Sophia – from Crimea to Clooneen

Townland tales

The columned entrance to ‘Mallow Cottage’, where a sign informs passersby that the wrought iron gates are currently removed for refurbishment. Pic: John O'Callaghan

John O'Callaghan

Clooneen, ‘An Cluainín’, ‘the little meadow’, is a very common townland name all over Mayo and throughout the country. There are Clooneens in the baronies of Burrishoole, Kilmaine, Erris and Gallen; and Clooneencarra and Clooneenkillew are in the barony of Carra. ‘An Cluainín’ is the original form of one in Erris. There are over 25 townlands with this name throughout the country, mainly in the west.
The one nearest to us here in Westport is located along the coast road to Belclare, after the bend in the road where a side-road to the right leads out to Rossmalley, ‘O’Malley’s promontory.’
The most obvious landmark in Clooneen at the present time, is the columned entrance to ‘Mallow Cottage’, where a sign informs passersby that the wrought iron gates are currently removed for refurbishment. Altamont Villa, John O’Donovan noted in the Ordnance Survey Namebooks of 1838, was ‘A fancy name.. near the western boundary (of the townland)..’, from the title of the people of Westport House.’
According to the ‘National Inventory of Architectural Heritage’, Mallow Cottage is a house representing an integral component of the domestic built heritage of the environs of Westport with the architectural value [lying in] the composition; once annotated as Altamont Villa on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey. […] well maintained, the elementary form and massing survive intact together with substantial quantities of the original fabric, both to the exterior and to the interior, thus upholding the character or integrity of a house having historic connections with a succession of tenants of the Marquess of Sligo including Neal Davis (1837/1845) and Captain James Grant (1846); and the O’Brien family including William O’Brien MP (1852-1928) and Sophie O’Brien (née Raffalovich) (1860-1960), author of ‘Under Croagh Patrick’ (1904) and ‘My Irish Friends’ (1937).
Sophie Raffalovich (1860–1960), writer and activist, was born in Odessa on January 15, 1860, daughter of Herman Raffalovich, a banker, and his wife, Marie. In the late 1880s Sophie developed an interest in the ‘Irish question’, having a particular concern for William O’Brien, whose widely publicised imprisonments during the Plan of Campaign attracted international attention. They corresponded with ‘l‘Aiglon’, as O’Brien was known in France, and first met him in Paris on 8 June 1889. He and Sophie became engaged after a brief courtship, in which she took the initiative. They married in London in 1890 and settled in Ireland.
Sophie wrote ‘Under Croagh Patrick’ during the 15 years she spent in the Westport area between 1891 and 1906 as wife of the Nationalist MP.
The book contains fifteen chapters, each one a vignette of the social and political situation of the time, an end-of-century period of painfully slow transition from the hard times of the famine and land evictions to the formation of the Land League and the United Irish League. I obtained a copy of the book recently from
a friend and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
The first year they rented Old Head Lodge. Then they bought Altamont Lodge and renamed it Mallow Cottage, in honour of William’s home town in Co Cork.
The two chapters describing the plights of two widows: the Widow Ketterick (who lived out near Louisburgh) and the Widow Sammon (from Carrowkennedy) are extremely well written. Both were mothers of large families who were cruelly evicted from their small holdings to make way for so-called ‘grabbers.’ Mrs O’Brien’s genuine empathy with the poorer ‘peasants’ of the time comes across very well to the reader.
Her account of ‘Phil of Letterass’ and his story of eviction from this townland at the head of Killary Harbour is graphically revealing in all its hardship and cruelty – where a child victim of the famine was denied burial in Letterass and had to be carried back over the mountain to Gleannagimla, where Phil’s family had fled to, seeking refuge.
Mrs O’Brien namechecks several townlands in the immediate vicinity of Westport and she portrays the Murrisk fisherman and adventurer, Austin Bourke, particularly well. His life is described in another book ‘Murrisk – The history of an Irish Fishing Village,’ published in 2017. She also describes the many good neighbours and friends, and employees who worked on their farm in Clooneen, very well.
My favourite depiction occurs in the final chapter of the book in which she describes the ‘Fámairí’ – the summertime visitors to the seaside, who came literally to ‘take the waters,’ drinking sea-water and bathing daily for the good of their health. I recall my parents using a corruption of this Irish word, ie, ‘fámadors’ to describe these early ‘tourists’.

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’