The Galway Bog That Changed The World Not Once, But Twice

Charlie Connelly ambles among lugubrious sheep in rural Connemara to find the field that was once at the cutting edge of transatlantic communication – and discovers the origin of the term ‘lynch mob’ along the way.

British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919, from Newfoundland in North America to Clifden in County Galway, Ireland.
Photo top left: Wikipedia. Photo right: Wikipedia.

Charlie Connelly

Bestselling author, award-winning broadcaster, three-time winner of Radio 4’s ‘Book of the week’… and has performed a duet live on Uzbekistan national television with the nation’s biggest pop star.

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Published

October 15, 2013

Of all the attractions of Galway it was an old and disembodied wall that stayed with me most vividly as I drove out into the peaks and lakes of Connemara. Tucked away in a narrow lane at the heart of the city there’s an ancient, grey stone wall that stands alone, like a piece of forgotten theatre scenery. Above a bricked up arched doorway there’s a glassless stone window frame through which, as I stood beneath it on my nocturnal visit, I could see the full moon. It’s not a famous landmark; it’s not even a particularly attractive piece of architecture, but the fascination lies in the story behind it.

At the end of the fifteenth century the Mayor of Galway was a James Lynch, whose son Walter was a popular man around town. Walter had lost his heart to a local beauty named Agnes, but when a handsome charmer from Spain set his cap at fair Agnes, Walter engineered an argument that ended with a dead Spaniard. When his son confessed to the murder, James Lynch, as town magistrate, felt he had no alternative but to ignore local pleas for leniency and pass the death sentence on his own flesh and blood.

A large crowd gathered at the gallows bent on preventing Walter’s early demise, so Lynch took his son to an upper window of the family home, tied a rope around his neck, fixed the other end to a metal bar and pushed him out. I’d stood watching the moon through what’s said to be the very window beneath which Walter had kicked, clawed and choked out his final moments. The hoodwinked crowd at the gallows left us with the term ‘lynch mob’ even if that original gathering was there to prevent an execution rather than administer one.

Unearthing the roots of Marconi’s wireless revolution

Guglielmo Marconi operating apparatus similar to that used by him to transmit the first wireless signal across Atlantic. Photo via Wikipedia.

As I drive out of the city the next morning on the N59 Clifden Road into Connemara I think about how the tale embodies this part of Ireland and much of what lies ahead of me: a subversive mythology based in fact, and local events that have an immortal global legacy.

The drive west from Galway is one of the best in Ireland. Nestled between the Atlantic and the mountains, Connemara’s bleakly beautiful terrain has retained an otherness born of isolation. Most of Connemara is gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking region, and the language is spoken beautifully here, rising and falling like the landscape itself; as lilting as the babble of its springs and rivers.

Nestled between the Atlantic and the mountains, Connemara’s bleakly beautiful terrain has retained an otherness born of isolation.

The transition from bustling city to isolation is both sudden and immediately calming: I pull over more than once to kill the engine and take in the landscape and silence. After a leisurely hour and a half I reach Clifden, Connemara’s main town. A combination of twee gift shops and inviting pubs that stays fractionally the right side of tourist trap Clifden is probably worth an hour’s amble, but I’m not making this journey to explore towns. Anyway, I have somewhere I want to see: an obscure patch of bog land just south of the town that changed the world not once, but twice.

Many places are held up as having changed the world. Some claims are dubious at best, but when I turn off the road onto a track and leave the car at a locked gate with a paint-sloshed sign that shouts ‘NO QUADS’, I head out to somewhere that genuinely deserves the epithet.

The picturesque town of Clifden in Connemara, Galway, as it looks today.
Photo by martina04 via Flickr.

Derrygimlagh bog may seem like the end of the world, a geologically turbulent, marshy backwater where black-faced sheep watch your every move, but its legacy is remarkable: this patch of tussocked, puddle-flecked ground hosted both the first commercial transatlantic wireless communications and the landing of the first ever non-stop flight across the Atlantic.

Two minutes from the car I’m among some lugubrious sheep on a flat patch of old concrete that clearly make up the foundations of an old building. Had I been here a century earlier I would have been at the busy centre of the cutting edge of global technology. There were once massive buildings here, a railway line, a constant stream of engineers, scientists and stenographers. After dark, for miles around, people could see strange flashes in the sky and hear cracks and booms that broke open the night. It’s all long gone now though: I am standing on all that remains of where the first transatlantic commercial wireless messages were exchanged thanks to Guglielmo Marconi.

Derrygimlagh bog may seem like the end of the world, a geologically turbulent, marshy backwater where black-faced sheep watch your every move, but its legacy is remarkable.

In 1905 Marconi arrived in Ireland (he was in fact half-Irish: a direct descendent of John Jameson of whiskey fame) looking to build the telegraph station needed to swap direct messages between Europe and North America. Derrygimlagh, it seems, was perfect. When construction had finished in 1907 – the world’s first transatlantic telegraph message was fired through the ether to Cape Breton on 17 October – the telegraph station must have looked like the most fantastical thing in the world. Eight masts more than two hundred feet high stretched wires half a mile across the bog. Six tall chimneys belched smoke and there was even a narrow gauge railway on which steam locomotives puffed back and forth.

On a grey, windy twenty-first century day it’s hard to picture the sheer industry that went on here as I stand toeing coarse grass away from hunks of concrete; all that remains of the complex that was burned down in 1922 during the Irish War of Independence. I look across to the white stone obelisk a hundred yards away and think about the second world-changing event to which this patch of land played host.

A transatlantic flight into the history books

Alcock and Brown’s plane with its nose in the mud in the Clifden bog.
Photo via Wikipedia.

On the morning of Sunday June 15th 1919, a distant and unfamiliar buzzing noise was heard in the Atlantic sky off Derrygimlagh. It grew louder into the throaty roar of an engine and a flimsy looking biplane appeared out of the fog. It circled, banked, and executed a frankly undignified crash landing that left the aircraft with its nose in the mud and its backside in the air. A couple of Marconi’s telegraph operators ran towards the scene, from which two men hopped out and walked briskly towards them. The bigger of the men called out, “I’m Alcock, just come from Newfoundland”. His colleague, Lieutenant Brown, added, “Now that is the way to fly the Atlantic”. Alcock and Brown had just pranged their plane nose first into the history books and in the space of barely a decade this anonymous patch of Connemara bog had brought Europe and North America together as if the two continents had slammed shut across the Atlantic.

From the skies to Sky Road

A memorial near Clifden to the pioneering transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown.
Photo via Wikipedia.

A little weighed down by the enormity of this technological legacy, I seek relief by driving back through Clifden and turning onto the famous Sky Road, looping around the peninsula for eight exhilarating miles high above the Atlantic. After the scudding grey skies of Derrygimlagh the sun emerged to render the ribbed waves a deep blue all the way to horizon. From there it was back onto the N59, passing the postcard-friendly turrets and battlements of Kylemore Abbey, looping around Killary Harbour and north into County Mayo.

Although this whole drive can be done in around three hours I’d arranged to break the journey and spend the night at Delphi Lodge, a nineteenth-century hunting lodge and the scene of one of the most heartrending tragedies of the Irish Famine. In 1847 hundreds of starving paupers died on the road here in search of food and poor relief, having walked sixteen miles in foul weather from the nearest town.

After dark, for miles around, people could see strange flashes in the sky and hear cracks and booms that broke open the night.

Yet today Delphi Lodge is such a peaceful, beautiful place it’s hard to imagine such a tragedy happening here. On the edge of a lake overlooked by a trio of looming mountains and popular with salmon fishers, the Lodge feels deliciously cut off from the world: there’s no phone signal and there’s not a television in the place. Everyone eats together at a large dining table and whoever makes the largest catch of the day earns the right to sit at its head. That person was not me: I can barely hook a goldfish at a fairground, let alone wrestle a salmon ashore with rod and reel.

Kylemore Abbey in Connemara.
Photo via Wikipedia

Invigorated by the peace and solitude of Delphi I set out north again the next day along the R335 to Louisburgh; an hour’s drive during which I don’t see another soul: it’s just me, the hills and the lakes. Turning east I skirt the southern shore of Clew Bay and pass Croagh Patrick, the pilgrimage mountain up whose rocky slopes thousands of devotees scramble each year, some barefoot in their devotion to Ireland’s patron saint.

I pull into Westport, regular victor in Ireland’s surprisingly popular annual Tidy Towns competition and voted Ireland’s best place to live in a recent national poll. My journey complete, that evening I head for Matt Molloy’s pub feeling calm and refreshed. Molloy is the flautist in one of Ireland’s most enduring musical exports The Chieftans, meaning the nightly traditional music sessions are of the highest quality.

A session is in full flow when I arrive and after a while I ask one of the fiddle players if he knows Lynch’s Window. I don’t know if there’s even a tune called Lynch’s Window – I learn later there isn’t – but he nods and launches into a reel that the other players all join. As the music picks up pace I raise a glass to poor old Walter. I think he’d have liked it here.

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