A walk through Fermoy’s garrison past

The small gravestone still reads “Sacred to the memory of Jane, daughter of Edwd. and Maria Jennings, 39th Regt, who died Jan 31st 1869 aged 2.”

Across Fermoy’s military cemetery – behind Fermoy Soccer Club and the Famine graveyard – other children are remembered. “Bertie Gordon, Died 28th July 1898, aged 2. Thy will be done.”

“Sacred to the memory of William James The beloved son of Emily and Willm. Babbington 2nd Connt. Rangers Died 15th March 1885 Aged 16 months.”

“Emily Helena (indecipherable) Daughter. But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand.”

“Infant mortality would have been astronomical then,” says Dr Aoife Bhreatnach, “but what is doubly tragic is that a military family might bury a child here and then be posted to the other side of the Empire.”

Bhreatnach is a historian specialising in garrison towns and she shares a wealth of knowledge as we walk what was once Fermoy’s British Army barracks, and what is now sports grounds.

Fermoy’s modern history dates from 1791, when Scots businessman John Anderson purchased lands once belonging to the old Cistercian Abbey.

France’s failed 1796 invasion of Ireland terrified the British Government, and it sought land for military bases. Fermoy was an ideal location and Anderson offered them a free site.

In 1807 Rev J. Hall described Fermoy as “rising fast into importance and containing about two thousand inhabitants, besides barracks for as many soldiers. A few years ago, Fermoy consisted of only a few miserable huts.” At the height of Fermoy’s time as a garrison town, 3,300 troops were stationed there.

Bhreatnach paints a fascinating picture of life in a garrison town, with uniformed soldiers part of everyday street life. Troops paraded to Sunday religious services, marched to and from train stations and performed manoeuvres and reviews in public parks.

The British army was a vital part of the town’s economy. Barrack quartermasters purchased wholesale alcohol for the officers’ and soldiers’ messes, where copious amounts of wine, beer and spirits were served.

“Approximately half the accounts of McAuliffe’s public house on Barrack Hill were with the military,” Bhreatnach says.

Bhreatnach notes that from 1893 to 1903, 30% of the customers in Hickey’s, Fermoy, were military officers and senior NCOs. Hickey’s also supplied garrisons in Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Kerry. The laundry of those clothes also proved a valuable source of income for charitable institutions such as Fermoy’s Presentation Convent.

In recent years, Fermoy Sub-Aqua Club recovered from the O’Neill Crowley Quay riverbed a quantity of pocket watches. They date back to an incident during the War of Independence. In September 1919, Liam Lynch and a column of Cork No. 2 Brigade I.R.A. – including Michael Fitzgerald – ambushed a group of British soldiers on their way to Fermoy’s Wesleyan Church (Now Avondhu Motor Factors).

One soldier, 20 year old Private William Jones, was killed, and another, Private Lloyd, was injured.

Private Jones was – reputedly – the first British soldier killed in the War of Independence.

Today, there is a monument where Private Jones died. It remembers Mick Fitzgerald, who died a year later on hunger strike in Cork Gaol. Fitzgerald’s death – and the subsequent deaths of his fellow prisoners, Joe Murphy and Terence McSwiney – brought global attention to the cause of Irish independence.

British forces sacked the town in retaliation and in reaction to the coroner’s inquest, which recorded a verdict of ‘Accidental death, unpremeditated’. The soldiers’ actions were highly co-ordinated but it was claimed “the men” had acted spontaneously.

Lieutenant Colonel Hughes-Hallett, posted in Fermoy at the time, recalled: (They) “proceeded to every shop or place of business of the coroner and the members of the jury… the jeweller’s (Barber’s), the Boot Shop (Tyler’s) and (Lombard’s) and the foreman of the Jury, etc, were all faithfully dealt with. Trays of rings and watches were soon being flung into the river. A chain of men… smashed bottles on the pavement, and drink flowed in a stream down the gutter.”

The Irish Times reported a later town meeting and a bitter exchange between Colonel Dobbs – representing the British army – and Mr Kelleher, vice-chairman of the Urban Council. Dobbs agreed to a request that he confine the troops to quarters, but – angered by the jury’s verdict – warned that he would not be responsible if they got “out of hand” again.

Dobbs: “You have not the pluck to say that (Private Jones) was murdered.”

Kelleher: “There is pluck enough in the town.”

Dobbs: “Why didn’t you come forward to assist, when the men were shot? Not a man, woman or child had the pluck to come forward and give assistance.”

Kelleher: “No one came near us when our windows were broken.”

Dobbs: “Damn the windows! You have got no industry, you are simply living on the army and but for them you would be taking in each other’s washing. When this thing happens and you lose a few hundred or a few thousand pounds, you come and cry for protection.”

The British army left Fermoy in Spring 1922. In August, in the midst of the Civil War, the Barracks were torched. Afterward, a member of the Urban District Council complained that the local authority lost £3,400 in rates and an additional £450 in special water rates. The financial loss devastated the town, especially in the first economically-depressed decades of the new State.

Post-Independence, Bhreatnach says, Fermoy used street names to put its garrison past behind it. “Barrack Hill became Oliver Plunkett Hill, Mess House Lane was dubbed Colmcille Street; New Barrack Street became Sheares Street and West Barrack Street was renamed Bridget’s Street.

“Erasing the military associations gave the town an opportunity to assert a particular form of cultural nationalism, prudently focusing on uncontroversial early revolutionaries (the Sheares from 1798) and ancient saints. Erasing one past allowed local communities to pay homage to another image of Ireland.”

Almost a century later, walking with Dr Bhreatnach across Michael Fitzgerald Park, Fermoy’s GAA grounds, formerly the British Army New Barracks, I’m struck how close to us and yet how far away our history remains.

Dr Aoife Bhreatnach tweets as @GarrisonTowns. irishgarrisontowns.com

Originally published in the Evening Echo, 29th December 2016


Column: Welcome to the Oval Office, President Trump

TrumpI had a sandwich and a coffee in the Amber service station in Fermoy a few weeks ago. At the table next to me was a group of children, eating chips and enjoying the lack of adult supervision. Four boys and two girls. I’d say the oldest of them was ten. I paid no heed till I realised that they were discussing politics.

“Guys!” said a boy who had until this point been throwing ketchup sachets at one of the girls, “Imagine if Donald Trump actually won!”

“Oh my God, Donald Trump is such a racist!” replied the girl.

“If Donald Trump wins it will be The End Of The World,” said the other girl with grim certainty.

“Um,” said a boy who was stacking his chips one on top of the other in a lattice formation, “You know Donald Trump won’t be the actual president of Ireland, ‘cause that’s like President Higgins’ job?”

(From the murmur of approval which greeted this remark, I suspect Michael D would get a warm reception from Fermoy’s under-ten community, should ever he stop into Amber for a feed of chips.)

“If Donald Trump gets to be The President Of America,” said the little girl, keen to return to the apocalypse, “That’s like he’s The President Of The World!”

“Oh my God that would be SO horrible!” said the boy stacking chips. “Donald Trump is like the Worst Person Ever!”

Beside them, I thought, given we have such clued-in children, then at the least the future of this country is in safe hands.

Mind you, they wrapped up their discussion by having a competition to see who could eat the most sugar, so perhaps their political insight should be judged accordingly.

Personally, I don’t know if President Donald Trump will be The End Of The World but I do think there’s a terrifying possibility that not alone will he be the Republican candidate, I think (and the bookies say I’m wrong) there’s a good chance he might well become US president.

I get rocks thrown at me every time I say this, but I think Hillary Rodham Clinton is a godawful candidate. Every time she points at an imaginary person in the audience, I hear a voice saying “Welcome to the Oval Office, President Trump”.

Clinton is the very epitome of the political establishment against which Trump has built his seemingly-unstoppable insurgency campaign. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion —

Please read on in my column in The Avondhu

Tweeting from behind the lines of Endapalooza: Fermoy #GE16

I got a much-needed laugh on Friday night when I live-tweeted from inside Enda Kenny’s private address to the Fermoy Fine Gael faithful.

The troops were already on high alert since a local member of the Anti-Prosperity Alliance, standing inside the door of the Grand Hotel – “Aren’t you a fine-looking young man” – had refused to shake the Taoiseach’s hand.

Enda’s address was pretty dreary stuff, to be honest. Like listening to a muinteoir trying to channel a revivalist preacher. Much talk of this big company boss and that multinational CEO and the other financial big shot, all of whom had been very impressed by Ireland’s recovery and by Enda’s Chance the Gardener homespun wisdom.

“Let’s keep the recovery going” was repeated ad nauseam and the local candidates (Tom “Lapgate” Barry, Dave Stanton (although Enda called him “Staunton”) and Noel McCarthy were namechecked eight hundred and ninety-six times over the course of a speech that was about as much fun as Mass. The only good bit was when Enda terrorised the local Blue-rinse Brigade with hair-raising warnings of the Sinn Féin/Fianna Fáil zombie apocalypse which will follow a hung Dáil.

Enda’s looking well, I have to say. I hadn’t met him in ten years and his hair is now an even more grand natural colour than it was when I accidentally went on the tear with him in the Ginger Man the night Shane McEntee was elected. I’m as grey as a badger. An Taoiseach is two decades older than me and hasn’t a single grey hair on his head. Maybe he’s born with it.

(I tweeted a few bits and pieces. Harmless enough stuff. In one, earlier, tweet I said that though Enda had bought the first pint that night ten years ago, I was planning on telling him it was definitely his round now.)

Tom Lapgate sat looking desolate beside his parachuted-in ex-Labour rival Noellie Mac. I haven’t seen Tom look so uncomfortable since, well, the day after Lapgate, when poor Tom was hounded mercilessly by The Dublin Media for trying to bring a bit of much-needed levity to the Protection of Life in Pregnancy debate by innocently pawing Áine Collins TD.

MInd you, Noellie didn’t look too happy either. He seemed pale and ill-at-ease, like a man only waiting for someone to ask him why he spent the last five years criticising his Labour Party colleagues for not standing up more to the Blueshirts as they enacted their Tory pauper-culling agenda and then, first sniff of a Dáil seat, he took the Queen’s shilling. Also, I guess the big farmers and stout shopkeepers who vote FG wouldn’t be Noellie’s natural constituency and maybe this was the first time he’s been alone in a room with them.

Anyway, an aeon into his speech, Enda finally wrapped things up by offering the breathless crowd his canvassing advice: “I want ye to go out there. Go out there and knock on the door *nok nok nok* and say ‘Mary or John or Paddy or whatever your name is, we can’t afford to lave the country down’. (Long pause.)

“Go raibh mile maith agaibh!” (Rapturous applause.)

Apparently, downstairs, my tweets were sending Enda’s handlers into a tizzy that “radicals” had infiltrated the meeting. By the time a burly lad in a very expensive suit tracked me down, the Dear Leader had already been bundled down the stairs and away on the Big Blue Bus.


The big guy in the suit glared at me and said “Teas and coffees are through here, Sir, but I’ll be sure to tell the Taoiseach that it’s his round.


Donal O’Keeffe

Evening Echo Op Ed: It’s not about YES or NO, it’s all about LOVE #MarRef

On May 22nd we will be asked to extend to gay couples the same Constitutional rights and guarantees enjoyed by heterosexual couples. That’s all. Regardless of the No campaign’s hysteria, this isn’t about fear. It’s about love.

I had a pint last week with an old classmate of mine, a man with whom I’d never really got along. Had we grown up in America, where he’s lived now for nearly thirty years, he would have been a Biff Tannen type jock.

Someone in our company, a retired teacher with conservative opinions, said to me “I see you were in the wars!” (A woman with extremist Catholic views had written a letter to a local paper, denouncing LGBT people as “sodomites”. I and others had replied strongly to her homophobic ranting.) Our conversation then naturally turned to the Marriage Equality Referendum.

“Look,” I said, expecting an argument, “everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And their religion. But no-one is entitled to demean anyone for being exactly as God or nature made them. That’s why I wrote that letter. That’s why I’m voting Yes. I don’t want to see gay kids – and that’s about 10% of Ireland’s population – growing up in a country that doesn’t respect them as equals.”

“So,” drawled my now-Irish-American buddy, after a long swig from his Guinness, “What are we talking here? This vote? Is this about gays getting to sanctify their love in civil law? Is this about you guys saying okay, look, gays are the same as any other citizen?

“‘Cause I gotta tell you, I’m all on board with that. I mean, love is pretty cool, right? Why deny anyone the right to love?”

The retired teacher took a sup of his pint and confided “The way I look at it, it’s not going to change my marriage one iota. If two adults are in love and want to get married, who am I to judge them?”

To be honest, I was pretty surprised and heartened by this conversation. Despite the Yes campaign’s seemingly-overwhelming lead in the polls, I worry that this lead is very soft indeed.

I agree with some on the No side that many politicians are only paying lip service to the all-party support for the upcoming referendum. One local councillor all-but wept to me recently for his love of equality and his intention to vote Yes. Shortly after, in the pub at the heart of his vote, he declared loudly that enough is enough and it’s time for rural Ireland to stand up for “traditional family values”. I doubt very much he’s the only sleeveen in the village.

There’s a cheap, dog-whistle nastiness to the phrase “traditional family values”. It ties to the stated strategy of some in the No campaign to sow what they refer to as “doubt” about the effect of a Yes vote on “the children”. The Simpsons parodied such stunt-acting with the Reverend Lovejoy’s wife, who regularly screeches “Oh won’t someone PLEASE think of the children?” Hence the No campaign’s attempted introduction of unrelated issues such as adoption and surrogacy.

Last week I attended the first meeting of the Avondhu branch of Yes Equality Cork in Fermoy’s Grand Hotel. There, Dave Roche of Yes Equality stressed that he believes civil marriage equality is not simply an LGBT rights issue but rather a matter of vital importance to all of civil society.

“Those saying ‘Isn’t civil partnership enough for them’ miss the point. Civil partnership is the result of legislation and could be removed at the stroke of a pen by a change of government, whereas civil marriage equality will extend to gay couples the same Constitutional rights and guarantees straight couples now enjoy.

“This isn’t about IVF, surrogacy, adoption or any of the other red herrings being thrown around. It’s very simply about giving Constitutional protection to civil unions. That’s all. It’s about equality, yes, but really it’s about fairness.”

Roche points out that – for all the alarmism about “redefining marriage” – redefining marriage is something we have done many times in Ireland, with the Protection of Spouses and Children Act, with divorce, and with the introduction of radical ideas like wives being able to refuse to have sex with their husbands or, indeed, women no longer being property to be handed from fathers to husbands.

Roche makes a convincing case. Marriage rights for all adults can surely only strengthen society. Your marriage – if you’re lucky enough to be married – is no more lessened by homosexual people getting married than it is by other heterosexual people getting married.

I believe that equality should be the cornerstone of our Republic. I believe that we should cherish all our children equally. Yes, this is us, the citizens of Ireland, simply extending to gay couples the same civil guarantees and rights enjoyed by straight couples, but it’s so much more than that too.

A Yes vote on May 22nd will send a powerful message of tolerance, respect and love. “Oh won’t someone please think of the children?” A Yes vote will say to our children – of whom roughly one in ten is gay – you are Irish and regardless of the colour of your eyes, the shape of your face or the love in your heart – you are as “normal” and as extraordinary as every child of this Republic.

A Yes vote is a vote for love.

Vote Yes.

Originally published in the Cork Evening Echo on Thursday 30th April 2015.