Tag Archives: GlenSwilly

The Mill on the Swilly

The River  Swilly in County  Donegal is not a very large river at all, more of a stream in fact. It begins its path to the sea some 24 miles inland and flows into Lough Swilly at Letterkenny. Driving along the leafy Swilly Valley it’s hard to imagine that hundreds of men were slaughtered here at the Battle of Farsetmore in 1567 in an engagement between the O’Neill and the O’Donnell clans.

The Corn Mill at Newmills

The Corn Mill at Newmills

Just a little further along the valley the mental image of a bloody battlefield changes to one of absolute tranquility, for it is here at Newmills that there are Corn and Flax mills, powered by the waters of the Swilly. This very attractive complex of industrial buildings, the oldest of which is said to be 400 years old, are beautifully preserved as National Monuments by the Office of Public Works.

Blue Flax

Blue Flax

The Flax and Corn were grown locally and I love to  imagine great fields of blue flowered flax waving in the breeze. Flax is the raw material for linen and the process of turning it from a tall grass type plant into beautiful fabric is explained at the centre. Flax has been processed at this site since the 17th Century and a Corn mill has been here since the 18th Century. There was a revival in Flax production in World War 2 when the British Government offered grants to producers to supply linen for the war effort.

At the Corn Mill, Oats and Barley were milled.image Both the Flax Mill and the corn mill are powered by the water of the River Swilly flowing over a 25 foot water wheel, one of the largest working water wheels in Ireland.

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The large water wheel, furthest away in this image, dates from 1867.

There is something very therapeutic and relaxing about watching these wheels in action.

New Mills Flax and Corn Mills are fine examples of industrial archaeology, beautifully restored  to tell a tale of industry in times gone by.

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Countryside, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish 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 sister 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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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 like 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, and 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 colorful 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 even the 23rd. Who could possibly keep track of them, and which date referred specifically to which event? Old Moore’s Almanac was stocked in Speer’s shop at Christmastime and brought home. As it contained dates and predictions for the upcoming year, it didn’t help with the exact time of the winter solstice for the current year. And then, by the time we needed to consult it for other celestial events it was lost, probably having been thrown away in disgust 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 Moore’s Almanac. It was my father’s birthday. I often asked him, ‘what is your birthdate?’ 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.

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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 Dad was ‘frail’. I wonder was it a troublesome birth? Was his life in some danger when he was born? 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. (Update – the exact time of the 2018 winter solstice will be 22:23 in Ireland). The winter solstice happens most often on December 21, but also sometimes on December 22nd and rarely on December 23rd.

Dad’s birth certificate here before me, states that he was born on December 22,1921. The 1921 Winter Solstice occurred on December 22 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 Stone Age Passage Tomb in the Boyne Valley, County Meath, the shafts of solstice sunrise will light up the chamber to mark the turning of the year. Across this island, there are ancient groups of standing stones aligned to capture the rays of light from the winter solstice sun, so this event has been of significance for thousands and thousands of years. How nice to think that Dad was born on ‘one of these days’, at such a significant time in 1921.

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

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