Gola: The Life and Last Days of an Island Community


Recently I read this book, published in 1969 by Radio Telifis Eireann, on Gola Island. Gola is a mile from Magheragallon Strand in Gweedore, three miles from Bunbeg harbour.

When the book was written, Gola seemed about to be permanently depopulated. When I was young in the 80s and early 90s, it was supposedly depopulated, and yet in recent years the population has officially risen to 15 at the 2011 census (2016 census result awaited, I guess) and polling opens there, like the other islands, the day before the “mainland.”


This book, now nearly 50 years old, is itself something of a relic. It is very much a book of two parts; the first written by the TCD geographer F.H. Aalen, the second by the sociologist Hugh Brody. Both spent considerable time on the island, joining the various “intellectuals and semi-intellectuals” the boatmen describes as making the bulk of non-local Gola visitors.

Brody’s part gives an outline of the geographical context of the island and of the somewhat atypical rural life of the North West coast of Donegal. As he points out, and this was something I took for granted as a child but appreciate now, there is a paradoxical combination of remote isolation and relatively high population density in the strips of land along the coast of the Rosses and Gweedore (and to a lesser extent Cloghaneely) – a density bordering on urbanity at times.


Aalen’s writing comes acrosss as very dated. Words like primitive, neglected and backward recur regularly, without any contextualising. The words of “improving” landlords such as Lord George Hill are taken at face value. The evil of the “rundale” system, whereby land was subdivided and subdivided among families until unworkable plots remained, is presented as a straightforward matter of benighted local custom getting in the way of the obviously right, progressive thing to do. There is little real context, beyond an emphasis on isolation, as to why this system developed. Indeed, there is no sense that, in what is a harsh environment, that the local people may in fact have been highly adaptive in how they managed and coped.


There is a rather despairing tone to all this, and the sense is that a primitive way of life is, not without some sentimental regret perhaps, gradually fading away. Aalen is of course being  clear-eyed and realistic in many ways. He writes of how the economy of the area is dependent on remittances and seasonal work from Scotland. There is no doubt that, as contact with urban modernity increases, the traditional life of the islands declines. Aalen quotes the original Paddy The Cope testifying to an Oireachtas committee in the 1920s that, without remittances from Scotland, the economy of the Rosses would not last a year.


Things change quite considerably in Brody’s section on the sociology of the island. There is a certain wry humour here and more of a human sympathy with the islander’s point of view. Brody finds that elementary sociological facts, such as the actual population of the island, are hard to estimate. This is because life on the island is, and has always been, seasonal. Traces of this kind of transhumance remain not only in Gola but on the nearby mainland. My own family, to a certain degree, have engaged in it. Indeed, the rundale system of small plots divided by borders marked in memory and perhaps a wisp of wire of a fence also persists.

Brody finds that what would frustrate many investigators is actually one of the strengths and resilient features of the island. Indeed, he has a wonderful passage on how the islander’s stance is perfectly rational from their point of view. I don’t have the book to hand to quote it in full, but it conveys a much more open view than Aalen’s, and one which now, given that after some decades of depopualtion Gola is repopulated again, seems far more perceptive than Aalen’s very positivist view of human activity.

I have blogged before about how the decline of island life marks, not the irresistible march of progress, but a loss of a way of life, and therefore a loss of diversity. The irony of the rather self-congratulatory contemporary celebration of diversity is that all too often the diversity of ways of life and of living is receding; the diversity that is celebrated is a somewhat atomised one of individual or family existence in a more homogenised society overall.

I feel that my comments above on Aalen’s writing may be a little harsh, as the book overall is an enthralling read for anyone familiar with the area, or simply interested in island life and Irish sociology. It is also worth noting that this book, written nearly half a century ago, very much has an overall message that the days of a populated Gola were imminently over- it is after all subtitled “The Life and Last Days of an Island Community”-  and yet here we are in 2017 awaiting the 2016 census population of this island.

Review of Aldebo 1 (Issue 39), SF Site, 2010

Original here. Some interesting thoughts from Martin McGrath on Eskragh here



Aldebo 1 Issue 39


A review by Seamus Sweeney




Produced in the North Dublin village of Lusk, Albedo One has, for a long time, borne the speculative fiction standard in Ireland. For a country with such a strong literary tradition, speculative fiction per se does not loom large in considerations of Irish literature. Of course, some of this is the same blend of snobbery and ignorance seen elsewhere, and some of this is due to the understandable but, to my mind, rather tiresome preoccupation with exploring the same themes of “Irishness” again and again. And Ireland is the land of Lord Dunsany and Flann O’Brien, authors of the fantastic and (in very different ways) the grotesque.


Albedo One is the kind of literary magazine I like; a few carefully selected, high-quality stories. I note from perusing the Wikipedia article on Albedo One that some sniff at its production values — personally I found the design and general look and feel of the magazine pleasing and approachable.


Albedo One 39 (having a number in the title of one’s publication does lend itself to some confusion) begins with an interview with Mike Resnick. This is an entertaining exploration of his journey from churning out “adult fiction” in the 60s to holding the record for the most award-winning short stories. Resnick makes several interesting and illuminating points. There is so much flim flam and general spoofery written and talked about the impact of the internet on publishing and writing that it’s refreshing to hear from an author who is just getting on with it. And Resnick also makes a point which I believe all fiction writers, no matter what genre, would do well to keep to the forefront of their minds: stories are about creating characters and events that the reader cares about, that there is an emotional connection. If you want to make some point about international relations or about the environment or whatever, by all means do so in story form; but without some emotional connection, you may as well just write an essay or an op-ed piece.


The stories in this issue of Albedo One all involve the readers emotions. For me, Mari Saario’s “The Horse Shoe Nail” and Annete Reader’s “Frogs on my Doorstep” were the two highlights of the magazine. Both share common themes of families under stress and unusual quirks in space-time. Sarrio, winner of the 2009 Atorox Prize for the best Finnish science fiction story, contributes a particularly moving tale. It begins with a young girl in the mid-80s, taking refuge from her abusive father in her deceased grandfather’s disused forge. Which isn’t, it turns out, as disused as that, as figures from some kind of medieval fantasy world visit the forge desperate for a blacksmith’s assistance. Saario weaves this into an intergenerational tale of magic and longing, one which I found an assured, moving story.


“Frogs On My Doorstop” won the 2009 Aeon Award for short fiction, and is another well-crafted story of a family torn apart by their young daughter’s mysterious disappearance, only to be revisited by her some time afterwards in a disturbingly altered incarnation. I liked this story very much also, although I did find some of the metaphors and phrasemaking a little awkward.


There are also fine stories by Uncle River and J.L. Abbott, as well as Resnick himself (this is a reprint from Asimov’s Magazine), and a short short story — nearly flashfiction length — by Martin McGrath called “Eskragh.” This too has a mid-80s milieu, and captures in a few unforced phrases the child’s perception of life in rural Northern Ireland in that time, at once somewhat removed from the intensity of “The Troubles” but with army helicopters hovering in the horizon. The story is described as a “dark fantasy” one in the introduction to the magazine, but really it functions just as well as a brief mainstream vignette on the loss of a friend in childhood and the aftermath.

Stained Glass of Augustinian Priory, Fethard

Stained Glass of Augustinian Priory, Fethard

Recently visiting various churches in Clonmel I was struck by how striking the stained glass windows were. None were particularly celebrated or well-recognised, yet were – quite apart from any religious consideration – beautiful, literally luminous works of art. It struck me that they deserve to be celebrated and recorded. Perhaps there is somewhere, online or in a book, which the stained glass windows of Tipperary are collected, but here is my humble effort in that line.

These images are from the Augustinian Priory in Fethard. This church features a window of Our Lady of Fatima by Harry Clarke, Ireland’s premier stained glass artist. While looking for Harry Clarke links from this post I came across this story which illustrates that stained glass can embody high passions still.


Our Lady of Fatima window, Harry Clarke – South Wall, Holy Trinity Priory, Fethard



Detail of Our Lady of Fatima Window



Detail, Our Lady of Fatima window




Detail, Our Lady of Fatima Window


Detail, Our Lady of Fatima window


Being an Augustinian Priory, naturally there is a window dedicated to St Augustine. In the North Wall, this features Augustine and his mother, Monica. Augustine, who famously asked God to “make me chaste, but not yet”, eventually followed his mother into Christianity. Towards the end of her life, Monica discussed heaven with Augustine , described in the Confessions as  a beatific preview of the life to come. This window is  evidently based on this painting by Ary Scheffer of the scene.

Finally, in a side chapel is a window featuring the Augustinian friar Nicholas of Tolentino and the Augustinian nun Clare of Montefalco (“St Clare of the Cross”) , whose vision of Jesus carrying the cross is depicted here. 

“Lackendarra” published in Alt Hist 9

“Lackendarra” published in Alt Hist 9

My story Lackendarra has heen published in issue 9 of Alt Hist, the bestselling magazine of historical fiction  http://althistfiction.com/2016/10/23/alt-hist-issue-9-published/

Heres the cover.
Here are some Comeragh photos to mark the publication – slightly away from where Lackendarra lived but perhaps they help set a mood:

From Preface to “Medieval Technology and Social Change”, Lynn White Jr.

Voltaire to the contrary, history is a bag of tricks which the dead have played upon historians. The most remarkable of these illusions is the belief that the surviving written records provide us with a reasonably accurate facsimile of past human activity. ‘Prehistory’ is defined as the period for which such records are not available. But until very recently the vast majority of mankind was living in a subhistory which was a continuation of prehistory. Nor was this condition characteristic simply of the lower strata of society. In medieval Europe until the end of the eleventh century we learn of the feudal aristocracy largely from clerical sources which naturally reflect ecclesiastical attitudes: the knights do not speak for themselves. Only later do merchants, manufacturers and technicians begin to share their thoughts with us. The peasant was the last to find his voice.

Our Selves, Alone. Extract 4. Nthposition. 2010

“When society was organised along rational lines, it is surprising how many people were left behind.” That line is striking on re-reading this stories. I am not sure how well my attempts to describe Kelly’s perception of books and kettles and other early 21st century commonplace objects is.  Initially when I posted serial extracts from the story I thought it was “really about” psychiatry and my own feelings about it, but as it goes on it seems to be “really about” standardisation and technocracy. Or is it “really about” the impossibility of doing without some kind of illusion (or “illusion”)? Of course, the scare quotes should be a giveaway that it isn’t “really about” anything.


Full story here. and Extract 1 here and Extract 2 here and  Extract 3 here.


Kelly awoke to light streaming through the window. Still more asleep than not, she experienced seeing the room from the doorway, seeing herself in the bed eyes half open, seeing the rumbled sheets, seeing the wooden stained bedside locker, seeing the old mirror hanging on the wall, seeing the bare window without curtains or blinds. Then she was back inside herself, and aware of how painful her head was. She lay there, unsure of whether to sleep or get up to go the toilet. Then she was seized by nausea, all over her and all inside her.

She walked out of the house. The fresh air helped. Above loomed the mass of Mount Errigal. From a distance so distinctive with its double peak, closeup it was a indeterminate bulk, dominating the landscape but curiously absent. On the other side, fields sloped down to an ancient road, more pothole than tarmacadam, weaved beside a stream sunk out of view. This was a cosy little valley, tucked away amidst the harsh landscape of the mountains. There was a satisfying smallness of scale – the houses, which would have been dwarfed by the peaks anywhere else in this area, seemed commensurate to their surroundings.

A donkey was grazing at the edge of the field, right up against the edge of the road. Kelly made her way down to it. The placid animal did not stir as she approached, and began to gently pat its head. Kelly, trained to be wary of anthropomorphism, nevertheless found herself thinking that the animal was a kind, rather long-suffering beast. It is absurd, she thought, and yet she went on thinking this.

This was her tenth day in the mountains.Or was it her eleventh? On her previous visits she had been warned that the roads were impassable, the inhabitants hostile when they were articulate, and frighteningly inarticulate when they weren’t hostile. Manus had told her that the mountain people spoke a dialect of a dialect that was itself difficult for outsiders to begin with. He had said that he couldn’t help her decipher their speech.

Dr Gallagher had been her guide. At the beginning of their session, she had asked him where he lived. He gestured out towards Termon, and that bend in the road that was known as the limit of not only iMe coverage but of what would have been called, in a less enlightened era of anthropology, civilisation. At the end of their session, after Gallagher has expressed himself in nearly five hours of stream-of-consciousness, recorded digitally by Kelly and simultaneously being stored, via iMe, in the Research Archives back in Cambridge, MA, she had asked him again.

“Over that way.” he had replied. He was visibly drained from the effort of recollection and debate, and simply grunted the words with no accompanying gesture.


“In the mountains.”

She had persuaded him to take her there. Gallagher started a battered internal combustion vehicle, and driven along a road that, while dramatically potholed by North American standards, was nothing new for Kelly. She knew that they were heading towards Creeslough, and the coastline that would lead towards the wild shores of Bloody Foreland and Gweedore. It was a dull grey day, with greyness penetrating even the greenery. The road rose and fell. Suddenly, a few miles beyond Kilmacrenan, Gallagher took a sharp left turn, at a point where Kelly would have expected him to go straight on. This was just at Termon, but before the bend in the road where iMe went down. There was, dimly discernable, a slightly road-shaped furrow in the ground they were driving on, and as Gallagher continued Kelly began to realized that this must have once been a fully tarmacadamed road.

This road was straight enough for a while, and in places the tarmac showed through. Abandoned bungalows and farmhouses were scattered around. The countryside looked like reasonably good farmland. Immediately after passing the shell of a bungalow, perfect in desolate splendid symmetry, the terrain became a good deal rockier and the road began to twist and turn. Bulky mountains loomed all around, with Errigal – familiar to Kelly only from a distance – off to the left.

The day became less grey, and a mix of bogland colours took over the visual fielld. The sky was streaked with low, long clouds. Gallagher kept looking straight on. At one point, just after a stretch of smoother track than usual, they passed a stone wall on the left, with “Glenveagh National Park” engraved.

Lakes and forests came into view. While she had not noticed the road rising, she realized that they were now at a considerable height. The bulk of Errigal grew ever closer. Then, with a sudden sense of being perched between the mountain on the right and a sheer drop to twin lakes on the left, they were at the mountain.

The road curved along the side of the mountain. Little waterfalls were everywhere, each above a glistening green clump of moss. Rocks seemed to grow out of moss and small streams. The peak looked different at this angle, no longer twin summits with a crescent path between, but a more amorphous thing, difficult to see in one vision. Ruined houses abounded on the slope leading down to the lakes to their left. Suddenly, the mountain was past, and Gallagher took the car up what seemed to be nothing but a hill. Kelly grasped the side of her seat, and again after a little adjustment – like the adjustment of the eye to darkness – she realised that this was also a road. The grass was very slightly paler then that surrounding it. Soon, they stopped at what looked like another deserted bungalow.


“It looks pretty wrecked from the outside, doesn’t it?”

“Is this another ruin?”

“…of the obsolete vernacular architectural form known as the bungalow? It certainly is.”

Gallagher prodded what seemed to be a rotting wooden door. It swung open, seeming to Kelly about to break on its hinges. They walked inside.

The bungalow itself has looked simple, a combination of straight lines. The tiny windows

Kelly felt overwhelmed by plenitude. Everywhere her gaze turned, she saw strange slivers of colour. Dark red, faded yellow, white offset by a green tint, bright blue – there was no pattern to the arrangements of colours. On most of the slivers, she saw shapes that she realised after initial confusion were letters on their sides. These slivers of colour were the spines of written passives – books. Every possible walls space was taken up by books on shelves, and piles of books were heaped on three long tables that were running through the room. On one wall, there was clearly a cooking apparatus, and also a device she recognised as being used to boil water to prepare infusions. The room was lit from both the tiny windows and a dim light from the centre of three tall devices on each table. This gave the effect sometimes experienced in historically-set interactive passives of candlelight. The room was also quite warm, though there was no obvious source of heat. The overall sensation was of not only being surrounded by books, but of actually being part of them, at one with them. Out the tiny windows one could see grass, and a little strip of sky, but they looked the most artificial things in the scene.

Gallagher was looking at Kelly with a certain complacency.

“You’re impressed,” he said.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“So many books, or rather ‘written passives’ as they are supposed to be called now. There was never anything passive about reading, I can tell you.”

“I remember as a child, my grandmothers house was full of books. When she died, my parents had them all taken away for pulp. I was only six. I remember crying and crying and crying, and screaming when they were to be taken away.”

“Really? That mustn’t be all that long ago.”

“25 years.”

“You’re talking normally now, have you noticed?”

“You mean incorrectly?”

“Yes, you are talking in a way that perpetuates the illusion of the self, the illusion of reliable memory, the illusion of linear time. A host of philosophical errors are manifest in your speech. It hasn’t quite conquered all, this Correct Speech. All these now selves and past selves and continuing selves.”

“No, it hasn’t. And yet, I have never forgot myself like this before.”

“It takes time. Believe me, I know. I was interested in philosophy, once. Indeed, I was once at the forefront of trying to bring Correct Speech to Donegal. Only the people who fancied themselves cultivated used it, and then they all left, pretty much. When society was organised along rational lines, it was surprising how many people got left behind.”

“You sound like a militia man.”

“What do they call themselves? Minutemen? That’s a word that’s meant many things over the years. But here, sit you down and let me make you a cup of tea.”

He gestured at a wooden chair, whose seat was covered with just a few magazines. Kelly sat and stared at the cover. They were Irish political magazines of the early twenty-first century, chronicling the petty political woes of those days before the Contraction had forced rationality on the public sphere. Arguments about motorways, about airlines, about broadband internet (some kind of ancestor of iMe and TotalWeb; Kelly could not contain her boredom when faced with earnest histories of technology) She read threw some. Then sudden an odd high pitched whistle came from the room, near the cooking apparatus. It was the water boiling. Kelly had heard much of the once overwhelmingly popularity of this infusion in Ireland. This would, however, be her first time tasting tea.

Later that day, Gallagher showed her around the bungalow; she was inducted into the rituals of everyday life such as how to work the cooker and the lamps. He showed off the central heating system, “based on what the Ancient Romans did, they did more than own slaves and be generally patriarchial, you know” and what he called the septic tank. Most of all, he showed her the books – the biographies, the novels, the volumes of poetry and of history, the disciplines discredited for perpetuating one illusion or another. He was one moment tart and cynical, another enthusiastic and boyish, another grave and wise-seeming. That first day passed in a blur, and she feel asleep on a rug in the corner of the main room, drifting off amidst the enormous towers of books.

Flann O’Brien’s English Teacher: John Charles McQuaid

Flann O’Brien’s English Teacher: John Charles McQuaid

From Blackrock College 1860-1995 by Sean Farragher and Annraoi Wyer


Dr McQuaid himself was recognised as an outstanding English teacher, and when one of his students, Brian O’Nolan, alias Myles na gCopaleen [and Flann O’Brien – SS], boasted in his absence to the rest of the class that there were only two people in the College who could write English properly namely, Dr McQuaid and himself, they had no hesitation in agreeing. And Dr McQuaid did Myles the honour of publishing a little verse by him in the first issue of the revived College Annual (1930) – this being Myles’ first published item.

A reproduction of the poem itself is featured. It reads:


Ah! When the skies at night

Are damascened with gold,

Methinks the endless sight

Eternity unrolled.