Desmond Greaves Journal, Vol.10, 1951
Themes: Sojourn in Curraun, Achill, in early 1951 – Meeting Muriel MacSwiney in the National Library – Early research on James Connolly – Walter Dwyer of Kiltimagh – Finding a cottage in Doobeg – Michael Roughnean’s story – Mulranny and its environs – Potato-growing and turf-cutting – Dublin final rallies in the May 1951 general election – Trinity College Dublin Fabian Society – Dorothy Macardle, Desmond Ryan and “The Pope” O’Mahony – Visit to Clare Island – Comparisons between Irish and English society
“What are you going to Ireland for?” asked the blue-coated whipper-snapper who had disdained to look at the contents of the small attaché case I was carrying.
“How long are you going for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you going to Ireland to work?”
“In a manner of speaking, I suppose.”
“Well, what are you going for?”
Knowing the difference between a customs official and a policeman I concluded the conversation with, “Because I feel so disposed.” The little attaché case went on board uncared for and unexamined.
It had been both on and off again the previous evening. Having decided to travel third class I bought a ticket and passed through the barriers unchallenged – only to find myself aboard the “Longford”. No berths. A grey dirty hulk nestling in the dock like a louse on the Liver Building’s tail. It was crowded with returning emigrants, many with children, most of whom had already completed a day’s journey. There was scarcely room to sit down. Weak tea was obtainable, but nothing else but stale cakes and buns – the bar would open later.
They wanted to be home for Easter and were prepared to stomach anything. I was in no hurry and walked off the vessel. “No berth, no sailing”, said I to the company’s officials.
I imagine therefore that the whipper-snapper’s curiosity was aroused when I reappeared the next night in time for the “Leinster”. The crowd had gone the night before. The larger and better-appointed vessel was all but empty. For the price of a few shillings – present money values being what they are, few lacked them; it was not impecuniosity kept people on deck – I secured a comfortable berth in a double cabin and travelled in comparative ease. Shipping companies used to have three classes, first, for gentlemen, second, for cattle, third for emigrants. Now the last two are reversed. But the imagination of the officials baulks at the astonishing fact that the working man now knows he is as good a gentleman as anybody. The one-class ship will nevertheless come as surely as the one-class railway, and for the same reason – the need to keep all available space regularly filled.
I spent a few days in the National Library. Muriel MacSwiney was there [1892-1982, leftwing activist and widow of Cork Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, who had died on hunger strike during the Irish War of Independence], white head because of her long-sightedness showing a little above the younger students. Two of these were being unceremoniously shown the door when I arrived. Unlike Trinity College, UCD has no library and its students attempt to gate-crash the National, which is over-crowded enough as it is.
Muriel introduced me to the elusive Mr Carty. For over a year I had sought him in order to ask him about James Connolly’s first “Irish Republic”, dated 1898. It was not in the library as far as could be gathered, but as files have a habit of disappearing, he looked for “Irish Worker” to see if that was there. Two years ago I spent several days abstracting its contents. But it was not in the catalogue. Out of curiosity I looked up “Irish Democrat”. Liam Burke sends it with punctilious regularity. But it was not there. The Ministry for Education’s parsimony is likely to cause the loss of many irreplaceable documents, and the sooner Trinity College Library and the National and Pearse Street collections are housed together in one National Copyright Library, the better for all. It would be no great imposition on British publishers to make the transfer to the new institution of the rights now held by the College, and the reciprocity implied by the arrangement would help to relieve British libraries’ poverty in recent Irish publications.
Mrs MacSwiney told me about her pension. It had not proved so easy to get as the public might imagine from the fact that a special Bill was passed through both Houses of the Oireachtas. It had been necessary for her to write a firmly worded letter which she showed me, affirming that she was “the genuine widow of Terence MacSwiney”, recapitulating her diplomatic and political services to the Republic, and giving as referees Seán T O’Kelly and Eamon De Valera. Even then it was necessary to bespeak the services of Jim Larkin TD. The amusing aspect was the anxiety of Fianna Fail to raise the issue. What would have delighted them most would have been that the Government would refuse the pension. Then the very people who were responsible for the kidnapping, or at the very least connived at the kidnapping of her daughter, would have grown eloquent over the latest insult to the national cause [Her daughter had been taken to Ireland from Germany in the 1930s on behalf of Terence MacSwiney’s sisters because of Mrs MacSwiney’s anti-religious and leftwing views].
She was also besieged by those of the Left who claim to have inside knowledge why nothing should be done. One of them besieged her for two hours asking her to promise not to mention religion – unnecessary advice. It was settled in the end however and she has the pension. For inexplicable reasons, she told me, she was going to Paris next year. Meanwhile she collects information on the kidnapping of children by the “Catholic” bodies whose business it is. I asked her why at the time her daughter was stolen she did not issue a great protest in the press. The reasons were political. De Valera had just become Taoiseach and was hard-pressed by the Cosgravites. She was afraid that a scandal of the dimensions she would have created would bring him down and play into the hands of Britain. She thereby condemned herself to nearly twenty years of continued silence and frustration. What De Valera turned out to be has not helped her to reconciliation in retrospect with that unfortunate decision.
When I went West the weather had improved, after one of the longest and wettest and chilliest winters of the century. It was not good, but at least normal for early March. But the early Easter hanging over us made one feel it ought to be later and better. I arrived at Kiltimagh [Co Mayo] at about 8.30 pm, after telephoning from the Goods Office at Claremorris. Walter Dwyer was not in [Of Kiltimagh, Mayo socialist republican, member of the Irish Workers’ League, known as the “Mayo communist”, had a plumbing business]. He had gone to Ballaghadereen looking for a foreman plumber for his civil engineering job at Boyle. Nine, ten, eleven, midnight came, but no Walter. “He’d not have a smash,” said Carmel, the eldest daughter [Later Mrs Carmel Campbell, following her marriage to solicitor and Republican activist Caoimghin Campbell in 1955]. Though protesting he was never in later like this, Josephine [Mrs Dwyer] declared that the last thing she ever thought of or feared was a smash.
Last time I had been in Kiltimagh the local Garda who lives in the same street as Walter, that same Thomas Street or “Peep Row” as it is called, had spent quite a part of the evening trying to find out who I was. He was discovered at midnight with his ear to the key-hole, and indeed caught a severe chill from standing in the rain and was off duty for two weeks. He and the sergeant way-laid the children asking who I was and how long I was staying. They “didn’t know” anything. The family tie is strongest, being based on the productive unit, and “There’s a good girl!” will never subvert a man’s children in a community of small producers in competition. So tonight Carmel was for ever stepping to the door to see were the guards outside. When the dog and its insuppressibly vivacious pup, called Nero, but not after the Emperor, knocked the lamp stand down or growled at the door, it was taken as proof positive “there was someone there, all right.” But on the other hand it could be rats.
After midnight we started listening to the sound of cars, of which an occasional one would pass, bringing back passengers from a late dance or trip to the next town. The car, in a country where the amount of travelling does not justify public transport, has now fitted into the place vacated by the trap and the jaunting car. I remember when in the County Down, twenty odd years ago, they were very common. Today they have disappeared, with interesting consequences: small garages have grown up; horses and donkeys have disappeared from the land and have been in part at least replaced by cattle; transport has been taken away from agriculture and made an industry in its own right. Before five o’clock when we went to bed we had been in the street several times to hear an exceptional sough of wind set the telegraph wires humming – in the quietness this sounded like a distant car.
When finally the dogs barked furiously, having recognised the sound of Walter’s engine, it was 1 pm. next day. Carmel rushed to the door and was back again almost before she was there. “It is Daddy, and the van’s all smashed up,” but out stepped Walter, unhurt, unshaven, unslept and unperturbed, called for food and tea, and sat down with the proud bearing of a successful warrior. His wife took turf from the fire, broke it with tongs to let air to the glowing interior, and sat her frying pan over it on a triangle, cooked bacon, eggs and sausages, and fed him well before asking what was the matter.
The foreman at Ballaghaderreen had been “on the booze”. Walter took him to Boyle to see the job, but to persuade him to take it meant oiling the wheels. They were oiled and unfortunately too well for the return journey. A cyclist came out of a turn very suddenly, and to avoid him Walter turned the van into a bank. He had spent all night getting it out. The windscreen was shattered; the wheels were out of alignment, and the steering wheel cracked and holding mainly by faith. To make things worse, this was Sunday.
Next day, after having been for the papers, read them, and had a drink, we took the van to the local garage. The garage-proprietor is the descendant of the blacksmith or saddler, who had a good talk about the horse, and horses in general, before shoeing them or making fresh harness. In due time however the bargain was completed and it was clear that the transport Walter promised me was not to be available. This is where the car came in.
That evening Josephine’s mother arrived. “Qui terre a, guerre a,” say the French. “Whoever has land, has trouble.” Her brother had left her a holding and some stock, but a share of it fell to a sister. The stock was sold and the money divided. But the land was not so easy. The neighbours pretended there was a verbal contract to let it to them in conacre. They let their donkeys stray over it; he cut the straw and old grass stalks round the margins of the road. The problem was to hold it for a buyer while settling the affairs of the estate for the time being. So here was the old woman, trying to borrow money from a brother to buy so as to re-sell the whole. He in his turn was anxious for her to buy on his behalf. Solicitors, lawyers, neighbours, absent friends, were all consulted by word or letter, during which while the affair lay stagnant and the holding uncared for. The mother was always sure the furniture was being burgled. So she hired Mick Lavin’s car to go up to Bellavary and see it. We all went together, and during the excursion I hired the same car to go to Mulranny the next day to look for my cottage.
It was raining and blowing great guns and Lavin had it in his head that Mulranny was beyond Louisburgh and went to Westport, after which we persuaded him to make for Newport. Our first port of call was Moran’s bar on the left. We asked for whiskey. “There’s no whiskey,” said the barman, “Herself’s away.” It was hard to be certain just what set of circumstances gave rise to this situation, or what would have happened if, when “herself” was away, there had been whiskey available. We then went to Moran’s on the right, had lunch, and heard about the empty cottage of Michael O’Malley at Doobeg, which we went to look at, bounding and bouncing along the rough Curraun road.
Michael was quite a young man. He eyed us with the intense suspicion which the peasant shows because it is not in his nature to disguise it. After some discussion he admitted to being the owner of the cottage – a dry four-roomed slated house with cement floor, and out-houses. We went in, and admired the elaborate old shawl hung on the wall. Walter started the bargaining. How much a month did he want. “Twenty pound a month?” said Michael, but unable to conceal his opinion of his own price he burst out laughing. We laughed to emphasise the point and gravely asked another. He suggested that I name mine. Water again took charge, walked round the premises, very delicately drawing attention to any deficiencies he could find and induced Michael to offer £2 a week. I countered with 25/- and there was a prolonged deadlock.
Michael was able to discourse freely and amiably on any subject under the sun. But as soon as it was a matter of money, his face hardened and his look of suspicion returned. The last offer having come from me, however, after a decent time had elapsed, enabled Walter to come in as a third party. He proposed splitting the difference. After all, it wasn’t as if I was a tourist. Indeed, I was a writer who was in very straitened circumstances and could not afford to continue in London where everything was so dear. It wouldn’t be fair to tell him it was George Bernard Shaw he was entertaining, but if all he knew was correct, there might come a day when it might be. And in any case I would be leaving before the big money came his way. “I wonder will he,” said Michael. Then suddenly taking a decision he declared, “Well, sir, I won’t break your wind.” Lavin, who all this time had been viewing the proceedings with alarm, hinted that this was far too much. He was bitterly regretting contracting to drive me out for only £2. He could naturally not appreciate that I was spending money looking for the cottage, and in a way more distasteful than being in one.
We went to see Mrs Mulgrew, just beyond Mulranny, then returned and confirmed the arrangement with Michael O’Malley. He wanted no deposits, no contracts, no letter. The verbal statement was good enough. He would set the house to rights and I could come when I liked. Lavin, disclaiming any intention of charging for his detour through Westport, suggested that he had done a deal of work, running up and down the road for me – it would amount in all to some nine or ten notes – and suggested £3.5.0. “I suppose that’s his way of making a few shillings,” said Walter, and we spent the evening once more at Kiltimagh. Next morning when I returned to Dublin there was thick frost on the ground. Throughout our excursion yesterday the mountains had been thickly covered with snow, which shone dazzlingly when the clouds occasionally parted over them. Either snow or cloud blowing above the summit of Croagh Patrick provided it with an immense swan-like plume. Every rock and gully stood out in relief where drifts had piled here and there and left other rock bare. “It’s waiting for more,” said Lavin. It began when I was at Athlone. In Dublin it was three or four inches deep and turning into slush. The promise that the winter would end was a false one.
The next problem was to get my books and papers over to Doobeg [He was doing preliminary work on what became his biography of James Connolly]. I returned to London with Paul O’Higgins [a left-wing TCD student], and packed two trunks, roped them, had them taken to Euston and insured them for £500. The insurance covered innumerable contingencies, revealing in the process the true disorder of present-day civilized society, though admittedly it would hardly be possible for all the listed cataclysms to befall one single piece of baggage. On the other hand the most likely causes of loss seemed to be expressly excluded.
I judged it wise to avoid the whippersnappers of Liverpool and travelled via Holyhead. After all the commotion caused by one small attaché case the customs did not want to examine, it was rather odd to see two trunks, weighing something up to half a ton together, trundled through both customs without the formality of an examination. A man with two large trunks, if not above the law, is at least considerably higher up in it than a man with a mere attaché case. Alternatively customs officials can be perfunctory for the face of avoirdupois. That same day I took the trunks to Claremorris. The train was late. The door of the carriage in which I was sitting blew open in the wind from having been left insecure at Castlereagh. We were half frozen, but nothing was struck. The guard locked it, as well as it would lock, made a round of appropriate examinations and went on. Walter had been waiting over an hour, but took it graciously, and we took the trunks to Doobeg. Michael beamed all over his face when we arrived, but when I offered him two weeks rent again drew back into his shell, for I had to give him a cheque.
When I reached Kiltimagh once more a young nurse about twenty-five years old was staying in the house. She was Beatrice Roughnean, a native of the town but at present in a hospital at Bradford. She had come to bury an aunt, and came of a family of nine, not one of whom, or the parents either, still survives in Ireland. Last year I heard some of her story, but it had now reached its final catastrophe.
Michael Roughnean, her father, had nine children and spent his days carrying sacks in the store of his cousin, one of the richest men in the town, and co-proprietor of the cinema with Lavin the garage-owner, and a Dr Kinley who represents the ne plus ultra of local gentility, and one other. For carrying the sacks he got 30/- a week. When he ruptured himself and the hospital car drove up to take him away, his employer told him that if he went into hospital he would lose his job. So he worked on in the same condition for many a long year. His wife got about 10/- a week for sewing in the local convent. On this the nine children were brought up.
It so happened that they were an exceptionally brilliant family. The eldest boy was the brightest of his class, won scholarships to secondary school and college, and had just qualified as a teacher in 1939 when he suddenly contracted tubercular meningitis and died at the age of 23. The next six children, both boys and girls, emigrated to England as soon as they were able, and made some kind of contribution to the family resources in Kiltimagh. In 1948 the mother died, leaving Eithne and Josephine alone with the father. This event seems to have weighed heavily on the elder daughter Eithne. She seems to have drawn a conclusion, which might be more natural to one of maturer years, namely that her mother’s death had been accelerated by the intense poverty of the family. She went a step further and connected the poverty with the poor wages earned by her father, and apparently tracing this to the parsimony of his employer, she wrote letters to wealthy Roughneans to precisely this effect. For doing so she was hauled before the necessary doctors, certified insane and committed to Castlebar Mental Hospital.
The way this was done reflects little credit upon anybody concerned. The local doctor is said to have told people that it was done on the employer’s insistence. The father is said to have signed the necessary papers, possibly under duress. The Guards came for the girl one evening and she told her neighbours she was being taken for a mental “test”. She never returned from this test. Whether the father agreed to her incarceration is not known, for though he denied afterwards that he had given permission, and said he did not know she was going, the man was a poor broken-down beast of burden, incapable from years of slavery of the slightest independent action, and after eighteen months he drowned himself in the river.
A few weeks before committing suicide he paid a visit to the Guards, complaining that his memory was going and that he found himself doing things he could not account for. The Guards sent him to the same doctor who had been so quick to certify his daughter. The doctor pronounced him fit and bade him go home and think no more of it. Three weeks later he was found in the river by a road worker. Although he was only in 18 inches of water the guards would not wet their feet handling the body. A grab had to be obtained, ensuring in the meantime that no flood swept the corpse away or nobody knows what enquiry might have been set on foot. In any case, its safety was watched over more vigilantly than Roughnean himself ever was. When the burial was to be prepared none of the local women would lay the corpse out for fear of bringing bad luck on themselves from the suicide. Josephine [Walter Dwyer’s wife] did so, and in that way became friendly with the family who came from England for the funeral. At the inquest Roughnean of the store had some unpleasant moments with the coroner. The autopsy disclosed that the body was suffering from acute malnutrition. The employer was called and forced to disclose the wage he was paying. The sanity of the daughter was morally vindicated by his replies. Josephine, the youngest daughter, was taken away to England to her eldest sister. All that remained of the family was poor Eithne in Castlebar Mental Home. It was therefore a pleasant thought of the nuns to press the Ballina “Western People” (a notorious non-union printing firm, by the way) not to report the inquest in full “for the sake of the family”, not a single one of whom was in a position to be even remotely embarrassed by it, unless, of course, family meant cousin.
Meanwhile Eithne herself was ill. She was given no work to do at the asylum because she “refused to work”. She lived on food worse than she had known at home, mainly bread and thin green soup. When she fell ill with a “cold” she was put to bed. Beatrice found her one Christmas in the middle of a ward with her head under the bed-clothes, trying to shut out the sight and sound of the gibbering maniacs around her, who were biting their hands, tearing their hair and slobbering. She died of tuberculosis just before my first visit.
Josephine O’Dwyer laid out the corpse. Though she was now seventeen, she looked like a girl of twelve. About the same time however an aunt who possessed quite a substantial little farm died. Beatrice found that the neighbours had possessed themselves of the key, denying her an entrance, and the local solicitor informed her, or neighbours told her, he had informed them that an aunt in America had secured letters of administration. I doubted this, since she must execute a power of attorney and there was scarcely time for the formalities to have been completed. Beatrice found a solicitor in Swinford who was far enough away to stand a chance of not being suborned and returned to her hospital in Bradford. She and her brothers and sisters are all happy and prosperous in England and could be guaranteed never to return to the petty tyranny and small-scale crookedness of their native town.
As I returned to Dublin, next day, I noticed men cutting sedge in the fields and stooking it like hay. Nothing had sprouted – not a thing – though it was almost April. A strong wind blew from the North-West and showers of hail alternated with watery periods of heatless sunshine.
In Dublin I had the privilege of meeting Seamus McGowan [1874-1965, Protestant member of Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, participated in the Easter Rising, sought to revive the ICA in the 1930s] at his home in Drumcondra. I had not known this old veteran was still alive. I found him in his greenhouse where he brushed away the soil off a box, and covered it with paper for me, thereafter feeding the fire with large slivers of wood. His face had retained the youthfulness of a man whose life has been active and whose thoughts have been optimistic. His voice was of the soft Dublin variety, rather like that of Sean O’Casey. The similarity led me to ask if the Dublin accent has changed in the last half-century, and become shriller, speedier, and more urbanised. This soft easy-going half-drawl seems confined to a few of the old-stagers. Together we went through the list of members of Connolly’s first party, the I.S.R.P. [Irish Socialist Repubican Party]. Not a single one of them is still alive. The contrast between Dublin, centre of repeated battles, and quiet uneventful Edinburgh is made the more striking on occasions like this. Two months previously I had met representatives of the previous period, who spoke to me of 1894 as if it were yesterday. Dublin eats its own children when it does not cast them out.
Before catching the train to Belfast I bought some meat for Seán Murray [Leading Belfast leftwinger], and heard the purchaser ahead of me demand butter paper to wrap it in. The butcher firmly declared, “That paper costs £80 a ton, and that ordinary paper costs £60 a ton.” The customer walked out, very indignant, the preparation for the Third World War having brought about what the whole of the Second failed to do. That meat caused a flurry at Belfast, partly from being bought at all, but more from the fact that I left it in the taxi and had to go to the station again in the bus, pick it up again, since the driver had not noticed it, and come up once more in the bus.
I spent several days in Belfast, visited its pubs and its clubs, met the veterans of the Labour movement, those without positions or recompense from having declined to renegate. Though not as well-preserved as Edinburgh, Belfast has had but few casualties as compared with Dublin. During the last half-century, it has paid to sell out, and the ease of the quiescent cities contrasts ironically with the decimation of revolutionary Dublin. Would those who held firm do it again if they had their lives to relive? The wife of one of them, Sam Haslitt, remarked sadly that her husband had spent his seventy years working hard for Labour, but that nothing had come of it. She implied that this showed he was rather a crank, though one to be slightly proud of. Her children would have none of it. Perhaps the capable men sold out, leaving only the honest ones.
When I had finished my business I returned to Dublin, and so on to Kiltimagh – a trying journey for one day, especially the CIE part of it [ie. the Irish State Transport Company]. Once again Walter was late, and just as he arrived, well after midnight, in walked Pat Gallagher ready for a nocturnal craic – which lasted till 3.30 am. He talked about the appalling season. He knew many who were reduced to cutting sedges when their hay was finished. I found him this time, as last, a very well-informed and intelligent man. Next day Walter prevailed on me to stay over so as to go to Boyle with him. The first thing to do was of course to get up early, but Gallagher had made this, if not impossible, difficult.
Then the water-supply failed. Walter maintains the water-supply as contractor to the County Council. Frog-spawn or tadpoles have a habit of entering the pipes, growing into frogs and in due course blocking the pipes completely. Then Walter borrows a man from the Council, digs a hole, opens the pipe, and pokes a wire through it. The water which is laid on must not be drunk, and the whole town relies for drinking water on a solitary pump where children queue up to draw their supplies and, if they pump too vigorously, drench those who wait opposite. Walter suspected that the garage proprietor had put a faulty tyre on his van. After getting the papers, reading them and having a drink, he went to the garage and found that his wheels were still out of alignment. He left the van to be mended. Meanwhile the hole was dug in the road, the extra supply switched off at the main and poking and pumping operations begun.
Mrs Fitzpatrick, who wanted a bath put in, threatened to go to Ballina if it was not in at once. A “poor widow” asked how much would it cost to move her tap six inches, commenting continually on the great prosperity of plumbers. “I’ve charged for things I couldn’t get at twice the price,” said he. “Then if you have, you want your head tested,” she rejoined. “Things are going up. Since I bought solder it has doubled.” “Then no wonder you made your pile.” At this time Walter claimed to be overdrawn and had to find a substantial wage-bill every week. After interminable-seeming delays we left first for Castlerea, where we failed to find a plumber, and then in the dark to Boyle. It had been proposed to bring Reggie Walsh back to install Mrs Fitzpatrick’s bath, but here again the road defeated all designs on it. The trenches were cut right across it and Reggie insisted on laying the pipes at once. So we returned empty-handed, and though I had been to Boyle I had not seen it.
Next morning I cycled to Castlebar, but deciding it was too cold after a shower, I hired a car for £2 to Mulranny. I let him take me on to Doobeg, and gave him £2 in the car, forgetting it was more after the additional distance. He said nothing, thanked me and smiled after a slight hesitation – and went back. Then I remembered and realised that I had a little of my own back. I had bargained at 44 miles £2; I had got 50 miles, and my driver had concluded I was a good businessman; I wished I had been a better one. Michael O’Malley, divining my presence by some miraculous means, brought up the key and after buying food in Mulranny, I took up my new residence.
“A few tiny shoots on the whitethorn, and nothing else showing.” The lateness of the season was the general topic everywhere. At Moran’s bar, the commercial and diplomatic centre of Mulrany, near enough to where the daily ‘bus stops to afford protection to bona fide travellers [who were allowed to buy alcohol outside normal hours], but not to schoolchildren without money to spend – the older inhabitants exchanged weather lore. “The climate is gone to the divil,” said one. “Fifty years ago, to be sure, there was growing weather. But did you know, I seen this winter what I never saw in my life span – frost on two nights with a West wind.” And leaving the zephyrs and coming to boreas, “It’s blowing out of the North and the North-East all the time. There’s a man I know in Westport with an early apple tree; it has little shoots on it, but they’re afraid to come out – afraid to come out, and who’d blame them?”
The lateness of the season brought its disadvantages even to the gentry. Milk was scarce. People were buying condensed milk. But fortunately Michael arranged to have a supply brought to me from his own three heifers who occupy the outhouse at the back of my cottage and create enough mire to paint Mulrany black. He brought a vigorous old woman wearing a black shawl and introduced her as his mother, since when she brings me a pint every day in a medicine bottle. Eggs, though going at 2d each, are not plentiful. The cold weather prevents the hens laying. Moran’s have no eggs, nor have the other lesser Moran’s next door but one (not the “Herself’s away” Moran’s who are opposite). Rashers are obtainable at Daly’s – this establishment has O’Donnell’s name over the door, the older people having gone but their goodwill remaining. But on my first visit I had to be content with bacon. The boss was bringing the rashers from Castlebar, where there is a bacon factory.
The stock in the shops is restricted but curious. Every shop is of course a bar, and a well-stocked bar at that. Moran’s have bottled bass, draught Guinness – I have I think seen bottled Guinness also but not always – Tullamore Dew, Jamison’s, and two wines of various tinctures, sherry and port. Daly’s has much the same. To some extent I suppose the hotel attracts the “tonic” amenities and the bass, the travellers sticking to porter. The shelves hold tins of stewed steak, beans, various fruits, and among these a shelf-ful of guavas, covered with dust and with the labels faded and torn. When I asked for a tin I had to point to them – Mrs Moran did not know the name or how to pronounce it. Then there is condensed milk. Butter is plentiful, tea, bread, sugar, all obtainable at the upper price ration-free; chocolate, sardines, processed cheese from Mitchelstown; semolina, cornflower, flour, and household items – but no tin openers.
Daly’s, not so well-stocked has more variety, including cartons of cream, envelopes, notebooks, stationery. But needles are hard to get, even here, where corduroys and tweed are stacked on the shelves according to enigmatic size numbers. Bootlaces and the like are to be got at the Post Office over whose door the name of the town is spelt Mulrany – a shorter form than any of the others, the Mulranny of the Bank of Ireland, Westport, who give the postal address as Mulranny, Westport, or the Mullaranny of the maps. The Post 0ffice also sells chocolate, and letters are despatched by a postman who fortunately goes the length of Doobeg every day. Newspapers are to be got at the little shop opposite, which is also the CIE ‘bus depot. Presiding there is a little old woman of the desperately ferocious peasant type, with masculine face, wild uncombed hair, and I would imagine of no great diligence. She takes the Irish Press and the Irish Independent but does not handle the Irish Times. This sells to the hotel only, and Moran’s have that business. So I decided to patronise Moran’s also. There is no fresh meat in the village and there seems to be no fish either. On fast days people eat eggs.
Mr Moran – whom I take it to be the son of old Mrs Moran who looks after the shop and chases children away when they come in out of the cold – showed me the house where I could get eggs on my way home. Mulranny is built on the south side of a narrow isthmus separating Curraun Achill from the mainland. Curraun means sickle and occurs in the name Currauntwohill in Kerry [Ireland’s highest mountain] where the mountain looks from one aspect like a sickle reversed. Possibly the name refers to the serrated ridge which makes the peninsula appear so striking and formidable from across the bay at Westport or Louisbourg. Below the town, which is not fifty feet above the sea, stretches a wide sandy bay with dunes on the left, a long stream which seems to issue from nowhere, and an area of salt marsh. Two revetments or barbs have been made, marking out what would but for the shallowness be a harbour. An island on the right is joined to the mainland by an iron bridge, for what reason I do not know, since its total value cannot be half of the cost of making the bridge. Away to the right behind the island are two headlands and two bays visible, Doobeg being concealed by the mountain to the right of the third headland, which at about 100 feet is the highest. Across the bay Croagh Patrick with the cloud on the summit stretches as a long irregular ridge, the megaliths in whose altitude give a great impression of height to the highest point.
On my first day showers of hail alternated with patches of sunshine. Snow lay on the higher parts of Mweelrea further to the right, but Croagh Patrick changed colour like a chameleon, as showers covered it with white, and then melted again. Periodically the nearer mountains also were sprinkled with the same ephemeral salt. The curve of the bay to the left encloses all the islands for which it is famous. There are said to be 365 of them – one for every day of the year. They are said to be partly submerged drumlins, and presumably the geologists are right, but not only because of the cliffs which the sea has sliced on them on the west, they appear more regular in outline, more similar, than the hillocks of the plains further east. Water dominates West Connaught. Near Castlebar the land between the drumlins is flooded, as if water invaded the land. In Clew Bay by the same token land invades the water.
To go from Mulrany to Doobeg you turn left at the schoolhouse, and traverse three miles of very rough road. At one place I descried some very ferocious-looking geese and guessed that this might be the place Mr Moran had indicated. I recalled also that goose-eggs are very nice to eat and make better omelettes than chickens’ eggs. An old man was the sole inhabitant. His wife was away, but he provided me with eggs, offering them for 2d each and apologising for their not being washed. That same evening I spoke to a young man in a field who directed me to a house at the top of the village, inhabited by O’Malleys also, where again I got eggs. The old man with the geese was at home after a severe cold. In O’Malley’s after I had sat down I noticed something stir within a curtained “bed in the wall” and was told that the daughter of the house was ill with a cold. “Everybody here goes to England,” said the old man, “But I was only there two years. We’re poor people here and there’s nothing in the land here.” His wife who sold me the eggs did not know how much to charge, since she had never sold them before. Mrs 0’Malley, Michael’s mother, had never sold milk. They all wanted to defer accepting payment for fear they would charge too much. I asked if there was fishing in it. The old man used to catch lobsters by setting pots, and together with another man they sold them to the hotel. But since his health broke down he had to give it up.
In the intervals between showers I explored the neighbourhood as well as I might. The road from Mulranny rises and falls twice, then rises to Doobeg, which seems to anticipate its highest point. Its general direction would seem to be South South-West, judging from the position of Westport lighthouse, which is marked by a white house by day and a rapid flashing at night. The first house on the right has geese in it, which walk sedately down the road every evening just before Michael arrives to put his three black cattle indoors. Below it is the deep rushing stream which provides drinking water. Despite the late season I found one solitary violet on its banks, and several bushes of a tall heather in full bloom. This would presumably be the “Mediterranean” heath, but there were no more than a few bushes of it, and I noticed none around Mulranny, possibly through the lateness of the season.
The house just above that with the geese is mine. When I arrived I noticed with what care it had been made as comfortable as possible. The inside walls were newly whitewashed. The three tables were covered with oil-cloth and vases of daffodils sat on them. These daffodils, which grow in the long front “garden” now very much resembling a quagmire, were the only visible sign of spring since my arrival to bring the luggage. Mrs O’Malley had found pots, pans and cutlery and when she came in bustled about to get me salt, egg-cup, bread-board and kettle. A few days’ supply of turf was piled against the out-house, turf oddly mixed, partly very hard and partly fibrous. The gate was newly painted and all the locks and catches were well oiled.
“Keep the doors bolted at night,” warned Michael..
“Surely that’s not necessary?” I asked.
“Arra, not for anything but the wind. It would burst them open. They are very honest people here. If they found money on the road they would go round knocking at the doors till they found who had lost it.”
I took the table out of the North room, which would I suppose from its size be qualified to be described as “the room”, and set it in the kitchen under a window not too far from the fire. The table for eating was in the centre. In either place fierce draughts of air fanned your legs, but that was unavoidable since the wind blew away from the door every species of mat placed there to stop its entry. Stuffing a wet sock under the door helped, but only till the wind dislodged it again. The wind roared and screeched all the time. At first I put down its North-Easterly direction to the position of the mountain behind, but later I concluded, in spite of the North-Westerly appearance of the sky, with wool-packs and squalls, without well-defined lines, that its origin was in fact the North-East, or at most North.
Expecting me on the Monday Mrs O’Malley had aired the bed, which was set up in the south room whose window faced east. She now offered a hot water bottle, which I declined, much to Michael’s amusement.
There was a fire already when I arrived; they have made it a practice of keeping a fire there all the time the house has been unoccupied; and a basket of turf of interesting construction. Strong sticks are placed radially like the spokes of a wheel. The wicker-work is then wound in and out through them, and a disk thus created. Each strong radial stick is accompanied by two thinner ones which are inserted about four inches from the centre and do not cross the entire diameter. Thus in the centre the strong sticks alone are visible and cross each other at right angles. Further out they are bent out fanwise, and the thinner insertions are then carried to the circumference, where they are bent sharply upwards for about five inches, the wicker-work plied in and out of them thus making the sides of the container.
How to get turf. When Walter Dwyer was over here he talked gaily of horse-carts at 27/-; he himself pays only 22/6. This he considers dear and was until recently thinking of taking a bog and cutting his own. The fact that he has not done so is taken by Josephine as evidence of his intention to instal an electric cooker. She bakes her own bread at present in a pot-oven standing on cinders, with other cinders raked on to the lid, and very good bread it is too. She buys flour by the hundred-weight. Before I came on I went to the local market with Walter and watched him buy a hundred-weight of potatoes. If the electric cooker is installed will she still bake bread I wonder? Modern methods of cooking all produce an inferior result, which can only be because in studying labour-saving and cheapness, designers have paid no attention to reproducing quality, which in any case they have been completely ignorant of.
Michael said he thought he could get a lorry load for £10. I demurred. How many horse-carts would the lorry hold? Next day he told me it held four, so I declined. On the Sunday as I was walking past the house opposite me and down the roadway leading to his and the strand, he told me he had turf himself but could not get a lorry there. I thereupon engaged him to get me a donkey cart load. Apparently ingress is too narrow even for his pony cart. I saw two boats drawn up below. One of them had been used for the lobster fishing and was described as a curragh or dinghy.
Croagh Patrick cleared itself while we were talking and he observed that he had climbed it five times, and at that after cycling to Westport. He told me that above the village, the last house of which is where I got the eggs – “the salmon man”, Michael calls the owner – there are the footprints of some strange monster in the rock. He had heard that when St Patrick banished the serpents and wild beasts one of them jumped from the reek and this was where he landed. “It must have been a big jump,” said Michael with a smile. He also said he had found shells up the mountain but was incredulous when I told him that this signified that the sea had once been there. Even the idea of raised beaches was quite strange to him, and he told me that he had often sought an explanation for the shells and had repeatedly asked old people in the neighbourhood about them without satisfaction. A geologist had been looking at the footprints last year, a “man with a hammer” and he had also been hammering up the mountain. “What minerals he thought were in it, I don’t know.”
I crossed the entrance of the remarkable sandy inlet just below his house. Only five or six yards wide at the neck, it widens into a yellow strand occupying several acres, protected from the Atlantic by a barrier of stones gradually rising and widening into a tongue of land, cliffed higher up on the seaward side, which joins the mountain at the top of the village, by a ruined house. The footprints are beside this house. This remarkable enclosure has traces of salt marsh at the head and is traversed by a stream which trickles from a bog above the road. The tide comes in, not in waves but by seeping through the barrier of rocks across the mouth, and no doubt this explains the survival of the sand which is apparently not agitated enough to be scoured away. The tide crept in so stealthily that it trapped Michael O’Malley’s ginger kittten on the spot on the far side. But to my surprise the animal boldly plunged in and swam across, shaking its fur like a little lion.
I walked up the spit, which I noticed was covered immediately above the rocks with a green sward divided into little square enclosures, almost five in number and not more than a few yards across, by walls made of loosely piled sea-rocks. Here a sheep and a lamb were grazing. Higher again the sward gives place to bog and the track runs up on to the road through mire and churned up-peat. There are about a dozen families in Doobeg, and a dozen empty houses, mostly of the old thatched type with roofs fallen in. But a number of thatched out-buildings were no doubt inhabited in the past. Michael told me that one ruin which I guessed was empty for fifty years or more, had been inhabited to his own recollection only fifteen years ago. No doubt older ruins have disappeared altogether, and some may have been levelled. Most of the houses at present inhabited are on the road, but there are three, two (semi-detached) new, and one old well away from the road. Doobeg is thus a definite village or settlement. Each holding has deep wide potato-beds four feet or more across, and separated by drainage trenches at least a foot deep. Seeing a pile of fucus by the O’Malley’s house I asked was it kelp – but apparently it is used as manure. I saw the man putting farmyard manure of various kinds on the flat potato beds, and others were carting away loads of the half-dry fucus. I spotted a small plant which looked rather like arenaria, and this together with the heath stimulated me to write to Eason’s [bookshop in Dublin] for Praeger’s “Botanist in Ireland”.
That night, after cycling into Mulrany and back, Michael came in, smelling slightly of liquor, together with the boy from the salmon-man’s house – a cousin of his, and also Michael. Pat wore a woollen beret with bright-coloured stripes which I judged was crochetted rather than knitted, though I could not say, or whether the materials were of local origin. They wanted me to go down to the all-night dance, but I declined. The night seems the only time when the wind dies down for a bit – sometimes rising to pitches of fury and abating completely in a few minutes – and is valuable for writing. They came in but would not take tea. I remarked on having seen a short fir trunk in the bay, but was puzzled to find no trace of others, or a stump. Michael explained that three men bought a whole trunk and after having cut off what they wanted left the remainder there. I expressed surprise that nobody had removed it for firewood. “Well now,” he said, “you’d surely get that very cheaply, if you only had the means to cut it up.” This seems to have satisfied him that I was anxious to economise on fuel and next day I saw him drop a donkey-cart full on to my little stack.
He told me that during the war quite considerable amounts of timber floated ashore from wrecks. On other occasions rubber came, which was used among other things as fuel. He himself had a huge tyre which nobody would buy because nobody had a vehicle big enough. You were legally bound to declare all such salvage to the coast-guards, but you didn’t always do so.
I asked why the little bay was not reclaimed by putting a barrier across the mouth and converting the strand into grazing – I felt sure the salt-marsh would extend and build up a sward in time, even if nothing else were done. He replied that he had often discussed the same subject at the fireside, especially with an old man who returned from the USA with many such ideas. The problem was capital cost. But surely, said I, there were enough able-bodied men in the village. He doubted it. When Walter Dwyer had asked him about fishing and suggested in the absence of a wharf that a winch would draw up a boat, he had thought to himself it would need five men to work a winch. I expressed surprise that there was only one sheep on the sward, and he answered that it had strayed from Curraun, four miles away, in search of food. Could the owner of the sward not lift a price for the grazing? He could, but people were neighbourly and didn’t bother. As soon as the grass grew on the mountains, it would be up there again.
Once again in Morans, I learned more of the O’Malleys. When I entered to shelter from an icy cold rainstorm which blew across the sky like the drop of a curtain in a theatre, a man from Sligo was discoursing with young Mrs Moran in the bar. The subject was Dr Browne [Minister for Health in the Irish Government and involved in the controversial “Mother and Child scheme” at the time]. Would he resign or not? Devlin, as his name was, held that doctors were swindlers and that the new health service would clip their wings. As it was now, they could charge what they liked and no wonder they disliked a health service which would control them. Mrs Moran protested that they would never treat patients properly unless they had private practices: treatment would be perfunctory, they would give you a pill and say, “come again tomorrow.” Devlin held that it would create competition among doctors; all up-to-date countries had such a service; Britain and Northern Ireland had had it for years.
Mrs Moran said it would not come. Fine Gael and the clergy were against it, and wasn’t the Coalition ruining the business people and employers. All these health services had to be paid for, and the high prices were the consequences of riotous expenditure. If De Valera were in power prices would never be so high. “You’re quite entitled to that opinion, ma’am,” said Devlin, “but could you tell me now, would you say the price of eggs was high?” As a counter she instanced lamb at 6/6 a lb., mutton 6/-, beef 5/6, butter 2/10, rashers 3/10, bacon 3/6, bread (currant bread) 1/2 a loaf, tea 6/6 a lb., extra sugar 8 1/2d. a lb. After this devastating reply Devlin fell to discussing how she could get a Government grant for building a wall round a new holding she had acquired. What was the purpose of the wall? “Well, you could have a vegetable garden in it.” “Ah well, you’d get a grant for making a vegetable garden.” She must write to Dublin and they’d send her a form. “Unfortunately, it’s not in my area, or I’d help you with it.” She asked if you would get a grant for improving a hen-house by putting a concrete floor in it. “Only if it complies with the regulations in size, height and light.” “It’s not our fault if there’s no electric light here,” she replied. “No – I mean God’s light, the day light. Otherwise every Tom, Dick and Harry would be getting grants for making the country a terrible eyesore.” “This is an old house.” “It must comply with the regulations just the same. Even if you were to pave it with gold you wouldn’t get a grant without the light.” Afterwards she told me that Devlin was Department of Agriculture inspector for Achill, which includes Doobeg. Now would he give a grant for reclaiming the little bay here?
Mrs Moran told me that Mrs O’Malley was the more remarkable an old woman for the trouble she’d had. Michael’s brother was away in a sanatorium with tuberculosis, which he contacted while working in England during the War. But I didn’t need to fear. It was not in the house I had that he caught it. I replied that if I was going to have it, I would have caught it long ago. She said the house had been left to the O’Malleys by an old man who was a great scholar and a shanachee. He would have been an interesting man for me to meet. But I should also meet the retired schoolteacher who lived in the village. I had been told there was no teacher in Mulranny and that the children played the devil with the nuns, who could not control them. She replied that his school was in another district, that he was a great folklorist and that a woman from Sweden had come to see him, and she was a divorcee, but “sure, they’re all divorcees in that country. They have as many husbands and as many wives as they want.” Drawing the conversation back to the O’Malleys, I learnt that Michael has a sister who had a nervous breakdown and was committed to Castlebar Mental Hospital where she had undergone “electrical treatment”. It did not surprise me that she was still there. Mrs Moran then remarked on the extraordinary prevalence of mental disease and the number of people who could not sleep at night and had to take tablets.
Leaving her I returned to Doobeg and went a little further along the west. After the village the road turns sharply west. Clare Island comes into view, with another lighthouse, and instead of undulating, the road runs about level below the rocks and rough bay. There are no more houses along this coast, which is too inhospitable for farming.
After an abortive attempt to take up, the weather settled down to carry out its worst for the whole of the next week. On Friday fierce hail showers covered the mountains with white as if it had been snow. For reasons I cannot quite make out Croagh Patrick always has less snow and ice on it than Mweelrea and the hills between; possibly their shape lends itself to formation of drifts below the high cliffs at the ridge.
I crossed the road and mounted the little isolated ridge opposite the bay, on the south-east side of the village. On the far side it is steeply cliffed, and is probably the last of the drumlins, though of fair size, and covered with heather and bog. An old road runs past the two houses to where the lobster man has the curragh, joining or rather branching from the road a few hundred yards back towards Mulrany from my house. Another road opposite to the junction stretches up the hill, but either disappears into a bay or turns back to Mulranny. I put my foot in a bog-hole but was rewarded by seeing a great bank of Mediterranean heath in full bloom. The common heather was standing lifeless beside it. Despite the foul weather, which Michael says resembles a normal January, the gorse has appeared in great masses, and a few sallow flowers.
I went to Newport on Friday – by bus. My bicycle is a great centre of discussion when I am in Mulranny – everybody trying its weight and speculating on its merits. I left it at Moran’s in order to go to Kelly’s at Newport and arrange for meat to be put on the ‘bus for me if I telephoned. Rashers and onions are unobtainable in Mulranny and a trip for these seemed worthwhile. The showers of hail continued to whiten the fields and then allow them to be green again. There was not a leaf expanded. Along the roadsides the hedges composed of derelict stumps, dry enough to burn at a match, showed just their tiny apologies for leaf-buds which they had when I came. There is a row of the same nondescript things outside my door, too undeveloped for me even to know what they are.
I quickly found Kelly’s and went for tea at the “Angler’s Hotel” owned by a brother of Kelly, the meat man. The proprietress told me something about Newport. Both Newport and Westport were ruined by the late war. Not a single ship or boat ever comes to Newport Quay. Noticing a building rather like a warehouse opposite, I asked about it, and was told that it formerly belonged to Carey’s who had one of the most thriving businesses in the West of Ireland. Old Carey used to buy tea direct from India and bring his chartered vessels up to Newport Quay. When he had done this, he would distribute the tea throughout the west, and sell it in London at a 1/2d cheaper than they sold it themselves. I mentioned Sweeney’s of Achill Sound, a famous “Department Store”, and was told they were small fry in comparison with Carey’s. But the old man died in 1910 or thereabouts, and though the shop remains the business is not a fraction of its former self.
I walked round the back of the demesne – I think it is the Newport House Hotel grounds; Dwyer and I had lunch there when we brought my luggage and met Lady [space for name left vacant in the original], who was formerly matron at Guy’s Hospital and was now retired to Pontoon. She knew him from his having put in central heating in her hotel. There are daffodils and primroses in the grounds. There are even a few sprays of male sallow, all very timid. As a farmer in Moran’s remarked, “Even the white-thorn is afraid to come out.”
Newport harbour is a fine spacious bifurcated inlet, the southern part of which receives the river and comes up to the bridge. The northern branch comes to the warehouse by the hotel, or rather comes below it, and I take it Careys used to use this branch. It is now completely derelict. There are precisely two boats, drawn up on a wide green lawn alongside the southern branch. The wharf is well-built and commodious, could easily take sizeable vessels. These two could just about be used for fishing, and a few nets spread about indicated that they were. There was no air of dereliction here – it was an air of clearance! All remains and evidence of a nautical past had been gathered up, and instead of a derelict port there was a town on a quay. Above the road bridge hangs Arnold Balfour’s railway bridge. The embankment, tunnels and cuttings for this remain, but one cutting I examined, which was no doubt once the station, held a thriving vegetable garden. Above this is the church, but hail drove me back to the bus. I didn’t see it.
On the way back I called in once more at Moran’s. The shop was decorated with several bicycle tyres hung from the top shelf in front of an array of tea-pots. Cups, pots of jam, brushes and what not were being delivered – by van from Ballaghaderreen. The war ruined the small ports, concentrated all trade in Dublin, and now the internal combustion engine continues its work on a new basis; the little towns, fifty miles inland serving as entrepots. Moran says the advantage of getting things in this way is that they pay no carriage.
I called in at the second cottage on the road home also. Here I get eggs at the “market price” (taken off the Mayo News) of 2d. each. The old woman there has two daughters working as domestic servants. The husband and oldest son – about thirty-five to forty, and rather bent and worn, slow of speech, from years of incessant work – work the farm. The youngest son, who would be close on thirty, was ill with a cold early in the week when I first called. He has recovered now and is away doing road work for the council. He goes to England every June and returns at Christmas. Yorkshire is his usual place of emigration, and he does agricultural work. Down in Moran’s they were talking about the weather, the land and prices, as usual.
“There’s some hay being eaten this last week.”
“There is, and by all accounts it’s killing many of them.”
“If this weather continues we’ll all starve.”
“There’ll be a price for next year’s oats and hay!”
And so each farmer hopes there will be a shortage but that he will have plenty – and God sends the same weather on the lot of them. According to Michael, hay is selling at 12/6 to 15/- a cwt. But the newspapers say it is reaching £20 a ton in Limerick. The woman in the cottage was discussing prices also. The high price of rashers and bacon was beginning to disturb her. “We killed a pig in November,” she said. “But there are three men, and it’s about done now. Oats will be a terrible price this year.”
“It’s a pity you couldn’t grow a wee patch,” I suggested.
“We do grow oats.” she declared proudly, “and potatoes and carrots and cabbages and turnips and onions!”
So just as Michael is famous for having a radio, which raises him above the rest of humanity, she is famous for the variety of her vegetables.
Next day was the first tolerable day. The wind once more squeezed itself as far as West-Southwest but retained plenty of its bite. This air which comes from the west is North-Atlantic air which has merely made a slight detour. Michael now set to work planting his potatoes. All week he has been bringing up wicker creels of seaweed (fucus). These have bottoms which are retractable, so that they need not be inverted to spill their contents. He makes out a bed a few feet across with pegs and string, and after distributing these little leaves of fucus at points along it, he distributes it evenly with a fork, leaves about a foot between beds, and then repeats the process. He has been all week covering about six such parallel beds, and today has one of them turned over with the spade, thus burying the focus (or wrack) and cut potatoes and straw on it about eighteen inches apart. The man in the next farm is sitting out an empty creel with a sack in it, cutting potatoes out of another sack. All complain about the cold – there is frost almost every night when it is not pelting hailstones or rain at us – and about the wet state of the ground which will rot the spuds.
The sun was shining, so I decided to make a circle of the peninsula. As soon as you leave Doobeg going west, Clare Island come into view, but looks its best only when Achill is also in the picture, that is say at the extreme South-West, just beyond Curraun. Curraun begins with a ruined house or two, but it has three drumlins and thus about six or eight times the agricultural land, and into the bargain a hotel. I would say it is a much more populous centre than Mulranny. As I came up a hill into the village and rounded the drumlin, what a sight of activity! Scores of people of all ages, not a few yards apart, were digging beds and planting potatoes. “We usually have it finished by the twentieth,” one of them told me. It was then the fourteenth.
The children were bringing up donkeys carrying baskets of fucus – I saw one girl with two creels of luminaria (kelp), but this was the only instance of it. Others were laying the weed, others were digging, others cutting and others still setting. This was the most important economic function of the year, and I could understand how after it was over there could be a public festival to celebrate work done. There is not a single habitation in the three miles between Doobeg and Curraun. Imagine then the sudden impact of this hive of industry! White houses jostle cheek-by-jowl on the road, though there are broad tracks of fertile ground between the village and the small harbour from which I believe a fishing boat would take you to Clare Island. After Curraun Achill itself comes into view – like an enormous Curraun. On the peninsular side of the sound, after Curraun, there are frequent but fairly isolated farms, with occasional clusters. At times the mountain is quite near the sea. But across on the island is the densest rural habitation I ever saw. Clean white houses stand out against the dark purple-brown of the mountains in incredible profusion. I stopped at one point and counted two hundred, not counting the group of buildings by the “Michael Davitt Bridge” at Achill Sound.
I made my acquaintance with the famous “Sweeneys”. The first building you come to is T.Sweeney’s garage; the second is M. Sweeney’s hotel, grocery, and bar. Then you cross the bridge and the real thing comes into view – Patrick Sweeney’s. I would not say the shop was as big as Carey’s in Newport, but it has a longer frontage. Just as the garage might have been in England and the hotel might have been in Wales, the department store could have been in the suburbs of Dublin. The other names were such as Lavelle, Kilbane, and so on – also several Protestant names. Achill Sound is a new centre, and probably owes more to the internal combustion engine than to the now extinct railway which may have given it its first impetus. Sweeney’s has a big hinterland if all Achill is as congested as the part I saw, and serves as a supplier for Curraun also. Oddly enough though rashers are hard come by in Mulranny and Daly fetches them weekly from Castlebar, I saw the van of the Castlebar bacon company running through Achill Sound – and it could only have come through Mulranny. The return journey, along the north side of the Curraun Peninsula takes you through impressive but gloomy scenery. I used to like this type of scenery once, but have rather turned against it. Let me have places that face south. There are islands, huge bays, complicated inlets, screes, precipices and enough rocks to build a metropolis. The sea and the inlets, taking their colour from the rocks of Achill or the dark bays of the Mullet, have many shades but do not achieve the variety of pastel colours that are seen in the Hebrides – at least not now, but this may be due to the rough weather that gives the poor things not a moment’s rest. And having come back and consumed some of the steak bought in Newport yesterday, I finished Chapter 2.
A letter from Muriel MacSwiney told me there have been high jinks in Dublin over Dr Browne’s resignation [This precipitated the fall of the Fine Gael-Labour-Clann na Poblachta Coalition Government and the return to office of Fianna Fail under De Valera]. Writing from the Library she speaks of the great crowd round the Dail. The Irish people seem to be having one more chance to jump back from the fire into the frying pan, and no doubt De Valera has his hands already reaching for the salt and pepper.
Walter came out in the evening, bringing Josephine [ie. Mrs Dwyer], Oona, the middle daughter and with Padraig the strongest of the family, and Reggie Walshe, now trying to supply water to the houses round Walter’s which were still cut off till yesterday when, while nothing was being done, all the tanks suddenly began to fill. Carmel had to stay behind and look after Gwen, who had been ill all week. I don’t know that it was anything but Walter’s fancy that chose the Welsh name for the youngest girl, but Josephine’s sister was called Oona.
The day had been wet and mild, but about eight o’clock the wind returned to the North, the clouds broke, and we walked along the road until we saw Clare Island. Mrs O’Malley was trying to “pump” Josephine about my family, antecedents and everything else, in a neighbourly way of course. Every morning she brings me milk and seeing the papers on the table from the night before she says, “Oh. You’re busy already, good luck to you.”
But the day of Walter’s visit was the occasion of a local tragedy which might well have wrecked my domestic happiness in this cold weather. The water-closet, which can scarcely be termed any kind of house, and is only entitled to the expression “water” because it is a galvanised iron privy erected on wood piles over an apology for a stream, is internally of very primitive construction, the seat consisting of plywood loosely resting on the beams to which the corrugated iron is attached. Alas today, as a testimony to Irish beef and eggs, it broke with disastrous consequences, and what was to be done.
Eller, the turf expert, told me of his first visit to Czarist Russia in 1905, or possibly earlier. He was examining a peat bog away in the East, and stayed with the miller, who as can be expected was the rich man of the village. As is known, a drop of an honest miller’s sweat will cure any known disease. The house was attached to the mill and the miller would come out to sit at table white from head to foot. Everything was covered with flour. But even he, the local dignitary, had no kind of convenience and he and his family, whatever the weather, had to seek the privacy of the fields. Eller said that his experiences in Czarist Russia convinced him from the first that the Soviet system could only be an improvement, and though he has never been there since, he has always held to that view. In his own country, in Sweden, there are records of the next stage of civilization, which but for the visitors I might have essayed myself, namely a simple beam. In medieval Sweden it was part of the inn-keeper’s regulations, that he must (apart from food and drink, fodder and accommodation for the horses) supply a beam for the convenience of his guests. However, in view of the fact that I was shortly to entertain the “quality” from Kiltimagh, I set to repairing the damage, the only tool available being an axe. There are a few fir trees which have been planted in the garden, presumably with the idea of affording shelter. One of these had died and its trunk was lying on the pathway. The axe cut off the necessary length – then a few pieces of driftwood, a few wedges, and the introduction of civilization into Doobeg was complete!
Then the “quality” arrived. In London all the Irish are called “Kulchies” from a Dublin corruption of Kiltimagh, supposed to be typical of the roughest part of fighting Connaught. In Dublin the Connaught men are “Kilties”, pronounced somewhat similarly. But so to Kilitmagh itself and there is profound contempt for the bumpkins who live a couple of miles outside the town, and as for Bohola – why they are absolute “Kulchies”.
Naturally they fell in love with Doobeg. Walter had in his imagination trout out of the mountain stream where I draw my water, salmon from the bay and great variety of sea-fish netted, or even clumping on the sand. Says the Hebridean:
“Oh that the fields would till themselves
And the fish clump by the shore . . . “
And Walter’s pipes will have to plumb themselves, for he is going to bring lines, net and creels when the season begins in late May. Josephine bustled round and made tea for us all, operating the goose quills with which you brush the hearth, and the heather bunches (made of Erica Mediterranea!) which serve as hand brooms for the room. She noted, what had crossed my mind previously, that the plates were of the genuine willow pattern, a fact which set Walter talking about pottery.
It seems that recently near Kiltimagh a rate-collector noticed a curious jug in the house of an old farmer. He and his wife saw the man examining it and immediately suspected it might be valuable. When the rate-collected offered them £30 for it, they demurred. “Well, Sir, it belonged to me ould mother, and I wouldn’t like to part with it.”
“Think it over,” said the rate collector, “and I’ll call back.”
He had not been long gone when picking the jug up to try and see what was remarkable in it, the old man handed it to his wife, and between them they dropped it. It fell into four or five pieces which were thrown out on the rubbish dump. When once more the rate-collector called, he asked about the jug. “Oh, sir, you were hardly gone and it got broken.”
The pieces were taken from the muck, washed and it was found that they were complete. He offered five pounds for them. Avarice gleaming in their eyes, the couple refused to sell. Nothing he could say or do would induce them to part with the pieces which they had only rescued from the rubbish heap. The rate-collector went away disgusted and the pieces may be there yet.
Next morning I took Michael’s photograph. He settled himself down on a sack of potatoes while I made the performances which are considered necessary to those skilled in the art. Then his mother arrived with the milk – a magnificent subject but as bashful as a prima donna. I snapped her, though. “Now!” she said, “and look at the old waistcoat I’ve got on!” The day was fine and dry. Everybody was out setting potatoes. An Achill man in Moran’s blessed the change in the weather and the heat in the sun, even if the north wind was as cold as ever. With special emphasis for the benefit of the townsman, he said it would be a bad thing for everybody if the potato crop was to fail. Back at Doobeg the bad weather had wet the turf stacks which stand rain better than hail or snow. My next-door neighbour up the hill – between me and Michael’s – was out with an axe cutting gorse (which is now in full bloom here also) to mix with the turf, then, “with a drop of oil, we’ll have a blaze.” I followed the example and gathered some wood. Fortunately the ground dries quickly here owing to the thinness of the soil. The morass behind my cottage is hard solid ground already, and up to midday we still had an occasional slight shower. But that same next door neighbour swears there will be more snow while the North wind blows. To hell with boreas and give us the fire!
I went to Newport to get films developed, having just caught Mrs Mulgrew outside Moran’s, and heard that Seán had written to her. He had also sent me a list of his friends whom I must visit. It began to hail heavily at Newport. The chemist had to send the films the length of Ballina. But sure enough they came back in two days – on the bus to Moran’s.
But the very next day the wind swung round to the East, and held there for several days while there was the most frantic digging, raking, planting, and seweed-carrying imaginable. The entire able population concentrated on one thing alone – planting potatoes. After precisely two days the farmers in Moran’s had changed their tune. “There’s not much grass on the mountain,” one declared, “If this dry weather goes on hay will be a terrible price.” Admittedly the ground dries quickly. I had seen allium under six inches of water in the little stream below the next house. Now it is just on water level. I had wondered why people advised me to go so far down the road when there were several streams nearer. Experience teaches. Within the few days they were dry.
My next door neighbour returned from Pembroke bringing with him a young Welsh collie, ten months old, given to him by the farmer who employs him. He and his eldest son, a lad of about fifteen wearing clothes miles too big for him, set to work digging for potatoes at the neck of the spit of land ending in what I now know is called Gabhann Point. The spade-like spatula of the peninsula is the property of the lobster man. Michael’s sister came back from Chelsea because of the other sister’s serious illness. So the village is full.
Then Roy Johnston came [Dublin left-wing scientist and friend of Greaves’s] I cycled as far as Westport to meet him at the station, and had a cup of tea at Malone’s. Hanging in the room was a handsome embroidered memento in green, white and orange, dated 1923, and bearing the names of five prisoners in the Curragh. The North Mayo Brigade [of the IRA in the 1916-21 War of Independence] was pictured opposite on the slopes of Nephin. After meeting Roy I took him to another Malone’s, rather a more select place. There hung the pictures of all who were condemned in 1916, together with many other framed memorials of national interest. In the first place the brother of the lady of the house had been out [ie. in the War of Independence] and she pointed out the men by name. The second was a daughter who had no recollection and little interest. A visitor staying at the house, a traveller I would judge, was extremely interested.
Roy only stayed three days. On one of them we climbed the apparently anonymous mountain almost 1700 feet behind the house. It presents a gentle undulating slope to the south but is precipitous on the North where it looks over Ballacragher Bay – am I wrong in connecting this word with Ballycrag? The whole seems to be sandstone and sedimentary rock. The Cashcancarragh range is visible from my window – at least Cashancarragh is – and I understand this series is quartzite. We saw the whole range through Nephin Bay to Slieve Carr, Achill Sound, Blacksod Bay and the Mullet away in the distance. The difference between the Northern and Southern view is most striking. You were glad to turn back to Mulrany and look over the gracious waters of Clew Bay, with its yellow, green, rust and maroon islands, like little cakes on a plate, and Croagh Patrick bending benignly serving them up like a hoary old butler. But barely were we down when – pop! – round went the wind to the North again, and down came the same icy showers – cold rain, not hail, and in the morning, Lo! – snow all over Croagh Patrick itself, let alone Mweelrea and the Sheffry mountains, which take an indecent delight in clothing themselves with any that is going.
Roy went on the Thursday. On the Friday there was great excitement in Mulranny. Mrs Moran leaned confidentially over the bar. “Seán T is up at the hotel”[Seán T O’ Kelly, then President of Ireland]. The company were making very light of him; but Mrs Moran was sufficiently interested to forget to tell me my meat had arrived on the bus from Newport. And sure enough a half hour later the President’s rose-coloured limousine went by, the bartenders from the hotel were in telling us how many drinks he had had, and that he was on his way to relations he had at Westport and the postman observed ironically, “These fellows don’t sleep out!” Yet to do the man justice he was the President and could, had he wished, have surrounded himself with as much pomp and circumstance as the English king.
“What do you think of it?” said the Emperor Napoleon. “A solemn mummery!” said the General, and added, “It is a pity the hundred thousand people we killed to put an end to this could not be here to see it.” Well. “it” does not go everywhere with Seán T.
Michael brought me a new load of turf. After exactly three weeks he had dug his field and set the potatoes. But “the turf is too dry” – it would burn too quickly. But it didn’t remain dry long. The North winds held up again, as if they couldn’t bear to rest.
But during that temporary remission what a change. Primroses, daisies and germander speedwell cover the lawns. Gorse flames from the hills, and great patches of Mediterranean heath, even quite high on the mountain, have opened up. The dried shells in all the hedges have declared themselves as fuchsia, a few buds having appeared on mine. Willows and sallows have powdered themselves with catkins, and trees are covered with tufts of purple flowers, and those rhododendrons which the lunatics of the CIE are sparing in their crazy woodfelling mania, have heads on them. But the major trees are gaunt and leafless. They are still, rightly, “afraid to come out”.
Walter Dwyer came out again on the Sunday, bringing as well as Oona and Josephine, Carmel, Padhraig, Ronald and Gwen, and Tommy Gallagher, a local farmer of left-wing views and a quick and penetrating intelligence. He had suggested a protest meeting over Dr Browne to his cronies. They were all for it, but when it came to the push disinclined to support it.
We went for a tour in the van. In Curraun was a flock of geese, one of them as I thought strutting along with a feather in its beak. Tom did not notice it but informed me that there was a suggestion that a goose would keep laying eggs for breeding purposes if a quill was stuck through its nostrils. He had never seen it, but guessed it was a goose thus treated I had noticed. He condemned the practice as inefficacious as well as cruel, though I would swear it did not detract form the dignity of the animal. The dogs of Curraun gave Walter a devil of a barking. One of them ran a mile. He told me that Roy, whom he took to Castlerea on Friday, was thoroughly nerve-wracked by the noise of the van, being convinced that it was his bicycle falling to pieces. We saw one man whose horse was in a bog, the level of which was several feet above the ground level. His turf was strewn out about level with his roof, and not more than two yards away. Both Walsh and Tom agreed that the density of houses in Achill would be hard to equal, and their spotless white against the prevailing purple made a unique scene.
When we returned the boys had found limpets and winkles. I had mentioned that limpets could be eaten. Walter immediately went out and found a hat-full which he would have eaten on the spot, but Josey recalled that Mrs O’Malley had explained that there were limpets and dog-limpets, just as there were winkles and dog-winkles, and if you ate the wrong ones you died. Walter postponed the feast till he had Mrs O’Malley’s assurances. Curiously enough all his were good ones, probably because he had picked them off the lower rocks where the sea kept them alive and fresh. Josey had been up with Margaret O’Malley to see the tracks, or devil’s footprints. Margaret had told her of caves where the Danes used to live – you would find the shells of the limpets which they used for food. The children loved it all and helped Walter to load the van with handsome rounded stones and clumps of heath for his garden.
Then came the news of the election [The May 1951 General Election which saw Eamon De Valera’s Fianna Fail party replacing the Fine Gael-led Coalition Government]. It could not be said that Irish politicians are behind the British in arranging elections where the electorate does not elect, but chooses between something and the same thing another way. Josie Moran wants De Valera: “He’s a better man.” “I don’t know,” growls somebody in the bar, “I think they’re all a dead loss.”
At Cushlecka where I got eggs, where the two daughters are in Weymouth, and the son liable to go with one of the three bus-loads which leave Achill sound every day, they are more interested in their animals. Somebody has poisoned their dog, or it had picked up poison. The new puppy they paid 30/- for has a fit, and a pill and Epsom Salts have to be administered. Their cat has died on them, but they have got a tiny undersized but over-petted kitten six months old and looking two, shabby, jaded and scrawny, from the little girl Loftus in the “Red House” in Dooagh Bay, who has not enough milk for three such kittens.
Worst of all the animal which Roy and I argued the toss about on the mountain as we saw it slip over the rocks, waving its shaggy tail, must have been a fox and has just killed one of their lambs. The old man had worked in Liverpool and Frodsham, and was far from ignorant of affairs further afield. He held that the British and Americans had no right in Korea. “They say it is to destroy Communism,” he declared, “but sure they’ll never destroy it now. It’s too strong.” His wife held that all the political parties in Ireland amount to the same thing. “There’ll be no pound got for nothing,” she declared, “and when they’re returned we’ll hear no more of the promises till next time.” Hay at 30/- a cwt, and continuing cool dry weather, the North wind, the slow growth – these interest people more than whether one or other Government collects the taxes.
Yet slowly the spring advanced. I went to Newport on the one solitary day when the wind spent the afternoon in the West South-West. The fuchsia buds are drooping and swelling, and the avenue above Rosturk Castle is the most luminous green, fills the roadway and reflects back and makes everything green, and green greener. Primroses and violets are everywhere, but while an occasional sycamore has brown and red leaves on it, most are only opening their buds and the ash is merely flowering. There are occasional celandines, an odd buttercup, at points a hawthorn hedge. In Michael’s garden a cuckoo sings each morning. Carey’s bog next door insulates it, so that you never know which is which. But I did see it once, singing as it flew – so “The cuckoo is a pretty bird.” “Next there’ll be the corncrakes,” said Mrs O’Malley. But whereas Scotch cuckoos mean rain, this doesn’t. It remains obstinately dry, and by the time I was in Newport the wind was back in the North – after a momentary sojourn in the South-East, whereupon the mountains softened and fell back and everything became as blue as a symphony in D flat major.
Some of my photographs were fairly successful. The chemist, a youngish man called Corbett, had explained to me how he had to send all his developing and printing to Ballina. That was because there was no water supply in the town. Last year the water was to have been laid on. He had spent £150 on equipment and nearly broke himself, since it was all idle at this very minute. No busy man in Westport would have time to do developing and printing. He would not have enough either to pay a man – such a man would need £3 a week . . . but at lunch time I read a violent and explosive letter written by the newly founded “Newport Development Association”, pouring coals of fire on the heads of the Mayo County Council for not completing the water works. “I see you have powerful friends,” said I to Corbett, “in the Development Association.” “Ah, that’s right,” said he, “and I’m the secretary of that, so I wrote the letter to the Mayo News.”
And that very night, scratch, scrape, rasp – outside my very window all night – the corncrake. Curiosity led me to look for it in the moonlight. I went out, down to the gate, across the road, into Michael’s field – it was much louder. At close quarters it must be deafening. What it is doing, heaven knows. It goes on and on and on, and seldom ever pauses for breath.
I went up to see Brian Carrigan, one of Seán Mulgrew’s friends who had been in the Republican Congress [Left-wing Republican “broad front” movement in 1934; Sean Mulgrew, born in Mulranny, took part in land agitation and had been on the Saor Eire Executive in 1931 along with Peadar O’Donnell]. I found I had met him before at a brains trust at Heath Row aerodrome, where he had received the Connolly Club team in his capacity as chairman of the welfare committee. He still sees Peadar O’Donnell [Irish novelist and leftwing Republican leader, one of the founders of the 1934 Republican Congress].
When Denis Walshe [leftwing activist from the 1930s] and Justin Keating [1930-2009, Irish politician, later Labour Government Minister; at this time in the Irish Workers League] came the wind was still blowing away merrily from the North, though it had lost some of its viciousness. Its teeth were being drawn. We went to Achill Sound, to Keel and to Dooagh. We noted nothing of particular interest – wild swans, the house with the turf bank higher than itself outside the window, the closely packed white houses and tiny holdings, the appearance of the incredibily cheap-jack money-taking attractions somebody has told the local people will attract tourists to formerly outlandish Keel.
But when we were in Moran’s and the news came on the radio, everybody was hushed and quieted. The odd comments about the weather and elections went by without attention being specially strained. Then came the announcement that that very afternoon four people had been drowned in a photographer’s boat from which they were trying to film Sweeney’s new “fish-manure-from-basking-sharks” venture which is to bring prosperity to Achill Sound. As soon as the announcement was over full-scale conversation was resumed, the state of the war in Korea attracting no attention at all.
Next day we went to Murrisk and climbed Croagh Patrick. Justin noticed how much better fed the cows were near Newport than at Achill. Their lumbering gait and bedraggled appearance he ascribed to phophorous deficiency. We had a clear day and could almost see the house. Dooagh Bay was quite distinguishable, and the islands in the bay are one of the most remarkable sights to be seen anywhere. Many of them seem accessible at low tide and possibly the animals which are grazed on them are driven over at such times at they are accessible.
We reached Mulranny at about nine in the evening. Josie Moran came out to say that a mutual friend had called, a schoolmaster who had been in Newport years ago. Sure enough, there he was with Tom Gallagher sitting in the car. He came in after a while, but explained he had to return to Mrs O’Malley. “He’s talking Irish there,” said Tom. We waited a while. Tom went to fetch. “He’s coming now,” he declared and explained that the house seemed to display all the symptoms of a contretemps. Michael had been out late. Mrs O’Malley was displeased but was putting down duck eggs for Liam. Just after twelve Liam returned in a most spiteful humour. But this did not prevent him talking till 3 am., Tom meanwhile growing increasingly agitated. Next evening in bustled Mrs 0’Malley, bursting with curiosity and full of excitement. He had refused to tell her who he was. “I asked him,” said she, “was he a school teacher, but he didn’t say he wasn’t or he was. But I know the Irish he spoke was not the kind we speak. It is the same you would hear on Radio Athlone.” “His Irish wasn’t too good,” said Michael,” I asked him a number of words and he couldn’t Irish them.” In the end, with exquisite tact, she had admired the colour of his hat, which was green, and he had been as good as compelled to put it on. “That Michael is a real rustic,” he had told us, “heavy, slow, and – suspicious!” So the one explained the other.
But one thing interested me. He was inclined to be a trifle anti-clerical. I asked did he ever hear of a Capuchin named Fr. Lawrence [Franciscan friar sympathetic to Republicanism]. “I confessed to him,” he replied, and told us the story of how at the age of fourteen he joined the IRB [Irish Republican Brotherhood] while a monitor or student teacher in a school. He had to study the heresies of the early Christians and after duly comparing the pros and the cons he came to the conclusion that it was “all a lot of nonsesnse”. Greatly disturbed he went, not to his Parish Priest, but to Fr Lawrence, and confessed to his loss of faith. The broadminded Capuchin told him that it was monstrous that a young lad should have to study such things, but once studying them it was impossible for him to come to any other conclusion. Indeed, he declared, he himself, though a Capuchin, had studied that same subject and could assert there and then that he had no more faith than the boy. It was indeed all nonsense. But had Liam ever allowed it to cross his mind the pain and grief it would cause his family, his mother and his sisters, if he were thus openly to abandon his religion? Would it not be better to keep on going to Mass and confession even if he didn’t believe? And this indeed was precisely what he agreed to do.
My next door neighbour appeared at the door – Carey, the man from Pembroke – with a dozen eggs so that I could provide my visitors with food. Next day he called again in the evening and proved a very pleasant, gentle and discerning man. Talking of geese, he recalled that they had saved a city years ago through their good hearing. He thought it was in Greece. Then he had been reading the life history of the salmon. The stream below the house has suddenly come alive with trout. At Mulranny strand – beside the esker (I think it is an esker) which bars the mouth of the harbour – Justin and I noticed shells, molluscs, both limpets and winkles, walking along the bottom of a pool! We pulled one of them out and saw long branched legs protruding. Carey now explained that these were not young lobsters as we had supposed, but young crabs, but that they usually fed on limpets. I took it that at each tide a number of shellfish are dislodged from the rocks and we had just caught the crabs at their meal. He was very interested in the Mediterranean heath. But nobody in this district realised that it differed in any way from the ordinary heather. Hearing that I had been up Croagh Patrick, he had brought me a telescope with which to look at the islands if ever I climbed another mountain. I’d hardly go up Croagh Patrick again. This was only a small 3/4″ instrument, but was capable of showing up sheep on the hills and the trawlers which came out from Westport or Lecanvey.
Mrs O’Malley called with the request not to let the calves through the gate if they mooed loud enough to burst. They were to stay out on the mountain. There was no grass; it was only turf weather to be sure; but it contented them. “They’re by the river, now,” she said, “a good thing too. Let them stay there.” She ran her eye round the garden. The daffodils had faded, but she was not willing to attribute death to natural causes. “The flowers!” Then she saw a leafless rose stick, “The beggaring things! Michael will be mad. All his flowers. They have them all ate!” And next day and night the mountain, still as brown as a dry leaf, was covered with black cattle.
It was only turf weather. I resolved to have a look at Michael’s bog. The wind kindly hacked to the West – but only for two or three hours – and there was one warm afternoon. I climbed up to it and found O’Donnell, then Michael, and with him the boy with the knitted round cap or beret in several colours. It is turf weather. For everybody is up in the mountain bogs, women, boys and men. The fields which a few weeks ago were so populous, are now deserted all day long. There is neither the smell of sea-weed nor the crunching sound of the spade. The furrows, or lazy-beds as I suppose they are, have dried to a grey colour, and there is no green but for a few cabbages planted at the very edge of the trenches which carry potatoes. Oats have been sown in similar beds. There is of course no sign of it, though all night and every night the corncrake crakes without corn. Michael and his colleagues told me of the bog half-way to Ballycrag where machines are used, and I resolved to go and see it.
No poet or belle-lettrist to my knowledge has sung the praises of turf in any adequate manner. You can tell an Irishman in London by the smell of turf on his boots. To cook a potato in turf ashes, open it and insert butter, is to produce the nearest modern equivalent to the ambrosia of the sages. Lichee, beautiful women and poetry are the contentments of the Chinese. Here we have the equivalent of the lichee – which Denis thinks is horrible. I would say myself the flavour is due to the turf, just as the flavour of China tea is due to tanning rope. I recall the odour of Dublin at the end of the War – the blue haze, the smell of the Irish provinces having invaded the capital and made it what it is, the most Irish place of the lot, because not too self-consciously so. But there are limits to this. It looks little to write home about. If snow is white, why then its breasts are dun. It is not cheap. A five- ton lorry load fills a ten-ton lorry and costs £10. Its calorific value being half that of coal, it corresponds to coal at £4 a ton, which is about the price of coal in London. But it is clean to handle. Its ash is light and soft to handle. It has no medicinal or agricultural value, but when a fire is “raked”, the turf being placed under the said ash, it will slowly smoulder all night. On being raked again and the ash taken away. it will spring more actively to life than any Phoenix. Hence matches are unnecessary in a turf household. Yet Paul O’Higgins [leftwing Trinity College student and friend of Greaves’s at the time; later Professor of Law at Cambridge and TCD] claimed to have introduced “raking” into a remote part of Galway where he resided and where it was previously unknown. The practice previously had been to build the fire up for the night.
The new advantages of turf observed by myself on the aesthetic plane are, to begin with, that its flames are brisker and more spiritual than those of coal. From the moral point of view it shows its superiority to coal by its resentment to poking. Under such treatment it becomes mulish and goes into a sulk. When just lit it exhales the flavour of disinfectant, but when blown after one of its rare fits of “stupidity”, it distends an aromatic perfume closely resembling that of the choicest Egyptian tobacco, with the added advantage that it smokes itself. Again, after being allowed to go out, each sod retains exactly its shape and individuality, and yet on examination, proves to be a simulacum composed of soft ash, thereby testifying to the ephemeral nature of all things, and stimulating the remembrance of the past.
The presence of turf is the decisive factor in the economy of the numerous islands off the West coast. The unfortunate Aran Islanders have to import it from Galway and, requiring money for this, are compelled to spin wool and weave tweed for the mainland. On Clare Island, the finest of the islands off the West coast, where there is plenty of turf, the islanders who have paid off their annuities aunder the Ashbourne Act [enabling them to buy out the farms for which they had previously paid rent to landlords], flatly refuse to pay rates to Castlebar. There is no means of compelling them short of seizing their sheep, and the amount of money in circulation is at a most modest level, though the inhabitants are wealthier.
In some islands when the turf is cut out they migrate en masse to the mainland. Yet the cutting away of the bogs, if it has shortened the supply of fuel, has provided fresh agricultural land and thereby increased the production available for exchange for fuel. But if the price I am paying is anything to go by, then bog is more productive than grazing or even arable. So the people on the whole live by the exhaustion of the bogs. Yet another result arises from the circumstance that the use of turf has prevented Ireland from developing a fuel industry distinct and separate from agriculture. In Britain the miners can hold up the country. Now that bogs are beginning to thin, production is concentrated on the larger ones, and transport industry is developed. The need to rescue such an industry from the chances of individual production led Bord na Mona to take over the largest bogs and to introduce machinery. And I went towards Ballycroy to look at such a bog.
There I found several machines at work, one of which I photographed. I was then approached by the ganger to take a “shot” of himself and his “four strong men”. They needed to be strong, it is certain. Two dig the turf out of a pit with spades, and feed the elevator continuously. Another looks after the conveyor and engine, while two more, armed with huge forks, spread the turf as it comes off. I climbed on the stand to look at the “wales”. The unformed clods fell into a macerator whose revolving blades rapidly made mincemeat of them. A screw then feeds the matrix into a nozzle, divided in the centre, so that two streams of turf, like continuous sods, emerge. A wheel with blades on it rotates and marks, but does not cut, at the appropriate interval. The man on the conveyor or the spreader, cuts. The ganger told me that the five men produce 16,000 sods a day, and they received each of them 2/1 per thousand. “It is hard work,” said I. “But it’s here all the time,” said one. Of course I asked Josie Moran how much would a man cut with a slane. “Forty yards of bank,” he said, “three sods deep.”
If you allow four to the yard, three deep, there would be 480 sods per man; if you allow six there would be 720 – only a fifth of what each man on the machine produces. But there were nonetheless those who swore the old method was the best, or at least that the turf was as cheap cut by the slane. This may be. The Mayo County Council was not anxious to take over bogs but preferred to give facilities to those who cut more than they needed to sell it – it would of course be cut as part of their farm work and sold below its value. The separation of turf from agricultural work would be a great advantage, therefore. But it might deprive the small farmer of a source of income which would have to be replaced. A cooperative turf machiney pool in centres like Mulrany would no doubt be a step forward.
I mentioned to Michael that it might be possible to introduce a partial mechanization on cooperative lines, and he was enthusiastic. I suggested the same thing subsequently to a Dubliner who was imbued with the notion that MacBride [Sean MacBride, former IRA chief-of-staff, was Foreign Minister in the Fine Gael-led Coalition Government] was secretly a member of the IRA and would soon do Heaven knows what. He was quite indignant. “Surely”, said he, “one man cuts and the other takes it away in a wheel barrow.”
“What if there’s only one man?” said I.
“Well, they should team up!”
“Then why not team up with machinery?”
The tendency of a nationalist – even a radical one – when he meets with frustration is not to look for the most developed elsewhere, but to take refuge in the past and glorify Ireland’s backwardness as well as her rebellious virtues. So we find the astonishing position of two “left” republicans glorifying the slane, while the “ignorant” farmers are anxious to have machines.
The “turf weather” nonetheless began to mend and the daffodils faded, to be replaced by what Mrs O’Malley calls the “rosy-dendrums,” and then the first fuchsias began to appear. After the calves were excluded, my garden became a mass of daisies, buttercups shot up among them, then forget-me-nots, and dozens of superb purple orchids. The Mediterranean heath faded, the gorse died, The bogs which were brown and dead sprouted with cotton grass. The Mulranny Hotel was gay with dienvilla and azaleas. The dark soil was gone and replaced with a sea of green, most of it weeds which the men and women who returned from the bogs were now busy rooting and grubbing up. One began to take a little more interest in the sea also.
I mentioned the creatures Justin and I had seen to a man in Moran’s. He agreed the creatures were crabs. He entered on quite a disquisition about sea-life, and told the curious story of a fox which licked a limpet. The limpet glued its tongue to the rock. It had no knowledge that in such circumstances it is necessary to break the limpet, and in any case could not get its teeth to it. It remained there till the tide came in, the cold-blooded rustics watching it drown. Mr Grehan from whose wife I get eggs in Castlelea, on being told the story declared it was a good thing, too. Hadn’t he lost a sheep and a lamb to them only the week before? He was the man who on asking my opinion of the Korean war agreed heartily that the British had no right to be there. His wife, talking about the coming election, remarked that nobody would vote. What was the use of worrying about Ireland when you had to leave it?
The man in Moran’s also knew all about limpets, but did not think there would be such a difference between them and dog-limpets. He could assent that you could live on them and eat nothing else, up to a point. You knew this point from the fact that you began to turn yellow-brown from head to foot, and when this happened you should start to live on something else, preferably not dilisk though, for though very good for you, it was horrible.
I found a fine strand a way west of Curraun – which is smelly from all the things they bury in it – and there to be sure were limpets. A cave near there is full of them – empty shells said to be left by the Danes, who must have turned yellow-brown since they lived on them. And there were also sea-anenomes of the most imposing dimensions, star-fish, sand-eels and all kinds of other things I did not know. The usual seaweeds were there, fucus, laminaria, cladnus and corda. The sea was gradually calming day by day, and it was possible to climb over the rocks without wetting what you didn’t want wet. But it remained cold. Not for one day had the West wind blown. It remained stubbornly in the North-East.
I decided to go to Dublin to see what was happening in the election. Out of curiosity, and because I had never crossed that strip of country except a few miles to the East in the train, I decided to cycle to Galway through Ballinrobe. I just missed Tourmakeady where there had been high jinks when some boys were refused admission to a dance hall and shouted, “Up Communism; Stalin is coming quick enough.” In the British Army any rebellious spirit is known as a “bolshy”; it does not mean the army is on the verge of mutiny.
Ballinrobe is reached by way of a long slightly elevated bog-land in which innumerable white decayed tree-stumps still remain. How many bogs in Ireland are really natural? How many are due to tree felling? Ballinrobe is a decrepit little town set amid magnificent chestnut trees – to be precise not the sweet chestnut, but Aesculus. But Galway! Every time I see it, it grows more like a South of England holiday town. It has the smug servility, the small-shop-keeper snobbery, the parade of jew-jaws, plus the peasant uncontrollable urge to overcharge. In a bacon shop I wanted ham. I was carrying a rucksack; the bicycle was in the guard’s van.
“Are you cycling to Dublin?” asked the man behind the counter. “No,” I replied, rather surprised. He took it for outraged dignity. “Are you driving to Dublin?” he asked. I replied I had no higher aspirations than the train. Of course you can’t blame the poor thing. Isn’t it a fact that when cycling through villages in the cutomary garb one is greeted with, “Look at the hiker.” A “hiker” is a person dressed in a particular way. A cyclist must be a man with a rucksack.
But I decided to aim higher. The girl in the refreshment room on being asked was there a dining car on the late train declared, “There is, surely.” “Surely” can convey various degrees of doubt as well as certainty. On further enquiry I found there was not, and having for nearly two months lived on bacon and eggs, steak when I remembered to get it from Newport, and tinned milk since Mrs O’Malley’s cows went dry, I decided to have a sumptuous meal in the CIE hotel [on Eyre Square, Galway]. The meal was indeed sumptuous, and the usual people were partaking of it. There were female civil servants from the North of England, very strident in their tweeds and rosy faces, and still talking about food, the one topic of conversation in England [which was still afflicted by food shortages following World War 2]. And there were plenty of the returned army officers, local aristocracy and Dublin merchants down on business. What interested me were two men in their thirties who, after having ordered a steak to be cooked exactly ten minutes, emerged from the bar after nearly thirty and were warned by the waiter that if their steak was not to their liking it was not the chef’s fault. They were passed caring.
“Now listen,” said one suddenly, “I’m the nearest thing to a Communist that you ever saw.”
“Oh! God, no! Why’s that?”
“Well I’ve been reading about it. Karl Marx. That great man Frederick Engels. And mind – I’m as good a Catholic as you are.”
“Where’d you read these fellows?”
“In a pamphlet by the Catholic Truth Society. There’s agreat deal to be said in its favour. Religion will change with the times.”
“Change with the times? – Oh, God! No. I’d never believe that.”
My train was going so I left them debating. The gravamen of the “Communist’s” argument appeared to be that the reforms and changes introduced as a result of Communism, or the need to counter its propaganda by deeds as well as words, was resulting in improving conditions, especially for girls employed by the nuns. This would in time lead to the Catholic Church adopting Communism. The young people in the compartment with me talked of nothing but dancing. I would guess the five men in the hotel would be doctors or holders of some post in the University College. But I fell asleep thanks to the Sauternes, and scarcely awoke till we were in Westland Row.
There was as little excitement in Dublin as down the country, and a day of icy, drenching rain did not stimulate the drooping enthusiasm. Men were putting up rostrums for final rallies, and louspeakers went into place. One thing was universal – praise of Dr Browne [the Health Minister who had inaugurated the Mother and Child health scheme, dispute over which had led to the fall of the Coalition Government and the general election, which in turn led to Fianna Fail being returned to office]. Josie Moran had been all for Fianna Fail, even when the Browne dispute was at its height. Before I left he had decided that the Fine Gael candidate was a very nice man. I was in Kiltimagh the Sunday previous, and heard Cafferky and the other Clann na Talmhan candidates[small farmer political party that had been in the Coalition Government] ; they were speaking to a large and sympathetic crowd. In the afternoon we went to Knock [Co. Mayo centre of Catholic pilgrimage]. Walter was furious because he would have to pay 2/6 to park his van, but we subsequently found that though the guards in collusion with the townspeople forbade parking in the roads, they could scarcely enforce the rule outside the public houses where a good proportion of the pilgrims were congregated. There Walter propaganded hard for the “smaller parties” and found it easy enough. The shrine of Knock, incidentally, is the biggest racket in Connaught. The streets are lined with tiny relic and rosary stalls cheek by jowl, that pay £30 a season. There are fields full of CIE buses, other fields full of cars. The cafés charge 4/6 for a modest tea and pay their waitresses a few shillings. It is a poor week without £50 profit. But to return, though there was praise for Browne, there was no inclination to rush headlong back to De Valera.
I gave a talk to the Trinity College “Fabians.” The system there is to describe a talk as a “paper”, but you don’t need to have it written down. Then they invite distinguished people to be “speakers”. In this case the distinguished people were Dorothy Macardle, Desmond Ryan and Eoin O’Mahony. The last time I met Miss Macardle [1889-1958, historian, novelist, feminist and friend of Eamon De Valera], was during the War in London. Then I was chairman and she the speaker. Peadar O’Donnell [1893-1986, novelist and left republican activist, one of the founders of the 1934 Republican Congress] was there too, and she was very relieved to get through the meeting without mishap, for some reason regarding him as an “enfant terrible”. Now she was the chairman, very aristocratic, refined, and Protestant. The process of time has only made her more of what she always was. But she was a good chairman and told Paul O’Higgins to “speak to the paper” when he adroitly introduced God knows what else.
Desmond Ryan [1893-1964, historian and journalist; participant in the 1916 Easter Rising] was critical but unconstructive. I went to dinner with him afterwards. We were all delighted that Dorothy Macardle’s “Irish Republic” is re-issued. I asked her why it was so cheap. She had forgone her royalties. Ryan had seen O’Donnell, who was up in arms for Paul’s criticisms of him and blaming me for it. “But he’s in Mayo!” exclaimed Ryan, thus letting me out. We discussed the birthplace of Connolly. This has apparently caused quite a discussion among the cognoscenti. The Belfast Labour Party have published a leaflet on Connolly which refers to it. Tom Johnson, Peadar 0’Donnell and Nora Connolly have all been in communication with him. The mystery which remains is the connection with Monaghan. We have traced the earliest reference to this as Lyng’s article in the “Weekly People”. When Connolly saw it he is reported to have said, “They have given me a new birthday, I see.” This was taken by Cathal O’Shannon [1893-1969, trade unionist, journalist and Labour Party activist] to mean that he was born in 1869 – in fact it was 1868.
As for Eoin O’Mahony [1905-1970, genealogist, wit and raconteur; agitated for the release of IRA prisoners in Britain following World War 2] he still has the great bushy beard. He is more a character from the last century than ever. If Dorothy Macardle was terse and simple, and Ryan halting and apologetic, he was vague, flowerly complimentary, and reminiscent. His hobby is genealogy. He is reported to have saved a prisoner from penal servitude by having dinner with the judge and reminding him that an ancestor some centuries removed had been hanged for horse-stealing and another as a rebel. His days of relative affluence, even his days of genteel bumming, are over. Now he wears jacket and trousers from old suits, and sleeps one night in a doss-house, the next in Merrion Square. He has spent three fortunes and if he had hopes of a fourth, his day will come again and as assuredly go. Romantic Ireland will never be quite gone until “the Pope” is with O’Leary in the grave. But the youth, with the unsentimental charity of those who know not “auld lang syne” have little time for him now and it is said he may have kept people away from the meeting. I feel a bit sorry for a knight errant without fair ladies to rescue, or the means to rescue them.
My mother and May Quigley [a family friend of Greaves’s parents living in Northern Ireland whom Mrs Greaves was visiting there] came for the day from Belfast. They made a direct line for Cleary’s, [a major Department Store in Dublin’s O’Connell Street] thence to Grafton Street, and having “done” Exchequer Street, they met me in St. Stephen’s Green. May’s husband had a bungalow in Enniscorthy and who do you think was in the next one – why Dr Browne and his wife. And wasn’t it because she was a Protestant that he was a little more broadminded than the rest, and MacBride was determined to “down” him. Mr Meanies is dead. I was sorry to hear this. It is over twenty years since I last wondered curiously round his little gas-works at Newry and discussed with the sagacity of the fifteen-year old chemist the possible use of his by-products. My father took to him. I recall the first time they met, and my astonishment at seeing him smoke. Then there was Dawson, the girl with the white square face and coal-black hair, now married I understand. And the car he used to drive never less than sixty miles an hour after he had kept us talking in Newry and was determined we would not miss our ‘bus at Kilkeel. Now of course the whole of the North is cock-a-hoop over the Browne affair [Northern Protestants regarding Dr Browne as a victim of Catholic bigotry because of clerical opposition to his “Mother and Child” health scheme]. If ever a man might have a chance to end the border it would be Browne. I don’t trust him, but he might be Taoiseach yet.
That evening I went to the final rallies. There were more people at De Valera’s meeting than at the similar rally three years ago. They heard Breathnach’s economic matter calmly and patiently. But when De Valera began to speak, what a change! The man had aged by ten years. He was tired and strained. He stumbled in his Irish prelude, then stumbled again in his “continuation in English”. The crowd moved away, thousands left as he spoke. He had lost his magic without a doubt. Labour did not hold a rally, and I missed the Fine Gael one. The Clann na Poblachta [the party of Coalition Foreign Minister Sean MacBride] one was of such shrunken dimensions as boded ill for the fortunes of that party. They were forced out of Foster Place by road repairs and chose College St. They had fixed louspeakers to the railings of TCD with sound to the corner of D’Olier St. They did not need one. Barely a hundred congregated round the platform. Thirty minutes after the meeting had been due to start, probably after frantic phone calls had gone round the committee rooms, a dozen cars and a lorry-load of children arrived and disgorged their contents. Con Lehane [solicitor, leftwing nationalist, Clann na Poblachta TD 1948-51] was speaking – a demogogue and a shady one at that. I think he wore a moustache. I distrust moutaches. They hid the expression on a man’s face and substitute a jauntiness which may mean anything. Then MacBride who thought the swelling of his crowd was due to De Valera having stopped. As cold, frog-like and utterly untrustworthy a man as ever sat on a lawyer’s bottom. Both Paul O’Higgins and I were bored and went for some coffee.
And next day I din’t wait for the polling but returned to Mayo. I had a brief chat with a shop-keeper in Castlebar, the point from which I took to the bicycle. Fine Gael were his people. But how much quieter elections were now. There was a time when you daren’t admit you were Fine Gael in Castlebar – not like Westport, a great centre of the blueshirts. His opinion was that the Government would go back.
As I pushed up the indescribable road from Cushlecka to Doobeg I met old Culligan, of the house on the drumlin. He was cleaning a duck, and doing a little weeding, late though it was. He told the story of Dan O’Connell [Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1847, constitutional nationalist politician, known as “the Liberator” for his work for Catholic Emancipation in 1829] who was addressed by his ferryman along the lines of, “Well, Dan, I hope you’ll bring something good for us back from England.” “Well”, says Dan, “I hope I will. But remember – you’ll still be the ferryman.”
At Cushlecka, next day, I talked to Mrs Grehan – and at last met “the miner’s wife” whose husband was a cousin of Mr Grehan – and she evinced no interest. “Whatever Government is in, we’ll be the same here. There’s very few won’take an easy living when it’s offered. Those who bother their heads about their country are fools, especially in Ireland, when they can’t get a living here and have to leave it.” Michael O’Malley ddin’t bother to vote. “They won’t mend the road for us,” said he, “so why should I go down to Mulranny to vote for them?” Mrs Loftus said the same. Her husband is in Harrow, Middlesex, working in a cinema, and she herself lived there until the bombs drove her home. Unlike Mrs O’Malley, who would never leave the country, she continually hankers for the city, but can’t make up her mind to return.
Old Culligan on the other hand has worked throughout the length and breadth of England, and judging by the frequent “by gum” largely in Lancashire, but is a great Irish speaker and the repository of local tradition. The two houses visible from my door belong to Culligan and Loftus. The townswoman, who has a camera and understands such things, took my photograph, while I took the little girl on an ass. Carey also, who is soon returning to Pembroke, cares not a hoot about the Government.
As I left Dublin Joe Johnston [Professor Joseph Johnston, 1890-1972, agricultural economist, farmer, TCD Senator; father of Roy Johnston] remarked, “This is the fateful day, the day of decision between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” Two or three days later the result was announced – and nobody cared any more. Two weeks’ hard bargaining would take place before the Dail met. The only hopes expressed were that the new Govenrment would keep prices down. And in the meantime the most improtant thing of all was secure. The turf was drying well and looked like being saved on a grand scale. Turf and hay make the world go round. But success with one meant little growth with the other.
The wind which has blown obstinately from the North and North-East ever since I arrived, now moved East, and each day was warmer than the last. It had the provoking habit of blowing from the West each evening for about half an hour, freshening, threatening with a few clouds, and then swinging back again to the East. The sky had never the look of a West wind. When that ultimately does blow, “zephyras” will exact a wild watery penalty. But now Croagh Patrick faded away into the mist. Only a dim outline remained. Mweelrea disappeared altogether. Even Clare Island was but a shadow. But the sun shone and the birds sang, especially the corncrake Carey’s little girl tried to catch. Then the young, sharp boy, Martin, threw a coat over it, but it flew away. Michael told the story of how, having cut a field of hay to one side, he upset a corncrake’s nest. The adult bird is brown, but the young are black. As soon as he was gone, she was back, gathering up her chicks. As she croaked, they squeaked back, and so she took them off in her beak to another field. The cuckoo, mercifully, desists when night falls. And all other birds are silent things in comparison.
And didn’t spring come with a rush. The black fields were bright green in a day. Oats and potatoes sprouted. The gorse threw out its most resplendent glory and faded almost at once. The rhododendrons flowered and fell in a week. Fuchsias dripped blood along the hedges. My garden became a jungle of daisies, buttercups, red, and later whiteclover, shamrock, forget-me-nots, purple orchids, cardamine, and white chrysanthemums. Royal ferns sprouted in the grass, hard ferns and the common ferns along the wall. Carey had no opinion of royal ferns. They were useless for bedding cattle, whereas other ferns were useful. Culligan shared his view. “They’re a great rarity,” said he, “but we’ve too many of them. If you tried to dig one of them up you might just as well be sawing wood.” They line the banks of the stream where I get water, and surround Loftus’s house, where masses of white cotton-grass have appeared.
As if to signalise the arrival of the warmth the mountain caught fire and burned for two days and nights. The wind first blew it towards Achill, but for a few hours a more northly current set in and brought it over the ridge overlooking Cushlecka. The flames were exactly outlined on the edge of the ridge. The grouse and woodcock, acccording to Mrs Moran, were all destroyed. Mr Grehan hoped it might destroy the foxes as well. Carey decided to thatch his barn and shear his sheep, and having done so departed for Pembroke with little Josy, aged seveteen, rather to the consternation of the neighbours, who thought him too young. Josy is slightly deaf, and his father thought by getting him away young he would provide experience which otherwise might not come his way. The work in South Wales is very different from that here – instead of forking hay in a field there is shift-work on a grass-dryer. Every advance in technique makes work less pleasant, is the rule today. Carey has 35 sheep, and has the prospect of raising 7/- a pound for the wool. But the dry weather keeps them from the hills and sharp eyes have to be kept to see they do not wander into the crops.
I decided I would take advantage of the fine weather to go to Clare Island, and ran along to Curraun to make the arrangements with Michael Gallagher, otherwise “Mickey Micheál”, who has a fishing boat. He was away trawling in Blacksod Bay, but his father said he would be available on Saturday. His wife, a glorious red and black gipsy-coloured woman with the almost masculine features that Achill and Connemara women do have, gathered her children round her and they had their photographs taken sitting on the wheel of a cart. “I look like a mearabhach! “(a tinker)! she cried, and hastily performed those imperceptible titivations which women believe confer noticeable elegance. I think people look better wild than tame; dress, coiffeur, and style should be adapted to the figure, the activity and the character. When the present craze for looking a lady or a gentleman has died out there will be many alternative forms of respectable attire, and I hope that the Achill women will never go in for the mis-shapen inanities flaunted by the Dublin or London shop girls. And anyway, I could never resist tinkers at any time. So I took her picture. “You must shnap me again, and I respectable,” she protested. So I said I would.
When I took her in the picture, I was expected, and what a scurrying and a scattering. Micheál was bullied into his new coat. Passing the baby who was gently sucking his bottle he commented sadly, “But that’s what matters.” It was no use. The children were hastily changed. Shoes appeared from under chairs, tables and presses. The eldest girl assisted in a universal transformation which seemed to symbolise nothing less than the birth of a nation. Micheál and the old man lumbered into place by the cartwheel. The two women – a girl of 14 is a woman here – chased the children and rounded them up like a couple of sheep dogs – all but one. “If you don’t sit down on the cart and look smiling at the camera, I’ll give you such a shlap!” cried Mrs Gallagher to the deliquent. But the warning was of no avail. I pulled the trigger when she was somewhere in line.
We set off for Clare Island, down to the little harbour at the very point opposite Achill Beg. The wind was very light and was performing one of its momentary evolutions in the North-West, a quarter it left later in the evening, to return to the East, which is the proper place for it in these parts. It should be noted in passing that whereas in England the industrial parts of big cities are usually on the eastern side, and hence only the West wind is untainted and the East unappreciated, here the West wind though more popular with the farmers as the “devil they know”, brings nothing but rain and the East wind brings a soft hazy sky and mild dry heat.
We had a great journey. The sea was like glass. First two men lifted the curragh from the beach, righted it and drew it alongside some rocks, showing great concern that the distinguished passenger should not wet his sand-shoes which would dry in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, though their own boots would be wet all day. Then we sailed off in the curragh to the trawler anchored in the little bay marked off by the sand-spit which reaches almost to Achill Beg. The anchor from the trawler was attached to the curragh and off we set, first into the mill-race that flows between Archill Beg and Curraun. Slowly the boat made its way against the current in which there welled up eddies as big as mill-wheels. A curragh shot past us in the opposite direction, rather pitying the poor eighteen horsepower pulling against the tide, but soon we were out of the narrows and began to make way. Achill Beg itself is an interesting island. It holds about twelve families, all Gallaghers I believe, and a school. There is a slate quarry on the south-east side, and I would say it belongs to the fringe of Curraun rather than Achill, as there appears to be slate below the sandstone near the harbour on the mainland. As we passed the tip of Cloughmore I noted one of Grannuaile’s castles [“Pirate Queen” Grace O’Malley,1530-1603], a disused coast-guard station and below it on the cliff some gigantic plants, with leaves like immense rhubarbs. They gave the scene its most exotic touch, and heaven knows what they are.
Micky is a great expert on all that relates to the sea, though whether all his information is scientifically correct is another matter. When I was on the cliff above the strand near the house I noticed some creatures about the size of dogs totally immmersed in the sea, but showing a cat’s face as they occasionally leapt out of the water. I took them to be seals. Micky thought they were otters, which also are common here. But young Grehan of Cashlecka thought they would not be “otter-dogs” but bonafide seals. Micky remarked that an otter when trapped full-grown would fetch £2.10.0 for the skin, and £1.5.0 for a small one, while a “pup” would fetch 15/-. Foxes follow much the same haunts, coming down from the hills in winter in search of water.
As we sailed imperceptibly nearer we examined the birds – the white stubby “mackerel-cock”, diving for fish with such a smack. The gannet which dives like a torpedo, using its great height to catch fish well below the surface; the cormorant and the guillemot and the puffin. These seem to live in flocks. We drove the boat through about six dozen of them. Instead of taking to flight, they dipped under the water and came up like little ducks when we had safely passed.
The boat was made at Arklow, and bought off the proprietor of the “Grannuaile Hotel”, solitary licensee on Clare Island, a man whose monopoly of the sale of drink is assisted by the total absence of guards on the island. He himself will drink a bottle of whiskey in ten minutes and then look round for another. The name is “St Peter” and it is registered at Westport, with the number 15. It is registered as four tons but carries three tons ballast without fish. A sail is available and can be riggged in 10 to 15 minutes. Nets are obtained from Bridport in Dorset, but can be got from Scotland, at Musselburgh. A single journey can bring £16 worth of fish. Thirty years ago herrings were trawled between Curraun and Clare Island. They have not appeared since 1923 and this is said to be due to the absence of plankton. But flat fish which live off sand eels and coastal matter were still common, as are mackrael and whiting.
Slowly we sailed into the harbour, leaving the lighthouse on the right on its cliff ledge, and there was Grannia’s castle, on the edge of the harbour. But nobody would give me a proper account of her history. I left the men in the “Grannuaile Hotel” and set off across the country toward Knockmore, that dominating hill where steep northern cliff fascinated me in 1939 as I went from Westport to Louisburg. There are no motor-cars, and I think no wheeled traffic at all, though a cart may be used for a short distance around the harbour. I crossed the shoulder of the lower hill and passed down a valley which opened into a broad bog-land. The aspect of the country gave some indication of the topography of olden times. The road was a track down which nothing wheeled could pass, dividing and subdividing, then reuniting, doubtless offering dry and wet weather alternatives. The soil was bright red – probably Devonian sandstone, I would say – and so Clare Island also seems to belong to the younger rocks which presumably occupy a syncline between the bens of Connemara and the Nephin-Achill mountains.
I made my way across the bog to the edge of the cliffs by Knockmore and climbed to the summit. Unfortunately, there was a heavy mist. Even using a yellow filter and a long exposure I could not take satisfactory photographs. Even the pictures of the little stone walls which seem to guard the turf from the weather were not successful. Turf is cut up to nearly 1000 feet, though I understand at one time the islanders imported it by sea from Achill Sound. There would seem to be no need for this, apart from the fact that the plentiful supplies on the island would have to be brought down from the hills in creels carried by asses, a slow, costly and tedious process. There is thus a need for roads even here. The inhabited part of the island is exclusively the coastal fringes and there are no interior farmsteads.
Clare Island holds about eighty families. of which I would say half are near the harbour. They pay neither rent nor rates, say the fishermen. This, they say, is because Clare Island was the first estate handled by the Congested Districts Board and the holdings were purchased under the Ashbourne Act. This I would like confirmed. Their reason for paying no rates is more obvious. They refuse to pay. The council makes no road. There is no guard’s premises. Until recently there was no dispensary doctor, but when I returned to the hotel I saw a young man, not over 24, who had just arrived to take up his duties. A rate-collector in Castlebar was offered 50% of everything he could collect – and turned down the job. No roads, no water, say the islanders. There is a dance hall, but the young people leave home and emigrate.
I had only two hours ashore and spoke to nobody. I judged from the appearance of the fields that the land was at least partly in rundale; or certainly it had been. Micky and his boys were at the hotel and we had tea. One of them had to be slipping out to slacken the boat as the tide fell, and we had to hurry before she left the wharf altogether. We returned as evening fell. There were a number of curraghs making their way back from Curraun, and one of these was said to contain Grannia’s closest living descendent. We passed that curragh, and to be sure there he was, sitting in the stern, a mountain of a man, as dignified as an eastern potentate and as impressive as the Grand Turk. Two sturdy oarsmen were rowing him back. We waved and hailed the curragh and passed on. The sky cleared a little and the haze lifted. The sea was so calm that there must have been thousands of miles of fair weather behind it. But the tidal race was as strong as ever. I noticed a curragh moving at a great speed along the edge of Cloughmore, as it seemed, against the tide. Micky informed me that that was an eddy current that brought the boat in along the shore, and he would push further out when he wished to return.
We returned to the house where Micky’s father aged 78 told stories of days gone by, when Curraun was all the Dickens estate. Dickens was going to make a great place of it. He built the mills, and paid 4p a day, but went broke in the process and sold to his bailiff. Curraun House hotel was the demesne, and even until lately was kept up in a way. The palm trees, proudly pointed out to me by a wee girl, were planted and a famous “Bog garden” kept. Old Mr Gallagher told us of the gunboat expedition to Clare Island before the Congested Districts Board tackled it. The ship was wrecked, and wasn’t it a curious coincidence, both the ship’s cat and the ship’s dog deserted it before it left Newport? The house I was in was there a hundred years. It had the old loft above the bedroom. Old Mr Gallagher was born in it. Curraun is still in rundale and the Land Commission will not provide a slated house till they strip the land. Rundale is a desperate inconvenience. They are always crossing each other’s land and cattle are for ever straying. Nobody can complain as the plaintiff one day is defendant the next. The old man also told of how the Congested Districts Board in order to encourage fishing from Clare Island provided £100 for a boat and an engine. But the boat was held in common and the result was that the value of the catch was split after each trip. Nothing was expended to maintain the boat in a seaworthy condition, and when it finally broke down there was no capital to put it to rights and the enterprise came to a stop.
Micky told me that when during the war an American plane crashed off Clare Island, he picked up about seven of the bodies – “fine young men”.
“I don’t think much of the air,” said one of the company, “ground or sea gives you a chance.”
“It is progress,” said another.
“Ay, progress is killing the other fellow,” said Micky. “I don’t know what you think about war,” he said to me, “but I reckon it’s all caused by those big shots trying to take the other fellows’ money.”
Next day I returned in the evening to Curraun and in the old demsene house, now the local pub, found a man to ferry me to Cloughmore in search of Sean Kilbane. The man with the punt was from Achill Beg. He believed that nobody should be allowed to live on islands. They were too inconvenient altogether. Clare Island had great sheep on it. Achill Beg had good land, but look at the labour coming and going. No wonder all the young people went to England; what was there here anyway?
But Sean Kilbane was dead, said the man by another of Grannia’s castles. Suspecting my sympathies, he mentioned Corrigan. I mentioned Mulgrew. “And did you know Peadar O’Donnell? – He’s been very quiet since he got that job with the Government.” He told me that Peadar was very active around Cloughmore in the days of the struggle against the land annuities. He also talked about poteen. The place with the worst reputation is Ballycroy. To get it it would be best to approach the Guards. So strong was the thirst for poteen among Ballycroy men that they used to get 56 lb. drums of treacle and make the lot into spirit. Even when some of them went to Yorkshire they could not resist temptation and one old farmer in Cleveland refused to have any but Ballcroy men working for him. They had kept him in drink throughout the war. But poteen today was not what it was, thanks to the reprehensible habit of introducing grain into the brew – if you could get it itself. I went up to Achill Sound, on the island, and returned through Tornagee and Mulranny. Here I called on Mrs Moran “No 9”, widow of the original “No 9,” a friend of Mulgrews.
It was “No 9” – the nickname was taken from his tally number in a job in America, I believe – who built the “armoured car” used by the Mayo IRA Brigade. His wife told me how he had fallen dead on the street two years ago. She herself was a Waterford woman, but having left it forty years ago, knows nobody there now. She told me about the first Morans we had called in on when we arrived from Kiltimagh. “Himself” is a widower, his wife dying and leaving him with five children. He has great difficulty looking after the business and the children as well. The man in the bar who announced there was no whiskey was “Cecil Joe,” a Dublin man of considerable education, but a little mental, and without visible means of support. He lives a few days here and a few days there.
As I passed through Cushlecka I at last met Mrs Grehan, the “miner’s wife,” a cousin of the Grehans where I buy eggs. The egg woman was no more interested in the election, “What’s the use of hollering about your country – especially Ireland – when you will have to leave it.” And old Culligan, of the house on the Drumlin told the old old story of O’Connell and the ferryman again and commented once more on the state of the road.
But when I reached home I learned that Mrs O’Malley’s daughter had died at Castlebar and the boys were coming borrowing chairs for the wake. The daughter from Curraun came over and everybody in the village was calling in there, the lights burning till the small hours. The next day there was the funeral, not a week after the last, and everybody dropped work in the fields to attend it, and did not return after it was over. Mrs O’Malley herself was not unduly upset, having expected no better for a long time past.
Do the country people work hard? There is a multiplicity of holidays, all begun by going to Mass. People are well, even fashionably, dressed on such occasions. Every funeral is attended from far and wide. A funeral in Curraun brings all the Achill Beg people over in their boats and the publican has a great time. Against this they work late – but not early. Carey’s boy, Martin, the sharp little thing, is about at 8.30 pm. collecting animals, chasing them out of crops. Smoke goes up at Carey’s at about 8 pm. But even on a fine day Michael seldom takes out his pony before ten. There are periods of hard intensive, backbreaking work which must be done just when lying in the sun would be most enjoyable. But it can always be dropped for a holiday or a funeral. Marriages and births are greater rarities.
The milk shortage came to an end. Carey’s cow calved. One day I heard a great scampering and saw what looked like two big dogs galloping along the road. They were Carey’s black calves, less than a week old, and as playful as kittens. So young Martin brought me a bottle of milk up each day. The Moran’s cow calved, and some days I would be embarrassed with excess. I would sit with my table in the garden until the evening, which would make me fear rain. I was assured there was no fear of it till I saw ” wild clouds” over Croagh Patrick, and sure enough one night there were wild clouds over Croagh Patrick, and next day the weather broke. The West wind blew, but not for long, a prolonged downpour followed from the South-East. The result was a complete transformation in the colour of the landscape. The mountains, far and near – even Cushcancurragh – beecame green. The cattle started climbing and the peasants, who were now milking, had to follow them up to the crags every evening, the dogs barking them down to the pathways. Young Martin lost a sheep to the fox, but this was nothing. Its loss meant £5 – last year they lost eight.
Cotton grass blossomed all over the bogs. Loosewort, ragged-robin, began to appear also and the brown changed to a speckled white, yellow and green. It began to draw near the time I must leave, and as if a presage of that, Jones arrived at Mulranny on a kind of glorified ‘bus-hike of the country [He was a Liverpool University friend of Greaves’s]. He had travelled the world. What did he think of Ireland? A great surprise. It was not colonial. There was none of the abject animal poverty he had seen in colonial villages, no children begging, no anti-English feeling, no strong sentiment on partition. Imperialism had meant troops and armies. These gone, the people were content. Agriculture was more advanced, the people better dressed, life easier and more prosperous than he had imagined. He has little love of rural life. A Londoner, brought up in a bourgeois Jewish household, a rebel from his youth at a public school, he is a townsman through and through and is so interested by ideas that he sees little attractiveness in things. But his observations were shrewd and justifiable. He came in one downpour and left in another.
I then got in touch with Walter Dwyer to see if he would care to come on Sunday, which he did, bringing wife and five children, plus Maggie Walshe. The weather showed signs of taking up again. We went to the strand. Walter had brought bunches of elaborate tackle, but nothing but miserable jellyfish were to be seen. The children did not know they would sting – not that they sting badly. We went to the rocks. Mrs Dwyer had brought vast quantities of home baked bread. Mrs Carey’s lettuces had grown 6″ high and I was enjoined to help myself to them, which I did. We collected driftwood to make a grand fire, and thus to celebate my impending departure.
The day previous I had been to Westport. Having finished as much of the book as I could very well do, I decided to explore some of the bays whose mouths were blocked by the Clew Bay islands. I went through the Marquess of Sligo’s estate, to Carraholly. An old women spoke to me. Like everybody else she was indifferent to the return of De Valera. She praised James Dillon [Minister for Agriculture in the recently ousted Coalition Government], “who got the British market back for us – now wasn’t that a great thing, not that I have anything left to sell in it myself.” I had a cup of tea with a family by the coastguard station. Their name was Hopkins, and I noticed that the harbour-master’s name at Westport was also Hopkins. I had heard of the Welsh names prevalent in West Mayo, but this was the first I came across. These people draw their turf from the other side of Newport, cutting it themselves and hiring a lorry to bring it home for them.
Michael surveyed the “garden” with a knowing eye. It was rank with tall grass and numerable flowers. “I’ll put the brown cow in while you are away,” he said. “It will do her good and the calving.” Surely nothing but a forest fire could tame it. Butterflies, white, brown and occasionally in strong tortoishell flitted around it. Cinnabar moths appeared, though I could as yet distinguish little or no ragwort. So after paying my respects all round I went into Mulranny and took the bus to Westport.
I had had in mind getting a bus to Galway and then cycling on to Kilbane [in Co Clare]. But there was no connection, and I needed to reach Galway by 5.15 in order to catch the bus to Ennis. Fortunately the wind was in the northwest. I reached Galway in less than three hours, an hour early for the bus, and so cycled on to Kilbane.
The road from Westport to Galway I had traversed on the way to Dublin. The bog is for miles covered with the stumps of trees near Partry, and one would wonder how far the present boglands are destroyed forests. There were no signs of tourists until I reached once more the objectionable little prig of a town of Galway. As befitted the place, the weather turned cold. There had been showers, I crossed Slieve Aughty with a strong wind behind me. As on the road to Curraun, huge stacks of turf were awaiting lorries, and the roads of Co. Clare were torn up like those of Mayo. I had tea in Gort. I remember in 1939 reflecting that this was the most tumbledown and impoverished town in Ireland. Not so today. There are coats of paint on the hotels. The inhabitants are reasonably well dressed. The air of dejection and mendicacy has completely disappeared. It is useless to deny the prosperity of the country; it is expressed in cars, in attire, in manners, in everything. A week or so ago the “young farmers” of Mayo announced the “first early dance” in the county, to be held at Newport. The advertisement, printed I think in Kilkenny, and presumably painted in Westport, showed saxophones and other curiously shaped instruments in the hands of sleek evening-dressed musicians, wearing white coats, American style, while the dancers were the best imitation of “Broadway” that colour-printing could provide. Romantic Ireland is probably as well dead and gone; but American-Ireland is unfortunately coming.
The older generation look on genially. An old man – a relative of the Culligans – in Moran’s drank his porter and nodded at the advertisment. The sense of the starkness and worthlessness of life, inculcated by the church, is very strong in them. “What are we at all?” he asked, “a handful of dust. While you are young, enjoy yourself while you can. When you are old – you’re finished. Now I’ve been in London as a young fellow, walking across Westminster Bridge and believing I was God Almighty! And that’s the young fellows today – and they’ll soon be an ould hack like me.”
The old man at Kilbane was delighted to see me. I was the only An Oige [Irish Youth Hostel Associuation] member there. All the others – except one lad from Belfast – were holiday-makers from England, all making their way to Killarney for some obscure reason. They will be gloriously fleeced! The old man is extremely religious and – I would imagine against the spirit of the “non-sectarian” regulations. Whereas in Mulranny anybody who tells you about St Patrick will say “if he ever did live here,” or some such allowance that the story might be a myth (except of course the schoolteachers who declare it like dogma), he does genuinley believe implicitly. He has been up Croagh Patrick four times and told me the story of St Patrick and the angel as if he were present himself and could vouch for any detail. We fell to talking about Connolly. He thought he was a Liverpool man. Then he mentioned England “where they have the Connolly Clubs – and they’re numerous,” he warned.
I set off early and was soon in Limerick. The Persian dispute was being discussed [Over US and British opposition to the nationaliation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by the radical Iranian Prime MInister Mohammed Mossadeq]. “If we were as far away as Persia . . .” said one man, “I can’t see England giving that up so easily,” said another. On the subject sentiment was anti-British. But on the subject of finances, rationing, the impending bankruptcy and ruin of Britain, feelings were the other way. “‘Tis a terrible thing, to be sure – a country like England!” “There used to be enough beef in it to . . . and now they’re all but starving.”
The prosperity of the Golden Vale was obvious even through the violent rainstorms which came down while I was between Limerick and Tipperary. They abated somewhat, and I came on through Cahir and Clonmel to Carrick-on-Suir and Waterford. There I heard that there was a dock strike. Then, too late, that it affected only the Liverpool steamer, the Rockville. I called on Peter O’Connor [Waterford leftwinger and former Spanish International Brigader]. His mother-in-law was looking after the shop, somewhat harrassed while they were at the cinema. I did not stay. The Rosslare train left at 4.5 pm. and I boarded it. Beside me was a Cockney, and he looked as well as sounded like a Cockney. He held Cockney views, too. Partition was no harm to Ireland. Ireland could not use the Belfast industries if she had them. Ireland as a whole was linked to Britain and always would be. Yet he also held that the British Empire was collapsing, that Russian Communism would have to be fought and all Britain’s difficulties were worth facing in the light of this; he was also a Catholic and emigating to New Zealand in August. Then I discovered he was born in Kerry, moved to London when he was 17 (he would be about 45 now) and had been home to say goodbye to everybody before his departure.
I got a berth. The Rosslare route is by far the best. Even at Fishguard there is a restaurant car on the train. Not that one lugubrious peasant thought that best was even passable. He had been home, but could not find work and was returning to “slavery” on MacAlpine’s building work. “What is life at all?” he asked, “nothing but torment. I tell you I wouldn’t care that, if this ship was to go down this minute.” As the third class passengers queued to disembark he noticed that the luggage was being swung over our heads by a crane. “That’s irregular,” he said. “That’s against the shipping regulations. What would happen if that cable broke and the luggage came down on our heads?” Having just paid 6d for tea which was all but undrinkable, I also asked “What?” But the passengers were tame sheep and convinced it would not break on them.
On the train the usual high jinks, so typical of Britain, began. Although a sleeping car was advertised there was none. I spoke to several officials. Would I come this way? “Reserved” was posted on a compartment which was placed at my disposal and at each station till we passed Llanelly the guard chased away all intruders, for a half-crown. Then I went to breakfast. The lady opposite was smoking. “No smoking in the dining car,” shouted the attendant. She hesitated but went on. I could see a great storm blowing up. “No smoking, Madam.” “This is still a free country, I hope. Where does it say ‘no smoking’? Show me the regulations. Where are they? And even if there are, I propose to smoke, in spite of British Railways.”
“It’s nothing to do with British Railways, Madam. It’s the other passengers who may object. We have strict instructions…”
“Show me them. Until then I propose to smoke.” She then apologised to me and explained that she proposed to smoke so as to ‘show them’.” When the attendant passed again she demanded a menu. “Is it just bad manners or don’t you have them?” Then the menu was dirty. Also she wanted a duster to wipe the filth from the window-ledge. Was this the best British Railways could do. She had travelled all over England and Ireland, and on the continent too, and had been in all the restaurant cars she had ever heard of, but this was the first time she had ever been insulted. She was glorious and had my entire sympathy. Of course she threatened to report them. “I was perfectly within my rights in requesting you not to smoke,” said the waiter. “Well show me the regulations!” On this impasse negotiations broke down. I could hardly believe she was English, but her accent was rather that of the Protestant ascendancy – rather like that of the English ruling class but without the drawl and the sneer – it is not always easy to tell. However she explained she was brought up in England, but her people came from Wexford. But, as I said, that is the best route, that a complaint can even be politely heard, that food is obtainable at all, that you can somehow bribe your way through, these are facilities not provided on the other lines.
I was long enough away from the country to receive impressions – at Paddington indescribable pandemonium. Along the line, thousands of busy factories making things for the most part useless – cleansing agents which would not cleanse, polishers that would not polish, explosives to kill people with, medicines to cure ills which would never exist but for the conditions involved in making them. Dullness, apathy, ill-temper, pasty-faces, dreary walks. Everywhere the monotonously dressed black and white beetles, pushful, loud-mouthed, animal- faced, the ruling class and its minions before which the ill-nourished pasty ones give way.
As Jane Tate [English-born Connolly Association activist] agreed with me, the most repulsive country on earth, only visible as such when you come from somewhere else. Is there anywhere where people ask the way without “Please”, and turn their backs curtly without “Thank you”? Where people openly boast, and are genuinely proud of their ability to look after themselves and let other people go to the devil? Where poets starve to death in flats unknown by their neighbours and their skeletons are found years afterwards. “Anonymity” – Bridget Malone used to praise. “You could stand outside Hyde Park and pluck a goose and nobody would look at you.” You could likewise collapse under a ‘bus at the same place and the busdriver would think of the forms he would have to fill up and curse you; the passers-by would stand by helpless till somebody asked if “anybody” had rung the police, all of them afraid of being charged the cost of the ambulance. Others who saw the event most clearly would make themselves scarce for fear of being called as witnesses at the inquest and losing wages. For in England it pays to be absolutely and ruthlessly anti-social, to disregard every softness or decency, and the marvel is, under such laws and such a social system, that the worst effects have not spread far beyond the capital.
I soon got used to the bustle, the pretentiousness and the nonsense. I had other troubles too. Circulation was down [of the Irish Democrat, of which he was then editor]. Gerard Curran’s doctor had told him he had a ‘cavity’ in his lung [Gerard Curran acted as editor of the paper while Desmond Greaves was in Ireland]. I always thought a lung was a cavity. What is meant is that a part of the wall of the lung has been destroyed by tubercular bucilli. He won’t do anything sensible because of his artistic temperament, neither work effectively or stop working. But then as the same wise doctor said, it mightn’t be a “cavity” in his lung at all. Everything is vailable in England to diagnose disease. The X-ray photograph they are now going to take will show “for certain” if it is a cavity that is in it. But if there was fresh air, light, exercise, sleep, butter, meat, eggs – those same doctors who continually draw their five guineas for writing in the papers that the British diet contains enough “calories” to maintain a horse, would have to turn journalists full time, which is fraught with difficulties, as I know.
I got the paper to press, and on Sunday evening returned to Dublin. Just as I had come into Waterford I had had difficulty with the four-speed gear of the bicycle. On Thursday I took it into the makers who refused to service it. On Saturday the gear turned into the wheel and took two spokes out. Again no London firm would repair it. I carried it to Dublin where Larry Farrell mended it in 30 minutes at a charge of 1/6. But I had even then missed the first train to the West. This was because Larry did not arrive till 9.35 am. – his two assistants standing at the door waiting for him and wishing they had stayed in bed. So I went to Howth, and caught the 3.30 pm. to Castlebar.
The first thing that struck me on my return to Doobeg was that the corncrake had stopped. Next morning I realised that the cuckoo had gone also. But away in the distance beyond Culligans you might occasionally hear the cuckoo, and likewise by Michael O’Malley’s the corncrake would give an occasional desultry croke. The second thing was the smell of summer. That bank of honeysuckle above the royal ferns by the “river” is weighed down with blossom, and the air is full of the scent. Yellow rattles, ragworts, prunellas have appeared. But what devastation did that one cow wreak in the garden. It was as if a selective mower had been through it, leaving all the docks, sorrel and ragwort standing together with the more wiry grass, but taking every stalk off the softer growth. The roses also had come out, huge pink old-fashioned ones, and added to the scent. The grass where it had been eaten contributed some of the odour of hay. The wind was still hovering in the North North-West; but in the bogs a new brilliant deep purple heath had appeared beside the cotton grass and taken the place of the Mediterranean heath. The Mulranny salt-marsh which had been brilliant pink with tiny starry flowers was green again – the darker green of summer. This year of course, thanks to the late start, the seasons are being rattled through too quickly to be enjoyed.
The most striking thing was the colour of the sea – a bright blue-green such as I have only seen in the china-clay districts of Cornwall. “Perhaps it’s for fine weather,” said Mrs Moran, whose conceptions did not include that of a natural phenomenon being “because of” anything. After a few days the peculiar colouring received the notice of the newspapers, the Mayo News saying that a scientist was engaged taking samples of the water, but “for obvious reasons” his name could not be disclosed. As I came through Cushlecka and called at Grehan’s it was, “Did you see the man with the hammer?” Together with the man with the beard he had gone to Curraun and there was also a lady artist with an easel on a bicycle. Now would the man with the hammer be the man who was taking the samples of sea-water?
At Curraun itself I called in at the house hotel. This was because there was a funeral and I had no hope of a boat across to Cloughmore. The proprietor is the lcoal schoolmaster. His wife teaches at Achill Beg (I believe) and his daughter at Cloughmore. He bought the hotel from the Dickens estate of which it was the demesne house, for £4000. As I was having lunch he came in to find out all about me. His name is Mick Gallagher but he is usually referred to as Master Gallagher. He is proud of the Co. Mayo and told me of its great traditions in 1798 [In the Irish rebellion against English rule of that year]. He is likewise highly religious, and believes Irish history ceased in 1922. He told me of the priest who was hanged in the Mall, Castlebar, and assured me that the tree which carried him never fruited again. Then there was the other priest who hid in a loft – such a loft as there is in Micky Micheál’s old house – when the soldiers searched for him. They failed to find him, but as they left one of the soldiers put a bullet up through the bedroom ceiling for sheer devilment. “God have mercy on us, the priest will be killed,” said the old women in Irish. Unfortunately, one of the soldiers understood it and the search was repeated, and the priest found. He was taken to Newport and at Tierna (the land of the slaughter) [Second Irish noun omitted] he asked for water. When one soldier handed him a cup another of them dashed it to the ground. “That hand will wither” said the priest, and it did. The other man would live a long time and be prosperous – and by the same token he died, dying at the age of 106 in considerable affluence.
He was hanged down by Devines on such a tripod as is used on market days and fair days. One of those who passed by commented, “Meat is high today.” The niece of the priest replied, “There’s other meat will soon be low.” And how that also came about was simply told. Although the month was June, a blizzard caught this man and his companion as he walked back to Achill. There was of course no road or bridge then, the “Michael Davitt” bridge having been built by Gerald Balfour [Chief Secretady for Ireland 1895-1900]. The two men were separated and the mocker was lost. His companion was suspected of foul play, but it was observed some weeks afterwards that the dogs were playing with human bones, fingers and the like. They were traced and in due course the corpse was found.
Martin Gallagher told me that Kilroy of Newport is now engaged in writing “Mayo’s fighting Story” and that Padraig Moran, the retired Mulrany schoolmaster, is the best informed man on the same subject. The Curraun house hotel is cluttered with religious objects. According to the neighbours the only people who ever stay there are Christian Brothers. He is strongly Fianne Fail, as is Padraig Moran also. The teachers are busy collecting local history and folklore; the nuns recently visited old Culligan, looking for stories; but I formed the impression that the teaching profession is not only utterly irresponsible, but is one of the main channels through which the people are indoctrinated with superstition. Talking with the peasants I heard references to St. Patrick, “If he ever lived here” – not so with these “educated” scoundrels. Every myth, every superstitution, is sedulously preserved for its value in holding back the development of independent thought among the people. Well might Larkin say in years gone by that the INTO [Irish National Teachers Organisation] is “not a proper union at all”. It is noteworthy too that the INTO dance costs 10/6, while the “Young Farmers is 6/6, and the popular dances are only 3/6.
I came across the redoubtable folkorist, Padraig Moran in the Post Office – sending off one book to Ernie O’Malley [Famous War of Independence veteran and writer] and another to UCD[University College Dublin].Tom Doherty, nephew of Mrs Moran No.9, came in and spoke to him in Irish. A man trying to sell fish came in also and Moran addressed him in Irish too. Handley the Postmaster, who has no Irish, looked on them somewhat irritably and asked them what they wanted.
During this last week two further changes took place in Doobeg. First, Michael O’Malley’s brother came out of Castlerea sanatorium and began to walk around the district with the aid of a stick. His name is Patrick. He is several years younger than Michael, but has the artificial high colour which consumptives sometimes have, an abnormal brightness of the eye, and his hair is receding far back above his temples. “You’ll be God’s gift to the girls of Mulrany,” I said, recalling how few young men are here. He laughed. “They’ll not want me now.” Then his cousin, young O’Malley who helped Michael to cut turf, left to work in Scotland where he will join his two sisters. He is only about 17 but was there two years ago. For some reason everybody condemns the departure of young Rory Casey, but nobody seemed disturbed about O’Malley. The incredibly bright little boy, Martin Casey, is skipping about doing the work of two brothers. He made his mother wild by staying out in the bog all day in pouring rain. He drives the cattle, brings in the turf – and brings me my bottle of milk every day. He also intends to depart.
“A pity,” said I, “Do you not like Doobeg?”
“It’s not much of a place.”
“It could be.”
“Oh, it could – if the Government planted the mountain and mended the road.”
The cows all calved at once. Mrs Moran, opposite me, the Irish-speaking old woman of 88, has a niece who does the work of the farm alone; she brings me a bottle of milk a day. She is by far the kindliest soul in the village, I would say. The O’Malleys have all an eye to the main chance, though not so the Caseys, if they were here. The old woman told me that she was sorry I was leaving because she saw the smoke go up in my house every morning and it reminded her of the times when the house was occupied by the O’Connors. They were the only people near with whom she was on friendly terms. There was large family there, and not long ago. But they all died out and left not a trace. She showed me their old house – a ruin below the garden, not five yards from the sea. It was a warmer house, but they occupied this one 13 years ago when the land was striped. Sometimes the sea would throw a huge wave, you would think would engulf it “as white as the snow.” But it never did. Last year the roof fell in. The Morans are the only people in the village who have not put down their names for the installation of electricity. This will cost £15 each. “All the boys go away,” they said, “there’s nothing here.” The niece had been churning butter, so I was given some of that.
One afternoon I went to Rockfleet Castle and then up to Furnace Lough and to Newport. Justin Corbett, the Cork pharmacist who has my photographs printed in Ballina, disclosed that he has literary ambitions. He has tried to get on to the BBC and has called on the help of Lady O’Malley (Ann Bridges) a local authoress. He had approached David Marcus [literary editor of the Irish Press], and “The Bell” [magazine edited by Peadar O’ Donnell] but believed his work offended their rigorous orthodoxy. Nine-tenths of country life is courting, said he. The boy considered it a thrill if he even spoke to the girl for a few minutes. But any kind of relation, however harmless, between the sexes which did not have as its express and explicit aim the rite of marriage, is completely “verboten”. He thought O’Donnell as frightened as the rest.
I went to Curraun again and repeated the performance with the Gallagher children. The last “shnap” was not a success. Micky told me that the sea is “poisoned” around Keem. He does all his fishing now in Blacksod Bay. The shark-fishing seems to have destroyed every other kind. “Perhaps the fish won’t come in when they see what a graveyard it is,” said he. I met his brother in-law just below the house and he, Pat Madden, the shoemaker, a strong Fianna Fail man, is building a new workshop beside his house. We walked along the cliff to a ruined house. The day it was abandoned every streak of timber was taken out of it by the local people. They were taken up but let off lightly. “I wouldn’t say,” said he, “that there mightn’t be a use for the stone.” I had tea with him in his comparatively luxuriously furnished house. He was an Irish speaker, like Mickey’s wife. He told me he thought Clare Island meant the isle of the shoal, “clier” being shoal. Cahir Island belongs to the Inishturk people. There are no houses on it, but plenty of cattle and sheep. This probably explains why there are no trees, and the island looks like a drumlin.
He told me more about the Dickens estate. The schoolteacher-publican is making his fortune selling drink. He himself was a friend of Sean Mulgrew. He referred to the plant with the gigantic leaves which I had seen growing on the cliffs of “Cloch Mór”. It originated in Dickens’s “bog garden”, which the nephew who sold it to the schoolmaster did not keep up. The gardener, who lives close by, used to take home seeds and plants for his own garden. The giant-leaved cucumber-like thing grew readily there. Soon it escaped and established itself in Curraun cliffs, then on Cloughmore, and finally reached as far as Keem! How did it do it? The secret seems to be given in another observation of Pat Madden’s, namely that its root is thick, strong and woody, but does not go down more than a few inches. It could establish itself on barren uncolonised land, notably the Achill cliffs, even the “Cathedral rocks”. He thought that the strange colour of the sea was a bad sign for fish. There had been no herrings since 1921. Now the mackerel might go. I asked could it be that the herring would come back. He thought not.
It was arranged that when Walter 0’Dwyer came to take my luggage away next Sunday we would visit Clare Island again. But Walter did not arrive till too late. On the Friday and Saturday, Michael cut and stacked his hay. This was the best year for the farmers for a long time. Only the potatoes remained to worry about, and there was no hurry for them. The turf lorries had removed the stacks on the sides of the road and stacks had grown in front of all the houses. McGlinn of Ballycroy was going to cut the Carey’s hay very shortly. The Morans’ hay was behind hand, they thought, because they spread the grass-fertiliser late. The roses were in full bloom; the honeysuckle banks simply riotous; brown fructifications crowned all the tall royal ferns. The year had reached its highest point. I would have liked to watch it go down as well.
But my departure was marred by the disorganization and mischances which had affected my arrived. Walter’s niece from St. Helen’s was with him. She wanted to visit his brother in a townland (I think called Curraun also) near Aclare, Co. Sligo. This was the place where Walter was born. We reached Kiltimagh at 10.00 pm. and set off for Aclare at 10.35, reaching the house at 11.45 pm. Then there was tea and I went to see the thirteen-week-old bonhams in the shed and Walter argued the point with his brother over whether the lamp in the shed would set the whole thing on fire. The aunt was sick with a strong cough and was going into hospital. The husband did not seem to relish the notion and insisted there was nothing wrong with her. We left at 1 am. and reached Kiltimagh again by two. The Roughnean girl had disappeared altogether. “The Roughneans are all mad,” said Walter. Peggie was in Boyle again.
I caught the early train – the only train I ought to say – to Dublin and stayed with Pat Robson since May was in Tipperary, much to his dissatisfaction with his mother’s relatives. Hilda, who was typing my MS, had been smitten with severe headaches, at first thought to be eyestrain on account of my handwriting, then proved to be nothing of the kind. But only 50 pages was done. Everybody else seemed to be out of town. I caught the day boat and was soon back in the country of ill-temper, strain, food-poisoning, noise, snobs, degeneration, decay, and no hope or prospect that the people will cease to wriggle and attempt to throw off the prospect of living continually the same way but a bit worse every year.
(Wordage – c. 30,000)
Desmond Greaves Journal, Vol.10, Index
(the entries for this volume are by page number)
– Assessment of others: 5, 6, 9, 21, 27, 37-9, 51-3
– Book projects/articles: 9, 23, 49, 59
– Irish Democrat: 2, 53-4
– Holidays/cycling trips and tours: stay in Curraun, Achill 1951, Vol.10 passim
– on Britain and British society: 51, 53, 58
– on differences between Dublin and Belfast: 9
– on dress and clothes: 43
– on Family relatlons: 39-40
– on food and cooking: 15,
– on Health matters: 18
– on Ireland and Irish affairs: Vol.10 passim, 23, 28-9, 41, 50
– on Mayo scenery: 23
– on meteorology and the weather: 11, 21, 27-8, 42
– on nationality and the national question: 34-5
– on religion and the Church: 31-2, 38, 51
– on toilets and lavatories: 24
– on the aesthetics and practicalities of turf and turf-cutting: 33-4,
Organisation Names Index
Fianna Fail: 23
Fine Gael: 18,23
Irish Socialist Republican Party (James Connolly’s): 9
National Library of Ireland: 2
Trinity College Fabian Society: 38
Personal Names Index
Browne, Dr Noel: 17, 23, 37-9,
Campbell, Carmel (Dwyer): 3, 4, 23, 28
Connolly, James: 38
Curran, Gerard: 52
De Valera, Eamon: 2, 23, 37, 40
Dwyer, Walter: 3, 4, 10, 15, 24, 28, 49, 57
Johnston, Professor Joseph: 41
Johnston, Roy: 26-7
Keating, Justin: 30
Lehane, Con: 40
Macardle, Dorothy: 38
MacBride, Sean: 35, 40
McGowan, Seamus: 9
McSwiney, Muriel (Mrs Terence): pp. 2, 23
Mulgrew, Sean: 26, 30, 47
Murray, Sean: 9
O’Connor, Peter: 51
O’Donnell, Peadar: 38, 47
O’Higgins, Paul: 6, 38-9
O’Kelly, Sean T, President: 27,
O’Mahony, Eoin “the Pope”: 39
O’Malley, Michael: 5, 14-17, 26, 41
Roughnean, Michael and family: 7-9
Ryan, Desmond: 39
Tate, Jane: 53