(Photo: James Fennell)
Ogie Nolan crouched beneath the speaker’s platform and watched with mounting astonishment as more and more Blueshirts piled into Enniscorthy’s Market Square. It was the summer of 1932, just a few months after de Valera’s Fianna Fail party had swept to power and launched Ireland into the Economic War with Britain. ‘Burn everything British except their coal,’ laughs Ogie. ‘That was the motto.’
But Ireland was by no means a country at peace with itself and, as Ogie recalls, there was ‘a lot of old trouble with politics at that time.’[i] The Blueshirts were a quasi-militant organization opposed to de Valera. Ogie was all set to watch the whole rally when, from nowhere, his mother’s hand appeared, ‘caught me by the ear and brought me home.’ The Nolans lived above a sweetshop on Weafer Street at the time and Ogie remembers the sound of his mother slamming down the shutters. ‘I wondered why she did that but the Blueshirts come up Weafer Street and got half way up when a crowd of Sinn Feiners with stones came down from the top. They met and the stones flew. Somebody had warned my mother! I remember after they used to say …
‘The stones came down Weafer Street,
But they were all in vain,
Instead of hitting the Blueshirts,
They broke some window panes.’[ii]
As he rolls into his 90th year, Ogie Nolan is showing no signs of letting up. His stern countenance and gruff tone belie a man who adores keeping abreast of the happenings in his town, of the in’s and out’s of local politics, and of the opportunities to throw his colourful opinion into the mix.
He is not a man without influence. Indeed, his very birth brought the Irish Civil War to a brief halt. Well, in Enniscorthy at any rate. He was born on the east side of the river on 29th March 1922. His twin sister died at birth and Ogie’s father was eager to bring his wife and baby son back to their home on the town’s west side. With the war between the Free Staters and the Irregulars still raging across Ireland, Bridget Nolan and her baby son were given safe passage across the River Slaney under a white flag of truce.
‘My mother’s family were a rebel crowd,’ says Ogie.[iii] ‘Her house was a safehouse during the 1916 rising and she always said that two of her great-uncles were hung during the ‘98. They were all Fenians that time. No matter what Irish person you met, if you went deep enough, they were all Fenians.’
Under some roofs, Enniscorthy still reverberates with the revolutionary zeal that inspired so many of the town’s population to take on the might of the British Army in the summer of 1798. When a 20,000 strong rebel army gathered on the slopes of Vinegar Hill, which overlooks the town, the Redcoats began shelling them from all sides. As the rebel army broke and fled, the British cavalry cantered after them, their razor-sharp swords gripped firm and ominous. Nearly a thousand people died that grim summer’s day, including many women and children.
As such, it’s not surprising that the inner walls of so many buildings in the town are bedecked with images of the heroes of ‘98, and of those who carried the Republican torch through to the awkward triumph of 1921. Established in 1922, Enniscorthy’s Catholic Working Men’s Club is one such place. The club, of which Ogie is Secretary and Treasurer, once boasted a membership of 140 working class men from the town.[iv] Largely unused today, its big, empty old rooms echo with the past. The click of a Bakelite switch. The crackly purr of a Romus heater. The clatter of a shilling coin dropping into the electricity power box. The fizz of the strobe lights blinking overhead. The thwack of ivory balls shooting across green felt. The cackles, the jibes, the tall tales and the hushed whispers rebounding around the shadowy corners.[v]
The Nolans, Ogie’s father’s family, were saddlers in Borris, County Carlow, for many generations. ‘Or “wax arses” as we used to call them,’ says Ogie. His great-grandmother was housekeeper in Borris House to Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh, MP for Carlow, famed across Europe as ‘The Incredible Mr. Kavanagh’. Born without arms or legs, this extraordinary gentleman learned how to write, paint, fish, shoot and ride horses. At the age of 22, he made an overland horseback journey from Norway to southern Iran, then sailed to Bombay and spent six months, strapped into his saddle, working as a dispatch rider. A prominent member of the Carlow Hunt, he was often to be seen leaping over the high walls and grassy banks at the same pace as any other rider. Mr. Kavanagh’s tailormade saddle chair is still to be seen in Borris House today.[vi]
Michael Nolan, Ogie’s father, was born in 1885, and was initially employed as a saddler to Mr. Kavanagh’s grandson, Major Dermot McMurrough Kavanagh.[vii] In 1911, Michael married Bridget Shiel, a coachman’s daughter from Templeshannon, or ‘the Shannon’, on the east side of Enniscorthy.[viii] Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to Enniscorthy where Michael began working for James Donohoe, the manufacturer of Star Mineral Water.[ix] ‘Well, he wasn’t a month in Donohoe’s when the place went on fire, so he started up his own saddle and harness workshop then’, says Ogie.
Ogie, the third of Michael and Bridget’s seven children, was christened Aidan after St. Aidan, the founder of the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne for whom Enniscorthy’s cathedral is named. [ix.a] As a nod to his mother’s father, Moses Shiel, he was also given the name ‘Mogue’.[x] ‘Mogue changed to Oge and that’s what the Christian Brothers called me. Then other young lads put the ‘gee’ on it’. Whenever I won at poker, they’d say “Ogie is the Bogey”.’
One of Ogie’s earliest memories is from 1927 when Enniscorthy ‘filled up with men’, mostly German, ‘putting up the poles and the lights all over town.’[xi] Shortly afterwards he began his schooling with the Christian Brothers, or ‘the Black Marauders’ as he calls them. ‘Ah, they were all right. I was as big a cur that ever went to a Christian Brother School. I was a pup and anything I got I deserved. There were a few bad cases and there was abuse going on but that was all kept under cover. Ninety nine per cent of them was good people. They had to be very good to teach us!’
In 1940, aged seventeen, Ogie left school to join ‘Nolan & Sons’ as a harness-maker and boot repairer. Every July, he and his father returned to Borris to restore all the riding tackle and saddleware for Major Kavanagh’s hunting horses and polo ponies. From a workshop in the farmyard, they also repaired the harnesses for the fourteen work horses. One day Ogie was in the workshop when a thin, slightly balding American appeared in the doorway holding a golf bag with a rip down one side. Michael twitched his head in Ogie’s direction and suggested the young fellow could maybe do something with it. Ogie duly stitched the bag up but when the American came back for it the next day, he failed to leave any payment. When the Major asked how he got on with the bag, Ogie said that he had fixed it ‘but the American gave me nothing for it.’ Major Kavanagh deftly produced a pound from his wallet and said, ‘That’s for helping Fred Astaire.’ ‘I knew I knew the man but I just couldn’t put a name on him,’ says Ogie.[xii]
Ogie was particularly intrigued by the Kavanagh’s babysitting practices. The workshop stood near a square lawn at the back of the house. One day, ‘the nurse came out, put a baby child on the square, left it out there and off she went. I thought “well that child is going to crawl away.” But the next minute a sheepdog come up. The babby started to creep off and the sheepdog caught it by a catch on the back and brought it into the middle again. That happened fourteen or fifteen times. I was fascinated.’[xiii]
During the Second World War (or the Emergency as it was known in Ireland), Ogie served with the Local Defence Force. ‘They gave us a gun with a bayonet, but very few bullets,’ he laughs. ‘It was quiet enough but there was a few scares. Mr Churchill and de Valera didn’t get on and you never knew who you might have to fight. An awful lot of Irish were pro-German.’
Ogie was working in Borris when a German plane unloaded its deadly bombs above the unfortunate Shannon farmstead on Mount Leinster. On the other hand, he buoyantly maintains that ‘business was better when the war was on,’ not least because ‘the Major was only allowed one tractor at Borris, so he had all the workhorses back on.’
In 1945 Michael Nolan relocated the business to a roomy warehouse on Weafer Street, the walls of which are still lined with Irish tricolours and portraits of Michael Collins and Robert Emmet. During the late 1960s, the Enniscorthy Dramatic Society was based in this same room. But while Ogie is a drama enthusiast, he says he is no thespian. ‘I never acted anything but the fool.’
At their peak, the Nolans employed fourteen men. As well as making and repairing harnesses and saddles, they manufactured belts, dog collars, luggage straps and shoes.[xiv] ‘I was often in Dublin buying leather, rubber and all that’, he says. ‘We also did a lot of work for the Travellers, making harnesses mostly.’[xv]
In 1980, Ogie retired after 42 years in the business. He remains a well-known sight in the town, not least amongst the card-playing community as this wily soul is both a founder member of the Enniscorthy Bridge Club and a Bridge Master. Cards have taken over from his other great passion, swimming.[xvi] In his younger years, he and his friends often stopped to swim at the ‘Headwire’, or head weir, on the River Slaney. One gorgeous blue-skied afternoon, when the riverbanks were smothered in blackberries, he found himself alone at the weir. ‘So I went in for a swim with no bathing togs.’ To his considerable surprise, the wife of a well-to-do Wexford gentleman appeared out of the bushes and, claims Ogie with defiant octogenarian vigour, she remarked: ‘By God Ogie you’re a fine man stripped.’ He stresses that there was no Lady Chatterley like conclusion to the occasion.
With thanks to David Hasslacher and John McGovern.
[i] ‘When I was seven years old, it was all de Valera and Cosgrave and all these going for power. But Clan na Gael – they became Fine Gael – kept the reins on things until de Valera took ver. Times were hard. We were going through an economic war. Burn everything British except their coal. That was their motto. ‘ (He laughs)
[ii] ‘The Blueshirts come on the scene. General O’Duffy, the Garda Commissioner. He done a great job with the Eucharistic Congress when all the papal crowd came. But de Valera took power and he was sacked and formed the Blue Shirts. They come to the Market Square down here and it was packed with them. I was under the platform. Next thing my mother caught me by the ear and brought me home. She put up the shutters and I wondered why. But the Blueshirts come up Wheafer Street and got half way up when a crowd of Sinn Feiners with stones came down from the top. They met and the stones flew. Somebody had warned my mother! What’s this they used to say … The stones came down Wheafetr Street but they were all in vain, instead of hitting the Blueshirts, they broke some window panes. They were a week here but then they were banned.’
[iii] They were from down around Coolcotts, Barntown in the south of the county.
[iv] The Catholic Working Men’s Club was founded as a social centre in 1899 for the working men of Enniscorthy. Through the efforts of Rev. James Rossiter, the Weafter Street building became the headquarters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. They moved out in 1922 and the CWC has been here ever since.
One of Ogie’s fellow caretakers was John Lyons, the yardman at the Nolans shop. John, who died under tragic circumstances during the snows of January 2010, was famed as the ‘syrup chief’ in Chivers on The Prom. During the strawberry season, he had exclusive control over the syrup formula that went into all the canned strawberries.
[v] Ogie recounts the tale of one of Michael Collins men who was a Protestant. As such, a fervent Catholic club member called Brennan would not let him into the premises. A year later, with the Civil War in full flow, the Protestant came back in Free State army uniform, sat down with a .45 on the table beside him and said ‘have you any objection now Mr Brennan?’ (The latter is believed to have been an uncle of the late Séamus Brennan, TD). Ogie also points to a room where once were hidden the guns used to shoot two Free State officers as they came out from St. Aidan’s Cathedral.
[vi] Ogie’s grandfather Michael, born in 1851, was also a harness maker, while his great-grandmother Margaret, born in 1856, worked as a housekeeper ‘up above’ at Borris House. They rented a house in Lower Borris, next door to what is now Dalton’s pub, for a shilling a week.
Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh’s horse was called Tinker and Ogie says the horse was later stuffed by a taxidermist.
[vii] He also worked alongside the Borris steward, Sam Rose. ‘We were the saddlers there,’ says Ogie. ‘During the Troubles they were burning mansions where all the West Britons live in Wexford and Carlow. They went up to burn Borris House and the Major met them. He told them how he was the rightful King of Leinster and the mansion was left there. He was right too.’ The Major’s father Walter Kavanagh was a nationalist MP. Ogie recalls the Major’s daughters Eva and Grainne. ‘Two very nice girls. Tthey said I was a quare fellow. And they were right too. One of them married Lord Kildare and one of them married into the Willis cigarette factory’.
[viii] Her father was coachman to the Sweetman’s of Ballmacarry.
[ix] J. Donohoe Ltd. was based in ‘the Shannon’, or Templeshannon, on the east side of the river. See here for more.
[ix.a] John McGovern tells me that a local history Journal from Templeport, Co. Cavan, outlines the burial Island of St. Mogue and explains and links the name Mogue/Aiden as follows: 'St. Mogue is patron Saint of the parish of Templeport and the name is from the Gaelic Mo Aedh Og (my young Aedh) but in some places Mogue is called Aiden'.
[x] His mother Bridget Sheil was a dressmaker - see Census results.
[xi] ‘The first thing I ever remember in town was the Shannon Scheme. I think I was about 28. The men come – 75% of them were German – putting the poles up and the lights all over town.’
[xii] ‘We were doing the saddling in Borris and this fellow came up to my father and asked if he could put a few stitches into the handle of his golf bag. My father said take it over to the young fellow there so he come over t me and leaves it with me. I knew him but I couldn’t put a name on him. Alright says I. He come back for the bag anyway. I was expecting a couple of shillings. But he didn’t give me any. The Major [Kavanagh came up to me afterwards and asked if I did the job. ‘I did’ says I. ‘he gave me nothing’. The Major gave me £1 and said ‘That’s Fred Astaire’. The Major was a decent man. ‘
Major Kavanagh died in 1953. In 1936, his daughter Joane married the Marques of Kildare, later Duke of Leinster.
[xiii] ‘I remember being up at Borris before the yard was tarmacadamed and you’d go down to your ankles in mud. There was a square patch about 12 yards square or more. The nurse came out and put a baby child on it and left it out there and off she went. The next minute a sheepdog come up. The child started to creep off and the sheepdog caught it by a catch on the back of the babby and brought it back to the middle. That happened fourteen or fifteen times. I was fascinated. ‘
[xiv] ‘We were already doing the shoes for our own family so we knew what it was all about.’
[xv] ‘The O’Connors, Joyces, Wards, O’Brien’s, Murphy’s, the lot of them. They had a machine they could stick lead into, twist it and a half crown would come out. They used that to cod every farmers in the country until somebody blew the whistle.’
[xvi] ‘Another time, I was cycling up to Borris from Enniscorthy and I went over a ditch to relieve myself. Well, there was the finest swimming pool you could ever see! A bomb was after dropping into a stream. I wasn’t long getting into it.’