Tag Archives: Carrigart

A Family Milestone

Our Family Elder and his pushchair

Our Family Elder and his pushchair (go-car)  in a hay field

Proud parents of their firstborn JDG

Proud parents of their firstborn JDG

Family History is by its nature historic, but of course present day events will too become history as soon as they have passed. With this in mind, I thought it appropriate to mark a family milestone on these pages, in the hope that it may be of interest to the upcoming generations when and if they choose to look us up!

Our grandparents James D Gallagher and Mary O’Friel were married on September 20th 1915 at Edeninfagh Church outside Glenties, County Donegal. (about which, more later) .

Marriage portrait of our grandparents JD Gallagher and Mary Friel

Marriage portrait of our grandparents JD Gallagher and Mary Friel taken in September 1915. Note that she is holding her ‘marriage lines’ as they were known.

They went on to have five children, who were our parents, aunt(s) and uncles. Aunt May was born in 1917, Aunt Eileen in 1919, our father Gerard was born in 1921, Uncle Sean arrived in 1923 and finally Uncle Jim arrived in 1925.

These five children in turn went on to have their own children, which is our generation. As Aunt May was a Religious Sister she did not have any family. Aunt Eileen had three children, our Dad had six ,Uncle Sean had four and Uncle Jim had one. All of that generation have sadly left us. Their 14 children make up the ‘present generation’ of Gallaghers. Unfortunately, Aunt Eileen’s first little daughter died just weeks old in 1946. She was the eldest in our layer of Gallaghers. The next-born was our brother who was born in Newtownforbes, County Longford in February 1947 and therefore he holds the title of ‘Family Elder’, being the eldest grandson and eldest surviving grandchild of JD and Mary. Of the 14 grandchildren only 12 of us survive as our baby brother, the youngest in our family also died in 1959 at the age of 15 months.

Unfortunately our Gallagher Grandparents did not know any of us as they both died very young, some years before any of us were born.  In fact when our grandmother died her own 5 children were aged  5, 7, 9,11 and 13.  So this is a nice time to remember both of them as our current ‘Elder’ who also bears the initials JDG, celebrates a big birthday.

The birthday boy, JDG, watched over by a proud father (and a younger sister) at the back of Figart in 1948

Our grandparents would now be great great grandparents to a number of beautiful little children, as our generation of siblings and first cousins have become grandparents too.

Tramore with a younger sister and brother in 1959

Tramore with a younger sister and brother in 1959

Two family portraits..one pre 1956 the other in 1959

So as we look back a number of generations and look forward at the newer couple of generations, it seems a good time to acknowledge our current family elder! Happy birthday JDG!

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Filed under Family History, Ireland, My Oral History

Remembering Aunt May.

James Gallagher and Mary Friel with their firstborn, Mary Isabella Gallagher in 1917

James Gallagher and Mary Friel, our grandparents, with their firstborn, Mary Isabella Gallagher in 1917

On  May 17, 1917 our aunt May was born at her grandparent’s house in Pollaid, Fanad Co Donegal. At that time her father James Gallagher  was teaching in Templedouglas National School in Glenswilly. As was quite usual then, the expectant mother returned to the home of her parents to give birth. Mary Isabella (always known as ‘May’) was  christened on the same day as she was born, at St Columba’s Church in Tamney. The godparents (sponsors) were Anna Friel, Mary’s Mother and her brother Francis.

Baptismal certificate

Baptismal certificate.

The birth was not registered in the civil register until July and we can see that her mother’s sister, Susan McAteer, was present when Aunt May arrived into the world.

Civil birth registration

Civil birth certificate.

Aunt May left Ireland in February 1938 to join a religious teaching order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in the south of England. At that time, it was understood that religious sisters would not ever return to their family home, so it was knowing this that the 20-year-old bravely boarded a bus in her home village of Carrigart, Co Donegal on a cold February morning. She told me years later that she was crying as she did so, and that the local priest came on to the bus and ordered her to stop crying, but also very kindly said to her ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.’  This she said, gave her great courage and it was something she repeated to herself many times a day for years afterwards. But her mother had now died and she felt compelled by the special promise she had made to her. She also told me, something that astounded her brothers and sister, that when she was only 7 years of age, her mother asked her if she would become a nun, and she promised her that she would.  She told me that this was a conversation they had as they waited for the bucket of spring  water to fill at the local ‘spout’. While this may seem astonishing to modern readers, it was considered a great honour to have a daughter enter a convent,or to have a son who became a priest.  Her first wish was to join the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry only 40 miles away and to become a nurse. However, she had a first cousin who was already in the Sisters of Notre Dame, and she was prevailed upon to join that order instead.

imageShe had an interesting, sometimes sad and often joyful life, but  in later years suffered ill-health.  More about her will be posted  in a future blog. I was fortunate to spend her last four days by her bedside. I went to see her early in the morning before I had to get a flight back to Ireland. When I arrived home that afternoon, I picked up the phone to enquire about her, to be told that she had died earlier in the day. She died on May 10 2007 and was buried on May 15 2007 in Dumbarton Scotland, just days short of her much-anticipated 90th birthday.

She continues to be sadly missed by the writer and by my aunt and cousins who knew her very well. She is especially remembered today, on what would have been her 99th birthday.

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Filed under Family History, Ireland, Irish Diaspora

Memories: A picture paints a thousand words

Carrigart Hotel today. (Image courtesy of Donegal Cottages

Carrigart Hotel, County Donegal.(Image courtesy of Donegal Cottage Holidays.com)

The Hotel in Carrigart, County Donegal is an iconic building that dominates the village where I grew up. It was an integral part of our young lives as we originally lived in what was an extension of the building and we later moved across the street. The red-roofed structure in this picture was our barn, to the rear of our ‘new’ house.

There have been many reincarnations of postcards of the village in the heart of a tourist area, but very few feature this beautiful building, the probable reason being that the bend in the main and only street, means it is not possible to capture the entire village in one shot.

 

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This beautiful building is listed on the Donegal County Council  Protected Structure Inventory as ”Detached four-bay three-storey Victorian Hotel with dormer windows with elaborate carved detailing to their surrounds. Later extensions to east and west.” 

This photograph was among my late father’s most treasured possessions. I believe it was taken in the early 1950s when the premises was owned by Dermot Walsh. It shows distinctive round steps leading to the main door, a petrol pump and behind it, Walsh’s Bar with Walsh’s shop attached. The bar and shop had separate entrances as can be seen in the photo. I think that the cars are Ford Prefects (any correction most welcome) and would have been crank started. (My Dad owned one of these cars – ours had the registration number of ZL 108.) I particularly like the bicycle in this picture, cleverly and securely parked by placing one of the pedals on the footpath!
At that time this petrol pump was the only petrol pump in the village, although Griffins added one in later years. It was situated in an enclosed gravel area and sometimes for a dare we would run through here. Obviously it was an area that was for some reason out-of-bounds for small people, otherwise we would not have bothered! The petrol pump was operated by a big lever so that the person ‘dispensing’ the petrol had to work hard cranking away until the proper volume of petrol was delivered. My father often told the story of the day an important visitor to the nearby and very posh Rosapenna Hotel stopped by for petrol. He had one of the biggest cars ever seen in the locality. The visitor left the engine running and went into the hotel while the car was being filled up. A small crowd gathered while James Boyce cranked away furiously. After some time, the visitor returned to find that James, in spite of cranking away like mad, had not yet managed to fill the tank. He turned to the visitor and said: ‘She’s bating (beating) us so she is, she’s bating us’, meaning that because the engine was running, petrol was being used as fast as it was being pumped in! In reality it was because the tank was so big, it took ages to fill it!

I have great memories of happy times spent around the hotel…hours spent with Maggie Greer who single-handed did all the laundry. I loved standing with her in the wash-house that smelled of suds as the sheets swirled round in the big washing machines. I went with her to the clothes line where she hung them out on the long lines with her poor gnarled hands. I loved to see all those sheets billowing and flapping in the breeze! I spent more hours with her as she did the ironing, expertly smoothing and folding each sheet into rectangles as though they had just come new from the shop.

To my mother’s annoyance, I also spent time with Tommy Gavigan who bottled the Guinness for the hotel. The huge wooden Guinness barrels lay on their side and he pushed a tap into them from where he filled each bottle. It was then placed on  a machine to be capped and I helped him wet and stick on the labels. In return he would cut a sliver off his block of Plug tobacco for me to chew. It is easy to understand why my mother was not too happy to have a 7-year-old chewing tobacco! Tommy also took care of the cows and did the milking in the byre on his little three-legged stool with a metal bucket to catch the warm milk. Afterwards, he might throw me up on top of a cow to sit on her back as she went back out to the field.

The Carrigart Hotel has stood on this site for over 100 years. It was built by Michael Friel in about 1910, although he had a smaller hotel  prior to this. According to the 1911 Census the hotel boasted 64 rooms with 28 windows to the front and 18 outhouses that included piggeries,stables and a harness room. On Census night, in addition to Michael Friel’s wife and family there were 8 boarders on the premises, including a Dr MacCloskey the local doctor, cooks, servants and a lace instructress!

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Friel’s Family and Commercial Hotel

The rather grainy photograph above was taken sometime before the 1930s. The name ‘Friel’s Family & Commercial Hotel’ is attached to the railings that run along the roof. I do not recall these railings or the rooftop ornamentation. In 1934 ownership of the hotel passed to Miss Mary Anne McGuire, who was the sister-in-law of Dr Mac Closkey, recorded as a boarder in 1911 census. Subsequently the hotel passed into the hands of the Walsh Family who operated it until it was sold on again in recent years.

Carrigart now

Carrigart Hotel as it is today

The photo in my Dad’s possession evoked lots of pleasant memories for him, just as indeed it does for me. It is a pity that the hotel is no longer in use, but it is still a place for gatherings in the village, still a place where good memories are made, memories that  hopefully will last as long as the pleasant memories I have, and that my father before me had, of this lovely building.

 

With special thanks to

Donegal Cottage Holidays  for permission to use their photograph – more beautiful photos can be seen on their site

Petie McGee who sent me the picture of the Friel’s Hotel

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Filed under Ireland, Living in Ireland, My Oral History

One of these days: A Winter Solstice Birthday

Newgrange. Aligned with the rising sun whose light floods the chamber on the winter solstice. Image Wikimedia Commons

Newgrange. Aligned with the rising sun whose light floods the chamber on the winter solstice. Image Wikimedia Commons

‘One of these days’ is a phrase that trips off many an Irish tongue and whose meaning is clearly understood as being ‘sometime in the near future’.I was not so sure if this is the case across all the English speaking world, so a quick Google came up with the following:”One of these days” is an idiom that behaves as an adverb. It’s basically a drop-in replacement for “someday,”meaning something like”at some unspecified point in the future”. So there we have it!

‘One of these days’goes around in my head at this time of year for two reasons,both of which are ingrained in my DNA.

Growing up in North Donegal with its dark star-filled skies meant that we were reasonably familiar with celestial goings-on, especially in winter. We spent many an hour out in the backyard with our mother,identifying the Milky Way,Orion’s Belt,The Plough,The Seven Sisters as well as the occasional passing comet with its long tail. She would say ‘One of these days now you will see shooting stars if you are good’. Shooting Stars cropped up at reasonably regular times and wowed us as we headed over the barrack-brae towards Carrigart chapel for October Devotions, or to pray for the Holy Souls in November. Or,she might say:’One of these days now, you might see the Aurora Borealis’. The very sound of it was magic that matched the dancing colourful waves in the sky! And so too with the Winter Solstice…’One of these days the sun will  have gone as far away as it can go and will turn back to us and the days will begin to lengthen’. In days predating electricity in our houses, with only battery operated wirelesses and newspapers to inform us,we never knew exactly when these events might take place,but we knew when it was’one of these days’!

Solstices and equinoxes  fall in March, June, September and December, some on the 20th or maybe the 21st or perhaps the 22nd or possibly the 23rd. Who could possibly keep track of them, and which date referred specifically to which event? Old Moores Almanac was stocked in Speer’s shop at Christmastime,but possibly not in time to alert us to the exact time of the winter solstice. And then, by the time we needed to consult it for other celestial events it was lost,probably having been  thrown away when the first prediction of ten feet of snow that would close all schools for the month of January never materialized. So on ‘one of these days’ we marked these wonderful events in Donegal. On, or around about the correct dates.

Another event in our house was marked in a similar fashion.It too was a moveable feast, a winter and December event,but not one we could check up in Old Moores Almanac. It was my father’s birthday.I often asked him, what is your birthday, and he said he wasn’t sure. He said his birth certificate said one thing,his baptismal certificate said another and his mother never agreed with either of them. So he spent his entire life being confused about it and confusing all of us around him. ”Ah, it’s one of these days”, he would say, when all we knew was  that it was going to happen in the days coming up to Christmas.

imageMy Dad was born in a small house in Templedouglas, Glenswilly, County Donegal in December 1921. He was the first son to my grandparents, James Gallagher a National School teacher in Templedouglas, and my grandmother Mary Friel, a seamstress from Pollaid in Fanad. He was the first brother of my Aunts May and Eileen. My grandfather had been born in Mulnamina, Glenties, so both he and his wife were relative newcomers and blow-ins to Glenswilly. My aunt Eileen had been born here two years earlier, so they had been living in the area for at least two years that we know of. In the days before hospital confinement, home births were the norm. The midwife would have been sent for and kettles of water put on to boil. My aunts often told me that my father was ‘frail’. I wonder was it a troublesome birth? Was his life in some danger when he was born? Or was he simply born around midnight with clocks showing different times? Or maybe his mother was very unwell following the birth and everyone was concerned for her welfare.In any event,something gave rise to confusion about his birthdate.If he was at risk, he may have been baptized immediately. Registration may have been delayed. A church baptism may have taken place at a later date, but the norm would have been for baptism within three days of birth. We will never know.

Today, December 21 is being heralded at the Winter Solstice in these northern climes. However, to be absolutely pedantic about it,this year, 2015, the Winter Solstice will happen tomorrow, December 22 .

The following are the winter solstice mid point dates and times from the U.S. Naval Observatory. The time zone used is “Greenwich Mean Time”.

2001 – 21st December 19:21  GMT / UT
2002 – 22nd December 01:14  GMT / UT
2003 – 22nd December 07:04  GMT / UT
2004 – 21st December 12:42  GMT / UT
2005 – 21st December 18:35  GMT / UT
2006 – 22nd December 00:22  GMT / UT
2007 – 22nd December 06:08  GMT / UT
2008 – 21st December 12:04  GMT / UT
2009 – 21st December 17:47  GMT / UT
2010 – 21st December 23:38  GMT / UT
2011 – 22nd December 05:30  GMT / UT
2012 – 21st December 11:12  GMT / UT
2013 – 21st December 17:11  GMT / UT
2014 – 21st December 23:03  GMT / UT
2015 – 22nd December 04:48  GMT / UT
2016 – 21st December 10:44  GMT / UT
2017 – 21st December 16:28  GMT / UT
2018 – 21st December 22:23  GMT / UT

This data is from http://www.knowth.com

So the Winter Solstice happens most often on December 21, but also sometimes on December 22nd and rarely on December 23rd.

My Dad’s birth certificate here before me states that he was born on December 22,1921. The 1921 Winter Solstice occurred on December 22 1921 at  7 minutes past 9 am. I often wonder if in fact he may have been born just at that time, just right at the solstice?  Again, we will never know.

So on ‘one of these days’ in December 2015, I  want to celebrate what would have been my father’s 94th birthday. I want to celebrate the solstice ‘new beginnings’ that would have given him great joy: His children in Donegal, Dublin, Perth Western Australia and Cork; his grandchildren in Dublin, Dubai,Cork, Limerick ,Waterford and Western Australia; his great grandchildren in Western Australia, in Dublin, in Limerick and soon to be in Skerries in Dublin. How proud he would have been! A winter Solstice? A solstice birthday? New Beginnings? Yes!

Entrance to Newgrange. It is here that the Winter Solstice sunrise shafts of light enter the passage. Image Wikimedia Commons

At the Winter Solstice here in Ireland, weather permitting, at the astonishing Newgrange in the Boyne Valley, County Meath, Ireland, the shafts of solstice sunrise will light up the chamber of this passage tomb to mark the turning of the year. Across the island there are ancient groups of standing stones that are aligned to capture the rays of light from the winter solstice sun, so this was a very significant time of year.  How nice to think that my Dad was born on ‘one of these days’, at such a significant time in 1921 .

Happy Solstice to you all,  and Happy Birthday to my Dad!

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Ireland Seasons, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish History

Meeting Eithne

In June 2011, I put the name ‘Eithne’ and a slightly unusual surname into a search on Facebook. Two pages were returned – one person from Belfast was not who I was looking for, but the second one showed promise. And so I emailed – ”Are you the person who was with me at the St Louis Convent Boarding school in Dundalk, Co Louth, Ireland?” And back came the response –  ”Yes, I am ! ” This was one of the amazing moments I have enjoyed since becoming ‘e-inclusive’ as the EU likes to call it! Imagine! Finding someone who was a very special part of my life almost 5 decades ago!

Eithne hails from County  Monaghan, a county bordering  Northern Ireland to the south,  and I was from County  Donegal,  a county that also borders  Northern Ireland to the  north-west, so  we already had something in common!   We two Ulster women found ourselves deposited as 13 year olds in a convent boarding school run by the St. Louis Sisters in Dundalk Co Louth – many miles from Eithne’s Castleblayney  home and even more  from mine in faraway Carrigart, County Donegal.

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Some of the dormitories were in the Castle on the left

It was 1961. Boarding school had serious disadvantages –  nights of lonely crying into the pillow as we faced into three terms of endless weeks  missing family and friends and home; months of rising at 7 am; months of cold water for washing ‘everywhere two skins meet’; months of seemingly endless  study; months of endless  praying. Add to the mix:  no boys ; no privacy as only curtains separated our ‘alcove’  sleeping spaces – each containing  a single bed, a chair, a locker with a towel rail  topped by a green plastic basin and beaker,  as well as a single  wardrobe. This was ‘home’ for up to 14 or 16 weeks at a time, three times a year, for 5 long years.

Me: 2nd row from Front, 3rd from right

Me: 2nd row from front, 3rd from right; Eithne: 5th row from front, 3rd from left

School was defined by rules, long silences, prayers, study, long regimented walks, retreats, breaking rules, operas, dance lessons, still no boys, even more study, hours of silence, tuck shop on Saturday with Toffo de Luxe and chocolate; mashed parsnips, and  first Sundays of each month in silence for up to 17 hours!

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School Prospectus

Here we learned life long skills in the art of sharing:  how to divide a three week old  quarter sandwich into five portions with the tail of a steel comb;  how to dissect a small chocolate Turkish delight sweet  into 6 minuscule portions so everyone could share the last remaining morsel of luxury; how to eat a chocolate cake so that only crumbs remained, then pen a letter of complaint to the manufacturer returning the crumbs, stating that  it tasted of petrol. The plan worked sometimes and we got a replacement cake! The demands on teenage hormonal girls were truly extraordinary, and – it has to be said –  were also character forming. There was one huge advantage: friendships that formed in these  adverse conditions ran deep and true.

A couple of St Louis Nuns

A couple of St Louis Nuns – the delightful Sr Colmcille on left.

Eithne and I spent happy summer holidays at each others homes in Donegal and Monaghan. Her home was so exotic –  she lived in a fairly large inland  town compared to my small village, her family had a shop and a pub no less  – and her mother was just the nicest woman ever you met!  There was a very beautiful lake nearby where we talked and we walked, lay in the sun  and eyed up the local talent.  On visits to Donegal, Eithne fitted into our lives  like a hand into a glove, and here too we eyed up the local talent and walked and talked on our big deserted beaches. Sadly Eithne changed schools in 1964 when  she left to go to school elsewhere, while I remained in the Louis for a further 2 years.

Life continued to send us in different directions – in Eithne’s case she emigrated, became a nurse, married and moved between England , Scotland and Holland. In my case I also emigrated to England  and with many changes of address we drifted apart. A lifetime later Eithne, after the Facebook search,  was coming to Ireland for a visit and so we arranged to meet for lunch last summer!

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I boarded the bus – what would we talk about?  Would we have ANYTHING to talk about? What if lunch  is just too long? As I approached the meeting point I saw her….later I was intrigued that I had recognized her from the back, as she was facing away from me, but there was something so familiar about her standing there, as though I had seen her just a few days before. I called her name and she turned round….

And so it was  – lunch stretched to almost 4 hours of non stop banter and reminiscing. Life stories were recounted  including births marriages and deaths of family members we each knew well. We looked back with a great sense of fun  at the quite severe existence we endured in the Louis, and how we laughed as we recalled the fun we had when rules were being broken.

Life has certainly thrown some challenges to both of us in the intervening 48 years, but we have survived.  I am thrilled to have sent that email, to have rediscovered a friend, to discover that  true friendship is enduring and can pick up where  it left off, no matter how many decades have passed!  I rediscovered a kind, gentle, caring person with a lovely sense of humour – what more could a friend wish for ?

Thanks Eithne, so  glad to be able to call you ‘friend’!

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Filed under Irish History, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History

Tales from the Hearth – In Memory of Kevin McFadden

A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of a very special book entitled ‘Tales from the Hearth’ that has a delightful oral history of my part of Donegal. This book harks back to a time when people visited others houses to exchange stories by the fireside. I am not sure how or where I discovered this publication, but somehow I made contact with Helen who sent me her last copy of this beautiful little book of stories as recounted by her  husband, the late Kevin McFadden.Feb13 001

I grew up in Carrigart, County Donegal, Ireland, in days before television and when the electric lights went off at 10 pm.  On  summer evenings we stayed outside playing until we had to come in for bed, and in winter  we retreated  to the fire after dark. At about 7 pm ‘Spaceships Away’ resounded from the radio, heralding the beginning of the nightly series, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future! My mother had a few special friends who on a regular basis, would  call to our house in the evenings. Younger children were sent to bed, we older ones helped with the sandwiches – how I loved to see her friends arriving as my mother made a special plate of her famous mouth-watering salad sandwiches, so yummy! (the secret ingredient was vinegar! )  Mrs McFadden, Kevin’s mother,  called on a weekly basis, and I recall that she and my mother would exchange weekend newspapers, such as The Empire News, The Sunday Dispatch, The Sunday People and various others. These ‘British’ papers were crammed full of stories of the British Royals, as well as various scandals – the stuff of endless conversation in a quiet rural village! One of my abiding memories is of how they laughed and enjoyed one another’s company!  The McFadden Family lived near us.  Kevin and his brother Patrick  are the ‘stuff of legend’ in Carrigart! One night there was a terrific explosion, followed by total consternation. Patrick and Kevin had taken an oil drum and dropped a lighted match into it…. and  BOOM!  I still remember the bang and  that their hair and eyebrows were singed – they were very fortunate not to have been seriously injured!  I think this was sometime in the early 1960’s, and it remained a significant event in the village for decades!

‘Tales from the Hearth’ re-created these forgotten memories from the 1950’s and early 1960’s just by association. Not only that, the book itself has absolute gems of stories featuring many local characters, many of whom  I knew personally. Paddy ‘Long Barney’ –  have no idea where the ‘Long Barney’ came from  and of course we never thought to ask as these distinguishing nicknames were very common in Donegal, being used to distinguish between families of the same surname and very often, same first names.  Paddy Long Barney features in a most unlikely ghost story , full of the familiar local dialect, which is a joy to read!

My favourite story is about the local football team, The Mulroy All Stars who were provided with football strips by migrant workers to Scotland, the local McGroddy brothers, Johnny and his younger brother Andy. (Someplace in my photo-bank I have a picture of these two legends that I will post when and if I find it). The then 16-year-old Kevin was picked as goalie and proudly defended his goalmouth on The Lea just outside Carrigart,  resplendent in his yellow polo neck ‘rig’. Even the 11 goals that whizzed past his ear did not dent the great pride he had in turning out in fabulous new team colours!  I will have great pleasure in showing this story to the sister of the McGroddy boys when I visit later in the year.

Feb13 002

Kevin stands high above The Bar, where the Atlantic flows into Mulroy Bay, Co.Donegal

This little book is a great tribute to the local culture  of  story telling and yarn-spinning that was part and parcel of rural life in Ireland in the 1950’s and 1960’s . It is also a fitting memorial to a son of the parish who emigrated to Canada but never forgot his roots and the delights of the simple life he lived in rural north Donegal. Ar dheis Dé  go raibh a anam.

I am most grateful to Helen McFadden for sending me this book – I  will treasure it!

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Filed under Irish Culture, Living in Ireland, My Oral History, Oral History, Social History Ireland

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’.

The shore in Carrigart - site of our St John's Eve Bonefires . Image from Creative Commons. © Copyright John M and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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 Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland