Old Tower
by Finbar O’Brien
and published in Inniscarra News in May 2000
My parents and their seven children came to live in Tower in 1921. They rented the house in which I now live, and which I now own. I was born there in 1924 and two other brothers, one older and one younger, were also born there. We were the first family to live in the house. Up to then it had been business premises. It was built in 1872 by Michael Ambrose, a member of a well-known local farming family whose relatives still live in the area. He had lived in America for many years and had returned home, where he set up a business in the house. It was the time of the hand-made boots and he employed two boot-makers and a manager, all of whom lived on the premises. Michael Ambrose also bought Auntie’s Bar but sold it some time later. He died in 1912 but the business was continued until 1920 when it folded in rather tragic circumstances.
Guns were fairly plentiful in 1920 and one night two local men forced their way into the house to carry out a robbery. They went upstairs and dragged the manager, John Cowhig, out of his bed and took him out into the corridor. They were probably not used to handling guns and in the course of the fracas the gun went off and poor Cowhig was shot dead. The culprits vacated the premises in a hurry and made their escape. Next morning the police were called and were planning to bring in tracker dogs to trace the culprits. However, before they could organise this, word was received about the planned ambush at Dripsey, so the police officers were called away. The trail of the killers went cold and no one was ever charged with the killing, though it was fairly well know who the culprits were.
Writing of Michael Ambrose recalls for me a reference that was made to him in a letter written by an English friend in America who had been home on a visit to Tower, and the letter was written from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York. When travelling, Tower people always stay in up-class accommodation! It was written on 30th November 1921 by Daniel J O’Mahony, who was a grand-uncle of my late friend and neighbour, Laurence O’Mahony, and was written to Bat O’Leary, who was grandfather of Paddy O’Leary of Centra Tower. He wrote “This is without doubt the greatest City in the world. I thought about our departed friend, Michael Ambrose, this evening as ~I looked across the Hudson River, the city where he lived so long and took part in public affairs (Mikey was a member of the State Assembly). I’ll pass through his city of Jersey tomorrow on my way to Washington. I will say ‘the Lord have mercy on him’”.
Our part of Tower was called Lower Tower - the boundary was the old pump which was located opposite the entrance to Oakmount Housing Estate. There were 14 houses in Lower Tower and it was a very close-knit community. There had been some more houses which were then in ruins. One of the social centres was the hurling field down by the river which until recently was occupied by Belvedere Hockey Club. There was a very good Hurling Club called Shournagh Valley and the hurley field which we called “The Inch” was always kept busy. On the long summer evenings a good number of players would gather and play for an hour or longer. During the mid=Cork hurling season many competition matches were played there on Sundays. There were very few official hurling pitches in those days except in Ballincollig and Coachford. On those long summer evenings many local men would gather and sit chatting on a seat inside the gate at the entrance to Barry’s Lane which led down to Muskerry Golf Club. When the hurling finished down at The Inch, the men on the seat would move into Mike O’Brien’s house which was located across the road in a terrace of houses which have now disappeared. This house was a very well-known “rambling house” where neighbours gathered at night to chat and play cards. It also had the only radio in the community and on Sundays of All-Ireland hurling matches which were broadcast, it would be crowded with people. Looking back, I often wonder how the people of the house put up with this invasion of their home almost every night of the year.
The kitchen where we gathered was quite small in size. I think the largest crowd I remember being in the house was one night when the well-known Cobh boxer, Jack Doyle, was engaged in a boxing match with some well-known boxer whom I cannot recall. It was broadcast on the radio and there was great excitement. However, it ended very abruptly when Jack Doyle fell out of the ring between the ropes and the match ended. Actually, things were not going too well for him, so he jumped out of the ring!
Another great social centre for the young men and girls of Tower in the 1940s and 1950s was Tower Hall, where dances were held on Wednesdays and Sundays. There was no dance hall in Blarney so big crowds came from there and many people cycled out from Killeens and Cork City. It was the era of the bike and a girl was lucky if she got a spin home on the crossbar of a bike! I was a committee member representing Shournagh Valley Hurling Club for about ten years in the 40s and 50s, and on dancing nights I often manned the ticket office where patrons paid their admission charge which was about a shilling (or five cent in today’s euro). I was also secretary of the committee. Another representative of Shournagh Valley on the committee was John Coleman, who was a verty close friend of mine. Kerry Pike Harrier Club and Shournagh United Camogie Club also had representatives on the committee. Once a month on Sunday night a long dance would be held lasting until 1.00am. Some time in the early 1950s the Emer Hall was built on the Waterloo Road in Blarney and they obtained a dance licence, so the numbers coming to Tower dances decreased very much and dances were discontinued. After that, running the Hall ran into very hard times financially, and the Hall was used very little. I retired from the committee. However, some brave people kept the committee going on a very small budget. Many years after retiring from the committee, I went back again for a few years but then retired again. For a good many years now, my wife May has been a very active member of the small committee that runs the Hall - she is secretary. The Hall is now a very central place in our much larger community, and is occupied by some group every night of the week, the ICA being one of the larger groups using the Hall facilities for their meetings and functions. For some years it was used for school classes when pressure was on for school accommodation.
“Old Tower” has long gone. In an interview with Donna O’Sullivan for her programme on Cork Local Radio, she asked me what was the main difference between Tower in the 1930s and the Tower of today. I answered by saying that in the 1930s I knew everyone within a mile radius of Tower Cross, and now I do not know people living in the new housing estate two hundred yards up the road, though they have been living there for more than ten years.