There was something altogether appropriate about Maitias O’Gormaile of Tuam reaching the end of his life’s journey on St Patrick’s Day. For his sense of Irish identity was deeply rooted and expressed itself in every aspect of his life, from the language he so loved, to the history and folklore of the country, its music and song and dance, and, of course, its sporting traditions, especially hurling, which he championed in his part of Galway, an area better known for Gaelic football.
Yet there was also a breadth to his love of all things Irish, even what might be called a cosmopolitan side to it. As well as being a keen supporter of all things to do with Gaelic games, Maitias also loved cricket and was delighted with the Irish cricket team’s recent superb performance against England. He attended Mass in Tuam Cathedral regularly, but he was also one of the ‘Friends of St Mary’s’ Cathedral and often attended Church of Ireland services.
His love of history, especially the history of Tuam, led Maitias to become one of the pillars of the Old Tuam Society. A lifelong Pioneer, he was yet often to be found at a late-night ballad session, where he would contribute a song or step out dancing. Indeed, he was not only an excellent set dancer, sean-nos singer and dancer, but his gift for stirring recitations won him several awards over the years.
One of Maitias’ great pleasures was the annual Cumann Merriman school. Indeed, he would arrange his holidays – he was a postman from the age of 18 – to coincide with this gathering of scholars and academics held in County Clare. Maitias had a just sense of his own worth and was intimidated by no one, and his contributions to the discussions after lectures was legendary, and sometimes reported in the Irish Times’ coverage of the school. Learning he deeply respected. Pretension he had no time for. Always a clever and witty man, he would ask a question, usually prefacing it by saying that while he was no scholar, he just wondered ... and then pop a question that showed intelligence as sharp and focused as any of the ‘lettered’ lecturers attending.
Maitias made a memorable appearance on The Late, Late Show in Gay Byrne’s time, as well as on TG4, and was frequently interviewed on Radio na Gaeltachta. Indeed, for a time, he became Gerry Ryan’s folklore expert, explaining the ways of the country to the city-based broadcaster, often with hilarious results.
Above all, Maitias loved talking to people, and his job as a rural postman made him known to hundreds, maybe thousands, of people throughout his long tenure. He had a special affection for older people on his route, and he deplored the move to install post boxes at the end of lanes rather than personal delivery. In a very real sense, Maitias regarded his role as a postman as a kind of community service, and there are many stories of acts of kindness on behalf of the lonely and the isolated for whom he was a friendly face and a welcome daily visitor.
Even before he retired from the Post Office, Maitias was talking of writing a book about his life and experiences, and once he found himself with the time, he set to work on it. The result, in 2008, was Are Ya Wide Sham, or as he subtitled it, “A simple compilation of characters, customs, and happenings of Tuam from the forties to the present day”, launched in St Mary’s Cathedral.
If Maitias’ sense of Irish identity was deeply rooted, his sense of Tuam identity was the deepest root of all. Born in Tuam, raised in Tuam, and living all his life in Tuam, his book is both an autobiography and a loving portrait of the town he knew and loved so well. In its pages, there are descriptions of Tuam characters, recollections of cutting turf, celebrating Christmas when he was young, accounts of races and agricultural shows, wakes and weddings, carnivals and travelling circuses, fairs and markets, shops old and new, sport, music and dance, sayings of the old people, and – of course – Tuam’s distinctive slang, of which Maitias was the acknowledged authority.
It is a wonderful book, and – unlike many books of this kind – you can hear his voice, even in the way the sentences unfold and the stories are told. It sold like hotcakes and I would urge you to try to get hold of copy.
Maitias was a regular visitor to Cruinniu na mBad in Kinvara every August. He loved especially attending the sean-nos singing event, an t-Amhran Beo. At the informal seisuin after the concert, he usually gave a recitation of ‘The Races of Punchestown’ or ‘The Man from God Knows Where’. Last year, instead of the recitation, he gave a lovely rendering of ‘Lonely Banna Strand’, which he dedicated to the memory of his eldest brother Johnny, who had drowned in Montreal, Canada, 50 years previously on that very date, August 20th.
Maitias on his birth cert, Matt round the town, and Mattie to his close friends and family, was known far and wide through his many roles and activities. His death on St Patrick’s Day after a short illness was a profound shock to his family, especially his wife, Kitty, his son Maitiu, his daughter Fiona and her husband Micheal, and their two children, Aisling Rose and Daniel, and his legion of friends. He has himself now become part of the history and folklore of Tuam, and he will be long remembered as a leading character in a town of many characters.