A love of writing brought literary Pophams back to Bandon roots

March 9th, 2019 7:05 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

Peter Popham visiting the ruins of Dundaniel Castle with Dr Mervyn O'Driscoll last summer.

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An expert on Myanmar's controversial Aung San Suu Kyi, author Peter Popham, who recently spoke at UCC, was, in fact, born in West Cork, and has discovered his family has a long history in this region

UK Author and journalist Peter Popham has long been held up as one of the world’s experts on Myanmar (formerly Burma) and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

‘I went there in 1991 to write a piece for the [British] Independent’s magazine, and I had never been to a place where the government was so oppressive, incompetent and brutal,’ he recalls.

He became fascinated with Aung San Suu Kyi and subsequently wrote two biographies of the controversial leader.

He is regularly asked to comment on increasing tensions in the Asian country and on Aung San Suu Kyi’s dramatic fall from grace.

But what many people don’t realise about Popham is that he is, in fact, a West Cork man. Popham was born near Bandon in what he says was, by all accounts, a ‘tumbledown house’.

Although he doesn’t exactly remember that himself: ‘We were there for a very short time in 1951/52 and we stayed only for about six or nine months.’

His father, Hugh, also a writer, had a romantic notion of moving to Ireland and living an idyllic life in the country where he could concentrate on his writing.

But, Peter says, the reality was somewhat different: ‘There cottage was outside Bandon but he had to cut firewood for the fire and there was a waterwheel that would stop working if it rained too hard. It was pretty rough and ready.’

Peter regrets that, as his parents are both long deceased, there are blanks in his ancestry he cannot fill. But he does remember them talking of ancestors who had moved to Ireland after the restoration of the monarchy. He believes they were Puritans and moved to Bandon more than 200 years ago.

‘Luckily my grandfather’s second wife was fanatical about family history so she quite well documented the family history,’ he notes.

It may account for the regular occurrence of the Popham name in placenames and family names in the Bandon area today.

But Peter didn’t really get interested in his family until Dunmanway historian Michelle O’Mahony discovered a link between the Pophams and the McCarthy clan she is currently researching. 

As a result, she made contact with Peter, and their friendship led to the journalist being invited by Michelle’s husband, Dr Mervyn O’Driscoll, head of history at UCC, to give a talk on Myanmar in the university recently. 

Peter began his writing career in Japan, where he spent some time in the 80s. After writing a successful book on the rise of the Asian tiger, he was invited to become a foreign correspondent for the London Independent.

He recalls early assignments in Yemen, Outer Mongolia and the Philippines, and he was even in Afghanistan in 2002 to cover the American invasion.

His time with the Independent reveals another West Cork link: he believes the paper was at its best under its former proprietor and regular West Cork visitor Tony O’Reilly.

‘He was not especially generous, but he was a good proprietor and he understood newspapers.’

Peter admits to becoming somewhat disillusioned with the calibre of proprietors of major newspaper groups these days, and he prefers to spend his time writing plays now.

‘Besides, I feel like I have done everything I wanted to do in journalism at this stage.’

Peter’s first play was, ironically, on the rise and fall of journalism, and he is working on a ‘big one’ at the moment. He is cynical about the future of the planet, and Brexit hasn’t helped. 

‘I think Europe is in big trouble,’ he says. 

‘I was listening to George Soros recently and he thinks we are going the way of the Soviet Union. Even Sweden … the whole place … is in trouble. Ireland may, in fact, be the only place getting it right!’

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