like black harpoons, fail against the whaleskin sky.
Wasps in this skyless summer have no place,
small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;
lime trees, prematurely old, decide to die.
The heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts.
Many cling to rafts of music but I,
I am not happy with the human race
aching for its sun-god – he kills as well –
I skip dripping in the shining rain
and feel the minute fingers tap my face
and breathing in St. Bartholomew’s bell
I look up to the sky and kiss the rain.
Some day I hope to write a fitting analysis of this beautiful sonnet – a commentary that will do it justice. In the meantime, I have to agree with my son Don who has suggested that this is Michael Hartnett’s best sonnet and a poem for which Hartnett deserves acclaim and greater recognition. Leaving Cert English Poetry course developers please note!
The Crooked Tree is a very well known landmark on the main Limerick-Newcastle West road, about two kilometres out on the Limerick side of the town. The tree is situated in the townland of Gortroe and is, in fact, situated in the parish of Knockaderry. The Crooked Tree also holds the unenviable distinction of being one of the few trees in Ireland to have moved from one side of the road to the other! In 1965 the tree stood on the right-hand side as one approached the town from Limerick as can be seen in the photograph above. Then, the County Council carried out extensive renovations and upgrading to the roadway, following which the Crooked Tree now stands sentinel on your left-hand side as you approach the town from Limerick!
Rightly or wrongly, the tree has been the subject of many gruesome stories down the years, the most common of these being that it was used to hang people in the dim and distant past. According to Bill Flynn, then a student in St. Ita’s Secondary School, who wrote a very interesting article in the 1983 edition of the Knockaderry Clouncagh Community News:
The most persistent of these stories was that which claimed that the assassins that murdered the ‘agent’s son’ paid with their lives for the foul deed on this natural scaffold. There were, too, stories of other hangings – sheep stealers and other minor criminals, according to local lore, breathed their last as they swung from the peculiarly shaped branch of this ugly black ash.
Another local resident, Michael Cregan, R.I.P., who lived for many years within a stone’s throw of The Crooked Tree seems to corroborate these stories, providing us with further detail. Writing in the Knockaderry Clouncagh Journal in 1999-2000 he states:
The story goes that people were hanged from the tree up until the early 1900’s for committing the most minor of offences. According to Liam Ó Danachair, the historian, Patrick Moylan and his son Seamus, who lived in Ballyallinan in 1732 were returning from Newcastle West after getting a spade made at the forge. They were stopped by drunken English soldiers. The soldiers began to jab the father with their bayonets and he defended himself with the spade and he killed one of the soldiers. He shouted to his son to run home. They killed the father and hanged his hacked and tattered body from The Crooked Tree where it was left as a warning. Under the cover of darkness, some neighbours cut down the body and buried it in consecrated ground.
The Moylan homestead in Ballyallinan South corresponds today to the land farmed by James O’Connor and his wife Colette and family and was formerly owned by James’ parents, Colm and Nellie O’Connor.
The evidence above doesn’t point to a hanging taking place, rather that the body was hung from the tree as a warning, Patrick Moylan having been earlier killed by the drunken soldiers. Michael Cregan also has a plausible explanation concerning the mystery surrounding the tree:
Many people were doubtful that hangings took place because when excavations took place no remains were found. But the simple explanation is – the next of kin always removed the body.
Bill Flynn tries in his article to dispel the notion that the tree was ever used as a gallows by detailing the excavations which took place around 1965:
When the County Council excavated along by the west side of the tree, preparatory to the construction of a new section of road, deep interest was taken in the operation. The excavators tore down to a depth of five feet into the tough yellow mud but no sign of soil disturbance was revealed and no remains were found.
He further states that a local man, Toss Enright, who lived out his eighty odd years virtually in the shade of the tree claimed that the present tree developed from a ‘sucker’ that grew out of the stump of the original tree which was felled in the early 1900’s. He also told of a local woman who died in 1903 at the age of ninety years who claimed that nobody had ever, in her memory, been hanged from the tree. However, she did say that her mother had told her of two men who had been hanged from a scaffold erected in the field beside The Crooked Tree and she had never heard of any other executions. Bill Flynn ends his enthralling piece of research by concluding:
For lack of evidence to the contrary, we are forced to assume that the ‘history’ of the tree was born out of fanciful thought.
However, another plausible explanation as to why the legend persists may have something to do with the etymology of the name given to the tree. We know from just a cursory examination that Irish place names give up a rich harvest of information concerning topography, battles, famous saints, etc., etc. For example, Gortroe, the townland in which The Crooked Tree stands was originally called An Gort Rua in Irish, which means ‘the red garden’ (probably a place where potatoes were grown in the past) and another nearby townland Ballingowan, was originally Baile na hAbainn, the town (or townland) of the river – the River Deel flows nearby. In Ireland in the 1830’s the English were busy converting many such place names from the Irish language into the now legally required English. Sometimes they were very diligent and sometimes they were very lazy! The Irish phrase for a Hanging Tree would have been Crann Crochadh and on a Friday evening, after a long week translating place names into English, it might have been very tempting to translate this Crann Crochadh into what we know today as The Crooked Tree.
Talking of place names in the locality, however, tends to disprove my theory. Not too far away from the townlands of Gortroe and Ballingowan, as one exits Newcastle West heading for Dromcolliher, is the townland of Ardnacrohy. Now, this must have definitely been translated in somewhat of a hurry because the original would have been Árd na Croiche which should be translated directly as ‘The Hill of the Gallows’, or ‘Gallows Hill’ maybe, or ‘The Hill of the Hanging’ or somesuch gruesome alternative. My point is that if Ardnacrohy was the location for local hangings then The Crooked Tree was not needed – except maybe in an emergency!
(It is interesting, even fascinating, that in Cork City there was also an Árd na Croiche, at the top of Barrack Street in the city, Cork’s Tyburn if you will, but the earnest and diligent Corkman, who carried out the translation for his English masters, must have been very conscious of the future tourism potential of the place so he translated Árd na Croiche into the far more innocuous and inviting placename, calling it Greenmount)!
So, there you have it, ‘fanciful thought’ or long embedded local lore no one is sure – the jury is still out – or maybe they didn’t have much use for juries in the ‘good old days’ long, long, ago!
Knockaderry Clouncagh Community News – Christmas Annual 1983