Friday 20 April 2018

Murders add to intrigue of a hefty history that needs to be enjoyed at leisure

Excuse me. I am suffering from a bad case of indigestion. Hence the pained face and the cramped walk. The suffering is a result of attempting to take 'Crossabeg – a parish in County Wexford' at a gallop.

I should have known better. If ever there was a book which cried out to be enjoyed at leisure, then the latest offering from the Crossabeg brains trust is such a publication.

With over 400 pages, it repays extended study, presenting the reader with the prospect an engaging, long distance stroll. Here is no place for sprinters.

This hefty history has been assembled by Nicky Cowman and his committee with impeccable attention to detail. The contents zigzag back and forth across the centuries, from Father Jim Finn's investigation of Killian, the local favourite saint, to Anne Kehoe, the first female Garda to police the area. Killian was beheaded in Germany in the year 689 and may never have visited the Crossabeg at all. Anne has retired from An Garda Síochána but is still resident in the parish.

As editor, Nicky Cowman admits that he and his colleagues scarcely met a single deadline during the three years they spent on this, the second such volume they have produced. Their first venture, incidentally, came off the presses at least 13 years ago.

Nicky is nevertheless confident that the new book will be launched as scheduled at a ceremony in the Ferrycarrig Hotel at 8.30 p.m. on the evening of July 23. Mayor of Wexford George Lawlor has accepted an invitation to be the guest of honour.

Parishioners laying hands on this history for the first time will probably turn promptly to the section at the rear. Pages 315 to 411 give details of every gravestone in the cemeteries of Artramont, Kilpatrick and Tykillen as well as in the main burial ground beside Crossabeg church. The inscriptions were logged with painstaking dedication by Anne Cowman and Alice Devine, who spent ten years at their task.

General readers also will find much stimulation as the writers, who include John Foley, Kathleen le Gras, John Murphy, Pat Lambert, Patrick Bradish, Hilary Murphy, Kevin McDermott, Dave Walsh, Robert Harvey, Joe Berney, Danny Gayer, Maura Joyce and Brendan Roche parade their knowledge in scholarly but generally readable style.

The mixture is enlivened by two cases of murder. It appears that Crossabeg in the 19 and 20th centuries was as dangerous as down town Caracas, with a body count of five.

The homicide of Lizzie Reck in the summer of 1931 has been well chronicled. The unfortunate 65-year-old from the townland of Crory received fatal injuries at the hands of farm labourer Henry Carthy.

'She's as dead as a stone,' Carthy told the Garda sergeant who came from Castlebridge to investigate. The killer was found unfit to plead and detained as a guest of the State.

Less well-known is the awful affair of the Kereight Poisoner, which is explored in print by the tireless Alice Devine. Alice extended her researches as far away as London in an effort to shine some light on a tragedy which no more than dim folklore when she was a child in the 1960s.

She recalls that an old man called Hughie Harpur used to tell a tale of how three brothers died after eating porridge. The incident was no figment of Hughie's imagination. It turns out that the three doomed siblings were James, John and Michael Cullen.

Also killed in the same incident during the month of June in 1846 was visitor Margaret Dempsey who had the misfortune to join the Cullens for breakfast that morning.

Responsibility for the four deaths was tracked down to Mary Cullen, sister of the dead men, who did the deed with arsenic, sold to her as rat poison by a chemist in Wexford town.

She was found to be of unsound mind and consigned to an asylum for the remainder of her mortal days. No reason was ever uncovered to explain her actions.

There is a saying to the effect that the more things change, the more they remain the same. However, the history of Crossabeg suggests otherwise. Where, for instance, are the parish boxing, badminton and handball clubs of yesteryear? These were all sports which blossomed briefly but failed to survive the test of time.

The commercial landscape has also been altered irrevocably as parish priest Father Jim Finn points out in his piece on the shops that used to dot the neighbourhood.

The Foley family has survived in business as publicans but all the other little groceries cum sheebeens have disappeared as Crossabeg families now fill their trolleys in the supermarkets of Wexford town.

However, one substantial business has grown up at the southern tip of the parish, in the form of the Hotel Ferrycarrig. In one of its more up-to-date moments, the book provides a useful summary of the enterprise to date.

Liam O'Leary writes of how it was built at the direction of a County Wexford man called John Clancy who gained his experience in the trade at a place called the Stork Hotel in Liverpool.

He it was who made the approach to the McDonald family, owners of the site looking out over the Slaney estuary. Building work began in 1967 and it was completed at a final cost of £400,000 (€508,000), two years later trading as the Castle Motor hotel.

The venture passed in 1973 to Pat Quinn of supermarket fame who was happy to allow Brendan Curran continue as manager. Quinn's hotel chain went into receivership the following year and the place was later purchased by the Hatton family from Wells in Gorey who christened it the Ferrycarrig Castle, though the word 'castle' was later dropped.

In 1987, ownership of the Ferrycarrig Hotel passed to accountant Robert Hunter and it was not until 1991 that Liam Griffin took over, and he it was who swapped the two words of the title around. Hotel Ferrycarrig is the correct form, not that anyone takes a blind bit of notice...

Another feature of Crossabeg, and many another parishes across the county, is the Big House families who have flitted across the scene and failed to put down substantial roots.

In this case, the departed cast includes the Le Huntes of Artramont and the Saunders of Saunderscourt. The Walkers of Tykillen House have also disappeared. The most amusing picture in the book may be enjoyed on page 186. The last of the line, Muriel Walker is shown adopting a pose, her head framed by the antlers of some luckless deer she had shot on a hunting expedition abroad.

Wexford People