Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - VANISHING IRELAND, VOLUME 3

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Willie Sheehan

(Photo: James Fennell)

WILLIE SHEEHAN

 

CLONWALSH, COUNTY TIPPERARY
CATTLE BREEDER & BOOTMAKER
BORN 1917

The bricks were still hot when Willie Sheehan and his father arrived up at Castle Anner in October 1926. Or what was left of the castle. Considered one of the finest mansions in Tipperary, it had burned down over night. The cause of the fire became apparent when Edmund Burke, the caretaker, was found dead in the nearby coach house. He was dressed in his Sunday best with a fowling gun lying across his chest and the top of his head blown off.[i]

Mr. Burke had always been considered eccentric. The Coroner’s Inquest later determined that he had become ‘unhinged’. Precisely why he set fire to the castle and shot himself is unknown, but five days earlier John Parnell Mandeville, the owner, had handed the castle and its 120 acres over to his younger brother Lieutenant Geoffrey Mandeville of the Royal Navy.

Although the Mandevilles had not resided in the castle for some years, Geoffrey had spent much of the summer there. Indeed, it was he who left Mr. Burke in charge, along with another man, Mr. Kane, who lived nearby. Two days before the fire, Mr. Burke and Mr. Kane spent the day cutting ivy from the castle walls. Mr. Burke appeared to be fine. ‘It was a strange business,’ says Willie. ‘There was a rumour that the de Mandevilles were going to sell the castle. So maybe that went to his head.’

Willie’s forbears were small farmers from ‘Killusty country’, the fertile lands between the medieval town of Fethard and the north-western slopes of Slievenamon. During the late 19th century, Daniel Sheehan, Willie’s grandfather, journeyed around the mountain to the northern banks of the River Suir and began working with another farmer near Mullinarinka.

In 1885, Daniel secured a cottage from Tipperary County Council in Ballinvoher, close to where Willie now lives today. Although he never met his grandfather, Willie remembers the gate to his house, branded with Daniel’s initials and the date he moved into the house.

Dan Sheehan, Willie’s father, was one of six children. He was also the only one who remained in Ireland. By the time of the 1911 census, all five of his brothers and sisters had emigrated to the USA, mostly settling in and around Chicago.[ii] Dan was ‘all his life’ working on the railways. He started as a plate-layer and was one of a gang of four entrusted with maintaining the track between Clonmel and Kilsheelan. That was no small feat during the War of Independence when the line was repeatedly sabotaged by Republicans.

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Willie was born in November 1917, the same month Lenin’s Communists seized control of Russia. He attended the parish school in Powerstown during the 1920s. ‘We walked there and back ever day. It wasn’t a case of enjoyment or disenjoyment. We just went there and that was it.’ [iii]

He left Powerstown aged fourteen and then spent four years studying administration and accounting at the technical institute on Anglesea Street in Clonmel. He trained as a motor mechanic and was all set to start in the local garage when the boot and shoe factory opened in Clonmel. Now occupied by the Social Welfare office, the factory stood on the corner of New Quay and Wellington Street. This is where Willie worked for seven years, putting heels on boots and ladies shoes, then edging them up.

‘It was nice work,’ says Willie. However, in 1947, the Irish government relaxed control of the Irish shoe industry and an estimated two million pairs of imported shoes flooded into the country. The Clonmel factory spiralled into decline and the first employees to be given the heave-ho were the bachelors, including Willie.[iv]

Not that Willie stayed a bachelor for long. His wife was Josephine Dillon, daughter and co-heiress of an influential famer named John Dillon from Powerstown, County Tipperary. Mr. Dillon was a county councilor and it was he who canvassed both sides of the River Anner to secure support for the construction of a new bridge. Known as Buck’s Bridge, it was built in the late 1930s using the original girders from the bridge in Kilsheelan which was enlarged at the same time.

‘It was a long way around before Buck’s Bridge was built,’ says Willie. ‘You could maybe cross the Anner in the summer but it was real strong water. You’d be crossing it in a trap and the water would be gushing all around the wheels. So you either had to go to Redmondstown or Killurney. I remember the postman who came up from Clonmel on his bicycle. He would drag the bike up onto the railway bridge, then go up the line, drop it back over the gate and back down to the road again. He did that every day, five days a week. They were hard times for postmen. Buck’s Bridge made his life a lot easier.’

Willie and Josie Sheehan proved to be an inspired partnership, not least in cattle breeding circles where they enjoyed considerable success up until Josie’s death in 1994. Although they never kept more than five cows, the Sheehans bred a superior breed of Hereford. During the 1960s and 1970s, they exhibited at shows all over Ireland and frequently won their classes. In 1976, one of their yearlings was declared Champion Hereford at the Tipperary-Laois-Offaly Pedigree Breeders Show in Thurles.[v] Another yearling they bred won the Limerick Show and went on to take top prize at the Royal Dublin Society’ Spring Show in Ballsbridge the following year. The owner of this champion was so thrilled that he presented Willie with the winning cup by way of congratulations.

The Spring Show was the number one event on the calendar for cattle breeders and Willie’s bulls often came home with rosettes. ‘Brackford Valley, Brackford Knight, Brackford Goldie … they all did us proud.’ Their most successful prize bull was Brackford Champion who won Bull of the Year at the Limerick Show and was chosen to represent the Hereford Society at the Spring Show the following February. ‘I looked after him every day, morning and evening,’ says Willie. ‘Good breeding is crucial. If you have a well bred heifer, bring her to a well-bred bull and the results will be good.’

With thanks to Nicola Everard.

This article also appeared in full in the 'Irish Hereford Breed Journal 2012'.

FOOTNOTES

[i] A horse was found dead in a nearby stable, although when a vet examined it, he determined it had died of natural causes. Mr. Burke lived in the yard beside the castle. He was described as ‘an eccentric man, but a careful and devoted servant.’ He had been paranoid that someone was trying to poison him. Although he was never known to have attended Mass during his seven years with the Mandeville’s, several religious books were found on his body. The house then belonged to Miss Mandeville. The Coroner’s Inquest determined that Mr. Burke had become ‘unhinged’ and taken his own life. (The Anner Castle Fire, The Irish Times, Thursday, October 14, 1926; Friday, April 8, 1927).

‘I happened to be over at Anner Castle the day it was burned. It was burned in October 1926. My father was working on the railway line. There was no bridge over the river Anner at that time. The only way to cross was on a horse’s back or in a horse and cart or a pony and trap. My brother was 3 years younger than me. I went down with my father. A lot of people went all through the day. It wasn’t winter. It was longer days. My father took us down the railway line to the second bridge and I went with him. We came up then to the avenue and saw the castle then. It was probably 1924. I was seven or eight. [It was 1926 and he was nine.] We saw it after it had been burned the night before. The caretaker burned the castle and then he shot himself. His name was Edmund Burke. I knew him by sight. He was the caretaker and we would see him crossing the river in a horse and trap every week, heading into Clonmel to do his shopping, I suppose. There was a rumour that the de Mandevilles were going to sell the castle. That went to his head so he burned the castle and shot himself.’

[ii] In 1911, 32-year-old Daniel Sheehan, a railway plate layer born in 1879, lived in Ballinvoher, Kilsheelan, with his 72-year-old widowed mother Mary. In 1901, they both lived with Daniel Snr (aged 65) and two boarders, Nora and Michael Butler, aged 10 and 11.

‘My father was the only one left at home. He only saw one after that. One came back many years afterwards when I was a teenager. Jack Sheehan. I believe he stayed a night at Anner Castle.’

[iii] They didn’t have to bring turf – the school has its own stash.

[iv] ‘We left school at fourteen. I went to the tech in Clonmel after that, on a commercial basis, learning about office work, accounting and things. After a few years, I was starting to learn how to be a motor mechanic for the local garage but the Boot Factory from England came on at the time in Clonmel. And I was one of the people that got my job in the factory. I was finishing heels in the finishing room. It was nice work, definitely. It was all ladies shoes that were manufactured there. They were distributed in the shops after but that didn’t interest us. Your job was to do your part of the shoemaking, to put the heel on the boots, edging them up. He was there for six or seven years. ‘Then work got a bit slack. And a very interesting thing happened. If your partner doing the same work was a married chap, then the single man went on half time and the married chap was kept on full. That’s what happened to me. That was the policy. Because he was married and had family.’

[v] The yearling as then sold for £800 to Ted Carey of Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford. ‘Thurles Bull Sale Awards’, The Irish Times, Thursday, April 8, 1976, p. 12.

 

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.