Small-town stories, big laughs

Local newspapers are a rich archive of outrageous and hilariously banal stories, so Ronan Casey has lovingly collected them into one volume, says Richard Fitzpatrick.

Medium Sized Town, Fairly Big Story

Ronan Casey

Gill & MacMillan, €10.99

RONAN CASEY’S collection of stories culled from newspapers shines a fascinating light on Irish life. Medium-Sized Town, Fairly Big Story: The Stories That Made The Headlines in Ireland’s Local Newspapers ... And Nowhere Else has all manner of weird and wonderful tales. There are the quaint ones, “Library Gets Overdue Book Back – 58 Years Late” (Carlow Nationalist), and the intriguing, “Limerick Pub Thieves Escape Through Prison” (Limerick Leader).

And there are the hopeful: “Please, God, Make It Stop Raining: Bishop Calls on People of Diocese to Pray For Sun” (Wexford People).

During our interview, Casey singles out a poignant example.

“It’s a story about how man and animal intertwine. A court case brought to light a case of sheep rustling in Ballyvourney, Co Cork. A farmer had sheep stolen on him. He went around to an agricultural mart the next day to see — on the off-chance — were his sheep being sold.

“And, lo and behold, one of his lambs recognised him, got so excited that when he got near their pen he made a beeline for him, to jump up on him, and that exposed a man who was found guilty of the theft of 17 sheep. Sheep rustling sounds like something that happened in the Wild West, but it’s alive and well in Ireland and you only read about it in a local newspaper.

“Most people don’t care about lambs. It’s something we have for dinner, but, for rural people, or anyone who’s held a lamb or had sheep or had a bit of a farm, will know that lambs are great characters. It made for an incredibly heart-warming story in a regional paper, which, ultimately, went national, viral and international.”

Casey’s book springs from a popular radio slot he had on Hector Ó hEochagáin’s defunct morning show on RTÉ 2FM, a variation of which runs every Friday morning on TV3’s Ireland AM show. But Casey’s love of outlandish local news stories goes back to his days growing up in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, when his father, every week, bought a mix of national dailies, evening papers and the town’s local papers, the Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Topic.

“Years ago, these newspapers were printed in the centre of town. You could literally get the paper hot off the press — you could stand at the back door of a print works and be the first to get the paper. You’d go into town on your bike on a Tuesday night, around 11 o’clock, and you’d have it a day before the rest of the town. Having two papers in the town left an indelible mark, and I ended up writing for both of them, which is a great thrill, a bit like that Clint Eastwood character in A Fistful of Dollars who works for the two families.”

When Casey went to Dublin to go to college, while other students peacocked around with the Guardian or one of Ireland’s national papers under their arm, he preferred to carry a copy of the Kerryman or Kerry’s Eye, and what he calls “stage three of a very strange addiction” involved some novel decorating of his digs.

“Like most students in Dublin in the 1980s, we lived in absolute kips of flats. Wallpaper would have been an afterthought in some of them. We used to find ourselves cutting out interesting stories from the regional newspapers, and putting them up on the walls in the kitchen or the sitting room. Anyone who visited the flat would be enthralled to see pictures of a pond, frozen over in a town park, stuck to one of our walls.”

One of the charms of Medium-Sized Town, Fairly Big Story is the way it harvests disappearing customs and superstitions. For example, there was a story in the Mayo News in 2011 about why unmarried women wear their hair in a bun – seemingly, during ‘saraft’ (the period of time between Christmas and Lent), single women were known to tie their hair in a bun or ‘coicín’ to indicate they were available for courting.

Casey says he had to restrict himself from covering too many stories from the papers’ court reports. They are such a rich vein of material he could have filled volumes with their shenanigans. Honourable mention must be made, though, for the inventive sentencing of Judge Seamus Hughes, of Athlone’s District Court.

When he found a young Tullamore artist guilty of stealing shotguns and whiskey, he ordered the defendant to “do an artist’s sketch of the courtroom, focusing, in particular, on the practitioners of the court”. He wanted the artist to “work hard at this”, so it would be ready in time as “a Christmas present” for the December 19 sitting of the court.

“This is a story I keep coming back to. It sums up some of the madness of regional newspapers,” says Casey of another example. “There was a saga about the blue bridge of Portlaoise. It was a pedestrian bridge that was painted blue. It straddled a relatively new road between the shopping centre and the town.

“For ages and ages, the councillors were battling over the bridge, and it kept cropping up in the Laois Nationalist, the Leinster Leader and the Leinster Express. Ultimately, the council decided it wasn’t being used enough and it was an eyesore and it had to go. It was only when it was being removed that the people of Laois realised they loved it so. One of the papers gave a four-page special — ‘Bye-bye Blue Bridge’.

“It was on the front page of the three papers on the same week — that this bridge was gone.

And then the mystery was: ‘where did it go’? ‘Has it gone to Kilkenny’? ‘Has it gone to China’? Who needs the internet for funny stories, when you can have a look at your kitchen table, pick up your local paper and see a four-page tribute to a pedestrian footbridge?”

Medium-Sized Town, Fairly Big Story: The Stories That Made The Headlines in Ireland’s Local Newspapers ... And Nowhere Else


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