You’ll have a whale of a time wallowing in tales of history

Michael Pattwell recently launched a local historical journal in Kilbrittain. Here he reflects on some of its wonderful contents.
You’ll have a whale of a time wallowing in tales of history

The fin whale that beached in Courtmacsherry Harbour in 2009 — the story makes an appearance in Kilbrittain Historical Journal

I HAVE completed eight years contributing to The Echo and this is the first article of my ninth year.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the local historical journals that have become very popular in recent years. Since then I had the great honour to be asked to launch Volume 5 of the Kilbrittain Historical Journal and that gave me the opportunity to examine its contents in detail.

I couldn’t describe the value of these journals any better than the Chairman of Kilbrittain Historical Society, Denis O’Brien, did in his Chairman’s Address in the Journal: “The decision taken this year by the current government to maintain the compulsory status of history throughout the second-level curriculum serves to underline the subject’s importance. Our local history adds to this argument by illustrating in vivid detail the social changes in the parish over time and the legacies borne from these changes that link to the present day.

“Many of our articles allow the young (and perhaps not so young) reader to immerse themselves in the day to day lives of past people, perhaps even their own relations. This helps develop empathy and understanding of the human condition, which is beneficial for a functioning society.”

Reading through the latest Kilbrittain Journal (Volume 5) I was hugely impressed by the magnificent photograph on the cover, taken by Brian Madden, and his evident expertise with the camera is displayed again within the book. The very beautiful photographs by Annette Hickey and Mike Brown are also enthralling.

Meandering through the pages of this fantastic publication, we meet many very interesting characters. Sam Kingston’s ‘volunteers’ that we enjoyed meeting a few months ago on RTÉ television in The Brigade are first on the scene.

Then the late Jerry Desmond, whom I knew well, comes to life off the pages in a way only Jerry could. A wonderful man of infectious enthusiasm, he was never afraid to try something new, yet tradition was never forgotten. Jerry owned the Ocean Breeze Horse-drawn Caravans and was one of the pioneers of the horse-drawn, barrel-top caravans (Then known as ‘tinkers’ caravans but that isn’t P.C. now.) that meandered along the roads of West Cork away back in the summer months of the ’60s. They were hired out, usually by families from the continent, who had little or no experience of handling horses. The story is told that one family complained they got very little sleep at night because the caravan kept moving. They didn’t realise that they had to untackle the horse from the caravan. Poor horse!

Some of us, however, remember Jerry too with a few expletives as we recall trying to travel through the roads of West Cork at four or five miles an hour, caught behind one of his caravans with no chance of overtaking safely.

How many people remember that Jerry Desmond was also Chairman of Ból-Chumann na hÉireann and was President of the International Bowl-playing Association?

There is a great variety of topics covered in the journal. Fergal Brown wrote about Garrettstown House and the interesting families that lived there. I’d have loved to have been the solicitor they employed in their disputes. There was money to be made there.

Michael Larkin’s journey along the coast road to Timoleague was a delight to read and though I love to drive it — sometimes I return from Cork via Kinsale just to drive that route — I soon became aware that there was much to learn about what one sees along the way. In Michael’s article, he includes my friend, Michael O’Brien’s very funny song, The Kilmacsherry Whale, about the whale that washed up and died in Courtmacsherry Bay. Michael was on hand to sing the song for us.

There was some competition between the communities of Courtmacsherry and Kilbrittain as to who could salvage the remains and put the skeleton on display. The Kilbrittain fellows won but not before the dorsal fin had been claimed by Courtmac’. The final verse of Michael’s song is very clever:

So come all ye whales around the Seven Heads

And listen here to me

Don’t die in Courtmacsherry Bay

Stay well away at sea

Courtmacsherry will get your dorsal fin

And Timoleague your tail

And the rest goes to Kilbrittain

Like the Kilmacsherry Whale!


And it’s oh jolly lads

Let your hearts never fail,

Courtmac’ versus Kilbrittain,

They’re fighting for the whale.

The song is included on one of Michael’s CDs and is available from him.

Throughout the journal, we meet many people of interest, such as O’Sullivan Beara who, it is claimed, was late for The Battle of Kinsale because his soldiers got too comfortable enjoying the Kilbrittain hospitality and the shelter of the ‘Blanket Wood’ at Granreigh.

We meet also Denis Sonny O’Neill, the man who is said to have fired the shot that killed Michael Collins, though throughout the last 97 years several others have been named too.

Part II of an article about the great Charlie Hurley (all 26 wonderful pages) is riviting and the amount of research Denis O’Brien has undertaken is, as our American cousins would say, awesome. At my age, every hour of every day is extremely valuable, but I am left impatiently waiting for the next episode on that great soldier.

Most people will be aware of Charlie Hurley, Officer Commanding of the 3rd Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence and the part he played in the conflict around West Cork. Even though he is memorialised in a few places around the area — there is a terrace of houses in Clonakilty named after him and a park in Bandon — not many people are fully aware of his sacrificial contribution to the cause. We have many things to thank Charlie Hurley for, but perhaps most of all for accepting Tom Barry as training officer in the 3rd Cork Brigade when others had their doubts because of Barry’s background.

Denis O’Brien wrote: “Charlie Hurley did not participate in the Ambush at Kilmichael on November 28, 1920, but showed responsibility for the well- being of his men as they returned from the ambush site. The weary Column, doubled down with the weight of the captured arms and ammunition, arrived that night and settled down in the Faraway Camp cottage at Granure, between Ballinacarriga and Ballineen where the Column had their first night of sleep and food since the night prior to the Kilmichael ambush. Keenly aware of the exhausting effort put in by the Column at Kilmichael, Charlie Hurley took it upon himself to act as sentry on guard outside during the night. Seldom, if ever, in any army would one find a Brigadier on guard whilst his men rested.”

Tom Barry recalled: “Until morning he would prowl around, tireless and watchful. Again, I thought of what an extraordinary army we were. Where in all the world would a brigadier walk alone and armed for 15 miles to find a fighting unit and mount guard himself while it slept in safety? But then, there was only one Charlie Hurley, and there never was his equal in all the units that fought for freedom in 1920 and 1921.”

Terence McSweeney makes an appearance, thanks to a fine article by Dr Ann Marie Desmond, and the Hales brothers, Tom and Seán, divided by their personal loyalties in the Civil War, get several mentions along the way. There is a photograph of Seán which, as far as it is known, was never published before. Taken at Kinsale during the Civil War, it depicts him in Free-State Army uniform wearing a black armband and looking quite dejected — the editors speculate that he was mourning Michael Collins. Seán Hales was assassinated himself a short time later, on December 7, 1922.

Eamonn McCarthy’s article on JJ Healy takes us right through ‘The Wild West’ of Canada and the USA, as well as Alaska, of the 19th century and is a fascinating read.

It was nice to be re-introduced to The Dower House by Annette Hickey — it was once a lovely restaurant that I enjoyed dining in several times during the 1970s and ’80s. Agricultural matters aren’t forgotten either and creameries and ploughing matches get their own space.

I’m not ignoring the several other authors who have contributed to this great publication, but lack of space doesn’t allow me say much more.

The McCarthy sisters of Coolmain make an interesting read, as do the memoirs of Ellen Crowley, who took the Seán Hales photograph I have already described.

The journal is beautifully produced by The Southern Star.

I strongly recommend this book to all the people of Kilbrittain, both at home and abroad, and to anybody who is interested in the details of local history.

Contact Michael at

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