Not so long ago December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a day when schools were closed, was the start of Christmas for most people. There were not the long gruelling hours of late-night shopping that are par for the course today. Perhaps in the final days before Christmas, most shops would open late; but generally in the weeks leading up to December 25, it was the normal week’s opening times. Believe it or not, everyone got their shopping done.
December 8t was an exciting day. Everyone working in the retail trade enjoyed the surge of parents and children coming into Galway from all over the west of Ireland. It was all hands on deck, and as a boy I was happy helping out in my father’s bookshop. As the dark evening drew in, there was a sense of accomplishment. The atmosphere was relaxed and festive.
For Pat Jordan Christmas began the day before December 8, when Mrs Kelly arranged toys in her shop window in Clarinbridge. As a child he would stand there wide-eyed looking at the toys. “ In our eyes the village looked magical on Christmas Eve, with a lighted candle in every window. Early that evening a large crowd gathered at the church for confessions.
“The pubs were closed on New year’s Eve, and the village was dead quiet. The only excitement was created by old Tommie Foy ringing the church bell and firing some shots into the air.”
Pat Jordan’s memories are one of many in Joseph Murphy’s fine collection of lives and life in Galway’s famous oyster village.* If those of us who live in the city believe that we have seen enormous changes in the ownership of shops, life-styles, employment, the sheer volume of new faces, then the changes in rural Galway have been even more dramatic. Farming, and all the way of life that it demanded, has virtually vanished. Clarinbridge, while retaining much of it distinctive character, has virtually become a suburb of the city. Most of its workers commute in long queues of traffic every day. Much of Murphy’s book, which is an interesting series of snapshots, captures the old and well as the new in this lively community. How many Galway people would identify with Martin Cormican whose job as a boy was to hold the cow’s tail from hitting his father on the head as he milked. The boy day-dreaming and impatient, was aware of the smell of the cows and the fresh milk, as he listened to the rhythmic sound of the milk stream, flowing against the side of the galvanised bucket. He would wonder when his father would be finished so he could get back to shooting bears and Indians in Kilcornan wood. ‘Then walking home with Dada carrying the buckets of milk. We depended on milk - full cream - no pasteurisation. Depended on it for drinking, for cups of tea, and for home-made butter.” The only pasteurisation used at the time, was ‘milk poured through a muslin cloth’ to filter the midges who drowned as his father was milking. It could be the beginning of a Seamus H eaney poem.
Nationalism and Tawin
Clarinbridge, KiIcolgan, Athenry, and Killeeneen, were surprisingly active during the Easter Rising. The enigmatic Liam Mellows had his men well trained. There was confusion throughout the country following its postponement, then a break-away group led by Padraic Pearse issued an order saying that despite the lack of arms, the Rising was on. Most groups had disbanded, but Mellows held firm. Martin Dolan records how Mellows made the Walsh home at Killeeneen his HQ. He ordered his army of 500 to go to confession and Mass, and they would assemble at Roevehagh Church on Easter tuesday. Fr Harry Feeney joined the men, which gave everyone a feeling of security.
There was great coming and going at the Walsh home. Hubert Walsh had been the principal teacher in the local school. ‘He was a rabid nationalist constantly in trouble with the Department of Education because of the doctrines he taught in the school. His wife was no less ardent in her patriotism, while his son Paddy and daughters Gretta, Bridie, and Tess were all ready to serve their country.’
Not far away is the interesting headland of Tawin, lying off the south-easterly shores of Galway Bay, and is reached by a bridge and causeway across open ground. It is virtually an island, and gets the full force of the Atlantic gales.
Michael Conniffe (the renowned Abbey Theatre actor, and associated with the founding of An Taibhdhearc ), recalled the row over the tiny national school at the beginning of the last century. There ware nine children in Michael’s family, and they were all native Irish speakers and traditional singers. Michael, his brother John and his sister Maírín (May ) became national school teachers. During the long summer holidays they came home to Tawin, and opened the local school to teach Irish. The authorities ordered them to close, but they continued. As a result the school was closed permanently. It was a serious blow to the small community, and became a rallying call for the Irish language. The cudgels were taken up by Roger Casement and the Gaelic League. Money was raised through the League’s newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis, and a new school was built, which still stands today. Casement was a frequent visitor to the new school, as was Eamon de Valera who spent a peaceful summer learning Irish there before he became totally submerged in his political life.
Tyrone House, with its ornamental stone facade, is a sad ruin today, but still standing proudly on the entrance to the KiIcolgan Bay. It was built by the St George family who were influential landlords since the 18th century. The house was burnt in 1921. A granddaughter of the St Georges, Elizabeth LaHiff Lambert (the LaHiffs of Cloon House, near Gort ), revealed an extraordinary family secret in her own book of memories published in 1979. ** Her uncle, Arthur Blake of Cregg Castle, and his best friend Malachy Ryan both fell in love with two beautiful sisters. The girls’ parents thought the men totally unsuitable for their daughters, even though the girls were delighted with the attention. They packed the girls off to a strict convent school in France, and thought that was the end of the matter.
However, the two Romeos followed them, and through a series of clandestine messages arranged for the girls to elope with them. On the night of the great escape, the girls, heavily disguised, climbed over the convent wall into the arms of, whom each thought, was her beau.
In order to make good their escape, the couples split, and sped away by train in the opposite directions. When they thought they were safe at last, the girls removed their disguise, and to everyone’s horror found that they had run away with the wrong partners.
But fearing that the girls were totally compromised by spending the night on a train with a man (which in those days would have brought even more shame on their families ), both partners agreed to marry the girl they were with. They hoped that fate would be kind.
But the marriages were most unhappy. Elizabeth LaHiff tells us that ‘whenever the chance permitted, the two ladies spent as much time with each other’s husbands as possible, and when my uncle Arthur’s father died, his sweetheart, Mrs Ryan, threw herself across his grave and would not be comforted.’
* Oyster Country - A Community Journal of Clarinbridge, and Surrounding District, By Joseph Murphy, on sale at €15, from Saturday in Charlie Byrnes’ and all outlets in Clarinbridge.
**Jottings from My Life in Tyrone, Ireland, by Elizabeth LaHiff Lambert, edited by her niece, Margaret LaHiff in 1979. Elizabeth died in California in 1949.