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THE ROCKY BURREN AND THE GREAT FAMINE – Blog dated 29th January 2014

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

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"Lazy Beds" Potato Cultivation Ridges Kilnaboy in the Burren


“An Gorta Mór” or the Great Famine of 1845-49 is probably the most intense episode in the 9,000 year old story of mankind in Ireland.  Interestingly it is commonly referred to as “the Famine” even though Ireland had been serially struck by famines in the 17th and 18th centuries. One such famine , that of 1739-41, claimed the lives of  400,000 people out of a population of 2 million.
By the 1840s, 3 million rural poor in Ireland were dependent on a monoculture diet of potatoes. The island’s population then was just over 8 million. Meat and cereal were produced in abundance but were mostly exported to Great Britain. In 1845 the potato was attacked by a fungus and the crop failed for six pestilential years. The authorities could have slowed down the export of food to alleviate the crisis. Instead they opted to continue the exportation. In a three month period at the end of 1845, 160,000 cattle, sheep and pigs were exported along with significant amounts of wheat, barley and oats. The result was catastrophic – 1 million died as a result of the famine and a further 2 million emigrated in the two decades after the disaster.
The Great Famine was the biggest humanitarian crisis of 19th century European history. The eminent historian Joe Lee has described the famine as “the greatest single peacetime tragedy since the [14th century] Black Death”. Historical geographer Kevin Whelan has highlighted the geo-political context of the tragedy i.e. it occurred in the richest, most powerful country in the world then, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The cause of the famine is much disputed in Ireland today with some arguing that it was a natural disaster exacerbated by a monoculture diet. Others vigorously challenge the orthodoxy of this view and apportion blame to the administration with its shameless policy of profit before people. Moreover the latter group points out that the government interpreted the Famine as an act of God and saw no connection between its laissez-faire economic model and the unfolding crisis.

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Pre-famine chapel and sibín in the Burren uplands


County Clare was one of the counties most affected by the Famine. According to the census of 1841 the population of the county stood at 260,000 people. The 2011 census records just over 117,000 residents in Clare. There was severe population collapse in the county during the Famine and in the decades thereafter.
The Burren region in North Clare witnessed huge suffering as the vast majority of its population was rural poor. The same 1841 census recorded that 85% of the houses in the Burren were fourth-class defined as “all mud cabins having only one room”.
The Burren population was mostly concentrated in the valleys where up to 400 people per square mile lived. Only one person per square mile lived in the rocky uplands. Ironically pre-famine dwellings survive in greater numbers in the hills today as they tended to be built of the more durable material of stone.
Other physical evidence of the tragedy is the abandoned potato cultivation ridges known also as “lazy beds”. Potatoes were cultivated by laying them on the surface (bed) and covering them with earth from a trench on either side of the bed. The trenches served as excellent drainage.
Moreover a number of Famine relief roads survive in the Burren. A public works scheme was launched across Ireland in March 1846. Starving people worked on public projects such as roadbuilding.  Their wages would then allow them to buy food. The scheme was a failure for a myriad of reasons. The relief roads in the region are monuments to the administration’s abject response to the crisis.
The poor in the Burren and the Aran Islands had a double blow in the 19th century as they experienced a fuel “famine”as well as a food famine. Both regions were devoid of turf whilst any wood available would have been mercilessly exploited. Desperate peasants resorted to drying cow pats and even woody stems of plants in order to survive.  Fuel was needed for cooking so it was very much a survival resource.
Thuiles were used to dry cow pats in the Burren hills. They are ingenious dry-stone constructions within which the pats were placed. The thuiles would permit the drying effects of the wind whilst excluding most of the rain. Many examples of this vernacular monument can still be found in the Burren uplands.
The “lazy beds”, pre-famine dwellings, relief roads and thuiles make the Burren a fascinating Famine landscape. They serve as potent reminders of our greatest social calamity.

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"A thuile. Fuel drying station. Roof no longer survives.

If I had a dime for every time I have been asked this question over the years, I would be a wealthy man! The vast majority of the population had no recourse to fish during the Famine for a myriad of reasons – the abject poverty ;  the rocky, inhospitable nature of most of the coastline ; the unreliable weather and the smallness of the fishing craft. In some cases fishermen sold their equipment to buy food – a resounding vote of no confidence in the fish’s role in staving off the starvation.


*As part of wider reform proposals, The Department of Education is currently considering the removal of history as a compulsory subject for the Junior Certificate exam cycle for pupils in the age range 12-15 years. The matter is proving controversial.

*The charity Healthy Food for All has said that official figures indicate that 10% of the population of the Republic of Ireland (450,000 people) live in food poverty. Food poverty is defined as the inability to have an adequate and nutritious diet due to issues of affordability and access to food with related impacts on health, culture and social participation

*The poet Eavan Boland will be 70 in September. Poetry Review has described her as “one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half century.’ Her poem That the Science of Cartography is Limited is a visceral, lyrical condemnation of the policy of putting starving people to work on building roads during the Famine.

*The artist Deidre O’Mahony will give a talk at the X-PO community hub in Kilnaboy on Thursday the 20th of February at 8.00 pm. The talk is entitled Heroes of the Potato Revolution and will focus on some of the individuals worldwide who have changed our perception of the potato. Deirdre is the founder of the X-PO.  Her SPUD project (2013) was a collaboration with local farmers exploring issues such as food security and sustainability. Admission is free and all are welcome.  More information 087 292 54 87.

The Cause of Ireland. Liz Curtis. Beyond the Pale Publications.
Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Editors Crowley, Smyth and Murphy. Cork University Press.



THE POET THE POEM THE FILM – Blog dated 23rd January 2013

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

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Saint Gobnait's Bed, Ballyvourney.

Seán Dunne was born in 1956 and grew up in St John’s Park, Waterford City. His prose book In My Father’s House is a lyrical, unsentimental memoir of his childhood. Dunne studied English at University College Cork where he was inspired by mentors Seán Lucy and the celebrated poet John Montague. Sometime after graduation he became the highly regarded literary editor of the daily national newspaper The Examiner (then called The Cork Examiner).  Dunne died of natural causes in 1995.
His premature death shocked the Irish literary world. The outstanding Belfast poet Michael Longley spoke at the time of the anger and despair he and others felt at the sudden loss of Seán Dunne. My own friend and poet Gerry Fanning said of Dunne “Tidy. Fastidious. Always liked him. His early death was a major shock”.
Dunne published three poetry collections “Against the Storm” (1985), “The Sheltered Nest” (1992) and “Time and the Island” (1996). He wrote two prose books – “In My Father’s House”(1991)  and “The Road to Silence : An Irish Spiritual Odyssey” (1994). Seán Dunne is buried at St Gobnait’s monastic site in Ballyvourney, County Cork.

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St Gobnait's Statue (Sculptor Séamus Murphy)

I will always be very grateful to my father-in-law Seán O Riain who gifted me the Seán Dunne posthumous poetry collection Collected (2005). I had not previously heard of the poet. Collected is a book of poems and translations by Dunne. The short opening poem “Prayer” is a powerful homage to our frail planet. The book also contains a number of Dunne’s sublime translations of poems by Anna Akhmatova, the highly acclaimed Soviet modernist poet.
My own favourite is “West Cork” – a reverential portrait of folk religion which is still practiced to some extent in Ireland today. The poem is dedicated to Seán Lucy. It is just over 100 words long and is in three sections – Gobnait’s Bed, Rag Tree and Holy Well.
Tradition has it that the saint is buried under a long stone slab at the site. The slab is “Cluttered as a bedside table” with pilgrims’ votive offerings.
Rags are dipped in the well water, applied to the afflicted part of the body and then tied to a tree in the belief that the tree will take way the ailment.”Its branches drip with tatters/It seems held down with pleas.”
Moreover, it is believed that the holy well water forgives sins also. “Coins glitter in its depths like foil./The water shivers at the mildest gust. /Pinched by midges it trembles slightly”.
The images in the poem are so striking and beautiful that a film version of the poem seemed like a good idea…

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Rag Tree overhanging St Gobnait's Well

I ran the idea of the short film by friends of mine, Mick O’Riordan (born Cork city ; lives Doolin, County Clare) and Carles Casasin (born Barcelona ; lives Ballyvaughan, County Clare). Multi-instrumentalist Mick had composed some short film soundtracks in the past and Carles is an animation film maker. Fortunately, they were keen on the idea also. We subsequently received the kind permission of publisher Peter Fallon of Gallery Press for use of the poem.
Filming took place at at St Gobnait’s over one misty day in February 2012. Thereafter, Carles painstakingly edited the work. Mick provided a fine piano soundtrack and he also recited the poem on film.
The finished work was launched before a packed house in the Courthouse Gallery, Ennistymon last May. It is all of four and half minutes long and is dedicated to Ennistymon woman Frances Madigan. Frances’s mother is from Ballyvourney.
West Cork was also screened at the Cork International Film Festival 2012 in November. The film featured in the O Bhéal section of the festival. The section is dedicated to the screening of films of poems. “West Cork” was only one of thirty films chosen for O Bhéal from a total of 500 considered for screening.
The film’s next screening is at the 2013 Waterford Writers’ Weekend in the Waterford city library on Saturday afternoon the 23rd of March. “West Cork” will feature in a weekend event in honour of the memory of Seán Dunne. Relatives and friends of Seán Dunne as well as admirers of his work will be in attendance. We feel privileged that the film has been chosen to contribute to the event. The film will be launched on-line in the autumn.
Seán Dunne’s headstone at Ballyvourney reads “Seán Dunne. Poet. 1956-1995. In the beginning was the word. In the end there is silence”.

1. St Gobnait is patron saint of bees. Her feast day is 11th February which broadly corresponds with the ancient quarterly festival of Imbolg (fertility). It remains a date of popular assembly at the site.
2. The rag tree at Ballyvourney is a linden tree. Linden is one of three English names (basswood and lime are the others) for the tree genus Tilia. It is not native to Ireland.
3.A wonderful essay and homage to Seán Dunne with excerpts from his poetry was published by the Munster Express newspaper in 2008. It is entitled “Seán Dunne – his song will not end”
4. Seán Dunne’s “Collected” is available from the publisher Gallery Press Irish writer Colm Tóibín has described Gallery Press as “one of the two or three best poetry presses in the world.”

HOLY WELLS SHRINES OF REDEMPTION – Blog dated 12th September 2010

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

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Tobar Iníne Baoithe Holy Well, Commons South, Killinaboy

The cult of water in Ireland can be traced back to the Bronze Age (c. 2000-600 BC) at least. Many sacrificial deposits have been found in our lakes and rivers dating from that period. This form of religious expression to the gods continued into the Iron Age (c.600 BC – 400 AD). The most spectacular water find from the Iron Age is the Loughnashade trumpets. Four sheet-bronze trumpets were found in Loughnashade lake in County Armagh.

At some point our ancestors began to express public worship at shrines around specific water bodies. These small-scale shrines are known as holy wells. However, their precise origins remain obscure and can be hotly contested. Only a limited number of wells have been excavated and the findings have not shed convincing light on the vexed subject of their origins.

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Tobar Iníne Baoithe Holy Well, Anneville, Killinaboy

It is commonly estimated that there are upwards of 3,000 holy wells in Ireland – a staggering total. The eminent folklorist Criostóir Mac Cárthaigh (School of Folklore, University College Dublin) attributes the dense concentration to two factors. The first is the central role of cosmology in Ancient Ireland. Secondly, Mac Cárthaigh points out that the wells were important outposts of religious expression for Roman Catholics during the period of religious suppression in Ireland (late 17th to early 19th century).

Holy wells can have three diagnostic features. They are the divine water, the blessed tree and the stone. The latter may have a functional use in wellhouse construction whereas a single stone may have magical properties defined by its particular shape. The blessed tree can spirit away ailments of the well habitués. However, the diagnostic features of tree and stone do not feature at all wells.

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Blessed Tree at Tobar Iníne Baoithe, Anneville, Killinaboy

The holy well is a shrine of redemption – both spiritual and physical. People frequent wells for penitential reasons i.e. to seek forgiveness for their sins. Moreover, they visit them to seek healing from various ailments. Individual wells are renowned for cures for specific ailments associated with body and mind including eyes, warts, back, infertility and mental illness.

People also visited wells to socialise. The holy well has been the focus of great outdoor assemblies especially on the feast day of the saint to whom the particular well is dedicated. The dates of these patterns (patrún) most often occur in late July. This period corresponds with the pre-Christian festival of Lughnasa (the god of light) and the celebration of harvest.

The holy well has played a central role in the spiritual and social lives of the Irish for several centuries. The well was an especially important part of agrarian folk tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though well worship is still robust at a small number of sites, the overall picture is one of dramatic decline in the last 150 years or so. Many wells are physically neglected now and the oral lore associated with them is dying with our elders.

One could argue that our ancestors’ instinctive reverence of water is still relevant today as mankind lurches from one water crisis to another.

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Offerings - Tobar Iníne Baoithe, Commons South, Killinaboy

There is a disproportionately high number of holy wells in County Clare – about 220. The Burren region in North Clare/South East Galway boasts about 45 wells – again a higher than average concentration. I live in the parish of Killinaboy in the south east of the Burren and the parish is host to 10 wells – yet again an unusually high number.

I have commenced research on the holy wells of the Burren region and the project promises to keep me busy this winter and beyond. Slán tamall. (Bye for a while).

LIFE AT THE CROSSROADS AGAIN – Blog dated 20th May 2010

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

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X-PO Killinaboy. 16th May 2010.

“The most social place of all was the crossroads here outside the Killinaboy post office. There was a huge tree and it was under that big tree people used to meet on a summer evening and we’d play pitch and toss and the older people would be talking about farming and local topics or who was getting married, who was born or who was dying. I was only in my teenage years then”. These are the words of Vincent Lahiffe. Vincent is a native of the parish of Killinaboy with a great fondness for remembrance of things past.

The tree at the crossroads has long since been cut down and most of the pitchers and tossers have passed away. Moreover, the other great social hub at the cross, the post office, is no more either. It was closed down in 2002.

With the demise of the post office as a civic space, Killinaboy cross was largely reduced to a junction for passing cars. That was until local artist Deirdre O’Mahony reopened the post office as a community and arts space in 2007. She cleverly christened the “new” space X-PO

O’Mahony also set about archiving as much information as possible about the former postmaster John Martin “Mattie” Rynne. The post office was Rynne’s working and living space but the world was his oyster. At night he would listen to short wave radio and teach himself languages. By all accounts he was a private, sensitive man with a great thirst for knowledge about the big world.

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Mattie Rynne portrait

Deirdre made a large wall-drawing of Mattie above the stove in the living room. It was in fact soot from the stove which was used in the drawing of the portrait. Locals say the drawing bears a remarkable likeness to the man himself. Mattie is now a giant at the shoulder of all who walk into his former home.

Since 2008 X-PO has been run by a team from the local community (including Deirdre O’Mahony). Culture clubs use the space on a regular basis and thus X-PO plays host to songsters, Irish language enthusiasts, traditional dance students and the local mapping group amongst others. There is also a monthly heritage talk and the occasional one-off event. The highlight of each year is the lighting of the parish’s Christmas tree in the grounds of X-PO – a ceremony attended by over 100 people. The main man on the occasion is Santa Claus.

The space has been home to two art exhibitions so far this year. The current exhibition is called Research, Tracing and Tales of Killinaboy Townlands and Inhabitants. The local mapping group has documented the human settlement since the mid-1800s of 24 of the parish’s 51 townlands. Research included interviews and extensive field work. Audio recordings and maps form the basis of the exhibition which amounts to a very rich and detailed chronicle of the rural geography and history of a parish in Ireland over the last couple of centuries. The group has not only traced and mapped forgotten stones but it has also saved stories which were bound for oblivion. The core mapping group consists of John Kelleher, Francis Whelan, Brendan Beaky and Seán Whelan. The exhibition runs from May 16th to 30th. Opening times are Monday to Friday 8.00 pm to 10.00 pm; Saturday and Sunday 2.00 pm to 5.00 pm.

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John Kelleher and Francis Whelan at the exhibition launch.

The X-PO is open from September to May each year. John Martin “Mattie” Rynne former postmaster of Killinaboy and citizen of the world looks on contentedly. Come and see.


1. Killinaboy is the most south-easterly parish in the Burren region. It is home to one of only six national parks in the Republic of Ireland – the Burren National Park.

2. A townland is the smallest officially recognised geographical unit in Ireland. It is smaller than a barony, parish or county. There are estimated to be over 60,000 townlands altogether on the island of Ireland. The smallest is less than an acre (2,700 square metres) in size. The largest is more than 7,000 acres (28.3 square kilometres).

3. The names of the townlands which feature in the current X-PO exhibition are Ballycasheen, Booltiagghadine, Bunnagat North, Bunnagat South, Caherblonick North, Caherblonick South, Caherfadda, Cahermacon, Carrownamaddra, Coad, Commons North, Crossard, Drummoher, Elmvale, Inchiquin, Killinaboy, Leamaneh North, Leana, Monanaleen, Noonan, Parknabinnia, Rinnamona, Roughaun and Commons South

NO ORDINARY PUB – Blog dated 12th May 2010

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

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The charismatic Lisdoonvarna publican Peter Curtin is in demand. It seems all the national media wants to talk to him. Yesterday it was the Irish Times. This morning it was Newstalk Radio. Peter is in the news because he has just launched the Burren Tolkien Society on two continents – North America and Lisdoonvarna! He is of the strong opinion that the otherworldly Burren in County Clare was the inspiration for Middle Earth in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s connections with the region are in fact well detailed on the new society’s website. The society had 7 members as of this morning. However, if further research proves that Tolkien’s book was indeed inspired by the Burren, the society will not remain a small band for long.

A plaque outside the pub commemorates the founding of the society but also in a sense it puts the visitor on notice that he or she is about to enter no ordinary bar. The pub interior is perspiring with old character and the customers are an intoxicating (not intoxicated) mix of locals and visitors. The 101 year old pianoforte is a strong statement in itself of the importance of music in the establishment. Garret Fitgerald former Taoiseach/Prime Minister is one former owner of the piano. The pint of stout here is always frothy and fresh and then the whole affair is presided over by Peter with his singular panache. The pub was founded in 1865 and has been under the management of the Curtin family for 3 generations now.

I rambled in 2 Saturdays ago on the trail of a few tunes and was not disappointed. The ensemble was Paul Dooley (fiddle), Terry Bingham (concertina) and Ian Lambe (guitar). The trio played a sweet selection of polkas, jigs and reels.

Apart from playing fiddle, Paul is a fine harp-player and harp-maker. Ian hand-makes polished aluminum tuneable low whistles and sells them mainly on the worldwide web. He also made the beautiful guitar he is seen playing in the photo. Terry is from the north originally but is at home playing the instrument most associated with County Clare i.e. the concertina. That all adds up to an awful lot of talent around a pub table on a Saturday evening.

Ireland is home at the moment to one the western world’s richest folk music traditions. County Clare in its turn is the unofficial capital of the music in Ireland. (“If it’s music you want, You should come to Clare…” from the song “Lisdoonvarna” by Christy Moore). And as for the Burren itself, it would be no bad thing to set up a musical pub trail in the region which would include information on-line and off about the great tunes going down in vibrant music villages and towns such as Lisdoonvarna, Kilfenora, Doolin, Kinvara, Corofin, Ballyvaughan………

In the end I beat the midnight curfew albeit reluctantly but not before paying homage on the way home to the Tolkien plaque. By the way you can catch music sessions at the Roadside on Friday and Saturday evenings 11 months of the year. In the month of July there is music every evening except Sundays.

No ordinary pub – no. One of the finest pubs on the western seaboard of Ireland – yes.

Next blog – Research, Tracing and Tales. A remarkable exhibition of local maps and history at X-PO, the former post office in Kilnaboy.

HAPPY BURREN PIGS – Blog dated 26th April 2010

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Ireland imports around 75% of the food which its population eats. If the Oil Age ends, we are in deep trouble. That’s why I find stories of conservation farming, artisan food producers, farmers’ markets and slow food restaurants so uplifting.

Eva Harald rears free range pigs on her farm near the Burren gateway village of Kilfenora. By doing so she seems to tick all the boxes. She is a conservation farmer and an artisan food producer. Moreover, Eva is  a stallholder at a number of farmers’ markets and occasionally her pork products make it onto the menu of local restaurants.

Eva is originally from a town called Jakobstad on the west coast of Finland. She is a member of the linguistic minority of mother tongue Swedish which account for 6% of the Finnish population.

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Eva’s husband Stephen Hegarty is himself a part-time conservation farmer and his excellent beef product can be purchased via the Burren Beef and Lamb Producers’ Group. The couple has a 30 acre farm and their cattle indulge in the ancient local tradition of outwintering on land they have near the great medieval icon of Leamaneh Castle.

Eva got her first pigs in 2007 and started trading as Burren Free Range Pork. The idea was to make more use of under-exploited land on the farm. She also knew that the pigs would act as excellent landscape managers by rotivating the land. Eva says “the pigs are lovely animals to be working with. They’re like pets really, easy to handle and so cute”.  However, I myself bet a lot of hard work is involved as well.

At the moment Eva has 2 pure bred saddlebacks and four saddleback/tamworth cross. The saddlebacks are quite distinctive – black in colour with a white band. Their origins may be in the West Country of England. They are regarded as an excellent eating pig  and are especially prized for their hams and bacons.

The pigs’ diet includes fruit, vegetables, grass and whey from Kilshanny cheese (whey is the extremely healthy watery substance that remains after cheese production).

The pigs live short, happy lives. The “banbhs” or piglets of the saddlebacks in the photograph will be heading for butchering after about 6 months in this world.

Eva’s sausages have at least 82% pigmeat content. Other sublime products include rashers, ribs, roasts, chops and pork belly.

The pigs made a star appearance on Eco Eye presented by Duncan Stewart on RTE 1 (national state televison) earlier in the year. Moreover, Burren Free Range Pork was recently awarded the much vaunted Bridgestone Food Guide (2010) plaque. Eva will be proudly displaying the plaque on her stall at the following markets this summer – Ennis (Fridays 8.00am to 2.00 pm); Ballyvaughan (Saturdays 10.00 am to 2.00 pm) and Kilkee (Sundays 10.00 am to 2.00 pm). You can also buy direct from Eva (and get to see the noble animals as well!) by visiting  the farm by appointment. Contact phone number 086-8815974

Living proof of the Irish gastronomic rinascimento is a Swedish speaking Finn rearing free range pigs near a Burren gateway village!

Tony’s next Burren blog – Great Music on the Burren Pub Trail.