Michael Pattwell: Celebrating the resurgence in people’s interest in local history

'It seems to me, from talking with people, that there is a huge resurgence in peoples’ interest in history, both on a wide scale and especially in local history,' so says Michael Pattwell in his weekly column
Michael Pattwell: Celebrating the resurgence in people’s interest in local history

HOME OF DISNEY FAMILY:Coolmain Castle, Kilbrittain, pictured in 1979. Picture: Archive

I, WITH a good friend of mine, attended a lecture in Kilbrittain Hall last week. The Kilbrittain Historical Society hosted it and it was wonderfully delivered my Michael O’Mahony, a leading member of Duchas Clonakilty Heritage.

As we have reached the centenary of The War of Independence — and approach the centenary of the dreadful and devastating Civil War — the topic of the lecture was very apt; it was on the life and death of Dick Barrett (December 17, 1889 — December 8, 1922) who was brigade commandant of the West Cork III Brigade during the War of Independence.

Michael O’Mahony is, of course, a keen historian and the amount of research he had done on his subject did him much credit. He has been on the Editorial Board and Journal Committee of The Clonakilty Historical and Archaeological Journal since its inception in 2015 and has also been a contributor.

These local journals have become very popular all over the country and there is scarcely a parish or district now that doesn’t produce one from time to time. Some areas may faithfully produce a journal every year, some every second year and some somewhat irregularly. They are a very valuable contribution to the broad education of the populace of an area and it seems to me, from talking with people, that there is a huge resurgence in peoples’ interest in history, both on a wide scale and especially in local history.

Some of the journals that interest me the most are, of course, from my native area of West Cork. From Ardfield/Rathbarry alone — where my mother came from — there have been seven issues between 1998 and 2018 and I know that further issues are planned. I am proud to have contributions in several of those issues.

After the lecture I have already mentioned I was introduced to the most recent journal from The Kilbrittain Historical Society. That is volume 4. In fact it won’t be “the most recent” for long more because volume 5 is due to be published very soon, at the end of this month.

I’m afraid my breakfast the following morning, after my visit to Kilbrittain, was a long and lingering one because I had begun to flick through the journal I had acquired the night before. In fact the very first article in it riveted my attention. Written and researched by Tríona O’Sullivan Enright, it tells the story of Coolmain Castle.

If you are driving on the coast road from Timoleague towards Kinsale you might notice, as you approach the strand after the Pink Elephant at Harbour View, across the bay, a square tower in among the trees. It actually looks a bit like the tower of a church. That is Coolmain Castle.

It was not built as a castle originally but when the ancient and original Coolmain Castle, about half a kilometer away, fell into disrepair and practically disappeared the then owners of what had been called Coolmain House adopted the “Coolmain Castle” appellation.

Coolmain Castle has been extensively restored and is now a private home of some of the Disney family after it was purchased by Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt Disney and vice-chairman of the Walt Disney Company, in 1989. The vendor was Bob Willoughby and what attracted me to Tríona O’Sullivan Enright’s excellent and interesting article was that I met the same Bob Willoughby and, with some friends, was a guest of his in Coolmain Castle in the early 1980s.

Readers might now ask, who was Bob Willoughby. He was an American photographer who specialised in movie ‘stills’. One popular photographic magazine once called him; “The man who virtually invented the photojournalistic motion picture still.” He also worked for the famous Harper’s Bazaar magazine where his photographs illustrated arts and culture articles.

His big break came in 1954 when he was assigned by six magazines to photograph Judy Garland during the filming of A Star is Born. Subsequently, he was hired by Warner Brothers to film the extensive “Born in a Trunk” sequence. This was the first time a motion picture studio hired a special photographer to specifically take photographs for sale to magazines. The result was a Life magazine cover featuring a close-up portrait of the great singer/actor in costume. It was her second Life cover and his first.

He was clever and inventive too and in 1963 he built the first remote radio-controlled camera for on-set still photography. This led to other innovations that enabled him to take still photographs identical to the film footage.

Bob Willoughby lived in Coolmain Castle for 17 years. While here he developed a great interest in ancient Irish poetry and he used his photographic skills to illustrate some of the old texts with nature photographs.

I was a founder member of Clonakilty Camera Club many years ago (I think over 40 years ago), an active club that is still in existence, though I’m not a member now. Some time after Bob Willoughby came to Coolmain he heard somewhere about our club and asked if he could attend a meeting. We were, of course, delighted to invite him and we had a most enjoyable evening with him in our clubroom. He invited us to his castle home in Coolmain for a return visit and that is how I happened to visit Coolmain Castle, where we were greatly entertained and Bob shared some of his vast knowledge of photography.

That evening I think he gifted each of us a copy of one of his books but I could be wrong about that because if he had gifted it he surely would have signed it and it is not signed. I may have purchased it later. In any event I still have his book, Voices From Ancient Ireland. It is a lovely book to browse through and consists of early Irish poetry, with each poem illustrated by one of Bob’s nature photographs. These are poems from the 9th to the 12th century and I have not seen them in any other collection.

One of the poems, stated to be from the 9th century, reads:


May-day, season fair,

perfect time of year,

the blackbird’s song a poem

to the sun’s first slender ray.

The constant cuckoo calls

to delightful summer;

end of the bitter weather

that pierced the branching wood.

Summer cuts small the stream,

swift horses seek the water,

heather spreads its long hair,

delicate cotton-grass prospers.

The poem is illustrated with a great photograph of a lake, surrounded by dark mountains and with wonderful cloud-shapes overhead and reflected in the waters of the lake.

That is just an example of how one local journal awakened a lovely memory for me and set me searching among my bookshelves for a volume I had almost forgotten. I have delved into it many times since and have enjoyed both the ancient poems and the photographs that illustrate them.

Talking of books, perhaps I will be excused if I mention here that my second book (of my own poems — it also includes some short stories), After Sunset, will be launched on Thursday of this week at Vibes & Scribes Bookshop, Lavitt’s Quay in Cork at 7pm. I am delighted that Leanne O’Sullivan, the wonderful Beara poet, will perform the launch. I have long been a great admirer of Leanne and have attended several of her workshops, both in Beara and in Cork. On the same occasion Leanne will also launch another book of poems, The Wren is Near, by Ashley O’Neal. Ashley is an American but has made her home in Ballymackeera. She has deep interest in ancient Irish culture and folklore and this interest (maybe even a passion) is reflected in her poems.

There is an open invitation from both Ashley O’Neal and myself to attend the launch.

As a little taster the following is the title poem from my book:


Nightfall and

a vixen barking

in the fugitive light

after the low clouds

astride the mountain-tops,

eye-level now in their distance,

have sucked through rouged lips

the ruby sun out of the evening sky

while the silver sliver of a new moon,

belly forward, creeps in from the east

in it’s night-long arc and stars swarm

in the deep pile of their blue-black

velvet mantle.

It is then that I miss you most.

Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net

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