Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Many years ago, when the Vanishing Ireland project was in its infancy, I found myself alone in a rural pub in County Meath. My eyes were drawn to a cloth-capped senior citizen, clad in a crumpled green suit, with an impeccably ancient face. I nod-winked at the old man, wished him a good evening, took out my little black notebook and began scribbling a few observations on life.

‘Writer, are ye?’ asked the old man.

‘That sort of thing,’ I confessed. ‘I’m a historian.’

‘I’m a great fan of the Long Fellow,’ said he gruffly.

‘Ah yes, the Long Fellow,’ I replied, with a conspiratorial smile, just to let him know that I was aware that Éamon de Valera was blessed with that elongating moniker.

The old man looked at me directly, cleared his throat and spoke: ‘Skilled in all the craft of hunters, learned in all the lore of old men, in all youthful sports and pastimes, in all manly arts and labours.’

‘Um, yes,’ I replied uncertainly. ‘I guess he was.’

‘Swift of foot was Hiawatha,’ he continued. ‘He could shoot an arrow and run forward with such fleetness that the arrow fell behind him.’

‘Hiawatha’ was the giveaway, of course, and soon the old man, a farm labourer, was telling me how, as well as Longfellow, he also greatly admired the poetry of Tennyson, Byron and Thomas Moore.

I am continually astounded by the intelligence and eloquence of the generations who left school when they were barely teenagers. Paddy Faley, a roadside ganger who features in these pages, was raised by parents who could neither read nor write, and yet his father was a brilliant storyteller who regaled family and friends with lengthy tales of ghosts, fairies, giants and leprechauns. ‘And he’d pronounce every word correctly,’ marvelled Paddy, nine decades later. Paddy himself became a poet and storyteller of national renown and one of his poems is included in this book. But the genesis of his talent was born around the open fire where he and his siblings listened to the stories his father had heard from his father.

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The Irish have always had an extraordinary empathy for language, its convolutions and its nuances. County Clare farmer John Joe Conway employs extraordinary dialogue in his off-the-cuff chronicle of a near fatal chase by a bull. When George Hawkins tells a tale, he practically metamorphoses into the cast, adopting their personas and dialects, without missing a millimetre of detail. John William Seoighe is like an old-world seanchaí, his eyes twinkling and narrowing as you sail the Atlantic waves on board his Galway hooker, pursued by ghostly black-sailed boats. Tom Ned McMahon, a thespian when he wasn’t building houses, likewise entrances with anecdotes of tumbling waterfalls and soaring skyscrapers.

Music was never far away. When Maureen Tierney grew up in Inchicore in the 1930s, dances and musical sessions took place constantly amid the terraced houses all around her. Annie Conneely recalls the all-night hoolies when the young Connemara revellers would bounce from cottage to cottage and fetch up on Inishnee Island. Maurice FitzGerald loved waltzing with his wife Mary. Kerry-born Liza Mulvihill danced all her life but never more so than when she was in New York. Jimmy Fanning bursts into song while he talks, and then produces a fiddle. Tomás Ó Nialláin plays a Kerry polka on his melodeon and sings to his cows. Tom Ned McMahon says he can’t sing and then launches into ‘The Three Flowers’ with gusto. But as far as our front cover star Joe Hanrahan is concerned, ceilidh music is the only thing. ‘I wouldn’t give tuppence for anything else,’ he says.

In the era before cars and televisions, most people lived an outdoor life, rising with the dawn, working in the fields, strolling the roads, always in tune with both the landscape and the weather. The people we have met during this project have invariably been hardy and healthy. This undoubtedly stems from their childhood where they all walked, and sometimes rowed, to and from school. When the Greens of Connemara needed something from the shop, young Pat Green would jump into a currach and row up the coast to Roundstone. Others like Danny Cullen and Joe Hanrahan opted to sit up on a trap and let the donkeys do the pulling. Moiky Kinnane went one better and fastened a Volkswagen Beetle to the back of his tractor.

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Horses, ponies and donkeys had been the backbone of rural Ireland for thousands of years. On the farms they ploughed fields and carried turf. They transported people on carriage and cart. They hauled goods along rail, road and canal. All that came to an abrupt end with the invention of hydraulics and the combustion engine. When the Fordson New Major tractor arrived in Ireland in the 1950s, no farmer could ignore its claim to have the power of 45 horses. Some mourn the passing of the horse and the onset of the mechanical age. Certainly it presented blacksmiths like Eamon Madden with a challenge when people stopped bringing their horses to his forge. But he reacted accordingly and turned to making gates, fences and machinery instead. Ogie Nolan had been making saddles since his childhood but he too adapted, opening up a new line of belts and luggage straps. Sam Codd devoted most of his life to working and training horses but ultimately he glumly accepted that tractors were more efficient and ate rather less. When John Joe Conway said goodbye to his last horse, he was down in the doldrums for a week.

Others relished the evolution of technology. Leitrim cattle farmer Terry Reilly was delighted when he acquired a hydraulic mowing arm to cut the hay for him. Danny Cullen had spent twenty-two years hauling goods around Donegal with a horse and cart but after he bought a second-hand Ford lorry – he never looked back. But it wasn’t only horses that were replaced, as Dublin mattress-maker Betty Dempsey discovered in 1960 when her employers purchased a machine to do her job.

The prospects for anyone who grew up in the early decades of independent Ireland were always limited. Ireland continued to be one of the poorest countries in Europe in the 1950s and, aside from those involved with or benefiting from the rural electrification scheme, it was a time of glum despair. De Valera once hoped Irish firesides would become ‘forums for the wisdom of serene old age’ but many of the younger souls who might have sat by the firesides and listened had instead emigrated. England tooped the list of destinations. May Morris was headhunted during the Second World War to make bombs in Birmingham. Her brother Paddy Byrne spent twenty years racking barrels of ale in a nearby brewery. John Abbott was one of thousands of ‘Paddys’ who rebuilt Walsall in the 1950s. Mary Parkinson worked in a record store in London during the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Tipperary-born Nellie Shortall worked as a cook for a crime writer in the same city. Eamon Madden spent several years working as a blacksmith in Herefordshire. Pat Green was one of hundreds of young men from the west who found work in the sugar beet factories of the Midlands. ‘It was very easy to get to England,’ he says. ‘And if you got fed up, you could come home again the following day.’

Returning from America or Australia was not so easy, but still possible. Liza Mulvihill spent two summers working in a hotel in the Catskill Mountains north of New York, but returned to her homeland afterwards. John William Seoighe shipped his entire family out to Boston in 1964 but returned home with his wife six years later. Din Lane never left Ireland until he was eighty; he has since been to the USA five times to see his daughters who live there.
There was a time when nearly every man alive did just what his father did. All of the farmers in this book inherited farms that had been in their family for multiple generations. But not everyone wanted to be anchored to the land.

‘I felt it would be nothing but hardship,’ John Joe Conway told us. ‘But I got used to it.’

‘It’s slow hard labour,’ concurs Pat Green. ‘But without a few acres, we’d be nowhere.’

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Jimmy Fanning’s father taught him how to play fiddle. Ogie Nolan’s father taught him how to make saddles.. Joe Flynn reckons the men in his family had been working in the coalmines of Arigna for ‘hundreds of years’. John William Seoighe’s forbears have been rowing currachs around the Galway coast since at least the eighteenth century.

For most of those we interviewed, there is still a wistful innocence about childhood days when boys messed about with horseshoes, marbles and cards, while girls played hopscotch on the street. Some maintain that despite the poverty, people were happier then; others hold that life is much more enjoyable today. All seem to think the end of the Celtic Tiger and the onset of a recession was a useful wake up call for a country that had lost the run of itself.

But, in memories, there is always the darkness. It continues to astound me how punishing children physically was standard practice for such a long time. Mike Harte is wise enough to know that sometimes the ‘twistedness of people’ is inherited, handed down from another generation. Nonetheless, this tough old farmer comes close to tears when he recalls how it was considered acceptable to kick and slap a child. Din Lane was likewise appalled. ‘It changed my belief in that I wished there’d never again be a Christian Brother, or a teacher the like we went to.’ Terry Reilly and his pals evolved a clever ruse to outwit their hair-pulling teacher – they all got crewcuts.

It is tempting to think that the older generations were somehow better immunized against the inevitable sorrows of life than ourselves. After all, many of them lived through the horrors of war - global, revolutionary and civil - as well as the deadly epidemics of Spanish influenza and tuberculosis that blighted the land. A little 21st century recession seems like small fry in comparison. But melancholy is a relative emotion, its depths hard to grasp.

Paddy Faley was only ten years married when his beloved wife died, leaving him to raise five daughters. Willie Sheehan has also buried his wife, the woman who helped him win all the cattle breeding trophies that line his mantelpiece. For Paddy Tiernan, burying her son was the saddest thing she has done. George Hawkins lost three of his five children, and yet he continues to be one of the most cheerful men in County Carlow. Liza Mulvihill never married because her sister died and she opted to look after her motherless nephew and niece instead. When Jimmy Fanning’s lover asked him to move to London with her, he declined because his dying mother needed him.

Some of the people we met have survived situations of dreadful adversity. Maisie Grannell devoted most of her adult life to looking after her bedbound father and husband in succession, only to have her legs crushed to pulp during a freak car accident ten years ago. But she is possessed of the same indefatigable and good-humoured spirit that enabled her grandmother to survive when her husband was killed in an industrial accident at the mill where he worked. Maisie’s mother taught her how to cook and sew. She, in turn, passed those skills on to her own daughters and grand-daughters. ‘It’s good to have the ability to do things,’ she maintains. ‘Even if you never put them into practice.’

J.J. Hackett was born with disjointed hips, and things did not get any easier when a tree fell upon him at the age of twelve, breaking his collar-bone, cranium and right knee. And yet, having spent two years recuperating and unable to walk, he went on to cycle hundreds of miles all over Ireland. His story is an extraordinary one, made all the more so by the fact that he then learned how to upholster and make harnesses by working alongside three men who could neither speak nor hear.

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And there is always humour too. We have dedicated this book to Johnny ‘Gouldy’ Golden, a wonderful character who featured in the second volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series. While Gouldy’s dreadful murder in 2010 remains a source of great sadness to all who knew him, stories from his life continue to entertain his friends. One such anecdotes concerns a failed attempt by three Catholic missionaries to convert the famously oil-covered Protestant mechanic. ‘They were trying to convert Gouldy?’ chortled a neighbour. ‘To what? Diesel?’

I have long ago lost track of how many times James Fennell and I have criss-crossed Ireland to meet the people who feature in these books. I close my eyes and I see a kaleidoscope of turf piles, white swans, long grass, rich blue lakes, craggy rocks, squelchy bogs, wicked black crows and deserted villages. But above all, I see the faces because they have been immortalised in photographs and I see them again and again.

The people whom we have photographed and interviewed for this book were, without fail, inspirational and charming to talk with. They opened their doors and filled us with biscuit, tea and, on occasion, eye-watering spirits. They told us of their lives, their highs and their misfortunes, their ancestors and their descendents. I cannot overstate what a joy it is to become so well acquainted with the past and to hear such stories first hand. It is our hope that the words and photographs that follow will convey our ongoing passion for this project. We also urge all readers to take a moment to think of old timers whom they know and to phone them or meet up for a chat about days gone by.

Turtle Bunbury


July 2011


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