John Arnold: I’m not into blogging, but I’ll tell you about my life ‘influencers’

Though the influencer phenomenon seems like a new fad, there always have been people of influence... so says John Arnold as he recalls key figures in his life
John Arnold: I’m not into blogging, but I’ll tell you about my life ‘influencers’

Bartlemy Macra Na Feirme history project team, back in 1976. Back row, Moss Dooley, Battie Arnold, Willie Cotter, John Ahern, Mick Browne. Middle row, Tom Lynch, Nora Arnold, Ann O'Riordan, Tom O'Riordan. Front row, Breda Lane, John Arnold, Anna Lynch, Tom Scanlon, Marian Dooley.

I SUPPOSE we have always had ‘influencers’ in society, though the term might not have been widely used in the past.

In the last year or two, especially during this period of lockdown, the influencers seem to have taken centre stage. Maybe it’s because idle minds need filling and encouragement. Once upon a time an idle mind was described as the devil’s workshop and there’s no doubt in a vacuum evil can thrive alongside good.

Personally, I wouldn’t place myself in the influencer category. You see, I’m not into apps, blogging, downloads and the like.

My trusty little black mobile phone can make and take texts and the same with phone calls, and then again I have my opinions on things, but not for a minute would I want others to ‘come under my influence’, perish the thought!

Though the influencer phenomenon seems like a new fad, there always have been people of influence and usually their effect has been positive. 

I can readily recall four persons who have greatly influenced me and though they are all long gone from this world their influence on me still goes on. Three were related to me — two closely, one distantly. The fourth was my National School teacher Donal Lehane. A native Irish speaker, he bestowed me with a great grá for the language and dúchas of gach rud Gaelach.

Auntie Jo, who was my late father’s only sister, never married and lived in the house with us. She suffered from diabetes for many years but was always jolly.

She had the collection of old photos in a Whitakers Chicken box under her bed. Luckily for me and the family a few years before her death she got me to number all the snaps and then she gave me the names of the most of them and I wrote them all down. The lesson here being to record as much as you can and don’t always rely on human memory.

My mother influenced me greatly of course. With her husband dying in 1961 at the age of just 48 Mam became mother, farmer, teacher and family/relations link with cousins everywhere. Despite all that multitasking she was still a community activist in Muintir na Tire and very supportive of us in rural organisations like Macra na Feirme which she’d been very active in herself in the 1950’s. If something needed to be done or someone needed a helping hand she was the ‘go-to’ person.

The other huge influencer on my life was Tom Scanlan, a farmer in the parish. My father’s grandmother was Johannah Scanlan and she was cousin of Tom’s father Richard. Dada was born in 1913 and Tom was six years younger, born in 1919. So when my father was nearly leaving National School, Tom was starting. The age gap made no difference as the two men were kindred spirits.

Both were gifted with their hands and had ‘ mechanical minds’ — taking a water-cooled engine apart, repairing it and then putting it back in working order was no bother to them. 

In reality they were miles ahead of their times. 

Both of them started generating electricity using water power years before the ESB was heard of. Several generations of the Scanlans all over East Cork and West Waterford were into threshing machines in a big way and the fact they could carry out all their own repairs was a great bonus. Similarly my own father was genius when it came to any kind of mechanical or technical problem to be solved.

Tom Scanlan had a passionate interest in history. There wasn’t a field or a path or stepping stones across a river anywhere in our parish that he didn’t know all about. 

He hadn’t a lot of ‘Schooling’ in the formal sense but I’d say without fear or favour that he was the most educated man I ever knew. Growing up in the 60’s Tom was a regular visitor to our house. Often he’d come across the field, arriving maybe after nine o clock. He never sat down just stood inside the room door, elbow against the wall. He’d talk for hours and I was amazed at his store of knowledge on everything from pagan wells, the Brehon laws, the ‘Troubles’, old field names and road patterns.

There is a townland in our parish named ‘Curraghphilibode’ . Back in 1917 canon Patrick Power published a seminal work entitled ‘Placenames and Antiquities of South East Cork’. In this book Canon Power gave his translation of all the old Gaelic names. He defined ‘Curraghaphilibode’ as Philpot’s Bog but Tom disagreed vehemently “Firstly it’s not a bog and secondly there were never, ever a family named Philpott there”. Tom said that close to this area was a huge ring-fort called Lisbrian - “The Brianti were a very, very ancient clan who lived in Ireland , they were shown on Ptolemy’s ‘map’ of Ireland, these ancient people worshipped their own gods long before Christianity became popular or profitable” Tom went on to explain that Boand was cow-goddess in these Celtic times, that Curragh was a flat place (like the Curragh of Kildare) and that file was poet so Curraghphilibode was, according to Tom Scanlan ‘the flat place of the poet of the cow-goddess Boand’ - it probably makes more sense than Philpot’s bog!

When Tom would call Mam would offer him tea but all he’d ever drink was cup of cocoa, and that would be stone cold by the time he drank it. He might stay til midnight and then off home across the fields by the light of the moon.

In the 1970s Tom got very involved in a Local History Project with us in Bartlemy Macra. He helped us research massive details of many aspects of our history and culture. We ended up taking second place in the County Final of the Project Competition. Well that got me started, my passionate love affair with history took off there and then. Over the next few years Tom showed me every fort, fulacht fiadh, castle, well, stream, house ruin, mass path and sacred spot in the parish. He had a deep sense of spirituality and was in tune on a daily and nightly basis with nature. He took a dim view of anyone who didn’t believe in ghosts. Like me he couldn’t understand why the Pope of the time abolished the ‘Holy Ghost’ and installed the ‘Holy Spirit’ instead!

Shortly after we got married in May 1981 Tom called. As he left that night he said ‘Twill be a few years now til I come again’ and off he went. I still would meet him here and there, at a funeral and at Mass on Sunday. 

When our three children were all started school Tom resumed his most welcome visits - he had given us ‘our space’, what a very wise man he was!

He manufactured his own micro-light aeroplane which he flew regularly from his own airstrip which was widely used during the 1980s. He often invited me ‘up for a spin’ but I wasn’t brave enough! Tom took some magnificent aerial photographs from his plane.

Then, in June of 1994, Tom Scanlan, my friend, mentor and influencer, died suddenly. He was buried in the family ‘ground’ in Old Clonmult — my great grandmother is in the same plot and a few years later Tom’s brother Martin went there too.

Since 1994, I’ve often called to Clonmult, just to say a silent prayer and sometimes too looking for advice with something that was troubling me.

I recall one November afternoon I went over to Clonmult — I’d not been there with maybe six months or longer. It was nearly dusk when I pulled up outside the heavy old iron gate to the cemetery. I was just about to get out of the car I thought ‘twill be dark when I come out and I’ll be reversing out onto the road so I said to myself I’ll turn the car first and be safe and ready for road. I turned the car and when I got out and went to the gate it was wide open though firmly shut a minute ago! Was I frightened?, not really as I felt it was just Tom’s way of telling me ‘It’s about time you came to see me’


You could fly a plane

Or trace a family tree

Or take a lovely photo

Or talk all night

The Celts, the Normans all you knew

Fort and rath and castle too.

Black beret and wellington boots

Old days, old ways, old sayings.

Fishing and walking the roads

I miss you so in winter nights

Near the gate in old Clonmult.

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