The Dargle’s intriguing history

2011-08-15 00:00

HOW did the area known as the Dargle in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands come by its rather ­curious name? The received ­wisdom is that Thomas Fannin, who ­settled in the area in 1847, came across a stream that reminded him of the Dargle River in his ­native Ireland, and named the stream and his farm accordingly.

Yes, there is a Dargle River in County Wicklow, Ireland, but there is also a valley there named the Dargle similar to the one here, even to boasting a mountain, the Great Sugar Loaf, which looks uncannily like Inhlazane/Inhlosane that stands at the head of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands version.

Dargle residents Justin and ­Karin Herd can vouch for these similarities. They have visited the Dargle in Ireland and when discussing local history back here, have managed to dupe ­audiences by using photographs of the Irish Dargle as a stand in for the local one.

The Herds bought a property on a hillside in the Dargle in 1997, and Justin built the house that they moved into in 2002. Since then he has been busy rehabilitating the property, and has also ­begun researching a history of the farms and families of the ­Dargle.

“Merchant, copper pioneer, farmer” is how Shelagh Spencer begins her entry on Thomas Fannin in her British Settlers in Natal — A Biographical Register, 1824-1857. He was born in Ireland, probably in 1800. In 1823 he married Eleanor Robinson in Clonmel in Tipperary. The couple and their constantly multiplying family — they had 13 children in all — first lived in Dublin then moved to Liver­pool in 1833, where Fannin ­became part-owner of a ship involved in the guano-fertiliser trade. It was a profitable business but when economic conditions began to deteriorate in the 1840s, Fannin decided to make a fresh start in Africa. Accordingly, he chartered the Conway Castle, “loaded it with merchandise and his numerous family, and sailed for the Cape Colony.”

In Cape Town Fannin met ­Baron von Ludwig, who was ­interested in the commercial exploitation of the copper that had been found in Namaqualand in the 1830s. This led to Fannin ­setting off to survey the copper deposits.

A joint stock company, the South African Mining Co., was set up on the basis of Fannin’s survey, but labour and transport proved problematic and the venture foundered, though not before Fannin “was able to sell his interest in the company before the shares were worthless”, thus conveniently funding his purchase of the farm Buffel’s Hoek in ­Natal, which had just become a British colony.

The Fannin family arrived at Port Natal on the Flora on December 15, 1847 and, in wagons owned by Dick King (of the famous ride to Grahamstown), travelled up to Pietermaritzburg where Eleanor (pregnant with their 13th child) and the daughters were settled in temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, Fannin and his three oldest sons made their way to Buffel’s Hoek through areas recently vacated by Boer farmers. “The farm was in a particularly isolated part of the country,” writes Spencer.

“A stream running through Buffel’s Hoek reminded Fannin of the Dargle stream in Ireland, and thus Buffel’s Hoek was renamed The Dargle or Dargle Hoek as it was sometimes called in the early years. Fannin officially received title to The Dargle on July 1, 1850.” This reflects Natalie Juul’s Harvest of optimism : the story of Thomas Fannin and his family, published in 1982, which seems to be the source for the story of Fannin and the stream.

Once Fannin and his sons had got some sort of habitation erected, the rest of the family was fetched from Pietermaritzburg, and they arrived at their new home on February 1, 1848. Six months later “a sod cottage was ready, and there the Fannins lived for the next few years. Finally, a large shale house was built. This dwelling is still in use.”

Fannin farmed mainly cattle, became involved in the saw­milling business and played a role in Natal politics; either he or his son Thomas was a founder member of the Natal Carbineers in 1855. Fannin died in 1862.

In 2002 the Herds travelled in the reverse direction to Fannin, and visited The Dargle in Ireland, a major tourist attraction and home to the famous Powerscourt House and Gardens. The origins of the name there are equally uncertain. “There’s even conjecture why the Dargle is called the Dargle in Ireland,” says Justin. “Some say it means ‘little red spot’, which reflects the prevailing tint of the local rock.”

In Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, published in 1888, Richard Lovett notes that “the origin of the name is a subject of controversy. Some maintain that it comes from the Celtic Daur Glin, or Vale of Oaks; but Dr Joyce (author of Irish Names of Places) on the other hand, maintains that it comes from an Irish word dearg, meaning ‘red,’ and that Deargail, now Dargle, means ‘a red little spot.’”

“The prevailing rock in the glen is very soft and of a reddish colour,” according to Joyce. “The reddish colour also pervades the clay, which is merely the rock worn down; and is very striking in several spots along the sides of the glen, where the clay and the rock are exposed, especially after rain, which brings out the prevailing hue very vividly.”

The Irish Dargle was a tourist attraction even in the nineteenth century, and Lovett describes it as “a beautiful little mountain glen, well wooded, kindly furnished by nature with that usual high rock from which fable insists upon hurling the usual unhappy lover.”

The latter statement being a reference to Inhlazane, also known as the Great Sugar Loaf (Irish: Ó Cualann also Beannach Mhór) located in the east of County Wicklow. That there are no fables concerning the fate of unhappy lovers associated with Inhluzane (which translates as “maiden’s breast”) might not be surprising, but what seems odd is that nobody seems to reference the similarity between the two mountains as the key to the naming of the Dargle.

Another feature of the Irish Dargle is its waterfall, highest in Ireland at 121 metres, and according to Justin there is a significant waterfall on the South Western boundary of the farm Dargle 913 in KwaZulu-Natal. “It’s about 30 to 40 metres high, but is on the Umngeni river and not the Dargle stream,” he says.

“Another interesting bit is where the Dargle stream joins the Umgeni at a farm named Enniskerry. “Enniskerry in Ireland is a little village situated above Powerscourt on the Glencullen river which joins the Dargle river, ­becoming the River Bray. That is something we want to follow up as well.”

The origins of the name aside, the striking similarities between the two Dargles surely make a case for twinning the two areas. A marketing opportunity for the Midlands Meander perhaps?

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