Monday, 28 February 2011

The Day my Grandfather Bought a Cottage in Ireland from a Man in a Pub


Me, in the field by my grandparent's cottage at Porthaw aged, I think, about 18 months. The gate was propped up with wood each side - I don't think it actually opened, which was just as well, for no-one ever visited. Perhaps it made my grandmother feel as if she was living in a 'proper' home, where people might call.

MY grandfather should have been a pioneer. Instead, as he cycled home from work he stopped off for a drink – and bought a tumbledown Irish cottage and 27 acres of land from a man in the pub. That was back in 1947, when he followed his dream, my grandmother followed him, and my uncles followed her. My mother, just 19 years old at the time, stayed in England, met my father, got married and lived happily ever after – which is a story for another day.

It’s my grandfather’s story which concerns me here. London born and bred, he worked as an electrician ‘on the buses’, but he had ambitions to plough and till the land. For years he cultivated fruit and vegetables, and kept various animals: pigs, goats, chickens, rabbits, which his nearest and dearest were left to care for while he went off to his ‘day job’.

His search for the perfect patch of land took him through a succession of homes, each one smaller and more dilapidated than the last although, conversely, the land available grew larger with every change of address. The more ramshackle the house, the more derelict the land, and the more isolated the site, the better he liked it.

I see the sea: My father and I on the beach at Porthaw.

If there was an easy way to do things and a hard way, you could rely on him to choose the latter. Perhaps he felt he had to prove himself because physically he was such a small man – not much more than five feet tall, but belligerent with it.
Anyway, he certainly chose a difficult path and must have needed all his enthusiasm and ebullience to cope with his new life. Indeed, I’m not sure his family ever reconciled themselves to just how tough things were: conditions were primitive, even for rural Ireland in the 1940s.

On arrival - he had never previously seen his acquisition – he found the cottage had four walls and a roof (which leaked), but that was all. There was no door, no glass in the windows, no gas, no electricity, no running water, no toilet facilities, and no road. It was, says my mother (who made frequent visits to see her parents), the Back of Beyond, bleak, desolate and miles from any other human habitationThe cottage was set in a field, with a stream running through it, leading down to the rocky foreshore, and beyond that a vast expanse of sand, and beyond that the sea. Initially water came from the stream, until my grandfather fixed the well, and there was some kind of chemical loo (don’t ask, says my mother).

Beach Baby: Me, aged around 18 months, on the beach at Porthaw.
Food was cooked on the open fire, until an old iron range was installed. And as there was no road this had to be hauled along the uneven track my uncles created on the rocks and rough land that ran alongside the edge of the lough. Glass, furniture, shopping, tools, household equipment all had to be transported the same way – carted from the town of Buncrana to the edge of the makeshift path, then carried two miles or more to the cottage.

Of my grandfather’s 27 acres of land only half an acre could be used for crops or animals: the remainder was thick with boulders that could not be dug out. My uncles’ efforts to blast the rocks from position using some dynamite they acquired from an unknown source merely left the area scarred with pockmarks, for beneath the rock was – more rock.

Just as he had done in England, while he struggled to scratch a living from the land he had a job, this time as an electrician with the Swilly Bus Company. He was, I believe, entitled to free bus travel, but chose to cycle, crossing the border in and out of Derry on a daily basis, so he must have been incredibly fit.

Eventually he admitted defeat, sold up and bought another house and some more land (which proved to be equally unproductive) up in the hills of Donegal, away from the sea. Life there, though never easy, was a little more comfortable for my grandmother, and a little less isolated – although she must have been desperately, desperately lonely for much of the time.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Irish Memories

The Grianan of Aileach (http::// Jon Sullivan)

WHEN I was a child we used to holiday in the north of Ireland (geographically that is, not politically). My grandparents moved to Donegal after the Second World War, setting up home on the Inishowen Peninsula, a magical, mystical place, cut off from reality by the water which surrounds it on three sides.

Up the road and a bit from my grandparents’ house was Malin Head (you may recognise the name from the Shipping Forecast), the most northerly point in all Ireland. There we sat on the edge of the word, huddled under a huge umbrella as we watched the rain sweep in from the sea, and my grandfather brewed tea on an antiquated Primus stove. On the beach granite and quartz pebbles glistened, their jewel-like crystals shining black and green and pink and red through the gathering gloom and mist.

It was this view of the past that came to mind while I was working on my latest OU assignment, showing how Irish nationalists used ‘created tradition’ to forge a national identity, and it made me re-examine my own my own memories in a completely new light and set them in a different context.

Take the Grianan of Aileach for example. Up the road and a bit less (everything in Ireland was measured like this) there it stood, an ancient stone ring fort growing out of the heather on top of Greenan Mountain, with the cold wind blowing around and over it. Once the seat of the royal O’Neills, it was, according to legend, blessed by St Patrick, who left his footprints behind when he paid a visit – but no trace of them could be seen on our outings, however hard we searched. One story says it was raised by the Dagda, the ‘Good God’ of the Tuatha de Danann, while another tale claims the Celts gathered here to worship their sun goddess. The truth is lost in the mists of time, but Neolithic activity could date back to 2,000 BC, or even earlier.

Even as a child I could sense the power and history of this place. It was (and, I hope, still is) awe inspiring: it’s a great, roofless, circular, stone fortification, with walls so thick the entrance is like a tunnel. Terraced steps and ledges, just wide enough to walk along, run around the inside of the wall, giving the most spectacular views. Look inland and you can see five counties stretched below you like a living map. Look seaward and you can see Lough Swilly to the west, Lough Foyle to the right, and beyond them the great Atlantic Ocean, with nothing between us and America. Inside the Grianan (http::// Jon Sullivan).

In actual fact much of the Grianan is a reconstruction, erected in the 1870s by Irish antiquarian Dr Walter Bernard, who was concerned about the monument’s dilapidated condition. It was left in ruins as early as 1101, following a raid by Murtogh O’Brien, King of Munster, who ordered each of his soldiers to take away a stone from the fort. In the ensuing centuries more stonework disappeared, and the remains fell into disrepair, falling victim to age, weather and souvenir hunters - until it was rescued by Dr Bernard.

As a child I imagined him as a wealthy but dotty ‘gentleman’ antiquarian, passionate about preserving the past. That may well have been true, but the project certainly fits with the ideals of Ireland’s burgeoning nationalist movement, which was striving to create a national identity while calling for independence from England. To this end they ignored 700 years of English rule and focused instead on the period before the 12th century. Policies of Gaelicisation meant greater value was put on Ireland’s ancient buildings – the Celtic churches, round towers and Neolithic monuments which owed nothing to English culture but represented a golden age in Irish history, and boasted links with the mythical heroes and holy men of the distant past (Laurence A (2008) Ireland: The Invention of Tradition, in Moohan E (ed) Tradition and Dissent (AA100 Book2), Milton Keynes, The Open University).
The Grianan’s importance is shown because before Dr Bernard took personal charge of the reconstruction, nationalists were involved in repairs. In the early 1870s the Irish Irelanders spent Sunday afternoons working on the site, assisted by members of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association (Sean Beattie, Ireland in Old Photographs – Donegal,
Dr Bernard used information gained from his historical researches to recreate the Grianan by piecing together the tumbled stones from the collapsed fort – but since much of the structure was missing he augmented his supply of authentic material with other stones found around the area. This action, together with the actual nature of the restoration he undertook, has been questioned over the years, because some historians felt the end result was not authentic.

Almost a century later there was similar criticism of Professor Michael O’Kelly’s excavation and recreation at Newgrange. Over the years both men have been accused of compromising the truth with their interpretations of ancient remains, rather than simply stabilising the relics. In years to come new evidence may show their work was flawed: meanwhile their view of the past has helped shape the way we see Ireland and history.

This photo, from Sean Beattie's, Ireland in Old Photographs - Donegal, Bigger/McDonald Collection, shows workers at the Grianan of Ailech during reconstruction in 1878.