Recently, an email landed in my inbox asking me for permission to reuse an article I’d written – always a flattering request. It was for a new journal of local history being compiled near my home town of Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. The article had first appeared in the Tipperary Historical Journal, almost 10 years ago.
The request sent me trawling through the dusty files of my memory, to an article which was one of my most successful in CV terms, but more important than that, had the greatest impact on someone else’s life. It was a first-hand account of the life of a farm labourer in South Tipperary in the 1950s, given to me by the late Ned Britton.
Starting the Story
Ned Britton and his dog were regular visitors to my father’s veterinary surgery. He had a story burning inside of him, a story he had written on lined paper. My father showed me the story and encouraged me to put it forward for publication. Ned himself had left education after primary school and didn’t have the confidence to put it forward himself. Yet the simple words he used conveyed the full power of the story he had to tell. All I had to do was polish it up and expand it.
Ned’s story was a story of an Ireland that has largely disappeared. It was a story of cold nights spent sleeping in cowsheds, of standing in icy flood waters trying to save drowning cattle, sparse meals eaten separately from the families he worked for. It was a story of isolation, deprivation and loneliness, yet it was told without complaint or resentment. He simply wanted to state the facts of his life at that time.
After I sent the story to the Tipperary Historical Journal, it slipped to the back of my mind. Yet it continued to nag at me. I thought it didn’t deserve to moulder in a library; it needed to be heard by people who identified with that world, and people who couldn’t imagine it. So I arranged to meet Ned and hear more of his words. By now, he was unwell, but cheerful and determined to find an audience for his story. My mother drove us to the shed where he had once slept and I took photographs.
A Powerful Story
Ned was a lively, good-humoured man, and even managed to find humour in relating an incident in which a farmer kept a loaded gun on the kitchen table, the trigger tied back with twine. ‘If the twine breaks, the gun’ll go off and either you or the wife will be shot,” he told Ned.
Ned’s story had a happy end. After the incident with the gun, he decided enough was enough and joined the army. ‘When I arrived in the dormitory and I saw the two fires at either end, I thought I’d arrived in heaven,’ he said.
With the extra information I gathered, the story developed wings, and was eventually published in Ireland’s Eye and the Nationalist newspaper in Clonmel. I also sent the story to the Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, where it forms part of its archive.
Legacy of the Story
About a year later, I heard that Ned had died, unfortunately too late for me to go to his funeral. I rang his house and spoke to his daughter, who told me that the account published in the Nationalist, his local paper, had been brought to the altar during his funeral.
We journalists tend to be a little selfish with our stories. We claim them as our own because our byline is on them. But some stories belong completely to the person who tells them, and that was the case with Ned. His story shows that every story deserves to be heard, no matter how small it may seem.