Have started work on my Michael Collins section- You can see the work in progress here!
The past few days have found me in the wild beauty of West Cork- this is, as they say, 'rebel country', laced with a long history of nationalistic sentiment, violent history, Irish folk heroes and those who have become folk heroes. The low, rolling hills and icy breeze, the tiny streams and winding roads all play with the imagination. On a cold, ice-glazed road in Béal na Bláth, Michael Collins, leader of the Irish Free State Army, former colleague of Eamon de Valera and near-mythical 'big fellow' of Irish History met his end with an Anti-Treaty IRA bullet to the head.
I had the fortune of excellent guides in this area. Retired Captain Donal Buckley (of the Irish Army) has written extensivley on Freemasonry in Ireland and runs http://www.militaryheritagetours.com/, undertaking tours of Ireland, Israel and the Western Front. With him was Tim Crowley. Tim grew up in the heartland of 'Collins Country' and lectures on Collins' life and contribution to Irish history, including at University College, Cork and the National Museum in Dublin. He has recently released the book 'In Search of Michael Collins'- an illustrated history and guide to places in County Cork associated with Michael Collins. I simply couldn't have had a better team to wander around with here!
We started in Cork, visiting the Collins Barracks and its excellent displays of Collins history. To see his field journal, gun and personal letters was amazing. This followed a trip to the excellent Cork Public Museum, a free museum that holds historical treasures galore, from neolithic times to the modern. You could spend hours, but I focused mainly on the sections relating to the United Irishmen, the War of Independence and of course, Collins himself. Donal was the perfect guide his- his knowledge is unsurpassed- and he was able to give me excellent information as a Cork-man himself. Without him, I wouldn't have been able to understand any of the Gaelic, and his insight was an incredible gift to my research.
We spent the next day touring West Cork sites- this is where having a historian like Tim on hand is perfect. As the founder of the Michael Collins Centre, his understanding of Collins' life was amazing. He's recently been working to produce a memorial to groups from the 1916 Rising that were local to Cork and I'm sure he'll get his way- He has a flawless knowledge of history- who could argue? We started at the statue of Collins in Clonakilty- the only full-standing one in Ireland, I might add. Imagine my surprise when Tim, who had been part of the group that organised this statue, explained there hadn't been one until 2002! We wandered the village, Tim pointing out various important sites, the school Collins attended, bullet holes in the railings of the church... each location peppered with stories and insight that you only get from a local historian with a depth of genuine knowledge and research. We then headed to Collins' childhood home in Woodside. What an amazing place. "This is sacred ground", Tim stated, and how correct he was. It's free- thanks to Liam Collins, nephew to the man himself. Liam himself was a fascinating story- he had been hidden in a family member's cold roof when the Collins home was burnt during the War of Independence- as a result, having been a baby at the time, he suffered ill health. Despite this, he was a lawyer and it is thanks to him that the house and land were purchased and are free and not littered with commercial rubbish. The place was deserted and Tim was able to go through every section of the property with me. This will be broken down in the Michael Collins resources page of this website soon. We ventured from here to the local cemetery- as Tim said "This is where all history is... in the graveyards."- And here we found the grave of Michael's brother Johnny (Sean) as well as his sister in law, who had been a double agent for Michael through her job at the GPO in Dublin. What an amazing woman she was.
We also saw Liam's grave nearby. The place was cold, but beautiful. It clear this was the final resting place for the Catholics of the village for decades upon decades, and very serene.
Then along the winding road through the back of West Cork- the pub where Collins stopped prior to his death, the family homes, the locations along the road and finally the site of the murder itself. The most revealing part was to stand where Tim believes the final shot (that hit Collins in the head, behind the ear) was fired and consider whether a marksman, under fire from a recently jammed machine gun and running from Collins' men, could have seen who it was he was shooting. I doubt it.
The weather was icy- a stream trickled nearby and it became dark and grey overhead. We gazed down the hill at the memorial location and mused what may have been, had the fatal shot not found its mark.
You know you're nearing the Rock of Cashel, a medieval monastery, long before you reach it. Like a sentinel it guards the surrounding green fields and windswept hills, casting its imposing shadow down upon the village that shares its name. The Rock was under some pretty heavy restoration when I visited- not a surprise, it does require a lot of upkeep and protecting from the furious elemental forces of the Irish wind, but I was still free to wander King Cormac's Chapel and the sprawling grounds and graves.
The site itself is, according to local legend, the result of the devil being cast from a nearby cave and the sacred location where Saint Patrick (he of 'banishing the snakes' fame) converted the King of Munster around the 5th Century. Certainly was you wander through the echoing halls, the wind shrieking outside and the crows gliding upon its current, you can believe almost anything about the place.
I was fortunate that it was mid-week and mid-winter, for the place was mine to explore. It's undergoing some amazing restoration, I'll be back to see it when this is done, but there was plenty to illustrate what was being done to preserve the site, especially the amazing decorating and painting that had once existed within and now remains as mere etchings of colour on stone walls and ceilings.
There is a beautiful little one room museum attached to the site (which includes some detail about when the Queen visited. As an Australian republican I admit that I hoped she was uncomfortable walking up the steep hill, however there were also amazing artefacts of benefit to the study of medieval history. Many NSW history teachers will bemoan the fact that there is little to no scope for the middle ages in the senior curriculum and I am forced to admit I agree. With an amazing site like this, one of so many, why is it not an area of focus or an option for study?
As a location there was potential for the study of restoration, historical preservation and the middle ages for grades 7-8, however before I ramble too much- I'll direct you to the resources tab here, where you can find my musings and report on the Rock.
I wish I had a good reason not to update tonight- however it is simply that I left my laptop charger in the car and I'm staying at the beautiful Inchydoney Lodge, which is amazing. As I sit here with a delicious coffee (thank YOU, Nespresso machine in room- Coffee I like at last!), my feet up after a long day in chilly Cork city, I know there that I'm not going out to feel the ocean breeze in the evening when I'm warm and comfortable. So it has to wait, alas!
1. Rock of Cashel (amazing, amazing, amazing- cold!)
2. Accomodation reviews: Horse and Jockey (Thurles), Inchydoney Lodge (Co. Cork)
3. Michael Collins Barracks tour with author Donal Buckley (Amazing- highlight was seeing letters and a field journal by the man himself!)
4. Visit to Cork public museum (amazing selection of things- and a free public museum)
5.Visit to locations relating to Collins with Donal Buckley and a local historian in Cork.
So as you can see, I have a bit of writing to catch up on. I also need to type up my meetings throughout the tour and upload some more amazing photos- To see the Rock of Cashel is something that everyone should do.
So please enjoy a couple of 'taster' photos until tomorrow, taken with my phone.
(To sit in a beautiful, warm hotel room over the Atlantic Ocean, a great coffee in hand, listening to the sea while you write your blog on the Irish Coast is also something everyone should do!)
I wanted to give a quick mention to Ulster University and CAIN (conflict archive on the internet) and their Memorials App. If you're teaching, or studying the conflict in Northern Ireland, this is a fantastic way to locate and learn about some of the amazing memorials and murals that are located around the place- it also works in the Republic!
The app is free- I downloaded it prior to departing Australia, and gives you several options. You can search for memorials nearby (the phone will use your location for this- and it even gives you the distance to the memorials found), or you can search by area (for example 'West Belfast')- Each memorial even has a link where you can email the administrator, should you visit the memorial and feel the information isn't up to date.
For anyone studying the Troubles or Modern Irish History- CAIN is already a source of incredible information (I suggest having a look at their amazing website. The app is just another fantastic addition to academic research and the documentation of evidence and memory.
Westport is a beautiful little town on the Wild Atlantic Way- Sadly I was there on a Sunday, when most of the Republic is closed, it seems. (This wouldn't be an issue were I not reliant on coffee)- Outside of the town, twisting and winding up the snowcapped mountain, is a path to the peak of Croagh Patrick (the mountain itself!)- The start marked with a statue of Mary. I wasn't, however, there for this- although the view was pretty. Opposite the path, down near the visitor centre, is a famine memorial statue.
The famine, of course, is woven into all of Irish history. Debated, mourned and remembered- it impacted the country like very little else could have. During the 'Great Hunger' (from 1845-1852), starvation, disease and emigration to flee the despair resulted in Ireland's population dropping by almost 25%- it has never fully recovered. The result would be to spread the Irish across the globe (including to Australia), ensuring Irish influence in other nations. It would be a historical memory for Irish nationalists- a reminder of what they had suffered while the British turned their backs and let them die. It would lead to whisperings, and later cries of the word 'genocide'... And it is memorialised in locations all through the country- perhaps the most significant event in Irish history, with the furthest reaching consequences.
The famine ship near Westport illustrates the despair, death and emigration. The statue is a boat, for emigration and fleeing to the Americas or Australia was a way to leave behind the horror and seek hope, starting again, leaving behind villages that no longer existed and people that were starving to death. It is this that is shown when you near the memorial. What appears to be wire or rigging encircling it is actually made up of skeletal figures, one pointing forward, others clutching the ship, or making up parts of the structure.
It is a very clear comment on a very dark moment.
On the drive from Derry down towards Cork (destination for the study of Michael Collins!) I stopped in at Drumcliff. Only quickly, mind you, it was about three degrees and the snowy mountain in the background suggested this wasn't a place to linger.
Why Drumcliff? Not a lot there. A small cafe and antique shop (actually pretty impressive, some amazing things, out in the middle of nowhere- sadly nothing that was ever going to fit in hand luggage) down the road, but it was the parish church I came to see.
I'm not normally one of those people who wanders the graves of the famous departed- although I suppose that's going to sound hollow when I visit Glasnevin in Dublin next week... But this was William Yeats- the man who perhaps inspired my interest in Irish History, back in Year 12 3 U English, when the fantastic Mr. Reid (sorry about going into History teaching, Mr. Reid- English and drama were great though) had us study Yeats. It was 'Easter, 1916' that started it all, I suppose.
Yeats is an interesting character- he's highly respected by the Irish and a whole Yeats industry revolves around his memory. His family connections are also interesting- an artist brother, to begin with. He proposed twice to the somewhat wild and spirited Maud Gonne, who twice rejected him, then to her daughter, who clearly thought better of marrying a man old enough to be her father. Maud's second husband, of course, and father of her son Sean (later to become Chief of Staff for the IRA and a minister in the Irish government), was Thomas MacBride, who was to be executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising.
All this brings me to Drumcliff. There in the parish church, where the air is so cold it snatches your breath, Yeats sleeps eternal. Or someone does- the debate as to whether it is the remains of the poet rages on. Passing on in France in 1939, his request to be buried in Drumcliff was not surprisingly a lesser priority for the French government, with the inconvenience of WW2 going on. Although Yeat's wife (the medium Georgie Hyde Lees) did all within her power to have the remains repatriated, it didn't happen until 1948. Debate about WHO is buried at Drumcliff continues.
The etching upon the grave is from one of the poet's own works-
"Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by"
And I admit that in the smoky, icy air of the parish church, this was more than a little eerie. So I prefer to offer, instead, some of the poem that encapsulated the failed Rising.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse--
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Wait... Another thing...
A final note of confusion. Outside the parish church there is a statue, placed there in 2003, and apparently inspired by one of Yeat's poems (He Wishes for Cloths of Heaven) - I found it a little unnerving. Perhaps the church and the fog had gotten to me...
I had been to the museum last time I was in Derry and found it poignant and moving- and nothing has changed, but this isn't always going to be the way. Sinn Fein have recently given the museum a multi-million dollar grant, and they're now in temporary premises near the guildhall, just by the walls of the old city. Some of the more important items weren't on display- there simply wasn't the room of the old location- but the displays were still effective and honest in telling the horrible story of the innocent people murdered on Bloody Sunday. A soundtrack plays as you wander through the museum- it is a recording from the day, I was told by John Kelly, whose brother Michael was one of the victims.
John also kindly showed me the visual display- well worth watching. It tells the story of Bloody Sunday in short statements and supported by primary sources- photographs from the day, including some of the background. One image- of a peaceful civil rights protest prior to Bloody Sunday was rather shocking. It showed people listening to a speaker, their backs to the camera. Behind them, on one knee, weapon aimed at a crowd who clearly were doing nothing wrong, is a British soldier.
There are also items from the day- CS Gas canisters, rubber bullets, and some of the clothing of the victims. A jacket with bullet holes in the back is one of the heartbreaking reminders that most of these people were fleeing at the time of the shootings.
There were also large boards giving the background to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland- the focus, of course, being on Derry. Although I knew the full potential of the display, I can honestly say it was still an amazing experience and still told the story in a very open and sympathetic manner. The new premises will be amazing and well-deserved; The potential to display all their items and evidence again will make the story even more complete. If I were teaching in the UK- this would be high on my list of places to bring my students.
Looking forward to seeing the new building- I know I'll be back.
Bogside History Tours & Museum of Free Derry
I had stumbled upon the Bogside History Tours somewhat by accident and how glad I am that I did! This is a local Derry company owned by Paul Doherty, who is the son of Patrick Doherty, one of the men killed on Bloody Sunday. Paul is everything a tour guide should be. Humorous, friendly, impressively knowledgable and most of all, utterly honest.
The tour begins at Derry's towering guildhall- a good meeting point as you can't miss it, no matter where you are in the city. There (inside, where it is nice and warm and out of the bracing January wind, I found!) Paul gives a rundown on Irish history- all important as it acts as the build up to the main issues to be discussed. It's when Paul leads you further into the guildhall and talks about attending the Saville Inquiry that was held there in 2010 that you realise you've been holding your breath. I knew the outcome of the inquiry, yet there I was, with baited breath, waiting for Paul to tell it. He's that kind of guide- utterly engaging!
The back of the guildhall is where the famous windows are, where relatives of the innocent victims of Bloody Sunday gave the 'thumbs up' to the crowds waiting outside as they discovered that their loved ones had been vindicated and confirmed the guilt of the British army- Beyond guilt- what occurred was shocking, horrific and out-and-out slaughter of innocent people. Paul talked about hearing the announcement, and rushing, with a friend to these windows- determined that it not be a British politician who announced the findings to those waiting- It should have been, and thanks to these men, was, people of Derry- people connected to those who lost their lives. The image of the 'thumbs up' was beamed around the world. Paul stood before this window and kindly let me take a photo. It was one of those moments where I am truly humbled by the people of Northern Ireland, who are so open about their history and so kind to those who visit.
It was then time for a wander into the Bogside. Paul led the way through the streets, explaining where the events of the day had unfolded- this was eye-opening- later in the day at the Museum of Free Derry I was able to look at photos from the day and could easily identify where I had stood. He spoke about his father, who had given his mother a hug goodbye that morning, the last time she had seen him. Patrick Doherty was shot from behind, unarmed, and attempting to get to safety. A photograph taken of him only moments before clearly showed he was trying to move to a safe area and that he was unarmed. Another man, Barney McGuigan, went to Patrick's aid waving a white handkerchief and was shot through the head. The number of the victims of Bloody Sunday shot from behind, or while fleeing, is damning for the army- it makes it clear to any observer that the British were guilty as hell.
Paul explained the events of the day with honesty and openness, including mentioning the horrifying fact that some of the soldiers from the day have openly posted on social media about their involvement- so secure are they that their sins won't be addressed. That such evil could exist is further proof that there are, even after Saville, answers to be had.
Paul also gave a tour of some of the murals, explaining the background to them and linking back to the Civil Rights campaign. He also led the way to, and explained, the memorial of those who died on Bloody Sunday- this is where the tour ends, and to see Paul stand in front of the memorial that bears his father's name and speak of the struggle for truth that the families of those who died on the day faced was overwhelming. Paul is a fantastic guide- I'll recommend that without hesitation. If you want an honest and first-hand account of the events- this is the man to see.
Passionate about teaching Irish History, Rebekah Poole has published multiple articles on the subject. As a winner of the 2015 NSW Premier's Teacher Scholarships (History), this blog was formed to create a wider resource for schools in NSW. This blog and site aims to share these resources with other teachers and students!