24 September 2020
Myth and legend play important roles in framing and shaping the identity of a community. It sometimes matters little whether the myths and legends are based in history or can be verified factually. Sharing them helps to identify people with place and place with people that others may find difficult to grasp and understand, let alone accept.
As children, we were challenged to sit on the ‘Cornerstone’ in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, with hints of the Faustian legend associated with it, assured that once seated on it we would always return to Cappoquin, we would always be part of the town. Perhaps it was supposed to be like throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
When I returned to Cappoquin during my two-week ‘Road Trip’ this summer, I wondered whether I should sit on it again.
The Cornerstone, on the corner of Castle Street and Main Street, is a boulder of sandstone that is dear to the heart of every person from Cappoquin and it has been a symbol of the town for generations.
Castle Street climbs uphill, linking the town all the way to the former entrance to Cappoquin Castle, which stood on the site of Cappoquin House, on the hillside above the town. Castle Street was once a central thoroughfare in the town and was probably part of the main street continuing out to Dungarvan.
The story around the stone involves the poet Tomás Bán Fitzgerald, who is said to have lived in Cappoquin Castle.
Following a curse laid on him by an enemy, it is said, Tomás Bán fell on hard times. To make matters worse, he was visited by the Hounds of Hell (mastini), who threatened his sanity and his life. These raving dogs made a pact with Tomás Bán that they would make him prosperous again if, in return, he would give them his first-born son.
Tomás Bán was unmarried at the time, and believed he was unlikely to marry in the future, and so thought he was likely to father any children. The deal, therefore, seemed a good one, and one-sided to the benefit of Tomás Bán.
The pact was made, Tomás Bán regained his prosperity, and he had the deal written on the cornerstone of the fireplace in Cappoquin Castle.
Years passed, and in time Tomás Bán forgot about the pact. In time, he met and married a French noblewoman, they fell in love and married, and she gave birth to a son they named Maurice.
Soon after the child’s birth, however, the hounds returned to claim their part of the bargain and to take away the young heir.
Tomás Bán refused, but soon after young Maurice Fitzgerald died mysteriously, and his mother died shortly after of a broken heart.
Alone and devastated, the grieving Tomás Bán Fitzgerald decided to leave Cappoquin and Ireland for ever. In anger, and before he left, he had the cornerstone on which the deal was inscribed removed from the fireplace and the castle, and it was rolled down the hill. There it stopped at the end of Castle Street.
But, in time, another, similar stone, appeared at the other side of the street, on the facing corner.
Is the story true?
The more important question for many people in Cappoquin over the generations seems to be, which is the true cornerstone?
Most people in Cappoquin say the original stone is the smaller stone to the right (east), beside the Blackwater House – a former pub built around 1850. But it is nicely balanced by the other, larger stone on the left-hand (west) corner as you look from the north side of the Square north up Castle Street towards Cappoquin House and the former site of Cappoquin Castle.
It is always sad to look at buildings that you associate with childhood happiness but that have changed over the years, fallen into decay or lost their role in the family or in the community.
Looking at the former ‘Cats’ pub north of Cappoquin, at the junction of the roads to Mount Melleray and the Vee, during the first week of my summer ‘Road Trip’ last week, I noticed the loss of another landmark from my childhood.
There were memories of uncles who sneaked us in as they sipped pints, or who passed out ice cream as we waited outside, and memories too of the Power family, who retired some years ago after running this business for six generations.
Across the road, at the corner of the junction, I stared into an empty field that had once been the location of what we called the ‘Stage’ – a wooden platform and the back of a truck that provided the music and the location for ‘dancing at the crossroads’ in the late 1950s and well into the 1960s.
A little further north, I indulged in more nostalgia as two of us also walked around Moonwee, peeping in through the windows of my grandmother’s former farmhouse, reminiscing about each and every room, lovingly recalling long-gone family members.
There were recollections of rural electrification and the introduction of piped water – perhaps rolling out broadband throughout rural Ireland is an important today.
The well that once provided fresh water is now clogged and abandoned; the ‘dairy’ where my grandmother made her own hand-made butter each day is crumbling; the former farm buildings are empty.
Hopefully, in time to come, another family might be interested in the house, and the rooms will be filled again with life and light, with love and laughter.
Later that day, between visiting Cappoquin House and Dromana House, we had lunch in Barron’s Coffee Shop, one of Ireland’s oldest commercial bakeries. Barron’s was founded here in the mid-1880s and as children in Moonwee we looked forward to regular deliveries from Barron’s van. Today, Barron’s Coffee Shop is an award-winning restaurant, with its original Scotch brick ovens intact.
Of course, we went out to visit family graves at Drumroe, where the parish cemetery dates from 1910. Local tradition says Saint Declan, the patron saint of Waterford and Lismore, was born in this district of Drumroe, perhaps close to the nearby Famine graveyard known as ‘Reiligín Déagláin.’
But as we walked around the Square and the streets of Cappoquin on those two days and by the shops and pubs and former hotels, more legends and memories came back to mind.
Perhaps I should share some more of those places and memories in the days to come.