Ireland Revisited, Part 4

On the Famine Trail in Search of Ancestral Roots

June 11 - 26, 1997

 

By Lewis and Betty Nolan

 

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Part 1: Memphis to Dublin

Part 7:  Cork, Kinsale

Part 2: Carlow, Site of Nolan Homelands

Part 8:  Dingle Golf Links

Part 3: Kilkenny, Waterford, Crystal Plant

Part 9:  Dingle's Famine Cemetery

Part 4: Youghal, Dingle Town

Part 10: Ballinasloe, County Galway

Part 5: Dingle Peninsula

Part 11: Strokestown Famine Museum

Part 6: Great Blasket Island

Part 12: Donegal

Photo Album Index

Part 13: Drive in Northern Ireland

 

Saturday, June 14, 1997 - To Youghal and Dingle, Lewis -

This is a typical, Irish summertime day, with skies ranging from spotty sun to heavy mist. We left Waterford at midmorning and drove southwesterly toward Dingle.
Betty at Youghal cemetery
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
Our first stop of the day was as the Catholic Collegiate Church of St. Mary at Youghal (pronounced just like the Southern y'all, or yawl), located on the southeast coast.

 The New York Times had mentioned the church cemetery as a famine burial site, in a longish Sunday Travel section story about Irish famine sites that had run several weeks before our trip. I brought the newspaper clipping along with me and drew upon it heavily in mapping our route. I had been interested in the Great Famine ever since learning that my great-grandfather and his brother had immigrated to America just before Ireland's terrible potato blights of the mid-19th Century.

Youghal pop. 5,500) is a scenic port that was first occupied by the Vikings in the 9th Century. It was settled by the Norman invaders at the end of the 12th Century. It was the point of introduction of tobacco and potato plants into Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh, the town's mayor and owner of 40,000 acres granted him by Queen Elizabeth in the late 16th Century. It is said to have the best-preserved town walls in all of Ireland; the walls were built in the 13th Century and extended in the 17th Century. Now a quiet, seaside resort, Youghal was the site of much of the 1954 filming of the movie, "Moby Dick."

            We searched St. Mary's Cemetery - anchored by the church built in the early 13th Century - but could find no evidence of the graves mentioned by the New York Times. In fact, a parish priest at another Catholic church 400 yards away had never heard of any famine burials anywhere near the Collegiate Church. Nor had several neighborhood residents we questioned. The old cemetery overlooks the town and coast from a steep slope topped by a medieval wall, tower and old cannon. We saw some headstones dated in the late 1700s. A modern stone amused us with an inscription saying the deceased was such an excellent fisherman that he was taken up to heaven for his skills.

            The absence of any evidence of famine burials at first suggested to me the possibility that the New York Times
Lewis at Youghal harbor
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
article was in error. Regardless, the article made the point that most Irish still repress all memory of the famines of the 1840s and 1850s. I found that to be the case in repeated conversations throughout Ireland. (In an interesting post-posting, I learned in early 2004 that the famine burials are nearby. Brian Kearns of Ireland emailed me that "the famine graves you were looking for in Youghal are unmarked, or pauper graves. You were in the right area - did you see the coffin shape in the wall just behind the church where the reuseable coffin was kept? The graves are located just outside the town walls you saw.")

In our talks with the Irish, we encountered nothing comparable to African-Americans' constant awareness of the evils of slavery. The English starvation of the Irish - which claimed more than 1 million lives in just a few years - resulted in the loss of as many or possibly even more lives than did the American enslavement of Africans. My view is that the scar tissue in Ireland is equally deep. But African-Americans are way ahead of the Irish in venting the pent-up rage of generations.

            We stopped at a roadside pub for a tasty, quick lunch of chicken sandwiches and a huge portion of the ever-present French fried potatoes.  Pressed for time, we skirted the picturesque town center of Killarney, where we had spent much of a week on our last trip, and drove on through Tralee to the worst paved road upon which I've ever driven. It was narrow, twisty and bumpy from Connor Pass to Dingle. Though only 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) it took over an hour to drive. I soon learned to take anything the Irish say about driving times with a grain of salt. This includes tourism brochures.

            Dingle (winter pop. 1,300) is in extreme southwest Ireland and is the principal town on the Gaelic-speaking Dingle Peninsula. It is an important commercial fishing port and is built around an almost totally enclosed harbor. During the warm months, the town is a beacon to those tourists who are able to manage the terrible roads. The guidebooks say Dingle Town has 52 pubs; we didn't try to verify the number, but such research could be a lot of fun. The Dingle Peninsula has one of the highest concentrations of Celtic monastic and older ruins in Ireland, said to be second only to the Aran Islands.

            We stayed at the Carraig An Fhiona (Wine Rock in Gaelic), a newly renovated
Betty at Wine Rock Guest House
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
guesthouse/inn 10 minutes or so out from town on Slea Head Drive. The inn (later expanded and renamed to Smerwick Harbor Hotel) is at the base of a mountain slope that is covered with hues of green. Dotting the slope are several herds of sheep. Wild, yellow iris, locally called "blaze," grows in abundance in the low areas. A half-mile away is Smerwick Harbor, a small bay that opens onto the Atlantic Ocean. The view from our room is captivating. Our room is large, comfortable and bright, one of five that are upstairs from the excellent restaurant. We dined on filet of sole before retiring, and ended up sleeping about 10 hours due to exhaustion from the grueling drive.

 

Saturday, June 14, 1997, Betty -

            We got up to find that the golf bag had arrived at the hotel overnight, courtesy of a courier service working for Aer Lingus. It had been security checked and locked when we last saw it. Guess what, no key! Terry, the proprietor of our guest hotel, loaned us pliers to break the lock off the bag. We didn't check the contents until later and then found Buzz's Gore-tex jacket needed for rainy Ireland had been stolen. Gore-tex in Ireland has to be a very pricey item; some Gore-tex jackets sell for $100-to-$200. It turned out that the golf bag had made it to Amsterdam, where it was mishandled and put on a flight to Budapest, Hungary. The Hungarians may not know much about American golf clubs, but they evidently know the value of American Gore-tex.

            We visited the medieval museum in Waterford to learn more about the Vikings and Normans. We had visited one of the Viking Towers (Reginald's) on the evening before and we were able to get into the museum with our ticket stubs Saturday morning. It was very interesting to see the old manuscripts that were written in Middle or Old English.

            During our drive across the southern coast of Ireland, we stopped in Youghal to visit a Famine cemetery at St. Mary's. Funny, but no locals knew anything about Famine burials in the cemetery, or their memory was suppressed to forget the horrible period 150 years ago. There was a beautiful view of the ocean and bay from the top of the cemetery.

            We arrived in Dingle around 6 p.m. By the time we found the Wine Rock Guest House (B&B) it was late. The time spent driving here was a far cry from the few hours from Cork that a pub waitress near there had told us. If Ireland had freeways with wide lanes (or at least had dual carriageways, as they call them), for the whole distance we might have made it sooner. We had an awful lane of a two-way road once we got beyond Tralee, winding and narrow all the way to Dingle and the Wine Rock. We were tired and had had enough of Irish roads for the day. We had dinner at the Wine Rock Restaurant, which seemed huge in relationship to its lodging capacity of only five guest rooms. I'm not sure how they ever fill it (on another day we noticed that a tour bus stopped so its passengers could eat lunch there). There are at least one or two pubs for every bend in the road or village, no matter how tiny. The pubs have pretty good food - some better than others, depending on the freshness of the seafood and the chef.

            Photographs taken today included shots at Waterford, Youghal and Dingle.

 

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