In Beara you can clearly see the evidence of this devastation. Local historian Riobard O’Dwyer has produced a genealogy of the local parishes around Eyeries documenting how vast numbers of Beara people emigrated to Butte, Calumet (Michigan), Salt Lake city, Leadville (Colorado), Boston and Fall River (Massachusetts). They left behind a countryside and people ravaged and devoid of any hope. The traces of these old communities in the Beara townlands still exist in the ruins of small cottages or where the stone walls divided the land into tiny pitiful plots.
As O’Dwyer has noted, it could cost but three or four pounds to make the trip from Cork to America but the journey could last a tortuous month or more, you had to bring your own food (usually a half sack of potatoes, coarse fish, and a big jar of sour milk) and carry your worldly possessions over your shoulder in a pitiful bag tied with a cord.
Mining played a huge role in the life of Beara in the early nineteenth century and in Allihies, at 394 kM, the furthest village in the country from Dublin, the remains of the copper mines established in the industrial revolution by the ruling class can still be seen. The site features one of the rarest man engine houses in the world and is set in a spectacular mountain and sea location. It is doubtful however, if the miners themselves spared a thought for the scenery as they struggled to cope with poor wages and working conditions, the mineshaft accidents and miners consumption.
The workers often rose in the dark and walked for miles to work through the winter rain and cold. Once in the mine, they measured the time by lighting six candles, one after another. When the sixth candle expired, it was time to go home. As an old Allihies miner once recounted, they could go days on end without seeing any natural light at all. By the time the sixth candle expired and they came back up to the surface, it was already dark outside.
When the mine started to decline during the famine and the subsequent collapse of copper prices, many emigrated to the mining town of Butte Montana. The links between Beara and Butte families remain strong and extensive to this day.
If living was harsh for the ordinary people of Beara in the old times, then the widespread adherence to religious faith provided its solace and its own strictures. The memory of those times and rituals is preserved so gracefully in Beara where the sites of the old Cillineachs or unconsecrated burial grounds are clearly marked today (see photo of Coulagh cillineach) Attitudes are so different nowadays, but as one stands in the open air, lashed by the salty Atlantic wind, you cannot but spare a thought for the innocent unbaptised infants who were buried in these unmarked graves.They found their resting place so tragically in that enchanted land. Local poet Leanne O’Sullivan has written poignantly of Beara and the words from her poem, Cillineach, come to mind :
Was it not you I heard in the thrashing dark?
The one whose hands
I felt unbury me and baptise my soul
In a fountaining of tears
This is the land of Beara where many writers have made their home. The countryside is the source of their inspiration.
Many others left Beara never to return. Their sorrow was great. As the words of an exile go:
Then I wake in the gloom and remember my doom
An exile from Bere by the sea
Donal O’Dowd Lives in Beara part of the year.
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