From Custer’s Last Stand to ethnic cleansing in Laois

Local history: writers and researchers delve into the distant and recent past


Carlow may be Ireland’s smallest inland county but it has produced a diverse range of people who have made a name for themselves in many walks of life. Both the living and the dead feature in County Carlow, A Who’s Who (€25) jointly compiled by three Carlovians: Charlie Keegan, Jimmy O’Toole and Martin Nevin.

Mini biographies feature more than 350 people in 13 categories. These range from politics, religion and medicine, to the arts and entertainment, as well as sporting heroes such as “Red” Willie Walsh, regarded as the greatest hurler Carlow ever produced, and the rugby star Seán O’Brien, known as the “Tullow Tank”, named in 2011 as European Player of the Year.

Myles Keogh, who was born at Leighlinbridge, joined the US army and was second in command to General George Armstrong Custer, cavalry commander in the American Civil War. Keogh died in the summer of 1876 fighting the Sioux and Cheyenne in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand. Other entries include the distinguished arachnologist, Denis Pack-Beresford, who recorded the first scientific details of many spiders in Ireland and was born at Bagenalstown in 1862, and Kathleen Mary Vigors, who came from Burgage, was the mother of the adventurer Wilfrid Thesiger who explored many remote and dangerous places.

Some of Co Down’s best known 18th and 19th century businessmen are vividly brought to life in Notable Inhabitants of Downpatrick by Aynsworth Pilson, (Lecale & Downe Historical Society, £10). Originally edited by Reginald Blackwood in 1930, the book was re-edited in 2016 by Colm Rooney and Gordon Wheeler.

The author’s intention was to present “a rigid observance of the truth, with as little colouring as possible”, but he strays from this aim by writing entertaining pen portraits of those involved in the commerce of the town. In the case of William Thompson, a baker born in 1776, Pilson describes him as “truthfully a miser and a Sadducee . . . who confined himself to the single object of acquisition of money. He cared not for his country, her prosperity or adversity were equally indifferent to him.”

Many others are the butt of sharp observation and opinionated comments. The whiskey distiller, Steel Hawthorne, was “a keen, shrewd and worldly man” who was later “much shrivelled and ill-tempered”; the Clerk of the Peace, Richard Keown, is described as “virulent and overbearing and extremely licentious in his tongue; could be bland and abusive as it suited his purpose”.

Unravelling the contradictory facts of the life of a patron saint is a challenge. But in his skilfully written biography Remembering Saint Comán, Patron Saint of Ros Comáin (€20), Noel Hoare illuminates the saint through extensive field work and archival detection, carefully analysing documented sources.

The book, in the form of a quest, is divided into three sections covering a historical spread from the fifth to the 21st century. The author paints a broad background to the church that Comán established, trying to pin down specifics such as the site of his monastery, the mystery over how he died, the exact date of his death, and his burial place. He digresses into areas which shine a light on the wider context and occasionally, in the absence of sources, slips into conjecture but still manages to separate fact from legend.

When the scholar and topographer John O’Donovan visited St Comán’s Well for the Ordnance Survey in 1837, he stated that the saint would soon be forgotten. But 180 years on he is firmly imbued in the life of Roscommon town and his name has associations with a school, handball club, medical centre, and a Church of Ireland with adjoining graveyard in Henry Street, while his feast-day is celebrated on December 26th.

From Laois to Kerry (€20) by Michael Keane is a lively insight into the largely unknown but fascinating story of the Seven Septs (or Clans) of Laois who controlled the area before its plantation by the English when it was renamed Queen’s County. It explores their experience of being uprooted in the early 1600s and transplanted to Tarbert in Kerry following the culmination of bloody battles in Laois between the Septs and the incoming planters. This ended in an agreement by the Clan leaders to accept a move to Kerry, but under sentence of death if they chose to return to Laois.

Remarkably, the surnames of the Septs – Moore, Kelly, Lalor, Dowling, McEvoy, Doran and Deevy – are still to be found near the same Kerry parishes where their ancestors were banished 400 years ago. The author, a descendant of the resettled Laois McEvoys, describes the transplantation as “the first planned local ethnic cleansing of native survivors in Ireland during the age of English control”.

Paul Clements is the author of “Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way”, published by the Collins Press.

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