The Scribe of Sheskin

Townland tales

PASSAGE OF TIME The ruins of Sheskin Lodge hint at their former glory. Pic: John O’Callaghan

TH White’s deep love for Mayo’s largest townland is writ large – and beautifully  

John O'Callaghan

TH (Terence Hanbury, or Tim) White may be one of the most influential, though least well-known, authors of the 20th century. Born in India in 1906, he was educated in Cambridge, published 24 books, and wrote another dozen unpublished novels, as well as poetry and short stories.
JK Rowling credits White’s character Wart from his ‘Sword in the Stone’ as Harry Potter’s spiritual ancestor. Helen Macdonald, author of ‘H is for Hawk’, wrote a foreword to a 2015 edition of White’s ‘The Goshawk’.
An accomplished falconer, with a penchant for fast cars, fishing and fowling, he arrived in Sheskin in the barony of Erris in September 1939 – in his Jaguar SS. Sheskin, from the Irish Seascann, meaning ‘sedgy bog’, is the largest townland in Mayo with an area of 7,012 acres. It lies north of the N59, 5km up a side road at Ballymonnelly church, between Bellacorick and Bangor.
Nowadays, Sheskin Lodge lies in ruins, deep in the woods, along the Western Way. The MacDonnell family who fought alongside the French in 1798 built the original lodge. At the end of the 19th century, the Jameson family (of whiskey distilling fame) owned and fully rebuilt the lodge, and its main use was as a base for hunting and shooting.
TH White lived in Doolistown, a townland in Co Meath, during World War II, between February 1939 and September 1945. He visited Mayo a number of times. ‘The Godstone and the Blackymor’ is the title of the book he published in 1959 containing 12 autobiographical essays of his time in Mayo.
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, whose drawings are on permanent display in Áras Inis Gluaire, Belmullet, White’s book is an insightful account of North Mayo society at that time and includes some hilarious character profiles. In her biography of White, Sylvia Townsend Warner describes her own visit to Belmullet in 1965, the year after White’s death, and details her interviews with Jack McLoughlin (of the garage) and Harry Cronin, two men who knew White well.  
On October 30, 1939, TH White noted in his diary that a poem he had composed about Sheskin Lodge had won a competition ‘on the Irish wireless’ (Raidió Éireann) and he felt ‘great pleasure about it’. He was ‘awarded more than one prize of five shillings’, he tells us in his book.

Sheskin, the music of your name and your waters
That night when there was an inch-and-a-half in the rain-gauge
And all round the lodge and from the spouts of the veranda
You chuckled: we were waiting for a flood.
Sheskin, your lovely lonely tunnels of rhododendrons,
The absurd monkey-puzzlers and riot of vegetable vigour,
And the dragon blood of the fuchsias in forests, and primroses
And peas in September: all this in twenty miles of bog.
Sheskin, your grouse whose crops startled me spilling sweet heather
Under the falcon’s foot and blood-spotted train, and sea-trout
With tiger fins, and red salmon who would not take,
Even with all our prayers, leaping, leaping out of the Owenmore.
Sheskin, oh Sheskin, all the things that are Sheskin,
As beautiful as infinity: please let me come back to you in peace.
Please be there, and let me be there to come back,
Back to our secret stream which harps into the deep basin
Under the old kiln where they used to dry malt for potcheen,
That ice-clear summer stream of music fizzing with bubbles,
Sliding over the flat slabs to the little waterfall,
Is you, Sheskin; is me, Sheskin; oh Nephin, and Slieve Car, be true.

White loved his time in Mayo, especially in Sheskin Lodge. He also stayed at Healion’s Hotel in Belmullet, and Glenturk Lodge, east of Carrowmore Lake. He spent three days alone on Inniskea South in the middle of winter. Although he wasn’t completely alone there as he had his best friend, Brownie, his Red Setter for company.
He loved the mountains and the expanses about him in Sheskin and wrote these lines when he returned to Co Meath:

When dynasties are dead, as die they must,
When sorrow is silent and red swords are rust,
When man is a memory and his dreadful dreams are dust,
I am Corslieve. Nephin and I keep trust:
True to the untrue, to the unjust just.

Sadly, Sheskin Lodge lies in ruins today, but the huge expanse of sedgy bog from which it takes its name survives, for now, and written memories of happier days spent in the house are recorded forever by the Scribe of Sheskin, TH White.

Dr John O’Callaghan is a mountain walk leader who 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’.