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The Nationalist
Saturday 26 February 2000

    Benign bibliomania in ballroom
    Miscellany by Michael Coady

      Along with friend and fellow writer Edward Power I went to the annual Tipperariana Book Fair in Fethard recently – and came away with my admiration for Fethard again confirmed and reinforced.

      This annual occasion is a bibliomaniac's dream: a pleasant Sunday afternoon with Fethard Ballroom entirely given over to stalls with books of all kinds, from valuable antiquarian volumes to cheap paperbacks to new publications – especially ones with some regional provenance. And a large and good-humoured crowd present.

      'Isn't it great to see so many people interested in books?' commented organiser Terry Cunningham.

      There was also a café in operation, and – an unusual and charming touch – live music from pianist Lisa O'Sullivan throughout the course of the afternoon.

      Once again Fethard Historical Society showed its dynamism and flair in putting on this annual event, which is now well established and has a warm and sociable atmosphere as well as a relaxed but professional set-up. I was there as a book lover and also as an author, with wares of my own on offer.

      As a matter of fact I was no sooner installed in my own book-displaying berth than my neighbouring vendor Pat Slattery was offering to barter for my Full Tide a copy of his memoir Growing Up in Carefree Days – the kind of modest publication which may not find wide distribution but is a record of authentic social history (The Rose Press, Garryroan, Cahir).

      Apart from book browsing, one of the great pleasures of the event for me is meeting people – from old acquaintances to new contacts or the odd quare hawk. People tend to forget that writing, of its nature, is a solitary occupation. Most of a writer's work consists of sitting alone before a computer screen or a page, trying to organise ideas and find the right words to fit them.

      This is a lonely struggle, and let no one ever pretend that it's not work. Even when the fruits of solitude and scribbling are gone out there in print the writer may get little feedback. In the case of journalism, such as this column, you occasionally hear from a reader, in person, or by letter, e-mail or phone.

      Actually one of the paradoxical things about writing a regular newspaper column is that when people enjoy what you've written they seldom get around to communicating with you to say so, even when they may vaguely have a mind to. Generally speaking it is only when readers disagree with you strongly that they become motivated to the extent of responding.

      In the case of a book you may get a good, bad or middling review by way of response. Those who write fiction or literature may give readings and so encounter a live audience. But on the whole the essential truth remains: writers labour in solitary confinement and seldom get to meet their readers and hear their direct response.

      I met some of my readers at the Fethard Book Fair, and I also had the pleasure of meeting other writers, as well as some scholars. Across the aisle from me was Seán O'Donnell, author of the recently published study, Clonmel 1860-1900.

      The publisher of that learned volume, geographer, author and distinguished Tipp-man Willie Nolan hovered nearby, along with a raft of his Geography Publications books, amongst the most recent of which is Kilcash 1190-1801, by John and Phil Flood. Before Christmas I had the pleasure of being present in Kilcash at the launch of that illuminating book.

      Willie Nolan had some excellent discount offers on the table, amongst them Séamus Ó Riain's biography of Maurice Davin, and Séamas Moylan's The Language of Kilkenny. These were first class books and bargains not to be missed and may still be available on discount terms directly from Geography Publications (24 Kensington Road, Templeogue, Dublin 6W).

      Surrounded by such scholars in Fethard I was especially pleased to be able to offer my congratulations in person to Angela Bourke, who had come to meet readers and sign copies of her remarkable book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary.

      I would unhesitatingly name The Burning of Bridget Cleary (Pimlico, paperback), as my overall book of the year for 1999. Angela Bourke is a folklorist as well as Senior Lecturer in Irish at UCD. She is also a gifted creative writer who is incapable of writing a dull paragraph.

      In advance of her book I was aware of some of Angela's work on the famous Bridget Cleary tragedy of 1895 at Ballyvadlea. She contributed a paper on aspects of the subject to the 1998 issue of the indispensable Tipperary Historical Journal, ed. Marcus Bourke (no relation).

      In addition, a year ago I heard Angela speak brilliantly on the same topic at the unfailingly stimulating Kilkenny VEC Arts Education annual series of lectures organised by Proinsias Ó Drisceoil (as I write, this year's series is still running on successive Thursday nights at Butler House, Kilkenny).

      So I had some foretaste of the quality of the work Angela Bourke was doing on the Ballyvadlea tragedy but was still bowled over by her book when it appeared last year – the fruit of some five years of work. It is a book of dazzling intelligence and meticulous scholarship, graced with a highly accomplished writing style and distinguished by deeply original method and insight.

      To her telling of the story the author also brings uncommon qualities of cultural comprehension, sympathy and respect for people and place, then and now. The Burning of Bridget Cleary is also an exceptionally well-designed book, with some rare photographs, including the original 1895 official RIC photos of the Cleary cottage, bedroom and kitchen, taken only days after the gruesome tragedy which turned the attention of the national and international press on South Tipperary more than a century ago.

      When we met at the Fethard Book Fair, Angela Bourke told me that she returned to Ireland just before Christmas, following a three-month academic stint in Japan, and is delighted by the success her book is having.

      All in all I enjoyed a lovely day in Fethard, a place which seems to have much more cultural awareness and activity than numerous places many times its size, and has one of the best community web sites anywhere, designed and maintained by Joe Kenny.

      Even apart from the annual Book Fair, a visit to Fethard is always pleasurable, whether to view the restored Town Walls, to attend a performance at the Abymill Theatre or to greet old friends.

      There's a Fethard 'car boot' sale on Sunday afternoons if you're fond of that kind of browsing, and if you go to that location don't fail to visit the excellent Transport Museum, which, among numerous fascinating exhibits, has a magnificently elevated and elaborate Victorian horse-drawn hearse with glass sides – originally from Thurles, I believe, and one of the most impressive things I've ever seen.

      Yes folks, you can see that I have an old fondness for Fethard, and I even carry a special grá for the little road to there from Kilsheelan that winds around the butt of the mountain and meets other companionably wandering little roads along the way.

      That road around the base of Slievenamon can be particularly magical on a still moonlit night when the fabled mountain's presence is like some palpable all-encompassing spirit. Let's hope our little roads are never straightened out and rationalised, and that the ancient spirits never leave the mountain.



This site is maintained by Joe Kenny, Rocklow Road, Fethard, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.