Writer, film maker and public speaker


With Fionnuala O'Flanagan at Galway Film Fleadh

The University of Colorado at Denver study a module on my work on the people of the Dingle Peninsula. Here is a link to the blog of the 2014 students: 

Hilary Fannin, Irish Times, May 16 2009

A JOYOUS NEWseries, Bibeanna Mheiriceá, chronicling the lives of 20 women who left the area around the Dingle peninsula in the middle of the last century to find work in America (when that swell continent opened her doors to immigration after the second World War), is whipping along on TG4.

Built around entertainingly irreverent conversations with the women, many of them living in the Irish enclave of Hungry Hill in Springfield, Massachusetts, the documentaries are sprinkled with glorious archive of solid-looking lassies and grinning bastúns set-dancing in the Irish clubs around Boston. Speaking from womb-like living rooms enhanced with Irish souvenirs, or from airy New England houses with plaster Virgins in the garden, these women shared vivid memories of leaving Ireland, of families waving them off in currachs, of sisters and mothers weeping in an austere Shannon airport, and of arriving in the US in borrowed dresses. (One woman’s suitcase contained a severed pig’s head, the ring still through its nose – a strange dowry for a new land.)

This week’s film saw the women reminisce about summer weekends in the Catskills, about new-found freedoms and about blossoming romances among the emigres who remained, and indeed remain, a tight-knit community.

Exhilarating, nostalgic, at times moving viewing, this is an absorbing series, a valuable social record of a time when these tenacious young women relinquished the windswept familiar for the vast acreage of a new continent.

TV REVIEW: Shane Hegarty reviews Cogar: Do Mhargadh Déanta 

Irish Times 14/12/2002

Cogar: Do Mhargadh Déanta, a documentary about the now-dead tradition of arranging marriages, was so lush with charm that it induced a pining for those days. A nostalgia for a time when lifelong bonds were bargained over by families around a kitchen table, through negotiations about dry cattle, hillside grazing rights, seaweed rights, sand and gravel; and then settled through a trip to the local solicitor followed by the pub. No blind dates, dinner parties, bad date-movies or personal ads. Just the shaking of hands and a warning not to screw it up. "If you don't get on, don't come running back," one father told his freshly contracted daughter. "This door won't be open for you."

It was a practice born out of a sense of necessity and survival, an eye towards an heir and the requirement for an extra pair of hands around the farm. "People didn't really expect happiness," as one lady, Maire, explained. "It was more a matter of being content." Marriage was about co-operation and hard work. If you talked of love, you were simply losing the run of yourself."

"People didn't talk about love a long time ago," said another woman, Noirin. "Love was a disease. It was something to get over." Gneas was another thing altogether. This documentary focused on Kerry, so it was on those honeymoon trips to Tralee that new negotiations would begin.

"We managed it alright. We made deals and bargains," said Maire, who blushed like a teenager. "I wanted to wait a few days, maybe a month. But by dad, I was told it would have to happen sooner or later." After a few days in the Grand Hotel, it was back to the homestead, where a woman could look forward to a lifetime with her new husband. And his old parents. And his brothers and sisters. And maybe an aunt or an uncle. Trudging up a sloping field in a squall would have been an attractive escape.

Do Mhargadh Déanta was inveterately nostalgic because the interviewees were, quite naturally, people for whom the experience hadn't been too painful.

"Not all were successful," we were informed meekly, and with little by way of experience to flesh that out. Still, in another generation people won't believe this took place deep into the 20th century. The practise is already gone; the living proof will be too. This documentary will at least act as a fine oral history.

Bibeanna Review

The Doyennes of Dingle, Catherine Foley, Irish Times.

Echoes of a disappearing rural lifestyle, where a subsistence economy prevailed and arranged marriages were frequent, sound through the pages of Bibeanna, a new book edited by Brenda Ni Shúilleabháin.

The featured women, all from the Dingle Gaeltacht and ranging in age from 63 t0 94, show a stoicism and an acceptance of life's knocks as well as a sense of enjoyment and fun, in a series of interviews that were first recorded in Irish for a TG4 documentary series, and are published in a bilingual format. 

The 25 interviews are called Bibeanna, after the Irish word for the bibs or aprons that women used to wear in rural Ireland as a kind of uniform, all day, every day, except for Mass on Sunday.

In their reflections, the women talk about the changes they have seen and the loved ones they have lost. They throw light on the pace of change they have witnessed, and, in some cases, the attendant loss of innocence that has resulted.

"Many have suffered considerable hardship," explains Ní Shúilleabháin. "The loss of either spouse was a huge blow, economic as well as emotional"

"We lived a simple life, no electricity or running water. My mother cooked everything over the open fire in a three-legged pot" recalls Máirín Bean Uí Lúing. "There was no proper well in Carhoo, so we had a pump and the water was horrible and yellow."

"We had no television or radio. Stories of the Fianna were our entertainment, the rosary was said in every house, every night. Now there are three or four televisions in every house, and a lot of what is shown is not good; we'd be better off without a lot of it," says Máirín Bean Uí Mhuircheartaigh, who talks about her life, including the fact that she was "born in Baile an Lochaigh, the only daughter in a family of six children. All my brothers became teachers and every one of them was very good to me. They never sent home an empty letter. Looking back, if I had my life again, I would stick to the books and be a teacher like them."

As Ní Shúilleabháin points out, "many of the Bibeanna had marriages arranged, and sometimes the girl herself initiated the arrangement." Cáit Chosaí, Bean Feirtéar, recalls how her marriage was arranged. "My aunt made the match, because I chose my husband. I said no one else would satisfy me, and if I didn't get him, that I would go to America. In those days, a girl could send a man an offer just as easily as a man could send one to a woman. In any case, my match was made, and it was a good one."

The women share their thoughts in a clear, honest way on a range of issues ranging from loneliness to dancing and singing, from love and happiness to religion and superstition, from family and loss to their livelihoods. They combine nostalgia with an uneasy prescience threaded through their observations.

Edna Bean Uí Chinnéide talks about a child, Parthalán, who died. "We had him for only 17 days. And now, looking back, I am saddened by the lack of importance accorded to his life and death," she says. "There was no requiem for a child in those days, and no priest at the funeral, and no recognition at all that this little boy had lived as long as he could, and that his death left us heartbroken."

Their memories are shot through with old fashioned images of another time. "When I was a young girl going to dances, big wide skirts were all the fashion," recalls Máirín Bean Uí Chathalláin. "We had underskirts to put under them, kind of lace petticoats, that we had to stiffen so that they would stand out nice and widely." She remembers how they used to boil sugar and sprinkle the sugar solution on the underskirts and iron them. "In those days, we had no electricity, and we put a stone in the fire until it was red, and then we put it in the iron case." After ironing the underskirt, the sugar became as stiff as starch, and our skirts stood out beautifully," she says. 

Like many of the women, Caitlín Bean Uí Shé has a great sense of humour, with a trove of stories to tell about the high jinks that went on. She remembers the night her uncle stayed with them. "I don't know who thought of the trick, but someone went and hid under his bed and waited until he fell asleep. Then they got up on their hands and knees and began to press the mattress up from below, waking poor Paddy.....He screamed for my mother and father "There's a ghost under my bed, I'm done for." We all nearly died laughing, and I suppose, in the end, so did Paddy."

Siobhán a' Chró, Bean Uí Dhubháin recalls how "from the first of April to Hallow E'en, we never wore a shoe," and how "in those days, milking was womens' work." As for school, she says "I had nice teachers. But I never liked it, and after I finished in Dún Chaoin, W went no further. I preferred to work on the farm. That was my choice."

When it comes to love and death, the women are equally direct, eloquent and unfailingly wise. Bean Uí Chathalláin remembers how things were when her father drowned at sea when she was less than three years old. "After that, life was hard on my mother, and on my grandmother who lived with us, along with myself and my two brothers. We went to school barefoot most of the year, running all the way to Murreigh and back. We had no excess weight in those days." 

Siobhán Fahy remembers how her husband died when she was just 27, and expecting her second child. "It was very hard, of course it was. The child (who is now a man) was born six weeks after my husband's death. It was very hard in the hospital. All the other women had their husbands coming in visiting, bringing flowers.....I was angry with God at first, but then, we were very happy in the four years of our marriage, and death came quickly and mercifully and without pain. In the end, you have to accept what life sends you, and I had two children to raise, so I set about it."

Their words never reflect the cosy, stereotypical viewpoint. Cáit Chosaí Feirtéar, although devout, has questions about her religion. "I don't go to confession any more. I like people to be good, to do no harm to anyone, to live good lives," she says, "I think people always had questions about the things we were supposed to believe. My husband often asked how our bones would come together on the last day. How will that happen?"

Bibeanna: Memories from a Corner of Ireland.

Amazon review by Muriel McAuley:

This review is from: Bibeanna: Memories from a Corner of Ireland (Paperback)

We need to know where we have been to know where we are going. This book tells, in their own words, the stories of a number of women from the Irish speaking area or West Kerry. They speak of the very hard times in which they grew up, but with no impression of being hard done by. That was the way life was and they just got on with it. Some had left home to work in other parts of Ireland, or in England or the US, but had returned for a variety of reasons. Some were not from the area, but had nonetheless become part of the community when they moved there. Many had given up careers to return to care for other family members, or to help in the family farm or business, living at times in very difficult situations, but their stories echo the strength that is part of them all. Steel tempered in the fire. Yet they appear to have no regrets about what they gave up or the hardship they endured, valuing what is truly important instead. They speak of their enjoyment of singing and dancing and telling stories in their own houses. Many of them speak of their 'made' marriage matches.

It is a marvellous book and a valuable archive of these tremendous women. Written both in Irish and English, you can hear the women's voices in the lyrical, true language. For those whose Irish is weak, it is a good book to read in both languages, because the Irish is so accurate and living.

In these days when Ireland has become prosperous, it is good to see the foundations of that prosperity - hard work in difficult conditions and commitment to the family, the community and the country. I enjoyed it hugely and hope that you do, too.

Review by 

Helen O'Shea, author of 'The Making of Irish Traditional Music'. (published by Cork University Press in 2008).

"Bibeanna has really struck a nerve with me, and I relished every story.  I was struck by the singularity of life on the Dingle Peninsula, and by the women's strength in character and in the way they took what life offered and made their way through it with determination and a sense of purpose. And there is a complementary way in which people's differences and deficiencies are accepted and turned into strengths which I've found is evident in many of the country communities in which I've lived. 

"This book presents an interesting story of an Irish woman from her own perspective. Well done interpretation and nicely documented."

— Amazon review by Margaret Brady

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