‘I always return to the old home on Christmas Day’

 Mary McDonagh with her daughter Clare

Mary McDonagh with her daughter Clare

Hunting rabbits was a favourite pasttime of boys and dogs on Omey, that sand-duned, tidal island, that ploughs into the sea at Claddaghduff, near Cleggan. It is possible to say that the over-used cliche ‘magical’ can apply to Omey.* It can hardly be seen from the mainland. But if the tide is out, a series of arrowed posts guide the driver across the strand to the only road on the island. And that too runs out.

Once there, however, you are aware that this is a tranquil place, spreading out before you along gentle, undulating, hills, until you come to the wide Atlantic on the other side. ‘Looking back towards the mainland, the Twelve Bens can be seen in all their glory, while to the west the sea ebbs and flows around Cruagh, Friar, and High Island. Its sandy grasslands, known as machair, from one of the rarest habitats in Europe, are home to carpets of wildflowers in the summer, and an array of wildlife including rare and endangered birds.’

Empty houses, many well kept, remind us that there are no longer any residents living on Omey. A thriving community of about 400 souls, who had lived there in the mid 19th century, dwindled over the years until the last resident, Hollywood stuntman Pascal Whelan, returned to the island in later life, and lived there virtually alone for many years until his death in February 2017.

James Morrissey’s charming book, Omey** with only minor intrusions (to point out some historic fact, a person of interest, an archaeological observation, or a word on its fragile biodiversity ), allows former residents, or their descendants, to tell the story of life on the island in its closing years. Mike Mongan recalls that there were nine of his family living in a two-bedroomed house. He, and his five sisters, mother and father shared one room with three double beds; while the other room belonged to the ‘king’ of the house, his grandfather.

Mike’s favourite pastime was to go hunting rabbits with the family dogs. He could catch up to 12 on a good night. The next day these were slung over the handlebars of the family bike, and Mike would cycle into Cleggan and sell them. The money he made paid for ‘going to the dances’.

St Féchín’s well

It is said that Saint Féchín had a dream where an angel urged him to leave his Sligo monastery at Ballisodare, and head at once to Imaith (Omey ), where the people were in ‘darkness’ and needed his care. But he met with fierce opposition. As he and his monks began to build a monastery, the local inhabitants flung their spades, axes, and other tools, into the sea, and refused the newcomers food. Two of Féchiín’s followers died of starvation.

But the tide turned, as it were, the building tools were miraculously returned to the beach, while King Guire of Connacht, known as the Hospitable, heard of the saint’s struggle, and sent food and protection. In time the inhabitants were converted. A well sprang from the ground, and its clear water used to baptise the people. Every January 14, hundreds visit his well on the island today, many doing penance circling the well on their knees or in bare feet, reciting prayers.

Faith was challenged

But the people’s faith was sorely tested when during famine times the Catholic church’s neglect of their Connemara faithful allowed the Protestant Irish Church Mission to offer an attractive alternative, with practical help. These were times of extreme hardship. Many welcomed the generous aid, the caring pastors, and sent their children to the new school, where they were also fed.

Archbishop John McHale of Tuam was furious. He sent Fr William Rhatigan into the fray, who one morning burst into the Omey Protestant school, looking, as he said, for ‘stray sheep’. The schoolmaster, Rev Lindsay Mac Neice (a grandfather of the poet Louis Mac Neice ), began to argue. The argument led to violence, until his family rushed into the room and physically ejected Rhatigan.

This incident seemed to spark a revolution against the Irish Church Mission. Schools were burnt, children and parents who had converted to the Protestant religion were stoned and scorned. MacNeice was badly beaten by the crowd. His daughter Charlotte was struck down when she went to help him. The MacNeice family were put into protective custody. They left Omey shortly after. ***

A new national school was established on Omey in 1882.

Influence of the tide

Some of the warmest memories in the book concern the kindness of teachers, and their appreciation of the children. A former teacher, Mary Joyce, recalls, ‘The children were absolutely lovely, very open and unspoiled. I did enjoy it.’

The tides affected school hours, as it did every aspect of island life. Sometimes school would not start until 11am because the teacher would not be able to cross the strand until the tide receded. Other times schools would finish at 2pm to allow the teacher to get home before the tide returned. On Sundays everyone went to Mass at Claddaghduff. Boys would roll their trousers up above their knees, tying their shoes together by their laces, and hung them around their necks. Others wore wellingtons.

The shop in Claddaghduff only sold tea, sugar, flour in sacks, paraffin and some meat, and very little else. Everyone was self-sufficient. Each family provided their own milk, butter, potatoes, vegetables, shellfish and fish.

Mary McDonagh left Omey for Cleggan, with her family, in 1996. She was already attending the secondary school there, but her hours were precarious depending on the tides. In the end, for the sake of her education, her parents decided it would be better to leave the island, and live on the mainland. Although Mary would now have a life that was not dependent on the tide, a room of her own, friends and discos, ‘as the last carload of belongings’ drove across the sand, she was aware that it was the end of an era. She was sad.

On Christmas Day she always made a point of returning to Omey, with her dad, to feed the cattle, visit family graves, and light a fire in her old home. ‘Now I visit Dad’s grave, and say a prayer of thanks for instilling in me my love and appreciation of the place where he was born and reared, and where I had the privilege of living for the first 14 years of my life.’

NOTES: How did Omey get its unique name? St Féchín of Fore - a saint with many Connemara and Mayo associations, built an abbey there in the seventh century. Perhaps the name comes from the Irish Iomaidh Féchín, St Féchíns Seat, meaning the saint’s place or habitation.

** Omey, by James Morrissey, published by Crannóg Books, is on sale €30.

*** The incident cut deeply into the MacNeice family. William MacNeice never returned to the island. His son, John Fredrick, later became a bishop. A common theme of his sermons was that people should forget old hurts and remember only the things that might unite them. His son the poet Louis, was not so forgiving. He described Connemara as a place where ‘the mountains had never woken up, and the sea had never gone to sleep, and the people never got civilised.’

Next Week: The Christmas Miscellanea - Christmas reading at a time of peace as World War I finally ended.


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