‘OMG, where did you get this amazing book?” the niece Julia, who is on a visit from Montana, cries. She is perched up in the cottage loft where she sleeps, her blonde curls falling down . I climb up the ladder and join her.
I lift the book onto my lap. It’s a huge tome called In the Ould Ago: Illustrated Irish Folklore, written and meticulously illustrated by Johnny McKeagney, a grocer and undertaker from Tempo, Co Fermanagh.
“It’s my favourite book of all time,” I say.
Now that’s an understatement as this book is the most extraordinary piece of magic I’ve ever seen. There’s a wealth of detail on Irish folklore and McKeagney’s black-and- white sketches, 1,000 of them, are mind blowing. But I am devastated I didn’t get to meet the man. He died in 2010, five weeks after the book was published.
“We could drive out and get you a copy to take back to Amerika?” I say.
Belting down the M50, I filled Julia in about the life of Johnny McKeagney. You see, I feel like I know him. I suppose you could call me a heritage stalker.
I have done a fair bit of research. I know he was born, raised and died in the same house in Co Fermanagh. He called the town of Tempo, “a sleepy wee village, the toe of its parents”. I just love that description, and he lived there all his life.
He helped run his family’s undertaking business and, in 1965, married Teresa and opened what he called his “wee shop”. I know he had his own line of escape from the baked bean, cream cracker and sliced ham of the grocery universe. He would sneak into his room at the back of the house and transcribe in a neat script the stories from the recordings he took or the objects he saw or found.
Then he would draw those tiny sketches onto an A4 page with his black felt-tipped Parker pen. The Annals of the Four Masters are nothing on him. You see local history and folklore fed this man’s soul.
The most astonishing thing I know is this. He spent 45 years writing and illustrating this book. Yes, you heard me right. It had to be a massively painstaking task, one that is now recognised as a legacy by the department of folklore at UCD.
Julia was in awe.
According to his son Paul, who welcomes us into his new home in Castleknock, Dublin, with a gentleness I imagine his father possessed, “Johnny was as Fermanagh as the curlew’s call on Lough Erne. He was a naturalist, a short, quiet, humble man. He certainly wouldn’t be loud or rumbustious.
“Dad’s skills suited him. His modus operandi? Going out with his black and white dog, Beamish, notebooks in his pocket. He got all his history from talking to local folk, listening to their stories, the local yarns and folktales,” Paul says.
He’d come home and cook an Ulster fry. "You’d be scraping the bacon off the ceiling afterwards,” Paul laughs. His dad’s neatness in art didn’t apply to his life.
“Realising there was physical history all around him that was slowly vanishing, he decided to document local abandoned farmsteads and outhouses. He’d stroll out and sketch the dimensions. He found the stories of the local histories far more compelling than those of the big castles.”
With the subject’s permission, he’d use a Panasonic tape recorder to keep their voices and stories preserved. “He thought of himself as a ‘time-detective’, given scraps of information and memories by people and putting it all together,” Paul says.
McKeagney struck up a friendship with Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, head of the Folklore Department at UCD, who brought some of his students to Tempo to study old houses. Johnny would take them to some he found interesting.
“He led them to one,” Paul says, “where Críostóir proclaimed it was unique in all of Ireland as it had four outshots instead of the usual one.” For those of you who don’t know, an “outshot” is a recess that protrudes out from the main cottage wall and accommodates a mattress. It was beloved of the old folk who might have taken to the bed through illness, depression or delight as they could listen to gossip and stories and impart wisdom from the bed.
I am glad to report that McKeagney’s books are now on display in many of the Ivy League colleges in the US. I believe it should be compulsory viewing for all schools and universities in Ireland.
On Sunday, I brought Julia to Rasam in Glasthule, Co Dublin, for dinner.
Well, there was a real picky eater sitting across from us. This lad was allergic to everything. Our ears were burning.
“I can’t eat mangos,” he says to the waiter, whose great gifts of calmness came to the fore. The waiter nodded his head solemnly, while your man cracked on.
Julia and I pretended to be eating our beetroot chicken but secretly we were glued to what was going on.
“I can’t eat corn,” he says. “Nor do I eat pollinated fruit.”
The niece’s eyes are now rolling.
“I can’t eat soybeans,” he says.
“Really,” the waiter says, “that’s no problem.”
“Yes, I got my allergy from sitting on bean bags. They are full of soybeans.”
A bit like himself, I thought. He was full of it all right.
As he rattled on, I saw eminent psychiatrist Ivor Browne, a regular, collecting his order. If only he would take this bucko with him.
In the middle of the drama, I got talking to a lovely lady, Dr Ceppie Merry, and her son Joshua, who were sitting nearby. “Ironically, the mango lad picked the right restaurant to come to with his allergies,” she says. “It is the only place I know that uses Ayurveda practices when they cook.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“Ayurveda focuses on maintaining balance: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual,” she says. “Food is one of its core tools, healing the body with careful combinations of herbs and spices.”
I have known Nisheeth, the owner of Rasam, for years. I know his passion for food and culinary medicine - he often offers remedies like special teas and curative sauces to his diners who suffer ailments. But I never knew there was a specific practice called Ayurveda at work.
When Nisheeth asks if I am enjoying my meal, I tell him it’s beyond delicious but Julia, Dr Ceppie and I have a headache after listening to the “mango” man.
“One moment,” he says. He returns with a black peppercorn smoking on a hot needle. “The smoke will clear your headaches,” he says. And it does.
This Ayurvedic thing is appealing to me big time. I wonder what Johnny McKeagney would have made of it all?
‘The Ould Ago: Illustrated Irish Folklore’ is available at FolkloreBook.com