Turtle Bunbury

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VANISHING IRELAND

FURTHER CHRONICLES OF
A DISAPPEARING WORLD

The books are available in
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THE VANISHING IRELAND PROJECT

 

Vanishing Ireland - Further Chronicles of a Disappearing World was short-listed for the IES Best Irish-Published Book of the Year Award 2010.

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INTRODUCTION TO 'VANISHING IRELAND - FURTHER CHRONICLES OF A DISAPPEARING WORLD'

BY TURTLE BUNBURY

Not so long ago, I rambled into one of Eddie McDonald’s monthly music nights in Clonmore, County Carlow. About sixty senior citizens from the surrounding area were crammed on wooden benches inside Eddie’s barn. They were there to entertain and to be entertained. Most sang songs, some humorous and rowdy, others unspeakably sad. A skinny labourer whistled a tune called ‘Bird Song’. A ruddy-faced cattle farmer simply danced to the sound of all those ancient feet tapping in a circle around him. A ninety-four-year-old woman played on a fiddle she had inherited from her Scottish grandfather. When I commended her later, she nudged my shoulder and said, ‘Sure it’s not all hip-hop, hey?’

It was an epic and courageous night. During one particularly beautiful song, I watched as many of those gathered in the barn closed their eyes and rewound their memories to younger days of stray kisses and near misses and harvest moons where raindrops fell on muddy boots and red lips curled upwards in contagious smiles that grew wider and deeper and older and wiser and wetter and sadder as the scattered memories of collective youth swooped through the barn.

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MR EDWARD HAYES
OF KELLS, CO MEATH,
WAS BORN IN WEXFORD AND
HAS SERVED AS A BUTLER
TO MANY OF THE BIG HOUSES
IN THE SOUTH AND EAST OF IRELAND
OVER THE PAST SIXTY YEARS.

The people gathered in Clonmore that night were of the same generation that we have recorded in these pages. Almost all were born before the Second World War. The oldest person in this book, Statia Kealy, was born in 1903. Her mother was born in 1862, before the bicycle was invented. Statia was one of thirteen children, although six of her siblings died in childhood. Many Irish mothers gave birth to a dozen or more children in those times The McFaddens of Ballymote, County Sligo, have a tradition of producing twelve children every generation.

For most of the twentieth century, Irish children walked to school. Many went barefoot, although Jim O’Malley says he wore shoes in the winter. For Peter Ward, the school run involved a three-mile trek over a stepping-stone track laid down across the bogs of Connemara. Baby Rudden of County Cavan recalls how her father would walk ahead of her and her siblings, to sweep back the thistles and ‘beat the water off the ferns on the rocks so we’d not get our feet wet’.

Schools were rudimentary places. In Eugene Brady’s school in Abbeylara, County Longford, every child had to bring their own turf for the fire. Not that the heat would ever reach you, says Mick King. His teacher always kept his posterior firmly by the fireplace and took all the heat for himself.

Johnny Golden is one of the few people in this volume who treasured his schooldays, which he spent at the Sunbeam Orphanage in Bray, County Wicklow. Most of the other characters interviewed in this book were slapped, smacked or otherwise assaulted at school. Teachers come across as a universally despised and feared race. But that is the way people were in those times, points out Frank O’Brien of Athy, County Kildare. Sligo farmer Joe Muldoon was less philosophical when he met his old teacher some years after he left school; he couldn’t stop himself from letting loose with his fists.

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MR FRANCIE McFADDEN
OF BALLYMOTE, CO SLIGO
WORKED AS A BRICKIE IN
LONDON BEFORE RETURNING
TO SLIGO WHERE HE BECAME
THE TOWN GRAVEDIGGER.

Many left school before they were fourteen to help out at home. Statia Kealy’s earliest memories involve coming straight home from school to help cut turf and pick potatoes. Sister Alphonsus was similarly occupied from an early age at her family’s farm in County Limerick. She says farming was a much more sociable way of life back then, before the tractors came along. From the age of nine, Bart Nolan rose at five in the morning and made his way down to Dublin’s fruit and vegetable markets to see if he could make some extra money.

For some, the workplace offered a chance of further education. Betty Scott of County Carlow was taught how to read and write by the lady of the Big House where she went to work at the age of fifteen. Edward Hayes was taught how to drive by a Protestant clergyman and mastered the social graces when, as a young stable boy, he was drafted in to help serve dinner in the houses of the Kilkenny gentry.

For others, the real education was to be found at home. Mary Maddison honed her immense storytelling skills by listening to the melodic tales and sean nós of her uncles, fishermen on the islands of West Cork. Peter Ward, a passionate book-reader, enjoyed similar fireside reminiscences with his neighbours, the currach fishermen of the Galway coast. Frank O’Brien learned more than he ever needed to know about life on the Western Front from the shell-shocked soldiers who assembled in his father’s bar when the pensions came in. Jim Kielty heard similar tales driving his taxi around County Sligo in the 1930s. Bernie Dwyer was taught history by his grandmother, whose parents had lived through the cholera epidemic that crippled Sligo in the 1830s.

The middle decades of the twentieth century were difficult ones for Ireland. With a stagnant economy, emigration was often the only option. James McGarvey of Clones, County Monaghan, left to build the railroads of Britain at the age of fourteen and stayed thirty years. P.J. Davis of Ennistymon, County Clare, similarly spent quarter of a century working in car factories and steelworks in England. Limerick farmer Jack Connolly joked that ‘only the fool stayed behind’ after all his brothers and uncles left Ireland. Francie McFadden muscled up as a labourer in London, but his neighbour, Willie Davey, found it harder to secure a job and returned to Sligo a few years later. Both Mick King of County Mayo and Nellie Kelly of Nenagh, County Tipperary, were preparing to settle in London when a call for help from the homeland brought them back. Neither left Ireland again.

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THE KELLEHER BROTHERS HAVE LIVED OUTSIDE DINGLE ALL THEIR LIFE. TIMMY
IS A RETIRED FARMER WHILE STEVIE DROVE A HACKNEY CAB.

Emigration may have been a fact of everyday life but nonetheless Owen Campbell says some of the so-called ‘American Wakes’ which took place in his family pub at the foot of Croagh Patrick could be morose affairs. But life in a faraway land was not for everyone. Liam O’Shea’s father spent a decade working as a farrier in New York before he decided to return to the Beara Peninsula. Likewise, Noel Robinson’s father returned from Buffalo to take on the farm in Co Westmeath. Travelling does not suit everyone. Many in this book have never left Ireland save perhaps for a pilgrimage to Lourdes. There are less strenuous ways to keep in touch with people. Athy publican Frank O’Brien regularly phones his only son, now based in Detroit. Fermanagh farmer John Carson frequently receives post from his grandchildren in New Zealand.

Some people have nomadic genes. It is well over 200 years since John Carson’s family stayed in the same place for more than two generations. But for others, like Jim ‘Tailor’ O’Malley and Mick King, the land they till is the same their ancestors worked on hundreds of years ago. Farming is not an easy slog. Denny Galvin gave up when the public road that cut through his farm in north Kerry became too busy to herd his cattle.

Denny Galvin, Jim Tailor and Mick King are all bachelor farmers. That is unexceptional for twentieth-century rural Ireland and there are many like them in this book. One said he had loved many women, but never enough to change their name. Kerry brothers Stevie and Timmy Kelleher are delighted they never got wed as it has enabled them to a life of independence. At the age of 106, Statia Kealy hasn’t ruled out finding a husband yet. She says there was a man once, but the drink got the better of him.

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MR JACK CONNOLLY
OF GLIN, CO LIMERICK
HAS WORKED AS A FARMER
FOR NEARLY EIGHTY YEARS.

Betty Scott and the Kelleher brothers were all born of arranged marriages. But love was in the air for many in that generation. Mary Maddison met her late husband working on an Atlantic cruise ship. Mick Lavelle met his late wife in the kitchen of Newport House when he was a porter and she was a cook. Billy and Kathy Dowling met at one of the many house dances that used to take place in the Irish countryside. Liam and Maureen O’Shea have just celebrated their golden wedding, while Frank and Tríona O’Brien are closing in on fifty-eight years together.

While the economic boom time of the Celtic Tiger was undoubtedly good for Irish confidence, many older people have been unsettled by the speed with which the younger generations have been willing to abandon the past. The pace of life has changed utterly, along with our expectations and priorities. The elders regard the last century as a happier, gentler age. Liam O’Shea reckons the car has a lot to answer for. Before the car, everyone who passed by his father’s Kerry forge would call in for a cup of tea and a chat. Now everyone speeds by with perhaps a curt wave or a honk of the horn.

There is also a belligerent undercurrent in our society that remains unchecked. Eileen Hall feels it when the souped-up boy racers howl past her small rural shop in County Monaghan. The senior citizens of Ballymote feel it on the streets of their small town on Friday nights. Stevie Kelleher of Kerry is appalled by the emergence of gangs in the cities and bigger towns. Joan Crowley says Kenmare is still a peaceful town but even the streets around her pub can get unbearably noisy by night.

We have become a stay-at-home people and we rarely interact with our neighbours. For the older generation, this poses a considerable dilemma as immobility and loneliness creep in. The friendly villages of their youth are an increasing rarity, either because the post office, pub and creamery have closed down, or because the fields around them have been developed into anonymous housing estates and retail parks. Most Irish farms are now framed by tarmac roads, supporting a relentless convoy of whizzing cars, lorries and motorbikes. Such roads are no place for the black High Nellie bikes of our grandparents’ generation. Mind you, if you’re on the roads of County Leitrim, watch out for Johnny Golden purring by on his Honda 70. And his neighbour, the forester Johnny Fyfe, might yet clamber up on his old BSA 150. But for Francie McFadden and Jim O’Malley, the safest way to travel is on a tractor.

The concept of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ project is simply to chronicle a cross section of Irish society that is slowly fading from our world. The feedback we received for the first volume of Vanishing Ireland was both astonishing and deeply encouraging. Many letters came from people who wished they had taken the time to write down the stories of their now deceased family elders. For this volume, as with the first, we have sought out souls of a positive nature who do not simply link us to the past but, perhaps more importantly, provide us with wisdom and humour to take on the future.

James and I hope this second volume continues the interest started by the first. It has been an immense privilege for us to listen to these stories, to have the past reincarnated by those who lived through it. We do not intend to cease recording such aspects of Irish life until we ourselves have vanished.

Turtle Bunbury
July 2009

 

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