My New Appointment
In connection with my new appointment, information had reached me that in this case – not always so – free quarters were provided at Spanish Point. With all my knowledge of the Coastguard Division of the West of Ireland I was unable to visualise Spanish Point. It was a rocky stretch of coastline where a landing was never attempted. Before removing my home I decided to go and see the conditions for myself. Setting out on my journey with mixed feelings in leaving the service afloat, at the new conditions of living on which I was about to enter, and duties with which I was unfamiliar and arriving the following day at the little West of Ireland town of Milltown Malbay, County Clare. Outside of the railway station stood two or three jaunting cars with the drivers plying for hire. Enquiring from one of the drivers the distance to Spanish Point, with his native politeness and the prospect of a fare, he replied: “Its two miles yer honour, will ye be after taking the car sir?”
“What is the charge?”
“Shure, I’ll be leaving that to yer honour”.
After assuring me that the horse was the best in County Clare and settling the cushions to make one “aisy”, he politely invited me to be taking my seat. Not having had much experience of a jaunting car, like many others not familiar with the swinging motion of this class of vehicle and a feeling that one might be thrown off at any minute, I was doing my best to retain my seat and appear at ease. After a few minutes and the horse having got into this stride, the jarvey remarked on the scarcity of visitors, little work for the cars, and no money in it at all. “Begging yer honour’s pardon, are ye the new captain sorr?” I countered this question by asking “is the captain still at Spanish Point?”
“No sir, there hasna been a captain in it for two years sorr.”
“Where has the captain been living?”
“At Kilkee sorr.”
“How far is that?”
“Twenty miles sorr.”
“I thought the captain lived here.”
The jarvey by this time having concluded that I was the new captain – a title by which the divisional officer was usually known – replied: “The other captains, yer honour, were after living in the big house”.
“Where is the big house?”
“At Spanish Point, sorr. Indeed it’s a fine house internally they have for yer honour.”
“Very good, take me to the big house.”
Arriving at the Point, I fully expected to find a coastguard station and the refreshing sight of a few men in blue-jackets uniform. On enquiring of the driver the whereabouts of the coastguard station, he replied: “The station is beyond, sorr, at Seafield Point, sorr” pointing to the station buildings, visible across the bay three miles distant.
“And this is the captain’s house?”
“I wonder who has the key?”
A bystander: “Mike O’Connor, that is after planting the ‘haggart’ (garden) with he having the key, yer honour”.
Mike is found and produced the key, greeting me with a remark with a similarity to that of the jarvey.
“Shure, and you’ll be the new captain, yer honour, you are welcome sorr.”
“Are you the caretaker?”
“I would like to look through the house please.”
He answers me that it is a great house indeed and a ‘foine’ place for a ‘gintelman’ like yourself to be living. “God bless yer honour.”
The house, a rambling old property belonging to the Admiralty that had been enlarged from time to time, did not impress me very favourably. The church, the day school – under the supervision of the priest – and the post office, were at Milltown, two miles distant. This was a typical West of Ireland town with the usual muddy roads and numerous small provision shops with a licence for the sale of the favourite beverage, Guinness porter, the stale smell from which they were highly impregnated. At Spanish Point there were a few houses, closed in the winter and opened up for the use of visitors during the summer. A few modest cabins or cottages occupied by longshoremen eking out a living by a little fishing, kelp burning in the season, and raising a supply of potatoes from the ‘haggart’ (garden).
The outlook certainly did not appear to be very flowery. I felt the impossibility of settling in such a spot under such conditions. For the moment the question arose, whether I had made a mistake in coming here and I think that if I could have taken the next train back to re-join the Fanny, that I would have done so.
The senior of the station officers who was acting Divisional Officer for the time being, was at Kilrush. It was therefore decided to go on to that station and consult with the Chief Officer. He informed me that my predecessor, not wishing to occupy the house provided at Spanish Point, was allowed to reside at Kilkee by paying his own rent. This information was very welcome and cheered me quite a bit. Staying in the town of Kilrush over the weekend, on Monday I visited the station at Kilkee. This quaint little town with over a thousand population, the terminus of the West Clare railway, had the church, post office and not the least important, a Protestant day school under the supervision of the rector. Here I may say that my children received an excellent grounding in all elementary subjects that prepared them for a higher education.
Assuming the duties of Divisional Officer and making oneself acquainted with the mode of procedure, naturally one’s first wish would be a perusal of the officer records in order to become acquainted with the standing orders and memos from the various official departments represented by the Coastguard. Making enquiry for the records from the Station Officer, he pointed to a packing case that had been dumped in the watch room by the retiring Divisional Officer and said: “They are all there sir”. This struck me as being anything but business-like and contrary to the traditions of an exacting service. After looking through the contents of the packing case and absorbing the meagre information contained therein, my supervision of the Kilkee Division of the Coastguard had actually commenced.
At this time the stations comprising the division were four in number – one having been recently closed – and one war signal station not manned in peacetime. My first duty was to visit these stations and make myself acquainted with the station officers and men.
Concluding that a residence at Spanish Point was unthinkable, it was decided to secure accommodation, stay on at Kilkee and wait for the development of events. After due consideration steps were taken to make representation to the proper authority, placing before them the advantages and reasons for my wishing to reside at Kilkee, consenting to the same conditions as my predecessor, paying my own house rent. Several weeks elapsed, the question having to be submitted to the Board of Works and the Admiralty. When my patience was almost exhausted, to my great satisfaction a reply was received to the effect that my submission had been approved.
Having succeeded in renting a house, arrangements were made for the removal of my family and effects and by October we were settled in our new home in Kilkee. This little town, a resort for visitors during the summer months, had quite a charm of its own. There were half a dozen hotels and a number of good roomy houses like those at Spanish Point, closed during the winter and opened during the visiting season. There was a most delightful and charming bay in the form of a horseshoe, the silvery sands being lapped by the waters of the Atlantic, affording safe and enjoyable bathing for the hundreds of visitors indulging in this most pleasant pastime. There was a fine broad road around the bay about a mile in extent. Bordering on this road were the best houses overlooking the bay, picturesque in their various colours of blue, grey, white, red and stone. It was the marketing centre for a wide country area and was therefore well served with all household requisites.
A true Irish welcome awaited my family and we soon settled down in our new surroundings. Our house was very pleasantly situated, overlooking fields of an ever delightful and refreshing green about two minutes from the beach, my children very soon availing themselves of this delightful playground, together with the half-tide natural pools in the rocks, ideal for children bathing, the favourite being the Lady Pool, about four feet deep in the centre, where all the children delighted to bathe and acquired their first strokes in swimming.
Having had a life of change and variety my new duties – much of it a clerical nature – did not at first appeal to me. I was rather restless; the call of the ship and the sea was frequently present with me. I am afraid that I was rather slow in adapting myself to the life of a longshore man.
As the winter came on and the gales whistled around our ‘stone frigate’ (house) I consoled myself with the thought that there were no reefs to be taken, sails to shorten, or second anchors to let go and that I could sleep without keeping an eye and an ear open, as one is apt to do on ship board.
With the passing of the winter on shore the coming of the spring and summer I had settled down to the new order of things and had to acknowledge that home life was after all, preferable to the discomfort of the sea.
My children with their school mates were never tired of the beach and bathing pools; a pleasure that will live with them to the end and give to them pleasing thoughts of their happy school days in Ireland. Daily, throughout the bathing season, they were taken down for a morning dip, very soon becoming good swimmers.
Attached to my house there was fortunately a large garden, the cultivation of which in order to fill in my leisure hours was taken up as a hobby, soon becoming familiar with the cultivation of vegetables and flowers, commodities to which the cottage gardeners gave little or no attention.
The District Captain, when making his annual inspection of the Division, enquired of me how I liked my new job. I replied that being responsible for the lime washing of buildings, with the ease of men’s quarters, and the comfort of their wives and children did not really appeal to me. I was a sailor first, and all that belonged to the sea appealed to me far more. He said that was just as he felt himself, exactly his own sentiments but adaptability to any and every duty was the privilege of the Navy.
It was the duty of a divisional officer to visit all stations – as laid down in the regulations – both by night, as well as by day, and where the train was not convenient, it was necessary to make use of a horse-drawn conveyance. An agreement was therefore entered into with a jaunting car proprietor ‘Old Ine’. He was sturdily built and tough, his face like the figurehead of an old frigate – weather worn and tanned like hide, after years of exposure in the driver’s seat to sun, wind and rain. Having a cheerful and genial disposition, always ready and willing to undertake any small service, a faithful and loyal driver, under all conditions, never failing to answer a call when required, even during the rebellion in 1916 when feelings against the action of the British Government were rather pronounced. He was uneducated, neither able to read or write – not even to sign his name – but was possessed of sound common-sense and proficient in the management of his business. He was a gifted storyteller of leprechauns, fairies, little people and local folk lore. Often, of a night, as we travelled the lonely roads, he would entertain me with a story well preserved in his memory.
“Do yer mind the cabin sorr,” said Ine, “back to the Whish, beyond the big bog, its cutting the turf, in the bog, they do be sorr, to make the reek for the winter.”
“That one, just at the corner, where we turn down to Kilbaha?” I asked.
“Yes sorr, shure that was the house of Tim Cardy, sorr, a decent bhoy entoirely. Wheniver he was after bringing the pigs to the fair, it’s the divil for the fun and the laughing he was. Iverybody would be after traiting him to a sup. Whin himself was after drawing back from the fair with the oss and butt (cart), it’s stopped at Flaherty’s he did, sorr, for something to wharm him up, it’s the cold was in him. ‘God bless all here’ said Tim as he entered, ‘and yourself too’ says Flaherty. ‘The frohst is in it’ says Tim. ‘It is’ sezs Flaherty,’ come to the fire, man.’ As soon as Tim was afther wharming himself slowly, the turf all burning sorr, Mr Flaherty looking agin him.’ What ails ye’ says he? ‘Faise but there’s nithing ails me’ says Tim.’ I’ll be after having a half one’ says he. Mr Flaherty could see the fear in him, and it’s after giving him the whiskey, ‘is it feeling better ye are Tim?’ says he. Two or three of the bhoys jist come in, and not a word or bit of divilment was with Tim. ‘What’s wrang wid ye’, says one of the bhoys? ‘Nothing’ says Tim. More of the bhoys coming hither, and jist spakin to Mr Flaherty loike, and Tim with e’er a word, or a bit of devilment at all, at all. ‘What’s wrong wid ye?’ says they. ‘The divil a thing is wrong wid one’, says he. ‘Then why the divil are ye not spakin’ says they?’ Spakin’, says Tim, ‘God bless us. Shure and it’s a papher I have, that I am after writing me name’. ‘The blessed virgin protect us’, says Flaherty! ‘In the name of God who would be axing ye to sign a papher in the Dunlicky ward tonight?’ ‘Indeed.’ says Tim, ‘begging your pardon Mr Flaherty. The ass, the innocent creature, just passing the fairy fort in O’Gorman’s haggart (small field), meself sitting on the butt, (cart) when all of a siddint a blackguard from the boreen (lane) beyond, stopped the ass. ‘Who are ye’, says I? ‘I want ye to be signing a papher’ says he. ‘What for’, says I? ‘For the good of your soul’ says he! ‘And meself to the confession with Father O’Flannigan last week’ says I. ‘Be after takin the pen’ says he. ‘Faith I will not says I’. Showing a little light, ‘be after putting your name there’ says he. ‘Begorra, God save us’, says I, ‘this is a fairy, and I writ me name’. ‘Is it the fear was on ye’ says Flaherty?
‘No’ says Tim.
‘Thin why the divil were ye after signing?’
‘Shure’, says Tim, ‘the Lord bless us and save us. Wasn’t it a fairy and meself after signing to please him’? ‘God save us’ says the bhoys, reverently making the sign of the cross.
’Be after showing the papher’, says Flaherty. Mr Flaherty reading by the candle. ‘The Lord save us’, says he, making the sign of the cross. ‘Indeed it’s a fairy that stopped ye. And its consigned your soul to the divil ye have’. ‘Consigned me soul to the divil’, says Tim? ‘Yes’ says Flaherty, ‘there it is before me two eyes’. Wid the fear in him, Tim was shaking, sorr. ‘The Lord have mercy on your soul’ says the bhoys. ‘Shure, it was a mane thing for a blackguard of a fairy to be after doing on ye. Now bhoys, the toime’, says Flaherty. ‘A small sup if ye please, Mr Flaherty’, says Tim. ‘Is it all right ye are?’ says Mr Flaherty. ‘Yes’ says Tim. Mr Flaherty could see the fear on him sorr. ‘Now bhoys’ says he, ‘be after taking Tim back to the Whist and good night to ye’. In at the fair, sorr, there was e’er a bit of devilment or fun in him, but spaking about the fairy and the papher he would be sorr.
The change in my mode of life from the routine of a ship, with brief periods at home, to that of the multiplicity of duties connected with the Coastguard Service and carried out, to a great extent, from an office desk took me quite a year to become accustomed to. I missed the frequent change of scene, the company of shipmates and a friendly chat now and again with any officer acquaintance. For the first year I was restless and unsettled, gradually becoming reconciled to my new duties and to appreciate the comforts of life at home with my wife and children.
It was my duty to pay periodical visits to each station to see that the regular duties of watch and guard were properly observed and routine and discipline maintained. One of the stations, “Liscannor”, was about thirty miles distant. This was reached by rail within a distance of three miles, which was usually covered by jaunting car. Alighting at Lahinch railway station and taking a side-car, one drove around Liscannor Bay, past Lahinch golf course, a long stretch of sand hills said to be the best golf course in the country, passing the ruins of an old chapel which probably fell into disuse during the penal days. The ancient burial ground surrounding those old walls was still used after hundreds of years for the internment of the dead. There was quite a common aversion to opening new cemeteries and it was customary to bury the dead near the old chapel ruins, where their fathers had found a last resting place. Exploring these old ruins, it was observed that with the repeated opening up of these family graves, piles of bones had been thrown up and allowed to remain there, bleaching for all time. This was common to many of the burial places surrounding the chapel ruins, so frequently met with.
Within the grounds of Liscannor station there stood the ruins of a very fine commodious old castle, evidently once the stronghold of a powerful and influential chieftain whose story is lost in antiquity. The walls were seven to eight feet in thickness, a winding stone stairs leading to the upper apartment. Although the wall on one side had been very much undermined, after a thousand years there was no sign of a crack above.
As one climbed the rough stairs, one pictured the rude and primitive conditions of life in those far off days. Not only of the labourers and builders of the castle, but also of the chieftain and those of his connections who resided within those castle walls. The openings in the walls, admitting light and air, had no such thing as windows, they were unknown. Nor were there any indications whatever that there had ever been any fitting to protect the occupants from the blast of the elements. There were indications of an aperture where fire may have been kindled but no sign of a chimney. The smoke from the turf or wood fire must have found an outlet through the openings in the wall, providing for light and air.
The ruins of such old castles, the homes of ancient Irish chieftains, prior to the invasion of their country by their nearest neighbours, the English, were to be found dotted here and there in various stages of decay and were always a source of great interest to me. In almost every case where the walls were still standing there was evidence that the architect had made special provision to resist attack by loop holes through which the bowmen could discharge their arrows and overhanging buttresses from which deadly missiles could be dropped on the besiegers, indicating that in those days peace and goodwill did not always prevail but, rather the opposite, showing that if one chieftain of a grasping and avaricious turn of mind desired to possess the more abundant flocks and herds and fruitful lands of his neighbour, would gather around him his retainers and set forth with that object in view, the last stand of the besieged often being made from within his castle walls.
St Bridget’s Well
About a mile from the village of Liscannor, situated near the main road leading to the cliffs of Moher, there was a holy or blessed well dedicated to Saint Bridget and known as St Bridget’s well. The partaking of its waters, together with certain religious rites and observations, were said to possess curative properties from various afflictions and infirmities common to mankind. Its exact position was in a huge cleft in the high rock at the side of the road running in about one hundred feet. The sight of the sparkling waters trickling down the face of the rock into the well with its sombre light through the overhanging vegetation, the mosses, lichens and rare ferns, together with the numerous and varied trinkets left by the pilgrims on their annual visitation to the well on St Bridget’s Day had a charm of its own, long to be remembered by any casual visitor.
On the anniversary of St Bridget’s Day the sick, the halt, and the maimed, accompanied by their friends and guardians from near and far, would be found wending their way towards the well with the object of finding a cure for their bodily ailments by invoking the intercession of the saint and partaking of the waters. In many instances the more devout remaining in prayer throughout the night. Even with the doctor’s bottle, with which we are all familiar, there is little hope of relief without faith. And there is little doubt that the faith of those afflicted, if somewhat superstitious people, coupled with their invocation at the shrine of the saint and imbibing of the waters brought to them a satisfaction and peace of mind – as they wended their way back to their humble cabins and turf fires – unknown to the less credulous. Had not their fathers found relief from a visit to St Bridget’s well and tradition handed down to them the knowledge of the curative properties of the waters of the blessed well of St Bridget?
On the first occasion of my meeting with the pilgrims, they were wending their way towards the well on St Bridget’s Day, some on foot, others with an “oss and butt” (cart), the more prosperous by a horse-drawn vehicle, some with crutches or sticks, evidently using up their last ounce of energy in covering the journey assisted by their friends.
Making enquiry of the car driver as to the reason for so many people being on the road and where they were going, he replied: “Up to the well, your honour”.
“Up to what well?”
“St Bridget’s well, sorr.”
“What are they going there for?” I asked.
“Shure the poor divils are afther going to get the cure, sorr. St Bridget’s Day sorr, the people are afther going up to the well every year to get the cure that’s in it. It’s cripples they are and all manner of dizases they have sorr”.
Thinking that he was rather sceptical, I suggested that with people coming every year on the anniversary of St Bridget’s Day, surely some of them must benefit.
“Indeed sorr, the ever a one of thim got the cure out of it” he replied.
“There must be something in it” I said “for sick people to visit the well from such a distance”.
“Ah shure, it’s the ould people, yer honour, that are afther saying the cure in in it and that in ould toimes they would be afther leaving their crutches up at the well but the divil a one did he see getting the cure and leaving the crutches afther thim now”.
And so year by year the pilgrims wended their way to the blessed well offering their supplication to heaven in simple faith that some relief would be obtained from their bodily afflictions and ailments. And who is bold enough to say that the visits to the well, combined with their prayers, brought no comfort to the minds of these unquestioning and credulous people?
The Cliffs of Moher
The stretch of coastline for which Liscannor Coastguard Station was responsible embraced the famous cliffs of Moher, about three miles from Liscannor village, the approach to which was over a very rough road with a steep and uphill climb to the top of the cliffs 700 to 800 feet above the sea level. These remarkable cliffs, well-known to all tourist of the County of Clare, are unsurpassable in their majestic grandeur, their wild and natural beauty. From one overhanging position there was a perpendicular drop into the sea. From two points of vantage certain portions of the face of the cliffs could be seen with the teeming seabird life resting and nesting in the inaccessible rugged ledges and crannies. And the sight of seagulls on the wing hundreds of feet below appearing as mere specks was an unusual and most interesting sight. These awe-inspiring cliffs lapped at the water-line and forever battered by the wild and restless Atlantic Ocean formed a picture reminding me of the words of Elihu: ‘hearken unto this oh Job, stand still and consider the wondrous works of God’.
The question of seabird life around the coast of Britain, their estimated consumption of young fish and the extent of its effect on local fisheries was receiving the attention of the United Fisheries Committee. A friend, Mr Matthias Dunn, Chairman of the Cornwall Sea Fisheries Committee, spending a short holiday with us, took the opportunity of visiting these cliffs, although he had travelled much, was well-acquainted with the Cornish cliffs and an authority on British seabirds and fishes, when reaching the top of the cliff, stood for several minutes in silent admiration and amazement. This was a sight that for a long time he had desired to behold. He moved to every vantage point that gave any view of the seabirds. He lay flat to look over the edge of the cliff – where the drop was into the sea – charmed by the sight and the echo from the call of the seagulls ascending from the depths below and was so fascinated by the scene that he was reluctant to leave a spot with so much interest and charm. He, a student of nature, confessed that the delight afforded by the opportunity of seeing these cliffs and the myriads of birds surpassed anything of the kind that he had ever witnessed.
It gave him new ideas of the futility of local fishery committees attempting – in the interest of fishermen – to reduce seabirds’ life by the shooting of a few shags and guillemots. A few weeks later, when attending a fisheries committee meeting in London, in reference to seabirds and their estimated consumption of fish, he was in a position to enlarge on the question from knowledge acquired from his visit to the cliffs of Moher.
The land in this region being bleak, open, exposed and windswept by the winter gales, was not to any extent brought under cultivation but kept as grazing for cattle and sheep. In the immediate vicinity of the cliff top, although so much exposed, during the season was carpeted with a wild dwarf pansy which when sun kissed gave forth the most radiant variety of colour.
By the end of my second year on shore I had settled down to the office and routine duties of the Coastguard Service. Everyone in the place, with their natural hospitality to strangers was polite, respectful and kindness itself, thus adding to the pleasantries of life. After my long experience on the coast of Ireland I was not altogether unfamiliar with the Irish character and formed my own ideas as to the best attitude to adopt in order to gain and retain the goodwill of those with whom it was my good fortune to rub shoulders day by day. Take a leaf from Paddy’s own book: be civil, be tolerant, do a good turn if you can, take life comfortably, sail along in a free and easy manner, don’t fuss over trifles, there is always tomorrow. In brief, let it be priest or peasant, meet them, as it were, on their own level. This attitude was found to stand good during the troublesome days yet to come.
The social life of my wife as well as myself was rather dull, consequently we had to concentrate on home hobbies and family amusements. There were compensations: living was cheap with beef – best cuts – at 8d per lb, a chicken at a shilling, a young duck at 1/4d and milk 2d per quart. My children were making satisfactory progress at the day school. The anxieties of life at sea were a thing of the past and almost forgotten and the days passed pleasantly and quietly with no cause for unrest.
Seafield Coastguard Station, sixteen miles from Kilkee, was situated two miles from Quilty railway station, bordering on a road leading along the shore. The buildings erected at the time of the Fenian movement were very well and strongly built with a view to resisting attack during any possible raid on the station. At one end of the buildings there was a strongly built tower protected with heavy iron shutters at the windows and loopholes – very like the castles of old – for rifle sniping of any persons leading an assault on the station. In each house there were iron communication doors leading from house to house, by which means the crews, with their wives and children could, if necessary, reach the strong room in the tower, close the communication doors and await events.
The coastline was of a very dangerous nature skirted by low lying reefs and sunken rocks. During the winter months, with onshore gales, large quantities of seaweed, loosened from the rocks became piled up on the foreshore. Stretching for a quarter of a mile or so along the foreshore road leading from the railway station toward the coastguard station – which was level and about twenty feet above the high water mark – stood a number of fishermen’s cottages, exposed to the full blast of the winter gales; low one storey dwellings as poor and comfortless as one can well imagine.
These men, bred from generations of those that had lived and fared hard, were lean, bony, hardy, strong and tough. They lived and provided for their families by kelp burning and fishing in the summer using their frail canvas canoes or currachs. These currachs could only be handled by those accustomed to that class of boat and it was surprising with what skill the currachs were sometimes taken over a very rough sea. The structure was a light wooden framework bent to the shape of a half hoop, narrowing and rising at the bow, various lengths and sizes. Over the framework was stretched stout canvas made to the shape of the frame, this being coated with a mixture of pitch and tar, which made them watertight. They floated on the water as light as a bladder and were propelled by two, three or four pairs of paddlers according to the length of the currachs, the rowers being very careful to maintain their balance evenly on their seat, in order to maintain the safety of the canoe, for any movement to one side or the other might quickly throw them into the water.
A friend from England, staying with us for a time, accompanied me on a visit to Seafield Station. Quite near to the station were men collecting seaweed, one of them being of outstanding proportions. My friend, in conversation with the station officer, remarking on the fine physique of the man, led to the question of food; the officer solemnly declaring that the man’s staple diet consisted of “potatoes and limpets”. That may not have been literally true but there is little doubt that limpets were frequently an accompaniment to the national dish, the potato. For certain, the diet did not contain very much animal food. It was sour milk and bread baked on a griddle over the turf fire on the hearth. The bread, with buttermilk, potatoes and fish with an occasional slice of ‘Amerikay’ pork or a pig’s head and cabbage as a special event, with a liberal quantity of tea, formed the principal daily diet.
Any money passing through the hands of these cottagers was derived principally from the kelp burning industry. After a strong breeze and the ripened seaweed torn from the rocks and cast up on the foreshore, the kelp burners harvest would have begun. They would all immediately set to work in collecting the harvest of the sea which had been cast up at their very door. The foreshore, mostly jagged rocks, was not accessible by a horse and cart; even so, the kelp burning cottager could not rise to the expense of a horse and therefore tackled the problem of collecting and removing the seaweed to the open spaces near the cabins where it was laid out to dry, in some cases by the use of donkeys and panniers. Those not rising to the help of the humble ass would carry the heavy wet seaweed up in baskets on their backs.
Co-partners working together were assisted by the women, the girls and the boys. It was indeed hard labour, struggling under the weight of the heavy baskets. And women as well as men were often – when collecting the weed – up to their waists in water. After the drying process – which depended on the weather – the dry seaweed was gathered together and piled into ricks, ready for burning at the close of the harvest. The seaweed having been claimed from the sea – after much hard labour – carefully dried and placed in ricks, now awaited the process of burning in the kelp pits. These pits were approximately 20 to 30 feet in length, four feet wide and eighteen inches deep. Watching for a suitable day in August or September, with a good breeze, the burning would commence – not necessarily on the same day. In the first place a sod of burning turf from the cabin hearth was placed in the pit and a creel of turf added to start the fire. The fire, once started, there was no difficulty in keeping it going. The seaweed being dry and crisp burnt freely, dissolving into a thick treacle-like liquid. After cooling and hardening, it was broken into pieces and removed in a caked and cinder-like condition in readiness for dispatch to the manufacturer. Twenty-five tons of seaweed was required to produce one ton of kelp.
In the process of burning, if the wind should be blowing in from the sea, and this was usually the case as the ricks would then be to windward of the pit, the whole district for miles was enveloped in a dense volume of smoke of a most pungent, disagreeable (to those not accustomed to it) and sickly smell. There is nothing to which it can be compared. Passing along the road at a distance of twenty-five to thirty feet from the kelp pits on a day that many of the cottagers were busy and the smoke arising in dense clouds, together with the choking fumes, one became almost suffocated and one’s clothes so impregnated that it was many a day before they were free from, what to me, was a vile smell.
The burning of the seaweed was on a par with the farmer thrashing out his corn; the most important and crowning day throughout the year, when everyone taking part made of it a day of merriment.
Feeding the fires was a very hot, disagreeable and dry job and in order to keep on with the work and moisten their parched throats it was usual to indulge in a liberal supply of the national drink, Guinness stout, in all probability supplied from the village general store, to be paid for on receipt of the proceeds arising out of the seaweed harvest.
Although this industry brought many thousands of pounds annually into the district and was shared between a comparatively few families, yet the poverty and meagre type of living of the cottagers continued at the same level.
With reference to the circular mounds of earth so frequently met with which were thrown up in the dim and distant unwritten past, the history of which is understood to be very uncertain. They are generally accepted to have been stockades for the collection of the livestock and a fortress from whence a stand could be made in self-defence against an aggressor. These mounds, known as fairy forts, are regarded by the inhabitants generally with a kind of awe, and treated by them as being of a supernatural character.
Any person on whose land a fairy fort should be situated is always very careful not to plough or cultivate very near to it for fear of disturbing some unexplainable spiritual power that would bring to the person so offending bad luck in one form or another. By some people they are looked on as the hiding places of leprechauns, little people, or fairies and spoken of with bated breath and reverent awe.
Driving along the road on one occasion Mc drew my attention to an unusually large circular earth mound.
“Dy’ye see the fairy fort hither your honour?”
“Yes, what about it?”
“Indade sorr there was a farmer. He was afther tellin the bhoys that he’d be afther digging it doon to the livil. It’s from the Galway side he came hither. Shure he didn’t loike the fairy fort in the haggart. Father Foley so, the curate tould himself not to be afther touchin it, and the prayst, captain, tould him, it would be afther bringing the bad luck to himself. Shure sorr, the bhoys tould him, it was a wrang thing to be afther dooin”.
“But” said I “what harm could it do? He could plough the whole field then”.
“Begorra captain, it was a wrong ting fur him, its harm to himself he’d be axin. Sorra a wan ivir distorted thim rhings. Bedad sorr, nivir a spade would ainy of the bhoys be afther putting into hither ground”.
Continuing, he told me the story of the man that came there and made an attempt to level this particular fairy ring.
“Upon my soul captain, ivirybody was afther sayen, that he was wrang in the hidd. He braught the harse an butt, then he was afther digging at the airth an fillen the butt, an whin the butt was full he got hould of the baste by the hidd to pull it away and the divil an inch could the baste be afther movin. Begorra sorr, there was the whels and nivir a move out of thim. Then he got the madness on him, cussen and batin the dumb baste, sorr. An the sorra move could the baste be afther making. Shure, an thin all suddint loike, the baste, the poor creature was afther falling and begorra sorr his leg was there and it broakin. Thus the harse had to be killed. It was the bad luck from digging the fairy fort.
The prayst was afther talkin to the bhoys that the madness was on him an bringen the bad luck to ivirybody. Afther a while, captain, he commed wid the harse an butt agin, and the divil a bit did he care wut ivirybody was sayen. The fear was on the bhoys, an they tould him it was a wrang thing an the divil a bit of luck would be ivir have. The butt, sorr, was nearly fillid an he diggen down the airth. ‘The Lord save us!’ whin the harse an the butt dhropped down inter a big pit. Indade, turns the prayst himself, said it was a mane thing to be distarbin the fairy fort and bringin haram to iviryone. The man, captain, was afther thrying agin an that toime there he was and his own two legs afther breaking. The curse was on himself sorr and finished wid him. An ivirybody was afther sayen, the fairies gave him the bad luck and that he dasarved it afther distirbin them”.
Whether this was an old traditional story or one of Mc’s own, was not revealed. It certainly is typical of the feelings that prevailed along the countryside concerning any interference with these old circular mounds of earth thrown up hundreds of years ago and now surrounded by an air of mystery, suspicion, superstition and fear.
My wife and children were delighted that I had been allowed to live at Kilkee. It was by far the most desirable spot for us. With the hundreds of visitors during the holiday season, many of them coming from Limerick year after year, we made many friends and the summer months were bright and cheerful with no cause for regret at having taken up an appointment in Ireland.
Kilkee Coastguard Station, about a mile from my residence on the opposite side of the horseshoe bay stood on rising ground in a very pleasant position overlooking the bay and the houses and district known as the east end, accommodating five men and an officer.
The delightful little bay with its fine sandy foreshore protected by a reef of rocks at its mouth afforded perfect safety for bathers and the various coloured houses reflected in the ruby rays of the setting sun added a most charming effect to the scene.
To the east was George’s Head, a bold headland against which the sea, disturbed by a succession of winter gales, expended its strength, enveloping the face of the mighty headland in its fury. To watch the mountainous waves tearing at these ironbound rocks always held a charm for me.
The western extremity of the bay known as Lookout Hill had a sheer drop into the sea of about three hundred feet. The inlet of the sea at this spot formed a small cove known as Intrinsic Bay. The story, as recorded in an account of the village of Kilkee written many years ago, described the ship Intrinsic being driven out of her course by foul weather. The captain, finding himself on a lee shore and driven into this cove, as his only remaining hope of saving the ship from dashing against the rocks with sure and certain death for every man on board, let go his both anchors. The anchors held and brought the ship head on to the wind and sea where she continued to ride for many hours, rising and falling as the giant Atlantic combers dashed and battered against her trembling hull. The people from the village who had collected on Lookout Hill and gazed over at the helpless sailors below were powerless to render any assistance. Those were days before the life-saving apparatus and cliff ladders had been brought into use. After a long time the ship, straining at her cables – in an ever increasing weight of sea – first one cable parted, hoping against hope that the remaining anchor would hold, the second cable parted and the ship with her gallant crew was hurled against that inaccessible cliff, beaten to pieces and the men drowned within sight of those standing and watching from above, ready and willing to help, but no means by which the least help could be rendered – hence the name of the cove “Intrinsic Bay”.
Kilkee boasted a monthly cattle fair where dealers assembled in goodly numbers and where horses, cattle, pigs and poultry – after much time spent in bargaining – exchanged hands. The sale of a horse, bullock or pig, carried out by private treaty, entailed a great deal of ceremony in the way of bargaining over the price. For a vendor to state his price and a dealer to close with the same was never done. Before a final agreement on the price of an animal there were many words used, both by the dealer and the vendor, and much time occupied. A dealer having fixed his eyes on an animal and examined it in a casual manner enquires the price:
Dealer: “Phivah are ye’s wanting fur the heifer?”
Farmer: “Tin punds.”
Dealer: “Tin punds indade! Is it wanting to be robbing me ye are?” With an air of disgust turns and walks away. After a time the dealer returns.
Dealer: “Is it tin punds ye’s are wanting fur the heifer?”
Farmer: “Tin punds I am wanting”.
Dealer: “It’s six punds I’ll be giving ye”. The farmer with an attitude of one having been insulted pretends to be very angry.
Dealer (passing his hands over the animal with a pretence of weighing up its value}: “Tin punds! Shure it’s falling the prices are, there is no money in it at all, at all. Will ye be taking sivin punds?”
Farmer: “Not a pinny less thin tin”.
Dealer: “It’s sivin tin, I’ll be afther giving ye”. Not waiting for a reply, walks away to repeat the bargaining with another seller. The farmer is now satisfied that he has a purchaser but he must not be in any hurry.
Dealer (now back again): “Och mun, it’s loosing me money on ye I’ll be”.
Farmer (rather excitedly): “Is it giving ye’s the heifer I’ll be and meself afther feeding her, begorra, fur the last two years? Indade there is not a foiner heifer in County Clare”.
Dealer: “Eight punds is a great price entoirely and the divil a pinny more will I be afther giving ye”.
Farmer (climbing down and polite): “Och sorr would ye’s be afther givin noine punds tin?” Dealer: “Soira a pinny more will I be giving ye”.
After further discussion there is a difference of ten shillings between them. Eight pounds fifteen shillings offered, nine pounds five shillings the price demanded. The dealer is pressing a shilling into the hand of the seller, as earnest money to clinch the bargain, at eight fifteen, the seller stubbornly refusing to accept the shilling. A bystander, noting the deadlock, steps forward as mediator: “Arrah, wid ye not be afther splitting the difference?” After a little further haggling the shilling is accepted, the bargain clinched. They shake hands and arrange to settle the deal at O’Gorman’s over a friendly glass later in the day.
And so the business of the fair is carried on. At O’Gorman’s the dealer hands over the cash, the farmer handing back a trifling sum for luck. A glass of ‘the creature’ closes the business and the farmer wends his way back to the homestead, well-pleased that the dealer did not get the best of the bargain that day.
The Priest’s magic
At certain seasons of the year there was a little fishing carried on but it was on a very small scale, that primitive class of boat, the currach, being the only boat in use. The equipment in line-fishing consisted of a small basket of lines and, with nets, a couple of baskets that could easily be carried on a man’s shoulder.
The canoes, having put to sea one fine evening about the hour of sunset, after reaching the usual fishing ground and casting overboard their nets in the expectation of securing a catch of herrings, their position being about a mile from George’s Head. A rather close fog descended, enveloping the canoes, obscuring the land and the lights from the town. The entrance to the bay was rather narrow and encumbered with dangerous rocks, rather much of a risk for the canoes to make the attempt without being sure of their position.
The canoes were not in any immediate danger but, as the hours passed, midnight arrived, and the fishermen not having returned, although the sea was perfectly calm and smooth, the wives of the men and others became very anxious for the men’s safety. The women, in their distress, most naturally made an appeal to the parish priest, seeking his advice and help. Lights were exhibited on George’s Head and the priest ordered the chapel bells to be rung, rightly concluding that the sound might possibly be heard by the men in the canoes and the direction located.
The hour of midnight passed, the time wore on, and still no sight of the canoes. A dense fog casting an impenetrable gloom over the bay and the town only added to the anxiety of the wives. It was something unusual, something uncanny. Could not the priest help in some way? At last an appeal was made to the young priest – the curate. He arose from his bed and for the consolation of the anxious and distracted women offered prayers for the preservation of the men at sea and for their safe return.
By early morning the women folk, now frantic, accompanied by their friends, again called on the young priest – whose house was the second from mine – seeking his help and guidance. The holy father, sorry to see those of his flock in such distress of mind, and feeling that he could do nothing more, assured them that he had said all his prayers and there was no doubt that the canoes would soon return. With this they were not quite satisfied, and with their continual pleading, he was prevailed on to proceed to George’s Head and there repeat his prayers, at the same time casting a few tiny sacred emblems into the sea.
Very soon after this the sun arose and, rapidly increasing its altitude, eventually scoffed up the fog leaving the harbour entrance all clear and open for the return of the overdue canoes. The men were welcomed with great rejoicing and the reverend father acclaimed as their saviour. His never to be forgotten deed of that morning was sounded in thanks and blessings for many succeeding days.
The little town of Kilkee, although rather dull and sleepy, harked by the unadulterated gales sweeping in from the North Atlantic and moistened by the incessant rain and sea spray which destroyed every item of vegetation during the winter, with the coming of the spring and summer and the numerous visitors arriving daily, became all alive and most attractive.
We had now quite settled down to our surroundings, were well-known and well received by our neighbours, and with an occasional outing with Mc, in his Victoria carriage – used on special occasions – bathing from the sandy beach and roaming over the rocky foreshore with its never ending charms, our existence during the summer season became most enjoyable. Life for me, most certainly, was far and away preferable to the discomforts of the west of Ireland as I had known it when serving afloat.