Tag Archives: Irish Famine

Ireland, Croagh Patrick and The Irish Famine

St Patrick Croagh Patrick

On account of the previous day rain and fearing the worst I was somewhat reluctant to draw back the curtains to reveal the weather but as promised the sky was blue with just a smattering of cloud and just a few miles away I could see the top of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain and major Pilgrim magnet.

I was pleased about that because that is where we were planning to go today.

The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over five thousand years from the Stone Age to the present day.  Its religious significance dates back to Pagan times when people are thought to have gathered here to celebrate the beginning of the harvest season.  Today, when there aren’t so many Pagan visitors, Croagh Patrick is best known as a Pilgrimage site in honour of Saint Patrick for it was on the summit of the mountain that he fasted for forty days in 441 AD and the custom has been faithfully handed down ever since over the generations.

 

Each year, The Reek, as it is colloquially known, attracts about one million pilgrims. So many in fact that the pathway is becoming loose underfoot, unstable and dangerous. On ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July, over twenty-five thousand pilgrims visit the mountain which makes it rather congested.  At the top, there is a modern chapel where mass is celebrated and confessions are heard.

We set off immediately after breakfast and at mid-morning found the visitor centre car park which was already quite full and we could see ahead of us a line of people tackling the arduous climb.  A  lava stream of kagools and backpacks making steady progress up and careful progress back down.

The first part is quite straight-forward, a set of steps that ends at the first stopping point where Pilgrims stop to photograph a statue of St. Patrick statue erected in 1928 and paid for by funding from Irish ex-pats in the USA.

Here he is, St. Patrick, the original Fidget Spinner…

St Patrick Fidget Spinner

After that the going quickly began to get really tough because let me tell you this is not an easy climb up a steep glacial valley littered with boulders and sharp stones which makes it difficult to keep safe footings. It is hard enough in a stout pair of shoes but on pilgrimage days some people prefer to climb in the traditional way – bare-footed. Nothing on earth would persuade me to do that I can tell you!

Ireland-Croagh-Patrick-holy-mountain

The climb has two stages. The first ascends up a rocky foothill covered in heather and moss with a narrow stream running next to the well-trodden path. It took us about forty-five minutes to complete. Apparently it gets even more difficult after that so rapidly running out of enthusiasm for the project, we collectively agreed that we were not sufficiently adventurous to try and find out so after a short debate we took our photographs and made our tentative way back to the car park and going down is harder than going up believe me!

I decided that if anyone ever asked me if I have climbed Croagh Patrick I could genuinely say yes just so long as they didn’t specifically enquire if I got all the way to the top.

Back at sea level we visited the ruins of a medieval abbey and walked for a while on a long sandy beach and then visited the National Famine Monument which is a powerful piece of sculpture which depicts a Coffin Ship with skeleton bodies and commemorates the anniversary of the Irish Famine.

Ireland National Famine Memorial Westport

In terms of human tragedy, the famine was probably the single most important event in modern Irish history but to a certain extent they brought it upon themselves.    It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on a diet of potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day, that’s almost two tons a year or about an average sized hippopotamus, about sixty golf ball sized tubors every day – that is a lot of potatoes, to put that into perspective that is roughly equivalent to about two hundred and fifty standard size bags of potato crisps and that is a lot of crisps (chips if you prefer).

Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, roasted, baked, mashed, chips (fries if you prefer), dauphinoise, gnocchi etc. but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous!  The Irish however were so fond of potatoes that they ate it to the exclusion of anything else; they didn’t grow vegetables, keep chickens for eggs or catch fish from the rivers or the sea.  They just grew potatoes!

Potato Recipe Book

Unfortunately not only did they rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety.  It was rather unflatteringly called the ‘Irish Lumper’ which was a heavy cropper even in poor soil and wet conditions but by all accounts didn’t even taste very nice and was described as a “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato.”  It was also particularly susceptible to the potato blight virus and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.

Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway.  Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish heritage and twenty-two out of forty-five of US Presidents have claimed Irish ancestry.  Not Donald Trump by-the-way, who has a German heritage.

In complete contrast to the previous day the weather was glorious now so we stayed for a while and had a Guinness and then made our way back into Westport.

Ireland Westport Beach

Ireland – Mizen Head and the Fastnet Rock

Ireland Mizzen Head

The Rock Hill House served a first class breakfast in a dining room overlooking the gentle sea and a big blue sky and we lingered for a while before we left and after dining took some time to explore the surrounding wild flower gardens.

Today we were heading west, to Mizen Head, the most south-westerly point in mainland Ireland and the location of a lighthouse station and a rocky cliff top terminus and after only a short drive along a spectacular coast road overlooking sandy beaches and the Atlantic Ocean we arrived at the visitor centre and bought our entrance tickets.

The walk to the old lighthouse took us up and down steep raking steps and across a bridge where the Atlantic Ocean surged with anger and rage between fiercely jagged rocks  just thirty metres or so below our feet and very soon we were at the most south-westerly point of the peninsula and could go no further and we were staring out at two thousand miles of water and next stop Canada and the USA.

At 10°27’ longitude Dingle, slightly to the north of our position today, claims to the most westerly town (as opposed to city – this is important) in Europe but whilst this may be true there are lots of other ‘most westerly’ claims to take into consideration.

Mizzen Head Ireland 1

The Blasket Islands (10°39’) at the end of the Dingle Peninsula are the most westerly point in the British Isles but these have been uninhabited since 1953, Iceland is the most westerly country in Europe and Reykjavik is the most westerly capital city (21°93’); Lisbon (9°14’) is the most westerly city on mainland Europe and furthest west than anywhere else are the Azores at 31°30.

When someone tells you that something is the biggest or the longest or the highest or the heaviest it is always worth checking up I find.  The most westerly point in Asia is Cape Baba in Turkey and in the United States it is Alaska which is also the most easterly as well because it stretches so far that it crosses right into the eastern hemisphere (a good pub quiz question that).

Fastnet Rock and Lighthouse

Four miles further south we could see the Fastnet Rock a small rocky islet in the Atlantic Ocean and the most southerly point of Ireland. It is the location of a famous lighthouse because these are some of the most dangerous waters around the British Isles.

Due to its location, Fastnet is known as “Ireland’s Teardrop”, because it was the last part of Ireland that nineteenth century Irish emigrants saw as they sailed to North America.  There are sixty-three lighthouses around the coast of Ireland but there are no lighthouse keepers any more because these days they are all automated and controlled from a secret central point somewhere on the mainland.

After an hour or so we left and drove east, stopped for a while for a walk on a magnificent sandy beach and then continued to Crookhaven, the most southerly village in Ireland, which is a leisurely place today which depends on tourism but was once a thriving port because the harbour here was the first and last place for ships to stop before or after crossing the Atlantic to and from America.

Ireland Beach

Lots of people crossed the Ocean from this part of Ireland because it was very seriously affected by the Irish famine of the 1840s and it isn’t difficult around here to find museums and restored cottages dedicated to the memory of the disaster.  Inside the cottages there is generally a recreation of a typical mid-nineteenth century family home and information boards about the famine and the consequences.

It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day – that is a lot of potatoes, roughly equivalent to two hundred and fifty bags of potato crisps (chips)!

Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, baked, mashed, fried, hash browns, dauphinoise, gnocchi etc. but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous!

potatoes

Unfortunately not only did the Irish rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety.  The Arran Banner was a reliable heavy cropper but not such a reliable heavy cropper when the  potato blight virus dropped by and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.

Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway.  Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish heritage and twenty-two out of forty-four of US Presidents (including Barack Abama!) have claimed Irish ancestry.

Canal du Midi near Beziers

The U.S.A also stands accused of destroying the iconic Plane trees that line the Canal du Midi.  A fungus has been attacking the trees, spreading along the waterway and defying all attempts to cure or control it.  Tree specialists have concluded that it is almost certain all the planes will have to be chopped down, burned and replaced because the trees have been struck by an outbreak of a virulent, incurable microscopic fungus which spreads through the roots and is thought to have first reached France with American GIs in the Second-World-War whose sycamore ammunition boxes were infected with the virus.

After we left Crookhaven we drove to the next peninsula to the north and drove around the Sheep’s Head Way but I am afraid I am unable to explain the curious name – it doesn’t even look like a sheep’s head!

We finished our drive in the town of Bantry which turned out to be one of those places that sound as though you should visit but when you get there you wonder why?  We walked along the main street, contemplated staying a while for an early evening meal but eventually decided against it and returned directly to Schull where later we dined at a French restaurant and for the second time finished the evening in Hackett’s Bar.

Ireland Dingle

Ireland – Cobh Harbour and Cathedral

Cobh Waterfront Ireland

“I went to Cork, Ireland, and stood on the dock some of my ancestors had left from.  I felt their ghosts gather round me, and I cried to imagine what it must have felt like – leaving that beautiful land and those beloved people, knowing it was forever” – Luanne Rice

After a lunch of sea food chowder and Guinness the sun was shining as we returned to the streets of Cobh and took a walk along the charming waterfront.  With brightly coloured houses and  working boats with  barnacle encrusted hulls resting in the harbour we walked among fishing nets and lobster pots drying in the sun and it reminded me of the coastal villages of Cantabria and Asturias in northern Spain.

Close to the Heritage Centre there was a statue of Annie Moore and her brothers. Annie Moore?  Well,  Annie Moore was the first person to be admitted to the United States of America through the new immigration centre at Ellis Island in New York on 1st  January 1892.

Annie Moore Cobh

From 1848 and for the next one hundred years, over six million people emigrated from Ireland and over two and a half million departed from Cobh, making it the single most important port of emigration in the country.

This mass exodus from Ireland was largely down to poverty, crop failures, the land system and a lack of opportunity.  For many people Queenstown (Cobh) was the last sight they had of Ireland and for some it was the last land that they ever saw because this was the last port of call for RMS Titanic before it began its fateful journey in April 1912 and an unfortunate and terminal encounter with an unforgiving iceberg somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Another tragically notable ship to be associated with the town was the Cunard passenger liner RMS Lusitania which was sunk by a German U-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale while on route from the USA to Liverpool on 7th May 1915. One thousand, two hundred passengers died and seven hundred were rescued. The survivors and the dead alike were brought to Cobh, and the bodies of over one hundred who perished in the disaster lie buried in the Old Church Cemetery just north of the town.

Cobh Cathedral

After the harbour we made our way to the Cathedral and stopped briefly to chat to a coach driver who was killing time waiting for his tour group to return.  He enquired about our plans and itinerary and warned us not to be fooled by this afternoon’s pleasant sunshine because, in his words “the next three days are going to be absolutely shite…”.  That was nice of him, if it was me I would have said something encouraging even if it wasn’t true!

It was a tough climb to the Cathedral up a set of steep steps set into the hillside.  St Colman’s Cathedral is the second highest in Ireland, a few metres shorter than St John’s Cathedral in Limerick, and its elevated position makes it seem even taller as it looks out over the town, the harbour and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

It is a fairly modern Cathedral, less than two hundred years old, built in the Gothic style and its interior is impressive indeed, soaring columns, stained glass windows and opulent decoration, we visited the Cathedral and all of the side chapels and towers and when we were satisfied that we had seen all there was to see we left and took the steep climb down back to the harbour.

RMS Titanic Postcard

Finally we were going to visit the Titanic experience, a small museum housed in the old White Star Line booking office and embarkation jetty.  We were keen to do this because in the previous year we had visited the Titanic museum and exhibition in Belfast and we were interested to see how this compared.

It is much smaller of course and instead of rides and reconstructions this is a virtual reality tour which was easily worth the cost of admission but couldn’t possibly compare with Belfast.

More about the Titanic next time…

By late afternoon we were ready to return to Cork so made our way back to the train station and the journey back where we were faced with another stiff climb from sea level to the top of the town (about ten minutes or so) and the Montenotte Hotel.

Kim, Richard and Pauline went directly back but I stopped off in a pub to watch the European Championship football match between Ireland and Sweden.  The place was crammed full, standing room only and the roof nearly blew off when Ireland scored the opening goal and there was a collective roar that could be heard probably in Stockholm.  Later Sweden equalised and I imagine there was a roar in Stockholm that could be heard in Cork and that poured cold water over the gathering but I had a good time and a complimentary portion of sausage and chips.

Later we dined at the hotel and whilst the others had a full meal but after my unexpected sausage and chips I could only manage a small bowl of chowder.

Cork Harbour Wall Mural

Ireland, The Ring of Dingle, Famine, Immigration and Music

Ireland Dingle

“At the very edge of Europe, as far west as you can go in Ireland…. once described by National Geographic as the most beautiful place on earth… a place where the mountains roll into the ocean.

The plan now was to get back to the car and drive to the most westerly point of the Dingle peninsula which is called the Ring of Dingle or the Dingle Way depending on whether you are driving or walking.

We weren’t going very far so the flashing dashboard and the prospect of blowing up the engine didn’t worry me to any great degree and we left the hotel car park, negotiated our way out of Dingle and picked up the scenic road to what seemed like the ragged edge of the World with a coastline of jagged cliffs and inhospitable rocky inlets.

The road climbed high above the sea, sometimes close to the ocean and sometimes heading off inland and soon we came to a succession of small tourist stop off points advertising historic attractions and we pulled into a car park promising an Irish famine cottage and we purchased tickets from an old lady in a ticket shed in a bizarre transaction that took place through a half inch gap in a window as though she was highly suspicious of visitors or thought we were bandits who would steal the days takings which by mid-afternoon must have been worth all of about €15.

There was a strenuous walk to the cottage and a farm and behind us there were some wonderful views over the south of the peninsular, Dingle Bay and the Kerry Mountains on the opposite side which made it easy to understand why Hollywood film makers have chosen this place as a location for films such as Far and Away and Ryan’s Daughter.

Famine Cottage Dingle Ireland

Inside the cottage there was a recreation of a typical mid-nineteenth century family home and information boards about the famine and the consequences.  It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day – that is a lot of potatoes, roughly equivalent to two hundred and fifty bags of potato crisps!

Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, baked, mashed, fried, hash browns, dauphinoise, gnocchi but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous!  Unfortunately not only did the Irish rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety.  The Arran Banner was a heavy cropper but also particularly susceptible to the potato blight virus and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.

Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway.  Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish roots and twenty-two out of forty-four of US Presidents (including Barack Abama!) have claimed Irish ancestry.

For only €4 (senior rate) it was a good reconstruction and there was a curious ancient burial mound with an information board but a path blocked by a barbed wire fence and no real sign of where the ancient monument actually was so confused by that we returned to the car and carried on.

A little further along the road there were signs to fifth century beehive stone houses but I don’t think they were original and we had had enough excitement for one day at the famine cottage and the ancient burial site and any more and my head might have exploded before the car engine so we drove straight by.

Europe

Very soon we were at the most westerly point of the peninsula and could go no further and we were staring out at two thousand miles of water and next stop Canada and the USA.  At 10°27’ longitude Dingle claims to the most westerly town (as opposed to city – this is important) in Europe but whilst this may be true there are lots of other ‘most westerly’ claims to take into consideration.

The Blasket Islands (10°39’) at the end of the Dingle Peninsula are the most westerly point in the British Isles but these have been uninhabited since 1953, Iceland is the most westerly country in Europe and Reykjavik is the most westerly capital city (21°93’); Lisbon (9°14’) is the most westerly city on mainland Europe and furthest west than anywhere else are the Azores at 31°30.

When someone tells you that something is the biggest or the longest or the highest or the heaviest it is always worth checking up I find.  The most westerly point in Asia is Cape Baba in Turkey and in the United States it is Alaska which is also the most easterly as well because it stretches so far that it crosses right into the eastern hemisphere (a good pub quiz question that).

Another interesting fact about this place is that is was more or less the place where Charles Lindbergh crossed the Irish coast in 1927 in the Spirit of St. Louis in the first successful flight from New York to Paris.  I like this extract from his journals:

“I have carried on short conversations with people on the ground by flying low with throttled engine, and shouting a question, and receiving the answer by some signal. When I saw this fisherman I decided to try to get him to point towards land. I had no sooner made the decision than the futility of the effort became apparent. In all likelihood he could not speak English, and even if he could he would undoubtedly be far too astounded to answer. However, I circled again and closing the throttle as the plane passed within a few feet of the boat I shouted, “Which way is Ireland?” Of course the attempt was useless, and I continued on my course.”

From this most westerly point that we could go today we drove back inland along the north side of the peninsular which was not so scenic or dramatic and eventually the road returned us to Dingle and the hotel.

The weather was a real surprise.  I was expecting continuous rain and slate grey skies but it was warm and sunny and in the late afternoon we sat in the garden of the hotel with a glass of wine and watched the boats slipping in and out of the harbour in pursuit of Funghi the dolphin and enjoyed the peace and serenity of the verdant emerald countryside and the unexpectedly indolent ocean.

Later we walked along the coastal path back into Dingle to eat at a sea food restaurant next to the harbour and after an exceptional sea food platter we followed that with a visit to a gaily coloured pub where there was lively Irish music entertainment which went on way past normal closing time.

With no sign of the pub closing or the music stopping we called our own personal time and walked in the moonlight back along the coastal path to the hotel.  It was our last night in Ireland and while we walked along the moonlit path I wished that it had been our first!

Dingle Ireland Murphys Pub