The Vanishing Ireland Project

Vanishing Ireland

Between 2001 and 2013, Turtle and photographer James Fennell embarked on numerous road trips around Ireland, to interview and photograph people born in the first decades of the 20th century.

Homing in on people of a primarily working class Irish background, whose stories are rarely told, they met with farmers, blacksmiths, fishermen, dockers and nurses, as well as priests, nuns, teachers,  saddlers, thatchers, lace-makers, clock-makers and turf-cutters.

In 2021, Vanishing Ireland was relaunched for a new generation as a podcast series in which Turtle interviews members of the older generation about their memories of time’s gone by.

The podcast will return in 2022.

Vanishing Ireland Podcasts

Turtle discusses life and its learnings with Ireland’s elders, celebrating voices of courage, kindness and humour for future generations.

Vanishing Ireland
Facebook Group

Founded in 2012, this highly active group is constantly updated with new images and stories from Ireland’s past.

Vanishing Ireland – Original Interviews

The six stories below are free-to-read. For other stories from the Vanishing Ireland series, see the contents list lower down this page.

 

Farmer of the Tulla Gap

Jos Donnelly (1920-2016)

We chanced to meet Jos at his farm near Kinnitty, County Offaly, in 2005, while making the first volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series. This story is based on our brief encounter.

The Saddler of Ballinasloe

Rory Kilduff (1922-2016)

‘Those stories I told you are true,’ says Rory Kilduff, ‘but I could make up a few if you’re stuck. The story of a saddlery business that commenced in Ballinasloe, County Galway, in the 1880s.

The Muse of Ballybit

Betty Scott (1923-2013)

Betty started work at Lisnavagh as a parlourmaid in 1941 and was the housekeeper from 1959 throughout my young life until she retired in 2007. Without her influence, Vanishing Ireland would never have happened.

The Blacksmith of Lauragh

Liam O’Shea (1927-2012)

The blacksmith of the Lauragh Forge, Killarney, Co Kerry,  on his father’s experiences in Manhattan and the days when the forge was the hub of the community.  ‘There were no cars in that time. Everybody walked … There’s no stopping now. They’re all in cars.’

Sheepfarmer of Rahanna

John Coady (1927-2017)

The Carlow sheep-farmer who looked after the mast on Mount Leinster, John was a great ladies man in his prime. He has that Hollywood look about him, like the kindly old soul who always ends up having secretly masterminded the whole scam.

Centenarian of Yellowbog

Bridget Aspell (1910-2014)

Memories of crossroads dances and the céilí, following the Kildare Hunt and school in the days of the Black and Tans. Bridget attributed her longevity to a midday whiskey and a weekly trip to have her hair done by her granddaughter

‘A perfect symbiosis between text and images –  affectionate, respectful, humorous, slightly melancholic but never sentimental or nostalgic. This is invaluable social history.’
Cara (Aer Lingus)

A beautiful and remarkably simple book that will melt the hardest of hearts. Bunbury has a light writing style that lets his interviewees tell their stories without interference.’
The Sunday Times

‘One of the nicest books I have ever had the privilege of receiving, reading and looking through. A masterpiece, an incredible book.’
Gerry Kelly, LMFM

 

‘Stunning … honest and thought-provoking.’
Ireland of the Welcomes

‘Warm, funny, touching, sometimes desperately sad.’
The Dubliner

 

Interviews from the Vanishing Ireland project are being uploaded to Turtle’s History Archive at all times .  To search for a specific interview, please use the green button below. 

ImageTitleSummary
Photo: James Fennell
Nellie O'Toole (1908-2010) – Nurse & Housekeeper of Rathvilly, Co. Carlow

‘People don't laugh enough these days. Laughing is very good for your heart'. The wise words of Nellie O'Toole, who lived to be 102. Nellie was full of memories of her home village of Rathvilly during the awfulness of the Spanish Flu (or the Asian Flu, as she called it) and the War of Independence. Three brothers emigrated to the USA, including one who was a driver for Michael Collins. This article includes the full account of my serendipitous interview with Nellie, as well as a recording of her voice.

The Big Snow of 1947, 1963, 1982 ... and other major Snowstorms
The Big Snow of 1947, 1963, 1982 … and other major Snowstorms

The Big Snow of 1947 was the coldest and harshest winter to hit Ireland in living memory. However, there have been many other severe winters in Irish history, from 1315 through to 1963 and 1982. This is a look at all those white-outs when time stands still.

Johnny Golden, mechanic and sexton, of Doogarry, Co Cavan. Photo: James Fennell.
Johnny Golden (1937-2010) – The Gouldy

Raised in the Sunbeam Orphanage near Bray, Johnny Golden was a home-boy on a farm in County Leitrim by the 1950s. He later became sexton of the church in Killegar, and worked as a mechanic from his home in County Cavan. The Gouldy was murdered in 2010. This story formed the basis of the eulogy I read at his funeral.

Frances McFadden of Carrigans Upper, Ballymote, County Sligo. Photo: James Fennell.
Francie McFadden (1929-2013) – The Gravedigger of Ballymote

Francie was one of 12 children, as was his father, so he also had 12 children. In this interview, he ponders the Big Snow of 1947 (‘people said Ireland was finished’), the megaliths of Sligo, his time on the bogs, working as a builder in England and why you should never harm a holy tree.

Jack Lowry – Blacksmith of the Slieve Blooms
Jack Lowry – Blacksmith of the Slieve Blooms

A blacksmith from near Mountrath, County Laois, recalls the Big Snow of 1932 and how the forge was the community hub before the advent of tractors and rural electrification.

PJ Davis (1924-2009), mechanic, Ennistymon, County Clare
PJ Davis (1924-2009) – The Mechanic of Ennistymon, County Clare

‘I could tell you about every part of every car we made,' recalls PJ of his time at the Rootes Group (now Chrysler) foundry near Coventry. ‘Where it came from, the engine, the cylinder, the pistons, the chassis, the valve, the whole lot’. He also recalls his work at the the Scunthorope Steelworks in North Lincolnshire and the Stubben Saddles factory on the Lahinch Road near Ennistymon.

Seamus Vaughan (1922-2013), Clothes Merchant & Turf Cutter, Upper Dirreen, Athea, County Limerick. Photo: James Fennell.
Seamus Vaughan (1922-2013) – Clothes Merchant and Turf Cutter, County Limerick

‘When I was to be baptised, I was taken in an ass and cart to the village. I suppose people would pay good money to go to a baptism in an ass and cart these days.’ A clothes merchant from Upper Dirreen, Athea, County Limerick, recalls his time as a soldier in the British army in World War Two and working as a turf cutter on the Bog of Allen, as well as his kinship with Denis Guiney, the Kerry draper who owned Clery’s department store in Dublin.

Roisin Folan. Photo: James Fennell.
Róisín Folan – The Nurse of Inisheer Island

Everyone had a donkey,’ she says. ‘But there’s only two left on the island now.’ Born in 1929, the former District Nurse reflects on working as a midwife in Tottenham, London, and life in Lurgan village on Inisheer in the Aran Islands of County Galway.

Jack Conolly (1916-2013), (farmer) Glin, Co Limerick. Photo: James Fennell.
Jack Conolly (1916-2013) – Farmer of Glin, County Limerick

‘Keep your eyes open, your legs closed and send home your money’. That was the advice Jack’s four sisters got when they left Ireland in the 1930s. Plenty of his family emigrated. ‘But you know what they say?’, he says with merry eyes. ‘The fool is always left behind’. He recalls farming at Glin Castle when the lawns were converted to tillage in the Emergency, and working with his father, a thatcher of considerable renown.

Coleman Coyne. Photo: James Fennell.
The Islanders of Kilkieran Bay – Coleman Coyne (1925-2016) and Máirtín Joyce (1935-2016)

Two Connemara islanders – one grew up on Illauneeragh, the other was the last to live on Inishbarra – reflect on their careers as fisherman and seaweed harvesters, as well as victory in the All-Ireland rowing championships.

John William Seoige. Photo: James Fennell.
John William Seoighe (1919-2015) – The Oarsman of Connemara

An interview with one of the greatest oarsmen of currachs and Galway hookers to emerge in the 20th century, as well as his remarkable Connemara background and expeditions to Huddersfield and Jersey.

John Coady (sheep farmer, 1927 -2017) Rahanna, Co. Carlow. Photo: James Fennell.
John Coady (1927-2017) – Sheep Farmer of Rahanna, County Carlow

An interview from the Vanishing Ireland archives with the Carlow sheep-farmer who looked after the mast on Mount Leinster 

Photo: James Fennell
Jos Donnelly (1920-2016) – Farmer of the Tulla Gap, County Offaly

We chanced to meet Jos Donnelly of Ballymac, near Kinnitty and Birr, in 2005, while making the first volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland' series. He passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family, on 7 January 2016 in his 97th year. This is a story based on our brief encounter.

Big Bertha enjoying a pint at the Blackwater Tavern with her owner Jerome O'Leary.
Big Bertha's Wake – The Guardian, 2010

A wake for a cow in a pub in rural Ireland sounds like an episode of Father Ted. We knew we'd get no further that night

Jim Kielty, hackney driver, 1917-2013, Ballymote, Co. Sligo
Jim Kielty (1915-2013) – Hackney Driver, Ballymote, Co. Sligo

‘Gentleman Jim’ Kielty clocked over two million accident-free miles during his 80-years behind the wheel. His father regularly drove Countess Markiewicz to political rallies in County Sligo. We were lucky enough to meet and interview Jim for the second volume of the Vanishing Ireland series. Here is the account of that meeting.

Johnny Hutchinson (1931-2021) - The Horse Coper
Johnny Hutchinson (1931-2021) – The Horse Coper

‘I remember hanging the reins up and bending down to fix a spur – and I never remember anything more.’ Such were the hazards of working with horses for the horse coper Johnny Hutchinson, the cover star of the first ‘Vanishing Ireland' book.

Dancing on the Door, with Frank and Mini McGovern.
Carleton's Country – The Rose Shaw Collection

Rose Shaw was governess to the Gledstanes of Fardross House in County Tyrone during the early 20th century. When not looking after the Gledstanes children, she spent much of her time walking in the Clogher Valley, photographing local people. This page showcases 11 of her wonderful photographs.

Annie Conneely. Photo: James Fennell.
Annie Conneely (1919-2017) – Housemaid, Cloonisle, County Galway

The story of an Irish-speaking Connemara lady who was raised alongside Cloonisle Bay, near Roundstone. Annie recalled how her wily father had to start anew when his currach-rowing business collapsed with the arrival of the railway in 1895.

Bridget Aspell (1910-2014), Shop Assistant and Housewife, of Yellowbog, Kilcullen, County Kildare. Photo: James Fennell.
Bridget Aspell (1910-2014) – The Centenarian of Yellowbog

Memories of crossroads dances and the céilí, following the Kildare Hunt and going to school in the days of the Black and Tans.

Photo: James Fennell
Betty Scott (1923-2013) – The Inspiration for the Vanishing Ireland project

The story of Betty Scott, who started work at Lisnavagh as a parlourmaid in 1941 and was the housekeeper from 1959 throughout my young life until she retired in 2007. Without Betty's influence, the Vanishing Ireland project would never have happened.

Rory Kilduff (1922-2016) - The Saddler of Ballinasloe, County Galway
Rory Kilduff (1922-2016) – The Saddler of Ballinasloe, County Galway

‘Those stories I told you are true,’ says Rory Kilduff, ‘but I could make up a few if you’re stuck. The story of a saddlery business that commenced in Ballinasloe, County Galway, in the 1880s, from the Vanishing Ireland archives.

Half-Time Oranges: Joe Rock (1927-2016)
Half-Time Oranges: Joe Rock (1927-2016)

Joe Rock was a Croke Park legend prior to his death at the age of 90 in 2016. A grand uncle of Dublin All-Star forward, Dean Rock, Joe worked at Croke Park since the age of six, looking after the dressing room and tunnel areas for the biggest games of the year. Here he recalls his highs and lows, including shadow-boxing with Al “Blue” Lewis and picking orange peels off the ground as a young fellow.

Big Bertha enjoying a pint at the Blackwater Tavern with her owner Jerome O'Leary.
Big Bertha's Wake

A wake for a cow in a pub in rural Ireland sounds like an episode of Father Ted. We knew we'd get no further that night …

John Joe Conway
John Joe Conway (1935-2019)

The enchanting memories of a cattle farmer and horse breeder from near Kilfenora, County Clare, who featured him in the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. With an utterly fabulous gift of the gab, he recalls a series of terrifying run-ins with bulls, the ‘drudgery' that made women emigrate and his day out with Pope John Paul II.

Danny Cullen, photographed by James Fennell.
Danny Cullen (1920-2009) of Letterkenny, Co. Donegal – The Haulier

An interview with a haulier from Letterkenny, from the Vanishing Ireland series, who started working as a haulier with a donkey and cart in 1931, with some insights into the mysterious pain-relieving qualities of the Green Scapula.

Bob Murphy (1909-2002) – The End of an Era
Bob Murphy (1909-2002) – The End of an Era

A story about the first person interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project, arguably the smartest dresser in Rathvilly, with a cameo from two eels. ‘We won’t get those people again,’ said his neighbour. ‘Bob was the end of an era.'

In 2011, Turtle interviewed the then 88-year-old Baby (Babs) Rudden, the cover-girl of the second 'Vanishing Ireland', for RTE 1's 'Nationwide'. The show aired on 5 July and was watched by 33.8% of Irish televisions. Photo: James Fennell.
Baby Rudden (1923-2015) – The Farmer of Redhills

An interview with the charming cover star of the second Vanishing Ireland book, recounting the challenges of farming cattle in the damp County Cavan countryside.

Denny Galvin. Photo: James Fennell.
Denny Galvin – Cattle Farmer of Stradbally

From the ‘Vanishing Ireland' archives, an interview with Denis ‘Denny' Galvin, a cattle farmer born in 1945, about the challenges of keeping his County Kerry farm in order in the early 21st century.

Photo: James Fennell.
Eileen Hall (1924-2021) – Keeper of the Sweet Shop

From the Vanishing Ireland archive, memories of an encounter with the late Mrs Hall, who ran a much loved sweetshop between Clones and Newbliss in County Monaghan.

Photo: James Fennell
Eugene Brady – The Pumpkin Man of County Longford

‘1995 was the year Kerry won the All-Ireland, but it was also the year we won the Pumpkin of the Year. And I tell you, there was more carry on about that pumpkin than there was over Kerry winning the Sam Maguire’. A classic from the ‘Vanishing Ireland' archive about a farmer from Camagh, Abbeylara, Co Longford.

Photo: James Fennell.
Edward Hayes (1924-2012) – Houseman & Butler

The fascinating memories of a butler and houseman who worked in various ‘Big Houses' in Ireland during the 1950s-1980s, including Lisnavagh, from the Vanishing Ireland archive.

Eamonn King (b. 1937, Cattle Farmer & Horse Breeder) - Farravaun, Glann, Oughterard, County Galway. Photo: James Fennell.
Eamonn King (b. 1937) – Cattle Farmer & Horse Breeder – Oughterard, County Galway.

‘I’m all my life trying to improve the land, God help me’, says Eamonn. ‘All my life digging for gold, but I’ve not found it yet.' The recollections of a cattle farmer and horse breeder from Farravaun, Glann, Oughterard, County Galway, from the Vanishing Ireland archives.

Willy O’Reilly (1914-2010) of Belmullet, Co. Mayo.
Pat Rua & Willy Reilly – Fishermen of Belmullet

The Reilly brothers of Glenlara, Belmullet, Co. Mayo, recall a dreadful storm in 1927 in which 45 young fishermen died, including two of their brothers. It was the end of an era for the islands of Inishkea where the dead men came from.

 ‘I like music but I don’t play or sing. I listen.’ Photo: James Fennell.
Jack Longeran (1930-2020) – General Factotum of St Joseph’s Industrial School, County Tipperary

An interview from the Vanishing Ireland archives with the man from Tickinor, County Tipperary who served as general maintenance man of St. Joseph’s Industrial School outside Clonmel.

Donal Duffy (1920-2007) - Ravensdale Piper & London Exile
Donal Duffy (1920-2007) – Ravensdale Piper & London Exile

For over forty years, Donal Duffy has been popping through a hole in an old stonewall by his home near Ravensdale, County Louth, into a magical riverside glade of stately beech, honeysuckle, glacial boulders and rushing waters. In part, this habit stems from his keen paternal interest in forestry. But the real method in Donal’s madness becomes apparent when he unveils his pipes and gets down to some serious practice. One wonders what the local bird population makes of it. From the Vanishing Ireland archives.

Noel Robinson – Farmer of Coole
Noel Robinson – Farmer of Coole

Born in 1939, Westmeath farmer Noel Robinson reflects on mixed marriages, emigration, rabbit-hunting, holy wells, and the challenges for farmers in the 21st century. From the Vanishing Ireland archives.

John Mathis  – The Thatcher of Annagassan, Co Louth
John Mathis – The Thatcher of Annagassan, Co Louth

‘I was never over the water’, he says. ‘I was hardly in the water either, mind. I’m afraid of the sea’. An interview with County Louth thatcher John Mathis from the Vanishing Ireland archives.

Photo: James Fennell
Tom Sheehan (1931-2017), Schoolteacher & Actor, County Kerry

The former schoolteacher from Kilbaha, Moyvane, County Kerry, reflects on corporal punishment, turf gathering, amateur dramatics and family links to Kansas and Chicago. A story from the ‘Vanishing Ireland' archives.

Photo: James Fennell
Liam O’Shea (1927-2012) – The Blacksmith of Lauragh Forge

An interview from the Vanishing Ireland series with the late Liam O'Shea, blacksmith, of the Lauragh Forge, Killarney, Co Kerry, touching on his father's experiences in Manhattan and the days when the forge was the hub of the community. 

The Murphys of Ballymurphy
The Murphys of Ballymurphy

An interview with Simon Murphy (1929-2015) & Jimmy Murphy (1934-2018), the cover stars of the fourth Vanishing Ireland book, about their life as cattle and sheep farmers in the Blackstairs mountains above Ballymurphy, County Carlow. ‘I go up the mountain every day,’ says Jimmy. ‘A couple of hours or more. It takes that time to straighten it all out, start in the morning, go see this, see that, but sure I was always at it, do you know?

‘An invaluable record of times past.’

Irish Independent