Sadness As Roscrea Hosts Last History Conference

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Sadness As Roscrea Hosts Last History Conference thumbnailDom Richard Purcell formally launched 60 at Roscrea edited by George Cunningham. MT17248PJW

THERE was a palpable sense of sadness in Mount Saint Joseph Abbey  over the weekend when scholars and history lovers from all over Ireland attended the last Roscrea History Conference.
The conference has been a bi-annual event for the last 30 years, having been initiated by local historian and former teacher George Cunningham in 1987. Over the years George has overseen the running of all 60 Conferences, ably assisted by local enthusiasts and monks in the college.
A book was launched on Saturday to commemorate the final conference. 2,000 up to date books in good condition from George's personal collection have also been donated to Coláiste Phobal Roscrea to be used by the students of the school. George told the large gathering, which included 15 Professors, that five years ago he published a commemorative publication called 'The Carnival of Learning' which celebrated 50 Roscrea Conferences. The latest publication was the third book published about the Conference.
 He said he was delighted when he learned that Cistercian College Roscrea will survive, which meant that there was a sense of hope prevailing during the Conference rather than a background mood of gloom.
The Abbot of Roscrea Dom Richard Purcell launched the commemorative book, which is called '60 At Roscrea'. 
Dom Richard said George had invested a huge amount of time and effort into the publication. He said the 60 Conferences over the last 30 years had been marvellous, eagerly anticipated occasions.
'The book is divided into two parts,' he remarked, 'and focusses on the last ten years of the Conferences. 
'There are four subjects which arise in my mind when I look at the book. They are Place; People; Themes; Those who make it all possible.
'Firstly, Place. The college is a very appropriate place for the conferences; but there is also the imaginary places in our minds which the speakers at the many conferences brought us to.
 'Secondly, the most important thing is the people, those who attended; the lecturers; the students; the scholars. They all attended because they possessed a love of learning.
 'The themes or topics have been wide ranging and fascinating. For example, we learned about the lives of the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. We learned about many subjects from early Christian and medieval Ireland.
 'There were the people who made it possible. We should be deeply grateful to George and Carmel for the gift of these weekend conferences. We should be thankful to Dom Colmcille who gave the event the go-ahead back in 1987. We should be thankful to Fr Nivard, Fr Ciaran, but above all to Fr Laurence who was so energetic, practical and supportive.
' "60 At Roscrea" is a beautiful book to look at and hold. It is a very entertaining read and is hard to put down.' He congratulated Walsh Printers for doing an excellent job in the printing of the book.
George said that of the 2,000 books which have been donated to Coláiste Phobal, 600 of them are on sport. 'If you want to get young people interested in reading give them books on sport.'
He said the Cunninghams' home contains a vast amount of books, from recently published to hundreds of years old. 'Carmel was glad to see the 55 boxes containing the 2,000 books leaving the attic and the creation of more space. She used to often joke that a headline would one day appear in a newspaper stating "Middle Aged Woman Perishes In Book Avalanche".'
He said he and Carmel are also donating their Archival collection to the County Libraries of Laois, Offaly and Tipperary. 'This is archival material across a wide range of activities from the south-west midlands, placed in trust with the Public Library services of the three counties, but available for research and display in Coláiste Phobal.' This archival material includes such interesting material as old shop billheads, stamped envelopes, and posters.
 The library in the Cunninghams' home contains 20,000 books. 'It's a scholar's working library as well as a bibliophile's one.'
Over the last 30 years the Cunninghams have donated 60,000 books to schools and institutions throughout Ireland. The 60,000 books were of a wide variety according to their needs. For example primary schools received relevant children's books.
George said the donation of the Cunningham Archive and Library was in honour of three unrelated Cunninghams whose twentieth century contribution to the development of Roscrea was of huge importance.
These were: Canon John Cunningham, PP, social and community leader, and poet; main founder of Roscrea Bacon Factory (1907) while curate in the town; later PP of Kinnitty and of Templederry. 
Martin 'Neighbour' Cunningham, Ballyskenagh/Timeighter, socialist, union and labour leader, County Councillor for North Tipperary; visited Russia in 1927 where he met a number of leading communists including Lenin's wife. He gave an impassioned socialist speech in Abbey (New) Hall on his return to Roscrea. Despite being a committed socialist Martin remained devoted to his Catholic upbringing and remained a regular massgoer. He maintained his community activism for much of his life.
Paddy Cunningham (born in Limerick Street, lived in St Cronan's Terrace); General Manager Roscrea Bacon Factory; co-founder, player/producer and long-time secretary/treasurer of Roscrea Operatic / Musical Society (1940-1963); activist and leader in Muintir na Tire, GAA, RC church affairs and choir, the Roscrea Agricultural Show, CYMS, politics (FF) and many other community activities.
George related many fascinating details and anecdotes about these three men, revealing their love of homeplace and their hard work for their communities. 
He made a plea to everyone to put captions on their photographs, because they are of no use to archivists without a caption.
John Coolahan, former lecturer in History of Education in Maynooth University, also said a few words. He praised George and Carmel for their dedication to their local community, for their love of place, and for their generosity. He said George was Principal of Coolderry National School from 1961 until he retired in 1987. But following his retirement he remained very active in educational circles, including lecturing in University of Limerick. George fought a number of campaigns on behalf of Roscrea's heritage over the years including the battle to save Damer House. He also wrote a series of highly regarded books about the Burren. He began Roscrea People in 1974, continued John, which is now a valued annual publication containing much that has happened in the town over the year.
Michael O'Connor, Principal of Coláiste Phobal, said George and Carmel obviously deeply valued books in their paper form. In the digital age, he commented, we are in danger of being watchers of everything but not feeling the finer emotions. Books are an antidote to this way of being because they bring us in others people's worlds and foster empathy. 'Books have the power to transform us from self-obsessed individualists into imaginative, empathetic human beings. I wouldn't be surprised if it was revealed that in the more extremist parts of the world people read less.'
Offaly Heritage Officer Amanda Pedlow said the County Council Library will be very glad to receive the Archive.
Aideen Ireland, recently retired Director of Readers' Services at the National Archive of Ireland, told the gathering that the Roscrea History Conference will be hugely missed. It was a special occasion, she remarked, which people eagerly anticipated because of its pleasant atmosphere, its lovely setting and the high standard of its scholarship. 'Each of the three books about the Conference are a feast. They are a pleasure to look at and to read.'
 George commended Fr Laurence again for being a rock on which the Conferences were built. He said Fr Laurence has lived in Mount St Joseph's for 71 years, first as a student, then as a novice and then as a monk. He also praised Jerry and Maureen Cahir for all their support of the Conference over the years.


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