Don Alonso and the Devil’s Hook 4/4


By the afternoon of 23 September 1588, Tullaghan Bay was quiet again. The remains of the Rata Santa Maria Encoronada lay smouldering on its side by the shore. Don Alonso and his men had boarded the Duquesa, taking with them plate, money, armour and personal weapons. They’d been forced to leave behind their victuals and heavy ordnance; but no doubt the Devil’s Hook found a use for these things.

Bursting at the seams with men and baggage – her own complement of about 250 crew and soldiers, the 400 from the Rata and some survivors from another ship that had foundered nearby – the Duquesa set sail on the morning tide, bound for home. English soldiers watched from a distance as Don Alonso boarded her, but outnumbered and surrounded by hostile locals, they were powerless to stop him.

The Duquesa didn’t get very far. A combination of calms and stormy weather meant that four days later she was back where she started at the entrance to Blacksod Bay, and it was only through fine seamanship that she wasn’t lost among the islands. Sir Richard Bingham assumed Don Alonso and his men must be cast away. It was not possible he could escape, he reported to Dublin, ‘except his ship were most strong and good, for he was marvellously pestered with such numbers of men’.

The Duquesa set out again, this time heading north for Scotland. She had crossed Donegal Bay and made about seventy miles when storms forced her towards the shore. Although she dropped her anchors, her cables broke and on 29 September she was driven aground at Tramore Beach in Donegal.

The Spaniards disembarked, carrying Don Alonso, whose leg had been injured in an accident with the capstan during the storm, so that he could neither walk nor ride. They set up camp by the ship, fortified their positions, and pondered their next move. One of the guns transferred to land from the Duquesa was still there, half-buried in the sands, in the 1960s.

But Don Alonso’s luck held. Again, he and his men had been wrecked in a part of Ireland that preferred Spain to England: the local chieftain, McSweeny Na Doe, was happy to help them, and through an interpreter, an Irish monk who was travelling with Don Alonso, he told them that an Armada ship, the Girona, lay at anchor nineteen miles away in the harbour at Killybegs. She was battered, but she could be repaired.

In early October the Spaniards from the Duquesa set off for Killybegs. Don Alonso, still suffering from his injuries, was carried on a litter between four men. There were persistent rumours that English soldiers were on their way, and as soon as Don Alonso arrived he set about getting the Girona fit for the sea. His plan was still to get across to Scotland, a voyage of between 150 and 200 miles.

On 26 October 1588, after giving the MacSweenys and their friends some wine and a quantity of firearms, Don Alonso set sail, ‘having for his pilots three Irishmen and a Scot’. The Girona was massively overladen: there were about 1300 men aboard, and even then some were left behind to find their own way home, chiefly galley slaves and pressed men.

And now, finally, Don Alonso’s luck ran out. On the night of 28 October the Girona foundered on rocks near the Giant’s Causeway. There were a handful of survivors, all Italians. Everyone else was drowned.

Back in Erris, the rebels who had helped Don Alonso and the other Spaniards were facing retribution from Sir Richard Bingham and the English garrison. Bingham had William Burke, the Blind Abbot, arrested and imprisoned; he was freed three months later after agreeing to provide his son as a pledge. Justin MacDonnell, ‘a notable ringleader of mischief’, was charged with treason under martial law. For giving food to the Spaniards and denying it to the English soldiers who were hunting them, for whipping up his people ‘in a very disorderly sort of way by mutiny’, and because ‘he was but a loose man’, he was hanged.

The Devil’s Hook had with him a number of Spaniards whom he had picked up along the way, and he refused to hand them over to Bingham. He knew what their fate would be if the English had them, and he knew too that they would make excellent fighters, since they faced certain death if they were captured. He retreated with them and his own clan deep into Erris, where for months the English hunted him through the bogs and out into the islands, never quite catching him, until he simply vanished into the past, a barely-remembered footnote to a barely-remembered history.

The Rata Santa Maria Encoronada, or what’s left of her, is still there beneath the sands of Tullaghan Bay. Once, I thought I saw the shadow of a ship out there.

It was just clouds scudding across the sun.


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Don Alonso and the Devil’s Hook 3/4


The ruined church at Doona

I crossed over the bay to Doona Castle one day in early April. I say ‘crossed’: but the little ferry that once carried travellers over the four hundred yards of water from Tullaghanbaun to the sand hills of Ballycroy no longer sails. Now, although at low tide I could almost lean across and grasp the stones of Doona Castle with my hand, I have to drive right around the bay, twenty-two miles, to stand beside them.

This particular spring day was hard and bright, with a wind blowing across from the east, sending stripes of white surf scudding down the bay. Two lambs bounded along the fence to keep pace with me, expectant, as the car bumped over the rutted track from the main road down to the shore. This was the old bridle path that led up through Ballycroy to the Tullaghanbaun ferry and on, to the Mullet. Now it leads nowhere except to the castle, to a neat two-storeyed house that stands beside it and to a roofless stone church by the shore that was old in Don Alonso’s time.


The remains of the castle, photographed in 1942

Close up, Doona Castle is more complete than it seems from across the bay. A fragment of tower, perhaps thirty feet high, looms over sections of wall which still stand intact. The castle survived into the early nineteenth century, and in the 1940s there was still a tradition that Spanish gold from the Rata was buried near the blocked up entrance.

Quiet now, in September 1588 this remote spot seethed with men and the sound of shouted commands. Bingham reported to London that ‘de Leva with 600 men fortifies in the Castle of Ballycrwohie [Ballycroy]’. An Irishman who served with the Armada claimed the Rata held 700, and the Spanish ambassador in Paris heard that Don Alonso had landed 2000 men in Ireland, ‘where the people are helping him’. All of these estimates of the landing party were exaggerated. When the Rata left La Coruña in mid-July it carried 93 sailors and 355 soldiers, many of whom were young Spanish nobles, keen to serve with someone as distinguished as Don Alonso. Given the attrition that one would expect through sickness and combat, there were perhaps fewer than 400 men to be taken off the ship at Doona.

That was still more than enough, far too many to be accommodated within the castle itself. Perhaps some of the Spaniards occupied the little church; others must have camped out in the surrounding fields and sand hills in makeshift tents. ‘I am no sailor’, Don Alonso had written in August, while still aboard the Rata and complaining bitterly about the conduct of the expedition; but he was a professional soldier who had raised an elite company in Naples and led it during the wars in the Netherlands; and he would have moved quickly to secure his perimeter, to set up advance sentry posts and send out parties to scavenge what they could in the bleak blanket bog of Ballycroy.

But then what? The Rata remained stuck fast on the Tullaghan bar. Don Alonso and his men were a thousand miles from home, in hostile territory, with no means of escape. To make matters worse, a storm hit the west coast of Mayo on 21 September, ‘a most extreme and cruel storm the like whereof hath not been heard a long time’, said Bingham. It smashed what was left of the Rata beyond hope of repair and wrecked several of the Armada ships that were still out at sea.

What happened next to Don Alonso and his men is pieced together from fragments of letters. It looks as though soon after the Portuguese deserters landed in Ballycroy they were found and robbed by members of the Burke clan, who learned where they came from. On 18 September, before the great gale and only a couple of days after the Rata grounded, Bingham received word ‘that the Devil’s Hook a notable malefactor of the Burkes in Mayo, hath of late taken a dozen skiffs or small boats with certain kernes [foot-soldiers] into the islands there, by which should seem that they have knowledge of some foreign enemy to land thereabouts’. So Bingham sent out a patrol of fifty men led by Gerald Comerford, a one-armed Kilkenny lawyer who had had his body ‘most cruelly mangled, maimed and wounded’ during the Second Desmond Rebellion of 1579-83, and who was a loyal servant of the English crown in Ireland. Comerford arrived in Tullaghan Bay after the great gale to find the Devil’s Hook and his men already there, swarming over the Rata and stripping it of everything of value. He hailed them, but they ignored him, and he was reluctant to come too close. He assumed they were plundering the ship for their own benefit, and that may have been the case, but the Burkes and their friends were also intent on rescuing Don Alonso’s men. They brought news to the Spaniards that another Armada ship, the Duquesa Santa Ana, was seaworthy and anchored in Elly Bay on the Mullet, only ten miles away.

Over the next twenty-four hours and helped by the Devil’s Hook and his men, the Spaniards evacuated their camp at Ballycroy, set fire to the Rata and either force-marched their way onto the Mullet or were ferried round the coast in a small fleet of skiffs. Or perhaps the Duquesa Santa Ana weighed anchor and came to pick them up, or met them halfway. We don’t know. What we do know is that on the Mullet Justin MacDonnell sent guides to help the Spaniards and gathered his people to resist any English attempts to take them.

It seemed that thanks to Erris, Don Alonso would see Spain again after all.

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Don Alonso and the Devil’s Hook 2/4


Don Alonso

In 1588 the English government’s hold on Erris was recent and fragile. It was only nineteen years since Mayo’s boundaries as a county had been laid out, along with those of Galway, Clare, Roscommon and Sligo, by Elizabeth I’s first governor of Connacht, Sir Edward Fitton. Fitton, whose formal title was Lord President, had appointed sheriffs to each county, after the English system; he encouraged tribal chieftains to give up their Gaelic titles and laws, their system of land holding, their rights to that land. Those chiefs who submitted to the queen and acknowledged the rule of English law were given back their estates. Only now they had to pay rent.

The process of composition, as it was called, had not gone well. Chieftains resented the loss of their traditional rights. Some resisted with force, backed up by contingents of Scottish mercenaries, gallowglasses (from the Gaelic gallóglaigh, ‘foreign warriors’) who had settled in Ireland over the centuries. Others submitted readily enough – and then thought better of it when the English governor’s attention was elsewhere. Throughout the 1570s and early 1580s local warlords in Mayo played a cat-and-mouse game with Fitton and his successors as governor, Sir Nicholas Malby and Sir Richard Bingham. They would refuse to pay their taxes, ignoring and sometimes killing the queen’s officers who came to collect them. Then, when the governor of the day sent soldiers to put down their rebellion, they would come in and negotiate a pardon in return for payment of a small fine. Even the English practice of demanding their sons as pledges of future good behaviour – and hanging those sons when the pledges were broken – didn’t stop the cycle of surrender and rebellion.

One of the big causes of dispute in Mayo in the 1580s was not the English occupation, but a series of inter-tribal disagreements over the MacWilliamship, an old Gaelic title in north Connacht. Although it no longer had much legal authority under the new regime, that didn’t stop local chieftains fighting over it, most recently in the summer of 1586, when the death of the current MacWilliam heralded another internal succession dispute and the contenders realised that the latest English drive for composition would mean that ‘the names, titles, and superiorities of their chief lords, and specially of MacWilliam, should cease’. Thomas Roe Burke, a chief of the clan which expected to supply the next MacWilliam, refused to present himself to Bingham: he was arrested and, when he resisted, he was killed. That was a signal for rebellion. The Burkes and their allies declared ‘they would have a MacWilliam, or else they would go to Spain for one’. They broke down castles and burned towns in Mayo, sent messengers north to ask for help from the Scots and made seditious speeches against Elizabeth I, allegedly asking ‘What have we to do with that caliaghe [hag]? How unwise are we, being so might a nation, to have been so long subject to a woman. The Pope and the King of Spain shall have the rule of us, and none other.’

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, 1564

Sir Richard Bingham

Bingham was a hard man, even by the less exacting moral standards of the day. For most of his thirteen-year governorship he was in dispute with local gentry, with the English and Anglo-Irish officers serving under him in Connacht, and with his immediate superiors, successive Lord Deputies in Dublin – at least one of whom he threatened to kill. He responded to the Burke rebellion by having three Burke children, currently being held as pledges for their fathers’ behaviour, brought to his camp. The boys were fourteen, nine and seven, and in spite of legal advice that they were too young to be held responsible for their parents’ actions, they ‘most devilish and Turkishly were executed’ while Bingham ate supper with the Bishop of Kilmore. The governor also arrested the one-legged octogenarian Edmund Burke, leading contender for the MacWilliamship. Although the old man had played no part in the rebellion, Bingham decided he had encouraged it. So he hanged him, too.

Then he took a force into the Burkes’ heartlands, hunting them from place to place. Almost all the Mayo rebels sent in messengers asking for pardon: Richard Burke of Erris, known to the English as the Devil’s Hook (a mistranslation of the Gaelic original, which means ‘Demon of the Reaping Hook’); William Burke, called the Blind Abbot, although he seems to have been neither blind nor an abbot; Justin MacDonnell, a leading member of the Clan Donnell in Erris, and half a dozen more. ‘They were so ghasted with fear’, said a contemporary, ‘that they looked rather like ghosts than men’. A brutal but brilliant rout of the Scots gallowglasses later that summer put Bingham’s victory over the rebels beyond doubt.

But it didn’t put a stop to Mayo’s resentment at the conquest of its culture. And in Erris, it didn’t enforce loyalty to the English crown. When news of the Rata Encoronada’s grounding on the shoal at Tullaghanbaun began to spread in September 1588, Sir Richard Bingham sent soldiers to take and kill survivors. At the same time the Devil’s Hook set out to rescue Don Alonso before the English reached him.

The race was on.

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Don Alonso and the Devil’s Hook 1/4


Doona Castle

G.M. Trevelyan maintained that the poetry of history lies in the fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone.

They’re still here. That’s the thing that haunts me.

Once, more than 400 years ago, other men looked out on the scene that I’m looking out on now from the window. They saw the same mountains, the same jagged coast with the sea snaking round the sand bars.

But they saw something else.

A huge sailing ship, taller than anything Erris had seen, lay in the bay. Its sails, emblazoned with red crosses, were in tatters. Some of its timbers were broken; others showed signs of makeshift repairs.

The ship was stranded. It had run aground on the Tullaghan Bar, a long spit of sand which projects out into the bay. But it hadn’t been abandoned. Instead it swarmed with figures, hundreds of them, bringing down the rigging, clambering over the decks, hoisting cannon and provisions over the gunwales. Overseeing operations from the sand was a tall, fair-skinned man in his thirties, ‘a whitely man with an Abraham beard’. His name was Don Alonso Martinez de Leyva, and he was one of the leaders of the Spanish Armada.

Don Alonso’s ship, the 35-gun Rata Santa Maria Encoronada, was a converted Genoese merchantman crammed with soldiers, sailors and servants. She had been in the thick of the fighting with the English fleet, the first Spanish ship to exchange shots with the English when the two fleets closed in the Channel in July 1588. After the Battle of Gravelines and Lord Howard of Effingham’s pursuit of the Armada into the North Sea, Don Alonso and the other survivors, 120 ships in all, set a course for Spain which took them around the coast of Scotland and out into the Atlantic. But like his comrades, Don Alonso had turned south too soon and been driven onto the west coast of Ireland.

He was lucky. He had Irishmen aboard who knew Erris. They guided his ship into the safe haven of Blacksod Bay, where he could take on fresh water, make repairs, perhaps join up with other members of his scattered squadron. But the Rata had cut most of its anchor cables off Calais in order to escape when the English sent in fireships, and the anchors that remained weren’t strong enough to prevent the ship from drifting eastwards towards the shore. Eventually she ran aground on the Tullaghan Bar off Doona Castle.

Which is why on 15 September 1588 the villagers of Tullaghanbaun found themselves spectators at a small invasion. Before the Rata dragged its anchors Don Alonso sent fourteen sailors, all Italians, ashore in the ship’s longboat to reconnoitre. They were led by the ship’s master, Giovanni Avanici, and as soon as they landed they abandoned the boat and deserted. That left Don Alonso in an awkward position. The Rata was too far out for his men, some four hundred of them, to wade ashore; but with the longboat gone they couldn’t row themselves to safety, either. So he sent a second group ashore floating on empty casks; they retrieved the longboat and the task of ferrying his small army to land began.

His objective was Doona Castle, and whether he knew it or not, he was making a wise move when he chose a fortress for his camp.  At least twenty-four Spanish ships were lost on the Irish coast that September. Survivors were stripped and robbed by native Irish, sometimes killed by them: Melaghlin McCabb claimed to have personally killed eighty Spaniards with his own axe as they struggled ashore. English soldiers in the service of Sir Richard Bingham, governor of Connacht and a veteran of the wars in the Low Countries, killed any Spaniards they found. Bingham’s brother George, who served under him as governor of Sligo, found 140 weak and injured Spaniards who had managed to reach the beach in Sligo Bay: he killed them all. Sir Richard himself went down to Galway, ordered local Irish chieftains to bring in any of the enemy they found, and executed them all. ‘Having made a clear despatch of them, both within the town and in the country, he rested Sunday all day, giving thanks to Almighty God for Her Majesty’s most happy success in that action, and our deliverance from such dangerous enemies.’

British and Irish historians have each tried to excuse their own nation’s behaviour to the Armada survivors in the autumn of 1588, the Brits by claiming that Bingham believed he was facing a Spanish invasion, and the Irish maintaining that most natives confined themselves to robbing and stripping naked the Spaniards they found, and that because they often stopped short of murdering them, that gave them the moral high ground. At the time, the English in Mayo and Sligo were delighted when the native Irish took their axes to the Spaniards, believing it showed a growing allegiance to the English Crown and a disinclination to ally themselves with England’s enemies. ‘The blood which the Irish have drawn upon them, Sir George Carew, master-general of the ordnance in Dublin, told Lord Burghley, ‘doth assure Her Majesty of better obedience to come, for that friendship being broken, they have no other stranger to trust to… The ancient love between Ireland and Spain is broken.’

Not quite. Don Alonso was fortunate in his shipwreck. It was gentle, and it left him in the heart of Erris. And Erris hated the English.

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The way that we went

We weren’t talking much now. I was driving, and I needed to concentrate on the road which snaked, bending and dipping, keeping pace with the rushing black waters of the Owenmore. Helen had the map and the details of the house we were hunting, but she wasn’t looking at them. Instead she gazed around her, at the flat brown bog, the black water frothing white over rocks, the blue of the Nephin Mountains getting closer all the time.

‘Which way?’

‘Left. No, not here. A bit further on. There should be a sign to Geesala.’

‘There’s one to Gaoth Saile.’ I pronounced it ‘Goth Sail’.

‘Same thing. You’re in the Gaeltacht now.’

In 1925, soon after the founding of the Free State, the new government of Ireland identified a series of zones along the west coast where Gaelic was still spoken as a first language. These areas, known collectively as An Ghaeltacht, were to be the front line in Ireland’s battle to regain its cultural identity. Traditional music and folk customs were encouraged, and all sorts of steps were taken to prevent the seepage of the English language into daily life. At one point parents were paid £2 per child to speak nothing but Gaelic to their children, and government inspectors would descend at intervals to diagnose the presence of undue quantities of English in the child’s vocabulary.

The Irish language is a compulsory subject in all Irish schools. In fact at one time it was essential to pass Gaelic when you sat your leaving exams, because if you failed in that, you got a fail in everything else, no matter how well you’d done. Parents would send their kids to summer schools in the Gaeltacht where they were allowed to speak nothing else for weeks on end.

Nowadays there is a Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, whose functions include promoting the Irish language and the development of the Gaeltacht (and also, oddly, implementing the National Drugs Strategy). Place-names in the Gaeltacht are in Irish only. So are the road signs. Ná Scoitear instead of ‘No overtaking’. Géill Slí, not ‘Give way’.

It hasn’t worked. Language-use is bound up in cultural practice, and you can’t legislate for the continuance of a culture. The use of Gaelic is declining, even in the Gaeltacht. In Erris, a Gaeltacht heartland, native Irish speakers are numbered in the hundreds.

But the road signs and the place names remain. Gaoth Saile it is. One of these days I’m going to learn Gaelic, I say as we turn off the main road. Helen says nothing. She’s heard it before.

The house we were looking for was at a place called Tullaghanbaun. Google Maps was showing it a couple of miles further on. Geesala itself was small: a few houses, a shop, a big hotel which looked to be closed up, and a bar called ‘The High Chapparal’. What’s that in Gaelic, I muttered.

I knew from the picture in the agent’s particulars exactly what we would see. There were ten thousand cottages like it, all put up around the middle of the last century: single-storeyed with a pitched tile roof and whitewashed walls. There would be a flat-roofed kitchen extension built out at the back. And even without the particulars I knew how it would be inside. The rooms would be dark, with brown painted woodwork and brown floors. If there was furniture, it would be brown. And there would be a fading print on the wall of Benedict XVI or the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Just outside the village we cleared the brow of a low hill and gasped. Below us, to the left, was a broken sheet of water, bright in the late afternoon sun. This was Tullaghan Bay, where the Oweniny River meets the Atlantic in a burst of sand bars and salt marsh, where travellers once waited for the ferryman to complete their journey from Newport. Beyond it was the empty coastline of Ballycroy, bleak and remote even in that bleak and remote place. Further off, the Nephin Beg range rising blue against the clouds. And in front of us a scattering of white cottages, the sea, and Achill Island with its two great mountains, Slieve More and Croaghaun.

The names came later, much later. All I knew then was that I was glad.

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A strange equation

Erris Ireland‘The history of Erris is a blank until the close of the sixteenth century,’ declared the Edwardian historian Hubert Knox in his 1908 History of the County of Mayo, the first scholarly account of this hinterland.

That’s not quite true. There are a dozen ruined fortresses perched on the northern cliffs of Erris which date back to well before the reign of Elizabeth I: Dunnamo with its chevaux de frise, hard stones set into the ground before its walls to defend against cavalry who have been dead for a thousand years; Dun Fiachra, once a stronghold against the Vikings and now just a tumble of rocks.

And there are stories which mix myth and history. In 1811 a storm uncovered a pile of human bones among the sand dunes on the western shores of Erris, evidence of an old folk tradition which said that a king of Munster led a raid on the people of Erris and was defeated at a great battle on the sands. The storm also exposed a mound which contained a solitary skeleton, thought to be that of the king, sitting or standing upright and facing the scene of his defeat.

Soon after the English began to enforce direct rule in the west of Ireland in the 1560s, the borders of Mayo were formalized and the county was divided into nine administrative districts, or baronies. Erris was one of these although, somehow to emphasize its unimportance, it was called a half-barony.

Its borders have hardly changed since. Then, as now, it covered some 330 square miles, most of it blanket bog and inhospitable mountainous terrain, with a sparse population concentrated along a coast which is heavily indented with bays and little estuaries, interruptions among the salt-marshes and high cliffs. At the western edge is the Mullet, a north-south isthmus about twenty miles long, connected to the rest of Erris by a narrow strip of land hardly more than fifty yards across, with Broadhaven Bay to the north of the strip and Blacksod Bay to the south.Erris map

That narrow strip divides Erris in two, geographically, topographically, emotionally: everything on the isthmus is ‘within the Mullet’ and everything to the east of it is simply ‘the mountains’. The land within the Mullet is so isolated that one Victorian reformer suggested the government should ‘form there a Penal and Reformatory Settlement, for which it is admirably adapted’. Beyond it are the landless waters of the west, said to conceal a magic place where the seal-men live.

If no one could speak with certainty about Erris’s past, no one loved it, either. In 1710 Edmond Halley called it ‘useless and unknown, wild, and devoid of business or of towns’. The Georgian cleric Richard Pococke rode through it in 1752 and thought it ‘the most dismal looking country I ever saw’. James McParlan, a physician who produced a statistical survey of County Mayo in 1801, found it so different, so cut off from the rest of Mayo, that he felt he must treat it as a separate county. In the 19th century it was called the ‘land of no promise’.

No Canaan here. No milk and honey. Two hundred years ago there were no towns, no hotels, no houses of public accommodation at all. In fact there were only two four-wheeled carriages in the whole of Erris. Then again, there were hardly any roads. Only one was passable in winter, the route up from Newport in the south of Mayo to the Mullet, and that was ‘as rough and devious as those of the Alps’.

Erris hadn’t changed much by the 1930s, when the Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote his classic account of the landscapes of Ireland, The Way That I Went. Picking his way across the endless brown bog, scrambling down remote cliffs and up the scree of empty mountains, Praeger found Erris to be ‘the wildest loneliest stretch of country to be found in all Ireland’, frightening in its isolation, yet at the same time inspiriting.

In Erris, he said, ‘you will need to be a very worldly worldling if you fail to catch some inarticulate vision of the strange equation in which you stand on the one side and the universe on the other.’

Praeger understood. He understood that Erris is a place where the distance between heaven and earth narrows so much that you can see through to the other side.


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The musical effect will be obtained


‘You’ll never find the place yourself’, the agent had insisted on the phone. ‘I’ll take you.’

Now a battered Range Rover pulled up in the layby behind us, late, and an unshaven man in a leatherette car coat leaned out and nodded. Then he just drove off. We followed, uncertain but trusting, as he led us down miles of road, potholed lanes and tracks with grass growing down the centre.

Eventually the Range Rover bumped to a stop and the car coat slouched out, pointing to a rusty gate in a vast, overgrown hedge. He motioned us through, still hardly speaking and stinking of last night’s beer. Behind the hedge lay a tumbledown cottage with window frames rotting out, cracked render and a palisade of stunted trees and derelict outbuildings.

You could breathe the damp. There was black mould on the walls and a luminescent sheen on the dark brown furniture. Cups were piled in the kitchen sink. Ineffably sad, a glass cabinet beneath a blue-tinged print of John Paul II was filled with silver cups and trophies. Things that had mattered to someone once, and didn’t matter to anyone at all now.

If this were a different kind of story, we would have had the vision to make this place beautiful. But it isn’t and we didn’t. We smiled politely and walked away.

The car coat shrugged, as though he knew all along he was wasting his Saturday morning.

‘It’s a bargain. Can’t drop the price much.’

Neither was true.

‘I’m not buying anything from that man’, said Helen, as we watched the Range Rover bounce off down the track. ‘He’s sleazy.’

‘Agreed. But now what?’

‘We could drive north.’

We were by Lough Beltra, in the middle of Mayo, and up to now our house-hunting had focused on the area we knew within easy reach of Westport. We’d noticed a few cottages in the north-west of the county, up by Belmullet, but we’d discounted them as being too far from anywhere. ‘The remotest place in all this province’, the Tudors called that corner of Mayo. ‘The arse-end of nowhere’, said Irish friends, with less elegance but more feeling. The only time we’d ever ventured up there was a decade before when we rented an icy cottage on the bleak Blacksod Bay. In late November. It had been so cold that I’d blocked it from memory, although every now and then I had flashbacks of mountains shrouded in mist and the two of us huddled by a pitifully small turf fire.

Still, we had an afternoon with nothing better to do. Why not?

Mayo is not densely populated. At the last census there were 130,000 people spread across an area of more than 2,100 square miles. That’s about 62 head of population for every square miles. Somerset, which is hardly an urban sprawl, has nearly ten times that number. As we pulled out onto the N59, the road which snakes down from Sligo and turns to the west, we could see mountains in the distance, and the green fields began to give place to the brown-toned blanket bog which defines the landscape of this part of Mayo.

There were few cars, and they became fewer. Drivers saluted with the casual twitch of a forefinger on the wheel. Men leaning on gates or talking with neighbours greeted us with a wave and a smile and a nod. Always with an acknowledgement of our fleeting presence.

Encircled by mountain, we came after half an hour or so to the River Owenmore, and a sign announcing that we were approaching Bellacorick Musical Bridge. ‘Musical’ because the bridge is an engineering curiosity. If you run along it, tapping a stone on the parapet as you go, you can sound a full octave. ‘Some prefer to roll the stone along the top of the parapet’, said a 1942 surveyor for the Irish Tourist Board, ‘when the musical effect will be obtained according to the skill of the player or stone-thrower’.

Bellacorick Bridge marked a greater change of tone. This was where we crossed into Erris.

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A word of explanation


On one level, this blog is a memoir, an autobiography of a slight adventure which took me from the polite society of Bath to one of the last great wildernesses in the British Isles, an empty corner of an empty corner of Ireland. On another, it is an attempt to make sense of a relationship between identity and landscape which is so intense that it still surprises me.

Other outsiders found the fragment of County Mayo that is Erris long before I came here, and I want to understand their experiences, the stories that tumble down every mountain and crash against every mile of seashore. Spaniards from the Armada were shipwrecked here more than four centuries ago; earnest Victorian anthropologists spent their summers measuring the bemused population to discover if they were examples of the legendary ‘Africanoid Celt’. Nationalists and philanthropists, Regency bucks and pioneering archaeologists and giants of twentieth-century literature all fell under the spell of what the Tudors described as ‘the remotest of all places’ and the nineteenth century dismissed as ‘a land of no promise’. Why? What is it about this land of no promise which promises so much?

That question is at the heart of what I’m trying to do, just as it is at the heart of the place itself. Every time I leave Erris, I ask myself how it would be if I never went back. The past would still be there, and the mountains and the sound of the waves and the hare glimpsed as it bounds over the blanket bog. All that would change would be my absence, an emptiness where I once was.

That loss would mean nothing to Erris. It would mean the world to me.

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In Erris



The dawn was grey October, full of bleak promise. I sat up in bed reading, too idle to get up, too restless for sleep. Through a gap in the curtains I could see the mist creeping along the half-light slope of the valley.

I like Somerset. The village which has been our home for thirty years, a thin collection of houses and barns which straggles along the sides of that valley, isn’t postcard pretty. No peacocks strutting over thatch, no honey-mellow stone; just farms and ex-farms and rows of two-up-two-down cottages, a legacy of the time when this part of Somerset was given over to the mining of coal. We turn that absence of the picturesque into an advantage. We live in a ‘real’ village, we say, without pausing to wonder what ‘real’ might mean. In any case, its rural setting makes you turn a blind eye to our over-restored cottages and our cars that line the narrow lanes and block the footpaths.

Bath, museum-city with a past so big that it attracts the world and a footprint so small that the world can walk it from end to end in minutes, lies only six miles away. Sleepy Wells, even smaller, even older, and in its way even more beautiful, is half an hour south. As you drive down to it, looking for that first lift-the-heart sight of the stumpy towers of the cathedral, you glimpse Glastonbury Tor in the far distance, towering over the heron-filled, legend-filled floodplains of the Levels.

I like Somerset. My friends are there. There is an easy sense of belonging which comes from being part of a community of outsiders, people who have paused on our way to somewhere else and never left. Somerset is full of us.

Best of all, I know Somerset, and there is a comfort in that. I know the Quantocks and the Mendips, the museums and the bars, the heaving high streets and the remote places. In the far west, where Exmoor spills out from neighbouring Devon, I can picture the ghost of Coleridge gazing in wonder at the stately pleasure-dome of Butlin’s at Minehead. In the north of the county, closer to home, I know every gentle slope of the Cotswold Way as it winds across Lansdown, past the gilded lantern of Beckford’s Tower and down to its endpoint at Bath Abbey.

This particular morning, though, I was reading about a wilder place. My book was T. H. White’s last, The Godstone and the Blackymor. The place was Erris, the north-west edge of the far north-west corner of Ireland. At the rim of nowhere, Erris is everything that Somerset is not. A poor, hard landscape of bare mountains and monotonous blanket bog. A couple of small towns of no architectural interest. Rocky coast and scattered houses and emptiness. That’s all there is to Erris.

But as I turned the familiar pages, reading how in the 1930s White careered around the Irish countryside in his Jaguar, searching for birds to shoot and a peace he never found, I came across his description of that moment at dusk which sometimes happens in Erris. A moment when the rays of the sun turn everything to gold – earth, sky, white-washed cottages. I closed my eyes for a second and the memory of that lonely desolate country came back to mind, making a chasm in my heart so that before I knew it I was weeping to be back there.

The tears took me by surprise, embarrassed me so that I laughed aloud, grateful no one was there to see. And even as I laughed, still I wished that Somerset was gone, that the 400 miles which separated me from Erris was gone, that I could open the door and walk out and breathe again the air of that blessed country.

The English Country House MA

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Shine more light on the country house

Have you ever thought you’d like to explore the strange creature that is the English country house in a little more depth? Do you want to investigate the career of a particular architect or craftsman? Or the story of an individual house? Do you just want to know more?

There are still places for 2016-2017 on the MA by research I run for the University of Buckingham. Seminars take place in London, in the congenial setting of Sir Charles Barry’s Reform Club. They are followed by dinner with the guest speaker and a chance to talk with some of the great names in the field of country house scholarship. Assessment is by dissertation on a subject of your choosing, although I do rather like it to bear some relation to the country house.

If you’d like to find out more, drop me a line via the contact page or just click on the image below.

The English Country House MA

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