Monday 12 October 2020

The Three Wheeled Terror of 1931.

       Jan and Cora Gordon, travel writers on 3 wheels.

Jan and Cora and their famous motorbike and sidecar.

 The year 1931 saw many visitors to the Aran islands, but surely one of the strangest sights on the roads of the island, was the motorbike and sidecar that the highly talented artists, musicians and travel writers, Jan and Cora Gordon, arrived with in September.


Jan Gordon (1882-1944) was an English writer, musician and artist. His wife Cora (Jo) Turner Gordon (1879-1950) was similarly talented and she and Jan carved out a career as travel writers between the two world wars. 


In the days when Britain still had an empire, they travelled widely and produced a series of books which were noticeable for their humour and insight. 


Jan Gordon made a name for himself with his use of a ships camouflage, which was known as Dazzle Painting. It is credited with making life difficult for U-boat captains during the Great war.


 The Gordons had travelled throughout Europe and in 1927 had spent time in America, where they completed a 6,000 mile journey cross country, with a stint in Hollywood and a novel under the name of William Gore.


Prior to their trip to Ireland, the Gordons had set off from their home in Paris on a motorbike with what they referred to as a "wardrobe" attached and made their way to the Mediterranean coast before returning by way of the west coast and crossing the English Channel from Dieppe to Newhaven.


This journey, along with adventures in Southern England, Wales and Ireland would be recorded in their 1932 travel book, Three Lands on  3 Wheels.  Some of our Welsh friends might think the book should have been called, Four Lands on 3 Wheels.

 They had many adventures but we will concentrate mainly on their time spent on Árainn and the observations they made. We did a feature on some friends of theirs, fellow artists Bertie and Betty White, last July.White visit Here


The Whites were on the island at the same time as the Gordons and it seems that the Gordons had been encouraged to visit by the Whites, who had painted on the islands before.


After arriving in Dublin, the Gordons were invited to tour DeValera's recently opened Irish Press offices and printing press. It was here that they were advised to stay with the McDonaghs of Cill Mhuirbhigh, by a man who claimed to have hidden out there, during  the troubles.

 The Gordons spent twenty years in Paris between 1912 and 1932 and mixed with the artistic set. It's likely that they met up with James Joyce as they had friends in common. From the complimentary references they made in this book about the talented young writer, Liam O'Flaherty, it's likely that they had known him also in Paris.

Their travel books are peppered with complimentary, humourous and sometimes savage comments on the many innkeepers they met on their way. They were particularly cutting when describing an innkeeper in Cork who had become spoiled due to the constant full houses from the emigrants awaiting embarkation for America. 


Forced to slow down on the roads of Ireland. 

They did eventually find a helpful and friendly Cork innkeeper, which comes as no great surprise as Cork people are known for their friendliness. Their only fault being a slight tendency to feel superior to the other thirty one counties.

Making their way across the great central plain of Ireland, the Gordons eventually reached Galway, late on a Friday evening. Their next destination was the Aran Islands but the boat was leaving early next morning and all the garages were closed.


After frantic early morning efforts to locate petrol near the dock, they and their transport were loaded aboard the old S.S. Dun Aengus and their Aran adventure was under way at a cost of half a sovereign each return and 3/6 for the motorbike.

The Gordons provide a great account of the journey west and the people aboard. One old woman was convinced the boat was going to sink but was reassured by the steward who remarked "Ah.. you'll be all right, as the fire said to the kettle".

The S.S. Dún Aengus which carried the Gordon’s and their motorbike, to the islands.
Seen here at Galway dock.

 As the boat headed out past Oileán Inse Caorach (Mutton Island) the Gordons couldn't resist recounting the old joke about the U-boat that arrived in the bay during the Great War, with the intention of bombarding Galway.


Looking through his periscope the captain abandoned his mission after coming to the conclusion, that Galway had already been bombarded.


The cattle jobbers on board enquired of Jan Gordon as to whether he was a cattle-man or a priest and were greatly unimpressed when he indicated that he was an artist. 

Jan Gordon goes on to explain to his readers that the people of the Aran Islands never curse. It’s likely the source of this claim didn’t speak Irish as cursing has been an art form in Ireland for thousands of years. We never did find out if he ever confirmed the truth of this claim.


He had also been assured that the people on the small islands spoke no English. He was told later that if he tried to cheat one of them, he'd find out soon enough, how much English they had.



 At the islands, they watched as the cargo and passengers were transferred ashore by currach and also a huge bale of timber, which was towed to the island. 

The oft quoted myth of the benevolent island Justice of the Peace, James O'Flaherty of the 19th century, is again repeated in this book. A much loved magistrate who administered justice evenly. The Gordons were of a class who loved this sort of simplistic, rose tinted nostalgia, for times past.


The S.S. Dún Aengus, lying at anchor, waiting for cattle.

Cill Rónáin (Kilronan) was eventually reached and they were unimpressed with the village which they described as dreary.  They were glad that their friend in Dublin had recommended Michael and Margaret McDonagh's Guest House in Cill Mhuirbhigh (Kilmurvey)

On asking for Michael at the pier, he was pointed out as the man with the white cap, grey waistcoat and a twinkle in his eye. The motorbike having been unloaded, the crowd stood well back as the Gordons mounted up and prepared for take off. 

Alas, a cable had been damaged in transport, so a number of onlookers, many of them children, helped push the three wheeled wonder as far as the lifeboat store, where the mechanic repaired the cable and seemed upset to be offered payment.


Lifeboat mechanic Michael Wallace Dirrane, seen here at the back and between his crew-mates,
Thomas Flaherty and Peter Gill, at an award ceremony in London in 1939

The motorbike trip back to Cill Mhuirbhigh must have been a cause of much excitement and a severe test of the islands reputation for being curse free as the noisy monster sent livestock and horses into a fierce panic.

An islander tries to control a terrified ass, upset by the motorbike.

One disgruntled Jarvey asked as to whether they would be taking that "contraption back along the road again today“ and replied  “Thanks be to God for that”  when they said "no".

A handsome Aran mule foal, from 2014

They say that mules are better than horses and asses for staying calm when confronted with loud noises. This may be true or perhaps mules are equally scared but just too stubborn to show it.

At Cill Mhuirbhigh beach they were welcomed by a pod of porpoises playing in the bay. The shoreline was sprinkled with a great number of upturned currachs. A great omen for an enjoyable stay.

Arriving in spotlessly tidy Cill Mhuirbhigh village, they were directed to McDonaghs where they found that the business also included a shop, coal merchants and the Guest House also provided lessons in Irish, which were included with the accommodation. 


Margaret Hernon and her husband, Michael McDonagh, who looked
after the Gordons during their visit to Árainn in September 1931

The Gordon’s describe McDonaghs guest house and shop as follows.  

The outside of the house had been disappointingly middle class, but this kitchen was truer to the owners, more in harmony with the thick blue sweater and the twinkle in the eye. It was white, with a small window placed low, that cast flat illumination on to the figures of the enigmatic island women who sat stiffly against the whitewashed walls, grasping their black shawls round their heads, sphinxes without secrets no doubt, but here perfectly in setting. Over our heads dangled the formless lumps of bacon from which our future breakfasts and suppers would be sliced.

The Gordons introduction to Cill Mhuirbhigh brings to mind the day in 1968, the poet and writer Andrew McNeillie arrived in Cill Muirbhigh as a very young man, at the start of a year long stay. By a strange coincidence, he travelled over in the van of Michael McDonagh’s late son, Stephen. Andrew later detailed his time on the island in his book An Aran Keening.

Margaret had been keeping students of Irish for many years.

Lodgings in McDonaghs cost thirty five shillings a week. With the Irish classes included, the Gordon’s reckoned it was the cheapest university in the British Isles.

McDonaghs can be seen on the right. A photo from when Cill Muirbhigh
was converted in 2009 into a film set, for the romantic comedy, Leap Year

We recently read two travel books on Aran from 1931, the other by a young Englishwoman, Nora Laverock Lees, who travelled alone and mainly on foot. While the Gordons were usually given tea in the “good room”, Nora enjoyed many a mug of tea in various kitchens and was aware of the great honour, this bestows on a visitor. 

We will get back to Nora’s time on the three islands at some other time perhaps. She appears to have only one travel book to her name and was perhaps not under as much pressure as the two professional travel writers. She took her time and it shows.

The obligatory climb of Dún Aengus was completed on the first day and anybody who has made the journey, will know just how impressive the old fort is.

Jan Gordon’s sketch of Dún Aengus in 1931


 From the great fort, they could see the village of Gort na gCapall and the old homestead of the writer Liam O’Flaherty.

From the walls of Dún Aengus, we could see the roofs of the little village where was born the most brilliant descendant of the old archeologist’s clan, Liam O’Flaherty, who has himself shaped the people of Aran into exquisite stories.

The motorbike was put away in the shed which also housed a side car and a quantity of carrageen moss, for Michael McDonagh was the local buyer of this medically beneficial seaweed. A product that is widely used today and which is now being produced commercially on the island by Bláth na Mara  

Exploring the island was important for the Gordons but exploring the people was equally as important. Noting that many of the women went barefoot, they were taken by the lightness of touch and oneness with the earth.

They contrasted this with how poorly the bare footed women who played in Synge’s  Playboy of the Western World seemed on a Dublin stage, as their movement betrayed their normal boot clad existence and made them look awkward.

But here these feet knew the earth with intimacy, as the paws of cats and dogs know it, and from that intimacy a freedom of motion was bred, so that the movement of walking seemed to flow through the women’s whole bodies upward from the soil

Next morning saw the island covered in fog but their host greeted them with a declaration that it was a “fine day entirely”.

They describe Cill Mhuirbhigh as a village of about twenty houses and bustling with activity. Salted fish drying on thatched roofs which they recorded as being replaced in some cases by slates after  a government roofing grant of £40 was introduced.

A new house was being built near the ball alley by way of a £80 grant and a further £80 low interest loan. 

Jan Gordon appears to have been fascinated with his host Michael McDonagh. A shrewd businessman of reasonable wealth, Jan was particularly impressed with his great turn of phrase.

 Jan had wondered at how tedious laying bricks must be, for the builder to later remark on how boring it must be to spend the whole day painting scenery. Mentioning this to Michael later he was impressed with his response ofAh yes, any trade do be an enemy, ‘till you’ve mastered it”    

At the time of the visit, the islanders were in the process of threshing for the thatch and this provided material for both the pen and the paint brush.

Island threshing in September 1931

The end of the road at Bungabhla. Photo from 1935

The Gordons seem to have picked up a story about the other big house in Cill Mhuirbhigh and the bad luck the old middleman James O’Flaherty had brought upon himself. O’Flaherty was the local Magistrate in the 19th century and with no legitimate male heir, his great holding would pass to his daughter and son in law. 

The McDonagh house had once been used as a police barracks after some agrarian attacks on O’Flaherty’s stock and a threat of violence against him. Indeed Liam O’Flaherty’s father and uncle were involved in the cliffing of Middleman/landlord James O’Flaherty’s cattle in 1881 and hence the need for police protection. 

Whether Jan and Cora knew of this is debatable, but in any case they didn’t make any reference to the role Liam’s father and uncle played in this incident. We mentioned this incident in previous articles.   While acknowledging past injustices, the Gordons give vent to some feelings of frustration.

  Remote fishermen, who for some forty years received an almost servile petting from the British Government, still see us as the descendants of Cromwell. And so children fifty years hence will still remember by heritage, the horrors of the Black-and-Tan campaign.

Apart from the daughters school books, the house had three important books. One was an old archeological exploration of Ireland’s west coast which Jan claimed was very rare and that the British Museum had no copy. The two newspapers that Michael read were the Irish Press and the Connacht Tribune. 

The other two important books were a religious text and an American published History of Ireland. From reading this, the Gordons were surprised to find that some of the most anti English patriots were Irish Protestants. They also noted how some of the great oppressors were Irish Catholics. A long way to travel to get a history lesson.

 It was also noted that despite all the anti English sentiment in Ireland, the individual English person in Ireland was treated with great friendliness and afforded a great welcome. 

Their host, Margaret Hernon McDonagh had emigrated to Boston at the age of nineteen. In 1931 the three McDonagh sons had gone from the island. The Great Depression in America was  by 1931, beginning to severely curtail emigration. 

In Eoghanacht the Gordons met an old blind bard and heard of the trick some of the young girls played on him and had him thinking of marriage. In this village too, they met a woman who was an expert at weaving the famous Aran crios or belt which they bought at four shillings a yard.   

The sidecar was often referred to as “The Wife Killer”

 Heading for the western end of the island, they encountered two loose horses on the road who galloped for a mile or so in fear of the noisy machine. As well as the currachs on the shore, they came across large amounts of saved seaweed, which was a valuable source of income in those days. At this spot, they met an Irish/Australian tourist who informed them of the pound leaving the gold standard on the day they arrived, September 19th. 

Mrs McDonagh entertained them that evening with a tall tale of a woman who once lived in the beehive hut with her husband and child. She stole the key to Dún Aengus from her sleeping husband, as he was the caretaker of the great fort. 

She then gave the key to people who had given her food and they in turn entered the fort at night and threw the Fir Bolgs over the edge and freed the islanders from their tyranny. Then or now, no story about the islands is complete without a reference to the mysterious Fir Bolgs.

Clochán na Carraige. Said to be the home of the caretaker at Dún Aengus, in ancient times.


 From McDonaghs in Cill Mhuirbhigh they could see smoke rising from the home of Liam O’Flaherty and the schoolhouse where he attended. Michael McDonagh summed up the attitude of some of the islanders to Liam. 

 ‘‘Tis a quare religion he has then, for he does be calling himself a professional athiest and in his day there were no holier children in this island than himself and his sister. And wasn’t it his own father that cut with his own hands the stick that their teacher would be keeping them at lessons with. But he turned out so smart that he and his sister were sent off to teach the Irish. It was board and instruction they were to get for it, and to my memory, there was a suit of clothes in the bargain too, but they always came back in the same clothes, so maybe I was wrong in that part”   

The Gordons visited Liam’s old school which once stood across from the present Irish college in Fearann na Coirce. 

The old schoolhouse at Fearann na Coirce (Oatquarter)

The long deserted schoolhouse at Fearann na Coirce.

The School had changed a lot by 1931 and it seems the then schoolmaster Seán Moloney, had built a protecting wall to the front, in order to do some planting inside. Some of this vegetation still survives today and Michael reckoned it was a memory of the fine greenery of his native Limerick, the schoolmaster was trying to recreate.  

After a visit to the school, the Gordons next visited the island weaving family, who had abandoned their loom that day and were busy putting thatch on their roof before the winter gales arrived. They were very impressed with the quality of the cloth they were shown which was a mixture of blue and cream.

Thatching weaver Gillan’s home before the winter arrived.

Jan Gordon goes into a long comparison with the average vocabulary of the different countries. The average vocabulary of an English labourer was reckoned to be 400 words but studies had shown that many Aran Islanders had a vocabulary of 2,500.  

This is no great surprise as it’s likely that if they ever introduce ‘talking’, as an Olympic event, Ireland would surely sweep all three medals with one at least, coming to the Aran Islands.

The visitors were greatly impressed with some of Michael’s turns of phrase and thought his reference of his dog as “deaf as a beetle” very descriptive. A description by Michael, of a bull that had drowned at the boat in Inis Meáin, a few weeks before, made a great impression. He was described as a magnificent animal, 

“ His chest came down to within a foot of the ground and behind that he was all body; his neck was thick on him as that rock, and the hair of him was short and curly”.  

“And they slit him to save the life that was in him“ 

This is a colourful way of describing how the meat was saved, if not the unfortunate bull’s life. After this the bull was quickly butchered and according to the story, every family on the island got a piece of him.  

After two weeks of mixed weather, the Gordons were ready to leave. They mention the difficult life of the local doctor, James O’Brien, who must often gather a currach crew and head off in all weathers to the other islands.

S.S. Dún Aengus which brought the Gordons to and from the islands.

On their way to the pier they met the artists Etherbert and Betty White, who told them of an eccentric American who would be joining them on their trip back to Galway. 

According to the Whites, this woman had remonstrated aggressively with the currach men at the islands, on her way to Aran, for allowing flour to be carried in the same boat that had brought unhygienic pigs out to the S.S. Dún Aengus. 

She shouted a number of times “You men down there, are you going to eat that flour?” Like men who are used to the steady rythem of rowing, they slowly looked up at her and then slowly, said nothing. 

Agitated greatly at this snub, she once more roared her query with the added “hey, I’m talking to you“,  until eventually one of the men turned slowly and replied, “We are....... and you’d ate it too, if your belly was empty”. Game, set and match to the currach man. 

Falling into conversation with this old American on the journey to Galway, Cora discovered that she had spent time in Paris and spoke some French. However, despite all her travels, she was an unapologetic white supremicist, who was planning to write her life story. 

In Ireland it is said, that most people have a book in them, but more importantly, it’s also said that in nearly all cases, that’s where it should stay.

 The summer of 1931 saw many visitors on the islands which included a long distance swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze who swam to the mainland. Just a few weeks before the Gordons arrived, a young De la Salle brother, Owen Traynor from Cavan, was drowned while swimming at Cill Rónáin. 


In February 1931, a new wireless transmitting system had been set up between Cill Rónáin and Inis Meáin, after much trouble from the old underwater cable. The Gordons had met with the engineer responsible for maintenance.

Cora & Jan Gordon. Artists, writers and musicians.

 After completing their tour of the islands, the Gordons visited Claddagh and Connemara, with the last leg of their adventure being a trip to Cork. Shortly after completing their Irish adventure, they moved in 1932 from Paris to London, as Europe began its disastrous descent into populist fascism and wholesale slaughter.

 For readers interested in finding out more about the multitalented and highly entertaining Gordons, we recommend you have a look at Ru Smith’s website, dedicated to their memory. Here.

 Michael Muldoon, October 2020