Howard Marks cottage

I was emailed by a reader of the Guide if I was going to be doing an entry on the infamous former drug smuggler Howard Marks and his time in Leitrim. I replied to them that I wasn’t aware of any connection (since then a few people I know have told me they have heard the same story) and they got back to me with some more information. They claimed that while he was bringing in huge quantities of cannabis into Shannon airport in the early 70’s he was renting a cottage in south Leitrim (they didn’t know its whereabouts). This cottage was where the drugs would have been hidden in cars and then driven onto the ferry to Britain. I already had his autobiography, Mr Nice (1996), so checked this info and he does refer to a rented cottage, but says it was close to the village of Ballynacally. I looked into this and it looks to be a made up name so perhaps he did live somewhere in the county after-all. It would have had to have been close to the airport and Leitrim is just over an hour away and there are of course plenty of isolated cottages that would have matched what he describes in the book.

There is certainly a poetic truth to this story at the very least, as ironically since then these type of cottages and other empty homes in the county have become used to actually grow what Marks had been smuggling into the country at the time. Leitrim can now boast the highest percentage of grow houses discovered by the authorities of any other county. Check out the search terms ‘Leitrim, Grow House’ and see for yourself.

Considering how times have changed since then and that he is now considered a respectable celebrity author, I think if the cottage could be located and verified it would warrant one of those blue plaques and be featured in any official guide to the county (if anyone has more info on this let me know). Until that time it certainly belongs in this one. (Stephen Rennicks)

French Wizards

While researching for the Guide I read in Ballinagleara and Inisgmagrath: The History and Traditions of Two Leitrim Parishes, of a French mining company that came to Sliabh an Iarainn (The Iron Mountain) in 1930. According to the book they had some financial backing from the State to prospect for iron deposits there in the hope of opening a mine and drilled boreholes at two locations (northern Slievenakilla and southern Stradrina).

There used to be a thriving iron industry in the region possibly from the Iron-age until the 1800’s with one furnace in Drumshanbo at what is still today known as Furnace Hill as well as one in Creevelea near Dromahair. Iron from Leitrim is known to have been used for the entrance canopy of Foyle’s Hotel in Clifden, Co. Galway as well as Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge. I spoke to a local historian about it and they knew the story behind the 1930 drilling and once I heard it knew the account belonged in the Guide.

He remembered his father telling him about the excitement at the time and promise of jobs and of the day the drilling rig appeared in Dowra from the boat in Belfast with its Welsh crew to begin its long slow journey along the same famine road which still stretches across the mountain today. The French representatives of the company who arrived soon after had quite good English but what they asked the locals about was more concerned with mythical stories of the Tuatha DeDanaan (who are said to have landed on the mountain in a cloud) and other legends to do with the mountain than likely places with iron deposits. They appeared to select their two drilling sites based on this mythical information but had, according to them, already been there before on a research trip.

On the day the drilling commenced they raised a few more eyebrows (including the local Roman Catholic parish priest) when they did a quasi religious ceremony complete with robes, much to the amusement of the rig crew and the curious locals that were expectantly watching. Then when the first core samples were retrieved it’s said they treated them with something more akin to sacred reverence rather than objective scientific appraisal. Since there was no on-site laboratory or even a geologist employed the crew had long suspected all was not what it seemed about the company they were working for but as long as they were being paid they weren’t too worried. However they did express these doubts privately to locals who they warned not to get their hopes up about a mine opening there anytime soon. After just a fortnight of activity with a number of test-cores from various depths also retrieved from the second site, the rig left the mountain and so did the French, never to return or be heard from again.

I was then told what his father had told him; that people of the time gradually came to feel that something else more intangible had also been taken from the mountain and the land around them since that time, which had also never returned. They began to realize that something eternal and of greater value than rock samples had been allowed to be snatched away from them for nothing. After a year this strange feeling persisted until the same parish priest who had un-approvingly witnessed the previous ceremony announced a special mass to be held on the mountain close to the two sites. During it he is said to have turned a blind eye to people who brought certain objects from an earlier, more pagan, time to be left as an offering to the scarred earth in the hope of healing the mountain. Whether it worked or not we don’t know but most of the people felt more reassured at least.

I realised this story could be seen to tie-in with the little known fact that mysterious rock core samples were found both in Hitler’s Berlin bunker and in the ruins of his Wolf’s Lair headquarters at the end of World War II. They were finally tested in the 1980’s and were thought most likely to be of Irish origin. He may have been using them as a talisman, but if they truly were the samples in question, how they would have come into his possession remains a mystery.  While occultism and the Nazi’s has become a staple of fantasy fiction they did actually have an SS division called the Ahnenerbe whose role was to research and gather up ancient religious relics and such like, who were active even before the outbreak of war. One of their interests was said to have been the suppression of the Irish harp in Ulster by the British but there is no evidence of them ever having been in Ireland. It struck me that this could also be where the local and up to now inexplicable saying, ‘French Wizards’, comes from. “There’s a bit of a French wizard about him.” is still said when someone is doing something out of the ordinary in this part of Leitrim. (Stephen Rennicks)

Approx location of drilling sites on map

Call of the Curlew

Leitrim has become one of the last counties you can still hear the unmistakable call of the native curlew and even see it if you are very lucky. It is estimated that there are as little as 200 breeding pairs of this Eurasion variety in the Republic and only 7 were reported for the whole of the border region (which includes Leitrim).  I recently saw my first single bird (don’t know if it had a mate or if it was the native type) and was surprised that it was much bigger than I expected. It was walking across rows of freshly cut turf on a nearby bog before taking off and making its call.

I had only heard it just once before a year before at the same location; in fact this was just before I met Isabel Lofgren (while she was here on the Trade residency) in May 2012 and we decided to do the Guide. I remember I made a point of mentioning it and the rarity of the bird to her at that time. Almost exactly one year later from hearing its call I actually see one as we near the last 15 or so entries in the Guide (101 is our goal). I think this coincidence makes it more than worthy of an entry here.

More information on this subject can be read here where they describe it thus, “With its distinctive long, down-curved bill and haunting, mournful cries, the Curlew was for generations one of the most cherished and evocative creatures of the Irish countryside, but sadly its extinction as a breeding bird here now seems certain unless urgent action is taken.  The precarious state of this species in Ireland is widely misunderstood, even by many birdwatchers, as large numbers of migrant Curlews from northern Europe visit Ireland’s coastal estuaries and large wetland sites each winter, where they can be seen alongside our dwindling resident Irish population”. (Stephen Rennicks)

Lost in Leitrim

Leitrim has long had a reputation as a place to find yourself by first getting lost, perhaps even from ancient times. There is also a Leitrim folk tale of a young adult coming of age to leave home and getting lost in a forest until they discover what it is they are to do with their life. This tale has always sounded to me like a Native American vision quest. A music festival held there in 2002 even took the name Lost in Leitrim to acknowledge this tradition but a promotional field workshop held by Rebecca Solnit there in 2005 to promote her just published A Field Guide to Getting Lost really put it firmly on the map for a new generation seeking self-discovery.

Prior to this and what may have been what put it on Solnit or her publishers radar was that fans who go on a type of pilgrimage following the route walked by W. G. Sebald in his book The Rings of Saturn (1995) would first visit Clarahill in Co. Offaly (home of the Ashbury’s) and then as this was the only Irish site in the book they would travel to Ballinagleara, Co. Leitrim, near to where Sebald had rented a cottage to write his previous book, The Emigrants (1992). Perhaps this is when he even met the Ashbury’s or conceived of them as they may be largely fictitious.

The most recent and very worthy manifestation of this tradition I came across occurred in nearby Co. Sligo and was run by artists, Pilgrimage – A Cultural Odyssey (2013). From searching the internet I also discovered the phrase ‘lost in leitrim’ had crept into this piece of local critical art writing here. One small but perhaps important coincidence to all of this I have noticed since I moved here is that when you drive into Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford (close to border with Co. Leitrim) coming from Cavan and are stopped at the lights opposite The Mostrim Arms pub, a utility pole blocks the M on its sign and my brain always fills in the blank letter to read Lostrim. (Stephen Rennicks)

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

Burn the Maps

St. Patrick (387? – 460/492?) could be the ultimate ‘here nor there’ character in Irelands history with almost every town-land, never mind county, having a well, church or other story associated with a visit by him. Once you do even a small amount of research on St. Patrick however you very quickly find the reality of him disappearing (sadly) into the theory and argument of historical scholars. He may well have lived but over the years has become a convenient figure, used by the Church, State and even corporations to associate whatever they like to him. He has become big business and is celebrated worldwide by the ‘toasting of the shamrock’ with Guinness or anything else alcoholic that might come to hand on St. Patrick’s Day.

I wanted to find a way to bring him into the Guide from early on and eventually was clearing out a shed for someone and found a suitcase full of old framed religious pictures from a time when they must have been cleared from the house and took this as a sign. I took the one of St. Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland out of its dirty and broken frame and placed it on the grass and took the shot used here. I researched this particular legend associated with him and unsurprisingly found that all evidence suggests to naturalists that there were never any snakes in Ireland for him to banish. However scholars say it could have been a metaphor for him banishing paganism in the country.

I grew up in Co. Meath near a well St. Patrick was supposed to have visited and while I was on the Leitrim coastline making a piece of land art for the Guide I also came across and photographed another of the wells he is supposed to have visited near Tullaghan. It has also been claimed that it was from this coastal point that he actually banished snakes from the country as well. This all reminds me that we only have our own subjective living memory and access to an unknowable history made up of fact and fiction. We all live in an in-between – not truly here nor there – world of fact and fiction. I think this is ok, it’s human nature and can’t be avoided, but we should all be more aware of this. Burn the maps and make new ones for the fire. (Stephen Rennicks)

A Place in Which to Dream

I discovered that a public art project was commissioned by Leitrim county council from Richard Wilson in 1988. It was to be sited on the shores of Lough Allen, just south of Cormongan pier but it seems the project only got as far as clearing and dredging the site (approx 40 x 15 metres). Some temporary iron H bar piles were also driven deep into the ground on the now fenced off site before it was abandoned for reasons I could not uncover (perhaps it would have been an early version of his A Slice of Reality). Regardless those rusted piles are still standing there proudly today and have become a kind of sculpture or potential work all on their own. I’ve always liked coming to this abandoned and little known place and imagining what would have been sited here. Today since the late 90’s there is a wind-farm facing them across the lake on the opposing hills and the piles strangely mirror them.

 Years later in 2010 the artist Mark Garry had four wind harps installed on piles as a public art commission on the banks of the river in Carrick-on-Shannon. Each time you visit the sound will be unique depending on the wind and it would have deserved a mention in the Guide all on its own but I mention it here as I could imagine their mournful hum working even better at the very similar site on Lough Allen. I played around with an image of the piles, above, and invite you to also imagine what it could have been, perhaps a portal to another dimension? Even unfinished it has still become like Garry’s wind harps, a place in which to dream. (Stephen Rennicks)  

Location of unfinished work on map

Location of wind harps on map

Dominic Stevens

A good percentage of the most recent wave of people leaving the rat race and city life to move to Co. Leitrim and other rural locations can be linked to the publication of rural by local award winning architect Dominic Stevens in 2007. It took however another 5 years and a little thing called a property crash to make it the essential survival guide and cult book it has become today. Part practical part philosophical it is described as being  ‘a quiet yet polemical book of essays and built projects by an architect based in the wilds of county Leitrim. In rural, dominic stevens, who left Dublin 8 years ago, reflects on the forces that shape our rural environment and lifestyle. Sociology, economics, politics, farming, culture are all examined. Carefully studying behaviours of old and candidly questioning present-day absurdities, the author explores many avenues that may well offer a more exciting, dynamic and lasting future for rural areas, and society at large.’

More recently Stevens completed a house for €25,000 which has already proved very prescient. I like many others gave just a few days of my time to the build and can attest it was an inspiring and empowering experience to be a part of as his new home came into being. A step by step guide to its construction in the Leitrim countryside and excerpts from both of his books and more can be found here. (Stephen Rennicks)