Shared stories strengthen bonds between Beaver Island and Arranmore
By Carolyn Farrar
A team of students from the United States were on rainn Mhr last Friday to try and bridge the nearly 3,400 miles and 150 years between the Donegal island and an archaeological dig on its "twin", Beaver Island in the United States.
Deb Rotman, professor of archaeology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, is leading a team of students in an dig on Beaver Island, which was "twinned" with rainn Mhr in 2000. A monument on rainn Mhr features a beaver for Beaver Island, an otter representing rainn Mhr and a fish to represent the links between the two.
The connections between the islands date back to the years after the Great Famine, when families from rainn Mhr emigrated to Beaver. By 1880 there was an estimated 250-plus families with rainn Mhr connections on the Michigan island.
Beaver Island sits in the vast expanse of Lake Michigan, about 30 miles from the coast. It takes a little more than two hours to reach Beaver Island by ferry, far longer than the 20-minute ferry ride that separates rainn Mhr from the Donegal village of Burtonport, or Ailt an Chorrin.
But Beaver Island was long a centre of timber and fishing, and located on a marine trade route, said Notre Dame student Rhiannon Duke, age 21, of Exeter, New Hampshire. "So it was less remote than it may seem," she said.
Rhiannon was one of three of Deb Rotman's students who were on rainn Mhr this past weekend to talk to islanders about life on the island in the old days -- their research will better equip them to analyse the items they have uncovered in the dig. They were heading next to Dublin, for further research at the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin and the national land valuation office.
In earlier research the students discovered that "there is not a lot written about Arranmore," said student Bianca Fernandez, age 22, of Miami, Florida. The Donegal island has "kind of been left off the records," she said.
The students landed in Dublin early on Thursday and flew to Donegal Airport at Carrickfinn, finishing their journey to rainn Mhr by taxi and ferry. On Friday they visited the day centre on the island, to talk to some older residents and others.
Rhiannon said that the people of Beaver Island had a "can-do attitude". There was the sense that they didn't need anyone's help, a sense of independence that resonated with the residents of rainn Mhr.
Bridget Gallagher recalled islanders making their own creels, and as a child she and her contemporaries would bring the donkeys to the bog after school to fill the same creels with turf. Everything was made in the home, and Brigid O'Hara remembered with fondness the "lovely bread, and nice, fresh buttermilk."
There were other things that hit home with the islanders. For example, at the Beaver Island dig the students had unearthed pieces of ceramic decorated in a popular 19th-century pattern called Blue Willow. They have seen the same pattern on ceramics at heritage sites in Ireland, and Brigid and Bridget both said they had pieces of the ceramic with the same pattern in their homes.
"It was a fashionable thing to have in your house," said Notre Dame student Jackie Thomas, age 21, of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The Beaver Island Historical Society is an official partner in the project and the researchers' initial dig is at a mid-19th century homestead that was donated to the society. Deb Rotman said the history of the house "is really a snapshot of the spectrum of the historical occupation of the island".
The rainn Mhr men and women told the students of a simpler time, when families gathered at each other's houses for an evening of story-telling, or singing, or dancing, and when travel to the mainland was by yawls or half-deckers instead of ferries. Until electricity and water services came to rainn Mhr around the mid-20th century, the islanders lived lives very similar to those found on the island decades earlier, and not unlike those on Beaver Island.
"They had the same lifestyle out there as we had here - fishing and cropping," said Charlie Boyle, who looked after the rainn Mhr lighthouse until 1996. About five years ago, when some people from Beaver Island visited rainn Mhr to look up their ancestors, he discovered that a great-aunt of his had emigrated there. The people who arrived were his great-aunt's great-grandchildren.
Charlie was 17 when his father died and he didn't remembered hearing of his family's Beaver Island connection, "but maybe at that age I wouldn't be interested," he said.
"When people left, that was it," Charlie recalled. It was too expensive to phone home, and "letters were few and far between".
The connection to Beaver Island was not often discussed on rainn Mhr until plans to twin the islands were proposed, and Beaver Island resident Bill McDonough was a central figure in that process. The web site for his business, McDonough's Market, describes Beaver Island as "America's Emerald Isle".
The students said Bill, who has a holiday house on rainn Mhr, was devoted to preserving Beaver Island's connections to Donegal.
"He loves this place," Bianca said. "He said he tears up when he has to leave."
The students said they understand there are no longer any direct blood ties between the people of the two islands. But there is a Donegal Bay on Beaver Island and other place names that reflect Irish heritage, said Bianca. "They've made the place Irish," she said. Bianca is studying how places and people influence each other, and was researching townland names on rainn Mhr.
Jackie is particularly interested in issues of domesticity. She brought such tools as an inclinometer, to measure the pitch of the roof, studied the positions of derelict rainn Mhr cottages and mapped their rooms. Bridget Gallagher sketched a floor plan of a traditional cottage for her.
Jackie also learned something she didn't expect. When she was speaking with Bridget, someone asked the student if she had Irish connections. Jackie said she was related to the Manleys of Mayo. Bridget's cousin Packie Ward was in the company as well, and the rainn Mhr cousins are also related to Manleys of Mayo.
"The two of us looked at each other," Bridget said.
"That was really exciting," Jackie said. They are now looking into whether they are related to each other.
Rhiannon had a particular interest in marriage practices, how couples found each other and how their unions were celebrated. Mary Gallagher spoke of a marriage from many, many years ago between a woman in her 30s and a much younger man. The woman first dismissed his proposal because of his age, but "her mother said, ‘You won't get a another chance', so she called him back and took him anyway," Mary said.
Practicalities were sometimes a factor in the past, some said. John O'Hara drew hearty laughter from those around the table when he said, "If you had soft, bog turf you married a woman with big feet." He added later that a man "with a few acres" would be popular.
"You could be as homely as I am and get a fine-looking woman," he said, to more laughter.
Islanders told the students about rainn Mhr's fishing heritage and the history of people emigrating to Scotland and other parts of the UK for work, from tattie-hokers to Tunnel Tigers.
In recent years some people have returned to the island, "and it's great to see all the young ones, the couples, coming back home again," said islander Tony Gallagher, former manager of the comharchumann.
The students said they were welcomed warmly when they arrived at rainn Mhr, and spent their first night at Teach Phil Bn, sitting with session musicians and speaking with local people. The women had not brought songs for the sing-song, but they danced.
Jackie described their evening at the pub, trying to recall the dance they learned. It had something to do with a donkey, she said, though she could not recall the name of the dance.
"Did you ‘shoe the donkey'?" John O'Hara asked. That's it, Jackie said, smiling. There was affectionate laughter from the islanders around her. There was a lot of laughter and smiles at the day centre last Friday as stories were shared around the room.
"It was nice remembering again," Bridget Gallagher said.
The Beaver Island Project: Historical Archaeology of 19th-Century Irish America in the Midwest, is documented at the web site, http://blogs.nd.edu/irishstories. The site details questions researchers hope to address, and also offers student research into aspects of life, including agricultural labour, domesticity and temperance. The site also allows visitors to post comments.
"We would love for people to share their thoughts," Deb Rotman said. "If there is a story they want to tell, if they want to contribute in some way to the project in terms of their knowledge and history, we would love for them to be involved. We would like this to be a community endeavour, both Beaver Island and Arranmore."
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.