July 27, 2009
The tourists here in Connemara this week are mainly French and German. Many French people have a very specific knowledge of the region and I suppose most French people have heard of the place from the song “Les Lacs de Connemara” sung by Michel Sardou. The fact that President de Gaulle loved Connemara was no doubt a help too. On the German side, Heinrich Boll was a great admirer of the place and wrote about it in his “Irish Journal” (Irisches Tagesbuch) which, sadly, I have not yet read and which is difficult to find in English translation.
North of Connemara is County Mayo, which has given a word to English, French, German, Dutch and I don’t know how many other languages. In 1880, a Captain Charles Boycott was the agent of a large absentee landlord during the time of a national campaign for tenants’ rights and land reform. To further their campaign and in protest against the absentee landlord, the Land League organised a peaceful protest under which Captain Boycott was ostracised. No one would speak to him, no shop would serve him, no services would be supplied to him, no one would work for him, the postman would not deliver his letters etc . At one stage, loyalist workers were drafted in to save his harvest but they apparently needed the protection of a thousand police and soldiers. The protest became a cause celebre and the word boycott entered the English and other languages.
Staying with County Mayo, 1798 is known in Irish folklore as The Year of the French. In that year, a French expeditionary force arrived in Killala under General Humbert and joined forces with Irish rebels to fight the British. After an initial success at Castlebar the Franco-Irish force was eventually defeated. The French officers were wined and dined in Dublin and then sent home and the Irish leaders were hanged- the French being seen as honourable combattants and the Irish as traitors.
One of the ironies of history is that Humbert was one of the leaders in the brutal repression of the anti-revolutionary Catholic peasants and their leaders in the Vendee. The Franco-Irish alliance might have hit some rocky patches if it had continued.
(Another French expeditionary force, under General Hoche, had been sent to Ireland a few years previously but could not make a landing because of stormy weather.)
Enough about the French and German connections. A few kilometers from where I write this blog Marconi set up in 1907 the first commercial transatlantic wireless telegraph service. It was a big undertaking, employing some 400 people at one time, and finally ceased service in 1922. (Marconi was half-Italian half Irish – his mother was a Jameson of the whiskey family. His first wife was also Irish.)
Very close to the telegraph station, in June 1919, a plane crash-landed into the Connemara bog – from the air the bog looked like a green field. This was first non-stop transatlantic flight, flown by Alcock and Brown, a flight that took 16 hours and 27 minutes from Newfoundland to Ireland.
And now to Christopher Columbus and Connemara. Legend has it that he visited Galway before his voyage to America. Legend also has it that he noticed in Galway a type of tropical seed, known as a sea bean, floating on the tide and this led him to believe that there was land out in the West beyond the horizon. (You don’t have to believe this but do vote Yes for Lisbon.)
Some ships of the Spanish Armada were wrecked off the coast of Connemara, and have generated many tales since. It is said that the famous Connemara ponies, a breed indigenous to Connemara, are the descendants of two Arabian stallions that managed to swim ashore from the sinking ships. The stallions were not the only ones to interbreed with the locals apparently – there are many people in Connemara and along the west coast of Ireland who are said to have a Spanish look about them. (I also heard a story that some of the wilder inhabitants of Connemara stripped the Spanish sailors and soldiers of all they possessed and left them to die – but this obviously cannot be true.)Author : Jim Murray