From Tristia to Turkana

Townland tales

John O'Callaghan

Two townlands in Mayo share the name Tristia (Troiste). Today, I’m looking at the one on the coast, in Erris – aka Mount Jubilee. (The other Tristia is inland, in the Parish of Crosmolina, between Keenagh and Nephin.)
Tristia/Mount Jubilee is unusual in having two names, both with somewhat obscure meaning. The root element ‘trosc/troscán’ is quite common in many Irish counties, with at least four townlands in Galway containing a version of this word, which may mean ‘brambles or briars’. Other scholars suggest it is derived from ‘Deodruise’, one of the many names given to Crom Dubh and Balor of the Evil Eye in Celtic Mythology.
Or it could also refer to a ‘crooked hill’ in the vicinity that resembles a pilgrim’s staff (trostán/trosdán) or a ram’s horn. Coincidentally, this latter interpretation creates a tenuous connection between the old and ‘new’ name of Mt Jubilee, applied to it by Archbishop John McHale in 1826.
The word ‘Jubilee’ has its origin in the Hebrew word ‘yōbēl’, meaning a ram or ram’s horn. After McHale had celebrated a ‘Jubilee Mass’ on the side of Mt Tristia, he is reputed to have looked up at the hill and pronounced it be known as Mt Jubilee from then on. Subsequently, the actual placename changed to Cnoc no Logha (‘hill of indulgence’) and it became a local point of annual pilgrimage. There is now a tiny oratory on the site, beside a cillín.
My curiosity about the name Tristia was heightened when my friend, Georgia MacMillan, mentioned that her mother, had come from there. To learn more about the place, Georgia subsequently introduced me to her uncle, Anthony (Tony), now back living in Tristia, having spent most of his life in Africa. Like many families countrywide, immigration was a fact of life in Erris. But what a remarkable life Tony has led! Priest, anthropologist, linguist, lexicographer, university professor, raconteur and seanchaí/philosopher.

Groundbreaking mission
Dr Tony Barrett went to primary school in the local Mt Jubilee National School and secondary school in Summerhill, Sligo, before studying for the priesthood in St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow.
Tony’s first assignment was to Turkana, Northern Kenya, in October 1967. The bishop who appointed him reasoned that anyone coming from ‘the wilds of north Mayo’ would fit right into one of the most remote regions on the planet. Ten days after arriving in Nairobi, he was flown, by a young Bostonian Medical Missionary of Mary, in a tiny two-seater plane, to the desert ‘cradle of humanity’, to begin his missionary work amongst the indigenous nomadic Turkana tribespeople, then in the throes of a major famine.
Readers may recall the classic Irish-made ‘Radharc’ documentaries shown on RTÉ television from 1962 to 1996. In May 1980, Fr Tony was the subject of one of these, entitled ‘Father of the Red Bull’. Each Turkana tribesman is given an animal’s name, a mark of high honour, so Tony was named after a red ox due to his ginger hair.
Fr Tony’s approach to missionary work was groundbreaking at the time. Rather than impose western ways upon the Turkana people, in a ‘colonial-style’ manner, Tony instead ‘inculturated’ or ‘incarnated’ Christianity into their existing customs and traditions, in much the same way St Patrick would have brought Christianity to Ireland. By taking on an anthropological role in the tribal community, Fr Tony became respected as a man of wisdom and fulfilled the objectives of Vatican II to spread Christianity across Africa.
Not only did Tony master the local language, he compiled and published (MacMillan, Nairobi, 1988) the first Turkana-English, English-Turkana dictionary.
In the mid-1980s, he completed a Masters and PhD in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. On St Patrick’s Day, 1988, he was conferred with a PhD for his thesis entitled ‘Sacrifice and Prophecy in Turkana Cosmology’. He then returned to Kenya to teach Anthropology at the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi and to complete several more years of Missionary work in Turkana, before relocating to the UK, where he lectured and travelled for a number of years.
While Tristia has brought home no less than four GAA All-Ireland medals, produced one world-class boxer and an extremely successful New York jockey – quite a record of achievements for a single townland and enough material to fill another few articles – from my own research I feel privileged to have befriended a polymath of the calibre of Anthony J Barrett and share his amazing life experiences with you.

John O’Callaghan MA MBA PhD is a mountain walk leader and has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.