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Dunmanway Heritage Centre

How a team of volunteers created their very own heritage centre in West Cork.

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With its monthly lectures and outings and occasional book launches, Dunmanway Historical Association was making regular appearances in the Events listings of my blog, Irish Genealogy News. It had become clear that the Society was a busy community group with a committed bunch of members. But when I discovered those members had also founded and established their very own heritage centre – one that’s open five hours a day, five days a week – I was intrigued to know more.

Children looking at exhibits at Dunmanway Heritage Centre.
Dunmanway Heritage Centre organises project with local schools
The bustling town of Dunmanway is perhaps best known as the geographical centre of the West Cork region and as the birthplace of Sam Maguire (of Gaelic Football fame).

What is less well-known, and earns it a place on the genealogical map, is that this town – population just 2,377 at last year’s census – has its very own Heritage Centre.

This Centre isn’t part of the Irish Family History Foundation’s island-wide network of research centres. Nor is it attached to a museum or other publicly funded institution.

Dunmanway Heritage Centre is the creation of the town's Historical Association and it is operated, manned and nurtured by its members.

Centrally located on Main Street, just a stone's throw from the market square, it is entirely independent of any affiliations and receives no local authority or other state funding.

As Pat McCarthy, one of the Association’s founders, explains, maintaining the premises is one of the group’s biggest headaches. ‘When we first started we hadn’t a shilling, but we were lucky to receive free accommodation just along from the current premises.

‘Unfortunately, we had to move after about four years and now pay an annual rent of €2,500, which takes a big lump out of our budget. And then there’s also light and heating.’

Since the Centre is open five hours a day, that tots up to a fair sized bill. So how does the group keep afloat?

Dunmanway Historical Association's books.
The Association's books help pay the rent.

Pat shows me a sizeable display of books published by the society, among them two series called ‘Dunmanway Doings’ and ‘Dunmanway Pictorial Past’. Crammed with articles and photos about different aspects of the town’s history and inhabitants, these softbacks are written by members of the Association and sold either in the Centre or by local stores.

‘They are the reason we keep our head above water,’ says Pat. ‘They cost a lot to print and we don’t get sponsorship for them. Instead, local shops sell them for us without taking any commission. We’re extremely grateful for that support because it’s the book sales that pay our rent.’

Not only do these books help keep Dunmanway Heritage Centre open, they are also essential reading for anyone with links to the area. They are full of detail, names and old photos, and could only add to a family historian’s knowledge of how his or her ancestors from Dunmanway lived. There’s a full list of publications on the Association’s website.

The Heritage Centre is also an essential stop for any researcher visiting the area. There’s nothing quite like studying Griffiths Valuation and local maps with someone who’s really familiar with the names of the townlands and their history. And Pat is quite likely to take you himself to the old homestead or to meet some likely cousins if they can be identified.

He stresses that researchers must do some homework before they arrive. ‘It’s impossible to help someone without some names and dates.’

Pat McCarthy with model of Dunmanway Convent.
Pat McCarthy with the model, which he restored, of Dunmanway's convent.

Pat, together with all the other members of the Association who collectively keep the Heritage Centre open, give lectures and arrange historical trips, gives his time and knowledge freely. They all share a deep love of their town, its history and past inhabitants, and want to develop that same interest in others. They are a mine of information, waiting to be tapped.

And plenty of people do tap into it. Some will happily take hours of the volunteers’ time and walk away with more historical or genealogical facts than they could have dreamed of. Unfortunately, in their delight they often fail to register that a donation might help to keep this wonderful service going. While this must be disappointing, it’s not something the folk at Dunmanway Heritage Centre choose to dwell on.

Pat prefers to emphasise the positive, such as the generosity of one of his friends, Micheal Coughlan, who now lives in London.

‘You see all these white folders?’ he says, indicating shelves at the back of the Centre, stacked with white ring binders. ‘He spent years and years studying his family history and, having published it all in a book, he sent us all of his research materials. And he keeps sending us books, some of them heavy hardbacks, so that we now have an excellent genealogy and local history library here. It’s marvellous. He’s been very good to us.’

Although there is so much of interest here for genealogists, they are not the only target audience. The Centre also plays a leading role in the local community. In addition to its lecture and outing programme for members, the Association runs a local history competition through a nearby school and creates window and wall displays of the children’s projects.

Wall displays at Dunmanway Heritage Centre.
Display boards tell stories of the town and its most famous inhabitants

Stimulating an interest in history in the youngsters is high on Dunmanway Heritage Centre's agenda, and there are plenty of fascinating artefacts and displays to capture the imagination of any visitor, young or old.

Professionally-produced display boards show local landmarks in years gone by, historical maps of the town’s shops, and the detailed story of Sam Maguire. Other treasures and curiosities include a copy of the book detailing every penny donated and spent on building St Patrick’s RC chapel in the 1830s, and a black shawl or cape of the kind that women wore well into the 20th century, which Marla was happy to model for me.

A photo of two NASA astronauts also hangs proudly on the wall. One is Michael Collins, the spaceship commander who orbitted the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their great leap for mankind. The other is Eileen Collins, the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle.

Both have ancestors from Dunmanway, and both have visited the Heritage Centre. I’m sure that, like me, they were hugely impressed with the enthusiasm, commitment and hard work invested by the volunteers to keep this facility open.

Dunmanway Heritage Centre is a remarkable achievement, and could well be used as a successful model for other small towns that want to stimulate interest and pride in their locality’s past and present.

Address: Main Street, Dunmanway, Cork.
Tel: +353 23 8856508.
Dunmanway Heritage Centre's website.

30 October 2011

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Famous folk from Dunmanway

Sam Maguire's statue in Dunmanway market square.

Sam Maguire, born just outside Dunmanway town to a Protestant family in 1877, is best known today for lending his name to the All-Ireland Cup. But his position in Gaelic Football's history is second to the significant role he played in Ireland's struggle for independence.

Working in the British Civil Service in London, he had the perfect cover for his IRB activities and his position as Lieutenant-General of the IRA and its Director of Intelligence in Britain. He recruited his colleague Michael Collins into the movement and in his Post Office position was able to intercept official state correspondence and other vital confidential despatches.

It is thought that his activities were eventually discovered and he was imprisoned until 1923 when he returned to Ireland. He worked briefly for the Post Office in Dublin before returning to Dunmanway where he died of tuberculosis in 1927 aged 48.

Self Portrait by Thomas Hovenden.

Thomas Hovenden was born in Dunmanway in 1840, the son of the town's Bridewell keeper, but he was orphaned by the age of six, probably as a result of the famine. He, however, managed to survive after being placed in an orphanage, and in 1854 he was apprenticed to a carver and gilder called Tolerton, who discovered his artistic talent and paid for him to receive tuition in London.

He travelled to New York and in France before returning to Ireland. He died in 1895 while trying to save a child from an approaching train.

The painting above is a self-portrait.

Michael Collins, Astronaut

Colonel Michael Collins was the pilot of the command module of Apollo II, the first Lunar Landing Mission, and has visited Dunmanway Heritage Centre.

His grandfather, Jeremiah Collins was from the town and emigrated along with his parents and siblings in about 1862.

The traditional cloak

Maura Hurley models the traditional Irish Cloak.

Dunmanway Heritage Centre volunteer Maura Hurley models the historical cloak.

Cloaks such as this were traditionally given to a bride by her mother. They were worn right into the first half of the 20th century, and Maura herself can remember a woman in Dunmanway who always wore one.

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