Through a door to the past


No matter what part of the country they're from, visitors to a lovingly restored family cottage in Co Mayo recognise something about their own past there

RUINED VERNACULAR cottages are an architectural motif so familiar throughout Ireland that we take them entirely for granted. Yet these ruins are also a fundamental and frequently emotive part of our social, cultural and political history. Many Irish people with a rural background whose roots go back even a couple of generations have links to a traditional stone house somewhere, even if that house is now only a stub of wall or a pile of stones sinking irrevocably into a field.

In the early 1990s, Mayo farmer Tom Hennigan faced a decision about the future use of his 10-acre smallholding, which had been in his family for 200 years. Hennigan had seven children, and he did not think that he could continue to have a sustainable living for his family on a farm-holding of poor land, on which he raised livestock, primarily pigs. Long interested in local history and archeology, he realised that his own family house, and the fact that Hennigans had farmed land on this site for two centuries, constituted an important example of social history, and something that he could possibly turn into rural tourism.

Hennigan got planning permission to turn his 250-head piggery into a museum and heritage centre. In 1970, in a building pattern repeated many times around the country, his father had constructed a new bungalow beside the old family house, which dated from 1870. Hennigan sympathetically restored this original house, with the help of a grant from the Leader programme in Kiltimagh.

The townland of Killasser lies deep at the end of a tangle of tiny boreens, some miles from a turn off on the Foxford-Swinford road. If you view the landscape from the perspective of a tourist, it's gloriously scenic. Overlooking a silver lake, it's a stunning setting, the nearby hedges studded with fuchsia and the verges tumbling with orange mombretia.

But no farmer looking at this wild, raw landscape would consider it to be fertile land. The fields are composed of bog and stone and the wind slices knife-like across every exposed surface. Today, even though it's early August, several of the fields are partially flooded. This was the only kind of land Cromwell infamously didn't want, when he gave displaced Irish people the choice of going either "to Hell or to Connaught".

Hennigan, now 53, says he has no regrets about leaving farming behind and building his heritage centre, which he runs with his wife,Catherine. The central part of the centre - where home industries, such as shoe-mending, knitting and poitín-making, are also showcased - is the restored Hennigan family home. Given a new slate roof (it was originally thatched), and whitewashed inside and out, it stands between the former piggery and the bungalow Hennigan's father built, where Tom and Catherine Hennigan now live.

IT'S A DREADFUL grey day, with relentless rain, and the first thing you see with relief on entering the old house is a bright, lively turf fire. Anyone who has been to Bunratty Folk Park - or who still owns a traditional farmhouse - will recognise elements of those houses in the Hennigan house. The front and back doors that face each other directly, the mysteriously short bed in a curtained alcove off the kitchen, and the china Staffordshire dogs over the fireplace are all things we've seen before.

What makes this particular house unique, memorable and very special is Hennigan's personal tour of it. He was, after all, born in one of the beds here, and knows the story and provenance of everything the house contains. He brings everything alive in a way no ordinary guide could, because Hennigan is, in a way, living history. He is the direct link to the past for visitors. And he is utterly compelling.

There is no tour, as such. You simply take a seat by the fire, and listen as Hennigan starts talking. Every now and then, you get up to look at something more closely, such as a family photograph, and then return to the fire.

"I'm the sixth generation of Hennigans to live here, and it's one of the last smallholdings in Mayo," he says. "I lived here with my mother and father, my grandmother, and three brothers and two sisters."

The house has three rooms. At one gable end is the room where his grandmother lived. The main space in between is where his parents slept in the curtained alcove, and where all the cooking, eating, homework and the routine activities of family life were carried out. At the other gable end is the room where he and his siblings slept in two beds, heads to tails. Neighbours' children regularly slept here too, on a mat between the two beds. He doesn't believe crowded living conditions encouraged incest, although many visitors do ask his opinion on this, and after 10 years, while he is still offended at the question, he is now unsurprised by it.

Everywhere you look in the house, there is a story. In the half-loft over the children's bedroom, where clothes and extra belongings were stored, there is a steamer trunk. Originally containing a gift of linen, it was sent from America to Killasser by Hennigan's great-aunt. Hanging on a peg is his old schoolbag. His mother's clothes hang in his grandmother's room. In the main room he has relaid the original flagstones, which his father tore up and replaced with concrete in the 1950s, to make it more modern for his mother. They were still stacked outside, not far from the house when he went looking for them, some 40 years later.

"I didn't really know my father until I was 14. Like many men of his generation, he went over to England to work, and came home a fortnight a year. He worked on farms and in iron foundries. So it was really our mother who raised us."

PEOPLE ALWAYS ASK why the bed in the curtained alcove is so very short. "It's because of the fear of TB. People thought it was healthier to sleep sitting up, with bolsters at their back." People were born in the house, and they also died there. "But never in bed, because no child would ever go into a bed that someone had died in. When the old person started to go into a coma, they were taken out of bed and placed on a straw mat between the front and back door, so that when they died, their spirit came in one door and went out the other. They would be laid out then on the kitchen table."

Their diet was simple, mainly "bacon, cabbage and spuds", with all the cooking being done on the open fire. Sometimes, Mayo being a fine fishing county, there was fish. Hennigan takes out a small grill-like object, with a metal tray under it, and a space for the drained fat.

"It was Father was the breadwinner, and he always had to get fed, because the house depended on him. So Mother would put the fish on the grill in the fire, and that was for him, but we children were allowed to dip our bread into the fat in the place where it drained into. It was called 'dipping the dip'. There was a 90-year-old lady in here a few weeks ago, and she said, in her house, it was called 'dipping the dip and don't roll'. Because if you turned your bit of bread in the dripping, you were taking twice as much, and so then there was less for everyone else."

No matter what part of the country visitors arrive from, Hennigan finds that almost all of them can identify with some part of his old family home. Whether it's the traditional niche above the fire, where tea, sugar and salt were stored to keep them dry, or the warm "hob" seats either side of the fireplace, where children sat to do their homework by firelight, everyone recognises something about their own past in Tom Hennigan's house.

Hennigan's Heritage Centre opened in 1998, so this year marks its 10th anniversary. It gets a modest few thousand visitors a year, and received less than 5,000 in 2007. It deserves to have many more.

Hennigan's Heritage Centre, Killasser, Swinford, is open daily from March until the end of September, 12pm to 6pm. The entrance fee of €10 includes tea and home-made scones.