Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Vanishing Ireland

Pat and John Piggott (born 1931)

Farmers & Accordion Player

Glenbeigh, Co. Kerry

‘Come in, come in’, says Pat Piggott, ushering us in to the farm cottage where he lives with his twin brother John. The rain is bucketing down on the valley and even the dogs retreat to shelter once they’ve given our knees a cursory sniff. ‘It’s not too often we’d have people up’, he adds, as we take a seat by a fireplace. ‘We’d have more in the wintertime’.

The cottage stands in the lush Kerry landscape of Glenbeigh, sheltered by the Seefin mountains, overlooking the point where the Behy river meets the waters of Dingle Bay. The region is highly esteemed for its folklore. The nearby strand of Rossbeigh was where Oisin and Niamh took to the sea on their white horse to find new life in the land of eternal youth - Tir na nOg.

John Piggott suggests their home has been in the family for more than 200 years. It is certainly the same cottage where their great-grandparents lived during the Great Famine more than a hundred and sixty years ago. The bachelor twins were born in the cottage on a spring morning in 1931, sons to a mountain farmer who died when they were young men. Their two younger sisters died young. After their father’s death, they continued to live with their mother.

In the 21st century, the Piggot twins seem to represent the spirit of an Ireland that sometimes seems entirely fictional. They wear woolen trousers and sturdy work-boots. They are charming, friendly, enthusiastic men, eager to help in any way they can. They produce a plate of biscuits, a pot of tea, glasses of lemonade (‘minerals’) and a bottle of whiskey. A settle bed, apparently as old as the house, rests in front of a roasting turf fire. A cheerful green hue runs throughout the house – on the window sills, the doors, the furniture. On one wall is a picture of a handsome but anonymous woman cut from a calendar long years ago. Beside it hangs a newspaper clipping about their friend and neighbour, the artist Pauline Bewick. A television resides discreetly in one corner of the room. ‘It’s good for the long winter nights’, concedes John, admitting he enjoyed the International Rules three test series against Australia.

We sit on green chairs and debate the size of Ireland’s thirty two counties and talk of the extraordinary changes that have already befallen rural Ireland in the first years of this century.

The Piggots are farmers. They keep cattle and sheep in a few fields around the house and have a handful of hens and ducks at their farmstead to provide boiled eggs for breakfast. They have always had their own milk, butter and cream. ‘We used to have turkeys’, says John, ‘and the pig is gone now too’.

The Piggots have always been wary of cabin fever and traditionally took off around the surrounding countryside on bicycles. A number of new houses now dot the landscape. John shakes his head sadly and says that whereas many people lived in the area during his youth, most of these new houses are now holiday homes.

Constant billows of smoke have yellowed the whitewash around the fireplace but the air smells vigorous and hearty. The turf came from a stretch of bog behind the cottage. They had cut it the previous spring using the long-handled slan and pike. Pat is sad that such traditional methods for cutting, stacking and drying the peat are fading away. He fears the increased use of farm machinery will ultimately strip Ireland of every resource it has.

Like many Kerry farmers, the twins have a keen sense of music. Pat is highly skilled in playing the melodeon or squeezebox. ‘I learned by the air’, he says. ‘By listening’, adds John ingenuously, as if that settles it. The music they play invokes memories of cross-road dances, lush green valleys and Atlantic steamers heading far away. As Pat plays and John taps his foot, we drift together into a distant world where unspoken sorrows mingle gently with hissing turf fires and winter rains.

With thanks to Nick Wilkinson and Tara O'Shea.

John Pigott (seated on the green bench) passed away on 3 December 2014.

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