Oughterard Newsletter February 2007
A young boy named Michael arrived on holidays to his Uncle Willie who was a guard at the barracks in Camp Street. He wrote his impressions of the area and its people in several letters back to his father in Dublin. He stayed with Uncle Willie, Aunt Brigid, John, Steve, Pat, Mike and young Willie for the duration of the holidays. The family lived in “a fine big house with a very enticing outside appearance… A nice door after the copy of walnut wood, a brass knocker and handle made a very imposing hall door… Then for about three feet from the ground the outside wall was painted dark red, then yellow to brown paint covered the walls to the slated roof, topped by four chimney pots.” In one of his letters he asks his father if he knew a Mr. Conyngham or Cunningham, the blacksmith of Killala. His son, then an RIC man and a Maria Martin, known as Mrs. Fogarty, lived nearby in Camp Street. Other clues to the identity of the writer are that he refers to a Mary Kate who “never stops talking of Jackie Murphy and Barney, and she is constantly talking of Tessie and Mary Burbridge and her old backyard.”
He also speaks of visiting his grandmother’s grave where “two big stones are all that mark her resting place.” He addresses his letters as “Corrib View”. From this scant information maybe some reader could identify who ‘Michael’ was? His identification is not that important. What is important is the fine description he has left in his notes and letters about the area. His notes are printed in full.
Many of the things we did in Connemara were not in my letters, but I kept notes and a good memory of them.
Put them in match boxes
Aunt Brigid is at work from morning to night. She does all the housework and makes all the bread. She has hens in the backyard and gets lots of eggs. In the garden they have a lot of potatoes growing; and cabbage and some beans. Laidley’s next door have a lot of peas but we have none. Uncle Willie does the garden and sometimes Michael and Willie help, but not much, for they do be out on the lake with the fishermen. These fishermen pay 10 shillings a day for the boat and a man to row. I don’t know how much they get of that, but they bring a good basket of food with them. We catch a lot of flies for the fishermen and put them in match boxes. We get a few pennies for them. They are what we call Daddy-long-legs.
Michael is very quiet and always goes his own way. Willie does be complaining. I lay most of the time with Patrick and Steve, the others are too small. Sometimes we help people to bring home hay and build in into a big cock. We have great fun tumbling in the hay.
One day a lot of strange boys came down to the town and they were jeering us and we were not doing anything but playing pitching stones. You get a tall stone and put it on the ground standing up. Then you draw a ring around it, and you have five other small flat stones to throw at it. If you can get one or more of your stones to stand up or lie against the big one you count one for each stone. These fellows wanted to break up our game, and we were only outside our own house. When Aunt Brigit heard all the noise she ran out and clouted some of them and they all ran away. She said they were Borrisheens and we should not play with them. John who is a little fellow had blood coming from his nose and Aunt Brigid made him like down on the floor on his back. Then the bleeding stopped and he was alright.
Sitting on the window sill making lace
There is a soldiers’ barrack here and the soldiers walk all about the place. Aunt Brigid caught Maggie talking to one of them and she cut off a bit of her hair for punishment. Mary Kate and Violet do be sitting on the window sill making lace. It is very slow and very nice when finished. They have a little scissors to cut away the top part of the pattern, and the scissors has a blob of steel on one side so that it will not sink into the lace underneath and cut it. I never saw one like that before. When they have the lace finished they bring it to the Convent and get more patterns and materials. I suppose the nuns sell the lace for them.
On Sundays the Police go on Church Parade. The few of them gather outside the Barracks and are wearing their helmets for the parade.
Then they walk in single file, like geese, to the Church. There was a collection in the Church for “Cait”. The priest says she minds and cleans the Church and does it well. Aunt Brigid told me that a lot of people walk miles to Mass on Sundays and many of the women do have no shoes but come barefooted. A lot of the countrymen wear white jackets, and they are often in short trousers. They don’t get long ones till much later than us.
Michael brought me out on the lake a few times to fish. We caught a lot of perch and a few trout, but we were not long at it because Aunt Brigid told him not to keep me out. We caught them over near the quay. There is an island here called Innishanbo, and an Englishman named Captain Jones owns it. He has a lot of lovely boats painted white with a rim of green. He has a fine house on the island, and no one is allowed to land. But we did and no one saw us. There are woods here full of raspberries and we got a lot of them. It is a great place to play, and there are lots of trees to climb. The top of one tree was smashed across and we call it the high jump, but we did not climb that one.
And then there are the donkeys
I feel strange here at night when I hear the dogs barking. They seem to be near and then far away. Uncle Willie told me that is the way they have of talking to each other. It’s strange that they do it only at night. And then there are the donkeys. They have a horrible groaning kind of call. Then the cocks begin to crown and they say that they do be talking to each other before the people get up. It would be too late then.
When Uncle Willie is sleeping in the Barracks someone has to go up each morning and tap at the window to waken him up. I did it once, but a strange face came to the window and said it would be all right.
We go swimming in the pool in the river near the boathouse. It is not very deep but the bottom is queer. It is stone but is worn away all over so that it looks like a mass of egg-cups, and some of the edges are sharp. They say that there are things like sulphur in the water, and that causes it and the name of the river is Owenriff, or river of sulphur. I can swim but some of the boys cannot, so they gather lots of bulrushes and tie them together in a bundle. It floats and they put it under their chests and splash away. Some of them can swim a bit, but they would not dive for it is not deep enough.
When we go for a walk a long way, we take some lunch with us, and Patrick showed me the way to make sandwiches with cuckoo sorrel. This is a plant with broad leaves and it has a peculiar taste. He also showed me how to get a taste of honey from the wild fuchsia flowers. It’s not much, but still you can taste it. We were hungry when we got home, but Aunt Brigid had a good meal for us and plenty of bread she made herself. She always has plenty of flour and a gallon can of buttermilk in a cool place behind the front door. One day she went into Galway and left Mary Kate in charge. It was great. Mary Kate is not cross, and we could to anything. When she came home she had a big bundle and what was it but a roll of dark brown tweed to make clothes for the boys. I tell you she was busy making the clothes after that. She made blouses for them with a wide collar and elastic at the bottom. They all looked like the same when they were dressed up in them, but she only let them wear them on Sundays.
Not hard to find the grave
Two days we went to the graveyard. It is on the road to Galway. Patrick showed me the place where Granny was buried. It is marked only by two big stones and it is all covered with grass. It is not a big graveyard and it was not hard to find the grave, but if you did not know you would be lost. They told me she died four years before. My Aunt Lily [Duffy] told me that she was in Dublin once and saw me, but I was only a year old then and I could not remember. She said that she used to have great amusement talking to my Grandfather Duffy. Aunt Brigid never talked about her to me. She lived with her and Uncle Willie since they were married. Maggie was with us too and she made us kneel down and say a prayer for her.