Monday, July 27, 2015


Looking north from the north end of Furnace Island.

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This is the third Rihla ( see: Rihlas 47&49) about the quays and slipways of the Connemara Islands (Na hOileáin) this time exploring those of Lettermullan  and five other associated smaller islands.

Na Dúbláil is not a term you will find in any geographic or cartographic description or depiction of the group of 9 small islands that form the most western part of what are called Na hOileáin or Connemara islands. It is my own derived attribution because of the fact that in the 19th century the then very isolated islands of Lettermullan, Furnace, Dinish and Inisherk were the centre of the illegal Connemara poitín industry. The dúbláil (from the Irish verb for duplication or repeat dúbluighim or dúbailt) is the second distillation or run of a poitín still, the whiskey that, once the first drops have been given to the fairies, is ready for consumption.

Poitín (from pota a small pot used in the process) distillation has probably existed since the 1400s and by 1556 a license was required from the Lord Deputy of Ireland. From 1661 excise duty and regulations drove small capacity 'local use' production underground and in 1731 all production in the 'mountainous' parts of the Kingdom was banned. By 1800 excise-paid legal or 'parliament' whiskey cost about 13 shillings per gallon dropping in price to about 7 shillings per gallon in 1831. The cost of illegal whiskey or poitín in 1831 was about 3 shillings per gallon and it was noted that an Irishman could get "dead drunk" for two pennies.  In 1997 the distillation of Poitín as a defined spirit became 'legal' in Ireland again and its official production is now regulated by EU Directives and Regulations (EC No.110/2008). 

Quays and Slipways of Lettermullan and outer islands.

(Leitir Mealláin)

Lettermullan and the outer islands became part of the O'Flaherty lands in 1574 and 100 years later in 1675 were granted to Stephen Lynch of Galway. In 1684 the lands passed to Nicholas Lynch of Barna (who also owned the lands where my own house stands) who married the daughter of the wonderfully named Neptune Lynch of Lettermullan. 

The largest of islands is a place which for some reason I expected to be deserted, forlorn and discarded and yet it is not. It is well populated and from the activity on the slipway of the fish farming concern on the northern edge to a training exercise for maritime rescue at Cé na hAirde on the south-east to a blocked road caused by County Council widening in the south-west the island appeared to be alive, breathing, existing.

In an interesting observation it is noteworthy that when the population of the rest of Connemara was decimated by emigration and famine in the 1850s Lettermullan's remained static or rose slightly.

Céibh na hAirde
(Quay of the Heights) 
(due to the high road you have to travel over to get down to it)

The marine rescue boat was just to the left of this picture but I got the sense they did not want photographs taken.

Meitheal Éasc Teo Slipway

The fish farm cooperative at the point where Lettermullan joins Furnace island.

Looking north from Lettermullan towards the narrow channel between the small island of Oileán Chaisin (Island of the Small Twist or Bend) and Furnace Island.


An unnamed old slipway and pier on southern edge of Furnace island. In the distance in centre you can see another new slipway to the west of the causeway linking Lettermullan and Furnace.

Céibh Aircín
(Quay of the Stunted Little Pig)

Looking south-east.


In the distance the quay on Inisherk.

In the distance the quay on Crappagh.


Casheen Bay is the bay north and north-east of Furnace island.


Daighnis derives from dáigh or hope. 

Connection to outside world from Furnace to Dinish.

This is the point on the west side of Furnace island where a ferryman, whose job was to ferry the schoolmistress to the island to teach 12 children (Total Population in 1905 was 54 persons) on the island of Dinish.  


(AN CHNAPACH – The Lumpy Place)

In the 1850s Henry Comerford a Clare landowner who had established himself as a merchant in Galway bought up the titles to Lettemullan and the outer islands from the Lynches for about £10,300. An Cnapach was sub-let to the McDonagh family. Sometime later a member of the family allegedly found some gold in a shipwreck and bought the island outright. The McDonagh family that established in Crappagh had 23 children, many of the girls who then intermarried with the O'Tooles and O'Connons in Lettermore and like one sister Sabina McDonagh who opened the Hotel of the Isles, all of whom were very industrious. One branch established under Redmond McDonagh a store on the island while another moved into Galway where they subsequently took over most of the Comerford merchant concerns and are still in business today as Thomas McDonagh & Sons, Builders Providers. The island, as can be seen from the above photograph, is still a private enclave having been sold onto another local a number of years ago.

It was perhaps this type of industrial and entrepreneurial spirit that made Lettermullan and Crappagh in particular somewhat unique in resisting the impact of the Great Famine and maintaining a steady population.


The Napoleonic semaphore signal tower on Golam.

Golam is the most south-westerly of the islands and it would be nice to think that its name derives from Míl Espánia, whose given name was Golam, the legendary founder of the Celtic Milesian tribe who invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuatha dé Danaan. More likely its name may derive from the Irish Goilim meaning to lament or even from Goillín, a tormentor (the Devil or perhaps the Golem from medieval Kabalistic lore based on the Psalms(139:16) depiction of "an unfinished human being") because of the impact in the distant past of the loss of fishermen to drowning upon its rocky shores. 

Both of these attributions also hold up when you analyse the number of local shipwrecks but most particularly the events of February 1873 when the Julia, a ship carrying timber from Liverpool was washed up on Golam and from all around the islands and the mainland northwards people came to salvage the cargo. There was a standoff between the Coastguards and a boatload of men from the islands off Carna and shots rang out. Two men, Patrick Folan and Thomas King were killed. Subsequently on the basis of testimony of a John Larkin from Dinish Island two of the coastguards were indicted for manslaughter but subsequently a Grand Jury trying the case in Galway dismissed the charges on the second day in the trial due to lack of credibility in the witness accounts.

Detail from a Mortier 1693 map of Galway Bay.
(Mason Island is the last island in the bottom left.)

The body of Folan was brought back to his parent's house on Mason Island off Carna, which is close to St Sinach Mac Dara's island, the sacred site of the patron saint of Connemara fishermen and to where I am off to next.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


There is a certain position in our kitchen, near one end of an oiled-wood dining table, where in the darkness of night when the kitchen is backlit by the lights of the open-plan living room behind, you can see the grey-sky coloured kitchen cabinets reflected at an acute angle in the glass panes of the patio door. As you draw closer a furtive shadow appears and on turning slightly the shadow suddenly accelerates up the cabinet reflection leaving an unsettling sensation of an intruder outside the doors disappearing around the corner of the house. You then have to retrace your steps to be certain what you had seen was what it was: an inner shadow projected outwards like "Dark Matter" exerting a gravitational shift from timeless ambivalence to momentary anxiety.

The astrophysical allusion to the property of shadows is not accidental. I watched a television program recently which explored how astrophysicists first became able to determine the extent of “Dark Matter” shadows in our universe by mapping the distortion in the light transmission of dying stars, the supernovas, and then by using this determinative ability how they went about trying to confirm the theory that given the extent of “Dark Matter” in our Universe its gravitational effect would eventually cause an implosion of the Universe, in a reverse of the “Big Bang” i.e. not just the end of the world when eventually our own sun becomes a supernova but the end of all worlds.

However much to their astonishment the astrophysicists have found that our Universe continues to expand at an ever-increasing rate into the “Void”, a void that still lays way beyond our comprehension. This means that the closer we get to the “Dark Matter” and potentially consumptive shadows in our Universe, like those reflected in my kitchen windows, the quicker they accelerate away. At a universal level at least, momentary anxiety is once again replaced by timeless ambivalence.

It would be nice to theorise that this would also be the case at an individual human level. However, in a body and mind already subject to gravity, both physical and that of conditioned expectation, the increased effect of proximity to the shadows of self (the dark matter of our personal universes) do still hold an incredibly destructive potential.

Richard Flanagan, the Tasmanian writer who won the Booker Prize for his fictional novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a novel firmly rooted in his father’s war-time experience of being a prisoner-of-war and slave labourer on the Japanese building of a 415km railway through Burma and Thailand, has said that, despite the critical success (and likely Nobel Prize in the future) the experience of writing the book, something that had hung over him like a shadow since he was a child, had made him “less”. When asked what he meant by this he found it difficult to explain, and said that perhaps it was that he had reached the apogee of his writing, and in doing so it did not matter anymore. The “umbra” or darkest part of the shadow that appeared to have enveloped Flanagan in writing the story was the murder on the railway of a Sgt Haslam, a friend of Flanagan’s father, who was beaten to death with bamboo canes by three Japanese guards while watched by three hundred non-intervening Australian and British prisoners-of-war, including Flanagan’s father.

I am not sure, and perhaps we never will, what was the umbra that drove him on but David Duval the World’s No. 1 golfer in 1999, and the only person to perhaps have challenged Tiger Woods when he was at his best, said something similar to Richard Flanagan about becoming “less” after his game suffered a terminal decline following his winning of the British Open in 2001.

For Flanagan and Duval they had come too close to the “Dark Matter” or umbra of their beings and the gravity of those inner shadows had subsequently caused them to be “less”, in the “lessness” way of supernovas burning bright as they implode. Both of these men however are resilient individuals. They will find a way to accelerate away from the dark matter of that implosion and reinvent themselves in another part of the universe. Not perhaps ever again as a “genius” golfer or writer playing the “game” at the limits of its potential, but surviving to love, to feel, to respond.

This resilience, this movement to the fuzzy edge of the shadow where some light diffuses the bleak reality, is something I wish for in everybody. In my work as a Forensic Examiner for victims of sexual assault a recurring sensation particularly where older adolescents and young adults are concerned is that we have an incredible opportunity to somehow prevent the “Dark Matter” of being winning out.

In a recent case, and I will be circumspect for very obvious reasons, a young waiflike girl whose physicality and personality were so slight as to barely ripple the pool of perception, the particular circumstances of the case will mean that she will almost certainly become increasingly isolated, discarded by boyfriend, friends and family to a shadow world of existence, and all of the inherent dangers that that will bring. It is also likely to occur despite the injustice of it and our best efforts as carers to help her such as rape crisis intervention, social services support, etc.

You want to become the astrophysicist of being, to confound accepted reality, to pull her away from the gravity of "Dark Matter" despair and explain somehow that her inner Universe continues to expand and given a chance will accelerate away from the shadows. You want most of all for her not to submit. 

The nature of acquiescent submission in the face of applied dominance is complex, both at an individual and societal level. In both intimate and universal confrontations submission is generally seen as a survival strategy and unless one has truly experienced the disempowerment of that process it is difficult to fully rationalise what any individual will do in the circumstance. The submission volition however does engender in the survivor, or survivors enormous potential for feelings of guilt and even perhaps self-loathing. It is a liability that then often extends to family, friends and carers. Could we have done more? As a carer you do not want to be  a “submissant” allowing the “dominants” to rape a vulnerable girl or beat another human being to death with impunity and do nothing.

These are the bamboo shadows that all of us have to navigate in our journey through the Universe.

Friday, June 26, 2015


Galway 1840

In 1991 when I first arrived to live and work in Galway there were occasions on Dock Road in the city when you would almost have to wear a mask as supplies of calcium ammonia nitrate fertiliser were deposited in a large warehouse at the end of Dock Rd. After almost 150 years of association of this location with fertiliser, however, the function and purpose of many of the commercial buildings on Dock Rd was to radically change with the redevelopment in the early 90s of the Galway Docks area. Following this redevelopment I decided to move my consulting rooms to the new building on the site of the former warehouse and as such was always interested in its evolving history.

Galway 1873

When one looks at the differences in the Docks area, between the Ordnance Survey maps of 1840 and 1873, in the city it is the appearance of three Guano warehouses in the 1873 surveys that really catches the eye. Indeed the maps are an evocation of the story of Guano itself.


Guano derives from the Peruvian Quencha language wanu or bird-manure. In 1802 the Prussian geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humbolt encountered the use of Guano from the Chincha Islands in Callao, Peru. He wrote about its use of a being a potent nitrogen-rich fertiliser and this soon stimulated the commercial exploitation of the resource.

The first supplies of Guano arrived in England in 1840 and a total of 182 tonnes were imported that year. By 1851 this had risen to almost 243,000 tonnes and continued to rise. Its value as a nitrogen-rich fertiliser was recognised very early in Ireland and by December 1842 a Robert Bell, of Gunsborough, Listowel in Co. Kerry was already reporting his very successful experiments on growth with Guano.

Mining Guano in Peru today.

The profits to be gained particularly with the top-most or white guano were enormous. So much so that even by 1845 ships sailing from England to take delivery of guano were loaded with gypsum to admix and bulk-out quantities of guano or even using umber soil to mix and calling the brownish product ‘African Guano’.

The Peruvian and Bolivian governments had appointed as their sole importers of Guano to England W.J. Myers & Co. in Liverpool and Anthony Gibbs & Sons in London. The adulteration caused them serious concern and in order to protect (and advertise) the quality of their product commissioned the brilliant analytical chemist Dr Andrew Ure to conduct an analysis. He was effusive in his report of the very high levels of ammonia and phosphate in the manure and its benefit for agriculture. His results were incorporated in a book promoting the benefits of Guano and giving directions for its use published by the importers in March 1844.

Andrew Ure

Ure later devised a simple method of determining the purity of guano by placing a sample on a red-hot shovel. Pure guano would just leave a fine ash of lime and magnesia whereas the ‘African Guano’ would leave a clump of sand.

The Royal Agricultural Society were so concerned about the exorbitant cost of guano that by 1852 they were offering a prize of £1000 for the development of an alternative nitrogen-rich fertiliser.

By the late 1870s much of the Peruvian guano deposits had been exhausted and the Peruvian and Chilian economy had switched to using Sodium Nitrate or Saltpeter from the Atacama desert. In 1909 Fritz Haber developed a process of nitrogen fixation (Nobel Prize 1918) at laboratory level and an industrial chemist Carl Bosch upscaled this to industrial production (Nobel Prize 1931) in what is known as the Haber-Bosch process both for fertilisers and of course munitions.


Anthony  Gibbs & Sons appointed as their agents for Guano in Galway a Sebastian Nolan, and on the back of this trade he became exceedingly wealthy and at one time the Guano-fuelled economy of the city was the biggest employer in Galway. 

The Nolan family had always been merchants.  Sebastian Nolan's ancestors were Elizabethan settlers and had originally been granted lands and a castle in Crevagh, Kilmaine, Co. Mayo. These holdings were confirmed in 1585 and later a Thomas Nolan was given further lands owned by the Carmelite or 'White Frairs' Order closer to Ballinrobe. Thomas Nolan along with John Coman of Athlone had been granted in 1616 (Rol Pat 15 Jac I p.2 d.No.58) the licence to run the taverns and sell wine and spirits for most of Galway and Mayo. During the Commonwealth most of the Nolan's land in Mayo was settled on the Cuffe family and the Nolan's were moved to Ballinderry, in Cummer near Tuam, Co. Galway. The Nolan's gained land in Galway in the late 1790s through marriage into the Ffrench family of Portacarron, Knocknacarra, Galway. Sebastian Nolan inherited Castlemoyle near Tuam, (a castle that had come into the Nolan family by marriage to the Brownes of Castlemoyle) but moved closer to Galway in the 1880s to reside at Seamount Lodge near Blackrock, Salthill.

Sebastian Nolan was a cantankerous and testy character and none more-so when it came the development of golf in Galway.

In 1895 a Colonel H.N.F. Jourdain of the Connaught Rangers laid out a seven-hole course on the hill outcrop that stretches southwards into Galway Bay from Knocknacarra Cross and where I now live. Blake’s Hill is the proper name for the hill but over the years it has become more commonly known as Gentian Hill. Later that year in 1895 a formal club, Galway Golf Club was established and a clubhouse and further two holes added. A Capt Henley was the prime mover of this. When the landlord of the hill started charging a punitive rent for the land Sebastian Nolan, an early member of the Club, used his Guano manure profits to buy the hill. He became the first President of Galway Golf Club.

Sites of Galway Golf Club 1895-Present

Sebastian Nolan considered the Gentian Hill golf course his fiefdom and in the early years was a generous benefactor and host. Col Jourdain however considered him a bore and stated that no-one wanted to play with him. In 1903 after an argument with the committee over the make–up in terms of handicaps for a foursomes event (they would not accept his dictat) he threw the club off his lands. Galway Golf Club first relocated to Barna but then later to its permanent home closer to Salthill.

The Gentian Hill golf-course became the County Galway Golf Club, a private course for Nolan and his friends. In 1907 he died of a heart-attack playing golf on the hill. The course and club also subsequently went fallow.

In death Nolan remained cantankerous however. A life-long bachelor he excluded most of his family from his will and left most of his wealth, and property (including the infamous Magdalen Asylum building) to the Sisters of Mercy. Despite a court case by the family to try and effect a reversal the will was upheld.

The Nolan family were used to disappointment however. Sebastian Nolan’s brother, Col John Philip Nolan of Ballinderry, Tuam and the Parnellite MP for North Galway was beaten in an election in 1906 by a dead man, Thomas Higgins. 

In a strange twist of coincidences however Galway Golf Club found a permanent home on the O'Hara lands in Blackrock, Salthill very close to Sebastian Nolan's former residence at Seamount. The O'Hara's of Lenaboy, Galway were descendants of either General Charles O'Hara the Ist Baron Tyrawley(d.1724) and Commander-in-Chief in Ireland or of General Charles O'Hara (d.1802), the illegitimate son of James the 2nd Baron Tyrawley and Ist Baron Kilmaine (d.1774) and his Portuguese mistress. This General Charles O'Hara was the officer who brought Cornwallis' sword of surrender to George Washington at Yorktown at the end of the American War of Independence. 

When James O'Hara died the titles Baron Tyrawley and Baron Kilmaine died with him but the Baronetcy of Tyrawley was created for a second time and bestowed on a James Cuffe in 1797. The Cuffes were the Cromwellian settlers who had been given the original Nolan estates in Crevagh, Kilmaine, Co. Mayo forcing the Nolans to move first to North Galway and ultimately Sebastian Nolan to Galway city itself.

Site of Magdalen Asylum


Although in overall terms of imports to England and the Continent the amounts of Guano imported into Ireland were small, given that the peak years of its production and importation coincided with the economic and human tragedy of the Great Irish Famine (1846), its arrival did further reduce the traditional harvesting of fresh seaweed to use as fertiliser but also as a consequence the income derived from the dried and burnt harvested seaweed Kelp industry. This made it even more difficult to survive the economic effects of the blight that affected the almost universally planted non-resistant strain of potatoes (the Irish Lumper).

It has been long held that the blight fungus, Phytophthora Infestans was most likely imported into Belgium with infected potatoes from Mexico in 1845. Another recent theory is that an Andean strain from Peru may have been transported alongside a delivery of Guano. Either way while the severe European drought of 1846 managed to halt the progress of the disease on the European mainland the moiste and wet conditions in Ireland accelerated its impact.

John Behan: National Famine Memorial
Murrisk, Co. Mayo

In echoes of today with the migration of people from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East across the hostile waters of the Mediterranean the Irish set–sail in similar profit-driven ‘coffin-ships’ to a presumed better life on the far side of the Atlantic. On the Galway– New York passage alone between 1846-1851 69 ships transported 23,000 emigrants. The population of Galway county dropped from 440,198 to 321,684 between 1841 and 1851 as a consequence of starvation, death and emigration.

In an ironic reversal of the westward emigration from Ireland, in order to mine the guano in the 1840-1870s indentured workers (slaves) from China were transported eastwards across the Pacific to Peru. Up to 100,000 ‘coolies’ were thought to have been transported and enslaved to service the sugar-cane and guano industries in dire conditions. It is estimated that about 4,000 Chinese workers alone died extracting Guano in their Gethsemane. The Chinese community (tusan) is still a very important part of Peruvian society having produced two prime ministers.

The Magdalen Asylum (Laundry) that Sebastian Nolan owned and willed to the Sisters of Mercy in Galway in 1907 had opened in 1824 and closed in 1984. For 160 years it was a Gethsemane for hundreds of women, abused in a similar fashion to the Chinese coolies that had mined the Guano that had made Sebastian Nolan rich.