What is it about Irish – and especially local history - that we don’t seem to want to know?
Or maybe the picture is changing, thanks to the fine efforts of a growing and articulate band of local historians who know only too well the wealth of what lies, neglected, all around us.
A case in point has to be the story of the Humbert invasion of 1798, when, for one brief but heady autumn month, the prospect of British domination being smashed finally and forever was a very real one.
That so much of that story owes its origins to Mayo is something we seem to take little heed of. We tend to write off and grievously underestimate the extent to which the Franco Irish Rebellion rocked the British establishment to its core. We forget that the rout of the British from Catteles has been described by the historian, Pakenham, as ‘one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history’.
Is it because the glorious campaign ended in failure? Or that the retribution, when it came, was swift and crushing and terrifying, and that men, women and children were butchered to death on the streets of Mayo towns, and their leaders – clerical as well as lay – hanged publicly or beheaded, the better to teach the peasantry a lesson?
One man who has committed himself to the richness of the Mayo story of 1798 in Killala, is author and historian, Stephen Dunford. His latest book ‘In Humbert’s Footsteps, Mayo 1798’ is to be launched at Ballina Library tomorrow night, and is certain to become a reference point for a story which was to become much more than a military campaign.
A native of Castlebar, Stephen Dunford is a man of many parts – writer, folklorist, historian, musician, composer and poet, he is an artist in the true sense of that word. It is that combination of qualities which give ‘In Humbert’s Footsteps’ its unique perspective.
Its starting point is the factual, straightforward but sympathetic account of the progress of Humbert’s Franco Irish Army through the west of Ireland. It describes the campaign from its start at Kilcummin, near Killala, with the arrival of the small force of 1,019 troops on August 22, 1798. It tells of how it was played out over four counties, occupied for a month the total available strength of a British army 100,000 strong, and ended back in Killala on September 23, with the brutal massacre of hundreds of Irish citizens.
That is the outline story, but it is in the localisation of the events, the personalities, the folklore and the folk memory the music and the poetry that the book comes into its own. Generously and colourfully illustrated with contemporary illustration, maps and photographs of the monuments, graves, landmarks and relics associated with the Humbert campaign, Stephen Dunford reminds us of just how recent, in the broad sweep of history, are the events he describes.
It is a story laced with warm, human, bitter-sweet incidents and episodes which live on to this day in local landscape and memory. And the research is impressive. Here in the music of ‘Johnny Gibbons March’, in memory of the United Irishman who, after the French defeat, was hanged on Tubber Hill in the presence of his wife Honoria and three small children, John Gibbons, who was put to death close to his ancestral home at Grove House, was the only person ever to be hanged in Westport town.
From the Frenchman’s well at Kilcummin by Bishop Stack’s Palace, Bóthar na Sup to the Windy Gap, Staball Hill to the Frenchill Monument, through the victory banquet at Linenhall and on to ultimate defeat at Ballinamuck and then back to the cruel, bloody epilogue at Killala, the book is a succession of well-researched, detailed sub-stories of the main event.
Beautifully produced, easy to read and with a detailed bibliography, ‘In Humbert’s Footsteps’, written in collaboration with Guy Beiner, is a book which deserves to be in every classroom of every school in Mayo and beyond.
It is a reminder of who we are and what we went through in the cause of freedom. And all of which, in terms of historical evolution, happened only yesterday.
Turlough – heritage village
A proposal to seek heritage village status for Turlough, home to the National Museum of Country life, has been receiving much support from local voluntary and statutory bodies.
Turlough Community Development Association – whose annual heritage day has become a leading event on the Mayo calendar of attractions – is the prime mover behind the proposal, which aims to retain the village’s unique identity while yet attracting more visitors to the area.
Central to the plan is a co-ordinated development programme to incorporate the museum itself, the Round Tower, the old Church of Ireland, and the remains of the old demesne with its trees, lake, rivers and streetscape.
The Association is hopeful that a Village Enhancement Scheme will help pave the way for designation as a Heritage Village, which in turn will promote the development of the monuments, waterways, rural walks, geology, heritage gardens and parkland which are an essential part of the locality.
Leading community activist, Seán Horkan, is also hopeful that the recent decision by Finance Minister, Brian Cowen, to make available NDP funding directly to rural communities will be a step in the right direction.
While Turlough village has expanded considerably in the past three years by dint of residential housing development, it is noticeable that the village proper has not developed in line with the marked growth of its flagship Museum of Country Life. The challenge for the Development Association is in bringing the various pieces of the jigsaw together.
In the short term, perhaps it might make a start by persuading the powers that be that an attraction like the Museum of Country Life really should be open to the public on Bank Holiday Mondays.
A quiet night out …
My guide and tutor on all things culinary, food expert, Tom Doorley, disappointed me grievously this past week.
His choice of restaurant for a special evening for two was the famed Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, a restaurant which he describes as a national institution. Twenty-five years ago, when first it opened, it was extraordinarily expensive, he remarked, and even those who are now regulars locked the proverbial arse to their trousers in these far off days.
All of which would suggest that perhaps the old price list has come down to more realistic levels for Joe Soap.
Sadly, no. Having described the mouth-watering dishes, the fine wines, the finesse of the presentation, came the killer blow. The bill (and even he was embarrassed to admit) came to €471 for two.
There was a fleeting moment of light when, he said, if they had been more stringent they might have got out ‘for a shade over €300’.
But, he said, it would have been a false economy. This was the kind of food, he opined, accompanied by the kind of wine that lingers in the memory for years rather than days.
I bet it does.
Shell still on back foot
Shell’s hopes of breaking the logjam in the fractious Corrib Gas dispute must have taken a knock with the results of the opinion poll conducted by Nuacht RTÉ.
With six in ten people feeling that the gas terminal should be located offshore, and only a quarter supporting the present site, Shell clearly has a long way to go in winning hearts and minds.
The developing belief that the tide had begun to turn for Shell seems to have no grounding in reality, with opposition to their plans manifesting itself right across the county. And while the company would be able – even on its own admission – to live with the finding that it had badly handled the whole Corrib affair, it did have reason to hope that public opinion was beginning to change in its favour.
The aftermath of the jailing of the Rossport Five has yet to work itself out of the communal psyche, and it seems that as long as there are protests, every PR advance by Shell will remain shackled by the ball and chain which the prison term inflicted on the company.
Tidy Towns in a tangle
Well might Ballina feel aggrieved that the results of this year’s Tidy Towns Competition failed to recognise the efforts made since last year.
Granted, the town’s marks did increase over last year’s allocation, the engagement on a consultancy basis of an ex-judge in the competition is obviously having its effect, and the co-operation between Town Council and voluntary committee is a further step in the right direction.
Where the Town Council feels hard done by, and rightly so, is in the revelation that the judging of the town took place in Festival week, when even the best effort in the world would find it hard to show the town to its best advantage.
It’s not possible to run a festival attracting tens of thousands on to the streets and still maintain a spic and span appearance for Tidy Towns judges, and surely the visiting adjudicators must have realised that this was no ordinary week and no ordinary occasion.
Meanwhile, in Castlebar, Mayor Brendan Henaghan has enlisted the help of his party leader, Enda Kenny, in a bid to rid the town of its most visible eyesore – the town river. The Mayor does not quite intend to draw away the water and close off the river banks, but what he does aim to achieve is to turn it into an amenity of which locals and visitors could be proud.
The Town Council itself has ambitious plans to construct a boardwalk along the river through the middle of the town from Lough Lannagh. Given the unkempt nature of the river and its popularity as a dumping ground for litter vandals, there are many locals who would prefer if as little attention as possible was drawn to the waterway.
Auld stock pays
Castlebar folk at home and abroad will have a special interest in a unique series of one-hour radio programmes which was launched on CRC-FM on Friday last.
‘Hey Days and Auld Stock’ has been put together by Ronan Courell and Tommy Marren and will feature the varied aspects of Castlebar life that has made the town what it is today.
Each week, the programme will feature the memories, folklore, characters and history of the town, ranging from the Connaught Telegraph to McHale Road, Lord Lucan to the town’s street names, from a spotlight on its famous citizens to the story of St Mary’s Hospital. From garrison town to the modern, thriving, urban centre which it is today, the documentary series aims to give a composite overview of a town that has changed immensely over the past hundred years.
Funded under the Sound and Vision initiative of the BCI (Broadcasting Commission of Ireland), the series is being eagerly looked forward to by CRC-FM’s loyal audience. The Sound and Vision initiative enables the production of programmes which offers listeners to local and community stations an alternative approach to specialised topics or areas of particular interest.
Local history and reminiscences – especially when recounted by local people who speak from first hand knowledge of the old town and its characters – has proved to make for fascinating radio over the years.
‘Hey Days and Auld Stock’ promises to be no exception.