Saturday, 7 May 2016

Our ancestral playground ~ The Curragh, Co. Kildare

Sepia Saturday invites bloggers to share their family history through old photographs.  Their theme image this week features a shepherd holding a sheep, while his sheepdog looks on. I don’t know if any of my ancestors had sheep, but the picture reminds me of the Curragh (pronounced Curra), in Co. Kildare. The Curragh is an area of nearly five thousand acres of mostly flat open plains, near where I now live. Shepherds have grazed sheep there, for centuries.

Sheep on the Curragh, Co. Kildare

The Curragh is situated less than a mile from Athgarvan Cross, where my Dad’s Byrne family resided throughout much of the nineteenth century. Sadly, there are no surviving old photographs of them to share, so I recently recreated some my own.

I go for regular walks on the Curragh with my own sheepdog, Molly. We love being out under the big open skies, where the sweet smell of the gorse permeates the air and birdsong carries in the breeze. Ok, more often than not, we’re met with a stiff chilly wind, but it’s the sunny days I remember best. 

Little has changed in this landscape in a thousand years or more. It looks just like it did in my ancestors’ day.

The Curragh, Co. Kildare

And, now that I know my great-great-grandfather, John Byrne, was born so close to the Curragh in 1841, it’s easy to believe this was his playground too. I can imagine John and his brothers and sisters playing soldiers on the plains, hide-and-go-seek in the woods, and making their dens in the undergrowth. Perhaps, I now too walk the very same paths they once took.

The Curragh, Co. Kildare

When I told our neighbours, whose families have lived in the vicinity for generations, that I walk on the Curragh, they were delighted to share their recollections of the area. These are the very same stories once told my ancestors, even if they are not remembered by my family today.

It was not always a happy place. When the 1798 rebellion against British rule met with defeat in Co. Kildare, an amnesty was declared and the rebels were asked to surrender their arms at an area called Gibbet Rath, on the Curragh. More than 1,000 local men gathered and handed over their weapons. The soldiers, under General Sir James Duff, then opened fire on the unarmed crowd. 350 men were murdered. So far, I’ve only traced my Byrne lineage back to the 1830s, so I don’t know if they played a part in the rebellion. One thing is certain though - a massacre on this scale left a lasting impression on all the people of the area.

Throughout the centuries, the Curragh plains have often been used for military training. Even today, the land belongs to the Irish Defence Forces.

The Curragh, Co. Kildare

My favourite story about the Curragh features Donnelly’s Hollow. This was named after Dan Donnelly a once famous Irish bare-knuckle boxer who beat the prevailing English champion, George Cooper, on that very spot in 1815. Cooper was the favourite to win. Donnelly was given no chance. 20,000 people came from far and wide and packed into the hollow to watch the fight, and against all odds, Donnelly won.

Monument to Dan Donnelly, Donnelly’s Hollow, the Curragh, Co. Kildare

The series of footprints leading from the base of the monument to the top of Donnelly's Hollow are most unexpected. They are said to have been made by the man himself, as he left the boxing ring on that famous day. I was fairly sceptical myself, although I wouldn’t admit that out loud in Kildare. Supposedly though, from soon after the fight, people were keen to step in his footprints, causing the lasting impression. I can testify to watching numerous children walk the footsteps in the recent past, so, if they've been doing this consistently over the centuries, perhaps their provenance is genuine. ;-)

Donnelly’s footprints, Donnelly’s Hollow, The Curragh

Two hundred years later, my neighbour still tells Donnelly’s story with a sense of pride. Some of my ancestors were surely among the 20,000 who attended the event. John’s father, Andrew Byrne, was only a boy at the time. Maybe he was too young to attend. Nevertheless, he certainly joined in the celebrations afterwards and probably told the story of that day for the rest of his life. Perhaps, both he, and later John, also walked in Donnelly’s footprints. 



Join the Sepia Saturday crew here for more stories and photographs  - Baaa!

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© Black Raven Genealogy

25 comments:

  1. If any of my Irish ancestors told stories of their life in Ireland, they did not make their way to me. I am glad Sepia Saturday prompted you to tell these stories and share these photos to give me a glimpse into their world.

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    1. Thanks Wendy, they may give you a clue as to their topics of conversation anyway, and if they ever traveled from Limerick to Dublin, they probably went through the Curragh.

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  2. Lovely that you are telling the stories and recreating photographs of ancestral family places. It's easy to take things for granted and leave no pictorial records for our descendants.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Jo, I like finding out what likely happened to them in their lifetimes

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  3. How wonderful to be living where you can walk in your gg-grandfather's space -- an amazing historical connection. What's the blue on the sheep? Some form of identification?

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    1. and quite a coincidence too, Deb. Many different farmers have grazing rights on the open plains of the Curragh, so they each mark their sheep so as to later tell their own.

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  4. You write so beautifully I feel as if I've just been walking by your side. What an absolutely stunningly beautiful place. I would have to step in those footprints, have you tried them for size?

    I’ve just finished reading The shepherd’s life by James Rebanks set in the Lake District and described as ‘affectionate, evocative, illuminating and a story of survival – of a flock, a landscape and a disappearing way of life’ I have to agree and recommend it wholeheartedly. If you are ever at a loss for something to read you might enjoy it. I’m reading a murder, mystery at the moment and can hardly wait to finish so I can read the shepherd’s life again.

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    1. Thanks Barbara, it sounds like a lovely book, I will bear it in mind when I'm adding more books to my e-reader.

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  5. Back in the day, some of the British leaders in battles were inhumane men who wielded their power in nasty vindictive ways. I have always hoped men like the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden, and Sir James Duff at Gibbet Rath were consigned to an everlasting personal hell when their day to face Peter at the Pearly Gates arrived.

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    1. I know what you mean, and it left a lasting nasty impression for those on the receiving end, though I've no doubt many of them believed they were rightly fighting for 'God and country.' Some, of course, were just mad or bad.

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  6. I love the way you write.. it brings your story to life. I feel as though I am there. I wish I had family stories such as this to pass on.

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    1. Thanks Leslie, it is lovely to hear that. I do believe all families have great stories to tell. Find out what was happening around them - don't wait for the story to be perfect, just tell it.

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  7. That's an interesting story, and I love the photo of the footprints.

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    1. They really captured my imagination too, Jo. :-)

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  8. Dara, the Curragh is such a beautiful place, as depicted in your photographs, and your stories make it more so. I love the idea of you walking on the lands where your ancestors may once have trod. The folklore about Donnelly is wonderful. I was at the Curragh Military camp in March. If I’d known you live nearby, I might have given you a ring to meet for a cuppa ;-)

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    1. Maybe next time, Jennifer ;-)

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  9. The footprints are fascinating. The way the picture shows them going over the top of the knoll makes me want to follow them too.

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  10. Lovely landscapes and the footsteps story is charming. Aren’t you lucky to own a sheepdog - such clever animals.

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    1. We have 3 collies, the best pals ever.

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  11. Wonderful blog post, and photos too!

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  12. What a beautiful place and how wonderful to be able to walk the where your ancestors once walked.

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    1. When the sun shines, there is nowhere I'd rather be, except maybe if I could bring my horse.

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  13. I'd walk up those footprints as well if I had the chance even although I have no connection with Ireland.

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