THE MUNSTER TRIBUNE
Friday, Sept. 30, 1955
Our Strolling Cameraman goes to Fethard
This emigration problem keeps cropping up. What town in Ireland is without it? How many families of your acquaintance are there who haven’t lost at least one of its members to the demon. From Patrick Sarsfield to Noreen Bawn; from Matt the Thrasher to young Danny Mullins, who went to England last week and it’s the same story. And in the case you think this is a matter for a light sigh or a gently “Ah well, perhaps they are better off,” let me tell you a few things about it.
First, let me say that this is not an article on emigration. No, it’s a little bit on the town of Fethard, a number of whose inhabitants are of the opinion that Fethard is leading among those towns which have been hit hardest.
There’s the story of one woman I met in the district of Fethard. Her name I must withhold, but the circumstance surrounding her particular plight should be brought to the notice of all. About ten years ago, this woman was the mother of a happy family of five boys and one girl, and her husband was an honest, hard-working labourer. They had their good times and their bad but, generally, they were as happy in their little cottage as any other poor Irish family. The breadwinner came home on Saturday night with his wages and then went out for his “pint”. The children, who were aged from one year to twelve went to school in their bare feet. Then the woman lost her husband. Sickness, accident, what does it matter how, he was dead and she was alone in the world with her little brood of children. A Government pittance called the “Widow’s Pension” kept them from starving and so they struggled on through the years. At the ages of about fourteen, they all left school. Work? In Ireland? The thought was enough to make her laugh. Some of them did find work, though-in the Irish Army where they were paid £1 2d. per week. The rest, one by one, crossed over. Now the youngest is reaching the school-leaving age and is already thinking in terms of the ‘big money over’. Oh, she has tried to get a job for him-anything at all would have done-but a woman of little social standing can do little. All her own people are dead. She is just 53 years of age and she now sits at her small fire waiting for the lonely years to pass away. Three of the children have married, the others have found that the big money is not so big after all and would gladly come home to care for her in her old age-if they could. Her present income is about 31/- per week; this will be reduced to 24/- when her last boy leaves her.
Doesn’t make very pleasant reading, does it? You may ask why I cite this particular case. Well, it isn’t a particular case. Nor is it an isolated one. Off hand I could think of about eight similar ones. But this one happens to be in Fethard. And what’s going to be done about it?
The present population is around a thousand. For a town of this size, it rather surprised me to find no industry whatsoever in the place. It must be understood that by “industry” is meant a place where something is manufactured, and that such things as local laundries, bakeries, garages, etc., cannot be termed industries in the strict sense of the word. A number of Fethard men are employed in the coal mines and on Bord na Mona schemes in the neighbourhood. Agricultural labour looks after the rest.
Eighty years ago, says Slaters Directory, Fethard was an irregularly built town. No great change was evident on the occasion of my visit there some weeks ago. The population then was more than double the present count and the source of income seems to have been rather obscure. Quite, frankly, it beats me. Still, I suppose it didn’t take an awful lot of money to provide potatoes and salt for a couple of thousand.
Dan Mullins, The Green, Fethard, is just turned 85. He lives with his son, John, in a small, comfortable cottage which lost the touch of a woman’s hand some six years ago when Dan’s wife died at the age of 81.
85 years is quite a while to be in this world, especially when, as in Dan’s case, they haven’t all been easy ones. But, then, nobody expects to get 85 perfect years out of life. Personally, I shall be more than satisfied if knock up 70 odd average ones! However, we deviate. Dan was never what you might call a war-like man. He was a firm believer in the art of minding his own business. He remembers well the good old days, the “Black and Tans”, the Auxiliaries and the Garrison of British troops which were at that time busily annoying themselves on the people. He recalls an incident typical of the times.
Some of the “Tans” had been making themselves particularly objectionable. “Particularly objectionable” at that time usually meant the perpretation of such misdeeds as burning down a few houses or killing six or seven. Accordingly, the “boys” (you all know who they were) decided on a little retribution. Two in particular, or the Tans had figured largely in the outrage-what it was, Dan could not remember and so it was that, one night as they were rolling back to barracks, having had an enjoyable night’s fun at the expense of the populace, they had the misfortune to run into a few Irishmen armed with pistols and so on. It is now widely known that the “boys” never wasted time on words. A rough “c’mom”, and a little group of some five, Irishmen and three “Tans” made their way to the outskirts of the town. One of the Tans was a rather inoffensive fellow who was popular even with the local people, and it was most unfortunate for him that he happened to have been with less charitable comrades that night. Nobody, it seems, wanted to shoot him, but it appears to have been a necessary evil, for he was found in the morning-every bit as dead as the other two.
The town according to Dan, has always been a fit on the slack side as far as industries go. Before his time, there was a bit of a stir in that line, but no trace of it now remains.
Dan had seven sons. Three of them are now dead, one of whom died while fighting in the Free State Army during the Civil War. But enough! Let me speak about Fethard herself. It has a G.A.A. Field, a small hall known as the “Father Tirry Club,” St. Brigid’s Hall, which is the H.Q. of such local bodies as the I.C.A., Macra na Feirme and Muintir na Tire, and these bodies form the axle for the wheel of Fethard’s social life. Incidentally, the first-named hall, the Father Tirry Club, is presently undergoing repairs to the tune of £3,000.
In Fethard, I met men who are content and men who are not. Mr. P. J. Henehan, Main Street, for instance, thinks the town is a reasonably good business town. I have heard the value obtainable in Fethard Shops favourably discussed even here in Clonmel. The lack of an industry seems to constitute the fly in Fethard’s ointment-’though, I confess that’s not a very apt simile.
A rather distressing incident was recounted for my benefit by no less than 12 Fethard people, who told me that the late and well-loved Senator Quirke once attempted with a pitiful lack of success to establish some kind of industry to keep the boys and girls at home. Having secured a Government promise to throw in one-third of the cost of the said enterprise, he then went to the business people of Fethard in an effort to raise the remaining two-thirds. But and mark you, Fethard is generally recognised as one of the richest communities in the area of South Tipp he might as well have been trying to put the bite on Rotchchild some, I believe, would have coughed up, but the general response was so poor that the project had to be abandoned.
“It’s good to be back, it’s good to see some of the old faces and places,” said Mr. Mick Gunne, of The Green, Fethard, home from the States for the first time in 27 years since he emigrated in 1926. Mick’s visit was a spur-of-the-moment one. I should mention that I met Mick immediately on his arrival. When his annual vacation was due, a friend of his, also Irish, returned from Ireland where she had been holidaying for a week. Mick’s wife thought it would be nice for him to pay a visit to his mother, Mrs. Johanna Gunne, in Fethard, and before the week was out Mick had booked his passage by air and arrived home to Fethard last week.
When he emigrated at the age of twenty, Mick was one of the most prominent players on the then famous Fethard football team and his reminiscences of these great days are worth listening to. They were good days for football but not living in, and Mick decided to seek his fortune in the “golden streets of New York.” He, like others, found that New York’s streets were hard, weary pavements and in the 1930 they were even harder, when thousands of wandering Irish emigrants tramped them looking for work during the depression. Mick, however, got by. A dollar went a long way in those days and he tided the times over by occasional work. Now he is comparatively well-off. Like most returning emigrants he issues the old warning. There is no gold to be picked up off the streets. There is nothing but hard work. You’ll get paid for it but you must work.
Mick is married to an Irish American Girl, formerly Miss Frances Griffin, whose people came from Cashel. They have two children, a boy and a girl, aged 15 and 13, respectively. He hopes to bring them to Ireland some time for a holiday.
There is an old Irish saying, "Imuigheann na daoine ach fannain na Cnuic” (the people go but the hills remain) and so Mick has found it in Fethard the town has changed little. A striking feature though and a most welcome one, he says, is the number of modern houses built since his time. Otherwise, it’s the same old Fethard. Many of the people he knew then have gone. Some are left and with them he has recaptured some of the old leisurely ways of the friendly people there.
In New York with him there are other Fethard men. Tom Healy, Ned Shea and Ned Cummins, all great footballers of the old Fethard team which made history in the years 1917 to 1925. But that is all in the past and soon Mick will board his plane and wing his way back to “Li’l ole New York.”
The Augustinian Abbey of Fethard is probably the oldest Church in Ireland which is still being used as a place of worship, having its foundation date around about the twelfth century. Two churches, both named the Holy Trinity, the Catholic and Protestant, appear to have changed hands once or twice during their lives. What was once the Protestant is now the Catholic and vice versa. For a small town Fethard has two beautiful schools, the Patrician Primary and Secondary for boys and the Presentation Primary and Secondary Schools.
The Archbishop of Brisbane, Dr. Thomas O’Donnell, is, I learned, a native of Fethard. Dr. O’Donnell is a brother to Mrs. Carri, Clonmel.
I was surprised to hear that this little town once had a Corporation. It was, of course, an old garrison town and at one time held no fewer than 3,000 troops. A portion of the old town wall, like that of its big brother on the Suir, still stands as a grim reminder of the fact that Fethard wasn’t always as peaceful as it is today.