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.

AN TOSTAL  Art and Archaeology in Tullamore in the 1950s. Fergal MacCabe

 

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A Golden Age

Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.

The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.

Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.

This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.

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RSA1 members visit Durrow, Tihilly, Rahan, Lynally and Killeigh in Monastic Offaly in 1896. Michael Byrne

Vol 8. 007 Durrow Abbey
Durrow Abbey in 1914. The First World War had just started. 

Leaving to one side the work  of the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s, the work of Petrie at Clonmacnois, and that of Cooke at Birr in 1826 and 1875, the references to and work done or written up on the historical sites of north Offaly in the nineteenth century are hard to come by. Fr Cogan published historical material on the Offaly parishes in the diocese of Meath in his three-volume work, 1862-1870; Thomas Stanley corresponded with the Royal Society of Antiquaries (RSAI) in 1869 in regard to the nine-hole stone or bullaun at the Meelaghans while Stanley Coote contributed an illustration of Ballycowan Castle for the Memorials of the Dead – a published record from the 1880s to the 1930s of selected tombstone inscriptions in Ireland and in County Offaly.

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Seir Kieran, County Offaly by John Dolan. Part 2

John Dolan writes about Seir Kieran in part 2 on Seir Kieran this week. John was born in Tullamore, now retired, and has a degree  in Archaeology and Celtic Civilisation. He speaks regularly to historical societies in Dublin. Seir Kieran is the ‘island parish’ in Offaly belonging to the diocese of Ossory. Our blog articles are brought to you twice weekly during these weeks of the plague to hopefully provide some inner peace through historical inquiry. You now have 183 to chose from and  you can join the 150,000 views since 2016. If you would like to write for us email us at info@offalyhistory.com.

 

 

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Seir Kieran from a drawing in the Dublin Penny Journal of 1834

 

Lives of the Saints
The Lives were generally written hundreds of years after the death of the saints and usually by people who had never met them. The format adopted by the Irish hagiographers followed that of the Life of St. Martin of Tours. These Lives were considerably removed from the texts written in the early churches, what we have today are later copies. Folklore, stories and religious/political inferences had been handed down orally over generations before the first Life was written.

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Seir Kieran- Part 1. By John Dolan

We welcome a new contributor this week to our series of articles on the history of County Offaly. John Dolan writes about Seir Kieran in this fine piece. John was born in Tullamore, now retired, and has a degree Archaeology and Celtic Civilisation. He speaks regularly to historical societies in Dublin. Part 2 will be published next Wednesday. Seir Kieran is the ‘island parish’ in Offaly belonging to the diocese of Ossory. Our blog articles are brought to you twice weekly during these weeks  of the plague to hopefully provide some inner peace through historical inquiry. You now have 182 to chose  from and can join the 150,000 views since 2016.

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Seir Kieran on the boundary of Meath and Munster

The parish of Seir Kieran is one of the many early Christian sites that remain under reported and hidden in today’s world. Since its destruction by ‘the O’Carrol and the English’ in 1548 and similar to many other Offaly early churches, it has dropped into insignificance.
Seir Kieran is now mainly known for the history of its GAA club rather than its claim to be a Christian site before the arrival of St. Patrick.

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Heritage Events from Offaly History 18-31 August 2019

Yes we are extending our events to conclude on 31 August with the Mary Ward book launch about which more in our blogs of 24 and 31 August. In the meantime you
can download a PDF from Offaly County Council Heritage Officer Amanda Pedlow of all the county events. Lots of things including book launches in Geashill and Banagher. Read below about the very special Mary Ward book launch and commemoration in Birr on 31 August. It will be available at the launch and from 1 September at our bookshop. Order now so as not to be disappointed. Here we look at events being organised by Offaly History and with a note from Amanda Pedlow, county heritage officer. Continue reading

Saint Columba, June 9th and the monastery of Durrow . ‘To every cow her calf, so to every book its copy.’ By Sarah McCann

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Columba, son of Eithne, daughter of Mac Naue, and Fedelmid mac Ferguso, is one of the most important Irish saints, and the strength of his saint’s cult in the centuries after his death on June 9th, 597 attests to this. Columba, or Colmcille, meaning the dove of the church, was born around 520 as a prominent member of the Cenél Conaill, This was a branch of the northern Uí Néill, a powerful dynastic grouping tracing its origins back to Niall of the Nine Hostages and based in north-western Ireland (Tír Chonaill takes its name from the Cenél Conaill). Columba’s influence extended into political matters as well as the religious sphere, but he is remembered as a monastic saint above all else. Like most early Irish saints, he was never formally canonised.

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Ballyduff Church, Tullamore where mass is again celebrated after a gap of over 200 years. By Offaly History

Ballyduff church TT 1 2008 (5)

John Flanagan, builder overseeing the restoration work at Ballyduff

The old Catholic church at Ballyduff was erected in 1775 and was the first post-Reformation church in Tullamore parish. It was erected in the remote townland of Ballyduff near the centre of Tullamore parish to minimise upset to the authorities at a time when the Penal Laws were still in force. It appears to have been on the boundary of the Coote estate at Srah and that of the Herbert estate (later Norbury) at Durrow –again designed so as to minimize upset to the authorities.

Now the ruin old church is the location for the celebration of a vigil mass early on Easter Sunday morning.

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KILCORMAC ‘A BRIGHT SPOT IN KING’S COUNTY’ From Kilcormac to Frankford and back again, Michael McDermott Hayes, editor King’s County Independent First published in 1917 and introduced by Michael Byrne

Some background reading for  our outing on 8 July, Sunday, to Kilcormac and Ballyboy
Meet in grounds of Catholic church at 3 pm (ample parking) The historic sites of Kilcormac and Ballyboy to include the Catholic church, the parochial grounds, the Mercy Convent, Bord na Mona housing and on to Ballyboy, the village, church, cemetery and old hall concluding with refreshments in Dan and Molly’s celebrated historic pub at 5 p.m. Our thanks to Agnes Gorman, John Butterfield and the other history enthusiasts in the historic barony of Ballyboy. A few members of the committee will be at Offaly History Centre from 2 15 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. for members needing a lift. Continue reading

Kilcormac and its traditions as a place of worship. By Agnes Gorman

On Sunday 8 July, Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society will be visiting sites of historical interest in the Ballyboy and Kilcormac area. This outing has been greatly facilitated by local Agnes Gorman, who recounts here the history of the church in Kilcormac. 

About 1,500 years ago, Cormac O’ Liathain, a priest, left Cobh, in Co Cork and travelled to Durrow, in Co Offaly to meet with Columcille, who was Abbot and a priest in the monastery. A short time later, Columcille left for Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Cormac received the “Durrow Crozier” a symbol of authority, but he had a burning sense to become a hermit – his dream site was where the sound of the river would lull him to sleep, the bird song in the daytime and a vista towards the south, with Knockhill and the Slieve Blooms mountains, acting as his ‘satnav’, and that spot chosen is right here in Kilcormac. Continue reading