Inside story on the Kingdom

Breda Joy has written a celebration of Kerry. Donal Hickey on a fine contribution to the county’s rich heritage.

Hidden Kerry: The Keys to the Kingdom

Breda Joy

Mercier Press, €11.55

WHEN Kerry is mentioned we usually hear only about its notable footballers, writers and politicians, while the cartoonish Kerryman is never hiding behind the door. But, the so-called plain people are not heard from half often enough.

The county has a generous quota of wacky, eccentric, odd and sometimes ingenious individuals, the like of whom have provided inspiration to the late John B Keane who, years ago, confided to this reporter that he did not have to leave his own public house to find characters and dialogue for his works.

“These individuals just come in the door to me and I listen. It’s amazing what you hear when you stand behind the counter,’’ he observed.

The Listowel playwright may never have met Cornie Tangney, who lived about 30km away in Scartaglin, but he would have understood that flamboyant personality. Cornie, a bachelor, used to leave his Christmas decorations up all year round because he didn’t want to go to the trouble of taking them down and trying to find them again the following year.

He was once jailed for causing a minor explosion at a shop in Castleisland, apparently because of delays of dealing with a social welfare claim. But Cornie gave adequate warning to the local populace, telling bystanders: “If I was ye, I’d move out of here — there’ll be a bit of a bang going off in about 10 minutes!’’

Cornie, who died more than 20 years ago, has a chapter all to himself, cheek by jowl with lords, ladies, heroes, rogues and a few saints in this new book by Killarney journalist Breda Joy.

Ms Joy, who has plied her craft in Kerry for up to 30 years, has always considered herself a “tourist in my own county’’. With the curiosity of a visitor, she takes us down tree-lined avenues to Great Houses, along the shoreline of her beloved Lakes of Killarney and twisting, pot-holed boreens where tarmacadam and guesthouse signs are strangers.

We get the stories of personalities — the only time whose names get into print is when they die — as well as a peep behind drawn curtains in the lavish mansions of the aristocracy, their trysts and eccentricities.

We’re told about an 18th century beauty, Elizabeth Germain, who left her ancestral home in England to marry Henry Arthur Herbert, of Muckross House and estate, Killarney. Described as a “flirtatious, carefree spirit”, she is reported to have conducted one of her dalliances within the sacred confines of Muckross Abbey before eventually taking off with a certain Captain Duff, from Scotland.

And then there’s the story of how the late President Charles de Gaulle, of France, came to Sneem for a quiet holiday in May 1969. It became an international media event.

Every move of the statesman and his wife was watched with peering eyes and monitored by camera lenses. Private details also emerged: an eight-foot bed had been delivered for the exceptionally tall de Gaulle, only to be swapped for twin beds the following day as the great man found the mattress too hard.

Not too far from Sneem is the unassuming and beautifully-sylvan townland of Dromanassig, near Kenmare, where stands the ruin of a stone cottage in which ex-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s great-grandmother, Catherine O’Sullivan, was born. She emigrated in the early 1800s and worked as a washerwoman.

We wonder if the so-called Iron Lady was aware of her humble roots; she certainly never visited the area.

Long before Kenmare became a fashionable tourist town, it attracted some unusual people. The English composer, Jack Moeran, arrived there some time in the 1930s. He seems to have mixed well with the locals and enjoyed drinking in the town’s Lansdowne Arms Hotel, which still trades.

A former owner of the establishment, the recently-deceased Bobby Hanley, dedicated ‘Moeran’s Bar’ in the hotel to his memory. Like many another creative spirit, alcohol got a grip on Jack, however.

He died in 1950 and his bones rest in Kenmare’s Church of Ireland graveyard.

And now we move to north Kerry and something very different. We read that the “moving statues” phenomenon began in Asdee, in 1985, and then spread to other places, most notably Ballinspittle, Co Cork.

But Asdee has another claim to fame (or infamy) for the grandfather of western outlaw Jesse James is supposed to have emigrated from there in the 1800s. Not only that, the ancestors of notorious American gangster Bugsy Malone are said to have come from between Asdee and Ballybunion.

Ms Joy’s guide on her trip to this corner of the Kingdom was local priest Fr Pat Moore, so can we take it that it’s all ‘’gospel’’?

In a chapter on Tralee, the enduring Rose festival receives attention and the authorship of the eponymous ballad is probed. It is generally agreed that William Pembroke Mulchinock, son of a prosperous merchant family, penned the ballad on his love for a local servant girl Mary O’Connor.

“There are, however, dissenters to this creed of the rose,’’ Ms Joy reveals.

She quotes local historian and balladeer Peter Locke who claims the ballad was composed by Morduant Spencer, with the melody by CW Glover. But she says the only certainty is that the ballad inspired the founding of the annual festival, in 1958.

As might be expected in a book of this kind, the author also devotes space to an accent and language that’s almost poetic at times.

There are colourful turns of phrase and many Irish words are still part of the Kerry vernacular. Ms Joy opines that the richness of the spoken word in Kerry owes much to the fact that people have been drawing from both the Irish and English languages down through the generations.

“The term, Hiberno-English, has been coined to define the mellifluous meeting of two tongues,’’ she says.

And she lists several old colloquialisms which can still be heard in conversation, especially in rural parts of the Kingdom, such as: he would tell lies as fast as a cock would crow, or a head of cabbage is no good until it turns white (age is honourable).


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