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Stunning new book reveals new insights
on the story of ‘St. Brigid’s plains’
One of the most endearing folk-tales in the tradition of St. Brigid at Kildare is the story of how she went looking for land for her monastic foundation to a hostile local chieftain. He replied that he would only give her as much land as her cloak would cover. Brigid proceeded to drape her cloak on the ground. The parsimonious chieftain watched in amazement as Brigid’s cloak expanded many times its own size to cover a vast area of land … and that according to folklore is how we have the grand open space known as the Curragh plain.
Fanciful as the Brigid’s cloak story might be it does emphasise the truly unique accessibility of the  Curragh plain. In a country where a highly possessive landowning culture is part of the national psyche and where there is somebody to claim every square foot of Irish soil,  it is extraordinary to be able to roam, more or less freely, over some 5000 acres of open plain without challenge or obstruction.
If Brigid’s cloak created some kind of a record in the Irish legends for covering space a new book published on the Curragh plain is similarly expansive in terms of its physical dimensions. Opened out the book measures three feet by one, a big publication in terms of its sheer surface area of page. However these fine dimensions form a platform for its stunning content of maps – old and new – of the Curragh as well as reproductions of engravings, landscape paintings, architectural drawings and a multitude of colour photographs of the plain illuminating its surprisingly colourful flora and fauna.
The book is entitled ‘Cuirreach Life – the Curragh of Kildare, Ireland’ and is written by John Feehan of the School of Biology and Environmental Science in UCD who many will remember for his television programmes on the environment and archaeology of Boora bog in west Offaly. The book breaks new ground too in that it is published by UCD in conjunction with the Dept. of Defence -- a Government Department which historically has had a large footprint in Co. Kildare
Two aspects of the Curragh plain have been well published before. The Curragh racecourse and the bloodstock industry have featured prominently in many works on Kildare’s history while the military tenure on the plain has also been documented at length not least by the late Dr. Con Costello in his highly regarded work ‘A Most Delightful Station.’
Yet both facets of Curragh life are given fresh insights in Dr. Feehan’s book with a particular emphasis on quality large scale drawings and paintings. A full page reproduction of a rare painting from 1730 shows a race in full flight across the plain (no guide rails or furlong markers then) with the spectators on horseback joining in the race as it traverses a free-flowing course of four miles or so across the plain.
Again the military heritage of the Curragh is covered  with the help of striking illustrations. A particular strength of the book is its concentration on the architectural evolution of the Camp with detailed drawings, plans and photographs showing the different phases from the tented camps of the early 1800s, to the largely timber encampment of the 1850s, followed by the construction of the red-brick barracks in the late 1800s. A highlight of this section of the book is the reproduction of a set of postcards from the Royal Collection at Buckhingham Palace showing military manoeuvres including mock battles being played out on the plain . The occasion was the visit of Queen Victoria to the Curragh in August 1861 to see how her son, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) was faring on an infantry training course. By all accounts the Prince did not take well to the disciplines of military life but the legacy of photographs left in the royal collections, and published here, provide a very earliest photographic glimpse of the newly established Curragh encampment of the 1850s.
However by far the most outstanding feature of the book is the way in which the author John Feehan overturns the age old assumption that the Curragh has always been a pasture plain untouched by plough of any kind. Even old wisdom and folklore referring to the Curragh have perpetuated this mythology – take for example this quote from a Latin poem ‘ Nearby is the Curragh plain, an unbroken sea of acres, That has never been wounded by the hooked plough …’.   Challenging many centuries of received wisdom  Dr. Feehan devotes a chapter showing that the Curragh is covered with ploughed ridges. Aerial photographs and ground-walking show furrow lines in the heart of the Curragh near St. Leger’s bottoms as well as towards its perimeter along Racehorse Hill, south of Donnelly’s Hollow.
Dr. Feehan shows that these extensive plough lands must predate some of the more modern features on the Curragh such as the area enclosed for the original four mile racecourse. This means that their dating must go back several centuries. And yet there is a strange contradiction with the folklore that the plains were never broken by the plough. Many scholars of the Curragh have accepted this tradition without question and yet as this new book shows the surface texture of the plain shows up easily detected evidence of extensive ploughing. The author himself points the way to a whole new way of looking at the Curragh plain following his compelling demonstration of ploughing practice on the plain: ‘ The cultivation ridge systems of the Curragh give rise to a whole suite of questions that only further investigation, both in the field and into the documentary record, can answer. Whatever their age they are of great historical interest, and add another dimension to the uniqueness and and importance of this landscape’.
As a postscript a particular mention must be made of the phenomenol maps of the modern Curragh by Comdt. Pat Healy which add greatly to the appreciation of the plain and its built and natural environment.
Reference: Cuirreach Life – the Curragh of Kildare, Ireland  by John Feehan is published by the Dept. of Defence and the UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science.

Liam Kenny reviews the new book by John Feehan on the Curragh of Kildare - in his regualr feature 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' from the Leinster Leader 7 February 2008. Our thanks to Liam.

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