McGahern Paradox


“One of the differences between life and writing is that writing always has to be believable whereas life isn’t.” – John McGahern

As we reach the 101st and final entry, it’s perhaps fitting to give the last word to John McGahern (1934-2006), Leitrim’s best mythologist and master story-teller, and end this subjective and very affectionate guide to the county.

It’s a paradoxical reminder from him about the nature of reality and fiction I came across in a very damp and crumbling November 1991 issue of Hot Press magazine in one of the many abandoned houses I so regularly come across in this sometimes curiously decaying and time-locked county. Inside I found a 3 page interview by Joe Jackson (along with a long black single hair) which contained the following quote in full, “One of the differences between life and writing is that writing always has to be believable whereas life isn’t! Writing also has to conform to an idea. Now and again life will give you this exact shape but 99% of the time it doesn’t and has to be reinvented. And I find that the more you go through artifice the closer you get to real feeling whereas instantaneous feeling, or direct reporting in fiction is, by definition, cheap and shoddy.” 

While some of the things you may have read about Leitrim in the Guide may seem unbelievable, many of the ‘true’ facts and untold stories are of course even more so and poetic truth often needs an artificial foundation.

It might be useful at this stage to read the About page again to remember what this project was all about and how it came into being. I’d also like to use this final entry to thank Isabel Löfgren for coming up with the original concept, doing and inspiring many of the early entries and always being at the other end of our Unicorn Email Trail through the process as well.

While at this stage we do not plan for any new entries please keep an eye on this site for information on exhibitions from it, other documentation and spin-offs from it. We hope you enjoyed your stay and tell others about it. Many thanks.

(Stephen Rennicks)

Eat the Peach

The Irish film Eat The Peach (1986) was inspired by the true story of two brothers in-law who built a motorcycle wall of death in a field near Gubadorris, Co. Leitrim, close to its border with Co. Longford at Granard. From Wikipedia, “The film is based on actual events – the film is based on a true story of two brothers-in-law Connie Kiernan and Michael Donoghue. They build a wall of death in their back garden for fun. The director, Peter Ormrod, had seen a huge, wooden tank just off the road when he was looking for items for Irish television.” Released to some acclaim at the time, today this fictionalized version (written by Peter Ormond and John Kelleher) of their story has become a cult film and regarded by some to be weirdly prescient of the Celtic Tiger and its collapse.

At the beginning of the story a large local employer closes, a Japanese computer manufacturer, which was common at the time but would of course become more so in the future. The unemployed brothers in-law build a wall of death in a poetic gesture to transcend their stifling lives and uninspiring rural surroundings while also embracing a darker impulse of possible sacrifice as they become unemployed once more. As they dream and build the wall they are ridiculed by friends and neighbours, one of them losses his wife for a time, as she can’t understand his actions. When it is completed and they launch it to the local public they struggle to get media interest and during the display the viewers who do come get nervous that the structure will collapse (it doesn’t) and they panic and leave. One national news crew (featuring a very young Pat Kenny) turns up late and does film them in action and duly broadcasts it on the news that night with a plea for sponsorship or financial investment for them to run it as a business and take it to festivals and elsewhere. No one calls so one of them, perhaps sensing the folly of the idea and realizing what his dream has already cost him or simply because he has the power to do so, destroys it by burning it down. The film ends with them still dreaming anew however.

The wall of the film is can be read today as a metaphor for any crazy start-up enterprise and the glimpse they give of it in action the public at large is the moment of non-comprehension as its difference is too great for most people to fathom without creating fear and rejection (ahead of its time).  The film is also thought to give a very perceptive glimpse of the coming success of the Celtic Tiger and its collapse (its possibility and consequences would have psychologically come too soon for the majority in the 80’s and would also prove to ultimately be so 20 years or so later) but does promise a more mature second chance at sometime in Ireland’s future.    

What happened in reality was not all that different from the film as it turned out. In 1984 the pair had been inspired by an Elvis Presley film Roustabout (which is referenced in the film) while a visit to Tommy Messham’s wall of death show at Funderland in Dublin gave them an insight to the dimensions and construction of a wall of death. The director Peter Ormond did do an Irish news item on them and one came forward with sponsorship and gradually the wall deteriorated and became spread far and wide after a storm.

I found a fantastic picture of the brothers at their original wall at this link which also has many more images and details on the stunts performed by Charles Winter in the film. (Stephen Rennicks)

Approx location of original wall of death on map

The Magic Cinema

According to an article in the annual Leitrim Guardian, the first cinema to travel regularly to Co. Leitrim was called The Magic Cinema in the early 1900s. It was run by the Clarke family who, in a very circus like way, would erect a tent, or weather permitting, set up in the open air. They would hang a large canvas screen and attach it to a frame and source seating locally, often just long planks of wood resting on tree stumps.

It is known that as late as 1936 it showed a print of The Dawn by the famous early Irish film maker Tom Cooper. Cooper was a Kerry garage owner who had no film-making training and shot his films with amateur actors in a home made studio rigged with converted trawler lights and developed his film stock in a local chemists shop.

From the 1930 onwards small rural towns throughout the country began to get their own small cinemas, including The Roxy in Drumshanbo and the Gaiety in Carrick-on-Shannon. After these closed down in the 70’s and 80’s and no other private company took their place, Leitrim County Council paid for a mobile cinema to be purchased and operated so that its people would continue to be entertained, informed and have their imaginations fueled by cinema. In 2007 Carrick got a 5 screen multiplex. Around the same time the Mobile Cinema became Cinema North West and serviced the whole region while still being very much based in Co. Leitrim. One of the many important legacies of this initiative will no doubt be considered its raising of awareness of the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale rock for gas. They did this through repeated screenings of Gasland (2010), a documentary on the subject, throughout the county, direct to the public in parish, village and town.

More recently as technology got cheaper and projectors more common, Leitrim is now said to have the most private home cinema clubs in the country. In 2012, with The Magic Cinema in mind, I decided to take my regular home screenings for friends a little more into the public domain. Although perhaps with more in common with The Roxy than the original Magic Cinema, I begin to again show films under this name in Drumshanbo in what used to be a shoe shop, now the Yellow Ducati Bazaar. On a good night you can squeeze about 20 people into the space with a lively chat (aided with drinks from the neighboring Welcome Inn) ensuing after usually 2 films, often a documentary or short and main feature.

In July 2013, to tie-in with the Guide, a screening of Man of Aran (1934) and How the Myth Was Made (1978) was held.  Man of Aran was made by Robert J. Flaherty and was billed as a documentary at the time but would prove to be more fictionalized than real. While over the years its audience found many poetic truths in it that refuse to die, in 1978 a documentary was produced which revisited the island and its people some 40 years later and set much of the record straight. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location on map

The Warrior

Lough Nabellbeg, tucked in close to the eastern base of Sliabh an Iarainn, is said to be where the Tuatha DeDanaan were based for a time when they landed on the mountain in a cloud. It is a small lake but the only one nearby and an obvious source of fresh water and location for a temporary camp with good observation and maybe even some fishing. While here they are said to have mined and used the iron they found to make weapons to conquer the Fir Bolg. Of course this is all considered a myth today but a local saying persists that the lake has had a warrior guardian since that time. He is outlined on the cliff directly above the lake which was carved by them before they left, to mark the spot and protect it in the future. The Tuatha DeDanaan themselves became what we think of as fairies and are thought to live underground.

I wanted to follow up this story for the Guide and went looking for the lake and warrior and to my surprise found both. As I climbed down the very steep slope towards the lake I literally came face to face with an unmistakable outline of what could be a warriors face. Whether it was shaped by anyone or not I don’t know but it could also be natural. The lake and the very rarely visited landscape on this side of the mountain is not on a walking trail or in the official guide maps but possesses a real rugged beauty and is well worth a visit. It’s a place that deserves to be discovered by locals and tourists alike. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location on map

A postcard and print of the below image can be purchased at this link.

Revd. J.G. Digges

St. Dominic is said to have first brought bees to Ireland but it is another holy man, Revd. J.G. Digges (1858-1933), who is considered to be the modern day father of beekeeping in Ireland. I am a keen bee-keeper myself and was even a member of the Digges Beekeepers Association of South Leitrim when I was doing my beginners course. 

In 1885, he had his first bee-keeping lesson and also became the private chaplain to the Clements family (the Earls of Leitrim) at their Lough Rynn estate at Mohill. He served Farnaght and Mohill churches and from 1933 the parish of Cloone. He joined the Irish Beekeepers Association and was chairman from 1910 to 1921. He was editor of the Irish Bee Journal, (from 1912 called The Beekeeper’s Gazette) published from May 1901 to October 1933.

Becoming proficient in bee-keeping, and anxious to promote the method of removing the honey crop from the hive without killing the bees, by using moveable frames. Contrary to the popular belief that people of the past had more respect for nature, the only way most beekeepers knew to get honey was to first kill their bees by gassing them in their straw skep (hive). Lucklily bees were far more common at that time but  he started travelling extensively throughout Ireland on behalf of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, attending agricultural shows and lecturing to stop this practice and promote other more modern methods. He promoted the “Congested Districts Hive”, designed to be made and used in the poorer areas of Ireland to provide an income where the land was poor.

He also published a book: The Irish Bee Guide, later renamed The Practical Bee Guide. This was a manual of modern beekeeping, a book which came to be regarded as the standard book of beekeeping in Ireland. The book went through many revisions and reprints following its initial publication in 1904. It was self published in 1904 (by Lough Rynn Press) and republished many times and again in 2004 to celebrate its centenary of publication.

He is said to have died dramatically during a confirmation service in Farnaght in 1933 and is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin. Very fittingly a stained-glass memorial window by Ethel Rhind was placed in the church at Clooncahir, which shows St. Dominic bringing the bees to Ireland. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location of Clooncahir church on map

Reimagining Leitrim

I have been told of a kind of precursor to the Guide from 1982 when a competition and exhibition of work submitted was held in Ballinamore library entitled and themed Reimagining Leitrim. It was aimed at school children and appears to have been a local schools project with a brief for a postcard sized image to attract tourists to the County Leitrim of their imagination. I was shown the winner (which is still framed in the new Ballinamore library) and took a photo of it and have here remade it as a postcard. I was told that probably a few hundred were made at the time and given away but they could no longer remember the name of the winner (it may have been a teenage boy).

I love this image as I know there is no sandy beach to walk on the real Leitrim coastline, perhaps the artist was only imagining what it was like there as well. It strikes me that the image of the burning car would also have been a common image from Northern Ireland on the late evening news at this time, just around bedtime for young children. I’m surprised it was picked as the winner of a competition for an image to attract tourists but this appears to be the case. It also reminds me of the work of the artist Sean Hillen whose Irelantis project also re-imagined Ireland. I’d love to find an original postcard and who did it but until then this reproduction will have to do. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location of Ballinamore library

A postcard and print of this image can be purchased at this link.

Mass Rock?

From walking on Sliabh an Iarainn I discovered what must be one of the most spectacular and mysterious looking mass rocks in the country, if that is what it always was. In Ireland during the 1600’s the Penal Laws outlawed the practice of the Roman Catholic religion so priests would hold secret masses in the open air in out of the way places such as this. This one is quite epic and elaborate, with very theatrical and carefully placed stone steps rising to an altar very dramatically set between the cliff of the mountain itself and a massive outcrop. It is not mentioned in any guide books to my knowledge (although it does lie just off a marked walking trail) and the few people I know who have stumbled across it are very surprised to find it there.  When they (like myself) have tried to find out more of its history though, they have found nothing of any significance. I’ve heard it still is or used to be the location for an annual outdoor local mass but I just wonder if that was always its original purpose. Perhaps it had a use before this and may have gone unnoticed by archeologists and historians to date.

There is no marker on the site to tell you what it is and what may have been used as an altar (stone with wooden legs) does not look original to me and seems fragile and out of proportion with just a few rusting copper coins lying there today. Perhaps it was used for something at an earlier date and converted to use as a mass rock? Only a very small percentage of the thousands of crannogs (small manmade defensive islands) on Ireland’s lakes and rivers have been examined in any detail and even huge cairns, such as the one nearby at Knocknarea, Co. Sligo (said to be the burial place of Queen Medb) have yet to be explored. There are still many unsolved mysteries surrounding the structures of the past we encounter and see everyday and even when we do excavate we can only speculate and never truly know for sure what they were used for. This lonely site in Co. Leitrim is a very good example of that and well worth seeking out to wonder at. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location on map