Tag Archives: Wild Atlantic Way

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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Landslide! Pullathomas Co. Mayo.

Visiting the uniquely interesting Ceide Fields was a damp experience and as I left there heading west on my trip along the Wild Atlantic Way in June of this year, conditions became even wetter, with persistent view-blocking rain. It was disappointing to be in this beautiful area for the first time in inclement weather but I saw enough to be sufficiently captivated to resolve to return again….sooner rather than later.

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The rain was lashing down..

As I drove along with Sruwaddacon Bay to my right, windscreen wipers at full tilt, I came across a very ‘odd looking’ graveyard on the side of the hill. I pulled up to investigate and couldn’t quite make out why this place did not look ‘quite right’ for want of a better term.

Something didn't look 'quite right'

Something didn’t look ‘quite right’

I was quite amazed then to discover that this beautifully situated graveyard had suffered after very heavy rain some years ago when a landslide send thousands of tons of mud down the hill and carried coffins into the sea, never to be recovered. This catastrophic event took place in  September 2003 and the signs of it are clearly visible today.

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The catastrophic landslide was blamed on overgrazing by sheep as the heather and upland plants were no longer able to bind the peaty soil together. The torrential downpours came after a particularly dry summer and the hillside was turned into mud that slid down the hill into the sea. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for families whose graves had vanished under the tons of mud.

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A plaque commemorates the awful event in 2003

There are three distinct sections to the graveyard at this site, but only the one in the foreground was affected by the landslide.

imageSteps have now been taken to make sure that there will be no repeat of this awful event,with  barriers installed to hold back any further soil slippage.

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The location is quite beautiful, with the seashore only feet away.

This graveyard is also known as Kilcommon graveyard or  Pollatomish graveyard. There is an excellent website here that has details of those buried there and, unusually, includes people for whom there are no headstones.

Had it not been pouring rain, I may not have noticed this site as I drove by.  A beautiful place for sure, one that reminds us of the power of nature which we should never underestimate.

 

Further reading:

http://goldenlangan.com/graves-pt.html

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Seamus Heaney’s Flaggy Shore

image Seamus Heaney was one of Ireland’s best loved poets. His death came suddenly on August 30, 2013, leaving an entire nation bereaved. While his work and his words live on in bookshelves and on bedside tables across the land, he is greatly missed. He had such a way with words and such a mellow speaking voice that I for one could listen to him all day long.
imageOn my recent trip along the Wild Atlantic Way I happened upon The Flaggy Shore in County Clare on the shores of Galway Bay. So here in front of me was a seascape that inspired this great man. On a grey day the leaden sky hung over a silvery sea lapping a silvery grey shore. I could not help but wonder how such a scene could inspire anyone!  And therein is his greatness. I recall reading that Heaney said of his poem about the Flaggy Shore ‘we drove on into this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans.’ The swans were not on the lake beside the shore on the day of my visit but there certainly was an abundance of air and sea!

Perhaps it takes a man of Heaney’s caliber and talent to see such beauty in what could be considered a relatively mundane landscape! Many know of this poem as ‘The Flaggy Shore’ but the correct title is ‘Postscript’.

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Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white

Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open. – Seamus Heaney
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Seamus Heaney, poet, playwright, translator and lecturer, and the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature passed by this Flaggy Shore before me. I am so glad he did. He died three years ago. His legacy lives on.

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

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

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

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

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

Blanket bog protects the site

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

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

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

The bog covered and concealed evidence of early life.

The bog covered, concealed and protected evidence of early life

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

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

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

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

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

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

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

The steps to the viewing platforms.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

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

 

Steps leading to the Heart of the Céide Fields.

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

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

 

References

Home

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

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

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Postcards from the Wild Atlantic Way:Easkey County Sligo

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

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

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

Glencolmcille at the end of the valley

Glencolmcille at the edge of the sea

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

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

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

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

A Sweat House

A Sweat House

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

Beds were usually placed near the fire for warmth.

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

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

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

 

 

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Postcards from the Wild Atlantic Way: Feeling ‘The Force’ at Malin Head

Inishowen in County Donegal is Ireland’s largest peninsula and includes Ireland’s most northerly point at Malin Head. Prior to the marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way, the ‘Inishowen 100’ was a well-known tourist route that took in much of the beautiful scenery of the area.

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My first port of call on the peninsula was at Dunree Head, the site of a former British Fort that guarded the strategically important deep anchorage of Lough Swilly.

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Looking across Lough Swilly towards the Fanad Peninsula.

Lough Swilly has witnessed many major historic events. It was from Rathmullan on the Fanad Shore that O’Neill and O’ Donnell fled into exile, in what was known as The Flight Of the Earls in 1607, following the defeat of the Irish chieftains by the British at the Battle Of Kinsale

In 1798 Wolfe Tone was taken under naval arrest to Buncrana port and it was near this spot that a small fort was built at Dunree to guard against a possible French invasion.

The fort was expanded in the late 19th century and during World War 1 it stood guard over Admiral Lord Jellicoe’s fleet that lay at anchor in the deep Swilly waters prior to engaging the German Navy at the Battle of Jutland. Even after Irish Independence, the British maintained a presence here up to just before World War II.

Onward then to see some of Inishowen’s lovely coastline, although visibility was not great and heavy rain was promised so it was a race against the elements to see as much as possible. There are beautiful beaches at almost every turn, not always safe for swimming as there are powerful currents running here. Here too at Lagg are some of the highest sand dunes in Europe.

Just a couple of weeks before I visited there was great excitement at Malin Head when the Star Wars film crew arrived to film some scenes for a new series. The excitement continues as dozens of Star Wars devotees undertake a pilgrimage to the area.

Malin Head is known throughout Ireland and Great Britain as Malin is a sea-area for maritime shipping forecasts. There is a weather station here, often recording Storm Force 12 winds in winter. There was barely a breeze when I visited which was rather disappointing, so I had to sit on a stone and imagine the Star Wars Force surrounding me instead! The actual most northerly point is named Banba’s Crown. Here too are a watchtower dating from the Napelonic Wars in 1805 and a 1902 Signal Station. Banba’s Crown is well known nowadays too as a site for spectacular Aurora Borealis sightings in the dark unpolluted skies at Malin Head.

There are interesting geological features along the coast.

I loved this little pebbly beach along the roadside and I enjoyed watching the parents of these ducklings steering their brood through the water! At this point the heavens opened and much of the beautiful seascapes disappeared into the mist. image

I was delighted to happen on this memorial to Young Irelander,Thomas D’Arcy McGee a native of Carlingford, Co Louth who, charged with treason after the failed 1848 rebellion, made his escape to the USA from this dangerous coastline. He went on to be known as the father of Canadian Confederation. Ironically he was assassinated by Fenians in 1868.

Tremone Bay

Tremone Bay

I finally arrived on the eastern coastline of Inishowen, where the small towns of Moville and Greencastle sit on the shores of Lough Foyle. Moville was a point of embarkation to Canada and USA for thousands of emigrants  in the second half of the 19th Century. The little fishing village of Greencastle is home to a Fishing Museum with some interesting artefacts from days gone by, and it has a very nice tea rooms!

As I leave Inishowen, there was a compulsory stop to be made at the Grianan of Aileach,a series of forts that stand 800 feet above sea level. Dating from 1,700 BC, Grianan of Aileach  features on a 2nd Century map of the world.

On a clear day the views from here are stunning and even on a not so clear day it was an appropriate spot to have a last view lovely Lough Swilly.

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