A Town in Print

A Book Review by Frank O’Shea

Vincent Carmody: Listowel. A Printer’s Legacy. The Story of Printing in North Kerry 1870-1970.

Available from listoweloriginals.com

So many people spend all their lives in cities that the experience of growing up in a country town is foreign to them. That small-town familiarity affects the ways of thinking and acting more than we realise. There is something about the closeness, the intimacy of places where everyone knows everyone else, a type of social cohesion that is missing in the big cities, particularly in the large housing complexes that represent home for most citizens. That nearness can act as a kind of brake on acts or practices that might be illicit or anti-social.

In the Irish context, for example, everyone knew who was not going to Mass, who was romantically involved with whom, who was reliable and who was not. You may live now in a large city, but if you grew up in Manorhamilton or Mountrath, Kanturk or Kilrush, you will have memories and experiences that will be different from those who know only city life.

One of the charms of small towns is that they can throw up characters who are special – actors or singers, writers or sports people who go on to wider fame. Take the town of inpho_004189621-390x285.jpgListowel in North Kerry for example. Notwithstanding the sporting success of its former resident Tadhg Kennelly, Listowel and its hinterland is best known as a place which has produced more than its fair share of writers. John B Keane is an obvious example as are his son Billy and nephew Fergal. Then there is the short story writer Maurice Walsh (The Quiet Man), the poet, playwright and balladeer Bryan MacMahon, the poet Brendan Kennelly, the dramatist George Fitzmaurice and the philosopher-poet John Moriarty, all from the town or outlying district.


Every year Listowel holds a Writers’ Week which draws book lovers from all over, the way that Clare attracts traditional musicians or the Curragh calls horse enthusiasts. One of the features of that last week of May is the tours of the town organised by Vincent Carmody. Of course he is a writer too, but more significantly he is a collector of memorabilia of historical relevance to the area. In this beautifully-produced book, he concentrates on printing and particularly the printing press owned and run by the Cuthbertson family, originally from Scotland.

This book is a collection of posters for auctions and fairs, notifications of public meetings, copies of ballads to be sold on fair days, notices of drama productions, a whole history of a place before television and computers. ‘They were plastered on pillars, gates and gables; on dilapidated doors; they were bandaged on telegraph poles; tacked to screens between pub and snug; some appeared slanting on sandwich boards outside St Mary’s Church on Sundays.’ That is from a wonderfully erudite foreword by retired teacher Cyril Kelly.

I particularly liked the ballad sheets, many of them the verses of Bryan MacMahon, composed on the spot, written to order. ‘You may sing and speak about Easter Week and the heroes of ‘98’, or ‘The Ballybunion sandhills now with bonfires are aflame’, or ‘For none may beat the Kingdom sweet for horse or hound or man.’ The first of those is the well-known Valley of Knockanure, the others recall a coursing win and an All Ireland football final. Poetry to order.

One thing I could not find here that would have been particularly welcome in a month when Australians are being bored out of their brains on the matter of who will live in Canberra for a few years at our expense. For the 1951 general election in Ireland, John B Keane invented a political party which he named the Independent Coulogeous Party whose candidate was one Thomas Doodle Esq. In one massive rally, held while the Taoiseach of the day was addressing a crowd elsewhere in the town, Tom Doodle promised the citizens of Listowel that he would open a factory for shaving the hair off gooseberries and ended his rally with the promise that ‘every man will have more than the rest.’ Where are you John B? We need you.

In an Afterword, writer and broadcaster Fergal Keane, nephew of the same John B, says, ‘Every Irish town should have a Vincent Carmody. … A hoarder of memories. A collector of the vital, the arcane, the obscure, the joyous and the sad.’ Listowel is lucky to have such a person and while a book like this will appeal to only a small readership, everyone with a connection to North Kerry would be delighted to hear their place exalted in verse, advertised in posters and remembered in the elegant prose found here.

The place and importance of a work like Listowel. A Printer’s Legacy is well summarised in Cyril Kelly’s Foreword, ‘… though the past is another country, it is a country whose quirks, customs and artefacts are well worth hoarding.’

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.