This morning I called into the Tipperary village of Kilsheelan where the late Joe Hanrahan lived. Joe was one of the most remarkable people we met during the Vanishing Ireland project and went on to enjoy a good deal of local celebrity as the cover star of the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. Poor Joe had a sad finale, when his house burned down in November 2015. The site is now a fine grassy lawn but there is also a bench to Joe’s memory at the crossroads in the village centre. Walking past his vanished home, I recalled our lovely experience of meeting him as he took us back through his life and told us of his time as a farm labourer and trap driver. This is Joe’s story.
For the first eighty-one years of his life Joe Hanrahan did a pretty good job of keeping his eminence relatively confined. Sure, most people who lived in and around the Suir-side town of Kilsheelan knew him. The fellow with the wild hair and the sharp, affable eyes, always standing out by the gate of his cottage, dog at heel, raising his stick in friendly salutation at the motorcars passing him by. His face had a countenance that made people smile.
That’s why we couldn’t resist putting him on the cover of the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. It made him something of a celebrity. Across the parish, the county, the province, the country … the poor man even had groupies calling into him from the faraway USA before the first year was out. And yet, I’m assured he adored it, that his unexpected latter-day fame was a source of great pleasure to him, which is in itself a tremendous consoling pleasure to me.
I first set eye on Joe Hanrahan, standing by that same gate, back in the early days of 2011. I was on a grand tour of Ireland at the time with my friend, the photographer James Fennell. Having united on two successful volumes of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series, we were voyaging through Munster in pursuit of more wonderful old timers to charm and enlighten us with their unspoiled spirit of the old world. The phone rang and it was a close pal with a keen understanding of the essence of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ project. She explained how she had lined up a very strong contender for us and suggested we make a b-line for Kilsheelan.
Within a few forgotten hours, we were seated inside Joe’s house, listening to his life story. Here’s how his story subsequently ran in the third volume:
When Joe left school at the age of twelve, the Second World War was three years old and, across the Irish Sea, Britain was practically the only other part of Western Europe that had not fallen to Fascists of one form or another. Churchill’s people needed a lot of things to survive. Faith, courage, fortune, resilience … and rabbits.
The rabbit trade between Ireland and Britain was massive in the early 1940s. And life for the bunnies who lived alongside the banks of the River Suir in County Tipperary became singularly less promising when Mrs. Prendergast, the Kilsheelan postmistress, began her conquest of the area.
‘She used to get loads of maybe four of five hundred rabbits at a time,’ recalls Joseph. ‘She had a pony and cart and I was her driver. We went all around County Waterford, gathering rabbits up from all the farmers. The rabbits were caught in traps beforehand. We’d put the carcasses onto crates and then she’d ship them all across to England. They lived on rabbits in England during the war.’
Mrs. Prendergast paid Joseph half a crown a week to drive her around the county, as well as her twice-weekly trips into Clonmel town. ‘Things were poor enough around here that time,’ he says. And jobs were ‘scarce’, so he was thankful for the work. Besides which, anything was better than school. ‘Oh Christ stop,’ he says. ‘I didn’t like school. Oh God, I didn’t. The teacher was fine but he was very hard. He knew how to work the cane.’
Joseph’s father Thomas was a ploughman who harrowed fields all around the area with a pair of workhorses. Joseph was the seventh of eight children who all grew up in the same house where he lives today. Also living there were his parents and his grandfather Thomas Hanrahan who died in his 75th year. ‘We got kind of squashed all right,’ he chuckles. ‘But I lived here from when I was very small until I was grown up.’
He strikes a match with his fingers and lights up a Sweet Afton. He casts the match into the open fire around which his living room is focused. Timber from the woods of the nearby Gurteen Kilsheelan estate is piled optimistically either side of the fireplace, an axe gleaming in the nearby darkness. But, despite the cold day, he has not lit the fire yet. Along the mantelpiece above the fireplace is an impressive collection of cigarette lighters, gathered ever since he smoked his first cigarette at the age of twelve. Cigarettes and black pints, the source of enjoyment for so many of Ireland’s 20th century bachelors.
In the summers of his youth, Joseph’s once-nimble fingers explored the surrounding woodlands for fleshy vitamin-rich bilberries, known in these parts as hurts or, in Irish, fraochán. ‘We used to go any place and pick them and sell them for a couple of pence to the old postmistress. She’d send them off to England, with the rabbits!’ The bilberries were traditionally gathered on the last Sunday in July, known as Fraochán Sunday. They were also collected in August for Lughnasa, the first traditional harvest festival of the year, and the quality of the bilberries was considered a good way of predicting the quality of the other crops come the harvest. ‘But there’s no demand for hurts now’, says Joseph, ‘and the bushes have all been smothered.’
All of Joseph’s brothers and sisters married and emigrated to England. ‘So I was left alone,’ he says. ‘But I was never tempted to emigrate. I never got the idea into my head.’ In 1948, six years after he first started with Mrs. Prendergast, he took on a job as a labourer for a neighbouring farmer with a wage of a crown a week. ‘I was too young to be drinking at that time so the money lasted well,’ he laughs. ‘But then I got bigger and I started having a pint and the money became valuable!’ For the next half a century, Joseph worked all around the Kilsheelan area, ‘a bit here, a bit there, anywhere I could get a few bob.’ For nearly twenty years he was employed at the nearby Gurteen estate to look after their cattle and poultry.
Joseph never learned to drive a car but rode a bicycle with confidence and reckons he could ride a horse too, ‘but badly’. The farthest he has travelled is Dublin, to which he once journeyed by train to watch Tipperary win the All-Ireland. He also used to frequent Thurles for the Munster Final, particularly savouring those occasions when Tipperary beat Cork. ‘We used to say Cork beat and the hay saved,’ he says wistfully.
As a youth Joseph hurled ‘for the craic’, although he dismisses the notion that he was ever a sporty type. He also used to be something of a card shark, flipping out winning hands of 25s in Sullivan’s pub in Kilsheelan. ‘But the money got bigger and then you’re gambling so I got out of it,’ says he sagely. Whilst he has occasionally been to the coursing competitions at nearby Ballyglasheen, Joseph was never one to wager his money foolishly, ‘not on man, dog or horse’. Instead he derives considerable pleasure from ceilidh music. ‘I don’t play and I can’t sing but I love it,’ says he. ‘I wouldn’t give tuppence for anything else I hear on the wireless except ceilidh.’
Joseph has always lived a quiet life, at ease with a newspaper, a cigarette and, so long as it’s ceilidh time, a radio. He often sits on the bench by the crossroads in Kilsheelan, peaky hat over his eyes, watching the world whizz by. A dog called Blacky is by his side and Joseph endeavours to walk him every day, irrespective of weather.
‘I’ve seen a lot of changes’, he says. ‘But for the good or the bad I don’t know which. People say they are happier now than they were but I don’t believe they are. Money is not all. In the old days you could go out in the morning and pick up an odd job. But now you won’t get work like that anywhere. It’s a very different world.’
After his portrait graced the cover of ‘Vanishing Ireland – Reflections of Our Changing Times’, Joe’s fame grew swift. The local community united and gave him a clock by way of a congratulatory present. And then the strangers began to arrive, looking to talk to him about rabbits and bilberries and ceilidh music. Some just wanted his autograph. One visitor from Pittsburgh, snapped a photo of him holding up her signed copy of ‘Vanishing Ireland’ outside Sullivan’s Pub last April, and spoke of him as a picture of health and joy.
When I learned of Joe’s tragic death on a Monday morning in November 2015, I posted an obituary to him on the Vanishing Ireland facebook page. It clocked 1000 likes in 24 hours as well as 200 plus comments. Many were by people who knew him, recalling a kind, friendly character who loved pottering about in his yard betwixt his chickens and his dogs. The granddaughter of one of his friends told how she would miss ‘your voice grumbling at me, or you waving your stick at me, giving out.’
Another told how she had moved into a new housing estate behind Joe’s house nine years ago. ‘There were still diggers and big machinery everywhere. Joe was standing in his driveway, looking back at it, somewhat lost and bewildered, scratching his head. I remember thinking how sad for him to have all the townies come in and invade his village. [It was] practically his back yard’.
Joe Hanrahan was a wonderful man and it was an exceptional honour to have him as a cover star.
Photographs: James Fennell.
With thanks to Nicola and Harry Everard.