On several occasions I have purposely let myself get lost along the narrow roads of the Sliabh Aughty (Echtge* ) uplands which extend over some 250 square miles over the southeast Galway and west Clare borders. It’s a territory way off the tourist trail. On either side of the road hedgerows are positive gardens of wild flowers in June. In August they collapse drunkenly along its edge.
There are great swathes of open landscape. Then over the hill, there are ruins of old villages and isolated houses, abandoned schools, ancient churches, lakes, and scattered ruins and walls of old gateways belonging to a former landlord. These are a stark reminder of the many families who worked their small holding and cut their turf nearby, but who have long gone in search of a better life.
It’s not all emptiness by any means. Apart from the bigger towns such as Gort Inse Guire, Loughrea, and Portumna, there are a dozen or two of the most attractive and neat villages you could find anywhere in the world. You suddenly come across Woodford, Scariff, Tulla, Killeenadeema, Feakle, Crusheen, Kilchreest, Shanaglish, Peterswell, and others with surprise and pleasure at the obvious community pride in their freshly painted homes, well maintained open spaces, neat churchyards, shop-signage, and schools proudly flying the green flag.
In 1950 the renowned geographer and Trinity scholar Thomas Walter Freeman observed “The farms generally have about three acres under oats and potatoes, three acres of meadow and a share in the mountain grazing, which is either individually owned or grazed in common by two or more holders. Home-made butter, eggs, pigs, calves and sheep are the main source of income, and as neither migratory labour nor local employment has ever been common in the district the emigration rate has been particularly heavy.
“ The main problem of the farmer in such an area as this is access to markets. Up to 1914, eggs sold in Woodford were taken to Portumna, then by steamer along the Shannon to Banagher, and by rail to Dublin. But the Shannon traffic never revived after the 1914-1918 war, and the produce is now collected by dealers.”
I hope it’s not too unwarranted to say that much of the Aughtys still have a 1950’s feel about it.
A book of wonders
Local folklorist and antiquarian Ger Madden has produced a generous book and coloured map of the Aughtys**which opens up the whole region to the curious traveller. I now see that we have a veritable landscape treasure on our doorstep. The author has imaginatively presented a book of curious facts and strange wonders, historic names and places, and the struggles of local communities over the centuries in an almanac fashion so that for every day of the year there is a story to enjoy. On June 18, for example, Ger’s parents were married in Whitegate church on that day in 1947 at 7am. The time was not unusual as many a labouring man went home after his wedding to turn up for work at 8am as usual. Ger’s parents, however, had their wedding breakfast in Loughrea, and a few days honeymoon in Galway. It was her only holiday for many years. His mother gave birth to 12 boys, whom she called her ‘Twelve Apostles’, followed by an only girl.
Longevity would appear to be a feature of the region. On March 19 1776 Mr David Brann of Tinneranna, Ogonnelloe, died. He was 117 years of age. The Freeman’s Journal reported that he retained his senses to the last day and ate a hearty dinner on the day before he died. On March 26 1707 Col Richard Ringrose of Moynoe died reputedly 107 years of age. His name was originally Rose. But in 1560, Queen Elizabeth presented Richard Rose of Hampshire with a ring as a reward for distinguished military service.
One of the most famous pubs in Clare is undoubtedly Peppers of Feakle. The property where the pub now stands was acquired by a James Pepper around 1875. After his death, April 13 1880, the property passed to his wife Catherine. She died September 15 1910, and the pub passed to their son Joseph Francis Pepper. On his death the pub/grocery passed to his wife Margaret Mary Killeen, who in turn passed the property to her son James Francis Pepper who lived until 1981. Gary Pepper is the present owner.
Bryan Merryman died on July 27 1805 in Limerick. He was born about 1749 in Ennistymon and later moved to Feakle, where he is buried. Bryan, described as a ‘teacher of mathematics,’ taught in a hedgeschool there for about 20 years, and farmed some land. He married, had two daughters, but he is famous for his poem Cúirt an Mheán Oíche - praised for its verbal dexterity and rabelesian ribaldry. When Frank O’Connor reissued and translated it in 1945 it was seized by the Censorship Board and banned. In his introduction O’Connor wrote: ‘Merryman was born about the middle of the eighteenth century in a part of Ireland which must then have been as barbarous as any in Europe - it isn’t exactly what one would call civilised today.’
Both WB Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory were attracted to that ‘wildness’. Gregory collected folklore from the families on the hillside whose only entertainment was the stories of the ancient heroes, the saints, and the fairies; and their music and song. Yeats, who was sometimes too snobby to enter the humble home, languished outside. Never as practical as Gregory, he was more dreamy:
The honey-pale moon lay low on the sleepy hill,
And I fell asleep upon lonely Echtge of streams.
No boughs have withered because of the wintry wind;
The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.
I always believed that the great woods of Ireland were destroyed largely for timber to build Nelson’s navy. This may have happened near seaports, but Ger Madden tell us that it was the charcoal industry that devastated the old primeval forest of Sliabh Aughty in east Clare. Local place names, such as Doire (oak wood ), Ross (wood ), and Coill (wood ) testify to the existence of forest. Charcoal is produced by the slow burning of timber in heaps, from which all air is excluded. It is essential in the production of iron. Furnaces were located where timber supply was plentiful. It took about 25 tons of oak to produce one ton of cast iron. In the Sliabh Aughty region there were furnaces at Raheen, Tuamgraney, and Scariff as early as 1620. Others were located at Furnacetown in Feakle, Furnace in Whitegate, and Woodford. The Irish name for Woodford is Gráig na Muilte Iarainn, the village of the iron mills.
And I intend to came back to Woodford for the next few weeks and tell the story of the evictions of the Conroy, Fahey, Broderick and Saunders’ families from the Clanricarde estate 1887. Their spirited resistance captured the attention of Europe and beyond.
* The Sliabh Aughty or Echtge, contains many monuments of prehistoric Ireland reminding us that this is an ancient place, of which much of its story is recorded in early manuscripts. The lady Echtge, granddaughter to Finde, one of the Tuatha de Danann gave her name to the hills. She married Fergus Mac Ruiri who held these hills and mountains by his right of cupbearer to the King of Connaught. He bestowed the mountain valleys to Echtge to feed the cows, which she brought with her as her dowry.
**Sliabh Aughty Ramble - Musings on the folklore, history, landscape and literature of the Sliabh Aughty region, by Ger Madden, now on sale at €20.