Paddy Heaney’s knowledge of the Slieve Bloom Mountains is outstanding. He has made it his business to know about every square inch of the 60,000-acre region. He lives with his sister in a gorgeous setting by the Silver River in Cadamstown, County Offaly, one of five villages on the lower slops of the mountains.
‘In the 1940s and 1950s, there was more than twenty houses just above the village,’ he says. ‘They’re all gone now and the families are gone too. They all died out after the war years. Or they went to England and America. It came to a point where you just couldn’t live on small bits of land anymore. There was no work. And there we no roads into the mountains. No electricity or telephones. There was nothing!’
Paddy believes that if the mountain farmers had held on for another thirty years, they might have survived. Tourism and the telecommunication revolution would have made living in such places much more feasible. But the houses are ruined now and you will never get planning permission to build up there because it is all owned by Coilte and they want to see nothing only forest. Coniferous forests at that. There’s now some 43,000 acres of pine up there, all owned by the government. But, as Paddy says, ‘sadly there’s not the money in the beech or ash’.
Once upon a time it was all oak. Then one of Cromwell’s men, a demon called Coote, came and felled every tree he found in order to stoke the furnace of his ironworks in Mountrath. The iron was used to make bayonets, canonballs and other weapons of mass destruction.
Paddy is a charming man of all seasons. He plays music. He hosts couples who want to take their wedding photographs down by the Silver River. He shows people around the old mill, built by the Manifold family in the 1830s and closed since 1914. He is a competent mason. However, above all else, he is a historian.
His forbears came from the north. He suspects they were part of Hugh O’Neill’s great northern army who stayed south after their shock defeat at Kinsale in 1601. Indeed, he says there are a lot of Ulster names in the area that go back to O’Neill’s time. And then he starts counting on his hands. ‘Let me see, there’s Donnellys, Corrigans, Gallaghers, Duffys, Breslins, McCorries, McAllisters, Lowrys, Murroughs, Mobys, Mullins, Sweenys, Screenys, McCormacks. Did I say Duffy already? They’re all from the north and they stayed around here.’
Paddy takes great joy in putting down on paper words delivered to him by mouth. ‘The stories were always handed down by the old people but a lot of them couldn’t read or write so they’d hand it down in the spoken way.' In 1850, Paddy’s grandfather built a bridge over which a mountain road outside Cadamstown now runs. Paddy came across his payslip and found the job netted an income of ‘three pound six and eight pence’. That was good money then, says Paddy. ‘An ordinary fellow only got about tuppence a day.’
‘My grandfather lived to be 105. I never knew him but he lived through the Famine. He knew people who could remember the 1798 rebellion. He told my father his stories and my father lived to be ninety-five.’
‘It’s a pity so much of the past is lost,’ says Paddy. ‘But people didn’t like to talk about it. They were afraid to talk – about history or religion. Now everyone is happy to talk about it. That’s good.’
Paddy is planning to erect a monument on an ancient road that runs outside Cadamstown – the very road that O’Neill’s army passed en route to Kinsale. But Paddy’s monument will be to all those who passed along this way – ‘irrespective of where they came from or what religion they were’.
‘People should understand that everyone had done their part. All the people who came – the Celts, the Danes, the Normans, the English– they all left their mark. There was a lot of English who came out here and inter-married and were a great asset to the country. Some of them were very well liked. Like the Manifolds here who ended up hurling with a local team, joining the IRA and then they joined the guards. The first man to join the Garda Síochána after the Free State was founded in 1922 was a John Manifold. He was 6 foot 4 and he was my godfather. He directed the traffic in Dublin. The Dubliners called him ‘Fingers’ because he always used two fingers. He was descended from a Cromwellian planter. But that was the case all over the country and sometimes we fail to recognise that.’