Mrs. Agnes Qualter’s interview with Freda McGough 20/08/1984
Transcribed by Helen Tully
F.McG. Hello and you are very welcome indeed to August Diary.
All over Ireland in every town and village there are people who have vivid memories of the past: of local history, traditions, customs and past times and it is a sad fact that all this goes to the grave with them. They don’t write it down and future generations will know little or nothing of their past.
Well, this won’t happen, I’m glad to say, in the case of my own home town, Athenry in Co. Galway because a local woman, Mrs. Agnes Qualter has written it all down in a booklet entitled “Athenry – a Local History 1850 to 1983”. It’s all about people, events, customs and folklore. It contains such diverse information as where the wishing stone and the dalagite well can be found. And how two large families, who were victims of evictions, lived in the eyes of Maddens Bridge.
I went to meet Agnes Qualter recently and asked her to cast her mind back to Athenry when she was a child, well over seventy years ago.
A.Q. I remember what life was for me and for all the children even though money was not plentiful. I think of it as very, very happy times because there was a great air of friendliness, of community caring, of community sharing and for every house you could lift up the latch go right in, share your troubles with every one of the neighbours and I think the same applied all over the town.
Now with the affluence that came, all that seems to have changed because the real Christian spirit seems to have disappeared. This caring, of togetherness, with everyone coming to the help of others. You see, if one was in trouble all the neighbours gathered in to share, to help, to counsel and to support them. They hadn’t much to give but whatever they had they gave and they certainly supported them in a very sympathetic way.
Now the times were hard. We were getting away from the real pressure of colonialism because, as you know, the Wyndam Act brought great relief. The people were starting in their minds to rebel against Britain’s rule, the oppressive laws, which prevailed and which kept our people down.
F.McG. Well, what did the Wyndam Act do for them?
A.Q. The Wyndam Act transferred the land of Ireland to the people of Ireland.
Of course, the Gladstone Act early on, the Gladstone Land Act gave a lot of relief. That came as a result of the Davitt Land League Movement. But then many other acts, which I cannot recall now, the Ashbourne Act, for instance, until finally, I think it was in 1903 that The Wyndem Act was implemented.
Then the town tenants were given the option of buying out their houses and then agitation was started here by Patrick Hynes. It seems the town tenants weren’t aware of their rights. They thought that land was solely for the farmers.
As a result of that agitation The Town Tenants League came into being. They participated, of course, in a militant way, went wall knocking, cattle droving and all the rest and finally their rights were recognised. Every town tenant and that was nearly the whole town got parcels of land.
We were one of them, every one that had houses in town got this little parcel of land. Now I knocked a living out of my little parcel of land for twenty five years because I ran a little dairy farm there. And that proved very, very valuable to me. Because it helped me, I was the supporter of the family and it helped me and gave me a good living, rearing just one child and a mother who was delicate.
F.McG. And you sold the milk, did you?
A.Q. Yes. Now at that time there was no such thing as pasteurized milk. If you had good clean, rich milk you sold it. Now I reared all the children around including yourself. Because the people then believed and my mother too was one of those who believed that cows’ milk would not give an upset stomach to a child. It was as easy for me to bring in one cow’s milk in one can and another cow’s milk in another as mixing it up. So I did what they wanted: I gave them one cow’s milk and that was the result of it.
F.McG. I never heard of that.
A.Q. Well that was the truth now and they all came to me for the milk for rearing their families, so I sold it.
Looking back with hindsight now you know it was an uphill drag but I think I was really richer than the farmer of forty acres around because I had that little bit of security, you know, a little income every week. There was nothing for anyone as you know at the time. There was no children’s allowance. There was nothing but I had that bit of security which the farmers around had not. There was nothing for the farmers: the farmers were reduced to the gutter really because the townspeople who got a little bit of wealth with their counter, there was what they called counter prestige at that time. Even though it was the farmers that were keeping them there, the farmer didn’t realise that until it came to the farmers’ organisation time.
I think it was Deacy that started that. He was the greatest man, I think, the farmers ever knew. He actually enlightened the farmers as to the part they were playing in Irish society, of their importance and of the status they held. I think that was the beginning of the farmers’ uplifting life. Anyone that had a degree of security when I was a child-it wasn’t much-but they were able to live. For instance, my father was a postman. That was a degree of security for us because we were a small family with only two of us.
That really gave us enough on our table anyway, a good home, a good fire and all the rest. I had an excellent father and mother. My mother was a wonderful woman for working and farming. She was reared on a farm: she had her roots on a farm. Of course, when we got the bit of land she wanted cattle, cows. So that was that. For other people it was slave labour. I remember people, and I could identify every footstep coming home from work at twelve o’clock at night, and they were working from eight in the morning at whatever pittance they would get but they had to do it to keep their families going.
F.McG. What work was there around at that stage?
A.Q. The building trade was booming in the eighties, nineties and the early century around Athenry. One of the best places for the building trade was Athenry then.
F.McG. Why was that?
A.Q. Well, I suppose it was due to better housing. The landlords built houses, number one. The people who had any degree of wealth extended their houses, number two. I think it came from the landlords. For instance, it was under British rule that Caheroyan cottages were built. It was under the British Government when they became aware that the way they were treating the Irish wasn’t taken any more. There was an improvement as I’ve said.
Caheroyan houses in 1910. Earlier on Abbey Row was built. Boyhill cottages. Newford cottages. Kingsland cottages. McDonaghs house, which was a big complex went up. Blackhall McDonaghs built a big complex up at the Square. All in all the people were improving, renovating their houses and with all those new buildings going up I would say the building trade was booming in Athenry at that particular time.
F.McG. Well before that building boom now what was it like? How do you remember the streets, the layout of the town in general?
A.Q. Oh, the layout of the town, of course, was unpaved, potholed streets, very bad, no lighting. It was a breeding ground for ghost stories and fairy stories and all the rest because all was in darkness and no matter what we were told we believed. It was all complete darkness.
You might see an odd little paraffin lamp outside the shopkeepers’ doors with paraffin lamps in glass cases that gave a small degree of light to the houses: beyond that there was no light. Anyone that had a decent paraffin oil lamp, of course, they were away with it. Many people burned candles in their homes because they probably couldn’t afford to have anything else at the time.
Even Yeats, I believe, often visited Athenry. He had a delay in catching trains and he described the town once as the most miserable God forsaken town he ever visited. But he forgot to highlight the cause of it really. He was one of the gentry, but that’s what he said at that time. That Athenry was a very neglected town, very depressing to come in to. He had about an hour or an hour and a half to spend catching trains from one place to another. That was his impression of Athenry at that time anyway.
F.McG. Well, talking about the people around from the big houses, you have memories of them, haven’t you?
A.Q. Oh, indeed I have. Oh, my God, the grandeur of those people. They came from all over the big houses and if there was a big party like a shooting party, the visitors would come there. I remember one time I heard my father say “Oh, the Ashtowns are coming for the big shoot”. Whatever shoot it was I wouldn’t know but we would be up at the Square sitting, all the children as well as myself, watching the gentry. Now that was a sight really. You see all the grandeur of their time was displayed there.
F.McG. That was where the Church was?
A.Q. Oh, yes, and there was a big population of protestants around Athenry. And you saw grandeur at its best and I suppose poverty at its worst. (laughs)
There was a striking contrast: they, the gentry, were there beautifully dressed and there were groomsmen opening the doors of their carriages and all the rest. I’m sure the church would be full of those people. We called them the gentry and, of course, they were the gentry. From my research I found that all the gentry had British Army titles. I think that is what really identified them as gentry. They were the planters, you know like Captain Lambert, the whole lot of them that were around there.
But indeed it was a wonderful sight to see. I have great recollections of it because I can describe it all as it was. And I can remember the big parties down at the Town House. The big tennis parties, now I could always see from my own door when the stage would be set for the tennis parties. Because they’d be preparing and all the rest and I’d ‘boffer’ across the bridge down there and over.
Now whatever I can say about the gentry or whatever any of us can say, I can safely say from my own experience, because I should never have been there, that they understood completely the antics of a child. They never ran me and I was an intruder there you know. And Miss Leonard of the Town House, oh, they were lovely people, the Miss Leonards, you know.
I’d run for the ball for them and throw it in and Miss Leonard would always give me a tanner: a tanner was a lot of money then, you know, and a bag of apples and a bag of sweet cake coming home. (laughs) I was as proud as punch coming.
I remember the Lopdells, the Keery – Bernards, the Roes, the Halls, they were all there and the ladies would have skirts down to their ankles, with straw hats. Yet here they were, I don’t know in the name of God how they played tennis.
But Miss Henny Leonard was a marvellous tennis player. The men had cream flannel suits and little straw hats. There was some sort of a building outside: it was a wooden building, beautiful shining wood with a little spike on the top of it and a table inside where they’d serve the teas. And I remember the maids coming out with their little frilled caps and cups and aprons and all the rest serving the tea. It was wonderful really, those times.
F.McG. Tell me now about the games you used to play, the street games and things.
A.Q. Well, as I said, you could play anywhere when I was young, Freda. There was nothing to impede your way with regard to traffic. The police had a few bikes. You could go into any field. It wasn’t like now where you would be an intruder. You could go into any field and have your game of rounders.
Rounders was a great game with the children. One would be in the middle hitting the ball and running around; it was a lovely game really.
Fox was another. Now fox was a game where, the fox, the best runner would be put out and they would all run after them. You could trek through every field and every road and whoever caught the fox was nearly classified as good a runner as the fox himself, which was a great thing. To be a runner in those days we didn’t want any physical education, I can tell you that everyone knew what their feet were for and what their bodies were for to use them and to exercise them and we were as fit as fiddles, as they say.
Now handball, I was a great handball enthusiast myself.
F.McG. You were a great player, weren’t you?
A.Q. I was but then, you see, it wasn’t the done thing for girls at the time and I was cradled too near the ball alley and I was very fond of playing ball and I never saw any harm in it. I got great joy from playing handball.
There, some five or six years ago, I was going out for a walk and I saw the children from the convent school, the girls, mature girls and a physical teacher training. What they were at? They were in shorts and sitting on their heads. And I said to myself “well my God, what a change and the way they were at me for playing handball long ago and I said they were right, they were just making progress as the world should be and that I was out in the wrong time”.
Now I remember there was a priest here, Father Prendergast, who was very fond of playing handball. He used to have a game with me and I was talking to him one day and l was saying how they were giving out to me. The reply he gave me was “Aggie, there is nothing wrong with you but one thing”. I thought I was going to hear an awful complaint and what he said was “you were born fifty years before your time.” I wasn’t, you know. I was only born twenty five because the change had come in twenty five years. That there was a break through in all those restrictions with regards to girls. And I saw them twenty five years after playing tennis with shorts on them. I began to think how wrong Father Prendergast was about the fifty years. But, all in all, it was a very happy time.
Now there was an ass here, who was called Jack, one of the neighbours had him. In fact, there were two asses, another neighbour had another ass. But Jack understood all about children and you know he would stand for us while we would be jumping up. How many could get up on Jacks back? There might be four or five.(laughs) At the end of it all Jack would start to hoise, there were too many there. But he was a great ass, but a great rogue too. (laughs)
Everyone was complaining about him but we loved him, all the children loved Jack, Jack the ass. I think donkeys are coming back again as a source of joy for children. At least I read about them getting great prices for certain kinds of asses. But there will never be an ass like Jack. There will never be one like him again. (laughs)
Ah, they were great times, there is no doubt about it, wonderful times all together. You could play around the town and run, play “tig” around the Square, down Bridge Street and right around and round the other street and there was no one to bother us at all.
F.Mc G. Before the break Mrs. Agnes Qualter from Athenry who has just published a local history was talking about her young days in Athenry over seventy years ago.
A.Q. We had our mouth organs and tin whistles. We got our own degree of enjoyment from those and we had dances out here in the Ball Alley, which were marvellous. And I remember they’d be lighting candles. They’d stick them up around the walls. They’d have candles all along the walls on festive occasions for dances.
The melodeon was, I think, the most popular instrument: we don’t hear about melodeons now any more, it is accordions. But the melodeons were great. We had a great melodeon player, Tommy Kelly, the Lord have mercy on him. He was a baker here and his brother, Josie. They were great musicians. They played for the dances. There would be anything to drum; there might be an old basin, it might be anything but we would have great fun and it wouldn’t cost anybody anything. A great come together, a community spirit and that seems to have disappeared. Now everything is commercialised. The children don’t know how to create their own amusement, which would cost them nothing.
Everything is money, money, money. Now we had no money. Money was the scarce thing in life. I know when I was a child and we had, as I said, a degree of security. Now this was before World War 1. We would get a halfpenny every Sunday. Now you had a great choice for tha. You could go up town. There were three houses in the town, Miss Ryans, Miss Morrisseys – that was Julia Mary Morrissey, the girl who was supposed to be engaged to Liam Mellows – and Momie Healys. And you could pick and choose for one halfpenny. Then they became a penny and then we got a penny. But there was no such thing as giving a pound or two pounds or five pounds.
I have a grandchild here now and five pounds was nothing to her the other day. She was going to a disco. The five pounds was nothing and I began to think “well gone are the days when happiness was the most important thing in life and the most plentiful.”
Because everything is commercialised, which is a very bad thing and I think myself that too much has prevented the children from developing, from thinking. They don’t know how to think; they don’t know how to plan. They cannot see the future. They are saying it’s all bleak. I had three here the other night, saying “there’s no hope for us.”
Of course, there’s hope for them if they think out for themselves and remember the hope of the future lies in working for the future and building your country. That’s what we all did. I often think that the affluence of the sixties came from the hard working people of Ireland. They worked hard for a living and knew how to work. Not like today when they don’t want to work. That’s what I think about it. But, of course, times have changed.
Education – they think that education is to sit down and have a job without ever working. Now education was never intended for that. Cardinal Newman was asked one time to give an interpretation of what education was and what he said was “if you take two men into a field and teach the two of them how to plough its an education in itself and the man with the best brain will learn the technique of the plough quicker and know what it is for and what it is all about.”
I think that education is to equip a child mentally for life. Education, of course, is never lost because no matter what you do, if you are educated, you know how to mingle with society. Provided you know that education is not for sitting down; that it is for helping your country, helping yourself and helping your family and not to indulge in any squandermania. That is what I believe and that is where I think the people have gone wrong. When I point to wrong I would point to the middle generation. Now my own son and daughter – in – law, they would be the middle generation, of course.
I am not saying they are the only ones that came into affluence; everyone came into a certain degree of affluence. If they knew how to mind that money and not start a race of keeping up with the Jones, if they just knew how to give themselves the comforts of life and have a proper knowledge of what life is all about and see the new horizons and have a bit of vision we could be the best nation in Western Europe today.
But they didn’t. They squandered it all, the golden sixties, the late fifties, the seventies. There is nothing left today in this country but a mountain of debt and that’s a terrible thing.
I am very sad to come to the end of my days and see that happening in Ireland, because it should never have happened.
F.McG. Mrs Agnes Qualter and her publication, her local history of Athenry: a limited edition was sold out within hours of its appearance.
Freda ended the interview with Paddy Reilly singing The Fields of Athenry for Mrs. Qualter and all the good people of Athenry.