The Vanishing Ireland Project began in 2001 when historian Turtle Bunbury and photographer James Fennell began to extensively tour Ireland in a bid to chronicle a world that seemed to be disappearing rapidly.
Eleven years later, the duo have launched three volumes of the best-selling ‘Vanishing Ireland‘ series with a fourth due out in 2013.
‘We started with people we knew’, explains Turtle. ‘They were mostly bachelor farmers in our home counties of Kildare and Carlow. Then we upped the ante and headed on a series of road trips all over Ireland, heading down every back-road we could find, sometimes on a whim but mostly because someone had recommended a particular character to us. We expanded our brief to encompass any man or woman – ideally over the age of 80 – who had experienced a traditional, working class upbringing. We sought out blacksmiths, saddlers, farmers, fishermen, housemaids, lace-makers, publicans, postmen, thatchers, musicians, monks, anyone who would help us to gain a better understanding of a world which was fading fast’.
The Vanishing Ireland books are an invaluable record of times past, with over 250 people interviewed to date. The third volume, ‘Vanishing Ireland – Recollections of Our Changing Times‘, was the best-selling picture book in Ireland last Christmas, while the series has been consistently shortlisted for the Best Irish Published Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. The series has now sold over 60,000 books while the Vanishing Ireland facebook group also has a rapidly growing following. Photographic exhibitions from the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series at the Hunt Museum in Limerick City and the Visual Arts Centre in Carlow have also enjoyed fantastic responses.
Here is a selection of five people from the project.
Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow
In George’s paraffin-lit kitchen, the only noise was that of the turf burning on the vast open hearth, the fire gently fanned by a wheel-operated under-floor pipe. Above the fire was the crane with a couple of hanging pots, used by George for both baking and cooking. The pots and kettle could be raised or lowered, or moved sideways as the occasion demanded. ‘You couldn’t bring any lady to live under my conditions’, he joked. ‘It’s been declared unfit for human habitation – but luckily I’m not human’.
Redhills, Co. Cavan
‘There were no school buses when we were young. We had to gather whins [gorse] to get the school fire going. We brought our own turf too. We knew no different because we were all hard up. My father used to beat the water off the ferns on the rocks so we’d not get our feet wet when we walked to school’.
John & Pat Piggot
Farmers & Musicians
Glenbeigh, Co. Kerry
Like many Kerry farmers, the Piggot twins have a keen sense of music. Pat is highly skilled in playing the melodeon or squeezebox. ‘I learned by the air’, he says. ‘By listening’, adds John ingenuously, as if that settles it. The music they play invokes memories of cross-road dances, lush green valleys and Atlantic steamers heading far away. As Pat plays and John taps his foot, we drift together into a distant world where unspoken sorrows mingle gently with hissing turf fires and winter rains.
Farmer – Bodyke
‘My grandfather was born just after the Famine. His name was Bartholomew and he had the pub at the O’Callaghan Mills. I was the eldest of five but my mother died in 1911 when I was seven years old. Money was scarce and times were hard but the outbreak of war in 1914 brought greater hardship. My father sold the pub and moved to New York with my younger brothers and I was left behind to look after an elderly aunt. She had no one to care for her so I stopped here. Otherwise I would have gone out to the brothers. I never saw my father again after that. He died in New York and is buried there. But, I have seen the Statue of Liberty. In the 1960s, I flew to America for a reunion with the brothers. They showed me Wall Street, the United Nations and the Westpoint Academy. I saw a monument to all the Irish who died in the American Civil War. I got the surprise of my life to see all these local names I was used to seeing here at home.’
Tomás Ó Nialláin
Farmer & Melodeon Player
Gort, Co. Galway
‘My own wedding was the first I had ever been to,’ says Tomás. ‘The morning we got married, everyone was talking at breakfast and they asked me to say something. I was so excited and privileged to have the lovely girl. I wanted to thank her father and mother for giving her to me. But what the Christ did I say only I thanked them for giving me the farm.’
If you have any suggestions of characters that Turtle and James should visit, let them know via the Vanishing Ireland facebook page.
The books are available on Amazon.