All the perversions of the soul I learnt on a small farm. How to do the neighbours harm by magic, how to hate. I was abandoned to their tragedies, minor but unhealing: bitterness over boggy land, casual stealing of crops, venomous cardgames across swearing tables, a little music on the road, a little peace in decrepit stables. Here were rosarybeads, a bleeding face, the glinting doors that did encase their cutler needs, their plates, their knives, the cracked calendars of their lives.
I was abandoned to their tragedies and began to count the birds, to deduct secrets in the kitchen cold and to avoid among my nameless weeds the civil war of that household.
Taken from Collected Poems 2001, Gallery Press – (Collection reprinted 2009)
The ‘small farm’ referred to in this poem is that of his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche. According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th 1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches.
This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett. Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he ran into her kitchen in Camas and told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head. Her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’. Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West. He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’. This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places.
In subsequent years, Michael Halpin and his wife Bridget had six children, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita. Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia. In a heartbreaking twist of fate, his daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921. Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna. Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.
Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her. The cottage which was little more than a three-roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926. The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by their neighbour Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away. The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today. According to Michael Hartnett this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling. Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales. (A more detailed genealogy of the Halpin family and the early formative influences on Michael Hartnett can be read here).
The poem ‘A Small Farm’, the first poem of the Collected Poems (2001), creates a delicate balance between description and abstraction. Students of Hartnett’s poetry should consider studying this poem as one of a series of poems that he wrote celebrating his grandmother, Bridget Halpin and the townland of Camas where she lived. The most obvious of these poems is ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ which he wrote on the passing of his grandmother in 1965. Others include, ‘For My Grandmother Bridget Halpin’, and ‘Mrs Halpin and the Lightning’. Abstractions, clichés, their representation through language, metaphors and the moment where these are drawn into focus, made specific and immediate, are central to these poems. ‘A Small Farm’ is a natural development and shows a more mature, confident and surer treatment of this place than the earlier ‘Camas Road’.
‘Camas Road’, Michael Hartnett’s first published work, appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955. He was thirteen. The poem describes in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (A Book of Strays 67). Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, apparent images from both the poet’s lived and literary experience placed side by side. It is contentedly denotative, creating a sense of ease and oneness with the natural world. The movement of sunrise to sunset is perpetually peaceful, its colours oils for the young poet’s palette. The ruminative introspective which elevates Kavanagh’s, ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, a poem which can be read in useful parallel to ‘Camas Road’, is not present. At the poem’s turn, as ‘Dark shadows fall o’er land so still’, Hartnett’s only thought and action are of flattened description, the creation of ‘this ode’.
‘Camas Road’ then, though essentially a curio which stands outside of Hartnett’s body of work, can be read as a seldom afforded snapshot of Michael Hartnett the poet before he became one. In contrast, his poem ‘A Small Farm’ shows a marked development in his poetic craft. It is well recorded and documented, especially by Hartnett himself, that he spent much of his childhood in his grandmother’s smallholding of ‘ten acres three roods and 13 perches’ in rural Camas about four miles outside Newcastle West and about one mile from the now vibrant village of Raheenagh. Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, lived there with her son, Denis (Dinny Halpin), in what Hartnett describes as a prolonged state of ‘civil war’,
I was abandoned to their tragedies,
Minor but unhealing.
The word ‘abandoned’ here has many undertones and is important for the poet because he repeats the line twice in the poem. He has told us elsewhere that he was, in effect, ‘fostered out’ by his parents in Maiden Street, Newcastle West to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, from a young age and spent much of his childhood in her cottage in Camas. However, there is also the suggestion that while there he was ‘abandoned’ and somewhat neglected as he became an outsider, an unwilling observer in the ‘civil war’ of the household, as Bridget and her son Dinny constantly argued and fought over the minutiae of running a small farm in difficult times in the Ireland of the late 40s and early 50s.
Hartnett saw in his grandmother a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside. For Hartnett, there is also the added heartache that sees his grandmother struggling to come to terms with a lost language that has been cruelly taken from her. This, therefore, is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. However, there is underlying paganism here that is absent from Kavanagh’s work.
For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’. The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here in Camas that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and, like Kavanagh, it was here that ‘The first gay flight of my lyric / Got caught in a peasant’s prayer’. And so, to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them, turns his back on them, and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
In this final stanza, Hartnett makes an explicit link between his awakening as a perceiver of social interactions and moments of poetic beauty, with a growing knowledge and identification with the natural world about him. The attentive intellect which ‘counts the birds’, has as yet no language to describe or express his experience of the natural world, his ‘nameless weeds’. Still, he is possessive of it, seeing it as distinct from the human society which he can describe, yet does not identify with.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
The picture of the farm is rather etched out in generalisation and aphorism, and through the accordant clichés of petty hatred and ignorance, ‘how to do the neighbours harm / by magic, how to hate’, before Hartnett brings the glass into focus, employing idiosyncratic detail which establishes the world of the poem itself. As already mentioned, the cottage on this small farm was a Rambling House, a house where neighbours gathered to tell stories, play music and card games,
venomous card games
across swearing tables
His early poetry, then, creates a delicate balance between description and abstraction, the actual and the figurative. In this way, Hartnett’s particular subjectivity, his way of seeing, is established. In time it would become his poetic currency. We are invited into the quintessentially old traditional Irish kitchen with its pictures of the Pope, the Sacred Heart, the statue of Our Lady, the Crucifix,
Here were rosary beads,
a bleeding face,
the glinting doors that did encase their cutler needs,
their plates, their knives, the cracked calendars of their lives
In this poem, therefore, Hartnett is following on from Kavanagh in shining a light into the domestic and interior life of rural dwellers not previously considered worthy of attention. Bridget Halpin’s ‘small farm’ in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and are all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’ from Maiden Street or Assumpta Park!
Indeed, Hartnett, the quintessential nature poet, would be delighted to see the magnificent new recently developed Kileedy Eco Park which has been set up less than a mile from his ‘foster’ home in Camas by the combined efforts of the local community in Kileedy. It is also significant that the visionary developers of this project have included a Poet’s Corner where Hartnett is remembered just a stone’s throw from the small farm of his formative years. Here today’s generation can now come to ‘count the birds’ and the ‘nameless weeds’.
Hanley, Don. ‘The Ecocentric Element in Michael Hartnett’s Poetry: Referentiality, Authenticity, Place’, MA in Irish Writing and Film, UCC, 2016.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, editor Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, 2001. Reprinted 2009 and 2012.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, editor Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, 2002. Reprinted 2015.
The author would also like to acknowledge the voluminous background information received from Joe Dore, Michael Hartnett’s first cousin and inheritor of Bridget Halpin’s ‘small farm’ of ten acres three roods and thirteen perches.
The half-parish of Clouncagh/Cloncagh nestles in the heartland of rural West Limerick. It was formerly part of the Barony of Upper Connello and is bounded on the north by Rathkeale; on the east by Ballingarry; on the south by Kilmeedy and the west by its other half-parish, Knockaderry and Newcastle West. The townland and former civil parish extended over 4,540 acres of level pastoral land in the heart of West Limerick.
Clouncagh, in the recent past, was probably best known for its famous Creamery. The Co-Operative Movement had been founded by Sir Horace Plunkett in 1889 and had very strong roots in West Limerick. It was not surprising then that farmers in the Clouncagh area came together and formed the Clouncagh Co-operative Dairy Society in 1890. Gradually Clouncagh began to develop its butter-making skills and in 1939 they won the Read Cup, the most prestigious prize available to the butter-making industry in all of Ireland.
The first manager of the creamery was David O’Brien from Clonakilty. His son, Donnchadh O’Briain later served as Fianna Fail TD for West Limerick for 36 years – having the honour to serve as Parliamentary Secretary to Taoiseach Eamon De Valera for a number of years and also to Taoiseach Sean Lemass. He was one of the founding members of Fianna Fail and served as its General Secretary for many years and was first nominated to stand for Fianna Fail in the ground breaking General Election of 1933. He also served as Chief Whip for many years. He retired from politics in 1969.
The Creamery and Donnchadh O’Briain helped put Clouncagh on the map but, if the truth were told, there has always been a certain amount of confusion as to whether the place should be known as Clouncagh or Cloncagh. The placename has taken on several variations down through the years: Clouncagh, Cloncagh, Clooncagh, Cloencagh and Clonki. There are even greater variations in the Irish version with Cluain Catha, Cluain Cath, Cluain Coimdhe, Cluain-Claidheach and also Cluain Claidheach-Maodog, Cluainchladh-bhaith, Cluain-claidhblaim being some of these.
According to Donal Begley, another native of Clouncagh and former Chief Herald of Ireland until his retirement in 1995,
‘the oldest of those forms is Clonki which is formed from the root elements ‘cluain’ (a bounded area), and possibly ‘Coimdhe’, meaning the Lord, God. On that basis Clonki would signify ‘God’s enclosure’ – surely an appropriate name to describe the location of a monastery, abbey or church, such as we have in Clouncagh.
The Black Book of Limerick, a 13th– Century topographical survey of the Diocese of Limerick has a reference to a church in Cluonkai, and this is surely a reference to present day Clouncagh.
The more generally accepted, though not necessarily correct, form of the placename in Irish is Cluain Catha which would translate into English as ‘The Meadow or Enclosure of the Battle’. Meanwhile, for some time now, the anglicised versions ‘Clouncagh’ and ‘Cloncagh’ vie with one another for preference locally and the reality is that Clouncagh and Cloncagh seem to be interchangeable to this day on official documents, local signposts and in local usage.
Donal Begley, a firm believer that the correct version is Clouncagh, tells us that, traditionally,
The civil parish or state parish is written as ‘Cloncagh’, and under this form are classified such records as census and valuation returns. In short ‘Clouncagh’ designated the Catholic parish and ‘Cloncagh’ the civil or state or Protestant parish.
Rather mischievously the Wikipedia entry for Knockaderry claims that ‘during the ministry of Canon Timothy J. Lyons as parish priest, (1964 – 1994) the “u” in Clouncagh was dropped, although it can still be seen on some of the signs entering the parish’. As Donal Begley points out the ‘u’ in Clouncagh was dropped long before Canon Lyons came to the parish.
The monastic church in Clouncagh, nestling as it did within the graveyard and centrally located within the larger fort enclosure, was a centre of worship for the local Christian community until around 1700 when public Catholic worship in Ireland was proscribed by the Penal Laws. The present parish of Knockaderry – Clouncagh (bringing together the previous parishes of Cloncagh, Clonelty and Grange) seems to have come into being around 1700 when Knockaderry began to be used as a Mass venue. The village was also granted a patent for a fair in 1711 and so it became the new centre of economic activity in the area and the old monastic sites in Cloncagh and Clonelty and Grange, which had been the focus of activity for the previous one thousand years began to fade in importance. In the 17th and 18th Century the church in Cloncagh continued in use as a Church of Ireland church. By the early 19th century the church lay abandoned and in ruins.
Diocesan and Parish’ boundaries were established at the Synod of Ráth Breasail (also known as Rathbreasail) in 1111. This Synod marked the transition of the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan and parish-based church and many present-day dioceses trace their boundaries to decisions made at the synod. Our earliest records show that Fr Hugh Conway, who resided in Gortnacrehy, was registered and appointed Parish Priest of the former medieval parishes of Clouncagh, Clonelty and Grange, the rough equivalent of the present-day parish, in 1704. However, it wasn’t until 1853 on the death of Fr James Quillinan that Fr Denis O’Brien, who was Parish Priest in Knockaderry at the time, became the Parish Priest of the united parishes of Knockadery and Clouncagh.
In the 19th Century the Catholic Mass House in Clouncagh was situated just off the byroad, behind the present day church in land owned by the Begley family. This Mass House was severely damaged on the night of January 6th, 1839, ‘The Night of the Big Wind’. The roof was blown off and the wooden structure suffered other damage and yet amazingly within a year this Mass House had been replaced with a new church, St. Mary’s, which was officially opened in Clouncagh in1840. This is the church which still stands today having undergone numerous renovations down the years.
Over the gothic entrance to the church carved in limestone is the original inscription: Clouncagh RC Church Erected 1840. Inside the church there are also inscriptions to past parish priests who were revered by the local parishioners for their pastoral work in very difficult times. In the early nineteenth century the supply of priests improved and two priests were appointed to the parish, Fr James Quillinan for Clouncagh and Fr Denis O’Brien for Knockaderry. When Fr James Quillinan died in 1853 he was buried before the altar in Clouncagh as he had been the main driving force in the construction of the new church in 1840. Fr Denis O’Brien, who had built St Munchin’s Church in Knockaderry also in 1840, then took over as the parish priest for the united parishes of Knockaderry and Clouncagh. Both priests are buried in Clouncagh where there is also a separate memorial to Fr. O’Brien to the left of the nave near the altar. This reads:
This monument has been erected
By his devoted sister to the memory of
Rev. Denis O’Brien P.P.
Whose long and zealous pastoral charge
For 36 years has endeared his name
To his numerous and admiring friends.
He died 19th March 1868
Year of his age 60
Requiescat in Pace. Amen.
The Rev. Cornelius McCarthy is also buried within the church. He was ordained in 1848 and served in the united parishes of Knockaderry and Clouncagh and died on Christmas Day 1885. A commemorative plaque on the wall to the right of the nave reads:
Of the priestly virtues
And sterling patriotism
Of the Rev Cornelius McCarthy
Who ruled for eighteen years
As the much beloved pastor of these parishes.
It became accepted practice within the parish that the Parish Priest resided in Clouncagh and the curate, if there was one, resided in Knockaderry.
The site of the Old Graveyard and ruined church at Cloncagh, from which the area gets its name, was the site of an early monastic establishment possibly dating from the 7th – Century. Some have credited its foundation to St. Maedoc of Ferns, who died in 624AD, while others say that he may just have been its patron. The graveyard and ruined church is contained within a large circular enclosure, formed by an earthen bank and an exterior ditch (some of which has now been dismantled but visible in earlier OS maps). The diameter of the enclosure is 220 metres and it encloses an area of 9.38 acres. The church and graveyard are located centrally within the enclosure and the present day local roadway bisects it east to west.
Further evidence that the site is an early monastery is provided by three holy wells recorded in the vicinity, Lady’s Well (Tubbermurry or Tobar Muire), Sundays Well (Tobar Rí an Domhnaigh), and St. Patrick’s Well. Only St. Patrick’s Well survives. Caoimhín Ó Danachair, the prominent Irish folklorist wrote about St. Patrick’s Well in 1955 in Holy Wells of County Limerick:
St Patrick’s Well was celebrated for curing blindness. Visited especially on 17th March. The Legend goes that while praying at Leacht Phádraig (a rock about 1000 yards from the well, associated in tradition with the saint) St Patrick saw a serpent approaching the church, and banished it by throwing his prayer-book at it. The well sprang up where the book fell. A fish is seen in the well by those whose requests are to be granted. (p. 204).
There is a record of the burning of Clouncagh church in 1326 by the Irish in their war with the Normans. There are at least two burial chambers still visible today in the graveyard – one belonging to the D’Arcy family, local landlords and the others for members of the Tierney family.
Usually a fort, especially one as big and imposing as the one in Clouncagh would be referred to as a ráth or a lios or a dún in Irish. We have to wonder why this is not the case with the great fort in Clouncagh. Indeed, within the parish there are examples of townlands with names such as Lisanisky (Lios an Uisce) or Rathfredagh, while the neighbouring parish to the north is Rathkeale (Ráth Caola). However, Clouncagh seems to be an exception to the rule, probably because of its vast size. In his extensive writings on the ancient churches and ring forts in County Limerick, noted Irish antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist, T.J. Westropp M.A. M.R.I.A., mentions ‘the great fort of Dromin at Clouncagh’. He classes it as the largest ring fort in County Limerick. This fact is interesting in itself because Limerick has 2,147 ring forts taking up approximately 317 acres. P. J. Lynch who surveyed the parish of Knockaderry – Cloncagh in 1944 as part of the Irish Tourist Association Topographical and General Survey tells us that ‘locally it is considered to have been a seat of Government in ancient times’.
The Irish version of the name Cluain Catha, seems to imply that it is named after a battle but as Donal Begley has already pointed out this is but one possible translation of the placename. There is very little reference to be found in official sites of any significant battle and very little in local folklore although we do have the reference to the fact that the then wooden church was ‘destroyed by war’ in 1326 and was rebuilt.
The following account is found in the Schools Folklore Collection (1937 – 1939) from the Convent National School in Ballingarry. The teacher’s name is Sister Mary Treasa. In my opinion, it is a perfect example of local folklore stepping in with its own narrative in the absence of any concrete historical evidence to the contrary and there may also be some evidence of nationalism insinuating itself into the mix!
One young contributor to the Collection wrote:
Clouncagh means Cluain – Cath. The Meadow of the Battle. It derived its name from a great battle fought there in the 17th century between the Irish and the English. The Irish were successful in that Battle. The victors followed the retreating army from Clouncagh across the country to Ballinarouga. Ballinarouga means the town of the rout. It got its name from the fact that the English troops were put to flight there.
However, while this claim is at best very fanciful it is true that the townland of Ballinarouga (‘The Townland of the Rout’) lies directly to the east of the ring fort enclosure in Clouncagh, and it is also interesting to note that the townland of Gortnacrehy (‘The Field of the Plunder’) also lies directly to the south. So even though there is no historical evidence of major battles being fought there it does seem that, going on the evidence of the local placenames alone, there were a fair few skirmishes in the area surrounding the monastic settlement in Clouncagh. The very fact that the battle, and not the fort itself is remembered in the placename leads us to believe that like many other important monastic sites in Ireland the fort at Clouncagh may have been a great source of dispute and contention in the dim and distant past.Is not the fact that the site was surrounded by impressive defensive ramparts but further evidence of its historic importance in the local area?
As I have already discussed here the renowned scholar and antiquarian, John O’Donovan visited and surveyed the parishes of Clonelty and Cloncagh in the summer of 1840 as part of preparatory work for the 6” Ordnance Survey Map being developed at the time. Dr O’Donovan was a noted historian and the translator of TheAnnals of the Four Masters, an Irish-speaking scholar and scribe, and he was the Ordnance Survey’s overall Names Expert during their survey conducted between 1824 and 1846. It was O’Donovan’s responsibility to enter all the Irish versions of names into the Names Books, in addition to the English spelling recommended for the published maps. In effect, his role was to standardize the translations of the Irish placenames into English and as far as the Ordnance Survey were concerned his word was law.
The vast majority of placenames in Ireland are anglicized versions of Irish language names. In many cases this entailed adapting the original Irish names to a standardized English phonology and spelling. Gerard Curtin in his fabulous book, Every Field Had a Name, tells us that all of the townland placenames in the parish of Knockaderry and Clouncagh were recorded between 1200 and 1655. Curtin tells us that this is the only instance of this occurring in West Limerick and is evidence of a land well-endowed and densely populated. So when O’Donovan surveyed the parish of Knockaderry in 1840 he found a rich vein of placenames containing often mysterious and sometimes unexplained echoes of the past.
His work on this survey was rigorous and meticulous, so much so that the Ordnance Survey of Ireland Names Books are sometimes referred to as ‘O’Donovan’s Name Books’. O’Donovan spent July and August 1840 in West Limerick and he signed off on his work on the parish of Cloncagh and Clonelty on 25 July 1840. He was assisted in his work in Limerick by Padraig Ó Caoimh and Antaine Ó Comhraí (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii). Ó Maolfabhail recognises the validity and status of O’Donovan’s work when he tells us that by 1840 there were only four other counties to be completed as part of this nationwide survey and so, therefore, O’Donovan had huge experience gained already as part of his work on the survey. This experience stood him in good stead in his attempts to standardize the translations of placenames from the Irish to the English and in trying to make sense of the etymology of the various placenames he came across (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii).
The Orthography Section of the Names Books provides the various spellings for each townland or place and the Authority Section gives the source from which these variations were derived. This was a controversial part of the Survey, especially in the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland. Thomas Larcom, the head of the Ordnance Survey, and, John O’Donovan, had a clear policy when it came to the variant spellings and meanings of Irish place-names, which was to adopt ‘the version which came closest to the original Irish form of the name’. O’Donovan is following on from long accepted practice the advice and ground rules laid down by such experts as his friend and fellow academic Patrick Weston Joyce who wrote the book Irish Local Names Explained which dealt with the process of anglicizing Irish placenames. Joyce, a Limerick man from Ballyorgan, near Kilfinnane, tells us that the governing principle in anglicizing placenames from the Irish is that ‘the present forms are derived from the ancient Irish, as they were spoken, not as they were written’. He goes on to say that there had been a long standing procedure whereby ‘those who first committed them to writing, aimed at preserving the original pronunciation, by representing it as nearly as they were able in English letters’. In my view, the over-rigorous application of standardization by O’Donovan fails to take account of local variations of pronunciation and so, to this day, we are left with a dissonance between the spelling and the local pronunciation of Clouncagh.
O’Donovan, in his extensive travels throughout Ireland as part of this nationwide survey, would have come across many placenames with the popular prefix ‘Cluain’ and he seems to have decided that this should be universally rendered as ‘Clon’ in the accepted Anglicised translation. We are very familiar with many of these placenames today throughout the length and breadth of Ireland: Clonmel, Clontarf, Clonlara, Clontibret, Clonmacnoise, Cloncagh, etc. Even though his Name Books refer to ‘Clooncagh’ and ‘Cloonelty’ they would later appear as Cloncagh and Clonelty in the 6” map which was produced by the Ordnance Survey in 1843. So, dare I say it, we have none other than the eminent John O’Donovan to blame for giving us ‘Cloncagh’ despite the mild-mannered objections of many locals to this day; especially those who continue to pronounce the placename with a ‘u’.
Referring to the origins of the placename in his Name Books, he is at pains to balance the two vying possibilities: on the one hand, he acknowledges the monastic site and the possible connection to St Maedoc, while on the other hand, he states that, ‘The name, however, is now pronounced by the natives as if written Cluain Cath, which if correct would signify Battle-Field.’
In his Name Books he also references numerous historical documents which mention Clouncagh and references one story which may be relevant to the origins of the placename. He quotes from, the noted priest and academic, Dr John Lanigan’s, The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, V.II, p 338:
Maidoc was remarkable for his hospitality and benevolence. On being informed that some relatives of his were prisoners in Hy-Conall Gabhra (141) he went to that Country, although far distant from Ferns, for the purpose of delivering them and did not desist until he induced the Chieftain, otherwise very harsh on this point, to give them up. It is added that this Chieftain was so affected by the Saint’s (p.339) conduct that he granted him a place called Cluain-Claidheach, in which he erected a Monastery (142).
In my opinion, this may go some way to explaining why Clouncagh (Clauin Catha) is an exception to the rule mentioned earlier: the fort was gifted to St. Maedoc and changed from being a fortified place to a place of worship and monastic activity as far back as the 7th century. In a way, the fort was, in effect, a trophy of war and so retained its original name to remind people of its history. Donal Begley seems to agree with this view and he asks the question:
Could it be that Cluain Catha means a ‘trophy’ townland to remind us of a notable victory won by the fort men against an enemy on the ‘battlefield’?
In his beautiful book, Thirty-Two Words for Field, Manchán Magan illustrates the richness and variety which the Irish language bestows on those seemingly anonymous expanses of indistinguishable fields which surround us in our beautiful countryside. He tells us that Cluain is ‘a meadow field between two woods’. This suggests a fenced off or bounded meadow, and would aptly describe the fort enclosure at Clouncagh. Today, we can but surmise as to what took place on this holy site and the significance of the placename associated with it. It may be that it was the focus of local rivalry between warring chieftains in pre-Christian times, or indeed, as was very common in early Irish society, it may have been the location of numerous old fashioned cattle raids like the famous Cattle Raid at Cooley. Or, as John O’Donovan suggests in another one of his references to olden manuscripts it may indeed have been gifted to St Maedoc by the local chieftain as a reward for restoring his daughter to life. He references a story from The Life of St Maedoc:
Before the entrance of that fort the Man of God fasted for three days. The fast being ended, the daughter of the Chief … died suddenly. The wife of the Chief, knowing that this fact was the cause of a miracle, brought the lifeless body to St Maedoc. And the servant of God being requested by her mother and by her attendants, resuscitated her from death. ……. The Chief seeing this now, did penance and left his relatives liberated to St Maedoc, and offered him the place which is called Cluainchladh-bhaith (Cluain-claidhblaim) and the Holy Man erected a Monastery there, and blessing the place itself and the Chief who gave it, retired from thence.
Today as one stands at the gateway to the old cemetery in Clouncagh the semi-circular rampart to the north of the roadway is still clearly visible while the ramparts to the south have been eroded over time and removed by local farmers trying to improve their farmsteads. Today also there is only one well in the fields to the south – St. Patrick’s Well still stands forlornly as a reminder of former glory.
So, we can see that the confusion as to whether Clouncagh or Cloncagh is the correct modern version of the placename is still contentious. Our Ordnance Survey maps, our County Council, other government agencies, indeed the Diocese, all still rely on long-outdated information found in the old civil parishes documentation and so they still refer to the place as Cloncagh while the locals with their generations of lore and accepted pronunciation seem to prefer Clouncagh. As with the etymology and orthography of other placenames in our community, such as Aughalin/Ahalin for example, local lore is often ignored and disregarded as not having sufficient authority.
In reality, I suppose, the more we delve into the blurry past the more we realise that placenames don’t correspond to a single event and are more often the accretion over time of mundane common speech which is finally calcified by someone of the calibre of John O’Donovan who stops the spinning wheel of discursive meaning and sets it in amber for future generations as he did in July 1840. Mixed metaphors aside, I suppose, we must seek forgiveness for our desire to ascribe heroic meaning to a placename if at all possible and human nature being what it is if we can entwine some simplistic nationalism in the knot then more’s the better!
Meanwhile, the locals, including such esteemed scholars as Donal Begley continue to plough their lonely furrow and seek to have restored the only version of the placename acceptable to them: Clouncagh (Cluain Catha). However, whatever our preferences the reality is that it is impossible to know with absolute certainty what the correct version is and that ensures that the original etymology of many of our placenames will always be up for discussion and debate.
Bailiúchán na Scol, Imleabhar 0500, page 171
Begley, Donal. A Wayside Farm by the River: Clouncagh Remembered, Privately Published by the author. Printed by Reads Design, Print and Display Dublin. 2015.
Begley, Donal. John O’Byrne Croke: Life and Times of a Clouncagh Scholar. Print and Design: Modern Printers, Kilkenny. 2018.
Curtin, Gerard. Every Field Had a Name – The Place-Names of West Limerick. Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012.
Joyce, P. W., Irish Local Names Explained (1923). Scholar’s Choice Edition, Creative Media Partnership, LLC, 2015.
Knockaderry Clouncagh Parish Annuals
Lanigan’s, Dr John (1758 – 1825), The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland.
Manchán Magan, Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape, Gill Books, Dublin, 2020.
Ó Danachair, Caoimhín, Holy Wells of County Limerick, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. LXXXV, 1955.
Art Ó Maolfabhail, Logainmneacha na hÉireann Imleabhair: 1 Contae Luimnigh, (Baile Átha Cliath, 1990).
O’Donavan, John. Ordnance Survey Name Books
Quilty, Pat. Knockaderry Clouncagh Graveyards, a West Limerick Resources grant aided project, 2014.
Westropp, T.J., “A Survey of the Ancient Churches of the County of Limerick”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, XXV, 327 – 480.
Michael Hartnett began Secondary School in September 1956. He arrived in St. Ita’s Secondary School with a burgeoning reputation. By that time he had had his first poem published in the Limerick Weekly Echo as far back as the 18th of June 1955. He was then thirteen and still a student in the Courtenay Boys National School. The poem was entitled ‘Camas Road’, and it described in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (Book of Strays 67). He sat his Intermediate Certificate in June 1959 and later in mid-September the results were published in the Limerick Leader and Hartnett from 28 Assumpta Park was first on the list having received a full set of seven honours.
Patrick J. O’Connor, later to be Dr. Patrick J. O’Connor, who for most of his academic life lectured and published extensively on human geography at the University of Limerick, entered the school as a first year in September 1959 and has vivid memories of the young Hartnett and saw him, in particular, as a shining role model to be emulated. He describes Hartnett at that time as ‘a small, slight figure, bookish, often solitary, never a participant in play in the field opposite his house’.
In his evocative memoir, The New Houses, O’Connor also suggests that Hartnett, despite his excellent academic record, did not find favour with the school’s Principal and Manager, Jim Breen. O’Connor held Jim Breen in high esteem and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’ He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything. He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive. He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’ The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.
According to O’Connor, Mike Hartnett ‘was the target of persistent monitoring on the part of the headmaster, Jim Breen’. Mike was a voracious reader and it seems that not all of his reading material was on the Prescribed English Syllabus and some of the literary works did not always find favour with the erstwhile headmaster. According to O’Connor, it was the ‘skewed subject content that bothered Jim Breen’. He made repeated raids on Hartnett’s gabháil of books. Following these repeated attacks O’Connor says that in his eyes, ‘From the status of heroic scholar Michael Hartnett sank into disrepute’ as a result of this regular attention paid to him by the headmaster!
It seems he didn’t fare any better with his English teacher, Willie O’Donnell. According to Pat O’Connor, O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system. A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’! Seemingly, he persistently charged his young student, Hartnett, with the indictable offence ‘of meditating the Muse’. It was only a matter of time before the Empire struck back and Hartnett it seems planned and executed a number of retributions on Willie O’Donnell. Even long after he had left the influence of St Ita’s, indeed long after he had left UCD, and while carrying out periodic commissions for The Irish Times in the Sixties and Seventies, he made a number of pointed references to his former school which were not seen as complimentary by management. For example, in an article in The Irish Times on November 11th, 1968 he writes:
I left the national school in 1956 and lost an ally (Frank Finucane). Secondary school came then, and I wrote many poems (all, fortunately, lost) and made a new enemy, my English teacher. For five years I was beaten more often for ‘meditating the Muse’, as he called it than for lack of learning. But my poetry changed for the better, not because of the school, but because I partook of an old Irish custom: the girl I loved at the time entered a convent. This and the claustrophobia of Newcastle West, its rich and its poor, its bullying priest, turned me to write about myself …….. I was a poor man’s son in a secondary school, a place I had no right to be, as I was often reminded.
Harnett was never forgiven for all these indiscretions, by Jim Breen. Even when he returned as a recognised poet to Newcastle West in the 1970s and lived for a decade ‘out foreign in Glantine’ he was not welcomed back with open arms to his old alma mater while Jim held sway – even when Michael’s son, Niall, was a student in the school in the early Eighties.
There was, however, one teacher in the school who recognised Hartnett’s latent talent and who was most attuned to this rebel without a cause and that was Dave Hayes. As a teacher, Dave Hayes brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin. According to Pat O’Connor, he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’ This assessment was reinforced later during Dr O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’. Dave Hayes was probably responsible for ensuring that Hartnett continued his Secondary education in St. Ita’s until he was nearly twenty years of age. His earlier scholastic promise failed to develop, however, and he eventually left St. Ita’s with honours only in Irish and English – much to the chagrin of his father, Denis.
Jim Breen retired as Principal in 1977 but continued as Manager and owner of the school until his death in 1984. Following his death, Des Healy, who had become Principal of the school on the untimely death of Noel Ruddle in 1981, took over the reins as Manager up until the school closed its doors on 29th May 1992. Des Healy was a past pupil of the school and, indeed, had been a classmate of Hartnett’s during their time in school. Des remained a lifelong friend of the poet, Michael Hartnett.
I will end this post with a true story. Honestly! I was there! As I mentioned earlier, Des was Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School in the 1980s and Michael’s son Niall was a student in the school up until about 1985. To add to the intrigue Michael’s brother Dinny was the local postman at the time. One morning Des received a postcard from the poet delivered by hand to the school by Dinny the Postman. The postcard, which no doubt had also been read by Dinny prior to delivery, read as follows:
If I ever have any more children I won’t be sending them to your school. This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided in your school – it’s just the principal of the thing.
Hartnett, Michael, A Book of Strays, ed. Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 2002.
O’Connor, Patrick J., The New Houses – A Memoir, Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 2009.
O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.
Read also blog post ‘Happy Memories of St. Ita’s Secondary School’ here..
On October 24th 2017 I published a piece here about the etymology of the townland placename Ahalin (Aughalin) in Knockaderry in West Limerick. You can catch up on the original article here. In it, I focused particularly on the local lore and folk wisdom which still holds that the placename Ahalin (Aughalin) is translated as Acadh Lín (the field of the flax). I was able to trace the fact that this translation came about largely through the teaching and forceful personality of the local Principal teacher in Aughalin National School, Michéal de Burca in the 1930s. In fact, with very little encouragement, local people could tell me that Ahalin meant ‘the field of the flax’ and most were also able to pinpoint its location.
Today there are two English variations of the placename, the more official Aughalin, which appears on the Ordnance Survey maps and the townland has also been referred to as Ahalin since at least 1831 when it appears on the Census Returns. In 1867 a weighty limestone plaque was erected on the new National School recently opened in the area – this read ‘Ahalin National School 1867’. This plaque can still be viewed today embedded in the wall of the newly constructed set-down area and parking lot in the new school in Ahalin.
There is very little problem with the English versions of the townland’s name and both (Aughalin and Ahalin) are accepted locally and are often interchangeable. What is problematic is the current official Irish translation (or re-translation) of the placename being used by the Placenames Commission. P. W. Joyce in the second of his three-volume work on the origin and history of Irish names and places, first published in 1875, tells us that, ‘In the parish of Clonelty, near Newcastle in Limerick, there is a townland taking its name from a ford called Aughalin, the ford (ath) of the lin or pool’ (Joyce, 409). In the Preface to Volume One, Joyce, a learned Limerick man from Ballyorgan, acknowledges the help received from another placenames expert, Dr John O’Donovon, when he says, ‘I have had the advantage of two safe guides, Dr John O’Donovan and the Rev William Reeves, D.D.’ (Joyce, Vol I. vii). John O’Donovan, of whom more anon, visited the parish of Clonelty, present-day Knockaderry, in July 1840 to carry out a survey as part of the original Ordnance Survey mapping exercise carried out in Ireland. He also mentions Aughalin and gives its meaning as ‘the ford of the pond or pool’. This is the obvious literal translation, ‘Áth’ being the Irish for a ford and ‘Linn’ being the Irish for a pool. (Dublin was once Dubh Linn or Blackpool!).
Amazinly, in spite of this information and scholarship and also local knowledge and traditional usage, the official Irish version of the townland is given as Áith Liní in the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003. In Irish ‘Áith’ means ‘a kiln’ and there is evidence from old maps of the area that there were at least two kilns in the area. However, if we accept that the present anglicised form of the townland, Aughalin, refers to Áith meaning kiln there is still the difficulty that ‘Liní’ has no obvious meaning and no known local connotations or associations.
Surely local lore must count for something in trying to hear the faint whispers of a once rich oral tradition from the past. Gerard Curtin deals with this in the Introduction to Every Field Had a Name when he says:
The survival of hundreds of minor place-names in the south-west County Limerick, in an area that remained Irish speaking for longer than many other areas of the county, shows the extraordinary richness of the topoynmical tradition in Irish.
According to local knowledge and tradition (more than likely promoted by Michéal de Burca who taught and lived in Aughalin from the 1930s until the 1960s), the correct rendering in Irish of the anglicised word Ahalin (or Aughalin) is Achadh Lín which he translated as ‘the field of the flax’. This is the Irish version used locally to this day and the ‘new’ Primary School in Ahalin (opened in October 1963) is known as Scoil Mhuire, Achadh Lín.
My original blog post also tried to research the link between the locality and the growing and milling of flax and found that there was a history of flax growing in the locality and that as far back as 1654 the Limerick Civil Survey records a tuck mill for flax (and later for grain up to 1924) in Ballinoe. This mill was known as Reeves’s Mill. This, in turn, led me to consider other possibilities as to the etymology of the place name and to research the existence of the placename over the centuries. Art Ó Maolfabhail takes such a longer view in his seminal research, Logainmneacha na hÉireann, Imleabhar I: Contae Luimní, where he outlines the etymology of the placename Áith Liní as it has appeared in various documents and other official sources down the years:
1586 it appears as Athlyne in Peyton’s Survey, p. 108
1592 it appears as Allyneghe in F5781
1655 it appears as Athliny in the Limerick Civil Survey IV, 256, and as Athlinye in the Limerick Civil Survey, 298.
1659 it appears as Aheliny in Census of Ireland, c. 1659, 280.
1715 it appears as Athlinny in Clarann na Gníomhas. 16.311.7576
1750 it appears as Aghelinie in Clarann na Gníomhas. 144.378.97897 and again as Aghelinnie in Clarann na Gníomhas. 144.379.97899
1761 it appears as Agaliny in Clarann na Gníomhas. 212.591.140955
1807 it appears as Agalinny or Aghalinagh in Clarann na Gníomhas. 603.137.410629
1840 it appears as Aughalin in O’Donovan’s Field Name Books and áth a linne in pencil in O’Donovan’s Field Name Books. This is the anglicised form which is most commonly seen in the old Ordnance Survey maps of the 19th Century.
In light of other evidence, however, Ó Maolfabhail’s conclusion is disappointing. Having weighed all the evidence, he rejects ‘the ford of the pool’ version favoured by P. W. Joyce and O’Donovan and doesn’t even consider Michéal de Burca’s ‘field of the flax’ version. Instead, he concludes that the official place name translation should be ‘kiln of (unknown)’. He further adds: ‘Ní léir cad dó a sheasann Liní. Toisc gan abhainn a bheith san áit, measadh gurbh oiriúnaí áith (meaning kiln) ná áth (meaning ford)’.
Dr John O’Donovan, noted historian and the translator of the Annals of the Four Masters, an Irish-speaking scholar and scribe, was the Ordnance Survey’s overall Names Expert used by the Ordnance Survey during their survey conducted between 1824 and 1846. It was O’Donovan’s responsibility to enter all the Irish versions of names into the Names Books, in addition to the English spelling recommended for the published maps. For this reason, the Ordnance Survey of Ireland Names Books are sometimes referred to as O’Donovan’s Name Books. O’Donovan spent July and August 1840 in Limerick and he signed off on his work on the parish of Clonelty on 25 July 1840. He was assisted in his work in Limerick by Padraig Ó Caoimh and Antaine Ó Comhraí. Ó Maolfabhail recognises the validity and status of O’Donovan’s work when he acknowledges that by 1840 there were only four other counties to be completed as part of this nationwide survey and therefore O’Donovan had the advantage gained from having completed twenty-five other counties. This experience stood him in good stead in trying to make sense of the etymology of the various placenames (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii).
One of the most important functions of the Ordnance Survey was to name the geographical features, prominent buildings and landmarks of each townland so that these could be included on the Ordnance Survey Maps when they were eventually published. We know from these Name Books that John O’Donovan visited and wrote up the account describing the antiquities and topographical features of the then parishes of Clonelty and Clouncagh in July 1840.
Information for each townland was collected and written into the Name Book under five headings: the received name, the name finally adopted for the townland and the one placed onto the 6-inch Ordnance Survey Map in 1837. The Name Book also provided the Irish form of the name and in many instances what the Irish form of the townlands’ names meant. This was the last stage of the ‘Topographical’ process. The orthography section of the Names Books provides the various spellings for each townland or place and the authority section gives the source from which these variations were derived. This was a controversial part of the Survey, especially in the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland. Thomas Larcom, the head of the Ordnance Survey, and, John O’Donovan, had a clear policy when it came to the variant spellings and meanings of Irish place-names, which was to adopt ‘the version which came closest to the original Irish form of the name’. Thus, it seems, for O’Donovan the presence or absence of topographical features like ponds or pools made little difference to him when settling on a particular name. What mattered to him was to settle on an acceptable form which remained faithful to the original in Irish.
O’Donovan‘s observations on the townland of Aughalin are to be found in these Name Books and a transcribed version can be accessed in the Field Name Books of the County and City of Limerick. It is a collection of more than 1,700 pages of transcribed notes by surveyors during the first Ordnance Survey of County Limerick, c.1840. O’Donovan’s entry for Aughalin is as follows:
Aughalin, Áth a linne, ford of the pond or pool.
Aughalin – is his favoured anglicised version for the townland
-Version found in Tithe Book of Revd. J.Croker
-Version used by Revd. J. Cullinan, P.P.
Ahalin – Version found in Barony Book 1834
-Version found in County Presentment Book 1839
-Also found in Census Return 1831
Ahalina – as in Barony Map
Athliny – as found in Limerick Civil Survey 1654 – 56
In the northeast part of the parish, a quarter of a mile east of Knockaderry Village. It is bounded on the north by Ballybrown townland and the parish of Rathkeale; east by the parish of Cloncagh; south by Kilgolban townland; and west by the townland of Kiltanna. It contains 565 acres, statute measure.
This townland is the property of Robert Featherston, Esq., and has a few portions of heathy pasture in the south and south west extremity. The remainder of the townland is under tillage and pasture. Aughalin Wood is on its north west boundary, and the road from Knockaderry to Ballingarry passes south of this wood through the townland. There are also three ancient forts in the townland, one of which is on its southern boundary. Acreable rent – £1 7s.
It has to be said that O’Donovan is being very diplomatic and circumspect here. The area he refers to as being ‘heathy pasture‘ is, in fact, a large saucer-shaped marshy area known locally as The Rhootachs. It is interesting also that he makes mention of Aughalin Wood as being another significant topographical feature of the townland. This was a large oak wood and probably where the present day parish of Knockaderry gets its name – Cnoc an Doire.
Another local historian and writer, Gerard Curtin, in his excellent book, Every Field Had a Name – The Place-Names of West Limerick while agreeing with Ó Maolfabhail’s assessment seems to give equal credence to O’Donovan’s translation:
AUGHALIN, Áith Liní, ‘the kiln of (unknown)’ according to Ó Maolfabhail, while O’Donovan (in Field Name Books, p. 440) believed it was from Áth na Linne, ‘ford of the pool’ (Curtin, 71).
Interestingly, Curtin also mentions that the most striking feature of the landscape in Aughalin up to the present day is the marshy area in the southwest of the townland known as The Rhootachs (also Ruatach or Rhootaigh). This is the area which O’Donavon refers to as ‘a few portions of heathy pasture in the south and south-west extremity’. This covered over fifty acres c.1913.
I sent a copy of my original blog post to the Placenames Commission for their views and shortly afterwards received a reply from Dr Conchubhar Ó Crualaoich and in the reply, the popular belief that the townland name, Aughalin/Ahalin derives from ‘the field of the flax’ is totally debunked. He states:
In regard to Aughalin, I refer you to the publication Logainmneacha na hÉireann, Imleabhar I: Contae Luimní, ed. Art Ó Maolfabhail. In that publication one finds a number of historical forms of this place-name such as ‘Athliny’, ‘Aheliny’, ‘Athlinny’, ‘Aghelinie’, and a local version recorded in 1840 namely ‘áth a linne’, which are all incompatible with derivation of the final element from lín ‘of flax’, as that lacks a final vowel. The absence of a final vowel from the later official anglicised form, Aughalin and the variant Ahalin, is doubtless due to the common loss of unstressed final vowels in anglicisation (see Townlands of Wexford ). It is also noteworthy that the historical forms and the local spoken form do not reflect the long vowel in lín. Therefore, Achadh Lín cannot be the precursor to Aughalin in this instance – it is not at one with the overall historical evidence for this place-name.
However, while this historical evidence certainly rules out a final lín ‘of flax’ in the Irish precursor, identity of the final element remains somewhat unclear, although it does reflect Liní, or similar, and it is for this reason, I believe, that the phonetic approximation Liní was recommended in the official Irish form of the name.
However, he also puts forward an alternative theory. He says that more evidence has come to light that the surname Lyn is recorded among the Anglo-Normans in Limerick in 1374. According to Dr Ó Crualaoich:
This could have generated an Irish version such as An Lineach (gen. an Linigh) “the person called Lin < Lyn”- which in turn could be in the precursor to Aughalin, as in Áith an Linigh ‘the kiln of the person called An Lineach (< Lyn)’.
Áith ‘kiln’ is reflected in early historical forms of the name such as ‘Athlyne’ and ‘Athlini’, as áth ‘ford’ is unlikely given the absence of any river of size here.
In this regard, the presence of disused lime-kilns in this townland is notable (see Ordnance Survey 25” map).
While I have not come across any evidence that a family called Lyn ever lived in the area there is the possibility that Lyn could be related to the Gaelic surname Fhloinn (Flynn) – a name common in the area until recently.
Either way, Dr. Conchubhair O Crualaoich’s final conclusion leaves little doubt – in his mind at least – that Ahalin (Aughalin) has not derived from an association with flax:
It can only be restated that the historical evidence for this place-name does not support derivation from Achadh an Lín. The word líon (gen. lín) is reflected in the evidence for a number of place-names, but this is certainly not one of them.
So, it seems that the presently widely accepted local re-translation of Aughalin as ‘The field of the flax’ is just fortuitous because the memory of flax growing in the locality in the 19th century was still somewhat fresh in the collective memory in the 1930s. P. W. Joyce in Volume One of his magnum opus, The Origins and History of Irish Names and Places warns against using recent developments to explain an age-old placename:
It is very dangerous to depend on the etymologies of the people, who are full of imagination and will often quite distort a word to meet some fanciful derivation; or they will account for a name by some silly story obviously of recent invention, and so far as the origin of the name is concerned, not worth a moment’s consideration (Joyce, Vol I, p.5).
When Michéal de Búrca began teaching in Aughalin in the 1930s he used his extensive knowledge of Irish to make the rather tenuous connection with flax. However, we can now say with 20/20 hindsight that he was in error and this was but a modern example of revisionism or the shoehorning of the translation of a placename to appease the zeitgeist of the 1930s and 40s. However, in a way, whatever the Placenames Commission may think, his efforts to translate Aughalin or Ahalin, as Acadh Lín, is far more evocative than the meaningless Áith Liní, ‘the kiln of (unknown)’ proposed by Ó Maolfabhail and now held up as the ‘official’ version by the Placenames Commission and in the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003.
We already noted that Aughalin was first recorded in the sixteenth century in Peyton’s Survey of 1586 as ‘Athlyne’ (probably from the Irish Áth Linn, ‘ford of the pool’). There is also no doubt the landscape has changed considerably in the intervening 400 years. The problems which have arisen with the present Irish versions of Aughalin seem to be that a once prominent topographical feature of the landscape – namely a pond or pool – seems to have disappeared or even dried up. Gerard Curtin is of the opinion that as the landscape began to be enclosed from the early eighteenth century great improvements to the land by drainage took place over the following 200 years. We can see in the 25-inch Ordnance Survey Map of 1888-1913 that the fields to the north of this marshy area known as the Rhootachs (or Rhootiagh) are very uniform in size, suggesting planned reclamation. The original 6” map of 1843 also clearly shows what seems to have been an L shaped screen of trees planted probably with a view to aiding drainage in the area. With this drainage on the periphery of the marsh, the level of water fell over many years. It is more than likely that in the medieval period this marshy area may have contained a body of water, such as a pool or a small lake or pond particularly at very wet times of the year. The same map shows a crossing/trackway running from northeast to southwest through the marsh enclosed by ditches and is wide enough to drive cattle. O’Donovan would definitely have seen more evidence of this pool or wetland in 1840 than would have been in evidence in the 1930s when Michéal de Burca cast great doubt on the translation of Aughalin as ‘the ford of the pool’ because in his view, ‘there isn’t a pool within miles of this place, and there’s no ford in the place because there’s no river’. In fact, the old Ordnance survey maps indicate a tributary of the Abha na Scáth river rises in The Rhootiagh. More recent maps show that the watercourse begins further to the north, a little south of the Knockaderry to Ballingarry road. This land in question is still known locally as The Rootach and is still very marshy and is presently under extensive forestry plantation. Curtin’s strong belief is that there was a ford through The Rootach from the medieval period, and thus the name, ‘the ford of the pool’ was given to the townland as a whole.
There are, therefore, a number of plausible translations for the placename Aughalin/Ahalin since it was first mentioned in the sixteenth century. We must remember that all these variations were but phonetic representations in English of the Irish placenames then in use. Despite the lack of standardisation down the centuries, two elements remain constant – one is the ‘áth’ and the other is ‘linn’, or similar variations such as ‘liny’, or ‘linnie’. Ironically, the official version in use today is probably the most implausible one of all. Ó Maolfabhail’s safe translation is ‘Áith Liní’ which he translates as ‘the kiln of (someone unknown)’. Likewise, Michéal de Burca’s version of ‘Acadh Lín’ which he translates as ‘The field of the flax’, although still favoured today by locals, is probably stretching the language to breaking point as can be seen from Dr Ó Crualaoich’s assessment.
O’Donovan’s translation (ford of the pond or pool) deserves to be taken seriously because he, at least, visited the area and drew up a report on the antiquities, local history and topography of the parishes of Clonelty and Clouncagh as part of the Ordnance Survey team which undertook the mapping of the area in 1840. It needs to be repeated that John O’Donovan, had a clear policy when it came to the variant spellings and meanings of Irish place-names, and that was to adopt ‘the version which came closest to the original Irish form of the name’. If we follow this logic then we no longer need to focus merely on topographical features and it doesn’t really matter if there is no pond or pool to be seen in the landscape today or even at the time O’Donovan visited the area.
The question, therefore, to be considered is was there a time in the dim and distant past when there was a pond or pool in Aughalin? Michéal de Burca cast doubt on O’Donovan’s and Joyce’s versions because, ‘there isn’t a pool within miles of this place, and there’s no ford in the place because there’s no river’. Ó Maolfabhail follows the same line of argument when he settled on Áith meaning ‘kiln’ instead of Áth meaning ford when he says: ‘Toisc gan abhainn a bheith san áit, measadh gurbh oiriúnaí áith (meaning kiln) ná áth (meaning ford)’ (Ó Maolfabhail, p2). I have mentioned the presence in the old Ordnance Survey maps of a minor tributary of the Abha na Scáth river but really it was little more than a run off stream. However, as Curtin points out there could have been a pond or pool in the area of the Rootach in the past with a causeway or path(s) through it and all this has now disappeared because of land reclamation works and drainage over the centuries.
Therefore, there are no easy answers to our difficulty with the etymology of the placename, Aughalin. The different variations and permutations considered here will definitely not please the local people of the area who for the past three-quarters of a century at least have always translated Aughalin as Acadh Lín (The Field of the Flax). The reason I undertook this investigation in the first place was that I was unhappy with the official Irish translation given on the Logainm.ie website and the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003 where the townland of Ahalin is given as Aughalin and the official Irish version of the townland is given as Áith Liní. The big mystery for me is how did Ó Maolfabhail totally disregard the findings of such an eminent authority as Dr John O’Donovan in arriving at his final conclusion?
Hopefully, the original meaning of Aughalin/Ahalin, going all the way back to its first mention in Peyton’s Survey of 1586, has not been forever lost in translation! Hopefully, also, to misquote the eminent P.W. Joyce, this present ‘etymology of the people’ is worth more than ‘a moment’s consideration’……
Curtin, Gerard. Every Field Had a Name – The Place-Names of West Limerick. Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012.
Joyce, P.W., The Origin and History of Irish Names and Places. Vol I. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son. First Published 1869.
Joyce, P.W., The Origin and History of Irish Names and Places. Vol II. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Dublin: The Talbot Press. First Published 1875.
O’Donovan, John. Field Name Books.
Art Ó Maolfabhail, Logainmneacha na hÉireann Imleabhair: 1 Contae Luimnigh, (Baile Átha Cliath, 1990).
 In County Limerick in the 1851 Census the baronies of the south-west, Connello Upper and Glenquin had the most number of Irish speakers, 59.4% and 58.2% respectively. See Breandán Ó Madagáin, An Ghaeilge i Luimneach, 1700 – 1900, (Baile Átha Cliath, 1974) (Curtin, 1).
 A tuck mill was used in the woollen industry to improve the quality of the woven fabric by repeatedly combing it, producing a warm worsted fabric.
 The Limerick Civil Survey IV, County Limerick (ed. Simington, 1938)
 Census of Ireland, c. 1659 (ed. Pender, 1939).
 Ó Maolfabhail, xvii, ‘leagan Gaeilge de logainm agus é scriofa le peann luaidhe, foirm gharbh é seo a breacadh síos go direach ó bhéal cainteora Ghaeilge’.
 Opinion of Gerard Curtin via email correspondence
 O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters, Limerick, Vol 1 – his report on Clonelty and Clouncagh Church ruins is signed and dated 25th July 1840 – the letters can be viewed online at www.askaboutireland.ie and also on The Royal Irish Academy website.
Maiden Street is the longest and oldest street in Newcastle West. Sean Kelly, its resident historian, says that it was built piecemeal on the edge of an ancient glacial moraine. This moraine benefited the town and there were at least three working sand pits in production at one time along the street. Sean Kelly states that ‘It was a street renowned for its trades of all kinds; shoemaking and repair; tailoring and dressmaking; printing; baking; coopers; tinsmiths; blacksmiths; and harness-makers to name a few.’ Patrick J. O’Connor who has also written eloquently about the street confirms this. Speaking of the new proprietors who bought out their leases during the sale of the town in 1910 he says that ‘there was colour aplenty in Maiden Street’. These included Michael ‘Boss’ Culhane who traded in ‘hides, skins, feathers and eggs’! He also mentions George Latchford who had launched a family business circa 1874 which later developed into the well-known bakery and cinema. This family business thrived well into the twentieth century under the stewardship of his sons Jackie, Paddy and Willie.
Poverty was rife in Maiden Street – particularly Lower Maiden Street – and Michael Hartnett makes constant reference to this fact in both his prose and poetry:
We rented a mansion down in lower Maiden Street,
Legsa Murphy our landlord, three shillings a week,
the walls were mud and the roof it did leak
and our mice nearly died of starvation.
The etymology of the street name has always posed problems. Again Sean Kelly says that there is no mention of the street name among the earliest known street names going back to 1584-6, although it was in existence by then, ‘what is clear is the street’s graceful, curvilinear form adorning the earliest available town plan, the Moland Survey of 1709’. Patrick O’Connor suggests that the street name may be derived ‘from the medieval cult of Mariology (Sráid na Maighdine Mhuire)’ (O’Connor:56).
The lower part of the street was sometimes known as Dock Road, in accord with the low status attributed to it. The gardens of the houses on the south side abutted on to a track known locally as ‘the back of the Docks’. At intervals, there were ingresses with steps leading down to the River Arra, where the local women came to do their laundry.
Sean Kelly waxes lyrical about this place: ‘Lengthy, capacious and capricious, Maiden Street was – according to the punchline of a popular rhyme – a favoured place for lodgers’. And while the name of the street remains an enduring enigma, its lower appendage, the Coole (cúil, from the Irish meaning corner or nook) poses no interpretative problem whatever. Sean Kelly himself often claims to belong to Middle Maiden Street and from the records, there is evidence of these subtle divisions as far back as 1776. The street had a distinct Upper, Middle and Lower division and was, in effect, a microcosm of the nuanced social divisions also evident elsewhere in the town!
Hartnett, the street’s very own Poet Laureate pokes further fun at the perceived reputation of the street when he writes in the Maiden Street Ballad:
Tis said that in Church Street no church ever stood,
and to walk up through Bishop Street no bishop would,
and tis said about Maiden Street that maidenhood
was as rare as an asses pullover.
In his Preface to that famous ballad, Hartnett says that ‘Everyone has a Maiden Street. It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics: also a street of hot summers, of hop-scotch and marbles: in short the street of youth’. However, he also adds a disclaimer saying that ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’ and we should not forget that the street was but a ‘memory distorted by time in the minds of all who lived there’. Generations to come will continue to show their gratitude to the poet for his wonderful evocation of the street of his childhood, the nearest Newcastle West will ever come to having its own Steinbeck or, indeed, its own Cannery Row! As he said himself: ‘Ballads about places however bad they may be, unite a community and give it a sense of identity’.
In his shorter poem, Maiden Street (1967), there is a reference to the ‘small voices on the golden road’ and later he says about the days of his childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’. This may give us some clues as to the etymology of the name originally given to the street. Maiden Street runs west to east, so the morning sun shines up the street and so a young poet’s imagination turns it into his very own ‘yellow brick road’ and one wonders if the street was ever called Sraid na Maidine or Morning Street?
Many of those family names, synonymous with the street, who bought out their leases in 1910 still have links to the town to this day: Reidy’s, Houlihans, Gormans, Morrisons, Mullanes, Byrnes, Aherns, Nashs, Murphys, Fitzgeralds, Bakers, Hartnetts, Quins, Healys, Hartes, Massys, Moones…..
Hartnett says that the street finally ‘gave up the ghost’ in September 1951 when most of the inhabitants were rehoused in one of the 60 new houses in Assumpta Park. Hartnett describes the operation epically in the Maiden Street Ballad – likening it to the hazardous journey of the Israelites escaping from Egypt to the Promised Land!
The old street it finally gave up the ghost,
and most of the homes there they got the death-blow
when most of the people were tempted to go
and move to the Hill’s brand new houses.
The moving it started quite soon after dark
and the handcars and wheelbars pushed off to the Park
and some of the asscars were like Noah’s Ark
with livestock and children and spouses.
For we all took our furniture there when we moved,
our flowerbags and teachests and threelegged stools
and stowaway mice ahide in our boots –
and jamcrocks in good working order.
And our fleas followed after, our own local strain –
they said “We’ll stand by ye whatever the pain,
“for our fathers drew life from yere fathers’ veins”
“and blood it is thicker than water”!
For many, this transition was effortless and opened up a whole new vista while for others the change of location was a step too far and they found it very difficult to settle in their new environs. Again Hartnett puts this very colourfully:
In nineteen-fifty one people weren’t too smart:
in spite of the toilets they pissed out the back,
washed feet in the lavatory, put coal in the bath
and kept the odd pig in the garden.
They burnt the bannisters for to make fires
and pumped up the Primus for the kettle to boil,
turned on all the taps, left the lights on all night –
but these antics I’m sure you will pardon.
Following their move to the Park residents soon found that there was no ready access back down to Maiden Street other than across often wet fields and down through Musgroves and Gorman’s sandpits. Eventually, after much lobbying of local Councillors, the Mass Path and Mass Steps were constructed. As Patrick O’Connor says, their arrival ‘opened up a vital line of communication to town’. It is interesting that this vital piece of infrastructure was ostensibly procured under the pretext of providing ready access to the church, hence their name, but many would argue that these steps were more often used to visit other old haunts such as Latchfords and The Siver Dollar!
However, as a final footnote, or maybe to add fuel to fire, and totally in keeping with his mischievous nature, Michael Hartnett, in his ‘scholarly’ notes to the Maiden Street Ballad, has his own theory about the etymology of the street’s name. He theorises – and only he would get away with this scurrilous suggestion – that ‘the street was originally called Midden Street’!
Hartnett, Michael. The Maiden Street Ballad, The Observer Press, 1980.
O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.
The following story is taken from the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, No. 2, 1996. The story is memorable for many reasons but particularly because of its importance as a window onto social history as the twentieth-century dawns but mainly it is notable because of the eloquence and storytelling ability of its author, the legendary Frank Phelan of Walshstown, Castlemahon.
I used to like going to the calf mart in Rathkeale every Wednesday in the Springtime. I would go down the shortcut over Knockaderry hill, through the flatlands of Ballyallinan and then join the road coming from Ballingarry into the verge of the town. The first thing that met your eye was the long queue of trailers towed by cars and jeeps and tractors stretching away back as far as the eye could see. Nearly everyone coming from our side double queued at the big wide spacious junction at Well Lane and waited for the friendly nod to pull in before your turn.
On this particular morning a few years back it was an elderly man who gave me the friendly nod and I gladly pulled into the vacant space in front of him. I then went back to thank him and maybe have a short chat about the weather, the prospects for farming or anything topical etc. He asked me where I came from and my name and then he asked if I was any relation to the owners of Phelan’s hardware which was just on the point of closing down at the time. I told him that I was and that the man who started the hardware shop about a hundred years back was an uncle to my father and came out of our old place.
“I knew him”, he said, “I knew him, a grand old gentleman and a good businessman. I was with my father in the shop a few times when he was alive and well and I was only a very small boy and even then you could see what a great character he must have been in his heyday”. 
“Did you ever hear the story”, he asked, “how he sold the first Woods Mowing Machine in West Limerick?”
“No”, I said, “I know a little about him but I’d like to know a lot more”.
“He was”, he said, “a man before his time, a great innovator and loved to see work made easier for everyone in town and country. In the 1890’s all the meadows were still being cut with the scythe like they had been for generations before. A good scythesman would cut an acre in the day and the top men at the job would travel the countryside in search of work. They were known as spailpíns. The clever farmer would have four scythesmen contracted, with the best cutter out in front setting the pace for the others. It was a matter of pride that they all would have to keep up with him and so a big field of hay was cut in a day much to the farmer’s satisfaction”.
When the horse-drawn mowing machine started to come on the market hardly anyone was interested in it, in fact, most were hostile to it, especially the scythesmen, as it would be taking their livelihood away. Nearly all the farmers were also reluctant to change and so it was a very hard job to convince any of them that this would be the greatest boon ever in Irish farming up until then.
Willie Phelan was tired of looking out at his new Woods Mowing Machines on display and no takers until one day his old friend Florry McCarthy from Ardagh was in the shop and they got to talking amongst other things about the harvest and the need for taking advantage of the fine weather. It was July and the meadows were ready for the cutting. “If only I could sell one Woods Mowing Machine my problems would be solved”, he said to Florry.
“Can I help you in any way”, asked Florry.
“You can indeed”, said the wily merchant, “you can indeed. I have a suggestion for you. Take away one of those new mowing machines outside and earn a bit of money for yourself. When you’re into your stride at full throttle pay me back seven and six a month”.
“But I’ve only one horse “, said Florry.
“Can’t you get the loan of a horse from one of your neighbours, you’ve good ould neighbours back there, sure they’d give you the shirt of their back”, said my granduncle.
“I’ll see, I’ll see”, said Florry, needing time to think it over.
Going home that evening he thought to himself that it was a brilliant venture and that he was on the brink of making a historical landmark in the area. He could picture himself being the focus of attention from farmers big and small over a vast sweep of countryside.
“I’ll go up to Din Connors this very evening”, he said to himself, “and ask him for the loan of his grand chestnut steed. Then I’ll go into town in the morning with my common car, hitch on the mowing machine with the long shafts resting on the body of the car and sail away home at my ease”.
There was a rare smile on the face of my granduncle next day as he helped Florry on the way to launch a new chapter to what was to revolutionise life in the countryside of West Limerick for generations into the future. The hum of the mowing machine was a new sound that was to be added to that of the corncrakes and the cuckoo.
Next morning, Florry called on his old neighbour Din Connors for the big chestnut. Din himself came on to do the edging of the blades and to take possession of the new carburundum edging stone and the new flintstone which were thrown in free with the mowing machine. He also got a jampot full of water to dip the flintstone in. They both tackled up in Florry’s yard leaving nothing to chance and drove onto the nearest pasture field. Having cut a round or so without a hitch they were ready for Florry’s big meadow at the back of the house.
The hum of the mowing machine could be heard all day long and the edge was good as a new blade was put in every five or six rounds or so. A few of the neighbours had gathered towards evening as the last of the swathes were flattened and quite a few corncrakes could be seen running or half flying towards the safety of the hedges. There was shaking of hands and congratulations from all the neighbors to Florry and Dinny and a request from the said neighbours to cut their own meadows when time was available.
Dinny’s big roadside meadow was next on the list and the audience of neighbours became bigger including a couple of scythesmen on their own who by their looks did not approve of the new operation. In fact, the only mishap suffered during that whole first season was in Dinny’s big meadow when an unseen stake planted by someone hostile to the revolutionary change brought the mowing to a temporary halt. But Florry was equal to the occasion and using a couple of the spare sections and rivets also thrown in free and having his own hammer and punch he had the blade back as good as new in half an hour or so.
Gradually one by one the neighbours’ meadows were cut clean and white and the smell of new mown hay was like honey in the air. At half a crown an acre charged by Florry everyone was happy with the outcome except Florry himself but he didn’t show one sign of that unhappiness only the reverse. It sounds funny to say that everyone paid him in the same way – not with cash but with hay. I suppose the ould money might be very scarce at the time but anyway what he got paid was two wynds  of hay for every acre he cut and as he had cut upwards of sixty acres that first year it was a mighty lot of hay. All the neighbours whose hay he had cut that first year helped him with his own hay and also with the hay that they paid him with. With his great sense of humour, he enjoyed immensely working with the huge meitheal who came to build the three enormous shiegs or ricks that stretched the length of the haggard which they also covered and thatched with rushes.
In the recesses of his mind, Florry was wondering what William Phelan, merchant, would have to say when he informed him of his financial position after all the meadows he had mown in record quick time. He was therefore pleasantly surprised when at the first opportunity they met on a wet day after a spell of fine sunny weather that the reaction of the man was one of philosophical satisfaction.
“Florry”, he said, “you gave me the start I wanted, you broke the ice when no one else would take the risk and you’ll get your reward some fine day. Pay me when you have it in your pocket”, he concluded.
Florry’s sense of humour was a wonderful asset to him in the fall of that year and also the following Winter and Spring. Anywhere he went, to Mass, at the pub, at funerals or fairs or football matches he would be asked if he knew where there was any hay for sale.
“I do indeed”, he would say, “I actually have some myself to sell but I’m waiting for the price to rise”.
The second mowing season Florry cut almost as much again, even though there was a second mowing machine in the area. And, strange to relate, the payment was exactly the same – two wynds of hay for every acre he cut.
The big problem for Florry was that he might run out of space in his haggard for the enormous amount of hay that was headed in that direction. It was a repeat again of the big meitheal, plenty of porter and banter and craic and at the end of it all three more big shiegs reared their mighty forms into the western sky. Their shadows darkened the narrow roadway into Florry’s house and they resembled a series of gigantic silent ships at anchor in a quiet bay.
Many people now regarded Florry as either a rural celebrity or an eccentric of some sort or a cross between both but that was only in their own minds because outwardly or inwardly it had changed him not one iota. His sense of humour remained intact and his confidential belief that his day would come in some form or other remained unshaken. Strangely he found it much easier to cope with the little arrows of jokery that were thrown at him from time to time whenever the occasion arose that he was amongst a crowd, which was often enough.
The fall of that second year was very wet and cold and cows had to be housed much earlier than usual. There were a couple of big freeze-ups and plenty of snow that Winter. There was no sign of the Spring right up to the end of April and even into May and a lot of farmyards had no fodder left. Florry put an advertisement in the local paper early in April saying that he had an unlimited amount of the best saved hay for sale. Almost immediately he was invaded by a convoy of long scotch cars, with big coils of rope at each rear corner and drawn by a variety of animals, from big chestnut steeds to thick brown cobs and piebalds. They were driven by big rough-looking weather-beaten mountainy men.
Florry went to summon all his neighbours and they arrived as a big meitheal, laden with hay knives and two prong pikes and in no time the cars were being loaded with the finest of hay and the mountainy men were rolling it and packing it in layers the way it should be done. A big jar of porter arrived and they all drank their fill and took a good rest, exchanged a few jokes and yarns and then with renewed energy the mountainy men filled each load to the top like the specialists at the job that they were. Then the ropes were slung across each load, two men on the ground pulled like supermen and firm as the jobs of hell the ropes were tied diagonally to the shafts in front.
The only problem now for Florry was that he might run out of hay such was the demand for it and almost every day he had new customers arriving and he was almost getting the asking price for it. When at last the grass started growing as the sun grew warmer that historic year not a rib of hay was left in Florry’s haggard, only the pale outline of where once those mighty shiegs had been. It was with a light heart that he made his way to town and then into the hardware shop to pay the proprietor in full and after a good chat those two men heartily agreed that old hay was indeed old gold if one only had the patience to wait and sit it out when skies were grey.
This blog post is dedicated to Peg Donoghue who was probably the first to see this article which had been submitted in Frank Phelan’s graceful longhand and who lovingly typed it for publication in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society
 The old farmer is referring to Frank’s grand uncle, William Phelan. William managed what became known as Phelan’s Mill and in 1910 he founded a hardware store and ironmongery in Bishop Street, Newcastle West. In 1915 William set up the Newcastle West and District Power and Light Company and electricity was supplied to the town until the scheme was taken over in 1935 by the ESB. In 1916 he opened the Palace Cinema in part of the mill and this continued up to 1926. The business was later managed by his brother Jim and he expanded the business to include a sawmill and a corn mill. His headed notepaper proclaimed that he was a Machine Implement Agent and Undertaker, a general ironmonger, funeral director, furniture dealer and haybarn erector!
 ‘A common car’ was the phrase used to describe a horse-drawn cart.
I live in a beautiful area of West Limerick and next door is the townland of Ahalin (or Aughalin). The townland has been referred to in English as Ahalin since at least 1867 when a weighty limestone plaque was erected on the new National School recently opened in the area – this read ‘Ahalin National School 1867’. The retranslation of this placename (Ahalin) into Irish has caused debate for decades. The famous Limerick academic P.W. Joyce in his seminal work, The Origin and History of Irish Placenames published in 1910 by M.H. Gill and Son, has it as ‘the ford of the pool’ and this indeed is one literal translation, ‘Áth’ being the Irish for a ford over a river or stream and ‘Linn’ being the Irish for a pool. (Dublin was once Dubh Linn or Blackpool!). However, as former local headmaster, Michéal de Búrca pointed out to anyone who would listen, ‘there isn’t a pool within miles of this place, and there’s no ford in the place because there’s no river’.
As you can see above the eponymous Master Burke goes on to give further information regarding the etymology of the placename Aughalin, which had been handed down through the years. He is obviously lecturing the representative of the Placenames Commission who has come a calling and (unfortunately for us) they both seem to be looking at an Ordnance Survey map as they speak:
And there is the correct pronunciation, (Aughalin) it means ‘the field of the flax’ and the flax field is staring them just over there across ‘the high field of the flax’ – and the high field is there and the flax-hole in the corner. Here is the cross (Wall’s Cross), and here is the old school, and here’s ‘achalinwest’ (297) …… they simply call it The Big Field now (301) and even that fort is gone and this other one (field) outside it again (just to the south of it) there’s also another flax-hole (there) ….’.
Amazingly then, in spite of all this overwhelming local knowledge and traditional usage, in the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003 the townland of Ahalin is given as Aughalin (which is ok) and the official Irish version of the townland is given as Áith Liní (which is not). In Irish ‘Áith’ means ‘a kiln’ and there is some evidence from old maps of the area that there were at least two disused kilns in the area in question. However, ‘Liní’ has no obvious meaning or no local connotations. (To add insult to injury, of course, the same Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003 also refers to Cloncagh instead of the more traditional Clouncagh, and Cluain Cath instead of the more correct Cluain Catha – but that’s a story for another day!)
The more correct rendering in Irish of the anglicised word Ahalin (or Aughalin) is, in fact, Achadh Lín which directly translates as ‘the field of the flax’. This is the Irish version used locally to this day – the new school in Ahalin (opened in October 1963) is known as Scoil Mhuire, Achadh Lín. In fact, if one does even the minimum of research (i.e. talking to the locals) they will without hesitation tell you exactly where ‘the field of the flax’ is situated.
I have long been fascinated by the fact that not too long ago, well maybe at some time during the nineteenth century, flax was grown in the parish of Knockaderry in County Limerick and there was a flax-hole or flax-dam in my own neighbouring townland, and, as Seamus Heaney describes so well in his poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ :
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
So how come we have a townland in rural County Limerick which is associated with the growing of flax? More than likely it was an endeavour of the local landlords, the D’Arcy family who at one time lived in the townland of Ahalin and later moved to Knockaderry House or maybe the growing of flax was promoted by the Fetherson or Fitzgerald families who also owned substantial estates and were associated with Ahalin.
At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, completed in County Limerick in June 1853, Robert Fetherston held land in Ahalin in the parish of Clonelty, barony of Glenquin and at Bruree, barony of Connello Upper, County Limerick. In February 1855 his 565 acres at Ahalin, barony of Glenquin, on which there was a “neat cottage residence suited for a gentleman’s family”, were advertised for sale. This residence and some land were sold to Mr J.D. Fitzgerald Member of Parliament for £2,350. The “cottage” in question was located in the townland of Ahalin directly behind where Mr Dave Downes and family now live. The holding consisted of the main dwelling house, a stable, a coach house, two cow houses, a piggery, a fowl house, a boiling house and a barn.
It is this Mr. Fitzgerald, who was appointed Attorney General for Ireland in 1856 and who served as MP for Clare (1852 – 1860), who gave the land for the first National School in Ahalin, which was opened in 1867. It is also very probable that it is this same Mr Fitzgerald MP, or his agent, who Master Burke is referring to when he says ‘some eejit came in 1867 and he put up on the old school AHALIN N.S. and you could not correct it!’ This suggests that Master Burke would have been happier with ‘Aughalin’ rather than ‘Ahalin’ as the correct anglicisation of the townland – as this is nearest to the Irish version of the placename, Achadh Lín.
In more recent times this cottage was the property of the Flynn brothers. In the returns of the 1901 Census, there were six people living here: Patrick Flynn aged 30, Kate Flynn aged 27, Michael Flynn aged 25, Julia Flynn aged 22, Philip Flynn aged 18 and Martin Flynn aged 12. In the Census returns for 1911, it seems that Michael and Julia have left the family home and Molly Greaney (aged 16) is registered as a General Domestic Servant by the family. The property was still owned by the Flynns up to the late 1950’s and at that time Philip (who was blind) and Martin were the two surviving brothers living in the cottage. It is said locally that they were the first house in the parish to own a radio. Molly O’Neill was their housekeeper up to the end. Before that Cis Harrold was the housekeeper. She was a sister to Mike, Willie and Brian Harrold and an aunt to Batt O’Connor.
As far back as 1654, the Limerick Civil Survey records a tuck mill for flax (and later for grain up to 1924) in nearby Ballinoe. This mill was known as Reeves’s Mill and was located where the Enright’s own land today near Ballinoe Bridge on the Kilmeedy side of Ballinoe Cross near where Johnny Corkery and his family now live. In Bailiúchán na Scol, a folklore project organised by the Folklore Commission in National Schools throughout the country in 1937–38 Nora Nash from Ballinoe and attending the Girls School in Ahalin stated that ‘flour was made locally in Re(e)ves’ Mill in Ballynoe’ and she further states that ‘it is to be seen still at Enright’s where the mill was’. This Mill was built on the banks of the Ábha na Scáth river which rises near Knockfierna and flows through Clouncagh and into the River Deel near Bunoke Bridge.
We also know from research carried out by the Rathkeale Historical Society that as early as 1709 Thomas Southwell (Rathkeale), whose family had inherited some of the old Billingsley/Dowdall estate (mainly centred in Kilfinny), introduced over 120 Palatine refugee families to the townlands of Courtmatrix, Killeheen, Ballingrane and Pallas(kenry). These families augmented an already established English settlement which had been introduced to assist in the development of the linen/flax industry in the West Limerick area.
Local historian, Sean Kelly in the NCW Historical Journal, The Annual Observer, in his excellent article on the history of Phelans Mill (situated where Objekt Design Space have their home accessory store today) states that for a time in the 1800’s this mill (then under the ownership of Robert Quaid and his family) was used as a scutching mill for flax and that there was a flax-dam and bleaching area nearby on the banks of the Arra River near where Dr O’Brien and Dr Barrett once resided and on land which is now owned by Ballygowan Mineral Water Company.
So while flax growing, and the linen industry it supported, was a predominantly Northern Ireland industry, remnants of it were also to be found in Munster and Limerick and even in Knockaderry itself! It is no surprise, therefore, to come across references to flax and the linen industry in the local placenames such as Ahalin. Readers may also be aware of another placename in Limerick, Monaleen, which is from the Irish ‘Móin a Lín’, literally ‘the flax meadow’ or ‘field of flax’.
Flax, itself, was a very labour intensive crop to grow and demanded much skill. The land had to be ploughed, harrowed, cross ploughed, and harrowed again and rolled. The seed was then sown, harrowed in and rolled again. Nature and the elements took over, but the better the seedbed, the better would be the crop. Much depended on the ploughman. Usually, he was a quiet fellow of good skill, much in harmony with his pair of horses. The excellence of linen depended on this quiet fellow, who ploughed a straight furrow. There was much preparation for flax growing and it was said that it took more out of the land than any other crop.
Nature responded, and in due course, thousands of flax stems grew up, three to four feet in height. A tiny blue blossom appeared on their tips, followed by a natural coloured seed pod; and the flax was ready for pulling.
Flax pulling by hand was a back-breaking job, taken on by casual workers, who needed the cash. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
Then began the most difficult job in the making of linen, lifting the heavy, smelly, slimy, wet beats from the flax hole to the bank. Men had to work for hours, up to the waist in this wet clabber, while others took the beats and spread them on the fields to dry or bleach
Spreading was also a back-breaking job, as was lifting some days later, when dry. The flax was ready for scutching, a dusty and dangerous art. This meant the removal of the centre wood part from the outside fibres and was done when the scutcher pressed handfuls of flax against a large four-bladed flail revolving at speed. It cut away the wood part and left the scutcher with handfuls of long blonde fibres, like a young lady’s head of long blonde hair. Many an arm or hand was cut off in this process. The wood part was known as ‘shives’ which were burned as waste.
So, where can we find this ‘high field of the flax’ today or even the flax-hole in the corner of the field? As we have already noted from comments made by Master Burke to the authorities at the time it seems the flax field was situated between Wall’s Cross and the old school in Ahalin. As already mentioned, if one does even the minimum of research in the area locals will without hesitation tell you exactly where ‘the field of the flax’ is situated. Most local sources (whom I have spoken to) say that the ‘flax field’ is today owned by Mickey Magner and the field lies to the left of what is locally known as Ahalin Avenue. In times gone by there was a fort in the middle of this field but all evidence of this fort has since been removed although it can still be seen clearly in some old Ordnance Survey maps of the area.
So, it seems that while evidence of a fort can be obliterated from the landscape the folk memory associated with the growing of flax in the area cannot. The beautiful, enigmatic placename of Aughalin or Achadh Lín and its rich history lives on strongly in the folk memory of the people of Knockaderry to this day.
 Clonelty Parish, roughly corresponding to the parish of Knockaderry today. The townland of Aughalin consisted of 571 acres, 3 roods and 2 perches.
 John David Fitzgerald of Dublin was the son of David Fitzgerald, a Dublin merchant. He was Member of Parliament for Ennis 1852-1860 and was appointed Attorney General for Ireland in 1856. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, he held land in the parish of Quin, barony of Bunratty Upper, County Clare and in the parish of Rathkeale, barony of Connello Lower, County Limerick. In 1860 he married his second wife Jane Mary Matilda Southwell, sister of the 4th Viscount Southwell. In 1882 he was made a life peer as Baron Fitzgerald of Kilmarnock. In the 1870s he owned 1,393 acres in County Clare and 1,324 acres in County Limerick including ‘a gentleman’s cottage’ and land in Aughalin.
 The tuck mill was used in the woollen industry to improve the quality of the woven fabric by repeatedly combing it, producing a warm worsted fabric.
 Bailiúchán na Scol, Imleabhar 0490, Leathanach 42. Here, just to add to the confusion, the school is named as Áth an Lín (Cailiní), Baile an Gharrdha, (Uimhir Rolla 9633).
The division of Ireland into counties took place shortly after the Anglo-Norman Invasion, led by King Henry II in 1171. In 1211 King John (1199-1216) divided the whole of the country that acknowledged his government into twelve counties in Leinster and Munster. Very little regard seems to have been paid at this time to the ancient division of Ireland into five Provinces.
In Leinster, he created Dublin, Meath, Uriell (now called Louth), Kildare, Catherlough (Carlow), Kilkenny and Wexford. These contained all the province of Leinster, except the following: Upper Ossory, inhabited by the Fitzpatricks, Leix which was inhabited by the Moores, Offaly which was inhabited by the O’Connors, Ely O’Carroll which was inhabited by the O’Carrolls, and some other territories which were inhabited by other various Irish septs. Later in Leinster, the territories of Leix, Offaly and Ely O’Carroll and some others, were reduced into shire-ground in the time of Queen Mary (1553-1558) and then divided into two counties, one called Queen’s County and the other King’s County. The county of Wicklow, which had up to this been vaguely considered as part of the counties of Dublin and Carlow, was made into shire-ground and formed into a separate county in the third year of James I in 1606 approx.
In Munster, King John created the five counties of Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary which at that time formed the province. The provinces of Connaught and Ulster were divided into counties by Statute by Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Connaught had seven counties: Galway, Clare, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Longford and Leitrim. Since then Clare has joined Munster and Longford has moved to Leinster. The province of Ulster was divided into nine counties: namely those of Down, Antrim, Tyrone, Armagh, Monaghan, Cavan, Fermanagh, Donegal and Londonderry (cf. Harris’s Hibernica, p2).
The first sub-division of Counties is into Baronies, largely corresponding with that of Hundreds (or Cantreds) in England. The name, Barony, derives from the sub-division of the conquered land among the Norman barons, hence barony. Other baronies appear to have been formed successively as a result of submissions made by individual Irish chiefs who ruled over them; the territory of each constituting a Barony. This may account for the inequality in size between them and the manner in which parts of many are intermixed among each other in some cases. There were formerly ten baronies in County Limerick: namely Clanwilliam, Lower Conello, Upper Conello, Coonagh, Coshma, Coshlea, Kenry, Oweneybeg, Pubblebrien and Small County. This was later extended to fourteen, including Limerick City Borough, Kilmallock, Shanid and Glenquin.
My own parish of Knockaderry (formerly the parish of Clonelty) was situated in the barony of Glenquin.
The next sub-division into Parishes is of much greater antiquity than that of Baronies. Originally it was purely Ecclesiastical and was introduced among the Civil sub-divisions largely out of convenience. Since all of these sub-divisions were central to the taking up of the Census this particular sub-division has always caused some difficulty as often the Civil and Ecclesiastical arrangements did not always correspond. In the past, parishes were sometimes found to extend not only into other baronies but even into different counties. Added to this you sometimes had the anomaly of parishes belonging to the Established Church differing from those of the Roman Catholic Church. It has to be stated that the establishment of the Parish Rule by the fledgeling Gaelic Athletic Association in the nineteenth century led to a great consolidation of parish boundaries leading to very little room for debate or confusion!
The smallest subdivision of the country is that of Townlands. This name, however, is not universal throughout Ireland: some counties have used the term Ploughlands (Plowlands) instead; each Ploughland being supposed to contain 120 acres approximately. Townlands have, in many instances, been sub-divided, and in many cases, the name has been changed. Many names, now antiquated, were formerly used to designate the smaller sub-divisions of land in Ireland. The following are the most often used:
A Gneeve (from the Irish ‘gníomh’ meaning a deed, a feat, an accomplishment). A ‘gniomh’ was seen as the amount of land that could be encircled or encompassed in a day by a ploughman and his horse ploughing a single furrow. A rule of thumb was that a ‘Gneeve’ contained up to 10 acres but obviously, all depended on the ploughman in question! This sub-division of land is still remembered today in the name given to the parish of Gneeveguilla in North Cork. The placename when translated from the Irish means literally ‘Gníomh go Leith’ (a Gneeve and a half).
A Gort (or garden in Irish) which usually contained 6 acres.
A Pottle contained 12 acres.
A Ballyboe (‘Baile Bó’ meaning literally “cow land”) which in some places could be as large as 60 or 100 acres.
Sessiagh (Irish: séú cuid, meaning sixth part of a quarter or 20 acres).
A Poll (or Pole) containing 50 acres.
A Cartron which contained 60 acres.
A Tagh (or Tate) containing 60 English acres.
A Ballybeatach (Irish: baile biataigh, meaning “victualler’s place”) contained 480 acres (being 8 Ballyboes of 60 acres each)
The Ploughland (Plowland) and the Gneeve are the only names that were noticed by the Census Enumerators in the Censii taken up in 1821 and 1831 that were still in use in some parts of Ireland. At that time the most common land measurement was either the Irish or Plantation Acre, the Cunningham Acre or the English Acre. The difference between these arose from the different lengths of the perch used as a standard in each: the Irish perch was 21 feet, the Cunningham perch was 18.5 feet and the English was 16.5 feet.
Thomas Larcom, the first Director of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, made a study of the ancient land divisions of Ireland and summarised the traditional hierarchy of land divisions thus:
It is interesting to note the instructions given to the Enumerators before they set out to gather their information for the Census of 1821. They were instructed to ‘execute their duty in the mildest and most inoffensive manner; complying in so far as could be with the feelings of the people and never having recourse to the law except in the most urgent necessity.’ There are notes on what constitutes a family and among other points raised were – ‘strolling beggars were considered as forming distinct families and where met with on the road at a distance from their usual place of residence were entered as residing in the house in which they last lodged.’ It also noted that ‘every collection of contiguous houses, if under twenty, was to be considered as a Hamlet; if more than twenty and not under a peculiar local jurisdiction a Village.’
In the final report of the 1821 Census, we find the following comment – God be with those innocent times! – that in organising the data of the Census ‘in the classification of the Sexes no difficulty occurred’ (Report signed by W. Shaw Mason, Record Tower, Dublin. 11th July 1823).
Kerins, Christy. Archive Records 1800 – 1900 for Ballingarry, Granagh and Clouncagh, County Limerick. A Millenium Project, 2000.
Formative Influences on the young Michael Hartnett
Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche, was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale in 1885 to parents John Roche and Marie Moloney. According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th,1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches. Later on that year on April 2nd, 1911, the Census returns for Camas in the parish of Monagea, record Michael Halpin, aged 36, living with his new wife Bridget Halpin, then aged 26. Michael’s mother Johanna, aged 74, and her daughter, Michael’s sister, Johanna, aged 23, also lived in the house.
Michael Halpin, Bridget’s husband, was born on 2nd June 1876 in Camas. He was one of thirteen children born to Denis Halpin and Johanna Browne between 1866 and 1890. Denis Halpin, Michael’s father, was born c. 1834 in Cleanglass, in the parish of Killeedy, and he married Johanna Browne on the 18th February 1865 in the Catholic Church in Tournafulla. He was 31 years of age and Johanna Browne was 25. Living conditions were very harsh and infant mortality was very high and as many as seven of their thirteen children died in their infancy or childhood due, no doubt, to the severity and austerity of the times. Six of their thirteen children survived: Margaret, Kate, Michael, Denis, Cornelius, Johanna.
This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett. Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head – her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’. Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West. He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”. This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and central to some of the decisions and seismic changes which he made in his poetic direction in the 1970’s. Maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places. This essay, therefore, is an effort to throw some light on this woman and gently probe her background and genealogy and it also seeks to untangle some of the myths, many self-generated, which have grown up around Michael Hartnett himself.
In April 1911 when the Census was compiled, there were four inhabitants of the thatched cottage in Camas: Michael Halpin, his new wife Bridget (née Roche), his mother Johanna and his sister Johanna who was soon to emigrate to the United States in late May 1911. By June of that year, Michael and Bridget Halpin were setting out on their married life together and they also had the care of Michael’s mother, Johanna. Over the coming years, they had six children together, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita. Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia. His daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921. Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna. Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.
Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her. The cottage which was little more than a three-roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926. The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away by a Roger Creedon for the princely sum of £70. The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today. According to Michael Hartnett himself this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling. Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales.
Bridget Halpin’s youngest daughter, Ita Halpin, later married John Joe Dore, who lived on a neighbouring farm. He was a well-known sportsman, hurling historian and founder member of Killeedy GAA Club. They had one son, Joe Dore, who today is a well known Traffic Warden in Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale. Today, he is the owner of what was formerly Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas, having inherited it from his uncle, Denis Halpin. John Joe Dore died in 2000 aged 85. Bridget Halpin, immortalised by her grandson, Michael Hartnett, in his poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ is buried with her daughter Ita Halpin (Dore) in the grounds of the old abbey in Castlemahon Cemetery. Her grave is as yet unmarked.
Ita Halpin’s sister, Bridget Mary, who was born on 1st May 1918 later married Denis Harnett (born 20th July 1914) from North Quay, Newcastle West on the 28th of June 1941 in Newcastle West and they had six children. Michael Hartnett was the eldest and he had one sister, Mary, and four brothers, William, Denis, Gerard, and John. (Two siblings, Patricia and Edmond, also died as infants). Times were difficult for the Harnett family; they did, however, receive some good fortune when they moved into a house, in the newly built local authority development, Assumpta Park, in the 1950s. Joe Dore, Michael’s first cousin, recalls that during the war years (1941-1945 in Michael’s case) Michael was often brought to Camas in a donkey and cart to be looked after by his grandmother and his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin), who was now working ‘the small farm’. Joe Dore recalls that ‘his other brothers came to stay as well, especially Bill, but Michael, being the eldest, was the favourite of his grandmother’ – no doubt because he was her daughter Bridget’s first-born and also that he had been called Michael after her late husband. Joe Dore remembers that ‘Michael was a big boy when I knew him as he was twelve years older than me, as I was the last of the grandchildren to be reared by my grandmother and Uncle Denis also’.
This essay seeks to clarify some of Michael Hartnett’s claims concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin. Interestingly, most of these erroneous claims stem quite remarkably from the poet himself! His Wikipedia page tells us that,
… his grandmother, was one of the last native speakers to live in Co. Limerick, though she was originally from North Kerry. He claims that, although she spoke to him mainly in English, he would listen to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he was quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish, since he experienced the free interchange of both languages.
Writing in the Irish Times in August 1975 Hartnett wrote:
My first contact with Gaelic – as a living language – was in 1945 when I went to stay with my grandmother. She was a “native” speaker and had been born in North Kerry in the early 1880s. She rarely used Gaelic for conversation purposes but a good fifty percent of her vocabulary was Gaelic – more especially those words for plants, birds, farm implements, etc. …….. I learnt some two thousand words and phrases from her. It was not until her death in 1967 that I realised I had known a woman who embodied a thousand years of Gaelic history (Hartnett, ‘Why Write in Irish?’, p.133).
We have already noted that Bridget Roche (neé Halpin) was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. While this area is steeped in Irish culture and music it was not particularly noted for its native Irish speakers in the late 1800s. In the 1901 Census returns for Camas Upper and Camas Lower respondents were asked a question concerning their knowledge of the Irish language. In Camas Upper and Lower 36 people out of a total of 175 counted in the census stated that they were proficient in ‘Irish and English’, including Johanna Halpin, Bridget Halpin’s future mother-in-law. This works out at 20% of respondents. In the 1911 Census returns, the year Bridget Roche married Michael Halpin, respondents were asked the same question and 29 adults responded. In the 1911 Census, there is no division of the townland and the total number enumerated in the Census is lower at 141. The percentage of respondents who said they had proficiency in Irish and English remains at 20%, however. Interestingly, and this may, of course, suggest a certain carelessness in compiling the statistics of the census on behalf of the local enumerator, there is nothing in the returns for the Halpin family to suggest that they are proficient in Irish, although both Johanna and Bridget are marked present.
His often repeated claims about Bridget Halpin’s prowess in the Irish language are, therefore, exaggerated. She obviously had many phrases and sayings in Irish but it is very doubtful if she had the capacity to carry out a conversation in Irish. Therefore, the myth that Michael Hartnett picked up a new language by osmosis or by listening to Bridget, ‘the native Irish speaker’ or her cronies while he lay in the loft during acrimonious card games is largely that, a myth. The reality is that his love of the language was also developed by his study of and admiration for the poets of the Maigue and the Bardic past. It was also helped by his study of Irish in school, in Irish College in Ballingeary and by his association with many poets and dramatists writing in Irish and also by his relationships in the early nineteen-sixties, particularly his relationship and collaboration with Caithlín Maude and his later collaboration in the 1980’s with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translating her first volume, Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, into English.
Hartnett’s public comments and writings also cause some confusion concerning Bridget Halpin’s age. In the acclaimed documentary directed by Pat Collins in 1999, shortly before Hartnett’s untimely demise, entitled ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, Hartnett states that Bridget Halpin was born in 1870, when in fact we know from Census returns that she was born in 1885. He also states that she was 93 when she died in 1967 when in fact she was a mere 80 years of age when she died in 1965!
It is clear, therefore, that many of these claims regarding his grandmother are greatly exaggerated. For example, he has stated on numerous occasions that he was effectively reared by his grandmother from a young age on her small farm in Camas. However, from school attendance records we learn that Michael Hartnett attended the Courteney Boys National School in Newcastle West on a regular basis from September 1949 when he entered First Class (having attended the Convent School, now Scoil Iosaef, for Junior and Senior Infants) until June 1955 when he completed Sixth Class. His attendance during those years was exemplary, rarely missing a day, this, despite his claims in the documentary, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, that he was ‘a sickly child, and still am’. He then transferred to St. Ita’s Boys Secondary School, then housed in the Carnegie Library in the town to pursue Secondary Education. His sojourns to Camas would, therefore, only have been at weekends and during school holidays as it was at least a four-mile walk. However, it is not contested that the small farm in Camas and Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, played a very important role in providing sustenance and much-needed nourishment for the young Harnett family in Maiden Street during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Michael Hartnett’s first cousin, Joe Dore, has clear recollection that ‘the poet’ was a frequent visitor to Camas, ‘except when there was hay to be saved’. John Cussen, local historian and friend of the poet says that,
‘Michael Hartnett and I were in the same class in the Courteney School for several years until 1954 when I went to Boarding School (in Glenstal). We were good friends. He was certainly always living in town at that time. I do not recall him ever talking about his grandmother or his sojourns in Camas with her. We were too busy swopping comics which was all the rage at the time!’
Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’, ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’. Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not? In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:
I have told ye no big lies and most of the truth –
not hidden the hardships of the days of our youth
when we wore lumber jackets and had voucher boots
and were raggy and snot-nosed and needy.
Indeed, prior an interview with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll which took place in the offices of Poetry Ireland on 12th December, 1986, Hartnett in a typically mischievous tone told his interviewer:
I always lie at interviews. I don’t lie as such, but I change my mind so often … I refuse to have what is known in the trade as a ‘coherent metaphysic’ (O’Driscoll, p.140).
So, therefore, we must approach with some caution the various and numerous claims made by the poet concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin. One credible explanation for many of these claims is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland. In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”, which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament. Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885. Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’. She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13). To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons. He saw in her a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside. This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology. For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’ (“A Small Farm”). The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for. In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,
You died in utter loneliness,
your acres left to the childless.
Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations. We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious. However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’. This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name! Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio! The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for his earlier gaffe.
Therefore, the townland of Camas and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche. His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School. He was thirteen. Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet. It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing. Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt, to the young poet’s voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane. It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’ – poems written exclusively for local consumption. Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,
A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,
A cottage thatched with golden straw,
The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches. However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,
The sun goes down on Camas Road.
The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”. This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany. The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas. He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin. He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair. These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with
Sugán belts and long black coats
with big ashplants and half-sacks
of rags and bacon on their backs.
They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’. Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.
As another part of the myth that he had created, Hartnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom. He was immensely proud of this fact. In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:
I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith. When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).
Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett. MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock). As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there. However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom! He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street. However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry. The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)! Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him. Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom. His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,
…… to hear a Gaelic court
Talk broken English of an English king.
As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality. We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson. We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area. His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas. Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself? The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”. He is,
……. climbing upwards into time
And climbing backwards into tradition.
So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’! In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’. When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry. He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh, to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.
He was an ice-cream chimes ringing in an Inchicore estate.
He was the commotion stirred up at a country wake.
He was a game of hopscotch played in Maiden Street.
He was a plaintive flamenco note picked out by a gypsy.
He was the palpitation of hooves at a small-town horse fair.
He was a book-barrow dictionary, teeming with disused words.
He was a neglected cottage where a songbird nests.
He was the full-moon shedding light on Newcastle West.
– Dennis O’Driscoll
‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999
Hartnett, Michael. Why Write in Irish? in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.133
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.
Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta. Translated by Michael Hartnett, Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1986.
O’Driscoll, Dennis. Michael Hartnett Interview in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.
Sources: My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.
 Michael Hartnett’s family name was Harnett, but for some reason, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life, he declined to change this as it was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide.
Commentary: This poem appears in Hartnett’s collection, Selected and New Poems, published by The Gallery Press in 1994. However, it first appeared in a commemorative booklet published by the Courteney Boys School in 1992. Mike O’Donoghue, then Principal of the Courteney Boys School, Hartnett’s old alma mater, had asked the poet for a poetic contribution and he was rewarded with this beautiful poem which arrived by post on 7th April 1992.
Michael Hartnett wrote a number of beautiful poems about significant friends and relations who had died. These poems were the equivalent of the more traditional Mass Cards given to the family of the bereaved in Ireland. These poems were often handed to members of the bereaved family in the days and weeks following the funeral by the poet himself, often handwritten on loose pages from Hartnett’s own notebooks.
This poem ranks highly with those already written for his little three-year-old sister, Patricia, who died on May 10th in 1952 when Michael was ten (‘How goes the night, boy?…’) and his lament ‘For Edward Hartnett’, written for his infant brother Edmond P. Harnett, who was born on 12th October, 1942 and died on 29th November, 1942.We also remember his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, composed for his grandmother Bridget Halpin and also the poignant ‘Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith’.
Sheila Hackett was a life-long friend of Hartnett’s. She later married Ned O’Dwyer who was a painter and decorator by trade like Michael’s father, Denis Harnett. This is why in his letter accompanying the poem Hartnett suggests to Mike O’Donoghue that maybe the title of the poem should be changed to ‘In Memoriam Sheila O’Dwyer’. Thankfully and very wisely Mike O’Donoghue didn’t change a comma in the original. (See copy of letter below). Ned O’Dwyer served for many years in Newcastle West as a Labour Party County Councillor. Indeed, Michael Hartnett, who had inherited the Labour gene from his father Denis Harnett, acted as Ned’s Election Agent for a number of Local Government election campaigns held in the late seventies and early eighties.
However, he has fond memories of the young Sheila Hackett and prefers to remember her as she was then, the local girl, some years his senior, with whom he swopped comics with in the ‘fifties, and as he also says in his letter to Mike O’Donoghue ‘she helped me once or twice with my sums’. The poem opens with recollections of ‘our nineteen-forties streets’. These were austere times with a war raging in Europe and much poverty and deprivation experienced by the people of Newcastle West. Social change was very slow and living conditions were very difficult for many in the town. Elsewhere he has recalled these times through rose-tinted glasses but not here. Indeed, the ‘camaraderie of the poor’ is reinforced by the constant repetition of ‘we’ in the poem.
The poem uses extended mathematical imagery and phrases learnt in school: phrases like ‘complicated sum’, ‘simple’ numbers, the word ‘scale’ which may refer to music or measurement, ‘long division, ‘stable number’ and the number ‘one’. The poem ends with the death of Sheila Hackett; she is ‘cancelled out’ as from a ledger, and the poet is forced to confront her death and his own mortality: one of his fast friends from childhood has died and now the ‘long subtraction starts’.
Sources: I would like to acknowledge the great help received from Peig and Mike O’Donoghue in compiling this blog post.
Work in Progress! Comments, Corrections, Clarifications Welcome.