Category: Life

Lady Icarus

On Sunday morning I noticed, for the first time, the below plaques on AIB’s Newcastle West branch.

Sophie Peirce
Lady Icarus honoured in her home town

They commemorate Sophie Peirce, known in later life as Lady Heath and nicknamed Lady Icarus.

Sophie was born in Knockaderry House, a few miles outside Newcastle West. She appears to have spent some of her early youth in Dublin until the untimely death of her mother at the hands of her father, who was sent to the then Dundrum Mental Asylum For The Criminally Insane, resulting in Sophie’s return to West Limerick. At the time of the 1911 census, she was living with her grandfather at 16 the Square, Newcastle West.

As noted in this book review of From Sophie to Sonia: A history of women’s athletics, the record-setting, parachute-jumping aviator is little known in Ireland.

She went to England early in the First World War and served as despatch rider with the Royal Flying Corps. She was married and divorced three times and achieved prominence in varied fields. Sophie, then Mrs. Elliott Lynn, started her athletics career in 1921, and set a world record for the high jump of 4 ft. 10½ in. (1:48 metres). She represented Britain in two Women’s world Games, coming 4th in the javelin. Sophie became involved in athletics administration on the formation of the women’s A.A.A. in 1922, and wrote a seminal coaching manual “Athletics for Women and Girls” in 1925 … Sophie later became a pioneer aviator, made the first solo flight from Cape Town to London and became a pilot with K.L.M. Sadly, she died in a road accident in London in 1939, aged 42.

RedMum wrote about Sophie in late 2006 as part of a series of blog posts on great Irish women, adding to the impression of her as an eccentric maverick in the Roaring Twenties mould.

Her epic trip from Cape Town to London was made with a Bible, a shotgun, a couple of tennis rackets, six teagowns and a fur coat, in a time when men flew with boiled eggs and ham sandwiches.

She even had her portrait painted by Sir John Lavery.

From the website of the Hugh Lane gallery
An Irish Pilot, by Sir John Lavery (linked from the website of the Hugh Lane gallery)

Amelia Earhart gets most of the aviatrix attention but with her movie getting bad reviews, there may be a market for a biopic of Lady Icarus and her exploits.


Hadji Bey et Cie

Hadji Bey's confections

A very pleasant weekend in Cork included a picturesque stop by the Port of Cork and a trip to the recently flooded Lewis Glucksman gallery in UCC, re-opened on Friday by President Mary McAleese. The current exhibition, Thingamajigs, is subtitled “the secret life of objects” and contains various items from local, private and public collections in Cork. The objects were everyday, but are no longer, and include the above exotic confectionary tins from Hadji Bey et Cie which, I have since learned, was a Cork institution and purveyor of fine confectionary.

The back story to Hadji Bey is fascinating, having been set up in the 1900s by Harutun Batmazian, an Armenian immigrant who fled the pogroms in the Ottoman Empire and exhibited at the Cork International Exhibition of 1902-3. He set up his sweet shop on MacCurtain Street in what is now the Metropole Hotel and lived at St. Patrick’s Terrace. By the time of the 1911 census he appears to have been thriving in Cork with a household including three children. Ireland was, at this time, part of the United Kingdom and Mr. Batmazian shows up in the British national archives as having been naturalised in 1915.

Sadly, it seems the business died out a few decades later when his son retired, but the Hadji Bey brand was set for a relaunch by Urney Chocolates last year. I have yet to see it anywhere, but the packaging is based on the the above original examples.

Pandora Bell, another recently established Irish confectioner, is based in Limerick and seems to have done well over the Christmas season. Despite Ireland’s economic woes, entrepreneurship is not dead and we may even be seeing the beginning of a new tradition of small indigenous producers in Ireland.

Taoiseach’s residence by Zaha Hadid

I visited the Zaha Hadid exhibition at the Design Museum in London a few years ago and was surprised to find interesting, though somewhat incomprehensible, drawings entitled “Taoiseach’s residence”.

Zaha Hadid's taoiseach's residence

They were dated around the time of Charlie Haughey, which led one to suppose that the art-mad Taoiseach was not only interested in Gandon’s mansions but also in cutting-edge architects. Having a significant public building in Ireland built at that time by the then-unknown Hadid would have left an interesting architectural landmark in the capital, but it never happened.

Now, with the publication of the government papers from 1979, it appears that it was Haughey who scrapped the plan and it must have been either Jack Lynch or Liam Cosgrave who commissioned the competition.

[Haughey] summarily dismissed a £4 million plan to build a Taoiseach’s official residence and State guest house on the site of the former Apostolic nunciature in Phoenix Park. This had been the subject of an architectural design competition and a winning English design had been selected.

I am assuming that the winning design was Hadid’s, though no mention is made of her in the Times piece and this discussion at Archiseek suggests that the competition was won by Evans & Shalev Architects, with a Rem Koolhaas entry also commended [Update: OWA’s website has extracts from his entry].

It seems quite the missed opportunity that the residence was not built at the time. Instead, around 27 years later, the Taoiseach gets the dull, if dependable, Steward’s Lodge on the Farmleigh estate.

Steward's Lodge living room

Mr. Mac gets due praise

Congratulations to my uncle and godfather Maurice on the continued success of his teaching autobiography Mr. Mac, A Blackboard Memoir, which received high praise indeed from Tom Humphries in today’s Irish Times:

Mr Mac made me think we’d best not look back in anger but should shuffle on and get old perspectives back. Every Government minister should read Mr Mac because in a world where education, health and sport are being pillaged to pay for the sins of dopes whose suits were sharper than themselves we need a reminder that doing things for the sheer love of doing them, for the intrinsic value and fulfilment that they offer, might be a way forward.

One great teacher is worth more than a boardroom of oleaginous fat cats.

The book was launched on 12 November last by Professor Diarmuid Ferriter, a former history pupil of Maurice’s and evidence of the quality of his teaching.

Mr. Mac, A Blackboard Memoir is available by contacting

Light at the end of the tunnel

Santa brought an amazing SLR digital camera for Christmas and while learning to use it I have been tidying up the iPhoto library, trying demos of Aperture and Photoshop Elements and clearing out the memory card of our old digital camera.

&copy Rossa McMahon
Great Southern Trail

The latter activity revealed a few snaps from a sunny September evening walk along the Great Southern Trail.

&copy Rossa McMahon
Barna railway tunnel

This last one is a terrible photo, taken just beyond the mouth of the old Barna railway tunnel, but with the year we’ve had I like its depiction of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

&copy Rossa McMahon
Light at the end of the tunnel

A Kerry Christmas Childhood

Reproduced below is a nostalgic remembrance of childhood Christmases by my late father and which you might enjoy at this time of year. This was first published in the Sunday Independent on 21 December 2003.

Now I cannot help remembering those happy days gone by,
As Christmas time approaches and the festive season’s nigh,
I wallow in nostalgia when I think of long ago
And the tide that waits for no man as the years they ebb and flow.
We townies scoured the countryside for the holly berried red,
And stripped from tombs green ivy in the graveyard of the dead,
To decorate each picture frame a-hanging on the wall,
And fill the house with greenery and brighten winter’s pall.
Putting up the decorations was for us a pleasant chore,
And the crib down from the attic took centre stage once more.
From the box atop the dresser the figures were retrieved
To be placed upon a bed of straw on that blessed Christmas Eve.
For the candles, red crepe paper round the jam jars filled with sand
To be placed in every window and provide a light so grand,
To guide the Holy Family who had no room at the inn,
And provide for them a beacon and a fáilte mór within.
The candles were ignited upon the stroke of seven,
The youngest got the privilege to light our way to heaven,
And then the rosary was said as we all got on our knees,
Remembering those who’d gone before and the foreign missionaries.
Ah, we’d all be scrubbed like new pins in the bath before the fire,
And dressed in our pyjamas, of tall tales we’d never tire,
Of Cúchullain and Ferdia, the FiannaRed Branch Knights
Banshees and Jack O the LanternSam McGee and the Northern Lights.
And we’d sing the songs of Ireland, of Knockanure and Black and Tans,
And the Boys of Barr na Sráide who hunted for the wran.
Mam and Dad, they warned us, as they gave each a goodnight kiss,
If we didn’t go to sleep at once then Santa we would miss.
And that magic Christmas morning so beloved of girls and boys,
When we woke to find our dreams fulfilled and all our asked-for toys.
But Mam was up before us, the turkey to prepare,
To peel the spuds and boil the ham and supply the festal fare.
She’d accept with pride the compliments from my father and the rest,
“Of all the birds I’ve cooked,” she’d say, “this year’s was the best.”
The trifle and plum pudding – oh, the memories never fade,
And then we’d wash the whole lot down with Nash’s lemonade.
St. Stephen’s Day brought Wren Boys with their loud knock on the door,
To bodhrán beat and music sweet they danced upon the floor.
We terror-stricken children fled in fear before the batch
And we screamed at our pursuers as they rattled at the latch.
Like a bicycle whose brakes have failed goes headlong down the hill,
Too fast the years have disappeared, come back they never will,
And our clan is scattered round the world, from home we had to part,
Still we treasure precious memories forever in our heart.
So God be with our parents dear, we remember you with pride,
And the golden days of childhood and that happy Christmas tide.

© Garry McMahon

Garry McMahon weekend at the West Limerick Singing Club

The West Limerick Singing Club has been meeting on the first Thursday of every month since 2002, at the Ramble Inn in Abbeyfeale. My late father, Garry, was a regular attendee at the Club and, a long-time ballad singer and maker himself, loved this committed group of ballad enthusiasts.

The Club is paying Garry a tremendous tribute this weekend by hosting the Garry McMahon singing weekend, from Friday 6 to Sunday 8 November. Events include:

  • an official opening by Donncha Ó Dualaing, followed by singing sessions in the Ramble Inn and Leens Hotel on Friday evening;
  • ballad signing and storytelling workshops throughout Saturday;
  • singing sessions in local bars on Saturday evening;
  • a performance of Aifreann na Ríocht (composed by Garry) at 12 noon mass on Sunday; and
  • a concert featuring Garry’s songs and stories.

Many renowned local and national singers and storytellers are expected on the weekend, which will stand not only as a tribute to Garry but also to the strength of the West Limerick Singing Club.

The Kingdom’s Green and Gold

I won’t pour salt  on the wounds of Cork supporters by further celebrating Kerry’s win in the All Ireland final on 20 September last (a topic already adequately addressed and which continues to appear in the papers).

However, this year’s All Ireland came with an additional thrill thanks to RTÉ’s Up For the Match, broadcast the night before, which featured a performance and dramatic enactment of Dúchas, or The Kingdom’s Green and Gold, a ballad written by my late father Garry, founder of  Patrick G. McMahon Solicitors and two-time All Ireland medal winner for Kerry (1959 Kerry 3-7 Galway 1-4; 1962 Kerry 1-12 Roscommon 1-6). You can see Garry score the fatest goal ever scored in an All Ireland final in this Pathé newsreel of the 1962 final (generally said to be around 34 seconds into play but the exact number of seconds appears to vary!).

The show is available to view here on the RTÉ Player until 10 October 2009. A recording of the song by Garry is available for download here.

You say tradition counts for naught when two teams take the field,
I fear you are mistaken, lad, but the years will make you yield,
And when your hair’s as grey as mine, and time has made you old,
Then you’ll invoke the truth I spoke of the Kingdom’s green and gold.

You cannot box or bottle it, nor grasp it in your hand,
But pride of race and love of place inspire a love of land
Time honoured is our birthright, we’ll never break the mould,
It’s deep within the soul of us, who wear the green and gold.

Grey lakes and mountains soaring high, Mount Brandon‘s holy hill,
The little church at Gallarus, our language living still,
The Skellig Rock, stout football stock, they can’t be bought or sold,
For our county’s fame, we play the game in the Kingdom’s green and gold.

And when the battle’s fiercest and the fortunes ebb and flow,
We’re still alive, we can survive, we never will let go,
For the spirit of our fathers and of stories yet untold,
Will lead us on to victory, in the Kingdom’s green and gold.

We savour Kerry victories, we salute a gallant foe
And when we lose, there’s no excuse, we pick up our bags and go,
So raise your glass each lad and lass to our warriors brave and bold,
Who again aspire to the Sam Maguire in the Kingdom’s green and gold.

© Garry McMahon