As we sat down to an Irish breakfast at the B and B in Trim, the male half of the couple that ran the place came in and began to chat. He told us he’d worked in intelligence and lived in all sorts of interesting places around the world. When we mentioned we had ancestors in Derrykerrib, Fermanagh, his eyes lit up.
“Oh, your people were IRA!” he said. “Back when I was just getting started, I was working around there and you couldn’t go to Derrykerrib — it was too dangerous.”
This made sense since Derrykerrib is right on the border and we’d heard rumors that our forerunners were involved in gun-running. Our grandfather, who came from that side of the family, had initially wanted to join with Germany and Austria-Hungary to fight against the English in World War One (he was persuaded to sign up with the Allies instead).
“Go hang around in Derrykerrib for a few days and talk to people,” our host advised. “I’m sure you’ll turn up some who remember your ancestors.”
Much like the ending of a summer blockbuster, this immediately laid the groundwork for Ireland Trip III — coming soon to a Boeing 747 near you!
After breakfast we hit the road to Cork by way of Donaghmore, where there’s an old workhouse that’s been converted into a museum. As we were driving through jewel-green fields edged by hedgerows, we began to see more and more bogs. We had become fascinated with bogs on last year’s trip so Cathy randomly googled “Visit bog ireland” and up popped the Bog of Allen Nature Center, just a few kilometers ahead!
The nature center, which doubles as the headquarters of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, was excellent. It told the history of peat in Ireland, including its longstanding use as a fuel, which is bad news for the planet because peat is extremely rich in carbon so burning it accelerates climate change. It also described the alliance between the Netherlands and Ireland to preserve bogs. That partnership began when a Dutch bog scientist realized all the peatlands in his country were too compromised to be useful objects of study. He began an initiative to buy bogs in Ireland, where they were still plentiful, and give them to the government to preserve, while also educating the public about the importance of peatlands.
Out back was a lovely demonstration garden showcasing ways to cultivate plants without using peat. And there the nice woman in charge of the place served us tea.
Thus fortified we hit the road to Donaghmore, which turned out to be a handsome but melancholy place — not surprisingly, since it was a destination of last resort for impoverished, starving people. The famine-era Irish workhouse model seems like it went out of its way to be cruel. Families were separated, often for good. Your clothes were taken away and you were given a ragged uniform to wear. Work was compulsory because even though you’d been starved off your farmland, the assumption was that you were lazy.
As we stood looking out the window of the former girls’ dormitory, it was easy to imagine gazing out as an inmate and wishing you were somewhere else.
Most of the upstairs rooms were empty but one of them had a mannequin in it which scared the living daylights out of me.
It was an unquestionably tragic place. Many people died in these institutions, and others were scarred for life. But as I wandered through the quiet halls, I couldn’t help but question whether people 100 years from now would be walking through reproductions of homeless shelters, marveling at the cruelty. In present-day shelters, families may be separated, healthy people are often forced to share space with those suffering from severe untreated mental illnesses, substance abuse is rampant, and physical and sexual abuse is common. At least the poorhouse was a permanent living space, whereas most shelters demand that you leave in the morning because they’re only open overnight. In the judgment of history, I’m not convinced we will look any better than our Victorian counterparts.
The workhouse was closed in 1886. Decades later, a dairy cooperative took over the property. Thus, it is also an agricultural museum with lots of antique farming equipment that is hypnotically beautiful to look at. Take, for example, the hay-bogey, used to drag loads of hay in from the fields.
Sometimes the labels on the machinery were less than helpful, which made us laugh.