Interviewed in August 2017.
Willie was born in Cregmore on the 10th of December 1929. His mother was Mary Coffey from Roundfield, Monivea; she died two weeks after Willie’s birth. Willies brother Tommy died about 20 years ago.
His paternal grandfather was Tom, known as Tom McGowan: his father was called Martín Tom.
His father married his second wife Delia Burns from Oranmore; there were two children from this marriage, a boy named Martin and a girl Nellie.
Willie attended Cregmore National School and over 83 years on he remembers his teachers: Mrs. Dunleavy, Charlie Murphy and Mrs. McGeogh.
Willie married his wife Margaret (nee Walsh) from Carnmore in Claregalway on the 11th of August, 1952. They had a family of eleven children, eight boys and three girls ( Martin, Marian, Lily, Johnny, Tony, Tom, Billy, Paul, Teresa, Pat and Richard). Willie and Margaret were sixty five years married in August 2017.
Willie’s father bought the 57 acre farm in Gloves in 1945. It was owned by a Paddy Rooney. There was a Treacy family living in the old house in Gloves in 1945. They moved elsewhere and Willie and his wife moved there in 1954. In 1973 they built the house they reside in today.
Their son Richard and his family live opposite them.
The family were customers in Corbetts in Athenry. Willie travelled by horse and cart from Cregmore to Corbett to collect fertiliser and other necessities for running his farm.
Offer of a Job in Corbetts.
One day in 1955, as Willie was collecting provisions in Corbett, the manager, John Corbett, approached him and offered him a job working in the yard.
The three-storey building of Corbetts, North Gate Street, Athenry.
The job entailed working with the horses. Willie was delighted and gladly accepted the position.
On Willie’s first day he counted thirty two people at work there. His first week’s wages was £5 for a forty eight hour, five and a half day week.
There was a work card in use where the times of the start of work and finish were recorded.
A Bill Head of Corbetts, Athenry.
In 1894 the Corbett business was started by Sam Corbett from Newcastle, Athenry. His sons, Redmond, Louis and Gerald managed the business in Galway and John, their cousin who cycled to work, managed the Athenry business.
Like the McDonaghs and Hynes businesses of Galway, Corbett’s workers joined the union. The workers were awarded seven and sixpence of a rise. This was a wonderful boost to all the workers. Their weekly contribution to the union was one shilling.
Most days Willie went back and forth to the railway with coal or potatoes. There could be up on a ton of coal on the cart.
Coal was delivered to houses in the town of Athenry; the horse stood patiently outside the house during the delivery. The horses were watered at the river where Rooney Monumental Works are today. They were stabled where the Post Office is today (2017) at the corner of Bridge Street and Court Lane.
There were different business sections in Corbetts.
Fertiliser, potatoes, corn, cement, paint, coal and a wide range of timber products were sold from the yard; a docket was given to the customer and the item was paid for in the office.
The carpenters were Jackie Monaghan, Jimmy Ryan and a man called Tackaberry from Kerry.
Men in Yard
The men in the yard were Jimmy McCormack, Joe Egan, Tommy Reilly, Mattie Gannon, Malachy Joyce and Greg Rabbitte. John O’Dowd was the foreman.
Mattie Feeney drove the van. He bought potatoes from the farmers and brought cement and other provisions out the country.
Mick Hussey was a saddler; he looked after the harnesses for the horses.
The drivers were Jimmy Burke, Mixie Connolly and Pádraig Connors.
The men in the hardware shop were, John Lohan, Michael McGrath and Frank Kilkelly.
Vincent Feeney worked there; later he went to work in America. On his return he settled in Salthill and opened his own shop and post office. He also built the Green Briar at Moyvilla, Athenry on what was then the main Galway to Dublin road.
Jim Kelly from Mullingar replaced Vincent; he later returned to Mullingar and had a shop there.
John Hynes worked in the grocery. Afterwards he opened a grocery shop in Loughrea.
Austin Corcoran was the last manager.
The office personnel were John Corbett, Gerald Browne, Mrs. Kay Curley, Paddy Regan, Detta Gardiner, Gretta Kenny and Carmel Coffey.
Potatoes for Export
The potatoes were inspected and sealed by the Department of Agriculture inspectors. John Tully was the inspector in the Athenry store and Paddy Heavey was the man in Corbett’s store in Galway.
November to January were the months for exporting potatoes. The dockers carried the sacks of potatoes from the lorry to the boats. They finished loading at five o’clock so the lorry driver had to be in Galway on time.
After the lorries were unloaded in Galway the driver usually brought a load of timber to Athenry.
Jack Lynch, a driver for Sheehans and Sullivans from Cork, delivered coal to Corbett, collected potatoes there and brought them back to Cork.
Corbetts rented from 20 to 25 acres of land per year from Killeens of Cussane, Cullinanes of Mountbrown, Costellos of Cartymore among others. Corbett’s employees worked the land, sowed the potatoes and cleaned the drills. The men in the yard mixed blue stone and washing soda in large barrels to spray on the potatoes to prevent blight.
One day Garda Sergeant King visited the yard. When he saw the barrels, he said, “Are ye doing a run”? This was a joke referring to the poitín makers in Connemara.
The biggest customer would have been Archie Blake of Ballyglunin, a landlord. Other customers that Willie remembered were Kindregans, Melias, Sheas, Hynes and Lallys. Of course, there were many more.
The Great Fire ( Sunday, 17th September 1987)
Photos: Gerry Ahern
Tommy Glavin from Turloughmore was manager when the fire occurred.
The fire in Corbetts occurred on Sunday, the 17th of December, 1987. Willie was driving his daughter to catch the 9.10 p.m. train to Galway from Athenry and could see the bright glow on the horizon as they approached the town.
The people attending 7.30 pm Mass in Athenry were not aware of the fire until they left the church.
Crowds gather in North Gate Street
The paint went on fire and in turn set fire to the felt roof and destroyed the hardware store and all the materials in the yard behind it. (Jimmy McCormack used to patch the felt pitch roof to stop leaks. After Jimmy retired J.J. Duane and Joe Rooney sheeted all of the roof with galvanise.)
Close-up of the intense fire
People watch the blaze through the closed gate
The roof on fire
During the fire Mickey Somers, the chief fire officer, went down the narrow laneway towards the back yard. When he was returning a section of the store collapsed into the laneway just after he passed. He was a lucky man.
Firemen trying the quench the fire. (Notice part of the collapsed roof in the side lane on the right)
After the fire Redmond Corbett considered rebuilding but on the advice of Tommy Glavin he didn’t proceed with the project.
The workers were offered employment in Corbett’s store in Galway but they refused. By statute they were kept on in the job for eight weeks. After that they were made redundant.
When asked what his happiest working time was, Willie said that it was when the working week was reduced to a five day week, Monday to Friday.
Mrs. Caulfield said that in wintertime, because of the long working day, Willie never saw brightness as it was dark when he left and dark when he returned.
Wheel of family history
The wheel of family history has come full circle as Willie told us that his son, Billy, is now back farming his great grandfather’s property in Cregmore.