Saturday, 26 December 2015

Almost Christmas at Easter.

Easter Island - one of the world's most remote inhabited islands.
Arrival on Easter Island (RAPA NUI) Wednesday December 16th

What an incredible Island!  All over the place you find ceremonial platforms (ahu), the famous statues (moai), petroglyphs (rock carvings) and archaeological structures.  No matter where you go you must be careful not to damage the land around.

Teddy, one of our teenage travellers, being watched from afar.
Practically the entire island is a National Park so upon arrival at the airport the best thing to do is to buy a ticket for the duration of the stay on the island.  This ticket allows unlimited entrance for five days.

A 1st view of Mercury - a light circle above the Moai
The island is volcanic and is made up of a submarine mountain range.  The highest peak is at 3,000 metres from the sea floor. Over a period of several millions of years a number of volcanic eruptions created the island as it is today.

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The first human occupation began around 12 centuries ago (circa 900).   Although the history is controversial it seems that the island was first colonised by a group of villagers from a Polynesian island led by Hotu Matu’a, an ancestor of the Rapa Nui people.    The date of this expedition is estimated at around the 8th century although some say that the beginning of the colonisation was the 13th century.  The different archaeological, anthropological, linguistic and genetic studies tend to confirm the origin of the people as Polynesian although it is not possible to ignore the link with South America.

Our bike lover Edmond on finding a steed: happy days
Within a few centuries the population of the island had grown considerably and was divided into ten tribes (mata). They were organised in a similar way to Polynesia involving strips of land running from the coast to the interior.  The shoreline was reserved for ceremonial centres. The common families lived in the inside of the island where they planted their crops and bred animals.

For hundreds of years the religious belief of worshipping ancestors was manifested in the carving of moai (statues) and the constructions of ahu (ceremonial platforms).  When the different tribes were at war they toppled over the enemies moai (ranging from 2.5 metres to 21 metres high) to weaken them.  All over the island we see these fallen statues.

Hello? Is anyone coming back?
The hundreds of Easter Island Moais were carved out of volcanic stone at Rano Raraku, with about 300 statues still scattered around the quarry like goods in a shop, waiting to be bought. As with the Egyptian pyramids and Inca temples, there are many theories about how these statues were moved to their resting places all over the island.

We visited one of the volcanoes, Rano Kau. The crater is filled with water about 11 metres deep. Most of the remaining natural flora can be found here, since the rest of the island has been destroyed over the centuries.  Reeds and other aquatic plants, that don’t exist anywhere else on the island, grow here, and the microclimate allows orchids and other tropical plants to grow in relative peace.  After visiting the crater, we walked up to the ceremonial village of Orango, where opposing tribes met once a year for the birdman ceremony.  Each tribe chose a man (the hopu of the chief) to climb down a 300 metre cliff to the sea and then swim out to a small island a kilometre away. The men had to wait on the island until the first sterns arrived on the islands.   The aim was to take a sterns egg and carry it back to the mainland.  The chief of the tribe whose hopu “won” the race became the tangata-manu (birdman) and was considered sacred for one year where he lived in reclusion.   The last competition of this kind took place around 1867.

Where one might wait for the first Stern's egg
The island was “discovered” by the Dutch in the early 1700s, and has had many visitors since then, some welcome, most not. Visitors brought smallpox and other European diseases that have near decimated the population. Peruvians enslaved over half the population at one time and carried them to the South American mainland, Americans have shot natives willy-nilly and British have stolen some of the most spectaular Moais for Queen Victoria.  These statues have never been returned and are now found in British museums.  Chile later annexed the Island and it remains under Chilean control to this day as a Protectorate.   Purely from a personal point of view, this is somewhat of a pity, for it seems that industrial relations in Chile are somewhat different to those we find in Europe. LAN Chile ground staff went on an “Indefinite” strike on 17th December and the  prospect of us leaving the island on the 21st as planned is still quite bleak at time of writing (20th). “Oh No! Stuck on Easter Island indefinitely, what a pity you poor dears.” We hear you cry. Okay, Okay, it’s not that bad, but we do have a blog to write in a few days and are beginning to run out of things to say about the place. Mmmmmmm, perhaps we might write an in-depth account of the Easter Island Hula Dance and the attributes necessary to expertly perform one? Just watch out - it may take the form of a Limerick….

Thursday, 24 December 2015

An Anglo-Irish accord goes travelling (or traveling, if you prefer).

Winter in an English garden (much the same as Ireland but neater)

This blog was written by Andrew Rankin, the Anglo element of this accord, on December 20th 2015. (The Irish element is Barbara Mulcahy, offspring of Risteárd).

“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson

How exciting it is to be on the verge of a great adventure. I sit, on an unusually warm December morning with daffodils poking their noses out of the ground, thinking about what the next week holds.  We depart on Thursday evening for Christchurch, for te whenua o te kapua roa ma or ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ and meet with the other group of travellers who will arrive via Auckland, Tahiti, Easter Island and Peru.  The joy and excitement of reunion and chatter about recent adventures is to be eagerly anticipated and as Johnson says, to see how reality has tempered the imagination.

Where we shall spend Christmas day. 
On Thursday evening the AIEG (Anglo-Irish Expeditionary Group) leaves Heathrow at 2035 aboard Singapore Airlines flight number SQ319  for Singapore;  after a two hour stop over we then board SQ297 for the flight to Christchurch where we arrive late morning on St Stephen’s Day.  One of the wonderful aspects of travel in an aircraft is the comparatively short length of times it takes to arrive, in our case, the other side of the world – a mere 12000 miles in just  24 hours flying time.  To arrive in a country that is in the middle of its summer – the light, the sun, the warmth but perhaps my imagination will be regulated by reality in no uncertain terms as regards the warmth aspect.  Yet, Christchurch lies at 43.5° South compared to Dublin at 53° North or London 51° North so it is to be hoped that there is some warmth in the sun.

On December 30th the AIEG meets with the IFEG (Irish French Expeditionary Group) in Christchurch where the latter group will collect their campervans and then off we travel in a convoi exceptionnel to Akoroa to spend a few days over New Year. And then the adventure begins to be blogged about in the coming weeks.

Don't be fooled by the cosy neatness - the results of  tortured reflection.
Packing.  People approach this matter in their different ways.  Some have already packed, unpacked, repacked, reflected on the repacking, unpacked, more reflection and repacked whilst others have yet to locate the suitcase.  Each unto his or her own but I do wonder if, as with a best selling book this Christmas about log stacking, it is possible to gain an insight into a personality by the preferred packing procedure.  But one sometimes forgets a) they have kitchen sinks in New Zealand and b) they also have shops.  Prior to the departure of the IFEG for Peru, messages were exchanged concerning ‘Top Tips for Packing’.  For example, always pack a plug board.  Whereas our forefathers travelled with pens and paper, the modern traveller is accompanied by phones, computers, ‘tabloids’, cameras - all of which require power.  When travelling with anything that requires a battery, turn the batteries around so the torch or clock won’t accidently turn on and waste battery life.  Never fold clothes – roll them up and in case you don’t believe me, you can always find the many YouTube clips that exist on the subject.

The essential item (a passport is handy too).
But above all remember Johnson’s words.  I’m sure that everyone has their imaginary construct of the South Island just as we have our imaginary Easter Island or Machu Pichu.  Yet some of the party will have had their imagination tempered by their reality, their experience and this is the joy of travelling.

To end this blog, I like this from Jules Verne:
“Ah! Young people, travel if you can, and if you cannot - travel all the same!”

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Around the world in 54 days.

Stage 1 - Madrid - Cusco - Matchu Pichu.

Written on the plane from Santiago, Chile to Easter Island on December 16th

Two families, three Continents, four adults, five children (16, 15, 14, 12 and 10) and a six pack of beer. What more do we need to write a holiday blog? Did we forget a 'one' somewhere? Yes, one blog written by our father for almost three years and read by the most discerning of audiences. Thanks Dad for lending us your Blogspace for the next few weeks with the hope of maintaining your standards.    

Our Blogs will describe a two month “Around the World in 54 days” trip. Hugh and Martha had been planning it for years and Edmond and myself (Tina), jumped on board in February 2015. A trip that would take the adults away from busy day jobs and the children out of school to, perhaps, learn something useful about our planet. There was a great sense of excitement when Hugh, Martha, Liam, John and Rachael from Dublin, and Edmond, myself,  Edouard (Teddy) and Lucy from France hooked up in Madrid airport on  December 8th.

Cusco Airport - one of the most challenging in the world.
From Madrid to Lima, then Cusco; Capital of the Quechan Incas. Aim one of the holiday was trek the Inca Trail for four days to Machu Picchu, “lost city” of the Incas, rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Why the Inca trail? We have no idea; it just sounded like something that one should do on a World tour.

Cusco is a typical Spanish colonial city, but at an altitude of over 10,000 feet. If you live there for long, you develop big lungs and lots of red blood cells. You also don’t tend to mess up your lungs, and less than 5 percent of the population smoke. We acclimatised for a day by wandering around the stalls and the San Pedro market place. The locals were friendly and helpful and our teenagers thought they were ‘givin’ it away’ in the markets.  I didn’t have any opinion on this since I spent the two days in bed with serious altitude sickness.

At 06.00 on December 11th, we were picked up by Martin, our head guide and Hugo, our driver.  We set off for kilometre 82, a two-hour bus drive to the starting point for the Inca Trail. Green countryside, mountains high and low and the glaciers of the Andes, now rapidly retreating due to global warming (Gosh! Won’t Dad be pleased with us for getting both smoking and global warming into the first stages of our Blog!).   We were all ready to go now and delighted to be away. After stopping in a village to pick up ponchos (a supposed must for the rainy season), coca sweets and lots of water we did the last part of the bus trip and arrived at KM 80 around 10. There we met the rest of the supporting team; 14 porters, Chef and assistant chef.  They were busy getting all the gear together for our four days.  The porters all carry around 30 kg in weight and are incredible athletes.  Once ready they went ahead to the entrance of the 42 km hike we were to undertake. We also had backpacks with essentials for the day: water, passports, sun glasses, sun cream and cameras.  It was a magnificent day and the sun was blazing from the sky.

The guide had told us that the first day was “relatively flat” and easy and only 8 kilometres so after the first checkpoint we set off.  We quickly realised that Quechan “relatively flat” was an over-statement.  When we stopped for lunch after about 2 hours   we were puffed.  Lucky we didn’t know what lay ahead!!  The porters had set up lunch and the food was simple and delicious.  Over the four days we discovered many varieties of corn and potatoes but other vegetables too like yucca and quinuio.  We ate trout and chicken and lots of rice.  We walked uphill for another two hours after lunch and between breaths were able to admire the scenery.  At this altitude it is difficult to recover quickly so an even pace is required and slow deep breathing.  When we reached our first camp we were very happy, but tired.  After a good dinner and early to bed (around 8 pm) we spent our first night camping.  It was a real first for some of the party and Martha discovered a new passion (not!).  We were at an altitude of 2,925 metres.

What goes up must come down.
The next day we were up and on our way at 6 am.  This was to be the tough day.  We trekked uphill for hours to reach the “dead woman’s pass” (Warmiwanisca).  The pass is called like this because of the shape of the mountain that looks like a lady lying down.  We felt it was more appropriate to call it like this because of the difficulty in reaching it!   What an achievement for everyone to get there with John and Liam leading up front, Teddy and Lucy behind them and Rachaelita as she was known to the guides doing a great job with her mum and dad to get there.  Edmond and myself were the sweepers along with Edward our protector.  It was a spectacular scene at the top of the pass and we stopped for a while and had our second group photo.  We were at 4,215 metres and it was just amazing.    We weren’t the only group trekking but there were rarely moments when all groups were together so when we were walking we could be on our own in contemplation of the beautiful surroundings.  From there we started downhill.  Luckily we had taken walking poles which helped in the uphill and downhill moments (actually there was practically no flat ground).   After an hour or so of downhill we reached our second camp.  The showering facilities and toilets left a lot to be desired.  Some braved the cold-water showers whilst others preferred to rinse their faces in the spring water running by. Another lovely dinner and bed just in time for a thunderstorm to cool us down. We were at an altitude of 3,520 metres now.

A little rest.
Day three was to be our longest day.  Up at five and on the way at six.  We climbed uphill for two hours, then descended to phuyupatamarta (high clouds) for lunch (altitude 3,510 metres); the views were stunning.   After lunch we started a steep one kilometer descent, with steep drops and bamboo forests above and below. Martin and Edward’s knowledge of Quechan history, culture and the local fauna was phenomenal. The group had formed an excellent solidarity.  When it was difficult, someone was always there to encourage and help.   After a very long day we stopped at our last camping space on the side of a mountain.  The terraces had been built by the Incas to protect the mountain from subsiding but also for cultivating their vegetables and foods.  We had a festive evening to celebrate Tina's 55th birthday.  The Chef had even prepared a cake!  These guys were amazing.   We then had a short ceremony with the porters where we all introduced ourselves by name and we presented them with the tips we had prepared in advance. After admiring the constellations we were all in bed around 8 as the night would be short.

Last day and we were awoken at 3.30 to pack up and let the porters set off.  They had to get down to the local train by 5 am and had no time to lose.  We walked a little to the next check-point where we waited until 5.  We finally had the opportunity of wearing our ponchos for about half an hour as it was raining when we got up.  The only “daytime” rain we experienced over the four days.  Once through the checkpoint we had a one hour walk to reach the Sun Gate.  From the sun gate our hope was to see the clouds lift from below in order to spot the Machu Picchu site.  We waited and waited.  There was no point going down to MP until the fog lifted as we would not see much anyway.  At 8 am exactly there was a sudden lift in the fog and there beyond we gasped at the site of this most famous Inca City.  Within three or four seconds the fog descended again!  We had had a glimpse of our destination.  We set off and when we finally reached the site we were overcome somewhat by the crowds of visitors arriving by bus. We had experienced the open air and few people for four days and this was a shock to the system.  However once we had gone through to the site there was a dispersion of the crowds and we were back in our little group again.  The sun was bursting from the sky and reverberating from the lego like stones of the walls and the buildings of the City.  It was fascinating to hear about all the different areas (sun dial, astronomical basins, the condor carved out in stone, the solstice windows and more) but at the end of this long four days it was tough to stay out in the sun.  We arranged that the guide would finish our tour after 2 hours because of the heat and fatigue.   It was truly amazing.

Worth the wait.
We had set out to “do” machu picchu but in fact it was much more than that.  The four days trekking to get to machu picchu was a physical and mental challenge.  It was a great reward to visit but it was the four day experience that was most important.  This trek was a wonderful way to allow the group to bond for the two months that lay ahead.

After one night in Cusco we set off for Easter Island via Lima and Santiago.

Saturday, 5 December 2015


In March 2013 I read ‘Dublin Architectural Development – 1800-1925’ by Michael J. McDermott.  It was in the library of the Royal Dublin Society.  I was very impressed by the description of Dublin’s history, its development over the many centuries and its great attraction, not only to its own people but to the many visitors who visit this city and its countryside.  I was prompted to write an essay describing the material in the book and this I had completed by mid March 2013. 

Later in the same month, I had read a history of Lloyd George, ‘Tempestuous Journey – Lloyd George: His Life and Times’ by Frank Own.   He was born in Wales and joined the legal profession.  He was very supportive of Home Rule in Ireland when he was a young man and he was totally opposed to the war in South Africa at the turn of the century.

From Travels with my girls blog - Jan 16th 2015
It was this book which stimulated my idea of writing regular abstracts about books which I am likely to read and to recall other circumstances in my life which might be of interest to myself and to my family and others. 

Since the month of April 2013 I have regularly written a short essay and published it on my blog. (For those interested, the word blog is not contained in my Random House dictionary of English language, published in 1967.) 

Up to this date in December 2015 I have written 140 blogs.  My youngest daughter Lisa has been acting as my editor.  She arranges the sending of each abstract to those who are on my ‘Blog list’, as I call it.  The number of those receiving the essays on their emails now number about 200 but I believe that I have over 15,000 ‘hits’.  Lisa is an important component of my blog.  She keeps the language in order and is careful about grammar and other aspects of correct communication!  She is sometimes helped by her assistant, another daughter Barbara, who is now doing all my secretarial work because of my inability to cope with the computer because of my current age of 93 year and loss of sight. 

Initially my blogs were based on books I had read but they were soon used for the purpose in dealing with factors raised by other matters that came to my mind.  I continue to publish weekly and regularly. It has been very interesting and stimulating for me to keep my mind on current events and to retain an active memory of previous events which are worth recording and which I may easily have forgotten.

Much of the subjects dealt with have of course dealt with Ireland but there is a broad interest in all world events.  I have enjoyed the process with varying degrees of satisfaction.  It occurs to me that it is a habit which might become a family one and which might be continued permanently by families where one has access to many members of the different generations, for example, my own, my children and their children too.  It should be possible to appoint some member of the extended family who would be responsible for the editorial job and continuation of the blog process.  Who knows, a blog of this sort might provide a family history which could be of great long-term interest to following generations?

Who needs clothes when you have shoes and maps?
I have now decided to cease my regular weekly blog for the next eight weeks whilst eleven of my extended family will be away in South America and the islands of the Pacific and in the south island of New Zealand.  They will be away during the months of December and January.  The members of the family will undertake the process of producing a weekly blog which will be sent to Lisa and which will keep us all informed of the joys and possible tribulations of their trip.  In the meantime, I shall be completing my book – Survival of Humanity and hopefully I will publish it shortly after my family have returned.  I will watch and read their stories with interest and hopefully they will have my high standards!

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Death is like a dream

The Denial of Death. By Ernest Becker. 1973 The Free Press. 1975. 

This review was written on May 15th 2015

I found this book in my library recently. It had been lent to me some years ago by Lorcan Walshe but I had not returned it to him. As I am now in  my ninety fourth  year I thought it worth  reading as I find myself thinking about the prospect of death more frequently; but Becker’s book seemed  too complex and too impractical to face what is an inevitable and straightforward event. For example some of the comments by critics in the introduction to the book were as follows:-

 --A magnificent psychophilosophical synthesis of power and insight;
 -- A masterful articulation of the limitations of psychoanalysis;
 -- will be acknowledged as a major work;
  - -unfolding of a mind grasping of new possibilities and forming a new synthesis;
  -- One of the great new books of the 20th or other centuries;
  -- astonishing insights into the theories of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Soren Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Erich  Fromm and other giants; etc, etc.

The other five commentators write very much along such lines but I stopped my reading of the text on page 35 of the 315 pages as I reckoned that my own purpose in facing death and in preparing my mind for the event will not be served by any of the more theoretical and philosophical aspects of dying as provided by the author of this masterpiece. Nor in the final analysis was my concern about myself of any significance but rather a wider concern about the fate of family, friends, and humanity in general and the world we live in.  

I suppose it was about 2 years or so ago when I began to think regularly about death and its approach. My thoughts included a melange of uncertainty, curiosity and melancholy but not of fear. As time passed the sense of curiosity began to dominate my feelings rather than that of melancholy.  I have already noted my physical, mental, social and psychological changes which have taken place and which have been the principal features  of aging during the third stage of  life, although it is  difficult to say when this stage started, it was certainly later than the date of official retirement.  These changes I have described in some detail in my 4th edition of My Challenge to Ageing which was brought up to date on Kindle in 2014.

I have been fortunate that I have never suffered any serious illness during my lifetime apart from a few remediable injuries. There has been a slow and barely noticeable loss of physical strength in later years, now accelerating in the last year or two, and there has been a gradual and often erratic deterioration in other functional and physical aspects of my life. They include hearing and vision, dry eyes and dryness of the mouth at night, appetite reduction, sensitivity to cold and alcohol, erratic sleeping patterns, a reduction and ultimately cessation of sex, and a  tendency to cramps, particularly unpleasant in the hands after long standing use of books and now the iPad and Kindle.

Mood and other psychological and social changes are inevitable as one gradually loses touch with wider society and particularly as one’s contemporaries and old friends pass gradually from the scene.  However, despite the social and physical changes of ageing, isolation need not prevent us seeking access to the activities provided by family and others, and taking advantage of such means of communication as radio and television, not to mention the computer, the Ipad and the Kindle. I still maintain my regular walking programme although now reduced to about four times a week and perhaps for a distance of about one to two miles. I am careful to avoid accidents – the stairs, the footpaths, the house lighting and the loose rug.  I have no obvious reduction in my intellectual abilities in terms of speech and writing although my initiative to write a new blog has diminished during the last year or two.  It seemed such an easy task until recently. I am now more inclined to forget a name, particularly of a person, flower or tree which I am familiar with but which I cannot recall because of a sudden and unexpected confusion in an attempt to identify the word.

Of course, to return to the subject of one’s attitude to death, the limitations imposed by ageing, whether physical, situational, psychological, are factors in themselves which must influence one’s attitude.  One might clearly welcome death as a relief if life becomes more isolated and less tolerant and relevant in the minds of others of a different age and society.

Blogger and Editor 
Perhaps the greatest change in my life in the recent past has been caused by the loss of contemporary friends whose company and interests I shared and enjoyed so much.   I still share contact with my three generation family and friends but such contacts with the younger generations, added to limitations of hearing and comprehension, can be embarrassing compared to the interests which I enjoyed with my more intimate contemporaries. One is aware of the different interests of other generations and there are the problems of hearing during their more intensive conversations.    Naturally it is not surprising that their interests are different from mine.  My relationship with my wife, now 37 years in duration, has not changed although my more physical means of showing my feelings has reduced since my late 80s.  She is 23 years younger than me and happily her social life is consistent with such an age group and has not been changed by our age gap.   

I have followed a life-style which not only leads to longevity but which greatly reduces the length and severity of decrepitude which is still too common among our older community.  Appropriate adaptation to the normal changes of ageing is mandatory.  If we can remain active during the third stage of life and if we accept the inevitable changes which occur at this time; we will continue to have some influence in society despite hearing and sight changes, and loneliness and loss of friends and family. The elderly should be dealt with by education, adaptation and understanding. It is surprising how the occasional ‘phone call from family and close friends can maintain our touch with society.

Have I any regrets in recent years?  Yes, it was our inability to influence humanity about the major disaster which is facing our children and other living things as we are rapidly destroying the natural world on which we depend for our survival. In my short time of 93 years hundreds of animal and plant species have disappeared from the earth and continue to do so.  Because the changes are gradual we are not aware of them. Even more rapid changes are ignored. Witness the abrupt loss of the Passenger Pigeons in the United States (as per a previous blog) with little comment or concern by the public!  During my 93 years the human population has increased by more than three times and continues at a rate of 80 million a year. The drying up of water in rivers and lakes,  and changes in the oceans presage physical changes which may be incompatible with life as we know it now. Carbon changes too will make life intolerable.  The increase of carbon in the atmosphere during the last century is a substantial and glaring warning to us and it is evidently increasing at a semi-exponential rate. It will have a dire effect on living things sooner than we think. Our politicians are represented by an electorate which is deeply committed to wealth, social standing, personal wellbeing, power and comfort, and a disregard for our natural world.  We therefore cannot expect our politicians to lead us in our defence of Nature and the future of humanity. Who else can do so? They cannot deal with the symptoms of disaster let alone its causes – the declining morale and the poverty of some nations, our reaching for the sky in search of wealth, the overcrowding, the Mediterranean problem, the religious and internal political wars, and most of all the continued increase in the human population and the easy availability of the nuclear bomb when the problems of overcrowding and a decaying environment become intolerable. Hopefully the immediate forthcoming Paris conference will wake us up and our leaders too!

To return to my attitude to death, I have no sense of fear and I am comforted by my certainty that there can be no personal sequelae to follow. Death and its fear is an insubstantial illusion, like a dream. We do not even understand the world we are living in, its origins and limitations in terms of time and space. We will never understand these, and our invention of another world adds further to our ignorance and our confusion.  My only fear is for humanity and all our living species and the wonderful world we were provided with and which we may well destroy because of human arrogance, selfishness and ignorance.  My book (Survival and Humanity) appears next Spring and says it all!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Drumlins and other interesting things.

Robert Lloyd Praeger

Irish Landscape. R. Lloyd Praeger. Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland, Dublin, 1961. pp 41.

This review was written on March 18th 2011.

This is one of 14 booklets published by the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland and written by distinguished authors. I bought it in March from Greene’s second-hand list for 9 Euro. These booklets deal with many aspects of Irish art and culture, past and present. Robert Lloyd Praeger was well known as a botanist and naturalist and for his many publications. His autobiography The Way that I Went, bought originally by my father, is a classic about the natural history of Ireland and has a special place in my library. He believed that our landscape is peculiar to Ireland because of our latitude, our position facing the Atlantic and dominated by wind, rain and an equable climate, and the very ancient limestone central plain so suitable for grassland and the rearing of cattle, and surrounded by the beauty of the mountain ranges.

Praeger was born in Belfast and his early research was on the geology of the north-east of Ireland and in excavations there. The north-east is unique in this country in geological terms because its volcanic origin, unlike the rest of Ireland where the rocks are older and have a very different history. Just as the turn of the 19th and 20th  centuries marked the days of the Celtic Twilight, with its writers, poets and dramatists, so at the same time and as part of Ireland’s intellectual revival, the natural history of our country was greatly advanced and led by Robert Lloyd Praeger.

Grianán of Aileach
The booklet is designed as a travel guide with an introduction in the first 20 pages on the general aspect of the Irish landscape, including its countryside, its towns and villages, its roads, fields, characteristic high hedges and hedgerow trees; its bird life and wild life, including  alien species, such as the muskrat, and most remarkable,  the many  remains of  past  generations – Dun Aengus, Clonmacnoise, the round towers, the Grianán of Aileach and countless others still in a remarkable state of preservation. He describes the topography of the country with its central plain of limestone, often concealed by a thick blanket of bog, now sadly disappearing, and the numerous mountain ranges with their huge contribution to the panorama and scenic beauty of our country.  Nor does he forget to describe the natives of the countryside, their way of life, their occupations and their well established superstitions.

The second half of the book he goes from north to south to describe the physical, panoramic and particularly the geological features peculiar to different parts of the country. He starts with Donegal where he describes the unspoilt beauty of the area. What would he think to-day of the dreadful rural sprawl we saw when myself and Louise were last there in Rosapenna. He writes about the white washed cottages in the hollows, the donkeys, geese and dogs, and the abundance of wild flowers, all too evocative of my own days in Kerry in the 1930s. Donegal is the oldest part of Ireland geologically while the basaltic north east is the youngest part of the country.

Drumlin country in Co. Down
He moves from Donegal, perhaps with less detail, to the north-east, the mid-west, the mid-east, the south west and finally the south east parts of the country. He obviously was most familiar with the fascinating geology of the north east where he was born and where he developed his great interest in geology and natural history. The Drumlin country above the Dublin-Galway line is evident in the tortuous roads of  Co. Down and also the numerous small islands in Clew Bay in Mayo. He writes about Lough Neagh, the largest and least known of our many lakes with the pollen, and its unusual waters.  Other outstanding places of interest in Ireland are alluded to elsewhere and the black and white photographs are an additional feature. I would consider that Praeger gives a good insight into the Ireland of the mid-20th century. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

John Millington Synge

John Millington Synge – a Biography. By David M. Kiely. Gill and Macmillan, 1994.

This review was written in 2009

Bought in the second hand bookshop in Abbey Street near O’Connell Street in April 2010 where a great selection of books is available for as little as 6 or 7 Euros. This volume cost E5.99. I was perfectly aware of the important part Synge played in the development of the Abbey Theatre and of his close association with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. I had not read a biography of his before but I was of course aware of his very controversial role as a playwright. His Playboy of the Western World was the first play to lead to controversy among the Catholic and Nationalist population of Dublin and it was surprising to me that Arthur Griffith was one of its most outspoken and hostile critics. It was Griffith who lead the campaign against Synge and the Abbey. Synge’s portrayal of the native people of Ireland, and particularly those in the West and in his native Co. Wicklow, caused great offence to many of Dublin’s citizens, largely because of his sublects’ earthy and picturesque English language adorned with the Irish idiom. Many of the Dublin nationalists and Catholics at the time lacked the maturity to accept Synge’s portrayal of the native Irish country people’s way of life as observed by his close contact with them.

Programme from the Abbey theatre in 1907
Synge came from a very conservative protestant family who lived in Dublin and Co. Wicklow and he was in striking contrast to the anti-Catholic and anti-nationalist members of his privileged family. He soon became an agnostic, and a thorn in his mother's side who was extremely conservative in her devotion to her religion and was part of the anti-Catholic tradition of her privileged class. Synge became absorbed by the local population and spent his time in lonely walks around the Co. Wicklow and subsequently in the Aran Islands, Connemara and the Dingle Peninsula. He was remarkable in his attachment to the native people in Ireland, to their dialect and to their conversation in English based on the Irish Idiom and full of the colourful allusions of a primitive rural class who had little intellectual contact with the outside world. In his earlier years Synge travelled widely in Germany, France, Italy and England and added German and French to English and to the Irish he learned in Inishmaan in Aran. He was a product of the limited number of landed gentry and the Protestant minority who were to become involved in the cultural Celtic Revival and who were likely to be more nationalistic and more in favour of Home Rule than most of their brethren.

John Milliton Synge
Kiel’s book was absorbing and worth reading. It is worth a more detailed review, if only because Synge's life gives a clue to the importance of the cultural revival at the turn of the century which involved some of the Protestant minority whose increasing commitment to Irish culture and identity might have played a crucial part in the emergence of Ireland as a self-ruling 32-country in happy co-existence with Catholic, Anglican and non-conformist and in a close association with our neighbouring island and the Commonwealth. All this may have happened were it not for the misfortune of 1916 and the unhappy consequence of the Civil War and the division of our country.

Synge died from Hodgkin’s disease in March 1909 after recurring illnesses in his later years. He is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Harold’s Cross in his family grave.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The O'Rahilly

Winding the Clock – O’Rahilly and the 1916 Rising. Aodogán O’Rahilly. The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1991. Pages 245.

This review was written on February 2nd 2005

I borrowed this book from Ulick O’Connor and I read it rather quickly but intermittently during the first few weeks of February 2005. The book is badly written and poorly edited, with some repetition and ambiguity. One has to re-read sentences to understand their contents. It is somewhat lacking in references of primary sources and one might like to have confirmation of the veracity of some of the author’s statements, particularly in view of the major role which his father appeared to play in the national movement, in the formation of the Volunteers, in the encouragement of the Irish language and in the part he played in the 1916 Rebellion.

The GPO clock  when it stopped during the rising
When the evacuation of the burning GPO became an urgent matter, and Pearse favoured immediate surrender, O’Rahilly heroically lead twelve volunteers into the adjoining Moore Street to attack the British barricade in the hope of continuing the rebellion and the fight against the British. If the author’s account is true, it was a gesture of heroism bordering on the suicidal and to the detached observer it must have seemed that he perceived himself in the light of a martyr, willing to sacrifice himself and his twelve men in this quixotic way despite an apparently hopeless situation.

O’Rahilly was born into a North Kerry Catholic family which was apolitical and which like all the Catholics at the time supported the Irish Parliamentary Party. His father ran a general store in the small town of Ballylongford on the Shannon estuary. They were relatively well off. As he matured O’Rahilly became more and more interested in the national cause, in separatism and in the Irish language. He was born Michael Rahilly but, as his gradual interest in the national cause developed, he added the O’ to his name.  Later, as he moved to Dublin and became more acquainted with the leaders of the national movement, he signed his surname only, O’Rahilly, and eventually the O’Rahilly – an unusual eccentricity in a lad from the country, even if he had graduated to living in Herbert Park in the upmarket suburb of Donnybrook.  Perhaps eccentricity was the norm in those times but it must reveal both courage and vanity on O’Rahilly’s part which may account for his remarkable confrontation with death. His letters published in the book may suggest that he had a death wish to satisfy his patriotic commitment. Perhaps love of country can be as irrational as the more conventional form of love. Or perhaps love of self and an obsession about others perception of self may be the clue to self immolation.

O’Rahilly had no career in terms of profession or active business but he had been left relatively well off after the sale of the family business following his father’s death, his mother’s retirement to County Limerick and his own unwillingness to take over. One of his two sisters married one of the Humphrey family, a family which was to become rabidly anti-treaty and to take part in the Civil War.

I thought the author tended to be a little disparaging about Eoin MacNeill and even about Pearse but his carping appeared to be based on his anxiety to elevate his father’s role rather than diminish that of the two leaders. He talked about Pearse’s closest confidantes as his ‘cabal’. The author is also dismissive about the role of the IRB in the formation of the Volunteers and, oddly enough, in view of McAtansey’s biography, McDermott gets little mention. 

The reader’s impression, having read his account of the formation of the Volunteers, the build up to the Rising and the Rising itself, was that O’Rahilly was one of the most inspiring proponents of radical nationalism and one of the leading influences in the separatist movement. It is difficult to know how much is fact and how much is speculation for there is little evidence of primary sources of research apart from the personal letters which have survived. He refers to McGoey as the person who kept the British informed about the communications between Clan na nGaedhel and Germany but gives no information about his sources nor does he describe the source of his assertion that the British knew of the forthcoming Rising and, for Machiavellian reasons, allowed it to proceed without arresting the leaders beforehand. O’Rahilly was certainly full of passion in his later years and his full conversion to the cause of separatism is reflected in many others who started as supporters of limited home rule and finished in taking part in the Rising or, later, by opposing the Treaty.

However, allowing for these criticisms, the book is not without interest. It gives a very detailed if somewhat jumbled account of the communication between Germany and Clan na nGaedheal in America before 1916, and the part played by Casement and others who were active in seeking German assistance for the Volunteers. It gives a detailed and interesting if somewhat undocumented account of the Casement landing in Kerry and the various shenanigans which went on in the attempt to land the arms from the German ship in Tralee Bay.

O'Rahilly with wife Nancy and three of his sons incl. Aodogán
Another aspect of the biography is the reminder of how quickly, within one generation, so many of the Irish people in the provinces rose from a peasant culture to success in the business, professional and political life of Dublin. His life encapsulates many of the social, cultural and political aspects of an Ireland where the disenfranchised Catholic majority of the population emerged to take their rightful place in the forward march of the nation. O’Rahilly, with his wife, spent some years in America where his business failed to thrive. He left America and went to live in Paris before eventually returning to Ireland and to live in Herbert Park in Donnybrook. He and his family were privileged in comparison to most of the emerging native Irish and he was unusual in that a person of his status should have got so involved and so committed to political and cultural separatism.

Etched in stone, O"Rahilly's dying note to his wife Nancy
Just after I had finished the book I met my cousin Joe McCullough at a history meeting at Trinity. Joe apparently knew the author well and described him as an impossible person because of his deeply fixed ideas and his rigidity. No doubt he must have been a chip off the old block, his father being so committed to such radical political ideals that he was willing to part from his wife and his four young children and to sacrifice his life and that of the other twelve volunteers who accompanied him on his foolhardy attempt to attack the British barricade in Moore Street. One of the twelve volunteers who accompanied him on his last journey was killed. Another was injured but there is no mention of the remaining members of the party. I expect they might have been more prudent about exposing themselves to the easy fire of the British while O’Rahilly, as stated by the author, forged ahead towards the barricade and certain death, refusing to look back in case he might demoralise those who were following.

To those of us who live in more prosaic times it is a reminder that a commitment to a cause which leads to martyrdom may be, like any powerful emotional state, such as love, a form of madness. O’Rahilly deserves a biography based on objectivity and on adequate research, not a hagiography. He emerges from his son’s account as a passionate, vain, sad, courageous, quixotic and heroic figure.