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 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

Joseph Conrad in Dromahair

There is a persistent local tradition that Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) acted as second mate on one of the steamers that operated between Sligo and Dromahair between 1843 and 1881 and was disturbed by what he found there at that time. I did some research and found that Conrad did serve with the British Merchant Marine between 1878 and 1894 and I suppose it is possible that he could have been stationed there not long before it ceased operating.

If he was the main cargo on the route would have been corn for the mill in Dromahair as well as passengers. I found this image of one of the steamers, The Maid of Breifne. He would no doubt have taken note also of how the British Empire was treating its subjects there as he steamed along the river Bonet in this period not long after the Great Famine. Perhaps this is one reason he felt a connection with Roger Casement when they briefly met one another in 1890, not long after Conrad arrived in the Belgium Congo. Conrad mentions this in his Congo Diary from that time. In that period Casement was working as a supervisor on the railway being built between Matadi and Kinshasa. By 1898 however, as British Consul for the region he was to write a damning report about the human rights situation there. Conrad was of course on his way deep into that same colony, steaming along the Congo River, and not long after Casements report was published and widely read he would write his own expose in fictional form of what he himself had found there, Heart of Darkness (1899). (Stephen Rennicks)

Location of harbour on map

Data Museum

What would have been the world’s first Data Museum was planned to be opened in Carrick-on-Shannon in 2009. It was also to include displays on the history of Ireland’s computer and software industries to date. The building itself was actually built on the N4 just on the edge of the town but has yet to be opened to the public and is unlikely to be for the foreseeable future. This was blamed at the time on the withdrawal of one of its major corporate sponsors but may have been due to the economic recession or perhaps there were second thoughts on the project, it might have been too recent to catch the imagination of the public.

This was a real shame as there were plans for it to expand its archive into the commercial realm overtime and become a teaching and research centre which could have made it self-sustaining and created many jobs and other opportunities for the county. As well as an extensive collection of electronic documents and programs archived digitally and otherwise, that were to be accessible from public consoles as well as online, it was to include the restored Hollerith Electronic Computer 4 used in the Irish Sugar Company in 1957 (the first stored program computer in Ireland). I found this amazing picture of it being unloaded in Dublin airport before being brought to Thurles at that time.

Another more local angle was to feature a major interactive display on Grace Hopper (1906-1992), whose parents were from Garadice in Co. Leitrim; she herself is said to have been a regular visitor home in her later years. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and developed the first compiler for a computer programming language and conceptualized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages. She is also credited with popularizing the term “debugging” for fixing computer glitches, motivated by an actual moth removed from the computer.

To get an idea of what the museum may have looked like there is a good website here. For now the massive purpose built building sits idle with local people hoping it will one day open its doors to the public. (Stephen Rennicks)

Location on map

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

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)

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)