A Legen-dairy Death

Knocknarea, County Sligo

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Photo of Knocknarea by P.J. McKenna

Fógraím cogadh feasta
ar fhearaibh uile Éireann
ar na leaids ag na cúinní sráide
is iad ina luí i lúib i gceas naíon

War I declare from now
on all men of Ireland
on all the corner boys
living curled in children’s cradles
— Medb Speaks by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Furbaide Ferbend sat on the grassy hill and unwrapped the cloth that held his lunch. A hunk of bread, a roll of cheese, and a cup of ale — what more could a man want on such a gorgeous day as this?

It was a rare day indeed, warmest of the year, and there was a rare peace in the land. Furbaide had fought for many years in the army of his father, King Conchubar, and he knew that peace was a fragile thing. He was determined to enjoy this moment: the luxury of solitude, the sun shining above him, the lake sparkling below.

He noticed a movement in the water and his sharp eyesight picked up a woman swimming in the lake. She had a fine figure but she wasn’t young, not with that long grey hair floating about her. Then he recognized her face.

She was his aunt, Queen Maeve of Connacht.

He’d heard the story many times. How his father had married three sisters: Eithne, Clohru, and Maeve. The rivalry had grown murderous, and the sly-eyed Maeve drowned the heavily-pregnant Eithne. Clothru found Eithne floating face down in the pond and noticed that the child was still moving in her sister’s belly. Checking one last time that Eithne had stopped breathing, Clothru took out her knife and cut the baby free.

The boy was named Furbaide, from the Old Irish urbad meaning “cut”. That woman in the water was the reason he had never known his mother.

His aunt was notorious for other reasons besides. What Maeve wanted, Maeve got, no matter what the cost. She divorced Conchubar and her next few husbands had won her by successively beating the previous incumbents in single combat. The last husband was her former bodyguard, Ailill, the only one who could match her in greed and cunning.

I asked more of a husband than any Irish woman before me asked: the absence of fear and jealousy and meanness.
— Táin Bó Cuailgne: The Cattle-Raid of Cooley

Maeve and Ailill had caused war and destruction across Ireland, particularly in Ulster where King Conchubar lived. She seemed to reserve a particular fury for her first husband, almost enough to give credence to the story that Conchubar had raped Maeve when the clans gathered at Tara.

Furbaide frowned, not wishing to think ill of his father or to spare any pity for the woman in the lake. She stopped swimming and leaned back in the water, closing her eyes, no doubt enjoying the sun on her skin. How dare she take pleasure in life while Furbaide’s mother had never lived to hold her babe in her arms?

But perhaps the gods were on his side today? Perhaps this was his opportunity to take revenge? Surely his whole life, from the moment he had drawn a bloody breath, had led to this?

Furbaide was famous for his skills with a sling. He carried his weapon always, but he had brought no ammunition. Nothing but a picnic in an unwrapped cloth.

The cheese was round and hard, the perfect size for the sling’s pouch. Furbaide closed one eye and focused on his target: Maeve’s forehead, high and white. In combat, none could beat him, but this might be the most important shot of his life. It hit her between the eyes and she slunk dead into the water. The proud Queen of Connacht, felled by cheese.

She was buried in Sligo, at the top of Knocknarea from where she could view her entire kingdom. She stood upright, facing Ulster, so none of her old enemies could feel safe from her even in death.

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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.

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

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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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Beyond the Ninth Wave

Kenmare Bay, County Kerry

Photo by P.J. McKenna

Am gaeth i m-muir
Am tond trethan
Am fuaim mara

I am the wind on the sea
I am the stormy wave
I am the sound of the ocean

— Song of Amergin

According to the legend, Ireland was once inhabited by a magical race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. They survived several threats from invaders, until the last.

The last invaders came from Galicia in what is now Northern Spain, descendants of a man named Míl Espáine (“soldier of Spain”) and therefore known as the “Milesians”. They fought several battles until a truce was drawn. As one of the conditions, the Milesians were forced to withdraw to sea and set anchor beyond the ninth wave from the shore.

Of course the Tuatha Dé Danann had a magical trick up their sleeves. They brewed up a storm and sent it towards the Milesian ships. The wind roared; the ocean churned. Many Milesians lost their lives to the waters, and others clung on as the storm threatened to overwhelm them. The invaders had no magic of their own, so how could they hope to survive, let alone defeat the Tuatha?

But they had a secret weapon on board. He was Amergin, a poet. He took out his harp and he sang.

Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe
Cia on co tagair aesa éscai
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne

Who made the trails through stone mountains
Who knows the age of the moon
Who knows where the setting sun rests

— Song of Amergin

His music had charms to soothe the savage seas, and the Milesians were able to come ashore at Kenmare Bay. They had several more battles to fight, but they eventually defeated the Tuatha Dé Dannan.

Amergin was given the task of dividing the land between both sets of peoples. He gave the portion above ground to the Milesians, and the underworld to the Tuatha Dé Danann, where they still reside and only occasionally meddle in the lives of humans.

According to the legend, the people of Ireland are descended from the Milesians, those warriors and poets from Northern Spain. Of course, that’s just the legend. However, recent DNA analysis found the closest relatives to the Irish people in Galicia and the Basque country. So perhaps some Iberian poet led them here, after all.

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The Stolen Village

Baltimore, County Cork

A Barbary Pirate, Pier Francesco Mola 1650

The summer sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles.
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles…
And full of love and peace and rest – its daily labour o’er –
Upon that cosy creek there lay the town of Baltimore.
– The Sack of Baltimore (Thomas Davis 1844)

On 19th June 1631, the inhabitants of Baltimore in West Cork settled down for the evening. At that time of year, the days in Ireland are long and the sun doesn’t set until past 10PM. Perhaps, as twilight lingered, Joan Broadbrook placed a hand on her pregnant belly and smiled at her husband Stephen and their two children. Perhaps William Gunter led his seven sons in prayer before tucking them into bed.

Baltimore was a colony, a “town of English people, larger more civilly and religiously ordered than any town in this province”, according to the Lord Bishop of Cork. The Protestant settlers earned a living by catching and processing pilchards. In summer, the village likely stank of fish.

As the sun finally set, a group of ships anchored themselves at an inlet just outside Baltimore Harbour. Their leader was known as Murat Rais of Algiers, although once he had been called Jan Janszoon of Haarlem in the Netherlands. His men were Barbary Corsairs, pirates from the coast of North Africa. Murat was a renegado (the term rais simply meant “captain”), a European sailor who had converted to Islam and now waged terror on Christendom, although likely more for the sake of profit than for belief.

At two in the morning, the corsairs came ashore at The Cove of Baltimore. They ran up the pebbled beach in darkness – and then attacked.

The yell of “Allah” breaks above the prayer, and shriek, and roar,
Oh! Blessed God! The Algerine is Lord of Baltimore.
– The Sack of Baltimore (Thomas Davis 1844)

Iron bars broke down the doors, and torches lit the thatched roofs on fire. Dressed with turbans and red belts, armed with curved scimitars, the Barbary Corsairs came from many nations and yelled at the villagers in many languages. Any European who lived near a coast would have heard rumours about the vicious “Turks” from the Barbary Coast, but nothing could have prepared the people of Baltimore for the real thing.

All was confusion and terror. Stephen Broadbrook was separated from his family, as was William Gunter; although both men escaped, their wives and children were captured. John Davys and Timothy Curlew resisted and were killed. All in all, 109 people were taken prisoner: 22 men, 33 women, and 54 children. It would be the largest attack by Barbary pirates on Ireland or Great Britain.

The elderly were not valuable to the slave traders, so Old Osbourne and Alice Head were left behind on the beach.

They only found the smoking walls, with neighbour’s blood besprint
And on the strewed and trampled beach awhile they wildly went
Then dashed to sea and passed Cape Clear and saw five leagues before
The pirate galleys vanished, that ravished Baltimore.
– The Sack of Baltimore (Thomas Davis 1844)

When the ship arrived in Algiers, the traumatised captives were led ashore. The Algerians demanded ransom, but none was forthcoming. The remaining inhabitants of Baltimore didn’t have the money, and the authorities felt that paying would only encourage more attacks. William Gunter travelled to Dublin and then to London to plead for help in the return of his wife and seven boys, but he would never see them again.

So, what became of the Baltimore captives? The unluckiest men were chained to the galleys to row until they died. Other people were sold on the slave market, their teeth and limbs checked before money changed hands. Those with a trade fetched a higher price, as did children, who could be trained by their new masters. The women entered domestic service or the harem. Algiers was then part of the Ottoman Empire, and perhaps some of the Irish slaves were sent eastwards as gifts to Istanbul.

Only two of the Baltimore captives are known to have returned. After fifteen years, ransom was paid for Ellen Hawkins and Joan Broadbrook. No record exists to say what happened to the rest of Joan’s family.

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The Boy Who Lived

Skiberreen, County Cork

Scene at Skibbereen. By James Mahoney for The Illustrated London News, 1847.

Oh son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Till a blight came o’er the praties; my sheep, my cattle died,
My rent and taxes went unpaid, I could not them redeem
And that’s the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.
Skibbereen, traditional song (Attributed to Patrick Carpenter 1880)

When blight struck successive potato harvests between 1845 and 1847, the resulting famine caused death and devastation all over Ireland, but the townland of Skibbereen suffered more than most.

Six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man.

– Letter from Nicholas Cummins to The Duke of Wellington (Published in The London Times, December 1846)

The prospects of any child entering Skibbereen workhouse was bleak, with hunger and disease killing more than half of them. That day in 1848, like too many before, the emaciated bodies were piled onto a cart and pulled to the mass grave at Abbeystrewry. As they were thrown into the burial pit, one small child was hit by a shovel and groaned.

Three-year-old Tom Guerin was alive!

They pulled him from the grave, but the shovel blow left him crippled for life. He grew up to scrape a living as a beggar, travelling the country during the summer months and returning to the workhouse for winter. Despite this, he remained a cheerful man and a well-known character in West Cork, trading on his celebrity as “the boy who rose from the dead”.

In later life, he applied to the guardians of the workhouse for a new pair of shoes, supporting his case with a poem:

I rose from the dead in the year ’48,
When a grave at the Abbey had near been my fate,
Since then for subsistence I have done all my best
Though one shoe points eastwards and the other points west.
I roam o’er the world admiring each scene,
And a tax on the ratepayers I have never been,
I only appeal to you now for a pair
Of brogues, and I’ll vanish again into air.
– Tom Guerin, date unknown

Tom got his shoes. He died at 65, an impressive age for someone who lived a hard life and was left for dead as a child.

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