Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Looking for bold Fenian men in 1867.

       The invasion of the Aran Islands in 1867.

At about four O’Clock, on the afternoon of Thursday, April 11th 1867, the inhabitants of The Aran Islands spotted the black smoke, of a magnificent ship, as it approached Cill Rónáin.

They had seen it earlier that day as it steamed past Ceann Boirne and headed down through the South Sound. They assumed it was heading off on one of its regular patrols.

They would have been well used to ships making a passage past the islands, as they made their way, into and out of Galway Bay.

Soon it became obvious that the twin funneled steamer was heading for Cill Rónáin. Eventually the ship dropped anchor in Cill Éinne bay and the islanders quickly realised that this was no ordinary visit.
Where some of the policemen got lodgings.


The islanders noted a large group of armed, uniformed men, gathered on deck. There was speculation as to whether they were military or police. The local coastguard galley along with five of the ships own boats, proceeded to land fifty of the finest of the Galway Constabulary, at the little village of Cill Rónáin. 

They were commanded by the Constabulary Inspector for Galway, Francis Nesbitt Cullen (1830-1889) Francis was a native of Armagh and would rise to the rank of Assistant Inspector General of the R.I.C.

A force divided in rank on sectarian grounds, the vast majority of officers to the rank of Sergeant being Roman Catholic, with officers of a higher rank, being overwhelmingly Protestant. 


According to a later account in national newspapers, the purpose of the invasion was a hunt for the leaders of the abortive Fenian uprising of early March 1867. It was suspected that a number of Fenians had escaped to the islands from County Clare.

The background to this Irish/American organised and funded uprising, was action in different parts of the country, the most significant being in Tallagh, just outside Dublin. After a couple of skirmishes, the Irish Constabulary had suppressed the revolt and in the process, earning for their force the added title of Royal.
The abortive rising of 1867. A small band of police confronted the rebels as they headed for Tallagh Hill.

The American Fenians had the year previously invaded Canada and the home revolt was led by men, many of whom, had seen action on the Union side, in the bloody American civil war.

While most Fenians were from the Union side, it must be recorded that the great hero of our schooldays, John Mitchel of Jail Journal fame,  was a fervent  supporter of the South and lost two sons fighting with the Confederates.

John Mitchel. A pro slavery Fenian
Mitchel, a Young Irelander and later a Fenian leader in America, was a very committed and outspoken supporter of slavery and felt also that giving rights to Jews was against the wishes of God. The mental conflict of supporting Irish freedom and African slavery, is difficult to fathom.

The account of the landing at Cill Rónáin was provided by somebody on the island but as the writer only identified himself as “Fact”, we can only speculate as to who it was.

We would hazard a guess that the author was the local medical officer, Dr. James Johnston Stoney (1811-1869) but there are other possibilities. Dr Stoney was known as a man who put his patients first and was not afraid to cross his fellow co-religionists, who owned and administered the islands.

There is a slight possibility that the letter writer was the Parish priest Daniel Lydon or his curate.


James Stoney was the grandfather of the late American filmmaker, George Stoney, who many of us remember for his time on the island in the 1970s. George was making his ‘Man of Aran’ film critique, How the Myth was Made.

Dr Stoney was twice married and his son and seventeenth child, all living, had been born on Arran the year before in 1866.


James Stoney came to Aran from Borrisokane around 1859, and was to die of a laudanum overdose in June 1869, as he battled to fight a fever outbreak on the islands, while in an exhausted state.

 His grandson George did an interview in 1978 with the late Michaelín Gill (Patcheen), which can be viewed in this preview of the film. Here
A still from the film HOW THE MYTH WAS MADE

The policemen were billeted around the village and more evidence that the letter writer was the doctor, is that he bemoaned the fact that this fine body of men, were put into unaired beds and that they were not accompanied by a medical officer.

A glowing account of the good behaviour of the islanders followed and the writer noted that the good humour of all reflected on how peaceful the Province of Connacht was in recent times.

The uprising had been confined to skirmishes near Dublin and some large assemblies in Cork, Limerick and Drogheda. 

One reason as to why the authorities suspected the islands of harbouring felons, would have been  fairly obvious. 

After the failed 1848 uprising in Tipperary, the Young Irelander and co-founder of the Nation newspaper, John Blake Dillon (1814-1866) and some friends, had been given refuge on the middle island, Inis Meáin.
John was from the border town of Ballaghaderreen, which makes him either a Roscommon or a Mayo man. 
John Blake Dillon, founder of the Nation newspaper with Charles Gavin Duffy and Thomas Davis


Not having any Government agents like, police, coastguard or light-keeps, the middle island was a perfect spot for John B Dillon to hide out in.

We can recall an Inis Meáin man once declaring with pride, that his was the only Aran Island, over which the Union Jack had never flown.

Even though he had a large bounty on his head, Dillon was never betrayed by the islanders and managed to escape, first to France and then to America, where he practised law in New York.
And he wasn’t the last person to hide out on the middle island, as J.M. Synge would discover.

 He returned in 1855 after an amnesty, and was elected M.P. for Tipperary.  John Blake Dillon was the father of the last leader of The Irish Party, John Dillon (1851-1927) and grandfather to the great talker and leader of both the Centre Party and Fine Gael, James Dillon (1902-1986)
1848 Skirmish in Tipperary
Another possible reason for the invasion of 1867, is that it’s likely the authorities had intelligence about an American ship, Erin’s Hope, and a plan by American based Fenians, to land 1,500 modern rifles and over 1.5 million rounds of ammunition, somewhere on the west coast of Ireland.


A typical American anti Irish cartoon, depicting the Irish as an ape like bunch of terrorists.

This ship, formerly called the Jacknell, had been used as a privateer during the recently concluded American civil war. The whole project failed, even though they did manage to reach Sligo and later, Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

 While most of the men landed in Ireland were captured, the vastly experienced Captain and crew, managed to outrun the Royal Navy and make it back to New York. 

The Queenstown based, HMS Helicon would spend much of 1867, intercepting and searching south and west coast shipping, in an effort to intercept arms shipments from America.

An added incentive for the authorities in Galway wanting to visit the island, was the failure of the steamer, “Pennsylvania”, two weeks previously, to get any assistance as it struggled into the North Sound. It had signalled repeatedly for a pilot but neither a pilot nor a coast guard responded.

The American captain had remarked later that it was strange that he hadn’t encountered any Royal Navy ships, keeping watch to the approaches to the west coast.

The Philadelphia was making a passage from New York to Liverpool when it encountered engine trouble and shortage of coal, and managed to avoid the infamous rocks of Galway Bay, before anchoring off Spiddal. 


It’s 54 passengers were taken off and brought by train to Kingstown. There was much speculation as to how, in different circumstances, an enemy ship could have come so far without notice.

A humorous story was told of a ships captain berating his  pilot after his ship got stuck on a rock. The captain roared  “I thought you said you  knew every rock in Galway Bay”, to which his pilot responded, “indeed an I do Captain, an that’s one of them”

The Arran invasion force of 1867, divided up the next morning with half of the force going back on board the HMS Helicon, in order to carry out a raid on the middle island.

The other half commenced a search of the big island and it would appear that they didn’t expect to find much, going by the good humour and  party atmosphere of the group. 

They found nothing and even if there were Fenians hiding out on the islands, there was little chance they would have found them, as the islanders were experts at concealing unlicensed dogs, wrack and other illegal goods, from the six local police and the occasional revenue man.


The letter writer remarks how there is very little serious crime on the island and pointed out how few children are born outside marriage.

His anti landlord position is made clear when he mentions that this good living state of affairs “exists without the much boasted influence of a resident Landlord, or even his agent, the latter functionary only making his appearance twice in the year, with his saddlebag of books and leather purse for gold

The reference to the saddlebag of books is an obvious dig at the proselytising attempts of the land agent, Thomas Thompson. This would come to a head soon, after the four children of an Aran widow, ended up in Protestant foster care and a bread war and boycott, which became very bitter. A long story we may return to again.





What the island women made of the fine body of young men in uniform, with shiny buttons, boots and belts, topped with impressive headwear, was not recorded. 
We can only assume the policemen got a better reception from the women of Árainn in 1867, than their comrades got twenty years later. And that wouldn’t be difficult.

After a fruitless search of the islands, on Friday evening, all got back aboard the Helicon with the intention of heading back to Galway. However, a squall got up and the Helicon Captain, Edward Field, decided to stay on anchor for another night.

This resulted in the policemen having to disembark in the rain and spend another damp night on the island. A few more pounds for the island economy.

The writer speculated as to what the authorities in Galway would think, when their invasion force failed to return at the time arranged. Perhaps another Lord Franklin mystery was about to unfold.


The Steam wharf in Galway where the policemen disembarked.

It was noted that this was the greatest influx of visitors since the great gathering of antiquarians, ten years earlier, in 1857, an event we covered in some detail recently.

The antiquarians of 1857 had the good manners to inform the islanders well in advance, so that they could have beds ready for them.
The 1857 visit can be viewed Here
 
H.M.S Helicon. Launched in 1865,  later converted to Admiralty yacht and renamed Enchantress. Saw action in Egypt .
220 feet long with a beam of 28 feet and top speed of 14 knots. Broken up in 1889.


The raid of April 1867 was of much less importance to the islands than a series of evictions the same year, on both Árainn and Inis Oirr. This caused much hardship. Eviction notices were issued for seventeen families although only seven were eventually evicted. Most of these were later reinstalled as caretakers.

One Islander in Eoghanacht named Berry, was driven from the island. He had brought a destitute family into the island from Connemara and Thompson felt this family should return to where they came from.

Twenty years later, in 1887, The Royal Irish Constabulary suffered a humiliating defeat at Cath an Chaircir Mhóir, when accompanying a process server as he tried to serve his notices of eviction. We covered that great victory by the women of Cill Éinne, many years ago Here

There would be other raids on the islands by armed officers, the second last being an invasion by the infamous Black ‘n Tans in 1920, when the innocent and unarmed, Lawrence McDonagh, was shot on the Low road, as he made his way to mass. He would die from his wounds, a few days later.


The last armed invasion was the arrival of Free State soldiers during the Irish civil war, as they occupied the old RIC barracks and Coast Guard station. The barracks was later occupied by Ireland’s unarmed police force, An Garda Síochána.

Other than the occasional raid by Revenue officers, hunting down green diesel or patrolling the coast for smugglers, Irish naval personnel on patrol or helicopter crews on humanitarian missions, the Islands have been spared uniformed invasions in recent times. 

We look forward to tourist invasions returning, when the danger of Covid-19 has passed



Ml Muldoon, May 2020



Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Nobody left behind, neither man nor dog.

The Mutton Island rescue of January 1962.
Boxer dog just  like ‘Dutch’ , who was rescued in 1962.


In the days when accurate forecasting was difficult, many seafarers were caught out by sudden changes in the weather.

Such was the case during storms that struck Ireland and the U.K. during mid January, 1962.
Photo from a film by Pádraig A Ó Síocháin (1905–1995) 


Many lifeboats around the coast, were called to assist boats in trouble and among those who ventured out, was the Cill Rónáin based Galway Bay Lifeboat, under the command of Coxswain Colm Ó hIarnáin. (Coley Hernon)

The 400 ton Dutch coaster MV June, under the command of Captain Dantuna, had been battling the South West Gales on Monday the 15th, when she got into difficulties near the tiny Mutton Island, which lies at the entrance to Galway port.
Second mechanic Bartley Maoláin on the radio and Coxswain Coley Hernon standing on the right. 





This was on the Monday afternoon of the 15th and it was hoped that the situation could be retrieved when the storm abated. 

She had been making a passage from Sligo, in order to pick up a cargo of pyrite cinders for Glasgow. This was part of the long gone Tynagh mines operation.

Radio contact with the June had been made with another Dutch coaster, the MV Patricia, which was safely tied up in Galway Dock.
The June captain had declined to leave his boat until after he had assessed the situation at low tide on Tuesday evening. The lull in the storm during Tuesday morning was the cause of this misjudged optimism.


However, the harbourmaster at Galway, Lt Commander James Whyte, formerly of the Irish Navy, had alerted the lifeboat in Cill Rónáin, in the correct belief that they might well be needed. The June had lowered her lifeboats in order to be ready to leave at short notice but their situation became critical when these boats were washed away as the storm increased in strength.

Captain Whyte had also requested the lifeboat to be prepared to have to use their “breeches buoy” in the course of the rescue.

Sure enough, as the storm increased, it was realised that the June was being driven further on to the rocks and it became obvious that a rescue would definitely need to be undertaken, in order to save the men aboard and, as it turned out, the ships dog “Dutch”

On arrival in Galway , Coley Hernon and his seven companions, realised that the exposed position the June had settled on, would make a rescue extremely difficult. It was obvious too that the lifeboat would not be able to go alongside and that a small boat and volunteers to row it, would be needed.

Continuing into Galway Dock, the lifeboat returned to the scene, towing a small rowing boat from the Patricia. Also aboard the lifeboat was the Captain of the Patricia and the Dutch owner of the June, Mr J Klugist from Dalkey.

It was dark as the lifeboat arrived back and as the June had lost all power, it was only with the lifeboat searchlight and intermittent flashes from the nearby lighthouse, that Coley and his crew could assess the situation.

Sheltering on the leeward side of Mutton Island, the small boat was landed on the pitch black shore and then manually hauled across the island to the exposed spot where the stricken June was being battered. Coley had the benefit of local knowledge from Harbour staff member, Claddaghman Michael Carrick, who was also aboard the lifeboat and had volunteered his assistance.

Leaving their companions, who had helped drag the small boat across Mutton Island, the 12 ft boat was then manned by lifeboatmen, the late Thomás Joyce and the late Bartley Maoláin, who battled really atrocious conditions as they managed to get the six members of the Dutch/Spanish crew, safely aboard the lifeboat.The Captain and engineer of the June had stayed aboard their stricken ship.
Coxswain Coley Hernon on the left with regular lifeboat crewman, Brian Fitzpatrick. (Taken in 1966)

Crewman Thomás Joyce, who made two trips in the small boat.

Crewman Bartley Maoláin , taken a few years ago at the launching of a new lifeboat.

Crewman Paddy Quinn, fishing for sceanna mara (razor fish), a few years ago.


It was only after the intervention of the ships owner that Captain Dantuna agreed to leave his ship. After their great feat of seamanship and with only the light of the lifeboat searchlight, Thomás and Bartley were prepared to return again. At this stage it was decided that crewman Paddy Quinn would replace his neighbour, Bartley and he and Thomás set off for the second rescue. 

At this stage a problem arose with regard to the ship’s dog, a boxer named ”Dutch”, as a Department of Agriculture official was of the opinion that under rabies protection protocols, poor “Dutch” would have to remain on board and be rescued later.
Ships dog “Dutch” after being rescued.
“Leave no man behind, nor dog either.”


The crew of the June naturally objected to this and when the Lifeboat men said they weren’t leaving without the dog, a compromise was agreed. This involved “Dutch” being taken aboard the lifeboat, but on reaching the dock, transferring immediately to the other Dutch boat, the Patricia. Thus “Dutch” would not be setting foot (or paw) on rabies free Ireland.

The manager of the Railway Hotel offered food and accommodation to both the rescued and the rescuers and one of the R.N.L.I patrons, Michael Morris (Lord Kilannin) of An Spidéal, arrived to offer his congratulations. 
The Great Southern Hotel in Galway which provided food and accommodation for all involved in the Mutton Island rescue.

All this was done in the dark and while a fierce gale raged and conditions were so rough that the lifeboat rode out the storm in the shelter of Galway Dock and didn’t return to base until later on Wednesday afternoon.

For their efforts, all eight members of the Aran Lifeboat received Bravery Certificates, with four of them, Coxswain Coley Hernon, assistant mechanic Bartley Maoláin, and crewmen Thomás Joyce and Paddy Quinn receiving the institute’s bronze medal for bravery.
All dead now with Bartley being the last to go. May they rest easy.

As a small boy, I can remember seeing the June as it lay on the rocks at Mutton Island. Can also remember seeing it slowly disappear as it was broken up for scrap. Today, there is a causeway to the island to facilitate a water treatment plant. A causeway that would have saved a lot of bother if it were there in 1962.
The MV June as some of us remember her in 1962. As can be guessed from this photo,
her back was broken and she was scrapped where she lay.



The lifeboat institute also sent letters of thanks to Michael Carrick for his help that stormy night and to Commander Whyte for coordinating the onshore rescue efforts and for a brave but unsuccessful attempt to rescue the crew, using the harbour launch, before the arrival of the Cill Rónáin lifeboat.


Michael Morris, Lord Killanin (1914-1999) who presented the bravery certificates to eight crew members.


In July 1962, the entire crew were presented with bravery awards by Lord Killanin at Galway and later in April 1963, four crew members, Coxswain Coley Hernon, Bartley Maoláin, Thomás Joyce and Paddy Quinn, travelled to London where they were presented with bronze medals by the very popular Princess Marina. 
The Greek /Danish, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent


Coley had brought a model of an Aran currach with him to London and spent some time explaining to the Princess, how it was constructed and how well adapted this type of boat was, to West coast conditions.

This was not the first time that Aran lifeboat men had gone to London to be presented with awards for bravery. 
Steam Trawler Nogi in 1938 ( Fr Browne)

Coxswain in 1938, John Gill and Fr Keane. (Photo Fr. Browne)
1939 award ceremony in London.


In 1939, Coxswain John Gill and his crew had been similarly honoured for a rescue not unlike the 1962 effort. In 1938 they had succeeded in rescuing the crew of  the Welsh Steam Trawler Nogi, after it was driven ashore on Oileán na Tuí (Straw Island) in Cill Éinne bay. We did a F.B. post on this a few years ago, in August 2016 Here


 By a strange twist of fate, the man who presented the medals in 1939, was the husband of the woman who presented the medals in 1963.

Prince George, Duke of Kent was an uncle to the present Queen Elizabeth. He was an extremely colourful and sometimes scandalous member of the Royal family and it was a great public occasion when he married the beautiful Greek/Danish Princess Marina in 1934. They were deemed the golden couple by an admiring British public.
Prince George (1902-1940) & Princess Marina (1906-1968)
Both presented bravery medals to Aran crews in 1939 and 1963


George was to die in a flying boat crash, just three years later in 1942, at the age of 39, while flying from Scotland to Iceland. His wife Marina would continue to be a supporter of the R..N.L.I and this is how she came to present the medals in 1963.

In another coincidence, 1963 and 1939 were years in which the lifeboat family suffered huge losses. Two lifeboat crews were lost in 1939, at Cullercoats station near Tyneside Castle and another at St Ives in Cornwall. 

In November 1963, the Seaham station in Durham lost all  five crew members when their boat, George Elmo, was overturned just 30 yards from shore as they approached the mouth of the harbour. They had rescued four men and a nine year old boy from the sinking fishing boat MFV Economy. Nine were lost that day, with only the 32 year old father of the boy, surviving.


Above.....A lifeboat crew from the early 50s

A lifeboat crew from 1967. A different rescue. All gone now.


The rescue of the boxer dog “Dutch” in 1962, brings to mind another rescue in 2014. This involved two horses which had been stranded on a small island on the Carra lake near Cill Rónáin, after the winter storms caused a massive inundation  of the sea.
Two marooned horses after the January  2014 storms.



 Lifeboat crew, helping with the horse rescue of January 2014


Safe at last with the marooned island in the background

As we get ready to battle the Covid-19 virus, it’s important that we remember to try and help one another and refrain from selfish  behaviour that can so easily become widespread.

It’s no harm to remember that helping others, with no expectation of reward, has brought great benefit to humanity and those who went before us, would expect this generation to do now, as they so selflessly did, in the past.

Ml. Muldoon March 2020

Friday, 14 February 2020

Dún Aengus Banquet in 1857 (Part two)

Day two of the excursion by the British Association to Arran in 1857. 




For some background on the group members, go to this Link

After a good nights sleep, the distinguished visitors were looking forward to another day of exploration and discovery.

A small number of the group of seventy, spent the night on board the Steam Yacht Vestal which lay at anchor in the bay. The rest spread out around the village. Some in the Atlantic Hotel, local houses and some at the old Coast Guard station of those days.

There was a slight problem with milk supplies next morning but the sound of a coileach crowing early in the morning had them looking forward to eggs for breakfast and they weren’t disappointed.

After breakfast, they all once again were rowed out to the Vestal which soon set steam for the shore at An Gleannachán and Na Seacht dTeampaill (Seven Churches) about six miles west of Cill Rónáin.


The Vestal having to anchor well off shore, the visitors once again made their way in the ships boats, to the rocky shore at An Gleannacháin.



We often visit this shore when driving visitors around the island in our bus and it always brings to mind a vision of the 70 or so excursionists being landed here more than 160 years ago and the magnificent Steam Yacht Vestal, riding at anchor. 




A large crowd of locals had gathered as they would have been expecting the visitors and a large number of ponies were waiting to convey the pilgrims to Na Seacht dTeampaill and beyond.

Some of the naturalists in the company had delayed at the shore as they inspected the sharp rocks and the creatures that had excavated homes for themselves out of the ancient limestone.

Some of the group had visited here before and Petrie, in the presence of the Parish Priest and the local middleman, Patrick O’Flaherty, had once opened the grave of St. Breacán. They had inspected a well preserved skull before placing everything back as they found it. The grave had been previously opened in the 1790s.

The name “Seven Churches” is of a relatively recent identification. In truth there are but two churches, the other buildings being the normal monastic outhouses and dormitories.
A sketch of Na Seacht dTeampaill from 1880.


In ancient Papal documents, this settlement is referred to as Dísert Brecán (Brecan’s desert) referring to the saint who it’s believed founded it.

The visitors were blessed to have experts like Petrie, O’Donovan, Wilde and O’Curry on hand to give them their best opinions, on the entire site. The people of the three islands and Connemara had made this spot an important pilgrimage site and the habit was to tie a piece of cloth to the bushes in the hope of prayers being answered.
Na Seacht dTeampaill with the landing spot in the background. From circa 1900.

One member of the expedition would later write a letter of complaint to the newspapers, about the actions of one of his companions. He wrote of a visitor who thought nothing of breaking off a branch with some ribbons attached in order to have something to show his friends, as proof of the ridiculous practises of the Papists. Surely a man who needed a good kick up the arse, if any man ever did.
The disputed inscription 
The debate of what the inscription “VII ROMANI” meant was once again activated. Some thought it referred to Seven Romans while others had different interpretations. The great Scottish doctor, James Young Simpson even suggested that it might mean “Sci Ronani” or the grave of St Ronan. This caused O’Donovan to wonder privately if Simpson, for religious reasons, was desperate to remove any mention of Rome.
A recent photo we took of the Seven Graves in the Seven Churches.

With Dr Wilde blowing his whistle as he led the way, the party, some walking, some on horseback, now made their way the half mile to the great circular inland Fort of Dún Eoghanacht. 

The great Fort of Dún  Eoghanacht with Connemara in the distance.
The fort showed signs of decay and the Landlady’s agent Thomas H Thompson, proceeded to give a speech to the locals about not damaging this important monument. The type of speech that would be heard again later at Dún Aengus.
Clonskeigh Castle in Dublin. Home of Thomas Higginbotham Thomson
We suspect that Thompson, Grand Master of the Orange Lodge at Trinity College, was not a Gaelic speaker and his speech aimed at impressing the visitors, as many of the locals would not have understood what he was saying.
The view from Dún Eoghanacht with Ceann Boirne in the far, far distance.
What the locals made of the eccentrically dressed visitors, with their sun hats and umbrellas, will never be known but it would not have escaped them that there were people in the world who were not so exhausted from staying alive, as to have the time and energy to be inspecting antiquities. 

At Dún Eoghanacht, John O’Donovan was asked as to its age and he suggested it was a younger fort than Dún Duchathair, it being only about two thousand years old.

From here the group either mounted their ponies or walked, all the way to the great cliffs to the west of Dún Aengus.

The cliffs to the West of Dún Aengus 
A demonstration of how the locals descend the cliffs to gather wrack, fish and gather birds eggs and feathers, was especially laid on for the visitors.

The cliffs are very high at this spot and one of the three men who showed how it was done was said to be well over sixty years old. This practise had cost men their lives both before and after this time.

The reporter noted that it was as well that ladies were not permitted on the tour to the islands as they would surely have been overcome with the sight of men going over a cliff with just a flimsy rope to cling to.

Apart from being patronising, this may have been deliberately untrue as some reports mention William Stokes’ wife Mary Black and daughter Margaret as being part of the group.  Margaret certainly was better qualified than most of those in attendance to appreciate the antiquities on display.
Samuel Ferguson’s wife, Mary Catherine Guinness, a woman with vast knowledge of Irish history, was also part of the group.
Photo of the antiquarian, Margaret Stokes in later years.

The patriarchal Victorian society of those days had a strange sense of what could be acknowledged publicly and this may explain how the women present were not named.

It’s also possible that the exclusion of women on the tour might be explained by the reluctance of Gentlemen, to trust the company of their wives, daughters or sisters to the leader of the excursion, Dr William Wilde. 

Dr Wilde’s somewhat Bohemian reputation was such that they may have even been reluctant to let their mothers or grandmothers, join his illustrious group. 


Screenshot from a 1924 Pathe News item, filmed in the same spot.

Some of the visitors were sure that disaster was inevitable and it was with relief that the three men made it to the bottom and back up again. The reporter noted how the old man had rolled about the ground with joy, after being hauled up, the adrenaline rush obviously having its effect.
Sixty seven years later, Pathe News crew getting a similar demonstration from probably the descendants of the 1857 climbers.

The reporter also hoped that the cliffmen of Aran would be well recompensed by the Landladies Digby, for their very dangerous but entertaining display. Hummmm.

This demonstration of cliff climbing was located not far from where a great agrarian outrage of the land wars, would take place in Jan 1881.

This involved the blindfolding and cliffing of cattle belonging to the local middleman, James O’Flaherty by among others, the writers Liam and Tom O’Flaherty’s father and uncle.

Cliff climbing and descending is still practised by a few but most of the regular participants are either dead or have retired.

For those who want an idea of just how dangerous this practise was, we recommend a read of Tom O'Flaherty's, CLIFFMEN OF THE WEST. 
Greenland, not Aran but an idea of the risks involved in moving along narrow ledges, and sometimes in the dark.
 The cliff climbing was dangerous enough but it was the crawling along narrow ledges, sometimes in the dark, that on occasion led to disaster.

From here it was only a short hop to the main attraction of the entire expedition, Dún Aengus.
Many of our readers will have visited this great fort and no matter how many times one visits, it is always a source of great wonder and pride.



For those unfamiliar with Dún Aengus, here is a piece of film we did a few years ago while waiting for our bus passengers, who were visiting the great fort. You can even see a close up of the more daring passenger Here  as they peer over the edge.


The hampers of food and drink had arrived before them and were assembled on the stage-like rock platform, familiar to those who have visited.

This stage, which runs to the cliff edge is a natural table and a perfect spot from where to deliver a speech.

The crew of the Vestal and some locals proceeded to dispense the meal and it was noted that they were very diligent in their use of a corkscrew which sets the mood for the great Banquet.

It’s not hard to picture the scene. A lovely, sunny September day with the group of visitors lounging on the grass in front of the stage as they feasted where prehistoric people had once lived and taken shelter. And gathered on the ancient ramparts, the locals, enjoying the whole, exotic spectacle.

The meal being finished, we now move on to the speeches. First up was the leader of the group, Dr William Wilde.(Later Sir William)



Dr Wilde made a few words of welcome before calling on the venerable Provost of Trinity College, Dr Richard MacDonnell, to chair the official Arran meeting, of the British Association.
Rev Richard MacDonnell

Here is how one reporter present, set the scene.

The repast having been terminated, the Provost was called to the chair (the side of a rock). And here on Dún Aengus, with the tourists lying on the grass, partaking of sherry or porter, some smoking cigars, others sitting with becoming gravity-not indulging in the weed- the Atlantic at the rear and groups of peasantry in front, scattered over the broken stones of the fort, one of the meetings of the British Association was held.

This reporter also mentions Frenchmen, Germans and Americans as being among the visitors. We have been unable to identify who the American or German visitors were but Samuel Ferguson was based in Germany at the time. German scholars were to the forefront in both researching and recording ancient Irish texts during these years and later. Some had visited Aran to do research.

Petrie opened with words of praise for the local middleman and Justice of the Peace, Patrick O’Flaherty of Cill Muirbhigh. He mentioned the assistance Patrick had given him on previous visits to the islands, right back to his first in 1821.


Patrick has been described as “King” of the islands for much of the early years of the 19th century, who dished out justice as local magistrate, from his home in Cill Muirbhigh.

It was usually recorded that he was a fair and honourable man, much loved by the islanders, who accepted his legal decisions without question and would take themselves off to Galway jail when sentenced. 

It must be noted however, that most, if not all, of the people who wrote these glowing accounts, including George Petrie, had availed of Patrick’s hospitality when visiting the island. It’s hardly credible that Patrick amassed so much land and wealth without causing hardship to other islanders.

Patrick and his son James were Catholics but it matters little whether a person’s oppressor is Catholic, Protestant or indeed Atheist.
Patrick was related to the much loved Parish Priest of the Islands, Francis O’Flaherty, who died in 1825.

According to Tim Robinson in his book, Stones of Aran, Patrick was most likely born in 1781 which would have made him about 76 years old, that day at Dún Aengus. 

Patrick it was who composed the census of 1821 and it’s  noticeable that he refused to grant an “O” before the surname of any other Flahertys on the island, except for himself, his immediate family and Fr Francis in Cill Rónáin.

Also present that day was Patrick’s son James (1816-1881) who would have much trouble during the 1880s Land Wars, culminating in his cattle being cliffed. Just for the record, James’ youngest daughter would later marry the son of the great historian, James Hardiman.
Grave of James O’Flaherty
James is also remembered on the islands as “An Pocaide Bán” (White Billygoat)  for his predatory behaviour with some island women. We wrote a bit about James before.Here




But enough about the Middlemen and back to the speeches.


Martin Haverty gives a good account of the speeches while the newspaper reporters preferred to make colourful comments on the audience and location.

William Wilde then drew attention to some of the illustrious guests seated on the grass and named off quite a few. 

With one or two glaring exception, the greatest living antiquarians of Ireland were present that day. One missing expert was the Rev.James Henthorn Todd of Trinity College. Wilde said he had a letter of regret from James.
Rev Professor James H Todd of TCD 1805-1869

James H Todd was one of the greatest curators and explorers of Irish antiquity and much of what we have today is down to his ceaseless work, with both the Irish Archeological Society which he co founded and as librarian at Trinity College, where he worked with O’Donovan and O’Curry.

If Thomas H Thompson was the face of extreme, evangelical Protestantism, James H Todd was from its more humane and liberal wing. He was a close friend of many of those present.

Apart from their chairman Provost MacDonnell, Dr Wilde mentioned, the painter Frederick Burton, secretary of the Geographical society Dr Nathaniel Shaw, secretary of the Antiquarian society of Scotland Dr J.M.Mitchell, Dublin historian John T Gilbert, Mr Samuel Ferguson, George Petrie, John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry, Professor Charles Babington, Dr William Stokes, the French Consul Frédéric De Burggroff ,secretary of the Irish Academy Dr Charles Graves and Dr James Young Simpson.

A more detailed list of more than fifty of the group, with some background, can be read here.


Dr Wilde went on to explain why he had chosen Arran and didn’t miss the opportunity to get a dig in at the Admiralty, for refusing to supply a boat.

He outlined all the work he had done in trying to charter a boat in Liverpool and then thanked the authorities at Trinity House for generously making their Steam Yacht available.

Much praise was given to the absent Lord Stanley of Alderley (1802-1869) for securing their means of transport.
He was at the time President of the Board of Trade in Palmerstown’s government.

Dr Wilde thanked all those who had assisted him, the railways, the fishery board and the Railway Hotel in Galway.

He was very fulsome in his gratitude to the Miss Digbys, owners of the Aran Islands and their most helpful Land Agent, Thomas H Thompson.
He went on to thank Mr Eagar, whom he had sent to the islands a week previously, in order to have everything running smoothly for the expedition.

He was especially grateful to Professor Croker King from the Queen’s College in Galway, who had coordinated things in in the West and helped make the expedition such a success.

In short, he thanked everybody and anybody who had helped to make the trip such a success. He thanked Mr Armstrong, the secretary to the expedition who probably did more than any other, in getting things organised.

We first heard about this great event in history, more than forty years ago in the Castle Hotel in Galway. The man who regaled the company was the late Brendán Ó hEithir and what interested Brendán most were the speeches of Wilde and others.
The late Brendán Ó hEithir. Broadcaster, writer and journalist  (1930-1990)
Wilde had lectured the islanders, gathered on the ramparts as they watched the great feast in progress, about the damage that was being done to the stonework of the fort, by youngsters hunting for a paltry rabbit.

With his trademark mixture of humour and outrage, Brendán remarked on how only somebody who had never known hunger could say such an insensitive thing, just a few years after the Great Hunger, when a meal of a rabbit might be all that stood between life and death.
A photo from the 1890s of a restored Fort.  (National Library of Ireland)

But back to the speeches. Dr Wilde complained also that some who had initially said they were going on the trip failed to take up their tickets, causing great confusion for the organisers. At this stage he was about to compete with Fr Ted as to speech making but he quickly returned to words of praise.

He finished by reminding the islanders that the great fort was built by their ancestors and that they had a duty to defend and protect their great monuments, which the whole world would soon come to view. He certainly wasn’t wrong there.

Dr Stokes spoke of how Ireland was the only country in Europe where sites of antiquity were not afforded protection and called on the Government to take responsibility. The barrister Thomas O’Hagan (later Sir Thomas) seconded this and the motion was carried.
  Dr William Stokes (1804-1878)


 Next to speak was one of England’s greatest ever botanists, Charles Babington of Cambridge University. Charles had some knowledge of the botany of the islands but revealed that the antiquities of Aran were almost unknown in England. He was a keen archeologist and did indeed devote some attention to Aran, in later years.



He proposed a vote of thanks to Dr Wilde and this was seconded by another Englishman, Dr Norton Shaw.

On behalf of the Scottish members, the great Dr. James Young Simpson now stepped forward to much acclaim and added his thanks for the great tour and banquet. He reminded the gathering that the Scotch and the Irish are from the one race and he mentioned the many Irish sites he had explored, some in the company of Dr Wilde.
On the left is the famous Scottish doctor, James Young Simpson (1811-1870)
Next to speak was Dr Graves of Trinity college and he proposed that efforts be made to bring to the attention of the Government, the many ancients sites of Aran that needed to be documented and protected. Dr Graves would go on to be Anglican Bishop of Limerick.


This was seconded by Dr Jellett and once again thanks and congratulations were extended to all those involved in the excursion.

In response to the kind words spoken about the owners of the Aran Islands, the land agent Thompson responded on their behalf.

Next to speak was the Consul of France, Frédéric De Burggroff who added his thanks. Although he spoke in French, his speech was probably as well understood by many of the islanders present as some of the previous speeches in English.

The heroic Captain Rochfort Maguire of the Royal Navy and Mullingar, now added a few words.  He had just returned from his fruitless search for the missing Lord Franklin expedition. For some background see the notes on the list of visitors

Responding to Dr Wilde’s censure of the admiralty, he pointed out that as it was another branch of government that had provided the Vestal Steamship, it didn’t matter whether it was the Navy or Trinity House who provided transport.
All’s well that ends well.
Rochfort Maguire from Mullingar. A hero of the Royal Navy.


Eugene O’Curry was now called on to say a few words and as Eugene was a native Irish speaker, reared not far from Inis Oirr, in South West Clare, he could be easily understood by all the locals.
Professor Eugene O’Curry 1794-1862
Eugene reiterated the importance of preserving non Christian sites like Dún Aengus. Religious practise had helped greatly in preserving the many early Christian sites on the islands. Like Dr Wilde had said previously in English, he asked that the hunting of rabbits be suspended around historical sites.

By all accounts he was warmly applauded by the islanders who would have been well able to understand his Irish, even if it was in the slightly foreign Munster dialect.

John O’Donovan followed, giving a description of how he found the island when he and the teenage Wakeman first visited in 1839. John spoke in both English and Irish and what the islanders made of his Kilkenny Irish in unknown. In truth John had a command of all the dialects of Ireland, and indeed Scotland,  from both his studies and his Ordinance Survey travels.
John O’Donovan from Kilkenny (1806-1861)

The man employed as guide to the expedition, Paddy Mullen, then said a few words in Irish, again pointing out the importance of the ruins and the need to preserve them.

Paddy was, we believe, the grandfather of Pat Mullen of Man of Aran fame.

Before the meeting broke up, a piper struck up a few tunes and it is recorded that the Consul of France and others, danced a jig within the ancient walls. A  jig of delight in the bastion where the visitors believed the Firbolgs of ancient times, made their last, desperate stand.
Painting of the 19th century Clare piper, Pádraig Ó Briain by Joseph P Haverty. While some accounts mention bagpipes, we suspect that these were the type of pipes that were used.
From here the party moved to the ruins of the old church of Teampall Mac Duagh in the village of Cill Muirbhigh. This is located in the grounds of the present day Guest House, Kilmurvey House.


Some entertainment for both the visitors and the islanders, was provided at the nearby Cill Muirbhigh Bay as nine currachs raced each other around the anchored Vestal, in perfect sea conditions and warm sunshine.

Many islanders enjoyed the spectacle and we can assume they took some time off from the usual September tasks of digging out potatoes and catching mackerel from both boat and rock.

As the evening began to descend, the tired but well satisfied visitors now made their way to the anchored steamboat and when all were aboard, weighed anchor and steamed to Cill Rónáin. 

Next morning the Vestal headed for the middle island Inis Meáin, where the party came ashore and explored the magnificent circular fort, Dún Chonchuir (Conor.)
The great Fort of Inis Meáin, Dún Chonchuir, which the visitors explored on their way home.




They then had a good look at the South Island,  as they sailed past Inis Oirr and viewed the cliffs of Moher from below, before returning past Black Head and into Galway Bay. We are sure the people of Inis Oirr had a good look at the Vestal too with its noisy steam engines billowing out smoke.

After disembarking at Galway docks, the party had time for dinner before making their way to the railway station, where a train at 6.30 PM was waiting to bring them back to Dublin.
Crossing the Shannon at Athlone


And so ends the story of the great British Association expedition to Aran of September 1857.
Group travelled back  to Dublin by steam train.
Journeys end at Dublin. Terminus at Broadstone station.

Well not quite the end.

While the others headed back, a number of the visitors remained behind in Cill Rónáin where Petrie had rented a house for ten days or so. 

From here they explored all three islands by day and at night invited locals in to tell stories and sing old songs. 

Petrie was a fine fiddler and he wrote down the many new tunes they were hearing while O’Curry wrote down the words in Irish. 
Stayed on for 10 days of exploring and painting.

This  group consisted of George Petrie, Eugene O’Curry, Samuel Ferguson, Frederick Burton, William Stokes and his son Whitley. Ferguson’s wife, Mary Guinness and William Stokes’ wife Mary and daughter Margaret, also remained on the island.
Sir Samuel Ferguson, who stayed on after the main group left.

Petrie’s biographer described those great evenings of music and song In Cill Rónáin as follows.

" To this cottage when evening fell, Petrie, with his manuscript music-book and violin and always accompanied by his friend O'Curry, used to proceed. Nothing could exceed the strange picturesqueness of the scenes which night after night were thus presented. On approaching the house, always lighted up by a blazing turf fire, it was soon surrounded by the islanders, while its interior was crowded with figures, the rich colours of whose dresses heightened by the fire-light, showed with a strange vividness and variety, while their fine countenances were all animated with curiosity and pleasure. It would have required a Rembrandt to paint the scene. 

The minstrel, sometimes an old woman, sometimes a beautiful girl, or a young man was seated on a low stool in the chimney-corner, while chairs for Petrie and O'Curry were placed opposite; the rest of the crowded audience remained standing. The song having been given, O'Curry wrote the Irish words, when Petrie's work began. 

The singer recommenced, stopping at a signal from him at every two or three bars of the melody to permit the writing of the notes, and often repeating the passage until it was correctly taken down, and then going on with the melody, exactly from the point where the singing was interrupted. 

The entire air being at last obtained, the singer, a second time, was called to give the song continuously, and when all corrections had been made, the violin, an instrument of great sweetness and power was produced, and the air played as Petrie alone could play it, and often repeated.

 Never was the inherent love of music among the Irish people more shown than on this occasion; they listened with deep attention, while their heartfelt pleasure was expressed, less by exclamations than by gestures; and when the music ceased, a general and murmured conversation, in their own language, took place, which would continue until the next song was commenced."

We have come to the end of the great excursion to the Aran Islands of the British Association in 1857 and for more information on the people who participated, please go to this Link

Michael Muldoon Feb 2020