By John Madden
While at the ITM conference I was wandering around the room with the teas and coffees, and something stood out for me. I’m a Laois man so I’ll have a bit of a grá for anybody or anything from the area, especially from the hometown of Rathdowney. Looking at the wider county first it is obvious that it has a full and rich Traveller history. If we look at the typical family names that would have been round and about Laois we see a long list including; Cash, Casey, Connor, Delaney, Donoghue, Doheny, Harty, McCarthy, McDonagh, McGinley, McInerney, Maughan, Nevin, O’Leary, O’Reilly, Quinn-McDonagh, Ryan, Stokes, Tuohy, and Ward
That’s quite a range of names; no doubt there’s more I’ve missed. In addition to the wealth of names in the county, there was a lot of Traditional Camp Sites spread across the area, some of which are highlighted on the map in this article. Many of us will know that Laois was once known as the Queen’s County and as a result, some of the older place names have changed.
- Portlaoise was known as Maryborough, or Maryboro for short, some of the old stock will still refer to the main town of Laois as Maryboro. There were campsites in Maryboro, one that sticks out was also known as the Starvation Wall, or Shame Wall. The area had a home for people who were being treated for certain sicknesses; the one mentioned in the records was alcoholism.
- Not too far down the road from Portlaoise was a campsite area that was also home to the old Penny Tree, also known as the Money Tree. Up until very recently, this was a stopping point for many people. Families would insert coins on the tree to bring good luck on market days, to make a wish for a happy marriage or for a cure for an illness. I remember passing this along the road to Portlaoise many moons ago, we’d often pull in, hammer a coin into it, pause for a minute of silent reflection and then on we’d go to Portlaoise for the weekly shopping. I’d often wish for good luck with my coin, and true to form, once the shopping was done my gran would buy me an All-Cash scratch card. More often than not I’d win £4 (before the Euro) or a free ticket. Was it down to the blessings of the money tree? Who knows?!
- On a bit further again was a road known as “Body’ Road”, this was the Mountrath Road where all the funeral carriages of the Donoghue’s and McInerney’s would be transported back to their places of rest in Templemore.
- On the Templemore Road outside Rathdowney was Lubby’s
- Newmans, between Rathdowney and Errill was a site which was named after Newman’s Scrapyard.
- The Conoboro Bridge, just on the edge of the town where there is a fork in the road, one road leads to Abbeyleix, the other for Castletown/Mountrath.
- The Long Road, this was a stretch of road that didn’t have much other than farmland on either side, and it’s situated between Mountmellick and Portarlington.
- Next is the Commons Cross, on the outskirts of Mountmellick.
- The Heath, a famous enough area just lying between the Portlaoise and Stradbally. The Rock of Dunamaise is an attraction here. The area always reminded me of the Curragh as sheep often roam freely there across green, fertile pastures.
- The Mall site lay between Vicarstown and Athy.
- Granit Stone, this site was close to Grantstown Lake, the area nowadays would be unrecognisable to many as the introduction of the motorway and a large services style plaza have forever changed the landscape of the area.
- Emo Woods, is one of the more secluded and hidden camps in Laois.
While these sites were home to many for decades, sadly with changing legislation and social policies all these campsites faded into obscurity; often entrances were sealed off using the English tactic of placing boulders in the way so that no vehicles, wagons or caravans could access them. The land left idle and placed neatly close by were signs that stated: ‘Temporary Dwelling prohibited.’
While researching the last of these campsites we happened upon an article in a yearly publication called ‘The Rathdowney Review.’ This article, called ‘Rathdowney is our Home’ was found in the 1991 edition, and it explored the life of Michael and Mary O’Donoghue. The following was written by a Rathdowney Man, Richie Sheeran. Sadly he passed away only a few years later, but here it is, in his own words.
It is somewhat difficult to class Michael and Mary Donoghue as Travellers, simply because they have lived around the vicinity of Rathdowney for over 60 years. Almost 48 years ago, Michael Donoghue married Mary McInerney. They were both around 18 years of age. They had 16 children. Like most Travellers, they reared their family by the roadside. The readily admit it was terrible hardship. (sic). They experienced some awful hardship and poverty. All of their children have now left and gone on their own way of life. The admit that life for Travellers today has much improved due to the fact that they get state entitlements. (sic).
Michael and Mary express their appreciation to everybody who are concerned in helping the welfare of Travellers. The also express with a proud and positive voice that they love Rathdowney and state that they would not leave it for diamonds. (sic).
However, they would dearly love at this stage of their lives to have a more settled home of their own, preferably in the country. The conditions that have this grand old Christian couple have to endure in this year of 1991, is just simply pathetic. (sic) They would now dearly love it if someone would now listen to their pleas and help them find more human accommodation.
That was 1991, I was only a gossan myself at the time but I remember passing their encampment on a daily basis, never would you pass without a friendly salute or hello. As time passed the Council stepped in and eventually both Michael and Mary were given a maisonette in one of the local estates, Quigley Park. This house gave them a few years of happiness. Michael left this world within a few years of the move and Mary joined him within two years. During his time on earth, Michael was a renowned tinsmith and wagon maker, and a very valued and respected member of the Rathdowney population. While Rathdowney has seen the odd caravan in their spot over the last 20 years, none have stayed as long as these two wonderful people. May they rest in peace.