Stories by Mitchell Smyth
Meridian Writers' Group
BALLYCASTLE, Ireland-It took 40 years, but Seamas Caulfield finally solved the puzzle of his father's peat bog, and in the process unearthed a 5,000-year-old Stone Age village.
Schoolteacher Patrick Caulfield was digging peat - long-decayed vegetation that has been used for domestic fuel in Ireland for centuries - in a bog near this western Ireland hamlet in the 1930s when his spade struck rocks two metres down.
He cleared the immediate area and discovered that the rocks formed part of a wall.
"He had the feeling that it was a significant find and he wrote telling about it to the National Museum in Dublin," says Gretta Byrne. "He received an encouraging letter back, but explaining that they (the museum) couldn't investigate because they didn't have the resources." Ireland, especially the western counties, was facing hard economic times between the world wars.
What had that peat spade struck? The riddle fascinated young Seamas. He grew up and became an archeologist, and as Ireland came out of the economic doldrums he led an archeological expedition to the peat bog on what's called the Céide Fields (pronounced " kay-jeh ").
What they unearthed has been called the most extensive Neolithic site in the world, a farming community dating back to before 3,000 BC.
Now a state-of-the-art visitor centre has been built on the site to showcase the Céide Fields dig. Gretta Byrne is the manager.
She takes a visitor on a walk over part of the site, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, pointing out stone-walled fields, livestock enclosures, dwellings and tombs used by people at the dawn of recorded history.
Archeologists think the Stone Age community covers 10 square kilometres. Because the bog it sits under is 90 per cent water, they've been able to push iron rods through the peat and locate dozens of kilometers of stone field walls. But only a fraction of what's believed to be there has been excavated, so the curious get a much better "feel" of the ancient settlement from the galleries in the visitor centre.
These explain that the people who lived here were farmers and fishermen. They were peaceful people, it appears, for the community is well spread out, "not huddled together as they would be if they were fearful of attack," archeologist Caulfield says in an introductory video.
"We believe they lived here for about 500 years," says Byrne. Why they left is a mystery (global cooling is one theory). But after they went, forests and other vegetation grew, then died and decayed, creating, through the eons, the two- to four-metre deep blanket of peat bog.
In the galleries are recreations of Stone Age buildings, showing manikins doing such things as milling flour and tending livestock.
The centrepiece, in the foyer, is the trunk of a pine tree bearing axe marks where schoolteacher Caulfield cut off branches for firewood. "Radiocarbon dating indicates it was growing about 4,200 years ago," says Byrne. "It was blown over and preserved by the bog."
The visitor centre, an award-winning steel-and-glass pyramid, welcomes some 35,000 to 40,000 visitors a year.
ACCESS: For more information visit the Céide Fields Visitor Centre website at www.museumsofmayo.com/ceide.htm .
CUTLINE: The Shannon-Erne Waterway was a failure when it was built in the 19th century, but is now one of the success stories of Irish tourism.
Mitchell Smyth/Meridian Writers' Group photo
Restored waterway sparkles for visitors
TULLY BAY, Ireland-In the 19th century it was a failure. In the 21st, it's one of the success stories of Irish tourism.
Nobody was thinking of holidayers in 1846 when a group of entrepreneurs began building a canal connecting the waters of Ulster's Lakeland with the Shannon River, thus creating a waterway from the northwest of Ireland to the port of Limerick and the Atlantic Ocean. Trade was their motive.
The trade never materialized and the canal was abandoned. But 150 years later that defeat has been turned into a triumph. Restored, and rebuilt in places, the Shannon-Erne Waterway is one of the gems of Irish tourism, attracting thousands of pleasure boaters from all over Britain and Europe.
It took 14 years of backbreaking work - there wasn't much mechanization in rural Ireland in those days - to dig the channels and build the locks connecting the Woodford River and Lough Erne (in present-day Northern Ireland) to the town of Leitrim on the River Shannon, in the Republic of Ireland.
It opened in 1860. In the nine years that it operated it was used by exactly eight boats. Not surprisingly, it was then abandoned. Lock gates rotted, bridges crumbled, silt and vegetation clogged the channels and whole sections dried up as the "waterway" reverted to nature. Then, in the 1990s, a $60-million scheme (a joint Irish-British project) brought it back to life.
Ironically, the absence of cities and industries in the area, which originally made the waterway a failure, is today just what attracts tourists - in something like 4,000 boats that travel through the 16 locks every year. Dredged and banked and filled with water again, the 65-kilometre Shannon-Erne Waterway, weaving together streams, rivers, small lakes and man-made channels, offers cruisers, bargers and canoeists a trip through some of the most beautiful country in Europe.
Charlie Greene, manager of a craft rental agency here in Tully Bay, at the northern end of the waterway, tells the story while showing a visitor over some of the boats that ply the lakes and canal, boats that accommodate anything from two to 10 persons.
"You don't have to be an expert," he says. "We teach you all you need to know. There's a video and we take you out on the water for practice. Then you're off on your own."
He and other operators get lots of repeat business. "If we get them on a boat there's a good chance we'll get them back," he says.
Greene explains the electronically coded "smart'' cards that operate the hydraulic locks. It takes, on average, about 15 minutes to clear a lock, but on a trip like this you're not in a hurry. As Greene, with typical Irish blarney, points out: "When God made time, He made an awful lot of it."
Plenty of time for sightseeing, too. Public moorings with showers, toilets, laundries and pump-out facilities are available throughout the system. And, this being Ireland, there's no shortage of entertainment in the "singing pubs" in the towns along the way.
ACCESS: For more information visit the Waterways Ireland website at www.waterwaysireland.org . Click on "1. Shannon-Erne Waterway."
For information on travel in Ireland visit the Tourism Ireland website at www.discoverireland.com .