During the first days before my clothes arrived I learned to drive on the left side of the road and navigate with increasing ease through the country. My second AirBNB hosts proved to be the ideal support system. Margaret O’Farrell and Alfie McCaffrey were very helpful in following up on my lost luggage and with my puzzling through various technology issues—getting my phone to transition properly, figuring out if my throw-away phone from three years ago might work with a new chip, trying in vain for my GPS to kick back in (which it never did) and even helping me arrange visits with people I was trying to meet while my phone was in limbo. After three days I felt that I was leaving new friends. In Lorrha, Northern Tipperary, this couple has been renovating a large, stately home with their own tender loving care. Like so many a place in which good personally-grown food and fascinating, friendly conversation is a staple, Margaret and Alfie’s kitchen is at its heart. (Pay the extra to have dinner with them at night, which became extend visits in our case, lasting until 11:30 or so.)
Outside, chickens and roosters wandered as they will among the grass, flowers and trees, joined by their two dogs, with additional sound effects from a drove of pigs in the back. Frisky fellows, the pigs sometimes rule the roost, getting out from their pen and requiring hours of tracking and coaxing back to their own digs. From the kitchen porch, which runs the entire width of the house, it is possible to see the *Devil’s Bit section of the Slieve Bloom Mountains—the landmark for things Maher/Meagher. We had the most enjoyable breakfast looking in its direction on my last day, shared with a friend of Margaret and Alfie who had volunteered to help repair the woodshed roof. Pure bliss to eat outside amid so much beauty and such excellent company!
While navigating the way back and forth to their home in the woods (follow the signs for Birr and Portunma), I was able to venture north into Offaly County and into and around Roscrea, my primary destination on the first part of this Maher-related journey. Alfie had recommended also seeing Birr Castle, with its impressive Science Center, including a 72-inch long reflecting telescope built in 1845, and its note-worthy gardens. I came into Birr too late on the day I was venturing in those parts to do more than a drive-by, so this is now on my list for a hoped-for Next Time. At the end of my journey the following week I learned that the castle, owned by the Earls of Rosse, had once been owned by Meaghers. (More research needs to go into verifying that.)
* The Small Gap of Ely, in the parish of Barnane-Ely was written about by Joseph Casimir O’Meagher in 1890. (The O’Carrolls ruled over Ely, with close ties to the O’Meaghers of neighboring Ikerrin Barony.) He explained the nickname for the dip in the mountains with the following tale: “The Devil, driven to frenzy by his want of success among the inhabitants of Ikerrin, took a bit of their mountain in revenge, but finding it too heavy was obliged to drop it in the ‘Golden Vale,’ where it became the Rock of Cashel, afterwards famous as the residence of the Kings of Munster, and the site of one of the finest cathedrals in the west of Europe. The rock would about fill the gap in the mountain. Another story is that he dropped the bit in Queen’s County, and that the Rock of DunaMase was thus formed.” (Some Historical Notices of the O’Meaghers of Ikerrin, pg. 127.) (That there is a large cross at the top of this mountain was a surprising parallel, I thought, to that of the locally famous one in my hometown in Connecticut, of the same vintage, recently restored to great success and celebration. Had I more time I would have taken a hike to the top of the Devil’s Bit—#2 on my Next Time list.)
Another place that was closed during my visit, but seems worth a tour if staying so nearby was Redwood Castle, especially for those with Egan or Kennedy roots. (With that in mind, I include here an image of a place I passed on the way out of Limerick. For those with Killduff roots, here is a photo of a former Killduff Castle, now on the grounds of St. Anthony’s Nursing Home, Pallasgreen, Limerick.)
Clonmacnoise (Cluain Mhic Nóis) was part of my reason for staying in North Tipperary, as we had not ventured into that area on my last trip to Ireland with my husband. I wanted to see the place that had been mentioned so often in my studies about Ireland’s ancient history. This settlement, which dates to just before the death of its mid-6th century founder, St. Ciarán, grew to be the most desirable conquest for invaders over the centuries. Wealthy monasteries throughout Ireland were targets for their valuable ceremonial objects, and Clonmacnoise was also known as the primary site of achievements in literary and artistic high craft production during the centuries of religious rivalry in the country and in relation to Rome. Its location on a high ridge overlooking the Shannon River made it a major intersection of trade and travel.
There had been distinct roles with which Gaelic families were associated. Those that included members of high-ranking religious status had their own ecclesiastical settlements, centered upon a family church around which an extended community worked and lived. The once vast settlement of Clonmacoise contained not only a cathedral and a round tower, but a nuns’ church, and ones associated with St. Ciarán and the surnames Kelly, McLaughlin, Dowling, McLaffey, Connor, and Finghin. There are also remains of several other kinds of buildings, a castle, a sacred well, four high crosses, and other many other artifacts, including a section of an ogham stone and more than 600 portions of ancient grave slabs.
Three of the high crosses have been removed for their protection from their original location to an on-site museum. Replica ones have been in their places to weather outside since 1992-93. Portions of three additional high crosses from the site are preserved in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, along with such masterful art objects as the Crozier of the Abbots and the Shrine of the Stowe Missal. The Cross of the Scriptures (replica shown here) is considered to be one of the best of Ireland’s historic crosses of this extensively decorated kind. It honors the King of Meath and King of Tara, thus High King of Ireland (879 to 916), Flann Sinna mac Maelshechnaill. At the turn of the 14th century the Gaelic clans regained control of Clonmacnoise from the Anglo-Normans, and power shifted to the MacCoghlans until the 17th century—a time of devastation in Ireland as the formerly Catholic England and Ireland were re-envisioned by King Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell.
On the day I visited Clonmacnoise I was met with a powerful silence and stillness. Although there were far more people wandering the site with me than I expected, we all seemed to be held in a trancelike quiet as we individually absorbed an awe-full sense of the former importance and immensity of this place, now a relic of itself. Ireland’s Office of Public Works has done an exceptional job in stabilizing this and many other irreplaceable sites, touchstones to the country’s stature and nobility in the ancient world.
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
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