WERE school days the best days of your life? Certainly, for U.S-based Cobh native, Richie Piggott, they conjure up happy memories.
A pupil at Norwood School (for juniors) in Rushbrooke and St Joseph’s Boys National School, followed by the Presentation Brothers in Cobh for secondary school, Richie recalls “some really good teachers”.
“First of all, we had nuns. I found them very nice. I know some people had bad experiences with different nuns but I have good memories of Sr Dominic, Sr Annunciate and Sr Dolores. They spoke of treating people as we ourselves would like to be treated.”
Richie has supplied a number of photographs to the Sirius Arts centre in Cobh for an exhibition entitled ‘School Days: Cobh and Great Island’ which continues until July 7.
His sister, Mary O’Dea and Brian MacDomhnaill, who both work at the Sirius, have put together the exhibition that features rare photographs from the late 19th century and early 20th century, offering glimpses of school life in the form of group portraits, school plays and school architecture.
Photographs from later in the 20th century are more varied with sporting events, awards and field trips documented.
Richie, 64, the middle child of nine children, describes himself as the family archivist. Living in Chicago where he works as a food scientist for the Kerry Group, he returns to Ireland three or four times a year to catch up with his siblings.
The best known member of the family is the musician, Charlie Piggott, who was involved in the founding of De Danann. He is the eldest of the Piggotts, aged 71.
Richie, who is cheerful and enthusiastic about the exhibition, studied microbiology at UCC and went on to study molecular biology at Trinity College Dublin. He started his career with Biocon in Carrigaline, a company that sold enzymes to the food industry. Richie later worked for Quest, travelling the world. The company, which no longer exists, moved Richie to live in the US as he was travelling there for work so often. He settled there in 1997 with his wife, Elaine Harrington, from Cobh, and their children, Sinead and Stephen. However, four years later, Elaine died unexpectedly.
Five years later, Richie met Deirdre from Dublin, who had been working in research in the U.S longer than he had been there.
“She went through a divorce and had three children, twins Liam and Max, who are now 21, and Kate, who is nearly 16. We got married and about a year later, we had our own son together, Jack, who is aged ten.
In 2004, the Kerry Group bought the food and ingredient division of Quest.
“I became part of the Kerry Group which has its headquarters in Tralee. I come back more often than before so I never really miss Ireland.”
The Piggotts’ parents were from Kerry. The mother was from Dingle.
“Her people were fishermen and musicians. My father was a musician as well, from Dooks outside Glenbeigh. He worked as a farmer. When they married, they moved to Kilworth where my father farmed for a while. Then he farmed at Fota when it was privately owned. He became the head gardener there under Major Bell. He was there for years and ended up working at Verolme Dockyard.”
Richie says that his upbringing “was incredible”.
“It was great to be one of nine. The older ones took care of the younger ones and we’re all very close. There was always music in the house. We were living in Newtown about two miles outside of Cobh. There was a lovely community there. It was almost like being in the countryside. In ten or fifteen minutes, you could be in the middle of the town.”
At school, Richie was “bright enough. But I wouldn’t say I was a star pupil”.
He played a lot of hurling as well as rugby and soccer.
“I wasn’t too bad. I was captain of the Cobh team when we won the East Cork Cup in hurling in 1968. The first game was a draw. It was very exciting. We won the replay. That’s the highlight of my sporting career!”
While studying at UCC, Richie spent his summer holidays working on the building sites in London in order to save money to pay his way through college.
“It was very tough work. A lot of Irish were working on the building sites. They almost felt trapped, even though they were earning. But they drank most of it. It was a tough life. They used to describe it as ‘dog rough and dog lonesome.’ I was lucky. For me, it was temporary work.”
The Piggott parents were “always interested in education so that you could better yourself”.
Both parents are dead, with Richie’s father dying relatively young at 58, a year after undergoing a triple bypass.
“He was one of the first in the country to have a bypass for a heart condition. My mother lived another 20 years after my father died.”
While being Irish in America is always a bonus, Richie says that Donald Trump is “a nightmare”.
“He’s an embarrassment. I never dreamt it would happen. He just struck a chord with certain people.”
When Richie retires in a few years, he’ll come back regularly to stay in a cottage in Kerry that he has owned for 15 years.
“It’s outside Cahirsiveen. We’ll visit for longer times but we won’t move back.”
Cobh, he says, has changed “unbelievably” since he was growing up there.
“It has really changed in terms of housing. Cobh is now probably four times the size of what it was when I left.
“Where I was living, you’d walk out the door of the house and you’d be in a field. From there, you were in farmland.”
Richie regrets the way Cobh has expanded.
“There were lovely places to go for bird watching and hunting.”
The town has suffered in recessions.
“It’s a sort of isolated town, one road in and one road out. It’s not a town that people pass through to go somewhere. But it’s coming up. The town is much brighter now. There’s more variety in the shops. And there’s the Sirius Arts Centre and the liners coming in, particularly during the summer.”
The photographs that Richie has selected for the exhibition include one of his sister, Mary, showing off her new dress that she received in the post from her aunt in America. There is also a photograph of Norwood School dancers feature Theresa Piggott and John Kinivane.
While the Sirius Arts Centre has finished collecting photographs to hang in the exhibition, the organisers are still interested in receiving images and stories throughout the exhibition run. They will be copied and added to archive folders in the gallery for visitors to see.
Contact Brian MacDomhnaill at the Sirius Arts Centre by emailing email@example.com. Or call: 021 4813790.