Knocknagree, north-west Cork, was vibrant once, its livestock market drawing people from around the country. That was then, says Sean O’Riordan
Before modern cattle marts were built, Knocknagree (Cnoc na Graí — hill of the hare) in Co Cork had one of the largest livestock markets in Munster and its prosperity was largely derived from that.
What was known as the monthly cattle fair died out in the 1970s and, with that, businesses started to decline At one stage there were 15 pubs in the village and its environs. The decline in population and much stricter drink-driving laws has seen just four survive, none of which open during the day, and one of those only opens at weekends.
There were three petrol stations operating in the area in the 1960s. Now there are none. There were 12 shops in the 1970s. Now there are none. The last shop, which was also the post office, closed a year ago.
Approximately 40 years ago, there were 180 children in the national school and six teachers. Today there are around 70 children and three teachers. The GAA club realises its days are numbered if there isn’t an influx of new families.
Bertie Hickey’s family have owned a pub in the village since 1879. He took over the running of it in 1998.
Although Knocknagree is situated on the R582, the Ballydesmond to Macroom regional road, there is little or no passing trade from which the pubs benefit.
Unlike the 1960s, ’70s and even the ’80s, tougher drink-driving legislation has hit rural pubs hard. Bertie and the other publicans can’t even rely on local trade that much either.
While the parish population is around 200, there are only around 40 people living in the village centre.
Bertie points out that around 30% of the houses in the village are unoccupied. Many belonged to elderly people who died and who either didn’t have families or had family members who migrated elsewhere to find work.
Margaret Brosnan, secretary of Knocknagree Community Centre committee, says: “The big problem is that we have no council houses. We also have an ageing population. A lot of the houses which are empty aren’t fit for occupation. I think that the county council should compulsorily purchase them and do them up for young families. We need something to attract young people here.”
Several county councillors have called on the local authority to use such compulsory purchase orders on houses in villages to regenerate them.
The picturesque village would be an ideal bolthole for people who work in Cork or Limerick cities. It’s 63km from Cork City and 89km from Limerick City. It is virtually crime-free, and is populated by friendly, community-spirited people.
The lack of facilities is probably one of the reasons why people working in the massive Munster Joinery plant, which is only a few kilometres away in Ballydesmond, choose to commute there from larger towns rather than live in Knocknagree.
Founded in 1973, the company has grown to become one of the largest manufacturers of energy-efficient windows and doors in Europe. Currently, it employs around 1,200 people.
As Brendan O’Keeffe points out in his report for the Institute for Action Research, with a factory of that size on its doorstep, Knocknagree, under normal circumstances, should have a far larger population.
The lack of new blood coming in, coupled with young locals moving on elsewhere, isn’t lost on mentors in the local GAA club.
Mike Dilworth, secretary of Knocknagree GAA, points out proudly that their small community won the All-Ireland junior football championship in 2017. Knocknagree became the first Cork winners of that crown since 2008 champions Canovee — the celebrations lasted for weeks.
The GAA club had never tasted glory like this before, and the odds are unfortunately stacked heavily against it repeating the feat if they don’t do it within the next couple of years.
Mike says the sad fact is that population decline will be a key factor in their future fortunes. He said that unless there is a dramatic upturn in the local population in the next 10 years, there won’t be enough players to field a full adult team.
In the hope there may be a dramatic change, the club has begun fundraising for a new clubhouse and gym. They hope to build it with the aid of government grants.
Denny O’Mahony is on the Fair Field Committee, the village’s version of a Tidy Towns/development committee. The Fair Field was once thronged with cattle, buyers, and sellers.
Denny said there were six serviced sites in the village, but there was no demand for them because young families didn’t want to move in due to the lack of facilities. As a result, fears have been raised that if the population continues to decline, the national school may also come under threat.
Knocknagree National School was first built in 1840. The new school was built in 1962.
“Around 40 years ago there were 180 children in the national school and six teachers,” says Denny.
Fianna Fáil councillor Bernard Moynihan, who lives in nearby Kiskeam, recalled the history of the once vibrant and thriving Knocknagree.
“There was a major cattle fair here years ago,” he says. “Buyers came from as far away as Cavan. My father drew cattle here.”
Today, all that marks that era of prosperity is a cattle weighing scales which was manufactured in the 1800s.
It has been restored by the locals and stands as a monument to bygone times in the centre of the village.
Bernard said the community is trying to fight back against all the odds.
“They held their first St Patrick’s Day parade this year,” he says. “They held a street festival and put up a Christmas tree as well. Unfortunately, the people here are educating their children to leave for jobs in Dublin, Cork, et cetera.
“The trouble is that people who want to stay can’t get planning permission to build their own homes. Planning permission is too restrictive.”
That’s a problem which has been highlighted in other rural areas in the county, especially in West Cork, with calls for incentives to build in Knocknagree and all of western Duhallow.
“The people of Knocknagree have lost their post office and last shop. The Institute for Action Research survey is a cry for help. If the Department of Rural Affairs doesn’t act quickly areas like this won’t survive. I’m very concerned about the survival of the human species in such areas, rather than the survival of the birds and bees.”
Dr O’Keeffe, who carried out the survey, said that while there were issues in the village, the data he collected shows “a socially vibrant area, with very strong community spirit, good neighbourliness, and strong ties with having a sense of place”.
IRD Duhallow held a meeting recently at which Dr O’Keeffe presented some of his findings. At the same meeting Triona Dennehy, community and employment team leader at IRD Duhallow, outlined potential funding opportunities available which might aid the community.
Several notable people have been educated in Knocknagree, including poets and a former Garda commissioner.
Famous Irish poet Ned Buckley was born in the village in 1880 and in later life ran a grocery shop there. He was considered a great poet of Sliabh Luachra — the mountainous area along the Cork/Kerry border.
Eoin Rua Ó Súilleabháin, another famous Irish poet, was born in Knocknagree 1748. Anglicised as Owen Roe O’Sullivan (‘Red Owen’), he was known as one of the last great Gaelic poets.
He died in 1784 and there is a plaque erected in his memory outside the local Catholic Church.
Local man Dan O’Connell was believed to be the first man to introduce regular live music and dance to a public house in Ireland. He was born in 1921 and he owned a public house in the village with his wife, Hannah Mai O’Connell. He died in 2009 at the age of 87.
Former Garda commissioner Pat Byrne was from Knocknagree. He served as the top garda from July 1996 to July 2003.
Around 16km north-east of Knocknagree, there is a survival success story.
Glash National School, which was built in 1850 and closed its doors in 1974, has been revived as a community centre.
Three years ago, a local committee took the building over. Grants from Cork County Council and Leader funding, plus a serious amount of voluntary work, have made it a focal point for an isolated community.
Mossie Fitzpatrick, secretary of Glash School Community Ltd, the organisation which redeveloped the building together with Glanlare GAA Club, said that, every Monday night, it hosts 45 card drives.
Glash lies between Newmarket, Rockchapel, and Boherbue.
“If we didn’t have this facility the community would be dead by now,” says Mossie. “This is a lifeline for our community.”
Some people come from as far away as Listowel, Co Kerry, to attend the card drives and the centre often hosts birthday parties, socials, christenings, and post-funeral gatherings.
The community built a 1km-long walkway by the GAA pitch and is embarking on expanding it to 5km and installing lighting alongside.
There is no shop and no pub nearby and the nearest national school is 8km away.
The local co-op closed in 2010. Up until then, it acted as a meeting place for locals and was a big loss to the community.
Locals are proud of their area, heritage, and community spirit. They won a Pride of Place Award in 2016, representing Co Cork at the all-island awards in Belfast.
Fianna Fáil councillor Bernard Moynihan is full of praise for what they have achieved in Glash.
However, having no national school in the area is problematic.
“The children are going to a number of different national schools and two secondary schools. Therefore they don’t meet as much as my generation would have done. This is causing a disconnect.”
Meanwhile, Ted Fitzpatrick expressed concerns about employment, and praises Munster Joinery.
“I have a nephew working there,” he says. If it ever were to close this whole region would be decimated.”