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






















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