Last year I began a series of post on the saints and their animals. Continuing with this theme this post will look at the folklore and legends of cows associated with the great ecclesiastical complex of Kilmalkedar /Cill Maoilchéadair in the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry.
The site of Kilmalkedar consists of a large ecclesiastical complex with archaeological remains dating from the early medieval to late medieval period. It is dedicated to a little known saint called Maolcethair, whose death was recorded in the martyrology of Donegal (Cuppage 1986, 308). The site was also linked to St Brendan and was part of the pilgrim landscape of the Mount Brandon. Unlike the previous tales about the saints and their animals ( Ita and her donkey, Patrick and his cow, Ciaran and his cow, Manchan and his cow), St Maolcethair is not directly associated with any animal but ecclesiastical complex has two interesting folk tales that relate to miraculous events associated with cows. These stories are embedded in the physical landscape.
The Cow and Thief’s Stone
One of the stories concerns the theft of a cow, a familiar theme from the earlier posts in this series. The story goes that a thief tried to steal a cow from the community at Kilmalkedar. The cow bellowed, which woke up one of the monks. One of the monks
‘caused the thief to stick in the stone which he was climbing and the hoof of the cow to get embedded in the stone on which she had alighted from the fence. The thief set up a howling form pain and fright and prayed humbly for mercy and forgiveness. The holy man released him and warned him to sin no more. The imprints of the thief’s knees are to be seen to the present day and the impress of the cow’s hoof is also discernible’ ( Dingle Survey Files after mss of John Curran, unpublished OPW file).
Until 1967 two stones known as the cow and thief stone were located on either side of the road close to the church and graveyard at Kilmalkedar, they were set 150m south of the graveyard and some 350 yards northeast of (KE042-028). Both were recorded on the 1st edition OS map of 1842. Unfortunately the cow stone has now disappeared, both stones were set on either side of the roadway until at least 1967. The cow stone (KE042-02701) was located on the west side of the road and the thief stone (KE042-027) on the east. Killanin & Michael (1967, 96) described the two stones as standing stones and the Dingle Survey notes that the theif stone ‘stood 0.81m high at the base’ (Cuppage 1986, 323). However descriptions in the Dingle Survey Files suggest that the cow stone was a flat stone.
A story recounted by Mary Jane Leadbeater Fisher in her book Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry: In the year 1845 also records the tale but in her account the story is linked to another archaeological feature of the landscape, a large multi basin bullaun stone know as the Keelers or na Beirtí (Milk Coolers).
A cow is the subject of this legend—a cow of size and breed suited to provide milk for the giant race of those days. We saw the milk vessels, and if she filled them morning and evening, she was indeed a marvellous cow. In a huge flat rock were these milk pans; six large round holes, regular in their distances from each other, and nearly of equal size; they could each contain some gallons of liquid. This said cow gave sufficient milk for one whole parish; and was the property of a widow—her only wealth. Another parish and another clan desired to be possessed of this prize; so a marauder, endued with superior strength and courage, drove her off one moonlight night. The widow followed wailing, and he jeered her and cursed her as he proceeded. The cow suddenly stopped; in vain the thief strove to drive her on; she could neither go on, nor yet return; she stuck fast. At length, aroused by the widow’s cries, her neighbours arrived, and the delinquent endeavoured to escape. In vain—for he too stuck fast in the opposite rock; he was taken and killed. The cow then returned to her own home, and continued to contribute her share towards making the parish like Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The prints of her hoofs, where the bees made their nests, are still to be seen in one rock ; and those of the marauder’s foot and hand in another, where he was held fast by a stronger bond than that of conscience (Leadbeater Fisher 1847, 48).
The ‘huge flat rock’ she refers to seems to be a large stone known as the Keelers or ‘Beirti’. This is a large irregular, shaped bullaun stone (KE042-026007) located 50-60m northwest of the Romanesque church at Kilmalkedar. The stone has seven depressions of oval and circular shape with depths of 0.04-0.25 diameters 0.22-0.42m diameter. This stone is associated with a magical cow known who is known in folklore form other parts of the country.
The legendary cow was the Glas Ghoibhneach, she was said to a have been a marvellous milker. The Glas Ghoibhneach translates as ‘the grey of Goibhniu’. Goibhniu was a mythical smith who likely derived from a god of the same name. The legend of the cow is very old and widespread across Ireland. According to O’hOgain
legend told of her all over Ireland describes how she filled with milk every pail put under her by her unnamed owner. However, a jealous woman claimed that she had a vessel which the Glas could not fill, and accordingly she brought a sieve and began to milk the great cow. The Glas yielded a continuous stream of milk, enough to fill a lake, but it all ran through the sieve. Eventually, she became exhausted by the effort and died.
The tradition from Kilmalkedar tells that the glas was milked into the basins of the rock by the monk from the monastery (An Seabhac 1939, 117). Interestingly additional stones associated with the magical cow are found a few miles to the southwest, the stones are a pair of standing stones known as ‘Geata an Glas Ghaibhleann’ or the gate of Glas Ghaibhleann.
I would like to thank the wonderful archaeologist Isabel Bennett for all her help with pointing out sources for these stones
An Seabhac. 1939. Triocha-Chéad Chorca Dhuibhne. Cuid IV. Dublin: An Cumann
le Béaloideas Éireann, 117.
Cuppage, J. 1986. Archaeological Survey of the Dingel peninsula. A description of
the field antiquities from the Mesolithic Period to the 17th century A.D. Oidhrecht
Chorca Dhuibhne. Ballyferriter: Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne, 308
Dingle Survey Files.
Ó hÓgáin, D. 1991. Myth, legend & romance an encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition
New York: Prentice Hall Press.
Killanin, M. & Duignan, M. 1967. The Shell guide to Ireland. London: Ebury Press.
Leadbeater Fisher, M. J in her book Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry: In the year 1845. pub 1847. Dublin: Webb and Chapman
Each year thousands of tourist come to to the town of Cahir in Co Tipperary primarily to see the wonderful castle.
The town has many other amazing historic sites including St Mary’s Priory and St Mary’s parish church.
St Mary’s church is tucked away at the bottom of Chapel Street just off the town square. The church sits at the centre of a large historic graveyard, entered through an imposing gateway with large limestone built pillars.
The church is a multi-period building, rectangular in shape. The change and nave are divided by a chancel arch. This was the medieval church for the town and the reformation the building was used as a place of worship by the established church and continued as such until 1820 (Killanin and Duignan 1967, 133). Interestingly Catholic worship also continued here too and the church was divided to accommodate both Protestant and Catholic worship (Farrelly 2011).
The church building is of multi-period date. Some of the fabric dates to the 13th-century and there is also evidence of extensive rebuilding in the 15th/16th century. The church has a number of interesting features. The western end is dominated by a double bellcote.
The east gable has traces of early windows. These windows were replaced in the 15th/16th century by a mullion and transom four-light limestone window. This window has three interlace patterns, possible masons marks, carved on the external side of the masonry. The interlace patterns are very similar to others found at Cahir Priory and the Augustinian Abbey in Fethard.
The interior of the church is filled with modern burials and their are a number of interesting architectural features such as a corbel depicting the head of a cleric and a finely carved piscina. Following the reformation the church was later altered and divided to accommodate both Protestant and Catholic worship (Farrelly 2011).
The corbel with the head of a cleric is my favourite feature at the site. It is very finely carved but the nose and mouth are now damaged.
Here are some photos of the rest of the church.
The graveyard that surrounds the church has many interesting historic graves which I think deserve a post of their own. This would be a wonderful graveyard for Historicgraves.ie project.
Farrelly, Jean. 2011.’ TS075-048003, church Townparks’ http://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment/( accessed 05/01/2017).
Killanin, M.M. and Duignan, M.V. 1967 (2nd ed.) The Shell guide to Ireland. London. The Ebury Press.
A few weeks back I paid a flying visit to the site Baptistgrange the site of a medieval monastic grange or farm located a short distance from the village of Lisronagh, in Co Tipperary. Baptistgrange is often referred to as Achadfada or Achfada in historical sources.
The grange was owned by the Augustinian monastery of St John the Baptist, Dublin (Power 1938, 6; Gwynn and Hadcock 1988, 216). Food and other raw materials were produced here in Tipperary for consumption in at the main monastery at St John’s in Dublin.
As with most places in south Tipperary the grange enjoys a great view of wonderful Slievenaman.
I didn’t get much time to walk around the site. The remains of a deserted village are located to the northwest of the grange church while a the site of a castle is located to the west . The Civil Survey (1654-6) refers to this castle as ‘an old broken stump of a Castle with an old broken Bawne’ (Simington 1931, vol.1, 193).
Following the dissolution the grange was leased out and in 1541 it leased to the countess of Ormond (Simington 1931, vol.1, 193). By the 16th century Baptistgrange was described as having a
‘fortilage or castle, with a hall, etc. 51 acres and 12 cottages, leased in 1541 to the countess of Ormond at £4’ (Gwynn and Hadcock 1988, 216).
The grange church still survives and it situated at the centre of a historic graveyard.
The church is covered in dense vegetation so it was impossible to inspect closely. Only part of the west gable is visible but as the west end of the church is very close to a field boundary it was difficult to photograph.
According to Power the church was divided between the nave and chancel with ‘a triple chancel arch’ which had collapsed by 1930’s.
At either side of the former altar, in north and south side walls respectively, is the usual lighting ope. An unusual detail at this place is a projecting slab evidently a credence or a statue plinth; this is set in the east gable…corbels project from the side walls near their western end; these, instead of putlocks, supported wooden gallery beams… (Power 1938, 60).
The presence of a triple chancel arch is very rare in Ireland and it is such a pity that the Baptistgrange arch is no longer intact. Power (1938, 60) goes on to say
By triple arch here is not meant as an arch of three receding orders as in so many Hiberno-Romanesque example, but an arcade, or series of three arches, which run right across the church interior to form division into nave and chancel. Only two other examples of this arrangement are known to the writer, scil: in the Cathedral of Clonmacnoise and in the ruined church of Templeoan, Co Cork, respectively. Doubtless there are other Irish examples unrecorded.
Gwynn, A., & Hadcock, R.N., 1970. Medieval religious houses of Ireland. Dublin. Irish Academic Press.
Power, P. 1938 ‘Some old churches of Decies’, JRSAI, Vol.68, 55-68.
Simington, R.C., 1931. The Civil survey, AD 1654-1656. Vol I: county of Tipperary: eastern and southern baronies. Dublin. Irish Manuscripts Commission.
I like to try out new social media platforms really like Storify so I put together a story of pilgrimage based on my blog posts , tweets and facebook post etc .
Here is the link to my Storify story of https://storify.com/PilgrimIre/a-year-of-pilgrimage.html
The 26th of December is the feast day of St Stephen,often shorted to Stephens day or Stephens.. In Britain the 26th of December is commonly referred to as Boxing Day , as this was the day servants and tradesmen would traditionally received gifts known as a “Christmas box” from their masters, employers or customers. In Ireland the day was also known as Wren Day, in Irish Lá an Dreoilín. Other variants include Day of the Wren, or Hunt the Wren Day. This name comes from a very old tradition focused around a tiny bird called the wren.
Lá an Dreoilín/Wren Day
Lá an Dreoilín or Wren Day is a very old tradition and was once practised throughout most of Ireland up to the middle of the last century, with the exception of northern Ulster. The word wren was pronounced ‘wran’. Traditionally on Wren Day, groups of mostly boys and men called ‘The Wren Boys’ would dress up in old clothes and paint their faces. They then travelled from door to door singing, dancing and playing music demanding money to “bury the wren”. This process was called going on the ‘wran’.
In modern Ireland the tradition has faded out in most parts of the county but it is still carried on in pockets of the country especially in Co Kerry, in the Dingle peninsula and in parts of Co Limerick and Galway with people going from house to house.
Angela Gallagher of the Slivervoice blog provides the following description of the process
Heralding their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the night!
The modern wren tradition now also incorporates street parades. The straw boys often take part in the parades and other organised Wren Day events.
In Dingle the wren tradition also incorporates
A pantomime-type horse with a wooden head, snapping jaws and a body made from cloth stretched across a timber frame, it is worn on the shoulders of one of the members of the Wren – who whirls and capers at the head of the parade (Woods 1997).
The role of the Wren in Wren Day Traditions
Originally the ‘Wren boys’ carried a dead wren or wrens with them on their escapades. The wren is no longer part of modern celebrations which are a much more animal friendly affair.
Catching a wren was not an easy task. The wren was obtained the days or the day before the 26th. The wren boys would go out into the woods and bogs or search the thatched roofs of houses and any other places this poor little bird would live. They would hunt for and if found they would then kill the little bird. The following day the bird was paraded through the town or rural areas on top of a decorated pole or holly branch coloured in ribbons and coloured paper. What follows is a description of the wren hunt from Cork in 1840
For some weeks preceding Christmas, crowds of village boys may be seen peering into the hedges, in search of the “tiny wren”; and when one is discovered the whole assemble and give eager chase to, until they have slain, the little bird. In the hunt, the utmost excitement prevails; shouting, screeching, and rushing; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark; and not unfrequently, they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge, is the wren pursued until bagged with as much pride and pleasure, as the cock of the woods by the more ambitious sportsman (Hall, 1841 23).
The killing the bird has long died out and any reference to the killing of this tiny bird in a modern context is symbolic. Catching the wren was not easy task and if a wren could not be found people would improvise and there are 20th century accounts of toy birds and props being used instead of the live bird (Danaher 1972, 246).
The Schools Folklore Essays from Clogher in Co Mayo recorded in the 1930s, recalls a piece of turf dressed up with feathers being used as a substitute for the poor little wren
In another account from Co Wexford dating to 1867 the bird was tied to the bush alive. This was no less cruel the killing the bird, as the little wren was brought from house to house tided to the bush which was shook vigorously as described below in an excerpt from The banks of the Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford by Patrick Kennedy
Going out in the Wren” is still practised: only young boys now go out in the wren but formerly grown men did the same.
Now the boys go in batches or singly. If they can manage to catch a wren they dress him up in ribbons, put him into a small box also arrayed in ribbons and bring him round with them. But if they can’t get a wren they stick feathers in a small ciarán of turf and this does instead. They disguise themselves -thats an essential part of the game. There is no particular sort of disguise. They go from house to house getting money in each house. Sometimes batches of boys from 16 to 20 years do the rounds. These have often tin whistles or sometimes melodeons or mouth organs (NFCS Clogher 0095: 80).
The professional artist used by some means to secure a live wren, and fasten it by a string to the twig of an ivy or holly bush, and enlivened by the strains of an ear-piercing fife, invade the quiet of strong farmer’s houses and dance and shout, and sing the well known legend…..Then hands were taken, and steps performed round the bouchal na druleen[wren boys], who capered away in his best style, shaking the bush ans the poor prisoner in unison. They generally succeeded in extracting drink or money.. In most buys under the age of 15 pity for the sufferings of the small animal is the exception (Kennedy 1867, 233-234).
This must have been very traumatic for the little bird. Thankfully the practice of using live or dead wrens has long died out.
So why did the poor little wren receive such harsh treatment? According to folklore the Wren was blamed for betraying the Christian martyr St. Stephen when he was in hiding by making noises, hence the reason for hunting the Wren on St. Stephen’s Day.
When the groups of wren boys travelled around from house to house, a poem was recited and a number of songs grew up around the tradition. In Halls account from Cork in 1840 (Ireland: its scenery, character etc.) the poem recited was as follows
The wran, the wran, the King of all birds,
St Stephen’s day was cot in the furze
Although he is little his family’s grate,
Put yer hand in yer pocket and give us a trate.
Sing holly, sing ivy- sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink it would drown melancholy
And if you dhraw it ov the best,
I hope in heaven yee sowl will rest,
But if you dhraw it ov the small
It won’t agree wid de wran boys at all
A similar poem was recorded in Drogheda Co Louth in the 1930’s. This poem was recited throughout the country in the 20th century with slight variations and is still recited today.
The wran the wran the King of all birds, St Stephen’s day was caught in the furzse.
Although he was small his family was great. Rise up landlady and give us a trate.
Up with the ketel and down with the pan.
A penny on a halfpenny to bury the Wran
(NFCS, Naomh Muire, Droichead Átha 0680: 219)
In all the poems the wren is called the King of all birds. A lovely Irish folk tale recalls how the wren became king of all birds
Many years ago all the birds gathered together and wanted to have a king. The birds were satisfied that the bird that would fly the highest was to be their king. All the birds flew up into the air and the eagle far above them looked down and shouted, “I am the king of all birds.” But the wren hopping out from beneath the eagle’s wing shouted “You are not the king yet” and he flew still higher. The eagle was too tired to follow him and the wren was the king. When the wren came down out of the air the birds said he was too small and they proposed to drown him. But no water was to be found so all the birds began to cry into a bowl. When the bowl was filled with tears the clumsy owl tripped over the bowl and spilt it. They had all their tears shed and had nothing to drown him and he is still the king of all birds (NFSC Raheenagh (B.), Volume 0493: 025).
Music was and still is a very important part of the wren tradition. The Wren Boys usually carried some musical instruments with them such as a tin whistles or “sometimes melodeons or mouth organs”. They would play music and often dance and amuse their audience ‘by quips, pranks and buffoonery’ (Danaher 1972, 249). I have included an RTE documentary on the Wren tradition in Mountcollins West Limerick which provides further insight into the process.
At the end of the day the wren was normally buried when all housed were visited. In Mountcollins Co Limerick it was lucky for the wren to be buried opposite a house. In other cases the wren was buried opposite a house that refused to give any food, drink or money to the wren boys, it was said no luck would enter the house for the next 12 months (Danaher 1972, 249).
The money that had been collected was either on the “wren” divided up between the group, this was the norm for groups of children. Adults would often use the money to buy food and drink to be consumed later at a ‘Wren Party’ or spent that night in a public house (Danaher 1972, 248, 250). In modern Ireland the money is often given to charity.
When night falls they go (the ) to a public house and spend the money (NFCS Denmore, Volume 0977: 135).
The tradition of hunting the wren seems to be very ancient and very similar traditions was also carried out in parts of Britain and France.
Hunting the Wren was also a central part of Christmas traditions on the Isle of Man. The following is an article by Howard Caine describes the traditions
This ritual hunting of the hapless bird would seem to have originally taken place on Christmas Day, when folk would head out in the early hours to hunt down and kill their prey, before bringing it back to the local church. It would then be plucked and buried with much ceremony and singing in Manx.
The feathers of the dead bird were considered lucky and were believed to have the power to protect fishermen from shipwreck, to say nothing of a more general protection against witchcraft.
Later, the custom seemed to migrate, (something the wrens no doubt wished they had picked up on) to St Stephen’s Day on 26 December. Young men would chase down the birds, beating them from bushes with long sticks and general carousing.
They would suspend their dead quarry on top of a pole decorated with ribbons and evergreen leaves – which would then be paraded around the houses where dancing and singing would take place – before the feathers were distributed and hopefully some form of financial contribution would be made to the performers.
In Wales the hunting of the wren occurred on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Groups of men would go out Hunting the Wrenhe tiny bird would be caged in a wooden box and carried from door to door. Householders would pay for the privilege of peeping at the poor wren in the box. Songs about the wren were also sung below is a song from Pembrokshire
Joy, health, love and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing concerning our King
Our King is well dressed in the silks of the best
In ribbons so rare no king can compare
We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles
In search of our King unto you we bring…
Old Christmas is past Twelfth-tide is the last
And we bid you adieu – Great joy to the new
Below is a youtube video of a Welsh song about hunting the wren.
St Stephens Day in Wales was associated with Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare / Holy Mary) a horse skull covered in ribbons. The horse-figure was carried from door to door by wassail-singing groups during the Christmas season. The Welsh Museum blog provides the following description below. The Mari Lywd custom reminds me of the horse used by the wren boys in the Dingle area which I mentioned above.
This figure (which is, of course, represented in other countries) seems to have been once known all over southern Wales but during the present century relatively little has been seen of it outside of Glamorgan, where it is not yet completely extinct.
The attendant ritual began with the singing of traditional stanzas by the Mari Lwyd group at the door, soliciting both permission to sing and entry into the house, and issuing a challenge to a versifying contest.
Next followed the pwnco, the debate conducted to the same music in a combination of traditional and impromptu stanzas) between a member of the group and an opponent within the house. This usually amounted to heavy leg-pulling in which the contestants mocked each other’s singing, drunkenness, etc.
Victory in the debate would ensure admission into the house for the Mari Lwyd group, to partake of cakes and ale and perhaps collect a money gift as well. In at least some cases, after the end of the debate, the group would sing additional stanzas introducing its individual members and finally, after entertaining the occupants of the house, it would deliver a farewell song (https://museum.wales/articles/2014-06-14/Christmas-customs-The-Mari-Lwyd/).
I really enjoyed researching the Irish Wren tradition, and id love to find out more about the tradition outside of Ireland. Im also glad the little wrens of Ireland can sleep safely now.
Caine, H. 2005, ‘Hunting the Wren’,http://www.bbc.co.uk/isleofman/content/articles/2005/12/07/hunting_the_wren_feature.shtml
Danaher, K. 1972. The Year in Ireland. Irish Calendar Customs. Cork: Mercier Press.
Hall,C.S. & Hall, Mrs 1841. Ireland: its scenery, character.London : How and Parsons.
Kennedy, P. 1867. The banks of the Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford. Dublin: M’Glashen & Gill.
Woods, P. 1997. ‘Hunting the Wren’https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/home/culture-and-language/wren-s-day.html
NFCS Clogher 0095: 80.
NFCS Denmore, Volume 0977:135.
NFSC Raheenagh (B.), Ráthluirc (roll number 10814).
Other Wren Day related resources
The recent arrival of cold weather and a conversation reminiscing with my mother about the strong wind wind that whipped the roof off her garden shed a few years back, reminded me of one of the Ordnance Survey Letters written by John O’Donovan in 1839 while in Co Wicklow. The letter in question refers to what was known as the ‘Night of the Big Wind’/ ‘Oiche na Gaoithe Moire’, a terrible storm that swept across Ireland on the 6th-7th January 1839. The storm cause a massive amount of damage around the country and its effects were such that the event lived in the minds of the people for decades to come. The foricity of the storm was such that it made its way into oral history of the county.
Description of the Devastation caused by the ‘Night of the Big Wind’.
All across the country, hundreds of thousands of people awoke to the sound of the furious tempest, their windows shattered by hailstones, their brick-walls rattling, their rain-sodden thatched roofs sinking fast. As the wind grew stronger, it began to rip the roofs off houses. Chimney pots, broken slates, sheets of lead and shards of glass were hurtled to the ground. (Rather astonishingly, someone later produced a statistic that 4,846 chimneys were knocked off their perches during the Night of the Big Wind). Many of those who died that night were killed by such falling masonry. Norman tower houses and old churches collapsed. Factories and barracks were destroyed. Fires erupted in the streets of Castlebar, Athlone and Dublin. The wind blew all the water out of the canal at Tuam. It knocked a pinnacle off Carlow Cathedral and a tower off Carlow Castle.  It stripped the earth alongside the River Boyne, exposing the bones of soldiers killed in the famous battle 150 years earlier. Roads and railway tracks in every parish became impassable. All along the Grand Canal, trees were pulled up by the roots and hurled across the water to the opposite bank (Bunbury 2009)
For those of you who don’t know, the Ordnance Survey of Ireland was established in the year 1824, to undertake a townland survey of Ireland and to map the entire country at a scale of 6 inches to one mile, for the purpose of the creation of a tax system. The mapping was completed by 1842, and a full set of maps exists for each Irish county. The maps and later editions can be viewed on the Ordnance Survey of Ireland website.
The Ordnance Survey Letters are manuscripts containing the surveyors’ field notes, commentaries and correspondence to the Ordnance Survey headquarters in Dublin during the mapping. John O’Donovan (1806-1861) was a historian who worked for the Ordnance Survey. He led the information collection part of the project, many of the surviving letters were complied by him. The letters are of great use to historians and archaeologist as they provide information on placenames, details on topography and often detailed description of historic sites such as castles, ringforts and churches. The letters are also interesting as they occasionally provide a ‘unique glimpse into everyday life in many parts of Ireland in the years leading up to the Great Famine’.
They also occasionally give a glimpse of the day-to-day lives of the compilers and their everyday trails and tribulations.
One of my favourite letters dates to January 1939 and relates to John O’Donavan’s journey from Baltinglass to Glendalough Co Wicklow and his stay at Glendalough during the ‘night of the Big Wind’. O’Donovan travelled with Thomas O’Connor who also worked for the Ordnance Survey. The letter decribes the details of the journey and the stay at Glendalough with such detail, that you almost feel you are withnessing the events unfolding. You also get a rare glimpse of the personalites of O’Donavan and his survey team.
According to the letter the pair travelled first from the town of Baltinglass to Blessington and then on to Glendalough. The distance between Blessington and Glendalough was according to O’Donavan ‘only sixteen miles’ and was undertaken on foot. In modern Ireland where we all rely so heavily on cars and buses, the thoughts of walking sixteen miles seems out of the ordinary but during the nineteenth most journeys were by foot so O’Donavan and his companion were undaunted. The route from Blessington to Glendalough would have taken the pair over the mountains into the Kings River Valley through the Wicklow Gap and on to Glendalough. This route was used by pilgrims visiting Glendalough for centuries.
We left Baltinglass on Friday and travelled by car to Blessington, expecting to be able to get a car thence to Glendalough: but the Hotel Keeper would not send a car thither at the usual price per mile and I was not willing to give him more. So on the next morning, which promised to produce a fine hard day; we set out for Glendalough on foot across the mountains, thinking nothing of the distance, which is only sixteen miles around the road.
The initial part of the journey seems to have been quiet pleasant until the weather changed and it began to snow.
We came on in very good humour for seven miles, stopping on the way to look at old churches, but when we reached the side of what they called the Cross Mountain, the day suddenly changed its aspect, the snow fell in luxuriant heavy leaves (drops) and before we reached the top of the mountain we found ourselves in the middle of a snow storm.
The onset of heavy snow caused some concern for O’Donavan. Despite his companions wishes to keep going, for safety reasons he decided they should head back towards civilisation, a wise decision given the remoteness of the area they travelled through and the lack of available shelter. The pair turned back and found shelter at Charley Clarke’s public house.
I stopped short and paused to consider what it was best to do. The clouds closed around us and the wind blew in a most furious manner. Here we met a countryman who told us that the distance to Glendalough was nine miles, that the road was for six miles uninhabited, and that the last flood has swept away two of the bridges. I got a good deal alarmed at finding ourselves a mile and a half into the mountain and no appearance of a cessation of the snow storm. I told O’Conor, who was determined to go on, that I would return, that I did not wish to throw away life to no purpose. I returned! (Coward) The whole side of the mountain looked like a sheet of paper horribly beautiful, but the wind was now directly in our face.
From O’Donavan’s account Clarke’s inn was a bit of a dump. The room was damp and cold and if events happened today O’Donavan certainly wouldn’t have given the inn a good review on Trip adviser.
We returned three and a half miles and stopped at Charley Clarke’s public house, where we got infernally bad treatment. The next morning, I felt very feverish from having slept in a damp bed in a horribly cold room.
The weather seems to have improved the following day and O’Donavan ‘ resolved’ to carry on with the journey to Glendalough. Having caught a chill from the night before, he must have felt rotten as he began his journey.
… seeing that the snow began to thaw and it being Sunday, I resolved to go on to the Churches[Glendalough]. I never felt so tired!
Although the weather had improved the conditions of the journey were far from pleasant. The heavy covering of snow disguised hollows in the ground which made the terrain more difficult to navigate. Having occasionally had to worked while sick in winter on archaeological sites I can sympathise with and imagine how wretched O’Donavan felt as he set forth.
Sinking thro’ the half dissolved masses of snow and occasionally down to the knees in ruts in the road, which proved exceedingly treacherous as being covered with the snow. One of my shoes gave way and I was afraid that I should be obliged to walk barefooted.
We moved on, dipped into the mountain, and when we had travelled about four miles we met a curious old man of the name Tom Byrne, who came along with us. We were now within five miles of the Glen but a misty rain, truly annoying dashed constantly in our faces until we arrived at Saint Kevin’s Shrine. Horribly beautiful and truly romantic, but not sublime!
I came across this you tube video of Wicklow Mountains in the snow. Imaginine travelling on foot in these conditions.
When they finally arrived at Glendalough the pair booked into the local hotel. Their feet and clothes must have been soaked, and O’Donavan purcases a pair of wool socks. Having changed clothes they headed off to explore the ruins of Glendalough, which must have been quite impressive in the snowy landscape.
Fortunately for us there is now a good, but most unreasonable expensive kind of a hotel in the Glen, and when I entered I procured a pair of woollen stockings and knee breeches and went at once to look at the Churches, which gave me a deal of satisfaction. (I looked like a madman!)
The ruins gave O’Donovan ‘ a deal of satisfaction’ and he must have felt the awfulness of the previous day was behind him.
However ,things soon began to go down hill when they returned to the hotel later that evenining. Following a ‘bad dinner’ they retired to their beds, unaware one of the worst storms Ireland had ever seen was on its way. O’Donavan’s mind was full of work he writes that could not sleep, thinking of all he had to do and for fear of further snow.
We got a very bad dinner and went to bed at half past twelve. I could not sleep but thinking of what we had to do and dreading a heavy fall of snow, which might detain us in the mountain. O’Conor fell asleep at once.
Around 1 o’clock the storm hit Glendalough.
At one o’clock a most tremendous hurricane commenced which rocked the house beneath us as if it were a ship! Awfully sublime! But I was much in dread that the roof would be blown off the house.
O’Conor seems to have been obvious to what was going on around him and continued to sleep soundly much to O’Donavan’s annoyance.
I attempted to wake O’Conor by shouting to him, but could not.
The wind continued unabated. Around 2 o’clock things took a nasty turn when the window of their room blew in. With difficultly O’Donavan managed to close the shutters of the window, holding them shut with his body, only moments later for them to be blown open again by another gust of wind and O’Donavan thrown across the room with the force of the wind.
About two o’clock the storm became so furious that I jumped up determined to make my way out, but I was no sooner out of bed than the window was dashed in upon the floor and after it a squall mighty as a thunderbolt! I then, fearing that the roof would be blown off at once, pushed out the shutter and closed it as soon as the direct squall had passed off and placed myself diagonally against it to prevent the next squall from getting at the roof inside, but the next blast shot me completely out of my position and forced in the shutter.
Only now did O’Conor wake up!!
This awoke O’Conor who was kept asleep as if by a halcyon charm!
O’Donavan closed the shutters again and his companion went to seek help from the hotel staff. Eventually the ‘man of the house’ secured the window.
I closed the shutter again despite of the wind and kept it closed for an hour when I was as cold as ice (being naked all the time). O’Conor went to alarm the people of the house, but he could find none of them, they being away securing (saving) their cattle in the outhouses which were much wrecked by the hurricane. The man of the house at last came up and secured the window by fixing a heavy form against it.
Poor O’Donavan spent the rest of the night in the kitchen. I get the sense that the hours that followed were not any less dramatic.
I then dressed myself and sat at the kitchen fire till morning. Pity I have not paper to tell the rest.
The next day the damage of the storm became clear, many homes in the area were badly damaged.
A tree in the Church Yard was prostrated and many cabins in the Glen much injured. The boat of the upper lake was smashed to pieces. The old people assert that this was the greatest storm that raged in the Glen these seventy years. We go on to-night to Dublin by the coach which passes here at one o’clock. O’Conor returns to Blessington to finish the barony of Lower Talbotstown.
Being on a tight scheduled the pair boarded a stage coach and head on their way and so the letter ends.
The letter above was taken from The Ordnance Survey Letters of Wicklow referenced below.
Bunbury, T. 2009.’ The Night of the Big Wind’ http://www.turtlebunbury.com/history/history_irish/history_irish_bigwind.htm
Burke, M. 2016.’An Irishwoman’s Diary on the ‘Night of the Big Wind’- January 6th, 1839. The Irish Times, Tue, Jan 12, 2016. http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishwoman-s-diary-on-the-night-of-the-big-wind-january-6th-1839-1.2492876
Corlett,C. & Medlycott. J. 2000.The Ordnance Survey Letters – Wicklow. Published by Roundwood & District Historical & Folklore Society and Wicklow Archaeological Society.