Most people love stories about secret passages and hidden chambers and Waterford was full of such tales when I was growing up. Every so often, road-works by the ESB or Posts and Telegraphs opened up an ancient, long collapsed tunnel that would have originally started out across the old city from Christ Church. My pals and myself spent many summers in Ferrybank searching for the entrance to the tunnel that was supposed to run under the river between Christ Church and the Abbey Church. We never found it and, in truth, it was probably never there in the first place.

However, last week, the people of Mullingar were thrilled when a mysterious, secret chamber was discovered in a remote area in the grounds of the Belvedere estate which is about three miles outside the town.

Children participating in an Easter Egg Hunt uncovered a large stone slab covered by undergrowth in a heavily wooded area. Within the slab was a small, cast-iron insert that was permanently fixed and sealed by lead and bore the inscription ‘Richard Mullally, plumber, Mullingar’.

The following day, excited estate staff removed the cast-iron insert and were astonished to discover a large underground chamber with metal supports and drainage pipes. The Belvedere general manager, Bartle d’Arcy, said staff did not venture into the chamber and the county archaeologist had been informed of the find.

It is possible that the entrance could be an exit from an escape tunnel from the big house itself. It is a good distance from the house, hidden by trees and is within easy reach of an old entrance for horses and carriages. Mr. d’Arcy said a visual inspection of the chamber would indicate that there might have been additions made in Victorian times. There had also been rumours down the years of a large, underground grotto in the grounds of the estate and that was something that could not be discounted.

Local people suspect that the plumber Richard Mullally, who added the cast-iron insert, was the same Richard Mullally who was elected to Mullingar Town Council in 1911.

Good news for Joe Dolan fans

Incidentally, talking about Mullingar, there is good news this week for Joe Dolan fans. The official biography of the singer is underway and, fully authorised by the Dolan family, it will be published in October by Penguin Books.

The book is being written by the well known journalist, Ronan Casey, who is son of Seamus Casey who was Joe’s manager for over forty years. Poignantly, the project was originally set to be Joe’s autobiography in association with Ronan. A lot of work had already been put into the book by Joe and Ronan but now Ronan will complete it himself. Incidentally, if any reader feels they have a contribution (memorabilia or story) that would be of value to the biography, Ronan Casey would be glad to hear from you c/o The Westmeath Examiner in Mullingar.

Bedroom celebrations in Kilkenny

It has been reported that our friends in Kilkenny have been busy repopulating the county that enjoyed an unprecedented baby boom in the seven-day period between St. Patrick’s Day and Easter Sunday.

No less than 41 babies were born in the maternity wing of St. Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny, thirty-three boys and eight girls. With our luck, they will probably all be star hurlers and camogie players! Staff at the hospital confirmed that the number of births in Kilkenny was climbing all the time. The Bank Holiday week had been one of the busiest ever in the maternity wing where fourteen infants had been delivered on the Thursday and four more on the Friday morning.

Incidentally, among the new arrivals was a first child, a daughter to be named Saibh, for Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin and his wife Deirdre so heartiest congratulations to them and, of course, to all the other new parents.

It may be a somewhat delicate subject but I’m told everybody in Kilkenny is trying to figure out what on earth happened last June that resulted in such a rash of bedroom celebrations! The All Ireland victory wasn’t until September so it must have been something else.

Is Irish dying as a spoken language?

A new study into the Irish language indicates that the population of the country’s Gaeltachtai could be cut drastically if the government introduces its new linguistic criteria.

The study, commissioned by Connemara based GMIT Maths lecturer and Gaeltacht expert, Donncha O hEallaithe, concentrated on the Mayo Gaeltacht but many observers believe the findings are common to all Gaeltacht areas including An Rinn in Waterford.

Mr. O hEallaithe’s study found that, if the new government criteria was applied, the Mayo Gealtachtai would be dramatically reduced. Areas such as Achill, Belmullet and Tourmakeady could lose their status with only isolated places retaining Gaeltacht status.

He said the lack of spoken Irish on a daily basis in many Gaeltacht communities was of serious concern and would leave very little of Mayo remaining within the Gaeltacht. He said the current population of the Mayo Gaaeltacht was 11,000 but that would be reduced to just 2,500 if the criteria of the linguistic study was applied.

“The Irish language in certain Gaeltachtai is not dead yet but it is very close to it and, if something is not done to encourage people to speak it and use it as a community language, we can say goodbye to it”, said Mr. O hEallaithe.

However, the college lecturer’s assertions were dismissed by Udaras na Gaeltachta representative Ian Matthews. He said huge strides had been made in recent years to promote the Irish language in everyday use and decreasing the size of the Gaeltachtai would do nothing for the promotion of the language. “Nobody would benefit and the only people who would be happy would be the far-right Irish speakers”, he said.

Generous Seamus and his mammy

A mystery that has been puzzling the priests and community committee in a certain Waterford parish was finally solved last week but, unfortunately, not to everybody’s satisfaction.

Every Sunday, for over six months, envelopes were placed on the collection plate and, when opened, they were found to contain anything between €700 or €1000 in crisp new notes. Of course, the money was welcome but, naturally enough, the parish priest was curious as to its source. The envelopes were dropped into the plates at different Masses so there was no definite routine but collectors were instructed to keep their eyes peeled for the generous benefactor.

They could never spot the donor until last Sunday when a collector, a sharp-eyed retired garda, noticed that an old lady had slipped a small package onto the plate shielded by the weekly collection envelope. The parish priest was alerted and he was waiting for the elderly woman when she emerged from the church after Mass.

“My dear lady, we have discovered that it is you who is putting so much money onto our collection plates every Sunday. Are you sure you can afford such generosity”, said the priest.

“Oh Dear, Father, I didn’t want anybody to know it was me but, you needn’t worry, I can well afford it because my son Seamus sends me lots of money every week and I only use what I need”, replied the embarrassed woman.

“Well, thank you so much”, said the parish priest, “I can assure you that your money will be put to very good use. May I ask you, what does your good and dutiful son do?”

“Do you know, I’m not really sure but he was studying at university for years so I think he is a veterinary surgeon”, replied the woman.

“Well that is certainly a fine profession to be in and he’s obviously doing very well”, said the priest.

“He is indeed and he is very kind to small animals”, said the woman, “because my other son, Michael, told me that Seamus operates cat houses not only in Dublin but in Cork and Limerick as well.”