Fr Kevin Hegarty
The distinguished broadcaster and journalist, Seán Mac Réamoinn, who died in 2007, asked in his late seventies how he was, wryly replied that he was like a census form, broken down by age, sex and religion. Last week, the census of 1901 was in the news as its details were made available for free at census.nationalarchives.ie.
Last year, the census of 1911 was similarly put at our disposal. It has attracted more than 260 million hits and seven million individual users.
Both censuses are particularly important as their counterparts from 1821, the year of the first one, were either pulped because of a paper shortage during the First World War or destroyed in a fire in the Public Records office in 1922.
In 1901, some 850,000 households were included in the census which was taken up on the Sunday night of March 31. It provides information on each member of the family and their relationship to the head of the household, education; age; religion; sex; where born; if the individual spoke English or Irish or both; and if the person had a disability.
The huge interest in old census returns reflects people’s fascination with family and local history. Patrick Kavanagh, in ‘Epic’, wrote memorably of the importance of the local.
One of the favourite recitations of the aforementioned Seán Mac Réamoinn was ‘The Two Travellers’, where the superiority of the home place is gloriously stressed:
“Don’t talk of your hunting in Yucatan,
Or your fishing off St. Helena;
I’d rather see young fellows hunting the ‘wran’
In the hedges of Tobberaheena.
No doubt the scenes of a Swiss Canton
Have a passable sort of charm
Give me a sunset on Slievnamon
From the road at Hackett’s Farm.”
The popularity of community history is also reflected in the prevalence of local history societies of which the Westport one is among the most prominent in the country. The society has just published the 28th volume of its journal, Cathair na Mart.
It is a cornucopia of information and delightful things. Among others there are articles on the Dominican Friary of Burrishoole; John Millington Synge’s colourful journey through Mayo in 1904-05, wherein he received some of the inspiration for The Playboy of the Western World; John Charles Milling, a Resident Magistrate in Mayo at the time of the 1916 Rising; the early days of Westport and the prehistoric settlement at Lough Carra.
John Mulloy, the President of the society, has written a wonderful article on the pilgrimage of the Catholic Boy Scouts to Rome in the Holy Year of 1934 in which he took part as a young boy. Not only does he set the pilgrimage in its religious and political contexts, he also succeeds in conveying, 76 years later, a boyish excitement about the long voyage on the SS Lancastria and his first introduction to the elegant glories of Italy.
My own part of Mayo also gets a look in. The journal has a letter from Fr Michael O’Donnell to John O’Donnell of Inishkea South Island, sympathising with him and his fellow islanders on the tragic drowning of October 1927.
On the last Friday of that month, 21 crews from the island set out fishing for mackerel in their frail currachs. It was a night when, in the words of a traditional song, the wind gave no rest and death was in the sky.
The early evening, however, was quite calm. Suddenly the wind changed and a hurricane struck “like a shot out of a gun.”
When the sea calmed the scale of human disaster was grimly apparent. Ten young men had drowned. The disaster was replicated along the west coast. A total of 45 men from Inishkea, Lacken, Inishboffin and Cleggan lost their lives, leaving 148 dependents.
Fr O’Donnell’s letter of sympathy, though written in a pietistic tone that grates on the contemporary ear, evokes the simple solidity of the Christian faith of the islanders. He was well aware of it because he had ministered in the parish of Kilmore-Erris before his transfer to Knockmore, where he was living in 1927. It was a world that was about to end as the islanders, broken in spirit by that black October Friday, transferred to the mainland during the following decade.
Once again the Westport Historical Society’s labours of love have borne significant fruit. Anyone who possesses all 28 volumes of its journal has a treasure trove illuminating the complex narrative of Mayo history.