In the ould ago: illustrated Irish folklore

Published in Book Reviews, General, Issue 3 (May/June 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

In the ould ago: illustrated Irish folkloreJohnny McKeagney (www.folklorebook.com, £40) ISBN 9780956697608

In the ould ago: illustrated Irish folklore
Johnny McKeagney
(www.folklorebook.com, £40)
ISBN 9780956697608

With its seamless blend of fact and elastic pishoguery, Irish rural folklore is a slippery business, and nowhere more so than in Ulster, as exemplified by this humorous and heartfelt coffee-table picture book of Fermanagh folk memory. Long ago, McKeagney, a shopkeeper and undertaker from Tempo village near Enniskillen, had the brainwave of turning local stories into unschooled drawings, which he compiled into 200-odd A3 sheets, each brocaded around by Celtic strapwork and spangled lettering—an unindexed encyclopaedia of a fading world, here printed in sumptuous monochrome.The result is like a visual directory of E.H. Shepard’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood—not that there’s much woodland, more the historically poorest, waterlogged upland fields, punctuated by loughs, ‘dewponds’ and steep gullies, all draining into Lough Erne. Peat bogs are predominant, the steady cutting away of which has revealed a cemetery landscape littered with antiquities: ancient field patterns, standing stones and circles, cup-and-ring carvings, the spectacular Aghanaglack Bronze Age double-court tomb, or the six crannogs on Lough Eyes that rose up out of the water during a drought. In ancient graveyards McKeagney traced tumbled Penal era chapels, Early Christian churches and fragments of high crosses; and he studiously sketched the ruined medieval township that evolved from St Molaise’s sixth-century monastery on Devenish Island.During 50-odd years of unpicking old irrigation ditches and limekilns in unkempt fields, or tearing old headstones from brambled oblivion, McKeagney interviewed countless local old-timers. So every field or road’s turn has a name, like Robbery Glen or Carolan’s Brae (the harper married a local Maguire), or such topographical dreams as Legatillida (Lag an tSéilide, ‘hollow of the snail’). His awesome litany of townlands would test anyone’s gullet—Glengesh, Tattykeeran, Edenagilhorn, Drumcor, Tullyullagh, Imeroo, Lurgandoy—many traced back to Josias Bodley’s Plantation maps or Petty’s rigorous survey of 1657. These outlines vein the pages of McKeagney’s own psychoactive cartography: congested thickets of roads, streams, wells, homesteads, ruined gables, corn kilns, Irish dancers, tiny workmen (thatching, flax-scutching, harrowing, shearing, etc.), even fairy cobblers, and his beloved birds—dabchicks, herons, snipes, curlews, shovellers, storm-blown cormorants, hen harriers, or, more wistfully, the corncrake, locally silent since 1971.McKeagney’s personal ancestry (blacksmiths and coachbuilders, with their own peat-powered forges, going back to 1835) sets the scene for his tribute to existing craftsmen and disappeared nailers, tinsmiths, brick-makers, coopers, or the generations of McMahons who made shovels, slanes, loys and plough socks—all beaten into shape under Heber McMahon’s tilt-hammer at Tonitybog forge. He traces Tempo itself (an tIompú Deiseal, ‘the right-hand turn’) from its eighteenth-century congealment around a Maguire stronghold. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of 1834 describe its ‘irregular, ill-built houses devoid of wealth or comfort’, the burgeoning outlying hovels built of sods and muck. The Famine began a half-century of local decline, whilst during the Great War far more men seem to have returned than were lost locally. He records memories of little coffins after the ‘Bad Flu’ of 1918; the hurricane of January 1927; the dawning of electricity across the 1920s; and the 1930s Fordson tractor/threshers that changed life altogether. He was a child during World War II, and it is recorded in wonderment: the Canadian aviators in 1944, baling out like thistledown over Sliabh Beagh from their crippled Flying Fortress, or the magical barrage balloon that snagged in a farmer’s trees.There is enormous allure to McKeagney’s intricate drawings, but they are naïve in the extreme: like a child, he draws what he understands, not what he sees. But he triumphs with his renderings of architecture, the determined schoolboy’s pencil bringing a peculiar soul to the stolid houses climbing the sloping streets to the Diamond, while his more vernacular, oft-ramshackle, drystone cabins—some now with corrugated-iron roofs—groan and sigh with cartoonish life, like something out of Steve Bell or Robert Crumb.Each house comes annotated with a census of past occupants, illuminated by the odd anecdote, such as that of Mick Bannion who fell into the fireplace and ‘burned to death’. The bygone hearths are a constant theme—as individual as their owner-builders, with their besom brooms, pot crooks, stinker lamps, cosy comforts like fadge bread (potato cakes), and harmless house crickets basking on the flags.Only occasionally do you espy modernity in McKeagney’s world, like the electric windmills over Morley’s Mountain, or the odd bungaloid in Monea. Otherwise all is seen through the prism of nostalgia for a pre-industrial idyll. He acknowledges the harsh poverty of those times but is less comfortable with the tribal schisms within these rural communities. There is mention of the 1920 murder of Philip Breen and of the day the IRA attacked Tempo’s RIC barracks (a sergeant later died of gunshot wounds), but the more recent Troubles scarcely register, but for one note, over a boating scene on Lough Eyes, where the murdered Sinn Féin councillor Patsy Kelly’s body was dumped—and resurfaced—in 1974.Rightly, McKeagney is far keener to point up the ‘shared identity’ of the locale, like the Cavanacross hall that hosted everything from Irish lessons to the local flute band. Interestingly, McKeagney co-founded the local Comhaltas branch, which brought two county fleadhs to Tempo (at least two of his sons are pipers, Gabriel having set up a pipers’ club in San Francisco). Despite failing health, he continued to clamber over ruins and hillsides until he died just weeks after the launch of this magnum opus late last year—just as this frequently exasperating but beautiful book was taking off—and not just with a devoted local readership, but with academic folklorists from UCD to Harvard.  HI

Mic Moroney is a writer and freelance journalist.

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