How my father bought the Cliffs of Moher

Weekend Read: The Cliffs of Moher are now one of Ireland’s top attractions, but in 1964 the fields leading to them were almost sold to a foreign buyer. Then a council official stepped in

 

The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most famous images of Ireland. Photographs of them are as familiar to tourists as pints of the black stuff and rainbows shimmering over green fields. Back before the cliffs became so well known the fields around them in this part of Co Clare were someone’s farmland. In the 1960s those fields belonged to two branches of the Considine family of the nearby village of Liscannor.

Danny and Kathleen Considine, who were cousins, owned 65 acres at Lislorkan North, as the townland around the cliffs is named. Their property included fields ending at the cliff front and the land that O’Brien’s Tower stands on: tracts that ran between the cliffs and the road.

In 1964 these fields held only cattle. Although the cliffs were a tourist attraction they had no visitor centre, no exhibition space, no cafe, no restaurant, no meditation room, no shops, no craft area, no car park and no coach park. O’Brien’s Tower was in ruins. Tourists in the know parked on the road and walked along a historic right of way to be blasted by the Atlantic wind and admire the view for free.

“There was no boundary wall between Danny’s land and Kathleen’s land, because of course we knew who owned what,” says Danny’s widow, Kathy Considine, who is now 85.

Considine is sitting in her home outside Liscannor, whose living room looks over the sea. On the wall is a black-and-white photograph of the couple on their wedding day, in 1957, outside the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis. Danny Considine died in 2007, aged 79. His cousin Kathleen is also now dead.

“Danny was always trying to patch up the fence of flagstones he’d put up along the cliff front,” she says. “The tourists would sometimes throw the flags over the cliff, and then we’d lose cattle. We lost several animals over the cliffs. Money was scarce in those times. To lose a cow was a big thing, and there was no compensation in those days. He did as best he could. He loved those cows. He loved that land.”

In 1964 my father, Joe Boland, who was Clare’s county manager, received a phone call from Brendan O’Regan, the chairman of Bord Fáilte and of the company that became Shannon Development. The two men knew each other, so it was not unusual for either to call the other on business to do with the county. But this call was different. This call was a tip-off.

O’Regan told my father that the Land Commission had told him he might be interested to know that some Germans were looking to buy a substantial portion of land at the Cliffs of Moher. It appeared that a solid offer had been made and was now being considered.

Fearing that the land would fall into overseas ownership, and be developed in who knew what way, my father began taking action to move it into council ownership. “Up to then,” he says now, “there was only pedestrian access to the cliffs, and that by way of a narrow walkway from the public road to the viewing point.”

The German offer

Clare Champion

The Champion’s lead story carried a moody photograph of the cliffs and the headline “Move to buy the famous Cliffs of Moher?” “It was rumoured during the week that a move was being made to buy the famous Clare landmark,” it reported. Further down was: “In recent years, stretches of coastal land in west Cork and Mayo have been purchased by aliens and in a number of cases there has been much public concern over the purchases. The matter has been discussed at length by many Deputies in Dail Eireann.”

By the following week the Clare Champion reporters (most stories at the time were published without bylines) had located the Considines. “German offer to buy Cliffs of Moher confirmed” ran the headline. “Rumours that a German firm is interested in sixty-five acres of land with about a half-mile-long frontage on the Cliffs of Moher were confirmed when our representative visited a joint owner of the land, Miss Kathleen Considine.”

Kathleen told the reporter that no sale had yet been made but that her solicitor was in touch with solicitors in Dublin who were acting for the Germans. She had sent her solicitor maps and a letter that she had received from them a few days earlier.

The German firm looking to buy the Considines’ land was named as “Eberhard Kemper, Essen Bradeney, Bruckerholts”. Representatives of the company had first visited the cliffs in June; they had asked about the owners of the land and then, when they heard about the Considines, told Kathleen of their interest. “She added that she would sell the land if the price was right and if she could retain grazing rights as the Germans had stated she could,” said the Clare Champion.

Its reporter also interviewed Kathleen Considine’s brother Anthony. He, too, had met the Germans. They told him that the Considine cattle could still graze on the land if the owners were willing to sell it to them. They did not reveal why they wanted the 65 acres. When the paper asked him if he had any idea what the Germans would do with the land Anthony Considine said, “I do not know. We are only groping in the dark.”

The reporter also visited Danny Considine’s home. He was not there, but his wife, Kathy, was. She told the newspaper that they “were of the same opinion” as Kathleen Considine about selling the land.

There was much activity at Danny and Kathy Considine’s home, at Clohane in Liscannor, that summer. Kathy remembers that two Germans called to the house at least twice, looking for Danny. As well as farming his cattle, he had a full-time job on the roads, so he was out during the day.

‘If the price was right’

But his cousin Kathleen had indicated her willingness to sell “if the price was right”, and Kathy had told the Clare Champion that she was of the “same opinion as Miss Considine about selling the lands”.

Danny and Kathleen’s combined 65 acres were divided in such a way that any potential purchaser would need to buy both plots. One mainly faced the sea and the other the road. So both cousins would need to agree to sell if the buyer wanted full access to the cliffs. Danny and Kathleen must have known what price was being offered: Kathleen had already gone so far as to have told her solicitor to deal with the German company’s solicitors.

So who or what was this trinity of “Eberhard Kemper, Essen Bradeney, Bruckerholts”, the Germans who arrived in Co Clare in 1964 to buy the Cliffs of Moher?

I first assumed they were a trio: three people, or perhaps three companies. They were not. Eberhard Kemper, a factory owner, was the sole person attempting to make the purchase. The other names are, in fact, place names, and quite possibly Kemper’s address at that time. Bredeney (not Bradeney) is a suburb of the city of Essen, and Brucker Holt (not Bruckerholts) is an upmarket street in that suburb.

The Clare Champion reporter may have seen some paperwork or, more likely, heard the names read over the phone. The reporter didn’t recognise the words as an address, as they appear, with misspellings, back to front: street name last, suburb second, city first.

Factory or hotel?

By the mid 1950s Kemper’s factory employed more than 500 people. According to Gelsenkirchen: Abbild einer Grossen Stadt (“Gelsenkirchen: Portrait of a Great City”), a book from 1955, the factory was considered “one of the most modern and most interesting clothing factories in the German textile industry”.

In 1958 Kemper’s compatriot Hans Liebherr founded Liebherr Container Cranes, in Killarney, Co Kerry. This was his first manufacturing plant outside Germany and one of the first industries established by a European company in Ireland. Liebherr is still a key employer in Killarney; its container cranes can be found in ports all over the world.

But Liebherr didn’t just build factories in Killarney; he also moved into the hotel industry. Liebherr bought an exceptionally scenic piece of land on the edge of Killarney, overlooking a lake at Fossa. He originally planned to build a factory there, but he changed his mind and constructed a five-star hotel, the Europe, which opened in 1961. Liebherr went on to buy and run Ard na Sidhe Country House, at Caragh Lake, and the Dunloe Hotel, also close to Killarney.

Before he approached the Considines about buying their land at the Cliffs of Moher Eberhard Kemper had also opened a factory in Ireland. The Classics textile factory in Drogheda, Co Louth, was a significant local employer; specialising in uniforms, it held the prestigious contract to make Aer Lingus outfits.

Liebherr and Kemper almost certainly knew each other. In June 1965, at the request of the Industrial Development Authority, the government announced the establishment of an industrial promotional panel. It was in place by September the following year. This newspaper reported on September 30th, 1966, that the panel “consisted of a number of Irish industrialists and a number of manufacturers from abroad who had established factories here”.

The 14 members, all male, included the managing directors of flagship companies such as Guinness, PJ Carroll and Sunbeam Wolsey, and seven European members, among them Liebherr and Kemper.

Given the business climate of the time, and Liebherr’s successful diversification in Killarney, it seems unlikely that Kemper wanted to build a textile factory at the Cliffs of Moher: too few people lived nearby to staff it, and Kemper had already said the Considines could retain grazing rights for their cattle. Factories and agriculture do not go together. But the guests of a hotel on 65 acres could certainly have found the pastoral scene of grazing cattle appealing.

‘Aliens’

So now there were two parties who wanted to buy the Cliffs of Moher.

Ireland in the 1960s was not a multicultural society. On September 26th, 1964, the Clare Champion ran a story headlined “The buying of land by aliens criticised”. The aliens, apparently, were anyone who was not an Irish citizen.

Senator Sean Brady, who was also chairman of Clare County Council, did not hold back on his opinions during a speech that week at an agriculture-committee meeting in Ennis. “Germany had any amount of money. Germans could not understand why land was so cheap here,” Brady was reported as saying. He added that a “bank manager had told him that the Germans had ‘oceans’ of money. These people should not be allowed to buy up land and estates here. These aliens . . . would buy up the whole place if they were not stopped.”

On November 7th of that year the Clare Champion carried an editorial about land purchases. “There has been much concern in recent years over the purchase of land by foreigners. There have been protests in many parts of the country, and recently it was disclosed that an effort had been made by a number of Germans to purchase property adjoining the Cliffs of Moher.”

The editorial concluded: “It is only right that Irish land should be retained for the farmers of Ireland. Thousands of Irishmen have died over the years to rid the country of British landlordism. It would be a national tragedy if the ideals they fought for were forgotten.”

Fifty years ago the role of a county manager, the job my father held until his retirement, in 1983, was very different from what it is now. Today the equivalent role is chief executive, and committees and advisory panels abound on local authorities. Then, county managers had a great deal of autonomy. Decisions to buy land, for example, did not need to be brought before a council meeting, although sales of council-owned land had to be approved by the council and minuted. “We were buying land all the time then: for housing and council services and for amenities,” my father says.

Rene Franklin, the Co Clare archivist, searched an enormous book of minutes that recorded the council’s regular meetings between 1964 and 1973. She found no mention of the proposed purchase of land at the Cliffs of Moher, which confirms the practice of the time.

A devoted farmer

“Danny was a very devoted farmer,” Kathy Considine says of her husband. “Land was everything to him. It was land that was important to him, not money. He did not want to sell that land.”

As Danny didn’t want to sell his portion of the 65 acres Kathleen couldn’t sell, either, as Kemper wanted the combined plot.

Did Kathy really never hear how much the German was offering for her husband’s land? “I never heard a figure,” she repeats.

It seems improbable that Danny didn’t know what someone who wanted to buy his field was offering for it. Could it be that he didn’t tell his wife the price because it was so attractive that she might encourage him to sell his beloved land? Kathy says no. “There were no secrets between us.”

Clare County Council then began negotiations to buy some of Danny Considine’s land – only 4 per cent of the acreage that Kemper wanted to buy from both Considines. The land the council wished to buy was, essentially, the view: land fronting the cliffs and the field known as the Tower Field, with the ruined O’Brien’s Tower on it. My father knew that this was the vital piece of land to bring into public ownership. Notwithstanding the public right of way to the cliffs, land without access to the Cliffs of Moher view would be of no interest to any future private developer.

The records of those negotiations between solicitors are held in the council offices on New Road in Ennis. I was not permitted to examine them, as they name some people who are still alive. But the council did give me some extracts. One, dated June 15th, 1967, says that Danny Considine “has got offers for an area of land which would include the portion in which the council is interested” but that “he wishes to deal with the council”. This is clearly a reference to Kemper’s proposed deal. A document from Danny’s solicitor in February 1968 records that he “could have sold a considerable area of the field in question for a very great sum”.

It seems Danny Considine did have one secret from his wife.

The final price that he agreed with Clare County Council for two acres and 25 perches of his land – a perch is an old measurement that is slightly less than a sixth of an acre – was £1,000.

The Clare Champion made the purchase a front-page story on March 16th, 1968, with a photograph of the Tower Field. “Cliffs proposal welcomed,” ran the headline.

“O’Brien’s Tower, Cliffs of Moher, the surrounding area of which Clare Co Council proposes to expend £6,700 on for the development of tourism.

“The Council proposes to expend the money on the purchase of the main section of the Cliffs of Moher, including the tower, and also the provision of additional parking for cars and buses. It is also intended to provide a viewing space on the roof of the tower and also a souvenir shop near the cliffs . . . The proposal to preserve the Cliffs of Moher as an amenity area for the benefit of the general public has been welcomed by many North Clare interests.”

The spiral staircase

Details of all the land that Clare County Council bought between 1960 and 2005 were written in a black hardback ledger with Register of Lands stamped on the cover in gold letters. It’s now well worn, but the entries are still clear. The record of the acquisition of the two acres and 25 perches is written in blue ink. Under the heading “Situation and Area of Land” are the lines “Lislorkan North. (Cliffs of Moher). Acquired from Daniel Considine.”

The ledger records the price as £1,060; the council says that the £60 represented its solicitor’s fees and that the price for the land alone was £1,000. According to the consumer price index, £1,000 in February 1970 is the equivalent of about €13,500 today.

O’Brien’s Tower was duly restored. Clare County Council was thrifty in its restoration. The iron spiral staircase – one that I ran up many times as a child to look over that familiar view of ocean and cliffs and sky – came from Cannocks department store in Limerick. Cannocks was renovating, and Clare’s county engineer, Sean Merry, found the staircase and reused it. It remained in place until just a few years ago.

The tiny shop at the bottom of the staircase was run for many years by Joe Vaughan, a kindly man who always gave me a Club Milk when I visited with my father in the 1970s.

Since that first key purchase of land at the Cliffs of Moher the council has bought further parcels from the Considines, who still own land at Lislorkan North. The award-winning visitor centre that opened in 2007, and the car and bus parks, now occupy a large portion of the site. Yet even now Clare County Council owns just 34.6 acres, a little over half of what Eberhard Kemper wanted to buy in 1964.

Last year 1,251,574 people visited the Cliffs of Moher, generating significant revenue for the county. The biggest number of visitors – a quarter of the total – came from North America. Irish people were the second-largest group, making up 18 per cent.

Their visits might not have been possible were it not for a tip-off 52 years ago by a public-spirited entrepreneur, a far-sighted intervention by a council official, and a farmer who loved his land too much to sell it all.

With thanks to Rene Franklin, Clare county archivist. Over the coming months The Irish Times will be running a number of stories based on county archives. If you know of untold stories in your local archive, contact Rosita Boland at rboland@irishtimes.com

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