Connor’s Line

In the late 1960s on regular summer holidays at my Grandmother Davis’s farm in County Leitrim, Uncle Cecil gave my brother Ivor and myself the job of leading a string of donkeys up to the turf bog on O’Donnell’s Rock, it forms the basis of this story. My mother, Ena, her brothers Cecil, Herbie, Reco and Wallace Davis feature.

A ruin of one of the homesteads on O’Donnell’s Rock (The Rock)
Photo credit: Mike Simms, Georgaphy Ireland.

At Connor’s Line we lead the donkeys off the road and into a field to get our last instructions.

Sarah O’Connor’s house, is abandoned, the lights not long gone out, where the road twists into a series of dangerous bends. It was here the destitute Famine-starved on relief work, cut straight the bends, unfinished in the chaos of that time, and visible now, only to the buzzard’s eye.

“Go straight up The Line boys. Ye can only go up, or down. But ye’re going up, aren’t ye?” The smart aleck says sensing our unease.

“It’s steep at the end, no bother for the asses. The Line goes all the way to the top. When you come out of the bushes, we’ll be waiting for ye, at the top of the Rock Road.” He points to the mountain.

We look up Connor’s Line, its bushy trace runs straight up O’Donnell’s Rock and into woodland high up.  The escarpment, deceptively looking a long way away.

“Sure, if ye forget the way, boys, the asses will take ye there!” He says with a laugh.

“Don’t worry, it’s clear all the way.” Cecil, our uncle adds.

They set off on a horse and cart with creels, tools and provisions for the day, taking the gradual climb of the Rock Road, for a day drawing turf out of Rooney’s Bog. Cecil drives home in the opposite direction, to milk his cows and join us later.

We leave the road where my mother, Ena, church bound, tumbled off her chicken-stalled bike to lie unconscious on the road with the Carrick bus due, Sarah panicking to get her off the road, frantically waved the bus to a stop, then revived with a passenger’s smelling salts and a porringer of spring water in Sarah’s dark kitchen, she is recovered for the short walk home.

The path is no more than a goat track, the bushes soon close over above our heads, single file from here on. I lead the first two tethered donkeys and four others follow, their big eyes vacant. Now and again we come across a recently cut branch, our way cleared.

Splashes of dappled sunlight fall across us as we move through the green tunnel, marked more regularly by badgers and foxes. A small stream runs alongside sometimes crisscrossing the path, the air gets cool and damp as we climb. When we stop the donkeys graze on the shaded grasses and plants along the path.

It is less arduous than we expect, the donkeys more willing, as we get a measure of the walk, if not the place.

Some distance up and close to the track, “Flynn’s Line” to some, is the ruin of a family cottage of that name. It stood on five meagre acres of rough mountain land.  If they made it through the famine, they didn’t stay much longer.  This path, a painful shortcut scoured with human strain, was at one time in daily use by the few homesteads up on the mountain; the Colemans, the McLaughlins, and later the Sheridans, and those bringing down turf for fires in the valley. The alternative route, an easier climb but miles longer, until the Rock Road was built.


About 20 years after The Famine on a farm at the top of O’Donnell’s Rock a woman came out of Coleman’s isolated farmhouse.

“I’m goin out for turf!” she shouted back to the old man.

“I’ll bedammed if he heard me.

Blustery evening. Always blustery up on this mountain.

 Agh, the stack should be, here, but.

Whaaat’s the matter way me?

What am a out for atal?

The road goes down, easier, easier, than coming up, up to this lonely place, Colema-aaa-ns, Colema, well na matter.

where am a goin? down somewhere. down The Line maybe, for to get something.

a should be getting back. where? no matter now, a rest on this ditch might help. help whaat? no matta, soft, soft, settled now, agh, the fire will go out.”


Her remains were found in 1939, in rough ground, high up near Sheridan’s place, by Land Commission men building the Rock Road through O’Donnell’s Larkfield estate to the top of the mountain. About 30 of them, breaking rock, benching out the mountain near Connor’s Line, carting and levelling stone when there came shouts amid the ringing of crow bars, picks and shovels on hard stone.

They circle the skull and remains of the poor unfortunate, thinking, famine dead. Reco Davis at sixteen, on the mountain, his first paid job, drawing stone for the road dressing with the family horse and cart; staring at the nameless remains, missing his older brother Herbie who should have been with him, but who lay mortally ill at home. The ganger called a halt for the day, sent for the Guards.

The word came back in a couple of days, most likely a servant woman missing from Coleman’s years before; the Colemans long in America, Sheridans there now, where a young Wallace Davis would take sanctuary when he ran away from his nearby Boggaun home.


O’Donnell’s Rock from the Davis farm at Boggaun
(Connor’s Line runs upwards close to the conifer plantation)

We give the donkeys, and ourselves a short break, switch the lead, a slight tug on the lead rope enough to start them again. They appear the more familiar up here.

It gets much steeper as we enter the wood, cooler with little light filtering through. The path climbs through a corridor of hazel, rowan and small birch trees. Under foot rocks further slow our progress while the donkeys move  with short confident steps. Rivulets of water run in and out among the rocks, wet and flecked with blue. Little grows now on the rocky path.

Confined, we know little of where we are except that we are high up on the mountain. The track is always visible a short distance ahead, always rising.

We stop at a pool to drink, then continue upwards, seeping the damp green earthy scent. We could be anywhere. Up and up we go. 

There’s a shaft of light ahead, as the slope eases. We emerge, as if from a dream, into the blinding light of a summer’s mid-morning, to stand in a stone-walled field, the waiting cart up ahead in an open mountain vista.  A man sits on the cart smoking, waiting.

We follow the rattling cart in our untidy line, taking in the wide boundless space of the valley and the dark hump of Benbo mountain opposite, transformed, back among the living, to join the meitheal on Rooney’s bog.



I have inserted a link to related blogs for Ena, Reco, Herbie and Wallace Davis.

A Bishop in deep water – 3.

The final part of a story based on a fictional character Steve Wallace who in the late 1970s works in the Solomon Islands. The character and his further adventurers may appear again.

Maringe Lagoon at Buala

On the bright white sandy beach wearing a T-shirt and shorts, the Bishop is a big imposing man. Middle aged, thinning hair atop a broad smile, he vigorously shakes Steve’s hand and in prefect English says,

“Good to meet you again Steve. You were at my inauguration at Sepi last year. We’ll fit you in for sure.“

“That’s super, thanks. Yes, Sepi, what a special event that was. I stayed for the full two days.”

“The most white men I’ve ever seen on Santa Isabel!” he laughs.

His T-shirt has the logo “South Pacific Games 1975, Guam”. Behind him at the top of the beach Steve spots a stack of baskets, mostly potatoes and garden produce, gifts, beside big bundles of their personal baggage.

Silas sees Steve taking in the pile and says to him,

“Don’t worry. It’s a big load, but we’ll be ok.”

While the Bishop and his family say their “goodbyes” to a crowd of villagers, the long dugout canoe is loaded in the shallow water leaving just enough space for the Bishop at the prow, his wife, daughter and Steve, separated by the baskets of food and their belongings.

On the shore the villagers sing in multi-part harmony as Silas cranks the outboard motor to life and steers the laden canoe away from the shore, waving.

In open water the canoe cuts cleanly through the swell, the outboard settling into a steady drone. With a balmy wind and occasional sea spray there is little chance for conversation.  Silas puts out a trawl line hoping to catch a bonito or sword fish.

Once they are out of the bay and past the Fulakora Point, it is a straight 25 mile run up to sheltered lagoon at Buala.  Silas sets a course close to the headland where he believes the swell is big but not choppy. Seeing where he is going, the Bishop in the prow calls to him, indicating with a sweep of his right arm to go much further outside, to the open sea beyond the choppy waters.  Silas looks to rougher water, hesitates, shaking his head slightly. Again, the Bishop waves his arm, Silas swings the loaded canoe around seaward.

Suddenly it gets very choppy, Steve thinks the wind may have picked up, the canoe is rocking, he feels more spray in his face, water comes in over the side and he starts to bail with a wooden cup. The Bishop waves his arm again, more urgently this time and looks back at Silas, who nods.

The wave comes at the canoe slightly to port, there’s no time to react. Steve sees the wall of water block the horizon before it hits him, his cup and cap swept from him.  It washes over them in turn from the Bishop in the prow to Silas on the outboard. The engine coughs and splutters. Water fills the canoe. Steve has images of being thrown into the deep among baskets of potatoes and baggage. But they are still upright. Only a few inches of free board. The outboard continues to splutter. He bails water frantically with his hands. Sees nothing but water, tastes the salt. Bail. Bail. Bail.

The canoe continues to lurch through the confused sea, spray coming from every side. He bails and bails. Eventually the outboard settles to steadier drone. He doesn’t see the others, but knows they too are bailing water.

In the confusion Silas has changed course to stay close to the headland. He’s gunning engine in the troughs, turning to meet the bigger waves, all the while bailing when he can with one hand, his eyes searching for calmer water.

By the time Steve takes in his surroundings the canoe is in a heavy swell, waves breaking on the headland’s reef close by, ahead open sea.  The water is well below his seat now, there is little coming in, his heart eases.

Soon the headland is behind them, the swell lighter, their wide vista of sea and sky bristling with light; the tree-lined shore with thick bush and distant mountain peaks, a constant companion.

In about two hours they will be in the Maringe Lagoon, Fulakora Point almost forgotten. The Bishop, framed in glistened sea spray, turns to Silas and raises a hand. Silas nods in return, keeping a steady course.


A bishop in deep water – 2.

Continuing the story based on a fictional character Steve Wallace who in the late 1970s works in the Solomon Islands. This is the second part.

Steve arrived by canoe on Tanabuli island four days ago. The village of about twenty houses is located on the landward side of the small island. After a morning surveying for a water source with Moses, he now waits for transport back to Buala.

The Tanabuli water supply, one of the simplest, will be a corrugated roof and a storage tank. It is one of a number coordinated and managed by Steve, alongside training his local replacement.  To his great frustration he has no budget for transport so his travel arrangements are ad hoc. His Buala base is about 30 miles along the cost to the north where a small contingent of Solomon Islanders work as civil servants.  He is the only white man there, living in the “Doctors” house, that is until there is funding for a doctor.

A village near Tanabuli Island.

Yesterday a boat came by, the MV Ligomo, the sound of its diesel engine carrying miles across the water before it came in sight. It was going south to Honiara, the wrong direction for Steve. Anchoring just offshore it was quickly circled by children in canoes, shouting back and forth with the fifteen or so passengers. A villager loaded some bags of copra and left with them for the capital.

The Ligomo would be back in four or five days, or maybe seven or eight, depending on which way it circles the island on its return, there will be a message on the radio. Steve hopes he is long gone before then; maybe a plantation boat or a canoe from the Malaria Control Team, who have given him many a ride.

During the morning he sits on the split cane floor reviewing his field notes, reading or playing cards.  In the late morning he has a short swim and returns to doze in the heavy oppressive heat. Patience, patience, patience, he tells himself, my yoga mantra.

The village is quiet. Now and again he hears distant shouts and whoops from islanders in their gardens on the hills across the bay, and sees smoke rising from their fires.

After midday Steve hears a canoe arriving.  Silas, a villager comes to tell him he is taking the Santa Isabel Bishop, back to his Buala home next morning; he thinks Steve should get a lift with him and his family. Silas and Steve will leave first thing to pick them up from a nearby village.

“That’s great!  At last! I met the Bishop at the Sepi festival last year.” Steve says suppressing excitement. Silas leaves a pineapple and a parcel of cassava and returns to his canoe. 

In the afternoon as the intense midday heat has waned, Moses arrives to take him fishing. They paddle away from the village, into turquoise waters on the seaward side of the island. There is a little swell, no wind and in about 10-foot of water Moses drops anchor. With goggles and a hand slung catapult spear Steve clumsily gets out of the small dugout canoe into the warm water, Moses follows with barely a splash.

They swim in the vicinity of the canoe looking for small fish on the bottom. Moses spears one, two, three, as Steve struggles to stay down for any length of time. Finally manages to spear one but must catch a breath on the surface before recovering it. After some more unsuccessful forays Steve sees a small reef shark and heads for the surface. Moses signals him into the canoe. There is no great danger but with fifteen small fish of various colours they paddle back to the village.

That evening before night fall Steve sits on Moses’s veranda eating an evening meal with his young family, the roast fish a welcome addition the sweet potato and cabbage. Moses’s wife, Evi was very shy at first but now is comfortable and engages with him easily in pidgin. Their 18-month-old blond haired daughter treats him like a big toy and Steve plays along. After he’s finished eating, he picks her up on his hip and walks through the village to the shore. Great belly laughs come from some of the houses as they pass.

“My Mrs says you, manevake, are a fast worker. You’re only here a few days and got a pickinny quick time.” Silas’s shouts to him.

“Your Mary knows too much!” Steve retorts in pidgin, to more whoops and laughs, enjoying the joke is on him.

The tropical darkness falls quickly in a kaleidoscope of pinks, mauves and deepening blue.  When Steve returns the child is asleep on his shoulder. Silas and some others come and join them to sit or squat on the veranda. They have heard that Steve can tell a story or two.

Evi produces some betelnut which Steve manages to chew until he feels a mild buzz, then to great amusement, he coughs and spits out the acrid red mixture over the edge of veranda.

He needs a drink of water before starting his version of the Finn McCool and the Scottish giant, stomping and roaring in frustration as their causeway refuses to rise from the sea. When he finishes, there’s more betelnut, Steve refuses this time, and Silas starts a stream of funny bawdy stories.

Steve yawns, moves to leave, and with him the small crowd dwindles.

Concluding part in next blog.

A Bishop in deep water.

This is a story based on a fictional character Steve Wallace who in the late 1970s works in the Solomon Islands, providing engineering support to two local councils, on Guadalcanal and Santa Isabel. The Solomon Islands are on the verge of independence from the UK and are at that time called British Solomon Islands Protectorate or BSIP. Steve is from Ballymoney in County Antrim. The character and his further adventurers may appear again. This initial story is in three parts.

Even in this tropical paradise the nightmares rarely stay away for long. It’s pitch black and Steve is sitting up on his mat in a thatched leaf hut on Tanabuli island, having woken up sweating from another unsummoned dream; the images have already faded, nothing remains but the residual adrenaline of the escaped, the hunted, a sense of some deathly dread avoided yet again. Do they follow me, or do I carry them with me? he muses. He had hoped his antipodes would have given him a fresh start, a clean slate, but now he doubts it. By torchlight, his watch reads 3 am; he sweeps the beam around the thatch walls, pulls a sheet over himself hoping to sleep again.

Tatamba Bay, Santa Isabel. (photo credit Joanna Maclean, see link below)

Through the dawn’s stillness a cock crows and there is a baby’s faint cry. The first villagers move slowly through the rising light, walking around the leaf houses to the nearby shore. Fires lit in small rough kitchens leak smoke through the door and roof as children wake with hunger and a spark for the new day. Older ones will have breakfast and paddle their small canoes to the school at Tatamba on the mainland of Santa Isabel, a short distance across the sheltered bay.

Steve gets up pulls on his shorts and stretches, his dreams forgotten. Behind the Rest House, he washes from a bucket, soaping his face and beard. The water is refreshing as he spills it over his head and rubs himself down.

On the sandy soil between the houses a few papaya, betelnut and banana trees grow.  Away from the water behind the houses is a dense wall of greenery; large leaf shrubs and tangled vines which if left to nature would quickly envelop the houses, and further back tall palms. A gentle lapping of waves on the white sand beach is never far from earshot.

As Steve comes round the corner of his hut some children scream, running away, playing an ongoing game of peek-a-boo with the white stranger. The morning sun slips under the overhang as Steve listens to Solomon Islands radio hoping to hear news of a passing boat that could get him back to Buala, when Moses arrives, wearing a colourful patterned lap-lap against chocolate skin, his body compact with powerful shoulders typical of costal islanders.

“Eh Manevaka! What’s up?” he says in jest, having taught Steve their word for white men – “men who came on ships”.

“Do Bongi!” Steve returns in local language.

“You speak my language well.”

“Do Bongi – that’s all I know. You’ve got a different language in each village I go to.” Steve jokes, returning to pidgin. There at least five distinct languages on Santa Isabel alone, but his pidgin is good.

They walk along the shoreline, coconut palms sweeping up to the blue sky, the salt water’s tang fresh against the wafts of humid night air drifting from the bush, to where three men stand laughing.  They wait in turn to walk along a felled coconut trunk to a small thatched leaf toilet on stilts over the blue water. As Steve approaches they fall silent, diffidently moving aside for him, but he waves them back.

“Do Bongi!” he calls.

“Morning Masta, you go back to Buala today?” asks an older man.

“I’m no Masta of yours!” Steve replies forgetting his usual touch of humour. He tries persistently to counter this deference, have them treat him as an equal. Sometimes making a better job of it than others, he reflects. He understands its roots, knows no harm is meant.  He’s probably first white man to have stayed in the village, but he detests being called “Masta”.

“Suppose canoe come, I’ll go.” He adds with a broad smile.

Back as his hut Moses brings him tea and some of last night’s cooked sweet potato, and suggests they go fishing in the afternoon.  Steve takes hard tack biscuits from his rucksack hung from the rafters away from climbing rodents and eats alone.

The village is bustling now that breakfast is over.  Children leave for school, families, mostly women and young children, prepare to go off to their gardens by canoe, while men go fishing or harvesting copra. Only Steve and a few others, old and very young, remain behind.

Continues next blog.

Photo credit