In the ultra-West


Derek Turner

Drowned drumlins swarmed in the brilliant bay, and ravens like those that plagued Saint Patrick croaked from the chasm below my feet as they rolled lazily half a mile above County Mayo. The ravens’ harsh call was an onomatopoeic reminder of my present eminence, Croagh Patrick, the 2,510 foot cone that dominates the great inlet of Clew Bay – not Mayo’s highest mountain, but indubitably its most famous, as a focus for reverence for 5,000 years, but especially since 441 A.D.

It was then, Hibernian hagiography claims, that an expatriate Welshman ascended this quartzite landmark, then called Cruachan Aigle (Eagle Mountain), to fast for forty days and nights – and it was while he was here, beset by demons in the guise of black birds, that he stood on the edge of this same abyss and rang his fabled Bell to banish all venomous beasts from Ireland, and win God’s promise that, as Caxton Englished it in The Golden Legend, “…none Irish man shall abide the coming of the Antichrist.”

If he really did essay this ascent, like me he probably paused a quarter of the way up, then a third of the way up, then been grateful for the relative ease of the “saddle” that succeeds the first steep phase – before turning to the arduous last slope, with the loose scree scraping and sliding beneath his feet, threatening to precipitate him face-first onto unforgiving edges, or perhaps roll him right down the jagged sides and out into air. Unlike me, he probably paused for prayer, or muttered sotto voce sacred texts – like the trio of elderly men I overtook, toiling knee-clickingly upwards to make what looked like it might be their final peace with their personal and national saint.

The pilgrims’ way was surprisingly busy compared with the rest of this echoing county – although not as busy as on the final Sunday in July, the annual pilgrimage of “Reek Sunday” – “The Reek” being the locals’ respectful nickname for this mountain, where fog frequently descends in seconds, misleading pilgrims into physical if perhaps not spiritual peril. There were many solitary walkers like me (if you exclude Skitter, my Jack Russell bitch who will follow me, but that day sometimes seemed to wonder whether she’d made the right decision) – and I exchanged expressions of sweaty solidarity with people from Ireland, England, France, Germany, Spain,  America and Australia. I met a Dubliner making her 35th ascent, and a local who climbs the Croagh every Christmas Day. There were few overtly devout climbers, but there was little doubt that most saw the mountain as being in some way above the mean sea level of life.

So they should, because even the most profane, the most lost, must marvel at the panorama from the top on such a day as that one. Standing with your back to the little white chapel erected with great difficulty in 1905, you feel you command the West.

Look north, and there is Clew Bay, Thackeray’s “miracle of beauty”, studded with an enchanted archipelago of low sandy islets stoss-ended to the sea, and stains of varying blues where deep pools suddenly cede to shallows or shifting sandbars and back again. This was the ancestral domain and natural habitat of “Granuaile” (or Grace) O’Malley, “Ireland’s Pirate Queen”, around whom nationalist and now feminist myths cling like kelp to a keel. She was a beneficiary of the greater freedom for women allowed under Brehon Law, and some of the stories are almost certainly untrue, but she was clearly a woman of extraordinary character. Born circa 1530, she was the brave and cunning representative of an ancient sept of freebooters called “lions of the green sea” by a fifteenth century versifier. She captained warships, preyed on shipping from Stornoway to Finisterre, vanquished Barbary corsairs, captured and defended castles, made advantageous marriages, avenged herself murderously on enemies, fought the English invaders, and in 1593 – despite being officially described as “nurse to all rebellions for forty years” and “a director of thieves and murderers at sea” – sailed her own ship from Clew to Greenwich and stood bravely before Elizabeth to ask that the English Lord President of Connaught liberate her sons and brother, and restore her property. No official record of this meeting between two such mould-breaking women has survived, so tradition has confabulated the encounter – that Granuaile towered over Elizabeth, that she was barefoot, that she refused to bow, that they conversed in Latin, and that she offended against palace protocol by showily discarding a handkerchief she had been given personally by the Queen. Elizabeth agreed to her entreaties, but only after exacting a promise from Granuaile that “she will fight in our quarrel with all the world” – a promise that rather undercuts Irish nationalist romance.

On the far side of Clew is piled the Nephin Beg range – bleak, boggy, brown, acidic, infertile, impoverished, but enameled with loughs and gleams of improbable green, hinting at past productivity. Five-and-a-half millennia ago, Stone Agers tilled the Céide Fields before they turned into turf, depositing everyday household goods as simple as they are sculptural, as observed by Seamus Heaney in Belderg:

One-eyed and benign

They lie about his house,

Quernstones out of a bog.

To lift the lid of the peat

And find this pupil dreaming

Of neolithic wheat!

Céide constitutes the largest Stone Age site in the world, attesting to an intensity of agricultural activity difficult to reconcile with today’s unfruitful acres.

In recent centuries, Mayo has been at times a byword for poverty, and a stronghold of nationalist resentment and Land League activism – the word “boycott” derived from Captain Boycott, agent for a local absentee landlord, whose 1880s attempts at gathering rents and evicting non-paying tenants at a time of great hardship led to his utter ostracism. The county’s motto Críost Linn (Christ help us) has a despairing as well as a devotional quality. A graphic reminder of still-bitter harvests is John Behan’s Famine Monument between the foot of Croagh Patrick and the shell of the O’Malley’s Murrisk Abbey – a landlocked bronze three-master without sails but rigged with interlinked skeletons, a reproachful remembrance of one of England’s un-finest hours.

These fossilized fields slant down northwards to one of the loneliest roads in Europe, a chevaux-de-frise of cliffs and, to the northwest, a drunkenly dented coast, along which nine of Philip II’s ships foundered, ill-equipped like the rest of that misbegotten expedition, relying on outdated charts and at the mercy of the untrammelled Atlantic. They could have lain securely at anchor at Broad Haven or Blacksod Bay in the lee of Belmullet had their captains known these existed, but instead they were doomed to ride out the storms for what must have seemed like an æon, standing out from the land like the swan-semblanced Children of Lir, knowing that if they came to the shore they would die.

A later incursion would be briefly more successful – 1798’s “Year of the French” when General Humbert took round-towered Killala, dashed down its Bay past the curlew-cried, seaweed-stained remains of Moyne and Rosserk friaries and still-used holy wells, defeated the British garrison at Castlebar so spectacularly that the debacle was dubbed “The Races of Castlebar”, and announced a “Republic of Connacht” that lasted a dozen days before the English General Lake drowned it. Beyond Killala Bay lie the Ox Mountains, bordering on the Yeats brothers’ dreamily-delineated Sligo, and beyond that again an azure suggestion of Donegal.

Look east, the direction Patrick presumably looked most frequently, and today there is tiny, tidy Westport, an incongruous urban appendage to the Augustan Westport House, home to the Marquesses of Sligo then and now. Beyond this pocket Palladianism stretch the “plains of the yew tree” (Maigh Éo) which give this mostly mountainous county its unlikely name; the English expropriators who brusquely “shired” the nine Norman-Irish baronies were heedless of toponymy, and simply named their new toy after a tiny hamlet in the county’s east that was one of the first places they came to. But the county identity has by now embedded itself, as when we were there almost every house and car seemed to have sprouted the red-and green chequerboard and county crest in honour of Mayo’s strong showing in the Gaelic Athletic Association championships – a shield surrounded by yews, divided by a bar sinister, green hills and crosses above,  below a small ship (perhaps a tribute to Granuaile) riding on white water.

Beguilements beckon in the blue blur that way – Ballina’s historic document archive – the River Moy, famous for salmon – Lough Conn, for pike – Foxford, for weaving – and Knock, with its basilica and airport, prosaic and ugly, but built for magical purposes – to bring believers to view the church gable end on which apparently one rainy August evening in 1879, the Virgin, SS. John and Joseph and sundry seraphs disported themselves for two hours before the awed eyes of fifteen villagers of unimpeachable respectability.  Then the highway quits the county, unravels through lowlands and bridges the Shannon, rolling via counties Longford, Roscommon, Westmeath, Meath and Kildare all the way to Dublin.

Look southwards, then, from the top of the mountain, to see the Sheefry Hills (“Hills of the Wraith”), the Mweelrea, Partry and Maamturk Mountains, and as if these were not elevations enough, behind them all Connemara’s Twelve Pins – every peak with its own stories and significance, every sedge-fringed lough holding its own lurking beast. In between are spry sheep quartering springy heather, and the dark stripes of turbary, where generations with slanes have sliced away oblongs of turf to dry in mounds, eventually to lend the Irish winter air that most characteristic of Erse odours – sweet smoke on the edge of ice.

Acting as reservoirs for all the rain runoff are lovely Loughs Mask and Corrib, linked by a canal that took five years to build, but whose limestone bed could not hold water and whose dry trench survives as a monument to engineering ineptitude.  Along the adjacent Castlebar-Galway road is Ballintubber Abbey, a stripped-down barn of a place set off by roofless cloisters and powerfully suggestive 1960s Stations, which takes pride that it has celebrated Mass every day since its foundation by a 13th century king of Connacht – notwithstanding fires, the Reformation, Cromwell and the  notorious “Seán na Sagart” (John of the Priests), an eighteenth century ne’er-do-well who avoided being hanged for horse theft by becoming a sniffer-out of Roman Catholic clergy who had not taken the Oath of Abjuration. He received a sum for each he entrapped or killed, ranging from ten pounds for a teacher to a hundred pounds for a bishop. It was said he would feign serious illness, and then draw a knife on priests who came to administer the Last Rites. Unsurprisingly, after a short career he was murdered, and interred in unconsecrated ground hereabouts. There is a very unhealthy yew in the graveyard with his name affixed to it, but whether the tree’s nickname came before its sickness or the other way around depends on one’s credulity.

Along that same road is another remarkable monument, un-signposted, brooding under trees near the shell of a Georgian mansion in a waste of luxuriant grass – “The Gods of the Neale”, a whimsical 1753 limestone confection, against which local yahoos have smashed dozens of bottles. There are three small medieval panels – a unicorn, a saint and a lion – set on a massy, mossy plinth with an inscription that is being erased by time and epiphytes, but whose meaning would have been obscure even when newly cut. The legible fragments combine elements of antiquarianism, mythology, and a coded numbering system –

…impower that in this cave we have by us the Gods of Conns Boro…let us follow their stepps of love with full Confidence…these Images were found in a cave behind the Place they now stand and were the antient Gods of the Neale…AM 2577 PD 927 TC 1496 2994 AD…

and much more in similarly Da Vinci Code vein. Seen under the darkness of the trees with the sun streaming from behind, the smell of damp earth, and with that dangerous carpet of shattered glass, it is oddly powerful for what had been simply an example of Garden Gothick, contemporaneous with the follies and fake ruins erected by the score in England by aristocrats anxious to alleviate the “Age of Reason”.

The Gods of the Neale

That same road barrels south through the legendary Plain of Moytura – where according to epic Nuada’s Tuatha Dé Danann fought Sreng’s Fír Bolg to an honourable truce – to Cong on the border with Galway. Cong has never forgotten the visit of John Wayne to make The Quiet Man (the film crew also brought the town its first electricity) – but it is even more notable for its ecclesiastical history, harking back to the alliterative seventh century saint Fechin of Fore, the 12th century Cross of Cong (one of the chief treasures of the National Museum in Dublin), and the redolent re-foundation of the Abbey that same century by Roderick O’Connor, last King of all Ireland, who died there in 1198. Some of his crisply carved cloisters survive, and there is a grand avenue of yews sweeping to the pellucid Corrib, where monks would angle from the extant fishing house, and doubtless look over at the densely wooded demesne on the far bank.

There is more melancholia at nearby Shrule, also on the border. Its being on the border mattered because it marked the limits of the authority of Lord Mayo (a diminished descendant of Grace O’Malley), who had guaranteed the safe conduct to Galway City of a hundred gentry and clergy who had surrendered to the Confederate Catholics when they took Castlebar in 1641. As the refugees reached the aptly-named Black River, they were set upon without warning, and almost all were massacred. The shouts of Gaelic football fans spilling out onto the road from the overflowing pub seemed to echo with sad significance, as if they were somehow channelling ancient shouting. The Clanrickard castle opposite still looks as uncompromising now as it must have then, although ivy is slighting it, cattle rub itchy flanks against its sides, and when you stand inside the dung-carpeted bastion and look up there is no roof – just warm damp fizzling down and mountain ash saplings living up to their name, rooted in crevices forty feet above the ground.

Finally then, turn and look west from the Croagh, the Celts’ favourite direction, where suspended spray catches all light and throws it back as an effervescent curtain that shimmers with ozone and islands. This is a vista that has always captivated, from the pre-Christians who descried the shining continent of Hy Brasil on the verge of vision, to St. Brendan the Navigator who saw the horizon as a veil to be pierced, and painters like Paul Henry, who lived over there on hulking Achill Island – dashing out-of-doors between downpours to observe how Ireland’s fitful Phoebus plays on the peatlands, stripes the sands and colours the cliffs, accentuates the outlines of abandoned houses, and gleams on the backs of basking sharks patrolling for krill in Keem Bay.

Just a few days previously, I too had wandered on Achill, oblivious to time, and picked up as souvenir a sheep’s skull on a shingle bank above a beach hemmed in by hills – ancestor to the animals that prospect year-round between land and Atlantic, beige as the bones of the island, printing their precise hooves between names and dates spelled out in stones by vainer visitors. On a slope near the deserted village of Slievemore stands a megalithic chamber tomb, from some angles difficult to distinguish, but from the front unmistakable and uncompromising, a quartzite container for someone who was once worth taking such trouble for, but who has long since been taken up as numinous vapour.  A new house nearby, ugly as all new Irish houses seem to be ugly,  offers “emotional release therapy”, a concept rendered ridiculous by the tomb’s mystery and melancholy, the soft sound of the breeze soughing over rock, the sharp smell and gentle grumblings of sheep, and a hillside that tumbles past twitching bog-cotton to a misty impression of inlets and islets. Yet ecstatic escapes of all kinds are a natural tribute to this ensorcelled ultra-west, where epic and history, fable and fact, blend and bleed to the touch, and everything seems somehow subordinate to the massiveness and mystery of land and sea stretching forwards and back for ever.

This article first appeared in Chronicles in January 2014, and is reprinted with permission


Man of Aran – Erse ethnofiction


Man of Aran (1934)

The Aran Islands guard the mouth of Galway Bay, a NW to SE diagonal archipelago made up of three major islands – Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer – plus a couple of tiny uninhabited islets. Whether seen from the Clare or Connemara mainlands, from one of the tiny Aer Arann planes that ply between Inverin and the Islands, or from the deck of a rusty and listing trawler, the archipelago presents an otherworldly vision amidst the exhilarating ozone openness. On fine evenings, they seem to catch the last of the sun before it hisses to death in the Atlantic, gleaming always just out of reach – at other times, they mantle themselves mysteriously in shrieking storms or trailing curtains of soft rain, coming in and out of cognizance like Lyonesse.

When you make landfall at last, there are small settlements of Irish-speakers, and white beaches and pastures on the landwards side, linked by stone-walled boreens and limestone pavements in which subsist a profusion of northern and Alpine flora – gentians, ferns, heathers, saxifrages, sea kale, sea holly, sea pinks, bindweed, bird’s foot trefoil, tormentil, bramble, wild strawberries, stonecrop, bee orchid, honeysuckle and many others – and acclimatized foreigners, like fuschias, which thrive in the Islands’ mild maritime ambience. Being so saline and windswept, and having been overgrazed in prehistoric times, the Islands are almost treeless, except for odd patches of hawthorn and hazel in the most sheltered corners, tolerated despite strong competition for sweet water and useable earth.

These ‘fields’ and townlands all have long names and ancient remains testifying to Neolithic fertility and Dark Ages sanctity, and slope up gradually as you near the seawards side, where cliffs of up to 300 feet present obdurate faces to the force of the waters that roll all the way uninterrupted from America’s eastern coast. At the crests of some of these cliffs are stupendous architectural achievements coeval with Stonehenge – the remains of tombs, clochans (beehive huts used by monks), chapels, crosses, holy wells, and the celebrated ring fort of Dún Aengus, concentric semi-circles of boulders built up with infinite effort.

And west there is nothing in all that waste of water, although it has always been peopled in imagination. Roderick O’Flaherty (1629-1718), a Galway aristocrat and historian, felt the Islands were magical as well as material:

From the Isles of Aran and the west continent, often appears visible that uncharted island called O’Brasil and in Irish, Beg Ara, or the Lesser Aran, set down in charts of navigation, whether it be real and firm land kept hidden by the special ordinance of God or the terrestrial paradise, or else some illusion of airy clouds appearing on the surface of the sea, or the craft of evil spirits, is more than our judgements can sound out. (1)

Small wonder such a locale has long attracted those of a reactionary or Romantic or Celtic nationalist sensibility seeking ‘noble savages’ or unadulterated Irishness – especially after the islands had captured the imaginations of Yeats and Synge, like so many Milesian myth-makers Anglo-Irish Protestants (2). They and others saw the Islands as a kind of redoubt against the modern world, where men’s minds were still their own, and they lived hard, but free, with no master but the sea. Celtic confabulation met the modern age in 1932, when American filmmaker Robert Flaherty turned up on the islands and began the two year process of filming Man of Aran.

Flaherty was born in 1884, the son of an Irish Protestant prospector. He had travelled extensively in the Canadian far north in the company of his father and later in his own right, leading exploratory missions at the behest of the Canadian Northern Railway. He became entranced by the starkly dramatic lives of the Eskimos, and began to film them, using what was to become his trademark style – lavish use of film and a loose narrative structure, recording, as he would later say about Man of Aran, “what the camera wished to photograph”. In 1923, his film Nanook of the North, about the lives of the indigenous inhabitants of the Belcher Islands, was released, to great acclaim. One of those islands was subsequently named in his honour. It is arguably ironic that Nanook was sponsored by a furrier firm – just as Flaherty’s 1948 film Louisiana Story was sponsored by an oil company busily drilling in the bayous he was so lovingly chronicling.

On the strength of Nanook, Paramount commissioned him to travel to the South Seas to make a similar film about Pacific islanders. Moana appeared in 1926, inspiring one of its reviewers to coin the word “documentary” to describe it, but otherwise it was not a success. Two subsequent South Seas-themed films, White Shadows on the South Seas and Tabu (the latter in conjunction with F. W. Murnau of Nosferatu fame), served chiefly to demonstrate that Flaherty’s heart was not really in the Southern hemisphere, and that his leisurely, expensive methods were not popular with studio bosses.

He came to the Aran Islands with his wife in November 1931, intending to stay for just one night, but became bewitched and stayed a further two. The following January, he came back with his family, rented a house, and converted a former fishing shed into a darkroom. With the help of a local intermediary named Pat Mullen, who later published his account of the making of the film (which is also called Man of Aran), he recruited three photogenic locals – Coleman “Tiger” King, Maggie Dirrane and Mickleen Dillane – to star as the ‘family’ at the centre of the film, and others (including Mullen) to appear in long shot in the most dramatic sequences. Other locals were recruited to build a traditional cottage to act as part of the set; again ironically, an old house was demolished to furnish materials for the set, which in the event was scarcely used. The making of what locals called laconically “The Film” however convulsed the whole chain, giving rise to all kinds of legends about Flaherty’s methods and autocratic personality – perhaps suitable for someone whose West Connaught-originating surname is usually translated as “bright prince”.

The film is simultaneously languid and timeless, a series of mythopoeic or ethnofictional images stressing the vast impersonality of Nature, the spare beauty of the Bay – and both with and against these the perpetual struggle waged by irreducible Irishers, who against all odds persist here, eking out a laborious existence that is yet not without its compensations. Everything is an effort – the soil that has to be created from kelp, the rocks that need to be smashed with sledgehammers, the turf that must be dug and donkeyed home (3), the nets and creels that need to be mended, the crabs that need to be caught as bait for fish that need to be caught by boys perched nonchalantly on the verge of voids, dropping down lines to the feet of cliffs worried by the suck of vast seas “fetched” from far latitudes.

These relatively domestic scenes are compared and contrasted with gladiatorial contests waged by Tam O’Shanter-toting men in insubstantial currachs. The central incident in the film is a traditional Man v. Monster motif – the days-long hunting and hand-harpooning of the harmless but huge and powerful basking shark for its oil, a technique long out of date even in 1932, whose danger and laboriousness will be immediately apparent to anyone who has ever seen one of these magnificent creatures close to (4).

The film closes with its most famous scenes, of a currach riding insanely but inspirationally on thirty and forty foot swells in the sounds between the islands, the crew working as an instinctive unit to preserve their lives and demonstrate superlative sang-froid in the face of such untrammeled violence. Pat Mullen wrote lovingly of his daring compatriots –

A great thrill of wild pride shot through me as I looked at them, for here had been a trial of the old, old stock and the blood still ran true.

Flaherty was similarly stunned by their audacity, noting later

I should have been shot for what I asked these superb people to do, all for the sake of a keg of porter and five pounds apiece.

Filming finally finished in November 1933, after over half a million feet of footage had been taken, and then only because the studio in London had ordered Flaherty to stop. But infuriated and out of pocket as the studio must have been, at least Flaherty had a mountain of material to edit and splice, and the end result is truly epic, a cinematographic masterpiece to which many later filmmakers are obviously indebted.

Yet by emphasizing man’s ingenuity rather than his individualism, and his tininess, the film is arguably in some ways impersonal, presenting avatars rather than humans with distinct personalities. This is perhaps unsurprising for that era of pudding-faced Soviet Heroes and Arno Breker’s aquiline über-men, and it also helps to explain why the film won both the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film at the 1935 Venice Film Festival, and the American National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Film. Flaherty himself once said that documentary narrative should “come out of the life of a people, not from the actions of individuals”. Accordingly, we learn nothing about the ‘family’ members, except that they all slot neatly into predetermined roles, and get no idea what they do in their admittedly limited spare time – not even an insight into their religion or their politics. It was also criticised for glossing over the locals’ poverty, and Graham Greene dismissed the work as being “bogus and sentimental”.

But 1934’s audiences didn’t seem to mind such informational lacunae, and the three (presumably rather bewildered) stars were whisked off to London and New York on hugely successful promotional tours. Even now, the film is still discussed, it still brings cinéastes to the archipelago (they can even stay in Flaherty’s former house), and it was re-released on DVD as recently as 2009, with a new and rather successful soundtrack by the indie rock band British Sea Power, to replace the by now muffled and distorted original recordings. Whatever the shortcomings of the film may have been or be, it can and should still be relished as a great work of art, and a timeless testament to the resilience of everyone who dares (or is compelled) to live on life’s edges.


  1. Chorographical Description of West Connacht, 1684. The following year, O’Flaherty published Ogygia, a Latin history of Ireland, which was the first history of the island to reach English readers (those who could read Latin, at any rate).
  2. Romance notwithstanding, the Islands may not be all that ‘Celtic’. Two major studies – 1955‘s The Physical Anthropology of Ireland (authors Ernest A. Hooton and C. Wesley Dupertuis) and 1958‘s The ABO and RH Blood Groups of the Aran Islanders (authors Earle Hackett and M. E. Folan) – found definite physiological differences between Aran residents and mainlanders. This can be interpreted two ways – either they are the original ‘Celts’ exiled here by invaders, or they are partly descended from the English soldiery who garrisoned the Islands during the Cromwellian period. It should be noted that English surnames are commonplace on the Islands.
  3. The donkeys that are so essential an ingredient in stereotypical depictions of the West of Ireland only became important in the area during the Napoleonic Wars, when all horses were commandeered for military use.
  4. The 1963 film Pour la Suite du Monde similarly featured the islanders of Île aux Coudres, off the Quebec coast, as they set out anachronistically to hunt whales as their fathers had done.