Sunday, 9 February 2020

Dún Aengus banquet in 1857 (Part one)

When the world came to Árainn in Sep. 1857





Two of the most famous days in the history of Irish antiquity occurred on the Aran Islands in early September 1857. They marked the first stage in bringing to the attention of the world, the vast amount of archeological sites that needed to be cherished and protected and which were in grave danger of being lost forever. Not only on the Aran Islands but all over Ireland.
The British Association meeting was a great boost to the Dublin economy.


The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831. It’s known today as the British Science Association (B.S.A.) In early days it was often just referred to as the British Association.


For the first time since 1835, the Association was having its great annual get together in Ireland and plans were put in place to make it a memorable occasion. 

The Association divided into seven sections and the new buildings at Trinity College Dublin, hosted many of the events and lectures.


Section A.......Mathematics and Physical Sciences
Section B.....Chemical Science
Section C......Geology
Section D....Zoology and Botany including Phycology
Section E.....Geography and Ethnology. 
Section F... Competitive examinations. 

Section E would be the group which would eventually send about 70 members, to the Aran Islands on a voyage of fun and discovery.

While planning for the big meeting, a field trip to the Boyne Valley was first suggested but at a meeting in the Provos of T.C.Ds room, Dr William Wilde convinced the others that Aran was the place that would most impress all the overseas dignitaries.


Sir William Wilde. As colourful and scandalous a genius as his famous son, Oscar.
Also Dr William Stokes who would go on to write the biography of his friend and mentor, George Petrie.

As is often the case, a group of important and wealthy people, can find it very easy to get different businesses and organisations to sponsor the costs and the Midlands and Great Western Railways laid on special trains, all free of charge. 

A problem arose when the Admiralty declined to provide transport from Galway to Aran but this was sorted when the Board of Trinity House, which looked after the lighthouses around the U.K coast, postponed their inspections so that their magnificent steam yacht Vestal, could be used.

Previous to the generous Trinity House offer of the Vestal, it had been hoped that the Screw Steamer Tubal Cain, which worked between Galway/Westport and Liverpool could be chartered, but this proved impossible.

A painting of the Steam Yacht Vestal. ( Many thanks to  Neil Jones of Trinity House)
At 7 A.M. on the morning of Thursday the 3rd of September 1857, the signalman waved his flag and blew his whistle and over 200 exited explorers felt their steam train pull out of Broadstone Railway station in Dublin. Two 1st and two 2nd class carriages set off for the journey across Ireland on a railway which had only been extended to Galway in 1851.
The Station where the Dublin to Galway travellers, started their journey. Opened in 1847. Headquarters of the Midland Great Western Railway company.



The day brightened up after a cloudy start and the passengers noted people harvesting oats and barley. There was discussion also among the passengers as to whether the withered potato stalks they saw, was normal or a sign of blight. This was exactly ten years after the horrendous year of “Black 47” the worst year of the Gorta Mór.

Four hours after leaving Dublin, as the train was pulling in to Galway, the passengers were delighted to see the magnificent Steam Yacht Vestal, lying inside the gates of the dock and with a head of steam up for their Aran adventure. Today this view would not be possible due to later Dockland developments.
Railway extended to Galway in 1851.

The visitors had a cold lunch in Kilroys hotel on Eyre Square (Now The Imperial). William Makepeace Thackeray had stayed here in 1842 and hadn’t been greatly impressed. Today, it’s a favourite spot for many islanders.

Academics, doctors, lawyers and judges were at a distinct disadvantage at a buffet meal, when competing with members of the press. Like most good journalists, our correspondent managed to get to the table early and secure the better part of the food and drink on offer.
His few words on the meal are worth recording again.

There is something agreeably democratic in the hasty and good-humoured repast picked at such a table-it is consoling to get a piece of the breast and a small part of the leg of a plump fowl, and see a learned Professor vainly exploring the regions of gastronomic science for a wing, or some venerable antiquarian pondering over the fossil remains of a chicken or the ruins of a tough hen.

 Later, the party broke up into different groups with some heading off to explore Lough Corrib and Joyce country while others headed for Connemara or the Cliffs of Moher.

At 1 P.M. the remaining 70 or so headed for the docks where the Vestal was waiting just inside the dock gate, and with a head of steam up for the days journey. It was reported that they managed to take in a few Galway sights, on their way to the docks. This group placed themselves under the guidance of Dr William Wilde, father to Oscar, and were described as the Ethnological section.



Many had been disappointed with failing to get a ticket for the Aran adventure as numbers for the two night and three day trip were naturally limited. The only cost incurred by the Aran travellers was £1-10s and this was to provide for almost three days provisions. Sounds like great value and so it was, as the Miss Digbys, who owned the three islands, insisted on meeting all the costs incurred on their islands.

We have often wondered how many islanders were “requested” to “volunteer” their services and labour by the Land agent Thompson, who featured greatly in the words of praise later. Thompson has been implicated in demanding free labour from the islanders, on more than one occasion.

From reading accounts of the visit, we suspect that the visitors were given to understand that The Miss Digbys and Thomson were generously recompensing the Islanders for their services. “Feicfidh mé arís thú” comes to mind and the thanks may have been in the form of less persecution.

But back to the expedition. The list of very important people who travelled to Aran that day is extensive and included people to whom a great debt of gratitude is due for their efforts to investigate and record so much information, before it was lost forever. We intend to list as many as we can, at a later stage.

Perhaps the most famous, of the distinguished visitors, were George Petrie (1790-1866) from Dublin, John O’Donovan (1806-1861) from  Kilkenny and his good friend, Clareman, Eugene O’Curry (1794-1862).

John and Eugene were married to the Broughan sisters of Limerick. Along with the recently dead Mayoman, James Hardiman (1782-1855) these four men and a few others were the Tim Robinson or Séamus Ennis of their time.

Dropping anchor in Cill Éinne bay at just before 4 p.m. the ships boats were lowered with the intention to land the passengers near the old Cromwellian fort, Caisleáin Aircín, in Cill Éinne.
The village of Cill Éinne today, showing Arkin Castle, Round Tower stump and Teampaill Bheanáin on the hill.


Immediately, a number of currachs made their way to the Vestal and some remained exploring the great ship, while the passengers were being rowed ashore. This inspection of the ship reminds us of a grand uncle of ours and his explanation as to why he had taken his mother and sister, in his pony and trap, to a famous holy well in East Galway around the 1890s.

He replied “One for Devotion (his mother) One for Diversion (his sister) and One for the Gapeseed (himself)” Now “Gapeseed” means a good look around which is exactly what the Cill Éinne men wanted.
The Vestal arrived in Aran on the evening of Sep 3rd 1857. Anchored in Cill Éinne Bay for the night. Some slept on board.


It was reported that one visitor bough a dozen lobsters from the Cill Éinne men for four shillings and gave them to the ships cook to prepare.

Having been given  a Tour of the Vestal by Captain Evans, the currach crews started back the almost one mile journey to Cill Éinne. The passengers in the ships rowboats and a boat of the local Coast Guard, had by now covered over half of the distance to shore.


It was with great enjoyment that the last few visitors, who had remained on board, felt their currachs skipping over the waves and in no time, race past the other excursionists with a cheer, as the men of Cill Éinne showed off the speed and versatility of both the native boats and themselves.

The first stop after landing was at the old historic ruins of Arkin Castle which had been built by Cromwell’s soldiers from the stones they plundered from the holy settlement of Naomh Éanna.(St Enda) and the deserted 15th century Franciscan monastery.


The seventeen year old Wakeman had accompanied the great John O’Donovan to Aran in June 1839.
Wakeman and O’Donovan had stayed in Taylor’s Hill with the famous Historian, James Hardiman





Led by Dr Wilde and controlled by his ever present whistle, the group moved on to inspect what was left of the Round Tower of Cill Éinne. Petrie had reported this tower as being much higher when he visited in 1821. A local had claimed that it stood over 80 feet tall, many years previously. This seems to suggest, that the tower may have been knocked during Oiche na Gaoithe Móire in 1839

Local lore however has held that it had been destroyed by a lightening bolt and that the upper stories had before that been used in building Arkin castle. If it came down on the night of the Big Wind in 1839, it’s surprising that the Parish Priest, Michael Gibbons, didn’t mention it in his report of island damage. The bolt of lightening seems a more likely explanation but perhaps some day we’ll find out for sure.
The stump of a the Round Tower of Cill Éinne, which once stood over 80ft tall.

Heavenly interventions in Cill Éinne are nothing new and it was reported that the deep, narrow channel into Cill Éinne harbour was created in 488 AD, to help Naomh Éanna and his monks. It is said that an angel from heaven cut through the rock with a flaming dagger.

At the time, the world’s greatest authority on Irish Round Towers was George Petrie and he undoubtedly gave the group a valuable talk on their origins.

Petrie had achieved heroic status in Ireland for his study of Round Towers. He had demolished the view put forward by others, who claimed that they had been built by the Danes, the native Irish being incapable of such fine feats of engineering.

It should be remembered that while a section of the old Protestant Anglo Irish society embraced the concept of being Irish, others took a very different view. Petrie had challenged and overturned the Round Tower ideas of an English military surveyor, General Charles Vallency (1731-1812). While some had credited them to to Vikings, Vallency had gone overboard completely and suggested they might even be pre Celtic and built by the Phoenicians.

It seems the Irish antiquarians took great delight in educating the visiting dignitaries from England, Scotland and France, who in turn were overwhelmed with all they were seeing and hearing.

Three of the many great great sights to be seen in Cill Éinne..

On reaching Teampall Bhenáin, the visitors had a magnificent panoramic view which covered parts of the three islands, the Connemara mountains and coast, Galway Bay, the Burren and West coast of Clare and even the western tip of Kerry.

They could also view the magnificent Steam Yacht Vestal, which had brought them all safely from Galway as it lay at anchor in Cill Éinne bay.  The Vestal would the next day land them at An Gleanacáin in order to inspect Na Seacht dTeampaill.

Showing great stamina, most of the group now hiked over very rough ground to the cliffs and the great fort of Dún Duchathair (Black Fort), one of our favourite spots on the island. Today, this would involve crossing many stone walls, but we suspect that in 1857, gaps had been knocked by the locals in order to help their progress.



Even if he was from Cork, asking the elderly 29th Provost of Trinity College, Rev Dr Richard MacDonnell (1787-1867) to throw a leg over the stone walls of Árainn, would be considered unthinkable then, as indeed it would be today.

A landscape that might be no bother to an Islander but present great difficulties for a visitor.
The fort as the visitors would have seen it as they approached from Cill Éinne


Dún Ducathair (Black Fort)
Perched on a remote cliff, Dún Duchathair is well worth a visit. A bit smaller today than it was in 1857.

The crags of Aran are not the only connection between Dr MacDonnell and "Rock". He it was who picked out what he deemed to be the best site in Ireland on which to build his new home. Because the view reminded him of the Bay of Naples in Italy, he named it "Sorrento Cottage" a house that would in later years become the home of an Irish Rock legend, David Evans, better known as U2s, The Edge.

Dún Duchathair as viewed from the West.

At Dún Duchathair, John O'Donovan expressed the view that this fort was a thousand years older than the more famous fort at Dún Aengus. Either way, both forts are impressive with the Black Fort's remoteness making it a little more special for some.

From here the group made their way to Cill Rónáin where dinner was had on the deck of  the Vestal. Having only limited accommodation on board, most of the party came ashore and spent the night in Costello's nearby Atlantic Hotel (Aran Sweater Mart), the Coast Guard station (not the present one) and in some of the local houses. At bedtime, a glass of punch was provided for all and the whiskey in Costello’s was deemed “not bad” by men who were used to fine liquor.

Given that the group consisted of people from different religious backgrounds, we can assume that dinner conversation kept well away from theology and even the mention of “soup”, deemed inappropriate.

Operating today as the Aran Sweater Market.


According to the reports, the travelers were more than happy with the sleeping arrangements. The Railway Hotel in Galway, which had opened only five years previously, had provided a generous amount of bedding for both those on the boat and anybody else who required it. This again was all provided free of charge.

The Railway hotel had opened at the very same time, in August 1852, as fifteen young men and boys were lost after being swept by a giant wave, off Aill na nGlasóg, at the Eastern end of the Island.


The next day would see many more adventures, culminating in a great banquet inside the walls at Dún Aengus.
We will return to this in part two which can be read Here



Michael Muldoon, February  2020


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