Why the North is more like old Ireland
Liam Benn tells Adam Shaw about why he wanted his family to have a sense of the Ireland he was born into 78 years ago.
When the popular country music singers The Benn Sisters were younger, they would regularly venture to Ireland to visit their grandmother. It became known as “the annual pilgrimage” by their family and, while there was no religious significance to their journey, there was, at least for their father, Liam, a spiritual aspect.
After all, this was where he had grown up – the Ireland of his youth, the Co. Clare of his youth, was what had shaped him as a man.
Liam, himself a successful musician for several decades, also explained that the land he knew before emigrating to London in 1960 was very different to what it is today. As a result, it provided him not only with an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia but with a world which, to his daughters, would seem rather alien.
He would regularly tell stories from the past and, after being given a notebook for Christmas in 2012, he put them into print.
It is perhaps a personal venture; the documenting of a specific family history. But moreover it is a collection of short stories that encapsulate the feeling of a different, simpler time and, on a wider scale, represent life in rural Ireland, as it once was.
“I hope it can show people what life was like back in the day – you only need to look at the cover of the book to see that,” Liam said. “In the picture you’ve got my grandfather, who was a blacksmith, and my uncle putting a shoe on a horse.
“There was no mechanisation back then, there was a very simple, pure way of doing things.”
The book itself is a series of memories from his time growing up in Illane and Miltown Malbay – from bringing electricity to the Clare countryside to a celebration of the town’s only taxi. These two, along with the story of Jix Moloney and Pat Conway, form his favourite parts of the collection.
“I joined the ESB [Electricity Supply Board] in 1955 when I was 17-years-old,” he said. “Nobody had electricity in those days and I’d turn up with my pick and shovel to try and change that.
“Eventually, I worked my way up so I had some overhead work and, eventually I took on the role of inspector. Sadly the pay wasn’t too great. The job was okay, don’t get me wrong, but we had to move to bring in more money.”
While he had chosen to enter the electric game, Liam always had a soft spot for the art of blacksmithing and all its hot metal and tongs drama. This is documented in his tale of Moloney – himself a blacksmith – and the carpenter Conway.
“Pat specialised in making wheels for carts and every now and then I’d spot him heading over to see Jix and his brother Jimmy to have the iron bands fitted,” he recalled. “They’d place the wheel and axle block in a hole on the footpath outside the forge, bring the glowing hot band around it and the three of them would hammer it into place.
“Then it was a case of throwing buckets of cold water over the steel to affix it firmly in place. It was very simple, but very effective.”
Model T Ford
Another story tells of the town’s only taxi driver and his spluttering Model T Ford with its wooden chassis and big wooden spoke wheels. Micky O’Brien and his ‘bomber’ were well-known in Miltown Malbay and his most famous jape occurred when an unsuspecting American came to visit.
Confused by Irish money and struggling to get his head around pre-decimalisation, the transatlantic guest ended up paying four times the appropriate fare.
While Liam’s stories evoke a fair amount of twinkly-eyed nostalgia, there is a sadder side to them when he thinks of modern Ireland.
“Southern Ireland is no longer the Ireland that I knew due to modernisation and mechanisation,” he explained.
This, he believes, extends to the overall attitude in the country and the fast-paced, hi-tech way of living is a far cry from what he experienced as a boy. These days he lives in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, aged 78, and feels that the old way of living has remained in the six counties.
“In the north of Ireland, things are very much as they were,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that it has been left behind, rather that it gives value to old-fashioned ideals. People still talk in the same manner, the spirit of liveliness remains and the simplicity of things is still very much at heart.”
Liam said it is like two different countries – whether that be Ireland in the mid- 20th century and Ireland today or the 21st century versions of southern and northern Ireland. In any case, he does not begrudge the changes and appreciates that things will inevitably progress.
But through his book, As It Was, he wants to bring joy to those who remember, or wish to learn of, a time when things were not necessarily better but were certainly different.