The Girl in the Tower

Tory Island, County Donegal

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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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Let Love and Friendship Reign

The Claddagh, Galway

Photo of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Galway by P.J. McKenna

Angel: My people — before I was changed — they exchanged this as a sign of devotion. It’s a Claddagh ring. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty… and the heart… Well, you know…

— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2

In the late 17th century, many Irish were leaving their home for a new life in the New World. Among them was young Richard Joyce, a native of Galway city. But he never reached the Americas; instead his fate would be a lot stranger. En route, the ship that carried him was attacked by Barbary pirates.

The sea held many terrors, but the Barbary pirates of North Africa ranked highly. They ransacked European ships, claiming their crew and passengers as well as their cargo as booty. Sometimes they even raided on land, as they had in Baltimore, County Cork. For there was a thriving trade in slaves on the Barbary Coast.

Like many before him, Richard was brought to Algiers and sold. But he was more fortunate than most, because he was taken in by a goldsmith and taught his trade.

On his arrival at Algiers, he was purchased by a wealthy Turk, who followed the profession of a goldsmith, and who, observing his slave, Joyce, to be tractable and ingenious, instructed him in his trade, in which he speedily became an adept.

— History of the Town and County of Galway, James Hardiman (1820)

Under this master, Richard created a new design, a ring. The design was most likely influenced by the existing “fede rings”, which showed two hands clasping each other, but it added two new elements: a heart being held by the hands, and a crown topping the heart. These three items together symbolized the motto, “Let Love and Friendship Reign“.

When William of Orange came to the throne, he negotiated for the return of all British slaves in Algiers, and among these was Richard Joyce. His master had evidently grown fond of him, for he offered Richard freedom and the hand of his daughter in marriage.

Richard declined the offer, and returned to Galway. Legend says that he returned to the sweetheart he’d left behind.

*****

No-one knows exactly when the ring became associated with the Claddagh, a fishing village just outside Galway City. The Irish-speaking Claddagh people kept themselves separate to the mostly English-speaking city, except when they crossed the river to sell their fish. They elected their own king, who sailed a Galway hooker with a special white sail and negotiated on disputes between locals.

By the 19th century, Claddagh mothers were handing down Claddagh rings to their daughters. Sadly, many were forced to pawn these rings during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

The cottages of the Claddagh village were condemned as unsafe in the 1930s, and razed for a housing scheme. Today, the Claddagh is mostly a residential area and part of Galway city, although they do still have their own king.

*****

The ring itself has grown in popularity since it was created. It can be used as a wedding and engagement ring, and is often passed down within families. Queen Victoria wore one, as did that famous slayer of vampires, Buffy Summers.

The Old Claddagh Ring, it was my grandmother’s
She wore it a lifetime, and gave it to me

— The Old Claddagh Ring, traditional song

My own grandmother bought me a Claddagh ring for my 21st birthday.  When I first wore the ring, the heart was turned outwards from my finger, to show I was single; but nowadays the heart is turned inwards to show it has been taken. That was the last gift my grandmother gave me, because she died the following year.

On my finger is a link to the past: to my grandmother, who was born in the early years of the 20th century, lived through the war of Irish independence, and raised seven children while her husband worked in England; to those Claddagh women, selling the rings their mothers gave them to get the fare to America; and to Richard Joyce, slave and goldsmith, who created such a lovely symbol of friendship, loyalty, and love.

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A Match Made in County Clare

Lisdoonvarna, County Clare

Photo of Lisdoonvarna pub by Fionn Kidney, licensed under Creative Commons

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch
— Matchmaker, song from Fiddler on the Roof

In the autumn a middle-aged farmer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. The harvest is in and he’s facing a cold and lonely winter. But where will he find himself a wife? Perhaps, come September, he can head to the Matchmaking Festival in Lisdoonvarna.

The village of Lisdoonvarna is Ireland’s only active spa town, built around a spring rich in sulphur and iron. Tourists have been “taking the waters” here since the 18th century, but it was the opening of the West Clare Railway in the 19th century that opened the area to mass tourism. Visitors would take the train to Ennistymon and a pony from there to Lisdoonvarna.

All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?
– All the Lonely People, song by the Beatles

Post-famine Ireland had a high percentage of single people. Mass emigration took potential partners out of the country, and among those who remained, men were concentrated in the countryside and women in the towns. Perhaps also a tendency to shyness and a puritanical attitude to sex put a dampener on courtship. In any case, the Matchmaking Festival was established, and the romance business flourished.

Willie Daly, the fourth generation matchmaker in his family, has been introducing couples to each other for 45 years and is responsible for over 3000 marriages. During the festival, he can be found in the snug of The Matchmaker pub; just follow the long queue of potential mates and put your name into his enormous scrapbook of profiles. Legend says that if a single person holds the 150-year-old book in their two hands, they will find a mate within six months, while a married person doing the same will find their passion rekindled.

Today, Internet sites such as match.com and plentyoffish have become a year-long matchmaking festival. But there is still room for the old-fashioned approach practiced by Willie Daly.

Love is waiting there for everyone, it’s there just waiting to be found. When it is, it’s a lovely feeling.

— Willie Daly, matchmaker

Not all visitors arrive for the purpose of finding a lifelong mate. Music and drinking are also a big part of the festival’s appeal, and many singles and couples arrive in September out of curiosity or in search of “the craic”, turning this tiny village for a short period into a bustling place.

The following month, Lisdoonvarna holds “The Outing”, a matchmaking festival for gay people from Ireland and around the world. The Outing first ran in 2013, but received a boost in 2015 when Ireland became the first country to bring in same-sex marriage by public vote. Rainbow flags will fly, and Willie Daly will be ready to add new names to his big book.

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Surf’s Up

Lahinch, County Clare

Photo of Lahinch Surfer by TOF2006, licensed under Creative Commons

Let’s go surfin’ now
Everybody’s learning how
Come on and safari with me
– Surfin’ Safari, song by The Beach Boys (1962)

In the summer of 1972, an international group of surfers held their boards upright on the sands of Lahinch in County Clare and looked despairingly at the sea. The day was unusually calm and the waves were barely six inches high. The sea at Lahinch, usually turbulent enough to provide optimal surfing conditions, might as well have been a lake.

Surfing at that time was a very new sport in Ireland. Indeed, it barely existed until 1963, when Kevin Cavey picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest.

One day I read in the Readers Digest about the sport of the Kings in the Hawaiian Islands, and saw a picture of them riding head height waves, the sort of which I had often seen in the west of Ireland. I immediately determined to put Ireland on the map as a surfing country. So as to test if surfing would work, I built an 8 ft long plywood and aero foam board and launched it in Bray in August 1964. I immediately formed Ireland’s first Surf Club and called it ‘Bray Ireland Surf Club’.

– Kevin Cavey

He linked up with other interested surfers in Ireland and the U.K., and organized “surfaris” to places like Tramore, Strandhill, Enniscrone, and Lahinch. He even established networks in Northern Ireland, a remarkable instance of cross-border co-operation at the height of “The Troubles”.

By 1970, Ireland boasted about 400 surfers. Irish surfers competed abroad and started to win, and in 1972 it was decide to hold the European Surfing Championships at Lahinch. Surfers travelled from Britain, France, and Spain for the chance to ride the Atlantic waves.

Unfortunately, the waves didn’t co-operate and only the junior competition went ahead.

The day after this anti-climax, there was a swell off Spanish Point, produced by a reef that had never before been noticed.  The French contingent had already left, but those remaining became the first to ride this newly-discovered reef. They followed this with a “surfari” to Donegal, and most of the surfers returned home with exciting tales of the wild and unpredictable surf on the west coast of Ireland.

Surfing continued to grow in popularity. The 1997 the European Surfing Championships were held again in Ireland, this time in Bundoran, County Donegal. Today, there are around 40 surf schools and 20,000 surfers in Ireland. Kevin Cavey is now known as “the grandfather of Irish surf”.

***

I’ll end this post on a personal note. In September 2006, my work colleague told me he was going surfing in Lahinch with his brother and a friend, and asked if I’d like to join them. I didn’t have anything better to do that weekend, so I accepted the invitation.

The sea that Saturday was just as calm as it had been for the European Surfing Championships in 1972. We ended up walking the beach, drinking smoothies, and enjoying the sunshine. My colleague’s friend had a lovely smile and, as we chatted away along the beach, our companions decided to give us some space to get to know each other.

Two years later, P.J. and I were married. So I owe a great deal to the fickle waves of Lahinch.

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The American and the Bishop

Inch Beach, County Kerry

Photo of Inch Beach by Jerry Dohnal, licensed under Creative Commons

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough sold over 30 million copies and became a hugely successful mini-series. Part of its attraction was the scandalous relationship between the Irish priest Father Ralph de Bricassart and a younger Australian woman, Meggie Cleary. Their relationship was finally consummated on a tropical beach.

When Annie Murphy travelled from America to Ireland in 1973, she (like Meggie Cleary) was looking for a retreat from a broken marriage. She chose, not a tropical island, but the quiet green of County Kerry. A family friend was sent to meet her at the airport. Eamon Casey had first met Annie (as Father Ralph had first met Meggie) as a child. She was now 25. He was 45, the Bishop of Kerry.

When Eamon picked me up from the airport that day in 1973, a light went on, there was a spark, that was it.
– Annie Murphy in an interview with The Irish Independent, 2012

Anyone who met Bishop Casey remarked on his energy and charisma. He was a hard man to dislike, even for those who disagreed with him. He was seen as progressive, working for Irish immigrants in Britain, supporting those who protested against the apartheid regime in South Africa, opposing U.S. foreign policy in Central America. He loved to drive fast, to put his foot to the pedal, to push limits.

Casey, Casey, you’re the divil
When you get behind the wheel
– Casey, song by Christy Moore

Red Cliff House was an 18th century hunting lodge which had become a summer residence for members of the Catholic hierarchy. Nearby was the long sandy stretch of Inch Beach, where Ryan’s Daughter had been filmed four years earlier. For Eamon and Annie, Red Cliff House became a hideaway from the world and Inch Beach a place for romantic walks.

Like Rosy and Doryan from Ryan’s Daughter, like Meggie and Father Ralph from The Thorn Birds, Annie and Bishop Eamon became lovers. And like Meggie, Annie became pregnant.

Wear a condom, just in Casey
– T-shirt slogan

The romance ended with her announcement of the pregnancy. Casey insisted that Murphy was in no position to care for a child. Not long after she gave birth, he presented her with adoption papers for their son. She refused to sign and instead returned to America to raise Peter with the help of her parents. Casey sent regular payments for his upkeep, some of it from church funds.

The world didn’t find out until 1992, when Murphy’s partner took the story to The Irish Times. The scandal echoed around the world. Casey resigned as bishop and went to Ecuador as a missionary. Murphy was suddenly in the limelight, roasted on air by talk-show hosts. Later commentators would see it as one of the turning points where the Catholic Church began to lose its grip on the nation’s identity.

Gay Byrne: If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.
Annie Murphy: I’m not so bad either, Mr Byrne.
– The Late Late Show, 1993

The Bishop Casey affair has long since been overshadowed by more disturbing priestly scandals. Few are still shocked by the tale of a bishop who had a consensual affair with a grown woman. Today, he is in a nursing home in County Clare, suffering ill health and dementia. Annie Murphy lives in California, far from Inch Beach.

Update: Eamon Casey died at Carrigoran nursing home on 13th March 2017 at the age of 89. His son Peter joined other relatives in paying tribute to his father.

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