While writing the fourth volume of the Vanishing Ireland series in 2013, I spent the bones of a week in County Kerry, happily ensconced in one of nine charming stone cottages overlooking Ballinskelligs Bay at Cill Rialaig. Threatened with demolition, this row of cottages was a veritable ruin when salvaged and resurrected as an artist and writer’s retreat by Noelle Campbell-Sharp in 1991.
One hundred years ago, these same cottages were home to a small community of Irish-speakers including a renowned storyteller, or seanchaí, called Seán Ó Conaill.
I learnt a good deal about Seán Ó Conaill when I met his great-grand nephew Micheál Ó Braonáin at a wake in Cable O’Leary’s pub in Ballinskelligs. A popular lady called Eileen O’Sullivan had been buried that morning so most of the community were gathered in the pub for soup, sandwiches and liquid refreshments. As Ballinskelligs is part of the Gaeltacht, much of the banter was in Irish, as gaelige, but there are fears that widespread usage of the Irish language is endangered even here on the coast of south west Kerry.
Micheál told me that the houses at Cill Rialaigh were originally built in the late 18th century by Geoffrey Ó Conaill, who is believed to have been a great-grandfather of Seán the seanchaí. Geoffrey grew up at Baslickane, near Waterville, on land owned by Maurice ‘Hunting Cap’ O’Connell, an uncle of Daniel O’Connell, the Catholic Emancipator. However, disaster struck when Maurice was arrested for smuggling and given a stark choice. ‘He was told he must either face the wrath of the courts or give up his lands at Baslickane,’ says Micheál gravely. ‘He chose to give up his lands and Geoffrey Ó Conaill had to leave.’
A few generations later, Seán Ó Conaill emerged as one of the Iveragh Peninsula’s finest storytellers. His wife Cáit shared his passion and was always on hand to help steer if he should lose his way mid-story. The couple came into their element in 1923 when seventy-year-old Séan became muse to a 24-year-old historian called Séamus Ó Duilearga. A native of the Glens of Antrim, Ó Duilearga had come to the area to collect Irish folklore – old songs, old stories, proverbs and saying.
Ó Duilearga returned to Ballinskellgs every year for the next seven years to talk with the illiterate and completely uneducated Ó Conaill. Having grown up in an age when storytellers were abundant across Kerry, Ó Conaill completely understood the nature and importance of Ó Duilearga’s mission. The age of the seanchaí was drawing to a close.
The two men were rarely alone. Ó Conaill’s house was a tigh bothántaíochta, or rambling house, into which anything up to a dozen people would gather around the fireside by night. They were generally neighbours, drawn by the excitement of a stranger in the area, and often fine storytellers in their own right. By the time of Seán Ó Conaill’s death in 1931, Ó Duilearga had collected what is regarded as one of the greatest collections ever provided by a story-teller.
‘And so it proved the béaloideas (folklore) never dies,’ says Micheál. ‘People move on a generation but the béaloideas lives forever.’
Micheál has retained the storytellers gift, elongating paragraphs with considerable eloquence. No detail is too trivial and he shows a deft knowledge of global history from the wilds of the American frontiers to the convict settlements of Australia and back to the desperate days of the 18th century when the British Redcoats were on the prowl all across the Iveragh.
The storytelling tradition was still strong in the 1950s Ireland of Micheál’s youth, particularly in the house of his grandparents Ned and Mary Lawlor. Ned’s life story was a dramatic one from the moment he became involved with Cable O’Leary himself. This powerful Ballinskelligs man, born Donncha O’Leary, was so named because he had single-handedly saved the Atlantic cable from disaster in the mid 1880s. However, his heroism did not prevent the local sheriff and his bailiffs from attempting to evict the O’Leary’s from their homestead in 1894. Ned, a teenager at the time, took an active role in helping O’Leary resist the constabulary. ‘He picked stones out of the river for Cable O’Leary to shell the Peelers with,’ explains Micheál.
Ultimately, Cable O’Leary had to yield to the law and abandon his home, sealing his iconic status in the region. Shortly afterwards, Ned emigrated to America, with three of his brothers, and remained there until 1910, helping to lay the railway tracks across New England and Connecticut.
Ned was working in Flannery’s Bar in Hartford, Connecticut, when he met his future wife Mary Ó Conaill, a niece of Seán the seanchaí. They subsequently returned to Kerry and lived the rest of their lives near Ballinskelligs. Their daughter Eileen was Micheál’s mother, a psychiatric nurse who, as her son marvels, ‘could nearly tell you what you were thinking before you thought it.’
Amongst Ned’s contemporaries were Mike and Noreen Corcoran who lived at Cloghaneanua, just north of Ballinskelligs. Their grandson Willie Joe Cronin gave me an insight into their lives.
‘My grandfather was blind for 22 years with the glaucoma. He worked hard in the bogs, cutting turf, milking cows, trying to bring up a family of four children. They had no money to develop the land or anything. At night they would sit down beside a big fire, with turf or bog oak burning, and they were as happy there as anywhere. Smoking the old clay pipes and having a chat. My grandfather would put the tobacco into his mouth and suck the juice out of it. That’s the way they got on in life. It was tough but they got through it. They hadn’t the price of drink but they were happy at that time’
Set-dancing was a regular pastime in the Cronin house. ‘I’m shovelling up on sixty years old but I remember the dancing well on the old stone floors. There were no timber floors that time. Clackety clack. With the hard shoes, the shoemakers shoes, made for the job. Bang bang, clackety clack. Everyone played music then. Or else they sang. Republican songs mostly. We’re big Republicans around here.’
Christy Kate O’Sullivan, a local farmer, is amongst those who kept the musical tradition going strong. A devotee of the ‘top class’ accordionist Bernie Moran of Sussa, Christy played the very same instrument ‘until my fingers got so bent and crooked I had to stop.’ As a young man, Christy was one of hundreds of Irishmen who crossed the Irish Sea to work in the beet factories of Felstead in Essex for four seasons. ‘You’d start at seven in the morning and go until three,’ he recalls. ‘Or else you’d take the shift from three until eleven at night. The factory never stopped. The beet factories were very good to the Irish people. There were not many from the short-grass counties like Kildare and Meath, but there were a huge crowd from the poorer counties, Kerry and Donegal, Mayo and Galway. We were all speaking as gaelige but it might have been the Connemara Irish and the Donegal Irish or even the Touramakeady Irish.’
One of the lesser-known of South West Kerry’s manifold charms are its nocturnal vistas of the star-filled skies. The almost complete absence of light pollution provides spectacular views on clear dark nights. One man who knows about this as well as anyone is Tom Horgan who has spent some thirty years reporting on the region’s weather by day and night. Tom grew up on a small farm outside of Tralee where he was one of eight children. As a boy, he realised the farming life was not for him. ‘We had the grass for ten cows and the water for a hundred’.
In 1958, the twenty-year-old farmer’s son arrived in Caherciveen to work at the Meteorological Observatory. ‘I came by train on the rail line that closed two years later. It was my first time south of Killorglin and I found it very different. Cars were scarce on the roads. Many still travelled by horse and carts. There were donkeys and people walking and bicycling everywhere. But it was very friendly here and there was a strong sense of community which I took to very much.’
Tom subsequently married and settled in Waterville from where he commuted to the Caherciveen weather station until he took early retirement in 1988. Together with his wife Mary and their family, he also operated Waterville Caravan & Camping Park from 1977 to 2000.
While in Waterville, he developed his curiosity for local heritage, particularly the story of the Atlantic cable. The first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858 from Valentia Island to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, but only worked for a few weeks. Seven years later, the first commercially successful cable was laid by the Anglo American Telegraph Company in 1866 from Valentia to Heart’s Content. A message could be sent at eight words a minute. A second cable was laid down by Siemens’ in 1874 and ran from Ballinskelligs Bay to Torbay, Nova Scotia. In 1884, things moved on apace when Cyrus Field’s Commercial Cable Company laid another transatlantic cable from Waterville to Canso, Nova Scotia.
The three cable stations had a huge impact on South-West Kerry. Waterville became a boom town, with nearly three hundred workers at the cable station through until the 1950s. ‘Nearly half of them were English or Scottish,’ says Tom. ‘And they had their families there too. Some said Waterville was the most English town in Ireland.’
The Ballinskelligs station closed in 1923. By the mid-1960s, satellites and new technology had made the Atlantic cables redundant and both the Waterville and Valentia stations closed down. Many of their former telegraphists and workers emigrated and their departure was deeply felt in the region. The fate of the cables themselves also hung in the balance with some proposing that the connections simply be cut and the cables sunk to the ocean floor. Joe C Keating was one of those who recognised the financial and historic value of the cable.
Joe C was born in 1931 on a forty-acre farm at Knockeens, just south of Caherciveen. As the youngest of nine, he watched all his older siblings emigrate to Manchester, Boston and New York, apart from two brothers who joined the Christian Brothers and are now enjoying retirement at Baldoyle on the north coast of County Dublin.
Any thoughts Joe C might have had about emigration were overruled by his sense of duty to his mother who was left a widow in 1941 when his father died of a brain tumour. ‘I left school at fifteen to do the animals and mind my mother.’
As well as running the farm, Joe C’s father Maurice and two of his brothers had operated a lucrative trade supplying Atlantic mackerel to the US Army via the Billingsgate Fish Market in East London. When that business dried up at the close of the Second World War, Joe C’s mother sent him to serve three years as a builder’s apprentice in Caherciveen. The education did him the power of good and, together with a cousin, Joe C Keating built houses, barns and sewage systems all across south west Kerry, as well as unloading thousands of tons of rubble to both create and protect the highly rated Waterville Golf Links from the stormy ocean.
In 1965, Joe C cruised out into Ballinskelligs Bay on board the 100 ft Salvage Adventurer and began hauling in the abandoned telegraph cables. He recovered over 300 miles of cable – some 3,000 tons – stripping it down into its individual components of raw rubber, electrolytic copper, lead, brass and steel. Joe C was also a co-founder of the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre.
In his latter years, Joe C still keeps active.
‘We had to use out wits to survive. The best university is the world itself. If you have a problem, you would have to resolve it. And we survived. We sharpened our brains. I take things easy now at eighty-two but I still go out and I am still active and I associate with young people who keep me young. I don’t think anyone should retire. You have to have some interest when you get up in the morning.’
Bronze Age ringforts, sandstone walls, Atlantic cables and conversation as Gaelige. There is no doubting that this part of Kerry is a world unto itself. It is also a world that is changing with each sunset. Just as the mighty cables that rolled along the Atlantic are now silent, so too the stories that Seán Ó Conaill and his friends relayed around the firesides of Ballinskelligs a hundred years ago are unlikely to be known by the children of the 21st century.
See also the interview with Jimmy Murphy.