Home thoughts at Midsummer 2015

Many decades have passed since I was last able to call Donegal ‘home’ in the physical sense, of having a house and an address and family and siblings there. Since those distant days in the 1950s and 1960s I have lived in various places, all of them a long way from Donegal. Yet when people ask,’Where are you from’? I reply without hesitation ‘Donegal’ even though I spent less than one-third my life there.
But this is where I grew up, where I walked to National School, where I progressed through the then important life’s rights of passage, such as communion and confirmation. This is where I learned to read, learned to play, learned to ride a bike, went to collect the milk in a can from Wee Rodgers in Tirlaugan or from McKemeys out the road. This is where I was terrified of Mary Tammy’s geese who chased me, and where Charlie Ward’s donkey once bolted down Figart with myself and my older  brother on board.

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

This is where my younger brother’s dog was killed one Sunday morning by a car speeding to get to Mass on time. This too is where I collected water from the well out at the back of Figart or from the ‘spoot’ (spout) in later years. This is where Patrick McElwee dropped dead one summer evening when bringing his cow down from Figart to be milked. This is where I went to see him slumped against the rectory wall.

This is where my friend Norah and I, each armed with ninepence on a Friday night,went to the visiting cinema or what we then called ‘the pictures’. This is where we sat patiently on hard benches waiting for Keeney to load up the reels – and sometimes a reel ran out and the next one had to be rewound before the show could continue. This is where I first saw Laurel and Hardy,The Three Stooges, lots of Westerns and and my first 3D film.

This is where I learned to polish brass, loving  Mrs Duffy’s beautiful brass kettle; learned to knit at Mary Mandy’s fireside as she made very exotic and delicious vegetable marrow jam; this is where I learned to churn butter out at Shelia McBride’s in a big old wooden churn. This is where my baby brother died on a warm June afternoon. This is where I bought my first pop record, had my hair back-combed by Meta and went to dances in the North Star Ballroom, with a gold waspie belt and my dress resting  on stiff petticoats. This is where I first fell in love and bought my very first pop record.  This above all is where I learned to love nature, the sky and the stars, the pounding Atlantic Ocean, fabulous scenery.

It is Midsummer and invariably thoughts turn to Donegal and those long, long summer evenings when we stayed up late. Days of 17 and a quarter hours were for living and playing. The sun will stand still at the summer solstice this year at 16. 38 pm. UTC on Sunday June 21st. But this year we have an extra treat to mark Midsummer, in the form of an unusual Planet Dance. Tonight, June  20th just after sunset the dazzling Venus will form a triangle with Jupiter and the crescent Moon in the western sky, I like to think, to help us celebrate Midsummer!

In Donegal sixty years ago, our midsummer celebration was held on the 23rd of June, St John’s Eve. This is a post from my archive in 2011, about what happened in our village then, in those long, happy hazy crazy days of summer!

June 23rd: Midsummer Irish Style

This post is one of a series looking at ancient traditions in Ireland.

Midsummer, or St. John’s Eve (Oiche Fheile Eoin) was traditionally celebrated in Ireland by the lighting of bonfires. (The word ‘bonfire’, according to my Etymology dictionary is a word from the 1550s meaning a fire in the open air in which bones were burned). This custom is rooted in ancient history when the Celts lit fires in honour of the Celtic goddess Queen of Munster Áine. Festivals in her honour took place in the village of Knockainey, County Limerick (Cnoc Aine = Hill of Aine ). Áine was the Celtic equivalent of Aphrodite and Venus and as is often the case, the festival was ‘christianised’ and continued to be celebrated down the ages. It was the custom for the cinders from the fires to be thrown on fields as an ‘offering’ to protect the crops.

Midsummer bonfires are also a tradition across Europe. In Latvia, for example, the celebration is called Jāņi (Jānis is Latvian for John); in Norway they celebrate ‘Sankthansaften’.

Growing up in the northern part of Donegal in the 1950s, Bonfire night was surely the highlight of our year! To us, it was Bone- fire night. For days we piled our fire high down on the shore, with every bit of flotsam, jetsam, old timber and rubbish we could find. We did actually use a lot of bones on our fire as on the verge of the shore was a slaughter-house (an abattoir in more genteel circles) so naturally there were many cattle bones lying about… from horned cows heads to bits of legs and hip bones etc. They made welcome fuel for our great pyre!

Midsummer in Donegal was wonderful with the sun not setting until very late at about 10.15 pm.  We were allowed to stay up late, waiting for the sun to set so that we could enjoy the lit fire. An adult would light it at the proper time, as dusk was setting in, and we were thrilled by the intense heat and the crackling sound of the splitting timber as the flames leapt joyfully high into the still balmy air.

In Thomas Flanagan’s book, ‘The Year of The French‘, set in 1798, mention is made of the midsummer bonfire:

”Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.’

In Ireland, Bonfire night is still celebrated to an extent in Cork and in counties west of the Shannon as well as in northern counties. Cork city council has stepped in, in recent years to provide a safe environment for children and families and this year is organizing 15 events across the city. Ráth Carn in the Meath Irish-speaking district (Gaeltacht) also celebrates Bonfire night with a huge fire, feasting, music and dancing.

The old traditional Midsummer bonfires  seem however, to be a thing of the past now in Ireland. If you have any recollections at all of having attended one, or you know of someone who has attended one, please do let me know – I would love to hear from you!

References

Flanagan, Thomas 1979. The Year of the French

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Filed under Ireland, Ireland Seasons, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History, Social History Ireland

The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Perth, Western Australia

DSCF6392I discovered this beautiful building on a recent trip to Perth, Western Australia, when on a mission to find out about an  Irish bishop who had fallen foul of the powers that be in Rome in the mid 19th Century. Somehow I seem to have missed St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth,officially the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on earlier visits. This is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Perth, which is ever so slightly off the beaten track in that relatively small city. It certainly ranks among the most fascinating buildings I have visited as it has a fascinating story.

The history of this magnificent building spans three centuries. Officially opened in 1865, it has been a work in progress almost ever since, as it was only finally completed and officially reopened in December 2009. I engage with architecture at a very superficial level – if I like it, I will look at it – but I do know that this is a special place,unique because of the distinctive way architecture from various eras has been beautifully fused together to make a remarkable whole. Not unsurprisingly, at least to this layperson, this building has won an architectural award for the brilliance of its design. These are a few of my snaps which I hope might give a feel for this beautiful structure.

The original cathedral was begun in 1863. Bishop Serra went to Rome and secured donations in the form of money and marble for the altar, which arrived in Western Australia in 1862. The foundation stone was laid in 1863 by Bishop Salvado. Masons from the Benedictine monastery in Subiaco walked each day to the construction site, but progress was determined by the flow of funds, or lack of them from a small catholic congregation of about  5,000.  Eventually the cathedral was blessed and officially opened in January 1865.

The foundation stone of the original structure

The foundation stone of the original structure

 

The original building  was relatively simple with a square bell tower.

The Cathedral in 1865 on the left, with Mercedes College on the right

The Cathedral in 1865 on the left, with Mercedes College (Catholic Girls School) on the right

Between then and 1910 alterations were carried out, including the addition of a spire to the bell tower and the addition of two porches. As the catholic population continued to grow Archbishop Clune, the first Archbishop of Perth, (an Irishman – more in next post), set about fundraising for the enlargement of the cathedral. The foundation stone for the new addition was laid in 1926.

Archbishop Clune lays Foundation Stone in 1926

Archbishop Clune lays Foundation Stone in 1926

Stained glass windows were manufactured in Birmingham, England and beautiful mosaic floors based on the Book of Kells were modelled by an Australian company. However,it became impossible to raise funds to complete the envisaged building and work was halted due to the Great Depression. The Gothic style sanctuary and transepts were grafted on to the existing 1865 nave. The incomplete cathedral was blessed in May 193o with thousands in attendance.

Huge crowds attended the opening in 1930

Huge crowds attended the opening in 1930

The original plain building  and its nave to the front with the bell tower and two porches, has been attached to a new more elaborate extension – much more reminiscent of a cathedral. The outbreak of World war 2 after the great depression meant that plans to complete the cathedral were put on hold indefinitely due to lack of funds.

The structure was a protected heritage building and the need for repairs became clear in the 1990s. The bell tower was crumbling and there was extensive rising damp. Fundraising began and following a bequest of 2 million dollars plans to complete the cathedral could finally be brought to fruition.  Still short of funds, the state stepped in with a contribution of 2 million dollars, and a further 3 million from the federal government. Finally the cathedral was closed in 2006 and building began.

The story of the construction is great reading in itself as the bell tower had to be moved a considerable distance and of course there was always the danger that the entire structure could collapse with the ground excavations going on.  In effect the 1865 nave was taken out and a huge hole dug in the ground for parish facilities below with the new cathedral part above. During construction remains of earlier bishops were uncovered so it was decided to incorporate a crypt  beneath the new altar. Costs soared to over 32 million dollars by the time the building was completed in 2009. (Those interested in the technical construction details may read more here)

The result is remarkable with the modern part sitting in the middle of the earlier structures. Perched on a hill, it is indeed an imposing and beautiful building.

 

A most spectacular building on the outside, but inside it is a wonderful  space.

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The modern central aisle leading to the circular altar, with the 1930 stained glass window beyond

It looks like a traditional church from the entrance, but with wonderful light that spills in from the high windows that open to help deal with the heat of the Perth summer. The modern Stations of the Cross are remarkable in that they are two strips of three-dimensional images, and each face has been modelled on a real person.

The mosaics are behind the main altar in the 1930s section. Clearly based on the Book of Kells, the floor was split from one side to another during an earthquake on 14 October 1968.

The stained glass windows and  side altars from the 1930s building also survive.

The is an amazing trinity of buildings, each having its own characteristics, yet all blend beautifully to form this wonderful space. A fabulous feat of architecture and well worth a visit!

 

 

Further reading

Technical details of the construction

A wide angle professional photo of the interior

 

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish Convicts, Irish diaspora in Australia

Glin Castle,the end of an era.

 There is great sadness in West Limerick that Glin Castle is to be sold. Glin Castle is situated beside the lovely little town of Glin, overlooking the River Shannon. Glin has been the seat of the Fitzgerald family for over 700 years, and the village is proud of its association with the Knights of Glin down the centuries.The oldest part of the structure is a lower, two-storey “wing” of the castle, supposedly with  interior turf walls. The more imposing section was built in 1780 and the castellations added in the 1820s.

In the summer of 2014 I was fortunate to visit the Castle, courtesy of West Limerick Resources and Limerick City of Culture 2014. What a wonderful experience to visit such an historic and beautiful place! Just months later the castle has been put up for sale and I am delighted to share some of my photos from that day.

The Building:

The rather unusual title ‘The Knight of Glin’ became extinct with the death of Desmond Fitzgerald,the 29th Knight of Glin in September 2011, as he did not have a male heir. His three daughters do not ‘count’ when it comes to the title! ‘Knight of Glin’ was an ancient Irish noble title,handed down by chieftains since the arrival of  the family from Wales in the 12th Century. This title is not conferred by a monarch, but is rather a family tradition in the Fitzgerald family. The late lamented Desmond Fitzgerald was  President of the Irish Georgian Society and a former curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He was an accomplished author the Irish representative of the renowned Christies Art Auction house in London. He was an avid collector of beautiful items some of which adorn the main reception rooms of this lovely house.

The Interior:

In the drawing-room table rests a copy of  ‘The Knights of Glin, Seven Centuries of Change’ a collaborative series of essays by Irish Scholars, ably edited by my former colleague,Tom Donovan and published by Glin Historical Society

imageIt is to be hoped that the new owners of Glin Castle will cherish the very special relationship with the locals in the village, a special relationship  that has been nurtered and has endured for generations.

image

A rainbow ends at the Gatehouse of Glin Castle, on the south bank of the River Shannon, with the fields of County Clare visible on the north shore. (Image copyright thesilvervoice)

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Countryside, Irish Heritage, Irish History

The sun never sets …on Donegal places?

 

image

Sun setting over Bushland in Australia

In James Joyce’s Ulysses,Mr.Deasy asks Stephen Dedalus what an Englishman’s proudest boast is. Stephen replies:“That on his empire..the sun never sets”. The saying came to mind on a recent trip to Australia as I came across a brand new development of some 250 houses in a relatively remote area.

The phrase ‘the sun never sets’ is familiar to many. Early reference was in relation to the 16th Century Spanish Empire that had extended well beyond its own borders and included vast tracts of Europe,North Africa,the Philippines and the Americas. Francis Bacon wrote :both the East and the West Indies being met in the crown of Spain, it is come to pass, that, as one saith in a brave kind of expression, the sun never sets in the Spanish dominions, but ever shines upon one part or other of them which, to say truly, is a beam of glory”. In the 19th Century it was the British Empire on which the sun never set.

Fast forward to more recent times, we now speak of globalization, emigration, diaspora.These concepts have largely replaced the might of empire,of conquest and supremacy. We Irish have down the centuries, spread out across the globe with tens of millions now claiming Irish descent.We have become people of influence in far-flung places and communities. Historically, invaders and conquerors applied their own placenames to their new lands – for example New York, Norfolk Island, San Francisco. Nor is there anything new about places being named from areas where immigrants settled, whether they arrived there involuntarily or otherwise. New York State has an Ulster County,Pennsylvania has a Dublin and Limerick is to be found in about 10 different locations in the USA.

In Western Australia the school attended by my grandchildren is at the edge of bushland, on the outskirts of a small village nestled under the Perth Hills, about 45 kilometers north of Perth City. Here kangaroos roam in the evenings,emus wander about and parrots make their noisy presence felt. Part of the bushland near to the schoolgate has now been cleared to make way for a housing estate. Not just any housing estate,but a housing estate whose roads and streets are named after villages I know well in my native Donegal, Ireland, some 10,000 miles away! Where snakes emus, cockatoos, scorpions, ants and a huge diversity of species roamed and foraged in a rich scrubland of eucalyptus, acacia, and tussocked grasslands, there now will be Donegal Entrance,Ballybofey Loop,Fintown Street,Killybegs Street,Doochary Street,Letterkenny Road, Ardara Road,Bundoran Street,Lifford Street,and Narin Loop! (Narin I presume began life as the correctly spelled ‘Nairn’)

 

While I do wonder that indigenous and local names might be more appropriate, I can’t help but also wonder if the residents will ever know the origins of their street names and the beautiful places they represent. Will they ever know that  Fintown sits on the shores of the dark waters of Lough Finn; that the beach on Narin is one of Ireland’s most beautiful; that Killybegs is famous for its fishing fleet; that Donegal refers to an entire county in the north-west of Ireland,as well as a town,and that the town has a castle; that Ballybofey sits on the banks of the River Finn; that Doochary is derived from the Irish language and means ‘the black weir’ and that here Irish is the spoken language; that Ardara has one of the most amazing views in the world at Glengesh Pass; that Bundoran is spectacularly situated on Donegal Bay on the world famous Wild Atlantic Way; that Lifford is the county town and dates from the 16th century; that Letterkenny is County Donegal’s largest town and is perched on a series of hills and has one of Ireland’s largest Celtic Crosses?  Probably not! And in all probability too the new local pronunciation will make the street names unrecognizable to anyone from Donegal.

I am assuming that the developer has a connection with Donegal or at least with Ireland. He has ensured that the names of these Donegal beauty spots will become part of the lives of  over 200 families,and perhaps even some from those very places, some 10,000 miles away.

Is this a ‘beam of glory’ for Donegal people? Should we be proud that our global reach is such that we now influence naming of places,without having had to conquer,or intimidate,or arrive as convicts. Instead we are just settling in and settling down in places where we have actually chosen to live? Before long perhaps, the sun will never set on Donegal placenames!

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish Australian, Irish Diaspora, Irish diaspora in Australia

Amazing Grace: Cruel Slave Trader finds safe haven in Lough Swilly

Amazing Grace – Probably the best known hymn in the English speaking world! Performed,it is estimated, about 10 million times every year, it is loved by folk singers, protest movements, church congregations, pipe bands, bag pipers and choirs the world over. Often thought to be an  African American Spiritual, it was in fact written by an Englishman John Newton, a slave trader who at one time found refuge from a storm  in the sheltered waters of Lough Swilly in north Donegal, Ireland,where he penned the first verse.

Newton_j

John Newton in later life (image Wikipedia)

John Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping,London, England, the son of a shipmaster. His seagoing career began at the age of 11 when he first sailed with his father. At the age of 18 he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy and served aboard the HMS Harwich. At his own request some time later, he transferred to the Pegasus heading for West Africa. Pegasus was a slave trader and was in all probability plying the triangular route,sailing from Liverpool towards the west coast of Africa where one commodity was traded for another – in this case goods such as textiles and rum were traded for humans. Crossing the Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands and North Americas, the so-called ‘Middle Passage’ these human ‘commodities’ were then sold, the ship reloaded with sugar,cotton, tobacco  then sailed back to its Liverpool base.

Typical triangular trade route  (Image Wikipedia licenced Creative Commons)

Typical triangular trade route (Image Commons Wikimedia)

Newton was a deeply unpopular man. He was loudmouthed and rebellious,given to profanity and heavy drinking. He was disliked so much by those on board the Pegasus that they abandoned him to a slave dealer in West Africa. Here in Sierra Leone he had a miserable time. He described his humiliating existence as being a ‘servant of slaves’. It was during this period that he began to show a passing interest in Christianity. In 1748 he was rescued  by the captain of the Greyhound, probably at the instigation of his father who had asked the captain to keep a look out for him. However,on March 10,1748, en route back to Liverpool,the Greyhound encountered a violent storm off the coast of Ireland. She was relentlessly pounded by heavy seas for weeks on end. Holed and taking on water. Newton pleaded with God to spare him and the crew. But the terror continued for a number of weeks, as the damaged Greyhound drifted helplessly and food supplies ran low. Newton later wrote in his autobiography, ”An Authentic Narrative”

‘We saw the island of Tory and the next day anchored in Lough Swilly in Ireland. This was the 8th day of April, just four weeks after the damage we sustained from the sea. Then we came into this port, our very last victuals was boiling in the pot; and before we had been there two hours, the wind began to blow with great violence. If we had continued at sea that night in our shattered condition, we must have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayers‘.

While her crew enjoyed the hospitality of the locals who lived on the Lough, local tradesmen set about repairing the Greyhound. Newton attended church at nearby Derry/Londonderry and it is thought that he penned the first verse of Amazing Grace while at Lough Swilly.

Amazing Grace! How Sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

For the rest of his life, Newton marked March 10th as the date on which he was converted to Christianity.

The Sheltered waters of Lough Swilly (Image  Boyd Gray Creative Commons Licensed for reuse)

The Sheltered waters of Lough Swilly (Image Boyd Gray Creative Commons)

However, conversion to Christianity did not divert Newton from his human trafficking trade. For the next number of years, he sailed on the slave ships working the ‘triangle’ route between Liverpool, Africa and the West Indies eventually captaining his own ships. He was not in any way kind to his captives. He reputedly had guns trained on them to maintain order,or placed them in thumbscrews to keep them quiet.He did not feel there was any conflict between trading slaves and being a christian and indeed this was the widely held belief in the 18th Century. In 1754 he had a serious health scare while at St Kitts, an island in the West Indies. This experience deepened his faith further, as he was once again saved from death. He resolved while here to enter the church.  His last captaincy was in 1754, but for years afterwards he continued to invest in the slave trade. Meanwhile,his religious convictions grew deeper until finally, in 1764, he was accepted by the Church of England and became curate for the parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire in England where he was based for the next 16 years. Newton developed a reputation as an inspirational orator and people thronged to his little church to hear him speak. It was here that he met the poet William Cowper and they collaborated in producing the world famous Olney Hymns, published in 1779. Newton’s Amazing Grace was included in the hymnal. The tune is unknown but it bears a strong resemblance to a West African ‘sorrow chant’or lament, which Newton may often have heard as the human cargo was being loaded up.

Newton Memorial  Window at Olney Church

Newton Memorial Window at Olney Church

In 1780, Newton was transferred to the London City parish of St Mary Woolnoth. This church is in Lombard Street and was familiar to me when I worked in the City of London.It has survived a number of attempts to have it demolished, including one when the underground rail system was going beneath it. There was public outcry, and the railway company had to be satisfied with putting the lift shafts for Bank Underground station directly under the floor.  It is now a listed building.

Church of St Mary Woolnoth, in the city of London.  (Image  Wikipedia)

Church of St Mary Woolnoth, in the city of London. (Image Wikipedia)

Among Newton’s parishioners there was William Wilberforce a young member of parliament  who had been a recent convert. They became firm friends. Newton counselled Wilberforce to remain in politics and use his new found beliefs to improve the world. This Wilberfoce did with “with increased diligence and conscientiousness”. Wilberforce spearheaded the cause of  the abolition of slavery in the House of Commons from 1789, no doubt in part influenced by Newton’s 1788 publication ‘Thoughts upon the Slave Trade’ which was a hard hitting account of the misery experienced by the human cargo, in particular highlighting the dreadful conditions on the ‘Middle Passage’. Newton sent a copy of his pamphlet to every member of Parliament and it became very popular. In it he stated: ‘It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders‘.

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) Produced by Wedgewood Factory. (Image Wikimedia)

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) Produced by Wedgewood Factory. (Image Wikimedia)

Newton lived to see the enactment the Slave Trade Act in 1807,which declared the slave trade illegal in the British Empire, but only just. In frail health he died just months afterwards on December 21st 1807. He wrote his own epitaph which is on a plaque at St Mary Woolnoth:

JOHN NEWTON, Clerk

Once an infidel and libertine

A servant of slaves in Africa,

Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour

JESUS CHRIST,

restored, pardoned and appointed to preach

the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.

He ministered,

Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,

And twenty eight years in this Church.

Originally interred at St Mary Woolnoth, John Newton and his wife,who had predeceased him,were re interred at Olney in 1893, at the little Church where he began his religious life. His epitaph is also inscribed on his tombstone there. This church has  beautiful stained glass windows which portray the Greyhound – one being tossed in a wild sea, the other safely at Lough Swilly.

 

 

The island of St Kitts opened an Amazing Grace Experience in 2014, dedicated to telling the story of John Newton, who traded slaves for sugar on the island.

A newly founded  Amazing Grace Festival centred in Buncrana on Lough Swilly takes place annually to mark John Newton’s arrival on April 8th 1748. The festival features fun and uplifting events for all ages including history, music, dance, arts and crafts, exhibitions, faith stories, and  more.

Everyone has their own favourite rendition of Amazing Grace – this one by Judy Collins,  is mine.

References

http://www.johnnewton.org

http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/

https://www.awesomestories.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Heritage, Irish History

To tell of times that were..

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Recently  I had news of the death of a lady  from my home village in County Donegal. Having moved away many years ago, I had met her on perhaps two or three occasions in the past decade or so. Yet the news of her death made me feel particularly sorrowful. As the days passed and memories flooded back, I came to realize that the reason for my sadness was that her passing more or less closes the curtain on the memory of our late father’s fun-filled younger days over 70 years ago in that relatively isolated Donegal village.

Dad was born in 1921, the third of 5 children, each separated in age by 2 years. As electrification had not yet arrived, candles,oil filled Tilley lamps and blazing turf fires lit the long winter evenings of their youth. Cars too were scarce and bicycles – often the ‘high Nelly’ type were the preferred mode of transport. In a small community young folk made their own  entertainment. There were three Gallagher families in particular that forged deep and life long relationships, (although our family was not related to the other two). With others in the village they played badminton in the local hall, played golf on Logue’s 9 hole golf course, attended horse racing on the strand, played cards, kicked football on the Lee, told stories by the fireside, went out on the Mummers at Christmas and enjoyed the annual arrival of Duffy’s Circus. Touring repertory and variety players would arrive from time to time and put on shows that would be remembered for months afterwards.

Poetry was a big part of their lives and they tried to outdo one another with great recitations! Poetry came easily to them as they had to learn it by rote at school from the age of about 7 or  8, in much the same way as we learned our times tables in later years.The poems our father recited and quoted on a regular basis included

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu,

There’s a little marble cross below the town;

There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,

And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

(The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God , by J Milton Hayes)

And..

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,

The Ship was still as she could be;

Her sails from heaven received no motion,

Her keel was steady in the ocean.

Without either sign or sound of their shock,

The waves flow’d over the Inchcape Rock;

So little they rose, so little they fell,

They did not move the Inchcape Bell.

(Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey )

And, from  Tennyson’s ”Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(My father was still reciting this poem to my son, almost 80 years after he learned it).

In the 1920s and 1930s these young folk had a small band that played at dances in the local hall. Much of their musical  inspiration came from a crackly valve wireless that was run off a wet battery,like the one that filled the deep sill of our kitchen window.

I recall my father telling me how good a badminton player Annie was, but it was her reputation as a pianist that was second to none. He often spoke of their great music sessions. He played drums that were still in our house decades later. He had the full kit – snare drum, cymbals, drumsticks, drum brushes, the wooden block and the big base drum with pedals that operated the wooly beater. ”Top of the Pops” was different back then  –  if they heard a song or tune on the wireless that they liked, they sent away to McCullough Pigot in Dublin for the sheet music.

Wind up gramophone

Wind up gramophone (Image Wikimedia commons)

Shellac gramophone records were ordered to play on their wind up gramophone players so they all learned the melody and the lyrics. Dad was a good singer and he sang away to himself for all of his life! One of his favourite songs  was Abdul Abulbul Amir. We children were totally mesmerized by the exotic sounding names and the incomprehensible words, – such as Mameluke, skibouk, and truculent sneers, but that only added to our glee on hearing him sing! Written in 1877 by Percy French, one of Ireland’s most prolific songwriters, what appeared to be a light-hearted ditty was in fact a skit on the war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire and was a deadly serious tale! The great thing about Abdul Abulbul Amir was that  it sounded equally impressive whether spoken or sung,  and we delighted in either!

On his last visit to his home village in 2005, just eight months before he died, Dad and I  called to see his long time friend Annie. To the best of my recollection her piano had pride of place in her home, but the abiding memory of the day was how they both laughed and laughed as they remembered singing and playing Abdul Abulbul Amir. And so, the reason for my sadness is the evocation of beautiful memories that I saw a decade ago, remembering times stretching  back into the mists of time some 70 years before.

Annie’s love of music was honoured at her funeral with the singing of her favourite song from way back then – not the skittish Abdul Abulbul Amir, but the more appropriate and beautiful Tennessee Waltz that she loved.

Our father had several phrases that he repeated very often.When thinking back on events in his life and on those who were no longer with us, he would say – ”Ah! To tell of times that were…God rest them all.”

God rest them all indeed.

Listen here to ABDUL ABULBUL AMIR sung by Frank Crumit in 1927

Abdul Abulbul Amir Lyrics

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar

One day this bold Russian, he shouldered his gun
And donned his most truculent sneer,
Downtown he did go where he trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Young man, quote Abdul, has life grown so dull
That you wish to end your career?
Vile infidel know, you have trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Quoth Ivan, “My friend, your remarks, in the end,
Will avail you but little, I fear,
For you ne’er will survive to repeat them alive,
Mr. Abdul Abulbul Amir!”

So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
And send your regrets to the Czar
For by this I imply, you are going to die,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk,
With a cry of ‘Allah Akbar!’
And with murderous intent he ferociously went
For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

They fought all that night ‘neath the pale yellow moon;
The din, it was heard from afar,
And huge multitudes came, so great was the fame,
Of Abdul and Ivan Skavar.

As Abdul’s long knife was extracting the life,
In fact he was shouting, “Huzzah!”
He felt himself struck by that wily Calmuck,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

The Sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
Expecting the victor to cheer,
But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh,
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Czar Petrovich, too, in his spectacles blue
Rode up in his new crested car.
He arrived just in time to exchange a last line
With Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

There’s a tomb rises up where the Blue Danube rolls,
And graved there in characters clear,
Is, “Stranger, when passing, oh pray for the soul
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.”

A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
“Neath the light of the pale polar star;
And the name that she murmurs as oft as she weeps
Is Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

(many more verses are sometimes quoted)

 

 

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C. Y. O’Connor,a tragic genius

C.Y.O'Connor statue at entrance to Fremantle Port

C.Y.O’Connor statue at entrance to Fremantle Port

At the entrance to Fremantle Harbour, south of Perth, is an imposing statue some 12 feet high, of a man who changed the face of Western Australia during a period of ten years or so at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. This is Charles Yelverton O’Connor,Engineer-in-Chief in the colony from 1891 to 1902. At the base of the statue are plaques depicting his most notable engineering achievements – Fremantle Harbour, the Darling Scarp Railway Tunnel, and the Mundaring Weir, the starting point for the world-renowned Goldfields water supply.

Adjacent to the statue is a further tribute from his Engineering peers and the Port Authority.

Revered for his genius,he is commemorated,respected and admired particularly in Western Australia,yet is practically unknown in his native Ireland,his home for 21 years, and a land that remained close to his heart for all of his life.

Gravelmount,Co Meath. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Gravelmount,Co Meath. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Born on January 11, 1843 at Gravelmount House,Castletown,County Meath,Charles Yelverton O’Connor was named after his maternal grandfather Charles O’Keefe,and his grandmother’s family,the Yelvertons of Cork and Tipperary. His father John farmed around Castletown,where the family enjoyed country living in  their beautifully appointed three storey residence. John,working both as a magistrate and a farmer,saw the deprivations brought about by the Famine in his locality. It is said locally that he mortgaged all he had to buy grain and food for his deprived and hungry neighbours. He seems to have run out of money as a result of his benevolence,so in 1850 he moved to a small house in County Waterford. Charles was now aged 6, but it is understood that he,together with his younger sister,stayed in Meath with an aunt, John’s sister,Mrs Martha Garnett of Summerseat, near Clonee. When Charles was older he rejoined his family in Waterford where, according to his biographer Merab Tauman, he attended Bishop Foy’s School in Catherine Street. This is disputed in a more recent work by A.G.Evans who says that he was probably educated at the Waterford Academy. In any event,at the age of 17 Charles expressed an interest in civil engineering and was articled to the engineer John Chaloner Smith who was at that time building railways in Ireland. Between 1859  and 1864,Charles was involved in the construction of various rail links,including the Nenagh Extension,and was Assistant Engineer in charge of the construction of several weirs on the River Bann in the North of Ireland. In 1898 he was to write a letter in which he stated it was here on the Bann that he had ”exceptional opportunity of realising the conditions and forces which had to be dealt with in flood time”

On Christmas Eve 1864,C.Y. O’Connor emigrated to New Zealand where immigration and gold discoveries created a demand for big engineering projects. For the next several years C.Y.as he was known,was involved in identification of routes, constructing roads, bridges and railway lines. He created routes up over steep mountains,across raging rivers and deep gorges,opening up access to the recently discovered goldfields. One of his first projects was the Otira Gorge section of the road to the West Coast goldfields. He was also responsible for several harbour improvements on the rugged west coast,facilitating  increasing coal and timber exports from New Zealand. During some twenty-five years in New Zealand he acquired a reputation as a brilliant engineer who understood the wild and challenging terrain. He also enhanced his reputation as an imaginative organiser and leader. Meanwhile, in 1847,C.Y. married Susan Laetitia Ness from Christchurch and together they had eight children,one of whom,a son,died tragically following a scalding accident in their family home. By 1883 C.Y. had become under-secretary for public works, a position he held until 1890 when he was apparently demoted in a reorganization, becoming marine engineer for all of New Zealand. Disgruntled by this, he began to look elsewhere for employment.

C.Y and Susan OConnor  in 1865

C.Y and Susan in 1865 (State Library of Western Australia)

In 1891 C.Y. O’Connor was invited by John Forrest the first Premier of Western Australia to become Engineer in Chief  for the colony and General Manager of government railways. Western Australia occupies about 1/3rd of the entire vast Australian Continent and at  this time had a population of about 50,000. Forrest himself had been an explorer and surveyor. He had a grand vision for the emerging colony with its vast mineral resources,that included a major rail terminus in Perth,the development of Fremantle as the port-of-call for all overseas mail and passenger services and provision of water supplies and essential services to the emerging  agricultural communities. C.Y O ‘Connor was the man who would make this vision a reality.

At Fremantle,hitherto served only by a long timber jetty,O’Connor carried out meticulous research and calculations and decided that the stone bar obstruction at the mouth of the Swan River could be removed and a large sheltered deep water harbour could be created within budget. The harbour dredging began in 1892; the stone barrier was blasted,land was reclaimed to allow for the quays and warehousing. On May 4,1897 the harbour was officially opened with  the SS Sultan,a 2,063 ton steamer steaming into port,marking the beginning of a new era in Western Australia. On July 23rd,1897 the Prince of Wales,on behalf of Queen Victoria invested O’Connor with the insignia of the order of Companion of St.Michael and St.George; principally in recognition of his outstanding Fremantle Harbour construction project. Since these early days the harbour has seen some changes and has been extended,but the basic structure as designed by C.Y. O’Connor remains largely unaltered to this day.

When ‘The Chief’ as he became known,took over as Engineer for the state and General Manager of Government Railways less than 200 miles of rail was in public ownership and it was operating at a loss. Gold was being discovered in the interior and there was a great need to deliver people and all their needs to remote areas. During the 5 and half years that he had charge of the railways,he oversaw the construction of new lines,standardized and upgraded existing ones,invested in new rolling stock, restructured the maintenance and repair depots and returned the railway to profit. It was while working at the rail maintenance sheds that he became aware of the tough working conditions and poor pay of the men here. While in New Zealand he had also been known for his concern for workers and his leadership abilities. It was said that he was patient and encouraging of new men starting out on their careers, but that while compassionate and understanding  he was rigorous in his standards. One of the new young men he appointed as assistant surveyor in Western Australia in 1893 was W.H.Shields, a fellow countryman, who was tasked with identifying water availability (needed for steam locomotives) along the planned railway routes to the parched interior.The discovery of gold in particular at Coolgardie in 1892 and Kalgoorlie in 1893 led to an unprecedented influx of prospectors to these dry arid regions. At this time water was more precious than gold in the goldfields, with thousands of miners often being rationed to a small amount each day,for which they had to pay huge sums of money. Water for washing was simply not available.The problem for The Chief was to supply water to these areas that was fit for human consumption and keep the steam train infrastructure open and performing at full capacity.

C.Y came up with a brilliant and radical plan to supply water to the goldfields. His idea was to dam the River Helena at Mundaring near Perth, lift the water 390 metres over the  Darling Range, and pump 5 million gallons a day overground for 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) to the goldfields. By laying the pipe along the railway line and overground,costs could be kept to a minimum and any problems such as leaks could be dealt with rapidly.His spectacular plan was met with disdain and disbelief. Mine owners and local representatives in the goldfields joined with state level politicians in heaping scorn on the plan. Most people thought it sheer madness as it would be the longest pipeline in the world and in any event,the gold might run out and there would be no need of a permanent water supply. Some newspapers were particularly scornful of the proposed cost of 2 million pounds as well as the madness of the scheme,and of  O’Connor himself. However,the meticulous O’Connor discussed and shared his plans with his engineer peers in England,who commended it. His own engineering credentials and the political prowess of Forrest obtained international investment funds  and work commenced. In 1898 a railway line was completed connecting the main Eastern Railway line to the Mundaring Weir site on the Helena River. The dam was built in an age without modern machinery, using the strength of hundreds of men with wheelbarrows and pickaxes, who dug down some 30 metres to create the weir.

John Forrest departed Western Australian politics and became Defence Minister in the federal government. With a change of government in Western Australia,politicians continued to attack  O’Connor’s  scheme in Parliament at every stage of construction and with increasing hostility. In effect,he became a political football. Enquiries and Select Committees were set up about the caulking or joining of the pipes, whether or not it should be done by hand or by machine,by public workers or private sub contractors. O’Connor,fastidious,meticulous,and cost conscious, a sensitive man and a man of honour was deeply troubled by the endless criticism. Newspapers were suggesting that the dam would collapse and inundate all of Perth. The Western Australian Sunday Times was particularly virulent and suggested that he was lining his own pockets from the scheme. In a very nasty article about him  in the Sunday Times on February 9,1902 it was written ” ..and apart from any  distinct charge of corruption this man has exhibited such gross blundering or something worse,in his management of great public works it is no exaggeration to say that he has robbed the taxpayer of this state of many millions of money…This crocodile imposter has been backed up in all his reckless extravagant juggling with public funds, in all his nefarious machinations behind the scenes by the kindred-souled editor of The West Australian.”

On January 22 1903,just  five years after work commenced,Pumping Station Number 1 at the Mundaring Weir on the newly created Lake Helena was started up and, with the help of 7 further pumping stations along the route,two days later fresh water flowed into the reservoir at Kalgoorlie. O’Connor’s brilliant plan had worked and not only provided water for the mines and towns along the route of the pipeline and for the steam locomotives that hauled goods and supplies to the area, but also met the needs of a generation of farmers,the pioneers of a new ‘wheat belt’ between the west coast and the eastern goldfields. O’Connor had estimated a cost of 2.5 million pounds for the project and the scheme was delivered at a cost of 2.6 million.  The pipleine is still in use to this day, and is one of the great heritage projects of the entire continent.

Missing from the grand opening however was the man himself,for 10 months earlier on March 10,1902 O’Connor penned the following note:

”The position has become impossible

Anxious important work to do and three commissions of enquiry to attend to

We may not have done as well as possible in the past but we will necessarily be too hampered to do well in the  imminent future

I feel that my brain is suffering and I am in great fear of what effect all this worry will have on me – I have lost control of my thoughts

The Coolgardie scheme is all right and I could finish it if I got a chance and protection from misinterpretation but theres no hope for that now and it is better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do who will be untramelled  by prior responsibility

10/3/02

put the wingwalls to Helena Weir at once”

He then rode his horse out  to Robb Jetty,in Fremantle and there rode into the sea and shot himself.

A subsequent government enquiry into the scheme exonerated him from any wrongdoing and found no basis whatsoever for political or press accusations of corruption or misdemeanour.  When his will was published it showed that he had not enriched himself with his brilliant schemes – It showed assets of 298 pounds,which included two horses and a  cow valued at 47 pounds, books,jewellery and furniture valued at 215 pounds and salary due to him of 36 pounds. He had liabilities of 189 pounds mostly to merchants for produce and coal.

Charles Yelverton O’Connor is buried in Fremantle Cemetery,under a fine Celtic Cross. Those who knew him spoke of a character who was subtle and often aloof,but who was deeply considerate of others,who was fun-loving and witty,gentle and amiable. According to his daughter Kate, ”he was devoted to Ireland and carried Ireland with him everywhere and he was acutely sensitive to the unhappy state of Ireland and the distress of many of his countrymen.” She said he helped many a young Irish lad start a new life in the colonies,and always had Irish boys from farms in Ireland to look after his horses,and they lived-in, as part of the family.

The grave of Charles Yelverton O'Connor, proud Irishman

The grave of Charles Yelverton O’Connor, proud Irishman

A genial,generous giant of a man,sometimes difficult,but  whose legacies of the Goldfields Water Supply and Fremantle Harbour,in particular stand testament to his brilliance.

One wonders what other ingenious schemes C.Y. O’Connor might have designed had he not been hounded and libelled by press and politicians alike. And isn’t it a shame that the Irish man who conceived and largely implemented one of the world’s greatest engineering projects is relatively unknown in Ireland?

References/Further reading

There are some excellent photographs of the construction of the Pipeline at the website of the National Trust of Australia, Education and Learning site at http://www.valuingheritage.com.au/learningfederation/the_pipes.html
 
The Chief C.Y. O’Connor (1978) Tauman, Mereb, University of Western Australia Press
C.Y. O’Connor : his life and legacy. (2001) Evans, A.G., University of Western Australia Press.
Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand accessed at tp://www.teara.govt.nz
The Australian Dictionary of Biography accessed at http://adb.anu.edu.au/
National  Trust of Australia
National Library of Australia
Trove Newspaper Archive accessed at http://trove.nla.gov.au
State Library of Western Australia
 
 
 

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Australian, Irish Diaspora, Irish diaspora in Australia, My Travels