Local History: From Lough Derg to Omey, books inspired by the Irish landscape

The highlight of the social year, the races brought in large crowds; a big attraction was Peggy’s leg rock candy, at a bargain price of three for sixpence. A passion for it courses through his veins and comes across on the pages of Lough Derg and Its Islands (Holy Island Tours, €20), which he has written with Shane Creamer. The Tipperary historian George Cunningham selects a different kind of island, choosing Monaincha, from the Irish Móin na hInse – Bog Island – a hidden monastic site not far from his Roscrea home. Every island and rock has a story. His portraits bring out their authentic voice. .”

Paul Clements is a contributor to Fodor’s Essential Ireland and the author of Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way Intriguing details are also revealed on the occupants of sporting lodges, grand summer residences and lakeside houses, some still in private hands. The town wall at Rindoon has undergone much-needed conservation, and the author makes a plea for a full archaeological investigation of the suite of medieval remains and for the buildings to be taken into State care as a national monument. In the far northwest of Connemara a single tidal island is the focus for Strands of Omey’s Story (Connemara Island Publications, €20), by Bernadette Conroy. Quinn intersperses the interviewees with his own travels, including a pilgrimage to Sceilg Mhichíl, where he climbs the steps to the monastic settlement. A glossy voyage of discovery by road and water, the book is packed with photographs, poetry, folklore and an invaluable 10-page colour map. Charting the history and nature of the lake, this is a parish-by-parish gazetteer that starts in Killaloe and travels north. Monaincha became well known as a place of pilgrimage, and along with Croagh Patrick, St Patrick’s Purgatory and Glendalough was one of the four most famous pilgrimage sites in Ireland. The Rindoon peninsula, of considerable strategic importance, is one of the most impressive Anglo-Norman sites in Ireland. Their survey ranges across archaeology, historic buildings and village landscapes. Just a few nautical miles south of Omey lie Inishbofin and Inishshark. Topographical features and hidden nooks are all given their due. For their size many of Ireland’s islands have more than the average small town’s supply of history, providing writers with endless inspiration. The island is famed for its summer horseracing, which started in 1933 and was revived in 2001, after a lapse of 38 years. A fascinating section discusses the poirtíns, or little ports, found on the southeastern side of Inishbofin. Every New Year’s Eve Cunningham visits it, lights a candle and absorbs the spirit and peace of the place, reflecting on its genius loci. Other contributions come from Seamus Heaney (Anahorish, Co Derry), Ben Kiely (Omagh) and the former Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby. Madden is disgruntled about some agencies’ disregard for the area’s natural wonders, and he describes the attempt in 2013 to breed white-tailed eagles at Mountshannon harbour as an unmitigated disaster. Its eighth-century gilt-bronze Crucifixion plaque – the Rinnagan or Athlone plaque – is regarded as one of the treasures of the National Museum of Ireland. With no fresh water, conditions were primitive, but there was a lively social life, with the melodeon and gramophone, half sets, card playing and storytelling. The story is also recounted of oil from seal hunting being used for domestic lighting and in the treatment of rheumatism. Today only the remains of foundation stones testify to what was once home to more than 100 people, and which 200 years ago was a vibrant fishing community. Their past comes under the spotlight in Island Places, Island Lives: Exploring Inishbofin and Inishark Heritage (Wordwell, €12), compiled by Ian Kuijt, Ryan Lash, William Donaruma, Katie Shakour and Tommy Burke. He looks back on his childhood days in Belfast, at the industrial heartland known to shipyard workers as the island, and invokes the words of a Richard Rowley poem The Islandmen which begins: “Terrible as an army with banners / Through the dusk of a winter’s eve / Over the bridge / The thousands tramp.. The lake’s rich heritage includes cross slabs, a spectacular Romanesque window, and a nave-and-chancel church. Few could resist discovering place names such as Jude’s Snuff, Lickmolassy Point and Illaunaskirtaun. Embracing 1,500 years of historic settlement, Lough Ree stands at the junction of two provinces, three counties and four dioceses. Omey is accessible only twice a day from Claddaghduff quay, and until this year it had just one permanent resident, Pascal Whelan, much-loved guardian of the island’s heritage, who passed away in February. This concise guide lists important sites and takes the reader on a continuous journey from its southern end upstream along the east shore to Lanesborough and downstream along the west side to Athlone. In the case of Island Eddy, off the south Galway coast, Katie Martyn re-creates an evocative picture of where she was born in 1927, when just seven families lived there. From the lower to mid-Shannon, Lough Ree: A Short Historical Tour, by Harman Murtagh (Old Athlone Society, €10), offers another perspective on the ebb and flow of the river’s tradition. Despite this he believes that a greater consciousness of the lake has emerged in recent years. Gerard Madden has been in rapt communion with Lough Derg on the Shannon for many years. Islands play a part, too, in John Quinn’s anthology This Place Speaks to Me (Veritas, €16.99), based on his RTÉ programmes. Over many years he has interviewed personalities about the power of place and how it has shaped and influenced their lives. Overwhelmed and fearful of it, he describes it as a spiritual experience.