Laois Nationalist — Photo gallery from the launch of a captivating book that explores three centuries of local life

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By Carmel Hayes

A CAPTIVATING chronicle of Laois life from 1700-2000 was launched in Ballyroan this weekend, as generations of a local family’s story were celebrated.

Three centuries unfold in the history of the O’Dea family, who have farmed the Abbeyleix-Ballinakill-Cullenagh Mountain-Ballyroan region since the 1700s.

The book titled ‘Life in Laois 1700-2000: A Microcosm’ by Tom Carroll was launched on Saturday night at Scully’s pub in Ballyroan, which has a strong connection to the book.

Entertainment from the Ballyroan Brass Band and local musicians enhanced the convivial launch at the popular pub, which was opened in 1947 by a relative of current owner Eileen Scully.

The book explores the region’s storied events, deftly tracing how agriculture changed over the centuries as families responded to political changes, modernization and economic forces.

The author says that while the book offers a rich and comprehensive history of the O’Dea family, their stories will resonate with farming families across Ireland, as the book opens an ancestral window into how whose life was lived in Laois before, during and after the Great Famine.

The 19th century couple featured on the cover of the book – Michael ‘Darkie’ Dea and his wife Bridget (née Boylan) were the grandparents of Eileen Scully’s late husband, Michael. Michael’s mother, Kathleen, married Dick Scully and in 1947 they established the public house ‘Scullys-The Skies O’er’ – a reference to the song ‘Skies o’er Ballyroan’ by local emigrant Pat Lodge in the USA.

A summer vacation in the 1950s, Laois with his maternal grandmother, Mary O’Dea, inspired Tom to invest years of research, unearthing fascinating stories of triumph and tragedy in the history of the O family. ‘Dea. It traces the lives of the O’Dea generations, weaving the stories of Laois emigrants across Australia, America, Manchester and France. What emerges is a rich tapestry of the significant political, economic, social and technological changes that Laois has witnessed for over 300 years.

Tom says: “The origins of this book go back almost 70 years, to the early 1950s, when I spent several summer holidays with my widowed maternal grandmother, Mary O’Dea, my uncles and my aunt in their farm in the town of Lisnagomman near Abbeyleix. At this time, Lisnagomman was also a focal point for summer visits by relations from England; visits interrupted for many years by the Second World War and its aftermath.

“Lisnagomman connected me with my extended maternal family; an experience from my childhood and adolescence that marked me all my life. At the time, in the early 1950s, the cows were milked by hand. My grandmother churned butter by hand for home use. Weeding and thinning of roots – such as beets, mangolds and turnips – were done manually.

“The thatch, a grainy material derived from anthracite coal, came from a local mine. My uncles mixed it with clay and, taking advantage of the humidity on a damp day, trampled it down into balls of thatch to use as household fuel. A Fordson tractor, purchased in 1948, had begun pulling horses away in agricultural tasks such as tilling the soil, bringing milk to the Spink Creamery, spreading manure and haymaking.

“So I decided to look at how farming and land ownership had changed for my maternal family, the O’Deas, not just from the 1950s, but to try to trace them back to their origins. By telling the stories of the generations that lived in Laois and the generations that left, I was sure that the wider landscape of life in Laois would emerge over these 300 years.

“At home in Clonoulty, Co Tipperary, through my parents and, in particular, my mother Margaret O’Dea Carroll, I was imbued with a sense of my Laois heritage. She often reminisced about her childhood and his youth in Laois and the history of the county. The book has brought me closer to my ancestors and given me a renewed respect for their lives and spirits. I hope readers will feel the same way.”

The book costs €20 and is available from Allbooks, Lyster Square, Portlaoise, Heritage House in Abbeyleix and Scully’s Pub. A digital version of the book is available on Amazon.

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Photos: Luke Wynne

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