Feast of Colmcille

Happy Feast of Colmcille Day! To mark the occasion, I was invited to read a short piece on the saint on RTÉ’s Edgeways series this morning, as part of the ‘Rising Time’ early morning show.

The image featured here is the cross slab at Port Cille, Shrove, Inishowen Peninsula, where Colmcille stopped off having sailed down Lough Foyle for the last time on his way to Iona. He came ashore to climb the hill hoping to get one last view of his beloved Doire (Derry) before going in to exile.

There is a small pilgrimage here annually on the 15th of August at the monument above Port Cille on the Inishowen Head/Shrove Loop walk. I attended recently and about 20 people turned up to recite the rosary with two local priests from the parish.

You can listen back to Edgeways via the RTÉ Radio Player here:

https://www.rte.ie/radio1/edgeways/programmes/2021/0609/1227041-a-word-in-edgeways-wednesday-9-june-2021/?clipid=103692707&fbclid=IwAR2V93Mwx7jgLd3ILcfZKPIJZJ7PlPWCB5REyiFXI-awrigr4oZNRZXysbU#103692707

1918 Flu & The War of Independence

How the 1918 flu changed the course of the War of Independence in Donegal

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect not only on our social life and freedoms but also on our economy. It was no different in the last great pandemic in 1918 known as the Spanish Flu.

Largely forgotten until recently, the Spanish Flu had similar consequences for our forebears. In the case of Donegal, it had a dramatic impact on the War of Independence a century ago. By way of illustration, I have taken the case of Joe Sweeney.

Sweeney is well known for having fought alongside Patrick Pearse in the GPO in the Easter Rebellion in 1916. By June 1918, now aged 21, he was a young student of Engineering in University College, Galway, and enjoying all the advantages of his third-level education. But suddenly, everything changed. He was one of the first people in Galway to get the disease. Despite his youth, he was admitted to hospital where he remained for several weeks before making a full recovery. He was fit and healthy and was the last person one would expect to fall ill.

As a result of his time in hospital, he missed his Engineering exams and decided to drop out of college. He came home and soon found himself caught up in the maelstrom of activities involving the Volunteers in west Donegal. Because of his associations with 1916 and Patrick Pearse, he quickly rose in the ranks and became O/C (Officer Commanding) of the west Donegal battalion. His mode of transport was a bicycle and his district extended from Creeslough to Cliffoney in Co. Sligo. Fortunately, his health was sound, thus making it possible for him to face the many personal and political challenges that lay ahead.

Sweeney’s future career in politics, revolution and business is well catalogued elsewhere but it is worth noting that had it not been for the Spanish Flu pandemic, Sweeney’s dynamic role in the War of Independence in this county would have been very different. He subsequently became the O/C of the First Northern Battalion which included volunteer units in Carrowmena, Carndonagh, Clonmany and Buncrana.

We are in a similar situation today. Who can dare to predict the outcomes of Covid-19? Or will it all be quietly forgotten in a century from now?

Seán Beattie

Ballyharry, Carrowmena and Ballymagarraghy

History and Folklore

Seán Beattie

Recently going through my records, I came across a series of interviews I conducted in the 1990s with the late Johnny O’Donnell of Cruckaveel, Ballyharry. He had a vivid recollection of times past and what follows is a short version of some of our discussions.

One hundred years ago, in March 1921, the villages of Carrowmena and Ballymagarraghy became victims of the Black and Tans during the War of Independence. Reports of Volunteer drilling in Carrowmena had come to the attention of the RIC in Moville. An active Sinn Féin Club had been established in the village also. The Black and Tans were introduced to Ireland after the First World War in an effort to halt the progress of the Flying Columns which were taking a heavy toll of the RIC as the War of Independence intensified through the months of 1921. The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was determined to teach the Irish a lesson.

Two tenders, fully armed, stopped outside the local bar (now Tremone Bar) and threatened the proprietors. Several other houses were raided at gunpoint; sheds were ransacked but no weapons were found. One innocent victim was James McFadden, a retired national school teacher, who resided all his life with McGonigles of the School Road Corner. His life savings were his gold sovereigns and these were stolen by the Black and Tans.

A local farm worker, John Breslin, Carrowbeg, was taken on board as a hostage – if anyone fired on the tenders, he would have been shot.

In Ballymagarraghy, a station Mass was under way at Fanny McEldowneys, at the head of the village. There were up to 50 in the crowded kitchen as part of the congregation. The Tans became suspicious and ordered everyone to stand at Maud Farren’s gable to be searched. Nothing was found and so they set off towards Carndonagh, with John Breslin on board. He was eventually dropped off about 10 miles from home.

A Trip to America.

In the 1870s, a man called McConnalogue lived in the Row at Ballyharry with his mother. He had a patch of rundale at the shore where he grew potatoes. The soil was sandy and there was plenty of cheap manure in the form of seaweed. On a fine Spring morning, he had several rows planted when he saw a sailing ship in the Bay.

Next door to him in the Row, there was a pilot, whose job it was to take sailing ships onwards to Derry. Pilots resided in Ballyharry before they moved to Greencastle, where they are now located. The Row was a line of several houses, most of which are still standing. Pilots embarked and disembarked at the Boat Port, Tremone Bay, where the pilot boat was kept. McConnalogue decided to go out on the pilot boat which sailed out to bring the pilot ashore.

As the pilot stepped from the sailing ship, McConalogue heard that there was a vacancy on the ship for a crew man and he decided on the spur of the moment to get on board. The pilot boat returned to the port without him. Next stop was America – he went ashore when the ship docked to see the bright lights of New York.

His coat was left hanging on a rock above the port and the spade was sunk in the drill where he was planting potatoes. McConalogue never returned to finish the job and was never heard of again!

The Weavers of Ballyharry and Ballymagarraghy

In both villages, there were families of weavers. In Ballyharry, the McLaughlins, known as the P Barrs, who lived behind John Duffy’s house, were very skilled. Johnny O’Donnell of Cruckaveel, Ballyharry Irish, was related to them and told me in 1998 that he had a sheet made of linen which was woven in Ballyharry by his relatives.

In Ballymagarraghy, the weavers crossed over Glenane Hill with their packs (now Shrove Loop Walk) and took a ferry to the linen market in Coleraine. The train at Magilligan took them to the town.

The Priest’s Room

The McLaughlins (known as the Coins) had a priest in the family. They lived behind Hanna Kelly’s house at the Rocks. The priest stayed in the Upper room. He went to work in the Scottish islands. He was later jailed because he had informed on a vagabond arrested by the police.

The Rock of the Dead

Corpses were carried long distances to Bocan graveyard. Mourners needed a rest after climbing the Corkscrew and stopped at Carraig (rock) na gCorp (dead). The long coffin-like stone is still there. Mourners went out along the Flough Road (fliuch-wet) as a shortcut for a funeral cortege travelling from Ballymagarraghy. That hearse was used to bury my grandmother, Catherine Beatty (née Mooney) in 1945 and Johnny O’Donnell attended the funeral which went along the Lough Road. Catherine was married aged 24 in New Jersey in 1883 and came home soon afterwards with her husband John.

The First Hearse

The first horse-drawn hearse in Carrowmena was owned by John McDermott (G) who sold it to Mick O’Kane. It was in use until the 1950s. I recall it clearly. When McDermott was taking it from Carn on the day he bought it, he gave a neighbour a lift. When they arrived in Carrowmena, McDermott went to the back and opened the door to let him out. As the passenger stepped to the ground, McDermott remarked,

“You’re the first man to come out of that hearse alive!”

The Death Watch House at Bocan

Johnny O’Donnell recalled that his father (born c. 1850) spent several nights in the Watch House at Bocan graveyard following the death of a relative. It was necessary to mount a guard to protect the deceased from grave looters. Neighbours took turns to do a slot of grave watching. When Bocan Hall was built in 1891, the Watch House was demolished.

The Sailor’s Grave

Not all dead bodies went to Bocan. In the 1870s, the dead body of a sailor was found at Tremone and buried at Rosie’s Port, to the east of the Boat Port. Six heavy stones still mark the original plot (not the new grave site). The body was found by Hughie McShefferty’s grandfather.

Plane Crash

In the early 1900s, a plane crashed on Tremone Beach. Crews arrived and took it away.

Tremone Regattas

Water sports and regattas were held at Tremone. One of the big challenges was to race across the White Strand. Boat races were also held. The best boatmen came from Inishtrahull island.

Tremone Bay and surrounding villages hold our secret histories which are slowly vanishing as an older generation passes away.

Dance Hall Days

Photo (L-R): Jim Crumlish (accordion), Robert Carey (tenor saxophone), Dan McCann (singer and drums), Charlie O’Kane (trumpet), Margaret Fullerton, Malin (piano).

While the late 1950s and early 1960s are recognised as the era of the great showbands, they have their origins in the local bands performing in rural towns and villages in the early 1950s. This was the post-war era with life returning to normal, and people were keen to get out and enjoy themselves (sound familiar?). The Tremone Dance Band was one of the precursors of the great showband era.

The Tremone Dance Band came into being in the early 1950s. The band played Country and Western music, traditional Irish music, and jigs. Sets of Lancers were very popular.

The first band, formed around 1953, had four members:  Robert Carey, Dan McCann, James McSheffrey (drums) and Andreas Kelly (melodion). Andreas drove the band around with instruments in the boot. He took ill with a spinal problem shortly after the band was set up and had to be helped on stage. He died in the 1950s. Kathleen Deeny often played piano with them. Few halls had a piano at this time. Charlie O’Kane also doubled up as vocalist.

Founder member Robert Carey, whom I spoke to recently, first got tuition from Eddie O’Kane in Lecamy on the fiddle. He eventually dropped the fiddle in favour of the saxophone (see picture).

The band rehearsed in Packie McCann’s house in the Row, Ballyharry, three nights a week. Packie was a single man who enjoyed the music.

The Tremone Dance Band played all over Inishowen, as well as farther afield in venues such as the Castle, Dungiven, and Crossroads, Killygorden. LDF dances were very popular on Saturday nights in Carn and drew large crowds. Money was plentiful as the shirt factories were providing employment for hundreds in the town and district.

Robert recalls playing in a variety of venues around the peninsula. There was a dance hall in Alex Mullin’s house in Glenagivney near the old school, where Eddie Gillen played the music rather than the full band as the venue was too small. McSheffery’s Barn in Cruckaveel was another popular dance hall. James McSheffery was a founder member of the Tremone Band. In Shrove, they played in a small hall at the beach, which is still there in the carpark.  Cullinean Hall at Quigley’s Point was also very popular before Borderland was built. The band also played in Clonmany.

Closer to home, they played in O’Kane’s hall in Lecamy. In Carey’s Hall, Carrowbeg – Robert’s home place – the Moville District Nurses’ Association organized fund-raising dances with the band as entertainment. Before her death, Lady Montgomery, mother of the Field-Marshal was often in attendance as she was very active in philanthropic work in Moville.

The “Socials”

The Church of Ireland organized ‘socials’ – dances with an interval for tea, home bakes and scones. The largest of these was held in Culdaff Hall (the Wee Hall) but Robert Carey also remembers playing at Carrick Hall in Carn. Gleneely School was another venue for dances. In some venues, the organisers asked them not to play the Soldier’s Song at the end of the night and to play Auld Lang Syne instead. In July and August, the socials were thronged with visitors and local people on holidays, and the band insisted in playing the national anthem instead to keep the dancers happy. People of all religions attended the Socials and religion was not an issue.

Many will recall crowds of 2,000 on a Friday night in the popular dancehall Borderland, Muff, as they danced to the top bands such as the Capitol, the Melody Aces, the Royal and the Clipper Carlton. Carndonagh had its own bands and while I never heard them play, I recall the Michael Galbraith Orchestra and the Paul Anthony Orchestra. The Atlantic Ballroom in Ballyliffin and the Plaza, Buncrana, were top rate venues. The eventual success of the showband era is certainly rooted in the local parish bands on the early 1950s.

Many thanks to Robert Carey for sharing his memories of those golden days.

  • Seán Beattie

Cist Graves of Trabreaga, Malin

Seán Beattie

Sixty years ago this September coming (1961), a group of Council workers were working in a quarry set in a dune landscape, 200 yards behind Lagg Presbyterian church. The quarry can still be seen today from the church grounds. Working with shovels, they came across 3 rectangular box-like stone structures covered by a large flagstone. On opening the first, they found a male skeleton lying in a crouched position; a second slab was raised to reveal a female skeleton, while a third uncovered the remains of a new-born child.

Plans and sections of cists at Drung.

The workers had discovered a family cist burial plot. The landowner contacted Etienne Rynne, an archaeologist from Galway University. He carried out measurements etc., and described the graves as cist graves and proceeded to notify both the gardai and the National Museum in Dublin. The burials were dated to 1,500 BC, the Middle Bronze Age, and were thus 3,500 years old.

The Rock Crystal

Inside one of the cists, he found rock crystal. It was common to bury gems with the dead to support their journey to their pagan version of Heaven. Rich Egyptian kings took their valuables with them in the Pyramids but ordinary folk had less to offer. The Qin Dynasty in China took an entire army of thousands of terracotta soldiers. It is still common today to place mementos of the dead in coffins before they leave home.

The Pygmy Cup

Perhaps the most interesting object was the Pygmy Cup, made of baked clay found in many parts of Inishowen. It is amazing to see the art work on the exterior – triangles, circles, hash marks of a symbolic value. It is surprising to think that this level of artistic and technical skill was around 3,500 years ago!

Similar funerary urns have been found in the county. One was discovered at Bocan Stone Circle while three were located in a cist grave at Bredagh Glen and are now on display in the National Museum in Dublin. Thus, we learn of a pagan civilization that was thriving here in distant millennia. The urns or cups carried food as gifts to the gods who managed the affairs of the underworld.

Drung

The townland outside Malin is known as Drung, indicating a place of assembly in ancient times, when war threatened or some natural disaster. So it is significant that the burials took place at this key location.

And the final question: who was this family? Answer –  we don’t know. Looking at the location (Drung), the objects found (rock crystal and Pygmy Cup), the nature of the ritual burying (body folded in death), the art and technology on display (ornamentation and baking), Etienne Rynne concluded that it was a family that had come ashore after a long sea voyage seeking refuge in Trabreaga Bay. They found peace for 3,500 years; now they lie in our National Museum in Dublin.

I visited the site recently. The quarry is still open (on private land) and the cuts in the dunes can be seen from the road when driving past. There are no other markings on this site which once revealed so much about our heritage: another great secret on the Wild Atlantic Way, the mysterious religious beliefs, the sheer technical and artistic skills, the presence of ritual, the existence of a druidic cult, and above all, a deep respect for the dead.  

Perhaps there is a connection between this pagan culture and our own, as expressed, for example on Graveyard Sunday in Christian terms.