Launch of Hidden Gems & Forgotten People Exhibition in
31 October 2017
This was the sixth of the nine planned Exhibitions throughout the province. Thanks are due to Librarian Una Matthwson and her staff for their help in making it happen and maintaining it during its three-week stay.
Johnny Dooher, in the absence of Federation chairman, Pat Devlin, made some introductory remarks apologising for the unavoidable absence of the chairman and thanking Letterkenny Library for hosting the exhibition. He asked chief Librarian, Una Matthewson, to say a few words in introduction and she expressed her delight at being asked to host the exhibition and felt it would be a very rewarding project for the Library users to see.
Johnny then gave a brief outline of the aims of the project and of its growing success over the two years since its launch. He stressed its value as showcasing local heritage and helping to develop a greater awareness of the richness of that heritage on a countrywide basis. It was also a joint project between the two main Local History Federations in Ireland and the interaction in building up the exhibition helped cement the sense of a shared heritage that could appeal to most people. He thanked Una and the library staff for their help in erecting the visual display and hoped that it would spark a rush of additional ‘gems’ from throughout Donegal. He felt that the three speakers, all of whom so closely identified with local history and heritage, would help illustrate the richness of cultural studies in Donegal and throughout Ulster and called on Helen Meehan, a legend in historical research and writing not only in Donegal but in many of the surrounding counties, to say a few words on the project and local studies in general.
Helen Meehan, Co. Donegal Historical Society, welcomed all who are here today for the opening of the exhibition ‘Hidden Gems and Forgotten People’.
It is said that out of every 10 worthy books which are published only one survives to become a classic, the other 9 and their authors are soon forgotten and become forgotten people.
And when we think of the views we see in the media of beauty spots – and I will use examples far away from Ulster – taking as examples – from Kerry we always see the Lakes of Killarney and from Cork we always see Blarney Castle – all their other spots and gems remain hidden. And I fear it is the same here in Ulster. It is of course one of the great strengths of FULS that it covers the historic and geographical 9 counties of the Province. When we reflect on it we remember that the political Border isn’t a 100 years in existence while Donegal here was part of Ulster for thousands of years and it was also one of the escheated counties of the of the early 17th Century.
Others will talk more about the exhibition in general and about FULS – I will concentrate mostly on Donegal.
The examples on display here indeed show the cross County borders of many of them. For example the now largely forgotten writer Mount Charles born Seamus McManus spent most of his life in the USA, his wife Ethna Carbery only spent one year of her life in Donegal. She was active in the Revival efforts in Belfast and co-founder of the Shan Van Vocht. The other founder of the Shan Van Vocht Alice Milligan is in the Tyrone section – as she was a native of Omagh. Alice’s sister Charlotte Milligan Fox who published ‘Songs of the Irish Harpers’ and Annals of the Irish Harpers is to be seen in the Belfast section.
Not all the people in the Donegal section are writers – Sam Smyth was the dispensary doctor based in Dungloe 100 years ago. Aranmore Island was in his district and when fever broke out – such was the fear of contagion that nobody was willing to row patients to the mainland to get to Glenties hospital. The doctor and a friend rowed the curraghs themselves. The doctor contacted the fever and died a young man.
Two past presidents of Donegal Historical Society star in the exhibiton Dr JH Beuglass a founder member was president in 1951 – he was a Presbyterian minister based in Ballinadrait while Harry Swan a native of Buncrana was the 1965 president and a vice-president from 1946. He is famous for his writings about Innishowen. Women aren’t forgotten, the most internationally known – who is scarely known here in Donegal is Kathleen Antonelle – Kathleen McNulty, born of Creeslough parents in the early 1920’s was educated in USA. The world’s first general purpose digital computer called ENIAC was being developed in the 1940’s and Kathleen and five others were given the task of programming ENIAC to perform calculations for the U.S Military. Kathleen has been honoured by LYIT – they have established an award for the best computer science student each year – called ‘The Kay McNulty Medal and Prize’.
The hidden gems cover a long span of time – these include the pre-historic Megalith – the Garnahalowey Stone and the medieval Drumhallagh Cross Slab. While Rathmullan Abbey founded by Mary, wife of McSweeney who brought the Carmelites there was built in the 16th Century. Nearby Killydonnell Friary is a Franciscan Foundation.
I could go on but if I tell you all about the exhibition people may say “we know it all now”. It would be like the Book launch where the author told so much of the contents that people said “there was no need to buy it, as they knew all about it”.
But that is not my aim – or two aims really. One is that people visit and view the exhibition – the other is that Donegal people will contribute more material to it so that our worthy people will not be forgotten and that our sights/sites/gems be not hidden gems.
Joseph Gallagher, County Donegal Heritage Officer, Donegal County Council welcomed the ‘Hidden Gems, Forgotten People’ initiative by the Federation for Ulster Local Studies and the Federation of Local History Societies. He emphasised the ways in which the initiative has the ability to integrate people and place, and to link history with material culture. Our material culture is a tangible reminder of our history and our cultural landscape is like a palimpsest with each generation leaving its imprint on it. The initiative records local history and significant heritage sites and he emphasised the need to celebrate the ordinary but authentic in our local history and heritage.
The ‘Hidden Gems’ documented to date include archaeological sites (that have associations with landscape, geology, history, folklore and folk life) and built heritage (that highlight the potential to conserve these historic structures and invoke our diaspora). The recognition of the significance of these Hidden Gems, tangible reminders of our past, helps to establish the evidence base for the conservation of these structures and to engage people with their history. He cited numerous examples from west Donegal of the links between Hidden Gems and key local historical figures such as the original premises of the Templecrone Co-Operative Agricultural Society (‘The Cope’) at Cleendra near Dungloe established by Paddy ‘The Cope’ Gallagher; Teach Mhicí Mhic Gabhann in Doire Chonaire which was the home place of Micí Mac Gabhann whose life story was immortalised in the book ‘Rotha Mór an tSaoil’; Teach Niall Ó Dónaill in Loughanure which was the birthplace of lexicographer Niall Ó Dónaill; and ‘The Laurels’ in Glenties which was playwright Brian Friel’s mother’s and aunts’ home in Glenties and which provided inspiration for his fictional Ballybeg including his play ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’.
The ‘Hidden Gems, Forgotten People’ website could be considered an example in crowd-sourcing providing a portal whereby good quality research adds depth to our historical and cultural landscape. He suggested that the future development potential of the website might include the development of an interactive on-line map linking people with place, engaging young people in populating the website, linking QR codes at heritage sites and in tourist brochures to the profiles on the website, and helping to make the case for the preservation and conservation of these important heritage sites. He suggested that the ‘Hidden Gems, Forgotten People’ initiative emphasised the potential for history to do service to heritage, conservation, literature, tourism, people and place, and congratulated the Federation for Ulster Local Studies and the Federation of Local History Societies on the initiative
Eddie O’Kane, local historian and author, welcomed all for the opening of the exhibition, which he was delighted to launch. It was important to remember that this wass an all-Ireland initiative; a joint undertaking of the Federation for Ulster Local Studies and Federation of Local History Societies. Eddie went on to say –
It is appropriate that the exhibition should be held in Donegal as the Federation for Ulster Local Studies was instigated by the county Donegal Historical Society in Lifford in 1974.
I have been involved with the Societies for many years, having served as President of County Donegal Historical Society and as Chairman of The Federation. During the Chairmanship of John Gilmore, Arthur Spears and myself were responsible for membership of the Federation. We also addressed fundraising for the core running of the Federation.
The wealth of local knowledge and scholarship throughout the island has never ceased to impress me. One of benefits and privileges of membership of local societies is the sharing of this rich resource. The field days held by societies are guided by local people who have an intimate knowledge of their area.
“Hidden Gems and Forgotten People” draws on this knowledge to highlight another layer of local history. It seeks to highlight places and people who are not part of the usual tourist trails. The project website is a rich archive of this resource.
I have looked through many of the entries on the website and have been fascinated by the information contained there. Everyone will find different entries, which intrigue or inspire.
I would like to talk briefly about three entries, which feature people I have known myself.
The first concerns an entry by Michael Kennedy of Strabane History Society entitled
Gandhi, Strabane’s Legless Man
As a child I spent the summers with my Aunt Ellen at Woodend, Strabane. My cousins and I were fascinated by the sight of a man on a small trolly pushing himself along with his hands. We were plagued by a constant worry that he would end up under the wheels of a car or bus as he made his way along the side of the Derry Road. When we asked who he was we were told he was “Gandhi”. His story is detailed on the website. He sounds like a character straight from W. H. Davies “Autobiography of a Super-Tramp”.
The second entry concerns a Donegal man. The entry is by County Donegal Historical Society.
Dr. JAMES HARPER BEWGLAS B.A. T.C.D., D.D.(1898 -1985).
Along with his other accomplishments and achievements the Reverend Bewglass was a noted historian. He served as President of County Donegal Historical Society in 1951. Reverend Bewglass is a direct descendent of Reverend James Porter, the United Irishman. Porter’s ancestral home is directly alongside the townland of Cavanacor. Our own house, Cavanacor is the ancestral home of President James Knox Polk. For a time the Rev Bewglass lived across the valley from us, beside St Patrick’s Church Murlog.
The third entry concerns a writer and teacher.
MICHAEL McLAVERTY (1904-1992) – WriterEddie O’Kane
(Entry by Patrick Devlin)
This entry surprised me, as Michael McLaverty was a major influence on my own life and on the lives of so many others he taught. Like many of the other people included in the project he is associated with several different locations. He was born in Monaghan, moved to Belfast when he was five. He lived in Clowney Street in Beechmount on the Falls Road. I was born and reared in the next street to Clowney Street. His novel “Call my Brother Back” was based on that area so I have a particular knowledge of the landscape and characters of the novel.
Michael McLaverty was Principal of Saint Thomas’s Secondary School on the Whiterock Road Belfast. He taught me Geometry there. At times he would roam seamlessly from a discussion of geometrical structures to the literary problems of describing cloud formations or steam from a train. Later I found he had specialized in the study of clouds as part of his physics course at Queen’s University.
Seamus Heaney taught at St Thomas’s as a student teacher and regarded McLaverty as a mentor in his early years. I remember seeing McLaverty and Heaney in animated discussion with another man in the school corridor. The other man I later came to recognize as John McGahern, who was corresponding with McLaverty at the time. Later I went back to St Thomas’s as a student teacher myself.
Whether Michael McLaverty was writing about Belfast, Rathlin Island, Carrickmacross, Toome or Lecale his writing showed a strong sense of place and an intimate knowledge of the worlds surrounding him.
When I visited America in the summer of1969 to work as a student I was disappointed to find stacks of McLaverty’s books selling as remaindered copies in the Port Authority bookshop in New York. Later I read letters in the Michael McLaverty archives at the Linenhall Library Belfast, which shed light on this period. In his correspondence with his publishing agent in America McLaverty complained about their failure to properly promote his books. Perhaps this contributed to the stalling of his career at this crucial time.
I was heartened to see that his works were being republished in Ireland in the late 1970s. In an introduction to Michael McLaverty “Collected Short Stories” published by Blackstaff Press in 2002 Seamus Heaney stated, “… his place in our literature is secure.”
A good approach to mining hidden gems and remembering forgotten people is County Donegal Historical Society’s long running Annual Schools Competition. This competition encourages young people to look at the heritage of their own locality through themes such as the 1916 Rising and the First World War. Many years ago the Federation for Ulster Local Studies ran a Schools Competition entitled “How We Used to Travel”.
I commend the work of the two Federations for this important joint project and this touring exhibition and would encourage everyone to look at the Hidden Gems and Forgotten People website. There is something for everyone there. I would encourage people to make further contributions to the website through their own societies. Details and procedures for making contributions are included on the website.
The Exhibition remained on display until 18 November 2017.