Sunday 18 March 2018

Clonakilty is the centre of a beautiful land... and home to remarkable Irishmen such as Sam Maguire and the tragic Michael Collins

Con Houlihan

~ Clonakilty, Co Cork ~

Clonakilty is the centre of a beautiful land... and home to remarkable Irishmen such as Sam Maguire and the tragic Michael Collins

Clonakilty is at the apex of the triangular bay between Galley Head on the west and Seven Heads on the east. It was an obvious site for a settlement: the First Earl of Cork laid out a town there in the early years of the 17th Century.

It quickly developed into a market centre for the rich land of mid-west Cork; eventually it became a focal point for a thriving linen trade. That industry has long since declined. Clonakilty today is a market town and a tourist centre.

Few places have been more involved in the history of Ireland. This is symbolised by the statue of Tadhg O'Donovan, who led the United Irishmen there in 1798.

Already, the town had seen horrible bloodshed in the uprising of 1641 when thousands of bodies were strewn in the marshes between the town and Inchidoney Strand.

The town had an advanced water system over 200 years ago. There is a pump in the little square to remind us of this – it is called The Wheel of Fortune.

There is another building in the town that is a sad symbol of a vanished age: the handsome Protestant church is now a post office; the tall spire of the Catholic church dominates the town.

Until about 70 years ago, there was a big and prosperous Protestant community in Clonakilty and the surrounding area.

We flatter ourselves that the Ireland of today is more liberal and more sophisticated than that of a century ago – in some ways it is and in some ways it most certainly is not.

In the last century it was common, for example, to see boys and girls of all religions educated together; this was a kind of ecumenicism before the word was minted.

I taught for a while in Ballymacelligott National School – the Church of Ireland school, that is. This was a modern building but it housed some of the Registers from the old days; they made very interesting reading.

The Protestant community, as in Clonakilty, had been greatly reduced. There were two factors that caused this: one was the change in the marriage laws; the other was the mental climate in the state that came into being in 1922.

In more civilised times, the marriage of a Catholic and a Protestant caused little dissent; there was a working agreement by which the boys took the religion of their father and the girls that of their mother.

In the early years of this century, a Papal decree ended this happy arrangement. An inter-church marriage was allowed but only after a bond that guaranteed that all the children would be brought up as Catholics.

The history of Ireland is riddled with paradoxes: the movement that brought about our limited independence was rooted in the Fenians; they were not separatists – they believed in the brotherhood of man.

By the 1920s, the movement had become separatist and sectarian. The Protestants were now second-class citizens in their own land. The cruel irony of all this was that many of our patriots had been Protestants – Thomas Davis and Charles Parnell are shining examples.

We will now look at another paradox: a man born near Clonakilty was yet another Protestant who played a great part in bringing about the new Ireland.

The name is commemorated now in the name of the trophy presented to the winners of the All-Ireland championship in Gaelic football – I doubt if many of those who cheer in Croke Park every autumn, when the Sam Maguire Cup is raised aloft, know about him.

Sam Maguire was one of a remarkable body of Irishmen who worked in London in the early years of the last century.

Some of them were civil servants: Padraic O'Conaire was among them; so was Michael Collins and Sam Maguire himself; the ablest of them all was Robert Lynd, a Protestant from Belfast who was the greatest journalist of his day.

Collins was to become the most famous of them all but he might never have emerged from obscurity if he hadn't known Maguire, who became a kind of father to him – it was he who induced him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Michael Collins was born in 1890 in the townland of Woodfield a few miles from Clonakilty, near a junction in the road called Sam's Cross – it was named, incidentally, after a highwayman, Sam Wallace.

Collins's father and namesake was as remarkable as his son. He had little formal education but from the so-called hedgemasters, who taught from house to house, he had acquired a fair knowledge of Latin and Greek and French and mathematics.

He couldn't afford to settle down until he inherited the family farm: he was over 60 when he married; his bride was a local girl called Mary Anne O'Brien – she was just 20.

They had a large family. Michael was the youngest. His father was 75 when he was born. Young Michael hardly ever knew his father because he died six years later.

Michael was a diligent scholar. When he was 16, he passed the entrance examination for the British Civil Service and became a clerk in a post office in London. He changed jobs a few times and by 1916 he worked in an American bank in London.

In the week before Easter of that year, he crossed over from Holyhead to Dublin and he was in the General Post Office on that fateful Monday.

When the garrison surrendered, he and hundreds of others were arrested and interned in Britain until the autumn of that year. When Collins returned to Ireland, he became more involved than ever with the IRB.

When the War of Independence broke out in 1919, it is not clear what official position he held but, in fact, he was Director of Intelligence and to some degree he was Quartermaster.

Legends have accumulated around him: he has come down to us as a kind of Sir Galahad, a dashing romantic hero. He was anything but that – he was a great pragmatist; he was cool and shrewd and ruthless.

No matter how great the legend or, if you like, the myth that has grown around Collins, it would be hard to exaggerate his importance in the time between the outbreak of the War of Independence and his death in the summer of 1922.

That war ended with a truce on July 11, 1921. A delegation was sent to London to arrange a treaty; the weight of the negotiations fell on Collins.

The treaty was signed on December 6, 1921.

It was debated in the Dail in January of the next year and was accepted by 64 votes to 57. A general election followed. The treaty was carried by 487,000 to 134,000.

The Civil War followed. It exceeded in brutality and obscenity all that had been experienced in the War of Independence. Collins's death was especially sad and has left behind a web of mysteries.

By the summer of 1922, he was depressed and in poor health. As if he knew he was about to die, he went home to Clonakilty on August 22 and spent much of the day in the pub at Sam's Cross, drinking his favourite stout, Clonakilty Wrestler.

Late that evening, as the convoy travelled back to Cork, it was ambushed between Macroom and Bandon, and Collins lost his life.

His image still hangs over Ireland and most of all over mid-west Cork.

Clonakilty has many other claims to fame, especially in the breeding of horses and in Gaelic football.

Cork were very prominent in Gaelic football in the early years of the century but their well seemed to have run dry after 1911; they didn't win the All-Ireland again until 1945. That team was built around a nucleus from Clonakilty.

If you are ever at the great horse fair in Buttevant in north Cork, you will find that many of the most splendid animals there are from Clonakilty and the surrounding district.

Clonakilty today is the centre of a beautiful land, the kind loved by people from the European continent. It has everything that they desire: great tracts of open country inhabited by friendly people and, most of all, you are never far from the many inlets of the Atlantic Ocean.

Irish Independent

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