Harnessing Leitrim's Oral History
Did you know that your Granny's was the first family in the village to own a TV? That your elderly neighbour used to spend time going to house dances for fun? Or that your former teacher was brought up on a farm, dining out on their own bacon supply? Maybe you just haven't asked!
Everyone has a story to tell and passing these stories on through generations is what makes our culture and traditions so rich.
Throughout April and May 2020 Leitrim County Council's Heritage Office, with funding from the Heritage Council, ran an Oral History Project to harness our local stories and memories. Oral history is evidence of the past told directly by those who actually experienced it; it is living history and part of our everyday lives.
We asked you to share with us firsthand stories about what life was like across Leitrim decades ago, and gather experiences, attitudes and practices directly from those who know best. We wanted to connect our modern community with the cultures and traditions which have shaped today's Leitrim.
Please see some highlights of these oral histories below. Scroll to the end of the page for some things to consider before conducting an oral history interview. If you are interested in being involved in an oral history project next year (2021) in Leitrim, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Harnessing Leitrim's Oral History Submission Highlights
Interviewee - Michael Gillen Tawley, North Leitrim
Recorded by Shailagh Healy
I live in Tawley, North Leitrim and my closet neighbor and closest friend is a stone of a man by the name of Michael Gillen. He's known all about the area as a knowledgeable and steady natured auld boy (83), whose been consigned to his chair with cranky aches throughout. So we have lots of chats - life enriching chats. I have often taken out the old phone recorder to record his tales and recountings. Things I marvel at.
Things that take my mind's eye to another time, where a "motor car" rarely traveled the wee dirt roads. Instead there were pathways throughout the countryside - before barbed wire fences came on the scene. Going hither and thither through the fields. When they dredged the Duff River in the 6os they replaced the various river stepping stone spots with footbridges, which now appear as if in the middle of nowhere. No one knows they even exist let alone uses them. What site to see: up to 50 people parading through the fields on the Sabbath, stepping over river stones to get to mass at St Brigid's in Ballintrillick in time!
Although Michael says he doesn't speak a word of Irish many of his words for plants and seaweeds are Irish, without even realizing it. He remembers what type of seaweeds grows the best praties (otherwise rendering them soapy) and the right of way lanes used by the locals to haul it into the donkey creels.
He lives near "Culleen Wood". Most people refer to it as the Tawley mass rock wood. He tells the story of how a Mrs McNulty was living in Tawley over a hundred years ago. When she was young she remembers the powers that be incorporating the mass rock and the Boleen fount stone (with inscriptions reading 1677 on it) into the road wall. When she was in her nineties she would later recount to Michael's mother Nora what she knew. Following this Nora had the stones removed and placed steps away across the road in the wood in 1975.
Submitted by Brendan Maguire
My grandparents on my father's side lived in Cordiver, north Leitrim. A typical thatched cottage and about 500 yards down the road the three border counties of Leitrim, Fermanagh and Donegal met.
My memories are vivid of the early sixties, visiting on Thursday nights and entering a house of warmth, humour and talk. My grandfather, John Maguire was looked upon as a man to consult and this came out on those Thursday nights when neighbours would gather. Most came across the fields from Askill and others down the road from Derrynaseer.
One of those nights the conversation was on farming and how it had changed over the years. It was regularly farming of some description. The gathering was in a semi circle around the fire, as always, grandmother to the left at the hearth and grandfather to the right and the rest in between. I sat on my father's knee. Captain, the dog lay in the middle, asleep. The discussion started and sometimes got heated, arguments went to and fro on new potatoe seed, rakers , pumps and fancy harnesses for horses.
Grandfather was never a great man for the drink but he certainly was fond of pigtail chewing tobacco. He launched a black spit into the fire and that was the sign he was to speak to the company. Captain looked up. ' I have listened to your talks and good points made and argued, I look at you boys, all fit and hearty, I started to walk with a stick when I was in my forties, working this hard and rush ridden ground wet shod, soaked to my knees and beyond. And now I need two sticks, all because of those soakings and the years. And people of my time are the same, and many have passed on. The greatest change in farming was the wellington boot and you boys show it'. Captain put his muzzle back onto his forepaws and went back to sleep.
Interviewee - Rosemary Maguire from Lugaphunta Barr, near to Kiltycloghter
Recorded by Francis Kelly
Turkey rearing in County Leitrim - I am Rosemary Maguire, formerly McMorrow. I was born and reared in Lugaphunta Barr in County Leitrim, but I'm living in Fermanagh now. I came to Fermanagh in 1961 but my heydays were in Lugaphunta rearing turkeys, and bringing the first white turkeys to County Leitrim in 1953. I had the first supply farm for white turkeys in the county. And it wasn't too hard a work as long as you knew the right method.
Lugaphunta Barr is between Manorhamilton and Kiltyclogher, at the top of the hills. It had five families in it - the Mcmorrows, the Evans, MacDermots, mcGuillians, and ? It's a nice little spot, but there's nobody in it now, only the forestry. I was born in 1933, and I had four other sisters. We always reared turkeys at home for Christmas. My mother had what we called a stud bird, a bronze rooster. But my sisters had no interest in agriculture or rearing turkeys, they were nurses and some of them were teachers. I went to school in Manorhamilton on a bicycle. I cycled nine miles every day. I did a lot of domestic science in Manorhamilton, in the Tech with a Mr Prendergast. Learning something about white turkey growing early in life was brilliant, and I have turkeys all along.
I got rid of my chickens and hens and ducks, and there was a girl named Miss Burke. I think she came from Lurganboy. She came out to me three days a week to teach me how to do these things. I was only about fourteen or fifteen years of age at this stage. And I remember getting a scholarship from Carrick-on-Shannon, a lot of money, three or four hundred pounds to get started on these white turkeys. There was a Mr O'Loan from Dublin and he came to Mss Burke and they were giving me a grant for to buy the coops for the supply farm. I think there was a fair shake of money in it at that time because I had to get the coops for the field. And then they took me to Athenry to teach me how to rear the white turkeys. You can't know enough about doing things when you're young and I always remember going to Athenry, to learn about the turkeys and making butter and other things. We were there for three years and I loved the farming and I loved the turkeys. There were brown turkeys earlier on but I didn't know much about them. They have a brown flesh. The white turkey is a different turkey altogether with a lovely white flesh. And they're so easy to rear but you have to know how to do it right. So I set up a supply farm in County Leitrim and had it for a good few years and it was a great success.
The turkeys were all reared outdoors. My father put up a number of little timber coops in the field for them. White turkeys don't do well at all with hens and ducks, they have to be on their own. Hens and ducks and other fowl have to be taken away and the white turkeys reared on their own because they pick up disease from the hens and chickens. But I had great success. I never had anything that died, no pip, no nothing. I fed them the right thing and I learned the right way to do it - plenty of water, plenty of space, plenty of fresh air and a good house. I used to change the coops every day to fresh ground. I fed them on starter pellets in the beginning, very small little ones. And then I went into growers when they came on a little. They put on weight real quick if you feed them right and do the right thing with them. At the start I had twenty four laying turkeys. Most started with twelve [turkeys] but I had the full amount (twenty-four). Mine was a supply farm and I supplied Elmbank (County Cavan) with eggs and we sold them at the dozen. The supply farm turkeys were all hens. It was lovely, and it was very good.
When I got married in 1958 I didn't bring the turkeys to Fermanagh, I left them to my sister. I had a fantastic husband from Glenfarne in Denis Maguire. He has passed on and he was a gift. And I've really had a good life. But I'm still rearing turkeys for the Christmas breed. I have six children and now I have six turkeys, six all along the line, and sometimes seven or eight. I get them every year from a man in County Longford. I could go down to the farm now where I'm living in Fermanagh and walk my turkeys today and they're up to twenty pounds each, and I have six for my family - one each. I don't drive a car any more even though I used to drive Thomas Dermot's tractor in 1953, but I'm cycling on a bicycle and I'm very happy with what I'm doing. And I think farming is fantastic. I'd do it all over again. I'm happy in Fermanagh, no doubt, and I enjoyed my life in Leitrim. Wherever you're reared your roots are. I loved the turkey rearing and I still love the white turkeys.
Interviewee - Frank Kelly from Manorhamilton
Recorded by Francis Kelly
The Cinemas of Manorhamilton in the Forties and Fifties - Well, there were two cinemas in Manorhamilton. T.R. Armstrong's was the big one, the Park Cinema, where the community centre is now. And then there was Ally McGovern's, he used to show his films in Connolly's hall, upstairs in the loft (where the Bus Stop is now - in at the back of it). You see, you had to go upstairs to it. Them was the two main ones, but there was also a travelling cinema. That was owned by Sam Thompson. He used to go out to Glencar, Shanvas, and out to Mullies, all around the wee country halls and show the pictures. And he had a big crowd, you know.
The picture hall was some place to go and it was cheap. It was nine pence to get a seat in the lower level, four pence for children and in Armstrong's it cost one [shilling] and six pence, or one and nine to get into the upper level. When I was older myself and Mae [Frank's wife] used to go to the cinema. During the week, some night we might go, or then of a Sunday night you might go to Glenfarne or down to Bundoran to a dance. But you had to get a seat in a car to go to any of those places and it cost a lot of money.
I used to love to get down to see the films. But there was this time anyway, and there was supposed to be a powerful western on. And didn't Paddy Feehily - he was a next door neighbour of my grandmother's - he saw me out at the gate, and didn't he call me down, and he paid for me and left me above in the seat. Well Jaysus, what was it, and it only Dracula! It frightened the ****** life out of me. Well, Lord bless us and save us, I thought it was an awful film altogether, this fella going round and biting people! And wasn't I afraid to go home in the dark. Ahh begod, when I got home my mother says 'And where were you!' And I said 'Paddy Feehily paid for me and brought me in to the films. And it was a scary film.' 'Good enough for you', she said, 'you won't go there again.' And I always remember that. Mammy, I don't think she ever saw a picture, or Granny. They never went to the pictures.
It was nearly all war films that time - Tokyo Joe and the like. During the war everybody was running to see these films. It was the same in Armstrong's. You'd see Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey and all these cowboys as well. One of the first films I saw was Boystown, and there was a 'cowboy' before it - cowboys and Indians - and I didn't know who these fellas with the feathers in their heads were. They had hatchets, and I remember I was all interested in this. And I saw this Indian coming up behind the cowboy, and he was going to hit him with his hatchet, do you see, and I let a big shout out of me! And they were all laughing. Sure I was only about six or seven years. I never got out, and I never knew what the pictures was until I got as far as them. But I thought this was terrible altogether - fellas running around with hatchets, you know. But Boystown, we thought that was a great one. Spencer Tracey was the priest in it, you know, Father Connolly. And then there was Mickey Rooney. He was the star in it. It's that long now since I seen it I have it nearly all forgotten.
Lord bless us and save us, there was times you'd get the head cut off yourself in the lower seats because there were these fellas who used to be shooting haws at you. Haws were these wee red berries you'd get off a white thorn bush and they were like wee stones. Anyway, Paddy Muldoon and the mother and two sisters used always sit in the same seats. And there were these fellas up the back who'd shoot the haws at them. Mrs Muldoon would get hit in the back of the head and up she'd stand and start scolding in the middle of the film. Paddy would be watching out to see who was doing it, and next thing, he'd get a clatter in the jaw. Willie Lee and Paddy Feehily had to go around and tell those people to stop firing the haws. But anyway, by the end of the film the place would be covered in haws. Paddy would be up giving out to Willie Lee for not stopping the fellas and Mrs Muldoon and the two daughters would be up scolding, and everyone in the place would be laughing. Ah now, the boyos that was at that, they didn't give a care for who they hit.
It must have been some time in the sixties when it all stopped. Connolly's hall was condemned because it was unsafe. They were holding dances in it and all kinds of thing. Sure, Lord bless us and save us, the dances used to be regular, maybe two or three dances every week - Sunday night, you know, and Wednesday night, and then Friday or Saturday night. We went to England in 1966 and the picture hall was still there, but when we came back  there was no films. That was the end of it, but you'd miss it.
Interviewee - Frank Kelly from Manorhamilton
Recorded by Francis Kelly
I started school at Killastnet in the spring of 1939. I was only four years old, well perhaps five, and I went with my older sister Gertie. She was nearly seven and had been going to the school for two years at that time. My younger sister Mary never went to Killastnet School. She was only a baby at the time. We were living in Amorset and Gertie and myself used to walk up to the school from there.
Master Curley was the headman in the school. He was married with a family and lived in Lurganboy. He had two children, Maura and Jim and they came to school for a time. It was Miss MacGowan, however, who taught me. She was from Mullies. She lived down below Mullies chapel in a big two-storey house. I started in Killastnet because Miss Macgowan came in to Mammy to ask if she'd send 'the child' to the school with Gertie. In those days you went to school when you were old enough regardless of the time of year. Most kids went to school at about seven years of age and finished when they were around fourteen. I went to school early because my sister Gertie was old enough to look after me. Mammy and her brothers, Paddy and John, had done their schooling in Killastnet but my uncle Frank never went to school. I don't know how he skipped out of it. He never went and couldn't read or write but it never seemed to bother him. Mammy and the lads were photographed at the school in 1912 along with the mother and aunts of Paddy Gilroy. Master Brady, Bernie Brady's brother taught in Killastnet and so did his father before him. It was he who taught my mother at the time of the photograph in 1912. Miss MacGowan had the old register with the names of past pupils and she could see that our family had been to the school in the past so she came in to Mammy to ask if I could start in the school as she was running short of pupils and there was the danger that the school would have closed if numbers dropped too much.
Gertie and I were the last two to join Killastnet School and, man dear, we had some fierce days at that school, you know. I was the youngest in the school at that time. All of the rest of them were ahead of me. I started in the infants class. There was no word about junior infants or senior infants then, just infants. Boys and girls were all in the one class with the two teachers. Miss MacGowan had all the infants and tiddlers like myself and the pupils up to about 2nd class. Master Curley had all the older children on his side of the room.
School started at 9am and you went home again at 3.30pm. Often on the way to school, if we were afraid, Terence Rooney used to walk us up to the school house. Terence was a big friend of mine. I didn't care as long as I got to Terence's. His mother and father were there at that time and they used to have wee ducks and chickens and I loved to sit down and look at these wee yellow birds. We were nearly always at school before the teachers. We used to be waiting and when it rained more often than not we'd get soaked. One morning as we stood outside in the rain didn't Pappy Spear come along on his ass and cart on the way to town. Pappy was another big friend of mine, a man who often used to go out hunting with my Uncle Frank. He lived in Lisnabrack across the fields from Joe Fox's and had a field in Skreeny. He saw us that morning standing outside the school getting drowned and asked us where the teachers were. When he heard they hadn't yet arrived he said, 'Well, do you know what ye'll do. Go home now instead of standing out here catching ye're death of a cold'. He gestured to the cart and said 'Get up here and I'll bring ye down home.' We didn't leave because we were afraid we might be beat at home for running away from the school. We didn't go home that day but there were other days we did. Pappy used to lift me up onto the cart and bring me to his sister Bridget Spear who lived down the road from the school. Anyway soon after that wet morning the key was left out for us. We knew where it was hidden so we used to let ourselves in.
In the classroom we were taught Writing, Sums, English and Catechism. We had an English book, a pencil and a copybook for writing, and a book for Catechism. We sat at long desks that had places for inkwells and for our pencils. On our side of the room the classes were mixed up together. We all sat in rows on long benches. Infants sat together with the older children. We were small and the seats were fairly big. Michael Gilroy, Tommy MacGowan and myself and were about the smallest that was in the school. I sat in the middle of our row alongside Tommy MacGowan and with my sister Gertie on the other side of me. Molly MacGowan and Pat Ferguson sat in our row as well. Tommy was my mate but he didn't go to school for too long, and after he left, Pat Ferguson and myself used to be together mostly. Peter and Barbara Meehan, Maggie, Kathleen and Eamon Fox and John, Pat and Maisy Rooney were all with the master. Tessy Mawn had the job of filling the inkwells. That job was left to the older ones. Tessy was one of the older pupils and she was the smartest. Any question she was ever asked she knew the answer. Miss MacGowan used to bring us up to the blackboard to do our sums but that was one place I never wanted to go.
An open hearth heated the classroom and everybody brought fuel for the fire. I remember my uncle Frank bringing a box cart of turf up to the school for the winter but most of the neighbours brought turf as well. We often brought up spuds from home for Miss MacGowan. We often used have to run up to the neighbours to do errands for the teachers. We used have to run over to the Meehans of Curraghfore for milk, tea or sugar. Next we'd go to Gilroy's for something else, eggs or whatever. On one occasion Gertie was sent up to Gilroy's for a sup of milk. As soon as she was brought into the house Mrs Gilroy sat her down, cut a crust of bread, set a dallop of country butter onto it and boiled up a mug of hot milk for her. Gertie took her time enjoying Mrs Gilroy's hospitality but by the time she set off back to the school the Master was waiting for her at the end of the lane. Gertie had the smile wiped off her that afternoon and she went home with her two hands red raw.
I remember one episode when I was sent out by the Miss to wash out the teapot and bring it back in with a fill of clean water so she could boil up a mug of tea for the break. I was the devil for fishing d'you see. I was always looking in at the river for trout and there was a big rock at the back of the school and as soon as I got outside all I wanted to do was catch some small minnows I'd spotted in the water. I was so intent on catching some fish that I missed my step and didn't I slip in to the river. I fell in and because I was so small there was a depth of water up to my chest. As I fell I let go of the teapot and it sailed away down the river. Miss MacGowan nearly killed me when I went back into the class soaked to the skin and without the pot. Didn't she send me back outside to try and find it but try as I might I could see no sign of it. Afterwards, she put me standing in the old turf box beside the fire while the water dripped off me. By the time we were let go I was covered in dirt. Well, that evening on my way home from school didn't I meet my uncle Frank and when he saw the state I was in he lifted me up saying 'Jaysus, you're all wet, what happened to you?' So I had to tell him. When we went home they decided there'd be no more fetching teapots for me after that.
Things to consider before starting your Oral History interview
You could plan your interviews so that questions are focused on certain subjects, such as:
- Family life
- Local traditions in Leitrim
- The school day and how it has changed
- Games and pastimes and how they have changed
- Going to the dances
- Industries, trades or ways of work that have changed in Leitrim
- Changing practices in farming
- Changing modes of transport and communications
- Life in Leitrim during World War II or 'The Emergency'
- The coming of electricity to Leitrim
- Old folklore tales and stories from Leitrim
- Stories connected to local archaeological sites, old houses or graveyards
- Changes in the environment
Preparing for interviews
Have a clear idea about what you want to find out and a list of questions on the theme you want to talk about. Prepare your questions in advance and group the topics you want to cover in a logical way. Before you start the interview, have paper and pen ready to write down the date, your name and age and the name and age of the person you are going to interview. You can also include details of what the relationship is between you and the person you are going to interview e.g. grandparent, neighbour etc.
Encourage questions that are brief and open-ended. For example say "tell me what a school day was like for you?" as opposed to "Did you attend school?". Please see the list of themes above to help you when writing your questions. Examples of other questions relating to pastimes and schools days include: What games, toys and pastimes did you have? What books or magazines did they read and was there a local library to visit? What pets did you have? How did you entertain yourself on long winter evenings or on Sunday afternoons? How did you spend your school holidays? What subjects did you do at school and what methods were they taught? How far did you live from the school and how did you get there? What was typically in your lunch box? How did you celebrate different feasts and festivals: St Brigid Day, Easter, Halloween, Christmas. Did you go out with the Wren Boys on St Stephen's Day? What currency was used? How much would a bar of chocolate cost and where would you have to go to buy items like this?
Questions are a framework to guide the interview and need not be stuck to too rigidly. Often a chronological (life story) structure is best to help jog the memory. The best interviews ﬂow naturally and some of the most interesting things you discover will be unprompted.
Conducting your interviews
Few of us are good at remembering dates and we sometimes merge similar events into a single memory. We also tend to add things we have been told by other people or have read about. So when we interview people it is important to get them to tell us about direct personal experiences (eye witness' testimony) rather than things that might have been heard second hand. Limit your interview to half an hour maximum, listening carefully and taking notes if you need to.
If you would like to be kept up to date on Heritage News and Events taking place across the County please email email@example.com to be added to the Heritage Email list.
'Connecting Through Heritage' is a Leitrim County Council Heritage Project which is funded by the Heritage Council. This Oral History Project has been run in partnership with Leitrim County Council Heritage Office, Leitrim County Council Library Service and One Little Studio.