Knockillaree Sixty Years Ago
Cormac Mac Connell, a journalist with “The Irish Press” interviewed Tom Joyce, Camp St. Oughterard July 1974. This article appeared in the paper on Tuesday 23rd July.
If you wish to find Tom Joyce of Oughterard at this time of year, to talk to him about the quality of life in his childhood days, or of any other matter, you must pass right through Oughterard, where there are almost as many boats as cars parked along the kerbs, right through, on out the road towards Clifden for six miles, and then turn right, sharply and crookedly, into the bog of Letterkeeghaun.
A man there will tell you, with only slight hyperbole to look out ‘for an old fellow about seven feet four under a wide hat behind a pipe.”
That’s Tom Joyce.
Working in the Bog
If you have any breeding in you at all you will not approach any man marooned on the slow brown labour of a bog without having brought a bottle or two of stout with you. This being so, tom Joyce will cordially cover a bog bank with a gray gaberdine over coat long enough for six men to sit on, never having tasted a better bottle of stout in your life.
Complete the context with a crescent of furze in the fore ground, the blued haze of the Bens in the background, water cold from the height of them bleaching the path of its own journey through the bog, stacks of turf, stripped banks, minute men working away the faraway of the bog, and the odd barking.
It is then easy, and pleasant, and rewarding to follow Tom Joyce’s slow speech, studded with the occasional honourable oath, back to the early days of the century when he was growing up in the village of Knockkillaree, the center child of seven born on thirty acres of marginal land, and into an age which has passed on.
In Knockillaree, just after the century turned, it was still the time of the “meitheal”, the gathering of all the men folk to do the work of one, a healthy tradition which even then was weakening, and did not long co-exist with the century.
“ A few of the neighbours, without consulting the man himself, would decide on a day they would call to do the jpb to b e done, whether it was hay or cutting turf, or spuds, turnips or whatever. The man himself would only b e told a day or two before. Then the neighbours would arrive on the appointed day and do the work.
It was done for everyone but particularly for the poor man with a young family. Then, in a few years that man himself had ‘help’ which he could send out to the very people who helped him.”
Abroad in the 30’s and 40’s
Tom Joyce was away from Ireland in the 30’s and early 40’s. When he returned home he was surprised at the change. There was not the same community spirit, the ‘meitheal’ tradition was dead. If a man came to do a day’s work for another he expected cold cash at the end of the day.
But all that was far away when Tom himself was a child, fishing, in a way comparable to “gudding’ by snaring pike.
“ You needed a narrow river with clear water. We would be after small pike. You could see them staying still in the water. You’d enter the snare in the water in front of them and then move it down, not moving the water if you could, until it was around their middle. Then you flicked them out on the bank. Like everything else there was a knack to it.”
Station Masses in the country houses were a major childhood event, because it meant a day off school. The people of the house in which the ‘Station’ was to be held would have it looking spick and span. The men stood out side until the ceremony began the women went inside.
After the ceremony the priest collected the ‘offerings’ which were then two shillings a man. Tom remembers with a certain cynicism a parish priest accepting the 2shillings from a poor man without a word, the 2s of a comparatively wealthy man with the words: “Thanks Pat I’m obliged to you.”
If you were talking to him about matters other than the quality of his early life he would have harsh things to say about the conduct of the Church and State in those days. He was eight years old on the day that the priest was ‘obliged’ to the man Pat.
Great Characters of Knockillaree Tom Shaughnessy
In Knockillaree of those days if sheep got the “reels” you sent for Tom Shaughnessy. Vets, obviously, have their own name for ‘reels’ but it seems a picturesquely apt description of a condition which began with the sheep’s neck going side ways and ending with her in dire straights, walking around and around in its own tracks. The condition was caused by a sac of watery liquid pressing down on the brain.
Tom Shaughnessy, sent for, arrived with a brace and bit, bored down through the skull, found the sac unerringly, removed it without breaking it, and the sheep almost invariably recovered.
“The village was full of men with special skills at that time. And normally they wouldn’t take payment for their services, which, however, gave them standing in the community. If a cow sickened, Pat Clancy was sent for. Pat had outstanding skills in doctoring animals.
“ On one occasion he cut a tumour from the passage of a cow without injuring her. The calf was born – it died but the cow lived and thrived, which showed that he had carried out this major operation properly. He did it using only a penknife.”
Tom Harris, if Pat Clancy couldn’t come, was equally adept at curing “shoulder slip” in cattle. If its owner developed any “mechanical ailment” in his person there was a very good bonesetter called Kyne in neighbouring Moycullen.
If you wanted a sow castrated in those days in Knockillaree – and this was a very major operation indeed, not like the simple male castration – you sent for a man called Connors. Men like Pat Audley of Park thatched your roof. John Waters built your stack of corn.
Other men were adept at tasks like building cocks of hay, sharpening scythes, mowing and so forth. Their skills dignified them and enriched their community which had two blacksmiths James Molloy and Tom Walshe.
Michael Hynes out of Glann was the village musician for the country house dances. There were only five or six houses in the village which, because they had barns and concrete floors were suitable for dances.
The men arrived with two or three shillings as their contributions towards the drinks. The girls brought food for the meal. Michael Hynes often played through until the following morning.
“ The men were more timid and shy towards women that time. Not as arrogant or as cheeky.” These country house dances were fuel for a fortnight’s conversation.
The villagers’ weddings were simple, after the church ceremony the couple, relatives, friends and followers went to the house in which the couple were to live, usually the groom’s home. There was food and drink. Only in the evening for the inevitable dancing did the young people arrive. Usually a sheep was killed for the day. “Whether they could afford it or not.”
Are people happier now?
Tom says he doesn’t know if people are happier now than they were then. But he thinks that they were more relaxed. There seems to have been a greater community spirit, people cared more about what happened to their neighbours. It is probable that people were more honest.
It’s is all a long time ago, looking back to it from a bog bank caught in a crook of the Letterkeeghaun River out beyond Oughterard. But the way Tom Joyce tells it you wouldn’t mind having been born then. At least you would be remembered.