I Never Knew That About the Irish

Christopher Winn; Illustrations by Mai Osawa

Thomas Dunne Books

I NEVER KNEW THAT ABOUT THE IRISH (Chapter One)County Galway

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND’S LARGEST LAKE O’FLAHERTY’S CASTLE IRELAND’S THIRD LARGEST CITY A POET AND HIS DONKEY AN ANCIENT FISHING VILLAGE FRIENDSHIP RINGS IRELAND’S LONGEST RACING FESTIVAL GALWAY OYSTERS NORA BARNACLE THE CONNEMARA BUS

Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Nicholas, a prominent Galway landmark.

GALWAY FOLK

Richard Kirwan Robert O’Hara Burke Dan O’Hara John Ford Margaret Dolan William Joyce John Huston Peter O’Toole Francis Barrett

 

COUNTY GALWAY is Ireland’s second largest county and contains the 7,000 acres of Connemara National Park, opened in 1980, as well as IRELAND’S LARGEST GAELTACHT, or Irish-speaking area.

Lough Corrib

The county is split almost into two by LOUGH CORRIB, which covers an area of 68 square miles (176 sq km) and is THE LARGEST LAKE IN THE REPUBLIC AND SECOND LARGEST IN ALL IRELAND. Lough Corrib empties into Galway Bay by way of the RIVER CORRIB which, at just under 4 miles (6 km) in length is thought to be THE SHORTEST RIVER IN EUROPE. The river, which is popular today with whitewater rafters, flows far too powerfully to be navigable and, in the 12th century, IRELAND’S FIRST CANAL, THE FRIAR’S CUT, was constructed to allow boats to pass between Lough Corrib and the sea.

Aughnanure Castle – Home of the O’Flahertys

Near the south shore of Lough Corrib is AUGHNANURE CASTLE, a six-storey tower house located just outside the village of Oughterard, ‘Gateway to Connemara’. It was built in the 16th century by the O’Flahertys, who controlled much of the land around Lough Corrib from a series of castles, of which Aughnanure was the most powerful. In the main hall one of the flagstones was hinged as a trapdoor so that unwelcome guests could be tipped into a watery dungeon below.

The O’Flahertys were amongst the most feared of the Galway chieftains, so much so that a sign was hung over the west gate of the Norman town of Galway that read, ‘From the ferocious O’Flahertys may God protect us.’ In 1545 Donal O’Flaherty married the celebrated pirate queen Grace O’Malley, and today the O’Flahertys are still an influential presence in County Galway, having contributed an impressive number of mayors to the city.

Galway City

GALWAY CITY, Ireland’s third largest city, lies on the banks of the River Corrib where it flows into Galway Bay. The town was once renowned for its fleet of distinctive boats called Galway Hookers (from the Dutch word holker, meaning a small, manoeuvrable vessel), designed to cope with the heavy seas of Galway Bay and used for fishing and trading with Holland and Spain. Galway Hookers are no longer in service, but examples still turn up to annual sailing events and races.

Galway boasts two fine churches, THE COLLEGIATE CHURCH OF ST NICHOLAS (CHURCH OF IRELAND), THE LARGEST MEDIEVAL PARISH CHURCH IN IRELAND, and the imposing Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Nicholas.

In keeping with the Irish-speaking tradition of the region, Galway is home to An Taibhdhearc, a theatre founded in 1928 that puts on plays exclusively in Irish. In 1935 a statue of Padraic O Conaire, one of Galway’s most cherished Irish writers, was unveiled by Eamon de Valera in Eyre Square, which is now a memorial garden to the American president John F. Kennedy, who visited the city shortly before his assassination in 1963. O Conaire’s statue has since been moved to the Galway City Museum, beside the Spanish Arch.

Padraic O Conaire

1882–1992

PADRAIC O CONAIRE was born in Galway and grew to love the Irish language when he was at school in Rosmuc, a village in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht. After spending some time in London working as a civil servant he returned to Galway to teach and write Irish as part of the Gaelic Revival of the early 20th century. He was one of the first to use Gaelic for journalism and he also helped run events for the Gaelic League, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of the language. He would travel around Galway and Connemara with his donkey and cart, stopping at pubs and villages to tell stories, and perhaps his most popular work is his short story about how he came to meet his little black donkey, and the fun and games they had together.

Claddagh

When the town of Galway was founded in the 12th century as an Anglo-Norman stronghold, it was put down alongside one of Ireland’s oldest fishing villages, CLADDAGH, which dates from the 5th century and took its name from the Irish word ‘cladach’, meaning stony shore. The native Gaelic community of Claddagh and the Anglo-Norman merchants of the town pretty much kept themselves apart, and from medieval times right into the 20th century, Claddagh was governed by its own mayor or ‘king’, and kept to its own laws and customs. The village became renowned as a classic example of an authentic Irish community, attracting numerous writers and artists, before its pretty jumble of thatched cottages was demolished in the 1930s and replaced with modern housing, and the village was subsumed into the city of Galway.

Claddagh Rings

Come down from the days of old Claddagh is the traditional Claddagh friendship or wedding ring, fashioned as two hands clasping a heart, surmounted by a crown. Legend tells that the ring was originally designed by a Galway man, Richard Joyce, who was captured by an Algerian corsair while sailing to the West Indies in the 17th century and sold into the service of a goldsmith in Algiers. Joyce became so adept as a goldsmith himself, that when William III came to the throne and demanded that the Moors release all their British prisoners, his gold-smith master offered half his own fortune and his daughter’s hand in marriage if Joyce would stay on as a partner. The Galway man was already betrothed to a Galway lass, however, and he returned to Claddagh and gave his love the ring he had designed and made especially for her during his long exile. Today, Claddagh rings have become a cultural symbol worn by those of Irish descent all over the world.

Galway Races

They have been racing horses in County Galway since the 13th century, but the first racing festival held at BALLYBRIT, home of the present GALWAY RACES, was in August 1869, when over 40,000 people attended the two-day event. Today, the summer festival is held in the last week of July and lasts for seven days, THE ONLY WEEK-LONG RACING FESTIVAL IN IRELAND OR BRITAIN. The main race, the Galway Plate, is run on the Wednesday, while Thursday is Ladies Day and includes a ‘best-dressed lady’ competition.

Galway Races form the premier festival in the Irish racing calendar, and are as much a social event as a festival of horse racing, with champagne and oyster bars, jazz bands, trade stands and competitions. The original grandstand, built in the 1950s and replaced in 1999, boasted THE LONGEST BAR IN THE WORLD (now thought to be found in Düsseldorf).

Galway Oyster Festival

Founded in 1954 by Brian Collins, manager of the Great Southern Hotel, as a means of extending the tourist season, the GALWAY OYSTER FESTIVAL has become one of the world’s premier oyster festivals. It is held in Claddagh over four days and nights in September, the first month of the oyster season, and attracts visitors from all over the world to sample the oysters, along with plenty of Guinness, vintage car displays, street entertainments, music and the Oyster Pearl beauty contest. The main highlight is the hotly contested World Oyster Opening Championship. Film director John Huston is said to have consumed over 3,000 oysters when he attended the festival in 1960.

Nora Barnacle 1884–1951

NORA BARNACLE was born in Connemara, the daughter of a baker. She had just turned 13 when her mother threw Nora’s father out for drinking too much, and mother and daughter went to live in Nora’s uncle’s house on Bowling Green in Galway City, now a museum in her memory. Almost immediately Nora met her first love, a 16-year-old schoolteacher called Michael Feeney, who tragically died that year of pneumonia.

Three years later, another of Nora’s sweethearts, Michael Bodkin, also died of pneumonia, having stood outside Nora’s window in the heavy rain, serenading her.

In 1903, after her uncle learned of an affair she was conducting with a local Protestant boy, Nora was sent away to Dublin, and it was while working as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel that she met her future husband, the writer James Joyce. Their first romantic encounter took place on 16 June 1904, and Joyce later chose this date as the setting for his masterpiece, the novel Ulysses, about an ordinary day in Dublin seen mainly through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertisement canvasser.

The Connemara Bus

The Connemara Bus, driven by Hugh Ryan, is a 1949 Bedford bus that takes tourists for a four-hour drive around Connemara from Galway City, and IS THE OLDEST OPERATING BUS IN IRELAND.

The original Connemara Bus, a wooden vehicle built on to the chassis of a 1932 Bedford truck, was driven by Hugh Ryan’s grandfather and used to ferry the women of Connemara and their produce to market in Galway.

Connemara is famous for its green marble, and is IRELAND’S ONLY SOURCE OF TRUE MARBLE.

Bloomsday

Since 1954, June 16th, or ‘BLOOMSDAY’, has been observed as a holiday in Ireland, during which Joyce’s life is celebrated with readings, dramatisations and street parties. While the biggest celebrations are in Dublin, where aficionados retrace Bloom’s footsteps around the city, Bloomsday is also celebrated in various places around the world that share a connection to Joyce or the novel, such as Philadelphia in the USA, where the original handwritten manuscript of Ulysses is kept at the Rosenbach Museum, or Hungary’s oldest town, Szombathely, birthplace of Bloom’s father Virag, a Jewish émigré.

Well, I never knew this about GALWAY FOLK

Richard Kirwan

1733–1812

RICHARD KIRWAN, scientist and eccentric, was born in CLOUGHBALLYMORE, near Kinvara. In 1787 he published his most famous work, ‘Essay on Phlogiston’, which held that phlogiston was the substance given off by combustion – a theory that was later disproved when it was discovered that combustion involved burning oxygen from the atmosphere. He was also a colourful figure in the fields of chemistry, geology and meteorology and is credited with introducing the study of mineralogy to Ireland in his ‘Elements of Mineralogy’ – the first essay on the subject in English. In 1799 he became President of the Royal Irish Academy.

Cregg Castle – home of Richard Kirwan

Richard Kirwan’s family were one of the 14 ‘Tribes of Galway’, powerful merchant families made wealthy from trade with the Continent, who dominated Galway politics from the 12th century until the late 18th century. Unlike most of the tribes, who were of Anglo-Norman origin, the Kirwans had Irish roots.

In 1754 Richard Kirwan inherited CREGG CASTLE, near the village of Corandulla north of Galway City, when his older brother was killed in a duel. Cregg Castle was built by the Kirwans in 1648 on the site of a 13th-century castle and was one of the last fortified houses to be constructed in Ireland. Richard put up a laboratory in the grounds, the remains of which can still be seen. Cregg Castle is now a hotel.

 

ROBERT O’HARA BURKE (1821–61) THE FIRST MAN TO CROSS AUSTRALIA FROM SOUTH TO NORTH, was born near Craughwell. Burke became an army officer and then a policeman, and emigrated to Australia in 1853. He was chosen to lead an expedition, which became known as the Burke and Wills expedition (along with English surveyor William Wills), whose aim was to travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, on Australia’s northern coast. They succeeded in reaching the Gulf, but both Burke and Wills died on the return journey at a place called Cooper’s Creek, from where their bodies were eventually recovered and laid to rest in Melbourne.

Sure it’s poor I am today,

For God gave and took away,

And left without a home poor Dan O’Hara

With these matches in my hand,

In the frost and snow I stand

So it’s here I am today your broken hearted…

Dan O’Hara’s Song

DAN O’HARA was a tenant farmer who lived with his wife and seven children in a small stone cottage in the shadow of the Twelve Bens in Connemara. Theirs was a simple but happy life, typical of rural 19th-century Ireland, full of storytelling and singing round the turf fire of an evening. Unfortunately, most of Dan’s land was given over to potatoes, and in 1845, at the start of the Great Famine, the crop failed, leaving Dan with no income and unable to pay the rent. He and his family were evicted and had no choice but to emigrate to America. Dan’s wife, and three of their children, died on the voyage, and the survivors arrived in New York destitute. The children were taken into care and Dan was reduced to selling matches on the streets. His story has been made famous in song.

Film director JOHN FORD (1894–1973) was born John Martin Feeney (sometimes Sean Aloysius O’Feeny) in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, to Irish parents from County Galway. Remembered especially for his classic western Stagecoach (1939) which began his cinematic partnership with John Wayne, Ford is THE ONLY DIRECTOR EVER TO HAVE WON FOUR BEST DIRECTOR OSCARS, for The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941 and The Quiet Man, which was filmed entirely in Ireland, in 1952. He had a five-year affair with Katharine Hepburn who, with four wins, has won more Best Actress Oscars than anyone. In later life Ford was famous for wearing a trademark black eye-patch.

MARGARET DOLAN (1893–2004), THE OLDEST WOMAN IN IRELAND when she died aged 111, was born in TUAM.

 

Buried in Bohermore Cemetery in Galway City is WILLIAM JOYCE (1906–46), founder of the National Socialist League and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda in the Second World War. Joyce had an Irish father and, although born in New York, he grew up in Galway. Fanatically anti-Jewish and anti-Communist, Joyce was unwilling to fight against Hitler and at the start of the war he fled to Germany, where he got work as an English language broadcaster. Accused by the Daily Express of using ‘English of the haw-haw, “dammit-get-out-of-my-way” variety’, Joyce became known as Lord Haw-Haw. He was executed for high treason at Wandsworth prison in London in 1946, and his remains were reinterred at Bohermore in 1976.

John Huston

1906–87

The American-born actor and film director JOHN HUSTON (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen) was of Scots-Irish descent. In the 1950s he became an Irish citizen and bought and restored a Georgian house called St Clerans in Craughwell, a small village about 10 miles (16 km) east of Galway. His daughter, the actress Anjelica Huston, went to school for a while at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. In 1948 Huston won two Oscars for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (for Best Director and Best Screenplay), and in 1985, at the age of 79, he became THE OLDEST PERSON EVER TO BE NOMINATED FOR THE BEST DIRECTOR OSCAR, for Prizzi’s Honor. Huston was also an artist and in 1982 was asked to design that year’s label for Château Mouton Rothschild. St Clerans is now a hotel.

 

Film actor PETER O’TOOLE is thought to have been born in Connemara in 1932, although he also has a birth certificate from a hospital in Leeds, Yorkshire. He is best known for his role as T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia and is also THE MOST NOMINATED ACTOR NEVER TO ACTUALLY WIN AN OSCAR – with a grand total of eight nominations. In 2003 he accepted an Academy Honorary Award for his lifetime contribution to film. In honour of his Irish ancestry he always wears one item of green clothing, usually a sock.

Kylemore Abbey

FRANCIS BARRETT was born in 1977 into a family of Galway Travellers, and at age 19 he was chosen to represent Ireland at boxing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, becoming the FIRST TRAVELLER TO REPRESENT IRELAND IN ANY SPORT AT OLYMPIC LEVEL and THE FIRST TRAVELLER TO CARRY THE NATIONAL FLAG AT THE OPENING CEREMONY.

I NEVER KNEW THAT ABOUT THE IRISH Published in 2009 by Ebury Press, an imprint of Ebury Publishing