Inistioge, County Kilkenny
Blacksmith, Sheep Shearer, Hackney Driver & Drummer
(Photo: James Fennell)
When Denis Lee’s daughter, Gemma, ushers us into his home on Inistioge’s Mill Road, she warns us that the eighty-seven-year-old might be ‘a little tired today’.
Tired he may have been, but Denis was as alert and erudite as any man I’ve ever met. By the time we left one hour later, I calculated that he had spoken in excess of eight thousand words, allowing for an average speed of one hundred and forty words per minute.
I think he lived his whole life at that pace. He was an extraordinarily busy man. As such, it did not surprise me when I heard that the guard of honour at his funeral was formed from the combined forces of the Rower and Inistioge GAA Club, the Inistioge Sheep Shearers, the Fine Gael Party and the Nore Vale Harriers. With music by the Graiguenamanagh Brass Band and John Burke, it was a very fitting farewell.
Denis Shelly Lee was born on 18 September 1923 in the beautiful south Kilkenny village of Inistioge, which sits on the River Nore. The family had been blacksmiths in the area for innumerable generations. Their forge stood at the bottom of the village square.
His father, John, one of eleven children, took an active role in the War of Independence as a young man. The forge narrowly escaped discovery as the source for the metal spikes used to puncture the tyres of the Crossley Tender trucks driven by the Black and Tans.
The Tans were stationed at Woodstock House, a splendid mansion above the town, subsequently burned during the Civil War. One of John’s brothers was incarcerated on Spike Island and later emigrated to New York.
Denis, the third of five children, went to work in the forge from an early age, helping his father bend the red-hot cart wheels. ‘I started as soon as I was able to blow the bellows,’ he said. ‘I left school when I was about thirteen and I was tipping away in the forge from then on.’
There were long periods when his father did not require any assistance in the forge. Eager to keep himself occupied, young Denis seized the opportunity to help his neighbours. When he wasn’t milking cows in Inistioge – and there were six families in the village with cows at that time – he was helping out on a cousin’s farm, bringing in hay, taking out the chaff, riding up on a horse and cart. He also befriended Paddy Delahunty, a sheep farmer who lived on the nearby Hatchery Lane.
‘I was only a baby when I started to follow after Paddy. I’d help him out with the sheep. I learned every class of a trick that could be done with a sheep. Skinning and butchering. Cutting off lamb’s tails in the spring time. Castrating them with a penknife. Killing the lambs for Easter.
Herding them to the fairs in Graiguenamanagh and Thomastown. And I sheared sheep in five different counties.’
He sheared his first sheep at the age of nine and was to become one of the most skilled sheep shearers in the southeast. ‘I did sixty-nine one day with a shears. It was sixpence a piece that time, thirty-five shillings, and I went to the Gowran Races the next day.’
By the late 1940s, with the assistance of a Fordson Major tractor, he was bailing straw throughout the region, including ‘all the wheaten straw they put under the hunting horses’ at Mount Juliet, the headquarters of the Kilkenny Hunt. ‘We’d cut corn with a binder, make the stooks and thresh with all the neighbours.’
In 1948, his cousin Andy Gorey bought a thresher set. ‘And I gave twenty years after that, threshing for all the farmers around, but then the combine came in and that finished the thresher set.’
In 1950, Denis purchased a Fiat for £50 and set himself up as a hackney driver, primarily escorting people to Kilkenny hospital, to funerals and to mass. He even drove children to school in it. ‘No one had a car back then. I used to bring people to eight o’clock Mass every Sunday morning. I’d make three runs then of a Christmas morning. One auld lad always had a big nagon of whiskey for me and that would be drank before we come home!’
Sometimes, he drove people to catch the ferry to England from Rosslare. ‘I never left Ireland myself,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t like to be out in the middle of the sea like that. I like to be my own man.’
He did once accept an offer from a friend to step into a fishing cot which was berthed on the shore of the Nore. ‘I didn’t think he had any drink on him, you see. “Come on!” he said. “And we’ll have a little spin down the river.” So in I got and he never stopped until we got to New Ross. It was the month of September, freezing. When we got to Ross, in we went to the pub for a pint, and we stayed a while, but I got home anyway because I had to bring a load up for the All-Ireland in Croke Park next morning. I wasn’t worth tuppence, as the fellow says, but it was good craic while it lasted.’
The list of what Denis did goes on. He was a reserve postman. He dabbled in undertaking. And like his father and grandfather before him, he was a blacksmith. When Eddie Macken’s show-jumper Boomerang lost a shoe at the Inistioge Horse Show in June 1979, nobody had any doubt about who should be summoned in to re-shoe the legendary horse. The photograph of Denis with Boomerang was amongst his proudest possessions.
As the years went by, his car got bigger. By the 1970s, he was frequently escorting groups of hurling fans up to Croke Park. ‘Everyone would be singing and shouting and fighting and arguing over the hurling the whole way up and down.’ On the journey back, they would partake of refreshments in a variety of establishments in Leinster, including the Workingman’s Club in Carlow.
Denis always enjoyed a good time. He was a familiar face at both horse and greyhound race meetings all over Ireland. His own greyhounds won numerous races along the way. With his big bass drum, he was also a musical icon across south Kilkenny. He was a ten-year-old boy when he joined St Colmcille’s Brass Band in Inistioge, initially playing tenor horn and symbols, alongside his father on the big drum and his brother, Jim, on the baritone horn.
When his father retired, Denis took over his big drum and, together with Jim joined the Graiguenamanagh Brass Band. He had lost count of the number of times he played the ‘Dead March’ at funerals, but reckoned he spent twenty consecutive St Patrick’s Days marching with the band through the streets of Kilkenny.
Each year, without fail, he gathered and supplied shamrock for every band member. And when the drinks were on later in the evening, he would tip back his head and hammer out the verses of ‘Boolavogue’ or ‘The Rose of Mooncoin’.
Denis Lee was laid to rest alongside his late wife, Breid, in Cappagh cemetery, just north of Inistioge, on 11 April 2012. They are survived by their three daughters, Mairead, Maura and Gemma.
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