Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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VANISHING IRELAND

FURTHER CHRONICLES OF
A DISAPPEARING WORLD

THE VANISHING IRELAND PROJECT

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THE IMPARTIAL REPORTER (17 September, 2009

Meadhb Monaghan interviews Turtle and looks at the life of Inishmore farmer John Carson who is chronicled in his new book about a vanishing Ireland

A farmer from Inishmore, Lisbellaw will appear in a novel that recounts the "memories, mind-sets and thoughts of the older generation who are rapidly fading away".

John Carson has lived at Isle View, Inishmore Island all his life. He was one of a number of elderly people from across Ireland who told their stories and family histories to author, Turtle Bunbury, an award-winning writer and historical consultant from County Carlow.

Turtle met John while visiting his sister-in-law, Liz Moore (Manager of the Belle Isle School of Cookery) on Inishmore and the result was an evocative tale of John's family life since his ancestors left Devon in the seventeenth century until the present day, where John farms his land with the help of his son and three Massey Ferguson tractors.

A captivating photograph of the 80-year-old farmer appears in Turtle's latest book, 'Vanishing Ireland, Further Chronicles of a Disappearing World', a sequel to the "huge hit" that was his 2006 'Vanishing Ireland' book.

Turtle grew up in Carlow and studied History at Trinity College Dublin. From there he travelled to Hong Kong and worked as a "roving reporter" for the South China Morning Post. Returning to Ireland ten years ago, he established himself as an energetic writer who has published seven books since 2004. He has also travelled extensively, most notably in the USA, Mexico, Africa, Australia and south-east Asia. His work on Sri Lanka earned him the award for Ireland's Long-haul Travel Journalist of the Year in 2006. He is married to Ally Bunbury from County Monaghan and has a keen interest in the history of the border counties, indeed an elderly lady called 'Baby' Rudden, from Redhills, County Cavan appears on the cover of 'Vanishing Ireland'.

Describing his second 'Vanishing Ireland' book, Turtle said: "From the rugged slopes of the Dingle Peninsula to Dublin's docklands, this book captures an age that is often unrecognisable in today's world. People recall lives shaped by the Black and Tans, emigration, the Spanish Flu and walking barefoot to school. But the overriding memories they share conjure up an era when life was somehow simpler, when people took pride in the land, when they understood ring forts and holy trees and treasured the spirituality and beauty of the countryside. They remember the importance of family, of friendships; and a time when music, storytelling, song and laughter were a vital part of everyday life.

"Farmers and blacksmiths, publicans and water diviners, thatchers and musicians gather to tell their stories about this remarkable age, giving a glimpse of the inimitable spirit and warmth of the people who shaped the cultural identity of Ireland."

Referring to John's story, Turtle writes: "John is an expressive man, with a kindly, crinkly face. Photographs mean a lot to him. They hang on walls, stand upon shelves and sleep in albums in every room of the house. We flick through an album. There's his parents, standing straight, out by the old house. And that's wee William, his younger brother, who 'died last harvest'. Here we have a smattering of his grandchildren, scattered through the latitudes these days from New Zealand to Belfast. The young ones come up to play on the farm sometimes, pow-pow gun-games behind the cattle troughs, sliding in the muddy lanes. And there's his daughter and her husband, the one who lost half his face during the Remembrance Day bomb blast in Enniskillen back in 1987. And there's John, in his UDR uniform, attending the funeral of Jimmy Graham, one of three brothers gunned down in the 1980s.

"When John talks of the bad times, his voice becomes suddenly sterner, his sentences brusquer, his posture stiffer. 'It's still there at the back of the whole thing,' he says. 'And it always will be.' He was nineteen when he joined the B-Specials of the Home Guard and he stayed with them for 22 years. During that time, they went head-to-head against the IRA in an aggressive border campaign that the B-Specials eventually won. That said, John says he had a relatively peaceful time and 'never saw anyone insulted or upset'. After the B-Specials were disbanded in 1967, John joined the Ulster Defence Regiment with whom he remained with for the next ten years. He is considerably more open than many on the subject but it is still not an area he feels comfortable talking about."

John also told Turtle humorous family anecdotes which reflect life in by-gone times. Turtle writes: "John's grandfather, also called John, had farmed pigs in Kinawley, bringing them to the market in Enniskillen. Fair Day in Enniskillen was a lively affair but many a farmer was bankrupted by swiping hands amid the jostling crowds. To confound the pickpockets, Granny Carson made her husband a special wallet to keep in his crotch. The younger John tells the story of an old neighbour who had a similarly located purse, although his was designed to protect his fortune from his two insatiably drunken sisters. 'This man subsequently fell in love with a pretty girl and told her of his wealth. 'Aye,' said she, 'I hear the bee but where's the honey.' He said, 'Put your hand down there and you'll find all the honey you need!'"

Turtle recounts how John was born in 1928 and was the first of three sons. Like most children on the island, he attended the now-ruined Methodist school at Slee, established during the Great Famine, where his aunt was the teacher. When he was 17 he bought his uncle's 80 acre farm and at 22 he married Florence in Maguire's Bridge in 1952 and went on to have six daughters and a son.

"It was a very happy marriage and lasted nearly fifty years until Florence's death in 2001. Their first grandson was born in Australia on her first anniversary, an event that greatly moved John," Turtle wrote.

Turtle commented: "I met John through my sister-in-law and thought he was an interesting man. The fact he was in the B Specials is interesting because I didn't come across much of that when I was interviewing people in the south of Ireland. You'd be talking to a farmer in Kerry and a farmer in Fermanagh and they would have so many interesting and different stories to tell."

He added that his first 'Vanishing Ireland' book, with photos by his friend James Fennell (who has also taken the pictures for this book) was such a huge hit that they decided to make a second one featuring even more "old timers" who are "rapidly fading away."

Turtle is currently working on a new project called 'Your History in a Book' and has received quite a few commissions from people who want his help in tracing and compiling their family tree as a keepsake or present. He says that "there is an increasing interest in the past with shows like 'Who Do You Think You Are'.

"People definitely get more interested in the past as they grow older."

 

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