Tag Archives: Ireland

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.”  http://www.longfordtourism.ie/heritage.php?scid=22&artid=22

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 www.nobodyhome.com or www.abandonedireland.com.

 

 

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.

Travel Tales

My first trip that required a passport was to New Zealand in 19-something-something. I recorded that six-week trip carefully in a beautiful journal, faithfully recording each day’s events in neat block print in erasable ink.
I recorded my journey to Tanzania and my trip around Europe in similar fashion. While they look lovely lined up on my bookshelf, it’s a little hard to share them with the masses.
By the time I visited Ireland for the third time I was packing a laptop and happily blogging and sharing my adventures with the world. Or at least my family. I have since written travel blogs in Korea and Armenia. Rather than direct you to those pages I have taken some of the highlights of each blog and present them here for your reading pleasure. To read the full story click on the highlighted link at the end of each post.

Ireland 2007: The Mature Hosteler

Renvyle Castle is the perfect backdrop for a Connemara pony. ©Marcie Miller

Renvyle Castle is the perfect backdrop for a Connemara pony. ©Marcie Miller

It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut. We all have our patterns and set routines, some to get us to work or to school on time, others just to get us through the day. It’s also easy to get bent out of shape when our routine is upset – the alarm doesn’t go off, the toast gets burnt, someone takes your seat on the bus. Grrr!
Travel changes that. While you may make the most detailed travel plans since Columbus, well, like that fateful voyage, things don’t always work out the way you planned. Sometimes they work out better.
Full post: The Mature Hosteler

Ireland 2011: Silent Sentinels of the Beara

The Ballycrovane Ogham Stone on the Beara Peninsula, County Cork, is the tallest in Europe, at 17 feet. ©Marcie Miller

The Ballycrovane Ogham Stone on the Beara Peninsula, County Cork, is the tallest in Europe, at 17 feet. ©Marcie Miller

The Beara peninsula, jutting out in the Atlantic on Ireland’s southwest corner, bristles with stone circles, wedge tombs and other megalithic stone monuments left behind thousands of years ago by prehistoric people. Most of them are estimated to be at least 3,000 years old. Many are just a short walk from the road, but the Beara Way walking trail yields many more.
I had the rare privilege of having an expert on the subject give me a personal tour of sites that are not marked on maps at all, plus I visited a few that are off the tourist track, but well worth the effort to sleuth out.
Full post: Silent Sentinels

Korea 2008: Thanksgiving with Buddha

A Buddhist hermitage on the slopes of Mt. Halla, Jeju-do, Korea, welcomes visitors of all kinds. ©Marcie Miller

A Buddhist hermitage on the slopes of Mt. Halla, Jeju-do, Korea, welcomes visitors of all kinds. ©Marcie Miller

Thursday, Nov. 28. Thanksgiving. Or, as they say in Korea, “Thursday, Nov. 28.” Of course they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here. No turkey. No stuffing. No pumpkin pie. Sniff sniff.
Oddly, today’s sixth grade class started a chapter on giving and accepting invitations, with “Thanksgiving Day” as an example. The teacher asked me to talk about the uniquely American tradition, and the kids were really curious. So, with the smell of cow bone soup (really) drifting into the classroom from the cafeteria, and a cold, driving rain outside, I regaled them with tales of juicy roast turkey, freshly baked pumpkin pie and all the trimmings. I skipped the watching football part, because I don’t like football.
Full post: Buddhist Thanksgiving

Japan 2009: A Study in Contrasts

Japan's largest wooden Buddha is in Fukuoka. ©Marcie Miller

Japan’s largest wooden Buddha is in Fukuoka. ©Marcie Miller

Tocho-ji Temple in Fukuoka, Japan, is home to Japan’s largest wooden Buddha. Photo copyright Marcie Miller
I am in Fukuoka (Foo-koo-OH-kah), Japan as I write this, sent here on what is fondly known among foreign teachers in Korea as a “visa run.” How it works: fly to Fukuoka, being the closest port from Jeju, drop off your passport and new visa application at the Korean embassy, shop and eat in lovely Fukuoka for a day, pick up your passport with the shiny new visa stamp the next day, fly back to Korea.
I got here Sunday afternoon and dropped off my application at 9 this morning (Monday), so I’ve had all day to look around. I gotta say, it’s pretty cool here. Compared to Jeju, the sidewalks are wider and in better repair, traffic is quieter, with almost no honking and I haven’t been nearly run over at all.
Full post: Study in Contrasts