Exhibit A – An Irishwoman’s Diary on a museum of rare delights in Leitir Meallain
Martin McDonagh: roots in the village of Leitir Meallain. Photograph: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Costa del Sod, as writer Tim Robinson nicknamed Connemara in a “bittersweet” moment”, has been looking the finest in this recent weather. With enough “pet days” to save it, turf has been stacked high against stone walls. Forming pure works of sculpture, the sods are weighed down neatly with an assortment of nets, stone and plastic sheeting of every kind. It seems as if nothing goes to waste on the shoreline of Greatman’s Bay.
Down at Mainín on Ceantar na n-Oileán, a dozen young pier jumpers splash out the remaining hours of a sunny evening, as one bád mór among a fleet of anchored Galway hookers sets its calico sails. Up from the high water mark on Gorumna island, Bell heather competes with South African montbretia and Chilean fuchsia for colour. Though there’s always something to worry about, there’s a general air of optimism close to the Wild Atlantic Way.
But the “Great Escapers” and “Culturally Curious” who are among the target market for Fáilte Ireland’s coastline branding could miss much of this activity if their eyes are only focused on the official map and guide. One of the initial criticisms of the Donegal to Cork route – when first proposed to reverse falling visitor numbers in the west – was that it would favour certain areas at the expense of others.
Take a look at the map for the “Bay Coast”, as it is called, and the route along Connemara’s southern rim winds down to Ceantar na n-Oileán, but swings north at Leitir Mór. It’s a strange omission, when not one, but two, celebrated writers have roots in the village of Leitir Meallain further southwest. London-Irish brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh spent family holidays in the “ceantar”, where an archipelago of former “islands” are linked by a chain of mid-19th-century bridges and causeways, and hummocky hills among lagoons shield homes from the Atlantic fetch.
There’s a photo of Martin, author of the Leenane trilogy and In Bruges , in John Bhaba Jeaic Ó Conghaíle’s museum in Leitir Meallain. The curator is proud of the local connection with him and his brother, John Michael, author and director of The Guard among other works. It’s over 12 years since Ó Conghaíle began to house his collection in the Leitir Meallain heritage centre, displaying almost every implement known to woman and man. Whether it is a cap for a pipe, a fork for poaching salmon, a butter churn or a thatch needle, he has at least one example of each.
His exhibition has no particular rhyme or rhythm, but his own narrative more than makes up for that.
One minute he is talking about an edition of the Illustrated London News, the next about the willow basket woven for 13 eggs – as in a baker’s dozen. He knows the workings of a telescope salvaged from a fishing smack detonated by a German mine, and he can demonstrate how to use implements for “ringing” pigs’ noses and pulling teeth.
There’s a set of wooden tongs for fishing clothes from boiling pots, and a hot iron used to iron a priest’s collar.
He has rent books published by the Congested Districts Board, copies of old ballot papers and Garda summonses and telegrams, and a fully assembled poitín still.
He has Hibernian Bank notes, first World War medals, and a stone hunting axe, which, he says, suggests that Leitir Meallain had its own shoreline community five thousand years ago.
His museum also marks the rich tradition of boat building in the area, which was recognised with an award in 2013 from Britain’s Classic Boat magazine for its “Galway galley” replica built of cedar on oak.
Ó Conghaíle says he gets no long-term support for the museum, apart from some assistance from State training schemes. Ceantar na n-Oileán gets one brief paragraph in the official pocket guide to the Wild Atlantic Way. Fáilte Ireland says that “some lesser travelled and remote locations were not deemed suitable” for the “physically signed route”, but the Leitir Meallain centre is “amplified” at a “Discover More” noticeboard several kilometres to the northeast. It is currently piloting two additional “loops”, on the Shannon estuary and Burren in Co Clare, and “further will be considered for development” in 2018.
Ó Conghaíle’s secret is out, somehow, as his visitors’ book is filled with signatures and addresses from several continents. He worries about what happens when he is no longer around. “Sometimes,” he sighs, “it seems that there is more interest in us in Norway’s Bergen or Montana in north America than among officialdom here . . .”