Turtle Bunbury

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The Irish village at a crossroads

More than three centuries after Oliver Goldsmith wrote The Deserted Village, our small communities are once again facing a bleak future, with populations falling, pubs and post offices closing and long-held traditions fading away, writes Turtle Bunbury in The Irish Times Magazine, Saturday April 5th 2008.

IN 21ST-CENTURY IRELAND, a village is a lesser-spotted thing. The essence of village life has been completely altered by the changes of the past two decades. The pubs where so much daily banter took place are reeling from the clampdown on drink-driving. The once sacred post offices are now frequently boarded up. The Garda stations that once maintained order are empty. Every Sunday morning, there is another spare space on the pews of the churches as more and more members of the flock opt to stay at home instead. In some villages, there are people who don't say hello to one another any more. But is the forecast all about gloom? Surely there must be some positives for the village in modern Ireland?

Clogh (An Cloch), Co Kilkenny

The village of Clogh lies upon an unruffled plateau of scraggly young trees and verdant buttercuppy meadows in the highlands of Co Kilkenny. It's unpredictable terrain. The slim roads wend past people who nod, wink or otherwise salute the existence of strangers. They still haven't changed all the signs to kilometres up here. And if you drive off one way, you invariably arrive back at the very same spot 10 minutes later without having taken a single turn.

At the village entrance, the yawn of a hairy brown cow echoes around an old corrugated barn. Beyond the barn is St Patrick's Church, with its neatly clipped trees, where Eddie Somers was laid to rest a few months back. The people of Clogh escorted his coffin here from the small pub which he and his father before him had run for the past 80 years. Somers kept the pub open right up to the end. It was the 76-year-old bachelor's key to staying in touch with his community.

Most of the 300 people who live in the village today descend from the hardy souls employed in the nearby Castlecomer mines. These were the source of a rare smokeless anthracite that heated homes throughout the British Isles in Queen Victoria's reign. By 1837, the village had 116 houses, mostly thatched, and 582 inhabitants, "chiefly employed in the neighbouring collieries". The mines continued to operate until 1969. It was gruesome work and left little time for a happy family life.

Michael Brennan Roe was two weeks past his 14th birthday when he made his first trip down into the dark, wet tunnels. "You hear a lot of talk these days about child labour in Asia and Africa," he says quietly. "But it wasn't so long ago they had it here in Kilkenny."

He spent the next 18 years down in the depths, six days a week, eight hours a day, hacking at the coalface, an intensely claustrophobic existence. "In the winters, we'd see no daylight until Sunday."

"It was terrible - pure slavery," concurs 85-year-old Paddy Love, who escaped the mines in his 20s to become a cobbler, specialising in dancing shoes. Like Brennan Roe, he recalled endless days inhaling gelignite and black dust, listening to men and boys spluttering with chronic coughs and shortness of breath. "If the buzzer sounded for 15 minutes, that meant someone had been killed."

All that remains of the mines today are the ruins of the old bath house where the men showered and a huge pyramid of coal dust upon which cattle graze.

Thirty years ago, John Coffey and his wife Grainne moved to Clogh to take over Joyce's, a pub founded by John's grandfather in 1913. The biggest change the Coffeys have seen in that time is on Sunday mornings. "The village used to be packed with all the retired miners and old fellows from the fireclay factory. They'd come to church and afterwards have a few pints. It was great. They took such pride in their appearance, shoes polished, immaculately dressed."

When the miners raised their glasses to drink, you could see the pallid blue stains etched on their hands from where the coal dust got into the blood. "Those men are all gone now," says Coffey.

Grangecon (Gráinseach Choinn), Co Wicklow

Grangecon is one of those villages that an awful lot of people have heard of, but they're never quite sure why. It's not really on the way to anywhere but if you got lost looking for Baltinglass or Dunlavin, you'd probably stumble upon Grangecon.

Racing punters might recall waging a few shillings on the splendid cavalry of horses that emerged from the Grangecon stables of trainers Paddy Sleator and Francis Flood to conquer the fields of Aintree and Cheltenham. For fishermen, Grangecon may evoke memories of the lake at nearby Rathcon with its chubby rainbow trout. Drinking types seem to know all about the pub and grocery run by the sprightly Mrs Moore who sends certain late-night customers home with lollipops. A surprising number of people might remember coming here on one of the pilgrimage buses that came to the village after the postmistress opened a parcel in 1994 to find a plastic statuette of the Blessed Virgin which appeared to be weeping. The miracle became the subject of a BBC Everyman episode which captured the schism that emerged in the close-knit community.

In one corner stood the supporters of the postmistress, who continued to run a prayer room behind the now closed post office. In the other corner were the non-believers, the ones who'd read the report on how the statuette's eyes had been affixed with a special adhesive prone to run in hot weather.

The documentary did not take sides. Instead, it mused upon the phenomenon that many of those ailing pilgrims who disembarked in Grangecon to be healed had, by reciting impassioned decades of the Hail Mary and singing some hearty renditions of Kumbaya, returned to their bus seats feeling entirely healed.

Grangecon started as an out-farm for the Cistercian monks of Baltinglass Abbey, the centrepiece of a vast 50,000-acre ecclesiastic estate in the Slaney Valley. The monks operated a corn-mill on a tiny slip of a river that runs through the village to the River Griese. In the 1830s, the Grangecon demesne became home to The O'Mahony of Co Kerry, a man who had the exhausting honour of being Daniel O'Connell's solicitor. His far-sighted grandson, Pierce Mahony, was one of Parnell's most ardent supporters and set up a celebrated orphanage in Bulgaria. In the next generation, Pierce Gun Mahony was one of the deputy keepers of the Irish crown jewels the night they were mysteriously stolen. Seven years later, he apparently shot himself clambering over a fence on an island in the midst of Grangecon Lake.

With a population of 180, Grangecon is a one-street village with two pubs, a Marian shrine, a very discreet church and a small 1980s housing estate. Since the ban on drink-driving, both pubs are struggling. Perhaps they need some ponies.

"All the farmers got around on a pony and trap when I was young," says Mrs Moore. "Around every pub there'd be a ring to tie your horse while the men went in for a pint. The ponies were cute as foxes. They knew the roads as well as anyone. They'd get you home alright."

The aforementioned post office closed its doors in 2007.

"People were greatly disappointed by that," says local resident John O'Toole. "Although it wouldn't do an enormous amount of business, it did bring people into the village, to post letters and collect pensions. And those people would often have drifted into the grocery and brought in a little bit of trade."

O'Toole is one of a dozen villagers who have taken responsibility for keeping Grangecon tidy and conserving the surrounding countryside. In recent years, they've electrified the clock, restored the village pump, commissioned a wire sculpture hound (or chonn) from Rupert Till, and planted "a ton" of native trees on every entrance into the town.

Developers have ridden roughshod over many villages in recent years. Grangecon has proven that the village can sometimes win. Earlier this month, An Bord Pleanála rejected plans for the development of six nine-metre-high houses on a grassy knoll just above the village. "This is one of the last villages in Wicklow with no development," explains O'Toole. "Maybe you can't stop the tide but you can slow it down."

Borris, Co Carlow

Back in the good old days when kings were powerful people, Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster, took a trot around his kingdom in pursuit of a suitable place to pitch his castles. One of his chosen sites was Borris, a gentle hill at the foot of Mount Leinster, near the banks of the River Barrow. In 1731, Dermot's descendent, Morgan Kavanagh, built the rambling mansion of Borris House, where the Kavanagh family still reside today.

From this dynasty sprang the "Incredible Mr Kavanagh". Born without arms or legs, this gentleman could write and paint, mastered hunting, shooting and fishing, and stood as MP for Carlow. By a bizarre series of events, he succeeded to Borris in 1853. Over the next 35 years, he commissioned the construction of much of the sparkling granite village that now sprawls up the slopes towards the Borris estate wall. The project earned him a medal from the Royal Dublin Society. He also subsidised and managed the local railway, building a mighty 16-arch viaduct, while his wife set up the once world-famous Borris lace-making industry.

Not a whole lot has happened in Borris since the Incredible Mr K passed away in 1889. The village has evolved peaceably and inconspicuously. The main blip has been some bad press over its annual fair day on August 15th, traditionally the preserve of wool and cattle traders, but lately over-run by the hawkers of synthetic junk whose intimidating ambience has obliged the village pubs to remain closed for the day.

Between 2002 and 2006, the population rose from 580 to 582. Expansion has been mercifully limited, largely because developers are unable to breach the walls of the Borris estate. That said, there has been a marked rise in the number of Poles, Czechs and other nationalities living in the Borris hinterland, most of whom work in the numerous engineering works operating between Borris and Bagenalstown.

Children still play football on the street and there's a woman who potters out of her own front door to fill cars with unleaded and diesel but, with Centra in the ascendance, the sweetshop is up for sale. Perhaps the most visual sign of modernity is the opening of the Step House, a boutique hotel and restaurant in a Georgian dower house at the top of the town. Run by the Coady family, it takes its name from the steps up which the Incredible Mr K was carried in his chair saddle in order to be placed upon his horse. The Step House offers 20 well-appointed bedrooms, bouncy beds, marble floors, gilt-legged armchairs, and a nearly completed penthouse suite with a fine panoramic view of Mount Leinster. Former Chapter One sous-chef Alan Foley promises a fusion of French cuisine and local produce in the basement restaurant.

When some land came up for sale recently, the Step House hosted the auction. The bar was swamped by farmers in peaked caps who came down from the mountains for the occasion. These were the very same mountain men who formerly frequented Borris's seven pubs, six of which are still family-owned.

Night after night, these men came to the village, drank four or five pints and then motored back up the rugged roads to their lonely farmsteads amid the yellow gorse and woolly sheep. Inevitably the drink-driving clampdown has brought an end to such carefree days. The pubs of Borris miss the mountain men dreadfully. The Step House is wisely focusing on a different congregation - itchy-fingered anglers, mountain walkers, amateur golfers, river trekkers, and the regulars who show up for the Goresbridge Horse Sales and Gowran Races.

Dermot MacMurrough built in Borris because it was one of the most beautiful places in his kingdom. Borris remains a cut above. With Green Party deputy leader Mary White living locally, it should continue to evolve at its own discreet pace, but you can still hear the boy racers bombing up the rickety roads where the old farmers sleep.

© 2008 The Irish Times