The Boissevains and Ballynatray

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A few miles north of Youghal, County Cork, on a bend of the River Blackwater, in one of the most beautiful places in Ireland, stands Ballynatray House.

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The present house dates from 1795. In 1969, Horace Holroyd-Smyth, who died in a shooting accident, bequeathed the house and the 850 acre estate to his cousins, the Ponsonbys of County Tipperary. It had deteriorated badly by this time and it continued to decay in the years that followed. It looked as if dereliction was going to be its fate.

This would have been an ignominious end for a house that had survived the destruction by the IRA of so many great houses in Ireland during the revolutionary period of 1919 to 1923.  The wanton burning and looting that took place is a shameful blot on our history.  Even Stalin made sure that the palaces of the Tsars were preserved for posterity.

Then, in 1995, a little miracle occurred. A wealthy couple, Serge and Henriette Boissevain, had been searching Europe for a suitable home and they came upon Ballynatray.  They purchased it for £1.5 million.

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Henriette and Serge Boissevain. Henriette was born in London on 30th January 1949, the daughter of Adolph Willem Carel Bentinck Van Schoonheten and Gabrielle Wilhelmine Hedwig Marie Thyssen-Bornemisza Von Kaszony.  Her uncle was the German steel tycoon Baron “Heini” Thyssen-Bornemisza .  Serge was born on 10th July 1947 in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, Ile-De-France.  They had known each other as teenagers but went their separate ways. Serge married Chantal Marie Francoise Girault in Marseille in 1969 but the marriage was dissolved in 1977. Henriette married the Marquess of Northampton but this ended in divorce. She then married Richard Thompson, a businessman and this was also dissolved. Serge and Henriette met again and were married in 1978. They were inseparable for the rest of their lives.

Over the next few years they spent millions renovating the house and improving the estate. They employed the best engineers, builders and craftsmen with one end in mind: transform the crumbling residence into a jewel that would sparkle by the waters of the Blackwater.  And in this they were singularly successful – Ballynatray now stands resplendent, not merely restored to its former glory but surpassing it.

But then, after this investment of time, money and love into Ballynatray, the Boissevains decided to sell up and move to southern Spain. Henriette’s health required that she live in a warmer and drier climate. The estate was sold in 2004 for €12 million to English businessman Henry Gwyn Jones who has lived there since.

In Almadén de la Plata, 85kms north of Seville, Serge and Henriette set up a ranch for the breeding of Cartujano horses, a passion of Henriette’s. However, in November 2010, Henriette died suddenly. She was only 61 years old. Serge was bereft and he went into a spiral of despair which culminated in his taking his own life a couple of months later in January 2011. He was 63. They had been married for 34 years.

This was a tragic conclusion to the lives of the couple who did so much to rescue and restore Ballynatray. The house and its grounds stand testament to their achievement and they will be remembered with gratitude for generations to come.

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Molana Abbey on the Ballynatray Estate. It was founded in 510 Ad by Mael an Faidh (Mael the Prophet). The existing ruins are of the Augustinian Priory established by Raymond Le Gros. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538.

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Molana Abbey is on the bottom left. It was originally an island – Dairinis – but a causeway was built in the 19th century to connect it with the mainland. Ballynatray House is in the upper centre. 

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The ruined Church of Ireland church at Templemichael to the south of Ballynatray. The Boissevains installed a car park here for visitors  to the church and Molana Abbey.  

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Templemichael Quay.  Stanley Kubrick filmed the duel scene from “Barry Lyndon” here.  Ballynatray Estate was also used for other scenes in the film. 

 

 

 

Dunlough Castle

The first sight of Dunlough Castle invariably elicits the response: “wow!”

After a 20 minute walk first through pleasant meadows and then an easy climb up rocky ground the castle with its three towers, bounded on one side by sheer cliffs and on the other by a lake, comes into view.

“Wow” indeed.

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(Left click on any photo to see it in larger size.)  

“A hidden gem” is an over-used travel cliché but it is appropriate in this instance. The castle, on the north-western point of the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork, is hidden from the public road and is not touted in any brochure as a popular destination. It is on private property, is not sign-posted in any way, and visitors are not so much encouraged as tolerated. It is well worth seeking out, however.

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The lake was man-made. A legend persists that if one sees the spectral Lady Of The Lake one’s death will follow soon. 

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It was built in 1207 by Donagh O’Mahony who was driven west to this extremity by the invading Normans and their Irish allies. The O’Mahony clan lived peacefully here and in other castles in the area for the next 400 years and earned a living primarily from fishing related activities. Their fortunes declined after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 and by 1627 the castle had passed into loyalist hands. It was probably abandoned soon afterwards.

The dry-stone construction nature of the building has meant that many of the stones have fallen over the centuries. Still, for a castle that is over 800 years old, and given its location in one of the wildest parts of Ireland, it is in remarkably good condition. Visitors should note that there is a risk in getting too close to it (although it is impossible to resist) as one never knows if the next falling stone could be on one’s head!

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Detail showing the dry-stone (no mortar) construction and some of the fallen stones.

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An interior view of one of the towers. 

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Note the sheer drop into the sea.

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On the ground above the castle is this memorial to Andy Brubaker who died on 24th March, 1996. I would welcome any information on him.

Where it is.

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How to get there.

If you have a SatNav dial in these co-ordinates: 51.478, -9.815.

This will bring you to the small car parking area at the edge of Dunlough Bay.

If not, keep on the road for Mizen Head. When you come to the junction with a sign showing Mizen Head 3kms to the left continue on straight, turn right at the next junction and keep on the narrow road until you reach the car park.

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The car parking area is next to the magnificent Dunlough Bay.  

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The land is private property and is owned by the famous French/German writer and illustrator Tomi Ungererer whose  house is in the distance. From here, you walk. You are *not* allowed to drive up that road.  

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The route is roughly as shown on this map.

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Veer left as shown before you come to the house. Do *not* approach it!

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I would suggest €2 as an appropriate donation.

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The route is through verdant meadows and (in the distance) steeper rocky ground.

When you get back it is worth staying awhile to drink in the beauty of Dunlough Bay. I was there on a beautiful day in mid-Summer. It must be a wild place indeed during a winter storm.

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Dunlough Bay from next to the car parking area.  

 

(Thanks to Noel Lane of Cork City who told me about this magical place.)

 

 

 

Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located about 12 kilometres off the coast of County Kerry. I have been going there once a year for several years now and the trip never fails to lift the spirit. It is Ireland’s Machu Picchu.

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Boats leave for the island from the village of Portmagee between April and September, weather permitting. It is necessary to book at least a day beforehand as demand for places can be quite brisk. The following are some contact numbers:

  • Pat Joe Murphy  – 087 2342168
  • Joe Roddy – 087 1209924
  • Casey’s  – 066 2371017

Others may be found by doing a Google search. In all, about 10 boats with a capacity for 12 persons each make the trip. They leave at 10am and the journey takes about 50 minutes each way. You are given a maximum of 2½ hours on the island. Expect to pay upwards of €50 a head. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Be aware that the crossing can be very rough. My single most scary boat-trip ever was to Skellig Michael a few years ago. The sea was flat calm in the inner harbour at Portmagee but once we hit the open sea it became a white-knuckle ride. It was like being on a roller coaster with someone throwing a bucket of water at you every 30 seconds or so. Amazingly, none of the 12 passengers, all clinging on for dear life on the open deck, got sea-sick. We should have expected the worst, I suppose, when the skipper insisted on us all donning yellow oilskin jackets and trousers before we embarked.

Be aware also that there are no facilities on the island – not even a rock you can go behind – so be sure to visit the public toilet at the entrance to Portmagee before you set out.

Neither is it a place to visit if you don’t like heights and/or are prone to vertigo. There have been fatalities among visitors, most recently in 2009 when 2 American tourists died – on separate occasions – from falling from a ledge near the beginning of the stone stairway. There are 700 steps up to the remains of the monastic settlement on the top of the island and it can be very challenging for anyone who is unfit.

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The route that visitors are confined to is outlined in red. After disembarking from the boat, the route follows a gentle incline along the Lighthouse Road.

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Blind Man’s Cove – where the boats drop off and collect visitors. Getting on and off the boats can be tricky when the water is choppy – you have to carefully time your jump from the boat to the pier and vice versa.      

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The Lighthouse Road

It is only when one comes to the South Steps that the challenging part begins – the steep climb to the top. Some people, realising that it is beyond their capabilities, are content not to wander beyond this point and are happy to relax in the sunshine and watch the birds instead.  On my last visit (5th June 2014) there was a guide at the bottom of the steps who gave a safety lecture to everyone before allowing them to go further.

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The start of the South Steps. The most dangerous part is where the lady on the right is walking. To her left is the 20 foot drop where the recent fatalities occurred. A chain has since been inserted in the rock as a safety measure.  

       

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The dangerous ledge with safety chain.

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Notice the absence of handrails. There had been demands for them in the aftermath of the recent deaths but, wisely, the Office of Public Works (which looks after the island) refused to countenance them as they would detract from the character of the place.  It is a wilderness area and it is important that it remains so. 

Excavation and restoration work has been ongoing every summer since 1978 in order to learn more about the monastic settlement and to preserve it for future generations. It is not known exactly when the first monks came here but it is probable that it was in the 6th Century. The earliest written record of a monastery was in 824 AD when there was a Norse raid on the island. By the 11th Century the island had been dedicated to St Michael and probably became a place of pilgrimage around this time too. Monks continued to live here until the late 13th Century when, due to climate change resulting in colder winters and stormier seas, and changes in Irish ecclesiastical structures, they left for the mainland and settled in Ballinskelligs.  It is likely though that some monks returned for the summer months for a long time after that.

The island continued to be owned by the Augustinians until 1578 when, in the aftermath of the Desmond Rebellion, Queen Elizabeth 1 dissolved certain monasteries that had been under the Earl of Desmond’s protection. Skellig Michael was given to the (secular) Butler family and it remained with the family until 1820 when it was purchased by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin – the predecessor of the Commissioners of Irish Lights – which wanted to build 2 lighthouses on it.

The building of the lighthouses was completed in 1826. During the construction period the workers occupied the ancient beehive cells in the old monastery.

In 1880 the Office of Public Works took over responsibility for the monastery and this has continued to the present day.  Apart from the heliport and the lighthouses (only one of which is still operational) –  the property of the Commissioners of Irish Lights – the island is owned by the Government of Ireland. It is a National Monument by reason of its historical, architectural and archaeological importance.

It 1996 it attained UNESCO World Heritage status due to its “outstanding universal significance”.

 

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The beehive huts, so-called because of their resemblance to beehives, which housed the monks.

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The monks graveyard. 

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Looking across to Little Skellig and the Kerry Coast from the monastery. 

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The Romanesque window in St Michael’s Chapel before the restoration work of the last two years. 

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The window as it is now. 

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A wider view of the newly restored chapel. 

I have to say I got an unpleasant shock when I saw the newly restored chapel. I appreciate that the Office of Public Works’ archaeologists and architects must know best as far as restoration work is concerned but I think they have gone overboard in their use of cement mortar. It looks ugly and out of character with the rest of the settlement.  Perhaps the light grey look will darken with weathering over time.

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The South Peak from the high ground above the monastery.   

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The South Peak from the top of the steps.   

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Christ’s Saddle from the base of the South Peak.  Note the final section of steps leading up to the monastery (not in the picture).

For a few weeks in late May and early June each year Skellig Michael is home to hundreds (if not thousands) of Atlantic Puffins. They nest in burrows many of which are alongside the steps so the birds are often literally within arms length of visitors. I doubt if there is anywhere else in Britain or Ireland where it is possible to be in such close proximity to them. I have photographed Puffins on the Great Saltee Island off County Wexford but it is an achievement in itself some years to see any there, let alone photograph them. It is an extraordinary sensation, by contrast, to see them so plentiful on the Skellig.

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All these were photographed with a Canon 400mm lens with an extension tube attached so as to facilitate a closer focusing distance than the 3.5 metres allowed by the lens such was the nearness of the birds to the camera.

The 2½ hours on the island is just enough to visit the monastery and spend some time admiring the spectacular scenery and perhaps photographing the birds.  Most of the island is out of bounds to visitors primarily because of the danger from the precipitous peaks and cliffs. Visitor numbers also need to be managed because of the possible deleterious impact of too much footfall on the ancient remains. The weather helps in this regard as there are often days during the summer when it is not possible for the boats to set out because of heavy seas or driving rain (visitors are not allowed if it’s raining as the wet steps would be too dangerous).

I would strongly recommend more Irish people to visit this national treasure. I’m always struck by how few Irish there are on the boats. Many people tell me that, yes, it’s on their bucket list and they’ll get around to it someday.

Forget “someday”.

Do it now.

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 Heading home from Skellig Michael.  

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The boats usually sail by Little Skellig – home to 20,000 Gannets – on the way back.

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Looking back at Little Skellig (left) and Skellig Michael (right). 

 

 

 

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Krakow Auschwitz Czeslawa Kwoka

Czeslawa Kwoka (pron: “Ches-wah-vah Kvoh-kah” ) was born in the village of Wólka Złojecka in south-eastern Poland, about 64 km from Lublin, in August 1928. She died in Auschwitz in March 1943.

These photographs of her appear on the wall of Block 6 at the Auschwitz Museum. They were taken by a Polish professional photographer, Wilhelm Brasse, himself a prisoner, probably in late 1942 or early 1943. In 2005, Brasse recalled photographing Czeslawa: “She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo (a prisoner overseer) took a stick and beat her about the face. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me.”

Czeslaswa could still be alive today were it not for her being visited by such unspeakable evil. She would now be in her late old age, her long life behind her, comforted and cared for by her family.

Instead, a few months after arriving in Auschwitz, this beautiful girl was dead. It is not known how she died. It may have been starvation, she could have been shot for some misdemeanour, or, when she was no longer fit for the back-breaking work she was forced to do, gassed and her body burned in a crematorium.

She was 14 years old.

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The entrance to the Auschwitz camp with the cynical sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work Makes You Free” – over the gate. 

The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum is about 60kms west of Krakow. It is one of the two “must-do” trips for anyone visiting the city which is among the most beautiful in Europe. (The other attraction is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, also, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, a UNESCO world heritage site.) This is not to demean the significance of Auschwitz-Birkenau by reducing it to just another sight to see on the tourist itinerary. It is a compelling place, THE symbol of The Holocaust, and you would not be human if you were not affected by what you would see and hear there.

I had been to Auschwitz-Birkenau 35 years ago and I was wondering how it had changed in the meantime. There have been reports of conservation and funding problems and I seemed to recall suggestions that it was actually sinking into the ground on which it was built. None of this was apparent on my recent visit. The buildings in Auschwitz looked as substantial as ever while the Birkenau part of the complex, a 5 minute drive away, was as I remembered it. There are relatively few extant buildings in Birkenau as most of them, unlike as in Auschwitz, were built of wood and were burned by the Germans before The Liberation. The foundations and brick and concrete parts are still extant for the most part.

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You can only visit with the accompaniment of a guide. You are supplied with a headset and receiver – an innovation from my last visit – which allows the guide to speak in a low voice and yet everyone in the group is able to hear. This helps to maintain the overall hushed tone which, given the content of the narration, the exhibits, the pictures and the photographs is entirely appropriate.

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Zyklon-B pellets, a cyanide pesticide, used to gas prisoners.

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Empty Zyklon-B canisters.

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Shoes taken from prisoners on arrival. 

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Prisoners’ suitcases.

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Photos of some of the women prisoners. The Germans stopped photographing prisoners after 1942 as they were unrecognisable due to starvation after a few months. Note that their hair was shorn on arrival. It was used to make “hair-cloth” which was used for various purposes including the lining of German Army coats.  

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A chamber where the bodies of gassed prisoners were kept before burning. 

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The crematorium at Auschwitz. 

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The gallows where Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was hanged in April 1947.

After the Auschwitz part of the visit is completed visitors are bussed to the Birkenau complex which is about 5 minutes away. This is where most of the killing was done, where prisoners were sorted into two groups when they disembarked from the cattle wagons that brought them to this dreadful place – one group comprising those who were fit to work, the other – children, pregnant women, old and infirm people. The former were sent to the wooden barracks while the latter were immediately marched to the gas chambers.

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The Administration Block at Birkenau. 

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The final destination of prisoners  – the rail head at Birkenau.

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A cattle wagon of the type used to transport prisoners from around Europe. There were no sanitary facilities and prisoners, 150 to a wagon, could only breathe through the tiny airholes. They were kept locked in for the duration of the journey which could take up to 8 days in some cases.

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Typical sleeping compartment in one of the Birkenau barracks. 

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Communal toilets. The waste had to be cleaned out by prisoners. This was considered a choice job as it was indoors and out of the bitter winter weather.

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The remnants of one of the Birkenau crematoria blown up by the Germans a few months before The Liberation.

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The memorial at Birkenau to those who died. 

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“FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE

Rest In Peace Czeslawa Kwoka and all the people who died here.

Dominica and John Finn

I received an interesting message via my website – http://www.johnfinnphotography.com – last week:

“My name is Marian Jno-Finn (pronounced John-Finn). I am from Dominica
in the Caribbean. I am very curious as to how that name finds it way to
my village Castle Bruce, Dominica. I am told that my great, great, great
grandfather originated from Ireland . His name was John Finn and made
a child with a slave girl. The Jno-Finn name is only found in my village
because that child relocated to my village and made children.”

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Marian Jno-Finn

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Dominica is one of the Lesser Antilles  – it is pronounced “Domineeka” 

My first reaction was that John Finn was one of the 50,000 Irish people who were deported as slaves to the West Indies during the brutal Cromwellian military campaign in Ireland (1649-1653). The consequences of that campaign were every bit as cataclysmic as the Great Famine in the 19th century. Estimates of the number of people who died as a result of warfare and its attendant evils of famine and disease vary from a third to five sixths of the pre-war population. William Petty, an economist with the Cromwellian administration, calculated that 618,000 people died – 40% of the population.

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Oliver Cromwell

Whatever the figure there is no dispute about the 50,000 who were sent into slavery.  They were deported as “indentured labourers” – slaves – to the colonies in the Caribbean. Many were sent to the island of Montserrat – about 100 miles to the north of Dominica – where they interbred with the African slaves. To this day Montserrat is known as “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” due to the Irish ancestry of so many of its people.

In the 1970s the RTE TV programme “Radharc” featured some of these “black Irish” who had Irish names and spoke with Irish accents. Irish was spoken in Montserrat up until 1900.

Was John Finn one of those Irish slaves? Was he Marian’s ancestor?

The problem with that scenario is that Dominica was not under British control in the 17th century. It was ceded to the British by the French in 1763 and the British only established a colony there in 1805. It is possible of course that John Finn migrated or escaped there from Montserrat or one of the other British controlled islands.

A more likely explanation in my view is that he arrived there when the colony was set up or shortly after. He may have been a soldier or an administrator. (Irish people were very much involved with the running of the British Empire in the 19th century. Queen Victoria referred to the Irish as “the backbone of the Empire.”) He was possibly given land and slaves and thus begat the union that resulted in the “Jno-Finn” line which has come down to the present day.

We will never know for sure but I think it is a feasible scenario. The 19th century tallies with the “great-great-great grandfather” story that Marian was told whereas the 17th was too far back.

Whatever the truth I think it is fascinating that a possible early member of my family tree – there aren’t too many Finns around – established a blood line that survives in the tropical village of Castle Bruce in the beautiful island of Dominica.

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Castle Bruce, Dominica. Photo courtesy of Andrew Mawby