A TERRIBLE BEAUTY
the windswept road to Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, Gussie MacMahon,
cloth cap across the forehead, tattered tweed coat fastened with
a single button, declared his undying respect for IRA men, Michael
Collins and Dan Breen, placed his trowel on an ancient stone wall
and with only the wind for accompaniment, sang 'The Rescue at Knocklong
Station'. Breen, one of the fiercest IRA men of the War of Independence
and later a member of the Irish Parliament, had rescued volunteer
Sean Hogan in such 'Errol Flynn' style from the clutches of the
British in 1920 at Knocklong Station, County Limerick, he was a
god in the folklore of Ireland. About to be 'canonised' in the form
of Liam Neeson in the film directed by Neil Jordan, everyone in
Ireland is talking about 'Michael Collins'.
'Things would have been different if Collins hadn't been shot,'
Gussie said. It was a recurring theme. From Dublin to Galway, Irish
men and women, even some whose relations had fought and died against
Collins' forces in the Civil War, lamented the killing of 'the big
fella' in that ambush in West Cork.
Beyond the kitsch Ireland of leprechauns and 'Irish eyes are smiling'
is a culture rich in history and story telling. Much of the history
is turbulent so for those enamoured of defiance and rebelliousness
there's plenty to stir the spirits. And when you escape the orchestrated
tourist pubs with their 'Traditional Irish music tonight' themes,
it's a quintessential journey.
In a pub in Spiddal in Galway's Irish-speaking Connemara region,
I sat surveying the territory with Irish poet, Louis de Paor. While
the horse races took precedence on a large television screen the
punters discussed the form in Irish over a pint of Guinness. Across
the road a little while earlier the Priest had delivered the Requiem
Mass in the native tongue. On the signposts outside there was not
an English word to be found. After the Battle of Culloden the British
had destroyed the highland culture and with it the native tongue
of Scotland. Marginalised it has been in Ireland, dead the Irish
language is not. Global technology and the homogeneity that comes
in its wake has travellers looking for something different. In Ireland
I found it.
This journey across Ireland, my fourth since 1973, took me through
rebel Wexford where in 1798 men with pikes had staked a claim for
Irish Independence only to be crushed by the might of the British
military machine. Wexford may have lost the war against Britain
in 1798 but in October 1996 it had won the all-Ireland hurling final
so purple and gold flags fluttered proudly at every vantage point
in the County and there was hardly a shop window without a photo
of the Wexford team. They looked tough all right with a hurling
stick. I could only imagine how formidable they'd have been with
Hurling and Gaelic football, the indigenous games of Ireland,
are now battling the soccer onslaught. PaidÝ O'SÚ, former Kerry
iron man and now publican of a Dingle Peninsula pub ostentatiously
crammed with photos of visiting celebrities including the President
of Ireland, Mary Robinson, Tom Cruise and Dolly Parton, was unequivocal.
'Gaelic tests will give Aussie Rules and Irish football the international
dimension they need to compete with rugby and soccer,' he said,
crushing the letters like opponents before kind of growling the
words. In the old VFA I'd lined up on some fierce looking halfback
flankers. This bloke would have put some of them to shame.
'Can I have a photo with you, Paddy? You're a legend in the States,'
an American Gaelic football enthusiast had announced. O'SÚ delighted
in the attention. Yet here was a man who delivered his 1985 Championship
oration in Irish and was intensely proud of his culture and the
fact that Irish was the first language of his children.
'The film, 'Michael Collins'? Yes, I look forward to seeing it.
He was a hero all right in Ireland but I have to admit that my history
isn't as good as it should be,' he said.
It was in Ballylanders, a one-street village in County Limerick
beneath the glorious Galtee Mountains where the light is never static
and the mist sits like a halo, I happened upon Gallahue's mate the
farmer John Tobin. Tobin's uncle, David, had been killed by the
Black and Tans during the War of Independence. Although the nephew
wasn't born at the time he could recount the event chapter and verse
and identify within a millimetre the place where his uncle fell
and how, when the body was found at first light in a pool of blood,
it was surrounded by dead matches, the relics of a vain attempt
to attract his comrades.
'But didn't his mother dream that she heard him call and didn't
she just wake up and go wandering the roads saying 'He's not dead,
I heard him call',' Tobin said, his own mother Brigid nodding verification
of each fact in an enthralling story both sad and triumphant. In
the historic Glenbrohane church, saved by the locals from a church
hierarchy which wanted to demolish it and build a soulless, modern
structure, Tobin pointed to a manhole, smiled and said, 'Although
the clergy didn't know it, the IRA stored guns and important documents
in the ceiling.' I believed him.
At the local cemetery the resident gardener was mesmerised as
Tobin recounted the story of the mysterious death of Mary Massey
'Go on, there's always two sides to a story,' said your man, shaking
his head as Tobin, dropping his voice, delicately explained that
Mary Massey, wife of the local Protestant landlord, John Bolton
Massey, had 'let's say a friendship with a local Catholic' and that
there was more to the story than told by the inscription 'Mary Massey
died 1816 from gunshot'.
'She's the only Protestant buried in a Catholic cemetery around
here,' he told his captive audience. On the distant hill the fairytale
Glenbrohane church, above whose 1819 arched doorway was the inscription,
'The free gift of J. Boulton Massey, Esq, forever', watched every
shake of the head and listened to every word.
Away from the mystery of Lord Massey, descendant of the Cromwellian
invader, Hugh Massey, Tobin led me across an undulating field with
a sober history.
'See how this field is uneven. Now look at that one over there.
See how flat it is. That's what makes me convinced that this is
a famine graveyard,' he said as I tried to imagine the final days
of the starving paupers whose bones just might have lay beneath
In 1846 the local Priest of the nearby Kilbehenny parish had written
to an official declaring that '1200 people are destitute of food'.
The farmer Cronin had led me along the road to a site he was certain
was the last resting place of some of those about whom Father James
Clancy had written.
'My mother heard from her mother that it's just in there beyond
the stream, yes, that's a famine graveyard, just in there,' he said.
The location was Glenacurrane, an exquisite green valley whose
beauty belies the trouble it has seen. A famine graveyard, the East
Limerick Flying Column's triumphant ambush of a British regiment
in 1920, and the monument to Dannie Shinnick bearing the defiant
inscription 'To be unveiled when Ireland is completely independent'
- dramatic moments in a volatile history - are all located within
a radius of 100 metres. Shinnick had rejected the treaty and been
shot on the hill above by one of Donncadh O'Hannigan's Free State
soldiers as he scrambled for safety. In John Gallahue's pub that
night I heard a version of the real story.
'A woman tipped off O'Hannigan's unit, that's why they took the
high road and were able to ambush Shinnick. It was the same with
Tobin,' said your man.
'Really!' I replied, forgetting momentarily that Ireland was crawling
with spies and informers during the Troubles.
'Oh yes, we knew who the informer was. My father was told to bring
him in for questioning after the Civil War. But there'd have been
no questioning, no, the IRA, they'd have just shot him. But didn't
an old woman say that the grass would grow at his door and wasn't
he just after selling up and leaving nine years on,' John Tobin
On the Borough Road a mile from where Shinnick had died I found
the grey, stone cabin my great grandfather, John, and his brother,
Dinny, had left behind in 1863. The Casey sisters told how the banshee
had tapped on the window of one night to warn their grandfather
that his wife was about to die. She died during the night. As they
proudly recounted stories about growing up here under a roof of
thatch and collecting water from the stream that cascaded from the
Galtee Mountains I was touched by a sense of place. Inside the house
I studied the large open fireplace, eyed the walls and imagined
the words of Irish and the tears reserved for Dinny as he took off
with the Papal forces in 1860 to fight the 'Masonic devil' Garibaldi.
Nineteen years earlier in August 1841 a labourer from adjoining
Tipperary had shuffled up the gangway of the 'Prince Regent' for
a journey that would produce one of the great Irish/Australian legends.
Past the famous Rock of Cashel, beyond a decaying Norman castle
I went in search of the man. When I happened upon Martin Power and
Patrick Molloy in the cottage next to the Moyglass cemetery I found
'Ned Kelly? Sure, we know all about him. His father had the field
up the hill. He was transported for the theft of two pigs,' they
explained before taking me on a journey through the famine, the
fight for independence from Britain, and the Civil War. Outside,
the householder, Martin Power, directed my attention to a number
of holes in the slate roof.
'It was the Free Staters who put those bullet holes there when
they returned fire after their train, the 'Grey Ghost', was attacked
by the local IRA. A young runner for the Republicans, Seamus Hayes,
was shot dead. There's a monument to him beneath the bridge,' they
said, pointing me up the hill. Standing at the gate that led to
the field where in December 1840 John 'Red' Kelly had departed with
two stolen pigs which were to land him on the convict ship bound
for Hobart, it was impossible to ignore the irony of it all.
For two years before 'Red' Kelly was leg-ironed, Redmond Barry,
gentleman of Ballyclough House, Rathcormac, County Cork, had confidently
boarded 'The Calcutta' en route to a career on the Supreme Court
of Victoria and a final battle with 'Red's famous son, Ned Kelly.
Only a week before finding the Kelly field I'd gone looking for
the young Judge Barry. Vera Barry, publican of Barry's Hotel in
Rathcormac, couldn't help me. Instead she led me up a set of concrete
steps to the courthouse which to my amazement had accommodated the
1834 inquest into the killing of the widow Ryan and twelve peasants
during Ireland's most famous anti-tithe protest.
In the Ballylander's pub of story teller and local Councillor,
John Gallahue, I heard a bloke sing of the Ballyseedy massacre
of IRA men by the Free Staters.
It's still like that in Gallahue's.
'They're a dying breed,' Ireland's man of song, Christy Moore,
had said with a tinge of sadness when I recounted the story of Gussie
MacMahon. That night in Castlebar, Christy swept up his audience
with a stirring assault on the killers of Dublin anti-drug journalist
and 'warrior woman', Veronica Guerin, and an evocative song of reconciliation,
'North and South of the River', written collaboratively with Bono
and The Edge. As I drove home listening to Louis de Paor recite
his poetry in Irish I prayed silently that the real Ireland might
survive the onset of globalism.
Abridged version of an Article for the Sunday Age Newspaper
Phil Cleary travelled with the assistance of Qantas Airlines
and the Irish Tourist Board.
A LOVELY LETTER I RECEIVED THE OTHER DAY
When surfing the other day I found your site and your details
on your visit to Ballylanders/Glenbrohane. I am a native of this
area and read with great interest your account of your meeting with
John Tobin and your night (if there were songs being sung I would
imagine that it was night!) in Gallahues.
I really enjoyed your story and thank you for giving this area
the justice that it deserves. There are many characters in the area
and it is steeped in stories of those famous and infamous people
that have lived through the generations. You may be interested in
After the rescue of Sean Hogan at Knocklong there were two men
convicted of the murder of two officers on the train. Those men
were Ned Foley and Paddy Maher, my granduncle. They were both executed
in Mountjoy shortly before the truce was signed. They were buried
in the grounds of the prison and for many years the surviving families
and an organisation called the National Graves Association fought
to have the bodies returned and buried in consecrated ground.
The government have finally conceded and Paddy, Ned and eight other
men who are buried in the prison yard are being exhumed and reburied.
The remains of Paddy Maher are being brought home and are to be
buried in the Republican Plot in Ballylanders old cemetary. In the
same grave as Davey Tobin and his comrades. Anyway, glad you enjoyed
your visit and saw some of the 'real' Ireland. Hope you get back
to visit soon.
Best Regards, Ged Quinlan _____________________________________