Turtle Bunbury

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Above: The late Bernie Dwyer standing outside his family butcher shop
in Ballymote, County Sligo. Bernie, who attended the launch of the second
'Vanishing Ireland' book in Dublin, passed away in February 2014. .
(Photo: James Fennell)

Vanishing Ireland
Bernie Dwyer (1936-2014)
The Butcher of Ballymote, Co Sligo

Bernie Dwyer corrugates his brow and regards me with mild dismay.

‘She did not “run off” with the tutor’, he corrects. ‘She married him. After her husband was dead’.

‘She’ is Emily, Duchess of Leinster, one of the celebrated Lennox sisters. Between 1748 and 1773, she bore her lusty Duke an impressive 19 children. Bernie is correct. When the Duke perished, Emily married the tutor - and had another three children. Bernie once saw a photograph of the Duchess’s writing desk, with an ingenious curve at its centre, ‘designed to accommodate her bump’, he explains.

Courteous, eloquent, inquisitive and animated, Bernie is apt to respond with a rising ‘Go away!’ when you gob-smack him with a nugget he did not know before. For instance, that his not-so-distant cousin, rugby star Ronan O’Gara, was born in California. ‘Go away!’

He lives in the building that his grandfather established as a butcher’s shop eighty years ago. Retired for many years, this quiet bachelor now spends much of his time seated beside a smouldering fire, reading historical books, yellowing newspapers and, his personal favourite, travel articles. Bernie is an enthusiastic explorer and has visited much of Europe, as well as Cairo and the Holy Land.

History has always played a strong role in Bernie’s life. When his grandmother taught him to read in the twilight of the Second World War, she was able to delve deep into her own family history to colour in the past. She was an O’Gara from the shores of Lough Gara at the southern end of the Curlew Mountains. Born in the 1860s, she had grown up near the Caves of Keash. In her childhood, she met many who lived through the dreadful cholera epidemic that nearly wiped Sligo off the map in 1836, and the horrors of the Great Famine a decade later.

Bernie’s father’s family, the Dwyer’s, were cattle farmers from the musical landscape of Aclare in the west of the county. In the mid-19th century, Patrick Dwyer married Miss Cooke. Her family were prosperous fisher folk, their wealth accrued from the once legendary salmon stock of the River Moy.[1]

Shortly after the Famine, Patrick relocated his family to the market town of Ballymote. He set himself up as a butcher in a single-storey thatched cottage, close to the sturdy rectangular walls of the mighty Norman castle. By the close of the century, his son Bernard had converted the premises into a two-storey slated shop with a glass front.

Ballymote experienced considerable hardship during the War of Independence. Much of it stemmed from the shooting of Sergeant Patrick Fallon of the Royal Irish Constabulary in November 1920. Born in Tuam, the redoubtable Fallon had been the source of much nuisance to local IRA members since his arrival in the town four years earlier. He was shot while making his way back to the barracks from the Ballymote Fair. As news of his death spread, both people and cattle stampeded out of town before the inevitable reprisals started. Sure enough, that same evening, six lorries packed with enraged British Auxiliaries motored into Ballymote. Within hours, the town was burning - the creamery, a hay barn, a bakery, a pub and several private houses were destroyed. The Sligo Champion reported that but for the exertions of the District Inspector, not a single house would have survived.

Dwyer’s butcher shop was not damaged that night. However, the family were propelled to the forefront when Michael Grey, a first cousin of Bernie’s mother, was arrested for Fallon’s murder. ‘Mick was in the movement alright’, says Bernie. ‘But he was not the man who shot Fallon’. Bernie’s grandfather Frances O’Gara engaged a solicitor for Grey. At his trial in Belfast, Grey repeatedly stated his innocence. Many witnesses swore they were with him at the time of the shooting. Nonetheless, Grey was convicted and sentenced to death. ‘And he would have been executed only the Truce came and he was freed’, says Bernie. Grey went on to become a Superintendent’s Clerk in Dublin. An interesting postscript concerns the man who did shoot Fallon. ‘He became a bit cracked in later years. He used to go into the pubs and call for two drinks. One for himself and one for Sergeant Fallon, the man he killed’.

In 1927, Bernard’s son Patrick moved the business up the hill, known as The Rock, to its present location in a handsome two-storey mid-Victorian house. Patrick’s mother – the former Miss O’Gara – was quick to add her touch, painting the exterior a supple blue and installing finely crafted glazed tiles along the base. The word ‘VICTUALLER’S’ were printed twice in bold white letters while, emblazoned in splendid gold leaf above the shop, ran the family moniker, ‘DWYER’S’.

Bernie produces a photograph from 1942 called ‘Tomorrow’s Victuallers’. It depicts his father running what was then an open-fronted shop, following in the trend of F.X. Buckley’s of Moore Street, Dublin. At night, the shop-front was secured by high, sliding shutters although, by the 1950s, hygiene laws demanded that all butchers be permanently enclosed.

In Bernie’s childhood, his father, uncle and aunt all worked behind the counter. It was a full-time occupation that involved the whole family, including Bernie from an early age. They dealt with all the basic victuals – sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry and rabbits – and slaughtered their own stock. In the 1960s, Bernie’s father reluctantly experimented with buying meat directly from an outside supplier. ‘It was very good meat’, says Bernie. ‘But when the customers knew we weren’t killing our own, some of them stopped coming. There’s nobody now in the town killing and selling their own stock’.

Today, the shop front is a faded version of what it was in his father’s day, the blue paint peeling fast, the lower door panels rotting, the fluted timber consoles crumbling. The old shop itself is now full of late 20th century newspapers. ‘I intend to read them one day’, avows Bernie.

Patrick Dwyer closed the shop in 1976. ‘It was his decision’, says Bernie. ‘I was sorry it closed but I suppose it was for the best. I was the fourth generation and, at that time, we must have been one of the longest established businesses in the town’. The knell for Dwyer’s was the arrival of several more butchers in Ballymote in the early 1970s. ‘They say that competition is the life of trade’, counsels Bernie. ‘But competition can sometimes be the death of it too’.

With thanks to Michael Lambe.


[1] The Moy is considered one of the finest rivers in Ireland. It rises in the Ox Mountains and flows into the sea in Killala Bay. Drift net fishing considerably decimated the stock before it was banned in 2007. One of Miss Cooke’s cousins was Thomas Anthony Cooke, a merchant who went on to become a Supreme Knight in the New York branch of the Knights of St Columbanus.




Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.