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Raised on songs and stories

Living

Eamonn Henry’s latest book is a compilation of local history and folklore passed on by his late father

Edwin McGreal

When Eamonn Henry was growing up in Ballydrum, Swinford, he had an oasis of local history on tap. The spring came in the form of his father, John Edward (1904-95), a renowned collector of folklore, history and stories. To young Eamonn Henry, this font of information was precious and was always something he wanted to record.
He convinced his father to write a book in 1979, but it was merely a snapshot into his archive of tales from yesteryear.
Fast forward to 2016, and Eamonn is asked by publishers History Press to write the next volume in their ‘Little Book’ series. And so he set to work on ‘The Little Book of Mayo’.
It proved a popular seller, and so when History Press gave him relatively free rein for another book, it was back to his father’s writings that Eamonn returned.
And so ‘Historic Tales of Mayo’ was spawned and a fine family tradition of storytelling continues unabated.

The family business
It was, Eamonn says, no surprise that his father picked up a love for storytelling. The family trade for generations was brick-making and Henry’s was a social setting as well as a commercial one.
“It was a meeting place. Locals would gather there, travellers of the road would call in and relay stories from their own area. My father got his love of storytelling from there,” Eamonn told The Mayo News.
But John Henry’s canvass was only starting to be infused with colour. His work as a ganger with Mayo County Council brought him into homes all over the county.
“In the evenings when they were finished a job they would go to someone’s house. There wasn’t money for going to the pub. Stories would be told and you’d often have a seanchaí in the corner recounting tales.
“My father would take notes of all the stories he was hearing. He felt storytelling and some of the great stories in different areas were disappearing and wanted to jot them down. He saw the importance of preserving that,” said Eamonn.
So everything from local accounts of the Year of the French in 1798, to a personal account by a participant in the Carrakennedy Ambush in the War of Independence are retold in ‘Historic Tales of Mayo’ along with a lot of quirky local stories and legends.
Eamonn used his father’s writings as the backbone for the book and cross-referenced stories and details, adding flesh to the bones where needed, as well as relaying some stories of his own towards the end of the book.
There are, of course, some pitfalls when it comes to such oral history passed down from generation to generation. Eamonn Henry encountered one such example when researching the Year of the French.
“Very often you are taking the word of people who might be faulty in their recollection. For instance a historian was told that General Humbert came to Swinford from Castlebar via Foxford and that became fact.
“Now anyone locally would know this was not a route to go as they would have had to cross the Moy twice and negotiate a mountain pass, conditions perfect for an ambush by the English. The locals who were with the French would not have brought them through Foxford. It would be known locally they came along the main Castlebar to Swinford route,” he said.
A longing for times past
When ‘A Little Book of Mayo’ came out, Eamonn was surprised by how little feedback he received on contemporary subjects like agriculture, tourism and current affairs.
And he was amazed by how much people responded to the stories of yesteryear.
“I thought any feedback I got would be on those chapters from today. I waited for feedback but all I got there was one phone call.
“But when it came to chapters about history and folklore, I got any amount of feedback. People were fascinated about stuff on crime and punishment, on the famine, religion and superstition,” he recalled.
So when History Press contacted him, he knew where he wanted to go with his next work. He feels in an ever-changing world, people find security and certainty in the past.
“A couple of decades ago Americans started searching their ancestry and came over here. I put that down to a sense of insecurity. Very few people in America can trace their ancestry in the US back more than two or three generations. Most of their ancestors came from abroad and an awful lot from Ireland, relative to our current size of population.
“I find native Mayo people were extremely slow in getting into nostalgia but the greater sense of flux in the current generation compared to previous generations is changing that. I think people in the west were traditionally quite sure about where they came from but no longer have that certainty.
“My mother said to me in the 1980s that ‘to understand where we are now, we need to know where we’ve come from’. Change is happening so fast, people are unsure and like to go back to more familiar times and tales,” he explains.  

Bashful
Eamonn Henry is not a man to get ahead of himself. He thought someone was pulling his leg when History Press rang him three years ago to write ‘The Little Book of Mayo’ (after they read some of his work on his website, MayoGodHelpUs.com) and even went to check the editor’s contact details online to make sure she was not someone up to mischief.
He was similarly disbelieving when he got a call from Austin Vaughan, the Mayo County Librarian, in recent weeks, to invite him to take part in the upcoming Mayo Writers Symposium.
“I thought it was someone on the wind-up! I genuinely thought I’d be laughed out of it when ‘The Little Book of Mayo’ came out too. I was delighted so many people found it interesting.
“A number of people who I spoke to said they really appreciated reading the book because they said it had corroborated something their grandparents might have said and that it made them very happy. That was very fulfilling.
“A couple of pubs in Swinford have a copy of the book behind the bar. One publican, Padraig Horkan, a friend of mine, tells me the book is used to settle arguments.
“It was a labour of love. You certainly don’t do something like this to get rich! It is more fulfilling than that. I spent a lot of time on both books and I enjoyed every minute. It was all very fulfilling. To be asked to the Mayo Writers Symposium, I feel very humbled by that.”

The corridors of power
Eamonn Henry is a retired national school teacher based in Dublin. One of his claims to fame is being friends with not one but two former Taoisigh.
He was in St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Drumcondra with fellow Mayo-man Enda Kenny in the early 1970s. They and fellow Mayo alumni from ‘Pat’s’ would catch up at Mayo football games and, while still Taoiseach, Kenny launched The Little Book of Mayo in 2016.
While Enda Kenny and others gravitated back to Mayo, Eamonn took up a teaching post in Finglas West and stayed in Drumcondra where he grew friendly with one Bertie Ahern.
He was a ‘ward boss’ for two of the wards in Ahern’s Dublin Central constituency. Each ward had a population of about 4,000 people and the ward bosses ‘kept an eye’ on issues on the ground for the former Taoiseach, who always performed spectacularly well in elections in Dublin Central.
Moving in such elevated political circles is another family tradition. Eamonn’s grandfather was an election agent for Michael Davitt in the 1880s. Enough material for another book.

Book launch
‘Historic Tales of Mayo’ will be launched in Campbell’s Bar, Swinford, this Friday night at 7pm. The launch will be performed by Joe Byrne of Midwest Radio. On the night there will be a raffle for six copies of the book with all proceeds from the raffle going to Mayo Roscommon Hospice.