WHEN East Clare resident Terri Shoosmith left school, she never thought she would pursue an academic career in history, let alone Irish history but today she finds herself in the midst of a PhD, looking at settlement and change in the barony of Tulla prior to the Famine.
Terri, originally from Brighton in the UK, lives in Faha just north of Killanena. She readily admits when she left school, she did so with an F in history.
“I hated the subject with a passion. This was in England, of course and they wanted to teach us colonialism, imperialism and the industrial revolution and I slept through 10 years of history and came up with an F. I had no intention of going into it. I did love history, in that I was very interested in the past how people used to live but I wanted to know things like what did they eat for their dinner, how did they tell the time, did they wear underwear, what kind of houses did they live in?” she reveals.
Terri and her family moved to Ireland in 1989, where they set up a small farm in Faha. When her children grew up, she decided to return to work.
“I couldn’t get a job so I was unemployed for a while. I got onto a couple of FÁS schemes and I did some work on the Mid-Clare Way, which entailed doing historic research for the guidebook. Then after that, I worked on the Beagh history project and that’s when I really got into it. That project was set up by a local group of people and it was the first time I had come across people being interested and engaging with the history of their particular area. That really gave me an appetite to look at my own area,” she explains.
Terri was enthused by the idea of looking at local history and having completed a diploma in women’s studies in UL part-time, it was suggested that she look at going to university.
“I thought about what I wanted to do. History wasn’t on the list but I’ve always wanted to study anthropology. I went to NUI Maynooth, again with no intention of doing history but in the month where you go to everything I walked into a history lecture and in just that one lecture I was hooked. I did three years of history and anthropology and had a few years out to cover student debts and went to Galway to do an MA. I was working in Shannon after that but I lost my job at the beginning of the recession and was given a college fellowship to do the PhD.
“My background is as a storyteller, rather than a historian. I don’t think there ought to be a difference. There is a trend there to separate academia from ordinary people, which is why people get turned off because it has so little in common with their daily lives. I’d like to put it back into the community. You don’t need to put it up there on some higher realm where people can’t get at it. On the other side, I’m highly aware that I can’t come swanning in as an English person and say to the Irish, this is your history and I’m going to tell you what it is,” she admits.
Terri is funded by the NUI Galway SPAHSS Research Fellowship and her PhD focuses on settlement and change in the barony of Tulla between 1585 and 1800. The settlement of remote areas of the West of Ireland, such as the Slieve Aughties in East Clare, form the geographical framework for the study.
She explains this period is significant as it begins at a time when the traditional Gaelic system of territorial division, the tuath, was replaced by the English system of baronies. These marked the territory of each clan and the sects affiliated to those clans.
“That whole period encompasses the change from Gaelic rule to completely anglicised rule, going from chieftains, who were living in tower houses and in some cases ring forts, over to the big landed estates. Some of the chieftains then became landed estate owners, so it wasn’t completely black and white. It was the changeover from a kingship-based society and economy to a landlord and tenant system,” Terri adds.
According to Terri, this change may be seen to herald a period of political, social and economic upheaval. At this time, the two key figures in Clare and South Galway were the Earls of Thomond and Clanricarde, who between them governed much of Connacht. It is for this reason, Terri believes, that Tulla is significant as it lay on the border between both earls’ territory. She chose Tulla not only for her familiarity with it but because remote centres of power, such as Tulla, have not been surveyed in depth.
There have been many familiar and some not so familiar names cropping up in Terri’s study, which will be of interest to those in East Clare and she is also anxious to speak with anyone who would have knowledge, documentation or even folklore from the era predating the famine.
Terri is anxious to talk to people in the locality who may have old folklore stories from that period or who may have some old documents that might inform her study.
“The most interesting thing that I’ve come across is that Brian Merriman, the poet and teacher who taught in the area, did adult literacy classes and a lot of adult numerical classes. The community had moved from a subsistence economy to a market economy, so the farmers needed to be better at doing accounts to work out profits and losses. That was really interesting to me,” she says.
Terri understands that many of the Gaelic chiefs were made lords and those of this period seem to have been very hierarchical and into wealth. She adds that a local historian gave her some details about Caher House.
“I was told that the land around Caher House was the only good land in the parish of Feakle and around Lough Graney and it had been landscaped. If you think about somebody taking out a couple of hundred acres of that really good land and turning it into a pleasure park that was producing nothing, except specimen trees and lawns, that was a really big statement. This was what the landlords were doing at the time – they were separating themselves out from their tenants, essentially saying we are up there and you are down there,” she outlines.
Terri says the Maloneys were an important family in the Tulla area and had been there since the time of Brian Ború, becoming the big landlords in the region. Those who built Caher House were the McGraths, who were forcibly transplanted from Tipperary.
Terri’s focus has been mainly through academic research, which she says generally features the history of the ruling classes with little mention of the lower classes and for this reason, she is also researching folklore archives to learn about local lore and legends.
“Folk history goes back a very long way. There are an awful lot of stories about things like local cures and characters, so there is a whole second history going on there that hasn’t been properly credited until now. I definitely want to bring that in because I don’t want it to be a study of just the elites, the politics and how everybody ruled everybody else,” she says.
Of particular interest to her was Biddy Early but she has discovered another figure, Crochúr/Conchúr Thaidhg, who is worth noting.
“He was a very powerful man, according to what I’ve come across. He had power over rats, for example. There were a lot of stories told from the Flagmount, Killanena and Feakle areas about this man. He could bewitch rats and set rats on people if they upset him. I think the interesting thing about Crochúr Thaidhg is that an awful lot of the stories about him relate or were attributed to Biddy Early. They both had big contests with the local priest in Feakle so there was a big tension between the folk people with the power and the Church because they were both competing for the same powers in the community,” she adds.
In terms of settlements, Terri explains these followed the river valleys, which is why there was a lot of settlements along Lough Derg and throughout the Graney Valley.
“Those were the areas where the central power was and it radiated out from there. Then the peripheral areas were in the Sliabh Aughties and the Sliabh Bearnas. There weren’t many people there and the land was used for forestry and there was a lot of mining in the mountains in the way of iron ore and lead and a little bit of silver. There was quite an iron industry at one point. People went to the forest to hunt and there were some outlaws. Some of them were criminals who had robbed. One that comes to mind was called Dudley Costello,” she says.
Another focus of Terri’s thesis is a study on the women of that era.
“I think historians usually finish up with women as an after thought. There’s not very much written about women during that time and considering we are half the population, it is still not given half of the prominence it should be. So I want to start with women,” Terri reveals.
She says there is much scope in this regard between “Gaelic women, English women settlers, Cromwellian women, the upper-class and lower-class women, the Gaelic chieftains’ wives, Protestant women, Catholic women, rich women, poor women, heiresses, working women and housewives”.
Terri would like to talk to anyone who has any information or folklore about the region. She can be contacted at 086 1927069 or on email to firstname.lastname@example.org.