AN APPRECIATION of what is local is one of the (few) upsides of lockdown. Being restricted last year to a 2km, and later a 5km radius for exercise, certainly proved productive for Newmarket-on-Fergus author, Colm Liddy. As a self-confessed “stroller,” Colm, a pharmacist by profession, began to see his native place in a new light. Fascinated by traces of past hidden in ruins and monuments dotted around the area, his inquiring mind led him to research colourful characters, locations and incidents dating from the 1600s to the 1980s. The result is a treasure trove of history in Colm’s latest book, Long Ago in Newmarket-on-Fergus.
“I suppose it was the total collapse in sporting activities that forced me to find something to occupy the time,” Colm told The Champion. “I’m fairly obsessed with sport and would normally be playing it and training kids. Covid put an end to all of that. So, my wife and I did a lot of walking during those silent days of March 2020. There was barely a car on the road during that first lockdown last year. We discovered some amazing local walks around the parish. I’ve lived here most of my life, but it was the first time I really began to see things. Being on foot gives you the chance to see things you’d never have seen before. We are strollers, rather than power walkers, and began noticing all kinds of ruins around the locality.”
Colm was particularly fascinated by the historical graveyards around Newmarket. “There are seven old graveyards in the area with pre-Cromwellian churches, now lying in runs,” he explained. “Kilconry is one example and when the trees are blossoming there, it’s very beautiful. In all of those local graveyards, you’ll find one or two graves with significant stories in the lives of the people buried there. That really sparked my interest in telling people more about the wealth of history that we have here.”
Newmarket-on-Fergus is already globally renowned for the likes of Dromoland Castle, the ancestral seat of The O’Briens, one of the most powerful families of the Gaelic nobility. The area is known too for the Bronze Age fort of Mooghaun, where one of Western Europe’s most significant golden hoards was discovered in 1854. As well as the better-known sites and stories, Colm’s book has captured, for posterity, the more obscure aspects of Newmarket’s local history.
“When people think of the history of the area, they’re probably aware at least of Mooghaun Fort and places like Dromoland and Bunratty Castle,” Colm said. “They mightn’t be aware of the details of events like the Siege of Bunratty in 1646, for example, so I’ve included that. I found one very good document and it describes the siege quite well. I spoke to my parents about their knowledge of the area too. I unearthed quite a lot of material on the 1700s and there’s really a wealth of sources for the history of the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Setting up the Facebook page ‘Long ago in Newmarket on Fergus’ proved to be a major catalyst in sharing and discovering local history. “People started sending photos and that created an amazing social history,” Colm noted. “I began to post short details and stories along with photos, and the book was written that way – in instalments.”
Writing the book was a real labour of love for Colm who was driven by a desire to make people aware of the rich history of the area. “I wanted to get down everything I had discovered to let people know how choc-a-block with history Newmarket-on-Fergus really is. A lot of the material will be new to people and some of it will be more familiar.”
One of the incidents which put the area on the map in the 1980s is among the more colourful stories captured in the book. At the height of The Troubles, Dominic McGlinchey fled the North to a safe house outside the town. Armed Gardaí surrounded the house, but McGlinchey and companions refused opening fire on detectives. Over 100 shots were fired in the exchange.
“McGlinchey was a renegade republican who ended up holed up in a house in Ralahine on the run from the North, where he was facing a number of charges,” Colm explained. ”On St Patrick’s Day, 1984, there was a massive gun battle at the safe house when Gardaí made a move to capture him. Eventually, the authorities called for the local priest, Fr Tim Tuohy. He was the coolest customer. He arrived, sorted things out, McGlinchey was captured. Fr Tuohy went off, said Mass and told nobody about his role in what had happened.”
Another fascinating strand in the book details some prominent members of the O’Brien dynasty. “The O’Brien’s of Dromoland too have a fascinating history. One became an Anglican nun and was made a saint. Another was a fighter pilot of World War 1,” said Colm. “The list goes on and I’ve only covered a fraction of that history and that’s thanks to the good work of previous historians.”
One of Colm’s own favourite discoveries is a fascinating local ruin with a remarkable history. “My favourite place in all of our walks and research is a small ruin called Mogulaan House,” he said. “It’s like the house in Sleeping Beauty because it’s completely overgrown with trees, branches and briars. It was the Bishop’s Palace at one stage. The Ennis Chronicle reported on a fire there in 1785. Bishop James O’Shaughnessy started to build Catholic churches in the 1800s. Before Catholic Emancipation, masses were said in huts and haybarns. Bishop O’Shaughnessy was a friend of Daniel O’Connell who visited the house at one stage. When I look at the run and see the doors hanging on the upstairs floor, I like to think that O’Connell turned that door knob.”
A twist of fate involving the Liberator and the former residents of Mogulaan House was also unearthed during Colm’s research. “In 1815, Daniel O’Connell fought a duel with John D’Esterre, whose family had previously owned Mogulaan House,” he outlined. “That’s a connection which, like the house, has been completely forgotten.”
More surprises emerged from the painstaking research work. “There’s a great story of a man who came to Rineanna at the turn of the 20th century to buy a race horse,” Colm said. “He came from the UK to buy a thoroughbred and purchased one called Fergus Foam. Often horses don’t like a sea crossing so the man asked for a companion horse, purely to keep Fergus Foam calm on the ferry. The horse he was given was a mare called Shannon Lass. Five years later, Shannon Lass won the 1902 Grand National, just one of 15 mares to ever do so.”
Another equestrian tale relates to the late, great Brendan O’Regan, the architect of duty-free shopping, Shannon Airport and the transformation of the Midwest. “I got a black and white photo of three horses at a point-to-point in Clonmoney in 1950,” Colm explained. “When I looked closely at the picture, I realised that the man in second position was the legendary Brendan O’Regan. It took me a minute or two because here he was in a way you wouldn’t normally see him. I researched the race and it’s all documented.”
The buzz around the book has been something that’s surprised Colm. He puts it down to the fact that like him, other people have been discovering their locality. “As a woman said to me, ‘It’s the only thing that’s happening in the parish right now’,” he laughed. Word of the book has travelled all the way to Áras an Uachtaráin. To Colm’s delight, President Michael D Higgins, who was raised in Ballycar and features in the book, has recently ordered ten copies.
Long Ago in Newmarket-on-Fergus is available at Halpin’s Garage in Newmarket and through Ennis Book Shop. It is also available online at Shopireland.ie.