Grace and the Easter Rising: One Hundred Years Ago

Monday, March 28th, 2016

Today, the Republic of Ireland held official ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the the “Easter Rising,” the armed insurrection during Easter Week, 1916, by Irish Republicans seeking to achieve Ireland’s independence from England. When the Irish rebels surrendered a week later, the leaders of the rebellion were executed by firing squad. One of them was a journalist, writer and poet named Joseph Plunkett, who was graduated from University College Dublin with degree in Philosophy. Joseph was supposed to marry his finance, Grace Gifford, on Easter Day, but the wedding was postponed because of The Rising.

I knew only a bit of Irish history when Jim and I first visited Ireland, but mainly it was of the more recent “Troubles,” but not much about the many centuries of struggle before 1916 and its aftermath. I knew nothing about Joseph and Grace and their wedding that took place in Kilmainham Jail the day before he was executed. During our second visit to County Clare, I head beautiful ballad entitled “Grace,” during a live music session in Doolin. The melody is haunting, and the words tell of Grace going to see Joseph for the last time, and his words to her, shortly before he was executed on the May 4, 1916.

Years later I sat down at a used piano in a second-hand shop and started to play “Grace,” which I had learned to play by ear. A middle-aged woman came over to listen, and she had tears in her eyes when she said, “I haven’t heard that beautiful song in many years.” She and her husband had immigrated to Pennsylvania as a young couple. I think of her every time I hear the song or play it.

“Grace” is beautifully sung by tenor Anthony Kearns in the video below. For me, it is a fitting commemoration for the events of 1916, one hundred years ago.

I had to do some searching to find the authors of the song; they are brothers Frank and Sean O’Meara, who, according to a letter written by Sean, noted that it was composed in 1985. You can read the letter on this website that is devoted to Grace Gifford Plunkett, and the O’Meara’s song lyrics are posted below. I also discovered that the song’s reference to these lines — And I’ll write some words upon the wall so everyone will know / I loved so much that I could see his blood upon the rose — are a reference to Plunkett’s poem “See His Blood Upon The Rose,” the lyrics of which are posted at at this link.


As we gather in the chapel here in old Kilmainham Jail
I think about these past few weeks, oh will they say we’ve failed?
From our school days they have told us we must yearn for liberty
Yet all I want in this dark place is to have you here with me

Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They’ll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love I place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won’t be time to share our love for we must say goodbye

Now I know it’s hard for you my love to ever understand
The love I bare for these brave men, the love for my dear land
But when Pádraic called me to his side down in the GPO
I had to leave my own sick bed, to him I had to go

Oh, Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They’ll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love I’ll place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won’t be time to share our love for we must say goodbye.

Now as the dawn is breaking, my heart is breaking too
On this May morn as I walk out, my thoughts will be of you
And I’ll write some words upon the wall so everyone will know
I loved so much that I could see his blood upon the rose.

Oh, Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They’ll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love I’ll place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won’t be time to share our love for we must say goodbye
For we must say goodbye.

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A Musical Tribute for St. Patrick‘s Day

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to post a musical tribute in the form of a video of one of my favorite contemporary Irish songs, “Bright Blue Rose.” In my music library I have versions of it by Tommy Fleming and Mary Black, but I also love this video by the songwriter himself, Jimmy MacCarthy, joined by the great Christy Moore and wonderful slide guitarist Declan Sinnott. What I like so about this video is that it is pretty close to the kind of intimacy you enjoy when musicians—famous or not-so-much—decide to gather in a pub to play and sing.

During our trip to Donegal last fall Jim and I dropped into The Rusty Mackerel, a cozy pub on the road to Teelin Harbour, where we took a pleasant boat trip to Slieve League.


I loved the pub’s rustic atmosphere, so we were happy to return in the evening to hear some excellent local musicians.


Much to my delight, one of the tunes they played was a lovely version of “Bright Blue Rose.” I was not in good position to video the performance, but I did get this still:

Rusty Mackerel Pub on the road to Teelin Harbour

Here’s the “Bright Blue Rose” video that I referenced earlier. I love to hear a composer sing and play his own song; in this case, Jimmy takes the lead and Christie follows.

If you like the song, you might enjoy listening to the versions by Tommy Fleming and Mary Black .

I’ve also posted the lyrics below, along with a link to a MudCat Cafe discussion of the lyrics’ meaning. The Café is an online discussion group and song and tune database, which also includes many other features relating to folk music. It’s interesting that this song provokes so many interpretations. To me it is simply a beautiful song about redemption.

Bright Blue Rose

I skimmed across black water
Without once submerging
Onto the banks of an urban morning
That hungers the first light
Much, much more than mountains ever do

And she, like a ghost beside me
Goes down with the ease of a dolphin
And awakens unlearned, unshamed, unharmed
For she is the perfect creature, natural in every feature
And I am the geek with the alchemists’ stone

For all of you who must discover
For all who seek to understand
For having left the path of others
You’ll find a very special hand

And it is a holy thing
And it is a precious time
And it is the only way
Forget-me-nots among the snow
It’s always been, and so it goes
To ponder his death and his life eternally

For all of you who must discover
For all who seek to understand
For having left the path of others
You’ll find a very special hand

And it is a holy thing
And it is a precious time
And it is the only way
Forget-me-nots among the snow
It’s always been, and so it goes
To ponder his death and his life eternally

One bright blue rose outlives all those
Two thousand years, and still it goes
To ponder his death and his life eternally

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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A Lovely Day’s Journey to Donegal’s Cliffs of Slieve League

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

A real highlight of last fall’s trip to Ireland was a visit to the dramatic cliffs of Slieve League, a magnificent mountain on the Atlantic coast of Donegal. Although less famous than the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Slieve League’s cliffs reach almost three times higher. We were told that the best view of of the cliffs is from the water, so we set off for nearby Teelin Harbour, home of Slieve League Boat Trips.  The drive to get there was delightfully scenic.

We left from our home base at the wonderful Inishduff House in Kilcar, and made a leisurely drive north along the coast road that wound past charming homes, old and new . . . nestled together or standing apart, above beaches and inlets, skirting villages, and alerting several sheep that were curious enough to stand by on a precarious perch or look on from a leafy glade to watch me make photographs.











By the time the tiny fishing village of Teelin was in sight, the clouds had rolled in, and the weather looked threatening, but we carried on, deciding that rain or shine we would make the cruise.


As so often is the case in Ireland, within minutes of arriving across from the pier where the 24-person Nuala Star cruise boat was moored,  the sun had broken through to reveal Teelin Harbour in all its glory. It was interesting to learn that Teelin is one of the first settlements to appear on maps of Ireland.


After leaving the shelter of Teelin Harbour, it was only a short cruise along the Atlantic Ocean coast before the lush green hills transitioned into grey-rocked cliffs.


Once Sleeve League came into full view, the mountain appeared just as Belfast naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger described it in 1939: “A tall mountain of nearly 2000 feet, precipitous on its northern side, has been devoured by the sea till the southern face forms a precipice likewise, descending on this side right into the Atlantic from the long knife-edge which forms the summit.”

I used the auto pano feature of my Lumix FZ1000 to capture the seaside view of the cliffs below.

Auto Pano

It’s hard to get a sense of scale of the cliffs either from the sea or in photographs, so it was helpful to hear Nuala Star Captain Paddy Byrne, shown below, explain to Jim that at its highest point, Slieve League is taller than the Empire State Building by some 75 stories.


Paddy also pointed out that signal Towers on Slieve League cliffs were built by the British to warn villagers of any possible encroachments by the French army under Napoleon during the early 19th century.


I got a better look at one of the towers through the “digital zoom” function of the FZ1000 that effectively extends the fixed super-zoom (25mm to 400mm) lens magnification well beyond the 400mm end, which really comes in handy in situations such as this.



On the trip back, the Nuala Star hugged the coastline so that we could get a good look at the mountain’s beaches and sea caves.


Once back in the harbour we noticed the remains of an old church that stands beside the pier marking the spot where a community of 5th century Teelin monks lived before they undertook the precarious seajourney to Iceland, an extraordinary undertaking by the standards of that time. Along side of the ruins is this lovely stone carving that honors the monks with a plaque that reads: “In memory of the Teelin monks who sailed to Iceland in the 5th Century.”


In the future, I hope to return to Slieve League on a dull, overcast day to capture the true wildness of the countryside both on top of the mountain and below it on the shore. I suspect that on such days you will sense the ancient rhythm of the waves crashing into this magnificent mountain, as they have done for so many centuries. It is fascinating to recognize that what we see today when we gaze upon Sleeve League is exactly what the very first men and women saw when they found their way to this mesmerizing land.

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Some Sheep and a Little History

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

During our wonderful visit to Suzanna Crampton’s farm to photograph her Zwartbles flock (see previous post), I asked Suzanna if there were any scenic venues nearby where I might find other sheep to photograph. She suggested that we stop by Kells Priory, which was a short distance from her farm. Maria Dunphy kindly led us to the location, and oh, yes, there were plenty of sheep!


The Augustine priory, the walls of which date back to the 1300s, is situated alongside King’s River next to the village of Kells, about 15 km south of the medieval city of Kilkenny. The priory is a National Monument under the guardianship of the Office of Public Works. One of its most striking features is a collection of medieval tower houses spaced at intervals along and within walls that enclose a site of just over three acres. These towers give the priory the appearance more of a fortress than of a place of worship. A large flock of sheep wander these acres, and since it was easy for me to climb over a low-walled section, I wandered around with them. They didn’t seem to mind.



The priory is divided into two parts, an inner monastic “Precinct” alongside the river, and a large outer enclosure to the south known as “Burgher’s Court.” Today all the monastic remains are grouped together in the Precinct while Burgess Court is little more than the walled field populated by sheep and tourists like me.



In reading about its history, I discovered that Kells Priory was associated with a 1324 witchcraft trial that resulted in a noblewoman, Petronilla de Meath, becoming Ireland’s first heretic to be burned at the stake. In March 1540 the church and property were surrendered to James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormonde, a result of English King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, one of the most revolutionary events in English history.

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The Wonderful World of Suzanna Crampton
And Her Zwartbles Flock

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Knowing that I was compiling photographs for a book on sheep in Ireland, Maria Dunphy, my photographer friend who lives and works in Kilkenny, put me in touch with Suzanna Crampton, who raises Zwartbles sheep in nearby Bennettsbridge. Her extraordinary flock is located on Suzanna’s picturesque farm where the sheep graze in bucolic pastures near the lovely Nore River. Suzanna also is an accomplished photographer who occasionally offers photography workshops at her exceptionally photogenic farm.


To say that Suzanna Crampton is a Zwartbles breed expert would be an understatement, and given her vibrant personality, it is hard to imagine a more effective advocate for the breed. She very generously introduced Jim and me to her gorgeous flock and other interesting animals that share her farm. Suzanna confirmed that what I had read about the breed is true: They are docile, friendly, easy lambing, prolific, milky, and the ewes make excellent mothers.


The Zwartbles breed is not native to Ireland; they originated in the Friesland region of the north Netherlands. By the mid 1970’s their numbers had decreased to the point that they were entered into the Dutch Rare Breed Survival Trust, which helped to stabilize the breed. Zwartbles sheep were introduced into Britain from Holland in the 1980’s and to Northern Ireland in 2000. By 2005, they could be found in the south, with the first lambs born in the spring of 2006. In 1995, a Zwartbles Sheep Association was formed in Great Britain, and Irish breeders were granted membership numbers in 2007. The South of Ireland Zwartbles Sheep Club was formed in 2010.


Zwartbles sheep are striking in their appearance, featuring black/brown fleece, a white blaze on the face, between two and four white socks, a white tail tip, and both ewes and rams are hornless. Zwartbles are relatively large sheep: Ewes weigh an average of 85 kg (187 lbs), and rams 100 kg (220 lbs). The dense fleece, when shorn, ranges from black to brown with sun bleached tips, and some silvering may be present in older animals. The wool is medium to fine, making it popular for spinning and felting.


Because the breed originated from a cold, wet, windy area of the Netherlands, Zwartbles are quite at home in Ireland. They are mainly used to produce breeding stock, meat, milk and wool and are increasingly popular with both small holders and commercial farmers. Before our visit most of what I had learned about Zwartbles came from reading Suzanna’s delightful Bodacious the Cat Shepherd website and Facebook Page. I thoroughly enjoyed poring over the two sites in order to admire Suzanna’s great photos featuring the farm’s diverse brood. While Bodacious is the best known of the farm’s cast of characters, he was not around on the day of our visit, but we were introduced to Ovenmitt, whose mid-afternoon snooze we did not interrupt, and darling Pepper, a border collie/fox terrier mix, who is always on duty and at the center of the action.

P1210438  P1210433

The most surprising animals we met at the farm were a pair of male alpaca, whose job it is to protect the sheep from attacks by dogs (even pet dogs) that stray into the sheep pastures. It was fascinating to see the alpaca stand guard over the sheep as they moved from one pasture to another, then remain alert as the flock settled down to graze.

P1210434  P1210480



Speaking of standing guard, my favorite picture of the day was of Pepper who, upon Suzanna’s command, deftly leapt on to the branch of a tree and happily surveyed his domain.




Before we left, we had the pleasure of meeting The Big Fellow, a large black East German Shepherd. Besides being a wonderful example of the breed, it would be hard to imagine a more imposing watchdog for the farm and its inhabitants.


Travel Rug - ZwartblesP1210594

Our visit with Suzanna, the Zwartbles and their assortment of four-legged friends was truly unforgettable, and it was made even more so because I left with a wonderful travel rug woven of Zwartbles fleece, which now resides proudly on a comfortable chair in my living room. The woolen throw was woven at the nearby Cushendale Woolen Mills, and I’ve posted a great video about the mill, which features Suzanna and her farm and shows the mill’s entire process of creating woolen products from sheep shearing through looming. It’s well worth a look!

You can view several Cushendale products for sale and learn more about the Zwartbles breed on the website, which also has a page for The Cat Shepherd Gift Store showing post cards and a calendar that features Suzanna’s photography. Anyone interested in photography  can email Suzanna through the website contact form to learn when she is hosting her next workshop. What a great opportunity! Thank you, Suzanna, for your outstanding hospitality!

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