Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Midland's Misplaced Momentous: The Quakers by Ivor Casey

WHILE the  midlands  has  often  become  a  side stepped  region  throughout  Ireland,  its  history  has  included  important  developments  in  the  name  of  The  Quakers,  who  spear-headed  production  in  Co. Offaly  and  Co. Westmeath.  It   was  firstly  in  Moate,  Co. Westmeath  where  the  progression  of  this  community  began  to  flourish  and  see  the  earliest  advancements  in  rural  Ireland  over  three  and  a  half  centuries  ago.

When  George  Fox  founded  'The  Society  Of  Friends'  or  'Quakers'  over  350 years ago,  the  Westmeath  town  of  Moate  soon  became  a  centre-point  for  its  followers.  Fox  had  set  up  this  new  way  of  life  in  the  wake  of  the  Counter  Reformation,  having  become  disillusioned  with  religious  life  at  the  time.  He  felt  churches  had  become  swamped  with  traditions,  rituals  and  power  politics.  The  main  objective  of  Quakerism  was  to  take  care  of  the  poor  and  provide  for  widows  and  the  fatherless.  It  was  ensured  that  all  members  practised  justice,  equity  and  consolation.  Quakers  were  tolerant  in  allowing  people  pursue,  without  criticism,  whatever  he  or  she  was  interested  in.

Moate  was  first  introduced  to  this  'Society  Of  Friends'  in  1658  by  a  Scottish  soldier  named  William  Edmundson,  who  had  already  made  converts  in  Co.  Antrim.  Locals  became  intrigued  by  the  Quaker  lifestyle  when  Edmundson  held  a  meeting  in  Ballykilroe  and  the  first  'meeting  house'  was  located  at  Toorphelim.  Followers  included  John  Clibborn  who  eventually  had  meetings  transferred  to  his  home,  Moate  Castle,  which  he  came  into  possession  of  in  1656.  It  was  the  town  of  Moate  where  distant  visitors,  which  included  Americans,  would  come  to,  in  search  of  information  about  Quakers  in  Ireland  and  nearby  countries.  From  here,  Quakerism  extended  to  neighbouring  counties  such  as  Offaly.  With  the  increasing  numbers  of  friends,  local,  provincial  and  national  meeting  houses  were  erected  in  Ireland.

The  Midlands  Quakers  were  a  most  ambitious  and  productive  people,  establishing  small  industries  and  becoming  heavily  involved  in  farming  and  founded  agricultural  shows.  Some  of  their  factories  included  woollen  and  linen  mills,  brick  and  tile  factories, a  tannery  and  a  felt  making  factory.  They  were  also  involved  in  banking,  engineering  and  shipbuilding  as  well  as  producing  jams,  biscuits  and  tobacco  and  the  famous Bewleys  cafes.  A  major  Quaker  run  factory  was  the  Goodbody  factory  in  Clara,  Co. Offaly  which  was  a  flour  mill  and  jute  processor.

One  particular  resourceful  Quaker  was  Dr.  Edward  Bewley  (1806 - 1876),  a  Medical  Doctor  and  Agriculturist  who  set  up  his  practice  in  Moate  in  1830.  One  area  he  was  most  keen  on  was  the  advancement  of  farming  methods  and  he  became  a  member  of  the  Agricultural  Society  of  Ireland.  He  set  up  a  branch  of  this  organisation  in  Moate  which  lead  to  the  formation  of  ploughing  matches,  farming  lectures,  an  agricultural  college  and  an  agricultural  show.  Dr.  Bewley  was  elected  President  of  the  Royal  Agricultural  Society  of  Ireland  in  1841.  His  benevolence  could  be  seen  during  the  famine  as  he  was  a  founding  member  of  the  Moate  Soup  Kitchen.  His  son  Sir  Edmund  Thomas  Bewley  (1837 - 1908)  was  born  in  Moate  and  later  became  a  Professor  of  Law  in  Trinity  College  and  a  Supreme  Court  Judge.

The  Quakers  are  still  very  much  in  existence,  with  meeting  houses  all  around  the  country.  However,  other  than  one  active  meeting  house  in  Edenderry  in  Co. Offaly  at  present  and  none  in  Co.  Westmeath,  the  midlands  have  lost  a  symbol  of  their  prosperity.  Today,  the  diminutive  remains  of  a  Quaker  meeting  house  can  be  seen  in  the  grounds  of  Moate  Castle.  It  was  ordered  to  be  demolished  in  1921  by  the  Quaker's  'Dublin  Meeting',  to  avoid  misuse  when  the  number  of  Quakers  reduced  in  the  area  and  the  house  became  empty.  There  is  also  the  remains  of  a  Quaker  graveyard  on  the  same  property  but  this  is  also  gradually  disintegrating,  despite  the  best  attempts  of  the  local  Historical  Society  to  preserve  it.

With  its  worsening  condition  through  vandalism  and  the  more  natural  overgrowth  of  weeds,  briers  and  nettles, an  important  attribute  of  the  rural  Ireland’s  aspirations  has  been  left  aside.  While  some  midlanders  today  can  finally  celebrate  the  progression  of  sending  one  of  its  sons  to  lead  the  country,  failure  has  supervened  in  preserving  the  memory  of  a  noble  people.  With  Moate  Castle  having  recently  been  put  up  for  sale,  with  the  Quaker  graveyard  on  the  property,  there  is  further  uncertainty  as  to  the  future  of  this  essential  landmark  of  the  Quaker’s  memory  in  Moate.

Nonetheless,  it  is  the  legacy  of  'The Quakers'  which  historians  continue  to  bring  forward  and  with  the  special  anniversary  year  that  is  now,  it  is  important  that  tribute  is  paid  to  the  symbols  of  ambition  and  prosperity  which  once  made  Moate,  and  the  midlands,  a  thriving  region.

- Ivor Casey

(Ammended from article by Ivor Casey which first appeared in Ireland's Own)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Elvis and virtually no Suspicious Minds by Ivor Casey

ELVIS Presley's career has remained strong for almost 50 years, despite him being dead for over half this time. His long-lasting stance in the business is something no other singer has matched and that has been proven with 'Elvis: The Concert'. Presley was an influence on major Irish musicians. His genealogy can be traced to Ireland. However, he never performed one concert here. In fact, he never performed outside the US, other than a few shows in Canada. That was up until Elvis's estate came up with the next best thing.

The show has played four times in Ireland since 2000, and while the production format has not changed, the spectacular atmosphere remains. 'The Concert' reunites Presley's original 1970s musicians, the TCB Band, to perform live to his recorded voice. Spectators are also able to gaze at several enormous screens with footage of Elvis from 1968 to 1973, singing each of the selected songs. The concept of it being a virtual reality show has generated much suspicion over its quality. Some cynics have laughed at the idea of the main star not being present and it certainly is the estate's latest massive exploitation of its product, who once was a living, breathing and generous man. Despite the commercial aspects of Wednesday's production, the most important area was the music.

The legacy of the show has been mis-interpreted by many people who have not seen it, suggesting that it is like going to the cinema. However, what is essential to point out is that Presley's musicians are extraordinarily talented. While Elvis is the centre of attention, the performers could not be discredited. Other than the previously recorded vocals and footage, this show is every bit of a live concert. From the uplifting blues riff of James Burton on lead guitar to the heart pounding drum beat of Ronnie Tutt, songs of every genre are covered. Also performing are Jerry Scheff on bass guitar and Glen Hardin on piano, while 'The Sweet Inspirations' and 'The Stamps' add in their exquisite harmony.

The audience's response was ecstatic, due to pulse-racing covers of Presley's classic 1950s hits, but the highlights were the superb versions of Suspicious Minds and How Great Thou Art. Admirers get to experience how dramatic Elvis's 1970s concerts were and he was again introduced to a new generation, as the audience age ranged from seven to 70. The 1970s in Presley's life have become infamous for his excessive use of prescribed medication due to gruelling concert schedules and emotional problems, but at the start of this decade there was a phenomenal performer who stunned his audiences. He never failed to convey passion, heart and a deep down love for the music he performed, and that was highlighted in 'Elvis: The Concert'.

- Ivor Casey.

Ivor Casey is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley and Ireland.
(Ammended from article which first appeared in The Sunday Independent, 1 June 2003)