Ireland Revisited, Part 9

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


Friday, June 20, 1997 - Dingle, Betty -

            The day started out somewhat dreary due to the rain the night before and the dark clouds and mist coming in from the sea. We went to the laundry up toward Ballydavid to retrieve the clothing we had left on Thursday. It was ready as promised and neatly folded in a large, black plastic bag, very efficiently done
Lewis at Dingle's Famine Cemetery
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
and on time. We found out from the English couple staying at the Wine Rock - he works at the mental hospital in Ballinasloe - that neither the Irish nor the English are noted for keeping appointments or arriving on time. We had the idea he was a physician or ranking administrator.

            We stopped at the nearby Gallarus Oratory to see the 1,200-to-1, 300-year-old stone hut where people worshipped or used as a house of prayer. Buzz mentioned to the young man who collected admission fees that something that old would be torn down in America. But not in Ireland! They seem to respect and honor things of the past.

            We went into Dingle to change more Travelers Checks into Irish Pounds at the bank and while there had lunch at the Chart House, followed by a drive back to Slea Head. We talked to Mara Houlihan, who has the beehive huts on her property we visited. She leased the land below the road in front of her house and above the cliffs for the opening scene of "Far and Away." She said her son built the cottage used in the movie and that Tom Cruise came up to her house during the 5 or 6 days that the opening scenes were shot. She also told us about the helicopter that had crashed into a cliff and the ocean during filming. We were told that divers had cut the camera out of the helicopter since it was more important to save it than the helicopter. The film crew was on this part of the Dingle Peninsula for six months, in the fall of 1991. It was interesting to see that the pub near Dunquin had photographs on its walls of the locals who were in "Far and Away" - but not the stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

            A village on the cliff between Dunquin and Ballyferriter was constructed for the film. They made the buildings of fiberglass in such a way that they looked like stone. We were told the buildings were torn down since tourists (probably locals too) were taking off bits and pieces for souvenirs. We had already been on the site the day before and had wondered about the gravel/stone road that looped several hundred yards around Clogher Head in the middle of nowhere.

            In the United States, we would market the location, or at least put up a sign for something that famous in such a remote area. But the Irish don't seem to put much importance in calling attention to such things.  The countryside is dotted with thinly populated villages with spectacular scenery; as likely as not they consist of little more than a shop (siopa) and phone booth. That is the extent of the village of Murioch. But most villages seem to have 2 or 3 pubs.

            We had dinner that evening at Cafe Na Mara and enjoyed its beautiful views of the ocean. Locals had told us the restaurant was the best on the peninsula. But we didn't think it deserved that high rating. We thought the chef at Tigh T. P.'s was much better. The Chart House, a new restaurant in town, was also very good. 

            Photographs taken today included shots at Kilmalkedar Church, Gallarus Oratory, St. Brendan's house near Kilmalkedar, Mara Houlihan's house and property where "Far and Away" was filmed, and the Wine Strand beach area with the tide in.


 Saturday, June 21, 1997 - Dingle, Lewis -

            We found a replacement for Betty's electricity converter (necessary to plug such U.S. appliances as a hair dryer into the odd-shaped receptacles used in Ireland and other European countries) at a hardware store in Dingle. The proprietor graciously modified a similar one he had in stock to fit Betty's device. He didn't charge for the service, which took him 10 or so minutes.

            It took talking to several people, but we finally got directions to an old Famine burial ground in Dingle. The person who knew the way was a man who appeared to be in his 60s. He was walking on a narrow street off the main drag, by the locally noted "Holy Rock," when we stopped him for directions. The Holy Rock is high above the town and was so named because it was the site of secret Roman Catholic Masses that were celebrated in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The site was outside the view of the hated English, who had banned the celebration of the Mass as part of their unsuccessful attempt to make over the Irish into the image of their conquerors.

The direction giver opined, "the Irish should never forget" that the English landlords had denied them food when the potato crop failed for seven straight years. He said the hungry residents of the Dingle Peninsula had traded even their fishing equipment for food during the winter months. Winter is when the fierce gales "that will take your head off" keep even modern boats in harbor.

            The Holy Rock and also the Famine burial ground are near Dingle's primitive (by U.S. standards) hospital, which we entered to get more specific directions to the burial ground. There being no reception area and nobody near the door, we happened upon a patient ward and ER treatment room, equipped with fly swatters. It uncannily reminded me of the facilities of Sacramento County Hospital in California, where my late father worked as a pathologist in the 1950s.  Seeing the sorry state of the publicly funded and managed hospital, I remembered some medical advice I'd received back home: Quickly return to the U.S. if you ever get seriously ill or hurt when abroad. A pal whose wife had a stroke in London in 1996 bitterly blames the absence of the latest anticoagulants in the British hospital pharmacy formulary for the extent of her stroke damage.

            Behind the hospital and out of sight is the unmarked foundation of a 19th Century Workhouse. Homeless people, often evicted from their tenant farms by the English landlords, lived in such ghastly institutions during and after the Famine years. Families were separated into men's quarters and women's quarters. In exchange for working long hours to construct walls alongside the roadbeds and other public projects, they were given pitifully inadequate food.

            People didn't live very long in the workhouses, due to poor diet, overwork, and the soul-sapping environment. Further back from the Workhouse and up a rather steep hill was a conveniently located burial ground. We had to trudge a quarter mile or more up a narrow, rocky lane and through two crudely built, well-rusted, sheep gates to reach the unmarked graves of an unknown number of Dingle area residents who starved to death in the 1840s and 1850s.

            The burial ground is an acre or two in size and is enclosed by a rough stonewall. Heavy, tall grass covers the irregular humps of dirt that suggest uneven trench
Betty takes a break at Brandan Creek
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
burials. There is an aura of sadness about the lonely place. However, the location is on the side of a lush, high hill that gives a panoramic view of Dingle Town and Dingle Harbor a century and a half after the famine. Looking another way is the Workhouse foundation, from whence the penniless dead came.

            Later that day, I mentioned our visit to the burial ground to the young man who managed the Chart House Restaurant, where we had dined three times earlier. The mention seemed to move something deep within him and without saying much he quickly produced a gift to me of two recent issues, postage stamps commemorating the Great Famine. We tried to buy the third in the three-stamp set, but didn't come across it in any postal offices we visited. For that matter, we didn't come across any Post personnel that were conversant on the subject of the Famine stamps.

            A co-owner of a nearby pub told me about some famine graves that had been moved at nearby Marioch to make way for a basketball court. And a transplanted Aussie told me about a famine relief project he had learned about, the construction of lighthouse structure to mark the entrance to the Dingle Harbor. He showed more interest in the burial ground than any of the locals, wanting precise directions.

            But these few expressions of collective memory of the Famine were uncommon. Or perhaps just more open. Otherwise, my questions or comments about the Famine generally drew shrugs of ignorance or blank looks. My sense, based on a series of conversations across Ireland on this and earlier trips, is that while the memory of the Great Famine has been suppressed, it lies just beneath the surface in a pool of bitterness passed from generation to generation. I think that under the right circumstances, a skilled demagogue could whip up that awful memory to a boiling pitch among the normally docile, take-life-as-it-comes Irish.

            After lunch we drove around to the opposite side of Dingle Harbor and visited a leather craft shop operated by the Holden couple. I bought a belt for myself and a nice handbag for Betty. Later, we rented bicycles at a shop adjacent to Gorman's and took off on a recommended circle route of "four Irish miles" around one of the westernmost fingers of the Dingle Peninsula. It was at least twice that far, but well worth the ride. Among the stops along the beautiful route was Brandan Creek, a searingly picturesque slot in the cliffs. It is the spot, Irish believe, from whence St. Brendan started his voyage of discovery to America in the 6th Century. Like so many spots on the wild Kerry coastline, the beauty of the place leads one to marvel at the Creator's touch.

            There is a cascade of fresh water tumbling down the rocks and through a narrow defile into a slit of a naturally protected harbor that is no more than 50 yards across. Several currough-style lobster boats and a few smallish, modern fishing boats tugged at their anchor lines in a heavy swell of deep blue and light blue water. A modest memorial to St. Brendan overlooks the harbor. Up from it is the squat Brandon Mountain that devout Irish pilgrims climb, with the more fervent doing it barefoot despite the rocks. (Careful readers will note the variant spellings of Brendan/Brandon/Brenden; I can't account for the Irish imprecision on maps and signage. It's just the way it is.)

            We finally tore ourselves away from the splendor of the sights at Brandan Creek and continued our tiring ride. We pedaled up and down the hills over rough pavement and through a few rain showers of short duration. Most of the time we were within sight of the ocean. There was virtually no traffic. At one point we asked a man, who appeared to be a farmer and about 50 years old, for directions. He couldn't understand us and we hadn't a clue to what he was saying. A much younger man, possibly his son, explained that the older man spoke only Gaelic.

            By now, this linguistic limitation didn't really surprise us because we had learned the Dingle Peninsula is the Gaeltacht, a bastion of the Irish language. People of means all over Ireland send their teenage children here in the summers to learn the ancient Irish language well enough to pass the tests required for graduation. Providing room and board to the young students for two or three weeks per Irish School session provides income for many farm families; we were told some homes can handle as many as 10 at a time.

            That evening, we repaired back to Tigh T.P's for yet another Guinness and great seafood dinner and a farewell to the O'Connors - Sean, Fiona and Gra'nna. I promised our charming and hard-working hosts that I would send them a license plate from Tennessee to add to their collection. Some months later I mailed them an expired tag from one of our cars plus a souvenir Elvis license plate. Someday I hope to see the plates nailed to the pub's walls.


Saturday, June 21, 1997 - Dingle, Betty -

            The weather is definitely changeable. It is perfectly clear one minute and cloudy and rainy or misty the next. We went into town after breakfast to see about getting a new adapter for my electrical converter. We had gone into Ballyferriter where we only found a different type of converter and were directed to a hardware store in Dingle. The store was exactly where we were told it was, on Main Street near the bank. It was called Foxy John's Hardware and Bike Rental. Off to one side of the store was a small pub - only in Ireland! Two old men were drinking Guinness at 11:30 a.m. The owner (Foxy John, I suppose) got to us after helping a lady with something like duct tape. We watched him sell her the wide, black vinyl tape with a backing that peeled off;
Lewis & Betty at St. Brendan monument
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
she bought three yards even though he told her she only needed two yards. I showed him my broken adaptor plug and he produced a replacement part that was needed. However, the part had a hard plastic edge on it that would not allow proper seating of the electrical converter.  He took out a sharp knife-like tool and patiently trimmed off the edge. How many shop owners would go to that much trouble for you at home? None that I know of.

            We went to find a Famine Cemetery behind the Dingle Hospital. The young women at the museum at Ballyferriter had told Buzz about it when he inquired yesterday. The shop owner at Foxy John's also confirmed the cemetery.

We walked into Dingle Hospital in search of directions. No one was near the entrance and we searched around for somebody, passing by emergency rooms that looked like World War II facilities. The women working in the kitchen (the smell of lunch being cooked was unappetitizing, to say the least) found someone to answer our questions about the location of the burial ground for Famine victims.

An older man told us how to get there and kindly directed us to follow him in his car to the Holy Rock, or Mass Rock, near the entrance to a small lane that led up a steep hill to the cemetery. We drove up the lane until it turned from pavement into gravel and then into an animal track. We parked and walked up the hill on the path perhaps a mile and then through a sheep pasture to the burial ground. There was a nice view of Dingle and the harbor from the hillside.

            We went back to Dingle and had lunch at the Chart House for our last time. We returned to the Wine Rock to retrieve rain jackets and windbreakers and then rented bicycles to ride to Brandon Creek. We only got showered on briefly. We had a tiring, short ride of two hours in and around the area toward Brandon Creek. After returning the bikes, we went to Tigh T. P.'s at nearby Ballydavid for dinner. I had the Smerwick Harbor Crab Claws, which were again delicious.

            We talked with Steve, age 17, who was tending bar in the pub that is adjacent to the restaurant seating area to the rear. His mother keeps 14 Irish kids (male and female), ages 13-15, for three, three-week shifts in the summer during "Irish School." Also occupying the house are his parents and five other children. His mother feeds them, provides sleeping arrangements and does their laundry for a charge of about 12 Pounds ($18) per day, per kid. The kids go to school in the morning to study Irish (government policy mandates a certain proficiency in Irish to graduate from the government-run educational system). The teenagers play games and have free time in the afternoons. Can you imagine 14 adolescents in your home for three weeks - times three sessions for a total of nine weeks in the summer? Not me! I'm sure it is a factor of income for the host families, who help preserve the Irish language and culture by immersing young people into an Irish speaking life for several weeks at a time.

            Photographs taken today included shots at the Famine Cemetery behind the Dingle Hospital, a hospital emergency room, Dingle Bay and harbor, homes near Dingle Bay and also Brandon Creek, the point where Brandon Creek empties into the ocean and various spots around our bike route. People to remember include Sean and Fionna O'Connor; Gran'na O'Connor (Sean's sister); Lillian, a cousin; Steve, 17, a bartender; Noreen, our morning waitress at the Wine Rock; Mara (Mary) Houlihan, owner of the land where the opening scene of "Far and Away" was filmed; Foxy John's Hardware and Bike Rental; Pat and Dermot Richardson of Ballinasloe and formerly of Liverpool, England.


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