Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Queen Victoria toured Killarney by horse and so did I.
Photo by Victor Sullivan 2007

When I was a child I used to be sent, together with other grandchildren, to my grandmother during the school holidays. She lived with her son and his wife. Their house was a snug thatched one, with a half-door, on a small holding on the edge of the ‘run-away’ bog (also known as the moving bog). So named because, at midnight, on January 1st 1901, and following a spell of the heaviest rain ever known to the people of this area, the bog erupted. The rain had started back in November, and it continued without let-up into the New Year. The bog was no longer able to contain more water so it moved, gently at first, downhill to the nearest streams and rivers, where it gathered volume and momentum, bringing with it one whole sleeping household: the Donnellys who tragically were lost in the disaster. However, the oldest girl of that family escaped, as she had, that very day, travelled to Limerick to go “in domestic service”. There was no other loss of human life but much livestock and fowl perished. There were rumours of bizarre sightings such as hens hitching a lift on the backs of cows, as they were being swept westward with the bog to the lakes of Killarney some 12 miles distant.
As I said, my grandmother lived with her son and his wife. The half door, which I loved, opened into a large flagged- floor kitchen and coming up to feed time, it served as a perch for a hen or two, Invariably, they perched with their rear ends turned inwards, which threw the grandmother into a flat spin. She would chase the offending fowl around the kitchen like someone run amok, lunging at the hens with her apron and putting the house in uproar. I learned to dodge those side-swipes. Those scenes were hilarious. The more so because she failed to see the funny side of the situation and she also did not appreciate being laughed at.
There were no children in that family so I guess visits from us would have livened things up for them for awhile. Whatever their reasons, they seemed happy to see us, we were greeted with a big welcome, open arms, and hugs and kisses – when we arrived the aunt would sing “ye’re as welcome as the flowers in May”. It was a little farm of good husbandry and a hospitable household. They kept some fine healthy livestock. There were 2 or 3 cows, a pony and the long-suffering donkey, whom we bullied mercilessly. There were pigs, ducks and a few different breeds of hens, (guinea fowl included). I think it is quite ‘posh’ now-a-days to rear your own hens and chickens in your lawn!
I listened, with fascination, to the grown-ups talk of Killarney; so famed in song and in story, the beauty and romance of the lakes and the excitement of the races. So began my ambition to see it all for myself. So, I laid plans for a visit.
I should mention that my uncle and his wife were ‘larger than life’ characters and could be described as a hearty and handsome couple, full of fun and they delighted in the odd practical joke. They were also very hard-working farmers and toiled together side by side in the fields and in the bog; they seemed happy and content in each others company. I used to particularly enjoy my days with them in the bog, dancing about in my bare feet on the soft turf bank. I used to make a nuisance of myself too and one day my uncle, knowing I was afraid of frogs, became exasperated with my carry on and he put one in my shoe; I put my foot in without realizing and stuck my toes in it ‘ewe’! How he laughed! They cut and saved the turf, cut and saved the hay and when it was ready, hauled it home to the barn, sod by sod and wind by wind. These tasks were carried out so effortlessly that it didn’t seem like ‘work’ as such. The sun, of course, always shone in those ‘golden days’, the skies were always blue and the fuschia always bloomed!
However, I pursued, with some energy, my plans to see the ‘Great Lakes’. I got them to agree to take me, ‘some fine day’. This was during the second world war when nobody owned cars except the doctor or the priest or, in some cases, there might have been a hackney car, for funerals or some such important affair. So, our only mode of transport was by pony and car but this was fine by me – we were finally going to Killarney! Both the pony and car were well prepared for the journey. There were hessian sacks of freshly mown hay placed in the car to ensure a ‘soft’ journey. Plenty cushioning would have been needed because rough doesn’t describe the condition of those unforgiving roads; deep rutted tracks is what they were with enormous pot holes. Grandmother insisted I bring her shawl “against the cold” on the return trip. We set off, in high spirits, a little after dawn. It was mid-summer time so that there was some early morning activity on the road; farmers bringing their churns of milk to the creamery and other farming tasks. We were about half way along our journey when we pulled into a gap “Now” my uncle said “ close your eyes and prepare yourself for a surprise”!
I couldn’t wait for my first glimpse of ‘Beauty’s Home Killarney’. What greeted me, however, was far from ‘beauty’ but the most dismal scene imaginable. Where I thought I was getting my first glimpse of the lakes, what greeted me was a very big ‘puddle’ in the middle of a field, with a few lonesome stringy rushes growing out of it. Tears of disappointment welled up in my eyes and I was about to start crying when they decided the joke had gone far enough and after some soothsaying and cajoling we trotted on again.
In Killarney, in those days, as in all country towns, stabling was provided. So, having fed and watered our good pony we set off to view the wonders of the ‘real’ lakes from the comfort of a jaunting car; The lakes were a wonder and I was enchanted, as I am today whenever I visit Killarney. Back into the town with us then, where my aunt bought some sausages. We hid them carefully under the sacks of hay, to be enjoyed for a late night supper Sausages then, for country folk, were as rare a treat as ice-cream.
We then joined the other race-goers, on foot. When we reached the race field I was dazzled: the crowds, the bright colours, the beautiful horses and the gaiety of it all. We bought ice cream from a little white hand-held cart; that delicious taste still remains with me. We placed our bets – in sixpences, visited the colourful stalls and bought trinkets from the ‘Cork Women’. Time now to be thinking of the homeward journey. We went to tackle up our pony and check on our sausages but alas, some hungry hound dog had sniffed them out and feasted on them during our absence. I was so looking forward to that final treat of the day but alas, it wasn’t to be. We trotted home at a nice lively pace under the Milky Way. I wrapped myself in the shawl and fell into a safe comfortable sleep amidst the sacks of hay. It never rained that day or if it did I don’t remember it.

© 2011 

Friday, May 6, 2011

STATUES by Aidan O'Shea

Fr. Mathew

© 2011

Heroes and humour on Ireland’s streets.

We in Ireland have issues about our public statues. Many of them represent standing or mounted heroes of Britain’s colonial past. Some of these have been erased from our view by explosion, which removed Nelson’s Pillar from the heart of Dublin. Others just disappeared, like the statue of Queen Victoria recently unearthed from the President’s Garden in Cork University. Statues of nationalist and religious figures took the place of our former colonial masters. Poets, priests and patriots are now jostling for our attention.

There he stands at the centre of Cork, life-size in bronze, his right hand gently extended, as if to calm us. Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), a priest of the Capuchin Order of St Francis, led a mass-movement of temperance which spread from Cork throughout Ireland, Britain, The United States and beyond. It seems appropriate that he should stand at the head the main street, gazing over the North Channel of the River Lee. His motto Ireland sober is Ireland free still carries a ring of truth.

Time was when most city buses stopped at The Statue and many a nervous lad waited there for his true love to arrive. We Irish don’t take our heroes or their statues too seriously; Father Mathew has sported Cork colours on many a sporting rally. That is an irony, as he was a Tipperary man. Beer bottles have been placed in his extended hand! Another local wag has suggested that Father Mathew is indicating with his hand and saying “I’ve been drinking pints of stout since I was that height.” His delicate feelings are mentioned in a popular ballad.

The smell on Patrick’s Bridge is wicked,

How does Father Mathew stick it?

Here’s up ‘em all says The Boys of Fairhill.

Dublin folk also love to mock their statues and monuments, and each new piece of public art quickly gets a nickname. The Spire which replaced Nelson’s Pillar at the General Post Office is called The Binge Syringe because of the local drugs culture, and more coarsely The Stiffy on the Liffey.

The 6- metre bronze figure of Anna Livia, James Joyce’s mythical female representing the Liffey, reclined voluptuously in a trough of flowing water on O’Connell Street. Very poetic it might be, but the Dubs renamed her The Floozy in the Jacuzzi, and many a drunken reveller joined her in her watery bed. Some of the carryon was outrageous, so she was removed into storage, and later was floated up the Liffey in a mock-heroic ceremony to rest again at Croppy’s Green. There she lies in peace at last near her watery self, her modesty protected by railings.

Literary greats are also gently mocked. A fine bronze of the poet Thomas Moore stands at College Green on a traffic island, with an underground toilet below; Moore’s popular ballad The Meeting of the Waters is the sly name for this site. Oscar Wilde reclines languidly on a large granite boulder at the corner of Merrion Square; even he would have enjoyed the subtitle The Fag on the Crag. The poet Patrick Kavanagh is commemorated seated in bronze by The Grand Canal at Baggot Street Bridge. Given his grumpy manner, The Crank on the Bank is well-deserved.

Dublin’s most faithful chronicler, James Joyce, stands in a characteristic pose, leaning on his cane at the junction of O’Connell and North Earl streets. As this is a family audience, discretion demands that you fill in the blanks of his nickname, The P***k with the Stick. Even Dublin’s most famous mythical character, the street vendor Molly Malone, still wheels her bronze barrow at the foot of Grafton Street, her jaunty pose and d├ęcolletage earning the name The Tart with the Cart.

Medieval kings kept a joker or fool at court, and Shakespeare gave these characters wisdom as well as wit. Perhaps wit is wisdom. A special joker’s chair was kept near the throne to ensure that the fool, the innocent, the common man was close at hand to deflate the pretensions of power and fame. A bronze Joker’s Chair stands in the garden of Merrion Square, Dublin as a memorial to one of our finest satirists, the actor Dermot Morgan (1952-1988). The chair stands symbolically empty, inviting comedians of the future to poke fun at our heroes, past and present.

James Joyce