‘Eagle’ account of 115 years old man from Bandon area who remembered 1798 rebellion

Local historian Paddy Connolly has passed on to The Southern Star a fascinating article which appeared in The Skibbereen Eagle of April 9, 1898 headlined "extraordinary case of longevity near Bandon - Remembered the time the French came to Bantry Bay". It is about the passing of 115 years old Cloughduv born William Coveney, Kilpatrick, Bandon, who was born in 1773, remembered the 1798 Rebellion and lived to reach the year of its centenary. Paddy obtained the cutting from Billy (William) Coveney, Queensfort, Farnivane, Bandon, great great grand son of William.

It reads:
Within the past month, there was laid to rest in Innishannon chapel yard, the mortal remains of Wiliam Coveney, a poor peasant belonging to Kilpatrick, who has lived to the extraordinary age of 115 years.
Such cases of centenarian life are so rare that most people are inclined to be sceptical when they see some announcement in the press about some person well beyond the century, and conclude that there was some error of calculation on the part of the modern patriarch totting up his years. Besides, additional cause for doubt is given by the universal habit of country correspondents to associate a deceased centenarian, when writing about one, with vivid memories of the stirring scenes of the Rebellion of 1798, even though history recorded no rising within miles of the district in which the old celebrity lived and died.

This custom, however interesting it makes the man’s demise, has some very objectable feature and leaves a bad impression on the public, so that when as in the present case, a genuine centenarian is submitted to their notice they will, once they see the heading of the paragraph, pass on as they would from a patent medicine advertisement.

However, there can be no question as to the authority of Coveney’s age, even though his memory took him back to that eventful time, 102 years ago, he a boy of 13 or 14, saw a big concentration of troops at Bandon, when the French fleet came to Bantry Bay. At that time, he lived in his native place of Cloughduv, a few miles to the north of Bandon, which town was then a hive of industry, full of prosperous tanneries, cotton and other factories, rope walks, woollen and other mills etc.

The old man used to tell what a vivid impression the sight of so many soldiers made on his young mind and the terror which the arrival of the French expeditionary force created amongst the loyalists of the district. There were other people, however, the majority of the population, who could scarce repress their exultation at the news, although such manifestations might, in those cruel times, have brought them a terrible experience of the pitch-cap, or the triangle, or the half-hanging with which the savage Orange yeomen and militias glutted their racial sectarian hate of the United Irishmen and their sympathisers.

Coveney well remembered how, when the tidings of rebel success in Wexford reached the Bandon district, a number of young men from Cloughduv set out for the scene of conflict, ignoring the dangers that beset them on their way. Nearly all of them reached the insurgent encampment on Vinegar Hill and they took part in the principal engagements fought in the country. Some passed through the strife scatheless but many of their gallant young comrades left their bones on the Wexford battlefields.

The survivors, on returning to their native place after the suppression of the rebellion, brought with them dreadful accounts of the murders and outrages committed by the Orange yeomanry and militia, the Hessian mercenaries and the infamous Welsh cavalry regiment, the Ancient Britons, whose barbarities were terribly avenged in the bloody ambuscade of Ballyellis.

On arriving at manhood years, Coveney went to work with a farmer residing near the village of Kilpatrick, then a prosperous little village, with some few small industries and settled down there permanently. There he lived for upwards on 90 years, outliving by decades the oldest of his youth’s compeers. For the past 30 years he had suffered from asthma but was able to work as a labourer up to ten to twelve years ago.

Coveney was of middle size, strongly built and full of physical and mental energy. Anybody looking at him would never take him to be much over 60 years of age, for he appeared no way feeble and his hair - he was not a bit bald - was only grizzled. It his habits he was very simple and abstemious. He smoked but little and drank modestly.

When he heard of arrangements being made to celebrate the centenary of the rebellion of ‘98, he expressed the wish that he would be spared to witness some of the demonstrations and to see and converse with the returned exiles, amongst whom no doubt, would be descendants of some of his former friends.

As he was an extremely intelligent old man with his mental faculties still unimpaired, his presence at a centennial celebration would have been a most interesting and remarkable feature. He was probably the most interesting link between the old and the new ‘98 for though there were maybe other centenarians living, none of them could reach up to his grand total of years.

Coveney was twice married, a son (Thomas) by the first wife is living in Queensland and is 86 years of age. There was an interval of about 30 years between her death and his second marriage. The youngest son of this union is Denis Coveney, a very intelligent young man. Denis is employed at the Upton Industrial School.

The centenarian was interviewed and photographed early in January last by Mr JS Wayland of Cork who had a very interesting account of the chat and a reproduction of the photograph in the issue of Black and White on the 22nd of that month.

• Great great grandson, Billy Coveney, aged 49, of Queensfort Deerhounds and Boarding Kennels told The Southern Star that he has an interesting collection of letters and photos of a family which has a tradition of longevity, including his late grand aunt Maisie Coveney, Gurranabraher, who died recently aged 92. Billy’s late father and great grand father were named Denis and his grandfather Bill Coveney was in the old IRA. There are also relatives in the Kilpatrick and Bandon areas.

Billy said that in one of his letters, his great great grandfather wrote to his son Thomas around the time of the Great Famine stating how starving people were arriving in their hundreds into the towns. The main diet for people able to get food was Indian meal because it was impossible to buy seed potatoes. In another letter, dated January 18 1891, William delights at having made contact with his son after a gap of 50 years.

Courtesy of the Southern Star
June 2004