Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pete of the Glorious Berkshires

Postcards in the 60s and 70s were the equivalent of Twitter. My husband had a stack of them that he would fire off when something short of a full letter would be enough to do the job. They usually just had a cartoon or a saying on one side. One of the sayings that seemed to be a particularly good fit with the two of us said: Life is not worth living without a good obsession. It had always been how we justified our pile-driving approach to life. 

Map and townland searches are essential to successful research in Irish history, but it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Computers are not well suited to track spellings as they shift from Tullyvallen to Tullynial to Tullyneal, to Tullyneval – and that’s just a simple example of come about. It gets worse when trying to run down a townland name such as  SherranmcAghully which morphed at some point into Farmacaffley. Who could ever have guessed? Computers wouldn’t.

Pete would. Most of us start and stop our townland research with www.seanruad.com when it comes to townland searches, but because of name changes, this excellent site is only a start, albeit a darned good one. For example, it didn't include a townland named Tullynahinnera in Aghnamullen Parish which Pete ferretted out for me. If you do a site-specific search on my web site of Schermerhorn, you will see how often Pete has pulled the fat from the fire with respect to my research.
The curious thing is that Pete could care less about what most of us on such web sites care about. His interest in townland names is archaeological. That’s not his only obsession, although he pursues that one with all the rigour that you would expect from the retired chemical engineer that he is. He has literally hundreds of maps, thousands of books, and dozens of file cabinets full of material that is all cross referenced for ready access.

Not only that, but he has a full-fledged darkroom where he makes 20 X 24 prints of the photos of the archaeological sites that he visits. His prints are crisp and each picture shows that he has an eye for framing the shot. They are cross referenced with maps, showing not only where they were taken, but also when they were visited. Truly, this gift should be cloned and bottled, but unfortunately, there is only one Pete.

This dovecote photo is from Ballybeg priory, a priory of the Augustinian Canons Regular, 
early 13th century.  It is just a mile south of Buttevant town, in N. Cork.
If archaeology and photography were not enough in the obsession department, Pete has at least two other obsessions: music and book collecting. In his four story 

The approach to his A-frame house is along a tree lined drive. The big tree on the right hand side are black walnuts which he planted as 2-foot tall whips in 1971. On the left are two huge wild apple trees, laden with fruit. Inside the house, he has an entire pipe organ, partially assembled. And then there are the stacks of books – on every floor. In shelves, stacked in nooks, piled on the floor – everywhere books. A book-lover’s dream come true.
Organ pipes - eight feet tall!

Pete explained that if stops were put in these eight foot pipes then the air would travel both directions inside the pipe and would result in a sound an octave lower - becoming 16-foot diapasons.  Many of the 400 pipes he has are wooden . The very smallest ranks are metal, and there are overlaps of wood and metal pipes in the broad middle range, depending on the sound that is being imitated. For example, the vox humana flutes are wooden, and piccolo are metal.

He is also an inventor of solutions to all sorts of small, every day dilemmas. For example, he loves listening to BBC, but they stopped broadcasting on shortwave to North America - just on line and via satellite. This doesn't stop him. He receives the shortwave signals that are aimed at English-speaking West and South Africa. Unfortunately, the best reception is at the room at the top of his A-frame, but he spends most of his time at his desk four stories down in the basement. No problem. He found himself a second hand baby-minder walkie-talkie, and with the receiver beside the radio on the fourth floor, the signal comes through clear as a bell in the basement.

With so many obsessions, it is clear that Pete will have to live to be at least a hundred and twenty to follow them all through. He still wants to print up the hundreds more photos that he has paper for; assemble the pipe organ; visit the rest of the archaeological sites that he has already fully researched. He already has route plans plotted out to visit them so he can make best use of his time when he is next in Ireland.

Fortunately, Pete’s  parents – who live nearby at his daughter's and play cards with him pretty much every day – are both alive and well at age a hundred and one – so there is hope. He should still have a fistful of decades ahead of him. Here’s hoping.


  1. Great write up, Sharon. Pete is a treasure and I don't know what us Irish researchers would do with out him over the years. I have so enjoyed my visits with him in the past and your story brought out his genius. Plus, your picture of him is wonderful. I haven't seen Pete in a couple of years and know he had a tough past year so great to see him looking so well.

  2. Pete and I have been in email contact for years, have stayed at the same B&Bs in Sligo (at different times) and share a common interest in Sligo archaeology--though Pete's interests are much broader than that. As I just told him, I would have recognized him even without the photo on this blog, if I had run into a senior citizen (younger than I, so I am not patronizing him) carrying multiple cameras. Wish he would publish a book of his photos.
    Paul Burns

  3. Great to "see" Pete at last. When I went to Ireland for my first, and so far only trip, I had a printout from Pete in hand as I looked for graveyards in Longford.

    He should publish a book on Ireland. :)

  4. Pete put a "place" on the map for several townlands in Kildare and Carlow for me. He should publish a book on his interesting life! It would be a best seller!

    Jean Gobel

  5. Pete is the real deal of scholarship: the guy who trudges around the fields, clambers over fences, and asks the locals where the hell he should be pointing his camera--always with a 19th or 17th-century text in mind. Almost more valuable than his observations and photos of Irish archaeological remains, though, are his email messages about life as a father and grandfather. I never valued my Smithie identity until I read Pete's comments on his kids and grandkids. Pete's my role model.

  6. Thanks all for your wonderful comments about my dad. He certainly is a treasure. I had never seen this blog before. He just sent it to me this morning. We are in the midst of planning a trip together to Ireland in the spring. I have never been, and I really wanted him to show me "his" Ireland. I will nudge him about that book. Any suggestions about particular topics you would like him to focus on? His dad (my grandfather) wrote several books about his travels, and loved to write poetry. I keep thinking that I should write a book as well. It must be in the blood.