Thursday 24 September 2009

Both sides now

In the 1870s the landed gentry at Strokestown Park had the leisure to worry about the handicap of left-handedness in their children and fitted the schoolroom with desks where the attached chair was offset so that it was only possible to write with the right.

Meanwhile, the tenant farmers on the estate had more basic worries: food, rent and Major Denis Mahon, the land agent, who advised his employer that the best solution to the problem of starving, poverty-stricken tenants was "mass emigration" as it was cheaper to send them to Canada than to the local workhouse.

At Swinford, Tom Hennigan's family was luckier: they managed to pay their rent and avoid eviction, and sitting in the small cottage today by the glowing peat fire, rain falling softly on the thatch and geese honking in the yard, he told us his stories. We'd seen the baskets before, the half-doors, the loft beds; but Tom was born in this bed, came home from school to eat potatoes baked on this hearth, sat in the firelight to hear these tales told over and over. Today he made it all real for us.

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