Category Archives: Irish Heritage

Schools Folklore Collection – A treasure trove for family historians?

Between 1937 and 1939, the Irish Folklore Commission set up a scheme in which over 100,000 schoolchildren collected local lore and history from older generations in their locality. Most of the topics are to do with local history, folktales, legends, proverbs, songs, customs and beliefs, games and pastimes, crafts and local monuments. These stories were collated by the local National School teachers in 5,000 schools across all 26 counties in what was then the Irish Free State. This material forms part of one of the largest Folklore Collections in the world, which is in the care of University College Dublin. The Schools Collection is now being digitized by Dúchas.ie and is being rolled out online. Although not all of it has been transcribed, it is searchable by place, family name, school, topic. Many of the entries are in Irish. (I hope that these can be translated in due course so that overseas researchers may reach the wealth of information on the heritage, culture and way of life in the parishes of their ancestors.)

I spend many hours idly browsing through this collection and recently was totally astonished to discover some members of our own family. Our uncle had gathered folklore and  his informants were none other than his parents, our maternal grandparents!

This was their story on Local Marriage Customs

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The original entry in the Dúchas.ie collection

Most marriages take place from Christmas to the beginning of Lent, which time is called Shrove. June was thought a lucky month for marrying in, and May, July and August were thought unlucky. Friday, Saturday and the 28th December were thought to be unlucky days.

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Ireland’s Ancient East – A Review

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Ireland’s Ancient East, A Guide to Its Historic Treasures is a recently published guide to a newly designated tourist trail in Ireland featuring remarkable heritage sites in 17 different counties, that encompass about 5,000 years of history. Compiled and written by Neil Jackman, an archaeologist who has produced excellent audio guides for many of Ireland’s top historic sites, this guidebook has everything for the traveller to Ireland and a wealth of information for those of us who live here.

This is a beautifully produced book, packed with high quality colour photographs, with at least one on most of its 300 pages. Each of the 100 sites in the book has been photographed by the author and it is these photographs that are for me the stunning feature of the book. These are the hooks that may well tempt the traveller to go and seek out the amazing heritage across this island.

There is detailed historical information for each place as well as maps, site co-ordinates, distances from nearest towns, driving directions, site facilities, opening times, car parking, and entrance fees, if any.

The heritage sites are varied and range from castles, cathedrals, churches and caves, high crosses, tombs gardens and cliff walks, old copper mines, gardens, country homes, stone circles and workhouses, to name a few!

Maps, a detailed index, an extensive bibliography and a glossary of terms complete the book, which to me is not just a guidebook, but a handbook of Irish history and places worthy of a place in any book collection. This is a gorgeous visual and practical guide to some of Ireland’s ancient heritage, a useful handbook for those of us who have yet to discover some of our hidden gems, a worthy souvenir for any visitor to Ireland, or an exceptional gift for those of Irish heritage. I am happy to have it on my shelves!

 

Further information:

Ireland’s Ancient East published by Collins Press  €15 and also available as an e-book

Abarta Audio Guides

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The Céide Fields: The World’s oldest known field system

A Pine tree that lived in Mayo 4,300 years ago

A Pine tree that grew in Mayo 4,300 years ago and lay preserved in bogland.

In Ireland we have an annual celebration of our Heritage during National Heritage Week, part of the European-wide ‘European Heritage Days’, that promote every aspect of our wonderful, varied heritage. During this week there are hundreds of events showcasing the richness that we have inherited in our natural surroundings, our landscape our buildings and in our literature, history legends, and culture. This is an excellent time to make new discoveries and to revisit favourite places.

This year I will mark Heritage Week by recalling my visit just a few weeks ago to one of the most unique landscapes anywhere in the world that is to be found in North County Mayo, along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. This place is called The Céide Fields, (pronounced Kay-Ja), a one thousand hectare monument that is the world’s largest dated Stone Age or Neolithic site. 5,500 years ago, a farming community lived, loved and worked here, raised their children, reared cattle, made pottery, grew crops, built homes, made gardens and buried their dead.

Blanket bog protects the site

At first sight, there appears to be very little here on this barren landscape –  all the more bleak on the morning of my visit with strong wind and driving rain! The land that stretches up over the hill seems to be flat and featureless, and will be recognized by Irish people as ‘just bog’. Bog is an emotive type of wetland landscape here in Ireland.  For centuries peat bog has provided fuel for our homes  and in recent times efforts to conserve some of this type of endangered habitat have become politically charged and confrontational. But here near Ballycastle in Mayo, this very landscape has protected a way of life for thousands of years, covering features of times past with metre after metre of protective vegetation.

In Ireland we have two types of peat bogland covering 1/6th of our land mass – smaller scale ‘Raised bogs’ which are the subject of conservation restrictions, and the more ubiquitous ‘blanket bogs’ found in much of the West of Ireland and here at the Céide Fields. These wetlands have evolved over aeons as can be seen in the diagram below demonstrating the evolution of blanket bog from the past, when the land was farmed; bog formed and enveloped the area; then peat removal for fuel resulted in the ground being used for growing again.

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Peat is formed from dead plants that have not fully decomposed due to the lack of oxygen in very wet soil. Sphagnum which has water retention properties is a key component of bogland as it keeps oxygen levels low and steadily the dead plant matter of the sphagnum accumulates. The bog can grow to many metres in depth as the vegetation keeps building up. Here at the Céide Fields, the blanket bog covered over the remnants of the prehistoric farms to a considerable depth, smothering trees and other vegetation that once grew there.

The bog covered and concealed evidence of early life.

The bog covered, concealed and protected evidence of early life

In this representation of a turf bank below, it can be seen that over the centuries the depth of the bog increase. Today where is 1.5 metres high; 2,000 years ago, at the time of Christ, it was 0.9 metres high; 4,000 years ago at the time of the Egyptian pyramids it was 0.3 metres deep and a thousand years earlier people lived and worked in this fertile area.

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

This remarkable landscape was first noticed by a local man in the 1930s when he was cutting turf for his home fire. He noticed piles of stones as he cut deeper into the turfbank and felt that they were so orderly that they must have been placed there deliberately by humans. Years later his son, Séamus Caulfield an archaeologist, conducted  an investigation and discovered the series of walls, houses and tombs deep below the bog. The site has now been extensively explored and excavated to a limited degree, enough to show that the community of farmers who lived here 200 generations ago had reclaimed their ground by clearing vast expanses of pine forest. Seeds and pollen found at the site have been identified and dated and this with other dating methods has enabled scientists to determine the age of the site, the type of crops grown and the implements used.

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

There is a splendid award winning interpretive centre here, with guided walks available. There is a wealth of flora and fauna at this site unique to the habitat.  Unfortunately on the day of my visit inclement weather prevented such exploration, but by studying  the excellent exhibits I was able to et a great understanding of the treasure that is here.

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

The centre has a viewing platform that on better days than this, affords fabulous 360 degree views of the entire area.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

In spite of the inclement weather I did venture outside on to the viewing area and was very happy to have a rail to hang on to in the very blustery wind and driving rain!

 

Steps leading to the Heart of the Céide Fields.

Steps leading to the heart of the Céide Fields, from where the guided tours begin.

It was a real thrill to finally visit this incredible site with an extraordinary and unique history. Irish Heritage at its best!

 

References

Home

Irish Peatland Conservation Council. http://www.ipcc.ie/

The graphic on the evolution of bogland is from the website http://www.irelandstory.com, which at time of writing is no longer available.

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Land of my fathers.

I came across this fabulous aerial video today on Facebook. As a rule, I post only my own work on this blog but I must make an exception with this fabulous video. This footage is the work of  photographer Pat Ward and it was filmed along what was known as the Gweebarra Bends. The Gweebarra River meets the sea here in Donegal. The view from the home of our paternal great-grandparents is of this estuary. The video shows Kilkenny National School where our grandfather was a Monitor before entering St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Drumcondra in Dublin in 1917. Just a short distance away on the same side and behind where a new house now stands was their small cottage. Our great-uncle John used walk from the house in Mulnamina across the Gweebarra Bridge to Sunday Mass in the chapel in Leitir (Lettermacaward) which is glimpsed later in the video.

The Gweebarra Bends, now about to disappear as the road is straightened, were enjoyed by us as we drove along to visit the house when we were children. Loaded into the back of the car, our father used get us to lean in the direction of the bends to help the car get around the corkscrews! Then we would all have to lean forward as we made our way up the hill to the bottom of the lane where we would pile out and run the last few hundred yards to see where the badgers hid, to pet Uncle John’s white donkey and to pick white heather high up on the hill behind the small house and then enjoy some of  Aunt Maggie’s delicious skillet bread baked on the open fire. Such beautiful memories and such a beautiful video. Thank you Pat Ward!

This I am sure you will agree is a most beautiful video….enjoy!

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Postcards from the Wild Atlantic Way:Easkey County Sligo

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Killybegs Fishing Fleet without ‘the ship from hell’

 

Expert Fisher

Fishing expert

Travelling along the Wild Atlantic Way there are many ‘side stories’ that grab attention. Such is the case in Killybegs in South Donegal. Killybegs is Ireland’s largest fishing port, the safe sheltered deep water harbour  located in the waters of Donegal Bay.

Two things surprise me…the sheer size of these boats that go hunting fish for our tables, and the sheer number of them in the harbour, that are not at sea. They are big and they are colourful, and presumably in harbour as they may have already taken their quota of a particular species as allowed under European rules, or because the species they fish may not in season. The size of these boats would make you wonder all the same how long the seas can continue to produce the huge quantities of fish that these super vessels can haul in at any one time.

It is good to know that fishermen at sea are much safer than in days gone by, as these vessels are built to withstand heavy seas and are equipped with an impressive amount of electronics, radar, Internet and GPS systems.

Vehicle of Atlantic Dawn Group

Vehicle of Atlantic Dawn Group

Seeing this service vehicle of the Atlantic Dawn Group on the quay, I was reminded of a shameful period in the history of Irish Fishing. Back in the 1990s a Killybegs fisherman Kevin McHugh, aided and abetted by the Bertie Ahern government and funded by Irish  banks, commissioned and purchased the Atlantic Dawn super trawler. At 144 metres long and 14,000 tons it was and remains the largest and most technologically advanced trawler in the world. Feted by politicians on its arrival as ‘one of the proudest moments in Irish history’ this giant could process 400 tons of fish every 24 hours and had storage capacity of 7,000 tons. There was one problem however, it was so big that it did not have nor could it be issued with a fishing licence for European waters. Amid  much political wrangling and dealing, the Atlantic Dawn was registered as a merchant ship to enable it to side step fishing licence rules. With her nets hundreds of metres wide and sonar systems to detect shoals of fish it soon became clear that she would fish the full annual quota allowed in a matter of weeks. And so a deal was drawn up with the government of Mauritania in South Africa to enable her to trawl there and avoid all rules, regulations and legislation put in place to protect fishing stocks. Atlantic Dawn stripped the fishing grounds of Mauritania depriving hundreds of subsistence fishermen of their livelihoods. They dubbed her ‘the ship from hell’. Following a coup in Mauritania she was impounded and banned from fishing in these waters. Following the death of McHugh in 2006, the Atlantic Dawn was sold and renamed the Annelies Ilena. Ironically she was arrested for overfishing and the case was heard in Donegal courts and is ongoing. Many of the ships tied up in Killybegs are owned by the Atlantic Dawn Group.

The smaller fishing boats are dwarfed by their big neighbours.

 

imageThe pier at Killybegs was upgraded to accommodate these larger vessels and nowadays visiting cruise liners call into Killybegs to allow passengers visit some of the local attractions.

Much of the catch landed here is exported to the continent.

Spanish Truck waiting to load the catch

Spanish Truck waiting to load the catch

At any fishing harbour there is a reminder of how cruel the sea can be and what a dangerous occupation fishing is. This is the Killybegs memorial to those lost in this area.

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Postcards from the Wild Atlantic Way: Glencolmcille- a place apart

imageTucked away at the end of a valley in south Donegal is the unique and beautiful little village of Glencolmcille. It is easily missed by the tourist as the village is on a spur road that leads only to Glencolmcille. Apart from the scenic location, the village is renowned for the wealth of archaeological evidence of settlement dating from 3,000 B.C, a strong musical tradition, as well as being a haven of peace and tranquility.
The road into the village gives an idea of the remoteness of the village. I love these wild rugged empty spaces.

Then you see it way below where the land meets the sea…

Glencolmcille at the end of the valley

Glencolmcille at the edge of the sea

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The village is tucked under Glen Head with its Martello Tower and the church dominates the village

The world famous feature of Glencolmcille is ‘An Clachán’ cluster of replica buildings that depict life over about three centuries. This museum development was the brainchild of the local priest, James McDyer who spearheaded a campaign for the development of small community based industries and tourism  in a bid to stop the constant migration from the area. When he arrived in the area in 1951 there were no proper roads, no electricity service and no water supply. He was the champion of Glencolmcille and indeed a thorn in the side of officialdom as he relentlessly sought to improve the lot of the people in this deprived area.

Among the clusters of small buildings are a school, a grocery shop as well as a number of typical houses of times gone by. My favourite has to be the school as it so closely resembles the school I first attended in the 1950s at the age of 3, complete with slates for learning to write.

Outside there is a replica Sweat House..I am not sure of the purpose of this, possibly to cure ailments?

A Sweat House

A Sweat House

I loved the collections in the houses, all telling if times that were, long before the advent of electricity, when families had to be self sufficient.

Beds were usually placed near the fire for warmth.

The kitchen dresser held all the China and sugar bowls and jugs

And we had similar washstands to these, these were in use before running water became available.

There’s so much to see and to do at Glencolmcille, it is easy to see why people return time after time. For now though, I have to keep heading south along the Wild Atlantic Way, but I leave here promising that I will return one day.

 

 

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