Happy Days My Memoirs is one of those wonderful positives to emerge from the darkness of Covid-19. Its author, Eugene O’Keeffe, used the hours provided by lockdown to set down his life story. The nonagenarian cast his mind back to 1926, the year of his birth, and with the help of a recording device, gave voice to his memories. A gem of a book is the result, transcribed by his daughter Marie, and beautifully produced with well selected photographs.
Eugene was born into a farming family at Fort William House, Lissivigeen and, but for a period of about twenty years in Manchester in the 1950s and 60s where he met his late wife Sheila, has spent most of his life in the locality. He made his money in England and returned to Kerry in 1969, buying the old schoolhouse at Lissivigeen and renovating it into a family home.
Eugene’s 202-page chronicle conveys a rapid changing Irish society from the 1930s to date. It sweeps across the social changes during this period with Lissivigeen as its centre-point. Indeed, it is the community element of the book, like the response of local people to the Second World War when signs were removed (including the school sign) to shield the district from spies, that adds exceptional richness often sought by the local and social historian.
Echoes of landlordism in Killarney are captured here and there. Eugene recalls a tale about Anthony McGillycuddy, son of Major John McGillycuddy of Flesk Castle. The castle, known also as Coltsmann’s Castle, was a favoured port of call on St Bridget’s Day when the ‘biddys’ went out and about entertaining householders in return for a coin. As Eugene recalls:
The castle was gorgeous at that time – all inside was plaster of paris and it was lovely and well kept … we’d be taken into the living room and we’d do a bit of a sing song. Anthony McGillycuddy and his wife would be there with their daughters and sons. He would always give us ten shillings when ten shillings was a lot of money – a couple of day’s wages.
The old boundaries of Lord Kenmare’s estate are mentioned, parts of the old wall on Park Road a visible if now unnoticed indication of the times of the landed gentry. Indeed, Eugene describes how part of the estate there later became the local tip known as ‘The Commissioners’:
It was the only dump around at the time where they emptied all the food waste from the hotels and houses … there was a dreadful smell from it.
On one occasion during Lent, Eugene, a young teen, and his friends, went to a retreat which was being held at the Friary in Killarney. The missionary priests were ‘shouting blue murder and hell and thunder.’ On the walk home to Lissivigeen, the boys passed by the dump and went in. It was surrounded by rat holes and as they lit their candles, they could see the place ‘moving with rats’:
One minute we were holding our candles up renouncing the devil in church, and the next time we had the candles out, we were culling rats in the dump with sticks.
Many local people, including those departed, are returned to the scenes of their life, including the late Danny Casey, proprietor of the Killarney Advertiser, who was a great friend of Eugene. The two men enjoyed walking and talking, Danny forever in search of material for his news columns.
Eugene’s connection with local businesses and establishments is also covered, including Liebherr crane factory, where he worked, and the Two Mile Inn (now Torc Hotel) where so much of his social life has played out.
Eugene does not neglect his years in Manchester, including the discomfort of the journey over, ‘you had to be there to realise how bad it was.’ Mancunians will enjoy his record of life in ‘digs’, work in construction as England recovered from the destruction of war, work at Metrovicks in Trafford Park where in 1952, 25,000 were employed, and employment at Ferranti electrical engineering. Memories of being a Manchester United football club supporter revive those of a sad event – the Munich disaster of 1958, when lost lives included seven of the team’s players.
These days, Eugene spends time with his family and in his garden, reflecting. He is looking forward to the return of some measure of normality, not least to resume his social outings, and those all-important discussions with friends in his local. With the appendage of author now added to his achievements, there should be much to talk about.
Note: Happy Days was printed for private circulation. Castleisland District Heritage holds a copy in its archive, courtesy Eugene O’Keeffe, Collection Reference IE CDH 34.
 Marie, a nurse, had coincidentally just taken time out from work before lockdown and was therefore able to give the task of transcription priority.  The social changes include 1950s emigration, farming practices, industrial and lifestyle advances, local employment, entertainment and sport.  Happy Days My Memoirs, p31.  Happy Days My Memoirs, p27. Eugene had another run in with a rat in his greenhouse many years later when it ran up his trouser leg – see p152.