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.

“sound as a way of sense-making”

Sound Artist Lawrence English on the Power of Radical Listening

From Observer.com

Interview here


How did you become interested in working with sound as a creative medium?

When I was a kid, I’d go bird watching with my dad at this waterfront area of Brisbane that’s now populated with condos. My dad would take us there and we’d look for Reed Warblers on binoculars, which is cruel for children because they can’t control their own eyes, let alone a second set of eyes that’s meant to help them see deeper.

I was constantly looking for this bird, and after several months of not seeing it, my dad told me to put the binoculars down, to close my eyes and listen. He said, “Now that you know where the bird is, put the binoculars back to your eyes and look where you sense the sound is.” I did that and I was able to see the bird straightaway. That was the first time I understood the role of sound as a way of sense-making, as a way of being into the world.


Later in the interview:

You intentionally collaborated more on Cruel Optimism. What can connection, real physical connection, do for us in these times? Are you hopeful that we can discern how to move beyond the issues that ensnare us in 2017?

I’m incredibly optimistic about the future. But, in saying that, I’m the past. My children are the future and their children are the future. My place is to support them and to love them and to encourage in them a way of being in the world that is reflective of the things we’re talking about. This is one of the most critical things I feel that I can do with whatever time remains for me.

There’s this great quote from Neil Postman, who was a wonderful academic who lived in New York. He wrote a book called The Disappearance of Childhood, and at the beginning he basically said, “Children are the living messages that we send to a time that we will never see.” That’s a profound way to think about the idea of time and our time on the planet.


Betty Corrigall

From First Known When Lost

Betty Corrigall lived on the island of Hoy in Orkney in the 18th century. When she was in her late twenties, she was abandoned by her lover after becoming pregnant.  She committed suicide.  Given the circumstances of her death, a kirkyard burial was not permitted.  She was buried in an unmarked grave out on the moor.  In the early 1930s, her coffin was discovered by peat diggers.  In 1949, a visiting American minister performed a burial service for her.  A white marker was placed on her grave in 1976.  It reads:  “Here Lies Betty Corrigall.”

George Mackay Brown wrote a short story about her, an imaginative rendering of the final months of her life.  The story begins with an introductory paragraph:

“In the moorland of the island of Hoy in Orkney, right on the boundary that separates the two parishes of Voes (Walls) and North Hoy, a gravestone and fence have recently been erected by some islanders.  Underneath lay, peat-preserved for well over a century, the body of a young woman who had obviously committed suicide.  Only her name survives:  Betty Corrigall.”

George Mackay Brown, “Betty Corrigall”, in Northern Lights: A Poet’s Sources (edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray) (John Murray 1999), page 225.

Brown also wrote a poem about her.

Betty Corrigall

The girl buried in the moor

in the blue scarf of wind
begin to dance

in the yellow coat of sun
ripeness is here

in the gray sheet of water
steep your griefs

lie robed from looms of earth

George Mackay Brown, Ibid, page 231.

It is said that Betty Corrigall’s body, having been interred in peat, was well-preserved when it was discovered.  “And while that generation of islanders withered slowly into death, one after another, and after death rotted more urgently until they achieved the cleanness of skeletons, the deep peat moss kept the body of Betty Corrigall uncorrupted; though stained and darkened with the essences that had preserved it.”  George Mackay Brown, “Betty Corrigall,” Ibid, page 230.  Persephone in Orkney:  queen of the underworld and goddess of spring.

From http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/historicalfigures/bettycorrigall/

“Sun Dancing: A Medieval Vision – Seven Centuries on Skellig Michael” by Geoffrey Moorhouse


I have yet to actually set foot on either Skellig. Geoffrey Moorhouse, in the preface to his Sun Dancing, describes being captivated by its appearance while on a family holiday in Kerry – his young children precluded him from visiting on that occasion, but subsequently he wrote this fine, thoughtful blend of fiction and historical fact.

Moorhouse, from his Guardian obituary, sounds a very admirable figure:

Geoffrey Moorhouse, who has died aged 77, was a Guardian journalist of deep integrity who moved out of daily newspapers to write books on a variety of themes, most often invoking the human spirit.

Sun Dancing is in two sections: “The Tradition” and “The Evidence.” “The Tradition” comprises a sequence of seven fictional recreations of life on the Skellig from foundation to the return to the mainland. These fictional chapters convey, in a way that a dryly historical text couldn’t, the sheer physical challenge of life on the rock, and the depth of faith (not without some doubts for some of Moorhouse’s characters) that made this, for seven centuries, a sustained presence (a digressive thought – the withdrawal of quotidian human life from places such as the Skelligs or indeed Blaskets or St Kilda is often depicted as an inevitable side effect of progress – yet surely by definition it is the precise opposite, as the human capability for a certain kind of life disappears)


“The Evidence” takes up the rest of the book. Here Moorhouse discusses certain themes and topics as they occur in his fictional portrayals. He is an elegant, witty writer, as well as evidently deeply versed in the historical and religious context (although a reference to “the shores of Westmeath” did set some alarm bells ringing)

The book it reminded me of most was Philip Ball’s “Universe of Stone”, on Chartres Cathedral. Moorhouse, like Ball (although in less detail, perhaps because we simply have less detail) describes lucidly the philosophical, historical, cultural and other contexts. Unlike Ball, however, religious faith is not a rather abtruse factor (one would never know from Ball’s account that Chartres remains an active place of worship today) but a force Moorhouse describes with sympathy and skill, and also places at the heart of the narrative.

We read of a pious hermit whose practice is extreme even for Skellig Michael and whose practice is ultimately a hubristic disaster. We read of Viking raids and the messy realities of medieval Irish life. We read of the monks wrestling with cosmology, and conceiving of the world as a sphere suspended in air. We read of the co-existence of the older, pagan ways with the Christian world –  one of the most arresting stories tells of two monks whose rapprochement after an argument involves the traditional Irish method of reconciliation – sucking nipples. Here Moorhouse skillfully negotiates the risk of anachronistically projecting modern notions about sexuality and the body onto his narrative, perhaps slightly succumbing to the temptation but in ways that conveys with raw force the physical reality of life on the Skellig.


Moorhouse’s book is also one which those who posit a Celtic Church without all the nasty bits supposedly imposed by Rome will not find comfort in. The pre Synod of Whitby  Irish Church did not lack for elaborate penances, especially around sexual issues. Moorhouse writes that Ireland, uniquely, converted to Christianity without martyrdom, and that perhaps to compensate for this relative lack of suffering for the faith the Irish took to penance to a greater degree. I would have liked to read more about these topics, and the mini essays in “The Evidence” are a little too mini at times; but nevertheless Sun Dancing is a fascinating voyage into the medieval Irish mind via one of the most extreme places on Earth.

Holy Well, Wilderness Gorge, Clonmel

Walking through Wilderness Gorge in Clonmel – a somewhat less dramatic landscape than the name suggests – I came across this sign:

It had been a good few weeks since I had walked through the Gorge, but the sign wasn’t there before.

Beside the sign (though it wasnt totally clear from arrowless sign if this is what it was referring to) there was a dip in the ground which broadened somewhat to reach a muddy pool. However this pool extended under a small bridge which formed part of the path

I was with  my son so was obviously (well, maybe not obviously!) more focused on maintaining his safety and relative non-muddiness than taking good photos, so apologies. I hadn’t come across a reference to a Holy Well here before. The superb Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland blog has posts on St Patrick’s Well in Marlfield and the lesser known Rag Well also in Clonmel.

There was no sign of any devotional activity of any kind as far as I could see. There was no sign of an bullaun or any of the structures I would usually associate with even a neglected well. To be honest it looked more like a bridge under which water from a nearby stream had pooled.

I am also a little unsure of the Irish on the sign – “Naomh Crannachán” I am unsure what saint this could be referring to? Happy to have correction/guidance

Joseph Needham, history of technology and the Ahenny High Crosses

Joseph Needham, history of technology and the Ahenny High Crosses

Living in South Tipperary, the proximity of the a plethora of high crosses naturally piques ones interest. Some are well known, such as the Ahenny Crosses, some such as that at Kilkieran less so.

High Cross, Kilkieran

Before moving here I was more familiar with the taller, more monumental Monasterboice cross and those of that group. I found Oliver Crilly’s book on high crosses very helpful, but there is a vast ;literature on the subject the surface of which I have scratched.

ahenny cross one
High Cross, Ahenny

In this scratching I came across an interesting reference to one of the Twentieth Century’s most extraordinary men, Joseph Needham – who amongst other things is a towering figure in the history of technology and science. As the Guardian review of Simon Winchester’s book on him begins:


Joseph Needham is one of those extraordinary characters whose life was so large and sprawling that it needs first to be condensed into a list. He was a scientist, polyglot, traveller, diplomat, Christian, socialist, exponent of free love, nudist, morris dancer and Sinophile.

In reading a paper by Peter Harbison, A High Cross Base from the Rock of Cashel and a Historical Reconsideration of the’Ahenny Group’ of Crosses, I came across the following

The chariot on the north side of the Ahenny base (Pl. IX) provides us with
some totally independent dating evidence from an unexpected quarter which
would also point to the ninth century. Needham (29) pointed out that the Ahenny
chariot is pulled by two horses wearing a breast-harness, a Chinese invention
which was introduced into Europe in order to give horses easier traction power,
rather than having them choked by the neck-harness previously in use. Basing
himself on E. M. Jope’s eighth-century dating, Needham saw the Ahenny cross as being the earliest reliable European evidence for the breast-harness, all the other examples which he encountered being no earlier than the ninth century. But as we would expect an innovation introduced from China to be found first on the European continent before it reached Ireland, we could confidently presume that the Ahenny breast-harness was no earlier than the Continental examples,thus arguing for a date not too early in the ninth century for the Ahenny cross.

So my daily commute intersects (nearly) with the path of one of the most remarkable scholars of the last hundred years. Did Needham himself visit Ahenny?

I have found taking decent photos of High Crosses beyond my capacities as a smart phone photographer. Here’s an image of the North Cross base taken from this page on the UCC website:

ahennynorthside base


The Needham reference is to: Joseph Needham, Science and civilisation in China, vol. 4. Physics and physical technology, part II, mechanical engineering (Cambridge, 1965), 315 – and the full reference for the Harbison paper is  A High Cross Base from the Rock of Cashel and a Historical Reconsideration of the’Ahenny Group’ of Crosses, pp 13-14  Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies,History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 93C, No. 1 (1993), pp. 1-20