Turtle Bunbury

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Mary Maddison Cork

Mary Maddison displays some
of her fine stones.
(Photo: James Fennell)

Vanishing Ireland



Beara Peninsula, Co CORK

Born 1931

Now, Cessair was Noah’s granddaughter’, continues Mary Maddison. ‘She was quite a warrior. But Noah wouldn’t have her on the Ark so she went off on her own anyway and came on to Ireland and she landed up in Bantry Bay. It’s all documented. Her descendents still live in Waterford today, I believe’.

The conversation veers into stranger waters when Mary recalls an American professor who believes the Ark was an airtight submarine and that all the animals were in fact some form of early DNA. ‘We think we’re so clever nowadays, but it’s all happened before’, concludes Mary, deadpan.[i]

It’s probably not a tale she tells every time the audience congregates in her house, but then again the legends of West Cork and Kerry are one of her story-telling fortes. And that is probably why she has planned for her eventual burial to take place in the pre-Christian churchyard of nearby Kilcatherine where the petrified remains of the original Hag of Beara are believed to lie.[ii]

Mary is determined that the monthly gatherings she hosts are by no means restricted to legends. Indeed, most of the tales spun on those precious Saturday nights are humorous, semi-fictional anecdotes delivered in a rattling poetic language that has to be heard in order to appreciate every nuance. ‘It’s not the story’, says Mary. ‘It’s the way that you say it. There’s humour in everything and we can talk until the cows come home, but it’s the old boys that are really funny. [iii] The Kerry sheep-farmers who come here, the way they tell the stories and the expressions on their faces.[iv] When you get into the community here, and you know all the locals, there’s a whole different language’.[v]

Perhaps inevitably, the traditions of Irish storytelling survived much longer on the country’s off-shore islands than anywhere on the mainland. Mary’s grandmother was raised on Long Island off the coast of West Cork. Likewise, her mother grew up on Hare Island off Skibbereen where story-telling traditions were particularly rich. And there were other cousins living in Cape Clear. ‘Island people have got a great grá for stories’, explains Mary. ‘When you go away somewhere and come back, they’d sit the whole evening and want to know all about it, what did you see, what were the people like and so on’.

Mary was born and raised in Kinsale where her father was a shoemaker and her grandfather made boots for the nuns.[vi] But all her childhood holidays were spent on Hare Island with her mothers’ brothers.[vii] Day after day, she listened to her uncles talking in a language enriched by the bi-lingual phraseology of the Irish and English tongue. ‘It was sensational’, she says. ‘I suppose it’s the cells in your body that relate to it but really, it is a language that you don’t forget. If only I’d taped them!’ Her uncles also sang, chiefly in the unaccompanied sean-nós style with its melodic lilt. ‘I could sit and listen to them forever’, says Mary. One uncle was particularly skilled on the mouth organ and played at all the family wedding.[viii]

When she was 16-years-old, Mary went to England and found work in a hotel in Oxford. One day, she overheard a guest talking about her recent voyages around the world. Mary was suddenly swamped in wanderlust. She took a train to London, went down to the Docks Office and managed to cajole a man there into giving her a job on the Braemor Island, one of the lavender-hulled Union-Castle liners running between Southampton and Cape Town.[ix] The head chef on the ship was an Englishman called Michael John Madison. ‘He was the youngest head chef in the company’, says Mary proudly. ‘He had a great sense of humour and everyone used to think he was Irish. We were engaged within six weeks of meeting’.[x]

By the late 1950s Mary and Michael were on board the Cunard liner Ivernia, traversing the Atlantic Ocean between Southampton and Montreal. They finally married in 1961 and settled in Hythe outside Southampton, just east of the New Forest. They subsequently moved to the Isle of Wight which, although not quite West Cork, was nonetheless an island. Mary quickly fell into old habits, telling stories to her three daughters at night. [xi] ‘I never read them books’, she says. ‘I just fell into bed and made up a story. It was always something to do with Ireland’. Indeed, even now, whenever Mary goes to visit her grandchildren on the Isle of Wight, she comes back ‘absolutely exhausted because I’m up half the night telling stories and reading stones’.

In the early 1990s, the Maddisons purchased a site outside Schull and Mary prepared to move back home. However, just as they were about to leave, Michael unexpectedly passed away. When her mourning was done, Mary decided to move further west and settled just above Eyeries on the bracing north coast of the sub-tropical Beara Peninsula.

Today, her cheerful home beholds the ocean amid a modest garden. Blue mushroom stools are strategically perched between granite boulders. A little donkey and cart rest upon a tufted headland. A gaggle of hens, ducks, peacocks and geese amble between a lush, well-stocked greenhouse and a pyramid made of pine. A tiny church, its exterior wall made from seashells, stands beside a wooden shed, which houses what must surely be one of the most impressive shell collections in Ireland.[xii]

Mary's Stones

Mary's Stones.
(Photo: James Fennell)

Mary began collecting seashells when she was a child, building it up during her ocean-faring days. She simultaneously began to gather the beautiful stones that now permeate the rooms of her house. Pots and basins filled with polished amethyst and soothing onyx that stick to your toes and pour through your fingers like barley. Crystal bowls that resound with a mesmerising ring that would by the envy of Angelus stalwarts and Buddhist brass bell-ringers the world over. ‘Every stone has a different frequency’, she explains. ‘You think you’re picking the colour but in fact it is the frequency you are sensing’.[xiii]

Mary is not a woman who will ever be idle. She has a constant stream of visitors, coming to have their stones read or to simply listen to her soothing sing-song voice. She sometimes goes out to sea in her boat; she took up sailing on the Isle of Wight as part of a successful ‘life begins at 40’ drive.[xiv] On other days, she sits in a small bay window on the first floor of her house and paints the sea and the Skelligs beyond. She studies art in Kenmare twice a week and regularly contributes to the annual Eyeries Newsletter .[xv] She’s also writing her life history for her grandchildren. And of course she hosts her story-telling sessions on the last Saturday of every month. ‘When I started, it was just me telling tales. Now we have people from all over coming - Germans, Dutch, French, Polish - and telling stories from their native lands. It’s magical really. I have a great life’.[xvii]


[i] It might sound far-fetched but it makes as much sense as the version than accounts for giraffes and elephants on board, never mind forgetting the poor old unicorn.

[ii] ‘My children live in England and have never seen an Irish funeral’, she says with her girlish laugh. ‘So I’ve told them they can enjoy three days off. Their Dad’s ashes will go into the coffin with me because I will get a good bargain and work it two for the price of one’.

[iii] ‘It’s not the story - it’s the way that you say it’, she says. ‘‘When I tell the stories, I have to see the scene and I have to hear the old way of seeing things. Because I hear it, I remember’.

So here are three stories she told which perhaps do not sound so good when written down but can be side-splittingly funny to some when delivered in the right way:

1) ‘I know an old fellow kind of long ago. He came back from America after being out there some years. He had kind of a twang on him too. But anyway, Kate came on out from the Mass and she goes on into the pub and over to him. ‘Michael’, she says, putting out the hand. ‘Welcome home boy. Tis nice to see you back in your old ground again’. They’re talking away and she says: ‘Come here, to me now, are they your own teeth?’ and he said ‘Sweet-hearted Jesus, of course they’re my own teeth. Didn’t I pay 200 dollars for them in America’.

2) See this young Cork girl, she fell in love with a young Kerry farmer and sure lo and behold in any case she had to move over the border to Kerry. Well sure, she didn’t mind it, like. ‘You’re nice people here after all’. So they were motoring fine and handy for the first 12 months and begod didn’t they have a terrible row altogether and it was major. She pushed the dinner in front of him every day for three days. And ‘ah me laire’ he was in an awful state because he thought if she don’t talk to me like, what am I going to do? However, it was coming up to Friday, the day that they go to town, so he harnesses the pony and trap and he comes to the door. ‘Mary Caitlin, darling?’ he sings out to the door. ‘The pony and trap is waiting for you now’. And she comes out with a puss on her and the coat all buttoned up. The hat on and the feather flying in the light breeze of the day. Away up the boreen they go and they come onto a main road. And just as they are turning the corner ready for town, what happened? Oh me laire, out comes a mule in front of the pony and stops it on its track. Your man gets up and he looks at the mule and he looks back at her and he says ‘I suppose that’s one of your relatives’. But herself being a Cork woman was on her feet and she looked at the mule and said ‘Begob boy, you’re right, but only through marriage’.

3) ‘Kate had been married for forty odd years and the family were all grown and gone away. She was waiting now to see that surely to God Almighty her Paddy would remember the anniversary. This year now he was bound to make a bit of a do of it and take her out, you know. The whole morning she’s watching the clock and getting restless. He’s in and out and eating a bit of this, a bit of that. In the end she says, ‘Come here, Paddy, do you know what day it is?’ ‘Jayz I do girl, its Friday’. ‘Ah now Paddy’ she says, ‘do you remember?’ ‘Of course I remember’, he says, ‘tis our anniversary, girl’. ‘Well’, she said, ‘I don’t understand this. How come you never tell me that you loves me anymore?’ And he looked at her and said ‘Come here to me now, didn’t I tell you the day I married you that I loved ya?’ ‘God knows Paddy boy you did’, she says. ‘Well, if there’s any change in circumstances, you’ll be the first one to know’.

[iv] ‘Around here, in Kerry and West Cork, we are steeped in the old language of talking’, she says. ‘You might say ‘oh derma-leher [sic], isn’t it an awful auld windy day’? You miss all that when you go to the cities.

[v] ‘I’d be talking about fairies and things so you have to have a balance of humour to keep the old ones interested. It depends who the crowd are. Some nights you wouldn’t go into the stories. You’d have a bit of craic instead. So we did the Kerry Radio instead and I gave them what for, all funny stuff, the Cork people being so bloody good and all ... it was great gas. I love that! Oh Jeepers. It’s only fun really’.

[vi] ‘My father was a shoemaker and repairs in Kinsale. So was my grandfather. They used to make the boots for the nuns. My mother worked for a Dr McCarthy in Kinsale and that’s how they met. They were both O’Donovan’s but they were not related’.

[vii] ‘I was born and grew up in Kinsale. My sisters are there still. My mother came from Hare Island off Skibbereen and my grandmother came from Long Island in Schull. So islands mean a lot to me, the traditions of islands’. Her one brother lives in London and works in security, widowed 2008.

[viii] ‘My mother came from Hare Island’, she explains. ‘And I spent all my holidays there. We had no electricity or anything so we used to tell stories at night. They spoke Irish. I had relatives on Cape Clear and that’s all Irish too. Farming people. My uncles on Hare Island, to hear them talking. They sang in the old shannog [sic] style with the lilt. But anybody who came to the house would play music. My uncle used to play the mouth organ as well as any accordion player. He used to play at all the family weddings. He was fabulous at it. My uncle [Neilie O’Donovan] on Hare Island was a great story-teller. He had a wonderful vocabulary of words. If only I’d taped them! But we think that we’re going to live forever and we don’t’,

[ix] ‘One of my jobs was in the restaurant and I heard this lady talking about travelling. She worked on board a liner and I thought jeepers, that would suit me. So I packed in the job and headed to London to be told by the Union Castle Line that there was a 7 year waiting list. I said ‘I can’t wait that long at all’. This man said ‘Miss O’Donovan, I’m afraid that’s it and you need auxiliary training for nurses before we’d even consider you’. So I went straight up from Greenwich to Luton and got a job as an auxiliary nurse that night. I moved into the nurses’ home. Then I went down three days a week to the Dock Office. And I can still see that man shaking his head. ‘Miss O’Donovan, there are no jobs?’ And I would say: ‘Why isn’t there?’ Anyway, three months I had an interview. The superintendent said: ‘Do you realise this is very hard work?’ And I said: ‘Have you ever worked in hotels, sir’. He said no. ‘Well’, I said, ‘ you start at the crack of dawn and you finish next morning. Is the job that you’re offering me harder than that?’. So I got the job and we sailed out from Liverpool dry dock’.

[x] ‘He thought I was 27 because you had to be 27 to join the ship. I put my age up but I was just 19. I’m afraid I doctored my certificate to my sins’. Michael did not discover her true age until the day they married. She still chortles loudly at the look on his face when he found out. However, I must confess this tale confuses me because if Mary was born in 1931 and married Michael in 1961, then she was not 19-years-old at the time of the wedding. And surely she did not deceive him about her age from 1950 (when she was 19) until 1961 (when they married).

[xi] All three daughters still live on the Isle of Wight, two are married, one is single. Only one of Mary’s five grandchildren has so far left the island and she is a teacher in Winchester. The others are too young.

[xii] Most rivals such as the Shell Houses at Curraghmore and Carton were based on collections built up during the 18th century but, like Blott Kerr Wilson’s design at Ballymaloe, Mary Madison’s joss-scented Shell House is a late 20th century concept with a seriously international flavour.

[xiii] I did healing with the crystals on the strand when I was a child. Every stone ahs a different frequency. When I was growing up on the holidays in Hare Island, there was nothing to do only play about. I always liked the stones. When the stones are in the water, they have a different colour. You think you’re picking the colour. When I started travelling, the first port of call where I saw so many stones was in Capetown. That’s where I realised it wasn’t the colour but the frequency of the stone that I was sensing. Every stone, regardless of whether they are the same type, has got a different vibrancy and a different frequency. Just like twins. I taught myself on that line. There are loads of books about it now but there wasn’t anything when I started.

[xiv] In 1971, Mary turned to her husband and said: ‘Life is supposed to begin at forty so I think I’ll take up sailing’. Cowes was a fine place to start and before long Mary was regularly skippering small boats around the Solent.

[xv] This includes her amusing version of the Bride of Glenmore Lake appears, and Noah’s Ark (in response to a broken fibre-glass boat that she planned to use as a demo for Noah’s Ark, which ‘took off during a storm one night and nobody has laid eyes on it since’).One of Mary's fellow students lately sculpted her bust. ‘You don’t see yourself getting older’, laughs Mary, ‘but when I saw that, I thought God almighty, that’s me when I’m 90’.

[xvii] Mary Maddison and Teddy Black performed a concert at Anam Cara in 2008 to raise money for the children of Chernobyl.



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