Northern Sky

Malin Head, County Donegal

Photo of Banba’s Crown, Malin Head by Greg Clarke, licensed under Creative Commons

But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky
— Northern Sky, Nick Drake

The Cree Indians saw them as the spirits of their dead ancestors. The Finns thought they were caused by a fox running so fast across the snow that its tail caused sparks. The Japanese thought a child conceived beneath them would be lucky, while the Icelanders believed that a lucky child would be born when they shone — but only if its mother didn’t look directly at them. The Vikings thought their glow came from the shields of the Valkyries. According the Estonians, they were the paths of horse-drawn carriages carrying heavenly guests to a wedding.

I am speaking of course of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis (there is an equivalent in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aurora Australis, but few human habitations are in that region). We know now that they are caused by electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gases in the earth’s atmosphere. They are normally seen at latitudes much further north than Ireland, but just occasionally, they come flickering our way.

Increased solar activity, particularly coronal mass ejections (CMEs) improve the likelihood of aurora displaying at lower latitudes. However, clouds can cover up this activity, and as any Irish person can tell you, clear skies are rarer than we’d like. Artificial lights compete with the natural glow, so they can only really be seen away from towns.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
— North, Seamus Heaney

Malin Head, at 55.38ºN, is the northmost tip of the island of Ireland; although it’s in the Republic, it’s farther north than anywhere in Northern Ireland. “From Malin Head to Mizen Head”, signifying the full length of the country, is a familiar phrase from anyone who’s heard the sea area forecast. Far up on the Inishowen peninsula, Malin Head is a popular spot for viewing seabirds, particularly for their migrations in spring and autumn.

And on a rare occasion, on a dark clear night when the sun has thrown its brightest sparks out towards earth, you might catch a glimmer of those dancing lights.

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Into Exile

Rathmullen, County Donegal

Photo of The Flight of the Earls by Rhodora, licensed under Creative Commons

4th September 1607

The French ship bobbed in the moonlit waters of Lough Swilly. Hugh O’Neill felt like he had reached the end of the world.

He was uncertain whether he would sail today. Born to the powerful family that were descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, he was still Earl of Tyrone, precarious though that position might be in these troubled times. He had played the political game, at times fighting with the English and at other times against them, but perhaps the game had finally caught up with him.

6 years earlier, he had been at the other end of Ireland, fighting alongside his good friend Red Hugh O’Donnell and a battalion of Irish and Spanish soldiers. But the Battle of Kinsale had ended in defeat, and Red Hugh died on his way to Spain to gather more support.

Rory O’Donnell had inherited the title of Earl of Tyrconnell from his older brother. He no more wanted to leave Ireland than O’Neill did, but the English authorities were tightening their grip and he saw no other choice. His wife had accompanied him, together with a retinue of servants. He looked towards his son — not yet a year old, named Hugh after his grandfather and uncle. The small boy grizzled at the lateness of the hour — it was near midnight — hiding his face in his nursemaid’s shoulder.

“A clear night, thank God,” said O’Neill, touching the gold cross that hung around his neck. It contained a relic of the True Cross, and he prayed now that it would give him guidance for making the right decision.

“You can’t rely on King James to pardon you again,” said O’Donnell. Following the Battle of Kinsale, O’Neill had pleaded his case in London. The Scottish king of England had shown mercy on the Irishman, but this had not been a popular move in his Parliament, and the recent Gunpowder Plot meant that Catholics were on shakier ground than ever.

Catherine O’Neill took her husband’s hand. He was startled — theirs was a political match and she wasn’t much given to public displays of affection. Their 7-year-old son Shane stood beside her, trying his best to look grown-up and unafraid.

“Ireland is no longer safe for us,” she said. “But we will return.”

“It will be a good day in Ireland when we do,” said her husband.

He decided to board the ship and sail from Rathmullan towards Normandy. The event would later be known as The Flight of the Earls and be seen as the death knell of the old Gaelic order in Ireland. O’Neill and O’Donnell never returned to see that “good day in Ireland”. They died abroad and were buried together in the San Pietro di Montorio church in Rome.

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The Girl in the Tower

Tory Island, County Donegal

Photo of Tory Island Cliffs by Sara Everett, licensed under Creative Commons

Eithne wandered to her bedroom window, rubbing her eyes and trying to make sense of the strange dream she’d just had. From this height, she could see the rocky cliffs and, if she listened carefully, could hear the crashing of waves far below.

One of her maids had already started to air out her sheets, while another placed her breakfast porridge on the table. This tower, all of its storeys apart from the ground, was the only space she had ever known. Her maids — twelve of them in all — were the only people she had ever known. She didn’t even remember her father, who had placed her here when she was a small child.

So who was that person in her dream, with the oddly-deep voice and the oddly-square jaw? Was it some kind of magic vision?

**

Balor walked through the world with one eye closed most of the time. When he opened that evil eye, it killed all within his vision. It seemed none could defeat a man with such power, but he didn’t want to leave his fate to chance. So he consulted with the druids to see if anyone could defeat him.

“None but your own grandson,” they said.

Balor had one daughter, Eithne. To ensure she would give him no grandchildren, he had her locked in a tower on Tory Island with twelve women to keep her company. She was not, he ordered, to meet any man or even hear tell of one.

**

Eithne heard the women at the front of the castle, but the door to the ground storey was locked so she could do nothing but listen.

“Help us!” an elderly woman called up.

“I am a queen of the Tuatha de Dannan,” called a younger voice. “And my enemies are in pursuit.”

“Take pity and let them in,” Eithne told her maids from behind her door.

She heard the maids welcome the newcomers, and then suddenly go quiet. The younger visitor’s tone changed to that strange, deep voice she had heard in her dream.

She stepped back as the two strangers unlatched the door. As they entered, she fled up the winding staircase. They followed her all the way to the top tower, and she stopped only when she came to the window.

“I won’t hurt you,” said the voice from her dream.

His face, framed in golden hair, was just as it had appeared in her sleep.

“Who are you?” Her hands were pressed to the windowsill behind her back.

“I am Cian of the Tuatha de Dannan. This woman is the druid Birog, who helped me disguise myself and put the maids to sleep.” He tilted his head in puzzlement at Eithne. “Have we met before?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Unless it was in a dream.”

The old druid coughed. “I’ll leave you two alone for a bit.”

**

Cian had once owned a magical cow that never ran dry. Balor tricked him out of that cow, and Cian asked an old druid woman how he could get his revenge. Birog promised that if she got him into the tower on Balor’s island, he could be the instrument of the Evil Eye’s downfall.

He hadn’t known what to expect, but he certainly hadn’t expected a beautiful woman to rush into his arms like she’d been waiting for him all her life.

He begged Birog to help him sneak Eithne out of the castle, but the druid woman shook her head.

“You have no idea what terrible revenge Balor would wreak with that evil eye of his.”

“I don’t care!” Cian declared. “I’m willing to risk it, for Eithne’s sake.”

“I’m not.” Birog grabbed his hand and called on a magic wind to carry them back to the mainland.

Eithne stood watching in shock. A few moments later, her maids began to revive.

**

The maid laid some freshly-baked cakes on the table.

“Although it seems you’ve been indulging too much in my baking,” she said to Eithne. “You’ve been growing plump.”

Another maid, who was changing the sheets, frowned as if performing a calculation in her head.

“How long has it been since your last monthly course?”

The maids were bewildered. No, this was impossible! They found the least embarrassable among them to ask Eithne some pointed questions and found out that, yes, it was indeed possible. There was a good deal of wailing and argument as Eithne curled herself into a ball and cried, hugging her belly. All were agreed on one thing: Balor must never find out.

A few months later, a baby boy was born with hair as golden as his father’s. Eithne held him to her breast and determined that she would love this child as she herself had never been loved.

But while she was sleeping, the maids stole the infant away and threw him out to sea.

**

Birog was waiting on the shore just opposite Tory Island. She cast a spell to roll a wave towards her. The wave carried a laughing baby who she handed to his father.

The boy would become the warrior god, Lugh of the Long Hand. He would grow up to kill his grandfather with a slingshot that he aimed at his evil eye.

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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.

glenveagh_cropped_pj
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.

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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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