The road that wound through a narrow gap between two mountains clung to a steep heather covered rise on one side and fell away at a dizzying pitch on the other. There were few homes along the miles of isolated barely-pavement and a thin set of wires connected irregularly to tall poles by a now-obsolete glass insulator was the only sign of humanity.
Words like “stark” and “desolate” come to mind when I think back on that winding drive through the Macgillycuddy Reeks just west of Killarney National Park, but they don’t touch on the beauty, the softness of the light, or the majesty of the surrounding mountains. And they certainly don’t describe what we saw as we nosed our rental car through the gap and over the crest.
We’d spent the morning driving through beautiful areas that would become part of the tapestry of places in Ireland that took my breath away. But there was something special about this one. We crested the hill and a broad valley opened before us. Bordered by the ‘Reeks on one side and on the other by rough hills that curved ’round to make up the pass of Molls Gap it was technically part of the Ring of Kerry tourist route, but not a place most tourists would see. When the sun suddenly broke through the fog, the sky took on the clear blue promise of its namesake crayon and the ochre grasses and bronzed heather shone in the early afternoon light, the mist-thick air softening edges and stone. And it unveiled a surprise: down at the head of the valley was a home, abandoned like the majority of homes in this area, but still proud and welcoming.
“I want to go there!” I was pointing at a winding driveway now overgrown with grass that stretched from the paved road into the center of the valley, but Neil was already turning onto its wide lane. Astonishingly, the drive was smoother than many paved roads we’d been on that day. Carpeted in short golden grass, it twisted along the base of the hill, detouring around a great boulder and neatly mirroring the stream that ran downhill of it.
Graignagower. In Gaeilge, Gráig na Gahler, hamlet of the goats. It is a place – words sprawled across the map – but lacking the “dot” of a specific locality. It is a “townland” of 788 acres of land deemed by Ireland’s Department of Agriculture as “less favorable” probably due to the terrain of its mostly mountainous and boggy area. But here in the valley, protected from the winds coming off the sea by the mountain Knocklomena but not in its shadow, was the perfect location for a home. The small stone home rested on a naturally flat spot that seemed to have been cleared just for it and the stream was close enough to nearly provide the convenience of plumbed water. It had been built with an intention and attention to the beauty of the area as much as to practicality and shelter.
We’d parked next to (or within?) what might have been the remains of an outbuilding just across the drive from the house. The house was, by modern standards, tiny. I’d lived alone in an apartment in the city with far more square footage. According to census reporting, the large ground-floor area and the space above it (now lacking a floor) had each been divided in half, making a four-room home for as many as eight people over the years. Upstairs, opposite the fireplace chimney, a window with a view to the ‘Reeks in the north was currently home to a tree and an assortment of ferns. On the main floor, the window next to the door looked out expansively over the valley—a clear view for miles of golden grass leading to layered hills under the clear sky. It was breathtaking. And unbelievable that someone would ever abandon it.
Graignagower continued to haunt me long after I’d returned home to Seattle. I wanted to know who had built it with such care and what had happened that made him leave it. So, with the convenience of the internet at my fingertips, I crawled into the history of the area and of Ireland, thousands of miles away.*
In a 1659 census of Ireland, the earliest I could find online, Graignagower didn’t exist as such. The land would have been included as part of the yet undivided Dunkerron barony, some 170,000+ acres governed by an Englishman listed as “titulado Dctr Arnalds Allien, gent.” By this time, the Irish Rebellion of 1641 had been thoroughly squashed and Oliver Cromwell had “redistributed” the lands of rebellious Irish, giving large landholdings to loyal British to manage. The leading families of this area – the O’Sullivans and O’Mahonys – had lived in there since at least the 1300’s and were indeed rebellious — and “papist”. The esteemed Dctr Allien, gent. would have had his work cut out for him.
The day I “discovered” Graignagower, it was a fairly barren place. There were few trees to be seen anywhere in the region and the water-soaked land was mainly covered in grass and heather and a great deal of rock. However, in the early 1600’s the hills would have been covered in oak the British landlords were destined to make a fortune on when they cut and sold it to Spain to build ships. Within one hundred years, the forests of the Dunkerron barony were gone, leaving the barren, rock-strewn hills without much value that I stood on hundreds of years later.
“The barony of Dunkerron has its name from an ancient castle, which was the chief seat of O’Sullivan… This barony extends from the head of the river of Kenmare, to the bay of Ballinaskeligs above 20 Irish miles, being washed on one side by that arm of the sea, which in some places forms several convenient creeks, and harbours, and is near 16 Irish miles broad…In all this tract there is neither fair, or market, church in repair, or resident parson of the established church. Besides the ruins of the castle of Dunkerron, there is in the parish of Templenoe, the ruins of another called Cappanacushy…There are a few spots of tillage, and potato culture to be seen, scattered about here and there among the rocks, but most miserably secured from the depredations of cattle; so that, for want of hedges, or other fences, they are obliged to keep people in them, when corn is near ripe, to drive them out. There is limestone found in some places towards the sea; and in the islands of Cappanacushy is a tolerable kind of grey marble; a considerable quantity of which, was formerly manufactured at the charge of Sir William Petty, whose estate it was.” [Description from The Ancient and Present State of the County of Kerry by Charles Smith (1756) source
Graignagower pops into existence in an 1841 census as 788 acres with one home inhabited by 4 males and 4 females. If this was its beginning, it was a bad time for starting a new homestead as the Great Hunger* was about to set in. Between 1-1.5 million Irish are estimated to have died, and another two million to have immigrated, between 1845 and 1850 when a combination of crop failure and landlord greed left Irish tenants without enough food or work. Graignagower’s residents faired better than most. It was rough land, but perhaps the isolation and hardscrabble livestock (instead of vegetable) farming they must have done had saved them. The 1851 census showed Graignagower’s population had dropped by only one resident – a male, and it would be easy to guess this person was either elderly or a child.
The family residing there may also have escaped the worst due to family connections and relative wealth. According to a Griffiths Valuation published in 1852, Graignagower had been purchased by the tenant living there—John Mahony, for something around £1400. The O’Mahony’s were an ancient Irish family with marriage connections to other old families. One Mahony ancestor had even been gifted Dungloe Castle by the O’Sullivans as a wedding present. The family was deeply entrenched in the area and had been conspiring with, or against, the English (depending on the times) for hundreds of years. Yet, despite the wealth they may have had at one time, by 1860, Landed Estate records indicate that over 5,600 acres of land owned by John Mahony were sold in an attempt to meet obligations he’d acquired during the Great Hunger,** and he wasn’t the only Mahony in the area to have to sell. Prices for supplies during the famine were driven up and risky loans were necessarily taken out with agents of the British landlords. For the already poor forced to borrow to pay rent or to buy food, it meant indentured servitude. For the more fortunate, it meant that ancestral land stolen by the English and eventually regained was once again lost.
The 1861 and the 1871 census show eight people (5 males, 3 females) living at Graignagower, but I couldn’t discover if John Mahony had managed to keep his 788 acres–just a fraction of the land his family had loved for hundreds of years. The house was empty by 1881 and stayed that way through the 1891 census.
In 1901, it was again occupied, this time by the Palmer family, John (35), Catherine (29) and children Bridget, John, and Patrick. In 1911, another family lived there – Hugh Breen (43), with his brothers Michael (50) and Harrie (41), and sister Mary (38). But the records for the next census in 1926 are completely sealed. The Irish War for Independence had begun in earnest with the Easter Rising of 1916, continuing until most of Ireland was declared a free state in 1922. It seems that Graignagower never saw tenants again.
The last mention I could find of Graignagower was this, from a 1958 paper, a sad statement of the loss in value of land that had once been important to John Mahony:
Last October, as I stood at the window looking out over John’s valley, my elbows resting on the same crumbling stones where his had once also surely rested, I felt the connection between the man who had built this home and the land surrounding it very deeply. Everything about its placement, from its vast view and the way it hugged the flank of the mountain, to the drive that led up to it so carefully, spoke of respect and love. I stood where he’d stood, looking out the window at land he’d looked at thousands of times, on a day that was as perfect as any Ireland could offer and I knew that leaving it must have broken his heart.
I can understand. Ireland clings to me like the persistent smell of sheep in the wool of the sweaters I bought there. My dreams are filled with its nuances. Months after coming home, tears still well when the screen saver of my computer shifts to a new photo of my trip. My throat tightens around the trite words that are all I can come up with to describe what a month in Ireland was like. The western edges of Munster province – its Sheepshead and Beara peninsulas, the Macgillycuddy Reeks and surrounding areas of Dungloe Gap and Killarney National Park, Graignagower, Corca Dhuibhne and the Aran Islands, call to me like sirens. The rugged, unapologetic magnetism of their austerity is an undercurrent that still thrums in my blood.
Even here in Seattle, I am filled with the song of the land; the chocolate brownie thickness of bog, the way the mauve light softens the air, the expansiveness of space, the rise and fall of the impossibly colored sea and the resiliency that finds entire ecosystems surviving in cracks in the stone. The depth of history – both actual and mythological – and the physicality of the connection of the Irish people to the home of their ancestors is something I, as an American living on the west coast, do not have. My ancestors (some of them Irish) came to the United States several hundred years ago, but once they landed on the eastern shore, they kept moving.
Americans are restless. That I live in the same town my mother was born in is exceedingly unusual. Everyone here is from somewhere else, it seems. And while plenty of Americans would claim they would die for the freedoms and opportunities offered by our country, few would say it is the land itself – the dirt, the sea, the plants and the trees, that claim their loyalty. More often than not, Americans connection to our homeland is based on what we have done to it or on it, and rarely how we have listened and allowed it to be part of us.
There have been other places I’ve fallen in love with, and a host of new places beckon me with their song, but I’ve never felt as dislocated as I do now. I love my home with all of its ridiculous lush fertility, and I’ve spent a good portion of my life in its mountains and on its waters. But I feel something of the loss John Mahony must have felt leaving behind his beautiful home in the valley. Memories of Ireland are like the zing of a severed nerve that never quite heals, reminding me that once I was part of something vast. Sometimes the way the wind sighs or the smell of something like peat smoke in sea air reminds me of how rooted my heart and my feet were there and the homesickness begins again. Perhaps I being overly romantic, or maybe I am just haunted by the ghosts of Munster – rebel warriors and hungry families, farmers and fairies, sheepherders and poets – who found a sympathetic host in me. Either way, nearly every day, I think of going back.
After almost two months spent wandering Ireland, I feel very clearly that the land is something like family to the Irish, not something easily left. And while I was there, I found missing parts of my family in the soil and salt air. I can’t help but think about John Mahony, the Palmers, the Breens and the other unknown inhabitants of Graignagower and how they must have felt living there. Given the chance, I’d love to find out for myself…..
*I apologise for any errors or assumptions this article and/or my research made in my novice attempt at genealogy based in geography. If the reader has more accurate information, I’d love to know!
**What non-Irish refer to as the Potato Famine, the Irish call the Great Hunger. Had the British not kept exporting food out of Ireland, the effects of the potato blight would likely not have resulted in the mass starvation that occurred.