Local history reviews: from 1800s Dún Laoghaire to the Burren

Paul Clements looks at a number of books documenting both urban and rural Ireland

Tom Conlon also explores Dún Laoghaire’s lesser-known side, discovering that one third of the population lived in primitive, overcrowded cabin-type accommodation.

Tom Conlon also explores Dún Laoghaire’s lesser-known side, discovering that one third of the population lived in primitive, overcrowded cabin-type accommodation.

 

In the days when it was called Kingstown, Dún Laoghaire was regarded as a fashionable place, and by the 1840s was known as “the most aristocratic suburb of Dublin”. With its villas and extravagant mansions, it presented an affluent public face. But in his Victorian Dún Laoghaire: A Town Divided (History Press Ireland, €20), Tom Conlon also explores its lesser-known side, discovering that one third of the population lived in primitive, overcrowded cabin-type accommodation.

When the harbour was built in 1815, more than a million tonnes of stone was moved by horse-drawn railcart, involving a workforce of more than 1,000. Because many were unskilled, they could not find employment afterwards and the author reflects on the largely hidden side of a town of contrasting fortunes. At the other end of the social scale, the glitz of Viennese balls held in the Pavilion in the early 20th century epitomised the aspirations of many residents who also enjoyed the big craze of bioscopes, a primitive form of short silent movies.

A 20-page timeline charts important and trivial events up to 1910. References are included to several writers, notably James Joyce and the poet Padraic Colum, both of whom, although not born in the town, had connections to the area. It is not stated in the book, but Joyce had a playful name for Colum, referring to him as “Padraic-what-do-you-colum”.

Group of hellraisers

Dún Laoghaireites may be familiar with a peak to the west of the town, Hellfire Hill. Michael Fewer, author of discursive walking guides to Ireland, as well as architectural and children’s books, has been a regular visitor to the hill for 40 years. His biography Hellfire Hill: A Human and Natural History (South Dublin Libraries, €8) incorporates engaging stories of the convivial group of hellraisers known as the Hellfire Club, and embraces geology, the built heritage and the natural world.

Written in a personable style, Fewer draws in the reader with atmospheric descriptions of the February “Frogfest” and the birdlife: “redwings flowed like a grey-brown cloud...”; “sparrowhawks, gulls and crows … involved in spectacular aerobatics, like a battle between fighter planes”.

His circumnavigations cover everything from the panoramic to the particular and he misses nothing, right down to the water boatmen and whirligig beetles of the South Pond. The result is a masterclass in how to closely observe the world of one small hillside, all enhanced by his delightful sketches and colour photographs.

Exploring limestone

Staying with the outdoors, The Breathing Burren by Gordon D’Arcy (Collins Press, €24.99) is based on 30 years of exploring the limestone pavement. Books on the Burren abound but D’Arcy has a track record of writing about it in an accessible and insightful way. Twenty-five years ago his natural history study opened up this enigmatic area and it remains a place about which visitors have an insatiable appetite.

D’Arcy admits to an “infatuation” with it, describing his compendium as a work of salutation. His evocative writing gives space to what he calls “the aesthetic, the apocryphal and the mildly philosophical”, and is complemented by his appealing watercolour drawings of wild flowers and the landscape.

In his endlessly informative ramblings, he captures the genius loci, whether witnessing the mass hatch of the mayflies at Lough Bunny and their mating dance, or the first glimpse of a spring gentian after a grey winter. Through his friendship with scholars and “floral buffs”, he brings out their shared interest in topophilia. An unashamed tribute to the Burren and its enduring beauty, this handsome book is a love letter to a place that keeps giving.

Human geography

Celebrating landscape is also the theme of Living Locally by Erica Van Horn (Uniform Books, €12), an American woman’s portrayal of living near the Knockmealdowns in south Tipperary. Van Horn’s book covers five years, concentrating on the minutiae of her patch and its human geography.

She delights in colloquialisms, pishoguery and vivid expressions: Shallykabulies are snails, Mother of Household is a Tipperary apple, the Cock’s Step equates to the amount of extra daylight after the winter solstice, while if someone is “Walking the Houses”, it means they are checking the outbuildings are secure. Many neighbours are described by their local names and we meet May the Halfway, Mickey the Boxer, Tom Smoke, and John the Post.

Mini-dramas, such as finding a dead mouse in the wine cupboard, helping control a cattle breakout, or dealing with the hardships of frozen pipes in winter are recounted. The author does not shy away from the darker side of rural life since her diary includes detail of suicides and the murder of a local girl.

Training soldiers

The Curragh Camp in Kildare has played a significant part in shaping Irish history. In Soldiers of the Short Grass, A History of the Curragh Camp (Merrion Press, €15) Dan Harvey covers a wide spectrum of topics since its establishment in 1855 to train soldiers for the Crimean War. As a military landmark, the Curragh became a battlefield training ground for many other wars in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Twelve crisply written chapters – six when the camp was under British rule, and six from the Irish Civil War – deal with specific periods. The early ones delve into military tactics, training in the British army in the Victorian era, and the War of Independence, while the second half considers the Civil War, the State of Emergency and the Irish Army’s present day international role in overseas UN peacekeeping operations. The author describes this new departure as a farsighted decision by taoiseach Seán Lemass and sees it as the single most significant development in the history of the Defence Forces since the foundation of the state.

Paul Clements is the author of “Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: From Banba’s Crown to World’s End”, published by the Collins Press.

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