Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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6th November 2009

Richard Fitzpatrick considers the fading recollections of a dying generation as a poignant last link to a bygone era in a generous full-page feature dediated to the 'Vanishing Ireland' project.

Born in 1903, Anastasia Kealy is the oldest person to feature in Vanishing Ireland, the second volume of profiles of everyday elderly Irish people to be published by writer Turtle Bunbury and photographer James Fennell.

Remarkably, Anastasia, or Statia as she’s known to intimates, lives on her own in Rathdowney, Co Laois. Her mother was born in 1862, years before the bicycle was invented. She was ninth of 13 children born to her parents, but in similar fashion to nearly all of those featured in Vanishing Ireland, many of her siblings – six in a row at one stage – died in childhood.

Along with infant mortality, there are a lot of common threads running through the experiences of those called on to reminisce in this exquisite collection – enforced emigration, mostly to England, and a vibrant social scene in rural Ireland, particularly amongst farmers who bandied together for work and craic at night-time in each other’s houses, being the most evocative.

Furthermore, those interviewed seem to imbue an innate stoicism and hardiness. In their day, children thought nothing of returning from school to spend a few hours picking potatoes or cutting turf. The notion of walking 20 miles to get to work is shrugged at. Baby Rudden, for example, a farmer from rural Co Cavan, born in 1923, remembers walking barefoot for “near an hour” to get to school. Sometimes on wet days, her father would walk with herself and her brothers and sister, beating back thistles and water off the ferns on rocks so they wouldn’t get their legs wet.

The penury they endured haunts their accounts. Willie Davey, a tearaway – and labourer by trade –from Ballymote in Co Sligo remembers that if you left your lunch too long in the desk at school, a rat would get at it. Most days he only had a piece of bread, if he had a lunch, to bring to school, “and when you come back home you wouldn’t have a lot more,” he adds.

In Westland Row’s inner-city Dublin parish, recall Sonny Kinsella and Bart Nolan, it was commonplace for four families to share one tap and one toilet in houses that would accommodate over 40 people. Getting to sleep in these houses, they recount, was always difficult as they were constantly alive the noise of coalmen coughing and babies crying; not to mention the occasional screaming mother.

The loss of so many great songs from our collective memory is bemoaned. Farming, it is argued convincingly, was a much more sociable way of life before the advent of tractors. The book is full of enchanting detail and recollections.

Joe McCabe, from Abbeyleix in Co Laois, was born in 1919 and was a noted hurler in his parish and county. As a child, he was borne along by the tales of the Laois team which won the 1915 All-Ireland hurling title. The weather had been so wet the day of the final that the two teams played the second half of the match in overcoats.

The summer of 1946 is vividly recalled, a season when the countryside was flocked with thousands of civil servants and office workers from Dublin, there to help save the harvest.

The ferociously cold winter of 1947 is also mentioned. In late February of that year, the greatest snowfall the country experienced in the last century lasted for nearly 48 hours. Known as “The Big Snow” or “The Blizzard”, it was 40 days before the last vestiges of snow disappeared.

Many lost their lives during the snowfall. Francie McFadden, a gravedigger from Carrigans Upper, Co Sligo, remembers that two colleagues of his father were caught in a snowdrift while returning from the bog. They were found four days later with the bags of turf frozen on their backs.

There is a wonderful chapter about the life of John Mathis who was born in 1927. A bachelor, he lives on his own with his dog Chester and a cat, which, notes Bunbury, “has not yet earned a name”. He worked as a thatcher all his life, following in the footsteps of his father and uncles.

The discipline hasn’t changed in a thousand years, he maintains. Like with many crafts, it’s all in the hands. He says the worst part of his vocation was that it can be “a cold, old job”, especially on the hands, as everyone wants their house thatched in the late autumn when the straw is fresh from the fields.

In fact, those profiled made their living from a host of trades that are fading from our world – such as blacksmiths, lace-makers, seamstresses, water-diviners, sextons and butlers.

Of course, we’ll always have gravediggers. Francie McFadden isn’t sure how many graves he has dug. In the old days he used to travel around on a Honda 50 with a shovel, pickaxe and 14-pound sledge strapped to the side of his motorbike. Nowadays, the 80-year-old widower gets about by tractor, but hasn’t come to delegate any of his work. “I still dig them yet,” he says.


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