Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn
I was genuinely devastated to hear of the death of Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn, last Monday. She was the founder of the Pushkin Trust and there were many Donegal connections.
It was in this county that a young 19-year old Sacha Philips met her future husband, James Hamilton, the 5th Duke of Abercorn in 1965. When she founded the Pushkin Trust over 30 years ago, Donegal and Tyrone were the first two pilot counties involved in what became a dynamic and innovative educational trust for Catholic and Protestant children.
I first met her in 1991/2 and was delighted to count her as a friend and a source of inspiration ever since. Sacha often told the story of watching television in the late 1980s with her daughter Sophie when yet another Troubles atrocity was being covered on the news. Sophie was already having nightmares but on this occasion she just shook her head and asked her mother “Why?” “I thought to myself, if this is happening to Sophie, how many more children must be experiencing this?” she recalled.
“A huge proportion of them were being traumatised – that was clear – and I just couldn’t let it lie,” she said.
Around the same time, Sacha travelled to Russia for a Pushkin commemoration - The father of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin, was her great-great-great grandfather - and was fascinated that “Pushkin used to sit at the fire each night with his nanny, who would tell him stories that had been handed down, not in writing but through the oral tradition.
“That storytelling tradition is very Slavic, but also very Celtic, and I wanted to bring something of that spirit of Pushkin – of bringing together different traditions, of uncovering our universal humanity – back to Ireland.”
And so, the Pushkin Trust began and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and poet Michael Longley came on board as co-patrons.
She often reflected on how she first met James Hamilton. “It was a glorious day. We were in Donegal. I thought all the days would be sunny. I knew nothing about Ireland – I thought of moving there as some great adventure.” She married James, moved to Baronscourt and thanks to her great vision and passion, over 50,000 children have shared that ‘great adventure’.
There will be a huge gap in the hearts of children, teachers and writers this week.
Ar dheis De go raibh a hanam.
“Here in Barons Court,
The only sound is the scribble.
Children hunch over jotters,
Marvelling at the way
Words lean on one another.
Lambs bleat among the daffodils,
And bluebells ring, between
Oak, beech and gnarled larch.”
Mullinalaghta: The Fairy Story
I’m sure many Gweedore supporters were watching with green and white envy the wall-to-wall coverage of Longford’s Mullinalaghta winning the Leinster Club Championship. It’s at times like this, we are sorely reminded of our peripheral place in the greater scheme of things in the Dublin media.
Anyway, minor rant aside, I was reminded of my own introduction to this wee half-parish (the other half is in Cavan) a few years ago, when I was invited to the the inaugural Padraic Colum ‘Cruinniu’ in Longford.
Mullinalaghta is in the parish of St. Colmcille and Padraic Columb (the original spelling) came from there, and spent a portion of his early life with a relative on the shores of Lough Gowna in Cavan. I also met the children in St Colmcille’s National School, whose Principal, Aideen Mulligan, is a renowned singer and actor and whose very creative pupils were in the midst of the homecoming celebrations this week.
Saint Colmcille founded a monastery on Inis Mor island on Lough Gowna in the sixth century. The monastery was raided by the Vikings in 804, burned and looted. During the twelfth century, the abbey conformed to Augustinian rules and remained there until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1543. The site was still used as a graveyard by the local population until the early years of the twentieth century. The remains of the abbey are still to be seen on the island. A fifteenth-century tower bell, reputedly from the monastery, was recovered in the nineteenth century and now hangs in the Catholic church in Aughnacliffe, beside the school I worked in. Anne Patricia O’Reilly came from there and called her son after the two local saints...Mel Colmcille Gibson!
Last year, in this column, I mentioned that in the course of my talk in Longford, I recalled Father Eoghan O’Colm, for whom I served as an altar boy in Carrigart and who chronicled his time on Tory Island with a famous book called ‘Toraigh na dTonn’.
I said that it was my first experience of knowing a ‘real’ writer, and I had since been curious about the Colum/Columb surname. Maisie Columb, Padraic’s cousin, was delighted to hear that I came from Donegal as her grandfather often talked about an old ‘connection’ with this county.
With the surname and the fact that their parish is Colmcille, I wonder did they come down with the Saint as ‘coarbs’ or ‘erenachs’ to Lough Gowna all those centuries ago?
Mullinalaghta Abu! (except when they play Gweedore!...Wouldn't that be something?)
A Christmas story
….for people having a bad day: When four of Santa's elves got sick, the trainee elves did not produce toys as fast as the regular ones, and Santa began to feel the Pre-Christmas pressure.
Then Mrs Claus told Santa her Mother was coming to visit, which stressed Santa even more.
When he went to harness the reindeer, he found that three of them were about to give birth and two others had jumped the fence and were out, Heaven knows where.
Then when he began to load the sleigh, one of the floorboards cracked, the toy bag fell to the ground and all the toys were scattered.
Frustrated, Santa went into the house for a cup of apple cider and a shot of rum. When he went to the cupboard, he discovered the elves had drank all the cider and hidden the liquor. In his frustration, he accidentally dropped the cider jug, and it broke into hundreds of little glass pieces all over the kitchen floor. He went to get the broom and found the mice had eaten all the straw off the end of the broom.
Just then the doorbell rang, and irritated Santa marched to the door, yanked it open, and there stood a little angel with a great big Christmas tree.
The angel said very cheerfully, 'Merry Christmas, Santa. Isn't this a lovely day? I have a beautiful tree for you. Where would you like me to stick it?'
And so began the tradition of the little angel on top of the Christmas tree.