Animals at war, virgins in Loughrea, poitín, and peace at the ‘Augi’...

World War 1 is the backdrop for the London box office success War Horse. It’s the story of bravery, loyalty and a mutual bond that grew between a young farm boy and his horse. But it is the highly imaginative and skilful way that the story is presented that has caught London’s imagination. The play is based on a book by Michael Morpurgo; and a recent acknowledgement by the public of the role animals have played in war, from the horse, the mule, the dog, the pigeon, even the humble glow worm used by sappers in No Man’s Land as they drew maps in the dark*. During the merciless, and relatively recent Battle of Stalingrad, (July 1942 to February 1943 ), 207,000 horses were killed on the German side alone (the human cost was an unimaginable one million ). Animals are still used to help solders navigate rough terrain, or for dolphins to seek out mines, and dogs to sniff out contraband.

I was struck at the observations made by U boat commander Adolf KGE Spiegel, as he prepared to attack an allied ship in April 1916. To his surprise he saw long rows of wooden partitions along the deck from which gleamed the shining black and brown backs of horses. His reaction: ‘What a pity, those lovely beasts.’

Liam Nolan and John E Nolan produced a very interesting book about the largely unknown role played by Ireland, particularly from Cobh, in keeping channels open to aid ships in the Atlantic, which were easy targets for German submarines**. After the second torpedo struck the boilers blew, and white steam hissed from the hatchways and scuttles. Watching through his periscope Spiegel saw men frantically throwing themselves into the sea, and swim for the lifeboats. Then, ‘I saw a beautiful dapple-grey horse take a mighty leap over the berthing rails and land into a fully laden boat .......’

By the time the war ended the British army lost 484,143 horses and mules.

Liam is a busy writer and teacher in Loughrea. I enjoyed the latest Razzle Dazzle, which is a feast of stories, memories, and ruminations, some of them very funny indeed, from the Loughrea Creative Writing Group, which he directs. I observe that some of the stories are a little more earthy than in previous years. I enjoyed the rather gormless Paddy Joe Malone’s description, as he pretended to be a sophisticated man about town, of how he avoids getting girls pregnant. He is trying to impress Mrs McGuire, the Garda widow, who would enjoy a lively fling before he leaves for London. It is superbly written by Eamonn McNally. To get Paddy Joe into the mood for a smooch, Mrs McGuire questions him on the sexual activity of the women of the parish,

“Are all the young ladies that go down The Walks at night at it?”

“Ya, every one of them,” Paddy Joe said authoritatively.

“Are they not afraid they’d get caught?”

‘An odd one of them gets caught, and has to go and work in the laundry,” he said, sounding like he was speaking from experience. “ Well you know what they say about virgins - they all go mad in the end.”

“Did you ever catch anyone, Paddy Joe?”

“ Ah, no, not me. Look in there,” he said pointing to his eyes.” Do you see any green in there?” Then he repeated something he heard one of the corner boys say: “ My trick is to get a ticket for a train to Attymon, and get off at Dunsandle!”

These are great stories, on sale from Charlie Byrnes’ and all outlets in Loughrea at only €10.00.

‘Captivating brightness’

It would be difficult to get a better pedigree than Ballynahinch Castle Hotel stunningly located on one of the best salmon fisheries in Ireland, surrounded by woodlands, with the 12 Bens at its back. It was once the home of Donal O’Flaherty who married Grace O’Malley the famous Gráinne Mhaol of legend. Then it was the home of the Martins, who owned virtually the whole of Connemara. They lived there for generations till debts and poor management forced them to abandon their home. The last of the family emigrated to America. The estate lay idle for decades until the Maharajah Ranjitsinhji, the famous cricketer, who with his colourful Indian retinue, arrived and renovated the house where he enjoyed a gentle life fishing and shooting over its bogs and lakes. Its sense of history still prevails in its large rooms, warm fires, and beautiful walks.

Its energetic assistant manager Des Lally has a passion for books. He was behind a number of unusual publishing ventures. On the moment of the beginning of the new Millennium, December 31 1999, the hotel issued in a limited edition, the poem Ballynahinch Lake by Seamus Heaney, an occasional visitor. It included the lines;

‘As a captivating brightness held and opened

And the utter mountain mirrored in the lake..’

Using the phrase ‘captivating brightness’ Des wrote to a number of local artists, writers, photographers, and poets and asked them to contribute to a book, the proceeds of which will go to Cancer Care West***. There was an outstanding response, creating an unusual anthology which has been put together with style and grace. Some of the contributors include Tony Curtis, Moya Cannon, Louis de Paor, Peter Fallon, Michael Longley, Frank McGuinness, Mary O’Malley, Tim Robinson, and many others, including music by Bill Whelan**.

Another Big Chapel

Watch out for a new edition of the novel The Big Chapel by Thomas Kilroy, one of Ireland’s greatest playwrights and novelists. Tom, the former professor of English at NUIG, was a director of the famous Field Day Theatre Company, whose own plays and adaptations have been performed in Dublin, Belfast and London. The Big Chapel, first published in 1971, created a huge fuss at the time, and was awarded the Guardian Fiction prize and short listed for the Booker. Brian Friel has written a new foreword, and it is on sale at Easons €14.99.

Christmas spirit

My mother always tipped a glass of poitín into the plum pudding mixture, believing that it made all the difference. As a child I never liked the smell of it, but believed the romance of the time that if you swallowed a glass of the stuff you could go mad; yet if it was used for medicinal purposes you could swallow all you liked and it could cure practically anything. It is, however, highly inflammable. I was alarmed to hear only the other day that a Dublin friend of a friend tipped in half a Mi Wadi bottle of the stuff in her pudding this year. I have warned my friend to tell her that if she puts a match near her pudding the whole house will be blown into smithereens. She and her family will orbit our planet for years...

Surely an opportunity to create a prosperous cottage industry was lost when the big distillers got together in 1760 and persuaded the Government of the day to outlaw all private competition. A regulated industry would have insisted on standards and quality, sadly not always found in the illicit poitín made today. Perhaps it’s not made in the quantity it was 40 years ago. When I was growing up there was barely a home in Ireland without its bottle under the stairs. People believed, as the old Irish ballad says:

‘It was great to have the poitín,

It would pay the rent and the poor law,

It would cure the cough

And straighten the stooped old man.’

Udaras na Gaeltachta, TG 4, and The Irish Film Archive have produced an excellent booklet and beautifully filmed CD telling the history of poitín****. There was hardly a village or island community which did not have its own illicit still, which provided a modest income for some families.

It would be hard to imagine a Christmas party this year without the Saw Doctors, that indefatigable group of merry men originally from Tuam. It was nearly 20 years ago that they launched ‘I useta lover’, which we all sang every time we heard it, and felt it was our own. It was one of the biggest selling Irish CDs of all time. Then after a gap of 17 years they topped the charts again last year with the Sugar Babes’ hit (but wood-turned in their own inimitable way ) About You Now. All their hits and more are on a most entertaining CD To Win Just Once - The Best of the Saw Doctors (on sale Zhivago’s €13.99 ) which is guaranteed to make you smile all the way through.

Christmas At The ‘Augi’ has all the familiar carols but with the added pleasure that these are Galway voices. The renowned Augustinian Church Choir, directed by Sonny Molloy with Pat Lillis on the organ, is one of these Galway institutions (Jimmy Dooley has been happily singing with the choir for over 60 years ), that make the Augustinian church so popular with people from all over the diocese. In fact you won’t get a seat for midnight Mass, or the 11 o’clock on Christmas Day unless you are there at least 30 minutes before the hour.

Again the CD***** comes with a very good booklet, which sets the scene perfectly: ‘Christmas Eve, 11.30pm and the church is full. The air is filled with the aroma of pine trees, flowers, straw and distant Christmas cooking. Upstairs in the choir loft there is an air of excitement - this is our big night, the night that no chorister wants to miss. As the organ starts, the congregation grows quiet, and down stairs in the packed church it seems a sea of red. The joy of returned families and sadness for the missing ones charges the air with emotion.

After the Communion, the lights dim and there is an atmosphere of expectancy as the congregation wait for Silent Night. The church is totally still as the sopranos’ voices soar. For everyone, this seems to sum up the meaning of Christmass’...


Following the book ‘Animals at War’, by the popular author Jilly Cooper, a fund was set up for a memorial which is located on the edge of London’s Hyde Park, near Marble Arch. Designed by David Backhouse, it was unveiled in 2004. It is worth seeing, with the inscription : This monument is dedicated to all animals

That served and died alongside British and allied forces

In wars and campaigns throughout time.

A second, smaller, inscription reads: They had no choice...

** Secret Victory - Ireland and the War at Sea 1914-1918 , published by Mercier Press, on sale €19.99.

***Captivating Brightness -Ballynahinch, can be bought from the Cancer Care West Support Centre, 72, Seamus Quirke Road, Galway, (091-540040 ) and costs €20.

**** Déantús an Phoitín, Poteen Making, CD, €19.95, available at Kenny’s, Zhivago’s, and Dubrays, E-bay, or from [email protected]

****** Christmas at the ‘Augi’ on sale at the church shop for the amazing price of only €15 each, or €25 for two.


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