A tale of three Cork houses... and the people who once lived there

The recent sale of three houses in East Cork led local man JOHN ARNOLD to reminisce about the ghosts of the past who once stepped on those same floorboards.
A tale of three Cork houses... and the people who once lived there
Pa McGrath - future Lord Mayor of Cork - shoeing a horse at his forge at Morgan Street, off Patrick Street, in the early 1920s. John Arnold also recalls forges in his local area going back to the 19th century.

SOME time when I get a chance, I must read Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. People have told me it’s a great historical novel set in London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution of 1789.

Eleven years before that bother in France, when Maire Antoinette suggested the French populace should eat cake due to the scarcity of bread, two prominent gentlemen published detailed road maps of Ireland.

In 1777, George Taylor and Andrew Skinner mapped and surveyed the main roads of the country and published the famous Taylor& Skinner maps in 1778. The illustrated maps were produced in long individual strips with great detail about landlords, big houses, turnpikes, rivers, villages and physical features.

On page 129 of their work is the route ‘Road From Cork by Tallagh’ (Tallow, Co. Waterford). On leaving Cork city, the road wends through Glanmire, onto Watergrasshill and on to Bluebell en route to Tallow and Lismore — crossing the Blackwater there and onto Kilkenny and eventually to Dublin.

My tale is not of two cities but rather of three houses, on the one road that goes nowadays from Fermoy to Midleton — all ‘For Sale’ or ‘Sold’ in recent times.

In an old notebook I found belonging to my late Auntie Jo, there’s a piece of a poem, with no name but obviously written by someone local.

And yet the place could never boast a mansion grand or rare

No lordly nabob there resides or purse-proud millionaire

For the dwellers there are humble folk and humble folk alone

Whose only world it lies around the Cross of Bartlemy

Those lines were written long after Taylor and Skinner produced their maps ’cause in 1778 there was no mention of the village or ‘Cross’ of Bartlemy. History tells us that in the last decade of the 1700’s a beautiful, young white horse was sold and bought at Bartlemy Horse Fair. Bred in the County Wexford the animal was purchased by a French Army buyer at the Fair. This white horse was to be named Marengo and was the favourite steed of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte until he met his Waterloo.

Bluebell was on the old maps because here was an Inn for travellers to quench their thirst. The horse drawn carriages of the time travelling this route from Cork to Dublin stopped here and the horse-power was changed. In time a village of 20 or more houses grew up around Bluebell. In the early 1800’s there was such drinking and carousing, fighting and immoral behaviour associated with the pattern Day at the Holy Well of St Bartholomew — next to the ‘Old’ Fair Field that the civil and religious authorities wanted the Fair and pattern Day suspended or banned altogether. A compromise was reached. The location for the Fair was moved away from the Well to a crossroads about a mile away. Here the Fair prospered and in time the crossroads village of Bartlemy grew up and the settlement at Bluebell went into decline.

By the mid 1800s all that remained at Bluebell was the old inn — then converted to a Blacksmith’s Forge ran by the Walsh family. Thomas Walsh was born in 1829, just five years before the Tithe Massacre at the nearby farm of Widow Johannah Ryan in 1834. Thomas married Bessie Hegarty ‘from over the road’ and their son Thomas, born in 1864 succeeded his father in the family occupation of blacksmith. In turn young Tommy Walsh, who was born in 1914 and was a close friend of my father, took over the trade. By all accounts Tommy was a genius. He was a blacksmith by trade but also an inventor, engineer, welder and mechanic. People said he could ‘make or repair anything under the sun’. He died as a very young man in the 1940’s. His sister Johannah married Tom Lane from nearby Gortroe and Tom took on the forge. Tom was also a carpenter. When we were young Tom was the man to go to make a timber ladder, put up slates, point harrow pins or make a door for an outhouse.

Bluebell was more than a forge. At a crossroads it was a meeting place where young and old gathered. ‘News’ was spread and the world’s affairs were sorted out. 

Tom Lane died in 2002. The house was sold and resold and lay idle for a number of years. Now we can see light in the window once more and smoke from the chimney.

In those far days, but simple were the joys our peasants sought

We’ve since advanced and other times have other standards brought,

Instead of meeting-place within a smithy’s sooty walls

We now have’ Pictures’, concert rooms and garish dancing halls.’

( From ‘The Banks of The Bride’ by Patsy Barry NT 1942)

Go on over the road heading for Midleton from Bluebell. You’ll cross Ballinwilling Bridge — the meeting place of North and East Cork and the site of several bloody and fatal faction fights. After the bridge there’s a ‘For Sale’ sign on a house at the right of the road. We called it ‘the Burrow’, nearby is Ryan’s sandpit which was used by generations of locals for sand and gravel — the best plastering sand you’d find in the nine parishes. This house was a rambling, gambling, courting, singing and meeting house for boys and girls, young and old from a wide hinterland. The O’Regan house was truly an open house and the last one of the clan to live here, Mick, who died last year, kept up that tradition. This was house of fun and laughter. Bill O’Regan and his wife Nance Healy were larger than life characters when I was growing up. With family members in England there was always comings and goings.

Back in the mid-1800s a very old Bartlemy family, the Gearys lived here. They were of the ancient Eoghnacht sept or clan. William O’Regan was born in Ballymacoda in the 1830’s and he married in the Bartlemy area. His son Pats, a shoemaker, married Mary Geary and died in 1930. It was their son Bill that I knew as a young boy. We’d often draw a load from the sandpit and a chat with Bill and Nance at the gate would always ensue- there was always time for talk and laughter back then when the pace of life was slower. Emigration was part and parcel of life for so many Irish families in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and so many from around here went to England. I recall Mick telling me that ‘yerra ‘twas like home over there with Regans, Roches, Lees, Aherns and Gubbins’ — all from Bartlemy’. Mick and his brother Billy died last year and now the old home is for sale.

Travel on towards Midleton and you’ll come to the ‘bounds’ of our parish, a mythical place called Keame, famous long ago for the forge, the Sports and the Drama group. Here stands another recently sold house where the Gubbins family lived. I remember back in the 1970’s there was an Exhibition on in Fermoy of old crafts and trades. Johnny Gubbins was the local harness-maker. I called to him and he gave me his complete set of harness-making tools for the exhibition. There were awls and thimbles, and packers and cutters, collar needles, punches, a half moon knife and a tack hammer. Johnny was always busy at his trade and travelled to different farms to make and repair head-collars, saddles and other items of harness. When asked about how soon he’d be coming to call Johnny always had the same reply “After next week”!

James Gubbins lived in Desert, Bartlemy in the 1840’s. In 1869 his son James married Margaret Sweeney of Ballyogoha. Their son John (Johnny) was born in 1895 and in 1927 he married Kate Condon in the townland of Ballyroberts — though most people called ‘em the Gubbins of Keame because their home was near Roche’s forge. Dan (Foxy Dan) and Batt were the last two of Johnny and Kate’s family to live here. The house was sold recently. So the Walsh’s of Bluebell, the O Regans of Ballinwilling and the Gubbins’ of Keame are gone. Relations of all three families still live around here but new names are now to be found in their homesteads.

As for man, his days are like grass …….the wind blows and his place knows him no more. Psalm 103

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