Every town and village in the country is steeped in history, but some of it can remain partially or almost completely hidden… until curiosity or a passion for dredging up the past comes into play.
I have only vague memories of a teacher once mentioning that in Callan, where I went to school in the 1960s and ‘70s, there had been a ferocious battle.
It occurred way back in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell arrived at the town walls, expecting a prompt surrender.
The main garrison ran up the white flag, at the behest of the treacherous Town Governor, but a brave captain, the teacher told us, refused to yield to the most powerful army on earth, and so a siege commenced that cost hundreds of lives and left the town in ruins.
Almost every trace of that episode had disappeared, yielding to progress and the relentless march of time, we learned.
Every trace, that is, except one crumbling wall that remained of the castle where Callan’s defenders made their last stand.
I was surprised and confused to learn of where the wall stood. Surprised, because I, and all the other pupils of both primary and secondary schools in West Street, passed by the historic site every day when walking to or from school.
Something about that little classroom spiff caught my imagination. I’d read the “illustrated classics” versions of The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, among other epic yarns, which I’d found enthralling.
I had the bright idea that I could write a similar big adventure story about the captain who defied Cromwell.
I think I managed to fill half a copybook with what I foolishly imagined would impress everyone. Unfortunately, the first person I showed it to, a schoolmate who was always top of the class, shut the copybook after scanning it for less than a minute, looked furtively around him, and advised me in hushed tones not to show it to anyone.
It was so bad that I’d get a terrible slagging, he advised. I thanked him for his warning, and felt that I’d had a lucky escape when I burned the doomed ‘adventure story’ that evening, page by page.
I didn’t give any more thought to Cromwell’s unfriendly visit to Callan until a few years after leaving school when I read that the Irish Folklore Commission back in the 1930s had received some vivid accounts from a local school of the battle for Skerry’s Castle.
The reports and essays were full of derring-do and paid lavish tribute to the town’s valiant defenders.
After reading these priceless little gems the thought struck me that someone could surely write a compelling adventure story, even a novel, based on those events of 1650.
I didn’t seriously consider that I would take on such a gargantuan challenge… I thought of my embarrassing attempt at the age of ten, but I wondered if somebody might give it a go.
Instead, I wrote a few articles about what happened in Callan, availing of the pitifully few scraps of information I could gather on the subject. Apart from a well-researched article penned by Callan historian Joe Kennedy, for the Old Kilkenny Review of 1984, I could find little to shed light on the events that culminated in the attack on Skerry’s Castle.
The idea of writing an adventure yarn, or a literary work, based on Callan’s historic face-off with Cromwell occurred to me again when Covid closed down the country and kept us all under virtual house arrest for months.
Many people availed of Covid to reconnect with nature or to catch up on chores or hobbies they’d neglected. I spent the long dreary months of lockdown and restriction scribbling out a very rough draft of a novel.
That was after I’d done a lot of research into the Cromwellian era. I discovered, among other things, that Captain Mark McGeogegan, the man who defied Cromwell and died fighting in the battle for Callan, had been assigned to his post in the town from his native Westmeath, and that his wife, hailed as a ‘warrior’, accompanied him to take up residence in Skerry’s Castle.
I learned that his wife led the women of Callan into battle. She survived the siege and lived to a great age.
I was delighted to find a living direct descendent of the captain… Frank Geoghegan, who lives in Frevanagh, in the parish of Durrow in County Westmeath.
Not only does Frank own the same stretch of land that his ancestor grew up on. He lives in the same house.
Anyway, after the Covid emergency abated, I had another look at the rough draft of a novel. Seeing it again I was tempted to give it the same treatment as the one I’d consigned to the flames so many years before.
But I opted instead to get a few opinions. The reaction was encouraging enough to keep the idea alive, so I devoted a lot more time to the manuscript. It’s since gone through many more drafts and I hope to have it published in the coming months.
It’s strictly fiction… but inspired by what happened in Callan, and other parts of Ireland, in 1649-‘50, with a special focus on Captain McGeoghegan and his ‘warrior’ wife.
Sadly, Mrs McGeoghegan’s first name is lost to us, like the names of so many of the outstanding women who served their country in times of war, persecution, and social upheaval.
So I’ve given her a name in the story… one associated with the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Through the novel I might, if nothing else; bring to prominence a largely forgotten chapter of our past.
The main players in the true-life drama have long since departed this world. But via the power of the written word I want them to live again.
I believe history is always alive, and calling out to us across the centuries!
A book on Cromwell’s invasion
Noted Callan, Kilkenny author, John Fitzgerald is now completing a novel of the attack on his beloved home town by the brutal Oliver Cromwell and his invading army.
This is surely something to look forward to for Christmas as John has penned some fantastic works over the years and is at his best when writing about Callan and all it stands for.
A certainty is that the book will be on sale for the Christmas Market.
Jimmy Rhatigan, Kilkenny Press