February 1st – Feast of St Brigid of Kildare, and traditionally the start of spring in a freezing cold Ireland!

February 1st is celebrated as the Feast of St Brigid of Kildare in Ireland.  Brigid is one of the three patrons of Ireland along with St Patrick and St Colmcille (or Columba if you’re a Scot). These three essentially make up the Irish ‘Holy Trinity’.  One of the medieval legends of Ireland held that at the Last Judgement everyone has to go to Jerusalem to be judged by Christ.

Three Patrons of Ireland

The Three Patron Saints of Ireland.

Unfortunately for Ryanair, this will not apply to the Irish – because they have to gather in Armagh to be judged.  And the judges will be the three members of the Irish ‘Holy Trinity’ – Patrick as president of the tribunal, with Brigid and Colmcille as assisting judges.  The authority of this tribunal would be symbolized by the Bacal Isu – the staff that was said to have been given to Patrick by Christ.  This is the same staff that Christ used in his travels about the Holy Land and it had been used by Moses to part the waters of the sea to allow the Hebrews to escape from Pharaoh.  During the medieval period this staff was preserved in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Archbishop Browne (the first ‘reformed’ archbishop of Dublin) is said to have burned it in the late 1530s, but he denied this when questioned by the government of the day. In short, the staff disappeared, presumably until the Last Judgement.

Bachal Isu

The (French?) medieval manuscript illumination is probably a more accurate depiction of the Bacal Isu or Bachall Iosa when compared with the modern book cover on the right. The Bacal has even starred in a popular fantasy/triller by an American writer! Daring!

Back to Bridie (the affectionate version of her name!). February 1st is also seen in Ireland as the first day of spring. Now, before all the meteorologists get upset by this bit of folklore, I must admit that I am perfectly well aware that the met people here insist on starting spring on 1st March.  The idea of spring starting on 1st February has a stronger grip on the popular Irish division of the year than the scientific notion of starting the season on 1st of March or ever on 21st of March.  Life, you see, is made up of more than just scientific facts!  Messy custom and folklore can be a stronger fact of life!

One difficulty that raises suspicion is the coincidence of her feast with the ancient festival of Imbolc.  Imbolc was one of the cross-quarter days of the Celtic year, being half way between Samhain and the spring equinox, but also between Samhain and Beltaine (now fixed as 1st of May, the first day of summer).   Imbolc was the festival of the goddess Brigit.  It is likely that there has been serious conflation of the goddess with the saint, but I’m taking it that Brigid of Kildare was a real person.

Saint Brigid was seemingly born as the daughter of a slave and her master.  Brigid was noted for her household husbandry – that is, she knew how to keep a good house.  When she wanted to set up a monastery on the plain by the Curragh, she was jokingly offered land by a local chief in Kildare – but only as much as her cloak would cover.  When Brigid placed her cloak on the ground, it suddenly expanded as far as the eye could see.  The chief was clearly one who would never have made a good bargain during the Celtic Tiger years!  Certainly St Brigid would be an ideal candidate as patron saint of property speculators!

Kildare ruins

Kildare Cathedral in ruins about 1800.

St Brigid’s cult spread beyond Ireland – St Bride’s church in Fleet Street, London, is dedicated to her.  Her cloak apparently ended up in Bruges, and one of her shoes in Lisbon.  There is a fine reliquary for another shoe in the National Museum of Ireland – she really had very dainty feet!  There are even places in Germany named after her – we know they take their name from Brigid of Kildare (or Ireland) because they existed before the canonisation of St Bridget of Sweden (her name was actually Birgitta, not Brigida, indeed the Swedish name has nothing to do with Brigid of Kildare).  However some of the cult centers of the Irish Bridie ended up being associated with the Swedish saint in later years.  Oh woe, the ignorance!

St Bride's fleet st

Sir Christopher Wren’s spire on St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London. This church is the spiritual home of the media in London because for much of the 19th and 20th centuries the headquarters of the major British newspapers were on Fleet Street. There has been a church on the site since the seventh century. Wren’s church is the seventh one on the site dedicated to St Brigid of Kildare.  Wren’s church was built after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Brigid’s monastery was a double house – of monks and nuns, with an abbess in charge of both.  There was a bishop attached to the monastery, but he was under the thumb of the abbess.  The wooden church in the centre of Brigid’s monastery was really a large timber basilica with painted walls.  The round tower is the only part of the original monastery to survive, except for the ground plan of the precincts that can be traced on maps.  Today the wooden basilica has been replaced by a medieval cathedral which was heavily restored  for use by the Church of Ireland in the nineteenth century. Happily the original appearance and dimensions of the medieval structure were respected during the restoration.


Kildare Cathedral was restored in the later 19th century. The round tower is still the tallest structure in Kildare village – apart from the spire of the Carmelite church!

The Irish tradition is to hang a St Brigid’s cross in the house on the 1st of February.  These crosses are made of rushes, apparently devised during an idle moment when Brigid was looking after a sick chieftan who converted to Christianity on his recovery.  Brigid is also associated with cows – although such images are more likely to be late medieval German than Irish.  Still, cows were important to the Irish economy in the early medieval period.

St Brigid Cross 1

St Brigid’s Cross, made of rushes. A traditional decoration associated with St Brigid’s Day.

Harry Clarke Studio Brigid

St Brigid of Kildare by Harry Clarke Studios. The church held by the saint signifies her role in founding the church at Kildare. The calf alludes to her role in protecting cattle.

There is, however, just one problem…..St Brigid’s feastday can be bitterly cold.  Indeed we are going through a cold spell at the moment, with the prospect of temperatures going to minus 8 degrees centigrade!  Spring is on hold it seems! No wonder lighting a fire was part of the ritual of Imbolc – and Brigid’s monastery of Kildare was associated with a Holy Fire!  All the better to ward off the bitter winds of late winter and early spring – especially today’s north westerly winds!

The sinking of RMS Lusitania in May 1915 – A personal recollection.


RMS Lusitania which won the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a liner. She was torpedoed 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale on 7th May 1915.

With the commencement of World War I commemorations in 2014, it is appropriate to mention a local commemoration in the south-east Cork area.  Cobh, formerly Queenstown, will commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.  This fast passenger liner, en route from New York to Liverpool, was torpedoed about 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale by U-20 shortly after 14.10 hours on 7th May 1915.  What happened next is debated, but the ship sank so rapidly that only that only six of her lifeboats could be launched successfully.  Of the 1959 passengers and crew aboard her, only 764 were rescued despite the best efforts of local Irish fishermen who sailed to assist.

Lusitania poster

Recruiting poster issued by the British government for use in Ireland. The sinking of the Lusitania caused outrage in Ireland.

The Irish fishermen who went to assist the survivors did not have modern fishing vessels.  Most of their boats were powered by sail or, more rarely, by a steam engine.  This meant that they could be slow to get the the site, thus increasing the distress of the survivors struggling to combat hypothermia in the cold waters. Hypothermic shock was likely the biggest killer of the survivors – the seas around Ireland can remain cold until June – and even then they need a long spell of warm weather to make the water just about bearable.

Most of the survivors were conveyed to Queenstown, the principal base for the Royal Navy on the south coast of Ireland, and the center commanding the rescue operations. In Queenstown, the survivors were cared for in hospitals and lodged in hotels and guest houses. In the days following the sinking, bodies washed ashore all over west Cork, but most of the bodies that were recovered were interred in mass graves in Queenstown, although a small number were interred in Kinsale, which was closer to the site of the sinking.  The majority of the victims were never recovered.

Lusitania notice

Most of the victims of the Lusitania were never recovered. This poster shows how desperate people were to recover just the remains of their loved ones.

At the time the US newspapers published details of the ship’s manifest and munitions and war materiel were clearly stated to be aboard the ship.  However in Britain and Ireland this information was suppressed. Indeed many people in Ireland remain ignorant to this day of the RMS Lusitania’s official status as an Auxiliary Merchant Cruiser – she was so listed in Jane’s Naval Ships in 1914.  The Lusitania was not just built with private funds – but her construction and operations were subsidized by the British government (RMS means Royal Mail Ship – the Lusitania was contracted to carry letters and parcels for the Royal Mail – a useful subsidy).

Roches Point

Roches Point lighthouse, not far from Midleton, marked the nearest safe haven for a vessel the size of the Lusitania – Cork Harbour.  On her maiden voyage, Lusitania, like Titanic, stopped offshore to take on passengers from Queenstown.  

One controversy about the Lusitania concerns the ‘second explosion’.  Kaiptanleutnant Walther Schwieger, commander of U-20, recorded that he only fired one torpedo and was reluctant to fire a second in the the struggling mass of humanity struggling in the water.  Yet there was a second explosion – this is clear now.  It wasn’t widely known when I was growing up.  Yet, I have personal testimony that supports one view of the sinking.  Years ago we had a neighbour, Mr Patrick Donovan, who was a retired Garda (Irish police officer).  Pat grew up near the coast not far from the Old Head of Kinsale.  Once, when I visited him in the late 1980s, he told me of his experience the sinking of the Lusitania.  His memory was slightly hazy about the events of May 1915, but only slightly – this man remained lucid to the end of his life, and he was very clear on certain points.

I’ll give you the gist is his own words – they are still very vivid to me. One point to remember, dinner in rural Ireland was then eaten in the middle of the day (and this is still the case for a lot of people).  That was the first thing he said – ‘it happened just as we were finishing our dinner.  We heard an explosion. We knew it came from the sea so we ran out of the house up a nearby hill to look. As we left the house there was a second explosion.  When we got to the top of the hill we saw on the horizon a big ship sinking.  it was gone in about five minutes.’

Needless to say I was taken aback by this so I asked him – are you sure there was a second explosion?  The history books say there was only one torpedo.’  ‘Tony,’ he said ‘the books are wrong – I was there and there were two explosions.  I heard a second explosion.  We all heard the second explosion.  The first one got us up from the table and the second happened as we ran from the house.’

Old Head lighthouse

The view from the Old Head of Kinsale towards the area where the Lusitania sank in 1915.

Why do I remember this conversation so vividly?  Simple, my neighbour had contradicted everything I knew about the Lusitania – and he was very clear about the second explosion.  Curiously it would be several years before the story of the second explosion became more widely known and the theories that were put foward ranged from a coal dust detonation to suspicion of munitions going off.

The British hoped that the loss of so many American lives aboard he Lusitania would propel he US into the war – this has led to speculation that Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty had deliberately put the ship in harm’s way to achieve an American entry into the war.  I think it seems too farfetched – the Lusitania was a fast vessel, having held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.  It was assumed she would outrun any submarine.  But she couldn’t outrun a submarine that just accidentally stumbled upon her.  She was simply in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

Lusitania Memorial

The Lusitania Memorial in Cobh, by Jerome Connor, with stone carved by Seamus Murphy, is actually unfinished. In a way it is oddly appropriate since the ship didn’t complete her voyage in May 1915.  The two figures at the front commemorate the fishermen who rescued survivors and retrieved bodies. 

Keep you eyes open for the commemorative events in Cobh this year!

Some links about the commemorations:



Townland subdivisions – examples from Castleredmond and Townparks in Midleton

Townlands have been the basic unit of land division in Ireland since the medieval period, with origins perhaps going back much further.  some are relatively new – such as the townland of School-lands in Midleton which certainly didn’t exist before 1696, when Midleton School, or Midleton College as we now call it, was founded.  As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, townlands (or ploughlands) are not of a uniform size – being dependent on the fertility of the land contained within the townland boundaries.  And they were not always rigidly fixed either – several of them changed over the centuries, such as the cre.  Many of them have local sub-divisions which never appear on a map because these sub-divisisons are unofficial.  Castlredmond townland, which lies between Midleton town and Ballinacurra village is a classic example.  It sprawls from the shore of the Owenacurra estuary and Ballinacurra creek to Carrigshane rock.  A sprawling townland needed to be subdivided by the inhabitants as a way of ascertaining who actually lived where.

Bailick, Lakeview, Cronin’s Rock, Rocky Road, Ashlin Road, Carrigshane Rock (which is NOT in the townland of Carrighane!) all mark out divisions of the townland.  But these names may not appear on official maps except for very specific locations or reatures, such as a road or a house.  Technically these names should only apply the specific feature but in Ireland, this is usually disregarded.  Well, rules were made to be broken.

Aerial view Castleredmond

Aerial view of the Ballinacorra and the western part of Castlredmond. The Creek of Ballinacorra runs from the bottom left to the right midground. This creek is part of the inner reaches of Cork Harbour. The stretch of water leading off from the center to the left midground is the estuary of the Owenacurra River which flows from the north. This view is taken from the south west towards the north east. Ballinacorra village is right at the end of the creek. Ballinacorra House and its farm buildings are on the centre foreground (bottom of picture). Slightly to the left of these (follow the angled wall) is a small peninsula on which stands the ruined medieval St Colman’s church and graveyard. On the other side of the wall from the churchyard is a high tree-covered mound in the ground of Ballinacorra House – most likely a motte or earthwork castle from the late 12th or early 13th century.  Castleredmond stretches from the shoreline in the centre to the top and right of the photo. Bailick is the shoreline by the Owenacurra estuary, Charleston is the north bank of the creek leading to Ballinacorra. The wooded point in the left midground is Ballyannon Wood dating from at least the 17th century.

In fact the subdivisions were derived from local usage and existed for the convenience of the inhabitants themselves. For example, if you take the townland of Castleredmond, which lies between Midleton and Ballynacorra, this covered 486 acres, 3 roods and 33 perches, containing 259 inhabitants in what was then a mostly rural district in 1881 when these figures were published.  Now many of these inhabitants probably lived close to the wharf on the Owenacurra estuary in the west.area.  But there might be clusters of inhabitants in other parts, say bordering the Youghal Road or on the Rocky Road or perhaps on the Ballinacorra Road.   That gives four different clusters of housing where people were concentrated..Imagine a townland where several men bear the name Patrick Murphy.  There might be several Pat Murphys spread among the different clusters in different parts of the townland.  And one ot two living in more apart in isolated farms or cottages.   How would you recognize which Pat Murphy someone is talking about?  In speech a nickname was given – Pat Jim Murphy might be the Pat Murphy who is the son of Jim Murphy.  Pat Michael or Mick’s Pat might be the Patrick Murphy, son of Michael Murphy.  But an official letter is likely to be addressed to Mr Patrick Murphy, Castleredmond, Midleton, County Cork.  To whom does the postman deliver the letter?

Bailick Cottage

Bailick Cottage. This is actually a very substantial house – a middle class ‘cottage’ from the early 19th century (seen here) with more recent extensions, all giving the house a charming appearance. It stands on the Bailick Road, or Bailick as it is popularly called, in the townland of Castlredmond.

One way of getting over this was to insert a local designation into the address – somewhat unofficial, but useful for the postman.  So, Pat Jim Murphy might live in a cottage on Bailick Road and might give his address as Patrick Murphy, Bailick, Castleredmond, Midleton while Mick’s Pat could be Patrick Murphy, Lakeview, Castleredmond, Midleton.  Perhaps there’s another Patrick Murphy called Pat John, or PJ, for identification, living on Bailick Road – he might liver near Charleston Maltings (run by Bennetts) so his address might be given as Patrick Murphy, Charleston, Bailick, Castleredmond Midleton.  Remember these are not entirely official designations, but they were useful for the postman who had to distinguish between the several Patrick Murphys living in one townland.  It is possible that similar designations might appear in the local church registers – but this was entirely at the discretion of the priest or clergyman.  The practice was probably also used by local landlords who sublet to small tenants.


Tarquin Blake’s atmospheric image of the north (entrance) front of Lake View House in Midleton. This early 19th century late Georgian villa was a lovely house, but sadly is neglected by the current owner, a property developer, and is subject to vandalism. The house gave its name to a whole area of Castleredmond townland. The pointed windows on the left indicate a billiard room, not a chapel. The Check out Tarquin Blake’s  vwebsite AbandonedIreland.com, below, for more striking photos.

I have suggested that these subdivisions of townlands were somewhat unofficial, but sometimes they were recognized by the Post Office – Lakeview Terrace still stands at the northern end of Castleredmond right next to the modern by-pass,  The small terrace of three good houses appears in the first edition Ordnance Survey map so it has been in existance since the early 1840s or late 1830s.  But it takes its name from the large house next door – Lakeview or Lake View in the original designation.  This house was inhabited by Mr Swithin Fleming, a lawyer, from the 1830s to the 1880s.  The lake viewed from the house was actually a broad stretch of the estuary of the Owenacurra River to the west.  I suspect that the view as better from the upper floor of the house since the site stands well back from the estuary, at the top of the slope.  Today, Lakeview is the name given locally to this area of the townland of Castleredmond – indeed the junction of by-pass with the Midleton to Ballinacorra Road is called Lakeview Roundabout (Rotary to you Americans), and the nearby service station is called Lakeview Service Station.  But the houses in the area can be designated ‘Castleredmond’ or ‘Lakeview, Castleredmond’.

Why does all this matter?  In searching for one’s Irish ancestors, it is necessary to be careful that the correct person in the correct part of the townland be identified.  If you are dealing with a name like Murphy, MacCarthy, O’Sullivan, O’Brien, O’Neill etc, this can pose difficulties.  If there is another placename linked to the family this can prove to be a subdivision of the townland name – a very useful aid in finding one’s ancestral homestead – even if it is now a ploughed field.

Midleton has several areas like this in different townlands.  For example, the townland of Townparks, which covers the town center and extends well south of the Roxborough River, includes two areas with very local identification within its boundaries. These are Coolbawn and the Rock.  They are not official designations – Coolbawn is the locally employed name for Brodrick Street.  Imagine the confusion on the faces of a visitor who is told you can find the Farmgate Restaurant on Coolbawn.  Now there are not many streets in Midleton – just five in fact.  These are Main Street, Thomas Street, Connolly Street, Oliver Plunkett Street (formerly Bridewell Lane), McDermott Street (formerly Free School Lane)….and Brodrick Street.  Every other route is a road or lane, as in Mill Road, Youghal Road, Cork Road, Old Cork Road, St Mary’s Road (still called Chapel Road by locals) or Bridewell Lane (now Oliver Plunkett Street- although its dimensions haven’t changed – it’s still a lane!), Church Lane, Coach Horse Lane (self-explanatory really) Dickinson’s Lane, Darby’s Lane – and the former Free School Lane (which is still a lane!).

Brodrick St Terrace

The late Georgian terrace on Brodrick Street…..or is it Coolbawn? Confused. Not really. Just remember who’s asking for directions – it’s Coolbawn to the locals, but Brodrick Street to everybody else! Simples! The second house from the right was recently sold and is undergoing restoration at present. Yippie!

The point of local designations is that they sometimes tell us something about an area – Coolbawn is the AREA in which Brodrick Street stands, being originally the whole area bounded by the Owenacurra River to the west, the Roxborough River to the south, Main Street to the east and the south wall of St John the Baptist’s Church on the north.  The name suggests an meadow between two streams (check!) and subdivided into paddocks, prior to the building of Brodrick Street.  However, Coolbawn now refers to Brodrick Street itself in popular parlance….to the dismay of visitors!

Rock House

Standing on remains of the limestone spur that gives this area of Townparks its name, Rock House was recently sold and is undergoing refurbishment – including a whole new roof.

The Rock is somewhat different.  This lies just south of the Roxborough River on higher ground.  Crossing Lewis Bridge over the Roxborough Riverg at the southern end of Main Street, the road splits in two.  The route to the right continues up a steep hill, passing Holy Rosary Church towards Convent Cross (a T-junction at the top of the hill where St Mary’s Convent once stood) and then continues down the other side towards Ballinacorra via Castlredmond (and its Lakeview subdivision).  From Lewis Bridge the other road forks off to the left cutting through the rock (!) towards Castlemartyr, Youghal and Waterford.  The Rock is literally that!  A rocky outcrop of limestone. Actually if you drive along the Youghal Road, you’d be hard pressed to spot it.  There seems to have been a spur of limestone going from the hill towards the north.  This seems to have been cut through at a very early date to create a direct road to Youghal, but this was probably too narrow for most carts or coaches. For a long time the main route to Youghal ran up St Mary’s Road and through Ballinacorra. Gradually the need to ease the passage of heavily loaded carts in and out of Midleton and the desire to speed up the mail coaches to and from Youghal led to a change. The limestone rock was cut away, perhaps to provide building stone, and a wider road was created.  The good news for carters and coachmen was that this route was a much gentler slope for draught horses.  By the end of the 1700s this area where the two roads fork began to be built up – and it’s been called the Rock for as long as anyone can recall.  The Coppinger family, who had property on the north side of the Roxborough, built the National Bank of Ireland at the Rock in the 1830s.  They later built Rock Terrace next to their bank in 1861.  Yet the terrace on the rock itself doesn’t even have this name, being simply The Rock!

Rock Tce

No 1, Rock Terrace, is one of four houses built by the Coppingers in 1861. The ISC made out in yellow brick was long thought to represent Isaac Samuel Coppinger – but who was he? I can’t find him. In fact the initials might be John Stephen Coppinger, or in Latin Johannes Stephanus Coppinger – much more likely! This house, recently sold, is also undergoing thorough refurbishment – even the brick has been cleaned and is now showing up the century and a half of grime on the rest of the terrace. The former National Bank of Ireland, later Bank of Ireland, The Rock, is on the left.

Thus, if you are looking for your Irish ancestors, it is worth bearing in mind that even a small townland can have unofficial subdivisions within it. This is a particularly useful point to recall if your ancestor is one of several people with exactly the same name living in the townland at the same time – remember, the number of names in use in the nineteenth century was remarkably limited by our standards.

Tarquin Blake’s Abandoned Ireland website: http://www.abandonedireland.com/Lakeview_House.html

OOOPS! I did a Homer! Ouch!


There are days when a guy feels like this!

It has come to my attention that in adding a link to the notice of my new genealogy course something glitched and the reader was directed to a school in the wrong province! Apparently I’m not the only one with that issue! Which doesn’t make me feel any better about it.

So, I wish to offer my apologies to anyone who thought I was presenting the Practical Genealogy and Family History course in St Colman’s College, Claremorris, in County Mayo!  The course is actually being presented in St Colman’s Community College, Midleton in County Cork!  There’s a BIG difference!

So to correct the mistake I’m including this CORRECT (!) link here and in the original post (touch wood!).

St Colman’s Community College (Midleton!) Evening Courses link:


Now that’s what I call a Homer (Simpson, of course!)

Before Midleton there was……Mainistir na Corann.

New Signs Midleton

Sign erected at the Waterford/Youghal entrance to Midleton in autumn 2014. The Cistercian monk weilding a sickle makes sense for the foundation of the abbey in 1180 , but the Anglo-Norman knight suggests a lack of research.  Is he the mythical ‘Redmond Barry’ who supposedly founded the abbey?  A figure in Cromwellian or Restoration costume might make more sense for the Charter of 1670. The sheaf of wheat or barley on the main sign represents the distilling tradition of the town.  The coat of arms was only granted in the late 20th century to the town council, which was abolished in a local government ‘reform’ in 2014.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Midleton became the name of a a settlement in eastern County Cork only in 1670 when King Charles II granted a charter of incorporation to St John Brodrick, the local landlord, and thereby set up the town of Midleton as a parliamentary borough.  Today as you approach Midleton from either Cork or Waterford, the visitor will notice large signs giving two names – Mainistir na Corann 1180 and Midleton 1670.  It seems odd that a town should have two foundation dates, but actually the town only has one foundation date – 1670. The other date refers to the foundation of a Cistercian monastery on the site in 1180.

As a schoolboy in Midleton one of the earliest things I learned was the name of the town in Irish – Mainistir na Corann.  We were told that this meant ‘the monastery of the weir.’  It was explained that there was a monastery where the town was now built and, to my great disappointment, it had disappeared long ago.

Thomas Crofton Cloyne Round Tower

Cloyne Round Tower is the last remnant of the early Christian monastery that dominated the religious life of much of East Cork before 1200. This illustration by Mariane Nicholson was published in Thomas Crofton’s book ‘Researches in the South of Ireland’ (1824).

Much later I learned that the monastery was not as old as St Colman’s monastery at nearby Cloyne, St Declan’s monastery in Ardmore, County Waterford, or St Carthage’s important monastery at Lismore, also in County Waterford.  Midleton only really paid attention to the pre-1670 heritage in 1980 when the parish celebrated the foundation of the monastery eight centuries earlier, in 1180.  There was an exhibition of books and manuscripts from the library of the nearest Cistercian monastery – Mount Mellary in County Waterford.  A small monument was put up in the town and a booklet published to commemorate the foundation.  And that, basically, was it.

One thing we didn’t do was highlight the remains of the monastery because there is nothing left of it.  It seems that the last remnants were swept away to pay for building St John the Baptist Church (Anglican) in the 1820s. Quite literally the Cistercian abbey has, it seems, been wiped from the face of the earth and is only commemorated in the Irish name of the town.  But to confuse matters, when the Christian Brothers came to Midleton to run a school in the 1860s, they were settled at part of the former Hackett’s Distillery on the Mill Road.  It was remarked then, and since, that this was the site of the medieval monastery.  Certainly there’s a weir nearby, and the Cistercians had owned the site at Broomfield up to the Reformation.  But I’m suspicious – did someone get their facts about the precise location of the abbey mixed up, or did the facts arrive after the arrival of the Christian Brothers?  When your town or locality doesn’t have a local history society to promote considered and careful research (and knowledge) then stories will come about that make no sense.

St John's Midleton

The present Church of St John the Baptist in Midleton is the third or fourth one on the site. It is believed to stand on the site of the Cistercian abbey that gave us the name Mainistir na Corann – the Irish name for Midleton. The present Anglican church was built in 1825 to designs by James and Richard Pain.

The foundation of the Cistercian abbey is also repeatedly ascribed to the Anglo-Normans (my paternal ancestors), who arrived in Ireland in 1169 and only took Cork in the later 1170s.  So the foundation by ‘Redmond Barry’ was thought to be correct – it’s given by Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837).  This is specious nonsense – but it is repeated ad nauseam, even on the Wikipedia entry for Midleton. This early period is little studied due to lack of surviving documents – but in the 1940s this myth of a Norman foundation was firmly debunked by Denis O’Sullivan in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.

Midleton Bridge

The five arched bridge over the Owenacurra River in Midleton in the evening sunlight. This bridge carries the road to Cork. The river is not especially deep here – I stood in the middle of it just below the bridge last summer, without getting my feet wet (and there was water flowing around me). The Owenacurra can be particularly shallow after a dry spell, but it can transform into a raging torrent after heavy rains.

 What I am going to do is explore Midleton before Midleton, just to set the record straight, and throw in a few ideas of my own. If I upset anyone still clinging to outmoded ideas, tough!  History is about revision – not for the mere sake of revision, but to gain a more accurate picture of the past.  I do hope you’ll join me on this exploration.

Winter has arrived…..finally!

Sunrise January 14th East Cork, looking towards snow covered  Fota and Harpers Island

Sunrise January 14th East Cork, looking towards snow covered Fota and Harpers Island

Millstreet Jan 2015

Snow in the Mushera hills near Millstreet County Cork. Photo by Donal Cashman.

I’m currently preparing a post for later in the week but to fill in the gap I thought I’d let you know, in case you haven’t noticed or heard, that winter has arrived in Ireland.  Now before you all get uppity and say that winter started on 1st November (if you’re Irish) or 1st December (if you’re a meteorologist) let me explain.  The weather since 1st November in Ireland has generally been warmer and more settled than usual, and not particularly wet either.  We’ve had a few days of rain, to replenish our water supply (most welcome) and some days of wind (handy for drying the laundry) and many days of lovely, if cool, sunshine (great for getting my vitamin D fix!).   There has been very little frost at night, and hardly a repeat of last winter’s gales – in short we’ve been very lucky.

In fact it has been so mild that I noticed some buds on the trees!  I went for a walk on Christmas morning and discovered that a very large number of people were doing the same thing – and it felt more like a spring day rather than winter. It’s been like that since Christmas, in fact.

But in the last few days we could sense a change – it’s colder, the winds are more frequent and there’s been rain.  Today the north and west of the country woke to snow – and we had snow showers here in Midleton too.  Met Eireann has issued an orange weather alert – but this is more to do with the Irish inability to drive on iced up or snow-covered roads.  There is also a warning of high winds – this is much more serious – Carrigaline lost power yesterday due to wind damage to power lines.

The trouble with this kind of weather in Ireland is that we’re not really used to it.  We can get by for a day or two, but it can be troublesome when it lasts longer – our public services find

it difficult to respond when there’s more than a few centimetres of snow on the ground for a few days.  There’s already a report of a multivehicle collision on the main road from Cork to Limerick near Blarney.

So far the only problem in Midleton has been the loss of connection to the National Lottery – the ticket machines on Main Street were unable to print out tickets for tonight’s Euromillions draw!  Oh, and the snow that fell promptly froze, especially on cars!  Hardly a crisis, but winter is definitely here.

Mount Gabriel Jan 2015

Snow? What snow? It’s there….on the horizon. View from Mount Gabriel in West Cork at lunchtime today. Mount Gabriel is the site of some of the oldest copper mines in Ireland. It also houses the radar station that guides aircraft across the Atlantic – in both directions.

And how appropriate that the snow fell on 13th January – the feast of St Hilary of Poitiers and traditionally the coldest day of the year!  The feast was the traditional date for the resumption of law terms in the courts after the Christmas break and for the resumption of studies at university before the general adoption of the American semester system.  Hilary Term was the period between January and the Easter break.

Practical Genealogy and Family History Course


(Apology:  Ouch! it seems that in copying the link at the bottom of the post something glitched and the reader was directed to a place in another province – I think I’ve got the matter corrected now.  Sorry!)

As you know from a previous post, I presented a course of six two-hour classes called Research Your Family History at St Colman’s Community College in Midleton from October to the beginning of November 2014.  It proved quite successful, especially with the particular format that I used.

Beginning on Wednesday 4th February 2015 I propose to present another course but this time I have called it Practical Genealogy and Family History. The emphasis is on the practical side of researching one’s family history and lineages (we all have at least two lineages – from Mon and from Dad!).  I propose to follow the format that I previously used but will reveal that to the class as it assembles.  The classes are scheduled to take place on Wednesday nights from 7.30 pm to 9.30 pm and will run for six weeks.

Anyone wishing to avail of this course should attend the Enrollment Night at St Colman’s Community College on Thursday 15th January between 7.30 and 8.30 pm.  I plan to be there and will answer any queries that prospective students might have.  Note that enrollment closes on Friday 30th January.

For further information please check out:  http://www.colmans.ie/eveningschool/evening.html

Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas – a Christmas tradition with an Irish twist.

Muiredach's cross

The Adoration of the Magi on the 9th or 10th century Muiredach’s Cross in Monasterboice in County Louth. Four Magi are depicted venerating the Christ Child and the Holy Mother. Note the star of Bethlehem over the child. This scene, like the others on the cross was almost certainly painted in brilliant colours when first unveiled.

Nollaig na mBan is the name given in Irish to the important Feast of Epiphany, which is celebrated by the Church on the 6th January. In the English tradition the term Twelfth Night is used – as immortalized by Shakespeare in his eponymous play. The evening of 6th January was twelve days after Christmas so it was the last chance to have some serious merriment before serious work began again on Plough Monday. The first Monday after Epiphany was the day the fields were ploughed in anticipation of the spring planting.  That is, if they hadn’t been ploughed already following the autumn harvest – a very sensible idea in case of a long hard frost or snow. Sometimes it was necessary to plough the land a second time to break up the soil following freezing weather.  Another name for Epiphany was Little Christmas – for it marked the end of the Christmas season in the Church liturgy.  Admittedly some places ended the Christmas season on the Feast of Candlemas on 2nd February – or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple, also called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.

Ardmore sculptures

Ardmore in County Waterford was founded by St Declan prior to the coming of St Patrick. It bacame a diocese briefly after the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. The small ruined cathedral has stonework dating to the 9th century but the west front may date to the early 12th century. This contains a very important sculpture cycle including this depiction of the Magi venerating the Virgin and Child. Menacingly placed above it is the Judgement of Solomon. Curiously, the Virgin and Child are flanked by an ox, symbol of St Luke, who doesn’t mention the Magi in his gospel. Again, there are four figures for the Magi – but it is possible that the fourth figure is actually the angel who warned them to return home by a different route. This figure could also stand in for the angel that symbolizes St Matthew, who gives the story of the Magi in his gospel.

Epiphany celebrated two events – the arrival of the Magi to venerate the Christ Child and the Baptism of Christ.  It is probably more important than Christmas Day in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.  When I was a schoolchild, Epiphany marked the last day of the Christmas school holiday – we returned to class on the 7th January.  This has now changed with the centralization of the Irish school calendar – the kids went back to classes today (5th January), and they no longer get the Church holiday off.

However, back to Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, as it translates into English.  Nowadays the name is translated as Women’s Little Christmas – which is incorrect, for they are two different terms.  Little Christmas would be An Nollaig Bheag.  This is basically a straightforward reference to the last day of the Christmas season proper.  But what is this business of Women’s Christmas?  Surely Irishwomen celebrate Christmas on 25th December like all the men?

Well, Women’s Christmas was a way of saying that traditionally women had the day off, or rather the evening off, to enjoy themselves and the men were left guarding the home fires.  It seems to have originated as a reward for doing all the cleaning, cooking and organizing of the main Christmas festivities. On the evening of 6th January (in some places 5th January) the women of the community would prepare a meal for themselves to which no men were invited.  The women would gather in a selected house from which the men were evicted for the evening to have this meal and they would spend the evening singing, dancing, playing cards, storytelling and generally enjoying themselves.  And yes, drink would be available.  In reality this was probably the only day of the year in which women could let their hair down, forget the housework and enjoy a girls’ day out.

So today in Ireland, some women take the evening off, and head out with the girls – their sisters, friends, and adult daughters.  They might go for a meal in a nice restaurant, take in the theatre, a trip to the cinema or join someone at a party.  It can be an important source of business for restaurants and pubs, since January can be a lean month due to over expenditure at Christmas. Because Epiphany can fall in the middle of the week and is not a public holiday, this imposes some restraint on the modern observance of Women’s Christmas – especially if the women concerned have to work the next day. Nowadays, the tradition of Women’s Christmas is most widely observed in counties Cork and Kerry – but it is spreading again.  I think we should also rename 6th January as Irish Women’s Day, just to be logical.

Unfortunately, 6th January 1839 was also the Night of the Big Wind – when a hurricane swept through an unsuspecting Ireland and caused immense damage throughout the country.  Some Irish follklore claimed that 6th January would be the Day of Judgement – so on that particular night some people actually believed that the world was about to end. Humorously, when the old age pension was introduced in 1906, one question asked of applicants who could not supply documentation of age was whether or not they could remember the Night of the Big Wind….and they say ’tis an ill wind that blows some good!

Night of the Big Wind

The hurricane of 6th January 1839 – the Night of the Big Wind. This record is from the Armagh Observatory. It reads – Tremendous gale in the night.  I imagine it was the understatement of the year.

And what of the men on Women’s Christmas?  They probably had to make do with bread, cold cuts of meat and strong tea for one night.   Nowadays they resort to readymeals – unless they learned something from all the cookery shows on TV. Oh, and one more thing – the men probably had to take down and pack away all the Christmas decorations that the women had so carefully put up! Tough!

Women's Christmas

To all the women following this blog – A happy Women’s Christmas to you.

The history that is lost to us as hinted in an old postcard.


The cathedral at Queenstown (now Cobh) before the completion of the spire. The cathedral of St Colman was the most expensive Catholic church built in Ireland in the 19th century. It was the last landmark seen by so many emigrants who departed from Cork Harbour. The photo may have been taken around 1904.

Recently I was shown an old postcard that was postmarked Queenstown, 8.30pm, June 7, 1906.  The green half-penny stamp depicted King Edward VII.  Queenstown, as you know from previous posts, is now called Cobh (pronounced Cove – it’s not actually an Irish word, just an Irish spelling of the English word). The postcard was sent by a woman to another (friend? sister? cousin?) elsewhere in East Cork.  The recipient lived somewhere between Midleton and Youghal, so it is a local communication.  The card depicts a photomontage of a young woman having a religious vision and there is a stanza of a poem (The Holy City) printed beneath the image.

But the real interest of the postcard is the message written on the other side. I think it would be best to give the whole text, preserving the original punctuation and spelling:

Write me a long letter, now, & don’t forget what I told you about.  Did you see anyone passing since. No more to say at present. Excuse the writing as I am huring to go to the mission. I am nearly late alreddy. Love to all & yourself.  The note is signed Kathleen.

The use of a post-card and half-penny stamp shows that this was the cheapest way to communicate between two people living in nearby communities in East Cork at the beginning of the twentieth century. Postcards were cheaper than sealed letters, cheaper than telegrams and certainly better than the few telephones available. Of course, postcards can be read by other people, so discretion was required in the communications between the two women – the code used in the postcard is clear, but not to anyone outside their original conversation.  What are we to make of the mysterious line don’t forget what I told you about?  And Did you see anyone passing since suggests that the two women had shared some item of news or gossip that may affect someone else.  Indeed the injunction at the start – write me a long letter now – suggests that this is a developing story and that both parties are keeping each other up to date with developments, but the details were too sensitive to put on a postcard.

The fact that the recipient lived in a small village that was not on the main road to anywhere important suggests that the source of their fascination had very local implications. It’s a priceless piece of a conversation that seems to revolve around local gossip – but we’ll never know what was setting tongues wagging in East Cork in 1906.


An early 20th century postcard of Cork Harbour as viewed from Queenstown. The post office in Queenstown was a very busy place as emigrants often posted last messages home from there.

The contrast between a religious image and poem on one side of the postcard and the gossipy note on the other is highlighted by the mention that the writer is late for the ‘mission.’  This was an annual event in most parishes in Ireland at the time.  The parish priest (in this case the Bishop of Cloyne or his parish administrator) brought priests from a religious order to the parish for a week to conduct a ‘Mission.’  These priests, usually from the Redemptorist congregation, but equally from the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits or Vincentians were charged with effectively re-evangelizing the local people, getting them to go to confession, to give up bad habits (like fornication, drink, gambling or gossip) and generally conform again to the moral strictures of the Church.  Missions involved house visitations, confraternity meetings, daily (or twice daily) Mass with long thunderous sermons, as well as devotional practices like Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction.  It was quite an intense time in the religious practice of the parish.  It could often yield results that eluded the parochial clergy – ‘sinners’ could feel more comfortable confessing to a missioner (not a missionary – they went to foreign countries).  The mission clergy were strangers and they were perhaps seen as more approachable, and possibly less judgmental, than the parish clergy.

So why was the writer of the postcard so worried about being late for the ‘mission’?  Simple, her absence would have been noted – you have to remember that people habitually sat in or near the same place in the church, in this case, probably St Colman’s Cathedral. One had to keep up appearances and ensure that nobody was given any reason to gossip about oneself.  Mind you gossiping about other people….that was a different matter.

HMS Mars 1902

HMS Mars in Queenstown around 1902. Queenstown was a major base for the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet and was commanded by a Rear Admiral.The building on the right is the former clubhouse of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, which – aims to be the oldest yacht club in the world.

Clearly the writer was a resident of Queenstown and not a prospective emigrant, although it is possible that emigrants attended mission events before setting off for a new life the next day. We have no idea if the original communication between the two women was a face-to-face conversation (either woman could reach the other by train) or by means of a letter.  I suspect it was a conversation, since the postcard didn’t have an opening greeting, it may have been written a day or two after the encounter.

What the postcard shows us is that we will never know everything there is to know about history. The news shared by the two women might pertain to a family matter or to local religious concerns or matters of social standing in the community, but is unlikely to refer to politics or sport.  It’s infuriatingly mysterious….and great fun to get such an insight into the real concerns of two people in the same part of Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In this case I think the woman who wrote the message should have been hired by the British Admiralty to write infuriatingly knowing and highly suggestive but otherwise meaningless messages to various non-existent agents during World War I – it would have kept German Naval Intelligence very busy indeed looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, except the needle would have been a figment of someone’s imagination!