Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature

Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
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Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Home : Travel : A Terrible Beauty Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature



On Galtees 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.

Gussie MacMahon.

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 a pike.

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.

Gallahue' pub.

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 in 1816.

'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 our feet.

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 replied.

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 the legend.

'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 26/1/97

Phil Cleary travelled with the assistance of Qantas Airlines and the Irish Tourist Board.



Hello Phil,

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 this information.

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 _____________________________________

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