History group brings past back to life

Q&A Angela O’Donovan

Bantry Historical Society on a visit to Kealkill Stone Circle. The tour leader was Aine Brosnan, archaeologist.

“Life must be lived forward but it can only be understood backward,” Soren Kirkegaard observed.

History provides us with a collective memory. It gives us a sense of connection to time, place and it binds us to our communities.

But in today’s fast-moving world it can take a skilled history teacher to convince students of the significance of the past when new and exciting developments seem to occur every day.

There were only two subjects that I was any good at during my time in school and they were English and history. I could never understand when some of my classmates groaned at the thought of another boring history class.

While I had some sympathy for their suffering, for me, history was chock-full of exciting stories. How accurate some of these stories might be didn’t concern me all that much at the time.

We all have a past, that has helped to shape our own, unique history. And collectively, we have a vested interest in our nation’s history. History enables us to recognise a shared past which shapes our identities and helps to cultivate a sense of belonging to our own place and time.

For many decades, histories have mostly concentrated on great men — as opposed to great women — and the battles they fought and won.

History is, after all, invariably written by the victors.

But it’s the every-day lives of the so-called ordinary people that’s so often lacking in many historical accounts. Luckily, the increase in local historical societies has done much to redress that balance.

But although history is, essentially, a study of the past, there is no single, homogenous history that we can tap into, assured that this is the way things were.

Seemingly indisputable facts are continually challenged and interpreted in different ways, not only by historians, but also by those ordinary citizens who kept an account of their own lives.

Data can — and probably should — be challenged and deconstructed but unfortunately, this does not prevent great leaders from replicating the mistakes of the past. Yet society somehow manages to continue, progress and change. And the truth is that our hopes, aspirations, fears and feelings are not so very different from those of our ancestors.

Ireland has a history that is especially rich in heroes, villains, battles and mythology. Fortunately, there are hundreds of historical societies throughout the country, formed by dedicated groups of individuals who are anxious to preserve their history, folklore and stories. Members of these societies are volunteers and without their invaluable contributions, so much precious information would be lost to posterity.

Irish Historical Studies, the joint journal of the Irish Historical Society and the Ulster Society, was founded in 1938 and within its pages are articles containing original research on Irish history, select documents, guides to sources and much more.

One innovative project between Ulster Local Studies and the Federation of Local History Societies is Hidden Gems, designed to celebrate some of the fascinating but lesser known places, buildings and people, whose stories are untold or forgotten.

The federation has a voluntary secretariat by which societies can help one another and combine to achieve results, which could not be realised by individual effort. They stress that to join a local group, you do not need to have any particular qualification, but that as a member, you will learn about your heritage in an accessible and very enjoyable way.

Cork has its own long-established Historical and Archaeological Society, founded in 1891. They have published their journal every year since then, except for obvious reasons in 1923. And for history buffs, they offer winter lectures and summer outings to some fascinating sites.

And the Carlow Arts Festival offered a smorgasbord of historical delights in its June weekend History Festival — Elizabethan Ireland, the Bronze Age, readings from Joyce and Parnell and a dramatised version of the meeting between Churchill and Michael Collins, written by Mary Kenny were just a few of the treats on offer.

I have long been fascinated by the rich history of West Cork and the Bantry area in particular, and I welcomed the opportunity for a pleasant chat with the Bantry Historical Society’s honorary secretary, Angela O’Donovan.

Were you always interested in history, Angela?

“No, I wasn’t. In fact, I actually hated history when I was at school. But I lived and worked in Clonakilty for quite some time and while I was there, I went to night classes and I learned a lot about local history. When I moved back to Bantry where I’m originally from, I realised that I knew very little about the history of my own place. So I decided to find out.”

And what did you discover?

“I think one of the most significant things that I realised was that the earliest people landed at Donemark where in later years, battles were fought and where a profitable mill was operated. Then there is the magnificent Killnaruane Stone, which is unique and depicts a boat crewed by monks on one side of the stone, and Egyptian and Greek depictions as well.

“It’s a very rare artefact. And the more I learned, the more I realised just how rich this whole area is in prehistoric sites, stone circles, pirate stories, the sardine industry, butter markets and, of course, the many remarkable characters who have lived here over the centuries.”

Why do you think that it’s so important for us to maintain an active interest in our history?

“Well first and foremost, what we don’t document, we are going to lose. And that would be tragic. I often think that in this area we don’t celebrate ourselves as much as we might, considering what a rich and rare history that we have. It’s very important that we keep it alive. We organise talks and lectures in the winter and outings in the summer. In September, we celebrate Gougane Barra Sunday and celebrate St Finbar. We walk through Bantry to Kealkil and meet up with other members at Carriganass Castle. At the moment, I’m organising an up-to-date email list so that we can keep even more people informed. The Bantry Historical Society is a great way of learning who we are and where we came from and I’m pleased and proud of what we are doing.”


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