’Flahertys promised to pay a tribute  of corn, cattle, and wool to the De Burghs if they’d just go away.

Three years later, this tribute was yet to be paid, and De Burgh sent his son to demand it. The young man arrived in the middle of a banquet and was invited to join the guests at the special seat of honour. Unfortunately for him, he brought up the subject of the tribute. The trapdoor beneath the seat was activated, plunging him into the river below.

Young De Burgh’s body was fished from the water and beheaded. O’Flaherty’s youngest son rode on horseback towards Galway city, the head swinging in a bag by his side. When he reached Tirellan Castle, home of the De Burgh clan on the outskirts of Galway, he was assumed to be bringing the tribute and the drawbridge was pulled down.

“Tell my Lord Earl,” young O’Flaherty yelled. “That this is the only tribute the O’Flahertys of lar-Connacht will ever pay to the De Burghs!”

At this, he threw the bloodied bag over the drawbridge and turned his horse to ride for his life. The De Burghs chased him out of town; a spear pierced his horse’s flank, but he managed to ride on until the animal collapsed. The De Burghs thought they had their man, but a large O’Flaherty force came over the hill. Only a few of the De Burgh men returned to tell their account of the resulting massacre.

From the Ferocious O Flaherty’s O Lord deliver us
— Plaque on the walls of Galway City

The De Burghs abandoned Tirellan Castle soon afterwards, never feeling quite safe there.

The O’Flahertys survived at Aughnanure until the Cromwellian invasion. O’Flaherty remains a common surname in County Galway. If you know someone of that clan, you’d do well not to cross them.

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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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