Category Archives: Leitrim

‘The longest way round is the shortest way home’ – James Joyce’s Leitrim origins

james-joyceMore people start reading Ulysses than will ever finish it. It is a difficult novel to read, crafted as such by the author, who himself declared ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality’. Yet despite all this complexity tackling the greatest modernist novel of all is a rewarding experience. Some commentators note that this ‘Selective secrecy’ on the part of Joyce was in fact ‘a brilliant marketing strategy’ ensuring that ‘scholars still debate the mysteries of this obscure and difficult text’ ad infinitum[i].

I was intrigued to find out a few years back that the creator of the enigmatic modern hero, Leopold Bloom, had strong Leitrim connections and in particular with the parish of Gortlettragh. Joyce’s maternal ancestors were the Murrays, tenant farmers on the shores of Lough Rynn, about 3 miles south of the town of Mohill in the townland of Tulcon. Well-known local historian Michael Whelan wrote an excellent article some years back about the family. Joyce’s grandfather was a John Murray who was born in Tulcon in 1829. The infamous Lord Leitrim, William Sydney Clements acquired the Tulcon lands in or about 1862. He immediately set about reducing the number of tenants on the lakeside and took the best of the Tulcon lands into the Lough Rynn home farm. In 1866 Hugh Murray (granduncle of James Joyce) and family had been moved to the other side of the lake. They took up residence in the townland of Gortlettragh from which the parish bears its name. Hugh’s brother, Patrick Murray was the Parish priest in Carrick-Finea parish on the Cavan-Longford border and became well known in the area for helping to found the United Land League in Mullahoran in 1879.

By the time the Murrays had left Tulcon, John Murray had already established himself in Dublin. In 1854 he married Margaret Theresa Flynn whose family owned the iconic ‘Eagles Nest’ public house in Terenure. Margaret herself was the licence holder in 1860. The Flynn family were well known in business circles in Dublin where Patrick Flynn was master of a spirit store and later a starch & blueing factory, at 53 Back Lane. Margaret Theresa Flynn had two sisters Elizabeth and Anne Flynn who ran schools for piano and singing. It is believed the Miss Morkans of the famous short story “The Dead” is based on them. It was also said that Elizabeth Flynn may at some point have been a governess at the court of Louis Napoleon of France. “The Dead” was subsequently made into a feature film by John Huston in 1987.

In 1859 Mary “May” Murray, the future mother of James Joyce was born. May was an accomplished pianist, no doubt influenced by her talented Aunts. At this time the family had moved to 7 Clanbrassil St. It was on this very street that John Stanislaus Joyce, a charming, failed medical student, amateur tenor and incompetent business man met and fell in love with 20 year old May Murray. Joyce had moved to Dublin from Fermoy in Cork where his family were modest landlords and business people and firmly part of the rising Catholic middle classes.

According to Michael Whelan[ii], John Stanislaus Joyce was secretary at a distillery in Chapelizod where John Murray also transacted business. It is also known that May Murray and John S Joyce both sang in the choir at the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar. The young couple married in Rathmines Church on the 5th May, 1880 to the disapproval of both the Murrays and Mrs Joyce; the latter who returned to Cork after the nupitals and never reconciled with her son. On return from honeymoon in London the newly-weds settled at 47 Northumberland Ave., Kingstown. A first child John Augustine Joyce died in 1881 and their second, James Augustine Joyce was born on the 2nd February 1882, at their next home in 41 Brighton Sq. W., Rathgar.

John S. Joyce spent most of his life dodging creditors. After James the couple had three more boys and six girls. The youngest, Freddie, died in infancy in 1894. There is evidence that John S Joyce may have been violent towards his wife when drunk and at least on one occasion the police became involved. Joyce moved from job to job, selling off assets, taking out mortgages, moving house. Through all this May Murray-Joyce’s health began a long spiral of decline. Another son George died in 1902 and this was a huge blow to her as was James’ rejection of his Catholic religion.

James visited her from Paris over Christmas 1902 and she appeared to rally. Within a few months however she was confined to bed. She does not seem to have confided in James on how ill she really was. On Good Friday morning 1903, Joyce sent her a postcard asking her to tell him what was wrong, but when he returned to his hotel that evening he found his father’s telegram informing him that his mother was dying. May Joyce was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver but it is now believed this was a misdiagnosis and that she was dying of cancer. Joyce returned from Paris to be with his mother who lingered on throughout the summer in great discomfort until her death on 13 August. It is said that Joyce and his brother Stanislaus refused to kneel and pray at the bedside of their dying mother, despite being ordered to do so by his uncle John Murray. Mrs Joyce was laid out in a brown habit at their house at St Peter’s Terrace before being buried in a plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. A year later Joyce writing to Nora Barnacle said that when he looked upon his mother’s grey and wasted face as she lay in her coffin, he knew that he was looking on the face of a victim, and he cursed the system that had made her a victim.


In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Stephen Dedalus describes his father Simon – for whom John Stanislaus Joyce was the model – as having been a ‘medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.’

 When he died James remembered his father to his friend Harriet Shaw Weaver in the following terms:-

“My father had an extraordinary affection for me. He was the silliest man I ever knew and yet cruelly shrewd. He thought and talked of me up to his last breath. I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him. His dry (or rather wet) wit and his expression of face convulsed me often with laughter. When he got the copy I sent him of Tales Told &c (so they write me) he looked a long time at Brancusi’s Portrait of J.J. and finally remarked: Jim has changed more than I thought. I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition (out of which, however, the greater part of any talent I may have springs) but, apart from these, something else I cannot define. But if an observer thought of my father and myself and my son too physically, though we are all very different, he could perhaps define it. It is a great consolation to me to have such a good son. His grandfather was very fond of him and kept his photograph beside mine on the mantelpiece.

 I knew he was old. But I thought he would live longer. It is not his death that crushed me so much but self-accusation …”

Whilst Joyce had a very dysfunctional upbringing his parents ensured he did receive a classical Jesuit education. 

His extended family contributed many characters that appear in his works and he in turn gave the modern world its greatest novel. He may not have been over-enamoured with his Murray ancestors who had made their money purveying ‘grog’ to the city. In the cyclops chapter Bloom muses,

Where do they get the money? Coming up redheaded curates from the county Leitrim, rinsing empties and old man in the cellar. Then, lo and behold, they blossom out as Adam Findlaters or Dan Tallons. Then think of the competition. General thirst. Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub”.

In the age of constantly changing fashions and almost a century since publication, it is remarkable that Ulysses still occupies such an exalted position in literature. My favourite story about the often cantankerous Joyce is the one in where he is confronted by a former British Officer shortly after the end of the Great War. It was the era of men recounting what military campaigns they had fought in and how they had helped shape history. Not been a part of the ‘action’ was frowned upon in much the same way as a draft dodger is in an American election campaign today. The seasoned British officer seeking to embarrass the Dublin exile in front of a gathering asked, ‘and what did you do during the War, Mr. Joyce?’ to which the prompt reply was ‘Why I wrote Ulysses, what did you do?’ I’m sure his Leitrim cousins would have approved.

“What’s in a name? That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours.” 


[i] Dr Sarah Davison, University of Nottingham

[ii] Michael Whelan ‘James Joyce Leitrim Conncection’ – Leitrim Guardian 2004 ed




The children are on mid-term this week or Halloween break as we used to call it. On Friday last they went to school in their outfits; The oldest went as the Grim Reaper, the second as a Dark Swan and the youngest as a Ghost with an incredibly long tongue. They seemed to have a great day and the teachers got in on the action too. The weather has contributed; the weekend has brought cooler, showery weather, overcast and the trees are shedding the last of their leaves. You can’t get more Halloween than that weather outlook.

Halloween is a global event these days but October 31 is really Samhain, the Celtic New Year. The ancient Celts society was based on cattle rearing. They were the Masai of Europe. Even in their Brehon Laws many serious offences such as murder would result in a fine called an Eric which consisted of a set number of cows. The cattle were given to the victim or the victim’s family, and if the perpetrator could not pay, or failed to pay, then his family picked up the tab. Cattle were the legal tender of Celtic Ireland and in this context the end of October was the date when the cattle were driven down from upland pastures, down to the lowlands for shelter in the winter. They would stay in the lowlands until the following Bealtaine, or May day, the first day of Summer, and then they were moved to the lower slopes again.

Samhain is also associated with light and the lighting of Bonfires. In the United Kingdom however the Bonfires will as usual be a few days after ours. Guy Fawkes Night on the 5th November is now the traditional night on which Bonfires are lit, in celebration of the discovery of the plot to blow up Westminster. Despite his notoriety, Guy Fawkes is sometimes toasted as “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions”.

One other thing I’ve noticed in recent years are the number of Pumpkins we see in our shops. Pumpkins are difficult to grow in our climate but the tradition of carving Jack-o-lanterns seems to have travelled to us from across the Atlantic. This would suggest that there was a tradition of lighting lanterns to ward off evil spirits prior to the colonisation of North America. I have read that hereabouts turnips were used, but it’s not something I wish to promote as the smell of burning turnip has to be one of the vilest odours known to man. On the other hand it might be useful if you are allergic to trick-or-treaters.

Samhain and the traditions associated with it are another example of how Christian culture simply took the existing Celtic Pagan traditions and painted them with a veneer of Christianity. The Celts believed that on Samhain the doors were opened between their world and the underworld and this allowed the spirits to pass between the two. The tradition was carried to Europe in the Dark Ages by the Irish Monks. In the year 998, October 31st was adopted as a Christian festival known as All Saint’s Day, or All Soul’s Day. It came to be commonly known as, All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween.

One tradition that didn’t carry over from the Celtic period was that of human sacrifice. The practice itself predated the Celts coming to Ireland. Many sacrifices were carried out on the Cavan – Leitrim border close in the parish of Templeport. In ancient times the place was known as Magh Slecht. Tigermas (Tighearnmhas) was an early High King of Ireland and around this day three thousand five hundered years ago he and his supporters and army made their way to Magh Slecht (translated as ‘The Field of Adoration’) to worship the Sun God, Crom Cruach. Tigermas had a long reign of seventy seven years but it was one in which he was in continual war with the the Sons of Eber (from which we get the word Hibernian) but which he was ultimately always successful. It was said that during this time Gold was first smelted in Ireland, by a man called Luchadán.

Tigermas also made a law that each grade of society should be known by the number of colours in its clothes: — the clothes of a slave should be of one colour; those of a soldier of two right up to the Chieftains who were allowed up to five colours. Tigermas as King, his family and Druids were allowed to wear up to six different colours in their apparel.

In 1544BC Tigernas headed to Magh Slecht to worship Crom Cruach and whatever happened there it resulted in three quarters of his army (as well as himself) dying. I am not sure who was doing the outdoor catering but let’s just say the investigation was inconclusive . Tigermas is described as the 13th Milesian King of Ireland. The Milesians came to Ireland from Spain and when they arrived here the Island was inhabited by the Tuatha de Dannan. The mythology states that the two peoples agreed to divide up Ireland with the tuatha taking all that was under the ground and the Milesians all that was above. This of course ties in neatly with the longstanding belief that there are people inhabiting the underground who come up above ground around this time of year.

I recently came across some interesting writings on the Spanish origins of the Milesians. It seemed that not only were the Irish aware of the Iberian link but the Spanish were also. This came to a head when the Irish Gaelic Lords fled Ireland in 1607. Many sought and received the protection of the Spanish king who decreed that the Irish in Spain were to be given all of the rights and privileges due to Spanish subjects. This unique legal position was confirmed in subsequent decrees by Charles II and Philip V of Spain in 1680, 1701 and 1718.

The French Revolution spread terror amongs the monarchies of Europe and this fear led to registers of foreign subjects been created in Spain. The register also required foreign subjects to take a particular Oath which was not a requirement of native Spaniards. This led to three Irish natives living in Cadiz agreeing to sign the register, but refusing to take the oath claiming they were not required to take it. The three appealed to the Royal Council in Madrid, who decreed (after consulting the attorney-general) that “the taking of the oath, to which all foreigners have been directed to submit, shall not be extracted from the Irish, seeing that by the sole fact of their settling in Spain the Irish are regarded as Spaniards and have the same rights. The decision led to King Charles IV of Spain issued a further decree in 1792 confirming this decision by his Council and the special and unique position of the sons of Mil back in their ‘old country’.

So to summarise this blog entry:_

  1. Enjoy Samhain or Halloween wherever you are,
  2. Don’t eat anyone
  3. Be careful with the fireworks and the outdoor catering
  4. Wear as many colours as you like, it flaunts your social status,
  5. Don’t worry if this winter gets too cold we can always head back home to Spain.


Francis McGann – Leitrim Mathematician, Surveyor, Patriot (1786-1815)

Growing up in South Leitrim I had often heard of the brilliant but tragic Francis McGann. McGann was a native of Eslin and a noted scholar who died at the early age of 29. McGann was simply known to his peers as “the Bright Boy” and his early demise was sadly lamented for generations of people who saw in his passing the loss of one who had the potential to be a great leader of the people.

Francis McGann was born in 1786 in Drumlara, a townland in the parish of Mohill and on the northwestern shore of Lough McHugh. His father’s name was Peter McGann and his mother was a Mulvey from Aughacashel.

Francis was born into a country where the penal laws restricted the life and prospects of most Catholics. He initially attended a local Hedge School run by a Hugh McDonald where his genius soon became apparent. Soon he was enrolled in a highly regarded private school run by an Owen Reynolds at Glebe St., Mohill. The building where Reynolds school was located still stands and is now converted into two private residences. The Reynolds School was highly regarded in the teaching of Mathematics and McGann excelled in this discipline.

Owen Reynolds School. Mohill

    Owen Reynolds School. Mohill

Hedge school

Hedge school

McGann later moved on to a classical school in Drumsna run by a Parson Kane where he became proficient in Greek and Latin. By this stage McGann’s own reputation as a gifted scholar was widely known. In order to further his education in Mathematics, McGann travelled to Ballingarry, Co. Limerick, where he was enrolled in a school conducted by a Mr. James Baggot, himself a famous Mathematician of the day. In 1805 Baggott was advertising that he had acquired a supply of “curious mathematical and astronomical instruments,” in which he hopes his pupils will find “both pleasure and profit in the prosecution of their studies.”

Baggott was also noted for the fact that he was a friend and correspondent of Pierre Simon Marquis Laplace, the great French scientist and tutor to Napoleon. It is recorded that when Laplace was once in conversation with a Colonel O’Dell, a Limerick MP, he enquired if O’Dell knew of  “the great Irish mathematician. The Great O’Baggott”.

The Baggott School was an environment where the young McGann from Leitrim thrived but it wasn’t only Mathematics he was now learning. Baggott was also a member of the United Irishmen and his house in Ballingarry was where Lord Edward Fitzgerald stayed when he toured the country stoking up rebellion in 1798. Baggott is also said to have devised a plan for the capture of the city of Limerick. The plan was however discovered and the plotters all arrested. It is not known if McGann was amongst those interrogated but it is clear that Baggott had a huge influence on him and helped formulate in McGann’s mind the revolutionary ideals which were to become more apparent later in his life.

The Government in Dublin Castle were kept fully informed by a spy who signed himself “J.D.” of all Baggott’s movements, and a General Payne wrote advised Dublin Castle: “That rascal Baggott can neither be frightened nor bribed, and when Mr. O’Del returns I think we had better take him up.” The Government were right to be worried about Baggott and his school, particularly in light of his known correspondence with well figures in Parisian Society. Baggott died at Charleville on 31st August 1805 at the age of thirty five. He was widely mourned as can be noted from the following contemporary verse penned in his honour.

O Science, mourn! thy favourite is no more,

Alas! he’s numbered with the silent dead;

 Hibernia’s genius will his loss deplore

Whom he to fame’s exalted temple led.

By nature blessed with an exploring thought,

His brows were decked from the Newtonian tow’r

The deep arcana of fair Science sought,

And gleaned her fields of ev’ry golden flow’r

It can be surmised that the end of Baggott also signalled the end of Francis McGann’s education. Returning to Drumlara, McGann began working as a mapper / surveyor and a pioneer in the art of preparing accurate large-scale maps which were developed later by the Ordnance Survey. His attention to detail was widely known and it was said locally that he would even take care to “rub the breath off the chain” he used for surveying so that it would not distort his measurements.

He drew a map of the district of Bunnybeg, Attymanus and Annaghhasna on a dried and pressed sheepskin for the landed Lawder family. He also mapped the townland of Killamaun and the length of the Eslin river. It is said that he was offered a position with the East India Company as chief surveyor but he declined. The Leitrim that McGann  returned to was the subject of considerable military activity in the decade following the failed insurrection of 1798. Although the United Irishmen were broken McGann became leader of a secret society known as “the Rock” “White Rock” or “Rockites”. It is little surprise that McGann was prominent and he may even have helped found such a militant agrarian society. The area where he had lived whilst in Baggott’s school was also a major centre of “Rockite” activity. A John Hickey of Doneraile, was suspected by the English authorities of the time of being ‘Captain Rock’. The Rockites tended to use United Irishman rhetoric and regularly mentioned that “assistance was to be given from France” to any Irish insurgents. One of the main Rockite aims was the placing “Catholics upon a level with Protestants”.


In late 1815 there were major civil disturbances in the Keshcarrigan and Gorvagh areas. In the aftermath several houses and farms were burned to the ground. A local landlord by the name of Minor Peyton had also retaliated by cutting the road into the townland of Laheen Peyton thus preventing the Catholic Tenants from getting to Mass. McGann organised a large meeting to be held at Keshcarrigan Fair on December 20th, 1815. His speech to the massive crowd there is recorded in oral tradition. He told the assembled crowd that he was there;

“to meet the intelligence, the genius and the mind of Kiltubrid and to denounce Minor Peyton, a tyrannical brute and a disgrace to humanity, who not being content with burning Drumcollop, he now tears up the pathway which lead to the ‘House of God’. But the Sun of his glory is set and today he is like the remnant of a melancholy wreck having nothing but tradition to point to his former grandeur and greatness”

When returning from the mass meeting at Keshcarrigan Fair, McGann in the company of two men called Billy the Joiner and James Ward took shelter in a Sheebeen near Kilnagross. It had begun snowing quite heavily. The country had been enduring a severe cold snap and snow had lain on the ground for over six weeks. The people it was said had to boil snow to get a drink for their cattle. After a few hours McGann left the Sheebeen “for want of drink and fire” . It is believed he intended to visit the home of a young McKeon lady nearby with whom he was on friendly terms. Sadly McGann never reached his destination. The following day his body was found frozen to death in a snow drift, only short distance from McKeon’s house. Sadly ‘The Bright Boy” was no more and a few days later he was buried in Mohill. According to local tradition the place where McGann died was marked for many years by an evergreen tree which had become known as ‘The Monument’.
McGann’s passing was a huge blow to the people in the area.  His intellectual ability was noted from an early age. In many ways his life mirrored that of his mentor Baggott.

When McGann returned from Limerick he had matured and was clearly someone unafraid to take on the establishment both privately and publicly. Such men were in short supply in places like rural Leitrim.

The ballad, “The Fate of Francis McGann,” was penned by John Cox, the poet of Clooncarne in the parish of Bornacoola and in its folksy way it records the life and tragic death of this brilliant young man.

“He was versed in the language of all foreign parts,
And master of several bright liberal arts,
The art of surveying he had a command,
Mathematics and logic he did understand.
He could measure the air, the sea or the land,
John Cox gives his praises to Francis McGann.”


Many Swallows make a Summer


The annual arrival of the Swallow is one of the surest signs that Summer is on its way. We have had them since the beginning of April. The first weeks are spent securing their nests, building new ones and repairing old ones. You can find them anywhere but they seem to like farmyards and their byres, haysheds and barns. We have two permanent nests on our dwelling house, the oldest of which is here at least ten years now. I have managed to affix some plain corrie board from an old  poster directly underneath the nests to catch the droppings. The swallows might be cute but they have little respect for a freshly painted or whitewashed wall. One of our nests is high up under the eave on the Western Gable of the house whilst the other is squeezed in between an eave and a drainpipe. I’m reminded of the  The Wind in the Willows, where the swallows discuss with relish their impending return to “the house of the perfect eaves”. Not only are these tiny birds amazing flyers but they are great architects and precision builders too.

By now the birds are paired off, well settled in, with eggs laid and soon to hatch. The swallow practices love in a cold climate. The male and female will build the nest together. The long evenings are now spent darting and diving in the acrobatic pursuit of insects. It was the swallow after all who first invented the concept of in-flight dining. They say that the swallow is so adept that they can even swoop low along a watercourse and drink water without stopping. The skill and athleticism of these little birds are a sight to behold in the dying hours of the day. They are also very brave little birds and will swoop low like an F16 fighter pilot on any man or beast getting too close to the nest. I have vivid memories of the swallows teasing an old sheepdog we had at home, dive bombing him and turning him around in circles in the farm yard, in what for them must have been a source of endless amusement and mischief. The rest of their summer will now be spent rearing the insatiable chicks.

swallow 2

I always find it amazing to think that these little birds will next year return to this same place, the place of their birth and in some ways I feel honoured..

Billy Flynn, an ecologist for the Irish Wildlife Trust said , “Swallows travel in families, with the younger birds following their parents when they migrate for the cold months. What is incredible about them, Flynn explained, is that young swallows are still able to make the journey themselves, even if their parents have died or got lost before they had a chance to show them.

No one is exactly sure how they manage this but it is thought instinct plays a big part, as well as magnetism. Most animals have the mineral magnetite in their skulls and this gives birds a kind of internal compass. It’s an amazing journey, they pass over deserts, seas, they fly through all sorts of weather and when you see the tiny size of them, you can fit two in the palm of your hand.[i]

Migration map

Migration map

The swallow doesn’t seem to do retirement and is constantly on the move, He simply cannot sit still, a consummate workaholic. As if inventing in flight dining wasn’t enough he also promoted the classic long distance commute. As much as I look forward to them coming I hate to see them going; their departure signals the end of the summer. If they are gone before the Hurling final you can watch out for a bleak winter, if they linger on until October then it mightn’t be too bad. In the months following this I will curse again the price of oil, whilst Comrade Swallow has retired five thousand miles to the south, to his dacha in sub-Saharan Africa. Observers say the numbers of swallows are depleting and I sincerely hope that this can be reversed. It will be a very sad day if ever the swallow does not return.

The Swallow Song

Come wander quietly and listen to the wind
Come here and listen to the sky
Come walking high above the rolling of the sea
And watch the swallows as they fly

There is no sorrow like the murmur of their wings
There is no choir like their song
There is no power like the freedom of their flight
While the swallows roam alone[ii]


[ii] Richard farina – Chapell music

“The savage loves his native shore”

Packy McGarty

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Packy McGarty on a few occasions and one thing that always strikes me is how he remains, even at 82, quick in mind and light on foot. In an era of high performance coaching, increasing demands on players and the onset of the ‘elite’ County player, programmed to play numerous systems and tactical set-ups, McGarty remains a beacon of light, a reminder of what makes the GAA great and unique. Surprisingly, to some at least, its not about a dresser full of medals.

I enjoyed this piece by David Kelly in today’s ‘Independent’.

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

 William Butler Years was born on this day in 1865. Although born into the Anglo-Irish ascendancy Yeats could arguably be said to have done more to reshape the modern Irish identity than any if his contemporaries. Yeats drew his inspiration from ancient Irish myths and folklore and as an ardent cultural nationalist, valued the classical past as an inspiration for a modern pluralist society. He has so many great poems and this is one of my favourites that simply has to be read aloud.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

A Loop in the River

The Weir at Jamestown

The Weir

This Blog’s title owes itself to the River Shannon. The river meanders its way through the countryside and provides us with some beautiful backdrops. Today the sun was shining brightly which can be rarity hereabouts, at least of late. I was smiling to myself after a friend told me a little anecdote about Rick Santorum the US Republican Senator. Apparently Santorum had said that Pope Francis ought to leave climate change to the scientists! Poor Rick however was apparently unaware that the Pope, prior to taking orders was a trained chemical lab technician. Little matters like Ricks oversight can make you feel happy sometimes. As I was passing through Jamestown the river came into view.  I just had to stop the car to admire the beautiful Weir and the sound of the cascading waters. I was reminded of those beautifully crafted lines of Kavanagh:-

“Where by a lock Niagariously roars

The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence

Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose

Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.”

A few minutes later I stopped at one of the bridges that traverse the Albert Lock and Canal. This stretch of water is likely to be very familiar to the boating fraternity on the Upper Shannon.  It is also an area rich in history ancient and modern. The canal is also known as the ‘Jamestown Cut’ and it bypasses an un-navigable part of the river in the loop between the neat villages of Jamestown and Drumsna.

The Albert Canal

The Albert Canal

Jamestown itself was founded in 1622 as a walled plantation town and remarkably, as a recognised borough, it returned two MP’s up until the Act of Union in 1801 . The town itself never really flourished in the manner envisaged by its founders. Its prominence peaked in the mid seventeenth century when it was fought over during the 1641 Rebellion. In 1650 a famous Synod of the Bishops was held here but from then on the town declined although it retained a modest river trade and was still a significant fording point over the Shannon. The importance of the crossing point has long been recognised. The area marked the traditional fording area and point of demarcation between the ancient provinces of Connacht and Ulster. The ‘Doon’ of Drumsna stretched for over 1.6 km between the villages of Drumsna and Jamestown.The Doon consisted of a large earthenwork rampart up to six metres high on its northern side. The ramparts also had a fortified gate or entrance and was effectively an ancient ‘Checkpoint Charlie’. It is believed that the Doon was in use in the period 500BC to 400AD.

Drumsna is also a picturesque riverside village. Up until the mid Nineteenth Century it was of huge significance as the main postal town of the southern part of the County of Leitrim. The Novelist Anthony Trollope lived for a time in the Village and penned one of his earliest novels ‘The Macdermotts of Ballycloran’ here.



Another famous person associated with the area is the famous Surgeon and Explorer Thomas Heazle Parke who was born in nearby Clogher House. Parke made a name for himself in the relief of Gordon at Khartoum in 1885. He also worked with Henry Morton Stanley in the Emin Pash Relief Expedition. Whilst in Central Africa Parke is said to have purchased a pygmy girl, a strange act in modern terms but one which saved his life. When he contracted malaria the girl nursed him back from death. Unfortunately he could not bring her with him as her eyes could not adjust to the sunlight after coming out of the dark of the forest.

Thomas Heazle Parke

Thomas Parke

The Canal was first mooted in the 1600’s as part of an overall scheme to make the Shannon navigable. A canal was not constructed however until 1769. The original canal was much smaller and narrower than what we see today and its depth averaged only 1.2 metres. The Shannon Commissioners approved new works in 1844 and much of the construction work was carried out by Poor Relief Committees during the famine. On average 300 men worked on the Canal daily at this time. The new Lock was named after the Prince Consort and husband of Queen Victoria. The canal served the area well commercially until the late 1950’s by which time increased use of road haulage made the river barges obsolete. From a highway of commerce the river has now become a leisure route . I hope today’s  canal users take just a moment to think of the local labourers whose backbreaking toil, with hand tools, built this fine canal, all for the measly sum of six pence a day.

All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied

Ecclesiastes 6:7