By Brian Gabriel
It is not a bad thing to be inquisitive, or to wonder, about your locality and its many historical aspects. Do not stay indoors at home, but go outside, look at and explore your area. If anyone takes the trouble and looks in the right places, a great many things about our past and heritage which are worth finding can be discovered. You may ask yourself why others seem to be the lucky ones and find things, or, why all the things worth finding seem to be already found. This is not so. Do not be discouraged because while being out and about, you may be looking for one thing but may come across a different item of interest, completely unexpectedly.
To begin exploring, a very handy thing to have is an Ordnance Survey map of the area. The Ordnance, which was the Department Of Stores for the British Army, in the Tower of London, had its surveyors make maps of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and all the islands for the army. This mammoth task took almost 100 years to complete and some of the first maps were published in the early 1800’s. Although the first surveyors were unable to put as much as the modern cartographers or map-makers into their maps, if you compare an early and a later map, you can easily see the differences.
These maps are a wealth of information and can be bought reasonably cheaply at most good stationery shops. A 1 inch to the mile map will be sufficient to show the general area while a 2 or 3 inch map will mark the limits of fields, roads, houses etc. Better and bigger still at 6 inches to the mile, this large scale map will contain many smaller things such as wells and bridges, ponds and parish boundaries, as well as naming them. If you explore around your own home, be it in a town, village or in the country, one of these 6 inch maps can tell you where to find such things as old roads, footpaths, disused and abandoned old railways and it will guide you to churches, towers, castles, various ruins, standing stones, burial mounds and chambers, old forts, houses, battlefields and monuments. It will also direct you to woods, marshes, bogs, rivers, weirs and waterfalls. Older maps could possibly show a small group of houses or a farm which, maybe, today does not exist anymore.
A further help in your search could be a call to your local friendly library or a second-hand bookshop. Both of these places will have reference books on local history or specialist books on just about any aspect of it you may wish to cover, from ancient coins to place-names to holy wells. A good place to begin your exploring is in your own home, especially if it is an old or unusual one. Sometimes the old deeds of the house may be available and are well worth looking at to see the terms under which the house was built or let. If it is old, it may have been built with stones or bricks and these can be a further clue to its age as perhaps the bricks had to be imported from other places and could bear the maker’s name and date of manufacture.
Exploring then leads to the finding and collecting of information about various subjects. Collecting of objects does not necessarily mean the removal and taking of items from their historic sites. This is a job best left to the archaeologists. A notepad and pencil can be used to great effect by recording all available information about the item or perhaps sketching it. Further, as most modern cameras are very easy and cheap to use, a collection of photographs could be built up of the more unusual and rare objects. I myself, have a photographic collection of over seventy different types of letter postal boxes and, amazingly, over fifty different types of public water pumps. These photographs should make interesting viewing in years to come as An Post are replacing the old, decorated boxes with a rather non-descript modern type and the roadside public water pumps are simply ‘vanishing’.
There are many other things worth searching for around the area such as fords or stepping stone crossings of the local rivers Martin, Shournagh and Blarney. With the re-alignment of roadways, many old bridges, which are taken for granted, are being knocked and replaced by modern ones. One exceptional case is ‘The Gothic Bridge’ on the outskirts of Blarney. This bridge, which is located at the base of the Killard Road at the rear of The Scout Hall, has been spared the developer’s hammer and its beautiful ornamentation is well worth a second glance. Many small factories and water powered mills once flourished along the banks of these rivers and many of their ruins are still visible. Each one has its own varied and interesting story, fairly easily researched. What is the story behind the old fish weirs or dams or the springs and holy wells, such as All Saints Well? Well worth investigating!
The Blarney District, being noted for its limestone content, has many old lime kilns built near its rivers. Most were built around the early 1800’s and can be seen on the early Ordnance Survey maps. Due to the Napoleonic Wars, when food was scarce, farmers ploughed more land to meet the increased demand; large quantities of lime were needed to sweeten the earth for the extra crop production.
Another thing that is pleasant and interesting to know about is the meaning of the name of the place where you live. As words and pronunciations change over a period of time and names get transformed, place-names cannot always be taken to mean what they seem to mean. For instance, the name Blarney or Blárna means Little Field. Collins English Dictionary states that Blarney means deceitful talk, flattery, cajolery, coaxing or to deceive by smooth talk. An excellent book on the subject is ‘Parish Histories and Place Names of West Cork’ by Bruno O’Donoghue. All of the local parishes and townlands are named and explained in good detail, with other unusual, and interesting, bits of information included as well.
Churches are another source of varied and interesting information. The yew trees, which seem to be invariably planted in most church-yards, were once regarded as sacred. These trees which were worshipped by the ancient pagans, before they became Christians, are believed to ward off evil spirits and also are said to be associated with longevity. The famous Florence Court yew in Co. Fermanagh is claimed to be the source of most ornamental yews referred to as “Irish yew”.
Sometimes you will find graves or headstones inside a church. These, almost always, belong to rich people or to priests who had served faithfully in the parish. In olden days, poorer people’s graves were located within the churchyard but furthest away from the church, while the wealthier were buried nearer to, or even inside, the building, with the priests often being buried in front of the altar itself. A prime example being the grave, at the epistle side of the altar of St. Mary’s Church, Waterloo, of Father Matt Horgan. Many of these headstones within the churches will give a brief history of the person buried beneath with, perhaps, a carving of a face or some other symbol or emblem placed above the plaque. Eventually, when there was no more burial room left within the churchyards, new separate graveyards had to be found. Carvings of doves, lambs, dragons, serpents and many other birds and animals as well as plants and trees have religious meanings and are to be found in all sorts of nooks and crannies, high up and low down, within the church. The stained glass windows, if looked at properly, can also tell a little bit of local or religious history.
The above is just a little of what can be discovered in your local area. So by taking your notebook or camera with you and strolling around the locality, looking and finding, a whole new and rewarding interest in your local heritage can be opened up to you. An interesting addition to your new-found hobby might be to become a member of the local Blarney and District Historical Society which presents a series of interesting and topical lectures and field trips each year. In July 2015, the Society celebrated thirty years in existence, being founded in July 1985. To date, it has presented over four hundred lectures and field trips, produced ten ‘Old Blarney’ journals, as well as four ‘Old Blarney’ photo-journals. Back numbers of these journals are available by contacting Brian Gabriel on 087-2153216 or at our advertised, monthly meetings at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál (Blarney Secondary School). All are welcome to attend.