Laughter is the best medicine in our ailing rural communities

Laughter is the best medicine in our ailing rural communities

DIFFERENT TIMES: The cattle market at Cornmarket, adjacent to Cork City Hall, in 1929

THEY say laughter is the best medicine and others say it is good for the soul, and as a person who takes a variety of puffers, potions and pills, I have to agree that a laugh is better than a tablet — nearly always!

I was in Killeagh on Tuesday the other week for a gathering of the Killeagh Monday Club! That might seem a contradiction in terms but, you see, this community-based group meet usually on the first Monday of each month but as they were celebrating their 12th birthday this month, they had a Celebration Mass in the local Church first before adjourning to their local hall.

The genial and grámhar host of the Monday Club is retired teacher Finbarr Motherway — though I’d say he’s busier now than when he was teaching!

They’re a great group who come from all over East Cork but mainly from the Killeagh district. With a dozen years they meet monthly.

Several years back, Finbarr told me that when they started they had an ‘empty canvas’ — open to all suggestions. The whole idea behind groups such as the Monday Club is to provide a social occasion for people to come together in a fun and relaxed atmosphere.

Rural isolation is nothing new but has become more pronounced in recent decades. Strange, isn’t it, there were never more cars, phones, computers and other forms of social media available, yet the feeling of isolation has increased. Life and lifestyle has changed, the pace of life is quicker, people are busier and many of the ‘old ways’ are disappearing fast.

They say that Irish society is now cash rich but time poor. We’ve gone through recession after recession and as a nation we’ve proved our resilience by coming out on the right side.

I’m a sentimentalist, of course, ye well know that many say I’m ‘living in the past’ — yerra, I don’t mind what they say about me, ’tis giving someone else a chance ! One way or another, Irish society has changed dramatically. People thankfully are living a lot longer and in general in better health. More older people are now living on their own. In some cases this is due to emigration of family members, but in most cases it is simply as a result of changes in family circumstances in recent decades.

Long ago, it wasn’t unusual to have two and even three generations of the one family living together under the one roof. Building an extra new house for most families was simply beyond their financial means, but that situation has changed too.

We had seven million people in Ireland before the Famine of the 1840s and now we’re nearly back up to five million again. There are houses everywhere, especially in rural Ireland. With far less people now employed in farming and related industries, most people have to travel for work so many houses are simply dormitories.

That’s the way it is and we have to adapt and learn to cope with the changing face of rural Ireland.

More and more older people are on their own for much of the week, especially with many small villages having no ‘economic activity’ in the form of a local shop, Post Office or Public House.

In my vicinity, our own village of Bartlemy and Clonmult and Bridesbridge are very quiet. Many communities have taken the ‘glass half full’ rather than the ‘glass half empty’ outlook and the original sinn féin theory as put forward over a century ago by Arthur Griffith is very much to the fore nowadays. People are great to organise and help themselves.

It is mighty to see so many Active Retirement, Men’s Shed, Senior Citizens, Drama and Community groups organised all across the country in towns, cities and in rural places too. Even severe weather events like the other week fail to dampen down the indomitable spirit of people all across the country.

Just over the ‘border’ from us, the 37th West Waterford Drama Festival went ahead in Ballyduff, despite snow, frost, floods and travel difficulties. ‘Twas the same in Killeagh.

I’ve been at the Monday Club on several occasions. At their monthly gatherings they have refreshments, bingo, exercises and often a guest speaker who covers topics from insulation to isolation from cooking, crafts and candle-making to making a will. Next month they have a talk on the Fair Deal Programme.

Occasionally, they go from the sublime to the ridiculous and that’s when I’m asked to attend. If I hadn’t been a farmer — or at least married to one — I suppose I might have been a politician or maybe a folklorist or perhaps even a stand-up comedian — some say that’s what I am anyway!

My great friend Bill Gubbins, who died recently, always said to me ‘John, ’tis a great gift to be able to make people laugh’ — the truest words ever spoken.

From Bill, I picked up a lot of jokes and stories but most of all his sense of comic timing — often the pause, the frown, the sudden silence or the shake of the head can make the difference between a good story and a great story!

If I have time, I’d always try and do a small bit of ‘preparation’ before I’d go to an event like Killeagh last week, just to write out the ‘names’ or first lines of the joke or yarn. Eamonn Kelly, the master seanachai, always ended with the phrase ‘I’m only saying what I heard, I only heard what was said and what was said, I’m afraid, was mainly lies!’

Now, in fairness, I tell a fair bit of the truth too but lads, it doesn’t really matter once people enjoy themselves.

We do live in a kind of vale of tears so tears of laughter are good too. For Killeagh recently I told the one about the first Chinese Restaurant in Kerry, the man minding the octopus, the priest blessing the Greyhounds in Youghal, the man and woman going for a spin, O’Shea saying ‘I never felt better in my life Guard’ in court, the two lads after a night out going to Confession, and The Young King in the Castle — oh yes, and the story about the hen we put ‘underground’ for a few days before we ate her!

I sang The Moon Behind The Hill and Because He Lives. Finbarr asked me to ‘do’ 15 or 20 minutes, I think it was three quarters of an hour by the time I finished. It was a mighty session altogether!

When you’d get going and the crowd are enjoying it, ’tis like going down a hill without brakes — it’s hard to stop.

With the last six weeks and cows calving and lots of farm work to be done — I DO actually participate in the day to day running of the farm — it was hard to get away but Mallow here I come next week. As Bill used to say ‘The Show Must Go On’.

I still remind myself every time I go on stage ‘Isn’t it great to be able to do it’ and I think of the words of Ken Dodd’s song ;

To me this old world is a wonderful place

I’m the luckiest human in the whole human race

I’ve got no silver and I’ve got no gold

Just a whole lot of happiness in my soul

A wise old man told me one time

Happiness is a frame of mind

When you go to measuring a man’s success

Don’t count money, count happiness

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