Category Archives: Leitrim Memoirs

The fog is lifting from the scene and I am forced to go… Lovely Leitrim and the call of duty

 

I set out to write this piece about a week ago but got completely side-tracked. One thing that distracted me was getting glued to the twenty four hour news coverage of the most recent terror attack on the Borough Market in London.  In horrific moments such as these we cling to any semblance of normality and hope. The pieces of shattered humanity can begin to be glued together by tales of came appearances of real heroes, ordinary people doing extraordinary acts to try to help and protect others. I’m thinking of the paramedics rushing in to tend to the injured whilst the attackers still roamed the streets. I’m also thinking of the Spanish man on Saturday evening last who took on one of the knife wielding attackers with his skateboard. What a brave man, a true hero. At moments like these you can’t help everyone but everyone can help someone.

Irish people tend to remember heroes by penning songs about their feats. I intended writing today about one such hero and a song. The song isn’t about his heroism, it’s a song he wrote reminiscing about his home county in Ireland, his heroism was to come later. The song is not a complicated verse, it is quite simple in fact, typical of its age but it is very sincere. When music was put to the lyrics the verse became a waltz and when a man from Longford called Larry Cunningham sang it in the 1960’s it became a hit. By this time the author had already been dead for almost two decades. It is the nature of his death that makes the song all the more poignant today for Leitrim people everywhere.

I was in ‘Fitzpatricks’ Bar in Mohill, County Leitrim recently. This fine public house is run by Val Fitzpatrick and his wife Carmel and is also known as the Ceili House. The Fitzpatricks originally hail from the proud parish of Aughavas in the heart of South Leitrim. The family have a long musical tradition going back through the generations. As an aside the family are also related to the late BAFTA Award winning actor Patrick McGoohan, he who appeared in famous TV serials such as ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Danger Man’ in addition to Hollywood blockbusters like ‘A Time to Kill’ and ‘Braveheart’.

Phil FitzpatrickAs usual I digress. The person I most want to discuss is a man named Phil Fitzpatrick who was born in Aughavas, Co. Leitrim in 1892. Phil emigrated to New York just after independence and he joined New York’s finest as a Patrolman in 1926. He spent most of his career in the mounted section patrolling precincts around Midtown and Central Park.

It probably seemed like an ordinary day. Fitzpatrick was off-duty and having lunch with a colleague Patrolman George Dammeyer in a tavern on the Upper East Side. Suddenly two armed men rushed into the Tavern and sought to rob the staff and all the patrons. Fitzpatrick and his colleague confronted the criminals. A shootout ensued. The two criminals were killed but Fitzpatrick was badly wounded in the stomach. He was taken to nearby Beth Israel Hospital and survived for six days before finally passing away on the 26th May, 1947. A year later he was posthumously awarded the NYPD Medal of Honor. He left behind a widow and five children.

The song ‘Lovely Leitrim’ was originally only a B-Side on the record released by Larry Cunningham. Gradually though it became popular and eventually it would go all the way to number one knocking The Beatles off top spot.

Today the song is synonymous with County Leitrim and sung on all occasions happy, sad and everything in between. I recall it being sung very poorly one night by three inebriated Leitrimites (including yours truly) in a taxi in Manchester. Perhaps the best renditions were given on those long nights in the summer of 1994 when Leitrim were crowned Connacht Champions for the first time in 67 years.

leitrim-cocoLast night I had a pleasant dream, I woke up with a smile

I dreamed that I was back again in dear old Erin’s isle.

I thought I saw Lough Allen’s banks in the valleys down below

It was my lovely Leitrim where the Shannon waters flow.

As is often the way one begins to write something that is already clear in your mind, yet somehow by the time it reaches the page it has transformed into something else altogether. I’ve since discovered numerous well written articles about Phil Fitzpatrick online and referencing the 70th anniversary of his death. I’m a bit behind the crowd so to speak ……. except, what I’m looking for now is a meaning and a modern parallel to this mans life and his death.

It seems to me that time moves on and so this emigrants lament just seems to tag along with it. This despite a lot of changes. The scene of the fatal shooting on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 96th is now opposite the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. Fitzpatrick’s grand-nephew Brian is now a Republican Congressman for Pennsylvania.  Phil Fitzpatrick put his body on the line seventy years ago to tackle two armed raiders. I’ve already mentioned a man who acted the same way last Saturday night in London. His name was Ignacio Echeverría.  ISIS and all terrorist s will not succeed in their hate and terror campaigns. I know this to be true because they are faced not just by powerful nations but with the might of ordinary citizens prepared to take on their armed and bloodthirsty cadres with nothing more than a skateboard.  In the frontline are people and responders motivated not by religion or hate but the simple desire to help a stranger. I’m also thinking of another line in another poem by Fitzpatrick that resonates. It is called ‘Soldiers of Peace’ and it contains the prophetic line, “when he kisses his wife and children goodbye, there’s the chance he will see them no more”.

Helping others

 

Leitrim’s Lake monster – The legendary Dobhar Chu

Dobhar-ChuI was recently reading up on ancient tales on Irish Lake monsters and came across this interesting piece on the death of a woman in 1722 in Glenade Lake. Apparently the woman who was named Grace or Grainne, and married to a Turlough McLoghlin, was washing clothes in the lake when she was attacked by the Dobhar-Chu.

This is an extract from Dave Walsh’s piece on his site Blather.net

“Dobhar-chú (a.k.a. the Water Hound or Master Otter), and in particular, allegations concerning the demise of a Co. Leitrim woman in 1722, supposedly mauled by such a beast. Sligo fortean Joe Harte managed to track down her grave, in Glenade, on the north side of Ben Bulben mountain, and this writer managed to get hold of a copy of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 78, (1948), where was found, on pages 127-129, The Dobhar-chú Tombstones of Glenade, Co. Leitrim by Patrick Tohall. Later on, last September — as mentioned in an earlier Blather Joe and I visited the grave”.

The piece goes on to say –

“Our Leitrim lady, however, seems to have had a less fortunate fate. On her headstone is a raised illustration of what appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a stylised otter impaled by spear, held in a disembodied hand. The deceased name appears to have been Grace, but her surname is indecipherable – possibly McGlone. Tohall, who had 50 years less weathering to deal with, found that:

‘Line by Line the text reads: –(1) (Illegible), (2) ??ODY OF (3) GRACE CON (4) N?Y WIFE (5) TO TER MAC (6) LOGHLIN WHO (7) DYD 7BER (8) THE 24TH (9) ANN DMI (10) MDCCXXII. Points of note are: (a) The woman is still spoken of as “Grainne ” (not “Grace”) around her home; (b) The name “Ter” is obviously a contraction for “Terence”, the modern baptismal name adopted to supplant the traditional “Toirdhealbhach.” Only recently has the spoken language surrendered to the change, as down to our own time those who signed “Terence” were called “T’ruá­lach” in this locality. I have heard it so pronounced, exactly as John O’Donovan did here about 1835, when he wrote the names as “T’raolach”;(c) Adherence to contemporary classical forms: the contraction “7ber,” for September and the use of the “Possessive Dative” case; (d) the Gaelic custom of a married woman keeping her maiden name — incongruous in the English text.’

According to Tohall, there are two different main versions of on the death of a women washing clothes in Glenade Lake. A second tombstone at the south end of the lake was also connected to the tale, but has since vanished. The two accounts seem to have defaulted to the remaining stone, with ‘strong, local tradition’ preferring to connect the more interesting of the two versions.

‘A woman named Grainne, wife of a man of the McLoghlins, who lived with her husband in the townland of Creevelea at the north-west corner of Glenade Lake, took some clothes down to the lakeshore to wash them. As she did not return her husband went to look for her and found her bloody body by the lakeside with the Dobhar-chú asleep on her breast.

Returning to the house for his dagger he stole silently on the Dobhar-chú and drove the knife into its breast. Before it died, however, it whistled to call its fellow; and the old people of the place, who knew the ways of the animals, warned McLoghlin to fly for his life. He took to horse, another mounted man accompanying him. The second Dobhar-chú came swimming from the lake and pursued the pair. Realising that they could not shake it off they stopped near some old walls and drew their horses across a door ope. The Dobhar-chú rushed under the horses’ legs to attack the men, but as it emerged from beneath them one of the men stabbed and killed it.’

The second version describes the killing by a Dobhar-chú of another woman engaged in washing newly-woven cloth in Glenade lake when she was attacked. The boundary of the townland of Srath-cloichrán (Sracleighreen) and Gob-an-ghé (Gubinea) is the alleged location of this bloodshed (I emphasise the word ‘boundary’, as it denotes a place of liminal status — akin to the traditional importance of such places as crossroads). Yet another variant tells how the avenger Dobhar-chú had a single horn in the centre of its forehead, which it gored the horses with.

Tohall sees the Congbháil monument as being ‘the only tangible evidence’ for the idea of the ‘King Dobhar-chú,’ or Killer-Dobharcá.

‘Lexicographers of both districts record two meanings for Dobhar-chú (derived fromDobhar, water, and chú, hound): (a) the common otter (Lutra Lutra ) a term now superseded by Mada-uisge in Northern Ireland and Scotland; (b) ‘a mythical animal like an otter’ (Dineen). In Co. Leitrim the latter tradition survives strongly: ‘a kind of witch that ruled all the other water-animals’ (Patrick Travers, Derrinvoney); or used jocularly to a boy along Lough Allen,”Hurry back from your errand before dark, or mind would the Dobhar-choin of Glenade come out of the water and grab you.” The best summary of the idea is set out in the records of the Coimisiun le Báaloideas by Seán ó h-Eochaidh, of Teidhlinn, Co. Donegal, in a phrase which he heard in the Gaeltacht: ‘the Dobharchú is the seventh cub of the common otter’ (mada-uisge): the Dobhar-chú was thus a super otter.’

It seems to this writer that the identification of the Dobharchú with the fairly shy otter (which can be found at lengths of over 5’6″ (1.67m) including the tail) seems to be by default — no other known Irish water creature comes as close to a rational zoological explanation. Is the Dobhar-chú some hungry lake serpent manifestation which grows legs occasionally when it feels like eating? It’s a matter that Blather is having grave difficulty providing hypothetical explanations for.

Dave (daev) Walsh

21st August 1998”

Check out blather.net where Dave Walsh describes hiomself as chief bottle washer and “Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and “known troublemaker” Dave Walsh is the founder of Blather.net, described both as “possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River”, and “the nicest website circulating in Ireland”. Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.”

Don’t let the fear of the Dobhar Chu stop you from visiting one of Ireland’s little gems, the beautiful Glenade Lake hidden in the North Leitrim Glens.

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photo credit Eireial Creations

 

Sundays at Blue Bridge

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He crossed the old iron gate first and then lifted the boys over, encouraging and cajoling them across the rusting blue iron bridge with the missing planks. The boys were momentarily weak with fear of falling into the river below. The length of the gaps between what planks remained appeared colossal. But once across the bridge the boys were exhilarated by their pseudo-bravery and pluck.

The next obstacle was quick upon them, the old wall which ran along the edge of the former gardens of the crumbling Castle. They jumped down the wall to the low ground and on to the path through the thick man high growth that led to the river bank. The air was heavy with pollen and the last heat of the day.

The father took out his old fishing rod and took a hook from his box. Holding the little piece of barbed steel in his lips as he fed the fine line through the metal eyes, finally, threading the line through the eye of the hook and knotting it securely. He then repeated the process on the boys new shiny rods, his forehead lined in concentration. The corks were set at about three feet from the hook and a few lead weights attached further down the line. Then the jam jar was opened. A nice fat worm was caught between his thumb and forefinger chosen not just for his size but for the dark colour of his back and head, apparently this was the type the fish liked best. The hook was delicately forced through the thin skin and the worms fate was set, thus impaled he would end his days as fishing bait.

When all three rods were set up the father took the first casts out, watching for the low hanging bushes around them, before landing the corks mid-stream. He allowed them to bobble and settle. With the corks caught by the gentle current the rods were handed to the boys.  The corks  began  to drift lazily downriver towards the entrance to the lake. Dragon flies swooped low as the young fishermen eyed their corks for any movement that might signify the bite of a perch or roach.

‘Nipper’ Geelan and the ‘Yankee’ invasion

01c42ca9c458cf9c228d6e8222633a676511f84816On Sunday the 8th of August 1948 it was standing room only at St. Manachans Park, Mohill, County Leitrim. The grounds were by now the premier football ground in the County since their opening in 1939. They hosted many inter-county games and County Finals but this day saw an unusual pairing. It was a game that captured the imagination of all Leitrim Gaels, home and abroad.  The crowd was estimated at in excess of 8,000. The reason, the visit of the Leitrim Club from New York, led by their mercurial Manager and Mohill native, Michael ‘Nipper’ Geelan.

Geelan had been a star player with his native Mohill and lined out for the County at Junior and Senior level whilst still in his teens. His nickname apparently arose when a Galway mentor enquired from a local who was the ‘Nipper’ playing havoc in the full forward line. Geelan was born in Laheenamona in 1901 where his father, a native of Cashel in Bornacoola had settled. Whilst the Nipper is probably better known for his on field exploits he was also a member of Fianna Eireann and later of  ‘A’ Company, 3rd Battalion, Leitrim Brigade of the Old IRA. He debuted for Mohill at the age of 15 and played for Leitrim from 1921. He was a regular until in the spring of 1926 he decided to emigrate to New York. He teamed up with many Leitrim emigrants and helped get the club competing for the New York Championship then dominated by the famous Tipperary Club. One of the great GAA organisers at the time was another Mohill native, John McGuinness of Tulrusk/Drumhanny. McGuinness was formerly Leitrim County Board Chairman who was elected to the same position in New York in 1932, a rare achievement. Had Nipper Geelan not emigrated when he did it is certain that he would have been part of the Connacht Championship winning team of 1927.

In 1932 the Leitrim Club won the New York Championship with a talented team that included Eddie Maguire, uncle of Packy McGarty. Commentators thought that this was a team that would go on and dominate the club scene in the Big Apple. Sadly the effects of the Great Depression and tighter immigration laws saw the club began to flounder. Starved of fresh blood off the boat the club folded.  It was not until after the end of the Second World War that a group of Leitrim exiles got together and started to put in action a plan to reform the club. The GAA was beginning a revival and the next few years were a golden period in North America. In 1947 the All-Ireland was played in the Polo Grounds, the only time it was every played outside of these shore.

‘Nipper’ Geelan also coached a successful minor team called Incarnation. At the time the underage structure in New York saw many teams associated with their local church. Incarnation was a team attached to the Church of the Incarnation on 175th St which drew its players from the Irish communities of Inwood and Washington Heights. The star of this minor team and future star with Leitrim and New York was a young Jimmy Geelan, the Nippers own Nipper so to speak. 1947 saw the Leitrim play for the first time in fourteen years. The Nipper even managed to get some game time at 46 years of age when he lined out against Down alongside his son Jimmy, the match report said that “the younger Geelan is certainly following in his after his father’s footsteps and in a few short years will be competent enough to compete with the best in the division.”

The Leitrim Club were also active off the field; the Irish Echo reported that a Dance would be held in Croke Park Pavilion (Gaelic Park) on the 2nd August 1947, where the musical entertainment was provided by “May Rowley of West 161st St, a recent arrival from Mohill, Leitrim, an accomplished pianist and soprano as well as being very easy on the eyes”. 

It is not known when the trip back to Ireland was first planned but the plan was widely known by December 1947 when the Club held its annual dinner dance in the Dauphin Hotel. All through winter and spring the fundraising continued. Geelan was in bullish form ahead of the Tour, telling one reporter ‘We’ll lick any team in the old sod’.

The Leitrim team sailed for Ireland in July 1948 aboard the SS Washington and docked at Cobh on the 1st August where they were met by Secretary of the County Board, Michael Reynolds NT and other officials. After settling into their lodgings in the County Hotel, Carrick-on-Shannon the team headed to Manorhamilton where they drew 2-5 each with a North Leitrim selection. Sean McGowan from Cloonturk scored 2-1 for the visitors in an exciting game. The team also paid a visit to Kiltyclogher where a crowd of 1,000 people saw Geelan lay a wreath at the Sean MacDiarmada memorial.

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The following night the County Board met to finalise arrangements for the big game in Mohill. The following stewards were requested to report at Mohill Park at 1.00pm ‘L. Moran, Robert Moran, Billy McGowan, J. Flynn, J. Gordon, James Canning , Charles Kilkenny, Charles Keegan, Sean Reynolds and Patrick McCrann’ and from Gortltlettragh ‘P. Reynolds, C. Reynolds, J. Milton, J. Booth and P. Gannon;  Bornacoola – T. Aherne, Michael McGowan, H. O’Brien, P. Greene, Bert Faughnan and J. Notley; Shannon Gaels – McNally, McGuinness, Newton and two from Carrick-on-Shannon; Aughavas – Carroll and Reynolds’.

Meanwhile Geelan took time out to write a telegram to John ‘Lefty’ Devine the GAA correspondent with the ‘Irish Advocate’ in New York. It read-

County Hotel
Carrick-on-Shannon
Co. Leitrim                                                                                          August 4th 1948

 Dear Lefty,

 A short line to let you know we are having a wonderful time here. Also to apologise for not getting a wire to you in time for Croke (Gaelic) Park. Communications are not the best in Leitrim. Of course you have already heard we tied our first game against a good selction from North Leitrim.

 On behalf of the team I again want to thank you and also please convey again my thanks to John (Kerry) O’Donnell for the inspiring support he gave us. Its men like O’Donnell that make it easier for us all to keep the Gaelic games alive. I did not forget the ball for Jacky. I may not be able to get the shoes as they seem to be very scarce in Ireland. I am enclosing a few cuttings and will forward more as time goes on. Incidentally the score was 2 gl. 5 pt to 2 gl. 5 pt, McGowan 2 gl. 1 pt, Brennan 4 pt. Regards to Mrs. Devine.

Sincerely yours,

 “Nipper” Geelan

Manager of the touring Leitrim Club.

A few days later the scene was set for a grand homecoming for Nipper in his home town where his exiles would face the full Leitrim team. The town was buzzing from early in the day. Two fife and drum bands led the teams out to a wall of applause and excitement. Dan O’Rourke, the President of the GAA was even in attendance. The game was refereed by Peter O’Rourke, Tully (Carrigallen) who was also the Chairman of the Leitrim County Board. Canon Masterson threw the ball in and a rip-roaring game ensued. Jimmy Geelan, still a minor was amongst the scorers. Leo McAlinden was the star of the home team. The final score was a draw, 2-3 each and everyone thought it a fair result. It can be well imagined that the celebrations went on well into the night around the town.

The tour continued the following week and entered its most controversial phase. The team was scheduled to play Armagh in Davitt Park, Lurgan on the 15th August. The team cars proceeded to Lurgan on the Saturday night festooned with Tricolours and Stars and Stripes. Some of the cars and players were attacked and attempts made to grab the ‘Free State’ flags but the game proceeded before a crowd of 4,000. The exiles lost 1-6 to 0-5 but gave a good account of themselves against an Armagh team who were preparing for the All-Ireland Junior final. In press reports mention was made of the American’s ‘forceful’ and ‘unorthodox tackling style’. On the way back to Leitrim the team played an exhibition game in Garrison against a Fermanagh select. Thus the touring party achieved one of Geelan’s aims by playing in the ‘occupied part of the country’.

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Armagh v Leitrim New York Team at Lurgan

Geelan wasn’t prepared to let the roughing up of his team of US Citizens in Lurgan go and wrote to the American Consulate in Belfast. He received a polite and courteous reply which reminded him that –

‘the United States government does not wish its nationals to take part in political affairs or events in foreign countries. When American Citizens acquire allegiance to the United States it is intended that they shall give up all allegiance to any other country. Failure to do so certainly impairs the right of this individuals to claim the protection of the United States Government while abroad’.

In other words one cannot claim the benefits or protections of US Citizenship when attacked whilst flying the flag of another nation. Geelans reaction is not recorded but can be surmised.

The final game of the tour was against the Dublin club St. Caillins, recently formed in the Capital and made up primarily of Leitrim players. The game was played in Fenagh but the result is unknown. There then followed a reception and dinner held at the Vocational School in Mohill (then ‘the Castle’ former residence of the Crofton family). Peter O’Rourke, Chairman of the County Board proposed a toast to the exiles saying that ‘they gave a very fine display’ and he hoped that their visit would be ‘an encouragement to the younger generation of Leitrim to go ahead and win an All-Ireland’.

The Exiles were then presented with miniature shields sponsored by the Connacht Council, silver medals from the County Board and cigarette cases from the Armagh County Board. Nipper Geelan presented the County Board with a special gold cup, the McTague-Galligan Cup which was played for in the drawn game earlier. The Cup was subsequently presented to the winner of the Leitrim Senior Championship until the onset of the current Fenagh Cup. Finally a farewell dance for the travelling party was held in the ballroom at Fenaghville.

The tour was undoubtedly a success on the field. The Leitrim Club were subsequently unlucky to lose two New York Finals in 1948 and ’49. The ‘Irish Advocate’ concluded ‘perhaps the greatest feat in the history of the local Leitrim Combination was made when they decided to sponsor a tour to Ireland, where they made a meritable showing against men of experience and full training. They were happy to record the fact that seven native born American boys were included in their line-up of players which gives them the right to say that Leitrim was the first to ever send back to the old sod the lads who learned the fine points of the game on the sidewalks of New York’.

However the tour did leave considerable debt and ultimately nearly sank the club. By the end of 1950 the club had lost over 22 players and had to rebuild again. One of the casualties was ‘Nipper’ Geelan himself who was uncompromising in defending the Tour against detractors. The Nipper left and was soon involved in coaching teams such as Kildare and Tyrone. The Leitrim club did recover though and one of its proudest days came when they won the 1958 New York Championship. One of the stars of the team was the now veteran Jimmy Geelan. The younger Geelan had already represented the New York Senior team that won the National League in 1950, defeating Cavan. “Nipper” Geelan had plenty more good days in football. He trained the New York Senior Teams from 1955 to 1963 in what was a hugely successful period for the exiles. He even trained a New York team that played In Wembley. In 1968 he was honoured by the New York Association for a lifetime of service. He passed away suddenly in December 1974.

Whatever about the financial success of the 1948 Tour it had a hugely positive effect on people throughout Leitrim. Emigration had tended to be one way traffic but this team in their bright suits and New York tans must have seemed a little exotic in a place where war rationing was still the norm. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the game in Mohill and its record attendance. It must surely have been one of the proudest moments of Michael ‘Nipper’ Geelan’s career.

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Dithane and Doodlebugs

'Turf Rearing' P Brennan

‘Turf Rearing’ P Brennan

My Granduncle lived a very regimental and ordered life, practically all of it in the industrial heart of England. It was a country where my young mind believed the trains ran on time and drivers never exceeded the speed limit. The Granduncle was in London first but then moved to Coventry where he had secured a job in the Standard Motor Company factory. A company that was standard, what more could a standard Irish migrant want.  The factory later became the even larger Massey Ferguson plant, ‘Twenty Thousand people walked through those gates every day’ he’d boast. The uncle always simply called it Massey ‘Oh aye’ which suggested he hadn’t much time for the Ferguson half of the operation.

He came home every summer without fail, using up all his annual holidays. He brought us a bag of Humbug mints each which none of us liked. He smoked Players cigarettes, tip less and toxic and his long thin fingers were like stained amber with years of nicotine layers. The first cigarettes myself and my brother ever smoked were pilfered from his box. We would smoke them in the hay-shed; it seemed to us a logical place to smoke back then. Unfortunately this logic put paid to a career in the local Fire Service, something about ‘deficit in risk assessment and prevention’. During his holidays my father would bring the Uncle to town every Saturday night and occasional visits to our many relatives houses. My father would often be working on the farm until nine or ten o’clock at night and the Uncle couldn’t understand why Irish people only went to town at half past Ten, “some of them don’t even come in until after eleven’ he moaned.  In the UK, he often reminded us, people would be going home at that time, they had to he said, ‘last bus goes at half ten’. Somehow I don’t think he ever missed that last bus of a Saturday night in Coventry.

I was always interested in history. After much prising, the Uncle might be encouraged to give up some titbits about life in London, particularly about the Blitz which he had lived through. He pronounced the word Bomb as Bum so we of course mischievously kept asking him about the Blitz just to hear him say Bum over and over; ‘Oh they pounded London with bums, all bloody night, those bums raining down, fires everywhere’. I never heard him say he was afraid but he must have been, a 20 year old lad thrust from a small farm in the North West of Ireland into this cauldron of fire and death. My Grandmother and another brother were with him at the time. My grandmother came back to Ireland and soon after she met my grandfather and married. The Uncle stayed on. He got work down near the South Coast ‘where they were sent’. I couldn’t understand that part of it, who sent them? Of course it was a well-kept secret what was happening but the Uncle told us he knew well they were getting ready to cross the Channel and invade France. No flies on him, he knew all about D-Day months before everyone else.

Back in London he recalled the V2 rockets landing; ‘if you heard it coming you were fine, it meant it had already passed you by’. I explained to him this was because the rocket was travelling faster than the speed of sound so it arrived at its target before you heard it. I told them that the speed of sound was 768 miles per hour; he informed me this couldn’t be as he had once seen a V2 flying in the sky and it wasn’t going that fast!

I like many young boys my age supported the great Liverpool team of the 70’s and 80’s. The Uncle had no time for them; he said that they scored a goal and then just kept the ball, passing it over and back to each other. I fancied that this was quite a clever way for a team to fill the Club’s trophy cabinet but he was having none of it. He liked Coventry City who at the time were a mid-table team in the First Division who occasionly survived a relegation dogfight.. I asked him if he ever went to games in Highfield Road; ‘Oh aye’. He told me later that the the last time he was at a game there were over 60,000 there. I couldn’t fathom this as at the time Coventry was averaging about 20,000 attendances per game. I remember checking the record books and discovered that there was over 50,000 at a match in 1967 when they beat Wolves to gain promotion. Was this the last game he was at?

My father visited him in 1985. My mother and he were over visiting our maternal Uncle who was gravely ill in London. My father got the train up to Coventry and the Uncle met him at the station. He asked my dad if he was hungry and the pair went in search of a renowned Cafe which the Uncle proclaimed served the best roast dinner in town. They walked around for nearly an hour, passing dozens of Asian and Chinese restaurants, before the Uncle gave up aghast; ‘it used to be around here somewhere’. It may have been 1967 when he last ate there, perhaps on the way to the big game. He lived in a small neat bedsit in a large building with dozens of other Irishmen of similar age. I remember my father was moved by it, surprised even, maybe he had expected that he had a nice mock-Tudor semi-d in the suburbs.

When he came home he liked the open fields, the cattle, making hay and silage pits but most of all he loved the turf bog. He would be on the bog by eight o’clock. He couldn’t understand how we young fellas only went down at ten. When we got there we often broke the tedium by having mud fights throwing buts of wet turf at each other. Sometimes we would abandon our posts and head off over to the high bank, jumping drains and bog holes, catching frogs, chatting with other people on the bog. But the Uncle would stick at it, back bent, a steady pace, slowly but relentlessly making his way down the plot of turf. He often chastised our father for not having control of us but my father only told us what he was saying about us. The day after these tell tales we would give him the silent treatment. My father liked to foot the turf once, making small footings but the uncle insisted on lifting them, turning them, this was only stage one of a laborious process. It became our summer penance. When this was done he went back to the beginning and made small footings of six to eight clods and then when that was done he would wait a few days before starting all over again and making them into bigger clamps. He would look with disdain at a neighbour whose turf were cut weeks and lain untouched, green grass growing high around and sometimes through them. The neighbour would then come down nonchalantly and make a start, work for fifteen minutes, chat, smoke and then head home. The Uncle couldn’t understand it. Yet I often remarked that the neighbour usually got his turf home as soon as we did. The summers of 1985 and ’86 were terrible in the bogs and in the meadows. The farm felt like a Gulag. The turf was the new sausage machine variety and they were impossible to work with. They just broke and crumbled in our hands and we all cursed them but none more so than the Uncle who lamented the old ways of slan and barrow.

In 1987 he retired from Massey (I don’t think he was that fond of Mr. Ferguson because he never seemed to mention him). He got a Gold watch from the company, just like thousands before him. I don’t know who instigated it but he packed his bags there and then and came home. Maybe he had always planned to come home. He had been away forty eight years but he still only had one home. The house he had grown up in was still standing and home to his older brother and his wife. They had married late in life, well past child bearing years. The house was pretty much as it had been in the 1930’s when the rest of the family took the Mail-boat to Holyhead. The Uncle adopted a superior tone when speaking about his elder brother who had never left home, but it seemed lost on him that this man never had to leave home, and it wasn’t as if his own decision was one of choice, the reality being that it was one of necessity. So when he came home he moved in with my Grandparents who lived up the lane from us. After leaving a life that was ordered and routine it must have been difficult for him to adjust. It showed in little things like when he smoked he seldom finished his cigarette. He usually butted it out halfway down. The habit was obviously borne out of the short ciggy breaks in the East Midlands factory where he had been incarcerated.

The rigidity and regimental nature of his working life was completely out of sync with the more laid back life in the rural west of Ireland. It wasn’t that people didn’t work hard, they often worked harder, it was just that they were not slaves to the clock. They didn’t clock in but they never clocked out. No 5 o’clock finish in the evenings, they would work to midnight if they had to or if felt like it. The only things exercising any control of their time were the seasons. To me it seemed a more natural way to live life. The homecoming year of 1987 was also a monumental year for Coventry FC. They won the FA Cup beating a highly fancied Spurs team at Wembley. The Uncle didn’t even watch the match and seemed indifferent when I told him the news. He did have interest in GAA and could recall cycling to games including a Junior All-Ireland Semi-Final in Breffni Park in the early 40’s.  Leitrim were going well against Meath until the great Red Moran broke his leg. He also extolled the skill and strength of the larger than life, Jack Bohan, centre half back on the Leitrim team in 1927.

When we were younger we thought the Uncle had built every Massey Ferguson tractor that had ever ploughed a field. We had an old Ferguson Twenty and a 1968 MF 165. Surely he had built some part of these tractors. One Saturday morning my father asked the Uncle to hop up on the 165 to tow the Twenty (the last time there was a battery in the Twenty was when it left the Massey plant in the early 50’s). So the Uncle got up and let the clutch up too quickly and the engine conked out. He began fidgeting and it quickly became apparent that he didn’t know how to start a tractor. How could this be? How could a man that worked in a factory for over forty years, the place where hundreds of thousands of tractors were built, including the one he was now sitting on, not know how to drive one? My father wasn’t that surprised and he soon let us know that he had heard that the Uncle had worked all those years in the stores.

 

The name itself was weighted with danger, you’d never call a child or a family pet Dithane! The anti-fungal powder had replaced bluestone as the number one agent in fighting the dreaded potato blight. Now other than lifting turf, there was only one other job that got the Uncle animated, it was spraying the potatoes. My father would drop down a couple of barrels of water to the bog garden where we grew the spuds. The spraying paraphernalia was quite simple. A plastic knapsack, with a handle on one side and nozzled hose on the other, a plank of timber, a thick branch or brush handle, a jug and a pair of Granny’s old tights. The Uncle or my Granny would throw the tin of Dithane into the barrel of water and mix it with the branch. When the Uncle did it he invariably stood downwind for some reason? The contents of the barrel were now what Patrick Kavanagh called ‘the copper-poisoned ocean’.  The plank of wood was placed across the barrel and then the knapsack on top. The lid was screwed off and the tights placed across the opening of the tank which was filled using an old plastic jug. When full I would reverse like a donkey into a cart, be strapped in and away I’d go down between the potato ridges, pumping the lever whilst arching the nozzle left and right spraying the stalks with this chemical mist, him thinking of the floury spuds on the table next year, me about the life cycle of ‘Phytophthora infestans’ that we were studying in Biology at school.

The Uncle didn’t trust me by this stage and he would watch my every move making sure I didn’t miss any stalks. He insisted I got in under the leaves as well as covering the top side. The trust was gone, too many times I had been found out by him, the stolen cigarettes, the little lies. One time my parents were away and we never checked the cattle. There were 45 cattle in one holding, 15 weanlings in one field and 30 cows and calves in another. ‘Did you check the cattle down in Lily’s?’ he asked ‘I did’ I said without flinching, ‘How many were there?’ ’15’ ‘Oh is that right well there was 30 cows and calves there this morning’. Other indiscretions such as skipping church on Sunday and then been asked who had said eleven o’clock Mass, ‘Fr. Corcoran’ says I, ‘Oh that’s strange because he also did Half ten in Gorvagh’. I was never going to amount to much, no interest in cattle or farming, just dossing, or staying in the house like a woman, reading books.

It had already been established that the Uncle, for a man who had spent his entire career in the auto-motive industry was not very mechanically minded. He was always breaking things, wrenches, spanners, vice-grips, vices, hacksaw blades, shovel handles, axe-handles, measuring tapes and my father’s patience. He could however fix a puncture on the High Nelly bike he had commandeered from my Grandmother. He was suited to manual labour and would toil all day at the same task unmarred by monotony. At silage time he would spend two days trimming the sides of the pit until you could almost hear the big clamp of freshly cut grass cry, ‘enough! enough!’ He would bend into a yard-scraper pushing slurry ahead of him until he got to the chute leading to the slurry tank, then back again repeating the process again and again. If there was a quick, easy, mechanical way of doing a task he would favour the slow, grinding, back breaking method. He did this well into his eighties but slowly and surely he had to relent, but, he wasn’t done fully, he became the obstinate overseer, watching everything that was done on the farm and passing judgement. Nobody was immune from his scrutiny. He commented on the time you got up in the morning to the time the light went off in your room at night. He had an indomitable spirit and great work ethic but his life did not have to be so hard, so dreary, and so weary. When he ended up in hospital after taking a fall off his bike the nurse gave him painkillers to take. He couldn’t swallow them, he didn’t know how. He had never taken a tablet in his life, he was Eighty two. He knocked in another few boundaries after that before he got bowled out.

  Spraying the Potatoes 

(an extract)

The barrels of blue potato-spray

Stood on a headland in July

Beside an orchard wall where roses

Were young girls hanging from the sky.

The flocks of green potato stalks

Were blossom spread for sudden flight,

The Kerr’s Pinks in frivelled blue,

The Arran Banners wearing white.

And over that potato-field

A lazy veil of woven sun,

Dandelions growing on headlands, showing

Their unloved hearts to everyone.

And I was there with a knapsack sprayer

On the barrel’s edge poised. A wasp was floating

Dead on a sunken briar leaf

Over a copper-poisoned ocean.

The axle-roll of a rut-locked cart

Broke the burnt stick of noon in two.

An old man came through a cornfield

Remembering his youth and some Ruth he knew.

He turned my way. ‘God further the work’.

He echoed an ancient farming prayer.

I thanked him. He eyed the potato drills.

He said: ‘You are bound to have good ones there’.

By Patrick Kavanagh

© estate Patrick Kavanagh

Francis McGann – Leitrim Mathematician, Surveyor, Patriot (1786-1815)

Growing up in South Leitrim I had often heard of the brilliant but tragic Francis McGann. McGann was a native of Eslin and a noted scholar who died at the early age of 29. McGann was simply known to his peers as “the Bright Boy” and his early demise was sadly lamented for generations of people who saw in his passing the loss of one who had the potential to be a great leader of the people.

Francis McGann was born in 1786 in Drumlara, a townland in the parish of Mohill and on the northwestern shore of Lough McHugh. His father’s name was Peter McGann and his mother was a Mulvey from Aughacashel.

Francis was born into a country where the penal laws restricted the life and prospects of most Catholics. He initially attended a local Hedge School run by a Hugh McDonald where his genius soon became apparent. Soon he was enrolled in a highly regarded private school run by an Owen Reynolds at Glebe St., Mohill. The building where Reynolds school was located still stands and is now converted into two private residences. The Reynolds School was highly regarded in the teaching of Mathematics and McGann excelled in this discipline.

Owen Reynolds School. Mohill

    Owen Reynolds School. Mohill


Hedge school

Hedge school

McGann later moved on to a classical school in Drumsna run by a Parson Kane where he became proficient in Greek and Latin. By this stage McGann’s own reputation as a gifted scholar was widely known. In order to further his education in Mathematics, McGann travelled to Ballingarry, Co. Limerick, where he was enrolled in a school conducted by a Mr. James Baggot, himself a famous Mathematician of the day. In 1805 Baggott was advertising that he had acquired a supply of “curious mathematical and astronomical instruments,” in which he hopes his pupils will find “both pleasure and profit in the prosecution of their studies.”

Baggott was also noted for the fact that he was a friend and correspondent of Pierre Simon Marquis Laplace, the great French scientist and tutor to Napoleon. It is recorded that when Laplace was once in conversation with a Colonel O’Dell, a Limerick MP, he enquired if O’Dell knew of  “the great Irish mathematician. The Great O’Baggott”.

The Baggott School was an environment where the young McGann from Leitrim thrived but it wasn’t only Mathematics he was now learning. Baggott was also a member of the United Irishmen and his house in Ballingarry was where Lord Edward Fitzgerald stayed when he toured the country stoking up rebellion in 1798. Baggott is also said to have devised a plan for the capture of the city of Limerick. The plan was however discovered and the plotters all arrested. It is not known if McGann was amongst those interrogated but it is clear that Baggott had a huge influence on him and helped formulate in McGann’s mind the revolutionary ideals which were to become more apparent later in his life.

The Government in Dublin Castle were kept fully informed by a spy who signed himself “J.D.” of all Baggott’s movements, and a General Payne wrote advised Dublin Castle: “That rascal Baggott can neither be frightened nor bribed, and when Mr. O’Del returns I think we had better take him up.” The Government were right to be worried about Baggott and his school, particularly in light of his known correspondence with well figures in Parisian Society. Baggott died at Charleville on 31st August 1805 at the age of thirty five. He was widely mourned as can be noted from the following contemporary verse penned in his honour.

O Science, mourn! thy favourite is no more,

Alas! he’s numbered with the silent dead;

 Hibernia’s genius will his loss deplore

Whom he to fame’s exalted temple led.

By nature blessed with an exploring thought,

His brows were decked from the Newtonian tow’r

The deep arcana of fair Science sought,

And gleaned her fields of ev’ry golden flow’r

It can be surmised that the end of Baggott also signalled the end of Francis McGann’s education. Returning to Drumlara, McGann began working as a mapper / surveyor and a pioneer in the art of preparing accurate large-scale maps which were developed later by the Ordnance Survey. His attention to detail was widely known and it was said locally that he would even take care to “rub the breath off the chain” he used for surveying so that it would not distort his measurements.

 
He drew a map of the district of Bunnybeg, Attymanus and Annaghhasna on a dried and pressed sheepskin for the landed Lawder family. He also mapped the townland of Killamaun and the length of the Eslin river. It is said that he was offered a position with the East India Company as chief surveyor but he declined. The Leitrim that McGann  returned to was the subject of considerable military activity in the decade following the failed insurrection of 1798. Although the United Irishmen were broken McGann became leader of a secret society known as “the Rock” “White Rock” or “Rockites”. It is little surprise that McGann was prominent and he may even have helped found such a militant agrarian society. The area where he had lived whilst in Baggott’s school was also a major centre of “Rockite” activity. A John Hickey of Doneraile, was suspected by the English authorities of the time of being ‘Captain Rock’. The Rockites tended to use United Irishman rhetoric and regularly mentioned that “assistance was to be given from France” to any Irish insurgents. One of the main Rockite aims was the placing “Catholics upon a level with Protestants”.

 

In late 1815 there were major civil disturbances in the Keshcarrigan and Gorvagh areas. In the aftermath several houses and farms were burned to the ground. A local landlord by the name of Minor Peyton had also retaliated by cutting the road into the townland of Laheen Peyton thus preventing the Catholic Tenants from getting to Mass. McGann organised a large meeting to be held at Keshcarrigan Fair on December 20th, 1815. His speech to the massive crowd there is recorded in oral tradition. He told the assembled crowd that he was there;

“to meet the intelligence, the genius and the mind of Kiltubrid and to denounce Minor Peyton, a tyrannical brute and a disgrace to humanity, who not being content with burning Drumcollop, he now tears up the pathway which lead to the ‘House of God’. But the Sun of his glory is set and today he is like the remnant of a melancholy wreck having nothing but tradition to point to his former grandeur and greatness”

When returning from the mass meeting at Keshcarrigan Fair, McGann in the company of two men called Billy the Joiner and James Ward took shelter in a Sheebeen near Kilnagross. It had begun snowing quite heavily. The country had been enduring a severe cold snap and snow had lain on the ground for over six weeks. The people it was said had to boil snow to get a drink for their cattle. After a few hours McGann left the Sheebeen “for want of drink and fire” . It is believed he intended to visit the home of a young McKeon lady nearby with whom he was on friendly terms. Sadly McGann never reached his destination. The following day his body was found frozen to death in a snow drift, only short distance from McKeon’s house. Sadly ‘The Bright Boy” was no more and a few days later he was buried in Mohill. According to local tradition the place where McGann died was marked for many years by an evergreen tree which had become known as ‘The Monument’.
McGann’s passing was a huge blow to the people in the area.  His intellectual ability was noted from an early age. In many ways his life mirrored that of his mentor Baggott.

When McGann returned from Limerick he had matured and was clearly someone unafraid to take on the establishment both privately and publicly. Such men were in short supply in places like rural Leitrim.

The ballad, “The Fate of Francis McGann,” was penned by John Cox, the poet of Clooncarne in the parish of Bornacoola and in its folksy way it records the life and tragic death of this brilliant young man.

“He was versed in the language of all foreign parts,
And master of several bright liberal arts,
The art of surveying he had a command,
Mathematics and logic he did understand.
He could measure the air, the sea or the land,
John Cox gives his praises to Francis McGann.”

 

Many Swallows make a Summer

swallow

The annual arrival of the Swallow is one of the surest signs that Summer is on its way. We have had them since the beginning of April. The first weeks are spent securing their nests, building new ones and repairing old ones. You can find them anywhere but they seem to like farmyards and their byres, haysheds and barns. We have two permanent nests on our dwelling house, the oldest of which is here at least ten years now. I have managed to affix some plain corrie board from an old  poster directly underneath the nests to catch the droppings. The swallows might be cute but they have little respect for a freshly painted or whitewashed wall. One of our nests is high up under the eave on the Western Gable of the house whilst the other is squeezed in between an eave and a drainpipe. I’m reminded of the  The Wind in the Willows, where the swallows discuss with relish their impending return to “the house of the perfect eaves”. Not only are these tiny birds amazing flyers but they are great architects and precision builders too.

By now the birds are paired off, well settled in, with eggs laid and soon to hatch. The swallow practices love in a cold climate. The male and female will build the nest together. The long evenings are now spent darting and diving in the acrobatic pursuit of insects. It was the swallow after all who first invented the concept of in-flight dining. They say that the swallow is so adept that they can even swoop low along a watercourse and drink water without stopping. The skill and athleticism of these little birds are a sight to behold in the dying hours of the day. They are also very brave little birds and will swoop low like an F16 fighter pilot on any man or beast getting too close to the nest. I have vivid memories of the swallows teasing an old sheepdog we had at home, dive bombing him and turning him around in circles in the farm yard, in what for them must have been a source of endless amusement and mischief. The rest of their summer will now be spent rearing the insatiable chicks.

swallow 2

I always find it amazing to think that these little birds will next year return to this same place, the place of their birth and in some ways I feel honoured..

Billy Flynn, an ecologist for the Irish Wildlife Trust said , “Swallows travel in families, with the younger birds following their parents when they migrate for the cold months. What is incredible about them, Flynn explained, is that young swallows are still able to make the journey themselves, even if their parents have died or got lost before they had a chance to show them.

No one is exactly sure how they manage this but it is thought instinct plays a big part, as well as magnetism. Most animals have the mineral magnetite in their skulls and this gives birds a kind of internal compass. It’s an amazing journey, they pass over deserts, seas, they fly through all sorts of weather and when you see the tiny size of them, you can fit two in the palm of your hand.[i]

Migration map

Migration map

The swallow doesn’t seem to do retirement and is constantly on the move, He simply cannot sit still, a consummate workaholic. As if inventing in flight dining wasn’t enough he also promoted the classic long distance commute. As much as I look forward to them coming I hate to see them going; their departure signals the end of the summer. If they are gone before the Hurling final you can watch out for a bleak winter, if they linger on until October then it mightn’t be too bad. In the months following this I will curse again the price of oil, whilst Comrade Swallow has retired five thousand miles to the south, to his dacha in sub-Saharan Africa. Observers say the numbers of swallows are depleting and I sincerely hope that this can be reversed. It will be a very sad day if ever the swallow does not return.

The Swallow Song

Come wander quietly and listen to the wind
Come here and listen to the sky
Come walking high above the rolling of the sea
And watch the swallows as they fly

There is no sorrow like the murmur of their wings
There is no choir like their song
There is no power like the freedom of their flight
While the swallows roam alone[ii]

[i] http://www.thejournal.ie/swallows-summer-2067147-Apr2015/

[ii] Richard farina – Chapell music