Wild Ireland – Getting Schooled

Yesterday, Emilie set the agenda. We started the day at Balleek Castle in Ballina. It was built nearly 2 centuries ago and was the seat if the Earls of Arran, the Gore family.

We ate at the Jack Renn cafe there. A hearty lunch in their remodeled stables. Then we took the tour. Balleek is now a hotel and one of the top wedding venues in the country. Along with awards for its multiple restaurants. Really stunning place and excellent food.

Then we got schooled on some Irish history. The Earldom was created by the British crown, who awarded these estates in Ireland to those who served them well in foreign wars. Ireland belonged to the UK for centuries until Irish independence in 1949. I’m more than a little bit Irish and had no idea that, while Ireland ruled itself from 1922, it wasn’t a formal independent country until after WW2.

I think our tour guide was surprised we knew so little of Irish history (but that’s what we were there for) and since we were the only people on the tour she digressed for us.

The potato blight caused a potato crop failure (one of many) in the 1840’s. But it wasn’t the potato that caused the mass starvation of the country and tens of thousands to die. It was the English policies of absentee landlords and ‘middlemen’ who oversaw in their absence that did it. The Irish were essentially enslaved by landlords, holding no rights to own land, vote, hold public office. They couldn’t own homes or real property of any kind because they were Catholic and the Anglo-Irish were protestants.

Landowners had vast estates and were not in country most of the time. Much of the time, the middlemen ran things by leasing vast tracks of land from the owner and breaking it up to lease to workers for less than subsistence farming. It was essentially slavery.

Nearly everything raised went to the landowner who shipped the grain, potatoes – whatever crop – out of the country to sell at a higher price. During the famine, grain could have been brought in to feed the starting but the English Corn laws prevented it.

As a capper, the Irish weren’t even allowed to fish in rivers, lakes or streams to survive. The landowners owned all the game, in water or land. Getting caught poaching meant jail, hanging or being sent to a penal colony in Australia or the US. These were people denied basic education, no medical care, horrific living conditions and discrimination and abuse in their own country by occupiers who stole their livelihoods.

The only reason Balleek Castle wasn’t burned to the ground during subsequent revolts was that the Earls had helped the people during the ‘Terrible Times’. So while it was on the list the people stopped its demolition. But the formation and success of The Land League – when the Irish farmers could purchase their holdings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – spelled demise for estates like Balleek. Without income, they were sold to new $$.

In the case of Balleek Castle, a man who had made his fortune on the sea bought the castle. He was born Jack Renn, but had purchased papers in America from a man called Marshall Doran that gave him Irish citizenship. His family owns and operates the castle today. I won’t go into all the details of it but it’s pretty cool. Parts from an old Abbey on the site. Reclaimed wood from Spanish galleons wrecked on the coast, Flemish tapestries. Stunning. Here are some pics.

After Balleek, we headed up to the bay to meander along the coast. Its dotted with the ruins of several old abbeys that look out to sea. Very spooky and very cool.

On the way to our final destination of the day, Downpatrick Head, we had to stop for some cattle herding rather suddenly.

Then on to Downpatrick Head on the Atlantic Ocean. It is truly stunning country side The headland has blow holes where the sea is undermining the cliffs.

The walk up to the head over heath (peat) was interesting. Squishy. It’s an enterprising people who figured out they could cut it, take 9 months to dry it out, 3 months to dry it indoors. Then burn it. The fire starter guy at Balleek educated me on the process. In the pics you can see how an over zealous sheep dug into it.

Breathtaking standing out there. A little scary too. Jeff shouted at me for venturing too close to the edge.

There are rocks laid into the peat. The number 64 and the words EIRE are clearly spelled out. My seatmate on our flight from Valencia told me about these. Ireland was neutral in WW2. These markings were to tell German bombers they were over Ireland, not the UK, if they veared off course. Remember Northern Ireland was, and is, still part of the UK back then. I hadn’t expected to see what he told me about on the flight. Funny how life works out.

On the way home, with coal, fire starters and kindling (and an impromptu lesson from the Balleek Castle firestarter guy on how to best start and keep a ‘turf and coal firing burning) we headed home, greeting our neighborhood donkeys in the process.

I feel a bit more connected to my Irish roots than I did when we woke up today. It feels good to know some of the people in my family were those who were tenacious in overcoming ferocious hardships here, and discrimination to make it to a new country. I’ll be raising a glass to the Hallaran side (who hail from just south of here) in our next toddle down to the pub. Well done, Emilie, on being our researcher and tour guide.

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