An Irishman's Diary
One of the more picturesque events of next year’s Gathering, surely, will be the opening of a commemorative garden on the shores of Blacksod Bay, Co Mayo.
The garden will honour emigrants who left that beautiful, if economically desolate, part of Ireland in the late 19th century. But although emigration was all-too-common in the area then, the particular event being commemorated was unique in several respects.
When the first 350 people left Blacksod in March 1883, for example, an Irish Times correspondent noted that the scene lacked “the usual display of grief and sorrowful leave-taking” on such occasions.
The reason, in part, may have been that whole families were going together, one of the stipulations of a fund that was paying their fares to Boston and Quebec. On this occasion, at least, there was no need for American wakes, at which parents said goodbye to children they would never see again.
Another principle of the scheme, officially anyway, was that nobody would be forced to go. The fund had been set up in the wake of the Arrears Act of 1882, which allowed for cancellation of outstanding rents. Even so, financial circumstances for many in the “congested districts” remained dire.
As he watched the steamer leave the bay, the IT reporter was in no doubt that this and subsequent migrations would improve the lot both of those who left and those who stayed. “At all events one desirable end will have been attained,” he wrote, “the abolition of many holdings of five and six acres of sterile, boggy land, upon which the people dwelt in wretchedness and dirt.” There was no shortage of take-up, anyway. Between 1883 and 1884, some 3,297 emigrants sailed from Blacksod, mostly for Boston. It is hoped some of their offspring will now return for the opening of the Garden of Remembrance, and a series of related events in late July next, organised around the local Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Centre.
Background circumstances aside, the Blacksod emigrations were also unusual for the manner of departure. Although the bay was then, as it remains, of the best natural anchorages in Europe, it had no quayside from which passengers could embark.
Instead, emigrants had to be taken out in rowboats and other smaller vessels to the deeper water where the main ship awaited.
But what may give an added poignancy to next year’s commemorations is that, at the end of the 19th century, thanks to its natural advantages, Blacksod Bay appeared poised for maritime greatness.
During the first decade of the 20th century, it was mooted as the terminus of a new shipping route that would, as one commentator put it, “make Ireland the highroad of traffic between Canada and the United Kingdom and between the Eastern and Western Worlds”.
Galway was in the running too. But by 1911, Blacksod Bay was favourite for a scheme that would have seen Liverpool ousted not just as the transatlantic departure point for British passenger traffic, but for Scandinavia too. With the provision of rail ferries from Holyhead, it was even predicted that, soon, Londoners would leave Euston Station and not have to set foot outside their carriages until Mayo.
In November 1913, newspapers reported that construction of the harbour at Blacksod Bay would almost certainly commence in the new year and that, in the words of a former local MP, its effects on world commerce would outdo “the Panama Canal”.
As late as 1915, although construction still hadn’t started, the British Royal Academy featured designs of a magnificent Blacksod Bay Railway Terminus, to be built on a reef jutting into the harbour, from where passengers would board the world’s largest liners.
But events on mainland Europe had by then taken an unfortunate turn. And even though war gave Blacksod Bay another chance to demonstrate its worth – the North Atlantic Fleet anchored there – time and tide was running out on the need for express shipping lanes between Britain and its “colonies”.
The Blacksod Bay commemorative events will take place between July 21st and 27th next, and you can find out more from ionaddeirbhile.ie. Further down the west coast, meanwhile, and slightly later in the summer, the island of Inis Mór will be also hosting a new event, in this case literary.
It follows a meeting in Galway last week, advertising which (Irishman’s Diary November 29th) we lamented that, almost alone of his generation of writers, Liam O’Flaherty did not have a summer school or festival in his honour. No longer. The first annual Liam O’Flaherty Weekend is now tentatively scheduled to take place some time around August 28th, his birthday.