No Place Like Omey : On St Féchín, Festys and the Cleggan Disaster of 1927

This way to Omey Island. Photograph: Frank McNally

This way to Omey Island. Photograph: Frank McNally

 

On a road trip in Connemara last week we drove from the mainland out to Omey Island, as you can do at low tide. A line of poles marks the recommended route across the sands, although even as I followed the poles, several other vehicles – one an ambulance – were veering off on a diagonal to the far right, near the water’s edge, where some emergency we couldn’t quite see was unfolding.

There were still a few hours before the tide turned. But then again, the tides are unpredictable here and many a parked car has been submerged when its driver returned.

This is the land of the Festys

We didn’t risk the walk to Omey’s Templefeheen, the ruins of a 7th century church and monastery associated with the local holy man, St Féchín. Instead, after a brief stroll on the foreshore, long enough to pat the head of a friendly Charolais bull through a fence, we drove over towards where the emergency vehicles had parked.

We could just about make out in the distance that there was a stricken horse involved, because people seemed to be holding its head up out of the water.

But when our car nearly got stuck on a bank of soft sand, I abandoned further inquiry and headed back to the mainland by the approved path.

Templefeheen has itself been a victim of the area’s shifting tides and sands. The church’s remains were rediscovered in 1981 during an excavation by people who knew the location. But ruins had still been visible – just about – as recently as 1922 when one R.A.S. MacAllister, in a feature for the Tuam Herald, reported finding them with the help of a local. The walls had been “filled and covered in with drifted sand so thoroughly that only […] the top of the east gable is visible,” he wrote.

If his church had all but disappeared by then, Féchín (“little raven”) had left another legacy, odd but enduring.

It is to him, indirectly, that Connemara owes one of its most distinctive Christian names: not Féchín itself, but Festus, the latinised version that substitutes for it and is invariable shortened to Festy. This is the land of the Festys. And thanks to one of the most common surnames in Connemara, it is also the land of the Festy Kings.

As mentioned here a while back, past Festy Kings have included an emigrant grandfather of CNN presenter John King, star of last year’s presidential election. Another, as I noticed on my recent travels, has given his name to a trophy at the Ballyconneely Pony Show, which in a normal year would be imminent and includes a competition for the Festy King Perpetual Cup.

The combination of names, suggestive of a merry monarch from folklore, was irresistible to James Joyce. That and a colourful court case from 1923, in which two Festy Kings, father and son, were among the cast of a fair day fight, reported at length in the Connacht Tribune and read as far away as Paris, persuaded Joyce to include a character of the same name in Finnegans Wake.

On the road north from Omey, thinking of ponies and literature, I remembered my late colleague Eileen Battersby, who I met the last time I passed this way, years ago.

It may also have been the last time I met her anywhere. We chatted about books and horses, two of her favourite subjects, always.

But when I mentioned we were still searching for a B&B – it was an August bank holiday and everywhere was full – she suggested a guesthouse in Cleggan that might have something even if the “no vacancies” sign was up.

Sure enough, the owner had a family room but not the staff or time to clean it after the previous guests. If we didn’t mind making it up ourselves, it was ours.

Eileen had found us a port in the bank holiday storm.

They know all about storms in Cleggan, alas. Then, and again last week, I was reminded that the village was the scene of Connemara’s worst fishing tragedy of the 20th century, when a calm October evening in 1927 turned violent so suddenly boatmen had not time to cut their nets.

There had been warnings elsewhere, but they hadn’t reached Cleggan where local weather experts saw no signs, although it was recalled afterwards that days earlier, the fishing fleet had been followed ominously through the night by a phantom boat that gave no response to their calls. Twenty-five men drowned in the 1927 disaster. But the local saint may have been watching over some of the luckier ones. The last survivor, who lived to be 92, was a Festy Feeney.

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