Local history: Valuable chronicles of parish life

New books from John Kelly, Seán Beattie, Berkly Farr and Trevor Parkhill

Built on a foundation of scholarly research, brimful of features, cultural and social commentary, local history journals are valuable chronicles of parish life. Stretching back to 1947, Carloviana, No 68 (Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society,€15) edited by John Kelly, is one of the longest established.

In its sleek 2020 edition, its 220 pages cover topics such as feastday traditions of the Blackstairs Mountains, Hacketstown fair days in the 1940s and early Carlow watermills. Through the Portal is an exploration of the landscape underneath and around Brownshill Dolmen which, with its huge capstone, is one of the most spectacular examples of the form.

Other highlights include previously unpublished photographs of the 1903 Gordon Bennet race of Carlow and south Kildare with atmospheric shots of dirt-track roads around Carlow town, Mageney, Castledermot, Moone and Ballitore. An international contest, the rally was regarded as a precursor of the present-day Formula 1 Grand Prix and was described by the Times as a “thrilling modern analogue of the Roman chariot race”.

An article by Christopher Power provides another glimpse into the motoring past with terrific photographs of cars from the early decades of the 20th century and the first vehicle ever registered in Co Carlow. (All copies of Carolviana since the first edition are available free on the website: carlowhistorical.com.)


Evocative painting

No fewer than 18 articles make up the Donegal Annual, No. 71 (County Donegal Historical Society, €25) edited by Seán Beattie, and a journal which also has a distinguished history. It profiles James Hack Tuke, the English Quaker, who assisted emigration from Arranmore Island from 1882-84; Edward Kelly, the last elected MP for Donegal at Westminster; and Seán D Mac Lochlainn, Donegal County Manager in the 1940s.

The cover is decorated with an evocative painting, Near Dungloe, of a country road, thatched cottages and mountains by James Humbert Craig, the renowned artist who captured landscape panoramas in oils on canvas. But it is the life of another lesser-known artist, Taylor Carson, which is recounted in an absorbing essay by Denise Ferran.

Carson grew up in east Belfast and during the second World War painted hundreds of portraits of American GIs, who were based in the North. In 1947 he went on a two-week bicycle trip from Belfast to Downings with fellow artist Maurice Wilks. Carson fell in love with the area and with the local hotel owner’s daughter Rebecca, who became his wife in 1949. His two-week painting trip lasted for the next 61 years, with Downings as his permanent home until near the end of his life.

In his long career, Carson worked in oils, watercolours and pastels. He celebrated the landscape with scenes of sandy beaches, turbulent skies, blue hills and rocky headlands, but also painted women and children, farmers and fishermen, publicans and drinkers.

The Lecale Review: A Journal of Down History, No 17 (Lecale & Downe Historical Society, £8) edited by Berkley Farr, covers the medieval economy, shipwrecks of Dundrum Bay, early cinema, and an account of horse racing at Downpatrick's old Flying Horse course. Joan Magee's article states that the first race was held on March 16th, 1690, which she calls "a year of exceptional historical significance", making it one of the oldest flat-racing courses in the world. It took place just a few months before the Battle of the Boyne on July 1st.

Three young colonels competed in the race for the King James the Second Plate, and on his horse, Byerley’s Turk, Colonel Byerley rode to victory for his prize of a silver bell. Just over three months later, the same colonel was involved in a different style of action, fighting at the Boyne on the side of Prince William of Orange against King James.

Circus life

The sweep of topics and book reviews in another learned journal, Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, No 35 (Ulster Historical Foundation, £9.99) edited by Trevor Parkhill, embraces Irish emigration, the Crimean War and Ulster-Scots links.

A largely unexplored subject – circus life in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland – is surveyed by Richard McMinn in his absorbing essay Another Little Trouble Over. The brightly painted wagons, lines of horses and Big Top brightened up lives in many dull towns and villages. It was a subject written about by JM Synge, who collaborated with the artist Jack Yeats, known for his lifelong fascination with the circus which appeared in many of his works.

But there was a darker side to the excitement of clowns, jugglers and acrobats; for both the performers and owners, staging a circus was perilous and exhausting, as well as a dangerous activity. Not only was there intense warfare between rival companies, but also an undercurrent of political tension and sectarian conflict. In one instance, at the end of a show in Coleraine in 1907, the playing of Yankee Doodle by a German circus band instead of God Save the King almost led to the destruction of the tent by an irate audience.

Covering north Antrim, The Glynns, Vol 47, edited by Catriona Duncan, is the annual journal of the Glens of Antrim Historical Society, founded in 1965. Articles examine the history of féisanna and fairs, including the most famous: the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle held in August (although cancelled this year due to Covid-19). Renowned for its dulse and yellowman, the fair attracted showmen such as the Indian Fire Eater and Buck Alec with his tawny African lion, which the crowds thought was friendly until it gave a great roar and everyone fled at speed.

The journal carries features on Mass Rocks and where to find them, as well as the legend surrounding the remote Loughareema, commonly known as the vanishing lake, between Cushendun and Ballycastle. Geologists have been baffled by the mysterious lake which is filled by water on some days and then completely drained afterwards.

Local stories tell of the drowning of a coach and horses in the 19th century when Col John Magee McNeill set out to catch a train from Ballycastle. The party crossed the lake when it was full and when the coachman struggled to regain control by using his whip, the horses reared up and flipped the coach on its side. McNeill, his coachman and the two horses died as a result.

The contrasting lives of two women writers are profiled in Due North, Vol 3, Issue 3, the Magazine of the Federation for Ulster Local Studies, edited by John Dooher (£4). The women in question are Sarah Grand (1854-1943), a novelist and feminist from Donaghadee, Co Down, and Sarah Leech (1809-1830), the weaver poet from Laggan in east Donegal.

Grand’s name may not be known today, but in the 1890s her most famous book, The Heavenly Twins, which put forward the idea that men and marriage were bad for women’s health, caused a sensation. It sold 20,000 copies in England and 100,000 in America. The book was praised by George Bernard Shaw, although Mark Twain, who read it on a long sea voyage, had mixed feelings about it.

Known as “a poet of the soil”, Sarah Leech’s lyrical poems reflected the social and political tensions of the time. She lived through an era when the pamphlet wars were at their most intense and died tragically young, but her work has resonated, influencing many other northern poets. The seal of approval of her memory was acknowledged when a shiny blue plaque, raised by the Ulster History Circle, was unveiled in her honour in Raphoe in 2014 by the then minister of state for the Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh.

Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, or Ríocht na Midhe, Vol XXX (€20), edited by Peter Connell, covers much historic ground in its 400 pages, as well as book reviews, obituaries and excursion details. One of the most fascinating articles, Where Absence Is a Presence by Michelle Dunne, commemorates minor placenames in both Meath and Westmeath.

Referred to as microtoponyms, they are part of a living local history, known only to people in the immediate area. They do not usually appear on maps or official documents but have been handed down over the generations as part of the oral tradition and folk memory. Many recall events, animals or nicknames such as The Blind Man’s Stream, The Rag Man’s Corner, The Robber’s Cave or The Postman’s Hut.

In 2009 the field at Platin was used to break the world record for the greatest number of combines working together at the same time.