Tales of the Burren, and other places


LOCAL HISTORY:IF YOU HAVE a favourite place in Ireland – a holiday destination or even a holiday home – you’ll probably wish you knew more about it or its situation. Who lived in this house before us? What is that large ruin on the headland? What are those beautiful purple flowers I haven’t seen anywhere else? Who is the man we see out with his sketchbook every day when we go for a walk? Those are the kinds of questions that you need a local person, and possibly a local person with an interest in history, to answer.

So Burren Villages, by Sarah Poyntz (Mercier Press, 254pp. €16.99) will be of interest to anyone who loves the Burren, because although it deals beautifully and succinctly with the history of this unique landscape, it concentrates more on the people who live in the Burren villages of Ballyvaughan, Bell Harbour, Gleninagh and Fanore, both natives and people who have moved into the area and the communities in which they are gathered.

There is an incisive introduction by Fintan O’Toole, in which the Irish Timescolumnist writes about the Burren both as an exotic and a local place. He makes the valid point that the Burren is both an imagined place as well as a real one. “It attracts the gaze of outsiders who project onto it their own desires and meanings. This impulse is not to be dismissed as mere wish-fulfilment, but neither should it obscure the sense in which this place is a community as well as a landscape, a locality that is human as well as natural.” This can provide the imaginative context in which the local can be seen as something more than mundane, he says.

This sense of something beyond the everyday pervades the book, which is a collection of essays about the area and its people. There is a concise, well-put-together account of the history of the area by Poyntz and Jim Hyland, a lyrical description of the personal effect of the beauty of the Burren by Tony Hartnett (“There is something here that pulls at you inside”) and a deeply personal piece by Lelia Doolan, who spent her childhood summers in the Burren.

Her essay, Remembering John O’Donoghue, is an appreciation after his death of the poet and mystic author of Anam Carain which she concludes: “I will miss all those great qualities of presence: the sight of his swiftly approaching smiling form, the compassionate soaring archway to the divine that he imagined for us, the playfulness and puckish mad humour that broke out in the blink of an eye. He’ll be present in all the places his great spirit inhabited for as long as we have spirit to inhabit them too.”

One for the specialist is The Belderrig Curragh and Its People, by Breandán Mac Conamhna (Institute of Technology, Sligo, 139pp, €35). It’s a scholarly and well-written account, partly in the Irish of the Erris Peninsula (loose English translations are available on the internet), of the involvement on the north Mayo coastline of the Belderrig curragh, which was the main fishing vessel there for more than a century.

The book shows the place of the curragh in history and the huge changes that occurred in the area during the 19th century, and it reflects on the evolution of the Belderrig curragh type during that time. Unique to the area, the curragh was, at seven metres long, one of the largest in use on the west coast, with a crew of up to five steered by a helmsman, each oarsman rowing with a single five-metre oar. The unique rowing and steering skills of the Belderrig crews made the curragh the most sophisticated.

Natives and visitors alike will enjoy Bygone Limerick: The City and County in Days Gone By, by Hugh Oram (Mercier Press, 126pp, €14.99). It’s a lavishly illustrated portrait of the city and county, charting the changes in the historical areas, such as the Georgian Quarter and St John’s Castle, as well as towns and villages such as Adare, Bruree, Kilmallock and Newcastlewest. One of the more fascinating sections is about the building of the Shannon scheme at Ardnacrusha, which put Ireland on the map internationally and helped to raise the profile of the infant Irish Free State abroad.

Adding to the growing literature of local involvement in the first World War is Kerry and the Royal Munster Fusiliers, by Alan Drumm (The History Press, 144pp. €14.99). It’s a fine scholarly memento of those who served, including lists (official and otherwise) of those killed, as well as a useful list of survivors, along with their occupations. Drum puts into context the mood in Kerry at the time of the outbreak of the war, and in his conclusion says: “Within the next decade we will be commemorating both the centenary of the 1916 Rising and the conclusion of the Great War. There is no doubt that at the academic and official level the memory of those killed in the first World War will be honoured. Will there be more than a glancing recognition at public level? A national interest and debate must be created, not in the academic ‘ivory tower’ but in the public sphere. This can only be created by educating the public using all forms of the media.”

Very much locally based, Tallaght: A Place with History, by Eamonn Maloney (Amaru Design, 100pp €10), tells the story of the town and its neighbourhood, ranging from local personalities such as the writer Katherine Tynan to personalities such as William Connolly, the wealthiest commoner in Ireland. It’s engaging and nicely illustrated.

Slender but containing many magnificent photographs is Rush Library, by Niall McCullough and Raymond Ryan (Associated Editions, 40 pp, npg). It’s a record of the building of the library in a refurbished Victorian Church, and the introduction is an academic essay on the problems posed and overcome.

Noeleen Dowling is a freelance journalist and local historian