Tag Archives: County Mayo

Discovering landmarks and Family History on Blacksod Bay, County Mayo

Continuing along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, rain and low grey cloud were my only companions as I headed into this remote Irish-speaking part of County Mayo. Although visibility was reduced it was still possible to enjoy some lovely sights. The Irish-only road signs were something of a challenge at first, even though I am used to our bilingual signs here in Ireland and Irish-only signs in Donegal, and other Gaeltacht areas, these places were not familiar to me. However, once I figured out that ‘An Fod Dubh’ meant ‘Blacksod’ and that therefore ‘Chuan and Fhóid Duibh’ was Blacksod Bay, I chugged along happily in the beautiful Mullet Peninsula that protects Blacksod Bay from the worst of the Atlantic weather.

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Trá Oilí or Elly Beach

This eye catching beach is one of many big sandy beaches in the area. It sports the Blue Flag, one of the world’s most recognised eco-labels, indicating that it complies with a specific set of criteria on water quality, information points, environmental education, safety and beach management. Raining or not, this is a good beach for swimming!

Tír Sáile – the North Mayo Sculpture Trail –is the largest public arts project ever undertaken in Ireland.  Several of these sites are located here on the Mullet peninsula. This work is entitled ‘Deirbhile’s Twist’ and I like that it was formed by raising large granite boulders already lying around on the ground and arranging them into an eye catching feature. This is located at Falmore which is a beautiful location, even in the mist!

Saint Deirbhile (Dervilla) is a local saint who arrived at Falmore in the 6th Century. Arriving by donkey she was pursued by an unwanted suitor who,so the story goes, was very attracted to her beautiful eyes. Rather drastically she plucked them out to discourage him and he left, heartbroken. Water gushed from the spot where her eyes fell and after bathing her sockets her sight was restored. The ruins of her convent are here near the seashore with Deirbhile’s Well nearby. Modern day pilgrims believe that water from the well can help cure eye complaints and they come here for special devotion on August 15 each year.

Ruins of Dervilla's Monastery

Ruins of Dervilla’s Convent

And then on to the site I was particularly interested in – Blacksod weather station, situated at the end of the peninsula.

This is Blacksod Lighthouse, looking very unlike a traditional lighthouse, perched atop an old granite building that dates from 1864. This is a very significant place because it was from here that a weather report issued on 3rd June 1944 changed the course of history. The World War 2 D-Day landings scheduled for June 5th were delayed because of the hourly weather report lodged by Irish Coast Guardsman and lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney, which indicated that there would be adverse conditions in the English Channel for the following few days. Blacksod was of particular significance because it was the first land-based observation station in Europe where weather readings could be professionally taken on the prevailing European Atlantic westerly weather systems. Ted’s report on June 3rd mentioned a rapidly falling barometer and strong winds which would have augured badly for the planned invasion. A further report from Ted at 12pm on June 4, said ‘heavy rain and drizzle cleared, cloud at 900 feet and visibility on land and sea very clear’. This meant that better weather was on the way for the south of England, and so Operation Overlord went ahead on June 6th 1944 with calm clear conditions in the English Channel.

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Plaque at Blacksod Lighthouse

There is a nice little harbour alongside the lighthouse, Termon Pier, which was almost totally deserted when I was there with only rain and wind to be heard and seen and a few currachs pulled up out of the water.

Winds were picking up the rain was relentless so it was time to leave. I was delighted that I had made the trip out here and discovered a few sights, in spite of the conditions.  Suddenly there was an incredible noise that almost deafened me and for the life of me I could not figure out what on earth it was.  On turning round I saw a helicopter had just taken off from right beside me, as  there is a Helicopter Landing base beside the Lighthouse!

A helicopter lifts off

A helicopter lifts off.

I left here very pleased with my foray into this area, and with the few treasures I had discovered. However, the Mullet Peninsula had one more surprise in store as not far along the road I  came upon Ionad Naomh Deirbhile, a local Visitor and Heritage Centre.

img_1292Although they were about to close I was invited in for tea and a homemade scone and here discovered the story of The Tuke Fund assisted emigrants. It is not always recognized that hunger in Ireland did not end with the famines of 1845- 1852 and 1879. Hunger and deprivation were a fact of life in poorer districts of the western seaboard in particular, with hundreds of families needing relief into the mid 1880s and beyond. James Hack Tuke (1819-1896) was an English Quaker who made it his mission to aid people suffering from starvation and deprivation in the West of Ireland. One of the features of the Tuke Fund assisted migration was that only entire families would be facilitated, thereby freeing up smallholdings for another family. The emigrants were provided with the fare and money to enable them settle in their new locations.  In 1883 and 1884, 3,300 emigrants left North West Mayo and Achill, boarding ships in Blacksod Bay.  They sailed on 10 separate voyages, for Boston and Quebec. There are impressive storyboards at the centre, where descendants of those who left here almost 140 years ago are welcomed. One such family arrived while I was there. It is reckoned that over 2 million people are descended from these North Mayo emigrants

The research on the Blacksod Tuke Emigration scheme was carried out by Rosemarie Geraghty, I believe for her thesis. Rosemarie has researched the 10 ships manifests that carried these families to their new lives in what she describes as the time of the  ‘forgotten famine’  and is absolutely delighted when descendants arrive here in search of their roots. I asked her what the charges are for family research and she said ‘They left here with nothing, we are never going to charge them to know where they came from.’ Rosemarie is ably assisted by Norah Cawley, a superb scone maker who makes visitors feel very welcome indeed. I have been to many a family research centre before, but never one like this – with such enthusiasm, warmth,  passion  and great scone making!

All of this information with family names  is available free to view, and is searchable under various headings, at http://www.blacksodbayemigration.ie . They just love to hear from anyone wherever in the world whose ancestors may have left this beautiful place over 130 years ago.

On what was a miserable wet grey cloudy day, how lucky was I to discover such wonderful silver linings at the Mullet Peninsula and on the shores of Blacksod Bay!  More treasures of the Wild Atlantic Way – Beidh mé arais arís!

 

St Deirbhile Stained Glass window at the Centre.

St Deirbhile Stained Glass window at the Centre.

References

http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/how-blacksod-lighthouse-changed-the-course-of-the-second-world-war-30319681.html

http://www.blacksodbayemigration.ie/

http://www.museumsofmayo.com/deirbhile.htm

 

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Family History, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish Countryside, Irish Diaspora, Irish History, Mayo Emigrants

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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Irish Pilgrims and the Celtic Fire Festival of Lughnasa

Today,on the last Sunday of July thousands are on the slopes of  Croagh Patrick, braving heat, thundery downpours and winds, to make a personal pilgrimage to the top of this iconic mountain.  Here is a post I made  on this day in 2011 about the mountain.

On the  last Sunday of July each year,tens of thousands of people, many barefoot, climb the steep slopes of Croagh (pronounced Croke) Patrick, on a penitential pilgrimage. They are following in the footsteps of generations of pilgrims who have ascended the conical mountain, in the West of Ireland, in County Mayo. The mountain is known locally as ‘The Reek’ and today is ‘Reek Sunday

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The Pilgrim Path . Image Wikimedia Commons

Croagh Patrick dominates the landscape for miles; from the N17 road that runs north to Sligo from Clare, its almost perfect cone can be seen from some 20 miles distant,and on a clear day it can be seen from some 40 miles away. Anyone reaching the summit, whether tourist or pilgrim,is stunned by the magnificent views, most especially of Clew Bay with its more than 300 islands, lying some 2,500 feet below.

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Spectacular Clew Bay far below the summit of Croagh Patrick. Image Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that St Patrick used the mountain as a place of penance and that he fasted for 40 days and nights on the summit in the year 441 A.D. The pilgrimage as we know it today is a religious one, with Masses and Rosaries punctuating the entire day.

Long before St Patrick’s arrival however, the mountain had been a sacred place. In the Celtic tradition, the Festival of Lughnasa (pronounced Loo -nasa) was celebrated on August 1st ( Lughnasa is also the Irish word for August). This was an annual festival honouring  the god Lugh (pronounced Loo) at harvest time. Across the country festivities took place, often on mountains such as Croagh Patrick. Lughnasa was the most important Fire Festival of the Celts and in common with many other pagan festivals and traditions it was Christianized and adopted by the church in a different guise.

Croagh Patrick and the surrounding landscape has much archaeological evidence of the sacredness of this place, going back millenia. A rock, known locally as St Patrick’s Chair, has engravings that date as far back as the neolithic, thousands of years before Christ. Also in the area, remains of a hillfort have been discovered that dates from before 800 B.C.The local archaeological society recently discovered that, each year on April 18th and August 24th, the sun sets on the summit of Croagh Patrick, and then – rather than slipping behind the mountain – it seems to ‘roll’ down the steep slope. To see  a terrific sequence of ‘rolling sun’ images, click here.

Croagh Patrick is a spectacular and special place whose appeal to ordinary humans has lasted thousands of years, and without doubt, will continue to do so for thousands of years to come.

References

Croagh Patrick. A Place of Pilgrimage . A Place of Beauty. Harry Hughes. O’Brien Press, 2010

There are some beautiful images in this book

Sacred Destinations

The Sacred Island

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April 14 1912: Iceberg Ahead! Good Bye all!

As RMS Titanic steamed towards New York, several iceberg warnings had been issued during the day of April 14 ,1912.

At 11.40 pm, with many passengers already in bed for the night, the lookout shouted ‘Iceberg Ahead’! Despite frantic attempts to manoeuvre the huge vessel, she hit the iceberg, ripping plates from her hull and leaving a huge gash in her side. Within minutes there were 14 feet of water in parts of the ship and the flooding continued relentlessly into each ‘watertight’ compartment.

25 minutes later, on April 15 1912 at 5 minutes past midnight an order is given to prepare the lifeboats. If all are filled to capacity over 1,000 people would have to stay on board as there are not enough of them.

At 00.45 am the first lifeboat is lowered, with only 28 people on board – it had space for  65.

At 2. 05 am there are 1,500 still on board the liner but there is only one lifeboat  left to be launched. The water is now just below the promenade deck.

The huge ship is now listing and people on board rush about in panic, trying to escape the freezing waters. At 2.17  Titanic’s bow plunges underwater and as all the heavy machinery slips forward, the lights flicker and go out.  The ship breaks in two and the bow disappears into the icy water. Three minutes later, at 2.20 am the stern section which had risen up into the air, plunges  into the icy depths.

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Jeremiah Burke from Cork, Ireland scribbled a message and put it in a bottle as the Titanic went down. He was lost. The bottle washed up some years later and the note was given to his family. His family has donated it to Cobh Heritage Centre. Image thejournal.ie

At 2.20 am in the village of Lahardane in County Mayo in the west of Ireland a bell will peal 11 mournful peals, followed by 3 joyful peals in memory of the 14 people from this small community who were passengers on the Titanic. 11 of them were lost and 3 survived. It is probably the only location in the world where the last moment of the great Titanic is remembered ever year at the exact time of the sinking.  Of the approximate 2,227 on board, about 713 survived. Lahardane’s commemorative bells peal across the land to remember all of those lost and saved.

References:

History on the Net

BBC History

Addergoole-Titanic.com

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Irish Diaspora, Irish History, Irish_American, Mayo Emigrants, Titanic

‘The Quiet Man’ 60 years on

Promotional movie poster for The Quiet Man. (This image is used to illustrate the article on 'The Quiet Man' movie and is used for informational or educational purposes only).

‘A fine soft day in the spring, it was, when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late, as usual, and himself got off. He didn’t have the look of an American tourist at all about him.’ This is the opening narration in the movie ‘The Quiet Man’, much of which was filmed on location near the beautiful village of Cong, Co Mayo, Ireland. John Ford’s 1952  film was a resounding success, and 60 years on its popularity continues, for it is said that every minute  of every day,someone in the world is watching ‘The Quiet Man’.

John Ford (1894–1973) was born John Feeney of parents who had emigrated from the West of Ireland in 1872. His parents passed on stories of home together with a great love for all things Irish, and so the making  of a film set in Ireland had been a pet project of Ford’s  for many years. The film’s main character Séan, played by John Wayne, explains: ”Ever since I was a kid living in a shack near the slag heaps, my mother told me about Inisfree and ‘White O’Morn’. Inisfree has become another word for heaven to me.”

The Bridge seen in the film 'The Quiet Man'. Photographed by Susan Astray, creative.commons.

The film’s representation of Ireland appealed to the diaspora and to those who longed to be home. The West of Ireland had indeed come to symbolize  all of Ireland and had become  the image of the country left behind, helped by the interest of writers in the latter years of the 19th century,such as J.M.Synge and W.B. Yeats. The dramatic landscape of the west was a backdrop in modern Irish literature and its remoteness probably led to it being seen as the part of Ireland least affected by British rule and therefore  a more ‘authentic’ Ireland. While the image of Ireland portrayed in the film became for many the epitome of romantic Ireland, for others it represented the worst of  ‘stage Irishness’ with its  Hollywood ‘Oirish’ accents.

Ashford Castle from Lough Corrib. Image by Yanshoof at wikimedia.commons

Maureen O’Hara played the role of the feisty fiery red-head, Mary Kate Danaher. Now in her 92nd year,Maureen O’Hara returned to Cong, Co.Mayo in recent weeks to mark the 60th anniversary of the beginning of filming. ‘The Quiet Man’ continues to attract huge numbers of visitors to this very special  part of Ireland. ‘The Quiet Man’ Cottage Museum in Cong has an exact replica of the interior of the famous ‘White O’ Morn’ cottage and there are many sites of interest to fans,not least of which is the beautiful Ashford Castle, and the many wild and beautiful scenic attractions of Connemara.

Further Information

The Quiet Man Movie Club

The Quiet Man Cottage Museum

Connemara Tourism

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