Ireland’s unmissable castles

Legend, lore and lavish surroundings have ensured that Ireland’s castles never fail to capture our imaginations.

With over 3,000 castles dotted across the island of Ireland, it would be impossible to visit them all. Here we take a closer look at six castles that are open to the public that you must see on your Ireland vacation.

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle

1. Dunluce Castle

At the tip of the Antrim coast sits the sprawling Dunluce Castle, looming over the sea atop a dark basalt outcrop. Once home to the feuding McQuillan and MacDonnell clans, this is the quintessential medieval Irish castle. From rebellion to fire, mermaids to banshees, Dunluce has seen its fair share of drama. No wonder, then, that this enchanting location is said to have inspired C.S. Lewis to create Narnia’s hallowed Cair Paravel, and now features in Game of Thrones.

With the white chalk cliffs of Portrush sweeping away to the west, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back in time. But don’t get too close to the edge – local legend says the castle kitchen once collapsed into the sea, dragging seven cooks with it!

Glenarm Castle
Glenarm Castle

2. Glenarm Castle

While the present castle has stood since 1636, there has been a castle at Glenarm since the 13th century. Once stretching all the way up the northern coast of Antrim, today’s Glenarm estate is now much smaller, housing an organic farm instead of an original deer park and a charming Tea Room where the 19th century Mushroom House once sat.

Though still a family home, guided tours of the castle are available at selected times. The grounds are a hive of activity, hosting an annual Tulip Festival (May), as well as the 10-mile Wilderbeast trail run (June) and the Highland Games (July) for the past number of years. And, with the seaside a short stroll away, what more could you want?

Tullynally Castle
Tullynally Castle

3. Tullynally Castle

Occupied by the same family since the 17th century, Tullynally Castle is linked to one of Ireland’s most loved legends, the Children of Lir. Indeed, visitors reported that a ‘fairy land’ had been constructed on the site in the 1830s, when Lady Georgiana remodeled the grounds. Although everything from a llama paddock to a Tibetan Garden has since been added, the castle itself has remained mostly unchanged.

Centuries later, the flawless acoustics of Tullynally’s magnificent Great Hall hosts regular music events, while visitors to the expansive gardens can often catch a plant fair or owner-led spring walk. From summer fêtes to Halloween Terror Trails, Tullynally truly is a castle for all seasons.

Birr Castle
Birr Castle

4. Birr Castle

The Third Earl of Rosse was an innovative gent. His Leviathan telescope, still in working order at Birr Castle, was once the largest in existence, and his wife Mary created one of the world’s first darkrooms in the estate stables. It’s not difficult to see why – Birr Castle Gardens are some of the most stunning in Ireland. Endless exotic flowers enliven the grounds in a rainbow of color, while waterfalls and lakes are home to otters, herons and kingfishers.

Within the castle, visitors are guided by descendants of the Earl and his wife, whose portraits still adorn the great Victorian dining room. The view from the spectacular, octagonal Gothic Saloon drinks in the River Camcor, from where the couple’s son once harnessed the current to provide Birr with electricity.

Blackrock Castle
Blackrock Castle

5. Blackrock Castle

Cork’s coat of arms heralds the city as a “safe harbor for ships”, but this wasn’t always the case. The formidable limestone outcrop of Blackrock Castle was built in the 16th century to protect one of the deepest natural harbors in the world from pirate and naval attacks – and to protect the nobility from the rowdier factions within the Rebel County.

Twice destroyed by fire, the castle was faithfully restored by the people of Cork. Today, it is home to the invaluable astronomical research center of the nearby Cork Institute of Technology. Its award-winning interactive astronomy exhibition, Cosmos at the Castle, is the first of its kind in Ireland.

Ballynahinch Castle
Ballynahinch Castle

6. Ballynahinch Castle

Tucked away among 445 acres of rugged Connemara landscape, Ballynahinch Castle Hotel is a safe bet for those seeking a relaxed setting and the opportunity to actually stay in an Irish castle. In its old age, the estate has mellowed, but half a millennium ago, it was home to some of the most infamous figures of Irish legend. Pirate queen and chieftain, Grace O’Malley, and the ‘Ferocious O’Flaherty Clan’ all graced its halls.

The grounds of Ballynahinch can be easily enjoyed on horseback or on foot, while seasonal woodcock shoots and a trip to the deserted Inishlacken Island are particular visitor favorites. Those who prefer to appreciate the historic surroundings from a more comfy location can cuddle up in a fireside armchair.


Ireland’s unmissable castles: Part 2

Here is’s second instalment on Ireland’s castles, we delve into ancient lakeside piles and the favorite haunts of ghosts and starlets alike. Click here to read part one of this series!

In part two of our series exploring Ireland’s unmissable castles, we take another tour of the living history on offer to the public. This time around, feuding clans and Bronze Age beauty add mystique to these mesmerizing monuments to the past.

Harry Avery's Castle
Harry Avery’s Castle

Harry Avery’s Castle

Harry Avery (Henry Aimbreidh) O’Neill was an over-protective brother, to say the least. As the story goes, O’Neill took such offence at the difficulty his sister encountered in finding a husband that he proceeded to hang 19 men who refused to marry her – right here, on the site of the castle named after him.

More of a tower house than a castle, the stout building was once a vital defence in the contested lands between the O’Neill and O’Domhnaill clans. Today, the ruins sit calmly atop unspoiled rolling hills, with the Mourne Valley spread at their feet.

Enniskillen Castle
Enniskillen Castle

Enniskillen Castle

The jewel in the crown of Fermanagh’s collection of castles, Enniskillen Castle is a master of reinvention. This turreted behemoth on the banks of the River Erne has proven instrumental in the survival of the town throughout its 600-year lifespan.

Poets and minstrels, satin-clad maidens weaving wondrous golden fringes, soldiers reclining, smiths preparing weapons


Today a modern hub of history, architecture and culture, the castle documents everything from the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century to Fermanagh’s unique role in the Second World War, and the story of the Medieval Maguires.

Enniscorthy Castle
Enniscorthy Castle

Enniscorthy Castle

As a young girl growing up in 19th century Enniscorthy, little could Eileen Gray have realised the fame that lay before her. One of the most internationally renowned furniture designers and architects of the 20th century, her designs now take pride of place in an exhibition at Enniscorthy Castle itself.

Now a museum, the castle has worn many hats in its 800 years, from prison to munitions store and rebel hide-out. A rare treat is the castle roof: one of the few of its type open to the public, it provides uninterrupted views of the surrounding countryside, including the battleground of Vinegar Hill.

Ross Castle
Ross Castle

Ross Castle

In this quiet corner of Killarney National Park, Ross Castle’s sprawling history is reluctant to remain in the past. Every seventh year, the benevolent ghost of the castle’s founder, O’Donoghue Mór, rises from the bottom of Lough Leane, and circles Ross Island on his magnificent white horse. The island’s occupation stretches back further still, to 4,000 years ago when it was one of Europe’s earliest Bronze Age copper mines. Today, this history can be explored on a mining and nature walking trail.

A relaxing rowboat ride across the lake leads to the 15th century Muckross Abbey and the luxury of Muckross House and Gardens. Gazing up at this Disney-esque castle, it’s not difficult to understand why Killarney was voted TripAdvisor’s top destination to visit in Ireland in 2015.

Kinnitty Castle
Kinnitty Castle

Kinnitty Castle

Deep in the heart of the Slieve Bloom mountains, Kinnitty Castle is a sight to behold. A masterpiece of Gothic revival architecture, it was the 18th century home of Charles Óg O’Carroll, one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence. The site of much political turbulence over the centuries – the Castle was first built in 1209 and repeatedly destroyed – its expansive grounds, Augustinian abbey and intimate courtyard today host more wedding guests than revolutionaries.

Probably the most amazing hotel experience I’ve ever had…It was like staying in a museum


Kinnitty sits on a 10,000-acre estate, where it is not uncommon to spy fallow deer and wild goats wandering through the woodland – a night in the Giltraps Guesthouse & Glamping grounds will ensure you get a close-up look. Of course, then you’ll miss the party-loving ghost of a monk who haunts the castle itself…

Ashford Castle
Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle has been around a long time – since 1228, in fact – so it stands to reason that its 820 windows have hidden many a story. Even the staff don’t know all Ashford’s secrets: some rooms of the castle remained unexplored even up until renovations two years ago.

Loved for its luxury as much as for the pretty surrounds of Cong, Ashford has welcomed some very famous faces in its time. Once owned by the Guinness family, a visit could have you tracing the footsteps of anyone from Oscar Wilde (who spent much of his childhood on an adjoining estate), to John Lennon, Brad Pitt or Princess Grace.

Large anti-conscription meeting in Dublin

Large anti-conscription meeting in Dublin
Patrick Pearse addressing a crowd of Gaelic League members at the Colmcille at Towerfield House Ground, Dolphins Barn in 1915.Photo: Bureau of Military History

Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill make rousing speeches

Dublin, 15 December 1915 – A large anti-conscription meeting took place last night in the Mansion House in Dublin.

Both the Round Room and the Supper Room were filled to overflowing with people who professed their opposition to conscription. Most of those who attended were working class and they heard repeated denunciations of any suggestion that conscription be introduced for Ireland.

The meeting was chaired by the UCD Professor, Eoin MacNeill, and he proposed a simple motion to the meeting: ‘We won’t have conscription.’ The motion was passed unanimously.

Prof. MacNeill said:

‘The government’s plan for a long time has been to deprive the Irish Volunteers of their arms, and, if that were done, nothing would stand between the Irish people and complete enslavement. Then would compulsory military service follow.’

‘The Irish Volunteers had never interfered with any man’s freedom to join the forces of the crown if that man thought it his duty to do so but, as regards compulsory service, from first to last they were against it.’

Patrick Pearse (left) and Eoin McNeill (right). (Images: Irish Life, 1916; University College Dublin Archives P80 PH 176)

Ireland and Empire

In his speech, Patrick Pearse – the Dublin schoolmaster and Gaelic League activist – said that if there was any man in Ireland who loved the British Empire let him go out and die for it. He would say not one word against such a man.

He then asked was it to be tolerated that the man who did not believe that the interests of Ireland were bound up with those of the British Empire should be taken against his will and shipped across the seas to lay down his life for a thing which he did not believe?

Mr. Pearse condemned the claimed suggestion of the Lord Lieutenant that businesses should reduce their staffs in order to free up men to fight in the war. It was, he said, ‘a dastardly suggestion.’

[Editor’s note: This is an article from Century Ireland, a fortnightly online newspaper, written from the perspective of a journalist 100 years ago, based on news reports of the time.]

For Ireland’s Sake

For Ireland’s Sake
A screenshot from ‘For Ireland’s Sake’, the newly released film from the O’Kalem Film Company in New YorkPhoto: IFI Irish Film Archive

New York company releases new film shot in Killarney


On 12 January 1914, a new film ‘For Ireland’s Sake’ was released in the United States. The film was produced by the O’Kalem Film Company of New York – known affectionately as the O’Kalems – which produced almost thirty films dealing with Ireland and Irish subjects between 1910 and 1915. The members of the Company, primarily Gene Gauntier and Sidney Olcott, made history by producing not only the earliest series of fiction films made in Ireland, but also the first films to be shot on both sides of the Atlantic. The majority of these were filmed in and around Killarney Co. Kerry, making extensive use of the dramatic landscape and using locals as extras.The film is reproduced here courtesy of the IFI Irish Film Archive.

For Ireland’s Sake (1914) (Gene Gauntier Feature Players)
Director: Sidney Olcott / Scenario: Gene Gauntier


About For Ireland’s Sake

The O’Kalems, writes Tony Tracy of NUI Galway, was an effective PR label created by New York based Kalem Film Company to advertise their success and specialisation with irish subjects following a visit to Ireland in the summer of  1910 during which they shot The Lad from Ireland.

…They returned for a fourth time to Killarney in 1913 but under new management.   After her resignation – along with Olcott – from Kalem in 1912, Gene Gauntier capitalised on her fame as an actress to form her own production company – the Gene Gauntier Feature Players. The ‘GG’ logo can be seen on the intertitles of this film. The film repeats and builds on several elements of The Colleen Bawn, most notably its dramatic use of well-known landmarks such as Muckross Abbey and the Gap of Dunloe and its insistence on the authenticity of these locations for the viewer. The framing device of a cave (where Marty hides) from the earlier film is once again effectively deployed. The film is however a considerable improvement on the Boucicault adaptation in every respect. It is also a reworking of the revolutionary theme from Rory O’More centering on conflict between the Irish dream of political independence and British suppression of that ambition and concludes with a similar intervention from a Catholic priest (played by the charismatic Olcott) who facilitates the escape of the lovers from prison and their eventual escape from Ireland. America is once again figured as a land of promise and new beginnings: “To the west, to the west! To the land of the free!”. Although set – it would appear – around the revolution of 1798/1803 it is useful to remember that the film is made three years before the 1916 rising. It is notable that Gauntier’s character (Eileen) takes a more significant part in the drama than earlier films, reflecting, perhaps, her status as a producer. In its narrative cohesion and cinematic execution, For Ireland’s Sake ranks among the highpoints of the O’Kalem films.
Tony Tracy , NUI Galway

The O’Kalem Collection is available for purchase on DVD through the IFI here. The O’Kalem Collection (1910-1915) brings together for the first time on DVD the surviving 8 films of the series. They have been gathered by the IFI Irish Film Archive from archives in Ireland, the US and Europe and are presented here with new musical scores. The accompanying feature-length documentary Blazing The Trail: The O’Kalems in Ireland by Peter Flynn and Tony Tracy offers an in-depth and authoritative exploration of the making of the films and their place in American and Irish film history.

About the O’Kalem Collection at the IFI Irish Film Archive

For Ireland’s Sake is one of a series of films featured in a DVD collection of O’Kalem’s Irish films, all of which are preserved in the IFI Irish Film Archive. These film copies have been gathered from public and private collections around the world over a forty- year period, writes Sunniva O’Flynn, Curator, IFI.

The wide international reach of sources is testament to the popularity of the films world-wide.  It is also evidence of the greater permeability of international borders by silent films than by later sound films – where it was relatively easy to substitute inter-titles in new languages in each new territory.  The collection here includes films with English, Dutch and German inter-titles. While the survival of some O’Kalem titles in non-English versions has delayed their identification by scholars over the years, it may also mean that other titles may still survive, as yet unidentified, and will be revealed in the fullness of time.

The stories of the provenance of the surviving O’Kalem films are rich and varied. A print of The Lad From Old Ireland with German inter-titles was bequeathed to the Irish Film Archive by film archivist and historian Liam O’Leary.  We understand that this print had been struck from a copy within the collection (now held at the British Film Institute) of Swiss Jesuit, Abbé Josef Joie Jesuit, who gathered material for educational purposes between 1900 and 1919. Other O’Kalem tiles in Liam’s bequest were For Ireland’s Sake and You Remember Ellen. His Mother (Zijn Moeder) was recently identified by Dr Denis Condon (NUIM) and acquired by the Irish Film Archive from the Dutch Filmmuseum. Bold Emmet Ireland’s Martyr was identified within the collections of the Library of Congress and acquired in 1998 for an Irish Film Archive programme marking the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion. Prints of Rory O’More were acquired by the IFI (then National Film Institute) from the British Film Institute in the 1970s for distribution to Irish secondary school students for film study purposes. The Colleen Bawn was another acquisition from the BFI. In 2010, a 16mm negative of one reel of Come Back to Erin was found within the collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its provenance and the whereabouts of the other two thirds of the film remains unknown.

While it is a tragedy that less than a third of the O Kalem films are known to now exist, their survival rate, relative to that of the full silent cinema canon is high. The films were all originally produced on 35mm nitro-cellulose based stock. Many of the films have disappeared due to the instability of the stock and its inevitable deterioration over time.  The eight films that have survived have done so thanks to the intervention of FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) members, which acquired, preserved and duplicated the films – thus rendering them permanently accessible for audiences of today and tomorrow.

The films for this DVD project were meticulously telecined to digital format at Screen Scene in Dublin.  Their transfer was supervised by Manus McManus, Senior Collections Officer at the Archive.  The transfer was carried out at a variety of speeds (corresponding to irregularities in original camera speeds) to achieve smooth and natural motion. The films are presented here in original silent full-frame aspect ratio. Our aim is to present the films in a manner which bears evidence of the original film formats.  We have avoided the possibility of eliminating all signs of wear and tear – along with the grain and texture of the original film – and present the material with some patina of age.  We present The Lad From Old Ireland and His Mother in their original language versions – but also in versions which carry newly translated English titles. Some explanatory titles have been introduced to explain gaps in the narrative where parts of the original films are missing.

Ireland in May 1913

Ireland in May 1913
Poverty was a major problem in Dublin’s inner city in 1913, with thousands of families living in overcrowded, one-room units.Photo: Walter Osborne, The Fishmarket, Patrick Street, c. 1893: Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

By Dr. Will Murphy

During the last days of April 1913 the Abbey Theatre staged a one-act drama by George Fitzmaurice. In the play, facilitated by nine pairs of magic glasses that he bought from an old woman he met on the way to the pattern at Lyre, thirty-eight year old Jaymony Shanahan has escaped into a fantasy world in the top loft of the house he occupies with his mother and father in rural Kerry. The visions Jaymony has when using The Magic Glasses are, he insists, ‘better than being in the slush – the same old thing every day – this is an ugly spot, and the people ignorant, grumpy and savage.’ Instead, secluded in the top loft, he sees worldly wonders and riches; he kisses a fantastical and beautiful woman (maybe two); he leads an army that drives the Saxon ‘through the plains of Desmond, and on and on, even to the Eastern sea.’ His parents and his brothers, respectable policemen both, are ‘lighting with shame on account of’ this behaviour and so the parents seek a cure from a ‘quack’, with fatal consequences for Jaymony. Jaymony Shanahan was not alone in finding the conditions of Irish life less than satisfying in the spring of 1913, but not equipped with magic glasses the Irish population sought its sometimes conflicting answers elsewhere.

Most obviously, the prospect of Home Rule continued to generate hopes and fears. On 24 January, a large meeting of pro-Home Rule Protestants, among them W.B. Yeats and Sir Nugent Everard, had taken place at the Antient Concert Rooms, Dublin. There they passed resolutions asserting that Protestants would not ‘suffer any curtailment of their civil and religious freedoms’ under Home Rule and arguing that self-government would prove ‘the most powerful solvent for sectarian animosities.’ Within a week, however, the overlap of political and sectarian animosities was all too evident at a closely fought by-election for the constituency of Londonderry and with the foundation of the Ulster Volunteers.

The Antient Concert Rooms were located on Great Brunswick Street in Dublin’s inner city. On some of the nearby streets more than two-thirds of the premises were tenements in which the urban poor lived in over-crowded one-room units with little, if any, sanitation. As recently as 1901 36% of Dublin families lived in such housing and, consequently, in that city in 1905 the death rate per thousand was 22.3, which was considerably worse than the figure for Liverpool or Birmingham or London.

When, in the March 1913 in the journal Studies, Conor Maguire, the district medical officer for Claremorris, County Mayo, argued that if the diseases of poverty were to be eradicated in urban and rural Ireland then the first priority had to be improved housing, he was contributing to a movement that had gained some recent ground. The Labourers’ (Ireland) Act of 1906 had provided significant funding for the construction of cottages for rural labourers – 39,241 of these were built in 1912 alone – but The Housing of the Working Classes (Ireland) Act of 1908 was proving a less effective mechanism for change in municipal districts. In calling for the isolation of tuberculosis sufferers, Maguire also reflected a contemporary trend, which saw the opening of sanitoria in Antrim, Cork and Dublin between 1906 and 1912. The Liberal government had facilitated these and other social reforms – including old age pensions and national insurance – in a flurry of welfare legislation introduced since their return to power in 1906.

In 1913 the route to a better life for many remained emigration: according to official emigration returns, 405,941 people (most of them unskilled) left Ireland between 1901 and 1912. Counties in the west of Ireland, where many continued to live on small holdings of poor land, still tended to have the highest rates of emigration. For others, acquiring ownership of land and increasing the size of their holdings seemed to promise prosperity: in the nine years following the introduction of the Wyndham Land Act of 1903 4.25 million acres changed hands, mostly from landlord to tenant. This change was rapid, but not quick enough for those who had not benefitted. In 1912 the RIC reported 307 agrarian outrages and 69 cattle drives across the country. Optimism around co-operation had begun to dim somewhat, but the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, founded in 1894, had around a thousand affiliated societies in 1913 whose members still believed that this movement was a vehicle of progress.

The provision of adequate housing for the working classes was a significant problem in municipal districts. This photograph shows Bridgefoot Street in Dublin in the early 20th century (Reproduced courtesy of Dublin City Public Libraries)

The urban working-classes, meanwhile, increasingly turned to trade unionism to improve their lot: by May 1913 the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which had been founded as recently as December 1908, had about 15,000 members. In January 1913 Richard Corish and John Lynch, the leading figures in the ITGWU in Wexford and Sligo towns respectively, were elected to sit on their local corporations. When, in August 1911, Wexford employers had locked out workers rather than recognise the ITGWU, Corish led the trade union’s campaign. This had ended, in February 1912, in an effective victory for the union. In June 1912 Lynch took a leading part in a successful strike during a dispute with the Sligo Steam Navigation Company. Another strike began in March 1913, involving the same parties and the National Sailor’s and Firemen’s Union, and on 1 May this dispute, which had precipitated considerable violence and intimidation on both sides, was ongoing.

Activists for female suffrage, who were drawn largely from the urban middle-classes, believed that the parliamentary vote for women would bring not just equality but better governance. In January 1913 the Connacht Women’s Franchise League became the latest addition to a growing number of franchise organisations while, as January became February, four members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League were imprisoned at Tullamore when they protested their ongoing ‘votelessness’ by smashing windows in government offices. Within days they went on hunger strike, demanding treatment as political prisoners.

This desire for improvement was also manifest when a series of local government bodies, often assisted by the Carnegie Trust, opened of a series of public libraries in the early years of the century. This included Youghal library, which opened in March 1913. From 1911 the reading matter of the increasingly literate population had become the subject of considerable public controversy, a controversy driven largely, though not exclusively, by conservative Catholic organisations. This theme featured heavily in the Lenten pastorals of February 1913 with Bishop O’Donnell of Raphoe claiming that the campaign had constituted ‘a national uprising against evil literature because it is alien, debasing and corrupting.’

The same guardians of public morals had similar concerns about those new spaces for popular entertainment, cinemas, into which the urban population escaped in rapidly growing numbers. On 24 March 1913 one of these ‘new picture palaces’, which could seat 500 people, opened on Rathmines Road. Spectating at sport was another, evermore popular, diversion. The final of the GAA’s Croke Memorial Tournament between the football teams of Kerry and Louth, scheduled for 4 May, generated such excited anticipation that Frank Dineen, the owner of the venue, the sports grounds on Jones’ Road, modified his stadium to increase its capacity to 10,000. Months earlier, in October 1912, Shelbourne FC had launched a limited company to fund the construction of new grounds aimed at capitalising upon this craving for sport.

If then, unlike Jaymony Shanahan, one left one’s loft on 1 May 1913 one could find an Ireland characterised by ‘the same old thing every day’, but one could also find people animated by contested ideas and ambitions, changing economic and social conditions, vibrant popular cultures, and an increasingly polarised politics.

Dr. Will Murphy is a lecturer in Irish Studies at the Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University. This article is adapted from a chapter he published in Paul Daly, Ronan O’Brien and Paul Rouse eds., Making the Difference?: The Irish Labour Party, 1912-2012 (Collins Press)

Rank-and-file members of 1916 GPO garrison documented in labour of love

A new book tells of the lives of ordinary men and women who took part in Rising

Jimmy Wren, who has written a book, The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916, at his home in Donnycarney. On the wall is a group photograph of Rising participants,  taken in 1936. Photograph: Dave MeehanJimmy Wren, who has written a book, The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916, at his home in Donnycarney. On the wall is a group photograph of Rising participants, taken in 1936. Photograph: Dave Meehan

In Jimmy Wren’s north Dublin home, there’s a dated black-and-white photograph in the hall showing about 300 people. The image is shallow but very wide. Behind the first row of people seated, there are five more rows, with everyone standing on raised ground so all may be seen.

“That’s my father there,” says Jimmy pointing to a small face in one of the middle rows, over on the right side of the frame, before going on to identify some of the others. “Sean T O’Kelly; Stephenson, the city librarian, Paddy Stephenson; Harry Colley. It’s some photograph,” he says.

It is, and it was taken in 1938. “Croke Park, Hill 16,” says Jimmy by way of explanation, as he peers intensely at the picture, “before the Galway-Kerry All-Ireland final.” “Galway won,” he adds with a smile.

The people in the photograph all took part in the 1916 Rising, a subject dear to Jimmy’s heart and the basis of his latest book, The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916 – A Biographical Dictionary. The volume is a comprehensive, accessible and altogether fascinating, bringing together of data on the men and women who fought in and around the GPO.

Described accurately in a foreword by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Críona Ní Dhálaigh, as a treasure and a labour of love, the book has been 30 years in the making.

“My aim was to bring the story of the people who wouldn’t normally appear [in history books] just to have a record of them in a publication,” says Jimmy, a man of few words and much modesty. “I always had an interest [in history] since school. I am very interested in local history.”

Jimmy is aged 78 and has written six other books on Dublin local history and the GAA. He has lived alone since the death 15 years ago of his wife Bernadette. For more than 40 years, he was a supervisor in the housing department of Dublin Corporation, overseeing the caretakers in the council’s inner city flat schemes.

His new book contains the biographies of 572 people. To date, the figure most commonly given for the number of men and women in the GPO garrison has been just over 400. However, by examining old newspapers, the archives of the Military History Bureau, the recently made available pension records and the 1916 Roll of Honour that was created in 1936, Jimmy has come up with what he says he believes is a comprehensive record of participants in the garrison.

“I don’t think there has been any biographies of the general participants, except leaders and well-known people,” says Jimmy. “This is about the ordinary rank-and-file.”

Some 320 of the 572 biographies are illustrated with small pen-and-ink portraits that Jimmy drew himself, using as his guide such grainy photographs as he could find in old newspapers. The book also contains a wealth of social data, compiled with the help of Kildare teacher David Gorry, confirming the strongly working class, north inner-city Dublin character of the rebels.

Of the known addresses of members of the garrison, 287 were in the north inner city. By age, 362 were under 30 and by social class, 56 per cent were skilled workers, shop assistants and clerks, and 18 per cent were semi- or unskilled workers.

“A lot of these were working people,” says Jimmy. “They were just patriotic. Beyond that, some of them weren’t very well educated. It was just pure patriotism that they took part.”

Thumbing through the volume, Jimmy stops at random entries and is able to talk about them all, as though he and they are old acquaintances. Page 222: Andy Mulligan, Irish Citizen Army; occupation: coal carter. “Andy Mulligan,” says Jimmy, “he’s an interesting guy. They nicknamed him ‘The Dazzler’. He was a carter and brought the ammunition and guns from Liberty Hall to the GPO.”

Mulligan also hauled the typeset from West’s Printers on Capel Street to Liberty Hall for the printing of the Proclamation. After the Rising, he was interned for four months in Frongoch camp in Wales but later helped reorganise the Citizen Army. He died an invalid in St Kevin’s Hospital in 1942.

“That guy there,” says Jimmy pointing to an entry beside The Dazzler, “that’s Stephen Mulvey. He was attached to the Bray company of the Volunteers and walked into the city from there. He won an All-Ireland medal with Dublin in 1902.”

Jimmy’s father, also named Jimmy, was also in the GPO, going there from his home on the North Strand. “On Easter Monday,” says his entry, “at the age of 17½, he, accompanied his first cousin, Tommy Mahon, and friend, Paddy Halpin, went to the GPO and offered his services. He was given a shotgun and put on sentry duty.

“He was later sent out with dispatches and was attacked in the street by a pro-British crowd. He was badly beaten and he received a back injury. He made his way back to the GPO and was ordered home due to illness.”

After the Rising, Halpin emigrated to America and had a successful career as a civilian foreman with the US navy. Mahon joined the Free State Army but resigned before the Civil War and worked as a water mains inspector with Dublin Corporation.

According to Jimmy’s record, there were 74 women associated with the garrison at one time or another throughout Easter Week. The biographies start and end with women. The first is Mary (Molly) Adrien from north Co Dublin, who delivered dispatches between Thomas Ashe of the Fingal Brigade and Patrick Pearse, and scouted the coastline.

Described as a “heroine ranking with the bravest”, she tended the wounded, volunteers and police, in the battle of Ashbourne.

The final biography is that of Nancy de Paor, a member of Cumann na mBan and daughter of prominent nationalist activists Jennie de Paor, founder of the Ladies Land League, and John Wyse Power, a prominent member of Sinn Féin.

From the GPO, de Paor delivered dispatches for Pearse and helped organise food for the rebels inside the building, and, with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, for rebels at the Royal College of Surgeons as well. After independence, she joined the Civil Service.

Because he has worked so long on the book, Jimmy Wren met a number of those whose stories he tells. Most were gone by the 1970s, however, and many died in poverty. “What struck me,” he says, “was the amount of people that died of ill-health – TB and from the result of imprisonment and taking part in Civil War . . . Their health was affected very badly.

“There was one guy, Largan, he was a Citizen Army man, he ended up selling newspapers. They didn’t get any help from the State at the time. There was Civil War politics involved in the pensions business. Michael Largan, a very sad one that. He died in the Pigeon House sanatorium. A lot of them died in the Pigeon House.”

When Largan was admitted in 1945 to the TB sanatorium in Poolbeg, formerly known as the Allan Ryan Home, his clothes were in such poor condition, they had to be burned. Was Largan’s story typical? For many, yes, says Jimmy: “Poverty and ill-health – the result of imprisonment and hardship.”

Were they let down by the country for which they fought?

Jimmy ascribes much to the way in which 1916 pensions were paid initially only to those rebels who took the Free State side in the Civil War.

“At first, pensions were only given to the Free State Army people. And then when Fianna Fáil got in ’31, they included everybody that took part in the Rising. But before that, it was just one side.”

He is phlegmatic as to the Ireland inherited from the Rising and War of Independence, noting today’s housing crisis and levels of poverty. “I suppose it’s the same in other countries too; you have a lot of poor.” The GPO Garrison Easter Week 1916 is published by Geography Publications (with financial support from the GAA and Dublin City Council) and is available from bookshops, including Eason

The Chemistry of Whisky


Chemistry of Whisky

Whisky is one of the world’s most popular spirits, and comes in many different classes and types. The character and flavour of these differing types vary widely; this, of course, comes down to their varying chemical composition. Here, we take a look at where some of these different compounds come from, and what they contribute.

Making whisky is, to an extent, a relatively simple process (albeit a long one). It starts with barley, which is soaked in water and then dried. The manner in which this drying is accomplished can affect the chemical composition of the finished whisky, and in the case of Scottish whiskies, was traditionally carried out using peat fires. The barley is then milled, then added to water. Mashing breaks down the starch in the barley into sugars, producing a sugary liquid called wort which can be used in the next stage of the process.

This is where fermentation comes in. Yeast is added to the wort, which turns the sugars into alcohol; the exact yeast used can also have an effect on the final taste. After fermentation, the alcohol percentage of the wort is between 5-10%. Up to this point, the process has differed little from that which produces beers, but here is where it deviates.

After fermentation, the liquid is referred to as the ‘wash’. It is transferred into a copper still – a piece of apparatus that functions exactly like a distillation apparatus in chemistry classrooms, albeit on a much larger scale. The alcohol desired from this process is that which comes out during the middle of the distillation process, known as the ‘heart’. The ‘foreshots’ which come out first are the compounds with the lowest boiling points, and include methanol, whilst the ‘feints’ which come out at the end of the distillation are mostly water. The ‘heart’, when removed, has an alcohol content of up to 70%.

The final, most important step of whisky manufacture is ageing. The spirit is placed in oak barrels, and stored to mature for at least 3 years before it is then bottled and sold. This ageing process is also a primary source of chemical compounds in the finished product. Additionally, the environment in which the casks are stored can also have an influence on composition.

So, now that we know a little more about how whisky is produced, it’s high time we discussed some of the compounds that give it its flavour.

Phenolic Compounds

Phenols primarily contribute bitterness and smokiness to a whisky’s flavour. They’re particularly noticeable in whisky produced from barley that was dried using peat fires, as is still the case in a number of Scottish distilleries. The burning produces the phenolic compounds in the smoke, which are then absorbed by the barley. Charring of the barrels in which the whisky is later matured can also lead to the presence of phenolic compounds in the spirit.

Phenol, cresols, xylenol and guaiacol are amongst the most important phenolic compounds in whisky, in terms of contribution to flavour. Guaiacol is also somewhat responsible for smokey flavours in coffee, and in smoked meats. Compounds called cresols are the culprits when it comes to the oft-mentioned similarity in aroma between Scotch whisky and band-aids. The particular compound responsible is meta-cresol, which has a medicinal aroma, and was also traditionally used in band-aids as an antiseptic. Eugenol is also present in many whiskies, a compound more commonly found in cloves, and partly responsible for their spicy aroma.

Whisky Lactones

A large number of compounds get into the whisky during the ageing process. Amongst these are two compounds that have actually taken on whisky’s name: the whisky lactones. These are, in fact, just isomers of each other, and chemically are named cis- and trans-3-methyl-4-octanolide. Both of these isomers originate from the oak barrels in which the whisky is aged, and both offer a coconut flavour. The cis isomer is the dominant of the two, and has a stronger, spicier flavour.


Although not shown in the graphic, acetaldehyde is a feature in many whiskies, representing a large percentage of the total aldehyde content. It originates from the fermentation process, and though some is lost in the ‘foreshots’ during the distillation process, some remains, and adds a pungent, sharp note to the taste.

Other aldehydes originate, as with the whisky lactones, from the oak barrels in which the whisky is matured. Syringaldehyde gives a spicy, smoky note, with furfural providing an almond-like, grainy flavour. More familiar is vanillin, the compound that also gives vanilla its aroma. Bourbons are particularly noted for their vanillin content; new casks are used for the ageing of each batch of bourbon, as the vanillin content of the wood is much lower after one ageing cycle. Other aldehydes from the wood include coniferaldehyde and sinapaldehyde.

Additionally, some simpler aldehydes such as hexanal can contribute a grassy note in some whiskies, whilst a malty flavour is associated with 2- and 3-methylbutanal.


A large number of esters are produced during the fermentation process, resulting from the combination of alcohols and either fatty acids, or the acetates produced during fermentation. Many light esters with fruity flavours and aromas are formed, though these are removed in the ‘foreshots’ during the distillation process. These include isoamyl acetate, an ester with a banana-like aroma. The most abundant ester in the ‘heart’ is commonly ethyl hexanoate, which has an aroma described as apple-like. There are a whole range of other esters that can be formed (check out this handy guide to their aromas), and these can be influenced by fermentation conditions.

Many whiskies undergo chill filtration to remove much of the ester concentration from the final product. The reasons for this are purely aesthetic, as their presence can contribute to the development of cloudiness in the final product.

Other Compounds

Other compounds in whiskey, outside of the aforementioned categories, can further contribute to its character. For example, two compounds commonly found in roses, beta-damascenone and phenylethyl alcohol, can also be found in some whiskies, and contribute a floral note. Diacetyl, a compound commonly associated with off-flavours in beers, is also found in whiskies, and has a buttery aroma.

The presence of some compounds is less than desirable. Sulfur-containing compounds, from the simple hydrogen sulfide to the more complex sulfur-containing aromatic compounds, are the primary cause of off-flavours in whisky. Their presence is reduced by the use of copper stills, as the copper is capable of binding the sulfur compounds, and preventing them from making their way into the final spirit.

Whilst we’ve mentioned a fair number of compounds here, really, we’ve barely scratched the surface as far as the assortment of compounds in whisky are concerned. Whilst it would be an impossibility to discuss them all, you can read a little more about some of them via the further reading links below. In the meantime, if you’re a whisky drinker, you’ll hopefully have a new-found appreciation for the chemical complexity of the spirit the next time you pour yourself a dram!


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References & Further Reading