Articles and Letters...

The Connaught Telegraph, September 23, 2008
Ceremony in Killasser to Mark Centenary of Maypole Tradgey
Hard times. The first decades of the 20th century weer difficult in Ireland. The mostly thatched homes in rural (and indeed some urban) areas were bursting at the seams with inhabitants... READ MORE


The Mayo News , September 23, 2008
Maypole Disaster Victims Remembered
HENNIGAN’S Farm Heritage Centre in Killasser now plays host to some memorabilia and memories of a mining disaster in Lancashire 100 years ago .... READ MORE


Western People, September 23, 2008
Mayo recalls tragic mining disaster
by Sandra Coffey
Mayo's monument to 75 miners who ...
READ MORE (pdf document 4MB) or click on page (at right) to see newspaper pages


The Irish Times, September 19, 2008
Mining tragedy recalled: descendants of 1908 victims gather in Mayo
SEVENTY-SIX candles were lit at a ceremony in Co Mayo yesterday in memory of all those who perished in the 1908 Maypole tragedy, one of Britain's worst mining disasters. .... READ MORE


The Irish Times, August 30, 2008
Through a door to the past
by Rosita Boland
No matter what part of the country they're from, visitors to a lovingly restored family cottage in Co Mayo recognise something about their own past ther
e.....READ MORE or pdf doc 1.1MB or click on page (at right) to see newspaper pages
..


The Irish Herald , October 11, 2007
Hooley Dooley Down in Hennigan's House
I am writing to tell you of the wonderful world of Hennigan's Heritage Centre in
Co. Mayo. As I write this feature
... READ MORE (pdf document 400kb or click on page (at right) to see newspaper pages
..


Letter from Joe Sheeran B.Ed (Hons), M.A., October 2006
Hennigan's Heritage Centre
Accompanying this document is an outline of the Cúlra initiative and its history to date.  The first time Cúlra spent a Residential Week in Ireland, .....READ MORE


The Mayo News, March 7, 2001
In Touch with our Past
Ninteen Ninety and the realisation that you can no longer rear a family on 10 acres of land.  So, what can you do?  This was the dilemma that Tom Hennigan.....READ MORE


The Irish Times, September 1, 2000
Mayo Piggery Transformed into Successful Heritage Centre
In 1990, Tom Hennigan realised he could not support his growing family on 10 acres of poor land in the townland of Killasser in Co Mayo, and he needed....READ MORE


The Connaught Telegraph, 1998
Turning a Struggling Farm into a Viable Enterprise
A dream to turn the smallest surviving farm in Mayo at Killasser, Swinford into a viable family business looks set to come true for Tom Hennigan who will ...READ MORE


The Connaught Telegraph, December 10, 1997
Tom Hennigan's Ten Humble Acres Are Forever Ireland
One small patch which Brussels has failed to conquer. Geese honk, ducks quack, a donkey brays on Tom Hennigan's windy, ten-acre, holding at.... READ MORE


US Ambassador "looks up" Hennigan's Heritage Centre
Recently appointed US Ambassador to Ireland, Mr Mike Sullivan and his wife Jean were surprise guests at Tom Hennigan's Heritage Centre.....READ MORE

 




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The Connaught Telegraph, September 23, 2008
Ceremony in Killasser to Mark Centenary of Maypole Tradgey
Reeling Back the Years... to one of Britain's worst mining disasters

by Tom Shiel
Hard times. The first decades of the 20th century weer difficult in Ireland. The mostly thatched homes in rural (and indeed some urban) areas were bursting at the seams with inhabitants..
..


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The Mayo News , September 23, 2008

Maypole Disaster Victims Remembered
Victims’ memory honoured

by Michael Commins
HENNIGAN’S Farm Heritage Centre in Killasser now plays host to some memorabilia and memories of a mining disaster in Lancashire 100 years ago that left deep scars on the psyche of a number of Mayo communities. A specially-adapted room at the hugely-impressive centre in the parish of Killasser will serve as a reminder of that fateful day of August 18, 1908 when 75 people died in what became known as the Maypole Colliery Disaster. The mine was located in Abram close to the town of Wigan.

Last Thursday, the Mayor of Wigan, Cllr Rhona Winkworth, was among the special guests at a ceremony hosted by the Mayo Emigration Liaison Committee to honour and commemorate the Mayo and Irish association with the mining disaster. A minute’s silence was observed in memory of those who had lost their lives.

At least 13 people from Mayo, mainly from the Kiltimagh, Knock and Charlestown areas, were among those who perished in the mine. A total of 75 candles were lit representing those who perished in the mining disaster a century ago.

A specially-commissioned painting depicting the family of James McGrath from Kilgarriff, Charlestown, who lost his life in the Maypole Colliery, and who left behind a widow and eight children, dominates the commemoration room set aside in Hennigan’s.

The honour of placing a perpetual light in the room was given to Teresa Connell from Cloonmore near Kiltimagh whose uncle John Kirby died in the pit explosion. Vera Durkan unveiled the plaque in the room. Prayers were led by Fr Dan O’Mahony and also by Rev Thelma who was over from Wigan for the ceremony.

A number of direct relatives of the victims were present for the poignant ceremony. Among them were Brendan McDonagh from Facefield, Claremorris whose grandfather Anthony McDonagh from Kiltimagh died in the Maypole, Attracta Prendergast from Foxford (formerly Regan from Cuiltybo near Kiltimagh) whose grandfather James Byrne from Cloonmore also died in the mine, and Teresa and John Connell of Cloonmore whose uncle John Kirby died at the age of 18 in the explosion.

Tom Hennigan provided a guided tour for the guests and gave a tour de force performance on the day. Quoting poems by Seamus Heaney and other literary figures, he enthralled his audience from Ireland and England with his stories from back the years.

One especially poignant story came in the form of a boot which was made in Parsons’ old shoe factory in Bellaghy, Charlestown. Even 100 years ago, boots from that factory were used in the mining areas of Lancashire, a direct link with the tragedy which was being commemorated on the day.

Kevin Bourke from Ballyvary, who was instrumental in pioneering the project here in Mayo, led the words of thanks to the Hennigan family and everyone who had contributed to the commemoration ceremonies in Mayo.

Mayor Rhona Winkworth from Wigan and Cllr Joe Mellett, Cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council, were among the guest speakers. Joe Kennedy, Manchester and Doocastle and chairman of Knock Airport Board, rendered a few verses of the old favourite, ‘Moonlight in Mayo’. A rendition of the song and hymn, ‘There Is Always a Place’, was delivered by Maria Walshe from Swinford.

Joe Kennedy, in his brief address, paid a special tribute to Kevin Bourke and to Joe O’Dea, Tom Hennigan, Marianne Staunton, Michael Morgan and the members of the Mayo Emigrant Liaison Committee for the role they played in marking the centenary.
Presentations were made to Mayor Winkworth, Cllr Joe Mellett and Joe Kennedy on behalf of the coordinating committee. A copy of Bernard O’Hara’s ‘History of Killasser’ was presented to the Mayor of Wigan by Bernard himself.

The Maypole Colliery commemoration room adds a further dimension to the extraordinary development that is Hennigan’s Farm Heritage Centre in Killasser. It is well worth a visit anytime.

http://www.mayonews.ie/index.php?option=com_content&task=
view&id=5007&Itemid=38


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The Irish Times, September 19, 2008
Mining tragedy recalled: descendants of 1908 victims gather in Mayo

by TOM SHIEL
SEVENTY-SIX candles were lit at a ceremony in Co Mayo yesterday in memory of all those who perished in the 1908 Maypole tragedy, one of Britain's worst mining disasters.

Among those who gathered at Hennigan's Heritage Farm, Killasser, Swinford, to commemorate long-lost ancestors was Winifred (Freddie) Neighbour from Kent.

Her maternal grandfather Thomas Groarke, from Charlestown, was one of the many Irish who died in August 1908 when an explosion ripped through the Maypole colliery in Wigan, Lancashire.

"My mother never knew her father," Mrs Neighbour explained. "She was born the January after he died. My mother talked about her Dad but she never even had a photograph of him."

Another to perish was Anthony McDonagh from Treenagleragh, Kiltimagh. His grandson, Anthony McDonagh, recalled that the tragedy had "turned women into widows, robbed children of fathers, and sisters of brothers". As a result of the disaster his grandfather had never seen the son named after him, Anthony recalled with a tear in his eye.

Only three miners survived the blast, one of whom was Edward Farrell. Until the day he died he was reluctant to tell the tale of what happened.

One of Farrell's grandchildren, Maureen O'Malley from Castlebar, said she understood that her father hardly ever referred to the tragedy. "I think it upset him to talk about it," she said. "I'm told that all his life he had claustrophobia, a fear of enclosed spaces."

Yesterday's ceremonies, which were held to coincide with the Mayo Emigrants' Reunion, were attended by mayor of Wigan Rona Winkworth and cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council Joe Mellett.

A room at Hennigan's Heritage Museum has been dedicated to the Maypole tragedy.

Old mining equipment is on display, as well as a tapestry with a roll-call of the dead embroidered by a descendant of one of the victims, along with the original Maypole flag which flew over the colliery.

© 2008 The Irish Times http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2008/0919/1221773888026.html


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Saturday, August 30, 2008
Through a door to the past

by Rosita Boland

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No matter what part of the country they're from, visitors to a lovingly restored family cottage in Co Mayo recognise something about their own past there.

RUINED VERNACULAR cottages are an architectural motif so familiar throughout Ireland that we take them entirely for granted. Yet these ruins are also a fundamental and frequently emotive part of our social, cultural and political history. Many Irish people with a rural background whose roots go back even a couple of generations have links to a traditional stone house somewhere, even if that house is now only a stub of wall or a pile of stones sinking irrevocably into a field.

In the early 1990s, Mayo farmer Tom Hennigan faced a decision about the future use of his 10-acre smallholding, which had been in his family for 200 years. Hennigan had seven children, and he did not think that he could continue to have a sustainable living for his family on a farm-holding of poor land, on which he raised livestock, primarily pigs. Long interested in local history and archeology, he realised that his own family house, and the fact that Hennigans had farmed land on this site for two centuries, constituted an important example of social history, and something that he could possibly turn into rural tourism.

Hennigan got planning permission to turn his 250-head piggery into a museum and heritage centre. In 1970, in a building pattern repeated many times around the country, his father had constructed a new bungalow beside the old family house, which dated from 1870. Hennigan sympathetically restored this original house, with the help of a grant from the Leader programme in Kiltimagh.

The townland of Killasser lies deep at the end of a tangle of tiny boreens, some miles from a turn off on the Foxford-Swinford road. If you view the landscape from the perspective of a tourist, it's gloriously scenic. Overlooking a silver lake, it's a stunning setting, the nearby hedges studded with fuchsia and the verges tumbling with orange mombretia.

But no farmer looking at this wild, raw landscape would consider it to be fertile land. The fields are composed of bog and stone and the wind slices knife-like across every exposed surface. Today, even though it's early August, several of the fields are partially flooded. This was the only kind of land Cromwell infamously didn't want, when he gave displaced Irish people the choice of going either "to Hell or to Connaught".

Hennigan, now 53, says he has no regrets about leaving farming behind and building his heritage centre, which he runs with his wife,Catherine. The central part of the centre - where home industries, such as shoe-mending, knitting and poitín-making, are also showcased - is the restored Hennigan family home. Given a new slate roof (it was originally thatched), and whitewashed inside and out, it stands between the former piggery and the bungalow Hennigan's father built, where Tom and Catherine Hennigan now live.

IT'S A DREADFUL grey day, with relentless rain, and the first thing you see with relief on entering the old house is a bright, lively turf fire. Anyone who has been to Bunratty Folk Park - or who still owns a traditional farmhouse - will recognise elements of those houses in the Hennigan house. The front and back doors that face each other directly, the mysteriously short bed in a curtained alcove off the kitchen, and the china Staffordshire dogs over the fireplace are all things we've seen before.

What makes this particular house unique, memorable and very special is Hennigan's personal tour of it. He was, after all, born in one of the beds here, and knows the story and provenance of everything the house contains. He brings everything alive in a way no ordinary guide could, because Hennigan is, in a way, living history. He is the direct link to the past for visitors. And he is utterly compelling.

There is no tour, as such. You simply take a seat by the fire, and listen as Hennigan starts talking. Every now and then, you get up to look at something more closely, such as a family photograph, and then return to the fire.

"I'm the sixth generation of Hennigans to live here, and it's one of the last smallholdings in Mayo," he says. "I lived here with my mother and father, my grandmother, and three brothers and two sisters."

The house has three rooms. At one gable end is the room where his grandmother lived. The main space in between is where his parents slept in the curtained alcove, and where all the cooking, eating, homework and the routine activities of family life were carried out. At the other gable end is the room where he and his siblings slept in two beds, heads to tails. Neighbours' children regularly slept here too, on a mat between the two beds. He doesn't believe crowded living conditions encouraged incest, although many visitors do ask his opinion on this, and after 10 years, while he is still offended at the question, he is now unsurprised by it.

Everywhere you look in the house, there is a story. In the half-loft over the children's bedroom, where clothes and extra belongings were stored, there is a steamer trunk. Originally containing a gift of linen, it was sent from America to Killasser by Hennigan's great-aunt. Hanging on a peg is his old schoolbag. His mother's clothes hang in his grandmother's room. In the main room he has relaid the original flagstones, which his father tore up and replaced with concrete in the 1950s, to make it more modern for his mother. They were still stacked outside, not far from the house when he went looking for them, some 40 years later.

"I didn't really know my father until I was 14. Like many men of his generation, he went over to England to work, and came home a fortnight a year. He worked on farms and in iron foundries. So it was really our mother who raised us."

PEOPLE ALWAYS ASK why the bed in the curtained alcove is so very short. "It's because of the fear of TB. People thought it was healthier to sleep sitting up, with bolsters at their back." People were born in the house, and they also died there. "But never in bed, because no child would ever go into a bed that someone had died in. When the old person started to go into a coma, they were taken out of bed and placed on a straw mat between the front and back door, so that when they died, their spirit came in one door and went out the other. They would be laid out then on the kitchen table."

Their diet was simple, mainly "bacon, cabbage and spuds", with all the cooking being done on the open fire. Sometimes, Mayo being a fine fishing county, there was fish. Hennigan takes out a small grill-like object, with a metal tray under it, and a space for the drained fat.

"It was Father was the breadwinner, and he always had to get fed, because the house depended on him. So Mother would put the fish on the grill in the fire, and that was for him, but we children were allowed to dip our bread into the fat in the place where it drained into. It was called 'dipping the dip'. There was a 90-year-old lady in here a few weeks ago, and she said, in her house, it was called 'dipping the dip and don't roll'. Because if you turned your bit of bread in the dripping, you were taking twice as much, and so then there was less for everyone else."

No matter what part of the country visitors arrive from, Hennigan finds that almost all of them can identify with some part of his old family home. Whether it's the traditional niche above the fire, where tea, sugar and salt were stored to keep them dry, or the warm "hob" seats either side of the fireplace, where children sat to do their homework by firelight, everyone recognises something about their own past in Tom Hennigan's house.

Hennigan's Heritage Centre opened in 1998, so this year marks its 10th anniversary. It gets a modest few thousand visitors a year, and received less than 5,000 in 2007. It deserves to have many more.

Hennigan's Heritage Centre, Killasser, Swinford, is open daily from March until the end of September, 12pm to 6pm. The entrance fee of €10 includes tea and home-made scones.

© 2008 The Irish Times
http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/
2008/0830/1220023428043.html


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HENNIGAN’S HERITAGE CENTRE

Accompanying this document is an outline of the Cúlra initiative and its history to date.  The first time Cúlra spent a Residential Week in Ireland, the participants paid a visit to Hennigan’s Heritage Centre in Killasser, Co. Mayo.

It was very early days in the life of the Centre and Tom Hennigan was just beginning the task of creating and building it up.  Since that time, we have taken every opportunity to visit and have seen the idea of an original homestead converted to a centre of heritage interpretation that demonstrates brilliantly the historical and cultural background of a people whose lives shaped (and were shaped by) the land that gave them sustenance, grow into a marvellous representation of an historical epoch now disappeared.

The value of the Centre is enhanced by the excellent presentation delivered by Tom Hennigan himself, whose family has worked the land for over two hundred years.  He has rich fund of anecdote with which he illustrates his delivery in telling the story of the people who lived in the district.  Allied to this the restored family cottage and the marvellous museum containing artefacts and implements of the rural life if this part of Co. Mayo serves to provide an immediate and very personalized historical record.

The educational content and worth of the Centre is unique and, although not as sophisticated as major archival accounts associated with other, larger establishments, it represents a living continuity with a way of life only traces of which remain.  Because of this it has a quality not found elsewhere in that its progenitor, Tom Hennigan, evokes through his presentation an era in which a people struggled to make a living from the land in times of special hardship and trauma.  His love of the heritage he conveys shines through as he speaks of those days and the fortitude with which the people, including his own family, met the challenges of the time.

Cúlra is indebted to the Centre for showing us a dimension of Irish life hitherto hidden from our students, second, third and further generations Irish removed from their own heritage.  The recognition and acknowledgment of the richness and worth of that heritage has been made that much easier by the encounter with Tom Hennigan’s history.  I have recommended the Centre to as many as would listen and certainly to people of the Diaspora living in Britain.  They will find here a simple and direct route into the historical memory of their own past, its wealth and significance laid out in the story of a community, the lives of which have contributed immensely to the greater history of the Irish people.

As an educationist I measure as incalculable in learning value such a means of advancing my students’ knowledge and understanding. The communication and representation of the past in and through the continuity of experience demonstrated by Tom Hennigan and his Centre, stands as a testment to the memory of the cultural, social and economic and political life of this part of Mayo across a couple of centuries past.  But what is of significance also is the current reality of the lives of people in Mayo just now, and the differences marking off today’s experience from that of the past.  Here in this small operation an opportunity is afforded to compare those distinctions and evaluate them in terms of the imaginative reconstruction of a way of life seemingly detached from the modern and its technological prowess.  Yet, the echo of social value and richness of culture implicit in this Centre’s loquacious but at the same time quiet display, is more than salutary in its witness to a people long gone.  The outstanding work of Tom Hennigan in bringing this Centre into being with no more than his own energy, imagination and a deep, abiding love of his own heritage, demonstrates faith and aspiration of a higher order.  But it is his love that remains and what motivates his bringing together a wonderful collection of memorabilia; signs and symbols of lives lived and energies spent in the past experience.  Our young people borrow from that memory some indication and direction that can be of use in their own movement to adulthood and the social experience they negotiate along the way. Above all for young people nurtured in the differing urban contexts of Britain, the sense of an empathetic relationship with the land, a close interaction with the environment reflected in the story of the community of which the Centre speaks, suggest the possible rediscovery in them of an appreciation of the natural world and their relationship to it.

It is an educational resource of profound worth and one that carries within its wall the ghosts, the stories and the spiritual imprint of a world hardly visible now.  But thanks to such a Centre as this one in Killasser, the mists of time are for a brief moment lifted and we see the past in the present and knowing from whence we derive, know where we are and can perceive perhaps the direction we might travel into the future. The value of such a revelation is inestimable and our gratitude to Tom Hennigan and his family for bringing us to that realisation is profound indeed.

Joe Sheeran B.Ed (Hons), M.A.
Coordinator of Cúlra
Bradford
October 2006

 

 


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The Mayo News, March 7, 2001

In Touch with our Past
Ninteen Ninety and the realisation that you can no longer rear a family on 10 acres of land.  So, what can you do?  This was the dilemma that Tom Hennigan of Hennigan's Heritage Centre in Killasser was faced with.  The sixth generation to live on the farm and with the land in his family for over 200 years, Tom didn't want to plant or sell it.  A person with a keen interest in local history and archaeology, he decided initially to take children on tours through the landscape of Killasser, four miles north of  Swinford.

From these tours a unique project developed, when Peter Casby, a teacher at Davitt College, Castlebar, suggested to Tom that he forget about farming altogether and put all his efforts into this new project.  "Have you ever considered giving up agriculture completely and developing your  interest in the culture and heritage of rural Ireland?" he asked almost rhetorically.  With the help of Peter Casby, a plan was formed.  Tom Hennigan's vision at the time was to restore his family home and to tell the story of rural survival and a child's upbringing in a three-roomed thatched cottage, when times were hard and luxuries were few.

In 1992, Tom submitted his plan to Mayo County Council and obtained planning permission, However, most agencies were not interested in the project and local banking institutions refused funding.  He continued in his search and eventually John Higgins at Kiltimagh IRD took a keen interest in the project and decided it was one he would deeply love to be associated with. The proposed project was put before the Leader Board and they too were impressed, and agreed to fund the project together with Ireland West Tourism and Mayo Naturally.  Local business people in Swinford and Aclare also helped to finance the building.

On 9th May 1998, Dr. Seamus Caulfield officially opened Hennigans's Heritage Centre.  In the year 2000 the project attracted well over 5,000 visitors.  People have come here from all over the world.  Visitors have included the German and Austrian Ministers for Agriculture Food and Forestry, plus numerous celebrities from ER, Star Trek and the Commitments, including Mike Hegarty and Carol Kearney.

Last year the leader of the Nationalist Party in Scotland, Alex Salmond and his wife, visited as did the American Ambassador, Michael Sullivan, and his wife, Jean.  The year 2000 also held something new for the Heritage Centre when it held its first wedding reception and moves are afoot to organise Irish Music, Song and Dance Stories there.

Why is the project so successful?  Tom himself believes that the reason for its success may be due to the fact that 99% of the people who visit can identify with what is found here.  "No matter how far away people go, they always carry the memory of home with them," he observes.

For the future, Tom hopes to be able to develop this project right through to its natural end.  He is at present waiting for road access from Mayo County Council.  He plans to develop the land, where people can walk and wander, where they can think and revive memories of by-gone days for themselves, where they can see foods produced to a high standard in natural surroundings, where they can experience a way of life that has disapperaed from our landscape.

Tom himself has a great interest in and a deep knowledge of local history.  Although he admits that there were many times when he felt lost and disillusioned, he is very proud of his achievements and has no regrets.  This project has been achieved withour any state help. His only advertisement has been "word of mouth" or radio, television and newspapers that have taken an interest in it.   The Heritage Centre is situated in Rubble, Killasser overlooking Rubble lake at the foot of Sron Con in the Shadow of the Ox Mountains.   Tom can be contacted on 094 52505 or e-mail henniganheritage1@eircom.net.   Well worth a visit!


 

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The Irish Times, September 1, 2000                                                               
Mayo Piggery Transformed into Successful Heritage Centre

In 1990, Tom Hennigan realised he could not support his growing family on 10 acres of poor land in the townland of Killasser in Co Mayo, and he needed to do something else.   However, he did not want to leave the farm, which had been in the family for 200 years.  He had always been interested in local history and archaeology.  "I surveyed every field in Killasser, and the results were published by the RTC  in Galway, edited by Bernard O'Hara.  I found two court tombs, wedge tombs, crann—gs, iron smelterings and field systems similar to the CÎide Fields," he said.

On a visit to newgrange he also visited Redhills farm, which is open to the public, and realised the farmer there "had no cell counts, no mastitis, and he had his money".  Along with Peter Casby, who taught in Davitt College in Castlebar, he drew up a business plan for a heritage centre and sent it to a cousin who taught business retail studies in Galway.

But he pressed ahead, and with credit from local  builders, suppliers and his own labour, carried out the conversion.  He also restored the oldfamily house to what it had been like 100 years ago, locating the original flagstones and seeking the advice of old people in the area on how to lay them.  The centre opened in 1998, and is now averaging 5,000 visitors a year.  The term "heritage centre" is a catch-all which can cover anything from a small town museum to the most kitsch re-creation of an imaginary past.

However, what makes Tom Hennigan's different is his deep knowledge of the history and culture of the area, his enthusiasm for it, and personal engagement with the hundreds of implements and artefacts he has assembled from friends and neighbours over the years.   Pointing to the tin cans and mugs make by Travellers up to the 1960s, he said: "that bucket was made by Terry Maughan of Ballyhaunis in 27 minutes."

He re-created a shoemaker's workshop in one corner of his museum.  "That was Jimmy Higgins's in Swinford.  I used to go into his shop and help him when I skived off from school.  His nephew gave it to me when he died."

The house is the traditional three-room cottage, with an alcove off the kitchen in which his parents slept.  One bedroom was for the grandparents, the other for the children.  Furniture, clothes and religious ornaments from the early part of the century have re-created the home of his childhood.

Three families of pigs live free range on the farm, along with hens, geese, a cow, a calf, a pony and a donkey.  He has just entered into partnership with the Sisters of Mercy to farm vegetables organically.

All of this has been archived with no State help and with no external support except from the Leader programme at the outset.  He has no advertising budget and no promotion in tourist literature.  Yet the volume of visitors continues to grow, mainly through word of mouth and they have included the German and Austrian ministers for agriculture, the American ambassador and his wife, and Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond.


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The Connaught Telegraph 1998
Turning a Struggling Farm into a Viable Enterprise

A dream to turn the smallest surviving farm in Mayo at Killasser, Swinford into a viable family business looks set to come true for Tom Hennigan who will officially open his heritage cottage and interpretative centre on May 9th.

A narrow sandy road winds its way to the scenic spot overlooking a lake where Tom Hennigan was born.  The thatched cottage where he lived until he was 20 has been painstakingly   restored and contains all the original furniture, fireplaces, crockery and other materials.  The cottage was set on a ten acre farm where his ancestors eked out a living for 600 years.

Back in the early 1990's Tom was milking 11 cows with a 7,500 gallon quota.   Looking at the implications of CAP reforms, he decided that he would have no future if he continued farming in that way.  "It was either sell it or plant it with forestry, as seems to be the norm here, but neither of these appealed to me," he said.  So he decided to go down the rural tourism route.  "I have listened to people asking: where are all the thatched cottages gone? and I think a project like this has great potential.  Foxford Wollen Mills attracts 60, 000 visitors every yearand 1.5 million people visit Knock," Tom says.

When he first suggested the idea of attracting tourists, he was told that the only tourist in the area was a lost one but he insists that the market is there.  Tom got Leader funding to reconstruct the cottage and set up a "living" heritage centre. He spent five and a half years working on the project and estimates that, when the first part of the project is complete, it will have cost him £100,000.  A loan from the bank as well as financial support from his family has made it possible but he is critical of the lack of help from government agencies.  "I got very little help from any of them.  No one came to tell me how to do things.  I had to do it all myself."

Family memories
The old cottage is almost the exact replica of the family cottage.  The room where Tom and five other members of his family slept is as he remembers it with two beds, one with a horse hair mattress and the other with a mattress made from straw.  His grandmother Mar Tom (nee Durcan) who was born in 1876 and died in 1964 slept in the room behind the fire.  This was a self contained unit for her and she boiled any water she required in an old pea or treacle tin on the tiny open fire.  Thatched cottages like this one were first built in Ireland in the late 19th century.   Hennigans was built in the early 1920s and has the classic features including the half door, tiny windows and the large fireplace in the main room.

Small windows to minimise tax
"Many people returned to Ireland after the famine and built cottages like this.  The windows were small because of a tax imposed by the British Government on the amount of light coming into the house.  Even the half door was a psychological attempt by people to beat the system," he says.

The focal point of the main room is the fire.  On either side of the fireplace is a cubby hole, one for storing tea, sugar, salt and a candle for going up to the room.  In the cubby hole on the other side, tobacco snuff and the deeds of the property were kept.  The medicine cabinet was over the bed where the epsom salts and goose grease were always stored.  The original dresser is also there in the kitchen as is the wooden cradle carved with Christian symbols which was kept in front of the fire.

Tongs folklore
"There was lots of folklore about the tongs which was always kept beside the fire.   If the people of the house had to go out for a short time, it was always placed over the cradle to protect the child.  "When the daughter of the house was leaving to get married, the tongs would be thrown after her and it was meant to bring good luck."  "It is a custom that still exists today.  Mayo TD Enda Kenny referred to it on the night he was elected and said his mother had thrown the tongs after him that morning."

Heritage Centre
Tom Hennigan has developed another building into a living centre where traditional craftspeople, including a tinsmith and basket maker will be at work.  The centre houses a very interesting poit’n still which demonstrates how the illicit brew was made.  This was once the largest industry in the region.  Local students also have a part to play in this project.  Models of all the archaeological sisters that can be seen within a three mile radius of the house are on display and were made as part of a project by first and second year students of Davitt College, Castlebar.

But Tom's plans do not stop here.  He intends to develop walks along the lake shore, which is set on a height overlooking the valley below.  He also plans to have pleasure cruises on the lake and has built a car park to accommodate visitors.   The lake has an ancient crann—g in the centre and a number of other interesting features.  He believes that the project will have cost £200,000 by the time he finishes the next phase.  At that stage, he hopes that the only lost tourists in Mayo will be the ones looking for the cottage in Killasser!


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The Connaught Telegraph, December 10, 1997
Tom Hennigan's Ten Humble Acres Are Forever Ireland

One small patch which Brussels has failed to conquer
Geese honk, ducks quack, a donkey brays on Tom Hennigan's windy, ten-acre, holding at Killasser, Swinford.  Turf smoke curls from the chimney of the cottage which Tom has so lovingly reconstructed.  This is one small patch of modern Europe which Brussels has failed to conquer.

The only CAP Tom Hennigan is interested in are the cloth type you can buy in Kennedy's of Swinford.  Ten years ago, he effectively said "feck off" to an EU which told him he could only succeed by enlarging his farm, diversifying, intensifying and generally burying himself up to his armpits in red tape and documentation.   "Hennigan's Heritage Farm", which overlooks a small lake at Rubble, Killasser, has been described as a "place frozen in time, 1890".  As well as a 200 year old thatched cottage, with most of its furniture intact, there is a wide range of old farm implements which the owner has collected as well as an archaeological display area which illustrates the history of Killasser and the wider region from the Stone Age to modern times.

Tom Hennigan never went beyond primary school but is a gifted speaker and self-taught expert on history, geography and archaeology.  After a number of delays, there was an official opening of his "Heritage Centre", and it is hoped that it will become a mecca for students of rural Ireland, both from home and overseas.  Here is the background to a daring venture.

Visiting Hennigan's Cottage is like stepping  back a century or even further.   The first heritage tours have begun to arrive but it will be some years before the place begins to fully realise its vast potential.  Tom Hennigan is a resource in himself, a gifted storyteller.  By a roaring turf fire in his former home last week, he spoke with gusto to a group from the Toomore area of Foxford about his holding, past, present nad future.  "This is the smallest surviving farm left in Mayo.   There are ten acres.  It has been in my family for 200 years", he says with a sweep of the hand indicating the frost-tinged landscape beyond his window.

In 1972, the Hennigans left the cottage where the family had lived for generations.   There had been nothing grand about existence in the thatched cottage, typical of hundreds of thousands built in the west after the Famine, but hardworking parents ensured there never was any hardship.  "I never remember going hungry", says Tom simply.  These were the sleeping arangements for the last generation of people to have been rared in a thatched house in Killasser.  Four boys and two girls had slept in the the bottom room; father and mother occupied the kitchen bed while grandmother, who died in 1964 aged 88, slept in the room above.

In the early nineties, Tom was married with a family himself and living in the new bungalow at Rubble.  He had cows, sheep and a few pigs.  Realising that all the effort was luncay on such a small holding, he decided on a massive change of direction.   This is the way he tells it: "I could no longer live with some of the decisions that were coming from Burssels.  Often when people are left property they are glad; to me it looked like a liability.  What could I do with ten acres that would  create a living income for me and my family?".  The old homestead was mouldering next door and Tom came up with the idea he would turn it into a Heritage Farm.  He rebuilt the cottage from the bottom and furnished it exactly as it had been in olden times.

Tom Hennigan was lucky that over the years he had been taking children on field-trips into the rich archaeological landscape around Killasser.  His interest in old tombs, ring-forts, fulachta fiadh and ancient cooking sites, had been sparked by his former national school teacher, Sean McEvoy.  Recalls Sean McEvoy now: "Some students would look at the ancient sites and say "Theres nothing there but a pile of auld stones".  Tom wasn't like that though.  He took a deep interest in everyting that was being shown him".

In progressing his project, Tom Hennigan admits now he went a bit "arseways" about things in the beginning.  Cynics were hiding behind every bush and there was the very real fear that somebody else might capitalise on his idea and set up a heritage farm close to one of the bigger towns in the area.  Somewhat typical of the reaction was the dismissive comment from a bank official in Swinford: "Sure the only tourist round here is a lost one".  Undaunted, Tom had the cottage partly restored by the time he began facing up to the financial implicationsof the vast undertaking.   Luckily for him, John Higgins then with Kiltimagh IRD, was greatly impressed and didn't need much convincing.  The IRD, through Leader funds, came up with badly needed cash assistance.  Hennigan himself headed off to the states where cousins and other relatives, impressed by his gift of the gab and in what he was trying to achive, readily parted with a few dollars.

From carvide lamps to milk churns, from quern stones to cursing stones, from ploughs to harrows, Hennigan's Heritage Farm is a feast of objects collected lovingly over Tom's adult lifetime.  One of his displays will feature the work of the carpenter.  He explains: "Before the Famine, Killasser had a population of 8,500 people.  Today it is less than 900.  There was massive population living on small holdings but the people were self sufficient.  For instance, all the furniture was made locally from carts and wheelbarrows to coffins.  People didn't have the money to buy coffins elsewhere".

It is while standing on his own flag-floor, talking about his own life and that of his ancestors, that Tom Hennigan becomes most animated.  Pointing to a wooden container, crude looking by modern standards, he says: "There's the cradle in which we were reared.  On each of the four posts is the symbol of the cross.  When somebody was minding the baby, they took the tongs and placedd it across the cradle. It was believed the tongs would protect the baby from harm".

Fresh turf had been added to the blaze in the arched fireplace and there was smoke in the kitchen.  "The chimney isn't pulling that well", said Tom apologetically as photographer Frank Dolan beat a retreat fearing perhaps he would end up smoked and hanging from the roof like a side of bacon in the old days.  The fog, however, gave our host the cue for fresh stories. 

"There was a chimney tax in the 19th century", he explained.  "As a result, the earlier houses didn't have a chimney.  A fire was lit in the middle of the floor allowing the smoke through a hole in the roof"

On a bed in the lower room Tom showed us a straw matress, the "shakedown".   As they neared death, an ill member of the family would be moved from the kitchen bed onto the shakedown".  When the person had passed away, the body would be removed to the fireside and washed withe the straw on which it had expired.  The straw was taken outside and burned.  The water used for washing the corpse was considered "sacred" and left outside to evaporate from its container.  Tom Hennigan is a fund of stories.  He would surely have made an excellent seanacha’ in olden times.  He got no third level education but will be forever grateful to his former Master, Sean McEvoy for the interest in arhaeology and folklore he generated in him.

I have no doubt Tom Hennigan and his hardworking and supportive family will succeed in their venture.  They have provided a magnificent window on an Ireland that has disappeared, a way of life eroded astonishingly quickly once we joined the EEC a quarter of a century ago.  Once the primroses are in the valleys, Ill be making the first of what I hope will be many returns to Rubble.


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US Ambassador "looks up" Hennigan's Heritage Centre

Recently appointed US Ambassador to Ireland, Mr Mike Sullivan and his wife, Jean were surprise guests at Tom Hennigan's Heritage Centre at Killasser, near Swinford last week.  Mr Sullivan who was on his first visit to Mayo was on a private visit and stayed with a personal friend Mr Bill Durkin in Bohola.  When he expressed to see some of the sights, Tom Hennigan's Heritage Centre was an obvious attraction and although he only had short notice of the visit Mr Hennigan laid on a real "Cead M’le F‡ilte" for his distinguished visitors.  "He was treated to tea and scones and even though the notice was short we managd to assemble about ten local musicians and we had a great party which lasted for three hours," said Mr Hennigan.

He is a lovely unassuming man, very refined and quiet and he showed a genuine interest in what we are doing here at the centre.   "He is third or fourth generation Irish.  His ancestors would have originated in Cork and he was really fascinated by the display here."  By an amazing co-incidence Mr Hennigan mentioned to the Ambassador that a week prior to his visit a Mrs McNeely Tully had visited the centre on the occasion of her 99th birthday.   Mrs McNeely Tully turned out to be the mother of of Tom Tully, who was a rival with Mr Sullivan for the post of Ambassador.  The Tullys are friends of the Kennedys, while Mr Sullivan has close ties to the Clintons.

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