The History of Bandon
George Bennett's History of Bandon
INSPIRE BOOKS (in association with Schull Books in west Cork) has just brought out a re-typeset reproduction of George Bennett’s classic History of Bandon, and of the principal towns in the West Riding of County Cork (the 1869 edition). First published in 1862, with a second much enlarged edition appearing in 1869, Bennett’s book is arguably the best Irish local history book ever published.
It is to local history in Ireland what, say Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne is to natural history and the life sciences in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And like all good local studies, in microcosm it tells a much larger story – in this case, the story of a whole people – of a mighty empire, in fact – and of a vigorous, revolutionary ideology.
Bennett’s History of Bandon is the story of how the west was won – the story of the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism in Ireland – which is to say it is undiluted, Anglo-imperial, Protestant triumphalism. It was written in the heyday of British world power, a time when the WASP worldview was becoming absolutely dominant – globally dominant – and, as such, the book is inevitably triumphalist: “Look on our glorious achievements, ye Papists,” it says, “and despair.”
However, as we are told in Holy Writ, “Pride goeth before a fall”. It says a lot about the world we live in – about history and about the nature of power – when one reflects on the fact that within a comparatively short period – 600 months or so, two generations – all of Bennett’s beloved world was swept away: the world map of the British empire, Castle Bernard and all its contents, the bunting and the trumpets and the Jubilee mugs all out on renovation rubbish heaps.
It is, perhaps, this rollercoaster character of history which allows us, today, to read a book such as this and not be drawn into the sectarianism of it – appreciate it anthropologically, as it were. Reading the following we, in 2012, think of the shell-like remains of somewhere like Castle Bernard (the stronghold of the earls of Bandon) just as readily as an ivy-clad tower-house ruin which was once the keep of some hoary old Gaelic chieftain: “It was in the banqueting hall of yon dismantled castle that the forefathers of the late owner used to entertain the great head of their house, and his princely retinue, with almost regal pomp. It was from that window, which looks towards the west, that its late possessor had oft, in his boyish days, watched the setting sun flush the neighbouring plains with a blended colouring of crimson and gold. It was through that great gate his fathers rode out to the foray and the chase; and it was through those portals that they were borne, one by one, accompanied by a long line of sorrowing clansmen, to their graves” (History of Bandon , 1869 ed., p.182).
There are some fabulously lyrical passages of writing throughout the book – a fact which is hardly ever mentioned by its (frequently rather mean-spirited) critics; here, for example, is Bennett on the ruins of Timoleague Abbey, near Clonakilty: “When the abbey was in its glory, when those ivy-mantled ruins, now tenanted by the bat and the owl, were occupied by numerous Franciscan friars, it must have been delightful – at full tide, on a waning summer’s evening – to listen to the vesper-hymn pouring from out the painted windows of the cloister, and rolling with melodious swell down through the echoing woods which at that time embosomed the estuary of the Arigadeen; and listen on, and hear the last lingering note grow soft and faint-and yet softer and fainter still – as it slowly crept along to the great ocean that lay asleep outside the dark cliffs of Lislee” (History of Bandon , 1869 ed., p.363).
Fundamentally, however, what makes Bennett’s book so important is that it is packed full of detailed information – lists of names (names of early settlers, soldiers, churchmen, guildsmen, merchants, masons, people who got whipped in the market-place, etc), correspondence, copies of legal documents, stuff from various account books, all sorts of detailed nuggets, many of the originals of which have since been destroyed or lost one way and another.
There will be considerable international interest in this reissue too. Part of the American interest, for example, has to do with the pages and pages of detailed lists – people tracing (or tinkering with) their genealogies and the like – but also because in the early days of the English colonisation of the New World, Jacobean Bandon-Bridge was one of the principal models of urban and political and economic development. The people who built Bandon – the original English Puritans-and places such as Innishannon, Clonakilty, and Enniskeane were the same people who built New Haven (Connecticut), Baltimore (Maryland), and Boston (Massachusetts). Very often literally the same people – brothers and cousins and sons and daughters – with the same outlook, the same spirit, the same background, the same purposes, the same gene-pool.
George Bennett followed on in this way too – the great west way of the American pilgrims. Bennett left Ireland in 1870s and went to America, to Oregon, where in the 1880s he founded a settlement just north of the California border, the centre of which was a new town called – you’ve guessed it – Bandon. Like its west Cork counterpart, Oregon’s Bandon (population 3,000) is a market-town with a rich agricultural hinterland known for its cheese and butter and other dairy produce. It is also a significant seaport town and, with its fine sandy coastline, a tourist destination. However, it is especially known as a centre for the production and processing of cranberries – the Ocean Spray brand-range being an initiation of the local cranberry-growers’ co-operative. Bennett, who was born in Bandon (west Cork) in 1824, died and was buried in Bandon, Oregon, in 1900, never setting foot in Ireland again after leaving it.
For copies of the (limited edition) reissue of George Bennett’s History of Bandon, and of the principal towns in the West Riding of County Cork from Inspire Books (published in association with Schull Books), contact Jack and Barbara O’Connell at Schull Books, Ballydehob, west Cork, or see www.schullbooks.net