Humble but happy homes

The library of Congress in Washington kindly lent us this photograph (originally one half of a stereo photograph ), which was taken in 1903. It shows “The humble but happy homes of the Claddagh fisher folk, Galway”.

The scene is quite typical – a row of neatly thatched houses with some of the half doors left outside. The cart in the background may well have belonged to a thatcher working on that roof. Note the large tree behind that house. The rocks and stones in the street would have belonged to a house that had fallen derelict. Occasionally people would remove rocks from these ruins to help build on to their own houses. The materials on top of this pile may have been hooker sails, or clothes left out to dry.

The two boys in the foreground are barefoot. As Peadar O’Dowd says in his book Down by the Claddagh: “For these boys, the old Claddagh was a wonderful playground. There was hide-and-seek amid the maze of narrow lanes and down by the water there was the usual paddling and swimming as well as the thrill of collecting bait with the women of the village. Mary Banim mentioned another aquatic activity: To the right of the long pier is a little inlet of the sea, evidently expressly designed by nature of the pleasure of the children, for here, in every sunny hour when school is over, all the boys come for their natural and most engrossing amusement – regattas with the fleet of little home-made white-sailed cutters capitally built little boats, of quite a different make from land-boys’ toy affairs; boats that seem related to the old bread-winners in the harbour, for the moment they touch the water, there they go racing, flying, tacking, as lively and as eager to win the race, and seemingly as full of life, as their young owners running along the bank.

“Later, when the boys grew older, they learnt to swim as Michael O’Flaherty tells us in this autobiography: ‘Not all the days were windy; many were beautiful. It was those days we kids liked best because we could go down to the pier and dive for coppers thrown into the water by tourists. We had learned to swim at an early age. The tourists loved to see us dive twelve or fifteen feet into the ocean and stay under looking for money in the clean sand. It was a good, healthy life and it was carefree……’.

“As well as swimming, the youngsters also indulged in hurling in the Big Grass area as they tried to emulate their elders on the great local team, Fr Tom Burke’s, who played at the nearby ‘Swamp’. Hopscotch and skipping for the girls and pitch and toss for the boys also occupied the young minds of the Claddagh just then, before thoughts of earning the few ‘bob’ for sweets and a trip to the cinema (two pence for ice cream and four pence for the Estoria ) became the fashion. Chris Flaherty, the ex-Preston policeman, remembers some early enterprise shown by his generation – ‘As boys, we would gather as much old fish netting as possible, piece them together, make one large net, and catch as many mackerel and herring we could off the beaches of South Park. Then we’d build a large bar fire, grill what fish we needed, sit around the fire and sing songs or tell ghost stories. Innocent activities admittedly but we were better for all that. We would then hank the fish in 20s and sell them for a shilling a hank’.”

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