Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Aill na Caillí – The Deserted Village of Connemara
Irish Daily Mail, Saturday 28 March 2009

To look at it now, you’d think no one has lived here for a hundred years’, says Peter Ward, as he quietly surveys the Connemara village where he lived for six decades. He points at the walls within which his sisters and cousins once slept, at the enclosures where his neighbours kept their livestock, at the fireplaces by which he used to sit and listen to old men tell their tales.

It is only a few months since a sign hung at the entrance to Aill na Caillí, offering visitors a chance to roam amid the ruins of the 'oldest village in Ireland' and see what a genuine Famine Village looked like. An honesty box hung nearby for donations from those anxious to assuage their feelings of guilt in a land haunted by the souls of the Famine dead. But if those hungry ghosts were to talk, they might tell another tale, one that is considerably less romantic and all-too-familiar in modern Ireland.

Connemara is a cryptic landscape, windswept, forlorn and often breathtakingly beautiful. One of Cromwell’s officers complained ‘there is not enough water to drown a man, nor wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him ... and yet their cattle are very fat’.

The village of Aill na Caillí (sometimes spelled Aillenacally) runs along the western shores of Cloonisle Bay, near Roundstone, sheltered from the Atlantic storms by the isle of Inishnee. Its’ present day eminence is almost entirely down to one man, Paddy Power, who purchased the village in 1991 and rebranded it with a bizarre level of historical falsity. Earlier this year, Power bucked the international trend by selling the entire village for an undisclosed fortune.

Former residents of the so-called ‘deserted village’ are anxious to see what the new owner will do. His identity remains anonymous, save that he is reportedly an Irish-American with Australian and Maltese connections. One wonders is he aware that Power’s suggestions that Aill na Caillí was either Ireland’s ‘oldest village’, or even a ‘Famine Village’, were pure marketing stunts.

Born in Waterford in 1930, Paddy Power made his money during the 1970s and 1980s. Not to be confused with the bookmaker, Power was a sales and marketing manager who specialized in office supplies. During the 1980s, he began buying up land-holdings around Aill na Caillí and, by 1991, he was the owner of the entire village, comprising of eight stone cottages and six other derelict structures, on 65 acres of land. Power maintains that he was simply looking for ‘somewhere quiet and rural’ to raise his small daughter Blaithin after the death of his wife.

Eschewing the option of restoring one of the cottages, Power and his daughter lived in a hefty blue and white schooner, the Manissa Cork, which he moored at high tide beside the old village pier. Although the Powers have long since left the area, the Manissa remains grounded upon the rocks today, her hull stuffed with Blaithin’s teddy bears, a mish-mash of fishing tackle and household junk. A weather-beaten currach seems to be her only friend. When Power sold Aill na Caillí, he sold the Manissa with it.

After the purchase was complete, Power began a basic restoration of the village, patching up the pier, rebuilding the walls, planting a substantial vegetable garden and hacking back the encroaching jungle.

However, it was the road into the village that prove the greatest source of ire. When Power purchased Aill na Caillí, the solitary land route between the village and the rest of Ireland was via a rough stone path that connected with the main road to Roundstone. In Peter Ward’s youth, every household in the village had a currach and water was the preferred means of transport.

Aided by a digger, Power single-handedly converted the 2-mile long path into a rickety road that is now just about traversable by car for most of the way. Where the road became excessively rocky, he poured concrete to smooth the gradient. Where pot-holes emerged, he stuffed them with rubber tyres filled with stone and sand.

When the road was finished, Power stirred up a storm when he refused to allow others to use the road without his permission or, alternatively, making a donation.

This flew in the face of the wishes of the Land Commission who established the route as a right of way in the 19th century, it being the solitary land access to Aill na Caillí Pier. The Commission also established 265 acres of surrounding pastureland as ‘commonage’ for the Ailneacally people. Power’s road blockade prevented local farmers from accessing this commonage.

All my life I used that road’, says Mikey Conneely, one of the original Aill na Caillí residents who farms land alongside the road. ‘Power tried to stop me using that road … the road into the very place where I was born and reared! I couldn’t put up with that’. The matter became so heated that at one point Power lay down on the road to prevent Conneely’s tractor getting past.

At length, the issue was resolved by the courts who upheld the right of way. Local farmers further clarified their position by fencing off their particular holdings from Power’s land on this formerly open countryside.

Perhaps on account of local hostility, Power placed the village back on the market, pitching it as ideal for ‘someone seeking seaside seclusion’. Alternatively, Power suggested this ‘spectacular location’ would be suitable for development as a large private estate, a fish farm, a holiday village or a hotel. The setting certainly is exceptionally beautiful, taking in the calm waters of Cloonsile Bay, the mighty silhouette of Cashel Hill and the Twelve Pins rolling along the northern skyline.

A high profile marketing campaign began when Power unashamedly hoisted a sign declaring ‘Ireland’s Oldest Village – For Sale’ at the entrance to the property. That claim is simply baloney although perhaps award-winning Connemara author Tim Robinson is kinder when he describes it as ‘imaginative’. Power simultaneously opened the village to the public as a classic Irish famine village, operating a tearoom during summer months. An ‘Honesty Box’ was hung by the pier for donations from anyone who called by when he was not home. Local residents were appalled that Power was charging people an entrance fee for this blatant fiction. The signpost was pulled down on several occasions and has since disappeared.

That said, there is no reason to think that people were not living her many thousands of years ago. Such a peaceful, coastal setting would undoubtedly have appealed to early settlers. And somewhere along the line, humans did arrive at Aill na Caillí and begin to smash up its rocky ground into blocks of sufficient size to build their farms and homesteads. In the 16th century this was O’Flaherty country but, in the 1690s, it became part of the vast estate of the Martins of Ballynahinch Castle.

Peter Ward says his forbears basically farmed the land but a few made a living by journeying by currach to Galway and carrying flour and other provisions back to Roundstone. Aill na Caillí’s slim black pier probably dates to the 1820s when the enterprising Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo was operating in the area. A contemporary of Nimmo described the local people as ‘a rare breed … wild like the mountains they inhabit’. At that time, some of the villagers may have worked at the Barnanoraun Marble Quarry up in the Twelve Pins, helping to cart the marble slabs down to ships waiting by the piers of Roundstone and Cloonisle Bays.

In Ward’s youth, there were eight families living in eight different cottages. Walking into one apparent ruin, he draws attention to the construction date etched into the wall. ‘1915’. He recounts a visit here with his grandmother as a child, only to be surprised to tears when the owner played a record on a gramophone. ‘I had never heard music before’, he explains. Like many Atlantic coastal villages, Aill na Caillí was hit by the famine and hardships of the 19th century. The arrival of the railway link between Clifden and Galway in 1895 also put some of the currachs out of business. The pattern of emigration from the village began about this time. All of Wards aunts and uncles went to New York. Cousins from another house settled in San Francisco. The remaining families began to abandon the village after the Second World War, most bound for England. The Conneely’s held on until 1976. Ward was the last to leave.

Paddy Power got them in from all over the world to see Aill na Caillí’, says Ward with undisguised admiration. ‘From the Seychelles to Australia, they came to see the oldest village in Ireland’.

It is a curious thing that Ward lives two doors down from Conneely, by the old bridge in Toombeola. Both men were born in Aill na Caillí in 1936 and their families were neighbours for several generations. The building that separates their two homes today is the old school, now closed, where they were both educated by a tough old boot called Miss Carberry. Both men later worked for Ballynahinch Castle – Conneely as the ghillie, Ward in the forestry.

The two men are lifelong friends but they disagree on a few key points. For one, Ward maintains that Aill na Caillí means ‘Cliff of the Woods’, while Conneely is firmly of the view that it means ‘Cliff of the Old Hag’, a reference to the cormorants, or cailleach dubh (black hag), who frequent the area.

A rather more serious disagreement concerns Paddy Power, the man who bought the village where they grew up. Conneely’s face tightens at the very mention of his name. The best he can say is that Power was ‘a bit of a boy’ and he is ‘very delighted that he is now out of it’.

On the other hand, Ward seems to be Power’s only ally in Connemara. ‘Me and Paddy were great old friends’, he says. ‘People got a funny idea about him, but he was alright. You would want to understand him though. And, in fairness, no one gave him a hand to help build that road’.

Ward lived on his own in Aill na Caillí until he too abandoned the village. Today, the village is a labyrinth of crumbling granite walls, reddening fuschia bushes and boot-sucking mud tracks. Cattle meander freely around the abandoned village, tugging at the grasses that sprout between occasional clumps of primrose and daffodil. The air smells of gorse and manure, with a hint of seaweed from the nearby shores of Cloonisle Bay. A Connemara hare bounds from a doorway wand gallops off towards the slim black pier, zig-zagging through yellow gorse and hawthorn trees dripping with lichen. One thinks of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, The Deserted Village.

Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler's hand,
Far, far away, thy children leave the land.

In 2000, a Belgian businessman was all set to buy Aill na Caillí in 2000 for €1.08m when a legal hitch arose and the deal fell through. Power consequently sued his solicitors. The judge awarded him the cost of curing defects in the legal title but rejected his application for almost €2m in damages.

In the autumn of 2008, Aill na Caillí was finally sold to a foreign investor. The sale came as a relief to Power. ‘I almost didn’t believe it myself until the funds appeared in my bank account’, he said. He is not at liberty to disclose the selling price but says he made a ‘considerable’ profit on the deal. ‘In the present economic situation, I wish him good luck’, says Power.

Power also stresses the buyer’s keenness to remain anonymous. He is known to spend long periods in the USA, Australia and Malta. He apparently has family ties with the area.

The fate of Aill na Caillí under its new owner remains to be seen. It is unlikely he will make any sudden moves given the present economic climate. ‘I’m happy so long as Power has gone out with it’, says Conneely. He believes the owner is simply planning to build two new houses, one for himself and one for his visitors. He is curious to see what the new owner does with the road. Perhaps he might prefer the traditional route and come in by water to the pier?

‘You never know, they might do nothing at all with it’, speculates Peter Ward. ‘Well, I don’t care what they do so long as they don’t make it a nudist colony’. His fear is not without foundation. In the sales material that caught the new buyer’s eye, this secluded site was deemed an ideal Nudist Colony. The sheltered location does offer a rare respite from Connemara’s famously formidable climate. But the old men who walked to school barefoot from this Atlantic village sixty years ago are skeptical at the chances of anyone staying naked here for very long.

I would love to see people living here again though’, says Ward with feeling. ‘To see smoke coming from the chimneys and the light in those houses again … that would be grand to see’.