Thursday, February 12, 2015


Connemara Coastline

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 rihla is about the quays of Lettermore and Annaghvaan Islands, Connemara, Ireland.

If Plato is right and the things of this world are imperfect copies of ideal forms, then the archipelago of Na hOileáin, the islands, must have its celestial counterpart in a realm of absolute goodness, beauty and truth.

– Tim Robinson

Islands take on human characteristics and moods: they too can be solitary, quiet, parched, naked, barren, inscrutable, cursed, and even happy or blissful. They are defined not only by their similarities and differences but also by the company they keep.

– Predrag Matvejevic

The quote by Matvejevic in his slender but majestic book, Mediterranean – A Cultural Landscape perhaps sums up a fascination I have always had with the notion of islands and communication with the outside world. I had a fanciful idea once that I would try to visit every Mediterranean island (approx 1200) but reality and proximity has altered my course towards those of the coastline of Connemara in the West of Ireland. 

All journeys are in the footsteps of the greatest of observant journeymen; in a sense trying to recapture some of the magic that in written form held you spellbound in the first place. Tim Robinson, a transplanted Yorkshireman, is the Ibn Battuta of Connemara bringing a bluff  but infinitely caring eye and ear to the detail and distortion of the landscape and its people. 

In trying to create a focus and purpose to my own navigations I settled on an attempt to record the quays, piers, slipways and jetties of the islands: their means of communication and commerce and survival with each other and with the outside world. 
The companions to my own photographic explorations of that connect between land and sea has been the spirit, evocation and exemplar example of Matvejevic and Robinson's books as well as Admiralty Chart 2096 and Robinson's Gazetteer and map of Connemara.

The word Quay derives from the old Northern French cai meaning a sandbank parallel to the shoreline offering a suitable place for a landing. Pier also derives from the old Northern French pire meaning a breakwater. The difference technically between the two is that a pier projects out at angle to the land whereas a quay runs parallel. Cé is the primary term used to mean a quay or a jetty or a pier, sometimes spelt as ceibh. They are as interchangeable as the tide but perhaps in local usage are associated with a greater solidity and sense of purpose: a greater access and defence to and from the sea.

1. Bealadangan Bridge and Quay

Before the completion of the swing bridge at Bealadangan in 1894 the mainland of Connemara was connected to the islands by a narrow causeway of packed down stone which passed close to the foreshore to cross the narrow channel between the island and mainland. The channel was only therefore passable at low tide. In 1836 the newly formed Board of Public Works (1831) built a quay, which has a most unusual serpentine shape, on the north east side of Annaghvaan Island at Tithe na Cora, to allow the Hooker boats from Galway deliver beer kegs to the island. They incorporated an archway through which the low tide causeway could still maintain access, a causeway that was subsequently partially dynamited once the bridge was complete. There is an inscription on the east side of the archway attesting to the date of completion of the quay.

The low tide causeway, called the Dangan Pass, the only walkable connection between mainland and the islands was recorded in the 1840 6" Ordanance Survey crossing the rocky foreshore to cross over to the island of Annaghvaan under the archway in the quay built in 1836.

The old causeway stretching from the mainland on the left marked by the beacon to the archway under the quay on the right marked by the bollard.

Going back another day when the tide was fully out I was surprised by the width of the causeway which then narrows to lead to the top-left of the picture. I suspect it was a little narrower at one point but then partially dynamited to flatten it more allowing boats greater access at lower tides.

Michael armed with a small hand scythe to cut seaweed for the cosmetic industry.

The former swing bridge at Bealadangan. The approach road and bridge was completed at a cost of £3585 by the Congested Districts Board in 1894. The road gangs were made up of women and men.  The road is called Bóthar na Scrathóg, from screws the topmost cuts of bog turf. In June & July 1905 John M. Synge (author of the Playboy of the Western World) and the artist Jack B. Yeats (brother of W.B. Yeats) travelled over the new bridge on their tour of Connemara, reporting twice weekly for the Manchester Guardian newspaper. The road gangs were still in evidence and Synge dismayed by their 'hang-dog dejection' reported that the workers got a shilling a day and that the best worker was selected from each household often at the expense of other livelihoods such as fishing. He also reported that as their carriage reached the centre wooden beamed swinging portion of the bridge, the driver got down and led the horse across because they tended to spooked at the noise of their hooves on the wooden planks. Robinson reports that the islands were free of foxes until the slatted wooden swing bridge was fixed and paved in the 1950s and then they could cross from the mainland.

The serpentine quay, which even today is only accessible at high tide and provides very little in the way of shelter from the prevailing winds. The Galway Hookers still gather once a year at the quay for a festival. In old fishing lore the narrow passageway at this gap between the mainland and the first of naOileáin was called the 'bealach díreach', the direct way as distinct from the more circuitous route around the islands, the 'bealach cam'.

In the Hooker Bar, adjacent to the quay at Tithe na Cora (built in 1845 to consume the beer that the quay provided), above the fireplace is the lever that was used to mechanically winch the swing bridge open and closed. The lever was always kept in the pub and anyone wanting to navigate up the narrows under the bridge would have to dock first and come and fetch the lever.

2. Annaghvaan Quay

Seaweed bales ( climíni ) tethered to quayside awaiting collection and transport to a processing factory in Cill Chiaráin.

Primarily used for lobster and crab fishing and seaweed harvesting. A local fisherman, born on the now uninhabited nearby island of Inistravin told me that each gathered bale of seaweed would net about €100 for a days backbreaking labour using pitchforks and scythes. There is a square enclosure on the quay which was an attempt at periwinkle farming. The experiment lasted two winters. The local put it bluntly, 'the winkles withered.'

The anglicised Annaghvaan derives from Eanach Mheáin, a dry bit of ground in the middle of a bog, where sods were laid to dry, tea taken and pipes smoked.

3. Céibhe na  dTráchta (Quay of the Causeway)

The paved causeway between Annaghvaan and Lettermore was built at the cost of £414 by the Congested Districts Board 1894 and followed the line of the earlier foreshore causeway recorded in the 1840 OS map. This probably accounts for the low cost. The small harbour at the end of the modern causeway is nestled in close to the Island of the Cobbler.

4. Cé bun an Aill (Quay at the Foot of the Cliff)

Should be Céibh Bun an Fháil (Quay at the foot of the fence)

5. Brandy Harbour

An Crompan Mór (The Big Creek) was renamed after a local boatman smuggled brandy in from Guernsey.

"The Rope, which is made of hemp (or, in some places, palm or aloe fibres), ingests the odors of sea and port, marine plants and tar, giving the harbour a redolence all of its own. Though not particularly sharp or stiff, it leaves grooves and calluses on the bollards and buoy rings."

Predrag Matvejevic in Mediterranean – A Cultural Landscape

6. Ceibh Sruthán Buí (Quay of the Yellow Stream)

Interesting encounter with a local here. When he saw my camera he asked was I going to give money for the pictures I was taking. I asked did he normally ask visitors for money for photographing the scenery. Without batting an eyelid he replied, 'Yes, if you're government'. There is a genetic predisposition and an easily acquired suspicion of all islanders to the organs of State power. Revenue and Social Protection officials top the list of avoidable hazards! 

Scallop shells galore give the stream a yellow, golden glow and perhaps its name. Struthán Buí is the setting for one of Connemara's poignant songs The Court of the Yellow Stream (Cúirt an tStruthán Buí), composed by Colm de Bhailís while sheltering from the rain, which in the manner of the 1001 Nights and against the reality of the despondency of famine conditions imagined a world coming to pay homage to the paradise Court of the Yellow Stream.

7. Ceibh Inis an Ghainimh (Sand Island)

8. Ceibh Garranta

9. Lettercallow (School) Quay

10. Ceibh na gCaisle

The Quay of the Creeks.

In a reversal of the Western forced migration in Cromwellian times the Congested Districts Board around 1903 began settling colonies of migrants from Connemara to larger economic holdings in the east of the country. In 1934, after independence, it was decided at a governmental level to establish a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) area in Meath, on the former estates of JJ Maher, M. Heffernan and V. Fessler and populated by native migrant speakers from the west. In March 1935 the first 12 migrant families to the new 'colony' at Ráth Cairn and Drissoge arrived. Among those arrivals were the families of Bartley Delap from Annaghvaan, and John Coffey, Michael McGrath, Coleman Bailey and Patrick Folan from both Leitir Calaidh and Leitir Móir districts of Lettermore Island. 

11. Ross Quay

12. Murragh Quay

13. Murvagh Slipway

14. Ceibh Leitir Calaidh

Lettermore Island is divided into two townlands defined by the two hills on the island. To the west is Leitir Calaidh or the Wet Hill of the Harbour, and it is the ancient harbour above that defines that geographical etymology.

15. Ceibh Leitir Móir

The derivation of Móir is uncertain but some think it is named after a Munster goddess Mór.

16. Céibh Chora Ghiolca Quay

Céibh Chora Ghiolca means the Quay of the Point of Reeds. 

I missed three of the quays on Lettermore. One on the north west of the island because a pack of dogs decided I was the best fun in ages to have come their way and would not leave me alone to wander down the beaten path to the shore. Another small quay on the northern shore, Aillin an Aran was not in any way marked or visible from the land and I will try at some point to get at it from the sea. (A friend of mine is going to extract his labour of love, a restored curragh, from his man shed and we plan to repeat some the visits using only the power of our arms.) 

The final quay that I missed was Céibh na Leice (Leck) or Flagstone Quay in Lettermore village itself. I got distracted stopping to buy a sandwich and forgot to turn right. I managed to get back to it another day however.

17. Céibh na Leice

Predrag Matvejevic, my spiritual companion, wrote that 'all sea voyages have several beginnings and several ends; they are never complete.' This rihla has been one of those beginnings.


Galway County Council Data:

Jack B. Yeats Sketches of Connemara

1 comment:

Terre Celtiche blog said...

Wonderful pictures (what a ligh and colours!!) and "philosophical" post, I mentioned in my italian blog