Oranges and chocolate were exotic extravagances in my childhood; pointers to a future when these would become normal daily purchases and not occasional luminous luxuries. In our 1950s childhood home in East Mayo, an orange was a sporadic treat; the fruit was carefully peeled, divided in four, the white pith discarded and each succulent segment lustily relished by us four siblings. As for the bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in its wild-Atlantic blue wrapper, this was one of my mother’s few indulgences. When my father returned from an outing to the nearby Ballyhaunis, there were no surprises. Each time he opened his coat pockets, lifting out the treats: a brown paper bag of sticky sweets for us children, a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk for our mother.
On Wednesday afternoon of Easter week, 1916, just a month before my mother’s birth, a young couple sat on grass at Killiney Hill, Dublin, looking out on a peaceful panorama of water and sand. The artist Cesca Trench and her friend Diarmuid Coffey, an Irish Volunteer, were enjoying their picnic treat of oranges and chocolate purchased in Dun Laoghaire. It was a tranquil scene, almost like summer, with the blue misty water of the bay curling around the sand. It seemed impossible that there was a revolution going on in Dublin at those very moments. Diarmuid looked white and tired. Cesca was worried. The atmosphere was tense at home in Temple Hill, Terenure, she told him. She felt pulled apart; her mother needed her and was worried that her daughter could be arrested at any moment.
Cesca Trench was an unlikely nationalist. Born into a leading Anglo-Irish Protestant family, she was reared in a vicarage in Kent. Her three brothers had joined the British army on the outbreak of war two years earlier.
Cesca’s interest in Irish nationalism blossomed on Achill Island, west of my Mayo birth place, when she attended Scoil Acla gatherings in 1912 and 1913. In Achill, she sketched endlessly, walked the strand at Keel Bay, took Irish lessons, and exulted in ceili dancing and pipe music in the evenings. It was in Achill that she first met the tall, gangly Diarmuid Coffey who relentlessly wooed the reluctant young artist. Soon, she was deeply involved with Cumann na mBan.
Cesca was incredulous when, on Easter Monday, she heard that the Sinn Feiners had risen up and taken all the main bridges in Dublin. The action seemed to her totally mad. But she woke on Tuesday morning full of determination. She tore cloth into strips for bandages, bought needles, iodine and lint in Terenure, and headed out on her bicycle. She cycled down Grafton Street, round by Henry Street, leaving her bicycle at No 91 for fear of getting a puncture in the broken glass. She walked boldly to the GPO door and gained entry. That evening she wrote in a notebook with a cherry-brown cover: ‘..I saw things I shall never forget, a row of young fellows kneeling and saying their prayers and two priests came in while I was there, and began to hear confessions kneeling by the side of them; at a little distance a Proclamation to the people of Ireland – of the Irish Republic…’.
On Killiney Hill next day, she asked Diarmuid if she could call on him as a witness if arrested. He reassured her. ‘There’s nothing so calming to the mind as a beautiful view,’ he said. He was still hopeful that she would agree to marry him; he wouldn’t give up. He had recently written proclaiming his love yet again: ‘I know I don’t always think you right and often think I wish you didn’t do some things, but I love you desperately all the time…’
The Rising was quickly over. Cesca was not arrested. She remained busy with her art work and her Cumann na mBan meetings and a year later, in March 1917, finally agreed to marry Diarmuid.
The wedding took place in April 1918, just days after the death of Cesca’s beloved brother Reggie at the western front. Six months into the marriage, Cesca fell victim to the flu epidemic sweeping Europe and died on 30th October 1918. The last entry in her diary was for a Cumann na mBan meeting which she never attended.
Surely, in the years and decades that followed, in the years when my parents grew to adulthood in an independent Ireland, surely Diarmuid Coffey would have recalled an idyllic afternoon savouring oranges and chocolate with Cesca on a grassy hill in Dublin as revolution surged through the capital.
Earlier this year I was back in Achill for my favourite arts festival, the Heinrich Boll Memorial Weekend where one of the themes was the Achill Mission Colony and I was delighted to give a talk on the role of women at the Colony. A version of this paper has now been published in the online publication Irish Story.
Interesting collaborative arts project following in the footsteps of Paul Henry in Achill and Connemara.
Iris Galloway, in her guide to the The Great Western Greenway – ‘the longest off-road walking and cycling trail in Ireland’ – expresses the hope that her book will enhance the experience of this unique trail for walkers and cyclists. She succeeds admirably in her aim by welding together history, folklore, rich information on the biodiversity of the area, and practical advice for the visitor. All of this is capped off by the stunning visual production comprising archival photographs, vibrant maps and superb contemporary colour photography. The Greenway, of course, is situated on the tracks of the former Midland Great Western Railway line, the seven-decade history of which is book ended with tragedy. We get an overview of this history, alongside rich and sometimes humorous anecdotes about the railway, and vivid detail on the railway line infrastructure as well as the natural life along the trail. There is detailed information on each of the three section of the trail from Westport to Newport, to Mulranny, to Achill Island. Head for the Greenway with this wonderful book to hand.
Literary readings, three book launches, an illustrated lecture on ‘Women Artists on Achill’ by Catherine Marshall, and a guided walk on the nearby Clare Island, all feature in this year’s Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend on the May bank-holiday weekend. The book launches include Gisela Holfter’s Heinrich Böll and Ireland, which charts the Nobel Prize winning author’s connections with Ireland. Eoin Bourke’s Poor Green Erin is a compilation of travel writings about Ireland written by German and Austrian authors in the 18th and 19th centuries. And I will read from my own book, The Veiled Woman of Achill, on Saturday, 5 May at the Valley House – the scene of the crime which I narrate in my book.
They say it is now ‘the largest off-road walking and cycling trail in Ireland’. The 42km Great Western Greenway stretching from Westport through Newport and Mulranny to Achill Island is proving to be a wonderful draw for walkers and cyclists alike.
The trail follows the path of the disused line of the Midland Great Western Railway, a line that was extended to Achill in 1894/1895 and from where the last train departed in 1937. Strangely, these dates marked poignant island tragedies, when trains carried home the bodies of the island dead. In June 1894, thirty young people were drowned in Clew Bay when a boat capsized as they made their way to Westport to catch a steamer for Scotland where they would work as migrant harvesters.In 1937, one of the last trains to Achill before the railway was closed, carried home the bodies of ten young boys – again migrant harvesters – who died in a fire at Kirkintillloch, southwest Scotland.
If the railway line carried migrant and emigrant away from Achill, it also opened up the island to artists, writers, and visitors, such as Paul and Grace Henry who came in 1910 and stayed on and off for almost a decade, while the summer school Scoil Acla attracted artists, writers and intellectuals keen to immerse themselves in the Irish language and culture at the start of the twentieth century.
The Great Western Greenway is a place to immerse oneself not only in its dramatic scenery but also in the history of those bygone travellers who took the train to and from Achill Island.