The best of times - the worst of times

If there are nuggets of consolation in history, it is that we, in Tipperary, have been here before. We have been through the best of times and the worst of times. For those in search of that consolation, the 2011 edition of “Tipperary Historical Journal” is a salutary read. And for those interested in adding another corpus of recent research to their knowledge of the county, the Journal is a necessity.

If there are nuggets of consolation in history, it is that we, in Tipperary, have been here before. We have been through the best of times and the worst of times. For those in search of that consolation, the 2011 edition of “Tipperary Historical Journal” is a salutary read. And for those interested in adding another corpus of recent research to their knowledge of the county, the Journal is a necessity.

How often have we heard it said, that “if your have your health, you have everything?” The contrasts in the quality of our health today and that of Tipperary in the 19th century, is illustrated in an article by Daniel Grace, under the title: “The Cholera Outbreak of 1832-33 in County Tipperary.”

Although cholera was a constant in the illnesses which affected humankind, its presentation in the Ireland of 1832 was particularly dramatic in its devastation. The newspapers of the time reported the disease’s rampage through the Continent, then into Britain, and its appearance in that year in Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Galway. “The Clonmel Advertiser,” however, was congratulating itself that Tipperary was unaffected. It spoke too soon, and in November of that year it struck the towns of Tipperary, Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel, with, what Daniel Grace calls, “a vengeance.”

While doctors debated its causes, it was acknowledged that overcrowding, poor living conditions, lack of a good water supply and deplorable sanitation, accommodated its rapid spread. The author quotes contemporary reports and letters: “Cashel complained of the ‘green slimy putrid pools of water’.” Carrick-on-Suir had “a great number of sink holes which required to be filled.” In Clonmel “the filth which now disgraces the town in every street” was deplored. The inhabitants of White’s Lane (off Main Street, now O’Connell Street) “are sleeping in beds little better than manure heaps.”

That pre-dated the Great Famine, but while there was much progress in medical knowledge, and services had vastly improved, the effects of the terrible influenza outbreak in the Tipperary of 1918-19 were only marginally less calamitous. Conor Brady looks at this epidemic in Clonmel, in the context of his study of the Borstal Institution.

When I was growing up in Clonmel, my parents would occasionally talk about families where a parent had died in “the great flu.” My father had a theory (completely without medical foundation) that people who had managed to drink “first-shot whiskey” in the early onset of the disease, survived. That beverage was, as I understand, not only scarce but illegal.

Conor Reidy reports that in November 1918, over 2,000 inhabitants of the town were struck down “with entire families incapacitated and lacking warmth and comfort.” Local doctors and the Red Cross organised relief efforts. In this context, the author makes special mention of Richard Bagwell of Marlfield for his generosity.

By March 1919, the worst excesses of the disease were petering out, but by then many were dead, and families left without parents, businesses without proprietors. However, according to Conor Reidy, “specific or national mortality rates were never collated.” Perhaps this was because Ireland was on the cusp of another troubled period (and especially Tipperary) in its history. But the Great Flu and its consequences left an enduring memory in the gene pool of those who had lived through it, a memory which persisted into the next generation.

That other troubled period is the subject of Denis G. Marnane’s long paper - “The War of Independence in Tipperary Town,” part two of which looks at “The Road to Soloheadbeg.” He maps that road with the eye of a professional historian: the advancement of nationalism, the influences of the Gaelic League and the GAA, the rise of militarism, political climate-change.

Then on 21st January, 1991, at Soloheadbeg, a few miles from Tipperary Town, a party of eight Irishmen (Volunteers) waited for the arrival of a consignment of gelignite at a quarry supplying stone to the County Council. Marnane writes: “Details about what happened vary, depending on whose memory is stirred and whose agenda is exercised.” Two Irishmen, members of the RIC, were fatally wounded, again in circumstances that have never been fully established.

It was the day of the meeting of the First Dáil. Authorisation for the ambush had not been given by Volunteer GHQ. Dan Breen, who had been involved, is quoted (in the Marnane paper) as saying: “Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone and we wanted to start a war.” Amongst the same list of quotations, there is another from Breen: “The only regret we had, following the ambush, was that there were only two policemen in it instead of the six we expected, because we felt that six dead policemen would have impressed the country more than a mere two.”

Coincidentally, the following article in the Journal is a contribution under the title “My First Day in the Dáil” by Sean Treacy, Labour representative for South Tipperary from 1961 to 1997 and Ceann Comhairle (1973-1977 and 1987-1997). In its longevity this must be one of the most enduring representations in the country. A reader might assume that that first day in Leinster House might have evoked memories of a young man’s response to ceremony, procedure and occasion. Instead, it is a eulogy to Dan Breen, then ill, and who welcomed the new young Tipperary TD, who describes the older man as of “Cuchulainn stature.”

The retiring Dean of St. Patrick’s, the Very Rev. R.B. McCarthy, writes about “The Cahir Estate of the 19th and 20th century,” with a nice mix of pure history and personal recollection.

Coilín O Drisceoil, an archaeologist, was commissioned by the Old Bridge Community to carry out a survey of St. Nicholas’ Church and his report is published in the Journal. It is sad that his recommendations for the preservation (in anticipation of ultimate conservation) of that medieval structure and its burial grounds, has not been implemented. He writes that the church has a tangible link with the Old Bridge community and those that came before and after them. “However, if action is not taken soon to arrest degradation of the site, it is no exaggeration to state that there will be precious little left of St. Nicholas’ for future generations to appreciate and value, as part of our shared heritage.

The 2011 edition of the “Tipperary Historical Journal” has much more on the history and heritage of the county. This is the 23rd edition, and for those fortunate enough to now have the complete collection, an up-dated index would be of great value.

The journal - costing €20 is obtainable in bookshops or directly from the County Library in Thurles.