Michael Pattwell: Keepers of the flame who help preserve history of rural towns

Pride in one’s place just seems to be much stronger among rural dwellers, so says Michael Pattwell in his weekly column
Michael Pattwell: Keepers of the flame who help preserve history of rural towns

THRIVING COMMUNITY:Storyteller Pat Speight entertaining children at the Courtmacsherry Storytelling Festival in 2014.

THE late Bob Jennings, of C103 radio fame and well-known wherever in the Cork region stories are told, will never be forgotten in the Barryroe/Courtmacsherry area.

His Cork Yarnspinners still exists and meets every third Thursday each month for a fun evening of stories, poems and songs at Crawford & Co, Copley St/Anglesea St in Cork. As it happens, their next gathering is on Thursday night next when the featured storyteller is Dick Beamish.

More than 21 years ago, Bob founded the Courtmacsherry Storytelling Weekend and last year it was decided to continue the festival, in his honour, under the title Courtmacsherry Songs and Stories By The Sea.

The driving force behind it were the O’Brien Family of Butlerstown, Marian, her husband Michael, and their musician daughter, Anne-Marie. They were aided and abetted by several locals, including Angela Veldman O’Donovan, John Madden and Paul Finn.

The weekend before last, their 2019 Festival was held and featured Colum Sands of Co. Down, Dick Beamish, who now lives in Ballincollig but is originally from Carrigroe, west of Clonakilty, Anne Rynne — sister of Christy Moore and Luka Bloom — Jim Barry, a seanchaí from North Cork, and The Starling Band of West Cork. There were several contributions too from Anne-Marie O’Brien — who also was the accompanist for some of the others — and her father, Michael, who contributed some of his own songs and stories.

Several of the events included an open mic and there was no shortage of talent taking up the offer of the microphone for a few minutes.

Living, as I do, in a rural community it never ceases to amaze me what people will do to promote their parish /district, as well as to provide wholesome entertainment locally.

A glance at the programme on www.courtmacsherry.ie will reveal no less than 34 events throughout the year. These include various parades, an art exhibition, a sea-food festival, walking events, several events of a nautical nature and not forgetting, of course, the age-old Courtmacsherry Regatta held around the August Public Holiday each year, going back very many decades.

I am focusing on Courtmacsherry as it happens to be the area with which I am most familiar. The work — all of it voluntary — that goes into the various events is, in fact, repeated in almost each and every area right throughout the whole country and an internet search using the name of any locality will most likely bring up details similar to what happens in Courtmac’.

Many of the towns around the country too seem to have very active communities and again an internet search will reveal long lists of interesting things to do.

My own native town of Clonakilty is an example of this and one is left with the impression that there is some festival or other almost every weekend throughout the year. In the case of Clonakilty, very many of them seem to involve music in one form or another.

I have lived for periods in a few Irish cities. I have always regarded them as collections of smaller villages and indeed to scratch most city dwellers is very likely to reveal a person with a strong rural background.

I don’t see that translated, however, into community involvement and I often wonder why that should be so. There are, of course, some events in city localities that might be regarded as mirroring what goes on in towns and villages but there aren’t, in my experience, very many.

I notice too that a browse in a bookshop — or even the relevant shelves in a larger foodstore — will reveal books of local interest, often of historical interest. Even in my own local stores there are books about Barryroe, Timoleague, Courtmacsherry, Clonakilty, Rossscarbery, Ardfield and other localities in West Cork. I have no memory of ever seeing a book about, say, Bishopstown or Douglas or Ballyphehane in any of the book stores or supermarkets around the city. Pride in one’s place just seems to be much stronger among rural dwellers.

Over the years, I have been a member of writers groups, including one or two in which we put together collections of writings from the members. I have picked up some from areas I would not know very well from time to time and there are usually some interesting stories and poems to be found in them. I can quite understand why, for example, a person from, say, Bandon might not be too interested in a collection of stories from Clonakilty, or vice versa. That, however, might be a mistake as some very interesting gems might be found between the covers of what might appear to be ‘local’ stories.

A neighbour recently gave me a book in which her mother was involved, both as a contributor and an editor. Beautifully produced with a lovely hard cover, it is called Daughters of Dún Iascaigh, subtitled, A Light on the History of Cahir Women. Cathair Dún Iascaigh is the Irish (and correct) name for Cahir Co. Tipperary. The book is edited and published by Cahir Women’s History Group and was published just last December. There are 20 different contributors and, in fact, some of them are men.

When I got it first I was, of course, very grateful but wondered if, because it was all about women of Cahir, Co. Tipperary, it would hold my interest. Even though I was a District Court Judge there from 1992 to 1998, I don’t know many people from that town. It, for some reason, is a book that felt very nice to hold and in due course I did begin to leaf through it. About and hour later I realisedI was still reading it and wanted to continue.

In the introduction, the editors explained that ‘a small group was formed in Cahir, with no purpose other than to discuss, and possibly put to rights, the fact that, in similar fashion to most other Irish towns, Cahir identified its past, for the most part, with the history of the menfolk of the town and district. I think most of us might very well agree with that.

The various authors have done excellent research and the first story, by Mary Caulfield, tells us of the first female from Cahir to be written about in history. She was named Badamair and lived in the 3rd century. Apparently the story is to be found in The Great Book of Lecan (written between 1397 and 1418) as well as in the Annals of the Four Masters.

It seems Badamair was the mistress of a local chieftain, Finn Mac Radamain. She occupied a fort where Cahir Castle now stands. Finn killed a brother-in-law of another chieftain who in revenge murdered poor Badamair and plundered her fort. Even back then, it seems that women were paying for the sins of their menfolk.

There is a short account of the life of the poet and diarist, Dorothea Herbert (1767-1829) by Mary Bryan. It gives an interesting glimpse of the agrarian violence by the Whiteboys at that time as well as the positions occupied in society by various households. The latter is illustrated by a story of who was entitled to occupy the ‘head pew’ in the local church.

Mary Caulfield, again, contributed a very interesting article entitled, ‘Women’s Occupations a Century Ago’, with the main source of her information being the 1911 Census of Ireland.

I was particularly drawn to her paragraph on the dressmakers who worked in the town. My interest, of course, sprung from the fact my own mother was a dressmaker in Clonakilty all of her working life.

Ms Caulfield suggests that at the time nearly every street in Cahir had one or more dressmakers. There were six in Abbey Street alone. There were sometimes more than one member of a family engaged in the craft and she mentions some sisters engaged in it.

That reminded me of my own family when both my mother and her sister were apprenticed to the same woman in Clonakilty in the early 1930s and both carried on their trade separately for many years after they ‘qualified’.

My mother was still doing some work — mostly alterations for local drapery stores — right into the 1980s.

There are many other stories in the book that I loved. I especially loved the story of Mary O’Donnell and the 13 O’Donnell children, six of whom entered religious life and contributed in a huge way to life in Newfoundland.

All over Ireland, there are books like Daughters of Dún Iascaigh on the shelves of local shops. Reading them can give a great insight into an area, how the people lived, what contributions they made to the development of the area, and in many of them how the sons and daughters contributed to where they lived after they left ‘home’ and travelled abroad.

Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net.

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