History and poetry – working with the elderly

poems for session 5

Today was my final session at the Bantry Day Care Centre, as part of the Arts for Health project, in conjunction with the Bantry Literary Festival.

Writing is difficult for most of them so, mostly, we talked, and Anne, a staff member, and I wrote down some of their comments.

During the second session, some of the participants told me about the food rationing during ‘the war’. Today I asked them about other historical events that have impacted on their lives.

One talked about her grandmother who was in Cumman na Mban. She would hide guns in her baby’s pram, under the blankets. She also mentioned the curfew around 1916/7. Everyone had to be indoors from 6pm. A man was walking up the steps to the hospital and was shot in the back by the Tans. His friend ran to town to get help and was also shot. The bullet traces can still be seen on the wall.

They told me that the actress, Maureen O’Hara, lived in Glengarriff. She was in the film, Ryan’s Daughter, and fell in love with the place. So she bought 30 acres there, and spent lots of time there. She would go to Supervalu wearing a headscarf and sunglasses, but everyone knew it was her. Then her grandson came over and sold the place and put her in a home back in the States. She died there last year.

A number of the participants had a lot to say about the Whiddy Island disaster in January 1979, where a ship spilled crude oil into the sea and it went on fire, killing all 51 crew members on board. ‘Wind came from the north, and the smoke went south.’ Christmas decorations were still up, one of them remembered. Only men were allowed to help with the clean-up, so a girl dressed as a man and drove a tractor to help. She used straw to mop up the oil off the water.One woman talked about a woman who went into labour and was rushed to hospital to deliver her baby, while her husband was being pulled from the water. There were no survivors, but not all bodies were recovered. Denis O’Leary’s body only washed ashore the following November.

They described Sophie du Plantier’s murder in Schull, still unsolved, and how her French family come over every year, still trying to find closure.

There was also the Air India disaster, where a plane went down near Ahakista. The town rallied to take care of the family members who came from India. The families were given food in West Lodge Hotel. One woman remembers that they made chicken salads for 130 people, and were asked to take off the skin as the families didn’t eat chicken skin.

They remembered Princess Di’s murder, the landing on the moon (the first TV arrived in 1951. one woman in Bantry had a TV, so they all watched it at her house) and the Pope’s visit to Knock shrine. A number of Bantry locals went up to see him.

The Twin Towers – people thought they were watching a movie at first.

Happier memories were summer dances at the crossroads, and the way people would visit each other’s houses for a sing-song or a game of cards. It was called stríochting. Songs like ‘Bantry Bay’ and ‘The Rose of Tralee’.


Historical events create a frame for individual lives. Poetry enhances our life by giving it a philosophical and/or emotional resonance. For the second part of the session, we looked at poems (and thanks to Paul Casey for those!): Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Love is Not All, Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay, Piano, by D.H. Lawrence, Michael Hartnett’s Death of an Irishwoman, and for the craic, The Health-Food Diner, by Maya Angelou. To my surprise, I discovered that most of them had never learned poetry at school and didn’t know any poems by heart. ‘It was all Irish and maths’, someone said. Only one woman could recite a poem by heart, and she did so, beautifully – Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. But they were pleased to get the handout of poems and some asked if they could take them away to keep, and read.

With pleasure, my darlings. It’s been an interesting week.


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