‘Hand-me-down’ Clothes, Mother’s Smuggling Operation,
Farm Yard Milk, John Joe White’s Bakery
Lack of Money and repairing boots
While we had an abundance of food, money or the lack of it, was always a problem. Clothes were continually darned and patched. The seat of your pants would have been replaced several times and also the elbows of your jersey, as they were called (not a pullover) were darned many times, and not always with the same coloured thread.
My father would spend many a night repairing our boots – it was always boots for the country boys while the townies would have low shoes. He had a large wooden box with bits and pieces of leather, tacks, studs, hobnails, hemp and wax for making what was called “ruaog”. This was several lengths of hemp twisted together and coated in wax by holding the ball of wax in your fist and drawing the hemp through with your other hand. Corbetts in Athenry sold pieces of thick leather about nine inches square which would make half-soles for a pair of boots. Immediately these were put on they were almost covered in heavy studs to slow down the wear and tear. The boots, the hammer and pincers and the box of odds and ends were kept in the press beside the fire along with a large jar of goose-fat or “goose-grace”, as it was pronounced. This was rubbed on the boots in winter-time to make them waterproof.
First New Clothes
Being the youngest of five boys I was always at the end of the line for hand-me downs. I remember probably the first new clothes that I got were a white flannel suit for my First Communion. In those days there was a business in Galway called the Galway Woollen Mills, which I think was situated in Dominick Street. They manufactured rolls of flannel, four or five feet wide, and they would sell you any length you wished to buy. However, if you took a bag of wool in to them when you were buying the flannel you got it at a reduced price. There was nearly always a bag of wool available in our home because when you keep sheep the occasional one was found to die. The wool could easily be pulled off while it was still warm and this would be put in a bag and put by until needed. A few weeks before Communion time, my mother took a bag of wool with her and got on the train to Galway. She arrived home that evening with a bundle under her arm. It was like a miracle as the wool from the dead sheep had become my future white suit.A day or two later I was taken to Mary Anne Rabbitte, a dressmaker, who lived in Chapel Lane (now Church Street) in Athenry. The bundle of flannel was handed over and I was measured up for my white suit. On the day of Communion a pair of white sand-shoes – or plimsols as they are now called -was worn with the white suit. The ultimate treat on that day was to be taken to Jim Fahy’s shop and be served ice cream in a glass bowl with a good dash of raspberry syrup on top. The life of the white suit was very short.
A week later my mother put a large pot of water hanging over the fire, threw in a couple of packets of dye followed by my white suit. An hour or so later she hauled out the suit on the end of a crooked stick. I could hardly recognize it – it was dark blue! “It won’t show the dirt” she said.
The white flannel was also used a lot by the older people, particularly the men; to make the woollen jacket they called the “bainin”. My grandfather wore a long-sleeved one, but I’ve also seen some men wear a sleeveless one. It was never really a working garment as it was too hard to keep clean.
Miss Rabbitte, the dressmaker, also provided a great service to the “hand-me-down” brigade. Whenever a top-coat, jacket, skirt or dress started to lose its youthful bloom it was taken in to Miss Rabbitte to be “turned”. The stitching would be all ripped out and the garment taken apart. Then each part was turned inside out and sewn up together again. It gave the garment a new lease of life and brought its original colour back to life again. It was a real “stitch-up” job.
Living through worst economic period in the twentieth century
My parents reared eleven children on a small farm during the worst economic period in the twentieth century, stretching from the Civil War through the Economic War and the Second World War and post-war years. Clothes, tea and sugar were rationed and cigarettes and tobacco were hard to come by. Tyres for the bicycle were very hard to get and the tube could have twenty patches on it. A lot of the roads were not tarred in those days and they took a heavy toll on the tyres. A neighbour, who had neither tyre nor tube, came across a worn-out truck tyre. He cut it in narrow strips, wired them together and made solid tyres for his bicycle. It was a real bone-shaker and you could hear the bike rattling before he came into view.
Everybody was issued with a ration book. This was a book of coupons and each coupon enabled you to buy a certain amount of different commodities.
Tea was always the talking point and very hard to get.
One old man went into Higgin’s for his groceries but he was told there was no tea as a ship load of tea had been sunk in the Indian Ocean. “Well my half ounce must have been in that” said he.
Eggs by Post
Around the mid-forties, the eldest of our family Nora, went to work in the Civil Service in Dublin. A lot of food stuffs were still scarce in towns and cities. At that time you could buy a cardboard box, maybe 10 by 10 inches square and four inches high. It was divided into sections and lined with corrugated paper. It would take about a dozen eggs and was approved by the post-office for posting eggs. It sounds strange nowadays, but almost every week my mother would post the box of eggs to Dublin and it was very rare for an egg to be broken. My sister would take the eggs out and send the box back by return post. Postage was very cheap and we would be delighted to see it coming back as she would always put a few sweets in the box.
Mother’s smuggling operation
Meat was very scarce and rationed in England during the war years and for many years after. My eldest brother, Pat, emigrated to Liverpool in 1947. He mentioned in a letter to my mother how scarce many things were, so she decided to do something about it. Every Friday she would buy the Connaught Tribune. When my father was finished reading it, she would roll it up neatly, put a few slices of ham between the pages and post it off to Liverpool. This went on for about a year until the British Customs intercepted it and opened the Tribune. They got wise to her international smuggling operation. Both my brother and she received a letter telling them to desist or face the consequences as it posed a danger of spreading foot and mouth disease. In those days a declaration of content had to be stuck on every packet with the name and address of the sender so the customs people knew where it came from. During those years, the British and Irish governments agreed that, for a few weeks before Christmas, fowl of any description could be posted to Britain, with a special declaration form. So, a fortnight before Christmas my mother would have two geese killed and parcelled up and stitched into separate canvas bags and posted, one to Liverpool and another to my sister in London.
Chickens for Tuam Stars Football Club
This may sound crazy in the present time but sixty five or seventy years ago if you didn’t rear your own chickens they were very hard to come by. I remember a good example of this. The Galway Senior Football Team won the All Ireland final by defeating Cork in 1956. The Tuam Stars Football Club had a lot of players involved in this, including the ‘terrible twins’, Sean Purcell and Frank Stockwell. The Club decided to hold a reception and meal for the team. At that time Albert Cummins was a solicitor in Athenry. A native of Tuam, he was also an official in the Tuam Stars Club. He called to my mother to see if she could supply some chickens. It turned out that she supplied twenty chickens for this famous occasion.
Gerry Dobbyn and the Farm Yard Milk
Milk would not have been available in shops in the forties and early fifties. The AgriculturalCollege – or The Farm Yard – as it was known, supplied most of Athenry town with fresh milk. They used a specially constructed horse-drawn cart with two very large milk containers with taps low down on the sides. For a long number of years Gerry Dobbyn was the man who drove this cart. As he approached the town he blew a shrill blast on his very loud whistle. This brought the women out with their milk cans and Gerry would measure out the required amount with his one pint measure. He would drive up and down every street and lane in the town until everybody was satisfied. Hessions in Northgate Street kept cows and supplied a number of customers as did Coens in Court Lane. The nuns in the Convent kept seven or eight cows. They grazed in the fields where the Presentation Schools are now situated and also where the Vocational School was later built. It was always referred to as ‘the Nuns’ field’ and Mick Mannion looked after the cows.
Most people sowed their gardens then so there was no great demand for vegetables in the shops. Any vegetables, including potatoes, that were sold in the shops would be supplied unwashed, by local farmers.
‘Banjo’ Ryan and John Joe White’s Bakery
There were no delivery vans as nowadays. Almost all groceries came by train and would be delivered to the shops by ass and cart. A man called ‘Banjo’ Ryan was constantly at work with his ass and cart hauling goods to the various shops. Even bread came in large wicker-work baskets. They had a hinged lid, handles at each end and big enough to hold several dozen loaves. There were no sliced or wrapped bread in those times, just plain pan loaves with a lovely thick, heavy crust. John Joe White had a small bakery in Old Church Street and supplied most of the shops with bread including currant buns and ‘grinders’ or turnovers as they came to be called in later years. He delivered his bread in a push-cart. It had two wheels at the front and two legs at the back to keep it upright and two shafts protruded at the back for lifting and pushing. It also had a hinged lid.
The Galway Blazers, Rabbits, Fishing and Wild Mushrooms
Higgins’ and The Galway Blazers
Higgins (where the Hop Inn is now) also had a small bakery. They sold their produce in their own shop, which was the leading grocery and provisions shop in Athenry. Most of the professional people, doctors, priests, police, bank managers and a lot of the “horsey” people would buy their groceries there. The fact that they had a bar attached would, no doubt, have helped the business. The Galway Blazers would hold their meet in the Square in the centre of town and I have seen Brendan Higgins take trays of whiskey and brandy to the riders, which they drank while still on horseback. I’m sure some of those fellows needed something to soften their cough on a frosty morning.
‘Banner’ Caulfield and Beagles and Hares
During the 1940’s and early 1950s, Christy Broderick, who owned a chemist shop in Athenry, kept a small pack of beagles, about a dozen or so. Every Sunday during autumn and winter he would take them out to hunt hares. A group of followers would assemble in the appointed area after dinner on Sunday. Everybody was on foot; it was the poor man’s version of the Blazers. You never travelled very far in any one direction as a hare will never take off in a straight line. He stays within the area he knows and will turn and twist and double back to where he started. The beagles hunted by scent and often would be several fields behind the hare. It was good exercise and good fun and the hare was rarely, if ever, caught. A man by the name of ‘Banner’ Caulfield who lived in Boyhill was the Whip in charge of the beagles.
During spring and summer a few of us would go hunting rabbits. We had a terrier called “Diamond” and a sheep-dog called Shep. Gerry Cronnelly had a terrier called Rollo and they would join in. If you gave a few loud whistles as you moved off, a few of the neighbours dogs would come running but the owners were not always happy about this as they did not want their valuable sheep dogs to get too fond of hunting rabbits. In the area there were a lot of sand hills, (part of the Esker Riada), which made it easy for the rabbits to burrow into. There would be scores of burrows in a small area and most of the hills would have a covering of furze. The rabbits would graze in the adjoining fields, but would never go much more than a hundred yards from the burrow for safety reasons. Well, any responsible ten-year old organizing a big game hunt had to have a strategic plan. We had one. A couple of us would go on ahead and sneak through the furze and block the burrows with branches of furze. That was the retreat covered. Then an attack would be launched from the flank with a lot of shouting and dogs barking, while the rabbits scurried for home. With the burrows blocked, they were in disarray, darting here and there through the furze. The terriers would work inside the clumps of furze while the sheep dogs would always patrol the outside hoping to nab any breakaway. If we got one or two we would be happy. We would repeat the process as we moved along and might end up a mile away, tired and hungry. We would be delighted if we came across a field of turnips. We would pull one, smash it against a stone and eat lumps of it. It was very refreshing when you were hungry and thirsty. We never caught many rabbits but we frightened the life out of a lot of them.
A much more lucrative business was snaring rabbits as there was a ready market in those times. A snare would cost about one and a half old pence. It consisted of very fine copper wire, about ten strands, twisted into a thin cable and then formed into a noose big enough for the rabbit to get his head through. A short piece of strong cord was attached to this and the other end attached to a wooden peg, ten inches long, which you had to make yourself. Rabbits always made the mistake of using the same “run” or path if the grass was anyways long and this was their downfall.
You searched out the best “runs” and set your snares on these. The noose would be supported by a very thin peg, about as thick as a pencil, with a split on the top to hold the snare. Rabbits are most active at night and early morning so you set your snares in late evening. It often paid to check the snares at eleven or twelve o’clock at night. It was not an easy job to remember where each snare was if you had a few dozen snares and your only light was an old flash lamp with a weak battery. It was very spooky at night and you were always looking over your shoulder, especially as old people were always talking about fairies, ghosts and siógs.
You also had to be mindful of the fact that other people could be setting snares in the same area and at midnight in the middle of nowhere you could bump into someone, especially if he switched off his lamp when he saw you coming through the furze. It was not unknown for both snares and rabbits to be stolen so it paid to be out at daybreak as well as late at night.
Jackie Hessian and Mr. Bomfort
Jackie Hessian, who had a shop at the Square, was the local buyer for rabbits. He paid about one shilling and sixpence each, which was very good money when you consider that six or seven rabbits would give you a day’s wages. Jackie Hessian would then send them to Dublin to a wholesaler. Mr. Bomfort, a Protestant Minister, who lived in Raheen and who kept a lot of cats, would also buy a small number of rabbits to feed the cats. His rabbits had to be fairly young. He would never buy an old rabbit. He had his own method of testing for age. He would catch the tip of the ear between the finger and thumb of both hands and if the ear tore easily it was o.k. If not, you took it to Jackie Hessian as it was considered too old and tough for the cats.
Another pastime we tried our hand at was fishing. I use the description fishing with reservations. The “fishing” rod was a piece of hazel, six or seven feet long and about an inch thick at the heavy end and tapering to about a quarter inch. Five or six eye-hooks like you would use on the back of a picture frame were screwed in at intervals along the rod to hold the line. A wooden spool that you got from your mother when she had used all the thread had a nail driven through the centre and attached to the heavy end of the rod. Browne’s in Bridge Street sold fishing equipment, so you bought about ten yards of line, a few hooks and a yard of what was called “cat gut”, which was transparent and supposed to fool the fish. I often wondered where all the dead cats came from. When you had threaded the line through the eye-hooks the wooden spool really only acted as an anchor for your line and with a worm for bait, everything was very basic.
We would fish along the river between Abbey Row and Caheroyan and if we caught a little trout, a few ounces in weight, it was considered a major catch. An eel as thick as your finger was the equivalent of Moby Dick. In summer-time when the water was low and the fish resisted the lure of the worm we had to adopt a more confrontational attitude. Just below the dam near the castle, there were a lot of shallow rock pools. We would take off the boots and socks and get into the shallow water and rearrange the stones so that each little pool was separate, with only one exit — a bit like Death Valley- “one way in and no way out”.
We used a canvas bag with a strong wire attached around the mouth to keep it open and a short handle attached to that. One of us would hold this at the exit from the pools while the other couple of fellows would be “poking” under the stones to dislodge the fish and force them into the bag. Again, the catch would be small, but at least our feet got a badly- needed wash.
”Poking” and “Bagging” under the river bridge
We also had the excitement of “poking” and “bagging” under the bridge that connects both parts of the present park. It was always dark in there and you needed a lamp. On account of it being dark it was always a good place to catch an eel. If you stood still in the water for a few minutes you could feel him trying to nibble at your toes. This bridge also housed an old turbine with large cogwheels. It would have been used in connection with the corn and sawmill, which was close by. It may be there still. Sometimes we would pick up courage and venture further a-field with the fishing rods. We would walk along the Dublin railway line, out beyond Caheroyn House to a large pond on the right-hand side of the railway, called Poll McKeon. It was a strange place, being exactly rectangle in shape and seemed to be man-made. Anyway, it contained roach, a small bony fish, not much bigger than a good sardine. On other occasions we would go to CahertubberLake, which also contained roach. When we arrived home with a few of those, and maybe a small eel, we felt like real hunter-gatherers. They were always too small to roast on the tongs and had to be fried on the pan, resting on hot coals.
Wild mushrooms and a “Thrawneen”.
Another element of the hunter-gatherer would kick in towards the end of July and during the month of August when wild mushrooms would be very plentiful. Mushrooms seemed to like land that was grazed by sheep and kept very bare and so being sheep country, we were blessed in that regard. All you needed then was heat and rain, in other words plenty of humidity. You also needed old lea-land that had not been ploughed for a long number of years. I and my brother Joe would get up early in the morning and head for the best fields and in a short time we would have a large bucket of mushrooms each. People who lived in or near the town would also come out picking mushrooms.
Mushrooms are relatively scarce nowadays due I would think to the application of a lot of fertilizers, sprays and slurry. I remember some years they were so plentiful, we were throwing bucketfuls to the pigs. Very high-class pigs! Sometimes, crossing a field and not particularly looking for mushrooms you would come across a lot of mushrooms and no container to put them in. So, on the ditch or headland you would look for a “thrawneen (tráithnín)”. It was a plant about twelve inches long with a lump of a seed-head on the end. You threaded the other end through the stalk of the mushroom and you could get twelve or fifteen mushrooms on each “thrawneen”
‘Penney in the plate’, Spailpíní and Journey Men Characters
Sunday traffic and a ‘Penney in the plate’
Sunday was a very busy day on the road that ran by our house. In the 1940s traffic was entirely made up of donkey carts, pony carts, pony traps, a few side-cars, or jaunting car as they were later called, a lot of walkers and a few bicycles, all heading for Mass. Most people in Park would walk to Mass as would most people living convenient to the town. It was a very social occasion and people, men in particular, would arrive outside the Church, well before Mass time, and line up by the wall opposite the Church. Here they would exchange news, discuss the price of live-stock, potatoes and who was paying the best price for wool. We, as children would move around among them listening to what they were talking about. Some of the farmers with side-cars and pony traps would stable their animals in yards at the back of business premises, notably Foxs, Brodericks and Hessions. You would find ass-carts, pony-carts and traps tied to every available pillar and post, especially around the railway station. When the five minute bell would ring, the people chatting opposite the Church would head in to Mass. There was a tin plate left on a stool in the porch and you were expected to put a penny in the plate as you passed by. Even in those days there was a man minding the plate. I was never sure if it was to stop someone from taking money out or to make sure you put your penny in the plate.
‘Spalpíní’ from Connemara
Martin Wynne (Spailpín), Mary Williams, Frank Coyne and Jackie Williams
After Mass a lot of country people would congregate at Higgins’s and Daly’s corner. Here also was the hiring area for the Connemara men who came to Athenry seeking work. They would come in springtime when farmers were getting busy and again in September-October for the digging of the spuds. They were dressed mostly in heavy grey homespun flannel pants and jacket. The jacket was made without a collar as we know it. This would be their Sunday clothes. Their working clothes and boots would be rolled up in a bundle and tied with twine. When the farmer had agreed a wage for a six-day week with the “Spalpeen”, he would take the bundle and give the workman a few shillings. It was a form of sealing the deal. Some of these men could have come from forty miles away and some of them would have walked it the day before.
Even though pubs were not allowed to open on Sunday, you could still get a few pints. A crazy law was passed which stated that if you lived more than three miles from the pub, you were classed as a traveller (not the connotation it presently holds) and entitled to be served in a pub. If an Athenry man went to Monivea on a Sunday he could legally drink in a pub there and the Monivea man could drink his fill in Athenry. An Irish solution to an Irish problem. Those Connemara men worked very hard, starting very early in the morning and didn’t quit until the sun set. No such thing as an eight hour day and if the day was too wet for work he didn’t get paid. Some farmers got a reputation for being hard task-masters, intent on getting the last ounce of effort out of the workmen, but their reputation would soon spread among the workmen and they would not work there unless the money was very good. The story is told of two workmen meeting in Athenry one day who were talking about where they worked. One man said he worked in Carnmore, the other man asked him was it a thatched or a slated house. “I don’t know” he said, “It was dark in the morning when we went out to work and dark at night when we got home so I never saw the roof”. There was no dole available, so if you didn’t work you had no money. Some of these Connemara men would go to England for the winter, while most of the married men returned home. A small number of “regulars” would remain in the Athenry area where they worked for a very small wage plus their board and lodging.
Martin King from Clifden
An accident involving one of these men occurred when I was about ten years of age, which gives an indication of how backward rural Ireland was and a complete absence of public services. One Sunday morning a woman, in obvious panic, came banging on the door. She said a man had fallen off his bike on the road near our gate. My father and I and my brother Joe ran out and there was a man lying on the road beside his bicycle. There was no movement and the man was obviously dead. We lifted him on to the grass at the side of the road and my brother was sent to tell the guards. Garda Sean Henry arrived on his bicycle and a doctor came a short time later. He said the man probably had a heart attack and fell off his bike. The guard then asked my father to tackle up the horse and cart and take the corpse to a store room at the rear of the Railway Hotel. When the horse and cart was ready we lifted the body into it and put a bag of hay under the head and drove to the hotel. The body was then carried into the storeroom and laid out on a table. That was the extent of the emergency services. Back in those years if somebody died on the road or by suicide and no relatives to claim the body, the guards had power to have it taken to the nearest public house. This law existed up until the nineteen sixties. The man who died was one of the few Connemara men who had a bicycle and always wore a blue suit with a stripe when going to Mass on Sunday. His name was Martin King from the Clifden area, and was one of the people who would have gone to England on and off in his younger days and came back to stay around the Athenry area. The men who went to England for a while would be easily recognized as they dressed in a more modern style. This man was in his late sixties when he died.
Another Connemara workman came to a tragic end, in or about 1950. This man had been in the British Army, having served in India and in the First World War. It seemed he had spent years in the infamous trenches, which were flooded most of the time and he developed what was known as “trench foot”. This was a very painful condition, where the flesh would develop a kind of rot from being continually wet and mucky. He found walking very painful and it got worse as time went on. People didn’t hire him anymore, so one evening he bought a length of rope in Corbett’s in Athenry. A man from Castle Ellen gave him a lift in an ass and cart as far as Park Wood. It was his last journey. That evening he hanged himself in the wood. Next day I was at school and we heard about the man who had hanged himself and his body had been taken to the storeroom at the back of the Railway Hotel. On our way home from school, Tony Ryan and I picked up enough courage to go in and have a look, and sure enough, the body was laid out on the same table as the man who died on the road had occupied. The dead man’s name was PadraicMcDonagh. The Connemara men who worked in the area deserve to be remembered as they made a contribution to the local economy. The most remembered names would be, Dirrane, Tom O’Malley, Tom Coyne, Sean O’Maile, Sean Finnerty, Paddy Sullivan, and Tom O’Donnell.
‘The thickest man in Turlough’
Then there was a journey-man thatcher, Michael Burke from Annaghdown. He was always in demand putting new coats of thatch on, or patching up the old one. At least half the houses would have been thatched in those days.
Then there were a small number of workers who were reared in orphanages, notably John Doyle, Johnny Hart, and Jimmy Darcy who was always very proud of his strength. He worked mostly towards the Turloughmore area. In the pub on a Sunday evening after a few pints, he would shove out his chest and say “I’m the thickest man in Turlough”. He meant broad- shouldered but it was open to interpretation and always raised a laugh.
‘The Flower Man’
There would have been a good number of what we called tramps (not in a degrading way) who were really homeless people, almost entirely men. They were generally walking from Tuam to Loughrea, which was about thirty miles, and on other days their trip would be reversed. This was because there was a work-house in both towns and during the summer the homeless men would take to the road for a break and head for the next nearest work-house. Some of them were ex-British Army and seemed to be suffering from shell-shock. They were very mild mannered men, and always knew the houses where they would get food along the way, which was why my mother always had a number of regulars. One of them had only one leg and he used two crutches to help him on his thirty mile journey If the day was wet, she would give them tea and homemade bread at the kitchen table, if it was a fine day they would often sit on the concrete path and have their meal in the sunshine. Some of them would always like to give something in return. One of them, who we called “the flower man”, always carried a bunch of imitation flowers which he had made from different coloured crepe paper and foot-long pieces of wire for a stem. He was a tall gaunt quiet spoken man and always gave my mother a few flowers in return for the tea. Another man would have a bundle of multi-coloured ballad sheets and he would insist she take a few of these.
‘The Trumpeter’ and ‘Parley’
The strangest man who called to our house was dressed in a long black coat, well-groomed and shaven, with polished shoes and a bowler hat. He carried a small black case. When he finished eating, he said “Now I’ll do something in return”. He opened the case and took out a trumpet and proceeded to play a selection of marching tunes, which could be heard at the other end of the village. My mother stood there, mortified, while she was being serenaded by this strange man in black. He was obviously an ex British Army trumpeter.
Another man who often called to our house was Johnny Cleary or “Parley” as he was known. He would call especially during the summer. He would wear a well-worn white jacket and pants and a straw hat. He was born in Galway and reared in an orphanage, which he said was the Grammar School on College Road in Galway. He joined the British Army and often told us about being a mule-driver in Salonica in Greece during the war. He would do odd jobs like bringing in the cows or cleaning out the hen-house in return for food and a few shillings. He loved his summer clothes and at the end of summer he would pawn them in a pawn-shop in Galway and take out his winter clothes. When spring arrived, he would go to the pawn-shop and dress in white again.
Another character was the “Jew-man”. He was a tall middle aged man with a well-trimmed grey beard. He would arrive on a bicycle with a large suitcase on the carrier at the back and another on a front carrier. He would have a selection of shirts, pants, long johns, socks, handkerchiefs and braces for holding up your trousers – a real mobile drapery shop. He would call maybe three times a year. He spoke with a slight foreign accent but nobody seemed to know where he came from.
It was not unusual to find somebody asleep in one of the sheds when you got up in the morning, particularly in the cowshed. In winter time it would be warm and plenty of hay there. If they were discovered before bedtime my father would ask them if they had matches and if they had he would take them and give them back in the morning. It was a safety measure as the hay is very dry and very flammable, and they would probably get a cup of tea when they collected their matches.
Kitchen Prayers, the Priesthood,
the ‘Divorcee’ and Cigarette Smoking
The “Agony in the kitchen”
My mother was a very religious woman and the Rosary at night could be a real “agony in the kitchen”. You didn’t get long trousers until around fourteen years of age, so your knees were very bare and vulnerable. The kitchen floor was rough from wear and tear and kneeling on it was penance enough in itself. We would try and manoeuvre the chair in a position near the open fire so at least we had a warm backside when the ordeal was over. You hadn’t a hope of dozing off as she had 360 degree hearing and if the reception wasn’t good from your direction you got a push to waken you up. My father would tag along in his own quiet way without being outwardly religious, even though every morning when he got up, the first thing he did was kneel down at a chair and say his prayers. But, back to the Rosary, when you reached the end of the five decades you were little more than halfway there, but it generally ended up with a prayer for a happy death.
Washing the Heads
Another operation took place every weekend that could be categorized as an “agony in the kitchen”. This is what my mother referred to as “washing the heads”. I suppose she had good reason for referring to it as “heads” because when we were very young our hair wasn’t allowed to grow to any length – anything over half an inch and my father would take down the hand clippers and proceed to make you look “respectable”, a very close haircut with a small fringe, which was referred to as a “bob”.
Saturday night was the night appointed for the cleaning of the great unwashed. For a start, a large kettle of water had to be heated over the fire. Then a tin basin was left in the centre of the kitchen floor, some hot water poured in and a good dash of cold with a good lump of carbolic soap. Then in turn each of us got on all fours over the basin on the rough concrete floor, bare knees and all.
Then mother would give your head a really good pummelling while the soap scalded your eyes. Then a jug of really warm water washed everything away and you thought your agony was over until a jug of ice cold water landed on the back of your head causing you to wince with the shock and your toes to curl.
I’d choose the rosary anyday or night. This is by no means a complaint as it all takes place in a very happy family atmosphere. My mother worked like a slave all her life in very primitive conditions. Married at seventeen, gave birth to twelve children, cooked on the open hearth fire, washed all the clothes in a tub, milked cows, kept geese and hens and looked after the general welfare of the family.
She should be canonised.
The ‘last resort’ for the priesthood
Most mothers at that time hoped to have a priest in the family and she was no different. I was the youngest of five boys and the other four showed no interest in being a priest so I was the last resort. I was about twelve years old when one day out of the blue she said, “I was talking to one of the Esker priests and I told him you would like to be a priest and he said to come up to see him”. She told me I would get a good education and it was a very good life and she persuaded me to go. She told me to tackle up the ass and cart and we would both go. So mother and child set off in a modern version of the “Flight into Egypt”, even though we were still travelling by donkey – the only difference being we had a cart. I spent about half an hour with the priest answering questions about God and religion and the Missions and whose idea it was that I should be a priest. In the end he said he would think about it and let me know. Sixty five years later I am still waiting for a word from him. I think he must have forgotten about me!
`The ‘Divorcee’ and the Galway Blazers
The Galway Blazers riding across Frank’s land
Around 1950 there was a breakdown in relations between a large section of the farming community and a curate from the church in Athenry. The background to the confrontation was all about the appointment of a master of foxhounds in the Galway Blazers Hunt Club. While it was believed that a priest from another parish had tried and failed to get the position, the curate in Athenry based his objection on the suitability of the person appointed and who happened to be an English lady and was also a divorcee. The curate made a sermon from the
pulpit denouncing the appointment and said it was not right to have a divorced person galloping across your land, so he called on all farmers to boycott the hunt and prevent them from crossing their land. He canvassed the farmers and while he did get some support the majority of farmers did not support him and this did not go down well with him. Was this the start of people power?
I was serving Mass at the time and it so happened that a strong supporter of the hunt was having the station in his house. The afore-mentioned curate was saying the Mass and I was serving. When Mass was over it was normal for everybody to have breakfast but the priest refused to have breakfast with them As he prepared to leave, the man of the house handed him a ten shilling note which was a generous stipend for saying Mass. The priest took it in his hand, threw it on the window sill and stomped out of the house. I know, because I was there! At that time ten shillings would have been a very good day’s wages for any man. After a while it all died out for lack of support and the curate was moved on.
Cigarette smoking – its dubious delights
I was introduced to the dubious delights of cigarette smoking at about eleven years of age. My two older brothers were already veterans of the art at that stage. We didn’t have any money to buy “fags” so we resorted to picking up “Butts” where ever we found them. The health aspect of this practice was totally ignored. In those days, hardly any of the fags had filters, so every butt was all tobacco. The best source of butts was the railway station, which was very busy in those days, being the junction for Sligo and Ennis as well as Dublin and Galway. We would pass through the station on our way to and from school and pick up a supply of butts. The biggest problem we had was when we got home. As we sat at the table having a cup of tea, my mother would pass behind us and give a few sniffs and say, “Were you smoking?”. This was followed by our flat denial, and then, “Show me your fingers”. If there was any trace of brown smoke in your fingers you got a fast clip on the ear and your pockets were searched for any traces of the forbidden weed. I often thought that if she was around nowadays she could have got a job at the airport, sniffing out smuggled contraband, her nose was that sharp. In order to counteract this we had to adopt evasive tactics. Our stash of butts were put in a tin box and hidden in a double wall near the house. The box would also have a few “red head” matches, which would light when rubbed on a stone. We would collect this box on our way to school, have a few puffs, refill at the railway station and have a few more puffs on the way home and hide the box again. We got around the discoloured fingers problem when we came across an old clay pipe with a broken stem. You could stuff this with butts and puff away to your hearts content. But the smell of the smoke would get on your hair so a small bottle of ‘Brilliantine’ was added to the war chest. This was cheap aromatic hair oil. It came in a bottle about as thick as your finger and four or five inches long. A tiny drop of this rubbed on your head and you smelt like an angel.
More Memories of my School Days
I finished National School when I reached fourteen years of age in 1952, having received the Primary Certificate in Education before leaving. There are a few unconnected memories which still stick with me. Mommie Quinton’s sweet shop on Old Church Street where you could buy – if you had the money – penny bars, marble sweets, Fizz bags, slab toffee, and lumps of marshmallow, which was referred to as ‘fat bacon’. Close by was Higgins’ garage – now occupied by the Charity Shop. The petrol pump stood on the path outside. It was hand-operated and the petrol was pumped into a glass one gallon glass jar near the top of the pump and then it would gravity-flow into the car. The local Court House was located overhead and you had to go through the garage and climb a stairs to get justice dispensed. I have memories also of copying the “sums’ in McNamara’s turf shed, where the flower shop now stands across from the Credit Union.
Teacher’s ‘baby Ford’
One of our teachers who taught third and fourth class used a primus oil stove to heat up some food. This had to be pumped to get the pressure up but something went wrong and it spewed burning paraffin around his desk. He shouted “Run” and like a shot there were about thirty pupils framed in the door. Luckily there was nobody hurt and he beat out the flames with his jacket. The same teacher had an old car – a baby Ford. In the winter time it was hard to start, so a few of us would be organized for the big ‘push’. Our school was located where Somers’ filling station is now, so we would push the car towards the Credit union and then down Clarke Street and after a few jumps and back fires it would take off in a cloud of smoke.
Leonard’s lawn and walnut disputes
Near where the Co-op yard is now was a large, very imposing entrance gate with cut stone pillars, (now boarded up) which opened on to an avenue a few hundred yards long. This led up to a very large old house occupied by two old ladies, the Leonard sisters. Inside the gate was a cut stone gate house, which at that time was used as the local dispensary. A short distance beyond that, close to the avenue, grew a very tall walnut tree. It was the only walnut tree I had ever seen, and every year towards the end of September it would produce a good crop of walnuts. This tree was very tall and strong with a clean trunk, which made it impossible to climb so we had to adopt a different tactic. There was always a fairly good supply of strong branches lying about so you would break off a piece, a couple of foot long and throw this with as much force as you could muster, up into the tree. On the law of averages, after every couple of throws, you would get a few walnuts. As there were always three or four fellows doing the same thing, when you knocked down some nuts you dashed in and picked them up but there was often a price to pay for such folly. You may be just stooping down to pick up some nuts when a lump of timber thrown by one of your “friends”, would come hurtling down from above and hop off your head.. Many a young fellow went home from school with a lump on his pole.
The Leonard ladies never objected to taking the walnuts but it was very different if you went into the orchard. Where the co-op yard is now was the walled-in orchard attached to the big house. Even though we had apples at home there was always the attraction of trying out some new varieties. If the old ladies came into the garden they would start screaming so you headed for the gap in the wall, safe in the knowledge that you could outrun them.
Athenry Boys’ National School
Mangolds and turnips instead of flowers
When Donal Kennedy came to teach in Athenry first, about 1950, he decided to brighten up the school grounds so he had some of us out planting shrubs and digging flower beds. Each side of the pathway he had a large circular flower bed in which he sowed flowers seeds of different varieties. At that time Sweeney’s Hardware and farm supplies shop stood where the Fields Bar is now located. In those times most shops like this would have some of their goods on display outside on the footpath. In addition to other goods Sweeney’s had a large bag of mangel seed and another of turnip seed. By some strange miracle, when Mr. Kennedy’s “flowers” grew to about six inches high, he discovered they were mostly mangolds and turnips! Unbelieveable!
School and ‘moving the clock forward’
I spent one year with Mr. Walshe before he retired. He taught fifth and sixth class and was quite severe. If a pupil was not fit to progress to the next class he would refer to them as ‘last year’s latchicos’. If a pupil had not been to school for a few days he would pretend he didn’t know him and he would ask “Who are you?” and the boy would have to say who he was. Then the teacher would say to the class “Ask him who is he?” and the whole class would shout “Who are you?” and again the unfortunate boy would have to identify himself before being allowed to sit down. One incident that happened during Mr. Walshe’s “reign” happened one afternoon about half past two – the end of school being three o’clock. Somebody called to speak to Mr. Walshe and he went out in the hallway to meet him. Mr. Walshe’s means of telling the time was an old alarm clock with no glass. Mickey Reilly was sitting just beside where the clock was left on the window sill and a few of us urged him to move the hand forward a bit. He stood up and put his finger behind the minute hand, gave it a push, and the hand fell off down on the floor. He almost fainted with shock. He scrambled to find the hand and pushed it back in just before Mr. Walsh came back in. Instead of moving the hand forward it ended up being put back a quarter of an hour. Mickey Reilly looked like he had seen a ghost and was shaking like a leaf. If he had been caught he would have got some going over. I met him a couple of years ago while he was home on holidays from the U.S.A. and I asked him if he remembered the incident. He said he never forgot it and it took him a long time to recover.
Mundle’s Hill and the railway
On our way to school each morning we would pass a disused gravel pit, where Brady’s and Dermot McNamara’s houses now stand. The old people always referred to this as Mundle’s Hill. When I inquired why, I was told that the gravel from that hill was used to build up the roads in the lead-up to the bridges when the railway was being constructed. The foreman in charge was an English man by the name of Mr. Mundle. Not far from where I live is a quarry, now no longer in use. It is situated on Holland’s land and my parents told me that the stone needed to build the double stone walls leading up to the bridges and other walls around the station was quarried there.
During my school years the area where the library and fire station now stand was one large garden. It was surrounded on three sides by a stone wall about seven feet high – because at one time it was part of the Back Lawn as was the area where the boys’ school was built. This meant that there was a low dividing wall between the school yard and the garden. This gave us a good view of what went on there. A small lean-to shed was built against the high wall on the Old Church Street side of the garden. In it lived an old man by the name of Ben Fallon. He owned the garden and grew vegetables there. If we hopped over the wall from the school yard to retrieve a ball he would start shouting and wave his stick at us. I believe he was a relative of Padraic Fallon, the poet.
Hearse transport to matches
About 1950 a new Headmaster came to the school. His name was Donal Kennedy and he replaced Mr. Walshe who had retired. He was a native of Dingle and being a Kerry man was fond of football. He formed a school football team and later on a school hurling team. He was the first teacher in the boy’s school to have any interest in sport. I happened to be on both teams and we travelled to play other schools but transport was a big problem. In 1950 very few people had cars, almost no country people and only a few towns’ people, so it was always a struggle to get somebody to drive us. On more than one occasion Michael John Quinn came to the rescue. At that time he had a hearse with removable glass case which would have housed the coffin. When this was removed you had a flat bottomed pickup. We would climb on to this, some sat in the centre and more of us sat on the edge with our legs dangling down by the side. He would then drive very slowly to Skehanagh, Monivea and other exotic places. Thankfully there was never an accident. Health and Safety experts please ignore!
Farewell to School and into long trousers
When I reached fourteen years of age on 6th May 1952 I bid farewell to National school days. By now I had achieved a rite of passage by being allowed to wear long trousers and allowed to cycle on my father’s bicycle instead of my mother’s. I had to make up for this by working every day on the land, saving hay, thinning turnips and going to the bog.
School in Galway
Having left school in May 1952, I worked on the land for a few months but my older brother Joe, who was three years older than me, was the man ordained to inherit the land, so I was considered surplus to requirements. I applied for and got a place in the Vocational School on Fr. Griffin Road in Galway. There was no Secondary School in Athenry. Where the Vocational School and the Presentation Colleges are now were two green fields where the nuns grazed their cows, so if you needed Secondary Education you went to either Loughrea or Galway. You travelled to Loughrea by bus or by train to Galway. I really enjoyed school in Galway in 1952. The subjects were Irish, English, Maths, Science, Woodwork, Ironwork and Art. At lunch break we would play handball against the gable end of the Claddagh Hall. At the time I never thought that many years later I would be dancing sets inside there to the music of the Tulla and Four Courts Ceile Bands. I had a small case to carry the books and a five naggin bottle of tea, pushed into a woollen sock and homemade bread for lunch. In the evening while waiting for the train, usually two hours, I would finish off whatever was left.
During September and October the mackerel were very plenty and would come into the docks in huge shoals, chasing the sardine-sized sprat. The water would be actually churning as thousands of mackerel attacked the shoals of sprat. I learned from my friends at school how to fish using a spinner and many evenings I would arrive home with five or six fish stuffed in with my school books.
Galway in 1952 was much different from what it is today. It had very little traffic except for bicycles. Merchants Road was a shambles with roofless buildings on both sides of the street. High Street was a very quiet area apart from Kenny’s Bookshop and Naughton’s Drapery – later Sonny Molloy’s. Most of the buildings at the lower end were private working class houses. Many of them would have a kitchen table left outside on the footpath displaying fresh fish for sale. One old lady would walk up the middle of Shop Street pushing a large box of fish set on pram wheels, shouting “fresh fish”. Other women would set up at the entrance to the Railway Station selling cockles, mussels and carrageen moss from large baskets. Every weekend when the Tribune came out there would be swarms of young fellows selling it on the streets, each one of them trying to outdo the other, advertising their presence in a loud almost musical voice.
I really enjoyed going to the Vocational School. Secondary Education was hard to come by in those days and anybody who spent a few years there could get a reasonably good job. But those things were not to be.
Lady Day in Athenry
During the 1940s and 1950s the fifteenth of August was a very important day in the Athenry calendar. The pilgrimage to Lady’s Well would start on Lady’s Eve. From early afternoon there would be a constant stream of people making their way to the well, mostly on bikes, some walking and some in ass and carts and a few pony traps. We would always go on Lady’s Eve so that we would have a long day of entertainment on the following day.
The Well itself was a very mucky, undeveloped place. You started the rounds by picking up fifteen pebbles and started walking around the Well, mumbling the Rosary as you went. This was all done in your bare feet while at the same time keeping your eye on the ground in order to avoid the sharp stones in the puddles of muck. After each round of the well you dropped one pebble and if you wanted to speed things up a bit you dropped two. When your penance was over you went down to the stream nearby and washed your feet. Your socks were put on wet feet but that didn’t bother you because in the distance you could hear the loud music blaring from Toft’s Fairground entertainments. which were set up in Taylor’s field – now the town park near the Post Office. It’s amazing how fast you can say the Rosary when there is loud music beckoning in the background. For months before Lady Day you would be saving up a shilling (twelve old pence) here and a tanner (six old pence) there, so you were not going to blow it on the evening before, so you just walked about enjoying the atmosphere and licking an ice cream.
There followed a long sleepless night as you looked forward to the next day. If you were twelve years old round about nineteen fifty, with Lady’s Day looming and with a few bob in your pocket, then life couldn’t get any better. It was very important for the day to be fine as most of the entertainment was outdoors and even by today’s standards it was first class. Last mass finished at about half past twelve and from that on the streets would be thronged. A special excursion train came from Galway and people would travel from a radius of twenty miles or more by every means of transport, particularly bicycles. It is no exaggeration to say that at any given time there would be a couple of thousand people, between the streets and the road to the Well. People would often meet relations that they hadn’t met since last Lady’s Day and that often meant going for a drink, so the pubs did a roaring trade on the day.
The Ghost Train
The Amusements in Taylor’s field would be in full swing, with loud music blaring, which could be heard a mile away. In addition to the usual chair-o-planes, swinging-boats and bumpers there would be the Ghost Train and Wall of Death. The Ghost Train consisted of a very long tent usually set up along by the river. It was completely dark inside. The train was a miniature railway, set up on rails with small open-top wagons each holding about four children. There would be maybe four of those joined together and pulled by a little battery-run engine. The children paid their money, piled on to the little train and set off into the darkened tent. The children could be heard screaming as a series of flashing lights showed up ghosts, skeletons, Dracula, bats, huge spiders and in the dark something unseen would brush against their face accompanied by loud screams and ghostly music. Eventually the train would emerge into day-light with some children crying, more in shock and pale and looking as if they had just seen a ghost!
The Wall of Death
The Wall of Death was a different kettle of fish altogether. This was a man’s entertainment – a twelve year old macho man. The contraption itself was like a large wooden tub about twenty five feet high and maybe thirty feet across at the top. The sides tapered inwards at the bottom, giving it a slightly egg shape at ground level. There was a stairway attached to the side which led to a circular viewing platform at the top. When you had paid your money, and got on the viewing platform you had a good view of the field of action. Inside were two motor bikes and shortly two men in leather outfits and helmets came in through a trapdoor near the base of the “tub”. They both started up their bikes and started to move slowly around, one keeping opposite the other to avoid an accident, all the time gathering speed until they came right up to the top of the wall and the engines roaring. They would then dive down diagonally towards the bottom and up towards the top in synchronized speeding, missing each other by inches, while the whole wooden contraption would shake and vibrate. You would expect it to fall apart at any moment. When this part of the show was over they took their bikes out through the trapdoor and then a man dressed in a clown suit comes in pushing a little car in front of him. He didn’t speak, but he made signs that he was going to do the Wall of Death and everybody had a good laugh – thinking he was joking. After a few attempts to start the car with a starting handle, he got it going, jumped in and proceeded to get higher and higher until he reached more than half way up the wall. The laughing stopped and he got the biggest clap of all. When he came to a stop he got out and took off his helmet to acknowledge the applause – it was a woman! Her long blonde hair had been coiled up inside her helmet and her face hidden by the goggles.
A big attraction was the street entertainment. From early morning, a lot of stalls would have been erected around the Square selling sweets and chocolate and all sorts of novelties and children’s toys. Mrs. Trayers from Tuam was a regular vendor of sweets and chocolate. In later years her son Johnnie carried on the trade. Other people carried on instant raffles where you paid three pence and picked a rolled up ticket. If your number corresponded with a winning number on a large chart you got a small prize, which rarely happened. Just beside where Gardner’s yard is now there was always a shooting range. It consisted of a wooden counter with four or five air rifles laid out on it and cardboard target cards attached to steel plates about twenty feet away. All day long you could hear the ‘crack’ of the rifles and ‘ping’ of the pellets as they hit the steel plate.
The Strong Man
The greatest crowd puller of all was the strong man. He would perform on a wide part of the street because he needed a bit of space for his act. On the evening before he would arrange to borrow a cart wheel and an iron cart axle. This would be about six feet long and it narrowed at both ends to about two inches wide, weighing eight or nine stone weight. It meant great pressure on the end when standing upright. The cart wheel was a full size iron shod wheel, maybe ten stone in weight. He had a large stock whip with a handle about two feet long and a thick plaited rope two inches thick tapering to a thin piece of cord, in all about ten feet long. He would swing this about over his head and then with a sudden jerk he would crack the whip and it could be heard at the other end of town. It served to draw a crowd and also to keep them at a safe distance. His first job was to pass a cap around amongst the crowd and collect some money. If there wasn’t enough in the cap when it came back he wouldn’t perform, so he sent it around again. Eventually when he was happy he would do his act. He would stand the axle upright on the road, get down on his hunkers and lift the axle and stand upright, lean back his head and put the axle standing on his chin, then stretch his arms out while the axle remained up unsupported.
His next act was with the cartwheel. He would lean over the wheel, grab the spokes and hoist the wheel to head height, then rest it on his chin, stretch out his arms while the wheel remained there unsupported. If he was around nowadays he would be a television attraction.
The ‘Broken Glass’ performer
Another performer was the man lying on broken glass. He would have a bag of smashed up bottles and jars which he would spread out on a piece of canvas, all the time shouting about what he was going to do to draw a crowd. When a good crowd had gathered, the cap was passed around and when he was satisfied with the generosity of the onlookers he would get down to business.
Stripping off his shirt he would sit on the road just in front of the glass and then lie back gingerly on the glass. When he was “comfortable” he would invite one of the onlookers to stand on his chest. Sometimes one of the lighter-built individuals would do the honours but most of them didn’t think it was a right thing to do. When he got up there were splinters of glass stuck in his back but no blood to be seen. He would ask some people to brush off the glass with an old cloth he had with him. What a way to make a living!
The “Pins and Needles” man
Another man I have seen, had, as his “props”, a collection of large darning needles and safety pins. After the usual collection of pennies and three penny bits he would strip to the waist and proceed to stick them in every conceivable location. One long needle he put in through his jaw, just over his tongue and out the other side. Then he put out his tongue and put a few safety pins through it and clipped them closed. He must have been the original man with “pins and needles” in his face.
The ‘Strong Chest’ man
Another man performed a once off act, as his prop wouldn’t be readily available. After the usual collection he would strip to the waist and get two men to lay a large flat rock on this chest. He would then invite a man to break the rock with a sledge hammer. It was generally arranged beforehand that Batty Cunniffe who worked with a local builder, was the most reliable man with a sledge and he would do the honours. You didn’t want someone missing the rock and hitting you in the face. With one well aimed blow he would break the rock and a loud cheer would go up.
Empty pockets led to Homeward bound
By evening time the money would be getting scarce and you would be hoping you would meet one of your aunts or a generous neighbour and get a bob (twelve old pence) or two (twenty four old pence). Eventually, tiredness got the better of you and you went home with a few penny bars in your pocket to chew on the rest of the evening and wondering how you would survive until next Lady’s Day.
The Travelling Cinema
Another source of entertainment in those years was the traveling cinema. McFadden’s was the main provider of this entertainment. They would set up a large tent in Payne’s yard, which is now the public car park across the road from the New Park Hotel. They would usually start with a half hour long song and dance act and a bit of sit-com comedy. This was to get around the tax situation at the time as income from showing films was taxed but live entertainment was tax free. It was a completely family-run affair with parents, sons and daughters taking part. The family is still involved in travelling entertainment. Their fairground amusements were in Athenry on Lady’s Day quite recently.
The Travelling Playhouse
Another feature of entertainment in the forties and fifties and perhaps earlier was the traveling playhouse. A truck to carry the tent and a couple of caravans to house the players would arrive in town and set up in the field where the children’s playground is now situated. They would generally put on a comedy sketch followed by a play with a very nationalistic flavour, such as “The Croppy Boy” or a romantic one like “The Colleen Bawn”, or “Pal of my Cradle Days”. During the interval there would be a raffle with a prize of some cheap ornament or other. I still have a pair of black and white ornamental dogs that I won in the fifties.
The McCormacks were one of the regular groups of players to come to Athenry and Minnie of “The Riordans” was a member of the family and spent her earlier years on the road.
Working in Claffey’s of Castlerea
A ‘surplus to requirement’ farmer
After I had spent six months at college my brother Joe decided that working at home for no wages was not for him so he left home and went to work for a very extensive farmer a few miles away. My father was sixty years old and needed help on the land so I was asked, or told, that I was needed at home. There were also four younger sisters, so there was still a considerable sized family to support. So at the end of March 1953, still only fourteen years old I left Galway Vocational and started ploughing the land with a pair of horses. In those days if you worked on the land people thought that you didn’t need education. Right through the Spring of 1953 I ploughed and tilled, sowed oats, potatoes, turnips, mangolds, looked after the sheep and lambs and saved the hay. Lo and behold, later on in the Summer my brother arrived home and said to my father that he would stay at home and work the land. My father agreed, so again I was surplus to requirements and education was gone by the wayside.
Working in Claffey’s of Castlerea
I answered an advertisement in the Independent for a youth to become an apprentice in a hardware and furniture shop in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. A reference was needed from the headmaster and the parish priest. I still have the one from the head master. My father and I went to Castlerea by train, for interview. I got the position. Papers of indenture had to be drawn up and witnessed by a solicitor, which made it legally-binding for me to stay there for three years. For the first year I would get ten shillings a week, in the second year one pound per week and on the third year the princely sum of one pound and ten shillings per week. There were more legalities and paper work to be signed to get the position. You would think you were Minister for Finance instead of a glorified run-arounder and floor sweeper. It was a scheme designed to get cheap labour, as anything that was to be learned you learned it in the first six months. In those years if you didn’t have a reference from the Parish Priest you hadn’t a hope of getting a job. Every advertisement for a job carried the proviso ‘P.P. reference required’. You had to be very careful what you told the parish priest in confession – it could come against you later on.
The business I went to work for was Claffey’s of Patrick Street, Castlerea. Paul Claffey, who now runs Mid-West radio, was a little child there at the time. There wasn’t a good toy-shop in the town at the time so every year leading up to Christmas, Claffeys would get in a consignment of toys. In the week before Christmas Santa would take up residence in one of the stores and guess who was asked to do the impersonation? I must have had an awful old-looking head on me, but I got through the week with the help of a red nose, a white beard and a very young Ho! Ho! Ho!
Life in Castlerea was pleasant enough even though the first month or two was a bit lonely, being the first time away from home and still just fifteen years old. I discovered that some fellows of my age played hurling in the park so I wrote to my mother and asked her to post on my hurley. She duly wrote my name on it, took it to the post office where they stuck a few stamps on it and it was delivered to me, much to the amusement of the postman. Even though Castlerea was only forty-five miles from Athenry. It was Christmas before I got home for a few days. There was no phone contact as only business people had phones and only a few people had cars. To get from Castlerea to Athenry by rail via Athlone was about ninety miles or a round trip of lone hundred and eighty miles, so you had to be earning good wages to afford that. All communication was entirely by letter and so my first visit home after five months was on Christmas Eve, having already worked a half day. I travelled like a gentleman – by train.
Castlerea at that time was a very rural town, with most of the business conducted with the farming community. Every weekend they would arrive into town in carts of all descriptions. They still held a fair there, once a month, but they had an enclosed concreted area unlike Athenry where it was still held on the Street. The Mental Hospital was the main employer in the area. While I was there, a very modern cinema was built. It was constructed on sloping ground so you entered at street level and steps descended down to screen level. It had curtains with ‘uplighting’, which made it very cosy looking and before the start of the film they continually played Glen Millar music, particularly “Moonlight Serenade”. It cost one shilling for a reasonable seat, which meant that my visits were very limited. The seats were all upholstered, with armrests, and tip up seats, very modern, even by today’s standards, and that was sixty two years ago. I saw the building a couple of years ago and it was a complete wreck, windows smashed, door broken and that was near the centre of town and it is a fair indication of what is happening in most small towns around the country.
Around the end of August 1954 I was contacted by my parents and told that brother Joe had decided to go to England and would I come home. I had spent just over a year in Castlerea having started on first Monday in August 1953, the day after Galway beat Kilkenny by a point in the All Ireland hurling semi-final. At this stage I felt a bit like a spare, wheel which is only used when there is a problem. I told Gerry Claffey that I was needed at home but he said that I could not leave and that I had signed legal indentures and had to stay for three years, also that my father had signed guaranteeing that I would stay for three years and we would be sued for breach of contract. Claffey’s brother was a solicitor so this caused us to stop and think for a few weeks. This situation was a bit like a scene from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, a slave planning to escape and weighing up the consequences. In the end I decided to leave and be damned. One Friday evening at the end of September I had my small case packed and hidden near the yard entrance. Earlier that day during lunch hour, I had called to the barracks and told the sergeant what I was going to do in order to pre-empt any hue and cry for a missing fifteen-year-old. He said he would call to Claffeys that night after I had left.
The “Great Escape”.
So when the shop closed, I grabbed my case and headed for the station where I got the bus for Galway. I spoke to the driver about a connection to Athenry. He said there was neither train nor bus at that time of the night but he knew my family and he said he would lend me his bicycle to cycle from Galway to Athenry. His name was Paddy Mitchell and he played a big part in the “Great Escape”. I duly arrived home to Park sometime after midnight and I’ve been there ever since.
A Social Abyss and Road-Side Chats
Into a social abyss
I did not realise it at the time, but I was really only exchanging one form of unpaid slave labour for another. I was on the slippery slope into the abyss of a system that left tens of thousands of bachelor farmers all over Ireland. Four younger sisters and both parents reasonably healthy, my father was approximately sixty years old and my mother about fifty.
A thatched house with no electricity, no running water, no toilet facilities, work six days a week and in the winter time, six and a half days as stock had to be foddered on a Sunday, all this for the price of a dance on Sunday night and maybe a pint of Guinness.
Saturday night dances were not allowed because the Church believed if you were gallivanting on a Saturday night, you would not get up for Mass on Sunday morning and that was a quite serious sin. If you were not able to get up for work on a Monday morning – well that was no sin at all.
The whole system of one son staying at home on a small farm – which was really subsistence farming -while the younger members of the family grew up, your parents grew old and life passed you by was not a good system. I walked into this system at sixteen years of age with my eyes wide shut and was lucky to escape, but not without a lot of drawbacks.
Roadside talk and chat.
L-R: Mary Williams, Willie Ryan, ? Duggan, ? , Mattie Melia, ? , Peter Carroll, Boy.
Every evening during the summer, up to thirty young people would turn up with their hurls and another dozen or so onlookers.
It was a real social occasion and when it got too dark to see the ball everybody sat on the bank at the roadside to talk and chat.
Practically everybody came on bicycles, a car was a rarity and no house had a television, let alone electricity, so the younger people has no other outlet but to come together in places like this and make their own fun.
People sat around until close on midnight exchanging news, telling yarns and more than likely some exaggerations and a few harmless lies thrown in.
Itinerant Hurler and Not Making the Grade
The type of work on a small farm was very labour intensive, so in spite of all the hard work, you became very fit. As hurling was my favourite sport, I would hop on my old rattler of a bicycle on Sunday afternoon and seek out some place where a group would be hurling. Hurling was a social sport in those times and you wouldn’t travel a mile of the road without coming across a group of people hurling. – young and old. I would sometimes go to Caheroyan, other times to Boyhill where you have Healys, Waldrons and Bill Fallon and you would always get a game.
Other times I would go to Cahertubber where you would have John Joe Burke and his brothers Joe and Willy and Tommy O’Shea whom I went to school with, but he sadly passed away some years ago.
I would go to Tysaxon on other occasions with the Feeney’s and Tyrells and sometimes to Castle Ellen and Carnaun with the Cahalans, Kennedys, Hanberrys and Connaughtons, Rabbitts and Kellys.
I was what you would class as an itinerant hurler but I was getting to know people and making a lot of friends.
Eventually, the hurlers in the Cussaun area got leave from Walty Walsh to use his field which was situated not far from CarnaunSchool and just opposite the house of Jack and Mary Williams, which at the time didn’t mean anything to me, but many years later was to play a very large part in my life.
There were no goalposts in the hurling fields, just a couple of stones and maybe a discarded jacket thrown on top of it. No markings on the fields and the only time we would play with proper goalposts and pitch was when we would travel to play a match against some other team. In those days if you were beaten in your first match, you were left sitting down as far as competitive hurling was concerned, but you carried on with social hurling which was really better fun.
Badge of Honour
I played my first minor hurling match with Cussaun in 1955. It was against Turloughmore and was played in the Back Lawn. After about twenty minutes I and my opposite number were sent off.
Not a very good start but it was almost like a badge of honour to be sent off in those days as it laid down a marker that you weren’t to be taken lightly and gave you this smug feeling of being a tough guy.
Of course, we lost and went back to playing amongst ourselves. The following year was not much better and we got knocked out early.
Social Hurling beside Connaughton’s at Castle Ellen
Back (L-R); Frank Coyne, Pat Costello, Tom Rabbite.
Front (L-R): J.J. Connaughton, Christy Connaughton.
Lorry transport to games
In 1957, I was on the junior team. Mike Finn and myself cycled to Tuam and played in a match and home again. On another occasion we cycled to Mountbellew and played in the match and home again.
In those years team followers would often hire a lorry to take them to a match and pay the driver maybe a shilling per head. They would all stand inside the high creels. It was not very comfortable and in a lot of cases the lorry would have been carrying turf the day before and you would be blinded by turf dust. I have seen people going to matches in pony and traps. Motor cars were very scarce in the mid- fifties and the majority of people cycled to matches.
Making hurling progress
In 1958 we won the North Board Junior Championship defeating Tuam- Sean Higgins in the final in Tuam. We defeated CoisFharraige from the Spiddal area (who were West Board Champions) in the semi-final.
This set up the final against Beagh which we lost but at least it showed we were making some progress and we played in the Intermediate Grade the following year.
The Cussaun hurling enclave
Cussaun was a very small area compared to Athenry or Newcastle. Both of these teams had a half parish, while Cussaun was a tiny enclave surrounded by Turloughmore and Abberyknockmoy on the north and Athenry on the south – about one twentieth of the parish. In the late fifties a small number of houses provided most of the players, with sets of brothers coming from most of them. There were two Cooleys, two Nohillys, two Cullinanes, two Mullins, two Coens, two Egans and two Finns.
That would give you an idea of such a small area involved. All those people were farmer’s sons who would have done a hard day’s work before cycling to Walshe’s field for an hour’s hurling before darkness set in.
Cussaun and Newcastle hurling alliance
Between 1958 and 1963 we played Intermediate Grade – winning some and losing some, but invariably being beaten by either Abbeyknockmoy or Newcastle.
A North Board League kept us playing a few matches during the winter and the Ardrahan eleven- a -side Gold Medal Competition was also very enjoyable. I think it was 1962 we joined with Newcastle to form a senior team but were beaten on our first day out. I played left corner back on that team.
In 1963 we finally escaped the clutches of Newcastle and Abbey and met Fr. Tom Burkes, a club based in Galway. The match was played in the Back Lawn. It was a County Semi-Final and we led at half time by ten or eleven points but we won by only one point in the finish. This win set us up for a County Final against Killimordaly. which was again fixed for the Back Lawn.
County Final and County Team
Frank with his Cussaun Hurling Jersey
I had played full back, corner back, wing back and even centre-field but on this occasion I was given the task of playing centre-half back, the reason being that the Kilimordaly centre forward was at that time the current full-forward on the County Senior Team. We lost the game by six or seven points. I must have had a reasonably good match, my opponent didn’t dominate proceedings as he usually did, but the corner forward that I should have been marking scored two goals which made all the difference.
Even though we lost, I thought it was a great honour to have played in a County Final and especially at centre-half-back.
Later that year, I got a run out in a challenge match against Westmeath. It was played in Ballinasloe. I failed to impress but at least I got a new hurl and a good meal in a hotel after the match.
Board Hurling Games
Sometime later a team was picked to represent the North Board, to play against a team representing the East Board. I was fortunate enough to get the corner-back spot on the North Board team and the match was played in the Back Lawn.
We won that match and another team was picked from those two teams to play against a team picked from the South and West Boards.
I managed to hold a place at left half-back and we also won our match against the South–West. From that a panel was picked to train for the Munster Championship and lo’ and behold I was told to turn up for training in the Back Lawn.
Fr. Solan was the man in charge. We would train two or three evenings a week and play an odd challenge match. This was the springtime of 1964 and I happened to be the only one from the North Board. That side of the county was regarded as football country, so practically everybody else was from the South and East with a few from the West.
Not making the grade
It was a very busy time on the farming front, working with horses, sowing crops, looking after ewes and lambs and then going to Athenry for training. It was not an easy time as on the other evenings you would head to Cussaun to be with your own friends and for the chat.
All this travelling was done on bicycle. When I would arrive into Athenry for training all the other fellows would arrive by car and I would turn up on my old Raleigh with my boots hanging on the handle-bars and my hurl on the carrier. It was not very good for the ego.
After six or seven weeks of this, I got the feeling that I wouldn’t make the grade so I dropped out before I got the push and went back to what I liked best – working on the land and heading for Carnaun in the evening.
I finished up hurling in 1965 as I got married on 3rd August of that year. Towards the end of 1966 I was approached by the Cussaun Club and asked if I would play a match with them. They were playing in a North Board League Final and were short some players.
I hadn’t caught a hurl for well over a year, but I agreed to play. I lined out at full-back and we won the match, beating Annaghdown after a tough battle. I got a North Board League medal out of that match, which was the last one I played.
A little bit of boasting now and again is no harm, it lends credence to the saying “the older I get the better I used to be”
Hurling rules in the forties and early fifties
Young fellows hurling nowadays would find it hard to believe the rules and regulations – or the lack of them- that applied to hurling matches sixty or seventy years ago.
In the forties and early fifties, both teams would line up in the centre of the field, facing each other, and they would be counted by the referee to make sure there wasn’t an extra man on either side.
The goalies would then go back to their places and the ball would be thrown in between the teams.
That signalled the outbreak of trench warfare as you had fourteen facing fourteen and the pulling would be ferocious. Many a grudge was settled in the first minute and many a player limped away from the opening clash.
Shin guards were very necessary, and if you could not afford one, you folded up the Connacht Tribune and put it inside your socks, with a piece of twine around the top to keep it in place.
Hurling boots were different from football boots in those times as the upper came right up several inches above the ankle, with an extra piece of heavy leather stitched on the outside to protect the ankle and with very good reason because if the ball was beside your opponent’s ankle you were quite entitled to pull, without conceding a free.
In those days you were allowed to pull on a dropping ball and it was a brave man that put up his hand to catch it. He could be eating his dinner with one hand for a couple of weeks afterwards.
Frank and Mary’s sons continued the tradition of playing
Hurling and Football for Athenry and County Teams
Kevin Coyne (back row, 4th from right) on the Athenry 1982 County Under 14 (B) Hurling Champions Team
Gerard Coyne (middle row, 3rd from right) on the 1983 and below (front row, 2nd left) on the 1984 Teams
Kevin Coyne (front row, 1st right)
Gerard Coyne (back row, 3rd from right)
Kevin Coyne, outstanding Hurler and Footballer
Under 12 Player 1984, Peter Coyne, (back row, 1st right)
Joe Coyne (photo, left) on the winning Athenry County Minor Football Team.
Frank Coyne (photo, right) along with brother, Kevin (not pictured), on the winning Athenry County Minor Football Team.