The Office of Public Works (OPW) and Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DAHG) were due to take over Frances Street at 5am. I couldn't be there quite that early, not least because I had been up writing this blog until 1:45am. The previous nine days had been organised by our local steering group, but Sunday was in the hands of the National Famine Commemoration Committee and the Dublin authorities.
I turned on the radio when I got up and was very disappointed that there was no mention of Kilrush on the early morning RTÉ news bulletins on a quiet news day when the big story was a bus strike.
I was on the road to Kilrush by 11am and was pleasantly surprised to find a parking space in a quiet Henry Street. It wasn't so quiet a moment later when Seán Sexton, who had just driven back from Dublin, pulled up in the middle of the street to ask if I could help him to find his co-author Christine Kinealy, and started a traffic jam. A couple of phone calls revealed that Christine had moved back to the Central B&B after a night in Crotty's.
I wanted to enjoy the calm before the storm and soak up the atmosphere. It was more like the storm before the calm as there was a relentless misty rain coming in off the estuary, and that was the main thing that I soaked up. The weather forecast had been promising that it would stop by lunchtime.
Seán and I wandered round into Frances Street, now closed to traffic between Toler Street and Hector Street and dominated by a massive stage outside Supervalu. Outside AIB, we bumped into Garrett Dundon who had stayed overnight with his father in Castleconnell en route from Dublin. Garrett is finishing up his master's thesis on preserving famine sites in west Clare and elsewhere and talking about going on to a PhD, so has been in regular contact with us in recent months.
The Illustrated London News sketch of Miss Kennedy distributing clothing at Kilrush has become our logo over the past four months - just one of the 18 ILN sketches reproduced on postcards; the cover of the printed programme; the 4' by 4' road signs that wouldn't fit into any of our cars; Giles Watson's haunting song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwRC5Eg3104 ); Paddy Murray's sculpture; on both podiums on the stage; and in an enormous and stunning backdrop to the stage. One of those stunned by it was Carmel Buggle, who later gave both Paul and myself an earfull on the phone about how it was not to be allowed to leave Kilrush. I had a quiet word in Mairead O'Brien's ear, Mairead had a quiet word in the ear of Mary Hurley from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and when it was taken down in the evening it was rolled up and left in Foley's Store. (If I remember correctly, Mary Hurley is the Department official who was part of the delegation who made a few site visits to Kilrush and who acted as M.C. for the afternoon.)
Now we have to figure out what to do with the stage backdrop! My biggest regret of the week is that we failed to bring any of the descendants of the Kennedys to Kilrush, despite private appeals by the Mayor and public appeals in The Irish Times. Perhaps when Paddy Murray's sculpture is mounted on its permanent pedestal outside the Town Hall we'll have another chance to organise a visit, and the backdrop from the stage could certainly be rolled out again.
I was disappointed to see folding chairs already being set out in the rain. Those for invited guests were left upright to gather the rain; those for the army band across the street were left upside down. The public later sat on their wet seats, but the band for some reason eschewed their dry seats and played standing up. We tried to get the word around that people should bring towels to dry their seats, something that I should have posted on facebook. The authorities also provided a collection of rags of various sorts for this purpose.
Seán went off to look for Christine and Garrett and I went down for a closer look at the stage and to take some photographs. As we headed back towards the Market Square, Mairead O'Brien appeared in her trusty old '93-reg jeep and relieved me of the three high-vis jackets that I had brought back from Doonbeg the night before for the stewards who were scheduled to meet at 1pm. Then a green van appeared and John Fitzgerald rolled down the window to announce that he had his brother-in-law Paddy Murray's sculpture in the back. Conor Murray was in the passenger seat and Paddy was following a few minutes behind in his own car. I opened up the `road closed' barriers to let them through, and introduced them to Des Swords, who was running the show on behalf of the OPW.
There was a long standoff over the arrangements for the unveiling. The sculpture, destined to be ultimately mounted on a stone plinth outside the Town Hall, was unloaded and left on the ground. Paddy had a brought a sturdy but rusty metal table, on which to mount it, and a lovely black curtain specially made to hide this rusty base. Des insisted that the President wouldn't be able to reach it if it was lifted onto this base, and that he wouldn't be able to pull a heavy curtain of the size necessary to cover it. Paddy insisted on lifting it onto the stand where it looked magnificent and Des found himself in a minority of one. Connie Prendiville was also on hand to take pictures and went off and found a scissors to cut the holes in the black curtain necessary to screw the monument to the base. A few fingers were nearly crushed as the curtain was tucked under the base. Eventually we reached a compromise and agreed that only the stone plaque with the Miss Kennedy image would be covered with the unveiling curtain and the metal arms surrounding it would be left exposed. Just as well that we didn't go to the trouble of getting the curtains that Paddy and I had designed the previous Monday made up.
This inscription appears on the back of the Miss Kennedy picture:
"Dedicated to the benevolent efforts of two friends of the poor, Captain (later Sir) Arthur Edward Kennedy (1810-1883) and his daughter Elizabeth Henrietta Kennedy (1842-1925), later Countess of Clanwilliam, during their time in Kilrush Poor Law Union (1847-1850)."
The names of the 13 electoral divisions of the original Kilrush Poor Law Union appear bilingually on all four sides of both arms of the supporting steel structure, arranged from bottom to top according to their distances from Kilrush:
[Group 1 - parishes adjoining Kilrush]
Kilmacduane/[Ainm Gaeilge le deimhniú ag logainm.ie!]
Kilmurry (Clonderalaw)/Cill Mhuire (Cluain idir Dhá Lá)
[Group 2 - one parish from Kilrush]
Kilmurry (Ibrickan)/Cill Mhuire Uí Bhreacáin
Killofin/Cill Lua Finn
[Group 3 - two parishes away from Kilrush]
Kilballyowen/Cill Bhaile Eoghain
Killadysert/Cill an Dísirt
When the compromise was agreed, it was just coming up to time for the noon Famine Folk Mass around the corner in Saint Senan's Church, which was very nicely done. This was the last of the `babies' handed out by Mairead O'Brien at our community meeting back in February, in this case being handed to her sister Lisa Walsh. Most of the various symbols of famine etc. used during the ecumenical service in Doonbeg the night before were reused. Fr. Sheedy urged the congregation to remove their cars from Hector Street and Toler Street ASAP after mass as these streets were also to be closed to facilitate the commemoration. I bumped into Michael Carmody leaving the church and sympathised with him on the death of his brother and thanked him again for his talk on the stained glass windows on Wednesday. I had just photographed the inscriptions on the Kelly windows which he drew to my attention on Wednesday.
Nick Reddan from Canberra texted me at 12:55 to say that he was in Kilrush. Not bad progress since he had e-mailed me from his hotel room in London at 5:25am, since when he had flown to Dublin, and driven to Kilrush! He had been at last year's commemoration in Drogheda with Paul and myself.
After mass, I walked round to Quay Mills to see if any help was needed with arrangements for stewarding, but all appeared under control, and it was mostly performers making preparations in the foyer. Meanwhile, the army were rehearsing in Frances Street. I also stopped to take a photo of P J Murrihy and his wife Mary and of several members of the Crack'd Spoon Theatre Company as they arrived for rehearsals and last-minute instructions.
There was no sign of the hoped-for flotilla in the estuary which had to be cancelled due to a gale warning and the general bad weather. The absence of the Celtic Mist, stranded in Wexford by gales all week, and of the Navy, had already put a big hole in this part of our plans.
As I passed the Monastery, Edel Glynn was coming from mass (also for her mother-in-law's fourth anniversary, as well as for the famine victims) and wanted to bring me in out of the rain, but I wanted to be out in it!
Next task was to visit Supervalu for another copy of the Clare Champion for Patricia Zanini, whose presence in the diplomatic delegation was reported in it; for two plastic bags to keep dry the various things I had to give to Patricia and to Mary Troy; and for a pack of tissues, in case I needed them to keep my spectacles dry throughout the day.
By now the stewards were in place and crowds were beginning to gather. Morgan Roughan and Rebekah Comerford were on stewarding duty together outside Supervalu, well wrapped up in waterproof gear and high-vis jackets and umbrellas. Pat Cusack and Brian Sheehan, both home from Dublin, arrived as I was chatting to them. Morgan has multiple careers - eircom employee in Limerick; genealogy student; volunteer sound technician in the Teach Ceoil; and professional singer. I'd seen his gig advertised in Igoe's window in Doonbeg for 11pm the day before, but suddenly realised that I was in Igoe's at 11pm and there was no sign of him --- he was so absorbed in Famine Commemoration that he got his dates confused and forgot all about it until he got a phone call reminding him at 11:05pm!
Mary Rose Counihan was stewarding further up the street in a clear plastic waterproof poncho. I discovered that she had a pocket full of these and she gave me one in case I needed it later.
I spotted Patricia and Maurizio Zanini walking in front of me as I headed back up Frances Street towards Market Square again, and hollered at them. They waited in their chauffeur-driven car outside Crottys as I ran round the corner to my own car in Henry Street and then to get Paul O'Brien from the Buttermarket (where I also met Kay and Arthur Caball, entertaining a great great granddaughter of Ellen Powell - one of the Earl Grey 'Orphans' from Killarney Workhouse - who later said that she was 'overwhelmed' by the day).
In gratitude for the Zaninis' recent hospitality to us at a Tuscan Evening in Lucan House, Paul and I gave her two Clare history books which mentioned her Kilrush relatives - Sr. Pius's history of the Convent of Mercy, as Patricia's greatgreatgrandfather Daniel Scanlan Bulger was on the convent committee in the 1850s; and Tom Burnell's book on the Clare War Dead, which lists her greatuncle José Laurent Tinchant who was killed in the Belgian Army in 1915, when his grandmother Mrs Bulger was still living in Lisdoonvarna.
The crowd was really beginning to gather at this stage, and we took photos outside Crotty's with Michael O'Connell (I'm sure it's the first time I ever saw him in a suit and tie, and probably the first time he saw me in a suit and tie), John Pierse from Listowel, Ciarán Dalton from Ardfert (who went missing for a while, trying to buy a pair of waterproof leggings), Patricia McCarthy from Shannon, Clara Hoyne and John Bradley from Clare Roots Society, Pat Daly (Mayor of Clare), Ger Dollard (Ennis Town Manager), Nick Reddan, Michelle Shannon (Raidió Corca Baiscinn), Seán Sexton, etc. The rain finally began to ease off at this stage.
Then it was time to present our invitations to Mary Rose for checking and look for the row of seats reserved for Famine Commemoration Committee, which we had been advised included both the National and local committees. We were immediately behind the diplomatic contingent. Mary Troy (against her doctor's advice) and her granddaughter Abbie were among the first to be seated in unreserved seats, so I went over and gave Mary the copy of Matt Lynch's book which she had asked for.
Rene Franklin and Congella McGuire were worried about getting all their finery soaked and were very impressed that I was able to run off (as far as Mary Rose who had just checked our tickets) and be back in a few seconds with two plastic ponchos for them. I dried a chair with one of the rags provided and sat between Rene and Paul. Someone with connections to the National committee sitting on Paul's other side later told him that she had attended all four previous National Commemorations, but that this was the first one which moved her to tears.
Miriam Scahill and Nick Reddan thought more carefully about where to sit and had relatively unimpeded views from aisle seats on my left. Several heavy showers blew through during proceedings, causing a forest of umbrellas to go up, completely blocking any view that I had of the stage. Paul and Nick and I probably had better views standing behind the barriers at Drogheda had last year than what I had this year! There were numerous photographers running around also blocking our views, ranging from John Kelly of the Clare Champion to Arthur Ellis, the Department's official photographer, to RTÉ cameramen. Mary Kennedy of RTÉ (presumably no relation to Captain Kennedy) did various pieces to camera for Nationwide while different parts of the ceremony went on behind her.
Niamh McNamara from Clare FM, who were broadcasting the whole event live, phoned me just before things got underway and asked me to come up to the stage and say a few words live on air to John Cooke. The two Mayors and Siobhan Garvey and John Corry were also queuing up to talk to him.
To our pleasant surprise, one of the new RTÉ channels was also broadcasting live on TV. I learned later that word of this spread around the west Clare grapevine, but unfortunately we weren't advised to announce it in advance on either facebook or website.
I couldn't help glancing back and forth from the row of old cornstores on my right (Behan's, Foley's and Kelly's), all formerly used as Auxiliary Workhouses, to the stage on the left. The staff of Supervalu had the best view, as they (apart from the Mayor, who was off duty and sitting in the front row!) were able to get out on the roof of their building.
|Behan's Store (nearest camera), Foley's Store and Kelly's Store, all used as Auxiliary Workhouses during the Great Famine, alongside the stage at the National Famine Commemoration 2013.|
I'm not going to try to name all those who attended. There were widely varying estimates of the total attendance. From where I was sitting I had no view of those at the back standing and watching on a big screen. P J Murrihy estimated the crowd watching him sing the West Clare Famine Song at 4,000, but others said perhaps 3,000.
Minister Deenihan was the first to be escorted to the stage, followed by President Higgins. After Minister Deenihan's welcome, P J Murrihy took to the stage. I'd heard the West Clare Famine Song many times, either performed by iPod and speaker or (at Cammoge and at the Churchyard rededication on Saturday) by P J accompanying himself on guitar, while I held the microphone. For his big day, he had three accompanists, on accordion, mandolin and harp.
The two Mayors then read the extracts from the Illustrated London News that I had selected for them months ago. Mairead had been rehearsing hers about scalps and scalpeens since day 1, but Pat Daly told her when he arrived that he hadn't read his piece about Miss Kennedy at all! I'm sorry I didn't know in time about the Mary McMahon soliloquy which would have been much more suitable.
Ciarán Ó Murchadha read beautifully as Gaeilge.
Crack'd Spoon Theatre Company was undoubtedly up to its usual standard, and seemed to move the Higginses to tears, but from where I was sitting I couldn't see what was happening.
Prayers by Jewish, Christian and Islamic representatives followed. The latter read from the Koran in Arabic, the only part of the ceremony which I didn't understand. The Christian churches were represented by the Catholic and Anglican bishops (Kieran O'Reilly and Trevor Williams respectively) and by Vicky Lynch again.
Around this stage an almighty gust of wind blew the accumulated rainwater from the roof of the stage down on top of whoever was unfortunate enough to be standing beside it!
Assumpta Kennedy sang Lone Shanakyle as beautifully as ever.
The dance piece performed in the rain by Banner Productions under the direction of Jenny Bassett was the only part of the ceremony that was really new to me, not having been performed either in Drogheda last year or anywhere else during the local commemorations.
Then it was time for a fine speech by Michael D. Higgins, who struck exactly the right note.
After his speech, he left the stage to plant a tree in a ceremonial pot, to unveil Paddy Murray's sculpture, and to lay the first of a number of wreaths, followed by 36 ambassadors or other diplomatic representatives. The office of U.S. Ambassador to Ireland is currently vacant, but there was a U.S. representative present. Well over 40 ambassadors had originally accepted invitations, but some cancelled later.
As the shivering crowd made their way to Foley's Store and the new Quay Mills foyer for some welcome heat and tea and biscuits, to which everyone was invited, work was already beginning on disassembling the stage and clearing the street.
The reaction to the afternoon's events was overwhelmingly positive. Cillian Murphy was almost lost for words as we made our way into Foley's Store together. He introduced me again to his wife Mary Redmond, who was unaware when he had our little chat about soup kitchen recipes away back at the start of the week that we are fourth cousins once removed and that the Waldron family stayed with their cousins in Pink Lodge in Kilkee from at least as early as 1916, long before it became the Strand Hotel, as it was when Mary's mother was growing up there.
Simon Berrow, of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group and the Celtic Mist, whom I hadn't met before, came over to congratulate me on my contribution to the organisation of the event. I learned from him that his crew member on the Celtic Mist and my second cousin and namesake Padraic de Bhaldraithe is godfather to one of the President's children! I knew they were friendly, but only since I saw Padraic sitting in the front row in Dublin Castle for Michael D's inauguration.
I didn't go into the foyer, where Seisiún na hÓige performed traditional music, accompanied by the Browne boys, to their mother's obvious delight. The President eventually began to make his way through the crowd in the Foley's Store side of the complex, where I had a few words with him about our mutual acquaintance, Padraic eile. Later, his handlers moved him into the corner for an impromptu press conference with Peter O'Connell of the Clare Champion and other representatives of local and national media. Meanwhile, the local steering committee were lined up against the wall nearby and shot by a large group of photographers, nobody prepared to move until the President and his wife eventually got away from the pressmen and into the photograph. I gave Clara my camera, but the battery, recharged the night before, was worn out after 176 photos, so I have to rely on others for pictures of myself with the President and on my memory for what happened afterwards.
Mary Troy phoned me on Monday, delighted that herself and Abbie had been photographed by Josephine Glynn with Michael D., but very anxious to get a phone number for Josephine so that she could ask for a copy of the photograph.
Some people skipped the reception. Larry Brennan had left his mobile phone on the seat of his car and was terrified that it would attract the attention of thieves. Terry Fitzgerald and Laura Danielson were so cold and in need of a break that they ended up back at Crotty's for an early dinner. Jimmy Deenihan had another engagement in Killimer at 6pm, so if he came in he didn't stay long.
Eventually the tea (in paper cups) and biscuits ran out and people began to disperse until only the committee and their family members and a few more hard core followers like Nick Reddan and Clara Hoyne were left. Randal Counihan had brought a couple of floral arrangements which were not sufficiently wind-proof to be put on the stage, but were in the foyer with two armchairs between them, where Mairead sat and was photographed with various men, not including her camera-shy husband. On the way up Frances Street, she was secretly photographed from behind linking arms with Paul. There were rumours that they had acted out a Romeo and Juliet scene on the town hall balcony after the Hermitage Green concert the night before. They had certainly toured the whole town hall trying in vain to find the light switches before locking up.
The decision was finally made that we would go for something to eat in the Haven Arms, the best equipped place in Kilrush for catering for large groups. On the way, we passed and congratulated the street cleaner who had the town looking spotless again. He had missed one of the laminated `Reserved' notices from Frances Street, which I instead retrieved for Rene's archive of the week. The group who ended up in the Haven included lots of O'Briens, some related, some not (Mairead, Stephen, David, Andrew, Paul and Ann); also Dickie Burke, Rene, Congella, Dolores Hamill, Clara, Randal and Mary Rose, Michael, myself and maybe one or two others. People were getting a little silly by the time dessert came around and I was criticised for being prepared to eat a knickerbocker glory (described on the menu merely as `selection of ice-cream') but not being prepared to enter the knicker-hanging competition during the family fun day.
The hard core moved on to Crotty's, where we began to sort out each other's future lives. Having done everything voluntarily this year, we discussed the consulting fees which we might charge for organising next year's event in Connacht. Paul O'Brien wants Rene's job as Clare County Archivist. Rene misses Dublin where she studied at UCD but can't afford to live there. I have inherited a house and an archive in Dublin and need a tenant and an archivist, so I offered Rene both roles, so that I can eventually sell up and buy a place in the west. The consensus was that Kilrush House would be the ideal place to house my books and bookcases, but Paul dissented, as he expects the Glynns to give the house to him in gratitude when he finishes his PhD and book on the Glynn history!
I finally had a proper chat with the Fitzgerald sisters, who packed so much genealogy and famine into their week in Kilrush and were not looking forward to flying back to Seattle the following morning. We plotted how best to share their Famine Commemoration experiences with their mother, who has Alzheimer's, hates flying, is desperate to return home to Kilrush, doesn't know that they've been here without her, doesn't remember that she had three stents in her heart a few weeks ago, but can still sing the Irish National Anthem as Gaeilge in its entirety. They were hoping that they would be able to find some footage of the day on the internet to show her, but footage in which they would not appear! We did not consider the very real possibility, suggested by some on our facebook page, that RTÉ not be to available to an elderly and ill Kilrush woman just because she is in the U.S.
When I realised that it was after 11pm, I decided that politeness demanded that I return to my hosts in Doonbeg, so I left Paul in the company of five good-looking women - Rene, Mairead, Dolores H, Terry and Laura - and headed off, ready to sleep for a week.
I didn't even think about turning on my laptop when I got in, but Paddy and Dolores Murrihy still kept me up chatting until nearly 2am.
Thank you to all who have followed this blog over the past 10 days, and even to those who have suggested that I should continue, although the Famine Commemoration has now drawn to a close. I hope I haven't unintentionally libelled anyone or invaded anyone's privacy.
Thanks especially to the hundreds of people who have helped out in hundreds of ways over the last ten days since we got underway in Carrigaholt; over the last four months since Kilrush was announced as the venue; and over the last sixteen months since I dropped a tiny pebble into the ocean that is facebook, a pebble which has sent out ripples far bigger and wider than I ever could have anticipated:
Reposted in part here for non Facebook Users...
Over and out.
More photos available at
EDITOR'S NOTE: I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Paddy Waldron for agreeing to be Guest Blogger during the National Famine Commemoration in Kilrush, 2013. I don't think either of us knew just how big an ask this was to be... or how much time it would take for both of us in putting this series together. Paddy has created a series that will be of great interest for many years to come.. by detailing the events, the places and the names of so many involved...a genealogist's treasure chest.
Paddy has the knack of taking us all on this wonderful adventure with him... I had been invited to attend in my capacity as a fellow member of the Clare Roots Society Committee, but was unable to accept due to family commitments. However, thanks to Paddy, I feel I have been there in the next best way.
If, like me, you appreciate being able to be there virtually, please leave your comments below.
Thank you to each and every one who has been involved in this great event in whatever capacity. This is definitely part of living history.
To complete this series, I am asking anyone who was there if they would like to share their photos, their summaries, their feelings so that we can all enjoy them. I will create a dedicated page for the Commemoration with links to Paddy's series of posts.
You can contact me via Facebook, or email at the address given in the About Me column.