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

Authentic Experience

“For instance, Ireland is immensely popular with German visitors, who buy up traditional houses and stay there permanently. The motivating factor seems to be a sense of alienation from their own society, and a desire to return to a lifestyle which is perceived as authentic. Thus the contemporary cultural symbols of this new middle class include health food, real ale, real bread, vegetarianism, natural childbirth, wool, lace, cotton, traditional non-western medicines, cycling, mountaineering, and fell-walking rather than contrived, organized leisure. It is this group who seem to be the main consumers of cultural tourism.”

-Moya Kneafsey in Culture, Tourism and Development: The Case of Ireland (1994)

As a county Leitrim is something of a cipher and whatever life people want to live here, what they perceive to be authentic or otherwise, they can. It may take sometime to establish that life as well as others who want to share it, eg. farmers markets, but if the desire is there it can become reality. I wouldn’t think that Leitrim is unique in this however but for various reasons, the price of land and housing being key, it has traditionally been and remains a place where a certain type of supposedly ‘authentic’ experience (like the one described above) can be lived easily enough. Although in this financial respect many more places in the country are currently like Leitrim and for this reason it is something the local tourist board and county council could be wise to exploit.

On the subject of Germans living in Leitrim, it has the highest population of Germans and German-speakers per capita of any county, I would recommend the book Lebensreform in Leitrim (2011) by the artist Sarah Browne. Lebensreform in Leitrim is a kind of surrealist ethnography which addresses the countercultural legacy of migrants to the Northwest of Ireland, and evokes an emotional geography of desired alternatives.” (Stephen Rennicks)

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

Chris Marker in Leitrim

In the process of researching Leitrim for the Guide I discovered that the French artist and filmmaker Chris Marker (1921-2012) is said to have travelled to Co. Leitrim in 1996. He visited the excellent  Glenview Folk Museum (where he took many photos) as well as other sites near Ballinamore where he was staying (at the Commercial & Tourist Hotel). He was interested in doing a piece about the county, he is known to have had an interest in the work of John McGahern, which IMMA are thought to have been willing to sponsor if he decided to but sadly he changed his mind on the location. The next piece he would complete not long after would be his CD-ROM Immemory (1997) which he might have already been working on with Leitrim in mind or whose concept may have had its birth on that trip. Details of his finished project can be viewed here plus his full liner notes.

Coincidently this quote from those notes ansd even the project itself could be seen to connect very well with the Guide and our approach to making it. “My working hunch was that any memory, once it’s fairly long, is more structured than it seems. That after a certain quantity, photo’s apparently taken by chance, postcards chosen according to a passing mood, begin to trace an itinerary, to map the imaginary country that stretches out before us. By going through it systematically I was sure to discover that apparent disorder of my imagery concealed a chart, as in the tales of pirates. And the object of this disc would be to present the “guided tour” of a memory, while at the same time offering the visitor a chance for haphazard navigation. So, welcome to “Memory, Land of Contrasts” – or rather, as I’ve chosen to call it, Immemory.” -Chris Marker

Another strange coincidence I could mention here that I came across since we began doing the Guide was to read a piece in the Visual Artist’s News Sheet (May 2005) by Cliodhna Shaffrey, about her experience as Leitrim’s curator in residence in 2004. There she made a comparison between the counties artists and the ex-miners that are now working as tour guides. “…for Leitrim is open to reinvention. In Arigna, when the coalmines closed down, they quickly realised that they could turn a problem into an opportunity. The mines were reopened as The Arigna Mining Experience. Miners turned tour-guides. Like the ‘tour-guiding miners’ the artists who have come from far and wide are Leitrim’s asset.” One of our aims with the Guide is to reinvent Leitrim’s cultural tourism potential and would also plan to lead guided tours to some of the sites. (Stephen Rennicks)

Glenview Folk Park on map

Drumkeeran water station

A revealing piece of Leitrim and indeed Ireland’s history can be found on a lonely hillside near Drumkeeran. It is the original and now unused water station for the town which was built in 1939 by the county ‘Board of Health and Social Assistance’. For the first time it brought much needed clean and fresh water to the inhabitants of the town and those along its route. The people there still talk about its purity and taste as well as the health it brought to them.

Interestingly from the Guide’s perspective, they also mention how they remember having a much wider consciousness and awareness of their world and reality at this time. It would be argued by some that this was to gradually change for them and the rest of the country during the 1960’s and 1970’s due to the introduction of fluoride to public water supplies.

In 1957 the Department of Health established a Fluorine Consultative Group which recommended fluoridation of public water supplies. This was felt to be a much cheaper way of improving the quality of children’s teeth than employing more dentists at the time. The ethical approval for this was given by the “Guild of Saints Luke, Cosmas and Damian”, established by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. This led to the Health (Fluoridation of Water Supplies) Act 1960, which mandated compulsory fluoridation by local authorities. Implementation of fluoridation was held up by preliminary dental surveying and water testing, and a court case, Ryan v. Attorney General. In 1965, the Supreme Court rejected Gladys Ryan’s claim that the Act violated the Constitution of Ireland’s guarantee of the right to bodily integrity. By 1965, Greater Dublin’s water was fluoridated; by 1973, other urban centres were. Dental surveys of children from the 1950s to the 1990s showed marked reductions in cavities parallel to the spread of fluoridation. Today in the Republic of Ireland the majority of drinking water remains fluoridated; 71% of the population in 2002 resided in fluoridated communities. The fluoridation agent used is hydrofluosilicic acid (HFSA; H2SiF6). In a 2002 public survey, 45% of respondents expressed some concern about fluoridation including issues such as dental fluorosis, poisoning and narrowing of consciousness. More information on this subject can be accessed here. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location on map

Jerry Garcia visit

In 1993 Jerry Garcia (1942 – 1995) of the Grateful Dead visited the west of Ireland on a two week sketching and painting holiday. One of his paintings from that time, Irish Tree, can be seen at this link. I had heard he was spotted out one night in Monica’s pub in Drumshanbo on this trip and that he told the young guy who recognized him that up to that point he had gone totally unnoticed. He admitted that while he was happy to be anonymous it was also kind of nice to talk with someone who knew who he was as well. He is thought to have hired a car in Dublin airport and probably stayed at Paddy Macs B&B just along the street from the pub they were in. He is said to have been really taken with the town’s high street and Monica’s pub in particular and asked a lot of questions about both. He also talked about his father being half Irish and how he had never visited Ireland before but had often imagined what it might be like.

Late in the night he is said to have made a strange analogy between Leitrim and the LSD experience. They no doubt had a very profound conversation from that point on, one sentence of which the guy remembered and wrote down on a card which he brought into Monica the next night. He must have managed to convince her of the importance of the American customer from the night before as she did agree to put it on the wall behind the bar. Sadly it’s no longer there but I’m told it read ‘“What I got from my first trip was that my little personal fiction was just that. It was a fiction.” Jerry Garcia, Drumshanbo 1993’ (Stephen Rennicks)

Location on map

A Line Lain in the Kingdom of Breifne

In 1974 Richard Long made A Line in Ireland from stones somewhere on the west coast of the country. In the ancient Book of Leinster (1160) there is an obscure line of prophecy which reads, “A line lain in the kingdom of Breifne will be a sign for old myths meeting new, becoming meaningful again for the people who dwell in that place.” On 20th May 2012 Isabel Löfgren and Stephen Rennicks choose to both commemorate Long’s work and fulfill the prophecy (Co. Leitrim is part of the old kingdom) by building their own line of stone on a ghost estate in Keshkerrigan. (Isabel Löfgren & Stephen Rennicks)
A Line in Ireland by Richard Long (1974)

A Line in Ireland by Richard Long (1974)

Brion Gysin

The painter and writer Brion Gysin has long been said to have spent time living in Co. Leitrim in the early 80’s. Acquaintances of the illegal UK rave organizers Spiral Tribe*, who briefly found themselves exiled in the hills of North Leitrim themselves, were the source of where I heard this story. They probably picked it up from Genesis P. Orridge who was a friend of Gysin. I decided to do some research of my own and pieced together what is known of this particular local legend. In late 1981 in a letter to his friend, Robert Anton Wilson, Gysin mentioned that he fancied a break from Paris, which had been his base for well over 30 years. Wilson was then living in Dublin and thought that another city might suit him. Wilson agreed to be his host until Gysin could find a place of his own in Dublin. He decided to move in the spring and stayed with Wilson for about a week in April. He is said to have enjoyed himself but came to realize that a complete break from city life was actually what he needed and began to wonder about a move to the countryside there. Supposedly he was offered houses in Wicklow and Leitrim through a friend of Wilson who had a number of properties he would regularly rent out to artists for short term lets or weekend parties. He was told that the latter was more isolated and rustic and Gysin liked the sound of this and took it. There is a strong possibility that he wasn’t charged any rent as a favour to Wilson but this property was probably not much in demand and having someone living there and lighting fires etc would have been good for it. Gysin was famously always broke and in debt and could even have been skipping out on a landlord in Paris to come here and may not have had much to spend anyway. He had little luggage and is said to have travelled by train to Carrick-on-Shannon where he took a taxi to the address he had been given. Going by the description I was given I found it easily enough. It is currently unoccupied and appears today to be like a lot of houses in the region, a reconstruction project for someone. It has always been abandoned anytime I have visited it but according to neighbors Gysin arrived in mid April 1982 and left in late October before the winter kicked in. He appears to have lived an idyllic life while there, going for long walks alone, befriending locals and going fishing with them and even spending one day helping them save turf on a nearby bog. He did not hide his more radical ideas from them either as one night in a nearby pub, Gerties in Keshkerrigan, he reportedly mutilated that week’s edition of the Leitrim Observer while demonstrating his cut-up technique at the bar. This incident was remembered with good humour when recounted to me by the owner of the bar who told me that the sentences he created were very humourous. He is said to have been writing at the cottage as well and if true it most likely would have been a portion of what would turn out to be his final book, The Last Museum, published posthumously in 1986.  Gysin would have already been 66 at this point and not in the best of health after a lifetime of drug addiction and neglecting his health. He would return to Paris but would sadly die there 4 years later of lung cancer. An obituary in The New York Times described him as a man who “threw off the sort of ideas that ordinary artists would parlay into a lifetime career, great clumps of ideas, as casually as a locomotive throws off sparks”.

In recent years there has been talk about establishing an annual International Summer School in Co. Leitrim to commemorate his work and literary and artistic achievements. This would follow on from a now legendary and independently funded one-off Summer School and series of events which was staged in his memory in Keshkerrigan in 1992. Hopefully one day this will come to pass.

(Stephen Rennicks)

Portrait of Brion Gysin by Jean Marc Vincent

Location on map

*In the 10th September 1992 issue of Ireland’s Hot Press magazine a Tribesperson said “Ireland is the most important mission on the Spiral Tribe agenda at the moment. We Just want to go over there and hold a big party which everyone is free to come and join. All they’ll get out of it and all we’ll get out of it is freedom. We want the Irish people to join the Tribe.”