August 24th 2005:
David C. Burke and the Culkin Emigration Museum
This article, in several instalments, is prompted by a letter from one of my correspondents, David
Burke, an emigrant who now lives in England. My interest in Culkin’s Emigration Museum began when David told me of his association with the former owner Louis Culkin, “whose pet subject was the making of poteen, having made gallons of the stuff in his youth. He’d regale us with stories of poteen-making up in the mountains and how the old masters of the art always gave the first part of the distillation to the fairies by pouring it over the heather.”
David’s description of Louis and his early life near Dromore West aroused my curiosity and led me eventually to a very pleasant meeting with John and Mary Culkin who now own Louis’ old home and the Emigration Museum there. We will begin with excerpts from David Burke’s autobiography, “Once Upon a Lifetime” :
Power, Influence and Louie
“Being a General Foreman is a key position on any construction site. They have the power to hire and fire. So it was one of my greatest pleasures when I was able to give a job to an old friend from my boyhood in Sligo. This was Louie Culkin. Louie was a few years older than I and I could remember him when I was a young boy coming around Templeboy with a traveling shop.
His family had a small shop outside Dromore West on the way up to the bogs. Louie unfortunately was born with a severely deformed hand and this handicap had been a blight on him as far as getting a job was concerned. He was a big man of immense strength and given the chance could do almost any task. No one knew that so he was seldom given the opportunity to show his skills.
Louie was a real character and a fountain of knowledge on all kinds of subjects relating to life on the land. Having made gallons of the stuff in his youth, his pet subject was the making of poteen. He’d regale us with stories of poteen making up in the mountains and how the old masters of the art always gave the first part of the distillation to the fairies by pouring it over the heather. This got rid of the fusil oil which is toxic but Louie doubted if the old boys who made it were aware of that part of the process.
To get the poteen to the right gravity a small lump of butter was placed in the bottle. Poteen and water were then poured in until the butter lump floated midway in the bottle. How did these fellows know of or find out about this old country method for testing gravity I wonder. I’d met Louie one day in Woolwich when he was down on his luck and I was reminded of the time I too was down on my luck in Woolwich and how a helping hand had changed my life. So after a few drinks in the Queen Victoria pub, owned incidentally by another Templeboy man named John McDaniel, we arranged for Louie to come and work with me...
The company I worked for then had the contract to build a large Local Authority housing project on the site of West Ham dog and speedway track. West Ham had been famous for decades for these sports but now these sports had fallen into decline and pressures for land for housing in London had signaled an end. Louie was in his element now and work-wise he put many an able bodied man to shame. When I was transferred to another site at Deptford I took Louie with me and eventually got him in charge of the Stores. Now he was happy and his experience in his shop in Dromore meant our site stores were run with a strict efficiency.
It was while we were working at Deptford that Louie learned that I decided to go back to Sligo for a holiday. The urge to go back had surfaced again as it does every so many years. Louie decided he too would have a holiday in Dromore. He still owned his small farm but the shop had long since ceased trading. Louie had leased the land to a neighbour but was contemplating selling it as he didn’t think he could ever make a living on it. We met up and I took Louie and Vera all around West Sligo and into Mayo, places Louie had never had the chance to visit in his youth, nor indeed had I.
Louie’s greatest wish was to visit his old shop and take a photograph of the sign which still hung over the door: Louis J.Culkin, Draper. The letters had faded but were still quite legible. The old shop though derelict was still standing. Nettles and weeds had grown through the front yard and inside was a sad caricature of what the place was like when he was a boy and Louie and his family still lived there.
The old counter was still intact, just as I remembered it. Louie was philosophical about it all but we could see he was affected by the state of his old boyhood home. I took his photo outside the shop under the sign. Louie desperately wanted to be able to show he wasn’t always just a run of the mill unskilled labourer. He wanted to show the photograph to his workmates many of whom were inclined to treat him a little contemptuously. The photograph would prove that at one time Louie had been a man of substance in spite of his deformity. Unfortunately this was not to be either as the picture was not properly exposed denying Louie the chance to impress his workmates.
Louie eventually sold his land and the old derelict shop to a man named John Culkin. “The man will starve to death if he buys my land.” said Louie. “Sure it’s all bog and rushes.” Shortly after selling the place Louie died.
But John Culkin and his wife Mary did not starve! Some years later Vera and I found ourselves once again in Sligo. I’d gone to Ireland mainly to try and research my mother’s childhood in Glenamaddy and to see if I could find any trace of my grandmother’s family.
While in Sligo I visited old neighbours and school friends in Kilrusheighter and stayed at a Bed & Breakfast in the Beach Bar in Aughris, now a far cry from the old shebeen I’d remembered as a boy when it was known as Miss Mays and then Helly’s. It was our last night there when the talk of the old days got round to Louie and his traveling shop. “Have you seen what they’ve done to the old Culkin place now?” asked Peter McDermott the landlord at the Beach Bar.
“ No.” I said.
“Well you must see it before you go back. Its a museum now you know.”
A museum? In Dromore? Intrigued, Vera and I drove through Dromore almost as far as the old Workhouse, that stark reminder of the bad old days and famine times. Turning off to the left before the ruins of the old Workhouse and towards the mountains and the boglands we approached Louie’s old shop in the townland of Cannaghanally. The old building was still there. The area around it seemed clearer than I remembered it but the old sign had gone. Then just past the old shop a new entrance had been made and I drove into a wonderful large driveway and new dwelling house. ‘Culkins Emigration Museum’, read the sign.
I knocked on the door, a pleasant young woman answered and I said we’d like to look around the museum. Well what a revelation it was. The first room we entered was the old Culkin shop with the original sign. It was just as I remembered it as a boy when I’d be sent in to buy the little packets of Woodbine cigarettes and a box of matches while whoever was giving me a lift to the bog that day would wait outside in the yard with the donkey and cart.
The sack of flour standing in the corner milled by the Pollexfen Flour Mills at Ballisodare stood at one time in every kitchen in the parish. Artifacts of all kinds hung around the walls and the family history of the Culkins was prominently displayed. Culkin’s shop had been the agents for the Cunard and White Star Line in the last century and into the twentieth, selling tickets to America. My own family had probably bought their tickets here. Louie’s photograph as a young man was on display and I would have given anything if only he could have been here this day to see himself and his family honoured as a part of history.”
Louie now lies in Easkey graveyard, a few miles away, but Culkin’s Emigration Museum stands today as a proud tribute to Louie’s traveling shop and the entrepeneurial skills of John and Mary Culkin.
John, the present owner of Culkin’s, which is actually situated in the townland of Cannaghanally, is a returned emigrant. His family, distantly related to the former owners, had their home place at nearby Knockanbawn.
One of eight children, John left home at 16 years of age in 1966. Taking his first train ride ever from Sligo to Dublin he then took his first boat ride from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead in Wales. Working several years in England as a carpenter he emigrated to Australia in 1971. Moving on to South Africa he worked there for some time before returning to Australia.
In 1985, when John heard the old Culkin farm and shop was for sale, he arranged to buy it from Louis Culkin. In 1987 he returned to Ireland and began thinking of ways to bring the farm and the old shop back to life again.
His wife Mary was born in Australia where her father Francis Patrick Hallinan had emigrated in 1949 to work on the Snowy Mountain River project and later on the trams and buses in Adelaide, South Australia. It was on a holiday to Ireland in 1990 that Mary and John became engaged. They married on 8 th June 1991.
Sadly the little museum is closed now. Bureaucracy laid a heavy hand, increasing rates to such a burden that the little business, which was essentially a labour of love and non-profit anyway, was forced to close its doors.
Culkins had its heyday at the advent of the 20 th century. Steamship travel was well established and the little shop at Dromore West, like others in quiet rural areas in Ireland became a centre for emigration. The steamship era began in the second half of the 19 th century when the Cunard Line won the lucrative mail contract to Boston.
It was soon challenged by other steamship companies like British Inman and White Star. The Cedric on which five passengers from Dromore West sailed in the summer of 1924 was one of the White Star’s big four: the Celtic, the Cedric, the Baltic and the Adriatic. It was the largest ship in the world when it was built ay Harland and Wolf in Belfast. New York harbour had to deepen its channel because of the Cedric’s deep draught. It carried 2300 third class passengers, 250 first class and 160 second class. It provided a standard of luxury unknown in the unelectrified Dromore West of the time. There were tablecloths and napkins at the three daily sittings, a barbers salon, a library, four berth cabins with washstands and deck chairs to take the Atlantic breezes.
The Cedric was lost off Roche’s Point, Co. Cork in 1928.
Dan Culkin was issuing tickets to America in 1893, 19 years before the sinking of the Titanic. Dan was agent for the Cunard and White Star Line. His son Louie was agent for Anchor Donaldson, North German Lloyd, the French Line, Cunard, White Star and Panama Pacific. Brigid dealt with all lines to North America and Australia. The Culkin shop provided not only tickets but passage by the new railway to Cobh, assured boarding house accommodation, suits, cases and even cash for America. They dealt in Cobh with John Fogarty’s boarding house.
Suitable Catholic Girls
In February of 1924 Louis Culkin received a letter from the Passenger Department of the White Star Line informing him that the Rev’d Father Mc Donnell was arranging with the Superintendent for Emigration for Canada to bring parties of domestic servants to Canada to take up household work.
Demand was so great that assistance with passage was offered by the Canadian Government. The next step was the completion of Pink Form E a medical certificate completed by the doctor allocated to the district by the Canadian governmentAs in the U.S. when the days of Ellis Island were over, emigrants were now examined in the country of their origin.
The unaccompanied women were furnished with information and advice before their departure, a conductress to look after their needs on the steamer, and a representative of the Catholic Women’s League to meet them in Halifax. Finally a bonus of $15.00 was provided to bona fide emigrants on arrival in Canada.
Cards from people that bought their tickets in Culkins:
Got through alright, had not much trouble, got good accommodation, but lonely.
Hoping you are well. I am writing this off George Washington and I cannot write as the ship is stirring. We’re getting good weather.
Goodbye from Helen Conway
30 th April 1927
To L.G. Culkin,
Dear Mr. Culkin,
Just a line to say I got through alright. Hope you don’t forget to send the mutton to the three people that I told you.
And so ends our story of David C. Burke and the Culkin Emigration Museum. We may return at a later time to more of David’s autobiography: ‘Once in lifetime’ which is an epic story in itself of someone born into modest beginnings; a ‘rags to riches’ story of a man who grasped all opportunities that came his way to build a successful career.
I am grateful to David for introducing me to the story of Louis Culkin and the little museum shop, and indeed to my English friend Peter Durham for introducing me to David in the first place — both men whom, incidentally, I have never met personally! Peter had written to me following an interview on the Henry Wymbs show (see below) which goes out over the greater London area. This was the chain of events that led me eventually to writing this story and meeting and making two new friends in Dromore West, John and Mary Culkin.
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