'Back then a camera was a mighty novelty'

In 1949, New York-based Tom Daly paid a visit to his native Castlegregory with a film camera in his hand. On Sunday, his historic film will be screened in Castlegregory and Tadhg Evans paid a visit to his nephew Tom ahead of the occasion

Tom Daly and historian Maurice O’Keeffe
Tom Daly and historian Maurice O’Keeffe

Tadhg Evans

Tom Daly pushes a wooden door, opening the porch of his pale-yellow house to a Kerryman reporter, and historian Maurice O'Keeffe. Backing off the cement doorstep, he turns to his right and smiles at his guests, before pointing his black walking stick at the century-old building's entrance.

"Go in there now from that breeze," he says, his command barely audible through the shrieking Scairbhín gale pulsing in from Lough Gill.

We step inside, Maurice leading us to a wooden table in the front room, a place where he mined precious nuggets for his Dingle-Tralee Railway oral history compilation. As Tom lifts a Siúcra bag and a carton of SAXA salt from the table to make room for our notepads and recorders, Maurice recounts Tom's contribution to his project.

"After securing sponsorship from Kerry County Council earlier this year, I started compiling accounts about the old Dingle-to-Tralee railway. Since January I've interviewed 11 people, Tom being one of them," Maurice explains as we try to put our notes in order.

"He's the only person who can remember travelling on the branch that ran to Castlegregory until 1939, so he's unique in that regard alone. But during our conversation, he told me he also had a precious piece of history to his name.

"And that's what brings us here today. Tom's uncle, George Daly, emigrated to New York in the 1920s, but on a visit to his native Castlegregory in 1949 he recorded local activities with an eight-millimetre cine camera, producing a reel that is of infinite historical value.

"That fantastic reel survives, and Tom very kindly allowed us to create a remastered version, which will be shared with the public for the first time in Castlegregory Community Hall on Sunday," Maurice says with boyish enthusiasm.

Tom sits across from us with his joined hands resting against the table's edge. He nods continuously, seemingly in sync with the ticking of a tiny red clock hanging above the kitchen door, and as Maurice winds his introduction to a close, Tom swivels to his left, and points a finger out the kitchen window.

"George was out there filming in the back garden, and my family had fierce wonder," he says. "Back then, a camera would have been a mighty novelty sure.

"He did a heap of filming: people coming out of the church and congregating above at the village for an old chat; footage of us drawing water from the pump; the old Ford cars; the thatched houses that were in the village; and the old farming methods," he reminisces.

"George gave us the tape in his will, and we put it on here for a few family members, and a local teacher called Pat O'Shea. That was only around 20 years ago, and it was our first time seeing it. I thought it was mighty going to see myself as a young ladeen chasing a pony around a field!"

Rummaging through the notes scattered around the table, Maurice wrenches two stapled pages from the wreckage.

"It's all explained here," he states, waving a press release. "Tom and I went down to the centre to watch it, just the two of us, and I recorded Tom's commentary.

"We took the reel away then and, with assistance from Dan Devane in Tralee, we digitised it. We slowed it down because it was quite jumpy, we combined it with Tom's commentary, and then we transferred it to DVD. The final cut is an action-packed 25-minute document of life in Castlegregory in the late 1940s, and I can't wait to share with the public. A lot of people in the film still have relations living locally, and I'm sure they'll love the film."

The occasion will double-up as a launch for the 'Irish Life and Lore Tralee and Dingle Narrow Gauge Railway Oral History Collection.' Tom was one of 11 people to contribute to the project and -- chuckling at the mention of the old train -- he's only delighted to share his memories with The Kerryman.

"Yerra I must have been six or seven my first time on it," he says. "After the fair day we'd bring the cattle up to the old stop in the village, and the train would bring the livestock off towards Tralee then. We had relations living in Ashe Street, and we used the train to call to them regular too.

"It seemed mighty fast to me when I was first on it, and I was all excited to see the smoke rising from it! When we got to Tralee, I had fierce fascination looking up at all the people and all the big buildings. We'd get the bit of shopping, pay the few bills and what have you. It was mostly business only for a cup of tea on The Mall, but it was exciting" he adds.

The Castlegregory branch stopped in 1939, but the steam engine still rattles around Tom's mind today. The train opened the Dingle Peninsula to a new world, and that's not easily forgotten.

"The Dingle-Tralee service continued for a good few years after the Castlegregory line stopped, and you'd often see the cloud of steam rising off the train looking up towards Camp," he says.

"The line closed altogether in 1953, but even though CIE brought us in from then on, we missed the train. Before it came along, there was no easy way of getting around the place. It changed our lives."

The screening takes place at Castlegregory Community Centre from 3.30pm on Sunday, May 14. Space is limited, so if interested in attending you should phone Maurice at (066) 7121991, or email castleinfo@eircom.net. DVD copies of the edited film will be available for €15.

Full-length recordings from the Tralee and Dingle Narrow Gauge Railway Oral History Collection will also be on sale. on Sunday. Alternatively, you can purchase the recordings from www.irishlifeandlore.com.