It’s not that far from home, but I had my first visit to Kilmore Quay, on the south coast of Wexford, just the other day. Apart from the combined feel of fishing village and seaside resort, the most striking thing about Kilmore Quay was the number of thatched houses to be seem. Passing through the village of Kilmore, a few miles inland from Kilmore Quay, such roofs were evident too.
A century or more ago thatched roofs were to be seen all over Ireland. By the 1960s they were a rarity. They had been replaced in very many cases by corrugated iron coverings, as I was reminded by a comment in response to an image I posted a few weeks ago on my Facebook page. Nowadays, driving through most parts of the country, passing a thatched cottage elicits comments about the quaintness and loveliness of its appearance.
The particular roof in the photograph here was just newly repaired and I had a chance to chat to the thatcher as he put huge bags of straw back in his trailer. He told me that Wexford is now the county with the most thatched structures in Ireland. He is a native of the village and one of only a handful of thatchers working in the county. A straw thatch, like this bright new one, would be expected to last for about twenty to twenty-five years, while a reed thatch should last for about forty years. Kilmore Quay has examples of both.
Looking online I learned more. It would appear that the phenomenon is one of revival rather than survival. The Irish School of Thatching, in Duncormick (not far from Kilmore Quay), runs short and intensive courses on the craft. Its website shows that some quarter century ago the late Peter Brockett was brought over from Bedfordshire to give a two-year course in thatching for FÁS (An Foras Áiseanna Saothair, the former national training and employment authority). Prior to that Ireland was accustomed to roofs lasting only seven years.
Revival rather than survival is a reason for optimism – even a source of inspiration. Reintroducing thatch to parts of Ireland, just like native species of wildlife, is a possibility. Wouldn’t it be nice?
At the age of 116, Sam McAllister is the oldest resident of Baltinglass. He has stood at the centre of Main Street since his unveiling on 8 May 1904. He has become a symbol of Baltinglass and even a minor place-name. People often meet ‘at McAllister’. Pop-up events sometimes take place ‘at McAllister’. Unfortunately, on occasion Sam is made hold flags for sporting events or nationalist commemorations – not the most respectful treatment for such a venerable resident.
Sam is very much an accepted part of our community. I doubt that anyone dislikes him. People may be indifferent to him and take him for granted, if they don’t actively like him. Visitors take photographs of him. He was only in his mid-fifties when I was born about a hundred yards away from where he stands, and he’s been at the focal point of my home town all my life. The centre of Main Street would look very bare without him.
McAllister was a late starter in the centenary commemorations of the 1798 Rebellion. Other towns in Wicklow, Carlow and Wexford got their rebel statues before Baltinglass got Sam. The main impetus and funding came from Dublin-based organisers and nationalist emigrants living in the USA, but local committees were expected to raise money too. Baltinglass was a bit tardy, so the foundation stone was laid four years after the centenary and it was another two years before the unveiling.
Visitors may look at the statue and see its message of rebellion. Baltinglass natives may see an old friend. But McAllister is also a minor work of art. The sculptor was George Smyth of Dublin (c1857-1927). He created a life-sized statue of Sicilian marble, representing a defiant McAllister with his right arm in a sling and a rifle by his left side. The base was made of Ballyknockan granite.
Apparently George Smyth was known more for church sculpture. His premises were in Great Brunswick Street, across the road and a few doors down from those of another firm of monumental sculptors, the Pearse family. The street was later renamed after Patrick Pearse, while George Smyth’s premises were absorbed into Trinity College. George’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him were sculptors. The great-grandfather was Edward Smyth, who worked on the ornamentation of the Custom House in Dublin for the architect, James Gandon, who was greatly impressed by him. The riverine heads that adorn the keystones of the Custom House were Edward Smyth’s creation.
As a minor work of art, our McAllister statue has an interesting pedigree, but what of its purpose? Commemoration of 1798 was a way of keeping nationalism to the fore as the centenary of Ireland’s integration into the United Kingdom approached. There is no doubt that the proliferation of statues built a hundred years after the United Irishmen’s ’98 Rebellion had a political motive, one not shared by all Irish people. While the leaders of United Irishmen had set aside religious differences and the rebellion had been led in Ulster by Presbyterians, the fighting in the south-east had a strong sectarian element. Joseph Holt, a Protestant from the Redcross area of Co. Wicklow, was almost the only exception to the rule. Those who involved themselves in the rebellion in the south-east were almost exclusively Roman Catholic; those who were involved in opposing it were primarily Protestant. And then there was Sam McAllister.
Sam is someone of whom little is known. Certainly he was a Presbyterian from Ulster. He may well have come to the West Wicklow area as a textile worker in the calico factory in the new town of Stratford-on-Slaney. While in Co. Wicklow, he enlisted in the Antrim Militia, for whatever reason, in April 1798 but deserted three months later and joined the rebels. In February 1799 he was one of a party of rebels on the run with the local leader, Michael Dwyer, when they sheltered one night in a number of houses in Derrynamuck in the Glen of Imaal. They were ambushed and surrounded by a detachment of the Glengarry Fencibles. McAllister and Dwyer were in one house with two other rebels, both of whom were killed. McAllister was wounded in the arm and the thatched roof was set alight. According to Dwyer, McAllister sacrificed his life by standing in the doorway and drawing the soldiers’ fire in order that Dwyer might escape, which he did.
When it came to erecting a centenary statue in Baltinglass, the original intention was that Dwyer would be represented by it. However, there was a lingering resentment against him in the town due to a sectarian killing spree in December 1798 by a group of which he was the leader. It took place as they left Baltinglass on a Fair Day and walked along the Dublin Road (now Sruhaun Road) towards Tuckmill. Apparently Dwyer was not forgiven for this and so, remembering the Derrynamuck ambush, the shadowy figure of the little-known Presbyterian from Ulster was chosen in preference to the folk hero.
The monument’s inscription refers to both Dwyer and McAllister, and mentions the various nationalist struggles down to the Fenians in the 1860s. This structure cannot have been a welcome new feature in the centre of the town for the several Protestant families who lived here, because it represented a tradition that largely alienated them. Whatever they felt about it at the time, as the years went by McAllister became familiar. He wasn’t preaching or fighting or causing any disturbance. As the decades passed, he grew older and mellowed, and now he is older than anyone in Baltinglass. His persona has developed and grown.
With all his ambiguities, he represents what the beholder wishes to see. He’s a rebel, a shadowy hero, a Presbyterian nationalist, a work of art, an Ulsterman, an outsider, a ‘blow-in’ or (less politely) a ‘runner-in’, a migrant worker, an old friend, a venerable resident, an institution, an icon of Baltinglass, a symbol of our community, a constant in time of change.
I’m very fond of Sam. I look at him and see all those things at different times. Mainly I think of him as an old friend. He’s like a man of contradictions, all whose opinions I don’t have to share in order to appreciate his friendship.
These photographs were taken at various times from more or less the same location between July 2018 and March 2020. The field in the foreground is at the very edge of Co. Carlow. It is in Mountkelly townland. Beyond the trees is Killalish (pronounced ‘Killalesh’) Lower townland in Co. Wicklow.
The twin mountains in the background are Keadeen (on the left) and Carrig (on the right). Over the shoulder of Carrig on a clear day you can glimpse the summit of Lugnaquilla, the highest mountain in Wicklow, and in Leinster. On the side of Keadeen towards where it merges with Carrig, are two discoloured patches that resemble two reclining figures. Local folklore says that they are the shapes of Finn McCool, of ancient legend, and his wife. I wrote about these figures in a previous post.
Here are the images:
(1) July 2018
(2) January 2019
(3) April 2019
(4) Mid-August 2019
(5) Late August 2019
The other evening in Mountkelly Lane. It was beautiful weather and Lugnaquilla managed to peep over the shoulder of Carrig. I've taken the same view at different times for over the past year. The yellow rapeseed dominated at the beginning of the summer. A few weeks ago it was all brown and tumbled down. Now just the stubble is left. I wonder what crop the field will get next year.
(6) October 2019
Yesterday (12 Oct) Mr & Mrs Finn McCool were enjoying a bit of autumnal sunshine on the side of Keadeen mountain. You can just see the figures over the top of the lowest trees. Of course, they were much clearer and closer to the naked eye. Lug is just in the picture also, on the right.
(7) March 2020
Today (21 Mar) Finn & Mrs McCool were a little cold on the side of Keadeen. Not a day for sunbathing! I'm afraid you can't really expect them to understand the importance of social distancing - they never move from that spot. Those clouds looked weirder in reality, as if a UFO was about to appear out of them. Anything could happen now that we're living in a futuristic disaster movie that's changing everything around us.
Earlier this month, on Facebook, I posted the first of two short pieces about the figures of Finn McCool and his wife on the side of Keadeen Mountain in West Wicklow. Actually the figures are on the western face of what is two mountains in one, Keadeen having the higher, northerly summit and Carrig the slightly less talked-about southerly one. Here is what I said:
In the January 1905 number of the Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society (Vol. IV No. 5), Charles Drury published an article, ‘County Wicklow Archaeological Notes Around Kiltegan’. He covered folklore associated with 34 locations (many some distance from Kiltegan). No. 28 was ‘The beds of Finn M‘Cool, his wife, and dog’, with no further explanation. Evidently Finn McCool’s spot on the side of Keadeen was an old folk tale by 1905. So 113 years later it’s a very old folk tale.
When I was young my father pointed Finn McCool and his wife (and maybe his dog) out to me. I’ve been very fond of them ever since. I see them most days I go cycling. They can be viewed from a long distance, though their dog is not quite as conspicuous. Coming into Baltinglass from Castledermot at Clough Cross is a good place to see them from. At the side of Talbotstown Church is another. It’s not that easy to get a good photograph of them as they are always quite far away, no matter where you are.
Two weeks ago I shared this photograph of them on my personal Facebook page because Finn McCool and his wife were quite visible when I was out cycling. Normally they are a sort of light brown / straw colour. In the present, unprecedented heatwave the grass everywhere around turned to straw and the McCools turned green!
In response to that post I got several comments. One questioned which of Finn’s wives was with him, as ‘Did not Diarmuid run away with Gráinne, Finn’s wife?’ I replied:
My wonderful Googling skills have unearthed the information that Sadhbh was Fionn (Finn)’s most famous wife and that Gráinne was his wife when he was at an advanced age. I’ll give the name of Sadhbh to Mrs. McCool of Keadeen from now on!
Another response was from Duncan, a local man much younger than me, who was told when he was a child by an old man named Paddy Kelly that the legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne was depicted on the side of the mountain. He said ‘Hounds visible either side of Gráinne and Diarmuid, Finn and hounds visible on the left side of the mountain chasing them’.
Apparently Duncan believed that the Finn McCool and wife figures were those of Diarmuid and Gráinne.
I’m afraid the additional story of Diarmuid and Gráinne in relation to Keadeen is of recent origin! The folk tale of Finn McCool and his wife [possibly Sadhbh] on Keadeen is an ancient one. I only heard Diarmuid and Gráinne added this week! That aspect may have been the invention by Paddy Kelly, who told Duncan when he was a child.
A good measure of folk memory is the National Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection, dating from the 1930s. Of course, 1930s children didn’t always get things right, but the collection can help us know about traditions from 80 years ago. There is one mention of Finn McCool on Keadeen in the Schools’ collection. It’s from Talbotstown National School, and dated 27 May 1938 (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0917, Page 171). I’m reproducing the image of the relevant section here, acknowledging the National Folklore Collection’s copyright.
It would appear that the information from Talbotstown was written by the teacher rather than any of the children, as no child’s name is given and the composition and penmanship are advanced and consistent. The informant about Finn on Keadeen was Mr. Richard Geoghegan of Danesfort, ‘whose father resided at Talbotstown’. Richard Geoghegan was living in Danesfort at the time of the 1911 Census, stating his age as 36. In 1901 he was living in Talbotstown Upper, stating his age as 26. So he was born about 1880.
The tale told by Mr. Geoghegan in 1938 was that Finn and his wife died on the western slope of Keadeen. It’s interesting that the writer says ‘The remarkable thing about it is that even when the rest of the mountain looks green in the distance the two brown patches stand out in contrast to the rest …’. That’s exactly the opposite of what is happening in the present heatwave, as I remarked in recent weeks.
Time for my annual appeal for Baltinglass to embrace its heritage and bring back the juggies to the streets at Halloween. Banish the dreadful “trick-or-treat” expression and tell Baltinglass children to do what Baltinglass children did from at least the early years of the twentieth century – tell them to go out juggying, knocking on doors saying “HELP THE JUGGIES”.
Halloween isn’t something we got from America. It’s an old Irish custom and different parts of Ireland have different words to describe the activity of children dressing up in old rags to disguise themselves and going door to door asking for nuts, fruit or sweets. In Baltinglass it's called juggying. No one seems to know where that word came from or what exactly it represents. It’s been discussed a lot in recent years. What can be said is that it’s a word almost unique to Baltinglass. Other towns have other words for juggying, or none at all.
Don’t let the juggies be replaced by a bland international copy of the real Baltinglass thing. Banish the pumpkin and bring back the turnip! Leave the fireworks till night-time and give the kids time to go juggying. Don’t destroy a living tradition. Tell your kids that when they dress up at Halloween they’re dressing up as JUGGIES. Tell them when they go door to door they’re going JUGGYING. And tell they when the door is opened to say “HELP THE JUGGIES!”.
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!