Saturday 25th saw the annual Famine Commemoration Walk in The Commons/Ballingarry led by Olympic Gold Medalist Ronnie Delany. It is more than appropriate that a sporting trail-blazer should lead the walk to the site of the 1848 rebellion, which was itself an event that paved the way for others to follow.
In 1848 when the Young Irelanders rebelled, the country was awash with death and disease, consequent on the failure of the potato crop and the famine that event brought. In the years 1845-1850 over 2 million Irish men, women and children died or fled the country to avoid death.
Each year since 2000 – on the last Saturday in July – the people of The Commons and surrounds walk from the Commons crossroad to the Warhouse nearby. They do so to remember the past, to honour those who died of starvation, and to show their respect for the ideals of 1848.
The Warhouse is the local name given to the building where the Young Irelanders fought against men of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The RIC had barricaded themselves in there after failing to arrest William Smith O’Brien. Though the ‘war’ was short, it led to the formation of the IRB and ultimately to independence. It is also the location where our national flag was first raised in anger, and in defiance of the occupying Empire.
Since being taken in charge by the OPW, the house has been designated a national heritage monument. Manager John Webster is to be commended for the excellent condition of the house, and he speaks very highly of the work of the Office of Public Works (OPW) who are responsibility for the restoration and maintenance.
He does not speak as highly however, of the poor roads and signage leading to the building, and instead points to a lack of investment in them. This was a theme also touched on by walk organiser Prof. Tom McGrath in his opening remarks.
The building those roads lead to is sturdy in a way that is somewhat unexpected, having been built 170 years previous, just 4 years before being called into play as a bolt-hole for the RIC constables. Within, it possesses two smallish rooms on the ground floor, and four quite small bedrooms up a tidy wooden stairs. The building is attractive in every regard, despite it’s small size. It may be the effect of the clean lime-washed walls and smart paint-work, but the care of the staff has contributed to a sense of solid cosiness that only a winter experience could confirm or deny.
Cosy beyond any doubt, however, was the atmosphere in the garden to the front of the house where the legendary winner of Ireland’s first Gold Olympic Medal addressed the participants. The last Saturday in July should be a good day for an outdoor speech, and so it was on Saturday 25th.
In such a quiet place even the sound of the millions of wings of flies buzzing in the nearby fields, freshly cut for hay, could be heard as a distinct and slightly pleasant hum. There was no difficulty hearing Mr Delany speak.
He is an interesting an engaging speaker, and recounted some of his story. He reminded the people present that in the 1950’s when he left Ireland, though he was leaving voluntarily unlike those from the 1850’s, the ‘Irish Wake’ was still common practice, as there was no guarantee that emigrants then would ever return or ever meet their loved ones again.
He spoke of John Joe Barry, known as the Ballincurry Hare for his lightning speed, who was the first Irishman to open the doors to Villanova University near Philadephia, and where Ronnie Delany himself would eventually go, followed in turn by such greats as Eamonn Coughlan.
He told of his journey to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and of their plane stopping frequently for fuel and maintenance (it was 1956, remember!) as they island-hopped their way to their destination. In so many places that he landed there were Irish missionaries, that he modestly added, “with so many blessings from priests, it was no wonder I won the olympics”.
There may be truth in that, as that Olympic also saw a silver and three bronze medals amongst the luggage on the return home!
The Famine Warhouse 1848 is an unusual heritage monument, peacefully lost amid rolling hills and generous farmland. It’s situation is peaceful, and unashamedly rural in a way that Tipperary does very well.
To stand in the room where almost 170 years previously constables of the RIC had sheltered, while William Smith O’Brien bravely approached the window to declare “We are all Irishmen—give up your guns and you are free to go” is a exercise in imagination, as one tries to guess what may have gone through the minds of those men.
It is hard to understand those times. One of the exhibits upstairs tells of the fate of two of the Young Irelanders, Mary Ann Kelly – a poet – and Kevin Izod O’Doherty, who after a sentence of transportation became a politician. Between them they had 8 children, only 1 of whom outlived their parents. We easily forget that our lives today are immeasurably easier than for those who went before.
But one thing which need not be guessed at, is that the Warhouse is worth a second visit, as is the nearby quiet Commons village where the crossroads bears speaks freely of the proud history of those who passed before.