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Throughout this island there are men and women of senior vintage whose traditional ways do not sit quite so easily with this brave new Ireland. To younger generations, their sepia-hued world is difficult to comprehend. It seems like an almost make-believe land of thatched cottages, potato furrows and pony traps. But the stage on which these tribal elders played out their lives was little different to that of their grandparents before them. And of course it was every bit as real as our own.
Posterity does not generally acknowledge the common people as anything more than an electoral statistic. Their life stories have always faded into the archives. This book sets out to capture and preserve the stories of some of these people. When they were children, Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Their parents were adults during the horrific days of the First World War and the Irish Civil War. Their grandparents may have remembered the Great Famine of the 1840s. The grandfather of one man we met knew people who fought in the 1798 Rebellion. History can play strange tricks with time.
Some people don't like looking back at the past. Spike Milligan famously declared that it hurt his neck. The older generation lived through remarkable and difficult times. The Ireland of their youth allowed for little optimism. As children, many of those we met had slept in the same beds as their siblings, walked to school barefoot and fed on cabbage and potatoes and perhaps some of the salty bacon hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Their homes had no electricity, no running water, no washing machines, no fridge, no television, no telephones. Families were large, the number of children often running into double figures. Fathers generally walked or cycled to work. Most had a donkey or horse which they'd hitch to a trap if need be. Farmers conglomerated at the weekly cattle and sheep fairs. Social life revolved around Mass, always an excellent place for picking up the latest gossip. Some followed the hunt, others preferred the giddy fiddles and dancing feet of the ceilis. The postman occasionally brought word from aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, who had left home to make a new life in England or America. For many who stayed behind, alcohol afforded an emigration for the soul. Others took the pledge and never touched a drop. Curiously most of them insist that, despite everything, the Ireland of their youth was a better place. As Atty Dowling told us, 'O God it was a hard life - but it was a grand life. And whatever the hell way it was, the people was somehow happier and more contented'.
In the present century, Church authority has all but collapsed. Politics is following fashion onto the catwalk. Rural villages have been smothered in suburbs. Farming is no longer a simple collaboration between man, beast and soil. It is a highly complex financial industry orchestrated by anonymous bureaucrats in Brussels.
But change is constant. The trusty horse was a vital cog on the Irish farm
since Celtic times. After the Second World War, the tractor arrived and
farm-horses suddenly became redundant. During the late 19th century, the
railway and the canals were the principal forms of transport. By 1960, both
had been cast aside to make way for the motorcar. Today, we watch in awe
as vast swathes of the landscape, each inch soaked in history, are cleared
to make way for the super highways and urban sprawl of the present age.
The people we met in the making of this book were invariably charming, courteous, amusing and friendly. Some were eloquent; others indecipherable. Some hardly said a word. One or two didn't draw breath. Some spoke profound truisms that no philosopher has yet considered. Others invented everything as they went along. They all completely understood the nature of this project, plying us with tea and whiskey while they coloured in the past with their memories and mused upon the quandaries of the present. There is nothing quite like watching the eyes of an ancient light up beneath his peaky cap as he recalls a punch-line from long ago that leaves him with no option but to laugh and laugh until the dew of time comes gently rolling down his cheeks.
Ireland has inevitably become a more stressful and less friendly society since the economic boom began. 93-year-old Ginger Powell genially says that it is nobody's fault and if he were young, he'd be exactly the same. Perhaps it's simply a consequence of the global culture making the world a smaller place. In the age of emails and mobile phones, you're less compelled to communicate with your neighbours. There's no need to even know their names. And now the smoking ban, rising prices and the clamp down on drink-driving means that even the country pub is in danger of extinction. The arrival of nearly half a million "non-nationals" to Ireland in recent years will invite further cause for contemplation in coming decades.
The Republic of Ireland's population currently stands at 4.2million, its highest level since records began in 1861. About 10% of our population are over 70 years old, with most of them living in rural areas. People are living longer; there are presently 141 centenarians in the country, two of whom feature in these pages. But the generation who knew Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s are rapidly disappearing. The days of the "golden codger", as WB Yeats once called them, will soon be at an end. They are dying off, fading out, literally vanishing from this earth. At the time of writing, six of those interviewed for this book have since passed on. It is a simple and rather poignant truth that within the next decade - or, at most, two - we will look back and wonder where did all the golden codgers go.
August 1st 2006