Yule, Newgrange and The Irish Winter Solstice

Ireland has been celebrating the different markers of the year for millian and over time these different festival have evolved to adapt to our changing Climates. Samhain has evolved into Halloween, Ombolc has evolved to St. Bridget’s Day and even the festivals of Lughnasa are believed to have evolved into the village fairs we see across the country. The Winter Solstice is a quieter festival date that marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, but it may be one of the most important dates in the ancient Irish calendar based on our archeology. 

The Winter Solstice or Yule, known as “An Grianstad” in Irish, is a mid-season festival on December 21st that marks the Winter Equinox – the shortest time of the year in which we only have around 9 hours of sunlight. Our ancestors would have recorded this time as having some great significant meaning, from what we can see through archeology, specifically at Newgrange which dates back as far as the Neolithic Period – around 5,000 years ago! 

Newgrange is one of the oldest buildings in the world, and is the second largest of the mounds of Brú na Bóinne, the largest being Knowth. It is approximately 80m in diameter with a 19m long passage tomb running through the mound with a corbelled ceiling which has kept the interior of Newgrange water-tight for millenia. Upon its rediscovery in the early 20th century, bones and cremated remains were found on the flat stones in the chambers of the passage tomb, along with intricate designs and grooves carved into the stone of triskles and spirals that to this day historians are still unsure of their significant meaning. Some believe that Newgrange, and it’s surrounding mounds in Brú na Bóinne, were the burial sites for important figures in society, such as Kings or Bards, and that the Winter Solstice marked a point in the calendar when the first light born after the longest night carried the spirits of the dead, but this is only speculation. 

The entryway of the passage tomb, guarded by an intricate carved kerbstone and a lightbox above the doorway, is perfectly aligned so that at dawn from the 19th to 22nd of December the rising sun [pierces through the lightbox perfectly illuminates the long inner-chamber for 17 minutes. 

There is so much we can learn through monuments like Newgrange on how our ancestors celebrated different markings of the year, and what they may have meant, and even looking at things we still do today says a lot about how our folklore and culture has evolved. Today, the Winter Solstice is synonymous with dark, cold evenings shared with loved ones and roaring fires, and I’m sure not much has managed to change in the past 5.000 years.

A Short History of Muckish Mountain

From the Parishes of Doe to Cloughaneely, there is an iconic part of the landscape that is impossible to miss, except perhaps on cloudy days when there’s a low cloud or fog in the way. This is the sight of Muckish Mountain. 

Muckish has stood overlooking this corner of Donegal for Millenia and has watched from above the many changes of our landscape since then -from the arrival of our ancestors, the marauding Vikings and the days of the great Irish Chieftains, to the colonization under the British Empire all the way to our Independence. It has also bore witness to our tragedies; The Great Hunger, Two World Wars, the Battle of the Atlantic off the coast of Tory Island which saw the death of hundreds of sailors, and the countless lives that have drowned along our coast. 

Muckish, coming from the Irish Mucais or An Mhucais (meaning “The Pig’s Back”) is a distinctive flat-topped mountain in the Derryveagh Mountains . At 667.1 metres, it is the third-highest peak in the Derryveagh Mountains and the 163rd highest in Ireland. Muckish is also the northernmost and second highest of the mountain chain known as the “Seven Sisters” by locals. The Seven Sisters include Muckish, Crocknalaragagh, Aghla Beg, Ardloughnabrackbaddy, Aghla More, Mackoght, and Errigal.  A large cairn (man-made mound of stones), can be found on the summit plateau which marks a Bronze Age court tomb. 

The mountain contains high-grade quartz sand that was mined on the flanks of the mountain for many years and the remnants of the quarry workings can be seen on its northern side to this day. The sand mined on Muckish was taken down the mountain on sluices and taken to Ards Pier on lorries where it was loaded into boats for export. Two of these boats were the Saxon Queen and the Gaelic. Unfortunately, the Gaelic sank after leaving Ards Pier after hitting the Black Rock off Rosguill. There was no loss of life and the ship’s remains have become a popular spot for divers. 

The miners who worked on the quarry would arrive at the bottom of the mountain by foot or by lorry and make their way up the mountain by what is now known as The Miners Path. The route of the Miner’s Path is to the summit, up the northern side of the mountain. Part of this route follows the path used by the workers to reach the quarry. A less difficult route to the summit begins from the Muckish Gap on the southern side of the mountain. These miners came from the townlands and towns surrounding Muckish, with the exception of Engineer Jack Smyth who came from England. He settled in the area and became an integral part of The Anvil Ceili Band as their drummer.  

In the past, families would gather at the Bridge of Tears in the foothills of Muckish to say goodbye to their family members who were leaving for a better life across the Atlantic, often never to return.  Percy French, the famous poet, visited the district at the beginning of the 20th century and while staying in Falcarragh he wrote a poem called “An Irish Mother”.  Once the Railway chugged along the base of Muckish, flanking its sides from Letterkenny to Burtonport, but even though the railway is gone now, it is still a very popular and expanding greenway.

Muckish Mountain has seen many changes down through the years and is now a very popular climbing route although care must be exercised as the mountain can be deceptively hard to climb. Up until recent years, a race known as ‘The Glover Marathon’ was held running along the ridges from Muckish to Errigal but this has now largely been abandoned in order to preserve the mountains from damage. The Muckish Gap is a name given to the road between Creeslough and Falcarragh on the southern side of Muckish and as well as being a shortcut to and from Letterkenny, it is also a world-famous rally stage for the Donegal Rally. 

In 2000, a large metal cross was placed at the summit of the Mountain, replacing a wooden one that had been erected by the workers of Muckish Sand in 1950. The new cross was placed much closer to the northern end of the mountain, while the cairn is towards the south. Among those who climbed the mountain to put up the Cross in the year 2000 were also there when the original Cross was put up 50 years beforehand. So, next time you’re looking to Muckish, keep an eye out for the cross!

The Dunfanaghy Fishing Tragedy

The seas around the Donegal coast have provided a bountiful harvest for fishermen who have ventured to sea. Unfortunately, this occupation has its dangers and to this day deep sea fishing is one of the world’s most dangerous of occupations with many tragedies. One such incident occurred in the Dunfanaghy Bar Mouth when two local fishermen, a father and his son, lost their lives within yards of their landing spot on Horn Head. The Dinsmore’s cottage, close to the shore at Horn Head and overlooking the Bar, witness the events on that fateful day.

On April 5th, 1925 (Palm Sunday), Alexander and Robert Find more went out to the Dunfanaghy Bar in their Curragh, a journey that would be their last. They were returning from a visit to one of four British Trawlers that were anchored in Sheephaven Bay, a common occurance of the time. Many trawlers from Fleetwood and other British Ports would anchor in the Bay and it was custom for the local fisherman to bring them fresh supplies in exchange for bags of coal or fish. This is what the fishermen were doing on this day.

According to reports from newspapers at the time, the men secured a large quantity of coal to their curragh and proceeded to head home. They reached the Bar around 7:30pm and appeared to have crossed it safely despite a strong ebb tide running at the time. It is believed that in crossing the Bar the Curragh may have shipped water and, heavily lafenx began to sink. One of the men was witnessed to have thrown a bag of coal overboard in attempt to keep them afloat. Directly after this however, the curragh sank and both men disappeared beneath the water. Their bodies were found close to where the curragh sank the next morning. This tragedy was unfortunately witnessed by the son and brother and the fishermen, who watched his father and brother drown right before his eyes. The bodies were identified by James Dinsmore, who was 13 at the time. Alexander and Robert Dinsmore were 60 and 22 when they died, their boat only 29 yards from shore when it occurred.

The community were in mourning for the loss, and sympathies went to the bereft widow and her children. To this day, the Dinsmore Tragedy is still talked about in Horn Head and it’s said the fishing gear owned by the deceased men were still kept in the Attic by the family for many years after the tragedy.

Despite the traumatic events of that Palm Sunday, James Dinsmore still took to the curragh and helped with the planting of the Ards Forestry before emigrating to Scotland. He died in the 1990s and was buried in the family plot at the Clondahorky Cemetery in Kill, Dunfanaghy. His tombstone is also includes an inscription the remember to tragic events that took place on Palm Sunday, 1925

The Wreck of The Algores

The top of the mast of the wreck of the Algores is still visible in Dunfanaghy Bar.  The Algores was a cargo boat owned and operated by Samuel Grey, owner of the Grey Line Shipping Company in Belfast. In 1925 she left Clare bound for Anterpt in Belgium with a load of flagstones. Unfortunately neither the ship nor its cargo reached their destination. 

Whilst steaming down the Tory Sound, the Algores sprung a leak. The crew proceeded round the tip of Hornhead where they anchored the Algores on the sinking sands of the Dunfanaghy Bar for repairs before Captain Jones and his crew of nine abandoned the Algores to her fate. The boat quickly became stuck in the sinking sands of the Bar and over the years she began to sink into them, becoming a total wreck. The events were summed up by a local Balladeer who wrote “Whilst coming round the Tory Sound, the boat she sprang a leak and now she lies in Dunfanaghy Bar a total wreck”.  

The wreck of the Algores, coupled with another wreck, the Honora Evelyn, and the silting stands, marked the end of Dunfanaghy as a major trading destination as ships were unable to safely pass through the wreckages. Local fishermen take great care not to hit ‘The Old Boat’ when crossing the Bar. At the time of the sinking, locals risked life and limb but managed to salvage items from the wreck as she remained intact for a long time. In fact, locals on Horn Head at the time described hearing the eerie sound of the cargo doors on her and the Honora Evelyn flapping open and closed during storms. 

Among the items salvaged was the Captain’s Table which went on to be cut in two and graced two houses in Horn Head. Even the Captain’s Chamber Pot was salvaged.  Flagstones from the ship were used as flooring in local houses and then in later years there was more salvage work done on  lifting some of  the  remaining Flagstones which are highly prized in modern houses.  

The Wreck of the Dinas

Walkers on the beach at Killahoey in Dunfanaghy can sometimes see a shipwreck visible on the beach close to the car park at Catherine’s Island, especially after a period of easterly Gales. This wreck is the Dinas FD63, a steam trawler originally built in Milford Haven in Wales. At the time of her loss, she was based in Fleetwood and was stranded on the beach on the 4th of December, 1936. It is believed locally that the Dinas, which comes from the Welsh word for “Fort of Refuge”, was trying to reach shelter in Dunfanaghy but was using outdated charts which showed the channel in a different position than it was. The trawler ran aground and despite salvage attempts could not be refloated.

This was not the first time that the Dinas, which had been built in 1909, had got into trouble off the Irish coast. In 1910, the trawler had got into trouble along with other boats in Bantry Bay for illegal fishing, a report on which reads as follows: “Thomas Salter, Starbuck Road, Milford Haven, skipper of the steam trawler Dinas, owned by Thomas George Hancock, and John Davies Harris, both of Milford Haven, was prosecuted for a like offence. ………….. The defendant was fined £75 and £5 5s. costs”.

At that time, Fleetwood trawlers were common sights around the Irish Coast and unfortunately some were lost. There was no loss of life when the Dinas ran aground. The steel from the Dinas was cut up as far as the Keel and taken to the yard of the Stewart Arms Hotel (Now the Carrig Rua). It was then to be taken to boats at Hornhead by horse and cart to be taken away but unfortunately things didn’t quite go as planned.

Another Fleetwood boat, the SD/H Honora Evelyn which had been built in 1918 as the Silhouette, had been converted for salvage work. It was owned by J. Bier and Son Iron and Steel scrap merchants in London and was dispatched to Dunfanaghy to work on the salvage of the Dinas. Unfortunately, the Honora Evelyn also ran aground in Dunfanaghy on the 23rd of September 1937 where she was driven on to the rocks in a storm and has remained since. Her magnificent steam engines are still to be seen in the channel on the Hornhead side of Dunfanaghy Bay.  She was declared a complete loss in October 1937.

Over the years, the sand has silted up the wreck of the Dinas and it is only rarely visible, whilst the Honora Evelyn has now disappeared save for her two engines which continue to defy the sands of time. So, next time you are at Killahoey beach, keep an eye out. You may see evidence of that frenetic activity that took place in the area in 1936 and 1937.

“The Maid of Marble Hill”

“Beyond Sheephaven’s foaming tide three dreary miles away

Unto a maid who there resides a visit I must pay.

For there a thousand times a day my thoughts against my will

Cross o’er, and bid me follow them to the Maid of Marblehill.

My love’s a young and handsome maid the sunlight’s in her hair

The spring dwells in her breath so sweet and on her cheeks so fair.

Her whispers sound like far-off streams, when the Autumn eves are still

And her eyes keep Winter distant from the groves of Marblehill.

When mellow evening lights the west I wander by the shore

And think had men been made with wings how quickly I’d fly o’er!

For then my wings against my thoughts would strive to show their skill,

But I’d clip them when I’d reach the side of the Maid of Marblehill.

And oft when winds and waves are calm beneath the moonbeams clear

I then unmoor my little boat and o’er the waters steer.

I know my steamship is small, but true love gives me skill,

For at the voyage-end I meet the Maid of Marblehill.”

An extract from “The Maid of Marble Hill” by Andrew MacIntyre, who was also the final Master of the Dunfanaghy Workhouse between 1914 to 1917.

A Short History of the Dunfanaghy Schools

These days, the children of the Dunfanaghy area have their education needs looked after by the National Schools in the community; Holy Cross, Holy Trinity, Faugher, Ballymore and Murroe which in recent years have undergone refurbishments to bring them into the digital age. It has not always been like this and schools have come a long way since the days of the Hedge Schools when teachers would teach in the open air and in private homes to give children a chance of an education.  The Hedge Schools were set up in response to the 1695 Stuart Monarchs Act which prohibited Catholics from getting an education.  This remained in force until 1782 but Hedge Schools were still running until the 1880s.  Despite the circumstances around them, most Hedge Schools provided a high-level of schooling for around 400,000 students in 9000 schools, by the mid-1820s. In the early 1800’s Ignatius Rice established formal education for Catholics in Ireland and then in 1831 saw the establishment of the Board of National Education and the National School System. The British Government appointed a commissioner of national education whose task was to assist in funding primary school construction, teacher training, the producing of textbooks, and funding of teachers. The Free Secondary Education was introduced in the Republic of Ireland in 1967 which opened up secondary education for all.

Just over 100 years ago in Dunfanaghy, there were different National Schools to what we know now but unfortunately some of these buildings are no longer standing. 

For the children of Hornhead, their school was located in a building in what is now Wilson’s farm in Lurgabrack.  This was the school that my grandmother would have attended. She often spoke of having to run the gauntlet of passing Stewart, the landlord’s Bull, which was in the field on the way to the school morning and evening in the late 1800 and early 1900’s.  In those days children walked to school Summer and Winter often in the bare feet. 

When the landlord’s left, this school was moved to the Gate Lodge at Hornhead House at The Bridge.It features on old pictures of when the sand blew in Hornhead,  and back then the teacher and pupils would have to dig themselves out of the sand in the evening. Even their Lunches would be filled with blowing sand!

In the late 1930s, a decision was taken to close this school and move the pupils to the Robertson School Board School, located where the car park beside the Holy Trinity Parish Hall is now. Parents were unhappy with this decision to move the school and there was a strike for a few months before the children eventually went to the Robinson School. It became known as Dunfanaghy’s Number 1 National School. This meant a long walk for the children of Horn Head. There was no clock in the school and the Master would send the children over across the road to the Garda Barrack to get the time and often the Guard on Duty would give them the wrong time which meant the children would get sent home early!

The headmaster here was Master Barlow and he went on to teach in Holy Trinity School when it was opened. Eventually, the original Robertson School was knocked down to build the car park. 

In the 20th century, the Catholic Children of Dunfanaghy and the surrounding area would have been receiving their education in a school which is now also demolished at the entrance to the present day Holy Cross Cemetery. The school then moved to the Old Fever Hospital in Dunfanaghy which is now the Gallery.  The teacher here was Eamon Cannon who moved to Dunfanaghy from the south of the county and was to be instrumental in the Educational, Sporting and Musical life of Dunfanaghy for decades afterwards. Like their neighbours, Cannon and his pupils moved to a new school with the opening of Holy Cross NS which is still educating children today.

The Old Murroe School was also in operation and would have been providing education to the children in its area in the early 1900’s, with the new school being built and opened in the 1960s.  and like all schools at the time pupils would be absent from school when the hard work had to be done on the farm.  

Among the other schools in the area were at Roshine which has closed and Kildarragh which only closed in the 1980’s when its pupils moved to Creeslough.

Around this same time, the Ballymore School would have been providing education to all the children in the area and among those who would have attended in the early 1920’s would have been the late Bridget McBride from Knocknafaugher who only passed away recently. The School at Ballymore continued to educate the children of the area until Faugher NS was opened. 

Like Ballymore, Faugher NS continues to provide education for the children of the area and this is due in no small way to the campaign led by the parents in the 1980’s to keep the school open when plans were made to close the school and move their pupils elsewhere.

Ireland was largely a rural economy back then and the horses and carts were the driving force on the farms and the hiring fairs were still a fact of life which saw many children take the train to Letterkenny to be hired in the agricultural heartland of the Laggan and elsewhere.  The impact on this is that a lot of children would be absent from these schools to help with the farmwork. 

This is just a small history of some of the schools in the area and things have certainly changed in the past 100 years. Those at school back then just at the start of the Irish Free State could hardly have thought that in a few short months a Civil War would have broken out and only seventeen years later would find themselves in ‘The Emergency’ as the Second World War was known here would break out and they would certainly not have known about the technological advances which would take place during their lifetime and change their lives forever.