Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Brittas and the Belted Galloway

Belted Galloways were bred so that they could be readily spotted as they grazed in the semi-wild Scottish landscape. Wuss that I am, I had little apprehension in approaching this one who was hanging out with the cows and calves at Brittas Estate in Co. Meath..
As soon as I heard the name of this breed of bull, I immediately thought of Steven Galloway. Last winter, Steve vanquished a totally different kind of bull when he took on the phishers who stole my Facebook identity. I figured that by mentioning his name here, I could at least return the favour by alerting you to his latest novel: The Confabulist. It’s a story which explores the nature of magic and memories, and how things can be hidden from us, even when in full view. And this is no bull.

So, you now know my connection to Steven, but what on earth is my connection with a Belted Galloway bull?  It began three weeks before I left for my latest research trip to Ireland, when Oinri Jackson emailed me. We had never met or corresponded before, but his question had my full attention right from the get-go. Were his Jacksons, who came from County Down, related to the Jacksons of Lisnaboe, Co. Meath? I will talk about this in a later post, but for now, here is my introduction to some exceedingly fine people, their home, and a whole other slice of Irish history.

The view on a soft day.
Brittas Estate is situated in the midst of a few hundred acres at the heart of what was the estate of the first Bligh to settle in Ireland: John Bligh (1616-1666) – and yes, he was from the same Bligh family made infamous by the movie Mutiny on the Bounty. Unlike his relation, this Bligh was a citizen of London, and a member of the Worshipful Company of Salters - one of the guilds that ran the show back then. As a merchant-adventurer, he helped to bankroll the New Model Army, gambling on their success in battle. As an agent acting on behalf of the Adventurers for the Forfeited Estates in Ireland, he was well positioned to benefit at the expense of those who lost. After the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, he was rewarded with over 25,000 acres. When it comes to the spoils of war, the rich and powerful always do well. 'Twas always thus, and always will be.

Sharon & Andreas at the back of Thomas Bligh's mausoleum.
You may wonder why I am pointing and laughing at this mausoleum. After all, it is a memorial to Capt. Thomas Bligh (1695-1775), the inheritor of John Bligh’s lands, and he probably deserves more than my mirth.
Capt Bligh - if I have remembered correctly.

In 1732, Capt. Bligh built the first part of Brittas house that still stands. More than two decades later, in 1758, he led a battle during the Seven Years War where he captured Cherbourg and destroyed the town’s fortifications. His age at this time – sixty-three - is more than deserving of notice at a time when riding into battle required stamina, strength and agility. Unfortunately, Bligh fared less well when he was in charge of a subsequent battle near St. Malo: the Battle of Saint Cast. Between 750 and 1000 of his men lost their lives before they could retreat. Not that this failure should all be left at his feet. After all, he had been met by not only bad weather, but also by a more daunting assembly of French soldiers. Plus, he was no spring chicken.

In this context, it is easy to understand what might have led him to not only site his mausoleum where he did, but also to dictate that he be buried standing up overlooking his estate, with rows of lime trees at his back intended to replicate the formation of his soldiers as he led them into battle. This formation, visible on Google Earth, may have been planted because he not only wanted to leave a memorial to himself, but also to the men who had served with him. Two hundred and forty years later, unfortunately for this vision of poor old Bligh, he and his lime tree troops have been thwarted by nature. If his upright body still had eyes to see, the view looking down towards Brittas would be utterly blocked by the trunk of a significant tree standing between him and his house. Perhaps that is what you get for building on an historic rath.

Here you can get a better sense of the size of the obstructing tree on the right. You can also see the edge of the ring of rath stones in the foreground. A house and/or fortification would have been built here in prehistoric times.
Looking down towards Brittas.

 In both the landscape and the interiors of Brittas, Oinri and Neville have honoured its history, kitting it out as it would have been when it was in its glory, not when it was down on its gums. The trees that you see in the foreground are protected. Like Cabra Castle, which I described in an earlier post, Brittas may be a large estate home, but all the individual rooms are of a human scale. In every room, I experienced beauty, balance, and serenity.

Our bedroom for the night overlooked well-tended gardens and fields. If I were a pastoral poet, I might have been smitten by the need to commit a sonnet. Thankfully, I am not, so you are spared.

In the sitting room, Andreas is deep into his book, while the pile of estate books in the foreground awaits my attention. I will report on them in a later post. The ongoing tenancy of Jacksons is noted in every year up till 1920 - if my memory serves me.
These are Jacob Sheep. Note their four horns. As a working farm, Brittas supports the grazing of horses, cows and sheep, as well as the raising of hogs and chickens.
The eggs, sausages and home-smoked bacon which Oinri & Neville prepared for us were all from Brittas.
It isn’t only the memories of the places I explore, the stories I hear, and the people I meet, but also the friendships that are made during these trips that are amongst the gifts that come home with me.
A FOOTNOTE. A few years ago, I wrote a blog about Carolan’s Farewell, a novel by Charles Foran. The harp player Carolan, who was the central character in Foran’s novel, grew up a stone’s throw away from Brittas – literally – in the nearby townland of Spittal. The landlord family who owned that townland, the Cruises, were an old Anglo-Norman family who had much of their land awarded to John Bligh. They supported Carolan's music. Like Galloway, Charlie also has a new book out this spring: Planet Lolita. I just bought my copy from Talewind Books in Sechelt. Both men will be performing in August at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts.


  1. Oh how you suffer...lovely post and lovely pictures :)

  2. So thrilled to see a couple of rooms within Brittas! My 4th G Grandfather was Thomas Bligh so you can see why I am interested!
    Is this a B&B ? When I come over, would it be possible to see some of it? Even the grounds...... LOL.
    I am a retired teacher and reside on the coast of Maine US. My grandaughter graduates college in May and this would be a special trip.
    Warm regards,
    Arlene Bligh Cass