Friday, August 28, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? 1

A Serial by Victor Sullivan  © 2015

Chapter 1        1872
Where's the Dog?

On a fine Sunday afternoon in August,1872, ten-year-old Johnnie Gill slipped away from the family's farm-house on the hillside that overlooked Berehaven Harbour and Bantry Bay in south-west Ireland.  He went in search of his two older brothers, Richard and Tommy, suspecting that they were doing something they didn't want him to know about. He was being excluded and that irked. Sundays were obligatory days of rest; his pious parents and sisters were quietly doing just that and Johnnie's departure went unobserved. Those two brothers were up to some activity that would be frowned upon by grown-ups no doubt. Captain, the dog was missing, so they might have gone rabbit hunting, which, on a Sunday was strictly forbidden by his devout mother. She also objected to Sunday fishing in the river but they wouldn't have taken the dog fishing. Another secret drinking of whatever they might be drinking? Perhaps……. He had caught them doing that once…. 

Johnnie went in search of answers. Passing the empty stable and the adjoining quiet hen-house, he followed the rough, rutted, water-torn lane that led uphill towards the steep, wind-swept area known as Eastern Rea where sheep maintained pathways between thorny gorse bushes. Four large boulders lay half-buried in the heather, each one bigger than a cow. Following a sheep-track, Johnnie made his way upward towards the bleak peat-bog that lay beyond. Aha! He had guessed correctly; as he reached the top of the steep incline, there was Captain, tail wagging furiously but the expected charge towards him never happened because the big, friendly sheep-dog had been tied to a strong gorse-bush stump with a length of rope.  So it wasn't rabbit hunting but something else. Something where the dog might be a nuisance… stalking snipe or other birds on the bleak moorland?

Johnnie looked up into the clear, blue sky, seeking birds, any birds. He kept  turning around slowly until the broad sweep of Berehaven Harbour was spread out before him. To his left the rugged Caha Mountains with Hungry Hill dominating the skyline while dotted about on the calm water of Bantry Bay were numerous ships of the Royal Navy lying at anchor, sheltered from the broad Atlantic Ocean by Bere Island. None of them looked particularly interesting though, unlike the great big ship that had entered the harbour a couple of years earlier, having laid the first successful telegraph cable all the way to America. His father had taken him half way to Adrigole, on horseback, just to get a closer look because it was the biggest ship in the world, the Great Eastern. Hundreds of people travelled miles and miles to see it.

The bleat of a sheep! Why did he even notice it? There it was again. It sounded wrong. That was why he had noticed it! It was a wrong kind of bleat. Sheep didn't bleat like that normally. That sheep might be stuck in a gorse-bush? … There was something going on just ahead. Johnnie dropped down into the heather and crawled cautiously along until he caught a glimpse of his eldest brother's head moving rapidly along on the far side of the ridge. Richard must be riding on something. Again a sheep bleated a complaint. As he peered stealthily through the heather, Johnnie saw his other brother's head pass by quickly in a similar fashion and realized what they were up to. Sheep-riding!
Johnnie lay in the heather watching, jealousy increasing, as Richard followed Thomas back again in the opposite direction on their complaining sheep. A sheep race! Their father would …. well, he would if he knew…. 
Then one of the sheep jockeys saw him spying on their afternoon's entertainment. 
"He'll tell!" hissed Thomas.
"He won't if he does it too." replied his brother, raising his voice to issue the tempting invitation: "Come on Johnnie! Your turn. Take my one, she's easier to handle."
There was a very brief riding lesson with no reins, steering was best left to the sheep's judgement, apparently. Riding a horse was a dull, daily routine but this was better, different. And it was wrong, which made it even more exciting. 

"No yelling out loud!" was the final warning from Tommy as Johnnie buried his hands in the animal's wool in a white-knuckle grip. Richard hissed "GO!" as he thumped the sheep's rump and off it went at a surprising speed!

If only Johnnie had fallen off at that moment….a few bruises, some scratches on hands and face from the coarse heather … all such injuries would have healed within a week… Instead:

The charging sheep seemed to enjoy its lighter than usual burden and headed rapidly towards the edge of the ridge where it raced along the top until suddenly turning sharply downhill through the steep gorse and boulders of Eastern Rea.  The animal began to loose its footing, gathered speed and finally tumbled over, crushing its ten-year-old rider against one of the large boulders. 
Johnnie's agonized screams set Captain barking furiously as Tommy and Richard rushed towards their injured brother. Johnnie shrieked repeatedly as the sheep struggled to get up. It eventually succeeded, stood unsteadily for a few moments and limped away to recover.
Every attempt to help Johnnie to his feet only produced piercing screams of increased pain and it was clear that the boy had been seriously injured. His two older brothers were aghast; one of them would have to bring the awful news home and explain how it happened. Being the one who had invited Johnnie to ride the sheep, Richard volunteered to face his parents and sisters. He released Captain as he passed the spot where the dog was tied, and the anxious animal ran directly to the screaming child. On the way downhill to the farmhouse, Richard rehearsed his account of what had happened. They'll want to know whose idea it was it to let Johnnie ride on a sheep. Who was to blame?  … That can wait; Get help … immediately …  to bring Johnnie down from the top of Rea. Someone must go the two miles to town on horseback to fetch the doctor. One of the girls … Susan could go. … And they must find something flat to carry Johnnie down on. A door … that stable door he was passing lifts off its hinges easily but it is wide and very heavy … must get his father to help to carry it up… his father…his FATHER!  A neighbor perhaps?…. 
Richard had reached the peaceful, unsuspecting farmhouse.

It was a lighter door, the one from the hen-house, that they used to carry Johnnie down from Rea. Although the three pairs of arms tried to be as gentle as possible, nevertheless the rough, steep, slippery track caused many lurch-induced piercing screams, until at last the injured child was delivered into the care of his tearful, angry and distraught mother. To carry Johnnie upstairs would have involved more needless agony so it was decided to put him in the small parlor that opened directly from the kitchen. A makeshift bed was prepared there and the screaming child was laid on it. Twelve-year old Susan undertook to keep her two younger sisters, Elizabeth, 7, and Jane, 5, out of the house while Tommy, glad of any opportunity to get away from the scene, yet wishing to help, had already galloped off on the horse to fetch Doctor Harrison from Castletown Bere.

Johnnie's mother tried unsuccessfully to comfort Johnnie and ease his suffering, then, aware of her own utter helplessness, she had resorted to prayer at the beside of her moaning child. After what had seemed like hours of waiting, two horses clattered into the yard in front of the house. Tommy took care of both animals while his father escorted the doctor into the farmhouse.  
"A sheep did THIS!?" was his first comment after a prolonged examination that had been punctuated by a succession of agonized screams, "The boy's thigh-bone is smashed and his pelvis is shattered. He probably has several other internal injuries also. Nothing I can do for him I'm afraid. He'll be dead by tomorrow morning. I'm sorry, but that's how it is!"
Doctor Harrison collected his call-out fee, retrieved his horse from Tommy and rode off, leaving the Gill family to deal with their stricken child as best they could.
(To be continued)

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Hermit and the King

 By Aidan O'Shea © 2015           A Round Tower in The Burren

Scattered across Ireland are the remains of sixty-five round towers (Cloigtheach or belltower). Many are ruinous but some are intact. Soaring as high as 34 metres above the ground, the towers are in remarkably fine condition considering our turbulent history of invasions and seizures. Scholars have suggested that the probable construction period was between the 7th and 12th centuries AD, and this hypothesis is based on the fact that most are at the site of an early Celtic church dating from the 5th to 12th centuries. Initially each of the towers was a freestanding structure but in later times other buildings, namely churches and monastic foundations, were constructed close by.

The principles used in construction of the towers are always the same: two walls of block and mortar construction are built a few feet from one another and the space between is filled in with a core of rock rubble. This was a standard method of wall construction utilised by the Romans. 

With the passage of time, the round tower has come to symbolise Ireland itself, together with the harp, the shamrock and the mythical figure of Hibernia. Towers reach up to the sublime, the heavens, the divine.

Colmán the Hermit.

Cill Mac Duach (Kilmacduagh), Galway, is the tallest of the Irish towers at 34 metres. The monastery's founder, Colmán Mac Duagh, was educated by Enda of Aran on Inishmore and lived there as a hermit. He built a church, Teampall Mór Mhic Duagh, and a small oratory, Teampall Beag Mhic Duagh, near Kilmurvy. These form part of a cluster known as the Seven Churches, although the designation does not indicate the number of churches today, as many were destroyed by the forces of Cromwell in the 17th century.
In the year 690, Colmán accompanied by a servant moved to the Burren, which was then covered in forest. The rolling hills of the Burren are composed of limestone pavements with criss-crossing fissures known as "grikes", leaving isolated rocks called "clints". The region supports arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side, due to the unusual environment. The limestone, which date from the Visean stage of the Lower Carboniferous, formed as sediments in a tropical sea approximately 350 million years ago. The strata contain fossil corals, crinoids, sea urchins and ammonites.
King Guaire had his principal place of residence nearby at Kinvara. He was so impressed with Colmán's holiness that he asked him to take episcopal charge of the territory of the Aidhne. In 610, he founded the monastery, which became the centre of the tribal Diocese of Aidhne. Although reluctant to accept the title, Colmán was ordained a bishop. King Guaire is remembered in the full title of the local town, Gort Inse Guaire. Tradition tells us that Colmán asked God to show him where to build the monastery. Next day, while walking through Burren forest, his girdle fell off. He took this to be God's reply and built the monastery in that place. Colmán died on October 29, 632. The girdle was said to be studded with gems and was held by the O'Shaughnessy clan centuries later, along with St. Colmán's crozier, or staff. The girdle was later lost, but the crozier came to be held by the O'Heynes and may now be seen in the National Museum of Ireland

This site was of such importance that it became the centre of a new diocese under the rule of Rome, the Diocese of Kilmacduagh, in 1132. The monastery, because of its wealth and importance, was plundered several times in the 13th century. A monastery for the Augustinian order was constructed later in the 13th century under Bishop Maurice.


 Monastic life in Britain and Ireland was later to suffer a catastrophic orgy of royal seizure and destruction. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded Catholic monasteries, priories, convents and friaries, appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and scattered their communities.  The site at Cill Mac Duach was granted to  Ulick na gCeann Burke, Earl of Clanricarde and the monks dispersed. Burke had submitted to the king at Greenwich in exchange for the earldom.
The extensive cluster of ruins at the site includes: The abbey church, former cathedral, or Teampall Mór, in the graveyard,  Teampall Muire (also known as "The Lady's Church"), east of the road,  Teampall Eoin Baiste (John the Baptist), to the north of the graveyard. The "Abbot's House" or Seanchlochis further north, close to the road, Teampall Beag Mac Duagh, south of the graveyard and  "O'Heyne's Church" 180 metres north-east of the graveyard (13th century).
Finally, the round tower (Cloigtheach) stands roughly 15 metres south-west of the cathedral. The tower is notable both as a fine example of this particularly Irish feature but also because of its noticeable lean, over half a metre from the vertical. The tower is  34 metres tall with the only doorway some 7 metres above ground level. It  probably dates from the 10th century. The tower was repaired in 1869 under the supervision of Sir Thomas Deane (late of Cork), with financial support from Sir William Henry Gregory of Coole Park. He was the husband of Lady Augusta Gregory, co-founder of Ireland's National Theatre, The Abbey.  The Diocese of Kilmacduagh is now incorporated into the Diocese of Galway.

A few miles away, the poet W. B. Yeats settled in another tower, Túr Ballylee (16th century) and in his verse play, The Dreaming of the Bones, he muses on this very landscape:
I can see The Aran Islands, Connemara hills
And Galway in the breaking light; there too
The enemy has toppled roof and gable
And torn the panelling from ancient rooms;
What generations of old men had known
Like their own hands, and children wondered at,
Has boiled a trooper's porridge.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill?

by Victor Sullivan   © 2015

My Grandmother's farm was on the foothills of that level-topped mountain, Knockoura, at the western end of the Beara Peninsula,  in Ireland. The house overlooked the sheltered expanse of Berehaven Harbour in Bantry Bay and to see that view, on a fine, clear, summer afternoon, was an unforgettable experience. About a mile away across the valley the remains of burned Dunboy Castle rose through the trees. This had been the home of the Puxley family who had made their fortune exploiting the copper ore discovered in 1811 at Allihies, a few miles away over the hill. By looking to the right, one could see the Atlantic Ocean as far as the horizon through a 'V' shaped gap in the hills. A glimpse of a  large ship passing to or from America or Canada was a bonus. I have known that view since my earliest childhood when I regularly stayed with my grandmother and my uncle Tom in the 1940s and 1950s. 
Berehaven Harbour had, until 1937, been a base for ships of the British Royal Navy. Many other ships, some of them in serious distress, sought shelter there over hundreds of years of peace, war, fishing, trading, piracy and skullduggery. The enormous Great Eastern anchored there in 1866 before attempting to lay the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. After the successful completion of the cable-laying in 1869 the Great Eastern and its supporting fleet returned to anchor in the shelter of Berehaven once more.

During my childhood I always spent part of my summer holidays with my grandmother on that farm. Gradually I became aware of a presence; a hidden something about the house and its surroundings that I couldn't explain. My childish queries about small items, such as strange tools in a drawer, would fail to get a simple, direct answer. Something was being hidden. I became convinced that there was a BIG SECRET in my Grannie's house. Something that should not be spoken about had happened there. Something that a child should never know or hear about. A crime perhaps? Even a murder? …. 

I was nine years old in 1946, walking proudly behind a harrow, in control of a horse. We were harrowing the field immediately in front of the farm-house. As the harrow tines tumbled and broke up the clumps of soil, a rusty looking lump caught my eye. I snatched it up without stopping and slipped it into the pocket of my grubby jacket.  Later that evening, as I sat digging out the rust and soil from my find, my earlier suspicions proved correct, it was, or had been, a toy gun. I continued my cleaning operation, eventually revealing, not a toy, but a badly corroded six-chamber revolver. I overheard my Grandmother whisper to my uncle, "Tom! –– Tom! The child has found Johnnie's gun!"
I pretended not to have heard the comment. I knew I would not get a direct answer if I asked my Grandmother about this Johnnie whose gun I had turned up with the harrow. Johnnie might even have been the murderer! Had I found the murder weapon? I decided to ask a very elderly neighbour instead. Good decision.

"Ah! That would have been Johnnie Gill's gun you found. He was your grand-uncle. He died in 1931. I was at his funeral.  He had a great pair of hands…… He knew a lot about things most of us never even heard of….. He could understand gramophones and sewing machines and clocks and things like that; and he could fix them too….. He made that chair you're sitting on… He was fierce clever ––  in spite of what had happened to him when he was young."

So that was the Big Secret. Something bad had happened to my Great-Uncle Johnnie. Something best forgotten, never to be spoken about.

Curiosity is a powerful driving force and information denied is a massive motivator. Here, at last, is the answer to the question:   Who was Johnnie Gill? 

(To be continued)