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.
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.
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.
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.
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