Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Michael Conry, Carlow Author

The 2019 edition of Carloviana, the journal of the Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society, has been published. It is a fine publication, with a range of well researched articles relating to County Carlow and persons from that county which even non Carlovians will find of interest. The society which started life as the Old Carlow Society in 1946 published its first journal in January of the following year. This year’s Carloviana brings to 67 the number of journals produced in the intervening years. Carlow has seen a number of excellent publications in recent years, from the pens of writers as diverse as Alan Stanley, Gerard Murphy and Dr. Michael Conry. The latter’s published output is extremely impressive, having first reached out to the general public with his book ‘Culm Crushers’ in 1999. Since then Michael Conry has written seven other books, all of them dealing with different aspects of Ireland’s rural folk life. A native of County Roscommon Michael, who is now retired, spent many years working for An Foras Taluntais in Oakpark, Carlow. He was awarded a Ph D by Trinity College where he studied under the guidance of the legendary George Mitchell, one of Ireland’s foremost environmentalists. No doubt influenced by Professor Mitchell, Michael set about the study of various aspects of Ireland’s cultural heritage. Over a period of 17 years ending with his last book in 2016 Michael Conry has published a veritable library unique in its scope and subject range. His first book published was ‘Culm Crushers’. It describes the history and folklore of an almost forgotten aspect of Ireland’s industrial archaeology – that of grinding stones for tempering culm, as well as grinding corn, bones, chalk, mortar and rendering. As Michael explained in the book’s foreword: ‘in times when money was scarce ….. culm (anthracite slack) provided an excellent and cheap source of fuel ….. dancing the culm and yellow clay with a pair of brogues was an laborious and time consuming task ….. its not surprising that man developed the simple technology of tempering the culm and yellow clay with culm crushers’. That first small paperback was followed the next year by ‘The Carlow Fence’, a book devoted to a unique feature of the County Carlow landscape. County Carlow, two thirds of which is underlain by granite bedrock, had stone masons who over the years learned to use the natural granite to create granite slab fences and the two-tiered granite fences unique to the county. It was a book which awakened interest in what was a forgotten feature of the Carlow landscape. Michael Conry’s third book in three years was a masterful account of culm as a domestic and industrial fuel in Ireland. Under the title ‘Dancing the Culm’ Michael traced the history of burning the culm as a domestic fuel, the techniques used to make the culm balls and the various methods of cooking on the culm fire in different parts of the country. Dr. William Nolan in the books foreword described how the culm was mixed with dry yellow clay in the ratio of 7:1, with some water on the flagstones before the mixture was worked by tramping the bed of culm with a pair of old boots. It was, he noted, a monotonous hard ‘dance’, but a necessary one for so many households for whom coal was an expensive commodity. How right William Nolan was when he declared that in ‘Dancing the Culm’ Michael Conry ‘had struck a rich vein that shone with the lustre of peacock coal.’ Next up after a lapse of three years was the book ‘Cornstacks on Stilts’ which dealt with the use of building stacks of corn stands, a practice which died out long before the author began to research the topic. Two years later ‘Carlow Granite – years of history written in stone’ appeared in the bookshops. This latest tome drew attention to the importance of granite stone in the lives of Irish people and in the economy of the country. It detailed how Carlow people learned to use granite so extensively that it today forms an integral part of the architectural heritage of the county. Michael Conry’s research and publications on various aspects of rural life gave us two other remarkable publications ‘Picking Bilberries, Fraochans and Whorts in Ireland’ published in 2011 and five years later ‘The Rabbit Industry in Ireland’. Both books unveil for its readers a view of Irish life of the recent past. Both are important studies recording in print a way of life which was once quite common but is today unknown to a people for whom the country life is viewed, if at all, as a cultural wasteland. Michael Conry through his books has shown that the store of cultural heritage to be found in the Irish countryside provides a richness of history and folklife which tells the story of a now largely disappeared rural life.

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