Local history: From ancient Meath to the roots of Halloween

Other books explore Derry’s streets, Newry’s whiskey tradition and Limerick’s secrets

The province of Midhe once stretched from the Shannon to the Irish Sea and became the richest and most powerful of Ireland's five provinces. Valerie Pakenham, who lives in Tullynally Castle in Westmeath, has spent more than 50 years delving into the area's past and diving into its lakes. She has collated her knowledge in Exploring Ireland's Middle Kingdom: A Guide to the Ancient Kingdom of Meath (Somerville Press, €10). The author places buildings and antiquities in their social, geographical and historical context, and the book is filled with quirky stories. She describes Fore – founded by St Fechin in AD 630 and once an important walled Norman town – as a tiny, one-horse village. The Hill of Ward, near Athboy, was the site of a pagan festival, known as the Hill of Tlachtga after a druidess in Irish mythology was said to have given birth to triplets there. Most of the illustrations were drawn by the artist and archaeologist Hector McDonnell and sit alongside delicate watercolours from the 18th and early 19th centuries as well as photographs by Robert O'Byrne.

For a more detailed consideration of Tlachtga Samhain: The Roots of Halloween (History Press, £12.99) by Luke Eastwood contains two chapters on the sacred site. Following recent archaeological excavations, which identified several previously unrecorded monuments, there has been a revival of interest in the site, which has regained some of its prestige while still retaining an aura of mystery. The author examines the importance of Samhain, a pivotal point in the pagan year marking the entry into winter and a time of hardship and hunger. The text is accompanied with illustrations by Elena Danaan.

From ancient and mythical Meath to the peculiarities of Limerick – both city and county. Sharon Slater explores the hidden side of life in The A-Z of Curious County Limerick (History Press, £14.99). Covering everything from "Animals and their Awesome Antics" to "Zachariah's Land and Zepp's Chips", she reveals long-forgotten names not normally associated with the area, some beginning with the letter Z: Ernst Zufle, Lucia Zupaucic, Wilhelm Zutavern and Else Zimmermann, all of whom worked on or were married to those employed in the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric scheme in the late 1920s.

Moving north, Derry's Streets by John Bryson (Colmcille Press, £20), published as part of the Columban Anniversary edition (521-2021), provides a black-and-white snapshot of 19th- and 20th-century life in the city's lanes, terraces and back streets. The book is the result of a long study that saw the late historian spending years sifting through archives in London, Dublin, Belfast and Derry. Maps show the pre-plantation location of the Gaelic land system before the arrival of the London Livery Companies with measurements of "Lots of Feet, Perches and City Acres or Dozens". Reminders of the industrial past through its built heritage include Nimmons Shirt Factory, Pennyburn Mill and the City Factory, while evocative names such as Jampot Row, Dark Lane and Fishboat Quay leap off the pages. In a photogenic city famed for its historic walls, the power of the images lies in the ordinary: a householder sweeping a steep street, neighbours with prams discussing the "bars" (a Derry term for news) or children skipping in the powerful chiaroscuro light.


In Matt D'Arcy & Old Newry Whiskies (Old Newry Publications, £12), Michael McKeown surveys the ancient inheritance of the area's distilling spirit. Its long pedigree was practised by monks in Newry in the Middle Ages and continued in the Cistercian monastery founded in 1144. Some 400 years later the rent roll of Nicholas Bagenal shows that the most extensive and valuable property in the town was the Queen's Backhouse & Brewhouse, which meant that Newry could claim the accolade of the oldest recorded licensed whiskey manufactory in the world. Matthew D'Arcy of the eponymous title was born in 1791 in Carlingford, then a cosmopolitan town where ships arrived from France and Spain with wines and brandy to store in quayside warehouses. When he reached his twenties, D'Arcy had built up expertise in distilling and, in partnership with two others, had acquired the skills of an esteemed businessman noted for his philanthropy. His story parallels the development of the industry recounted in 16 fascinating chapters.

Another part of Down's past is brought to life in Banbridge: The Star of County Down (History Press, £14.99) by Doreen McBride. A blend of heritage, folklore and customs, the historical detail is interwoven with oral testimonies from those who recall the war years of the 1940s. One chapter deals with country cures, superstitions and old sayings, the product of a survey of grandparents, great-aunts and uncles by staff and pupils of Edenderry Primary School. Ailments from arthritis to the whooping cough are outlined, along with numerous suggestions such as one for curing hiccups: hold a penny between two toes and transfer it to two other toes on the other foot without letting it touch the ground. Illustrious names linked to the town include Patrick Brontë, the father of the Brontë sisters, the weaving poet Joseph Carson, who wrote in the Ulster-Scots dialect, sculptor FE McWilliam, and William Kennedy, a blind piper and maker of uilleann pipes. But many may not be aware that the Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe's grandfather ran a bakery on Dromore Street that specialised in wedding cakes.