Category Archives: Living in Ireland

Misneach – The Ballymun Sculpture

952606F4-3DD0-4FF9-86E5-DDAC1382F421This post has taken years to get to publication! The original draft was made years ago when I first heard the intriguing story of a new sculpture of a young girl on a horse unveiled in Ballymun, a suburb of Dublin’s northside. Ballymun would not immediately spring to mind as a location for bronze street art. It was here that several high-rise blocks were built to rehouse people from the inner city.  The high rise developments were totally unsuitable and with no amenities the area gradually became known for its many social problems. The high-rise blocks were demolished and replaced with houses. A sculpture was commissioned as part of the Ballymun Regeneration Project.

John Byrne is an Irish artist and winner of many awards for his work. At a recent event at the National Museum of Ireland, John was one of the speakers, along with my son, Damian  Shiels, an historian of the Irish in the American Civil War and Dr Emily Mark-Fitzgerald, a specialist  in commemoration and public art. As he began to speak I realized that he was the man who had conceptualized this wonderful Ballymun project. I was anxious to discover where it is located as several half-hearted attempts to locate it by driving slowly around Ballymun had failed to find any trace of it!

John’s story was as intriguing as the sculpture itself. How did a young bareback horse rider from Ballymun wearing a hoodie top and runners, come to be on the horse of a 19th century Viscount?

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Years ago there was a celebrated equestrian statue standing in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. It had been erected in 1880 as a memorial to Limerick- born Viscount Field Marshall Gough. There was much public debate at the time as to where the statue should be located but eventually a site was chosen in Dublin’s Pheonix Park.

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Gough’s monument in the Phoenix Park (Image Wikimedia Commons)

The inscription on the monument read

In honour of Field Marshal Hugh Viscount Gough, K.P., G.C.B., G.C.S.I., an illustrious Irishman, whose achievements in the Peninsular War, in China, and in India, have added lustre to the military glory of his country, which he faithfully served for seventy five years. This statue [cast from cannon taken by troops under his command and granted by Parliament for the purpose] is erected by friends and comrades’

The monument was designed by the renowned Irish sculptor John Henry (J.H) Foley. His better known works include the Daniel O’Connell Monument on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, Fr. Mathew in St Patrick’s Street in Cork, Prince Albert in the Albert Memorial in London and Stonewall Jackson in Richmond Virginia, as well as Burke  and Goldsmith at the entrance to Trinity College, Dublin, to name but a few.

Gough’s horse was not created especially for him as it was was cast from an existing mould made by Foley some years earlier in 1858, for the equestrian statue of Viscount Hardinge. Obviously this magnificent animal was suitable for the most prestigious military men.

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Viscount Hardinge of Lahore, in Calcutta in the 1860s  (Image Wikimedia Commons)

The Gough Memorial, with a copy of Hardinge’s horse, stood proudly in the Phoenix Park for some decades. However, it eventually attracted the attention of militant Irish Republicans who made a number of assaults on it. In 1944 Gough was decapitated with a hacksaw and his sword was removed. It was some time later that the severed head was found, at low tide, embedded in mud in the River Liffey.

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Irish Press April 11, 1945

The head was reattached but just over a decade later the right hind leg of the horse was blown off by explosives. Apparently he was then jacked up with bits of timber.

The final demise came in June 1957 when a loud explosion blew Gough and his horse from the plinth, with man and beast blown to bits. There was much genuine lamenting as the statue was considered to be the ‘finest equestrian monument in Europe’ by any commentators.

Vincent Capriana a Dublin poet, recorded an attempt on the monument in his well known bawdy poem (which some readers may find offensive).

GOUGH’S STATUE by VINCENT CAPRANI

There are strange things done from twelve to one
In the Hollow at Phaynix Park,
There’s maidens mobbed and gentlemen robbed
In the bushes after dark;
But the strangest of all within human recall
Concerns the statue of Gough,
‘Twas a terrible fact, and a most wicked act,
For his bollix they tried to blow off!

‘Neath the horse’s big prick a dynamite stick
Some gallant ‘hayro’ did place,
For the cause of our land, with a match in his hand
Bravely the foe he did face;
Then without showing fear – and standing well clear –
He expected to blow up the pair
But he nearly went crackers, all he got was the knackers
And he made the poor stallion a mare!

For his tactics were wrong, and the prick was too long
(the horse being more than a foal)
It would answer him better, this dynamite setter,
The stick to shove up his own hole!
For this is the way our ‘haroes’ today
Are challenging England’s might,
With a stab in the back and a midnight attack
On a statue that can’t even shite!

The remains of Gough and his lovely horse were put into storage and were eventually sold on to a distant relative of Gough’s. He restored the monument which now stands in Chillingham Castle, Northumberland in the north of England, safe from the matches of Irish Republicans.

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Gough in his new home in Northumbria (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Enter John Byrne. John decided that he would like to copy the famous Foley horse, return him to Dublin and place him in Ballymun.  He and his team worked with the new owner  of the monument and made a polystyrene mould of the horse, which was sent to the foundry. He then held auditions to find a young Ballymun person to complete his sculpture. There is a tradition among young people in the area of keeping horses and riding them bareback. A young rider named Toni Marie Shields, then aged 17 was chosen as the model for the statue that was to be the centre piece of the regenerated Ballymun town.

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The bronze sculpture entitled ‘Misneach‘, the Irish word for courage, with the casually dressed local bareback rider.

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The sculpture is 1.5 times bigger than lifesize.

 

But the saga of Gough’s Horse does not end here. If you visit Ballymun town centre today Misneach will not be anywhere to be seen, much less be the centrepiece to the revitalized town.

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The fabulous sculpture Misneach

Misneach became a victim of the economic collapse in Ireland. It was decided that it would be erected in a temporary location to save  the expense of moving it again when the Metro North train link to Dublin airport through Ballymun was built. The Metro Rail link never went ahead although every now and then it gets a mention by politicians.

So where is Misneach? It stands proudly in the grounds of Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun, so easy to miss completely!  Perhaps one day it will be the centrepiece of a vibrant new area. It is a most beautiful piece of public art and well worth seeing. And how lovely to think that Toni Marie, in her tracksuit and runners, proudly sits bareback on a horse designed for two Viscounts!

For more about  the sculptor see

http://www.john-byrne.ie/biog.php

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Women’s Christmas, January 6 -An Irish Christmas Tradition

 

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Having celebrated Christmas and the New Year, we in Ireland are not done yet! We are still counting the twelve days of Christmas at the end of which we will have the final celebration. This is of course the uniquely Irish tradition of  Women’s Little Christmas when Irish women celebrate the end of the Christmas Season.  Although celebrated mainly in counties Cork and Kerry, it is great to see this tradition being revived and celebrations happening all lover Ireland. This post from 2012 has been read over 12,000 times, and here it is again to wish all female readers a Happy Women’s Christmas! 

 

 

All over Ireland, January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season – it is the day  on which the fairy lights, the Christmas tree, the decorations and the Christmas cards are taken down and put away for another year. It is considered bad luck if decorations remain displayed after this date! January 6 has many titles – Epiphany, Little Christmas, 12th Night , Women’s Christmas, Women’s Little Christmas,and Nollaig na mBan. Such an important day to have 6 different names!

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

In Ireland, ‘Little Christmas’  (‘Nollaig Bheag’ in Irish) is one of the traditional names for January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian celebration of the day on which the Magi arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honour the new-born baby Jesus, the day on which Jesus is revealed to the gentiles. Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holy days that originated in the Eastern church and was adopted by the Western church in the 4th century. ‘Little Christmas’ is so-called because under the Julian Calendar, Christmas day celebrations were held in January,whereas under the Gregorian calendar, Christmas day falls on December 25.

Twelfth Night,which coincides with Epiphany has been celebrated as the end of the Christmas season for centuries. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Twelfth Night was one of the most  important days in the Christian calendar. Twelfth Night parties were common where participants enjoyed food and drink and games. A special Twelfth cake, the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of the party, with a slice offered to all members of the household, above and below stairs. In 1756, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that: the king, and his entourage ” went to the Chapel Royal at St James’ and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense” on Twelfth Night.

Some years ago I found myself in County Kerry on January 6. I was astonished to see hotels crowded with women – and no men to be seen! On enquiring, I was informed that they were celebrating ‘Women’s Christmas’ or ‘Nollaig na mBan’ in Irish. This has been a long-standing tradition in Counties Kerry and Cork, when women celebrate the end of the Christmas season, the decorations are down, the long season of preparation and cooking is over  and the women folk have a celebratory meal. It is also celebrated in Newfoundland which has a strong affinity with Ireland and in some  states of the United States of America where the tradition was kept alive  by Irish immigrants.

The fascinating thing about this tradition is that, rather than dying out like so many other traditions, its popularity has begun to grow and it is now being celebrated across the country. Women in Dublin organize lunches for their women friends, Limerick women are meeting in their own homes for lovely dinners, Sligo women are coming together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are being organized all over the place! Long may it continue!

If you know of other areas where this tradition is celebrated, I would be delighted to hear about it.

Happy Nollaig na mBan (pronounced null-ag na man) to all readers!

References

Internet Archive :Gentleman’s Magazine 

bbc.co.uk

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Mandatory retirement: Airing views on National Radio

I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion on Mandatory Retirement on the Marian Finucane Show on RTE Radio 1. (For readers outside of Ireland, RTE Radio is the Radio arm of the Irish national public service broadcaster, Raidió Teilifís Éireann and the Marian Finucane show is one of Ireland’s highest rated weekend programs.)

On the panel with me to discuss personal impacts of mandatory retirement in Ireland were a former mechanic/fireman with the Fire Service in Sligo, Victor Martin who had to retire at age 55,  Pat Wallace, former Director of the National Museum of Ireland, who was compelled to take early retirement,  and myself who had to retire from the civil service at age 65.

Although shaking with nerves, it was a huge thrill for me to be on the Marian Finucane programme. I have been an ardent fan and follower for many years. Researcher Katriona McFadden and producer Ronan Lawlor were most reassuring and helpful, so huge thanks to them!

The discussion can be heard here on the RTE Player which is available worldwide, and begins just a few minutes in after a review of newspaper headlines.

I would like to add a special word of thanks to Kathleen Sharkey (nee Murphy) my school friend from 1961 to 1966 who accompanied me to the RTE Studios and helped calm my nerves. I was visiting her home in County Louth when the invitation came to participate in the programme.  Thank you Kathleen!

Age Action Ireland continues to advocate for a change to the mandatory retirement in Ireland.

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Postcards from Midleton Farmers Market, Co Cork

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The Market Green sculpture. 5 life-size sheep surround a central pillar.

The Farmers Market in Midleton County Cork was one of the first of its kind in Ireland and ranks as one of Ireland’s best. Back  in 2000, cook of international renown Darina Allen of nearby Ballymaloe Cookery School, had the idea to showcase local good food, and so the market came about.

All stall holders produce their food locally, most of it is organic. It is always fresh and looks very tempting! Artisan bread, cakes, jams, chutney, goats cheese, mushrooms, fresh fish, vegetables of every kind, pickles, fruit, smoked fish, chocolate, coffee, milk, pork, eggs. All first-rate products and worlds apart from supermarket fare. Open on a Saturday morning up to 1 pm, it is usually very busy and there is a great atmosphere here with friends chatting, background music and playing children.

This morning was particularly blustery with a promise of a downpour any minute, so crowds had not yet arrived when I was there.

It is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area, and quite different to many other markets in Ireland. It’s a very unique experience and a must for anyone interested in good fresh local food. 

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Leaving the world behind #1 – the ancient mariner. 

In the summer of 2016 I spent 6 weeks in a care facility following surgery on a multiple leg fracture. Six long weeks. Six weeks when I wondered what ever would become of me, six long weeks when I had time to contemplate what might lie ahead should I need care that could not be given by my family. Here I observed daily life in a rural nursing home/ care facility populated by elderly who were cared for by enthusiastic young girls and men, and by mostly Phillipino and immigrant nurses. These are my thoughts on those surreal weeks.

The Ancient Mariner

Tall and distinguished, gold chain hanging from a waistcoat pocket, white shirt, with a perfectly knotted tie and wearing an exquisitely cut grey mohair suit, he arrives to the ‘library’. Probably in his 80s but looking younger, he is walking with a crutch, held backwards. He studies the library shelves, tilting his head slightly to one side to read titles on the vertical spines. Danielle Steele, Maeve Binchy, Patricia Cornwell do not stir any interest. Ian Rankin, Nelson DeMille, Andy McNab? No! The so-called Library consists of two lots of shelves in a chair lined room, with a table on one wall, covered in white linen.

He makes return trips on several consecutive days after his first arrival. The mohair suit and the beautifully knotted tie, to my surprise, are evident each day too. How long before these sartorial  items will be replaced by track suit bottoms and a tee shirt?

Sitting in the corner of a ‘library’ in a care facility, I observe the comings and goings of older people who must leave the world behind when they pass through the locked door. Some for weeks, some for longer, some forever. I wait for my broken leg to heal over possibly six weeks. In six weeks I hope to be on the outside again. Will he ever be back out there to choose his very own reading material, to peruse his own bookshelves for his reading of choice?

He turns and walks towards other shelves and I catch a glimpse of a hearing aid. Other residents are being escorted to the dining room for the last meal of the day, some walking with support, some in wheelchairs, some slowly making their own way on legs that are no longer strong. ‘What  do you like to read’ I ask, quite loudly. ‘SEX’ he responds, in as strong a voice as I have heard within these walls!  ‘ I don’t  think you will find much of that here’ I respond as he goes back to scrutinise the book shelves only feet away from a table shrouded in white linen, adorned with artificial flowers and a pair of  extinguished candles, that lies in wait for the weekly Wednesday morning mass.

SEX. Nothing could be further from life in a care home, in a nursing home, in a home for the elderly. Yet this man seeks it on the few miserable book shelves, populated by popular fiction, easy reading, chick lit, in all likelihood donated on a charitable basis by family of the patients.  What, after all would an older person want? What else could they be expected to read? Several times a day he returns to the bookshelves, almost in disbelief. Where are the books he is interested in? Where are the books suitable for a single former merchant navy seaman on these shelves beside the stark white linen altar, prepared for mass? Bent in disappointment, he swings his reversed crutch and klonks his way towards the dining room.

I need  to get out of here.

 

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Postcards from the Wild Atlantic Way: Kilalla to Downpatrick Head

Making my way for the first time ever along the beautiful north Mayo coastline I had many ‘wow’ moments as I turned corners to meet with spectacular views. This part of Mayo is one surprise after another and was an eagerly awaited part of my 3,000 kilometer trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.

My first stop was at Killala, a picturesque little village with a 12th Century Round Tower that vies with the nearby 16th Century Church and steeple.

Killala Round tower and church

Killala Round tower and church

The scenic little harbor looks across at the sandy shore of Bartragh Island once owned (and possibly still owned) by premier golfer Nick Faldo who had plans to make a championship standard links there.

Killala is a popular tourist destination, with many attractions such as pristine beaches, walks, fishing, historic sites and archaeology and the bay itself is a treasure trove for birders with many unusual species to be seen here.

Further along the coast is the breathtakingly magnificent Lacken Strand – a huge expanse of sand sheltered by high sand dunes. The Lacken Salt Marsh is a protected area of special conservation  and the tidal bay again hosts many wading birds. It was near here on August 22, 1798 that General Humbert landed at Kilcummin Harbour with over a thousand French troops, in support of the United Irishmen Rebellion against the British.

One of the most remarkable features between the road and the sea just beyond Lacken Strand on the minor coast road, is the prevalence of long narrow strips of land running towards the coast. The Rundale System of farming predates the Famine in Ireland and was a method of land management determined by land quality, that was shared out and rotated among many families. The parallel lines of these fields can be clearly seen on the map above by enlarging it slightly. Just a short drive along the coast I arrived at the excellent B & B accommodation (Creevagh Heights B & B ) overlooking the Atlantic Ocean which I had selected for its proximity to Downpatrick Head.

I first heard of Downpatrick Head during one of our Atlantic Storms when photographs of huge waves breaking over it made the news. (See here for Irish Independent News). It was late evening when I arrived in the area but as the weather forecast was poor for the following day, I decided to go and have a look around. There was a lack of ‘wild’ on my entire trip along the Wild Atlantic Way as there was hardly a breeze, so I saw none of the spectacular wind-driven seascapes that I love so much. As it turned out, the rugged beauty of this particular spot was best enjoyed in calm conditions given that I was alone when exploring a hazardous landscape. The sign at the entrance to the head announced that the site was unsuitable for children and that dogs should be kept on leads! I couldn’t help wondering why there would be such signs, but very soon I was to find out that it was indeed good advice!

 

I was pleased to note that there was some fencing on the site and that some wire mesh had been inserted on the ground –  I presumed this was to prevent walkers slipping on wet grass. As I stood on it I  became aware of noise beneath my feet and on looking down I was horrified to find myself looking into a dark chasm with a heaving mass of water. I was standing on top of a blow-hole!

This site is a lesson in coastal erosion. The cliff tops look soft and crumbling and the blowholes are testament to the fact that waves cause caves to penetrate the cliff and the tops eventually collapse. There was a constant sound here that can only have come from the waves rumbling beneath the land I was walking on, which gave me a definite uneasy feeling. I walked on up the hill towards a large grassy mound, and what looked to me like a possible hill fort, but when I  arrived there I was astonished to find that the mound of earth is a man-made raised walkway that surrounds a vast blowhole known as  Poll a Sean Tine ( Hole of the old fire or old wave).

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The cavernous hole has been made accessible to the public by the installation of a protective steel fence and reinforced plate-glass. It must be some spectacle to be here when the thunderous waves are throwing vast plumes of spray high into the air.

There is tragic history here too. When the 1798 Rebellion failed, English troops were rounding up rebels and their French helpers. Locals descended into the hole with ropes and hid on ledges below. The Redcoats however stayed in the area for longer than expected, the weather changed, a storm blew up and many were drowned.

All calm at Poll a sean Tine

All calm at Poll a Sean Tine

The name Downpatrick Head derives from Saint Patrick  of course. There are ruins of a 5th century monastery here, with the ruins adorned (spoiled) by a statue of St Patrick. It seems that the usual and only acceptable representation of the Saint is sporting 17th Century ecclesiastical garb.

St Patrick in 17th Century garb at his 5th Century Church

St Patrick in 17th Century garb at his 5th Century Church

This area was an area of significance long before the arrival of Christianity as the ancient landscape predates Patrick. Legend has it that Crom Dubh, a pagan god, occupied this area and St Patrick came to confront him. Crom Dubh tried to throw Patrick into the ‘eternal fire’ but Patrick drew a cross on a stone and threw it into the fire which collapsed into the sea thus creating Poll a Sean Tine. Crom Dubh retreated to his fort but Patrick  hit the ground with his crozier and created Dun Briste or Broken Fort, a sea stack that stands about 100 metres from land. It’s a great story and possibly the first recorded ‘belt of a crozier’ by an Irish bishop!

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Dun Briste or Broken Fort is a sea stack that has been separated from land by wave erosion. There are remains of two dwellings and farm walls apparently still to be seen on the stack.

The effect of erosion is plain to see here with the soft top soil falling away. Up here there are no protective fences, so great care is required. It is a good demonstration of the danger of venturing too close to the edge!

But the discoveries continue.

There is a Lookout Post here, one of many around the coast of Ireland dating from about 1939. At these lookout posts in 1942-43, ground markers were etched out spelling EIRE and with a number  – this one is 64 – to alert  aircraft to the fact that they were now over neutral Ireland. These markers are now being restored at many of the 82 locations around the coast. This one at Downpatrick Head was recently restored.

As darkness was falling I made my way back to the carpark, over the fascinating tufted surface of seapinks and wondered what it would be like to return to this fascinating and special place on a good windy day. Downpatrick Head is a ‘signature’ point on the Wild Atlantic Way and was one of the highlights of my entire trip. I will be back!

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A soft tufted carpet of sea pinks

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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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