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Putting hand to the plough: a memoir

30 November, 1999

Seventy-five year old retired Maynooth vice-president and parish priest Denis O’Callaghan sees his life in three phases: the twenty five years of his childhood and preparation for the priesthood, twenty five years teaching moral theology in Maynooth and twenty five years as parish priest in Mallow. This fascinating memoir charts the changes in Ireland he has seen in his lifetime with good humour combined with a committed and critical Catholic faith.

pp 199. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie



  1. Growing up in Meelin
  2. The road to priesthood
  3. Priest and teacher
  4. The call to parish life
  5. Ministry in the diocese
  6. Looking into the future




Meelin is a village tucked into that corner of the map where the county of Cork meets Kerry and Limerick. It was not just the place where I first saw the light on 4 March 1931. It became my home in every sense – physically, emotionally and spiritually. It was close enough to the heartland of Sliabh Luachra to benefit from that rich culture of story and song. The village was ideally situated to take full advantage of the landscape. The vista to the south stretched away to the mountain range beyond Millstreet. This provided us with the short-term weather forecast, ‘Ceo ar Muisire ‘s Clárach lom an chómartha soinnine is fearr ar domhann’ (Muisire in fog with Clarach clear, what better promise that sun is near). To the north we were sheltered by high ground which gave the village its name. Maoileann from the Irish maol describes a flat-topped hill and is found in many place names. It does not sound very romantic but it was a welcome physical feature in our landscape. Local lore added to the romance by creating the legend that Moylan’s Rock on the brow of the hill was favoured by the presence of a bean sí for whom the village was named.

My Christian names ‘Denis Francis’ were not matters of choice. They were given names, in the literal sense of that word. The Denis was the patronymic which interchanged with John in sequence through the eldest sons from generation to generation in the O’Callaghan family. This handing on of names was common practice in families at that time. By the way, that practice has greatly assisted those who now engage in the task of tracing family roots.
The ‘Francis’ was the second of the given names inherited by me from my grandfather. He had been baptised simply Denis. The addition of Francis was a mystery to me until I discovered a little diary in which he had made some entries during his sojourn in Australia as a young man. There he notes that in Sydney on 17 July 1892 he had been initiated into the Third Order of St Francis by a Capuchin priest. My grandfather directed as follows: ‘I wish to have this name included whilst in this world and also after my death in any inscription where my name is mentioned.’ It is so recorded on his gravestone in Clonfert cemetery.

This surely explains his devotion to the Capuchin Friars right through his life. For his marriage in 1903 to Mary Ellen Roche, a national teacher in Meelin, they went to Cork. The priest who blessed the marriage there was a Capuchin Father from Holy Trinity Church in that city. My mother told me that my grandfather had hoped that in time I would join the Capuchin Franciscans. There were still many years to go before that option arose for me.
My mother, Mary Sheehy, a native of Freemount, was a national school teacher in Meelin. She was a woman of strong mind and will and would take the side of anyone whom she knew to have been unfairly treated. It was no mean feat at the time to challenge a parish priest who had hoped to move out of the parish a young girl, a former school pupil, who had become pregnant. He had wished to distance the scandal from his area of responsibility while the bishop was on visitation. In her firm stand she showed something of the character of Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, to whom she was related on her father’s side. As an early campaigner for women’s rights that lady is remembered in a fine bronze sculpture in Kanturk’s riverside park. My mother breast-fed me for six months. This must have been quite unusual at the time. I never heard from her the reason for it. It must have been difficult for her – and for me! – as the feeds would have been separated by the six hours or so of the school day. By all accounts I was a placid child: so I was told by Nurse Burke from Newmarket, the midwife who delivered me at home in Meelin, and who was held in high regard by the family. My mother once asked me my earliest memory of herself. It was a memory of her putting up patterned paper on a kitchen press. I would have been in the pram, all of six months waving my hands, she recalled, as the paper crinkled. Early evidence of a do-it-yourselfer!

My father, John O’Callaghan, Jack Denny O as he was known, as an only son inherited the farm in Meelin. He was a great man for reading, like his father before him. In those days, as the saying went, one read the old Freeman’s Journal and later The Cork Weekly Examiner from stem to stern. There are also some well-thumbed books at home, now over a century old. One book which has not survived was a collection of heroic tales from ancient times. The stories of the doings of Fionn and the Fianna were writ larger than either life or legend warranted. The story that made a lasting impression on me was that of the Spartan King Leonidas who, with three hundred men, held the pass at Thermopylae against a huge invading Persian army. I got my grandfather to read it to me again and again. The sense of genius loci brought it all back to me when I stood in that Pass of Thermopylae thirty years later and read the Greek inscription composed after the battle in 480 BC: ‘Go tell the Spartans you who pass by that here obedient to their laws we lie.’

Education featured high in Meelin even before the national school was established in the village in July 1856. Before that there was a range of hedge schools at various sites in the parish. John Browne, a hedge school master in Knockeen, west of Meelin, became the first principal. He was one of many hedge school teachers who were later appointed to national schools. This information was given in a letter to me by Jeremiah Browne, retired national teacher in Meelin. The recall in that letter is amazing in view of the fact that he had just celebrated his hundredth birthday! There is a tradition in my family that a granduncle John O’Callaghan attended a hedge school in Barleyhill where the Black Master, Edmond Hannon, taught. That teacher must have had a major focus on mathematics as there is a certificate from the London Science and Art Department of the Privy Council on Education to the effect that in the examination held on 10 May 1886 John O’Callaghan obtained a First Class Honours in the first stage of Mathematics. At that time he was an officer of the excise branch of the Inland Revenue to which he had been appointed on 17 March 1881.

On the margins and back of that 1881 parchment there are listed the various places where he served. The writing is now almost indecipherable. There is a story in the family that he was killed in a fall from a horse following a wager with a friend. The horse had been bought at a premium in sovereigns in the horse fair at Cahirmee where at the time there was stiff competition with buyers for cavalry mounts in European armies.

Now to get back to Meelin as I knew it. In today’s world where technology and mobility rule the lives of our young people they would be in disbelief at how full our lives were then. There were seven of us in the family: five girls and two boys. Another boy, John, was still an infant when he contracted pneumonia. Before the days of sulpha drugs this was all too often a death sentence. I cannot recall much illness in our home, thank God. At the age of four I suffered a perforated appendix and was rushed for emergency surgery to Cork Bons Secours hospital. I spent quite a while there. I did not miss home that much because I made friends with a girl of the same age. Mary Wallace’s parents visited the hospital frequently and they took me under their wing as well. I also got to know an intern, Dr Raymond Cross. The attraction there was his little red sports car! Thirty years later we met up again when I called to his consulting rooms in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square for his direction on some issue of medical ethics which I was researching. He became a frequent guest at table in Maynooth. He was an outstanding entertainer, even through his final illness. May God reward him for his quiet generosity when patients could not afford a fee. Indeed, one mother was so delighted with the care and attention that she christened her child Raymond!

With many school companions in Meelin, boredom was never a factor in our early experience. Wordsworth noted that `Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. To be young was very heaven.’ Oscar Wilde – or was it George Bernard Shaw? – may have felt that youth was too precious to be wasted on the young but it surely was not wasted on us! It has been said that schooldays are the happiest days of our lives. I doubt that this applied to the actual hours spent at desks in school. Still, the confinement gave fresh zest to the eventual freedom. We enjoyed that freedom, healthy and carefree in every sense of that word. For speed and agility the hare had nothing on us. ‘Mar chos an ghiorrai do bhi mo chos, mar iarann gach alt ‘s féith. Bhi an solos rómhann tháll’s a bhus ‘san gleann ‘nar tógadh me.’

I suppose our young days in Meelin were typical of rural life in Cork at the time. Field sports centred pretty exclusively on hurling. Local farmers raised no objections to having their fields used for the rough and tumble of sport. It was an easygoing climate of give-and-take in the community. If you ran into a hazard in school or wherever, you took the blame yourself for any consequences, broken bones or whatever. There was no question of invoking liability under any health and safety rules or duty of care. We took in our stride whatever came. There was no one to blame but ourselves for our daredevil carelessness.

We must not forget the handball alley at the top of the village. This was a single high wall built from cut limestone. I assume that the building stood to the credit of the voluntary work of a group of local stonecutters. It served its purpose quite well even though the rough pebbled floor would severely punish a stumble. The alley also provided a meeting place for pitch-and-toss groups. Of a summer evening the competition would be hot and heavy. The skill of some players in landing their pennies right under the jack would leave modern snooker experts open-mouthed. The stakes might be pennies but honour was riding on every score.

Never a dull moment. Cowboys and Indians fought pitched battles in our grove and along the banks of the stream below the village. Yellow irises or feilistrums (in the Irish) served as casting spears when attacks were pushed home on some fortified Indian redoubt. On looking back on those times I can identify with Shakespeare’s verse in As You Like It:

And this our life exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running
brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything.

There was that stream to be dammed to run water wheels to power contraptions linking up a series of thread reels with elastic bands serving as belts. The pool above the dam provided space for sailing homemade craft moulded from tins, some powered with recycled clock mechanisms. Lateral thinking was the order of the day. One did not then need the exploratory processes of a Transition Year programme to discover the potential of multiple intelligences.

Leisure activities were not laid on for us. We made our own sport. All that was needed was imagination to identify the possibilities in our surroundings. Improvisation was the name of the game. There was no such thing as pocket money! It was not today’s money economy. Necessity was the mother of invention. That later has stood our generation well in the do-it-yourself stakes. An old Irish proverb has it that improvisation is a proof of wit: ‘Is cuma le muc fear gan seift.’ If we had a problem that called for a solution beyond our capabilities our grandad Denny O would be consulted. He was a mine of useful information and always ready to fund with a shilling or two if the case called for serious subsidy. One of the best presents that came our way was a Spanish ass and cart left to us by our granduncle. Bill Roche had lived on the outside farm in Clashroe. Anyone who thinks an ass stupid never made the acquaintance of our animal. Once a rider got on his back, the ass would go straight for the nearest hedge. One then had the option of vacating one’s seat ignominiously or being bushed in the thorns. An enterprising school friend planned to get the ass to jump over a pole. The ass had other ideas, opting to go under it instead. These circus acts were by the way. The ass really came into his own on fine Saturdays when excursions further afield would be planned. Priory Wood was a favoured destination as we packed into the cart heads and tails. Even as children we knew from school that Priory was once the home of John Philpot Curran, a great man of law, father of Sarah Curran whose grave was in the Church of Ireland cemetery at Newmarket. We also knew that the poem of Thomas Moore, ‘She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps’, referred to the man she would have married, the patriot Robert Emmet, executed in Dublin city. Her memory is well recalled in the beautiful bronze sculpture at the eastern entrance to Newmarket.

However, our outings did not focus on historical research. Priory Wood was just magic to young hearts and minds. Early in the year there would be drifts of bluebells; birds would be nesting; red squirrels would flash from tree to tree. Then in autumn there were hazelnuts and conkers by the bagful. The core of the day was the picnic. Bottles of milk with good solid bacon sandwiches and, if we were really lucky, thick slices of porter cake.
On a farm, life is not all play. There was work to be done and we would all pitch in, particularly in the summer, to save the hay and get the harvest home. It was no great imposition because we enjoyed the companionship and the sense of achievement. I have happy memories of mowing the hay. My father and I would take turns on the mowing machine while the other sharpened the sickles. He had taught me the skills of putting up a good edge and preserving the temper on the steel blade from exposure to the sun. I can still smell the aroma of newly mown hay, see the larks in song as they climbed the evening air, and hear the grasshopper strumming in the dry grass.
My father had a way with horses and would know when enough was enough. I can still see how he would read the onset of tiredness and his words would have been welcomed: ‘That’s it Bob; well done Peg.’ Those horses would nuzzle him in gratitude for the kind thought. When tractors came into use he mourned for the old days. Where the tractor was just noise, the horse had been company.

We lived life at first hand and survived to tell the tale. I wonder what memories today’s young people will salt away from hours spent with PlayStations? Nothing as vibrant as ours I feel. The memories have not dimmed over the years. I can still scent the aroma of the turf fire in the bog as the blue smoke curled up with its promise of food for us hungry youngsters. Tea in the bog had a special quality never to be equalled. A shovel brightened from work would serve well as frying pan for whatever in the line of primitive mixed grill was available. I recall one hungry day when marauding crows had cleaned out the cache of food which had been stashed in the shade of a turf bank. At this distance sentiment takes over and exorcises the recall of the back-breaking work of footing turf where every turn of the sod released a cloud of midges. How we envied those who wreathed their heads with pungent tobacco smoke. In the days before Deet we rubbed our faces with the pressed leaves of bog juniper and myrtle.

Country life
It was a simple, healthy world. Our expectations were readily satisfied and so in our day-to-day lives we were quite happy. Advertising had not yet come to ratchet up those expectations to the must-have level of today’s youth. Brand rivalry and peer pressure had not yet controlled the high ground of what gives meaning to life. For us, simple presents and small outings made big differences. The result was that any excitement or celebration outside the ordinary course of day-to-day life was something special.

Christmas was the highlight of the year, the holidays to which we counted down the days. There were the preparations which gave this feast its particular aura. There were the presents which preserved the make-believe of Santa Claus in spite of our private misgivings. There was the general air of good humour as greetings of Happy Christmas were exchanged. It certainly was a red-letter day in our annual calendar. Indeed it cast its spell over quite a spread of days until Little Christmas brought closure.

My memories focus on the search for red-berry holly, on the anxious wait for Santa Claus, on the gargantuan meal on Christmas Day. It was difficult for us to keep the overall religious factor in mind because of this carnival of the senses. I do recall that spiritual note being brought into focus on Christmas Eve at the lighting of the large white candle. My father would have us on our knees to pray for long-dead members of the family. This would surely have been a sombre interlude for our parents as they thought of Christmases long ago. It certainly did not dampen the feel-good factor of the current Christmas for us.

We did not have Midnight Mass in Meelin. The three Christmas Masses, which liturgically are to be said at midnight, at dawn and in daytime, were all celebrated in sequence on Christmas morning. The church would be extra packed with so many people returned home for the feast. There would be warm greetings as long-absent neighbours recognised and greeted one another.

Today we find it hard to imagine a world without telephones and motor cars. The fact was that in those times you really had to meet people face-to-face in order to make contact. This gave Christmas an added dimension and quality of life. We would tackle up the horse and trap and strike off to visit the relations. They in turn would come to visit us. In a farming community without cows to milk these were days of leisure. The adults would exchange news of the family among themselves. We youngsters would get to know our cousins and maybe play together whatever games had come the way as Christmas presents.

In our day, horses and bicycles were not for sport and exercise. They served a basic need for locomotion, for getting from one place to another. Like many of our neighbours we would have one horse geared for the road. Of course, roads in general then were surfaced with rough stone. The main roads might have been coated with tar and chip. For these, the horse would be shod with special studs to maintain a grip. One would take special pride in a half-blood animal spinning along in well turned out equipage. Horses of this quality would be saddled up for funerals and the group of riders were given the name ‘Meelin Cavalry’.

The bicycles of that time were solid and made to last. There were none of the refinements of today’s machines. They were basic. They needed to be basic to withstand the worst that the pot-holed roads put in their way. They were simple in construction. This presented us with a temptation which we indulged one Christmas as the men back from service with farmers returned to base camp in Meelin. The bikes were parked outside Quinlan’s bar. With some spanners we interchanged saddles and handlebars on a few and awaited results as the revellers emerged. Imagine that for a feature on TV’s Candid Camera of a later age! By today’s standards it would certainly pass as harmless sport. Vandalism and mindless destruction was not in our purview. The only ‘gangs’ were tricksters such as those known as the Buckaroos. They might smoke out a card-playing group by placing a wet bag on a cottage chimney or paint red the horns of a white cow on the eve of a fair. Boys would be boys. From my earliest days I loved everything about the countryside. Here, I was blessed in my parents. My father, a quiet observer of his surroundings on the farm, had spent a year in Pallaskenry Agricultural Institute. He could identify the various grasses on sight: ryegrass, fescue, cocksfoot, Yorkshire fog or whatever. Similarly the wildflowers, celandine, primrose, cowslip, bluebell, violet, anemone and whatever the turn of the seasons brought. He crusaded against noxious weeds, the dock, the thistle and the ragwort or buachalán buí. He would turn in his grave at the thought of today’s infestation by ragwort. As a man who knew the countryside at a time when ragwort was controlled, he would shake his head in disbelief at the cranks on a campaign today to save the ragwort as fodder for the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth! My mother was a teacher in Meelin National School. Nature study would have been part of her programme in the Training College at Limerick. She still had the books. I read them from cover to cover and would then check the information on the ground. Eventually I had learned the names of all the common wildflowers in both English and Irish. In many cases the names were descriptive and so were readily remembered. My mother had a great feel for these imaginative names. The late John McGahern ends his Memoir addressed to his mother with whom he shared a love of nature: ‘I want no shadow to fall on her joy and deep trust in God. She will face no false reproaches. As we retrace our steps, I will pick for her the wild orchid and the windflower.’ I am happy to say Amen to that.

Years later when I came to study Latin and Greek I was surprised at how many of those technical botanical titles aptly described the plants themselves. Take the geranium, known as the crane bill from the shape of its seed pod. The name derives from the Greek term for crane, geraunos. Those Greek roots for plant names have a particular interest for me. If my mother had not been up to speed on them I would not be here! The strange ways of Providence! When she applied for the vacant post in Meelin National School she was interviewed by Fr Timothy Crowley, a man who has left his mark in history as a fine Greek scholar. At interview, knowing that in the teacher training college she would then have studied Greek and Latin language roots, one of the questions which he asked her was to derive the term chrysanthemum, name of the now familiar potmum. On her reply that it was derived from the Greek words for chruseus (golden) and anthos (flower) he expressed himself satisfied that she was capable of teaching the children of Meelin and thereupon affirmed her appointment to the post. No formal assessment procedures in those days!

It was not just books that were sources of country lore. Many of the neighbours were close observers of nature. Across the road from our home we had a gentle neighbour, Mike Carthy. Like Seadhna in an tAthar Peadar O’Laoghaire’s book, he had a little thatched house, ‘tig beag ar thaobh na foithne’. I recall how he would point out on frosty nights the wrens and tits crowding into holes under the thatched eave.

Then Ben the Broc. I never knew his surname but learned recently that it was Quinlan. I assume that he got his nickname from the badger. Like his namesake he was out more by night than by day. He was a dab hand at crafting sally cribs to catch blackbirds in the haggard. He made birdlime from the sap of holly bark fermented in the ground and set on twigs near seeding thistles to capture goldfinches. He did not speak much generally but was never caught for an explanation of some natural phenomenon — except once. On my way of an early summer morning to bring the cows in for milking I noticed a drag mark on the dewy grass. Curious, I followed the trail to a depression in midfield. There were the corpses of four feral cats, each with the flattened grass track of its delivery from different points of the compass. Ben the Broc thought it might be the work of foxes which are certainly known to kill cats. But four in that location! It left Ben shaking his head.

My mother had an aunt in Feohanagh near Newcastle West. Ellen Sheehy’s home was a long thatched farmhouse. She was a widow of many years. We as a family were always welcome. We returned that welcome in later years when she came to live beside us in Meelin. If Meelin was off the beaten track Feohanagh was also a backwater. The people seemed to us quaint and easygoing. Years later Patrick McNabb wrote a thesis for his Ph.D. in UCC on the social attitudes of West Limerick. It was true to life in every detail as I recalled it. One saying which he recounts gives the flavour. As he concluded his set questionnaire he addressed a query about neighbourliness to a farmer who shared a yard with those next door. The farmer hooked his thumbs behind his gallowses and commented: ‘You know, sir, we are that close that if one of us took a dose of Epsom Salts ‘twould work on the pair of us.’

Auntie Sheehy was a colourful character. She prided herself on winning the gold medal for butter tasting which would have qualified her for that role in the Cork Butter Market. I do not think that she ever left home except perhaps to spend some time at work in the neighbouring creamery at Drumcollogher, which was Ireland’s first co-operative venture. She had a wealth of anecdotes with which she regaled us at night around the fire as the crickets strummed. It was there I first heard of bees’ wine. This was a sugar mixture to which a special yeast was added to cause fermentation. The result was a potent alcoholic brew. It got its name from the floating nodules of yeast which resembled honeybees. As the yeast grew to fill the container one needed to dispose of most of it so as to give space to restart the process. She said that on one occasion they came home from Mass to find the ducks flapping around the yard in an advanced state of intoxication. Later I wondered whether she had made up the story when I read Jimín Mháire Thaigh’s similar account of the drunken gander in one of our Irish books. She also told us about a semi-dormant cat which had taken to sleeping in a barn on a nest of eggs where a hen had been laying out. In time he hatched out the eggs and the chickens took to him and followed him around as their mother. She claimed that The Limerick Leader had carried the story. It seemed a bit far-fetched even to us, credulous as we were. What seemed closer to the truth was the account of a bitch which had been deprived of her pups. She then adopted a pair of piglets which the mother sow was unable to suckle.

You can imagine the range of pisheogs and ghost stories that kept our ears and eyes wide open around that fire at night. One particular story from the spirit world had strong evidence on its side as I discovered later from my mother who had it at first hand. She reported what she and her family had experienced on the way to Mass in Freemount. One of the girls had got out to open a gate on a right-of-way which passed through a neighbouring farmyard. There she began to speak to those neighbours as one might do on their way to Mass. The father froze with the reins in his hands because he knew that those two old people had died in the ‘flu epidemic which had swept the country after the end of the war in 1918. Afterwards he went to the priest to arrange a Mass for the repose of their souls. There it is as I heard it.

They say that memory for smells is longest lasting of all. Whenever I get a strong whiff of wood smoke I recall Feohanagh. Turf was not available as fuel. This is what is generally used to keep the heat on the bastible cover for baking bread. The substitute was dried cow patties, borran in Irish. Then the aroma of her bread baked from brown flour with a shake of yellow meal! The local name for the bread sounded like ‘yellow wasther’. I never derived its source. It did not feature in any dictionary.

One can see why it would have been difficult to better that for a summer holiday. A close runner-up was the time we would spend in Ballybunnion where my mother would take a house or ‘lodge’ for the duration. Forty miles was then seen as a long journey and Mark Brosnan would wonder whether the old Ford V-8 hackney with dodgy tyres would get the distance during the war years. However, it always did. Once there, we hit the ground running. Sand and sea set the course for action. There would be gathering of periwinkles on the Black Rocks at low tide, excursions to the mouth of the Cashen estuary or to the strand at Doon, exploration of the caves and visiting the Seven Sisters cavern. This last was high risk and off-bounds without adult presence. Unfortunately, time passed all too quickly and we said a sad good-bye to the friends we had made, particularly to a numerous family of Stacks from Duagh.

They were innocent times. Horseplay rather than romance carried the day. That romance awaited until I spent a month in the Gaeltacht of Beal-átha-an-Ghaorthaidh just before I signed on to St Colman’s College in Fermoy. I was shy to make an approach until shortly before I left and then only at the urging of the bean-a-tí, who saw that I was smitten. The Latin tag describes the changing times: O Tempura, O Mores.

Angler’s paradise
One of the happiest memories of my youth goes back to days on the banks of Dallow, Allow and Feale. I still recall the first trout I caught on a homemade hazel rod in the pool below Ballinatona bridge on the Dallow. The river was in full flood and that foolish unsuspecting trout swallowed the worm in the murky water. I was all of eight years. Was I proud? Was I what? And of course I was hooked for life. I thank the local anglers for building on my addiction. They were so supportive of my juvenile efforts. The bane of my life was the retired bank clerk Rory Sheehan. He patrolled the river as his personal stamping ground and saw us youngsters as intruders trespassing on his territory.

The Meelin angling fraternity were special. They must have been a patient lot to put up with my pestering them about the strange secret ways of fish and the tried and tested methods for catching them. It was Den Vaughan who fitted out my first fishing rod. It was during the 1939-1945 war that I cut the hazel rod on the way to Shanahan’s Mill with my mother to have wheat ground into flour to add to the ration. Den improvised rings and reel and all was ready for the river. Den Vaughan, Bertie Cahill and Denny Carthy may now enjoy their rewards for all that kindness and patience, but I hope that their purgatory was not lengthened for leading me on a course of distraction with fishing when serious work matters were left to wait.

It was from them that I learned how to fish with the artificial fly. Red Spinner, Greenwell’s Glory, Wickham’s Fancy, Hare’s Ear and Alder got pride of place on the Dallow and Allow. Both streams had water of limestone quality and provided fine brown trout. It was agreed that good as the artificial fly was with the river flow at normal heights, nothing could beat the wood bee on a sunny day. This insect was of bluebottle size but with grey bars on its body. As its name suggests, it frequented trees and was readily drawn to fresh horse dung. When dapped into the eye of a whirlpool it was a deadly bait. It brought me the biggest trout I ever caught on the Allow: all of two pounds, at John’s Bridge where O’Sullivan Beara forded on his way north to Leitrim after the Battle of Kinsale.
Later on I discovered that the place to be when the flood rose high was the Feale river, beyond Rockchapel around Thado’s Cross. There was where the worm really came into its own when the sea trout, locally called white trout, were running. We would have our stock of blue-head worms nourished and hardened ready for action, knowing that time and tide wait for neither man nor boy. The fishing rod would have been strapped to the bar of the bike with the Wellingtons astride. Getting to that bike was the challenge as the school clock lumbered its slow uphill progress to three o’clock. All too often Master Jeremiah Browne would log on injury time to complete a lesson. He was a conscientious teacher, one not inclined to indulge our predominant passion for fishing. Right or wrong we read this expression of a conscientious work ethic as a policy with purpose aforethought, an exquisite way of reining in our juvenile impulses. Of course it had the opposite effect. By the time we got through the school door those impulses would have been ratcheted up to white heat by the anticipation born of enforced delay. The run west would have been close enough to ten miles over pot-holed roads. Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly would have been proud of us as we ate up the distance. By the time we arrived at the front prepared for action the choice spots would have been taken by the old stagers who well knew the lies the sea trout favoured. They did not give much leeway to the Meelin expeditionary force.

You might find space at the tail end of the pool where two streams joined near Thado’s Cross. That represented a trap for the innocent angler. Planted there was an old bedspring ready to snag the Blue Devon or the Lane Minnow of the unwary, typically us Corkmen ignorant of Kerry wiles. However, we learned quickly. It was said that come the morrow with the spate past, a local would drop by on-spec for any by-product of the flood. In the war years some of those metal baits were almost worth their weight in silver.

So many happy associations come home to roost as one glides down memory lane. The cuckoo calling; the corncrake rasping; the jacksnipe whirring on leaving the river bank at dusk. As one looks back one recalls the exclamation of that prince of fishermen Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler of three and a half centuries ago: ‘I’ll tell you, scholar: when I sat last on this primrose bank, and looked down these meadows, I thought of them as Charles the Emperor did of the city of Florence: that they were too pleasant to be looked upon, but on holy-days.’

Looking back on those times one appreciates the total sense of security and freedom that we enjoyed. Certainly parents must have been uneasy about the dangers we might encounter in our activities. The bank of a river high in flood is not a safe place for a keen young angler. True enough, but they must have felt that our guardian angels or the neighbours would keep an eye on us. Neighbourly concern for everyone’s well-being was taken for granted in what was a genuine, caring community, before sociologists ever analysed the concept of Gesellschaft/Gemeinschaft, society/community. No one then contemplated the sense of danger which parents feel today when they allow children out of sight.

It reminds one of the gospel story of Jesus rambling off from his parents on the way home from Jerusalem. No panic. He will be away with the friends or neighbours. On our outings to Priory Wood that must have been how relaxed our parents felt. There was no need for the warning signs Community Alert and Pobal ar Aire. There was no one to fear. It was unquestionably an ideal environment for child rearing. Children could push out the frontiers for developing skills of independent living without any overpowering sense of need for a safety harness.
Around the same time as Izaak Walton, Dr Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary saw anglers as idle good-for-nothings. He described the fishing rod as a stick with a worm at one end and a fool at the other! In this he was devoid of soul and failed to appreciate that angling is more than just catching fish. Izaak Walton spoke for all of us in addressing ‘brothers of the angle’. The patience is far from boring. You may catch a few fish, but that is indeed a bonus. Listening to the stream and feeling in tune with nature is balm for the soul. ‘Éist le glór na habhann agus geobhair breac.’ (It may also be the way to catch fish.) Perhaps, but there is more to it.

What I have described above about life would have been the general experience in the rural Cork of the time. It is well reflected in Alice Taylor’s To School Through the Fields. Her Lisrobin is not that far southwest of Meelin. However, Meelin had one unique feature: the limestone quarries around which the village had developed. This stone industry identified and gave character to the little village.


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