A thrilling tale fit for the silver screen

A stone’s throw from my pirate ship is another local landmark that has fascinated me since childhood.

As you leave Saltmills village (heading towards Wellingtonbridge) and turn down the road for St. Kearn’s, there is a headstone erected on the roadside in memory of some IRA men who died there in 1920.

I can remember asking my grandmother what had happened to them and she told me they had died in an explosion while building bombs (although it seems crass to say it now, my young mind processed that as “they blew themselves up”).

I was immediately captivated. Bombs, explosions…those sorts of things happen in Bruce Willis movies, not in sleepy Irish villages where the big events of the year usually revolve around religious happenings, harvests or the lambing season.

I always wanted to know more but time moved on, I grew up, got distracted and sort of forgot about it.

Black, marble headstone in shape of harp bearing following inscription: On October 12 1920 overlooking this spot an explosion occurred in St Kearns munitions factory involving 14 members of G Company, 2nd Battalion South Wexford Brigade IRA. Killed: Com. Michael Fitzgerald, Com Martin Roche, James Byrne, James Gleeson, Robert Walsh. Survivors: Captain John Timmins, Stephen Barron, Michael Conway, Thomas Gleeson, Patrick O'Grady, Edward Kelly, Patrick Kelly, Thomas Kinsella, Patrick Reville. This monument has been erected by comrades and friends to commemorate the 50th anniversary, October 12 1970.

The monument erected in memory of the men that died at St Kearns in 1920.

Quite by chance, a few months ago I was looking around the internet for something entirely different when I struck gold – an account of the explosion BY SOMEONE WHO WAS THERE! I was quite stunned – I didn’t know such things existed – but quickly started reading.

Michael Conway from Curraghmore joined the Ballycullane Company of the Irish Volunteers in 1917 and was one of 14 men in St. Kearns on that fateful night. On October 12 1920, the men had gathered in an old, unoccupied house to make bombs to attack Foulksmills and New Ross RIC barracks. They had a range of explosives, including tonite and gelignite, a quantity of detonators and some bombs that had been prepared already.

“My job was cutting the wire off the detonators. I was using a pliers. I had finished my work and we were about to knock off for the night. Another Volunteer was also engaged cutting the wires off the detonators. He was using a penknife. He cut the wire too short off one of the detonators. It struck fire in his hand and he dropped it on to the floor. I was standing up at this time.

“I heard a report like a revolver shot. Then I saw a blue flame sweeping across the house. The next thing I heard was Captain John Timmins shouting, ‘Run men, we will all be killed.’ Almost immediately a terrific explosion occurred . I thought I was split from the top of my head down. The roof was blown up and landed some fields away.

“I was blown up too and I thought I was up to the stars and when I came down again I fell on a tree which was growing at one end of the house. The bough broke with me and it broke my fall into the house again, and stones from the wall fell on me. I was at this time almost unconscious. When I came to a little I heard great moaning. I was smothering from gas and was gasping for breath. I was naked as my clothes had been burned off me and I was red with blood. All that was left on me were my two boots and they were badly tattered.

“With the help of other men I dragged myself out from under the stones and I was laid on the green sod. John Timmins, our company captain, spoke to me and asked what way I was. He said ‘when you were not killed you were alright. We will go some place to see if we can get a priest; I am bleeding to death’.”

As can be seen by the monument, Capt. Timmins survived the blast, though five others were not so fortunate, and Michael Conway’s account describes the local effort to help the injured, dying and dead as well as what happened once the authorities got their hands on the survivors. Joseph McCarthy, 1st Lieutenant of the New Ross Company and Vice-Commandant of the New Ross Battalion, also gives an account of the explosion and its aftermath.

These are just two of 1,773 witness statements in the Bureau of Military History Collection which was compiled by the State between 1947 and 1957 in order to create a treasure chest of primary source material relating to Ireland’s tempestuous, revolutionary years of 1913 to 1921.

I take my hat off to the people who had the foresight to create this collection. It is an unbelievably gripping resource to which you will lose hours of your life! Aside from the stories of Wexford Volunteers (which were real eye-openers as there was an awful lot more going on in these parts than you’d imagine), there are statements from those connected with some of the biggest events of the time, including signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Robert Barton; the widow of Eamonn Ceannt, sister of Edward Daly and brother of Michael Mallin (all executed in 1916); members of ‘The Squad’, Charles Dalton and Patrick Lawson; and Eithne Lawless, one-time secretary to Michael Collins.

I wish I’d had a resource like this available to me back when I was studying for my history degree. Actually, maybe not – I would have been so distracted by and engrossed in these records that I probably wouldn’t have gotten much actual course work done!

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Posted by on February 22, 2015 in Education, History


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Marauding pirates left a lasting impression

Badly damaged wooden boat lying in the sand with the river, at low tide, to the left.

The weather-beaten remains of my ‘pirate ship’ in Saltmills.

A child’s mind is a wonderful thing – a magical place where anything is possible and even the most unlikely can be everyday.

In their innocence, they come out with the most amazing questions and statements as they try to figure this strange old world out.

A few years ago, my cousin asked me whether you could see the word Spain written across the country if you looked at it from space, just like on the maps.

A couple of months ago, as I was bringing my niece up to stay with me one Friday evening, we passed the village of Ballymitty. The bell tower of the church was illuminated in the dark and, quite matter of factly, a little voice from the back seat announced that ‘that’s where Tangled lives’ (Tangled being Rapunzel from the Disney movie of the same name who lived in a tower). I couldn’t help but smile.

Not that I’m much better.

For most of my childhood, I believed that an old abandoned boat lying on its side by the bridge in Saltmills was actually a pirate ship! One that had found itself in difficulty during a storm and crashed onto the shore, shipwrecked.

What became of its motley crew of buccaneers, I never spent much time thinking about. I figured any that had survived had found their way to safety and either settled in the village or headed back out to sea on some of the boats in the nearby ports of Duncannon and Ballyhack.

Why did I think it was a pirate ship in the first place? No idea! I can only imagine it had something to do with the hull of the boat being painted black. Who but a pirate would have a black boat? (You can’t really tell from my pictures but you can make it out here)

The boat is still there; its skeleton nestled in the sand by the bridge, looking out towards Bannow Bay. Time has taken its toll and the deterioration seems to have rapidly accelerated in recent years (a friend of mine took this photo around 2007/2008 and, as you can see, the vessel was still relatively intact at that stage).

As daft as it sounds, I’ll be sad when that boat finally succumbs to the elements; like a little piece of my childhood innocence has collapsed with it.

At least I’ll always have the memory of those swashbuckling scallywags, fighting a losing battle with their doomed ship in foul weather. Arrrrr!

The view from the back of the boat. Looking through the side of the boat which is missing lots of planks, others are broken in two. The back of the boat with exposed rusted metal that would have formed part of the rudder mechanism. The front of the boat, which is overgrown with weeds. Looking into the hull from the back.

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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Family


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Some day my peony will come!

Green lawn and shrubs with castle walls in the background.

The spring garden sitting snugly against the walls of Lismore Castle.

It’s been a dismal ‘ole start to the new year here in the south east of Ireland.

Dark and dreary, all day long the wind has been howling down the chimney and the rain drops slapping against the window. Outside, the garden is looking a little worse for wear, wind-beaten and unkempt. Through the sodden window panes it’s a blurry mess of green and brown.

It’s hard to imagine that in summer it looks quite nice…well, bits of it do.

It’s all a work in progress you see. I have plans. Big plans. So much so, it will probably require a 20-year-plan to transform it from glorified field to lush, floral paradise.

But in the meantime, I can dream. And if you’re going to dream, you may as well dream big!

Like the gorgeous gardens at Lismore Castle. We visited there in the height of summer, when the spring garden was past its best but the upper garden was in full bloom. With its perfectly manicured lawns, eruptions of bright flowers and tall hedges teasing you to see what was behind them, it’s a rich source of inspiration for any would-be garden planner.

Sweet dreams indeed!

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Posted by on January 1, 2015 in Garden, Nature, Travel


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Into the west 5: The Burren and Poulnabrone

A megalithic tomb with upright stones and a huge capstone sitting on top.

The Poulnabrone dolmen near Caherconnell Fort in the Burren.

Ireland has this wonderful reputation in the outside world.

The Land of Saints and Scholars. The Emerald Isle.

Both of these terms evoke fantastic notions of a cultured, romantic place full of rolling green hills and lush pastures and this is how the country is usually ‘sold’ to tourists from nations across the globe.

Undoubtedly, in certain parts of the country the scenery is enough to stop you in your tracks but, after my first proper visit to the Burren, I can’t help but wonder if that is a truer representation of Ireland.

The more I learn about Irish history and, particularly, the lives of ordinary, everyday farmers and workers, the more it hits home that life was often a struggle. Against disease. Against famine. Against weather and crop failures. Against English rule. Against the RIC, the army and the Black and Tans. And, as last week’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘ programme with Julie Walters highlighted exceptionally well, against landlords.

Having visited the cottages at Bunratty and sifted through the census returns from 1901 and 1911, it’s clear that the majority of people lived in small, dark homes with little in the way of comfort and luxury for hundreds of years.

I’m not saying they weren’t happy people – clearly they had the love of family, the warm bonds of friendship and the means to entertain themselves through music, song and dance – but one thing they definitely were was tough.

And that’s what the Burren is. Tough. Rugged. Stark.

The people who farmed these lands did so using a carpet of green grass that was punctured throughout with stone.

They had to be smart, they had to be adaptable and they had to work hard. They took pride in their land and made the best of their situation.

I may be biased but I can’t imagine anything more Irish than that.

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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Travel


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Into the west 4: Cliffs of Moher

Grass-topped cliff with a steep drop to the sea below and a stack to the left of the cliff.

The view to the north from the main platform at the Cliffs of Moher.

Of all the attractions we visited, none can match the Cliffs of Moher when it comes to sheer tourist pulling power.

Thousands of bodies were swarming about the cliff edges when we arrived, moving along in the distance like little two-legged ants. While many languages and accents were to be heard, the over-whelming majority seemed to be from the United States.

I don’t know if the cliffs are being particularly marketed as a must-see in America or whether they’ve made it onto US tourists’ ‘to do’ list of their own merit but there’s no doubt that they are attracting huge volumes from the States.

And you can see why – there’s absolutely no doubt that the views are spectacular or the landscape magnificent. At their highest, the cliffs reach 214m or 702 feet, stretch for eight kilometres around the Co. Clare coastline and give stunning views of the Aran Islands and Galway Bay.

I only hope that people aren’t missing out on some of the other great attractions nearby which, it must be said, weren’t over-run with tourists and had far fewer Americans among their ranks of visitors.

With a coach park full to the brim with buses and a steady flow of cars into and out of the car park, there seems little danger of the Cliffs of Moher getting knocked off its perch as Ireland’s most visited natural attraction.

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Stone round tower at peak north of the northern platform, allowing undisturbed views all around.

O’Brien’s Tower, which was built in 1835 as a viewing point for tourists.


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Posted by on July 19, 2014 in Travel


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Into the west 3: Craggaunowen

View of the ringfort fence from the inside - 6 or 7 foot earthen bank with wooden stake fence on top.

A man’s home is his fortress – inside the ringfort at Craggaunowen.

I have a confession to make: I LOVE the television programme Time Team.

I’ve lost a ridiculous number of Saturday mornings to the back-to-back re-runs on More4 over the past few years, engrossed as the team of archaeologists try to figure out whether they’ve uncovered a great Roman villa or an old farmhouse. I was gutted when it ended last year.

Over two decades, the crew excavated everything from an iron age hillfort and Roman camp to a royal hunting lodge and medieval chapel. Even important historic, political and religious sites like Buckingham Palace and Westminister Abbey have not escaped the attention of the team and their three-day challenges.

While some will love the more modern excavations (such as the excavation of the anti-aircraft battery built by the Nazis on Jersey, the lost WW1 bunker ‘Vampyr’ in Belgium or the anti-Nazi defensive measures erected in Shooters Hill in south London), I’ve always loved the older discoveries.

Truth be told, I can’t resist a Roman mosaic floor or robbed-out castle wall. The mere hint of an old water mill and I’m hooked.

While the mention of words like ‘Anglo Saxon’ or ‘Iron Age’ was enough to make some Time Team members giddy, I sometimes found myself staring at pure dirt as they pointed out subtle (invisible, to me) changes in colour that hinted at ancient house boundaries or post holes.

No matter. Any attempt to make the past come to life is alright in my book, which is why tourist attractions such as Craggaunowen in Co. Clare are a real winner as far as I’m concerned.

A living and breathing museum, it gives visitors a chance to explore the past by standing beside it, smelling it, getting inside and seeing how dark it was in there.

The facility was the brainchild of John Hunt, whose collection of some 2,000 works of art and antiquity is housed at the Hunt Museum in Limerick City. He bought the land near the village of Quin, restored the castle, then began to reconstruct features of everyday life from prehistoric and Early Christian times. He later donated the whole complex to the people of Ireland (it’s now run by Shannon Heritage).

Among the features at Craggaunowen is the fortified tower house which was built around 1550 and would have been home to members of the gentry. Uninhabitable since the 17th century, restoration work began in the early 19th century and was eventually completed by John Hunt in 1965.

The crannog is one of those things that will capture the attention of any child thanks to the novelty of it being surrounded by water. Popular during the Iron Age and Early Christian period, they are built on man-made islands and accessible by either canoe or causeway.

Dolmens have fascinated me since I first learnt about them in school. These megalithic tombs, which are also known as passage tombs, feature a number of upright stones with a huge capstone sitting on top. The remains – either cremated or cleaned bones – would be placed inside the chamber along with any grave goods and the whole structure was often covered in soil. A real-life example can be found in Poulnabrone, which is also in Co. Clare, but more about that later!

The ringfort was a typical farmstead found throughout Ireland from the 5th to 12th centuries. Inside its earthen banks and defensive fence, families went about their everyday business. The Craggaunowen fort also boasts a souterrain – an underground tunnel which was used to store food but which could also be used to hide during attacks or, in this case, escape.

One of the final stops along the trail is the ‘Brendan Boat’. This is the actual leather-hulled vessel built by adventurer Tim Severin in 1976 to re-enact the crossing of St. Brendan the Navigator, who, according to legend, sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland in the 6th century and discovered North America centuries before Columbus set foot on a ship.

One final happy discovery before heading back to the car were the mammy and baby wild boar (a species from the pre-historic era) soaking up the summer sun.

Craggaunowen is a peaceful, picturesque and pleasant place in which to dip your toe into Ireland’s past. With Knappogue Castle just up the road, it’s definitely worth packing a picnic, filling up the car and heading towards Quin for a taste of times long gone by.

A mother and young donkey lying off in the sunshine.

Sunbathing at the entrance to Craggaunowen.

The top of the tower house from below and from the other side of a fence.

Craggaunowen castle.

Sheer drop from the top to bottom of one of the castle walls.

Side wall of the castle, overlooking the lake.

Big, high room with elk antlers high on wall above huge table and chair.

A good spot to meet the local lord.

Various objects for cooking, including tortoise shells.

Cooking up a storm.

Bright room with large window, a table and a bench either side.

One of the upstairs rooms in the tower house.

Wooden frame with straw inside in one of the upstairs rooms.

Tempted to bed down for the night?

Bare wooden bed with wooden canopy above.

Pretty basic but a four-poster bed all the same.

Entrance steps to the left, grassy area to the right and a wall all around.

The view from the top of the castle.

Big lake with lily pads.

The view out over the lake.

Small sculpted stone in the shape of a person, leaning up against the outside wall.

A sentry on duty outside the castle!

Wooden causeway with a small watch-tower at the far end.

The entrance to the crannog.

Rounded building with high thatched roof and a fire outside about 12 feet away.

One of the houses inside the crannog.

View of the watch-tower looking back out towards the causeway.

Keeping watch over the causeway.

Another view of one of the buildings inside the crannog.

Home sweet home!

Tall grasses and plants in the speckled sunlight under the trees.

Dancing on the breeze in the dappled shade.

A water-filled hole in the ground surrounded by a wooden fence to keep people out of it.

The fullacht fiadh which was used for cooking food outdoors.

A passage grave with upright stones with a large cap-stone sitting horizontally on top of them.

The dolmen.

An upright stone sticking out of the ground. The stone has a series of straight lines scratched into the side of it, which is the old ogham way of writing words.

An ogham stone (the ogham can be seen at the bottom right-hand corner).

Two rounded and thatched buildings with a fire in the centre and an outdoor lathe off to the left-hand side.

The interior of the ringfort.

A stone round building with the thatched roof.

The ringfort house that has the entrance to the souterrain inside.

A tool, worked by the foot, which moves up and down, turning wood so that it can be carved; covered by a triangular roof but otherwidse open to the elements.

An outdoor lathe for working wood.

Dark, circular room with large post in the middle to hold up the roof.

Inside one of the ringfort buildings.

Small stone building with thatched roof, a door but no windows.

The only rectangular building in the ringfort – if memory serves, it could be a workshop.

The leather-hulled boat based on the currachs still being used along Ireland's west coast.

The ‘Brendan Boat’.

The boat inside a tall, triangular building made of glass.

The boat inside it’s glass house.

The boat was made from oak-tanned hides sewn together and stretched over a flexible ash frame.

The boat was made from oak-tanned hides sewn together and stretched over a flexible ash frame.

A mother and baby boar lying nose to nose just outside the shade of some trees where others were hiding.

Wild boars resting in the sunshine.

Large tree snapped in two near it's base.

Evidence of destruction – possibly from the storms in January and February this year.

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Posted by on July 19, 2014 in Education, Family, History, Travel


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Into the west 2: King John’s Castle

View from a distance of the castle by the river with lots of other buildings around it

King John’s Castle in the heart of Limerick City

Limerick is a city dripping in history and no place more so than King John’s Castle.

Nestled in the heart of the city, it has kept an eye on – and often played a major role in – the lives of Limerick’s inhabitants for over 800 years.

The first time I saw it, I thought it was a magnificent sight! As our schoolbus rattled its way through the busy streets and towards Thomond Bridge, suddenly the view changed dramatically to reveal a huge silent watchman casting a wary eye over the banks of the Shannon; the towers of the imposing gatehouse whispering a clear warning: you shall not pass!

Straight away I wondered what lay behind those huge stone walls and now, many, many moons later, I’ve finally found out.

Another attraction run by Shannon Heritage, the castle’s attractions are a mix of technology and archaeology. Initially, visitors pass through an interactive exhibition that plots the city’s path from early Gaelic Ireland to more modern times. The exhibition is a mixture of artefacts (hidden in ‘discovery drawers’), 3D models, movies and CGI animations and draws you into eras when conflict, warfare and siege were the order of the day.

Once you’ve cleared the exhibition, the castle itself takes up the tale. Down around the foundations are signs of life from bygone times, where archaeologists have uncovered evidence of old Viking houses as well as one of the tunnels dug under the walls during a siege. Out in the courtyard, more archaeology – this time the remains of The Great Hall are on display – while a chapel, siege shelter and campaign tent have been erected to give the visitor a sense of what life was like during troubled times.

The towers are also open for exploration and reveal a bit more about castle life, including the mint and the stone mason’s workshop. As expected, the views of the city from the top of that fantastic gatehouse (which was built in 1212) are spectacular. Unfortunately, the heavens decided to open just as we were climbing the winding steps but we had to brave the weather and have a peak!

The tentacles of Irish history are firmly wrapped around King John’s Castle. Inside its walls, the influence of the Normans, the Reformation, the Irish Catholic Confederation, Cromwell and the fallout of the Battle of the Boyne were all felt. The survivor of three bloody and devastating sieges in 1642, 1651 and 1960/1691, the castle continues to take a stand as the jewel in Limerick’s crown.

Two huge, stone towers side by side with a small door at the bottom and a covered walkway at the top

The twin-towered gatehouse from inside the courtyard.

Wooden structure, open to the weather, with a barrel and chest for storing goods

The siege shelter.

Straw bed at the end of the shelter

The siege shelter

Small, wooden rectangular room with a small altar at the top and two benches to sit on.

The chapel in the courtyard.

Chests and a fire inside a room in one of the round towers, with narrow windows

The castle mint.

The fire, bellows and various tools inside a small, dark workshop.

The blacksmith’s workshop in the courtyard.

View of the wide Shannon River with a stone bridge to the right.

View of the Thomond Bridge.

Sideways view of the tower from another tower to its side.

One of the gatehouse towers.

Courtyard with a large deep hole where the great hall was, a wooden rectangular building of the chapel and a small, white round campaign tent.

The courtyard with the great hall excavation (back, right), siege shelter (back, left), chapel (front, right) and a campaign tent (front, left).

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Posted by on June 25, 2014 in Education, History, Travel


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