Enniscorthy Guardian

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Ogie, Maisie and a vanishing Ireland


I HAPPENED to run into Ogie Nolan the other day. I told him that there were some great photographs of him in circulation. He did not seem too impressed. His attitude was that as long as his image was not adorning a 'Wanted – dead or alive' poster, then he had no reason to be overly concerned.

The photos of Enniscorthy's favourite rascal are part of a collection published in a book called 'Vanishing Ireland: Recollections of our Changing Times' with pictures by James Fennell and words by Turtle Bunbury. In the past, the pair have made their reputation by turning lens and pen on that grand old institution, the Irish pub.

This time, they jumped into the car and toured the land simply chatting to people. They met assorted blacksmiths, coal miners, mattress makers and cattle drivers, representatives of professions that have largely been overtaken or altered beyond recognition by new practices and procedures.

The authors visited farms in Kerry and Clare, turf sheds in Limerick and Tipperary. They drank cups of tea, or glasses of whiskey, in the kitchens of Sligo and Dublin. They crossed cobbled yards around Wicklow and Tipperary in search of their quarry. They visited the hills of Leitrim and Donegal. And they hit on two right ones in Enniscorthy.

The first was the aforementioned Aidan Nolan, universally known as Ogie, retired saddler and harness maker from Weafer Street, whose prowess as a bridge player remains undimmed as he rolls into his 90th year. And the second was Courtnacuddy resident Maisie Grannell, who was born in 1925.

Ogie is well enough used to the limelight. The shoe repair business that he ran with brother Patsy up a side lane in Enniscorthy was a wonderfully chaotic institution, smelling of glue and leather. The siblings finally stepped down from the business about two decades ago, but not before their place of work had been re-created on stage as the setting for a production of Billy Roche's play 'Cavalcaders'.

Maisie, on the other hand, has seen less of the limelight, though by no means a shrinking violet. Hers is also a nickname as she was christened Mary Theresa, the third child in the family of William and Mary Sunderland raised in Clonhaston. Her story brings readers back to the era of the thatched cottage and of a simple rural life.

She received a full formal education from the Mercy nuns but it was her mother who gave her practical lessons in how to make soda bread and churn butter. The young Maisie become so proficient at baking that as a teenager she was able to conjure up a Christmas cake over an open fire in a lidded pan. Mary Sunderland also taught her daughter how to sew, imparting a skill that enabled her to earn her living.

She spent 24 years working for the Spring family at Ballynadara House in Bree where life revolved around hunting and horses. Maisie's willingness to make horse-rugs and racing caps proved invaluable.

The book tells how she was 30 when she married a farm labourer, the late Jack Grannell. In due course the couple had one son, Denis, and two daughters. She was determined to follow the pattern laid down by her own mother, passing on the fundamentals of baking, sewing and knitting to Maureen and Betty.

Though she worked as a house cleaner and child minder, she also took on the task of caring for her ageing parents. In 1966, she had to rescue them from a flood that lapped around the bed where they were sleeping. Her mother died late in 1969 and her father the following summer.

A generation later, Maisie has had her own troubles in retirement. She was knocked down in a road accident in 2001 and was left with severe injuries: 'I could hear my two legs breaking the same as sticks,' she told Turtle Bunbury. She has survived that setback with her sense of humour intact.

There is no shortage of humour either in the twinkling eyes of Ogie Nolan, who is old enough to recall the days when Blue Shirts and Sinn Féin followers clashed outside the family home at Weafer Street in the early 1930s. His mother Bridget (née Shiel) had been forewarned that trouble was brewing and closed the shutters on the windows of their rooms above the sweet shop before the stones started to fly.

His father Michael Nolan worked as a saddler, though he later took up employment in J Donohoe's Star Mineral Water plant – briefly as it turned out. He was scarcely a month on the payroll when the factory went on fire, so he set on his own account as a harness-maker and boot repairer. It was 1940 when the teenaged Ogie (the name a childish mispronunciation of Mogue) was recruited by the da to join Nolan & Sons.

The business at its height employed 14 men, making harnesses, saddles, dog collars, luggage straps and shoes. Ogie made frequent trips to Dublin to buy the leather but still found time to enjoy swimming at the Headwire. In his interview for 'Vanishing Ireland' Ogie also tells how he met Fred Astaire and served with bayonet drawn in the Local Defence Force during the Emergency.

Times have changed, but this book will ensure past experiences are not forgotten.