Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Bandon, Co. Cork

Local history is a growing industry.  So much so that throughout the country local history societies are springing up to join the long list of existing groups which with varying success have been promoting a wider knowledge of the history of their own areas.  Last Saturday I journeyed to Bandon in West Cork to attend the A.G.M. of the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland.  The Federation is a grouping of the 120 or so local history societies in the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Connaught which amongst other things promotes the exchange of information amongst its member societies.

Bandon in terms of Irish geographical studies is an extremely important Irish town which this year will be celebrating its 400th anniversary.  As a planned town of the Munster Plantation period it was like Athy but even more so a town peopled by English Protestants.  A wall encircled the 17th century town of Bandon which is more properly known as Bandonbridge, no doubt to offer some measure of protection against the dispossessed Irish.  In that part of West Cork that meant the McCarthy’s, the O’Mahoney’s and the O’Driscoll’s who were discouraged from entering the town of Bandon by a notice on one of the town gates which read :-

            “Turk, Jew or Atheist
            May enter here
            But not a Papist.”

To which a local wit added the words :-

            “Who wrote it wrote it well
            For the same is writ on the Gates of Hell.”

My visit on Saturday was facilitated by local historian and retired builder, Paddy Connolly who wrote a history of Bandon some years ago, a third revised edition of which is due for publication later this year.  The religious diversity which is the hallmark of many Irish provincial towns with a loyalist past, is well and truly identifiable in the relatively young town of Bandon where the mainstream churches are joined by the Brethren and another dissenting group whose name I cannot recall.  John Wesley visited Bandon on several occasions and was there for the opening of the town’s Methodist Chapel in 1879.  He made 21 visits to Ireland during his lifetime but travelled through Athy on only one occasion while journeying from Maryborough (Portlaoise) to Carlow on Saturday, 25th April 1789.  Surprisingly Wesley never preached in Athy and given his personal involvement with the establishment of Methodism in neighbouring towns such as Carlow, Maryborough, Baltinglass, Kilkenny and Mountmellick I have often wondered what caused him to absent himself from our town. 

The Brethren, sometimes called Christian Brethren, are presumably linked to the Plymouth Brethren which in its early days was part of an emerging dissenting grouping which included the Kellyites of Athy.  Thomas Kelly’s followers are long gone but the Bandon Brethren still have a congregation in the West Cork town.

The Federation’s A.G.M. took place in Bandon’s only hotel, the Munster Arms, which under a different name has an important historical link with the past.  It was as Lees Hotel that the now re-named Munster Arms Hotel entertained Michael Collins and his entourage when they stopped for a meal on the evening of Tuesday, 22nd August 1922.  The last photograph of Michael Collins was taken as he sat in the back seat of an open topped touring car alongside Emmet Dalton outside the front door of Lees Hotel.  Within a short time thereafter Collins was lying dead on the roadway at Béal na mBláth about seven miles from Bandon town on one of the roads to Crookstown.  While he was in Lees Hotel Collins had met Sean Hales who was commander of the government forces in West Cork.  Amongst the ambushed party at Béal na mBláth  who attacked Collins and his companions was Hales’ brother, Tom Hales, who had taken the anti-treaty side.  Sean Hales was to be shot in Dublin four months later and it was his death which lead to the reprisal execution of Mountjoy prisoners O’Connor, Mellows, McKelvey and Barrett one day later.  A rather poorly sculptured figure of Sean Hales today stands in Bandon just a few yards from what was once the Allin Institute used for decades prior to 1921 as a recreational hall for local Loyalists. 

Bandon, part of the extensive West Cork hinterland which also includes place names resonant of Irish history such as Kilmichael, Crossbarry and Béal na mBláth, was one of the chief centres of local opposition to British Rule in Ireland.  Tom Barry’s Flying Column was involved in the Kilmichael and Crossbarry ambushes but other West Cork I.R.A. Brigade members were also involved in the killing of those whom they declared to be British spies.  Such assassinations which included females gave rise to many condemnations, sometimes even greater than that which greeted the atrocities committed by the British forces.  I recalled one such assassination as I stood in the porch of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church built on an elevated site overlooking the town of Bandon.  In that same porch on Sunday, 25th July 1920 a Mayo man, William Mulherin, was shot dead by two men who waited for him to arrive for 8 o’clock morning Mass.  Mulherin or Mulhern was a married many aged 39 years who had 17 years service in the Royal Irish Constabulary.  A Detective Sergeant based in Bandon, he was an Intelligence Officer for that area of West Cork and consequently was pitted against the West Cork Brigade of the I.R.A.  The shooting in the Church porch was one of the more cowardly and shameful acts of the War of Independence of which there were many on both sides of the conflict.  I gather that the Church of St. Patrick’s had to be reconsecrated after this act of desecration.

An interesting literary connection was discovered when a small plaque on a former Unitarian chapel disclosed that Reverend Hazlett once ministered in Bandon.  His son was the essayist William Hazlett who lived for four years in the town and who was to gain fame as the unfriendly critic of Wordsworth and his contemporaries.  Hazlett is best remembered for his work, “The Spirit of the Age” and by history buffs like myself for his love of history of which he wrote “I cannot solve the mystery of the past nor exhaust my pleasure in it.”

Bandon, like Athy, suffered considerable casualties during World War I.  Both towns saw a high percentage of its male adult population enlist in the British Army, many of whom never survived the War.  177 men from Bandon and district died in the War, compared to 189 or so from Athy and district.  Comparisons may not be appropriate given the differences in the size of the unspecified geographical areas covered by the term “district” in each case.  However, the call to arms received a massive response in Bandon as it did in Athy confirming, if such was required, that the military legacy in both towns extended back to the days when Bandon and Athy had cavalry barracks. 

Bandon, the one time loyalist town in the Rebel County, is rich in history.  However, it is a history of which is not always acknowledged nowadays, perhaps understandably so given that those who achieved their freedom in 1922 do not always want to share their past with those who lost.

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