What’s in a county boundary?
What is the significance of lines on the map of Ireland drawn centuries ago by Norman conquerors and English planters?
The answer in Ireland is – almost everything.
There must be few territorial divisions which are capable of arousing such passions of almost tribal loyalty. It is always the case that when two Irish people meet – no matter in what corner of the world – the first question is “What county are you from?”.
Certainly in sporting terms the county and its colours are an almost indelible feature of Irish culture.
Whether or not one’s county teams are successful, the county and its fortunes are at the centre of conversation throughout an Irish summer.
However, county loyalties are layered into a complex series of mental maps which people use to make sense of their surrounds.
People who live in, say, Celbridge or Leixlip are drawn to Dublin for practical needs such as work and shopping. Similarly folk living in Castledermot might do a lot of their business in Carlow.
A flexible approach to sense of place applies to the local media – newspaper circulation areas embrace slivers of neighbouring counties while radio waves are not constrained by county boundaries.
The sense of county identity can also be leavened when there is a similarity of landscape and a common culture which transcends official boundaries.
A case in point is the community which lives on the broad sweep of the midlands known as the Bog of Allen. Whether in Kildare or in Offaly the common heritage of communities where the state of the peat harvest was the most important factor in the year transcends county limits.
The landscape of heather-lined horizons and almost endless ridges of peat brings a certain common identity to midland dwellers irrespective of their county of residence.
Such themes of common interests are demonstrated in two recent local history publications originating on either side of the Kildare/Offaly county boundary.
The latest journal of the St Mochua Historical Society which covers Timahoe, Coolcarrigan and adjoining districts of west Kildare contains a mosaic of local history snippets and items.
A significant article by Aileen Saunders, based on a walk led by St Mochua stalwart John Larkin, records the establishment of Coill Dubh village built by Bord na Mona in the early fifties for the workers and their families who would be part of the great national enterprise of harvesting the bogs.
Although Bord na Mona built several workers’ villages throughout the midlands Coill Dubh is unique as being the only greenfield site – the others such as Rochfortbridge were attached to existing villages.
The sinews of a new community evolved as the Coill Dubh community matured.
In 1957 under the banner of Muintir na Tire local residents commissioned the local builders O’Leary and Tuite to the build the Community Hall.
Six years later saw the building of the church at Coolcarrigan designed by Polish architect Aindreas Sobolwsky.
The St Mochua Journal – which incidentally marks the 20th anniversary year of the Timahoe society – quotes some snippets from a newsletter published by the Staplestown Youth Club in 1966.
An article in the newsletter was penned by a French teenager who apparently had spent some time in the area.
He or she noted that the Irish were welcoming and friendly but just talked to kill time and did not seem to have any real opinions on matters such as “politics, their futures, religion, parents, sex and food.”
Judging by the proliferation of phone-in shows on radio and the dizzying level of mobile phone usage by Irish teenagers it seems that the reservations noted by the Gallic visitor have long been abandoned by Irish youth of the modern era.
A neighbouring history group to the St. Mochua historians, the members of the Edenderry Historical Society, across the county boundary, have also issued a newsletter brimming with nuggets from bygone days.
In the process they claim a local connection to Kildare’s most famous son, one Arthur Guinness.
The Edenderry magazine points out that while the inaugural Arthur is most associated with Celbridge and Leixlip his mother-in-law – a major influence in the life of any married man -- was a Grattan from Clonmeen, Carbury.
But hold a moment and bearing in mind that this snippet is headlined in the Edenderry History Society journal – is the Clonmeen in question in county Kildare or in county Offaly?
Now that’s the sort of thing that could trigger a boundary dispute.
Watch this space!
Series no: 317.
- Liam Kenny