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STEPHEN RYNNE - IRELAND OF THE 1950's

Leinster Leader 27 September 2007
Kildare author with an ear for the country voice
by
LIAM KENNY
 
 
A chance discovery in a second-hand bookshop inspired some recollection on a Kildare author whose writing in the mid-20th century seems not yet to have engaged the attention of modern scholars of the county’s literary output. The name Stephen Rynne on an old dust-jacket of a book entitled ‘All Ireland’, a travellers companion around the counties published in 1956, prompted recollections of this countryman-turned-author who lived at Downings House, near Prosperous, in mid County Kildare.
 
But to describe Stephen Rynne as an author, noble as that description might be, is understating the Prosperous  man’s impact on rural life in Ireland in the decades before and after the 1950s. The word ‘evangelist’ might be a more accurate terminology to describe his mission throughout Ireland on behalf of Muintir na Tire, a rural self-help organisation born out of war-time self-sufficency, to encourage local communities to take a lead in the organisation and development of their localities. He travelled the country proclaiming the self-help message in parish halls and town halls; he contributed numerous articles on community development to provincial and national papers; and he was a regular and distinctive voice on Radio Eireann for many years.
 
While the subject matter was serious stuff – and never more necessary than in the disastrously depressed economy of 1950s Ireland – he delivered his message with an adroitness of language that must have brought humour and levity to many a parish hall on a winter’s night. His informed wit and quirky characterisations, combined with an artist’s eye for the palette of the countryside, shines through in his more extended works of which ‘All Ireland’, a travellers’ companion to the island of Ireland is a considerable example.
 
His colourful descriptions of the thirty-two counties make for humourous and informative reading. Naturally one first turns the pages to County Kildare to see what the author has to say about his local heath. He hones in on the dominant social activities in Kildare at that time namely the fact that there there are more people ‘mad for sport’ than perhaps in any other part of Ireland. Some of the sports mentioned might not find favour in the modern era but were part and parcel of the more earthy rural scene of the 1950s: ‘ If news comes of a badger or a fox dig taking place in the neighbourhood, there will be farmers ready to fling down hayforks and desert haymaking for laborious delving; tools are laid down in garages while the match is being discussed; hunting venues are studied in the Leinster Leader …’. He enters more sensitive territory by proclaiming that in Kildare ‘ if a husband is not all that he should be, people will say of the wife “ She backed the wrong horse” . Whether many husbands would be content to described in equestrian terms in the modern era is another question!
 
Switching his attention to the county’s landscapes he says that County Kildare has ‘ neither lakes or mountains. It has but one low hill, which, although miserable in height, is a famous landmark on account of the prevailingly flat land. On top of this hill there is a look out tower which was visited by King Edward VII, when he was Prince of Wales. He was stationed at the Curragh at this time, 1861, and probably found life dull in his army quarters.’
 
Moving on to the national scale Stephen Rynne’s talent for observing the quirks of every corner of Ireland is evident repeatedly in the book. The following characterisation of the regional accents of Ireland illustrates his gift: ‘ An accent frontier is very definitely crossed on entering Donegal. Since we started out from Dublin, we have heard many varieties, but now we discover one that is quite new. We had nasal Dublin, whiney Wicklow, drawling Waterford, sing-song Cork, plaintive Limerick, horny Clare, melodious Galway, and sweet-sad Mayo …’. Rarely has the diversity of Ireland’s accents been so pithily summarised.
 
* A search for ‘All Ireland’ by Stephen Rynne published by Batsford Ltd. In 1956 will bring a rewarding account of the country as seen by the travel writer in the mid-1950s.
 
Series no. 34

An article by Liam Kenny on Stephen Rynne of Downings House near Prosperous, from his regular feature in the Leinster Leader, 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' in the Leinster Leader 27 September 2007. Our thanks to Liam


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