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Eddie Lenihan with his new book 'The Man in the Big House'. Photograph by Eugene McCafferty

Eddie shares stories saved from the institution

HE has interviewed hundreds of people over more than 40 years, but a handful stand out for Eddie Lenihan, among them the late Jimmy Armstrong of Quin.

Back in 1982 Eddie’s book Long Ago By Shannonside brought Jimmy’s stories to the public, and he has now published a revised addition with some extra chapters, entitled The Man In The Big House.

Eddie visited Jimmy numerous times in the early 80s at Our Lady’s Hospital in Ennis, where he lived for years, although Eddie says it is highly dubious that a man like him should have been there at all.

In the preface to The Man In The Big House Eddie writes of Jimmy’s delight when the original book came out as it showed he was in a place that he didn’t need to be.

“This was proof, if proof were needed, that he was a man of sound mind.”

Jimmy petitioned successive Ministers for Health for a review of his case, but had to wait until 1986 when Bary Desmond allowed him to be transferred into sheltered accommodation.

“It said more about society than it said about him. And you can bet your life there were a lot more like him,” says Eddie.

The book consists of stories of all kinds from Jimmy, historical and contemporary, funny and serious, and he made a huge impression on Eddie, which endures decades later.

“Of all the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed, Jimmy would be among the top five. Definitely. He’d be among the top five who I felt were most impressive.”

Eddie used to visit Our Lady’s every Sunday for a conversation, with Jimmy, who was a very sociable man with a huge store of anecdotes and information.

“It was a pure pleasure, both for his sake and my own. He always had something new to tell, he was one of those people that you’d never get the end of him.

“He was a great listener and that comes across in the book, he loved to go and hear what people were talking about.”

The two shared half an hour every week, and Eddie says the time always seemed inadequate.

“The time you’d have with him, the knock at the door would come to say time was up before you’d realise you were sitting there nearly. The time was always too short with him, that’s a sure sign of entertainment.”

In the aftermath of various scandals there is a tendency to look on the past in Ireland as a time of unbridled cruelty, but Eddie says there was care for Jimmy, and he praises Dr Patrick Power, who saw the benefit of Eddie’s visits.

“In Long Ago By Shannonside I never mentioned anything about Jimmy being in the mental facility, because he never made a big deal of it, he wasn’t that kind of a man at all.

“I do mention it in the preface this time, where I met him and how I met him, which wasn’t in the previous edition.

“The Chief Medical Officer that time was a good man, he let me do what I wanted to do within the rules, record Jimmy, because I could see he was a man who had an amazing story to tell and was able to tell it and wanted to tell it. Dr Power saw that it would be great to have somebody visit him.”

“Dr Power was a great man, he took down the high walls and big gates and allowed a more open regime.”

The stories recalled in the book are extremely diverse, and they do show that he had an immense knowledge of his own area.

“A lot of the things he knew are all gone from the countryside. His stories will bring back memories to people, especially around that part of the country.

“As you can see from the book he knew every crossroads, knew every inch of the road from cycling it.”

With a sociable nature and inclined to visit people as much as he could, unsurprisingly Jimmy was known to everyone nearby.

“He was very well known in his own area around Quin, especially during the war. He fixed bicycles for the guards, he loved fixing clocks too. This is what made him seem odd to people, he wouldn’t have been interested in money, he was interested in small things.”

There are stories about the supernatural, which he believed in.

“He believed in ghosts, he believed in what he was telling you and that made it all the better for telling these stories. He believed in piseogs, because he saw an example of them working.”
The book’s dedication is “To those, now matter where, deprived of a voice, no matter how.”

Clearly Eddie believes that wider society failed to recognise the fact that Jimmy possessed a first class mind, and he says many others were sidelined also.

“There are so many people like him who never got a chance to say what they knew and a lot of them knew a lot.”

On the book’s back cover Eddie writes of Jimmy, “Truly he was a man for all seasons and his death in 1987 deprived Ennis, his native Quin and far beyond of one of their unique talents, though it is doubtful if that fact was much recognised at the time. Or since.”

It is depressing to Eddie that the real worth of Jimmy was seen by so few.

“What saddens me most, you’ll see the last two words I put on the back of the cover ‘or since’. I meant that. Nobody appreciated him when I was alive, I doubt if anyone has ever appreciated him since. That’s partly why I brought the book out, in case he’d be forgotten.”

With a great appreciation of oral history, Eddie tells people’s stories just as they give them to him, and the authenticiy of Jimmy’s voice shines through in The Man In The Big House.

Eddie always wants to keep the focus on his subjects, and explaining his style of minimalist interference he says, “I let the people talk for themselves. I write an introductory paragraph, then I let the person off.”

At the moment Eddie is writing a book on people’s memories of wars, going back to the Boer War and finishing with World War II.

“I’ve been at it now for five years, Military Memories. I was to have it in one volume, but it’ll have to be in two now, I have so much material. It’ll be the same again, letting people talk for themselves.

“There’ll be some very controversial material in it, it’ll get me into a lot of trouble, but so what? A book that doesn’t get you into trouble is no good.”

When he spoke to the Clare Champion last week he was writing a section about the Revolutionary period and he says that what his research, which is drawn from people’s recollections, shows a more complicated history than what many people might realise.

“I found time and time again that a lot of the Black and Tans were decent men.

“A lot of them were blackguards as well, but a lot of the IRA were thugs too. A lot of them were brave men too. You had the good, the bad and the indifferent in all of them.

“Saying ‘Our Boys were all heroes’ is a load of nonsense, that’s not history. And to be making out that all the Tans were the rough lot of England. They weren’t, there were decent men there too.

“And you’d be amazed at the number of Tans that resigned because they wouldn’t do the job they were recruited for when they saw what was in front of them here.”

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

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