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

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.


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.

Some Hallowe’en Customs in Inishowen

– Seán Beattie

Hallowe’en was an important marker in the year. Adults and children respected the advent of winter and the change in the year was noted in several ways.

Children dressed up in over-sized clothes belonging to the parents or grandparents and visited every house in the neighbourhood. As such visits were anticipated, most houses had a good supply of apples, nuts and breads ready for distribution. The apples came from the local orchard and every village had its own apple trees which were raided by kids coming from school or after dark. Money was not usually offered but if it was, it would not be refused!

Hallowe’en games included biting the apple suspended from the ceiling, and trying to retrieve sweets from a large basin full of water. Barmbracks were available in local shops and all of them had the ring. The first to find the ring would be married within a year. Some households made their own barmbrack and if no ring was available, a pea was placed in the dough. The person getting the pea would not marry that year. Coins were often used if a ring or pea were not to hand.

In the days before electricity came to rural Ireland, the countryside was a very dark place at night time. Adults were always afraid of the dark but no more so than on Hallowe’en night when the souls of the dead were roaming the countryside. In my own case, I recall my father refusing to walk down the loneen (lane) at Carrowmena to check on livestock in the byre. He was not normally a superstitious person. On one occasion, he actually asked me to accompany him. I don’t recall meeting any ghosts!

If adults were afraid and children played games, older teenagers turned to practical jokes. Gates were lifted on to the rooves of sheds; cattle were often released from byres; hens were left to find their way in the night; carts were overturned. Practical jokers often roamed the countryside wearing white sheets and moaning like the banshee, normally regarded as a warning of an impending death in a household or a locality.

In ancient Ireland, the first of November (Samhain) was marked by our pagan ancestors by religious and festive ceremonials. Fires were lit, games and sports were played on hill-tops. It was also on this day that the Feis (or convention) at Tara was held. Festivities went on for three days after Samhain. All of the customs or practices were rooted in ancient pagan ceremonials. In Raphoe, there is a place called Mullasawny, the hill or summit of Samhain.

Everything changed with the advent of electricity especially after 1957. Street lights chased away the ghosts. Supermarkets supplied apples from faraway places, and nowadays iPads and Netflix provide a different kind of entertainment.

Northburg (Greencastle) and a Family Feud

Northburg, Greencastle: from PAINTINGS AND STORIES FROM THE LAND OF EOGHAN,  Paintings by Ros Harvey, Text by Seán Beattie and Martin Lynch (2000), Cottage Publications, Donaghadee, N Ireland (available here). For more paintings by Ros Harvey, visit RosHarvey.com

In 1555/6, Calvagh O’Donnell was engaged in bitter warfare with his father Manus O’Donnell over the Lordship of Donegal. It is often said that no dispute is as bitter as an internal family battle and the consequences of this particular personal squabble had long-lasting consequences. Backed by a team of “enforcers”, Calvagh sailed to Scotland to get assistance form Archibald, Fourth Earl of Argyle. It was known that he had a nice selection of modern artillery which could be acquired at a price. Calvagh hit the jackpot and returned not only heavily armed but with a force of bloody-minded Scottish henchmen. One of their prize possessions was a piece of artillery which the Irish called the gunna cam (gunna-gun, cam – crooked). Calvagh turned his cannon on Greencastle, the first on his target list, and so devastating was the assault, which lasted several days, that it was described in State papers as “in ruins”. (Some repairs were carried out subsequently).

Enagh Castle

Calvagh then sailed up the Foyle and turned his attention to Enagh Castle, inland from Culmore Point in Co Derry, on the opposite side of the Foyle from Greencastle. It was an O’Cahan seat and the family were supporters of Calvagh’s father. No trace of the castle remains today (as a result of Docwra’s attack in 1601) but a cannon ball survived and was located by the late Bob Hunter, who taught history for many years at Magee College, Derry. A local farmer, now deceased, John S. Long of Enagh Villa was the person who made the actual discovery:  a demi-cannon, made of cast-iron and weighed about 30 lbs and was over 6 inches in diameter. It was probably similar to the kind of shot used at Greencastle, although it may be claimed by the Docwra invasion. The canon ball is no longer traceable and may be in a private collection. No excavation has ever taken place at Greencastle and who knows what lies beneath or in the nearby waters of the Foyle. There have been several finds of cannon at Burt Castle and it is possible, given that some of the Scots were not expert marksmen, that some cannon may still lie buried in the fields around the castle.

Other castles on Calvagh’s shopping list were Lifford, Castlefin and Donegal Castle. No substantial trace of Lifford or Castlefin remain but these were on a smaller scale to Greencastle.

The Gunna Cam

Recent research has cast doubts of the meaning of the word “cam”, the gun that brought havoc to our Donegal architectural heritage. It may come from the Scottish “thrawn”, a word often used to describe the “thrawn mouth” of large artillery in 16th century records. The gunna cam has a distinctive moulding on the chase and muzzle.

The use of artillery on Irish castles alarmed the monarchy, which controlled the distribution of ordnance. It is believed O’Donnell’s guns, which were used in the attack on Greencastle, came originally from France and were described in State papers as “castle-breaking” weaponry. Warfare in Ireland was placed on a new level of terror and damaged or obliterated some of our most famous iconic structures.

On a personal note, it was not all guns and mayhem. Calvagh had other things on his mind and found time to marry the Earl of Argyle’s daughter, after the guns went silent.