"I Walked Some Irish Miles"

by Dorothea Sheats,
The article that the following extract comes from was published in the National Geographic Magazine from May 1951.




Near Macroom


……………I stopped with Mary and John Healy on a small farm near Macroom. Cows and a few rolling acres occupied what was left each day after John collected eggs from near-by farmers for shipment to England or sale in Cork City. The house was nearly 200 years old.

What does an Irish household do on Sunday?

It tunes the wireless to hear the big football match-Cork vs. Cavan! The broadcast came from Dublin and was sprinkled with O’Reillys, Murphys, O’Keefes, McGraths, O’Donahues, and Cronins!


One warm summer evening, eight of us sat around the Healy kitchen, enjoying a gathering for storytelling. Neighbours dropped in one by one, taking places on the settle, the kitchen chairs, the settee.


Mickey, a brother, turned the pages of an album of yellowing photographs and told of his days near Delhi with the British Army.


"I’ll Ne’er Forget Old Ireland-"


Ella in a high, clear voice began the song, "The Irish Emigrant"-

I’m sitting on the stile, Mary, where we sat side by side,

On a bright May morning, long ago, when first you were my bride-

We listened in the lamplight, hushed, as she finished-

They say there’s bread and work for all, and the sun shines always there,

But I’ll ne’er forget old Ireland, were it fifty times as fair….

About it there was that haunting quality that runs through so many Irish songs.




Mary Healy excitedly told me the house had been ‘measured’ for electricity. Ireland’s Shannon Scheme in 1925 first harnessed the 100-foot fall of the River Shannon between Lough Derg and Limerick. By 1928 there were 50.000 users of it’s electric power. Not long ago the expanded plant’s output reached 310.639 users. Some generating stations use turf as fuel.


"What will you buy first after the lights are turned on?" I asked Mary as she waited for the water to boil.


"An electric teakettle-from Cork!"


But 75% of the community must agree to buy electricity. Here only 40% had accepted, the remainder declining because of high rates, or because they had always managed without it. But not John.


"It’s for the future," he said. "We might have an electric milking machine some day- God is good! And if we win the Sweep- an electric pump!"


Walking west of Macroom, I put my pack down on a big rock near the River Lee. A dark bird with white waistcoat and a bit of a tail skimmed the water. It was a dipper, or water ousel, and bounced up and down on "rubber" knees.


Next village was Ballingeary. This was "brownstone country" where, as Paddy O’Shea had said, farms shrank and "saving the corn" was only a three-or four-man job, and where cows, chickens, and pigs ranked high as farm produce.


Back to School- in Gaelic


Greeting here was in Gaelic. "May God and Mary bless you," said one traveller. The other returned, "May God and Mary and Patrick bless you!"


In 1904 the first Irish-speaking college was established at Ballingeary. I attended a summer class there for young and old in a modern school building. At one point some 50 boys and girls broke out in unison, reading aloud from the blackboard in Gaelic.

The schoolmaster told me later it was a well known-poem, The Yellow Bittern, eulogising a lonely bird which had died of thirst. The poet, who was overfond of drink, points out that "thirst shall never cause his death".


The ceili, or folk dance gathering, held almost nightly in the big Ballingeary college hall was part of the Irish sessions. Small boys in knee pants and striped jerseys and little girls with braids mingled with oldsters, scuffed and swung, skipped and stepped, as a melodeon whipped off one tune after another. One was "Yankee Doodle"!


I said no when a tall lad asked me to dance. But a determined eight-year old came up, told me to follow him, and off we went into a haymaker’s jig. (Lucky I was: it was like the Virginia reel.)


I stayed in a big house near Ballingeary with a dozen or more Irish students from all over Ireland. We explored the craggy ridges, followed the Lee near its mountain source above Gougane Barra lake, hiked by moonlight to Irish dances, and had "singsongs". Once we went to a Gaelic football match.


A big red truck collected the team. "Michael, come on! Sean, to the match!" they called.

One by one, clambered in until 15 men, the Ballingeary football team, bumped along with six girls- all sitting on chicken crates- bound for a match with the village of Inchigeelagh.

Before the 10-mile ride through mountain and glen ended, cleated shoes and blue and gold jerseys came out of a battered suitcase. We arrived in full strength, if sixty minutes late. Ballingeary practised two hours, but finally fans left the field. We went home too, because the team from Inchigeelagh never showed up.


But nobody cared. Homeward-bound, Michael started singing "On the Banks of My Own Lovely Lee" and the singsong started. We stopped for orangeades and Cadbury chocolate.


On to Kerry


I left Cork suddenly for County Kerry, realizing I must hurry, hurry, hurry; time (Ireland’s priceless commodity) was running out for me.


Dingle peninsula is called Kerry’s index finger; it stretches its mountainous, heather-scented length from Tralee to Dunquin on the Atlantic.


I walked west from the town of Dingle, where Spanish influences are believed to mingle with Gaelic tradition and fishing is the town’s livelihood....


Down on the "strand" of Ventry Harbour I noticed some industrious women. I asked an old man what they were picking up.


"Seaweed" he said, "to put under potatoes as fertilizer".


I told him I was going to Dunquin.


"Is it in Kruger’s you’re stayin’" he asked and I nodded. "Ah, you’ll be lazy to leave Kruger!"

Kruger’s real name is Maurice Kavanagh, and his tales are tall and many. Back after some fifteen years in the States, he dwells in a red-roofed cottage on the Slea Head road in this "next parish to America."


Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle peninsula, an early Irish church, was visited in 1838 by Lady Chatterton with much pomp and ceremony, when she wrote Rambles in the South of Ireland. Now climbing over rocky fences in the rain, I could see it. I touched the time-smoothed stones. The old walls, inclining inward to form a beehive-type roof, were musty.

By bus I went to Galway, through Tralee and Limerick, winding through Old World towns, often the River Shannon in sight………………..