I have been following the Connemara holiday taken by Stephen L Gwynn MP in September 1907*. He set out from Galway on his bicycle, with his fishing rods and knapsack. He travelled along Cois Fhairrige to Clifden, through Connemara to Killary and Leenane, over the mountains through Joyce Country to Lough na Fooey and Lough Mask, to Ballinrobe and Tourmakeady, and home again along the coast road. As the local MP for 12 years, he was well known in the district. Sometimes he tied his bike to the back of a car of a friend, and covered distances in some style. But generally Gwynn spent long periods on the road, washing himself in the lakes and the sea, sometimes regretting that the nearest meal was still some miles away in a comfortable hotel.
Being a gregarious man, he enjoyed talking to the people he met. He admired the young colleens for their ‘sculptural beauty’, their modesty, and the way they crossed their shawls over their breasts. He commented on many of the big issues of the time. A member and promoter of Conradh na Gaeilge, he was interested in the progress of the teaching of Irish. He was stunned at the size of the Marconi station at Derrygimlagh. It was a vast complex, mysterious and top secret. Soldiers guarded the gates.
Sitting in on a Congested Districts Board meeting at Leenane he heard with dismay that 3,260 families in the Oughterard Union struggled on land valued at less than £5. There was talk of moving the families to Roscommon.
The Land War of the 1880s was still alive in the memories of most of the people that he talked to. The denigration of many of the peasants by the British press rankled with him. Passing by the place where Lord Ardilaun’s two bailiffs were beaten to death and thrown into the depths of Lough Mask, ‘the killers forcing everyone they met to take a hand in carrying the weighted sacks to the lake.’ ‘Across the hill, in Maamtrasna, you can see the ruins of a cabin where a whole family was slaughtered by men who came in disguised, meaning merely, it is said, to give a fierce beating to sheep-stealers; but being recognised, they killed old and young.**
Do these crimes, Gwynn asks, wicked as they are, but part of a feudal war, or family strife, merit the condemnation that the press heaps upon them? “ The other day”, he writes, “ a man kicked his wife to death near Dublin. That is taken by the outside world as an ordinary occurrence, not an index of serious disorder calling for comment. But if a process-server is shot at, the United Kingdom rings with the ‘dastardly outrage.’ I do not suppose that within the past 100 years a woman was seriously injured by her husband in the Joyce Country; and yet its people carry the stigma of savagery.”
At Knock, Co Mayo, on the Feast of the Assumption earlier this month, 8,000 people celebrated the centenary of the birth of Monsignor James Horan (May 5 1911 ), the man who realised an ambitious vision for Mayo, including an international airport at Charlestown, making Knock a destination for international pilgrimage, and for numerous community schemes. I cannot think of a man more deserving of that honour. But I would have included an award for his generous hospitality. Dinner (which was held at midday in those days ), consisted of soup, with a dab of cream, and slices of brown bread. Then there was lashings of meat, at least two vegetables, and probably three kinds of cooked potatoes: Mashed, boiled and roasted. Always gravy. Then there was dessert, smothered in cream, followed by tea or coffee, cake and biscuits. You were constantly pressed to have ‘seconds’ all along the way.
After the meeting at Leenane in 1907, the local parish priest, a Father John, invited Stephen Gwynn for ‘dinner’, but this time at 4pm. The same generous portions of food were served, mainly around a main course of ‘bacon and greens’, with ‘the biggest and best potatoes any one could discover’. The conversation topic was Parnell, and the importance for politicians to address the people of Connemara in their native language.
The meal was followed by a large ‘tumbler of whiskey,’ a tradition the good Monsignor religiously followed.
All for America
On his way home, near Clifden, Gwynn was invited to an “American wake” ‘the bitter name which modern Ireland gives to those too frequent farewell gatherings which speed the parting emigrant.’ Three girls were going from the neighbourhood. Gwynn was invited into the house from which one of its daughters was leaving. The farmhouse was packed, but six square feet ‘or there-abouts of the kitchen floor was kept clear for dancing.’ He met the departing girl ‘dressed in her best’ and wished her in Irish: “Luck on your going and prosperity on your returning.” ‘ She looked at me courteously; but to speak the truth, said nothing of any will to return.’
Gwynn was shown into the ‘little room beyond the kitchen’ to sit among the elders, all speaking Irish. A woman told him that her son had left for America the previous year. ‘And the girls are just the same,’ she said, ‘all dying to be off. This little girl now that’s going, I would fret more about her than if she was my own son, for she was always good, and used to help me. But they’re all for America.’
Outside in the kitchen there was nothing ‘but festivity’, with everyone speaking English. This was because ‘young men in fine high collars, all from the Marconi establishment, were taking part in the festivity, and twirling in their turn about the narrow circle.’
Gwynn left early; but the next day he heard a full report of the night. In the early morning hours ‘the dancing was interrupted by prolonged bursts of lamentation’. He was told that if it was that their father or mother had died, ‘they could not cry more.’
In the house where the two girls were leaving, ‘one indeed wailed with the rest, but the other never cried one tear. ‘And all of them, weepers and dry-eyed alike, would turn from the crying to the dancing, and so back again to a new burst of grief.
‘Could anything be more characteristic of the race? Could anything be sadder than the whole business?’
Next week: September 3 1945: World War II comes to Galway
*A Holiday in Connemara, by Stephen Gwynn, MP published by Methuen and Co, London 1909.
** During the night of August 17 1882 John P Joyce, his wife, mother, daughter and one of two sons were beaten and shot to death by a crowd of men. One young boy survived his injuries. Known as the Maamtrasna Murders, it was a sensational crime followed by an even more sensational trial, during which a fierce family feud was later revealed. At least one entirely innocent man was hanged at Galway gaol (See Galway Diary Jan 28 2010 ).