The Slaughter of Erris

It was just a folk-memory. A story that grandmothers told to children at the fireside.

Once upon a time, so this story went, the King of Munster invaded Erris with a great army. There was a terrible battle among the sandhills and the king was killed, along with his entire army.

For centuries nothing remained to commemorate the Slaughter of Erris except for the legend and a few curious place-names in the fields and dunes of the Mullet, that slip of land in the extreme north-west of Mayo that reaches out into the cold grey sea, uncertain as to whether it belongs or not. A mound of earth in a field was Righ Mhuimnigh, the King of Munster. A nearby hollow in the dunes was Lug na Fullagh, the Hole of Blood. Nearby was a spot called the Leacht ard, the High Monument. But there was no monument. Nothing to show for the horror that was supposed to have taken place once upon a time in this remote corner of Mayo.

Then in 1811 a tremendous storm hit the coast.  When it was over, the sands had shifted, leaving behind a sea of human bones. There were bones scattered in the Hole of Blood, bones among the sandhills, and bones all round the place called Leacht ard. Stranger still, a monument had appeared. A huge conical stone cairn, 15ft high and 30ft across, was standing intact on a platform of rock where before there had been nothing but sand. It was the Leacht air Iorruis – the Monument to the Slaughter of Erris.


The Monument to the Slaughter of Erris

Every antiquarian visitor to Mayo mentioned this cairn. John O’Donovan, who helped to compile the first Irish Ordnance Survey maps in the 1830s, measured it with the help of a human shin-bone he found in the sand. The local priest excavated Righ Mhuimnigh and found a skeleton of a man standing upright, a sign that the mound was the grave of a tribal chief, perhaps even a king of Munster. T. J. Westropp, who surveyed the coast of Erris at the beginning of the twentieth century, photographed the cairn and measured it and wrote in awe of its ‘loneliness and weird surroundings, looking down to a featureless coast and unbounded sea’. By the 1940s the cairn was a recognised landmark, one of Erris’s most remarkable antiquities.

When we came here five years ago, we went looking for the Monument to the Slaughter of Erris. We knew where it was meant to be, and you’d think a 15ft-high stone cairn would be hard to miss. But could we find it? Over the years we peered at scattered stones and grassy mounds, at satellite images and ancient maps. We tramped over the dunes  and drove down rutted tracks and combed the coast. There was no sign of it.

Then the other day, all of a sudden there it was. In the middle of a farmer’s field, towering over the sandhills, looking just as it did in Westropp’s photograph and as obvious as anything could be. We knew that part of the coast so well. I still don’t understand how we missed it for so long. We had to go back a few days later to check that it hadn’t vanished, like Brigadoon.

But here’s the strange thing. Part of me is sorry. Part of me wishes those precious stones had stayed in myth and memory, forever out of reach, just as the past is always out of reach.

Part of me regrets the finding.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A small act of remembrance

IMG_9038The little protestant church in Belmullet has been closed for half a century. Stark and forlorn, it stands on the edge of town, surrounded by its dead, waiting for revival or resurrection. You can find redundant Church of Ireland churches like this all over the west, uncomfortable reminders of the sea of faith’s long withdrawing roar.

But this church on the edge of County Mayo holds a strange surprise. In one corner of the graveyard there is a huddle of thirteen neat gravestones, each bearing the distinctive mark of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age. There are British soldiers and sailors and airmen here; a sapper from the Royal Engineers, a trooper from the Royal Armoured Corps, a 55-year-old RAF wing commander. All they have in common is that the sea took them, and the sea gave them up to Erris.

IMG_9020U-boat attacks on British shipping during WWII meant bodies were often washed ashore on the harsh Atlantic coastline from Belmullet down to Blacksod. Five of the servicemen laid to rest here died in the sinking of the troopship Mohamed Ali El-Kebir off Donegal on 7 August 1940. Four more were lost on 2 July 1940, when the SS Arandora Star was hit by a torpedo 125 miles off the Irish coast.

By an awful irony, the Arandora Star’s cargo wasn’t troops or military supplies. She was carrying 1200 German and Italian internees from Liverpool to camps in Canada, and 713 of them drowned, along with 37 military guards. The first that Erris knew of the disaster was a month later, on 3 August, when some locals found a decomposing body floating in the surf near Binghamstown, between Belmullet and Blacksod. Documents in the man’s overcoat showed him to be an Italian who until two months before had been living in Pontypridd in South Wales. He was just the first.

Later that day a second body was seen floating by the base of the cliffs at Erris Head, but no one could reach it. The following morning, a third was spotted in the sea off the Inishkea Islands.

Within days there were around 100 bodies floating off the Inishkeas. Some would never be recovered, in spite of heroic efforts by local people, who risked their lives to bring the lost to land. Others had nothing to show who they were when they were finally brought to shore. One carried a medal bearing the inscription, ‘Catholic: in case of accident send for a priest.’ Another had a bottle opener in his pocket inscribed ‘Tennents Lager’.

Two men went out through the crashing waves in a curragh to get a rope round the drowned man by the cliffs at Erris Head, and volunteers hauled him up the 200ft-high cliffs. He was wearing a pin-striped tweed suit and black shoes, and in his pockets were a religious medal, a pack of cards and a threepenny bit. That was all.

The soldiers, most wearing full uniform, were identified by their tags: Trooper Frank Carter, Private Donald Domican, Gunner Wallace Goodwin, Private William Chick. That’s how these four young men came to be buried in the little graveyard at Belmullet, how I come to this small act of remembrance. A farmer and two young lads waded out waist-deep into the sea with a towline at Annagh Head to bring in the body of 19-year-old Private Chick. When they’d got him ashore they found a photograph of a girl in his breast pocket, and they wept.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Rescue 116

I’m standing at the back door of the cottage, watching as a Coast Guard helicopter flies low and slow, tracing the line of Tullaghan Bay. Every now and then it pauses, hovering as the crew peer down at some shape or fragment below them. Then it moves off, the red and white of its fuselage gleaming in the afternoon sun.

I was in England when the first reports of the crash of Rescue 116 came in. A Sikorsky S-92A of the Irish Coast Guard had vanished in the early hours of 14 March with four crew members aboard, said the news announcer, on a routine mission in north Mayo. I was sorry – of course I was sorry – but in the way that these things have, the accident gained in significance because I knew the area. From high ground behind our cottage, you can make out the distant speck of Blackrock Island, far out in the Atlantic. This was where Rescue 116 was lost.

One of the crew members, Dara Fitzpatrick, was found in the water within hours. She died shortly afterwards. The following day, wreckage was discovered on the ocean bed fifty metres off Blackrock. Bad weather and a strong swell slowed down the recovery operations, but on 26 March, twelve days after R116 went down, the body of a second crew member, Mark Duffy, was brought up from the wreckage by divers.

Finally, on 2 April, the wreck of R116 was raised from the sea. But there was no sign of the remaining crewmen, Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith.

By now I was in Erris, staying at the cottage for a month to write. Everyone was talking about R116. A death in this part of the world belongs to everyone. People flocked to the area, not to stare, but to volunteer to help, to pay their respects, to be part of it. The papers were filled with theories and step-by-step accounts of the recovery operation. The audio transcript from the voice recorder was published, with its terrible last words: ‘Come right now, come right. Come right!’ And then,‘We’re gone’.

The sister of Ciarán Smith came on TV to beg the searchers not to give up: ‘We need those boys home, now. They have to come home, now.’ And it seemed like the whole of Ireland answered her. A few days later, we stood high on top of one of Achill’s peaks, looking out to sea at the biggest combined search operation ever mounted by the state. The Coast Guard, the Navy, the Air Corps and half a dozen more agencies were joined by more than eighty fishing vessels and small craft in a massive hunt from Mayo all the way up to Donegal.

Yet there was no trace of the men. It became a habit as I walked along the beach to go and peer at some piece of jetsam washed up on the shore, torn between the wish that the lost be found, and the hope that it wouldn’t be me that found them.

Today, more than 160 divers from all over the country have gathered at Blacksod to search once more. And the Coast Guard is out again, checking the shores. So I stand on the doorstep and watch the helicopter as it works its way slowly round the bay, pausing, hovering, moving on.

Then I notice my cheeks are wet with tears, and I go inside and close the door. ‘We’re gone.’


Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Western World 2


John Millington Synge

Synge got three Guardian articles out of Erris, each illustrated with one of Jack Yeats’ oddly haunting drawings of thatched cabins, empty roads and half-formed faces. One day, they drove to the village of Geesala and walked out along the edge of Blacksod Bay until they came to the hamlet of Dooyork. The houses they saw were poor and primitive, ‘broken-down hovels of the worst kind’. People stared from their doorways as they walked by. Women passed them bringing in heaps of seaweed or turf in great panniers slung across horses, often with a toddler perched on top.

They got back to Belmullet to find Carter Square heaving with humanity. It was Friday 23 June, the eve of the Feast of St John the Baptist, and as the sun went down bonfires were being lit all over the west of Ireland. ‘A relic of Druidical rites’, according to Synge, presumably referring to the fact that St John’s Eve was close enough to the summer solstice for it to be a dual celebration, with prayers said for God’s blessing on the crops and torches carried through the fields to sanctify them.

Carter Square boasted the biggest bonfire in Erris, and the celebrations were more exuberant. There was dancing and music and games, fire-play as boys leapt through the flames and hurled burning sods of paraffin-soaked turf into the sky and caught them and hurled them up again. Synge and Yeats stood in the square and watched the spectacle. Synge wrote of how small boys shrieked and cheered and threw up firebrands for hours together. Yeats drew the scene, and noticed how one frightened little girl held tight to his friend’s hand.


In January 1907, the Abbey Theatre hosted the premiere of Synge’s great work, The Playboy of the Western World. The story of how a rural community lionises Christy Mahon, the young stranger whom they believe to have killed his father, caused a riot.

Now, Playboy was set ‘near a village, on a wild coast of Mayo’. And not just any coast, but the coast of Erris. Christy locates the scene as he makes love to Pegeen Mike in a speech which James Agate described as more exquisite than anything in Romeo and Juliet:

Let you wait, to hear me talking, till we’re astray in Erris, when Good Friday’s by, drinking a sup from a well, and making mighty kisses with our wetted mouths, or gaming in a gap of sunshine, with yourself stretched back unto your necklace, in the flowers of the earth.

In his preface to the play, Synge referred to the kind of talk one could hear ‘in any little hillside cabin in Geesala, or Carraroe, or Dingle Bay’. When Christy’s father arrives on the scene and threatens to expose his son’s homicidal boasting, he is urged to ‘take the road to Belmullet’, while Christy is offstage and triumphing in mule races ‘on the sands below’.

That was enough for Geesala. As far as the village was concerned, the summer walk that Synge and Yeats took to Dooyork was obviously the source for Ireland’s greatest contribution to 20th-century drama. And myth and truth began to blur in that peculiar way they have, uncertain and yet eager to outdo each other. When we first arrived in Erris, I was told that a rusty, tumbledown shed on the road out of Geesala was where Synge had written Playboy; a notion later modified and qualified so that the shed became the shebeen where the play was set. The Erris Players put on Playboy down on Doolough Strand in 2013 ‘(in Tent)’, and they still perform Synge’s works. Riders to the Sea is the most recent.

A hotel was put up in Geesala in the 1980s, the biggest building in the village, and called Ostan [‘Hotel’] Synge. When it changed its name a few years ago to Abhainn Mhór, ‘Blackwater’, the connection was maintained in the name of its new bar, the ‘John Millington Synge’, which was decked out like an upmarket shebeen which the hotel’s owners claimed was ‘based on the world-renowned play’. Then it was shut down, turning the sanitised faux squalor into an empty stage set, without players or audience.

And is Geesala that village on a wild coast of Mayo? Was it in one of the broken-down hovels at Dooyork that Christy Mahon tried to lead Pegeen Mike astray in Erris?

Perhaps. It fits, and not just in time and place and biography. Masefield said that Synge’s place was always outside the circle, and Erris is nothing if not that. On the edge of things. But art and life rarely fit as neatly as we might like. The truth is that the Western World of Synge’s Playboy is more likely a composite creation of Kerry and Erris and the Aran Islands.

So what? If you look for truth, take this. Truth is a tall stranger holding a little girl’s hand to keep her safe in the light of flaming bonfires.

Belmullet 1909

Carter Square, Belmullet in 1909

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Western World 1

Jack Yeats.jpg

It is late. The square is full of flaring fire and people.

In the falling midsummer light of a St John’s Eve crowds laugh and gasp at the antics of the boys as they hurl flaming paraffin-soaked sods of turf high into the sky, catching them and throwing them up over and again, leaping over bonfires, colliding with each other, swinging lengths of burning hay-rope around their heads. A child, caught in an ecstasy of pleasure and dread, reaches out unthinking to clutch the hand of a tall man, who just as unthinking returns its grip. This unlikely couple, who have never met before and will never meet again, stand close together, holding hands, until the fire play is done. Then the little girl vanishes back into the crowd and the half-light.


On any day, Carter Square in Belmullet is a mass of moving metal. Cars and 4x4s, camper vans and delivery trucks converge on a tiny traffic island topped with a piece of contemporary public sculpture, a tall stone pillar of uncertain meaning. The bright-lit windows of Shevlin’s ‘Complete House Finish’ – to be a simple hardware store is no longer enough, even in Mayo – gaze blindly across at the supermarket in the grandly named Royal Shopping Mall, at the young mothers drinking Fanta and Coke in Fun Bobby’s Bistro. Cars career onto the pavement outside the Bank of Ireland, barely coming to a halt on the double yellow lines before their elderly drivers spring, with surprising agility, at the ATM.

A hundred years ago, there was no pillar in Carter Square. No roundabout. On the monthly fair days, Belmullet’s broad market square was filled with stalls and hawkers and livestock and people bargaining for tinker’s goods and young pigs and second-hand clothing. The rest of the time, the only movement in a little town with less than 700 inhabitants came from an occasional cart or gig passing through, or from the bowler-hatted men in collarless shirts who stood and passed the time of day and cursed their terriers and their barefoot children for chasing the chickens that pecked in the mud.

The intrusions of a modern world were less frequent, but no less unpredictable: the sound of a gramophone coming from an open door, competing with a fiddler or a crooned lullaby floating through a window next door; the occasional foreign face attracting a parade of curious followers.

On 16 June 1905, the writer John Millington Synge and the artist Jack B. Yeats arrived in Carter’s Square to stay for the week at Deehan’s Royal Hotel, a solid three-storey establishment presided over by seventy-four-year-old Mary Deehan. The two men were collaborating on a series of articles for the Manchester Guardian on poverty in the west of Ireland. They had set off from Dublin on 3 June 1905, first taking the train down to Galway and then going up into Erris. Synge was delighted to be offered £25 4s. 0d. for twelve 1400-word articles, ‘more than I’ve ever had yet’. Then Jack Yeats let slip that he was being paid even more for illustrating them. ‘Though I had much the heavier job the dirty skunks paid him more than they paid me, and that’s a thorn in my dignity’, he told a friend weeks after returning from the trip.

In Erris, Synge and Jack found poverty without nobility and a rain-soaked landscape. The ‘endless wastes of brown mountain and bog’, the ‘miserable cottages’, the rain, the absence of granite and limestone which was such a feature of the Connemara coast, all conspired to give them ‘an almost intolerable feeling of dampness and discomfort’. Even the people in the fields, weeding their potatoes and cutting turf, seemed drab. ‘Their draggled, colourless clothes – so unlike the homespuns of Connemara – added indescribably to the feeling of wretchedness.’

And yet, and yet. They didn’t know it then, but in Erris, these two Dublin playboys had found a western world that would live on for ever.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The edge of things

img_3775Cillíní, children’s burial grounds, gathered folklore to themselves, stories and beliefs that suggested that even if we forgot the unbaptised, the landscape would remind us of their presence. It was thought that if you walked on certain pieces of ground at night, you would lose your way. ‘An unbaptised child is in darkness’, explained folktale collector P J Gaynor in the 1940s, ‘and will continue so till the Day of Judgement, and when a person treads on the spot where that child is buried he walks into the darkness; he is surrounded by it and consequently, he goes astray’.

There are other traditions: the rash which was said to break out on your skin if you stepped on the grave of an unbaptised child; the dead baby baptised posthumously in its grave by the tears of a repentant sinner. One old story told that the souls of the unbaptised carried candles with them into limbo. At night, these flickering flames could be seen outside the walls of cemeteries, as children tried to reach their families within.

As I stand in front of the cillín at Doohoma with the sea at my back and the wingless Icarus beside me, the thought that hits like grief is, ‘What did they think, these people, as they buried their children?’ Was it really a shameful clandestine act, the tiny corpse wrapped in its shroud and left by night in the cold dark earth with no mourners, no prayers and no hope of a sure and certain resurrection? Who was there to say goodbye? My own religious belief is unfashionably Anglican and typically English, leaving me caught between doubt and hope, with none of the certainties found by friends who are atheistic or devout. But a God who could so order things that the innocent along with the lost and the troubled could be denied salvation strikes me as a heartless God indeed.

Perhaps the community action that made the new cemetery at Doohoma back in the 1920s was an act of resistance. Phelim Henry’s graveyard was created around the children’s burial ground. It deliberately embraced the generations of stillborns, the suicides and the drowned strangers within its sod walls, bringing them into consecrated ground, as though Doohoma was reclaiming its dead from limbo.


A couple of days after Easter we were walking on the beach. It was bright but bitterly cold. The tide was out and there were maybe a dozen others on that long strand, joggers and dog walkers. One woman stood by, looking distracted, a long blue lead dangling from her hand.

‘It’s Brandon,’ she said, as if this were explanation enough. We waited.

‘He’s so wilful. He just goes off with anyone.’

She scanned the beach, expecting the wilful Brandon to appear from nowhere. As indeed he did, a muscular yellow labrador trotting happily along beside three walkers, confident as though they belonged to him. The group was half a mile away, but they were coming in our direction and the woman relaxed, loosening her tight grip on the empty lead.

We talked as she waited for Brandon to remember his home, exchanged pleasantries about the weather, the holidays. Then, after a moment’s pause, she threw an unlooked-for phrase into the conversation.

‘Wasn’t it a terrible tragedy for Easter? Did you hear? He was a relative…’

I couldn’t follow the complicated familial relationships. That mattered less than the story she told. The day before, the family of the man in question had returned home after a visit with friends, to discover that he had hanged himself.

We made the expected noises of sadness. How awful. His poor children. I felt vaguely angry and vaguely sorry, as I always do when suicide touches my life in a distant way. Then Brandon bounded up, unconcerned and unrepentant, and the woman hauled him home at the end of the long blue lead.

Two days later we drove through the village. It was noon and the way was filled with hundreds of cars. So was the village itself. They lined both sides of the road, filling the verges and the lanes running down to the beach, stretching out into the countryside for nearly a mile. Men in sombre suits were directing traffic. The layby next to the graveyard was cordoned off.

I glanced across at Helen and she nodded. ‘That man. It’ll be the funeral.’

I knew who she meant without asking. And I thought of the mound in the corner of the cemetery, of the dead brought back from the edge of things, of those who had known too much of life and those who had known too little.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A place that harbours memory

doohomaThere are several hundred children’s burial grounds, cillíní, in Mayo, and at least eighteen in Erris – probably more, since some sites must be lost to memory. Most of the Erris survivals are on or near the coast, like the mound in the cemetery at Doohoma. There is another at Doolough, a few miles north. It nestles among the dunes and marram grass beside the beach. Bones exposed by the shifting sands were reinterred in Glencastle Cemetery, near Belmullet, about sixty years ago. When they were later stolen (by medical students, apparently) and more bones began to surface around the original cillín, the story quickly got about that the dead had returned to the shore. Their rightful place was on the edge of things.

Other cillíní are scattered around Blacksod Bay and Broadhaven Bay. At least one lies far out at sea on Dubhoileán Mór, the Big Black Island, where it stands beside ancient ruined buildings, ritual sites whose meaning has been lost, with only seabirds, seals and peregrine falcons to mourn for unknown children whose lives were ended before they began. There are two more cillíní, ignored and unnoticed, beside the main road from Castlebar to Belmullet. In the 1890s Dr Browne, the Dublin anthropometrist, found what he called ‘an infant cemetery’ at Bunmore, deep in the heart of Ballycroy. Browne commented that ‘unbaptised or still-born infants are buried at night in separate burying grounds, by themselves’.

There is another on the road from Bangor to Geesala, high up on the side of Mount Jubilee. This 130-metre high hill, where St Patrick himself is said to have celebrated mass, was originally called Tristia. It was renamed by Dr John MacHale, bishop of Killala, in about 1825 to mark Pope Leo XII’s Year of Universal Jubilee. He singled out such a modest hill because a villager was passing by it late one night when he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary perched on a ladder and either descending from or ascending to the heavens. Unfortunately, when the man went back to the site in daylight he couldn’t work out exactly where the vision had been. Bishop MacHale arrived on the spot and rolled a stone down the hill, announcing with commendable pragmatism that wherever it came to rest was the site of the Virgin’s ascent (or descent); and he caused a little church to be built there to commemorate the event. The cillín is close by this little chapel, a stony mound that gains significance from the nearness of holiness, becoming, like its neighbour, a place that harbours memory.

But not one that recalls it in any concrete way. The grave-markers at cillíní are always simple: nothing more than a small stone, standing or fallen, or perhaps a clutch of the white quartz pebbles. There are never names. I have stood at every cillín in Erris, from the jumble of stones inside the clifftop fortress of Dun Fiacr, where the sea foam flew round me like snow; to the little ringfort beside a sandy creek at Talach, down in the far south of the barony; and I have never found a single inscription to remember a child’s passing, no message of hope or mourning. Often there are no markers of any kind, so that a swell in the lie of a field and a note on a Victorian map are all there is to show that the dead are here. That and the tears.

Is that because these dead had no name? Quite literally, in the case of the stillborn, their identities as unformed as their bodies, and the sickly neonates for whom the act of naming seemed a pointless waste, and the strangers thrown up on the shore. By being buried with them, the suicides and the unrepentant sinners also have their identities stripped from them; they are denied both admission to the presence of God, and an admission that they have lived on earth.

Like the stillborn, it is as if they had never been.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Mound



Like so many of the burial grounds in Erris, the graveyard at Doohoma looks out to sea. The square two-acre plot lies on a quiet hillside a mile out of the village, close to the strand, walled and gated and neatly kept. Tarmac paths encircle the perimeter. There are stone benches provided by local firms of stone masons as comfort and advertisement – ‘donated by Nephin Headstones’, ‘donated by Connolly Memorials’ – and a little shrine to Our Lady, who stands aloof and flanked by two painted angels. At some point one of the angels has lost his wings. They lie, perfectly intact, at the Virgin’s feet while their flightless owner stands with eyes downcast, a repentant Icarus, a player in a failed Annunciation.

The people of Doohoma fought hard and long for their own graveyard. For centuries the nearest cemetery was at Kiltane, ten miles away. Often enough when bad weather and worse roads prevented a funeral party from taking a corpse on its last journey, it had to be kept in a house for days on end. Years of campaigning for a local burial ground by Phelim Henry, owner of Henry’s Hotel in Doohoma, came to a head one night in November 1926 at a public meeting in Belmullet. Tasked with reviewing the provision of cemeteries in Erris, not only did the County Health Board turn down Henry’s repeated request for a graveyard at Doohoma, but a Mr McGeehin stood up to say that if there was to be a new burial ground in the district, Geesala rather than Doohoma was the best place for it; he would donate the site himself.

Doohoma wasn’t going to give away to Geesala, which was a good five miles away. Phelim Henry told McGeehin that his site was ‘a shaking bog in which you couldn’t bury a dog’. He told the Board of Health that there was spirit left in the people of Doohoma, and they would take matters into their own hands. And he went home and called out the men of the district. At dawn two days later, 300 men answered his call: they had an Irish acre fenced with sod walls and drained before the sun disappeared on the Western horizon. The next day Henry waited on the Bishop of Killala and secured his promise to come and consecrate the graveyard.

Eight months later, in the presence of a thousand people gathered on the hillside outside the village, the Bishop paid public tribute to Doohoma’s efforts. He consecrated the ground, urged that the people ‘should not open graves in an irregular manner, which would hereafter lead to endless confusion’ and awarded a fifty-day indulgence to everyone present. Then he climbed back into his motor car and drove away along the strand.


Cattle now graze the surrounding fields while the graves, grown to four hundred or so, are tended with love and respect, the Henrys and their neighbours cared for in death. Doohoma looks after its own. The sod wall has been replaced by a sturdy concrete fence, to deter the dead from wandering.

The only odd note in this tale of civic pride is a rough grass-covered mound, ten yards across and maybe two yards high, which stands in one corner of the cemetery. In stark contrast to the neat rows of marble tombstones with their jars of flowers and raked gravel beds, this hillock is unkempt, neglected. Rocks and stones lie scattered over its surface without pattern or obvious meaning.

But they do have meaning, poignant even in that already poignant spot. On the side of the mound an ornate heart-shaped piece of grey marble bears a message:

Blessed are the Children
For Innocence
Is One with Heaven

Surrounded now by the ranks of righteous dead, the mound predates the cemetery and the Bishop’s consecration by decades, maybe centuries. Long before Phelim Henry issued his call to the men of the townland to build their new graveyard between sunrise and sunset, the hours of darkness saw God knows how many sad processions along the strand to this place that stood alone by the sea, unconsecrated and unblessed.

For this was originally a cillín, a children’s burial ground, where the stillborn and the unbaptised were laid to rest along with suicides and drowned strangers – a sad association of those who had known nothing and those who had known too much of life.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Keats vs. Newton


A double rainbow over Tullaghan Bay

Keats accused Newton of destroying all the poetry of the rainbow ‘by reducing it to the prismatic colours’. When I first started to notice the rainbows of Tullaghanbaun, part of me didn’t want to see the poetry drowned in a storm of science and angles of reflection and refraction. Isn’t it enough to know that the rainbow comes and goes, I thought, not a thing in itself but a fleeting relationship between me and the sun?

No, it’s not enough. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but curiosity. I began to ask myself why so many bridges to nowhere here, in this land of no promise?

The physics is fairly straightforward. It needs to be, for me to understand it. When light moves from one medium into another where its speed is different, the light ray is bent, or refracted. Because different wavelengths are bent to different extents, the light separates: red bends less sharply than violet, and this refraction is what creates a spectrum of colours.

As light hits the ‘front’ of a droplet of rain it is refracted and separated: instead of passing straight through, some of this refracted light is then reflected from the ‘back’ of the droplet, which acts as a mirror of sorts. And as the light bounces in the general direction of its source, it is refracted once more as it leaves the medium of the water and re-enters the air, and so it separates further. This process of refraction, reflection and refraction is what creates a primary rainbow. The secondary bow, outside the primary and always dimmer than its companion, is caused by light reflecting not once, but twice, bouncing across the back of the droplet before exiting. That second reflection is the reason why the colours are reversed in the secondary.

A secondary bow is always there in a theoretical sort of way, but it is usually too faint to be visible unless the primary is bright. Even more theoretical are the tertiary rainbow, the product of three internal reflections; and the quaternary, the product of four. Because light is lost with each reflection, it is rare for these to be visible with the naked eye. Both were photographed for the first time in history in 2011, and three years later a quinary rainbow was observed and photographed in New Mexico appearing in Alexander’s dark band, between the primary and secondary, so faint that even with enhanced imaging you’d be hard put to see it.

In normal circumstances, the most you can hope for is a double rainbow, and the only way to see either a single or a double is to have the sun behind you and rain in front of you. The best time of day is early or late, because the lower the sun is in the sky, the more rainbow you see. Think of a rainbow as the edge of a disc of light, the centre of which is diametrically opposed to the sun in the sky. So as the sun rises, more of this disc sinks below the observer’s horizon, and when the sun reaches a certain height it vanishes altogether. ‘The noonday-bow is therefore best seen “smiling in a winter’s day”,’ said Constable, ‘as in the summer after the sun has passed a certain altitude, a rainbow cannot appear.’

So you need sun for a rainbow. You also need rain: the clue is in the name. And there is plenty of rain here. In most months of the year, it rains on most days in Erris. But the curious thing is that the rain rarely lasts for more than a few minutes, and the showers are so localised that I watch them coming, sweeping in across the bog with that striped, jagged look that the sky has as clouds break under the weight of water. Or they creep over the Nephin Begs, covering their peaks in white to tumble down the mountainside and race towards me across the bay.

These localised showers bring Tullaghan its rainbows. The sun shines at my back and the sky turns dark and suddenly, for a moment there is Bifröst linking earth and heaven, there is God’s covenant. There is the poetry.


A rain shower moving down the bay

[For my explanation of how rainbows work, I’ve drawn on The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth and Science, by Raymond L. Lee and Alistair B. Fraser (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001). Needless to say, if I’ve got it wrong the fault is mine and not theirs.]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A bridge and a promise


There are rainbows here.

They come often. So often that it is a rare day when I don’t see colours gleaming over the bay, or hovering bright above the purples of the bog, or far out at sea, a bridge and a promise. We saw one as we stood in the doorway of the cottage, the afternoon that it was ours. I can see another now in exactly the same spot, a clear double, two arcs of light launched across Tullaghan Bay from the distant white scar of Barrett’s quarry at Bangor, violet to red, then Alexander’s band, the dark patch of sky that fills the void between the two bows; then red to violet. I can just make out four colours in the brighter primary.

Aristotle saw three colours in his rainbows. Isaac Newton found five, then decided there were two more, a figure which has stuck ever since. Richard Of York Gives Battle In Vain. In fact there are as many colours in the rainbow as you can make out. The eye distinguishes discrete bands of colour and yes, on a good day a good eye might find red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (although I can’t be convinced of the difference between blue and indigo), but in reality each colour in the visible spectrum blends smoothly into the next.

The constant presence of rainbows makes me look in a way I never have before. Sometimes the bow stops halfway across the sky, uncertain and incomplete. Doubles are common here, the fainter outer bow an inverted mirror image of the inner. I hadn’t noticed that before. I had never seen Alexander’s dark band, named for the 2nd-century philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias, who first asked why the sky was darker between the two bows. Nor had I noticed that rainbows are brighter near their base; or that, as John Constable saw, ‘the space within the Bow is always lighter than the outer portion of the cloud on which it is seen’.

There is nothing in these rainbows of the hideous crock-of-gold stage-Irishness that goes with shamrock key rings and leprechaun dolls and rivers dyed green for ‘Paddy’s Day’. Look into the past and there is a richness in these streams of light; sometimes a darkness, too. Cesar Otway, a clergyman who travelled through Erris in the 1830s, was told a story of a local man who was walking home across the mountains on the north coast late one night when he found himself at the gate of a magnificent phantom castle, the walls of which ‘glittered with all the hues of the rainbow’. Invited to join the fine gentlemen and women who were about to take their meal, he was saved at the last moment by the sudden arrival of a wild woman who commanded the assembly to release the poor mortal, and which the rainbow castle vanished and he was left, like Tannhauser, alone on the mountain side.

In living memory, a rainbow seen over the nearby hill of Duinn was regarded as a portent of bad weather, and it was the custom for older people to make the sign of the cross when it appeared and to mutter a prayer against the coming storm.

For the Vikings who raided the coast of Erris more than a thousand years ago the rainbow had a religious significance. It was Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that connected earth to the home of the gods, Asgard. Bifröst was guarded by Heimdall, one of the gods of light, who had presided over the beginning of things and whose horn, blown to warn of the approach of enemies, could be heard throughout the world. Heimdall kept watch until ragna rök, the end of the gods, when a great army of fire giants rode in from the south and stormed Asgard. The vault of heaven cracked in two in the heat of their passing and the rainbow bridge burst into flames and collapsed beneath the weight of their horses, signalling the last battle, the death of the gods and the end of the old world.

To the Vikings’ prey, the Christian monks who were settled on the islands off the Erris coast, the rainbow was a reminder of God’s promise made to Noah after the Flood, ‘I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.’ It was also a sign of another promise: in John’s vision of the Apocalypse a rainbow surrounded the throne of Christ as He sat at the Last Judgement, flanked by seven lamps of fire and four beasts ‘full of eyes before and behind’.

A bridge and a promise. That’s only a part of it. In other places and at other times the rainbow has been a serpent, a messenger, a heavenly archer or – my personal favourite, and a testament to the imaginative powers of Siberian tribesmen – the urine of the she-fox. A malevolent rainbow might suck the water from a lake in Estonia, or swallow Masai cattle in a single gulp. Pointing at a rainbow brought seriously bad luck in China and Mexico and the Gabon. Passing beneath one in France or Albania or Ohio caused you to change sex.

So go carefully.



Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment