On a blustery day during a recent visit to my native County Clare, a day that a younger, somewhat wilder émigré might have resorted to the high stool at Lahinch’s famed 19th Bar, I decided to head west.
One might say, how far west could you head from Lahinch, and the answer would be not very far before you met the broad Atlantic. On this ramble I decided to head for the extreme south west point of County Clare, Loop Head. I had vague memories of a family visit to the landmark lighthouse as a child, but 55 years of wear and tear dims such memories.
While always having a gra for things maritime, I really decided on this visit thanks to a story and a booklet about The Little Ark I had received from a Corkonian friend, George Egan whose mother was born and raised on this windswept peninsula at Kilbaha, just up the road from the lighthouse (more about The Little Ark later). The station located on the northern shore of where the Shannon River meets the sea, is built on a cliff top with 300-degree views out to sea, down across the Shannon estuary to Kerry Head and Dingle and up the Clare coast and indeed across Galway Bay.
There has been a lighthouse at this important navigational location since 1670 when the first beacon comprised of a cottage with a large brazier on the roof, similar in style to the original Howth Head and Old Head of Kinsale lights. A new light was re-established in 1770 and the present tower was designed by George Halpin, the founding father of the Irish Lighthouse Service in 1854. The distinctive character of the signal, twenty seconds of light followed by four of dark, was achieved by rotating a screen around the light. This operation was manually “wound up”, and not replaced by electric until 1971. The station was officially fully automated twenty years later in March 1991 and it has a signal range of 28 nautical miles.
During my visit, I had the good fortune to meet the lighthouse keeper Tom McInerney, a very friendly and affable man who lives on his own on this lonely promontory where he also tends to his farm just down the road. Happy with his own company, Tom is a confirmed bachelor and enjoys this solitary life, witnessing daily the beauty of Ireland’s west coast and the elements that can vary from sunshine to gale force winds.
Atop the lighthouse I mused at how many ships Tom’s predecessors had seen in full sail heading west from the ports of Limerick and Kilrush laden with human ballast hoping for a better life in the new world. Five of my own Great Granduncles would have passed this point of basically no return when they left from Kilrush to finally settle in Fond du Lac Wisconsin in 1848. How many would have made it to Grosse Ile or maybe even to the fever sheds in Toronto.
Having braved the elements and the emotions at the headland, I setout for Kilbaha and could not resist the sign that beckoned “Keating’s – The Last Pub before New York” (or Toronto for that matter). After a good hot toddy and a warm West Clare welcome I went on my quest for The Little Ark, which I found the little country church at Moneen, on the outskirts of Kilbaha.
In the 1850's the celebration of Mass was prohibited in the Loop Head Peninsula of West Clare. This situation had developed as the result of the attempts of the local land agent, Marcus Keane, to enforce the conversion of the local populace to Protestantism. Three schools were built on the Loop Head Peninsula in West Clare where the Protestant faith was taught. Food was provided for those who attended these schools and, in these days following the famine, this encouraged children to attend. This was “Souperism” at its finest. At the same time a Protestant church was built at the entrance to Dun Dalhin (Marcus Keane's house) overlooking the bay at Kilbaha.
The Parish Priest at this time was Father Michael Meehan. He had come to Loop Head as Parish Priest in 1849. He was very familiar with the area, having spent a good deal of time with his aunt who lived in Moneen and therefore he recognized the need to build schools in the area, as at this time there were none. In 1850 he opened the first of the six schools, which he established in the Loop Head Peninsula. With the establishment of the landlord-sponsored schools, increasing pressure was put on tenants to denounce their faith and send their children to these schools, under threat of eviction.
Obviously, these circumstances led to conflict between Marcus Keane and Father Meehan who was also at this time trying to obtain a site to build a church in Kilbaha.
His attempts were unsuccessful. At one stage he did manage to acquire two adjoining houses in Kilbaha. He knocked the two houses into one and used the building for Mass. He was evicted from the premises after one month.
It was against this backdrop of persecution that Father Meehan came up with the idea of The Little Ark. He believed that if a suitable structure could be built it could be brought to the shore in Kilbaha and placed between high and low tide, in no-man's land. He thought that this would be an end to the problems he and his parishioners faced.
In 1852, when completed, the box was drawn in triumphal procession from Carrigaholt to Kilbaha. Father Meehan then used the box, or The Little Ark, as it became known, to say Mass in for the next four years. Father Meehan's congregation would gather on the foreshore at Kilbaha every Sunday, kneeling in prayer around the Ark. This practice continued for over four years and the sight of some three hundred people, praying in all weathers, attracted much publicity. Eventually, a site was given for a church in 1857.
The Little Ark was placed inside the church and remains there to this day, housed in a specially built annex. It is a testament to the tenacity and the faith of the people of this area who resisted the shameful “Souperism” of the day.
Having achieved the goal of my trip to west Clare I headed towards Carrigaholt, a pretty little cove on the Shannon side of Loop Head. At that juncture I remembered that from 1964 – 1969 I had gone to St. Flannan’s College in Ennis with a lad from Carrigaholt whose family owned Morrissey’s Pub in the village. Figuring I had nothing to lose I dropped in to enquire about my old school mate. Michael himself was behind the bar and within five minutes we were reminiscing about friends and schoolmates, some no longer with us. It had been 37 years since we met but it almost seemed like yesterday. As I was leaving, Michael’s lovely wife Geraldine asked if I liked crabs claws. The answer was a definitive yes and I was sent on my merry way with these gourmet treasures of the sea which I shared with some friends later after arriving back to base at Lahinch – “where the sea shines like a jewel” (Percy French).
A day like this and the memories that it evokes made me realize that wherever we choose to visit, we are always surrounded by treasures of one form or another, be they people, geographical, historical or just within the inner self.I may be given to rambling out again.
Last Updated (Tuesday, 09 June 2009 06:06)