Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Sunday 25th October
By Claire O'Mahony

The history books tell us of the hardship that existed in '40s and '50s' Ireland. But how did people cope, what was life really like, and what did they do for fun? Two new books go back in time to shine a light into a fascinating and long-forgotten way of life. Claire O'Mahony meets the books' authors.

History books are too often filled with details, believes the historian Turtle Bunbury. "In a hundred years time, it will probably be all about the Lisbon treaty, but really that doesn't affect what we do on a day-to-day basis – it's more interesting how we all get about, what we're at and what we're thinking."

It's his fascination with ordinary people that has culminated in the book 'Vanishing Ireland: Further chronicles of a disappearing world', where he has captured the tales of Irish elders, photographed by James Fennell. This is the second time they've tackled such a project.

"I love sitting down and chatting to people of senior vintage," Bunbury explains about returning to this subject matter. In the book, we meet 106-year-old Statia, whose mother was born in 1862 while Abraham Lincoln was president of America and the pedal bike hadn't been yet invented. There's 92-year-old Cathy, who met her husband at an illicit house dance (the Catholic Church considered them immoral) and bachelor brothers Timmy and Stevie Kelleher (84 and 79) who are grateful never to have married and say in unison: "And thanks be to Christ for that."

"I don't know how our parents fed us but they did," says Stevie. "It's great the way it is today but – and I've said it in pubs – the youth of today wouldn't do what we did. They'd die with the hunger."

The cover of the book features Baby Rudden, an 86-year-old farmer from Cavan who left school at 12 to help her parents, never married and spent her life on the farm. One of the most engaging interviewees is 69-year-old Willie Davey, a labourer who might wear a rock n' roll tee-shirt and a necklace but who doesn't feel at home in modern society, with its telephones and DVDs. Of the younger generation he says: "They won't listen and they'd nearly be asking you 'What is a bog?'"

From publicans to farmers, gravediggers and water diviners, Bunbury and Fennell have assorted a memorable collection of people, who are products of their time. "What I'm always trying to find are people whose stories have never been told," Bunbury says. "When people tell me about some ordinary farmer who's 84 and never goes out, I immediately want to go and find him. You'd be hard-pushed to get to your 80s and not have some stories to tell."

These are people whose lives were shaped by wars and emigration but also of storytelling, music and crafts. The interviewees' thoughts on modern Ireland varied wildly and Bunbury says he was surprised by the number of people who are enthusiastic about the health service and the way people are looked after. "But they're from an age when people were grateful for anything that came their way and that's what we've all forgotten," he says. "There was a lot of hardship but some of them seemed quite confused by how much cash we all have these days. They're amazed: we have heating, electricity, running water, all of theses things and yet we seem to be complaining as much as ever."

To find participants for their first book, Bunbury and Fennell went around the country, arriving into villages and asked local historians to point them in the right direction. This time around, a lot of people contacted them on the back of the first book, but it was still remained very much a word-of-mouth thing. "You get to an area and people tell you, 'Do you know who you should meet…'. We had various people – scouts – who were tracking down interesting characters for us."

As a book, it has a certain poignancy, especially as Bunbury says, because they're constantly raising a glass to the memories of some participants. If they achieve anything with the book, he hopes it is that it provides an impetus for people to visit an elderly person nearby and say hello ever now and then. "I myself live in the countryside and sometimes you can feel completely abandoned," he says. "Certainly in the past, some of these people would have relied on the church – and the pub – but these are uncertain things now. The post office – gone. All these things are gone and it can be really hard for them."


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