Monday, 5 May 2014

Like driving from Dublin to Berlin
during a busy weekend in Achill

Bunratty Castle on the banks of the River Raite in Co Clare at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of this bank holiday weekend on Achill Island, where I was one of the speakers at the 11th annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend. The weekend was focussing on travel writing and travel writers and I arrived in Achill for the opening of the weekend in the Cyril Gray Hall Dugort on Friday night.

On the opening night, the Berlin-based Irish Times journalist Derek Scally spoke about German perceptions of Ireland and Irish perceptions of Germany. Later that evening, the award-winning writer and journalist Dea Birkett, who lives in London and on Achill, spoke on “Women travellers through the ages – difficult journeys by extraordinary women,” and the travel writers and women she introduced us to included the novelist Honor Tracy, who lived in Achill for many years.

I was staying in Gray’s Guest House, and had planned to spend the full weekend on the island. However, a family funeral in Co Cork meant I missed Saturday’s programme, which included readings, talks and workshops by Heinrich Böll’s son, Rene Böll, Hugo Hamilton, Mary Russell, the German writer and novelist Birgit Vanderbeke and Dr Gisela Holfter, Senior Lecturer in German at the University of Limerick.

Early on Saturday morning, two of us left Dugort for the 700 km round trip by car to Millstreet, Co Cork. It was a long journey that took us through Newport, Westport and south Co Mayo, through Headford and the fringes of Connemara to the outskirts of Galway, and on through Ornamore and Gort, into east Co Clare, before we stopped for a late lunch in Bunratty.

By the banks of the river in Bunratty, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Bunratty was once a favoured venue for New Year’s gatherings of friends and extended family for many years, but I had not been there for the years.

We had lunch in Lily Mai’s Café at the Village Mills in Bunratty, looking out onto the banks of the River Raite, Durty Nelly’s Pub, and Bunratty Castle.

The river, which flows into the Shannon nearby, gives its name to Bunratty, and the village thrives mainly because of the touristm industry. The attractions include Bunratty Castle and the Folk Park in its grounds, as well as Durty Nelly’s, which claims it is one of Ireland’s oldest pubs.

Bunratty Castle is a large 15th century tower house, built by the McNamara family. It is the fourth castle here, and stands on the site of an earlier castle built by Thomas de Clare. For generations, the castle belonged to the O’Brien family and in the 1680s it was the principal seat of the Earls of Thomond.

In 1712, Henry O’Brien, 8th and last Earl of Thomond, sold Bunratty Castle and 472 acres for £225 to Thomas Amory who in turn sold the castle around 1720 to Thomas Studdert, ancestor of the great World War I chaplain and poet, ‘Woodbine Willie,’ the Revd Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929), author of the poem ‘Indifference,’ best known for its second stanza:

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.


The Studdert family left the castle when they built Bunratty House nearby in 1804. Later, the castle was used as a police barracks by the Royal Irish Constabulary, but in 1894 Captain Richard Studdert moved back into the castle briefly until the roof of the Great Hall collapsed.

In 1956, the decaying and crumbling castle was bought and restored by Lord Gort. With financial help from the Board of Works, he reroofed the castle and saved it from ruin. The castle opened to the public in 1960, and remains a popular centre for tourist visits and entertainment.

A procession of vintage and classic cars weaves its way through Bunratty on Saturday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

As I strolled around the village, photographing the castle and the river, a procession of classic and vintage cars began weaving its way through the village as part of a rally organised by the Irish Jaguar and Daimler Club.

We eventually got to Millstreet late in the afternoon. It was good to meet cousins and other family members I had not seen for many years. Although funerals are times of grief and mourning, they are also times for drawing family back together again.

Walking through the streets of Millstreet, Co Cork, on Saturday evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Before the removal on Saturday evening, there was time to admire the Harry Clarke window of the Visit of the Magi in Saint Patrick’s Church, to see the house where my maternal grandparents lived, and to look at lonely tower of the former Church of Ireland parish church, all that is left of a church that closed almost 60 years.

I have some shards of memories of visiting Millstreet in my childhood, but there was no time to recover or reclaim those memories, or to visit Drishane Castle where my maternal ancestors are buried. I had to be back in Achill in time for Sunday morning’s guided walk and lecture.

Dusk was beginning to fade when we left Millstreet to make our way back through Mallow, but it was dark by the time we were by-passing Limerick and crossing the River Shannon. With one brief stop in Kilcolgan outside Galway, we continued on through Headford, Westport and Newport to Achill. We crept into Gray’s Guesthouse quietly shortly before 1 a.m. on Sunday morning.
In a thoughtful but quiet display of caring, the staff had left us a tray of sandwiches and had switched on the electric blanket.

Later, as we counted up the return journeys between Dublin and Achill and Achill and Millstreet it came to 1,300 km – Heinrich Böll might have been amused that the distance we had travelled by road is the same as the distance between Dublin and Berlin.

There was a long and busy day before us on Sunday ... but many memories had been brought to life once again.