Tag Archives: Ballybunion

Missing in plain sight: the case of ‘Sea Lark’

The “Wreck Viewer” digital mapping tool released by Ireland’s National Monument Service is generating media attention and interest among historians, divers and others. Nearly 4,000 wrecks are featured in the interactive map, from prehistoric log boats found in inland lakes and rivers; to the RMS Lusitania torpedoed in May 1915 by a German U-boat; up to a 62-foot fishing vessel that sank in January 2017.

But sail with caution. As the Monument Service notes:

…the development of the Wreck Viewer is an ongoing project and the Viewer should not be relied upon as a definitive listing or display of all known wreck data. Records will be added to, refined, and updated on an ongoing basis and as new information becomes available.

Shipwrecks with known locations shown on the map are only about 22 percent of the total number of records contained in the agency’s database. The locations of approximately 14,000 more wrecks remain to be confirmed, though some details about them are available in a downloadable database.

National Monument Service’s “Wreck Viewer.”

The Sea Lark is a case in point. The 19 November 1846, wreck at Ballybunion, County Kerry is part of the Monument Service database, but it is not shown on the map. It is missing from the Irish Shipwrecks website, but found at IrishWrecksOnline.net, both independently produced listings.

The cargo schooner set out from Tarbert as the Great Famine settled on Ireland. Once it washed ashore near the mouth of the River Cashen, the Sea Lark was ravaged “by myriads of the country people whose first work was to lacerate her sides in order to effect the business of destruction and plunder with more ease and effect,” according to a contemporary account in the Tralee Chronicle. Moreover, “the most unscrupulous robbery was committed not by labourers or small farmers alone but by men of apparent wealth and respectability.”

Bryan MacMahon details the Sea Lark‘s plunder in The Great Famine in Tralee and North Kerry, Mercier Press, 2017Fin Dwyer wrote about the episode in Irish Central. The wreck is also referenced by Danny Houlihan in Ballybunion: An Illustrated History, The History Press Ireland, 2011.

The Monument Service database contains some details of 73 wrecks in Irish waters during 1846, but only two unnamed vessels are shown on its map: a February loss 190 miles southwest of Baltimore, County Cork; and a September sinking more than 300 miles southwest of the same coast. The Irish Shipwrecks database lists three vessels lost in 1846; two off Down and one at Wexford.

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Ballot & Bullet: Remembering Dev and Danny Boy

Two July 1917 events in the west of Ireland shaped the county’s struggle for independence from Britain. A century later, however, both seem to have be mostly forgotten, prompting criticism from at least one historian.

The first and most significant event was the election of Sinn Féin candidate Éamon de Valera in County Clare. The by-election was called to fill the seat left vacant when Irish Parliamentary Party member Willie Redmond was killed in World War I. The IPP represented the late 19th century effort to secure limited domestic autonomy for Ireland, called home rule. de Valera, one of the rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising who was released from prison in June 1917, belonged to the new generation of Irish republicans seeking a clean break from Britain, even if it required violence ahead of politics.

As John Dorney explains on The Irish Story website:

His victory marked a decisive breakthrough for the Sinn Féin party and the beginning of the eclipse of the constitutional nationalists of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The following year, 1918, Sinn Féin, headed by de Valera, won a crushing victory in a general election and early the following year, declared independence, leading the Irish War of Independence.

The post also features Dorney’s 35-minute podcast interview with Clare historian Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, who details the election and sets the context for this period between the Rising and the War. It’s a great listen.

O Ruairc raises the second event toward the end of the interview. While celebrating Dev’s victory in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, local man Daniel Scanlon was shot and killed by an officer of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Scanlon belonged to the Irish Volunteers, at the time transitioning to the Irish Republican Army. O Ruairc describes Scanlon’s death as one of the first of the War of Independence. (Read an account in the Bureau of Military History Witness Statement of William McCabe, page 3.)

The 100th anniversary of Scanlon’s death and Dev’s election appear to have been largely ignored by the Irish government and media. The historian complains:

We hear a lot talk from politicians about how important this period of our history is commemorated … As far as I can see the 100th anniversary of this guy’s death was not commemorated.  … This period of history is passing us by because the government’s official Decade of Centenaries [1912-1922] was disbanded after the last election a year ago, after the big 2016 centenaries. … It’s an indictment of the Decade of Centenaries that it was four years long; we went from 1912 to 1916 and then we stopped. I think what we are going to see for the rest of the Decade of Centenaries is that stuff that happened outside Dublin is not [considered] important. … It will be left to the people that always commemorate it, local historians, relatives, with not much state support behind it.

In fairness, the official Decade of Centenaries website does note de Valera’s by-election win in its 1917 timeline. He is hardly forgotten in Ireland, given the large role he played as the 26 counties became the Irish Free State and eventually the Republic. By 1963, the elder statesman was still on the scene to welcome John F. Kennedy to Ireland.

Scanlon, who was 24 in 1917, is easier lost in the Irish revolutionary period. The RIC officer charged with his death was soon acquitted. It also should be remembered that Scanlon’s death came 15 months after another Ballybunion native, Patrick Shortis, 26, was killed during the Rising in Dublin.

Both of these rebel deaths catch my attention since my grandfather emigrated in 1913, at age 19, from the same village. He joined several cousins and other North Kerry immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city’s daily newspapers carried numerous stories about de Valera’s victory, but not a word of Scanlon’s death that I can locate.

Both Shortis and Scanlon are remembered with small plaques on the sides of buildings in Ballybunion. A bronze statue of de Valera stands outside the courthouse in Ennis, Co. Clare, where his 71 percent to 29 percent ballot victory was tabulated a century ago.

The level of attention generated by last year’s 1916 centenary events would be hard to sustain over a decade. Through the end of 2018, there will continue to be more focus on the events of World War I. But O Ruairc has a point about the general decline of interest in historical events from the period between the Rising the start of the War of Independence.

The memorial to Daniel Scanlon in Ballybunion.

New clue in mystery about Kerry’s Lartigue monorail

In August I wrote a post about how some old letters raised new questions about the Listowel & Ballybunion Railway, which operated between the two north Kerry towns from 1888 to 1924.

In August 1905, two former L&BR employees wrote letters to Transport Ministry officials in London raising safety concerns about the line, affectionately known as the Lartigue, after its French inventor, Charles Lartigue. They made suggestions that an accident had happened, or would very soon. Transport Ministry officials brushed aside their complaint a few weeks later.

My post noted that a derailment accident did occur on the Lartigue two years later, in October 1907.

Now, in reading historic newspapers of the period via the Irish Newspaper Archive, I’ve found a link back to the 1905 episode. It occurs in a November 1907 legal proceeding in which the railway company was seeking compensation for the accident.

P. McCarthy, the general manager, says that until the October 1907 derailment there had been “no serious accident on the line, and mishaps had been few and trivial.”

But he is asked about on one of his former employees, Jeremiah McAuliffe. On 17 August 1905, the self-described former “general mechanic” of the L&BR wrote to ministry officials: “Thousands of lives on the mercy of the Lord traveling on a railway without a brake.”

According to Kerry Sentinel coverage of the 1907 proceeding, McCarthy replied: “…on the 15th of August 1905, four months after McAuliffe left their employment, the brake screws were stolen off the engine, and none but one of the employees could have done it.” A similar attempt was made at least one other time, he added.

McCarthy would not be drawn on putting blame on McAuliffe, or anyone else, for the 1905 mischief or 1907 accident. Let me add here this news account is circumstantial and incomplete historical information. But, for me, it deepens the mystery.

The other letter writer in August 1905 was Ballybunion merchant William Shortis, who had served as the town’s Lartigue station manager during the first decade of the line’s existence. He died in November 1905, a few months after his wife. News coverage of the day attests to the high esteem both of them were held.

Old letter raises questions about Kerry’s Lartigue monorail

“I regret to say that some day you need not be surprised if an appalling accident is reported to you.”
      William Shortis letter of 16 August 1905 to Transport Ministry

The 1905 letter quoted above and reproduced below was written by Ballybunion merchant William Shortis. The building he operated from in the late 19th and early 20th century, pictured on his letterhead, still stands in the northwest Kerry town, now run as a pub.

Shortis was writing to Transport Ministry officials in London about safety concerns for the Listowel & Ballybunion Railway (L&BR), a unique 9-mile monorail that operated between the two towns from 1888 to 1924. The line was affectionately known as the Lartigue, after its French inventor, Charles Lartigue.


Shortis was the Lartigue’s Ballybunion station manager for some period during the line’s first decade or so of operation. The distance between the station and his shop was barely a 5-minute walk. Shortis wrote about the Lartigue in the January-June, 1898 issue of Strand Magazine, a popular London-based publication of general interest articles and fiction. His descriptions of Ballybunion were pure tourism marketing: “…for no finer place to spend a holiday could be selected–what with good hotels, splendid bathing and grand scenery, etc., there is nothing to be desired.”

Most of the article, headlined “A Single-Line Railway,” detailed the Lartigue’s odd-looking rolling stock, which draped saddle-style over 3-meter-high, A-shaped trestles, and other aspects of the monorail’s operation. The train traveled about 10 to 15 mph, and Shortis wrote that each piece of rolling stock was fitted with Westinghouse air brakes.

Which brings us back to his 1905 letter, which alleges “the trains were run without any brakes being on them.” Shortis was not the only one to make such a claim to the Transport Ministry. Jeremiah McAuliffe, a self-described former “general mechanic” of the L&BR for 18 years (approximately to the 1888 opening of the line) wrote to the ministry on 17 August 1905, the day after Shortis. “Thousands of lives on the mercy of the Lord traveling on a railway without a brake,” McAuliffe wrote. He said the train only had hand brakes, that the Westinghouse air brakes hadn’t worked “in years.” He also suggested the train had a recent accident.

Shortis store in approximately 1901.

Shortis store in Ballybunion, circa 1901, is still there today.

I viewed both these letters (and several earlier letters from Shortis making similar complaints) during my 24 July 2015 visit to the National Archives in Kew, outside London. The file, referenced here, contains material from 1887 to 1907, including the railway’s initial inspection report of 2 March 1888, and a follow up correspondence of 31 December 1888, which do raise minor concerns about the operation of the passenger carriage brakes.

I did not review this material as closely as I would have liked due to the limited time of my visit. Based on 30 years of reviewing government papers as a journalist, I feel safe in saying the file is an incomplete record. It raises more questions than it answers.

But the brake and accident claims are curious. A Transport Ministry note of 28 August 1905, which references the Shortis and McAuliffe letters, says the following:

“The company state that there was no collision on this line on the date named. I suppose no further action need be taken.”

In researching and writing about Kerry’s unique monorail for several years now, I have come across a few references to accidents on the line. These appear to have been caused by vandalism, such as concealing branches or other debris within the A-shaped trestles, as reported with an October 1907 accident near Listowel, two years after the Shortis/McAulffe letters. The line had its share of mechanical breakdowns, to be sure, but appears to have operated in relative safety, no doubt helped by the plodding pace.

I keep thinking about Shortis. The fact that he wrote all these letters on his own business stationary indicates to me that he no longer was associated with the Lartigue. He never mentions holding a position with the line. Or was he writing secretly, as a whistle blower? McAuliffe wrote that he quit the line in May 1905, three months earlier. When did Shortis leave, and why? Was he bitter about the circumstances?

Shortis was 36 years old in 1905, based on the 1901 census record. (There are three men named Jeremiah McAuliffe from Kerry in the same census. Their occupations are given as farmer’s son, tailor and “no occupation.”) Shortis was a founding member of the nearby Ballybunion Golf Club in 1893, according to this centenary history. The grocery store proprietor and fish merchant was the father of five children. As a Roman Catholic, he likely contributed to construction of nearby St. John’s Church, which opened in 1897.


William Shortis business card in the Lartigue file at the National Archives in Kew.

But matters took a turn for the worse for Shortis in 1905. His wife, Annie, died on June 7, according to dates on the family gravestone at the Killahenny burial ground near the golf course. An online genealogy posting suggests that Annie died during childbirth. She was the same age as her husband.

On the weekend before Shortis wrote his letter, Ballybunion would have held its annual Pattern Day celebration, a mix of secular activities blended with the Catholic feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Though long celebrated on 15 August, the Assumption did not become official church dogma until 1950.) The Lartigue would have carried hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people to Ballybunion for the festivities. Shortis, a widower of just two months, must have dearly missed his wife at this holiday, which they surely had enjoyed together in earlier years.

His sorrow did not last much longer. William Shortis died 12 November 1905, according to the grave marker. The cause of death is unknown, though the genealogy posting suggests he died of a broken heart. (Eleven years later his oldest son, Patrick, would be killed in the fighting of Easter 1916.)

The Lartigue continued operating until 1924 without any significant accidents, at least that I’ve found in my research. The line, which never made much money, was repeatedly sabotaged during the Irish Civil War. It also was incompatible with the conventional railway system of the newly established Irish Free State. Automobiles were becoming a more common mode of travel across Ireland.

Is William Shortis one of the men standing next to Lartigue carriages at Ballybunion?

Is William Shortis among these men standing next to Lartigue carriages at Ballybunion?

Obviously, there is much more to this story than is presented here. There may be available details that I am unaware of, while other aspects of the story are lost to history and will remain unknowable to any of us. Perhaps some readers can help fill in a few of the blanks. I welcome additional information about William Shortis and the Lartigue.

A view I’d love to see for myself

More evidence the world is getting smaller.

The FiveThirtyEight blog has an interesting post about Geograph, which has collected photographic images of nearly all the 244,034 one-kilometer squares of Great Britain and 41 percent of the 87,933 grid squares on the island of Ireland (Republic and Northern Ireland).

“Geograph was started by geography enthusiasts, sponsored by the government, rescued from a chaotic collapse by its devoted contributors and populated with millions of photos from thousands of people around the island nations it covers,” Carl Bialik writes in the post.

Naturally, I went to the site to look for familiar sights from my ancestral homeland of north Kerry. One in particular caught my eye.


The 2010 image by Graham Horn (copyrighted but licensed for reuse) is taken from the Loop Head Peninsula of southwest County Clare. The view is looking east toward Kerry and Ballybunion on the far side of the Shannon estuary. The peak in the background over the top of the lookout tower is Knockanore Hill, where my grandfather was born.

I’ve made numerous visits to the Ballybunion strand and the 880-foot top of Knockanore, where I’ve looked across the Shannon estuary at the distant shore of Loop Head. But I’ve never been to the Clare peninsula to look back at the north Kerry coast, as in this image.

It remains a view I’d still like to see for myself someday.

In his post, Bialik also discusses Google’s Street View and raises the question of whether Geograph could ever go global. Satellites and digital technology have made such near total photographic coverage of the earth possible. But it isn’t a new idea.

Early in the 20th century French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn dispatched teams of photographers with bulky Authochrome cameras. His project, called “Archives of the Plant,” featured images from more than 50 countries, including what are still believed to be the first color photos of Ireland in 1913.

Wounded U.S. military to play golf in Ireland

Twenty-five wounded U.S. soldiers will be treated to a 12-day golf trip to Ireland in September. I learned about the charitable event while covering a Capitol Hill press event about the economic impact of golf in America.

The Ireland trip is sponsored by the Salute Military Golf Association, which seeks to “provide rehabilitative golf experiences and family-inclusive golf opportunities for post-9/11 wounded war veterans.” Eleven wounded veterans made the inaugural trip last year.

This year’s tour, Sept. 13-20, includes Ballybunion Old Course, Tralee Golf Club and four other courses.

For those looking for regular golf tours of Ireland, please consider contacting Niall Leogue, president of Caddie Tours in Vienna, Va, just outside Washington. Niall was one of the featured businesses at Irish Network DC’s recent Members’ Business Show (post below). Here’a link to the golf page on Niall’s website.


Storms lash Ballybunion, north Kerry

I have written several posts this year about the terrible weather in Ireland. I am most saddened to hear about damage in my ancestral homeland of north Kerry, including Ballybunion.

“Having lived in this town for over half a century, I have never before witnessed anything like the storm that hit Ballybunion on [5 February],” Gerard Walsh, editor of the online Ballybunion News, reported in his 14 February issue. He continued:

“Winds up to 150 mph accompanied by heavy rain, gave residents just some small idea of what it is like to experience a hurricane, as the storm ripped through the town around noon, causing tens of thousands of euro worth of damage and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Fences were blown down, sheds were turned over, the wooden hoardings in front of the old Atlantic Hotel site came down and parts of it were blown through the front windows of a number of homes on the Sandhill Road.”

In our 10 February exchange on Twitter, Kay Caball of @MyKerryAncestor wrote: “Quite a bit of damage along the Atlantic Coasts – Clare & Kerry. Ballylongford & Ballybunion both badly damaged.” A more recent email from one of my relations in Navan detailed damage to the barn of another family member in Lahardane townland on the hillside overlooking Ballybunion and the sea.

Walsh concluded: “Thankfully, nobody was injured which is a minor miracle in itself and hopefully we are over the worst of it now. Maybe after this weekend we will see some signs of spring as people begin to clear up and carry out repairs after what has been a really terrible beginning to 2014.”

Storm surge on the Ballybunion strand during a January storm. Photo from breakingnews.ie

The Atlantic surges high on the Ballybunion strand during a January storm.                           Photo from breakingnews.ie



Big storms, then and now

Ireland was being battered by huge storms on Jan. 6, including winds of up to 100 miles per hour. It’s the latest in several rounds of rough weather across the country and Western Europe. Irish Central reports:

Islands off the Irish coast have been worst hit by the relentless pounding so far with a resident of Inishbofin of the Galway coast describing the weather as “the worst in living memory. … Thundery rain will lead to major flooding according to the national weather service, Met Eireann, which issued an orange storm warning. Towns and villages recovering from last week’s storms are now bracing themselves for another battering with high seas in excess of 40 feet expected on the south and west coasts.

By coincidence, the storm comes at the 175th anniversary of the “The Night of the Big Wind,” as detailed in this fine piece by Turtle Bunbury at The Wild Geese.

On 6th January 1839, the entire island of Ireland was subjected to a tempest of such ferocity that it became the date by which all other events were measured. The Night of the Big Wind – known as ‘Oiche na Gaoithe Moire’ – was the JFK assassination or the 9/11 of the 19th century. It was the most devastating storm ever recorded in Irish history and made more people homeless in a single night than all the sorry decades of eviction that followed it.

Untitled image from The Wild Geese.

Untitled image from The Wild Geese.

Here’s a link to a site that contains two screens of period news coverage about the storm, including a report from north Kerry that “that monument of Antiquity, Ballybunion Castle, is a heap of ruins.”

Kay Caball of My Kerry Ancestors notes the storm became an important demarcation when old age pensions were instituted in the early 20th century. She writes:

In 1909 the British government, which was still ruling Ireland, instituted a system of old age pensions. When dealing with the rural population of Ireland, where the written records might be scanty, the ferocious storm that blew in from the north Atlantic 70 years earlier proved to be useful. One of the questions asked of elderly people was if they could remember the “Big Wind.” If they could, they qualified for a pension.

19th-century Irish railways make 21st-century headlines

Two stories about 19th-century Irish railways have appeared in contemporary news headlines.

In Kerry, descendants of Lartigue monorail workers met for a Gathering reunion at Listowel that also marked the 10th anniversary of the related museum and short demonstration line.

“It was a wonderful event,” Lartigue volunteer Martin Griffin told The Kerryman. “We had descendants of 17 of the original workforce and it was great to establish new links with them and we hope now to keep these bonds alive into the future.”

The Lartigue operated between Listowel and Ballybunion from 1888 until 1924, when the newly created Irish Free State refused to consolidate the monorail into the new national railways system. A 1924 letter to the editor of the Freeman’s Journal suggested closing the line would “ruin the prospects of about 30 employees, with about 130 dependents.”

Lartigue monorail workers at the Ballybunion station. National Library of Ireland image.

Lartigue monorail workers at the Ballybunion station. National Library of Ireland image.

In Dublin, the 1877 railway tunnel underneath Phoenix Park has been drawing attention. The National Transport Authority proposed opening the line for passenger trains between Connolly and Heuston stations, but Irish Rail has balked at the plan. The Irish Times offers a video trip through the tunnel as part of its coverage.

The tunnel opened five years before the Phoenix Park murders of Ireland’ land war period of the 1880s, which also was a time of great expansion for localized railways such as the Lartigue and the Tralee and Dingle Light Railway in south Kerry.

Blue flag lost and turf cutting protest in Kerry

Here are two environmental stories where European Union regulations have impacted Ireland in general and Kerry in particular.

Sixteen beaches or marinas in Ireland have lost their Blue Flag status as the result of tougher EU water-quality testing standards, the Irish Examiner reports.

The beach at Ballybunion is among those that failed to win the coveted designation this year. The Ballybuinion News reports “a number of people feel rather aggrieved at the loss of the flag” and blame the Kerry County Council for inadequate storm drain work and excessive flooding earlier this year. The News noted that missing the designation doesn’t mean that it is unsafe to swim at the beach and “visitors to Ballybunion should not be wary of doing so.”


Ballybunion beach from final gather flickr.

The other story involves charges of illegal turf cutting against two Kerry men. About 70 people from Kerry and other West of Ireland counties protested outside the courthouse in Listowel, The Irish Times reported

The protest was organized by the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, which is opposing the EU ban on turf cutting on raised bogs.

Turf cutting is prohibited in bogs designated as Special Areas of Conservation. The government is providing compensation to turf cutters where the traditional fuel-digging work is banned. Here are more details from the Peatlands Council.

I know I would love to catch the whiff of a turf fire while ascending the Ballybunion sea cliffs after a long evening walk on that beautiful strand.


Image of traditional turf cutting from Nenaghgal blog.