A Tour to Connaught: Letter VI (Tyrells Pass)

From The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 27, December 29, 1832


SIR--"What a pity it is that these bogs cannot be turned to some use;" was the remark of one of my fellow travellers, as we looked southward across some thousands of acres of red bog that stretched towards the Hill of Croghan. "I remember once a near-sighted Englishman, on approaching a gentleman's house in Munster, congratulating the proprietor on the immense quantity of fallow land he was preparing for a crop wheat; the worthy Briton mistaking the red bog for the red soil he was accustomed to in Worcestershire." "Wont you have patience," said I, "until these wastes are brought under cultivation, according to the process not long ago described as adopted on Chatmoss." "Pooh, pooh--fiddle-dee-dee with your Chatmoss; convert, forsooth, the quagmire on which nothing can stand, and in which nothing can swim--which is even too wet for a snipe or a grouse to feed on--into arable land, producing crops of wheat--sir, I would as soon expect my cook to turn a dish of porridge into roast beef, as to expect that the Bog of Allen should be made arable. No, sir, it is only a great system of combined and national drainage--it is only the slow process of solidification subsequent to this drainage, that can change those at present growing, or, as I may say, living bogs, into recipients for seed corn--into enclosures where the plough and the spade can operate. At the same time," continued he, "I wonder much that a use obvious enough, and very practicable, has not been made of the black, and of the solider skirts of the red bogs, to manufacture charcoal--a fuel so portable, so convenient, so valuable, not only for culinary purposes, but for the different arts and manufactures. Any one who had been at Paris, and saw the Seine covered with barges loaden with the charcoal that feeds all the culinary fires and all the furnaces of that city, might wonder why the citizens of Dublin, and more especially the poor, instead of receiving as they do, cumbrous and expensive loads of smoky and strong smelling peat or turf, do not receive their fuel in shape of charcoal. Besides, what a material is here for iron forges. What is the reason that England, with all her science and capital, cannot produce iron equal to that of Sweden or Russia? Why is it that for all strong or safe purposes, artists of every sort must still purchase, even at double the price, the iron of Scandinavia? Because that in the smelting and working of English iron, the orsenical and sulphureous fumes of the pit coal, still injure the material; and neither in the form of metal, bar iron, or steel, can iron manufactured with pit coal, be perfect. And England, when in former days she worked with charcoal, and Ireland, too, produced as good iron as that of Sweden, and it is only necessary to resort to the old smelting with charcoal, to produce the good old material. Now what the woods of Sweden and Russia supply, we have in abundance in Ireland. I hold it is nearly as easy a process to dry and burn peat into charcoal, as to cut down and cleave timber; and surely iron ore is very abundant in our mountains--yes, and at the bottoms of our bogs, too--and limestone, another necessary, is still more abundant. What then hinders that we have not iron founderies and forges in Ireland? What but the want of quietness, security, and commercial confidence, by means of which we might and may yet take advantage of the capabilities of the island."

This conversation brought us to the top of a hill which commanded a fine prospect westward and northwards. Immediately in front was the pretty hill and dale country of Tyrrells-pass--which is ornamented with much natural oak wood, and improved by hedge-row planting--presenting in the variety of its surface, and in the number of its gentlemen's residences, a country not unlike some parts of Shropshire. Northwards, you could see that beautiful oval expanse of water, Lough Ennel, with the narrow Brusna flowing forth and sweeping its tortuous way towards Kilbeggan. This fine lake, full of wooded islands--indented with picturesque promontories, and thickly adorned with gentlemen's seats--presents a rich, soft, smiling picture, such as Claude or Wilson might paint, or such as Dyer or Shenstone describe. A very pleasant wight, one Geoffrey Greendrake. has published Piscatory Excursions to the lakes of central Ireland. His rows or his rambles round these waters, are almost as amusing to the readers as they were pleasant to himself: no one speaks more knowingly of May flies, greendrakes, or black hackles than he. I remember throwing my line, also, in yonder waters--to be sure I did not catch any thing that I remember but a cold, nor did I bring home much beyond disappointment--sooth to say, my rod might well fit Johnson's definition of that of most fishermen--a fly at one end, and a fool at the other--still I remember, as I rowed out in my single cot in yonder lake to some noted fishing ground, and as I then, while falling down with the wind, cast forth my line, and trusted to my single rod, I was partaking of an honester and more sportsman-like amusement than that which I subsequently practised on the Shannon, where with cross lines suspended between two boats, the waters are swept greedily, and the occupation partakes more of a profitable employment than a sportsman's game--a pursuit more for the pot than for pleasure. Westward, again, and on a higher level, sparkling like a silver line on the verge of the horizon, appeared Lough Ouel, in my opinion one of the prettiest of Ireland's lakes. It is of a lowland character, and partakes of the soft paysage style of picturesque beauty; no one would presume to compare the gentle naiad of Ouel, with the magnificent deities that preside over Killarney, or Ulleswater, or Kathrine--but after all it is a precious bijou of a lake, and though there are no sublime peaks, from whence tumble the thunder-riven rock and the avalanche--though no clouds, rolling in awful masses, break on the mountain side, and send down the tumbling cataract--yet here are the smooth, verdant lawns--the softly swelling sheep-depastured hills--the Wooded banks --the island, timbered and consecrated by all the mournful associations connected with ruined churches. I don't know whether I exactly expressed these identical sentiments and words to my coach companion, but I certainly praised, as well I might do, the very beautiful Westmeath waters along whose banks I have often wandered; moreover, I do not say that it was any of my fellow passengers who related the following legend respecting this lake, which, as I have before said, reflected the sinking sun as a distinct but distant mirror.

Playful and fantastic was the being who once dwelt and had power over the sweet valley through which the waters of Lough Ouel now flow. The times alluded to were those when the Tuatha-Danans possessed Ireland--when magical power was very prevalent--and a fine town, older still than Killmallock, and worthy of its ancient dwellers, covered the bottom of the valley. The fisherman, as he in modern days pushes his boat from the shore, and is disappointed in his venture--by the heavens becoming sunlit, the winds still, and the calm mirror of the lake assuring him he will cast his line in vain--it is then when he looks down, for want of something else to do, into the translucent deep, that he sees stacks of chimneys, ridge poles, and gables of houses, and even a round tower--Ireland's most ancient edifice--and he calls to mind the ditty that his nurse has sung about the drowning of Old Mullingar. Well, what a purely mischievous person must she have been, that caused this subversion. Yet so it was that a female caused it. It is very much to be doubted, whether in any case, power should be entrusted in the hands of women. They are quite too capricious, and they do things too much by the jerk of impulse. So it was in this instance. The Tuatha-Danans, who preceded the Milesians in Ireland, were great magicians. So the writers of our Patron Saint assure us, there are remains of their feats in the land even yet, that can only be accounted for in the way of supernatural power. Could any one but a magician take a bite out of a mountain in the County of Tipperary, and drop the mouthful at Cashel, where it now stands as the notorious rock. In the same way with respect to Lough Ouel. Some call her a fairy, others a witch--any how she had more power than I would like my wife to possess--and on a day she travels off to the County of Roscommon, to visit a witch of her acquaintance, who resided on the borders of a very pretty lough there; and every night in which witches may disport, she spent her time in fishing for Gillaroo trout, and when she was in bad humour, in turning a flat stone washed by the waters of the lake, and as ever the ninth wave passed over it, in cursing her enemies. No doubt she was very proud of her way of life; for, said she, I have here what few possess, that is, fowl that have gills, and fish that have gizzards. Now hither the Westmeath wise-woman bent her way; and after certain days' entertainment and converse, such as witches alone can enjoy, she says--"Cousin, I'll be lonesome when I go back to Leinster, without the sweet sounds of the wave-beating waters of this lough; will you lend it me until Monday; I will just borrow it for the sake of seeing how it will look in my own pretty valley." "With all the pleasure in life," says the Connaught woman, mighty accommodating, "but how, deary, will you take it with you or send it back?" "Oh, easy enough--in my pocket-handkerchief." Ladies carried no reticules in those days--and so she did, cleverly enough: and full sure it must have been a rare sight to behold it hurrying eastward, high over the hills of Knockcrokery--aqueducting itself over the broad Lough Ree--disdaining to delay on the plains of Kilkenny-west--and then by a slip of one corner of the kerchief, coming down and settling itself, as if it was born and bred there, in the valley of Ouel. No child was ever prouder when paddling in a puddle, than the Westmeath witch was of her borrowed water; and like all wayward and unthrifty ladies, its little it troubled her that thousands of acres were drowned to provide my lady with a looking glass. But what was to be done when pay Monday came? was the lake to be gathered up again in a shawl, and sent back? By no manner of means. I have you, my pretty pond, and never again shall your soft murmuring waves kiss a Connaught shore. But where's your honesty, Lady Westmeath? Oh, how ancient is equivocation--how long has the practice prevailed in Ireland, of not paying just debts? was it from this witch that so many here have found out that it was not their interest to pay the principal, nor their principle to pay interest? Of course the Connaught woman came in due time, huffingly, and demanded her lough. "Did you not," says she, "promise to return it me on Monday last?" "Yes, to be sure I did," says the crafty witch, "but, as the Irish have it, it was on the Monday after the Sunday of Eternity; or, as the English say, it was on Monday come never in a wheelbarrow." Bad treatment this of an honest, confiding, generous Connaught woman. But it was to no purpose she stormed and wept; and anger breathing magician as she was, she could not blow back the lake, nor could all her tears create it: what is worse, she had to sit down contented, in as ugly a hollow, where once those sweet waters used to flow, as ever Christian laid eyes on--all covered with limestone flags, as waste and as ugly as a grave-yard. The place is the Barony of Athlone, I have often passed it--people dig there for pipeclay; small comfort, in those early days, for the loss of her lough, seeing as how tobacco pipes and smoking to drive away sorrow, was not yet invented. The lough itself, it would appear, did not like to stay on the Leinster side of the Shannon; and as well became it, forth it sent two streams, one from its northern, another from its southern end, both of which bounding westwards--and called by the people the gold and silver hands--stretched out towards Connaught, forming the head waters of the Inney and the Brusna, and making a very pretty island of the Baronies of Kilkenny West and Garrycastle.

It may be supposed that the Westmeath witch, with the malice that ever belongs to such a magical race, did not stomach this hankering after Connaught, so on a day she says, "my pretty water, I'll teach you how to long for that land of bogs and limestones--which Cromwell thought only a little better than hell--I'll show you, that like a Roscommon spalpeen, you shant be ever scheming to go back to be buried in the land you were born in." So what does my fairy woman do, but goes and makes a bargain with the Royal Canal Company, to sell Lough Ouel to them as a summit level; and she never rested until she cut off both her golden and silver hands, and sent the soft, sweet waters, through deep-sinkings, locks, and levels, in canal boats to Dublin. I do not care whether any one besides myself believes my story; all I know is, that it is not my own invention; and this I can assure you, that contrary to the natural tendency of these waters to flow westwards, they now, as forming the finest summit level to any canal in Europe, flow eastwards, into the tea-kettles of the citizens of Dublin.

I would not desire or expect to meet a much prettier village in England, than Tyrrells-pass--wood crowned--hilly--dry gravel roads--neat whitewashed cottages--comfortable and well-dressed gentlemen's demesnes--a very beautiful new church and steeple--these all meet the eye in and about Tyrrells-pass; but all these interested me not so much as the old castle that stands a little way westward of the village, and which, placed at the extremity of a line of gravel hills that rise out of large bogs which skirt it on either side, guards the only passable road leading towards Athlone. This pass--often the scene of bloody contest--has got its name from the ablest partizan soldier that ever Ireland produced, and who lived in the stormy times of Elizabeth, so fertile in every description of great men. This noted soldier was not only remarkable for the courage and devotedness with which he inspired his followers, but also for, in days of unusual treachery, the faithfulness with which he adhered to his cause.

True to his employers, attached to his friends, he never despaired of what he thought the cause of his country, which he was the very last to desert. I do not desire it to be under-derstood, that I at all approve of Tyrrell's siding with the King of Spain, against his natural sovereign; but treating historically of him, I cannot but speak of him as a valiant soldier, and a consummate Guerrilla chief. Of English descent, when Tyrone rose in arms against Elizabeth, he took the command of the light-footed and light-armed Irish Bonnaghts, and there was not a mountain pass from Malin Head to Slieve Loghen, nor a togher across a bog from Philipstown Fort to Galway, that he did not know the intricacies of. When in the year 1597, the new deputy, Lord Burroughs, laid the plan of his campaign against Tyrone, O'Donnel, and Maguire, it was arranged that the lord deputy, attended by the Earl of Kildare and the lords of the Pale, should march direct upon Ulster, whilst Sir Coniers Clifford, the president of Connaught, should, with a force of 2,000 men, proceed into his province, and passing through it, turn in on Ulster by the head of the Shannon, taking Maguire's country in flank, and so proceed to form a junction with the deputy. Tyrone, one of the wiliest of men, was not long in ascertaining the details of this plan, and in taking measures to counteract it; and to that purpose he despatched Tyrrell, with 500 picked Bonnaughts, to proceed through the Brenny, into Leinster, to raise the O'Moores of Leix Pheagh, M'Hugh O'Byrne, and my own namesakes, who from the mountain glens were ever ready to rush as fit Tools for fighting or plundering, and so with these united forces oppose and check Sir Coniers Clifford. Tyrrell, on his way to effect these junctions, was reposing his men in the woods that lie around Lough Ennel, when Sir Coniers, whose army lay at Mullingar, hearing of the Irish partizan being in his vicinity, despatched young Barnewell, Lord Trimleston's son, with half his forces, to destroy Tyrrell; who, aware of his approach, fell back until he gained this pass, which he made more dangerous by felling trees and fixing them on either side of the bogs that flanked the road, and he directed half his little army, under Owny M'Rory oge O'Connor, to secrete themselves in a deep hollow in the ground, covered with oak copse, near which the English were to march in order to gain the pass and assault Tyrrell. Young Barnewell observing that Tyrrell was making a show of retreating onwards towards Kilbeggan, hastily advanced, leaving O'Connor in his rear; whereupon the Irish rose from their ambuscade, sounding their bagpipes--which was the concerted signal of the English placing themselves between the two fens--upon which Tyrrell turned about, and both he and Owny M'Rory fell on. The English, assailed in front and rear, and unable to deploy--as enclosed between the two bogs and the abbatis of felled timber--fought gallantly, as they always did, but were completely defeated and annihilated. Barnewell was taken prisoner--and not a man escaped to tell Clifford the disastrous tale, except one man, who plunged up to his neck in a quagmire, amidst reeds and sedge. O'Connor, who fought on that day like a very madman, had his hand so swollen with fighting and fending, that it could not be removed from the guard of his sabre until the steel was separated with a file. Clifford, with an army diminished to one half, now found himself surrounded by Irish insurgents on every side, was obliged to return on Dublin, and it required the greatest prudence and skill to effect his safety. This was not the only action in which Tyrrell was concerned in this vicinity. A little to the south, and occupying a similar pass in O'Moore's country, he surprised the most consummate of Elizabeth's generals, the Lord Mountjoy; on which occasion the deputy was in imminent danger of his life, and had a horse shot under him. Any one who reads the history of that terrible struggle between the English and Irish in those wars, will recognize what an important part Tyrrell took in them--how he was mainly instrumental in assisting O'Donnell to pass into Munster, in spite of all Lord Mountjoy's precaution, who had supposed that he had every practicable road guarded, but which Tyrrell and O'Donnell evaded by passing safely over the hitherto impracticable mountains of Slieve Phelim, and so then gained the valley of the Shannon, when the English supposed they had enclosed them in the vale of Suir. Tyrrell led on the vanguard of the Irish forces, at the, to them, disastrous battle of Kinsale. He protected Dunboy as long as it was possible; though often tempted by the English generals, he constantly refused to betray his cause though thereby he might have saved from an ignominious death, his nearest and dearest friends. Often betrayed, and often thereby defeated, yet too vigilant to be taken--too fertile in resources to be vanquished, he still held out; when even O'Donnell, in despair, retired beyond the seas, and Tyrone bargained successfully for his pardon, and when at last all was over in Munster, because the country was turned into a wide waste--Tyrrell, instead of surrendering, effected, along with his faithful followeis, his retreat out of Desmond, and passed in hostile array, from the farthest mountains of Kerry, through the midst of traitorous Irish and watchful English, until he arrived in the fastnesses of the County Cavan--and there history leaves him--for I find no record of his subsequent life or death, after the Lord Mountjoy had the honor to announce to his sovereign, that he had pacified Ireland.