Offaly and the River Shannon. By Paul Clements

For his new travel book on Ireland, Paul Clements has been on a meandering journey along the River Shannon, following in the footsteps of the writer and singer Richard Hayward. His book looks back at Ireland in the 1930s but also considers the present-day Shannon which he believes is now undergoing a renaissance. [ 

The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the street in a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off and some areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration. Life was shaped by the rhythms of the agricultural year and farming was the mainstay of the economy.  Despite the poverty, there was another more carefree side to life which respected the arts and cultural history. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had. This was the Ireland that fascinated the writer, singer and actor Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland.

1. Richard Hayward, star of Irish films of the 1930s, and author of the  bestselling Where the River Shannon Flows (1940).

Noted for his travel books on the country, he explored the River Shannon in August 1939, just two weeks before the outbreak of World War II. He set off on his journey from the Shannon Pot in Co. Cavan in a 12 horsepower Austin car and drove the back roads trailing a caravan. He travelled with a photographer and cameraman and made a 25-minute black-and-white film of his river journey shown at cinemas across Ireland. The Shannon is largely the same river that Hayward admired in his book Where the River Shannon Flows, published in 1940. As a chronicler of the river, he was one of the first in the twentieth century to write about it in detail. His book was reviewed by Maurice Walsh in The Irish Times that summer and was top of the paper’s non-fiction section, ‘What Dublin is Reading.’

2. Cover of Hayward’s book Where the River Shannon Flows, jointly published in 1940 by Dundalgan Press and Harrap, with a foreword by Maurice Walsh. The book was reprinted in 1950, and in 1989 for the fiftieth anniversary of Hayward’s 1939 journey.

Since then, the river has nourished artistic souls and influenced many writers. Numerous epithets have been applied to it by travellers, poets, musicians and other chroniclers. The Kerry novelist, Maurice Walsh, who wrote the foreword to Hayward’s book, called the river ‘immense’. He said it once separated the Pale from Hell – ‘though there was a small dispute as to which side Hell lay’. The elegist of the midlands, John Broderick, was less flattering, referring in The Waking of Willie Ryan to the river’s ‘silent, menacing presence’. Writing in his autobiography Nostos, the Kerry-born poet, mystic and philosopher, John Moriarty, described the estuary from Tarmons Hill, near Tarbert, as ‘A grandeur of water … the Shannon flowing through it with a landscape that had in it a remembrance of Paradise’. In the final passage of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, he writes of the ‘dark mutinous Shannon waves’.

One literary connection to the Shannon that is not so well known is the fact that Flann O’Brien’s novel, At  Swim Two Birds, takes its title from an island on the river between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge. Although born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, O’Brien’s family moved to the midlands when he was nine and his childhood was spent near Tullamore.

3. The title of the Flann O’Brien novel At-Swim-Two-Birds was inspired by an island in the River Shannon, north of Shannonbridge. O’Brien’s other book, The Third Policeman also influenced Paul Clements to go off in search of Shannon-related information on O’Brien who lived in Tullamore in his youth.  

 As part of my quest, and as a dedicated ‘Flannorack’, I set off, naturally enough by bicycle, to try to pin down information about two small islands which I had come across on an old map: Curley’s Island, and just south of it, Devenish Island, or Snámh-dá-Ean (literally ‘Swim-Two-Birds’). In the Anglo-Norman era, Curley’s Island was guarded by the castle of Clonburren on the west side of the river. Some accounts also state that St Patrick crossed the river into Connacht at this point.

The road from Shannonbridge followed hedges overflowing with cow parsley and bright yellow gorse. When I reached the riverside callows, I came across a fellow cyclist and dog-walker, who introduced himself by the name of Flan – a serendipitous encounter, which the author himself would have enjoyed, even though he spelt his name only with one ‘n’. We talked about the title of the O’Brien book with which Flan was familiar and walked across the callows to get as close as we could to the edge of both islands. The meadows were filled with a sea of buttercups, pignut, plantain, gleaming cowslip, the bobbing heads of bog cotton and cuckoo flower all starring the grass. The river here is low-lying here but it was clear that the two islands appeared to be made up mostly of grass and stone. Curley’s Island, a thin six-acre strip of grass and sand, lies to the north of Devenish Island which is larger. There was an architectural grandeur to the lofty tottering reed beds rising with a towering palisade of stems up to six metres. When we reached the river we made out the division with one part falling down like a finger to Devenish. Cattle were relaxing on the island, in no hurry to move anywhere.

‘Curley is a common name, more so in south Roscommon,’ Flan explained,  ‘where in the old graveyards a lot of those names are buried. There was a ford here which meant that the water was so shallow you could literally walk across it. You’d be walking through water up to your ankles and Devenish Island was likely dug out or drained to make it navigable. Once they dug it, then there was an island in the middle. The small ford that would have been used by people to cross the river and salmon would have loved it too.’

4. A cabin cruiser makes its way between Curley’s Island  and Devenish Island, which translates as ‘Swim-Two-Birds’  (Snámh-dá-Ean), and which provided the inspiration for Flann O’Brien’s famous novel At- Swim-Two- Birds.

It was intriguing to discover that At Swim-Two-Birds exists as a real place. I recalled a quotation from another of O’Brien’s books, The Third Policeman celebrating the romance and mysticism of cycling: ‘How can I convey the perfection of my comfort on the bicycle, the completeness of my union with her, the sweet responses she gave me at every particle of her frame? I felt that I had known her for many years and that she had known me and that we understood each other utterly.’

My travels around Offaly involved spending time at Clonmacniose, attending events such as the Banagher horse fair and the annual vintage barge rally on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour. The rally, organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, is where the owners of many carefully tended classic old boats and barges – some dating back to 1846 – congregate to celebrate their colourful heritage.

5. Shannon Harbour barge rally, an annual event which attracts many classic boats and barges and is organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland.   

Another summer highlight of the Shannon Harbour weekend is the annual opening of the Canal Bar beside the handsome single-arch Griffith humpbacked road bridge. It is an example of what a welcoming midlands bar should be: a half-door with a stone floor, low ceiling and dim lighting, cushioned benches beside a turf fire, red wainscoting with black trim, and a few jigs and reels coming from a corner. For years, many towns turned their backs on the river but are now embracing it. Today farmers, fishermen and recreational users all have a different relationship with it compared to the days when Hayward travelled along it, but the twenty-first century Shannon and its hinterland has been neglected by various agencies. However, Fáilte Ireland have launched a new regional tourism branding scheme, ‘Hidden Heartlands,’ a route running from Sligo to Limerick, taking in both banks of the Shannon. Along with a new marketing plan from Waterways Ireland, and the Atlantic Edge campaign in Limerick, the Shannon is clearly having a moment.

Developments in Offaly are taking place too, such as work on the defensive Shannon Napoleonic fortifications brooding over strategic river crossing points. This summer, Fort Eliza in Banagher, a five-sided, four-gun battery, built around 1812 and looking out over the river, was awarded a grant of €35,000 from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (match-funded by Waterways Ireland as part of its Conservation Management Plan) for important renovation work. But many feel that more still needs to be done, especially in relation to small towns such as Banagher where the crumbling Royal Shannon Hotel has been boarded up since its closure in 2005. The striking disused Georgian building with bow-fronted windows, was where the novelist Anthony Trollope lived when he worked for the post office in the 1840s. Now tumbleweeds sprouts from its roof, the garden is choked with dead plants, paint peels from its walls, while broken slates and smashed windows add to its pitiful condition.

6. Paul Clements at the ‘Snake in the Lake’ cycling and walking boardwalk, Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim.

This year life has slowed down for many people who have reconnected with their surroundings and discovered places on their doorstep. It has also redefined our relationship with the natural world and led to a river revival. The callows, bogland parks such as Lough Boora or Clara Bog, the new blueways and cycleways around Lough Derg, as well as those in Athlone and Drumshanbo are attractive places in which to spend time holidaying at home, experiencing the gentle comfort of sitting by the riverbank.

7. Cover of Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time

Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time by Paul Clements is published by The Lilliput Press at €15.and is available from Offaly History.

Funeral Practices in West Offaly and the funeral of Ned Doorley. By Pádraig Turley

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Louis Darcy, former Offaly county hurler, another altar boy rostered for Ned Doorley’s funeral

 

WE are glad to bring you the second part of Pádraig Turley’s piece this August 1 2020.  We have reached 55,000 views for our stories this year so far. The same as the entire of last year.  You can see all 212 stories on http://www.offalyhistoryblog and there is a shortcut to them at http://www.offalyhistory.com  You do not need to be on Facebook to view. Why not contribute  and send to info@offalyhistory.com.

FUNERAL OF NED DOORLEY:

The story of the funeral of Ned is one worth relating. This is a story I was always aware of, but was inclined to take it with a grain of salt. However, recently I received a communication from Shannonbridge native James Killeen, currently residing in Illinois, which virtually tallied with the version I had. Ned was the last survivor of the Doorley family when he died in Tullamore Hospital. My uncle Joseph Claffey and the undertaker Kieran Flannery volunteered to go to Tullamore, to pick up the corpse. James tells me that he and Louis Darcy (former Offaly county hurler)and Leslie Price were the altar boys rostered to be on duty to assist the Parish Priest Fr. Frank Donoghue, who having served in Brooklyn, NY, liked things to be done pronto.

The funeral was expected in Shannonbridge at 8.00 p.m. Everything was ready and in order, candles blazing. It did not arrive at 8.00 p.m. or indeed 9.00 p.m. or 10.00 p.m. Needless to say Fr. Donoghue was getting very edgy. There was no sound or sight of the funeral. James tells me that post war traffic in the area was about one motorized vehicle every forty minutes. So in the silence one could hear a car approaching from as far as Moystown, a distance of 9 km. Sometime after midnight James says, one could hear the grinding of the old 14.9 hp Ford engine somewhere around Blackwater, about 2 km away.  On arrival Kieran Flannery, the undertaker announced they had a breakdown in Ferbane, and as it was a Sunday night, they had difficulty sourcing the part.

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My childhood memory of the rituals associated with death in the Clonmacnoise area, and the story of the last keener, (perhaps) from the area? Pádraig Turley

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`Arising from the Covid-19 virus due to government advice regarding public gatherings a private funeral will take place, but may be viewed on the Church website.`

This notice is now a regular feature of obituary notices in current newspapers and website dealing with death notices.

The story I wish to relate deals with an earlier time, from the early 50s, and I hope to recreate an image of the funeral process back then in west Offaly. It was a time when the medical condition of a sick person or indeed a visit by a doctor to such a person was not the only omen that death was imminent. A much more reliable harbinger of such an event was when a report came in, that the `banshee` had been heard. My grandfather, Michael Claffey originally from Bloomhill, near Ballinahown, totally believed in the banshee. He was a well-read literate man, yet if someone was ill in the parish, he would not show much concern until it was reported that the cry of the banshee had been heard. Once that occurred, it was good night Vienna, as far as he was concerned. He would then just wait for the inevitable, which from my memory always seemed to happen.

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Local history: ‘gone to pot’ or some remarks on Goss Ware/crested china by John Stocks Powell

Home Rule china mug
Home Rule/Rome Rule. A china mug with a portrait of Pope Pius X (1903-14) who
increased the devotionalism of the Catholic church, who promulgated the Ne Temere
decree concerning the children of mixed marriages, whose orders on the role of women in
church music (1903) was commented on by the Morkan sisters in James Joyce’s story ‘The
Dead’, and who oversaw the excommunication of Fr. George Tyrrell (1861-1909) on a
charge of heresy, whose childhood had been spent at Dangan’s Farm between
Portarlington and Mountmellick. He also enjoined the admission of children to regular
communion at the age of reason.
(Autobiography … of George Tyrrell, 2 vols. 1912, p.20-22)

We welcome a new contributor to the blog this week with this article by John Stocks Powell. Enjoy and remember we have almost 190 articles to read at http://www.offalyhistoryblog. Like to get it each week and share to your friends.

There is a hierarchy of sources for the historian, local historians and those with the wider landscapes. The principal material is the written word; evidences from the time, written archives, and later written published assessments such as county histories, church memoirs, Ph.D. studies gone to print. On-line developments have made for more in quantity, and more exciting revelations, from the checking of dates on Wikipedia, or the digitised sources such as Irish and British newspapers online, and directories. Yet we know the old cliché that history is written by the winners, and that is especially true when trying to write about the history of the losers, the poor, and the illiterate. Every source has its importance.

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‘Killing the pig in 1950s West Offaly’. By Pádraig Turley

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Selling a pig at Clara Market about 1900. Courtesy of Michael Goodbody

The killing of the pig was an event, which occurred twice a year on our farm in Clerhane, two miles north of the village of Shannonbridge, during my childhood. The particular event I am going to relate happened in the early 1950s, certainly no later than 1953. I remember this because reports of the Korean War, were perpetually on the wireless. My grandfather Michael Claffey took a keen interest in that war, which was very remote to the folk in Clerhane.
So I was about eight or nine years of age when this happened. We are very much talking about the pre iPhone/iPad era. Back then it was not possible to take instant photos, which one could post to some social media platform. One can only imagine in today`s world how the image of the killing of a pig would horrify the viewer, and would no doubt release a stampede of trolls. The outrage would be immense.

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Shackleton’s photographs of Tullamore and west Offaly in the 1890s. Michael Byrne

064928 Shackleton Collection (1)

Jane W. Shackleton’s Ireland compiled by Christiaan Corlett (Cork, 2012) is an attractive large format publication from the growing stable of books issued by Collins Press and consists of 180 well produced photographs by Jane Shackleton. Jane Shackleton (nee Edmundson) was born in 1843 and in 1866 married Joseph Fisher Shackleton of the famous Ballitore, County Kildare family of Quakers. Thirteen Shackletons are included in Richard S. Harrison’s, Dictionary of Irish Quakers (second edition, Dublin, 2008) including Jane’s husband, Joseph Fisher Shackleton. Like his father he was a miller and in 1860 took over the Anna Liffey Mills in Lucan.

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Going in on the Altar or an altar boy`s apprenticeship in West Offaly in the 1950s. By Pádraig Turley

This episode in my life dates from the early 1950s. I was about nine year old at the time. I lived with my mother, grand-parents and uncle on a farm in the townland of Clerhane, near the village of Shannonbridge. My father worked in Dublin.
Our house was what was then called a rambling house, where friends and neighbours would gather for a chat, and to generally sort out the problems of the world. I must add that my grandmother, a somewhat severe woman, felt these matters could be sorted out elsewhere. My grandfather loved these evening chats, so it was unlikely my grandmother`s desire would ever prevail.

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1. The Sacristy of the old Church in Shannonbridge where Willie Fallon introduced me to my life as an altar boy.

Great craic and the curved ball

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My childhood memory of a Christmas in west Offaly over sixty years ago by Padraig Turley

 

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1. Father’s Ford Anglia with yours truly.

As Patrick Kavanagh might have put it, I was ten Christmasses of age and living in a place called Clerhane, a townland some two miles south of Clonmacnoise.
We were farmers, and there were five of us residing on the farm, my maternal grandparents, my uncle Joe, my mother and I. My father for economic reasons worked in Dublin, and I would only see him three times a year, the Easter break perhaps three days, his summer holidays that took place during the first two weeks in August, and of course for Christmas break which generally lasted two or three days depending, on how Christmas fell. You can imagine the excitement that built up in me as a child with the prospect of the approaching Christmas.
The Christmas I am talking about was 1954, indeed as time would prove, my last Christmas residing in west Offaly, as the following summer my mother and I moved to Dublin to live with my father, who had just purchased a house.
1954 is best remembered for the floods, the river Shannon reaching the highest level since 1925. I remember soldiers from Athlone assisting the farmers that year with the harvest. Folk were really looking forward to the bit of Christmas cheer.

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Cures for the Whooping Cough circa 1950. By Pádraig Turley

If I may paraphrase Dylan Thomas , I am not sure if I was six years of age when I had the misfortune to get the whooping cough that lasted five weeks or I was five years of age and it lasted six weeks. I was then living in Clerhane, a townland near Shannonbridge with my mother, her parents and my uncle. My father was living in Dublin, where he worked as a mechanic. He and his father had run a public house in Shannonbridge in the hungry thirties, and when it did not do very well he was forced to go to Dublin to seek work.

Margaret Turley Nee Claffey
Margaret Turley (nee Claffey)

So to set the scene for the little generational tug of war I am about to relate, my grandfather Michael Claffey was from Bloomhill, Ballinahown and was born in 1868. His wife, my grandmother was an Elizabeth Molloy from Parkwood, Moote, County Offaly and was born in 1880. My uncle Joe was born in 1918 , and my mother Margaret had been born in 1914. We all lived in a three roomed thatched cottage, which did not have electricity or piped water, on a farm which also included a quarry. Continue reading