Friday, September 04, 2015


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This is the fourth Rihla ( see: Rihlas 47,49&52) about the quays and slipways of Connemara this time exploring those of the islands and coastline of the Iorras Aintheach peninsula.


South of the Bóthar Scrathóg (Road of the topmost or thin ‘green’ sod of turf. Almost every layer of turf taken from a bank has its own descriptive Irish noun) that crosses the bog valley of Gabhlán Thoir east to west from the small quay at Bun Inbhear to the quay at Cashel lie the townlands and islands of Iorras Aintheach, the peninsula of the storms. On the peninsula, as a consequence of having been in pre-Famine times far from the main roads to anywhere, there exists, like a necklace of colour-changing (depending on the tide and the sunlight) jewels the greatest concentration of well built quays in all of Connemara. And for good reason they are jewels! For the people of Iorras Aintheach the sea was the beginning and the end of their existence. Life, love, religion, sustenance, commerce, survival all depended on the sea and the safe havens created to shelter the sailor, fisherman and penitent from the storms. I have not got to all of them yet but hope to give a sense with the following of the essential symbiosis of man and stone embracing and embattling the sea.

 Bothar Scrathóg road looking North towards Twelve Pins


Cé Choill Sáile
(Quay of the Inlet of the Wood)

Kilkerrin Quay
(Cé Cill Chiáran - Quay of St Ciarán's Church)

(Cé Aird Mhóir - Quay of the Big Headland)

MOYRUS (Maíros or Maíghros)

The peninsula of Iorras Aintheach is part of the Barony of Ballynahinch and comprises the southern part of the old large parish of Moyrus (Maíghros – headland of the plain). The village after which the Parish takes its name is no more than a deserted clachan or cluster of houses. There is both a ruined medieval Catholic Church dedicated to St MacDara and a Protestant church established in 1855, and which although Irish speaking was forced to close in the post-Famine years by a boycott.

Looking north. Old Catholic church and graveyard in foreground
Ruined Protestant school, rectory, church and graveyard on top of
rising ground above beach. 

Quay 1. Moyrus 
Cé an Droighne (Quay of the Blackthorn)

Quay 2. Moyrus

In any event the village never developed like its neighbour to the west, Roundstone or Carna to the south, a failure which ultimately signalled the end of the Parish of Moyrus, dividing its spiritual remit into the present-day parishes of Roundstone and Carna.

The following quays are to the north-west and north of Moyrus churches.

Cé Maighros

 Cé Leitreach Ard

 Cé Belcarra (Barrett)

Cé Belcarra

Cé an Caladh Mór

MACE (MÁS – the buttock) and HALF-MACE

On the night of the 25th September 1588, in the midst of a howling Atlantic gale, the carrack Concepción de Juan del Cano – a ship of the Biscay Squadron of the Spanish Armada trying to make its way back to Spain following the failure of the invasion – while seeking a safe haven from the storm was lured onto a shingle beach called to this day Duirling na Spáinneach (Pebble Beach of the Spaniards) just east of Mace Head by false beacons set by Tadgh na Buile Ó’Flatharta, known as Tadgh of the Blows or the Ferocious O’Flaherty who lived in Airde Castle that straddled the boundary between Ard East and Ard West on the Mace peninsula.

The Concepción de Juan del Cano, had been built in 1585 in Cantabria and displaced 418 tons. Most modern accounts state that she was a vessel of 18 guns but according to Samuel Purchas’ Hakluytus Postumus (a 4 volume continuation of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations) 1625 book, the carrack carried 24 guns, 70 sailors and 164 soldiers.

The Concepción had been named after Juan Sebastián del Cano the Basque navigator born in Guetaria, a coastal town west of San Sebastian, who had sailed in 1522 with Magellan as navigator on the Concepción, one of Magellan’s five ships. After Magellan’s death in Mactan on the 27th April 1521 Juan Sebastián took charge of the Victoria and brought the 18 survivors of 237 men of the expedition home to Spain, arriving on the 6th September 1522, 66 years before the ship named after him was lured onto the rocky beach near Mace Head, Connemara.

Duirling na Spáinneach beach with MacDara Island in the background. 
(There is a bog created by the stream that runs from Loch Bhun na Cluife into the sea at the 
north-eastern point of the pebble beach, and which divides the downland of Half-Mace 
from that of Mace which would have been a good place to bury the killed Spanish sailors.)

Whatever happened on the beach that night only 30 of the ship’s compliment of nearly 240 men survived to be dragged into the city of Galway by the O’Flaherty’s. Most had been killed on or near the beach on the orders of Tadhg na Buile. This atrocity probably was only to be expected given the instructions that had been issued in Dublin in early September 1588 as a consequence of a paranoid fear of a still relatively numerically intact Armada making a concentrated effort to land in Ireland instead. Dublin was not to know that Philip of Spain had issued specific orders to the Armada admirals telling them to avoid landing in Ireland at all costs.

Ruin of a Napoleonic War signal post above Duirling na Spáinneach beach.
(In Leath Más or Half-Mace townland)

The Lord Deputy of Ireland Sir William Fitzwilliam, recently returned to the isle from his role as Governor of the Castle of Fotheringhay Castle where he had supervised the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (the casus belli of the Armada in the first place), had continued in his blood-soaked way and issued a proclamation which stated,

‘We authorise you to make enquiry by all good means, both by oaths and otherwise; to take all hulls of ships, stores, treasures etc. into your hands; and to apprehend and execute all Spaniards found there, of what ever quality soever. Torture may be used in prosecuting this enquiry.’

In addition to this Tadhg ba Buile was not going to rock the boat that fed him. In the 1585 Composition of Connaught drawn up and signed three years earlier Tadhg’s territory had been extended at the expense of some of his other O’Flaherty relatives and he had been granted personal fiefdom over lands that stretched from Ballynahinch Castle to the Aran Islands.

 Mace Quay
Looking north from near Mace Quay

The surviving sailors from the Concepción de Juan del Cano were incarcerated with about 300 other Spanish sailors from other Armada shipwrecks on the west coast of Ireland. On the orders of Sir Richard Bingham, President of Connaught all but 40 (mainly those of presumed high ransom value and six Dutch boys) were summarily executed by beheading on the graveyard hill of the Augustinian Abbey, by ‘citizen’ executioners. Bingham wrote to Fitzwilliam saying that ‘having made a clean despatch of them’ that ‘he rested all day Sunday giving praise t and thanks to God”. Bingham also wrote directly to the Queen asking that he could override his superiors ‘execute-all’ orders and spare the remainder.

Cé Mhullin

By the time Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam reached Galway he was furious and ordered George Bingham (Richard Bingham’s brother and aide-de-camp George who had taken into his custody the Spanish prisoners of high worth and the Dutch boys) that all of these prisoners including the young boys, in echoes of today’s Islamic State, be executed. This order was carried out but it is recorded that two ordinary Spaniards were hidden by the people of Galway and subsequently made their way home to Spain. In addition two noblemen Don Luis de Cordoba and his nephew Gonzalo were ransomed.

In late September 1588 the Privy Council in England reacting to intelligence of the Fitzwilliam-Bingham atrocities issued a directive asking Fitzwilliam to desist which stated,

Their Lordship’s pleasure (the Privy Council) is that great care be had of their safe custodie (the Spanish prisoners) and keeping in some convenient place that hereafter they may be forthcoming, where their Lordship shall require them at his hands.

Unfortunately by the time the Privy Council order was relayed to Fitzwilliam nearly 1500 Spanish sailors and soldiers of the Armada had been executed on his orders. It is estimated that of the Armada soldiers and sailors lost to Spain on the west coast of Ireland during the terrible storms of the 10th and 20th of September 1588 a further 3,750 drowned.

Sir Richard Bingham

George Bingham’s son Henry (Richard Bingham’s nephew) was made Baronet of Castlebar in 1632, and subsequently the family were created the Earls of Lucan in 1795. It was another Richard Bingham, the 7th Earl who disappeared without trace in November 1974 after the murder of his children’s nanny.  The Lucan family portrait of the first Richard Bingham is accompanied by the following self-congratulatory inscription.

Sir Richard Bingham, Knight,

Of the ancient family of the Binghams of Bingham
Melcombe in the County of Dorset. He was from
his youth trained up in military affairs, served
in the time of Queen Mary at St. Quentin, in the
Western Isles of Scotland, in the Isle of Candida,
under the Venetians at Cabo, Chrio, and the famous
battle of Lepanto against the Turks, in the Civil
wars of France, in the Netherlands, and at Smer-
wick where the Romans and Irish were vanquished.
Afterwards he was made Governor of Connaught,
where he overthrew the Irish Scots, expelled the
traitorous O’Rourke, supressed divers rebellions,
and that with small charges to Her Majesty, main-
tained the Province in a flourishing state for 13
years. Finally for his services he was made Mar-
shall of Ireland, Governor and General of Leinster.
When at Dublin he dyed January 19th, 1598 (note: 1599 new style)

The war-crime that the Lucan family ancestor perpetrated on the Spanish sailors of the Armada brought to Galway in September 1588 has been commemorated with a much more muted plaque in Forthill Cemetery, Galway the place where they were executed and buried.

Forthill Cemetery Galway


Mweenish (Máinis) Island is linked to the mainland by a serpentine bitumen causeway that starts at Roisín na Bholgáin and crosses the small islets of Roisín na Chaladh and Oilean Seoige. Tim Robinson in his Gazetteer mentions the pre-causeway (built 1893) low tide stepping stones known as Step na bPeelers, used by the police to try and catch potion makers on Mweenish.

Cé Roisin an Bholgáin

Cé Roisin an Chaladh

Cé Oilean na Seoige

Mweenish Island is known for its boatbuilding or shipwright families. In the case of the Galway Hooker sailing craft, Tim Collins – the wonderfully inclusive maritime historian and voyager (and former medical librarian in NUI Galway) – suggests that the very specific tumblehome design of the classic late 18th century Galway Bay craft evolved from 17th century Dutch cod-fishing boats, also with a tumblehome design, known as Hoekers. The boatbuilding demands of the Connemara islanders meant a shift from the Claddagh basin in Galway to Mweenish in particular. Here Séan O'Laoidhe in the 1840s trained Sean O'Casey, who trained his sons Padraig, Martin and Johnny. In addition the Mulkerrin and Cloherty families passed on the skills of the Saor Bháid from one generation to another. A large hooker, the St Patrick built in 1910 by and restored by Colm Mulkerrin in 1988 crossed the Atlantic in 2002.

Currachs have much older history stretching back to the coracles or hide-covered craft of bronze-age Europe. Their are about seven to eight design variants on the west coast of Ireland alone.


Cé na Phortaigh, Mweenish Island
(Quay of the Bog)




Although the 16th July every year is the date that the people of the Iorras Aintheach gather on the island to celebrate the patron saint of Moyrus parish and Connemara fishermen in general, St MacDara, a very early hermit Saint,  ecclesiastical feast day is the 28th September,  the same time of the year that the Spanish sailors in 1588 met their deaths in full view of the small 7th century chapel with corballed roof (restored 1975) on this tiny island. It is customary for all sailing boats coming in proximity to the island to dip their sails three times.

There is some controversy about the Saint's given name. According to the Ordanance Survey letters of 1839 the saint's name was Sionnach, which is the Irish for fox. Tim Robinson thinks this most unlikely given the superstitions Connemara and Claddagh fishermen had about hares, foxes or rabbits being seen dead or alive before they went fishing. Tim Robinson and indeed the 12th century abbot Marianus Gorman (Maelmuire O'Dunian) in his Martyrology gives the first name as Sinach, which may or may not derive from Síonadh the Irish for storm. 

Perhaps St MacDara took his name from the peninsula rather than the other way round.

Michael D. Higgins, the current President of Ireland once said (when working as an academic sociologist) in praise of the voyager fisherman,

 "The migrant is the norm in coastal parishes. The deviant is the person who does not move."

I think that perhaps in the case of Iorras Aintheach, and its determination to exist by creating any number of portals (the quays) to the outside world it not so much a "deviant" who stays but a "defiant".

Monday, July 27, 2015


Looking north from the north end of Furnace Island.

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This is the third Rihla ( see: Rihlas 47&49) about the quays and slipways of the Connemara Islands (Na hOileáin) this time exploring those of Lettermullan  and five other associated smaller islands.

Na Dúbláil is not a term you will find in any geographic or cartographic description or depiction of the group of 9 small islands that form the most western part of what are called Na hOileáin or Connemara islands. It is my own derived attribution because of the fact that in the 19th century the then very isolated islands of Lettermullan, Furnace, Dinish and Inisherk were the centre of the illegal Connemara poitín industry. The dúbláil (from the Irish verb for duplication or repeat dúbluighim or dúbailt) is the second distillation or run of a poitín still, the whiskey that, once the first drops have been given to the fairies, is ready for consumption.

Poitín (from pota a small pot used in the process) distillation has probably existed since the 1400s and by 1556 a license was required from the Lord Deputy of Ireland. From 1661 excise duty and regulations drove small capacity 'local use' production underground and in 1731 all production in the 'mountainous' parts of the Kingdom was banned. By 1800 excise-paid legal or 'parliament' whiskey cost about 13 shillings per gallon dropping in price to about 7 shillings per gallon in 1831. The cost of illegal whiskey or poitín in 1831 was about 3 shillings per gallon and it was noted that an Irishman could get "dead drunk" for two pennies.  In 1997 the distillation of Poitín as a defined spirit became 'legal' in Ireland again and its official production is now regulated by EU Directives and Regulations (EC No.110/2008). 

Quays and Slipways of Lettermullan and outer islands.

(Leitir Mealláin)

Lettermullan and the outer islands became part of the O'Flaherty lands in 1574 and 100 years later in 1675 were granted to Stephen Lynch of Galway. In 1684 the lands passed to Nicholas Lynch of Barna (who also owned the lands where my own house stands) who married the daughter of the wonderfully named Neptune Lynch of Lettermullan. 

The largest of islands is a place which for some reason I expected to be deserted, forlorn and discarded and yet it is not. It is well populated and from the activity on the slipway of the fish farming concern on the northern edge to a training exercise for maritime rescue at Cé na hAirde on the south-east to a blocked road caused by County Council widening in the south-west the island appeared to be alive, breathing, existing.

In an interesting observation it is noteworthy that when the population of the rest of Connemara was decimated by emigration and famine in the 1850s Lettermullan's remained static or rose slightly.

Céibh na hAirde
(Quay of the Heights) 
(due to the high road you have to travel over to get down to it)

The marine rescue boat was just to the left of this picture but I got the sense they did not want photographs taken.

Meitheal Éasc Teo Slipway

The fish farm cooperative at the point where Lettermullan joins Furnace island.

Looking north from Lettermullan towards the narrow channel between the small island of Oileán Chaisin (Island of the Small Twist or Bend) and Furnace Island.


An unnamed old slipway and pier on southern edge of Furnace island. In the distance in centre you can see another new slipway to the west of the causeway linking Lettermullan and Furnace.

Céibh Aircín
(Quay of the Stunted Little Pig)

Looking south-east.


In the distance the quay on Inisherk.

In the distance the quay on Crappagh.


Casheen Bay is the bay north and north-east of Furnace island.


Daighnis derives from dáigh or hope. 

Connection to outside world from Furnace to Dinish.

This is the point on the west side of Furnace island where a ferryman, whose job was to ferry the schoolmistress to the island to teach 12 children (Total Population in 1905 was 54 persons) on the island of Dinish.  


(AN CHNAPACH – The Lumpy Place)

In the 1850s Henry Comerford a Clare landowner who had established himself as a merchant in Galway bought up the titles to Lettemullan and the outer islands from the Lynches for about £10,300. An Cnapach was sub-let to the McDonagh family. Sometime later a member of the family allegedly found some gold in a shipwreck and bought the island outright. The McDonagh family that established in Crappagh had 23 children, many of the girls who then intermarried with the O'Tooles and O'Connons in Lettermore and like one sister Sabina McDonagh who opened the Hotel of the Isles, all of whom were very industrious. One branch established under Redmond McDonagh a store on the island while another moved into Galway where they subsequently took over most of the Comerford merchant concerns and are still in business today as Thomas McDonagh & Sons, Builders Providers. The island, as can be seen from the above photograph, is still a private enclave having been sold onto another local a number of years ago.

It was perhaps this type of industrial and entrepreneurial spirit that made Lettermullan and Crappagh in particular somewhat unique in resisting the impact of the Great Famine and maintaining a steady population.


The Napoleonic semaphore signal tower on Golam.

Golam is the most south-westerly of the islands and it would be nice to think that its name derives from Míl Espánia, whose given name was Golam, the legendary founder of the Celtic Milesian tribe who invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuatha dé Danaan. More likely its name may derive from the Irish Goilim meaning to lament or even from Goillín, a tormentor (the Devil or perhaps the Golem from medieval Kabalistic lore based on the Psalms(139:16) depiction of "an unfinished human being") because of the impact in the distant past of the loss of fishermen to drowning upon its rocky shores. 

Both of these attributions also hold up when you analyse the number of local shipwrecks but most particularly the events of February 1873 when the Julia, a ship carrying timber from Liverpool was washed up on Golam and from all around the islands and the mainland northwards people came to salvage the cargo. There was a standoff between the Coastguards and a boatload of men from the islands off Carna and shots rang out. Two men, Patrick Folan and Thomas King were killed. Subsequently on the basis of testimony of a John Larkin from Dinish Island two of the coastguards were indicted for manslaughter but subsequently a Grand Jury trying the case in Galway dismissed the charges on the second day in the trial due to lack of credibility in the witness accounts.

Detail from a Mortier 1693 map of Galway Bay.
(Mason Island is the last island in the bottom left.)

The body of Folan was brought back to his parent's house on Mason Island off Carna, which is close to St Sinach Mac Dara's island, the sacred site of the patron saint of Connemara fishermen and to where I am off to next.