New book preserves folklore for our future generations

Story by Sinead Hogan

Wednesday, 20th October, 2010 5:00pm

New book preserves folklore for our future generations

Johnny McKeagney.

A new book that has been 45 years in the making and includes pages dedicated to renowned Ballinagh cooper, Ned Gavin, will be launched in Fermanagh this weekend.

In The Ould Ago is an A3-sized illustrated hardback book of Irish folklore by retired grocer, Johnny McKeagney from Tempo in Fermanagh. He has been gathering information and stories from around Fermanagh and the surrounding region in the form of drawings and notes since he was aged 27.

“While selling cream crackers and baked beans paid the bills and raised his six children, Johnny found that his fascination with local history and folklore fed the soul,” as Johnny’s son puts it.

“Realising that there was physical history all around him that was slowly vanishing, he decided to document the local abandoned farmsteads and outhouses. He’d stroll out and sketch the dimensions... Johnny’s career has been shopkeeping, but his passion has been folklore.”

Says the author himself: “I remember thinking everything had been found and done - they had climbed Everest, been to the North Pole and the South Pole and so on - but I started walking the local countryside and it was full of new wonders”. Johnny has no formal training in photography, art, history, geography or archaeology, and compiled the sketches and notes “for enjoyment and interest” until this year when Sr. Edel Bannon from Boho, Fermanagh encouraged him to bring out the resulting book.

“The name came from people I interviewed. It means ‘a long time ago’,” says McKeagney. Among the Cavan content is a number of pages devoted to Ballinagh’s Ned Gavin, who was famed as the last cooper in Ireland. “I used to visit him,” recalls McKeagney. “On my first visit to Ned’s workshop he was working on a holy water barrel for Cavan Cathedral.”

The author remembers Ned telling him that the barrel would “last for hundreds of years or until there’s no religion”. Packed with drawings and details that might not survive another generation otherwise, the book has been strongly praised by academics, including David Shaw-Smith, Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh and Margaret Gallagher.

“McKeagney is truly a living, walking-talking history book,” says Mr. Shaw-Smith.

“The business of recording folklore and folk life is an activity that is not confined to customary working hours. In truth, for that rare breed of skilled practitioner such as John McKeagney, it is a vocation in thrall to neither the time of day or the season. It arises from an instinctive sense of curiosity and ever expanding engagement with people, artefacts and environment,” says Mr. Mac Cárthaigh, archivist, national folklore collection, UCD.

“With the aid of camera, recording device and pen, he has pieced together much of the fabric of tradition in the places he has visited.” Meanwhile, Ms. Gallagher, comments that “his capacity to research diligently, listen attentively and record accurately ensures that his work is of the highest calibre”.

• The official launch will be by Margaret Gallagher in Fermanagh County Museum, Enniskillen this Friday (October 22) at 2.30pm and in the Community Centre, Tempo on Sunday (October 24) at 2.30pm. See

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