In The Ould Ago has won the Judges Special Award in the International Rubery Book Awards with comment;
"An astonishingly detailed study of old Irish folklore, clearly a labour of love that must have taken many years to complete. It is a beautifully presented coffee-table book with an array of fascinating details and meticulous, hand-drawn illustrations. It is a unique look at the history of everyday rural life, a world that needs to be captured before it vanishes completely from our memories”.
In The Ould Ago received an Honorable Mention in the History section of the San Francisco Book Festivals Awards.
Johnny McKeagney travelled all the old roads, found the gaps in the hedges and stood on the deserted hearths. He spoke to neighbours and friends, to people who travelled these roads in bygone days and céilidhed in these fallen houses.
Then he took up his pen and drew, not just what his eyes saw but also. Then he took up his pen and drew, not just what his eyes saw but also what he had been told and how he saw it all in his mind. A photoograph may capture an instant. Johnny’s drawings cover centuries.
When we open the pages of this great book we will venture up old lanes that we have passed by many times and finally discover what lies at the end of them. We may enter old houses and be made welcome at the hearth. We can learn the old crafts that sustained our people for generations. We will hear the people’s stories and come to know them in a new and special way.
And as we turn the pages and travel the roads, our eyes will be opened to the wildlife and the landscape and we will begin to see ancient rocks lying in the heather and signs of tillage high on mountain sides and appreciate that people lived between the now fallen gables. You could not have a better companion than Johnny McKeagney as you travel along the old roads. keep writing. Did you start writing to record a specific experience? Is there a theme on which you are reflecting?
The business of recording folklore and folk life is an activity that is not confined to customary working hours. In truth, for that rare breed of skilled practitioner such as John McKeagney, it is a vocation in thrall to neither the time of day or the season. It arises from an instinctive sense of curiosity and ever expanding engagement with people, artefacts and environment.
John McKeagney’s extraordinary breadth of knowledge and devotion to documenting the cultural heritage of his native Fermanagh was instantly apparent to me when I was introduced to him by my colleague Prof. Séamas Ó Catháin, a Tyrone man similarly dedicated to the pursuit of folklore.
For many years John has generously shared his expertise and time with students from the Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin and other institutions, carefully explaining the form and function of the many artefacts in his remarkable collection, and leading field trips to explore features of the cultural landscape which were on the point of disappearing for good. He has ranged ever further from his native Tempo to explore the Fermanagh countryside, uncovering archaeological monuments and interviewing hundreds of men and women in the many townlands he has walked.
With the aid of camera, recording device and pen, he has pieced together much of the fabric of tradition in the places he has visited. The skills of craftsman, draughtsman and artist which he combines are used to great effect in the richly-detailed and frequently humorous tapestries he has drawn. The passion and excitement of uncovering an ancient monument, piecing together the former outline and function of a building or object, recording a distant craft process or local legend, all are vividly expressed in John McKeagney’s drawings. They form a unique and invaluable pictorial record of Fermanagh’s hidden past.
Irish people have always had a great interest in, and respect for, their heritage and a fascination with their history – none more so than the folklorist and artist, Johnny McKeagney as he is affectionately known in the village of Tempo, Co. Fermanagh. Johnny is a self-effacing man, yet a man with fire in his belly!
Consumed by a passion for recording historical fact and local history from within his beloved County, and further a field. One might find him on the street, deep in conversation with an old person, or examining the construction of a ruined dwelling in a remote and lonely place. Perhaps crawling under gorse bushes searching for hidden megalithic remains; on an Island in Lough Erne examining a round tower or simply sitting in a graveyard anywhere in Fermanagh or the adjoining counties not only transcribing the inscriptions on the older tombstones; but making detailed drawings of the surrounding ecclesiastical buildings as well. Beautifully executed work presented in an enchanting self-taught style.
Over the years Johnny has taken a series of remarkable colour photographs of the older generation in Tempo and elsewhere, -yet another of his projects! Making careful notation of who they are, their occupation and where they fit in to the local scheme of things.
McKeagney is truly a living, walking-talking history book, unassuming and charming – an archivist and artist down to his toenails! Finally, behind any successful man there is bound to be a supportive and wonderful woman and Johnnie’s wife Teresa is exactly that.
John McKeagney, son
Johnny McKeagney is as Fermanagh as the curlew’s call on Lough Erne. He was born in 1938 in the same room where he lays his head every night, the third child of seven. His father was the village carpenter, his grandfather a coachbuilder and his great-grandfather a blacksmith. Johnny grew up with tales of generations of busy craftsmen making the furniture, carts and carriages for the local farmers. Indeed Johnny still has some of those carts today, ten decades after his grandfather swung the hammer to make them. As a young lad, Johnny’s interests lay in a different direction. At ten he began helping in the family funeral undertaking business. At fifteen he quit school to start a long career in the grocery business. His first weekly wage in Micky Connolly's local shop was ten shillings a week, all of which was handed over to his mother. A hard worker, he was in demand and was soon earning 4 a week in Harry O'Doherty's general store of Mountjoy, four miles from Omagh.
In 1965 Johnny married his wife, Teresa and opened his own grocery shop in Tempo. It was initially stocked for the princely sum of £75 from a trip to a cash and carry in Lurgan. For the next 27 years Johnny ran the "wee shop", which he expanded into a goodly size emporium. But while selling cream crackers and baked beans paid the bills and raised his six children, Johnny found that his fascination with local history and folklore fed the soul. He had learnt as a lad that the North and South Poles had been discovered, that Mount Everest had been climbed and Africa explored. It sounded as if there was nothing more to be discovered. Yet one day a customer named Robbie Woods, born in 1900, came into the shop. He told Johnny where the long-forgotten buttermarket had been in Tempo, and described watching a human chain of men with buckets of water trying without success to stop a raging fire that burned three local houses to the ground.
Johnny was hooked. He wrote Robbie's account on a paper bag. In the coming years, Robbie would recount many stories of local life in return for tea and biscuits! Another important influence in his love of folklore was a six month stay on his aunt's farm where he added some farming skills to his CV. He gathered eggs, set potatoes and made rucks of hay. His fondest memory of these days is the big blazing hearth fire at day's end. The family would gather round to tell stories and play cards. It was the 1970s. Disco ruled. Starsky and Hutch were king. But the rural life drew Johnny. Realizing that there was physical history all around him that was slowly vanishing, he decided to document the local abandoned farmsteads and outhouses. He'd stroll out and sketch the dimensions. He quickly learned a few rules of thumb. If a house had an iron roof, then it would have been thatched in earlier days. If there was no roof, he'd search for a discarded piece of slate nearby. It took hours to figure out how the house might have looked in its prime and sketch it with the original roof. Lacking formal art training, Johnny was encouraged to continue his recordings by Mr Leslie Stewart, who taught art at the Technical College.
Walk around ancient homesteads, and you'll encounter mysterious and forgotten items. His tolerant wife allowed him to become self-taught in local archaeology. People told his of odd finds that he was able to identify: charcoal pits, where mounds of turf had been burned inside wet sods to make the charcoal; corn kilns at old houses, and the remains of a pottery on the village main street. Hundreds of years old, all memory of it was long gone.
Criostoir McCarthy of the Folklore Department at UCD frequently brought some of his students to Tempo to study old houses. Johnny'd bring them to some he found interesting. He led them to one where Criostoir proclaimed it was unique in all of Ireland as it had four outshots instead of the usual one. Each one was five feet long and was for sleeping in. It was exciting to discover things like that.
While out walking his dog, Beamish, Johnny would call at a house and come away with great stories. Local yarns and folktales - many of which are recorded along with the drawings in the following pages. People were always friendly and seemed to have time for a cup of tea. And poems. One time he began to collect them. People brought them, and they were eventually published in a book in 1989. It was called The Taste of Tempo and sold a thousand copies.
The village of Tempo traditionally hosted an agricultural fair on the 28th of each month. Due to changing times, the last fair was held back in 1959. In 1994 the fair day was re-enacted. Stallions trotted up and down the main street. A book was published, Tempo Fair, which recalled the history of the fair in earlier days.
Johnny's career has been shopkeeping, but his passion has been folklore. He has hugely enjoyed documenting the ways of life of years ago. In The Ould Ago is this book's title. This came from a phrase heard occasionally from older folk that means..., well lets just say a long time ago.
Johnny wishes to thank all those who so kindly made tea, told yarns, walked with him, or merely sat in the car pointing out places of interest while outside a good Fermanagh downpour prevailed. He hopes browsing these pages will spark your interest in folk ways and in finding out what lies behind the hedge and beneath your feet in your own local area.