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Portavo: an Irish townland and its peoples

Part one: earliest times - 1844

Peter Carr
Paperback Sold Out, hbk 30

Few aspects of the Irish countryside have inspired more romance or nostalgia than townlands, the island's oldest, smallest and most enigmatic land units. There are some 61,000 townlands in Ireland. This fine new work - the most intensive study of an Irish townland ever attempted - paints an intimate, warts-and-all portrait of just one of these, Portavo in County Down.

The book looks at the place and its peoples. It explores its geology, geography, archaeology and folklore. It examines the evolution of its landscape, which in the 17th century was home to one of the most fanatically Calvinist landlords that the Plantation of Ulster gave rise to. It examines the absorption of this initially ungovernable dissenting family into the social polity of the county.

Portavo takes the writing of local history in Ireland into new realms, doing for local history what Tim Robinson's books on Aran did for writing about place. One commentator has observed that it has 'raised the bar' for the whole genre, and shown that the local can have a universal, mainstream appeal.

This man's grandson was said to have practiced 'the black arts' and to have been 'in league with the devil'. The author suggests that he may have been an early scientist 'condemned to be remembered by the people who least understood him', and examines the important issues surrounding folklore as a bearer of memory that the legend gives rise to.

The district's radical politics are not neglected. In the 1790s the townland was a hotbed of United Irish activity. In 1797 troops opened coffins on the local High Road, in a desperate search for arms. Carr offers us the townland's own distinctive take on the 1798 rebellion. The bitterly contested dynastic elections of 1790, 1805 and 1812 are also recounted in gripping detail.

In 1765 Portavo became home to 'the richest commoners in Ireland', the fabulously wealthy Ker family. David Ker went to Italy on the Grand Tour in 1775. In Venice he fell in love with a fourteen year old singer, Madalena Guardi, the reputed daughter of the painter Francesco Guardi. The couple eloped, and in Padua underwent a form of betrothal that was witnessed, it is said, by a bandit and a priest.

The cultured, cosmopolitan, ill fitting, half Italian-Catholic, half Scottish-Presbyterian Kers went on to marry into the Londonderrys, and acquire a landed empire. Between 1786-1802 the Ker estate became one of the most aggressively expansionist in the British Isles. By the 1830s the family owned over thirty-five thousand acres, and after a bloody election in 1837, their own seat in Parliament.

Their fascinating - but until now completely forgotten - story is told here for the first time. We read, too, of the struggles of the townland's wretchedly poor farmers and fishermen, for whom a piece of bacon on a Sunday was a luxury. We go in search of its lost fishing village. We meet its amorous miller, Hugh Nelson, who sired twenty-five children. Throughout, Carr's narrative uses the local to subtly shade, and at times challenge, the grand narratives of Irish history.

Book Details

ISBN 1 870132 11 4 (pbk), 1 870132 16 5 (hbk)

Paperback & hardback 356 pages, 320 (120 colour) illustrations

Book Reviews

'An astonishing, alchemical fusion of pietas and scholarship.' Seamus Heaney

'A remarkable, fascinating syntopic perspective. Carr's expert use of documents weaves a compelling tale of a local people and the history they live through' The Guardian

'Local history at its most seductive: a wonderfully-illustrated, lively, informative book, soaked in the poetry of a single place.' Sunday Telegraph

'This book is a gem. It sets a benchmark for excellence that few will be able to rival.' Sunday Tribune

'Carr... has uncovered the inner life of the people, their beliefs, their religion, their emotions what made them laugh and cry.' Irish News

'A spellbinder.' Ulster Archaeological Society Newsletter

'by any standards this is an outstanding book... the epitome of what a local history should be.' Books Ireland

'A pot of gold... cash that book token and settle down for one of the best reads of the year.' Belfast News Letter

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