Tag Archives: Ireland

Retracing an 80-year-old journey along the river Shannon

The river Shannon

Part of my family come from Kilrush, on the shore of the Shannon estuary (next parish New York) in south-west Ireland. This article appealed to me as many of us find that our travels are yet again being restricted by Covid-19. It reminds us that we can still travel in our mind’s eye through the enjoyment of good travel writing.

By Paul Clements

First published in The Street Journal.

The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the streets of a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off, and many areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration.

Despite the poverty, there was another, more carefree side to life which respected the arts, heritage and traditions. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had.

This was the Ireland that captivated Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland. Noted for his travel books on the country, he explored the Shannon in August 1939, just two weeks before the outbreak of the second World War. He set off from the Shannon Pot in Co Cavan in a 12-horsepower Austin car and drove the back roads trailing a caravan hired from the Irish Caravan Company at a cost of £10.

The Shannon is largely the same river that Hayward admired in Where the River Shannon Flows, published in 1940. He was one of the first travellers to write about it in the 20th century. The book’s title came from a song by James Russell, sung by his brother John. It was released around the turn of the century when the Shannon was labelled “The Irish Swanee River”. The song was later recorded by John Count McCormack and by that honorary Irishman, Bing Crosby.

Time-travel, or footstepping, involves recreating an earlier journey, linking the past to the present

That summer Hayward’s book was reviewed by Maurice Walsh in The Irish Times and was top of the paper’s non-fiction list under a section called “What Dublin is Reading”. A prolific author, Walsh was acknowledged as a brilliant storyteller. His novel The Key Above the Door (1927), set in Scotland, sold more than a quarter of a million copies.

Walsh’s books were popular not just in Ireland but in Britain and America. The Quiet Man was originally published by the Saturday Evening Post, for which Walsh received $2,000. It was later included in his story collection Green Rushes (1935) and became an enduring film in 1951.

There was a spirit of camaraderie among writers, who supported each other in difficult times. Walsh was president of Irish PEN and its authors adopted the organisation’s ideals to “maintain friendship between writers in every country in the interests of literature, freedom of artistic expression and international goodwill”.

Time-travel, or footstepping, involves recreating an earlier journey, linking the past to the present. It brings a destination, as well as another era, to life. Many writers have been inspired by shades of travellers long past and the world they experienced. Some of the most celebrated subject names that crop up in the genre include Alexander the Great, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and, more recently, those who have followed Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trail of his long walk across Europe which started in December 1933.

The painter Cecil Salkeld, the writer Richard Hayward, the novelist Compton MacKenzie and the writer Maurice Walsh at a function in Dublin in the 1950s

My time-switching involved transporting myself back to the late 1930s to try to capture Hayward’s spirit and follow in his footsteps, tyre tracks and ripples.

One of the worst roads in Ireland then was the dirt track from Rooskey to Tarmonbarry in Co Roscommon, which had seen cartwheels, hoofs and boots. Hayward recounted the misery created by the clouds of limestone dust as his party drove along it. He wrote that they aged 30 years in five minutes because of the grime that got into their hair and eyebrows. (The road has since taken on a new lease of life and been rebranded the East Roscommon Scenic Drive.)

The timing of Hayward’s book has parallels with today, since people were not travelling because of the war, which began at the start of September 1939. One reviewer, James Stephens, author of The Crock of Gold, said of it: “For some time now we must do all our travelling by book, and this one will carry you to the real Ireland.”

This summer, many aspects of travel were thrown into the spotlight because of the pandemic. But nearly 50 years ago, in the early 1960s, Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her remarkable poem Questions of Travel about why people went abroad.

“Think of the long trip home./ Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” her tourist narrator asks. “What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life/ in our bodies, we are determined to rush to see the sun the other way around? [ . . .] And have we room/ for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?”

The edgelands may be regarded as an eyesore, but frequently they are filled with nature and wonder.

Few pause to explore the Shannon sunset or its in-between places, the overlooked and the marginal, known as the edgelands. At first glance there may be little aesthetic appeal in the bauxite factory at Aughinish, the cement factory in Mungret, ruined castles, derelict hotels, old quaysides, abandoned locks or corroded barges – but they all come with their own rich tapestry of history. Some of the most absorbing locations include the estuary and its unkempt mudflats, as well as the precious habitats of the callows and boglands.

The edgelands may be regarded as an eyesore, but frequently they are filled with nature and wonder, somewhere to watch birds, study wildflowers, stare into the water or perhaps just dream a little.

In his poem A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, Derek Mahon celebrates them as “places where a thought might grow – / Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned [ . . .] Indian compounds where the wind dances”, and the shed itself, “Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,/ Among the bathtubs and the washbasins/ A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.”

Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time by Paul Clements is published by the Lilliput Press and is out now. His biography Romancing Ireland: Richard Hayward 1892-1964, is also published by Lilliput


Paddy’s Irishness

Paddy by Mark Gerson, bromide print, February 1954 (National Portrait Gallery)

Paddy by Mark Gerson, bromide print, February 1954 (National Portrait Gallery)

This gets better as you read it. I wasn’t going to publish it but I thought you might like the second half at least 🙂

By Michael Duggan

First published in the Irish Examiner 7 June 2016.

Patrick Leigh Fermor died five years ago this month, aged 96, and though he claimed to be part Irish, he was a man of the world, who walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in his teens, and who later became a great travel writer.

British soldier and travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, on April 25, 1966. Pictures: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
ON the third of May, 1810, Lord Byron jumped into the waters of the Hellespont and swam the tumultuous four miles separating Asia from Europe.

In Greek mythology, Leander used to swim across this same stretch of water every night to visit his lover, Hero, who would light a lamp to guide his way.

Byron claimed that swimming the Hellespont was his greatest achievement. 174 years later, another English writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor — also, like Byron, revered by many Greeks for his part in a war of liberation — repeated the feat. Leigh Fermor, however, was 69 when he did it. Byron was 22.

The Hellespont swim, with its mix of literature, adventure, travel, bravery, eccentricity and romance, is an apt metaphor for Leigh Fermor’s life. ‘Paddy’, who died five years ago this month, at the age of 96, seemed to embody the lot.

And he claimed Irishness, too.

Leigh Fermor was born in London in 1915. His father was in Calcutta, where he worked in the Indian civil service. His mother, Aeileen, had planned to follow him, with Paddy and Paddy’s older sister, but the sinking of the Lusitania frightened her that both her children might die at once.

Paddy was packed off to a small terraced house in Northamptonshire. He was loved by his foster parents, and allowed to roam free around the town and countryside with their other children.

In June, 1919, his mother and sister returned from India and Paddy was whisked back to London. He did not adapt well to school. His education was a series of disasters and recoveries, experiments and ignominious expulsions.

After a time living it up with the fast set in London, Paddy decided to walk every mile from the Hook of Holland to the Gates of Constantinople.

Aged 18, this is more or less what he did. He disembarked in Rotterdam on December 8, 1933 and reached Istanbul on New Year’s Day, 1935.

By then, he had mingled with bargemen, peasants, nobles and gypsies, made countless friends, learned songs and languages, had love affairs, slept rough, slept in castles, and savoured a culture on the eve of extinction.

During the Second World War, he led a party of English commandos and local guerrillas, who, disguising themselves as German soldiers, kidnapped the general in command of Crete and smuggled him off the island.

After the war, he began to write, while continuing to indulge his eclectic tastes for travel, wild parties, seedy nightclubs and monastic retreats.

He eventually settled in Greece. where he was loved, with his wife, Joan, and became a legend among travel writers.

Patrick with Joan Rayner, after their wedding at Caxton Hall, Westminster, London, January 17, 1968. Picture: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The centrepiece of his achievement was a trilogy of books about his epic trek across Europe.

To get a flavour, new readers might try the opening pages of Between the Woods and the Water. The author is crossing the bridge at Esztergom, entering Hungary for the first time.

He attends the Holy Saturday ceremony at the cathedral. He is in the company of a local grandee, who “carried his scimitar slung nonchalantly in the crook of his arm” and who polished his rimless monocle with a silk bandana.

The passage concludes with the words “I kept wondering if all Hungary could be like this.” The first-time reader is left wondering whether all of Patrick Leigh Fermor could be like this. The books sometimes feel like a never-ending purple passage.

But this is not to say that everything they have to offer is there glittering on the surface. In A Time of Gifts, there is a charming vignette in a little tobacconist’s shop in Goch. Paddy picks up a ‘stocknagel’, a curved, aluminium plaque about an inch long.

On it is a view of the town and its name, and he tacks it onto his walking stick.

Then, with no preamble, the camera angle widens out to show a town hung with Nazi flags.

We hear “the crunch of measured footfalls” as Stormtroopers march into the square. It is the restraint of the writing that deepens the sick feeling in the reader’s stomach.

Intriguingly, Paddy liked to claim he was descended from Counts of the Holy Roman Empire, who came to Austria from Sligo.

Paddy could recite ‘The Dead at Clomacnoise’ (in translation) and perhaps did so during a handful of flying visits to Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, partying hard at Luggala House or Lismore Castle, or making friends with Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Faolain in Dublin pubs.

He once provoked a massive brawl at the Kildare Hunt Ball, and was rescued from a true pounding by Ricki Huston, a beautiful Italian-American dancer, John Huston’s fourth wife and Paddy’s lover not long afterwards.

And yet, a note of caution about Paddy’s Irish roots is sounded by his biographer, Artemis Cooper, who also co-edited The Broken Road, the final, posthumously published instalment of the trilogy.

“I’m not a great believer in his Irish roots,” she told me.

“His mother, who was a compulsive fantasist, liked to think that her family was related to the Viscount Taaffes, of Ballymote. Her father was apparently born in County Cork.

“But she was never what you might call a reliable witness.”

“She was an extraordinary person, though. Imaginative, impulsive, impossible — just the way the Irish are supposed to be, come to think of it. She was also one of those sad women, who grew up at the turn of the last century, who never found an outlet for their talents and energies, nor the right man, come to that. All she had was Paddy, and she didn’t get much of him.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper
Paddy never tried to get to the bottom of his Irish ancestry, afraid, no doubt, of disturbing the bloom that had grown on history and his past, a recurring trait.

“His memory was extraordinary,” Artemis notes, “but it lay dangerously close to his imagination and it was a very porous border.”

But she is in no doubt about how exceptional a man he was: “The thing that inspired me most about him was his responsiveness to people, whoever they were.

“I had known him all my life. When I wrote the book, I was in my fifties and he in his nineties.

“He didn’t have to impress or charm me, and he never set out to do so. But he was so curious, so responsive.

“Every time I mentioned a book I thought he might like he, he made a note of it.

“Every time I told a joke, he roared with laughter. Every time I told a story, he sat forward, eager to hear how it was going to turn out.

“That wasn’t me, it was him. He made me feel funnier, better-read and more intelligent than I ever could be, and he did that to everyone,” she says.

A bugler from his former regiment, the Irish Guards, delivered the ‘Last Post’ at Paddy’s funeral five years ago.

It marked the passing of an extraordinary man: soldier, writer, adventurer, charmer.

We may not see his like again.

A quinquereme among abbeys

‘This year marks the millennium of St Coloman’s martyrdom in 1012 and his feast day of October 13th, Kolomani, will be marked with celebrations in Melk’. Above, the abbey at Melk, Wachau Valley, Austria. Photograph: Elfi Kluck/Getty Images

Irish saints and the Abbey of Melk. Surely there is a link to Paddy? Of course he visited here in 1934 and wrote about it at length in A Time of Gifts pp 154-158.

By Alexander O’Hara.

First published in The Irish Times, October 9 2012

The Abbey of Melk sits like a benevolent sleeping giant above the little town of Melk and the Danube. To the east lies the Wachau, one of the most magnificent stretches of river scenery in Europe, and the eastern foothills of the Alps, to the west, Mauthausen and Bavaria.

This Baroque pile, a Benedictine monastery since 1089, is one of the most recognisable attractions in Austria. The Anglo-Irish writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last year, memorably described it as a “quinquereme among abbeys” in his 1977 classic A Time of Gifts, a wistful memoir of his travels by foot through Central Europe on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 when he was 18. He captures the awe of approaching Melk in the snow and seeing the Abbey rise up on its limestone bluff above the Danube valley. Most of the tourists who now visit the Abbey church (which, with all the gold, has been memorably likened to being inside a giant rapper’s mouth by AA Gill) – probably take little notice of a side altar and Baroque tomb to the left of the high altar. This is the tomb of St Coloman, an Irish martyr and the first patron saint of Austria. This year marks the millennium of his martyrdom in 1012 and his feast day of October 13th, Kolomani, will be marked with special celebrations in Melk.

How did an Irish man come to be patron saint of Austria? The story begins in the autumn of 1012 when an Irish pilgrim named Colmán (Coloman is the Germanised version of the name) was on his way to Jerusalem following the old Roman road along the Danube towards Vienna. He was on the overland pilgrimage route, an ancient path that followed the course of the Danube valley through Hungary. This had been reopened following the conversion to Christianity of King Stephen of Hungary in 997 and the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre by Caliph Al-Hakim in 1009 had provoked an upsurge in pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Coloman only made it as far as Stockerau, a town 30km to the north west of Vienna. He had unwittingly entered a war zone in what was a borderland known as the Bavarian Eastern March, a strategic frontier wedged between the Magyars or Hungarians to the east and the Moravians to the north. The Babenberg margraves, the rulers of the March, were in the process of extending their control and territory in this colonial land.

Stockerau stood on the borders of the March and was subject to frequent raiding. The locals were in no mood to welcome exotic strangers, and garbed as a pilgrim and speaking Gaelic, Coloman clearly stood out. According to a near-contemporary account, the locals suspected him of being an enemy spy and summarily lynched him from a tree (on dying for the cúpla focal see Frank McNally, An Irishman’s Diary, March 16th, 2012).

The exact circumstances of Coloman’s murder will never be known, but following his death, miracles began to take place – the dead man’s hair and nails continued to grow, the dead tree on which he was hanged began to bloom, and people were healed who came in contact with his body. News of these miracles came to the attention of Margrave Henry I at Melk. One of the powerful Babenberg dynasty who were to rule Austria from 976 to 1246, Henry recognised the power of this new saint and sent his soldiers and clerics to take the body from Stockerau to his residence at Melk which later became the famous monastery we know today.

The Austrian Babenbergs traced their descent to the Franconian Babenbergs whose fortress at Bamberg in Germany gave the dynasty its name. The patron saint of Franconia was (and still is) St Kilian, another Irish man who was martyred in 689, and whose relics lie in the cathedral of Würzburg. It is noteworthy that both Henry I’s father and brother were both buried in the same cathedral where Kilian’s relics were kept. By promoting the new Irish martyr Coloman as a dynastic and regional patron for the region that would become known as Austria, Henry may have hoped to shape a spiritual landscape for this new land that drew on common cultural traditions of Bavaria and Franconia where there was a strong tradition of veneration to Irish missionary and martyr saints such as St Kilian.

The new cult of St Coloman became a vehicle for the Babenberg margraves, which they were keen to latch on to from the beginning in order to cement their new power base in the Eastern March and to bring cohesion to this frontier region. In time, Coloman came to be venerated as the patron saint of the historical core of Austria, Österreich ob und unter der Enns, from 1244 until 1663. Today Coloman is the patron saint for convicts who are hanged, passengers, and livestock as well as being one of the many ironies of history. As an eminent Austrian historian remarked, “It might seem particularly ironic today that the first Patron of Austria had fallen victim to Austrian xenophobia; something which nobody could have foreseen”.

Coloman’s feast day this Saturday (13 October) will be celebrated in Melk, the millennium anniversary of the death of the unfortunate Irish pilgrim who became Austria’s first patron saint.

Visit Saint Coloman’s Wikipedia page.

A Poetic Tribute to Paddy by John Pinschmidt at the Whitehouse Bar, O’Connell Street, Limerick

I have just returned home from a trip to Kilrush in Co Clare, Ireland to visit the place of my father’s birth, and to see some of my family there. It has been far, far too long since I was there; I won’t say exactly, but far too long! The people were so friendly and by God the Guinness was good!

By pure chance, whilst I was in Ireland, a poet, John Pinschmidt from Limerick, which is just 40 miles away from Kilrush on the Shannon, stumbled across my blog and added a comment into the Your Paddy Thoughts section. It was a poem he wrote at the time of Paddy’s death in June 2011 and hs John’s personal tribute. Given that Ireland is a land full of saints, poets and scholars I thought it too much of a coincidence with my visit to leave it languishing in the tributes page so here is John’s poem …


“Live, don’t know how long,/And die, don’t know when;
Must go, don’t know where;/I am astonished I am so cheerful”.
—A Time of Gifts, 1977

Oh, to read your restless spirit had set off on its last journey,
Age 96, sent me into the parlour for A Time of Gifts
And back to 1933, your age-18 trek across Europe
As clouds gathered above a soon-to-be lost world,
Which changed your life as much as my age-21 Europe
Hitchhiking Summer of 1968, my time of gifts too.

Oh, to see again your rich cascades of words,
Riffs on decaying schlosses, Passion artworks,
Architecture as music, the drunken Breugel-like chaos of
Munchen’s Hofbrauhaus—where I had gone in ’68—the debauched
Bavarian Brownshirts portending days far darker than that night.
And later, in bitter weather near Linz, you had your first Himbeergeist.

Oh, that riff sent me searching the yew cupboard for an old bottle
From Deutschland, and I froze it and a Waterford glass,
And late that night, by fire and candlelight, drank too much of your
Clear spirit, reading your words out loud to you and all,
Young or old, who set out on life-changing journeys:
“Oh for a thimble full of the cold north! Fiery-frosty potions,
Sequin flashers, rife with spangles to spark fires in the bloodstream,
Revive fainting limbs, and send travellers rocketing on through
Snow and ice. White fire, red cheek, heat me and speed me”.

Prost, Siar go Deo, Paddy!

And just to embarrass John further, I have found a video on You Tube of him reading the poem at the Whitehouse Bar, O’Connell Street, Limerick.

The Kreipe pennants – the story of their rediscovery by Billy Moss’ daughter

The pennants from General Kreipe’s car

Discovering the full details behind a particular story or event is often tricky with clarifications, enhancements, or downright contradictions emerging sometimes many years after the event. Fortunately we have not had to wait so long for some further detail to be added to the story I ran last year about what happened to the pennants on General Kreipe’s car at the time of the kidnap, and their subsequent discovery many years later.

‘Billy’ Moss’ daughter Gabriella Bullock read Artemis Cooper’s account of how the pennants were found after so many years in a trunk in Paddy’s house at Kardamyli. Gabriella then wrote to me to ask me to pass on the full story behind their (very fortunate) re-discovery in Ireland some years before and how they were passed by her mother (Sophie Moss née Tarnowksa) to her. It sounds like we are very lucky to have them at all.

Gabriella’s account starts during a recent visit to Crete …

In Rethymnon we met the delightful people who run the Folklore Museum. This is where the pennants from the General’s car are now housed, in accordance with PLF’s wishes. We found that they were very interested in the story of how the pennants were randomly and luckily rediscovered, and this leads me to think that the story definitely has a place on your website

In the early 1950s my family lived in Co. Cork, Ireland, but moved back (supposedly temporarily) to London in 1954. My parents intended to return, and left many of their possessions in the safe-keeping of various Irish friends or in store. My father never did go back to Ireland; indeed, in 1957, eight years before his death in 1965, my father also left England never to return. As things turned out, however, it was also many years before my mother went back, and all that had been left in storage was lost.

A number of years after my father’s death my mother bought a cottage near Cork, and thereafter divided her time between London and Ireland. I was staying with her at the cottage one summer in the late 1970s when a friend of hers announced that she had a trunk belonging to us which she wanted to return; it had been sitting in their attic since the 50’s.

A battered tin trunk duly arrived with my father’s name, rank and regiment painted on the outside in white. My elder sister has it now and it is, without doubt, the one described in the first chapter of our father’s book A War of Shadows, even down to the grains of sand:

“an old letter, a scrap of notepaper smeared with the sweat of one’s hip-pocket, the rain-spattered pages of a diary, an operational report written in the bloodlessly forbidding vocabulary of a headquarters’ clerk – these relics, discovered in a tin trunk which still creaks with grains of sand when you open the lid…”.

My mother opened and unpacked it, and said to me, “I think you’d better have these”. Amongst the things inside it were my father’s original diary, already entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, in remarkably good condition and perfectly legible, and the two German pennants.

It was a heart-stopping moment. My mother gave these things to me, and I gratefully and unthinkingly received them. I was in my mid-twenties then. The diary I still have. As for the pennants, they were much prized, and adorned a wall in my house for nearly 15 years.

But one day about 17 or 18 years ago, when I was re-reading IMBM, it dawned on me for the first time that in fact since it was Paddy who had taken them as trophies from the General’s car, they were rightfully his. So I gave them to him. This was in the early 90’s. Paddy was completely astonished, and moved, to see them again, so unexpectedly, after 50 years! He was awfully pleased, and after his death they were donated to the Folklore Museum in Rethymno, in accordance with his wishes.

And now they are back in Crete, which is absolutely as it should be.

With best wishes,

Gabriella Bullock

Further reading:

The Kreipe pennants

Articles about the kidnap in the Ill Met by Moonlight category