Local History round-up: How fields get their names, and other Co Meath nuggets

Ireland’s smallest county – the Boyne Valley in particular – brims with history

M3 protest: from one of Annie West’s illustrations in Tara: The Guidebook

M3 protest: from one of Annie West’s illustrations in Tara: The Guidebook

 

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience,” Patrick Kavanagh wrote. There is little doubt that you could spend a lifetime wandering the fields of the Boyne Valley, but to fully appreciate them you should have by your side The Field Names of County Meath, compiled by Joan Mullen (Meath Field Names Project, €20).

Since Kavanagh’s time numerous fields have lost their identity to urbanisation or been amalgamated into bigger ones, but in many Meath townlands the lore of microtoponymy survives. Turnip Field, Night Field and Milk-Stand Field are self-explanatory, while the Triangle, the Handkerchief and Shoulder of Mutton are linked to shape and size. Other fields recall usage, such as Flax, Bleach, Potato and Orchard. In the townland of Lagore Little, fields are called after locals: Biddy Donnelly, Molly Blake, Mary Everard.

The Camp Field near Julianstown is where Oliver Cromwell camped before the Siege of Drogheda

Historic names are preserved in the case of Collier the Robber’s Field, after the highwayman Michael Collier, while the Camp Field near Julianstown is where Oliver Cromwell camped before the Siege of Drogheda. Few are probably aware that Barney’s Field is named after Barney McKenna, the banjo player with the Dubliners, who died in 2012, and owned the field, or that the Empress Field at Macetown commemorates the equestrian activity of Sissi, empress of Austria and wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who spent time with the Meath Hunt in the 1880s.

Evocative names from the language of the landscape, such as mereing, the kish and fornenst, are found in Anthony Holten’s The River Boyne (€25), a journey on foot and by boat through what he calls one of the most beautiful and mystical rivers in Europe. The author has an eye for architecture such as ruined churches, derelict mills or forgotten weirs, and draws together a wealth of detail, invoking the work of Sir William Wilde.

More than anything Anthony Holten is a pontist extraordinaire, a lingerer on and photographer of bridges

But more than anything he is a pontist extraordinaire, a lingerer on and photographer of bridges. Cameos discuss the aesthetics of their spans, arches, masonry, voussoirs and soffits. Weighty but richly textured, the book is shot through with cultural history, topography and legend. A hymn of praise to the river, it will make you look afresh at the simple elegance of a humpback bridge.

Thick with historic monuments, the Boyne Valley is noted for its archaeological treasures, regarded as the richest of any local region in Europe. Two new books help visitors navigate their way through these enigmatic sites. Loughcrew Cairns: A Visitor’s Guide (€10) is a compilation of essays by five authors outlining aspects of the terrain. They interpret it through its history, archaeology, mystery and intrigue, while a former guide recalls the visit of Éamon de Valera in 1943.

Not far away, the Hill of Tara reverberates with a deep sense of the past. Tara: The Guidebook (Discovery Programme, €10), by Mairéad Carew, considers the diverse nature of the place in history, monuments and politics. The hill has been scrutinised by numerous antiquarians, and the author carefully sifts through much detail, presenting it succinctly and with clarity, sprinkling the text with nuggets of information and photographs. Cartoon drawings by Annie West, renowned for her humorous illustrations of WB Yeats, bring a sense of fun and give the book wide appeal.

Molly Weston, a Meath woman who helped organise the United Irishmen in 1798, rode into battle on the Hill of Tara on a white horse

Tara has been the site of many protests. Molly Weston, a Meath woman who helped organise the United Irishmen in 1798, rode into battle on the hill on a white horse, and 45 years later Daniel O’Connell’s monster repeal meeting was reportedly attended by a million people. More recent demonstrations centred on the controversial building of the M3 through the Tara/Skreen Valley.

On Easter Sunday in 1916 Tara was the focal point for 30 Meath volunteers who mobilised on it for several hours in preparation for the Rising but went into hiding because of instructions that it had been called off. The account is one of many in Noel French’s engaging 1916 Meath and More (€20), dealing with the area’s connection to the build-up to the Rising and its aftermath.

The involvement of Protestant nationalist women, including Mary Spring Rice and Alice Stopford Green, in the importation of arms to Howth in 1914, is recounted. But the most remarkable story – unconnected to the Rising – surrounds Violet Gibson, the mentally disturbed sister of Lord Ashbourne, who shot and injured Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist prime minister, in Rome in 1926.

Another publication on this turbulent period also focuses on the Boyne Valley. County Louth and the Irish Revolution, 1912-1923, edited by Donal Hall and Martin Maguire (Irish Academic Press, €19.99) is a series of 13 insightful essays studying the role played by Ireland’s smallest county. Themes include policing, cultural activists, big-house families, and the destruction that befell Drogheda and Dundalk.

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