Category Archives: Irish history

Seamus Heaney, Poet — 1939 to 2013

I had the rare and sad privilege today of being part of history, as a packed cathedral in Donnybrook, Dublin, said goodbye to a great man.

Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney died Aug. 30 in a Dublin hospital, after a long battle with the effects of a stroke some years ago. He was 74.

I first learned about Heaney when Professor Fred Thompson at Peninsula College assigned his slim book of poems, “The Spirit Level,” as required reading for English comp 101. I remember discussing his classic poem, “Digging,” about how, while generations before him had used tools to dig for potatoes and turf, his “tool” was now the pen:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

When I was trying to decide to come to Ireland last May, I took out that poem and read it for inspiration, and courage. Substitute “keyboard” for “pen,” but I thought, that’s my tool too. Where better to wield it than in the land that produced Seamus Heaney, and so many other great writers? I even named this blog after his inspiration.

But I was far humbled today. I took the bus from Wicklow Town and arrived an hour early for the 11:30 a.m. service at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, a posh suburb of Dublin where Heaney lived. The media was already thick outside, including live coverage on the RTE (Irish TV). Rather than mill about watching for celebrities, I went in and secured a seat, third pew from the rear, left side, best for people watching. In the next hour the church filled to capacity and then some. Many people lined the sidewalk outside, waiting for a glimpse of the poet’s last trip, and the many A-listers who came to pay their respects.

Heaney’s funeral drew hundreds of mourners, from all the major political figures including Irish president Michael D. Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, to entertainers including Bono, The Edge, Shane McGowan and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains. (Although truth be told I didn’t see the celebrities.)

Members of academia and the Irish literati made up the bulk of the attendees that filled the cavernous cathedral. Wild white hair, rumpled black suits and plaid mufflers were the order of the day, as well as more than a few tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. My seatmate pointed out one distinguished gentleman, with his white hair pulled back in a ponytail and tied with a black ribbon, as a member of the Guinness family. I wondered how many people had one of Heaney’s books in their pocket. They certainly had them in their hearts.

Master Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn played during the ceremony, including a haunting version of the slow air, “Port na bPúcaí” (“Song of the Fairies”). Heaney collaborated with O’Flynn on an album, “The Poet and the Piper,” on which O’Flynn wove the tune with Heaney’s reading of “The Given Note,” which was also read at the service.

Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, but to his great credit he is known as a poet of all the people of Ireland, not just those in the north. As his coffin was carried out, headed for his final resting place in his hometown of Bellaghy in Co Derry, O’Flynn began softly playing the traditional Irish tune, “Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile,” (“Hurrah, Welcome Home”). The tune has a long history as a rebel song, and was a battle hymn sung by members of the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion.

Hairs rose on my arms and my eyes welled with tears as the entire congregation began singing along softly. These were a people united, saying goodbye to a close friend.

Rest in Peace, Seamus Heaney.

People break into applause, saying goodbye to poet Seamus Heaney, as the hearse bearing his casket pulls out of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Dublin. ©Marcie Miller

People break into applause, saying goodbye to poet Seamus Heaney, as the hearse bearing his casket pulls out of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Dublin. ©Marcie Miller



Good-bye Bog, Hello Wicklow

My housesitting experience came to an end Sunday as my second hosts returned home, and I wasted no time putting the midlands of Ireland behind me on Monday morning. Good-bye soggy bogs, grey skies and same-same views. Hello lovely east coast, great coffeeshops and the sparkling waters of the Irish Sea.

My nearest neighbors in the midlands. ©Marcie Miller

My nearest neighbors in the midlands. ©Marcie Miller

Midlands review in a nutshell: It is a nice place to visit, on your way somewhere else. As a tourist, two days with a good list of things to see there would be plenty.  My two months of housesitting worked out very well; I feel lucky to have found both of them so quickly and I have no regrets there. But, if I do this again, I think I would look for appointments farther apart. Live and learn. But more on that in another post.

Wicklow Harbor - feels like coming home.

Wicklow Harbor – feels like coming home.

I moved on to Wicklow Town, a six-hour bus trip from Roscommon Town, and a world away. OK, well it is still Ireland, but Wicklow is set on green, rolling countryside running down to the sea, where sailboats mix with fishing boats, and swimmers in wetsuits maneuver around the boats at anchor in the harbor. The Irish have a passion for swimming in the sea all year, often without wetsuits. Keeps them tough I guess.

Dublin is an hour train or bus ride to the north, with plenty of interesting stops along the way. The coastal stretch from Dublin to Greystones (approx. 10 miles north of Wicklow) is historically where the rich from Dublin used to come on holiday — back when 20 miles was a long way to go. The towns are chock-a-block with stately Georgian homes, and it really feels like stepping back in time as you stroll the promenade along the beach.

I’m staying in a historic Georgian house on Bachelor’s Walk, which runs along the Leitrim River, parallel to the shore. It’s now  Capt. Halpin’s Hostel. I thought it would be quieter and cheaper than staying in Dublin for the final 10 days. And there is only one other hostel between here and Dublin. The room I’m sitting in, the parlor, has an original marble fireplace, high ceilings, a crystal chandelier and upright piano. It smells musty, but that’s pretty much the smell of Ireland. It used be Leitrim Lodge and it’s claim to fame is that the town’s most famous citizen, Capt. Halpin, once lived here. I had to share a bunk room with three smelly, and I do mean smelly, boys last night, but for the rest of the time I’ll be in an all-girl room.

Enough for now — sun’s out, time to go strolling!

This Time it’s Personal: Searching for My Family’s Irish Castle

Mornine Castle, keep of the Farrell clan in Co. Longford, still stands after 500 years. ©Marcie Miller

Mornine Castle, keep of the Farrell clan in Co. Longford, still stands after 500 years. ©Marcie Miller

I’m often asked in Ireland if my family is from here. Yes, I say, but both sides emigrated in the 1750s and we’ve never traced them to living relatives in the “ould country.” I don’t mention that my Irish ancestors were Scots-Irish Protestants, sent to America with healthy land grants to water down the brewing rebellion. But that’s another story.

My maternal ancestors were the Farrells, which came to be spelled Ferrel in America. The Farrell and O’Farrell clan are centered in Co. Longford, about 40 miles from where I’m staying. Here’s the Farrell history in a nutshell:

“The O’Fearghails were one of the four chief clans of the Conmhaicne, the race of Conmhac , son of legendary Fergus MacRoigh and Queen Maedhbh (Maeve).  Fearghal, King of Conmhaicne,  fought alongside Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf and there lost his life in battle. His descendants thereafter took the surname of Uí Fhearghail -descendants of Fearghal. The name Ferghal means ‘Man of Valour’. The Uí Fhearghail went on to become Princes of the territory of Anghaile (Annaly), a kingdom which included all of  County Longford as well as parts of Westmeath and Leitrim. Their chief seat of power was Longphort Ui’ Fhearghail or O’Farrell’s fortress, the present-day Longford town.  Other sites in County Longford  associated with the clan are Moatfarrell (Móta Uí Fhearghail), in the east of  Longford (Annaly) between the present day towns of Ballinalee and Edgeworthstown, and Mornine Castle close to Moydow.”

Spiral stairs to nowhere hang on the ruined castle walls. ©Marcie Miller

Spiral stairs to nowhere hang on the ruined castle walls. ©Marcie Miller

Pretty cool, huh?  When my mother went to Ireland with me in 2003 she was very excited about finding the “Ferrel castle” so we made a special trip to Longford, which is not really that scenic or on the way to anywhere. But…she forgot the paperwork saying where the castle was, so after making a meager attempt at driving around randomly looking for it, we gave up (we were about 20 miles off). She was very disappointed. So this time, 10 years later, I was determined to find it for her. With the internet, it was pretty easy to track down its general location, as mentioned above — “Mornine Castle, close to Moydow.”

I carefully studied its location on the map, noted the roads that would take me there from Roscommon town, what small towns were nearby that might be mentioned on road signs, then set off…forgetting my map on the kitchen table. Must be a family trait.

I had seen a picture of it on the internet though, so basically knew what I was looking for and where. Sure enough, after only a short time of wandering the byways I spotted it across a field — a simple, square tower about 40 feet tall, looking a bit worse for wear at 500 years old. It was on a slight hill in the pasture of a working farm, with tin cowsheds huddled below. As is the custom in Ireland, if there’s not a locked gate or NO ENTRY sign, I figure it’s open for business. Haven’t been shot yet. In this case there wasn’t even a fence to climb over. Two farm boys seemed totally disinterested in talking, probably bored with another tourist coming to look at the old pile of stone.

A vertical lengthwise crack could spell the end for Mornine Castle. ©Marcie Miller

A vertical lengthwise crack could spell the end for Mornine Castle. ©Marcie Miller

“Castle” is a generous description — it was built more for defense than comfort, with no fancy crenellations, turrets or moats; just a sturdy block of stones from which to survey the countryside and see the enemy coming. One side has completely tumbled down, and the stone spiral stairs end in midair. The story goes that a cow once got stuck going up the stairs so they had to knock a hole in the side to get it out.

As I stumbled my way over fallen stones buried in the tall, wet grass around the base, I tried to gauge whether I felt a connection, a kinship, to the Farrells, my ancestors who built this tower and ruled in Co. Longford for nearly a 1,000 years. I laid my hand on the lichen-covered stones at the base, set in place in the 15th century. Would my ancestors recognize my genetic connection and try to reach out to me across the ages? I closed my eyes and concentrated. Birds warbled, cows mooed, tractors churned in the distance. The smell of manure wafted on the summer breeze… Nope, not a thing. The castle seemed as bored with me as the farm boys. But did I feel something? No, not really. But I was glad to have found it, if only to tell my mother that it still exists, and to take these pictures as proof that I was there.


Ireland’s Great Houses: Going, Going…

Crumbling walls are all that remain of Kingston Hall, a once grand estate on Lough Key, Co. Roscommon. ©Marcie Miller

Crumbling walls are all that remain of Kingston Hall, a once grand estate on Lough Key, Co. Roscommon. ©Marcie Miller

Ireland’s history of war and oppression, and war against the oppressors, is nowhere more evident than in the crumbling estate houses that were once the glory of Ireland. Or at least, the glory of the English landlords.

And therein lies the rub. While visitors to Ireland look with dismay at the beautiful stately mansions that are decaying and falling away into piles of rubble, many Irish see it differently. Without delving too deeply into Irish history, basically the estate houses were built using the rent that tenant farmers paid to the (mostly) English landlords for their meager plots of land. The to-the-manor-born landlords lived in splendor, while their workers lived in squalor.

Clonalis House, near Castlerea in Co. Roscommon, has been in the O'Conor family since it was built in 1878 and is stuffed with family heirlooms dating to the 16th century. It's also a bed and breakfast.©Marcie Miller

Clonalis House, near Castlerea in Co. Roscommon, has been in the O’Conor family since it was built in 1878 and is stuffed with family heirlooms dating to the 16th century. It’s also a bed and breakfast.©Marcie Miller

There are two main reasons for the demise of the estate houses, of which there were more than 6,000 across Ireland in the late 1700s. The first was the Land Wars of the 1870s to 1890s which led to much of the land being taken from the English and divided up amongst the tenants. Without one massive income, the estates were unsustainable. Some were purchased by Irish owners, but most of the English owners simply packed up and moved back to England, leaving the mansions to crumble.

To the tenants who couldn’t afford to purchase or live in them, they were symbols of dark times. Many were dismantled, with the stones carted off to build other houses, or stone fences. Others mysteriously burned to the ground.

The “big houses” which held on into the 20th century faced a new threat—Irish independence. Again the houses were targeted as symbols of English dominance and many were burned to force out the English owners.

While some estate houses where purchased during the boom years of the late 2000s and returned to their former glory, now they face a new threat—repossession. The banks have no desire to restore these white elephants, so they continue to decay and crumble, often to the point of no repair.

Man-made structures, no matter how magnificent, are no match for Ireland's verdant vegetation. ©Marcie Miller

Man-made structures, no matter how magnificent, are no match for Ireland’s verdant vegetation. ©Marcie Miller

There are some groups in Ireland calling for the government to step in and preserve these national treasures, but the government doesn’t have the cash to be in the home repair business. Case in point is Tyrone House in Co. Galway, which belongs to the Irish Georgian Society. The government said it would provide the funds to restore, or at least preserve, this once magnificent house, but now it can’t. They can’t even provide the funds to repair Thoor Ballylee, the castle home of William Butler Yeats, which was damaged several years ago when the adjacent stream flooded. Once a visitor center, it’s been closed for several years.

Rain from a broken skylight and vandalism are speeding the demise of the once grand Loughglynn House in Co. Roscommon.

Rain from a broken skylight and vandalism are speeding the demise of the once grand Loughglynn House in Co. Roscommon.

A more recent example is Loughglynn House, once a glorious mansion whose landlords were generous and well-liked in the small village. It became a convent and school in the late 1800s and supported a thriving cottage dairy industry, but closed in the 1970s. It was purchased by a developer in 2002 for €2 million with plans to turn it into a luxury hotel. Then the developer went broke, and the bank seized the property. Now, with vandalism and lack of maintenance, it too is in danger of becoming derelict beyond repair, in just a few short years.

The loss of Ireland’s estate houses means a loss of Ireland’s tangible history. I hope more can be preserved before it’s too late.

For more information on the vanishing estate houses visit or



Irish Antiquities—New and Improved

From standing stones to wedge tombs, the Irish countryside bristles with stone monuments created thousands of years ago, many older than the pyramids. Unfortunately, there has been a disturbing trend among those who should be protecting them, to instead “restore” them. The result is not history as it was, but as they imagined it was.

One of the most striking examples of this is Newgrange, the passage tomb in the Boyne Valley that was built as much as 6,000 years ago. After centuries of decay and pillaging in search of treasures, in the last 20 years it was reconstructed to become one of the country’s major tourist attractions. Visitors may now buy a ticket to enter the ancient passage tomb and admire the stone carvings and construction. Electric lights illuminate the graveled path. The outside has been reconstructed based on what they thought it probably looked like, using what remained of the fallen stones as a guide. The original creators left no written record, and certainly no building plans.

This cairn at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery in Co. Sligo was excavated using heavy equipment, revealing a portal tomb. Doubt if chicken wire was part of the original plan. ©Marcie Miller

This cairn at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery in Co. Sligo was excavated using heavy equipment, revealing a portal tomb. Doubt if chicken wire was part of the original plan. ©Marcie Miller

On the east coast, near Sligo, are two striking megalithic burial cairns, one restored and one undisturbed. Both are gigantic mounds of stones, but while the cairn at Carrowmore megalithic cemetery has been sliced and diced, Maeve’s Tomb has never been excavated. The latter is far more mysterious.


Maeve's (or Medhbh in Irish) tomb, as seen from Carrowmore. ©Marcie Miller

Maeve’s (or Medhbh in Irish) tomb, as seen from Carrowmore. ©Marcie Miller

Maeve’s Tomb is said to be the final resting place of the mythical Goddess/Queen Maeve, who was legendary for her appetite for war and sex (usually a man’s domain in mythology). The legend says she is buried in full battle gear with all her weaponry, in an upright position facing her enemies in Ulster to the north. It measures 150 feet wide by 50 feet high. Archeologists think the cairn might hold a cruciform chamber similar to the one at Newgrange and other sites in the east of Ireland. It is estimated to have been constructed circa 2,500 BC.

The cairn tops Knocknarea and dominates the surrounding countryside. Sitting at 1,000 feet you can see it for miles, with its sloping sides, unique flat top and broad path slashing across the green flanks of the mountain. Many of the hills in this area are topped with cairns,but Maeve’s is, fittingly, the largest. Their origin and use is unknown, except that they date to the neolithic period, about 6,000 to 3,000 years ago.

Tradition says that visitors to Maeve’s grave are supposed to bring a stone to add to her cairn. Perhaps that’s why it’s so large, as thousands of people make the trek every year. It’s obvious this area once held great ritualistic significance to the early Celts, as the flat top of Knocknarea once held many satellite stone monuments. All but Maeve’s tomb have been pillaged and “explored” over the centuries. It’s been the fate of many ancient structures in Ireland to end up as part of a farmer’s stone wall.

The view from Maeve's final resting place stretches for miles in every direction—on a clear day. ©Marcie Miller

The view from Maeve’s final resting place stretches for miles in every direction—on a clear day. ©Marcie Miller

While the curiosity to see what’s inside this massive monument to a queen is strong, the desire to preserve the monument—and the myth—for now is winning the battle.

For more information on Carrowmore and Maeve’s tomb visit the Megalithic Ireland site.




In the Footsteps of Legends

A victorious Finn stands atop Sheemore, Co. Leitrim. ©Marcie Miller

A victorious Finn stands on one of three burial cairns atop Sheemore, Co. Leitrim. ©Marcie Miller

While visitors to Ireland are often enamored with the myths and legends of the “Emerald Isle,” modern day Irish people are often too busy with their day to day lives to be bothered with tales from the mystic past.

Case in point, yesterday a friend, Claire, invited me to go for a walk “up a little hill,” which turned out to be Sheemore, one of the most important locations in Irish mythology, as possibly the burial place of legendary hero, Finn Mac Cumhail (pronounced McCool).  And the walk was an adjunct to the main event of the day—driving her husband to the neighboring county so he could pick up a vintage VW Beetle.

Along for the ride were Claire’s two youngest children, Katy, 3, and Finn, 6. As we stood in the yard of the Beetle owner, Claire pointed to a nearby small hill, topped with a large white cross. She asked the homeowner if she had ever been to the top.

“Sheemore? Oh no, sure I’ve lived here 30 years but never been up there,” she said in a raspy, smoker’s voice.

Wait, I thought. Sheemore? “As in Sheebeag Sheemore?” I asked. Blank looks. Sheebeag Sheemore is the first tune written by 17th century blind itinerant Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan. It’s based on the legend of a battle between rival bands of fairies that took place on the plains between the two hills (Sheemore: Big Fairy Hill and Sheebeag: Little Fairy Hill). Sheebeag is also reputed to be the burial place of Finn Mac Cumhail (details are murky), and a 20th century excavation revealed the bones of a man and woman, buried standing up and facing the Hill of Tara, the seat of power in ancient Ireland. Historians don’t know who these real-life skeletons might have been.

Sheemore is topped with three burial cairns which have not been excavated. It’s said that at Halloween, or Samhain (Saw-when), the fairies under the hill come out to play. I wondered what twisted logic went into erecting a 30-foot tall, illuminated cross on top of the main burial mound, in 1950’s “Holy Year.”

A cross was mounted in 1951 atop the pagan burial mound crowning Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller

A cross was mounted in 1951 atop the ancient pagan burial mound crowning Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller

We stopped at a gas station in Lietrim to get sweets and ask directions. Claire asked the young clerk if he knew the story of the hill, and he said it was “something about Finn MacCool’s dog being buried up there.” “You’re supposed to take a stone, make a wish and place it on the pile,” he added helpfully, shrugging his shoulders. I haven’t found any reference to this being the burial site of either of Finn’s hounds.

As we went up the main road and turned left, then right, then right again at the fork, we passed a large monument to the “Ambush at Sheemore,” which marked the site of an ambush of British Black and Tan troops by the IRA in 1921 during the battle for Irish independence. The IRA volunteers fired down on the Black and Tans from the steep cliffside of Sheemore, killing one and injuring many. The Black and Tans retaliated by burning and looting nearby Carrick-on-Shannon. And so it goes.

There didn’t seem to be a parking area or marked trail up the gentler, grass-covered side of the hill, so Claire squeezed the mini-van onto a dirt shoulder and we headed up the hill. Six-year-old Finn clambered over a metal gate, three-year-old Katy right behind him. Her tomboy determination reminded me of myself at that age, wanting to do whatever my brothers did, no clue that I might be too little for their adventures.

Finn's "landmarks" on the way up Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller

Finn’s “landmarks” on the way up Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller

Finn boldly led the way, and I couldn’t help feeling a connection between the Irish hero and this small boy who carried his name.  I did wonder about his guide skills though, when he declared he was using sheep as landmarks.

As we reached the top, the panoramic view over three counties was impressive. The Shannon river wound to the west and south, with Lough Eidin in the distance, while the green rolling hills and fields dotted with cows and horses stretched in all directions. This was the midlands, the central core of Ireland that is seldom visited as tourists rush from one coast to the other. I am guilty of that myself, but standing on top of Sheemore, I could see what a shame it is that this area is overlooked.

View from the top of Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller

View from the top of Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller

As I looked across the grassy hilltop I marveled at the simple piles of stone that carried so much mythical baggage. What had happened here so long ago?  In the lichen-covered stones beside the white concrete base of the cross, a large flat stone was held up by a group of smaller stones, leaving a small cave-like space.

“That looks like a wedge tomb, or a portal,” I said, pointing it out to Claire. “A what?” she said.

“A place where they might have buried people. This could have been a burial cairn,” I said. Was she suppressing an urge to shudder? Or cross herself?

“You have to wonder if the stones were put here on purpose or just piled up to clear the land,” she offered, voicing the opinion of many modern Irish people.

Finn and Katy had already headed off toward a cairn—or pile of rocks— across the flat top from the high point. Could this be the burial place of one of Finn’s bewitched hounds? Claire picked up a rock and placed it on the pile.

Little Finn climbed on top of a large flat stone, raising his arms as if in victory, every bit a hero.