Farewell to May Morris, one of the loveliest women in all Ireland, who passed away on Sunday last in her 107th year. I believe she was the second oldest woman in the country. James Fennell and I had the pleasure of meeting May and her late brother Paddy who both featured in the third volume of the Vanishing Ireland series. This is an abridged version of the story I wrote about her.
‘The children today are like how Kings and Queens used to be years ago,’ says May Morris. ‘They are brought to school and picked up after. They wear lovely clothes and they go to lovely schools. I don’t know anything about the teachers now but they used to murder us!’
May attended a mixed school in Castledermot, the agricultural town on the Carlow-Kildare border. It was a roughshod building; plaster fell from the ceiling while they studied. Her teacher was a vicious old woman who never went anywhere without an ash rod. ‘She had a way of hitting you on your knuckle that’d make you nearly faint!’ says May, protectively clutching her hand ninety years later.
‘I was always getting into trouble. Especially trying to read from the big old Bible. If there was a word I couldn’t make out, she’d call me ‘The Great May Byrne’ and hit the knuckles again. The rod was so long that she couldn’t miss us! But that was life. If a teacher hit a child today they’d be summoned. In them days it didn’t matter if they killed ye.’
May was the second of eleven children born to James and Rosanna Byrne, a farming couple from Graney Cross on the road between Castledermot and Baltinglass, County Wicklow. It was and is a quiet place although in October 1922, nine-year-old May heard the shots of a Republican ambush on a Free State convoy at nearby Graney Bridge which left three soldiers dead.
May is still in awe about the generations before her. ‘I look back on our mothers and fathers and I think ‘God they were terrific people’. The patience and understanding they had with us children. We worked hard, but the weather had a lot to do with it. If it was a lovely day, you’d be out weeding, thinning turnips, picking spuds, all them sort of things. If it was miserable, we might be inside helping our mother make the butter which she sold on to Cope’s. Or sometimes she gave us four needles and a bundle of wool and told us to knit our winter socks.’
There were also animals to tend– four or five cows, a couple of pigs and a clatter of hens. To acquire fresh stock, the Byrnes would go to the market in Baltinglass. ‘Those were great days. All the cattle grouped up on the street and all the children running free at the fair.’ Young May once purchased ‘a pair of the finest chickens you ever saw’ for five shillings from the ‘higglers’, travelling itinerants who specialized in poultry.
Castledermot had its own horse fair back in those times. Schools closed on Fair Day and ‘the town would be black with horses from all around and everywhere.’ There was generally no problem selling them either. ‘During the war years, they’d sell them all because they needed horses in England to work down in the mines and things. Everything happened on the street at that time, no matter what town you went to. There were fairs until the time they got the marts. That closed up the trading on the street.’
Life was hard but, like most of her generation, May felt that people were happier than they are now. ‘And then we grew up and everything changed,’ she laughs. ‘Half the country was gone to England and the other half went to Canada and Australia!’
In early 1942, an Englishman appeared in Castledermot and recruited twenty women from the area to work in a munitions factory near Birmingham. ‘And with ten shillings in my purse, I was the richest of those twenty,’ says May. ‘Honest to God, some of them hadn’t a shilling.’ May didn’t enjoy her first voyage across the sea. ‘I was as sick as could be but, when the boat arrived, they gave me a cup of Oxo and a rope ladder and told us the to get way onshore. I was a good-looking lady in my day. A golden haired beauty! But when I arrived in Birmingham, I was a skeleton, scared to death. Nobody knew what the future would be because the war was only at the start.’
She went to work at Guest, Keen & Nettleford’s factory in Smethwick. ‘It was huge,’ says May. ‘Every day we got lost going into it. They started us off making very small screws. Then we were making stuff for airplanes. And then we were making bombs, filling old cans with whatever scrap we could find.’
The reality of war was never far away and whenever the air raid sirens sounded, May and her colleagues hurried underground. ‘You lived on your nerves,’ she says. ‘But there was always some singing and dancing downstairs. People were paid to keep the spirits up.’
May’s personal spirits took a dive when the authorities intercepted a parcel from Ireland. ‘My mother, Lord have mercy on her, sent me two slices of ham wrapped up in The Carlow Nationalist. When I got them, The Nationalist was in ribbons. They had everything cut out of it! I was summonsed and told, “if that happens again, you’ll go to prison.” The worst thing was I didn’t get the ham.’
May stayed on at Nettlefold’s after the war but several of those she worked with emigrated farther afield. ‘Australia was just beginning to waken up and they were taking on anyone who could work in agriculture and building.’ Amongst those who headed down under were four of her brothers. During the 1950s, it was very cheap to get from Birmingham to Australia and May visited her brothers ‘umpteen times’, whenever they ‘were having babies or getting married.’ However, she found the Queensland climate too humid for her to consider settling.
She remained with Nettlefold’s for twelve years before she transferred to a factory where she spent her days making tarts. ‘We wore gloves made from sacks so we could take the trays off the conveyor, turn around, drop down, pick up the next one. The heat would kill you! My brother Anthony was there as well. He was a baker by trade and made lovely plum puddings. He had to start at half five in the morning. He would give the old ladies a little drop of rum on their tart but then the word got out and he had to stop. I remember the day he left for Australia, they all came out to wish him well.’
Meanwhile, May married an English war veteran called Joe Morris who worked in Mitchell & Butler’s in Birmingham (where her brother Paddy would later work). Many of Joe’s former army colleagues had returned from the war crippled.May returned home to see her parents occasionally but ‘all we ever got was a week and that was never enough time to go home and enjoy ourselves.’ However, as her parents grew older, she realised they needed her and she moved back to Ireland in 1980.
‘I loved every bit of my life in Birmingham but it’s all brand new now. All the old buildings are gone. I was back there in 2006 visiting some of my friends, although a lot of them have gone as well.’
Prior to Paddy’s death in 2013, May lived with her brother in a roadside cottage in Castledermot, not far from the place where they were both at school a long time ago. May then moved to the Hillview Nursing Home in Carlow where she swiftly established herself as an icon and was reportedly ‘flying around the place’ until recent times.
With thanks to Hazel Dickinson, James Fennell and Sharon Greene-Douglas.
It is unlikely that Mary Anning registered much during the last weeks of her life. Crippled by the pain of a malignant breast tumour, she had vanished into a make-believe world by downing unspecified quantities of Godfrey’s Cordial, a relatively cheap, heavy-duty and entirely legal cocktail of opium, brandy, treacle and caraway seeds.The syrupy medicine was variously dubbed ‘Mother’s Friend’ or ‘Quietness’, because if you fired a shot of it into a colicky or perpetually crying baby it guaranteed you a few hours’ peace after their innocent little eyes fluttered and closed in a deep drug-induced slumber.
The concoction almost certainly eased the physical agony for the 47-year-old Anning, but the flipside of this laudanum-based brew was that it also killed one’s appetite stone dead, leaving its consumer prone to muscular aches, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Every drink the severely malnourished Anning poured brought her a step closer to the grave.
And yet perhaps the woman who had spent so much of her life gathering and polishing the bones of long-extinct animal species was all the time yearning for the moment when her own spirit would be free of its tormented earthly frame, leaving behind nothing but her skeleton and her skull. ‘The world has used me so unkindly,’ she wrote, before her ability to put pen to paper faded away. ‘I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.’The opium had perhaps made her paranoid, for she enjoyed a number of rewarding friendships over the years, but her exceptional talents had also undoubtedly been abused by men who should have known better.
Millions of people in the English-speaking world have heard of Mary Anning, even if they do not realise it. In 1908 she was immortalised when the music-hall songwriter Terry Sullivan wrote what was to become probably the most famous of tongue-twisters:
She sells seashells on the seashore, The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure, So if she sells seashells on the seashore, Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
Mary Anning did indeed sell seashells on the seashore. And then some. She was born in May 1799 in Lyme Regis, a small town on the west coast of Dorset, overlooking the English Channel. Her parents, Richard and Molly, were members of the town’s Congregational Dissenter community. High drama came into Mary’s life when she was but a toddler. On 19 August 1800 her nurse had brought her to watch a travelling group of horsemen perform some equestrian feats outside the town. A storm broke out, obliging the spectators to seek shelter under a tree but catastrophe struck when a lightning bolt zapped the tree, instantly killing the nurse and two teenage girls.The baby Mary survived the freak accident and was hurried home to her parents.
Richard Anning, a spirited and independently minded cabinet-maker, was famed locally for having led a protest against the authorities during the ‘bread riots’ of 1800. When the novelist Jane Austen was holidaying in Lyme Regis with her family in 1804, she asked him to estimate the cost of repairs to a ‘broken lid’ on a trunk at the house they were renting. She was shocked when he quoted a fee of five shillings, ‘as that appeared to us beyond the value of all the furniture in the room together.’He didn’t get the job.
An outdoors enthusiast, Richard often went roaming along the cliffs of Lyme Regis and Charmouth after heavy winter storms had battered the coastline, to see what new seashells and fossils might have emerged from the cracks and ledges of the Blue Lias shoreline. That he occasionally did this on Good Friday and other holy days irked his pious neighbours nearly as much as his penchant for bringing Mary and her older brother Joseph with him on these perilous jaunts.
When they returned to their modest homestead in Broad Street, the Annings would lay out their latest trove on a ‘curiosities’ table beside the town’s coach stop. Although remote, Lyme Regis was a popular seaside resort, and the Annings made useful money by selling their shells and fossils to the well-to-do tourists. Their top-sellers were ammonite and belemnite shells, which sold for a few shillings apiece.
In 1810 disaster struck when Richard slipped down a gully and fatally wounded himself, leaving his small family on the cusp of destitution.A few months after his death, there was a momentous development in the Annings’ fortunes when young Joseph dug into a cliff and uncovered the four-foot skull of an ichthyosaur, a sort of fish-lizard. Two centuries later we now know that the coastline around Lyme Regis – the Jurassic Coast, granted status as a World Heritage Site in 2001 – comprises Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous rock formations, made from alternating layers of limestone and shale. It’s stuffed with first-rate fossils, some of which are in excess of 185 million years old, but until the nineteenth century most people barely registered the existence, let alone the importance, of these fossils.
The Annings were different. They knew they were onto something, not least when twelve-year-old Mary found the ichthyosaur’s skeleton the following year. Nobody had ever seen an ichthyosaur skeleton before. When the skull and skeleton were put together, the creature was identified as some form of a crocodile and sold for £23 to Henry Hoste Henley, lord of the nearby manor of Colway.
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, it wasn’t just tourists who were coming to browse in the ‘fossil shop’ to see what Molly Anning’s children had unearthed: geologists, naturalists, fossil-hunters and gentlemen scientists were also alighting from the coaches and departing with the Annings’ precious relics. Mary had subsequently found several more ichthyosaur skeletons, one of which she sold to Colonel Thomas Birch (or Bosvile, as he became), a wealthy fossil collector from Ravenfield Park, near Rotherham in South Yorkshire.
However, the family enterprise was by no means a stable income-earner, and when Colonel Birch visited the Annings in the summer of 1819 he was aghast at their impoverished state. Shortly afterwards he wrote to his fellow-collector Gideon Mantell that he was ‘going to sell my collection for the benefit of the poor woman and her son and daughter at Lyme who have in truth found almost all the fine things, which have been submitted to scientific investigation: when I went to Charmouth and Lyme last summer I found these people in considerable difficulty – on the act of selling their furniture to pay their rent – in consequence of their not having found one good fossil for near a twelvemonth. I may never again possess what I am about to part with; yet in doing it I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that the money will be well applied’.
As promised, Colonel Birch auctioned a large part of his fossil collection in May 1820 at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Interested buyers were advised that the collection of 102 lots included ‘valuable remains of Reptilia and Crinoidea from the Lias of Lyme and Charmouth, many collected by Miss Mary Anning.’ Indeed, as Gideon Mantell was to observe in 1846, ‘it was subsequently understood that all the most valuable fossils had been obtained by [Mary’s] indefatigable labours.’ The final lot was the auction’s big hitter: the ichthyosaur skeleton, considered the world’s ‘most complete specimen’, that had been found by Mary. This particular ichthyosaur would fetch up at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, only to be destroyed in a German air raid in May 1941.
The auction raised an impressive £400, all of which the benevolent colonel donated to the Annings. It also considerably raised Mary’s profile in both the geological and biological communities. Her findings quite clearly proved that long, long ago there had been a number – possibly a large number – of very strange-looking creatures living in southern England. This was a mind-altering concept on the eve of the Victorian Age, when most educated people in Britain believed that God had created the world exactly as described in the Old Testament. At the time when Joseph Anning was dusting down that ichthyosaur skull, such words as ‘dinosaur’ and ‘paleontology’ hadn’t yet been coined, and Charles Darwin was still swaddled up in his cot.
Mary Anning spent much of the 1820s meandering over the Dorset cliffs with her rock hammer, fossil-hunting with tremendous vigour. As the Bristol Mirrorput it in 1823: ‘This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide.‘ 
Lady Harriet Silvester, a wealthy London widow, visited the Annings’ shop in 1824, the year Mary discovered the world’s first plesiosaurus skeleton. Lady Silvester recalled in her diary that the ‘extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved … It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.’ 
For all that, fossil-hunting was still very much a man’s world, and Mary was predictably exploited by many of her male contemporaries. ‘Mary Anning was of rather masculine appearance,’ stated the Chambers’s Journalafter her death. ‘She braved all weather, and was far too generous in allowing even wealthy visitors to accompany her in her explorations without requiring a fee, as some naturalists now very reasonably do.’Instead, often desperate for money, she was obliged to sell her fossils to those same visitors, often collectors from Britain, the US and Europe, who, much to her dismay, would then almost invariably claim the credit for finding them in the first place.
In 1826 Mary moved to a new house with two large front windows, in which her wares could be displayed, beneath a white board painted Anning’s Fossil Depot. An ichthyosaur skeleton was prominently displayed in one window. Among the items on sale were belemnites (which contain fossilised ink sacs) and coprolites (or ‘bezoar stones’), which she had correctly identified as fossilised dinosaur poo. Among her first customers was George William Featherstonhaugh, a beguiling geologist who purchased several fossils for the newly opened New York Lyceum of Natural History in 1827.
By the time of old Colonel Birch’s death, in 1829, Mary had discovered the first British example of the curiously winged pterosaur, known to her contemporaries as the ‘flying dragon’. In 1830 she found her second plesiosaur. Her reputation was further enhanced when the pioneering geologist Henry De la Beche painted a well-received watercolour entitled ‘Duria Antiquior’ (‘An Earlier Dorset’), which was chiefly based on fossils discovered by Mary Anning. He gallantly gave the proceeds from the print sales to the Anning family.
Unfortunately, Mary made a careless investment – or she may have been swindled. The upshot was that she lost a whopping £300 in 1835 and was once again on the cusp of destitution. She was saved when her friend William Buckland, Dean of Westminster and joint founder of the Royal Geological Society, persuaded Lord Melbourne’s government to put her on the civil list and grant her an annual pension of £25.
A sharp reminder of the hazards of fossil-hunting came when she narrowly avoided being crushed in a landslide. Her black-and-white terrier Tray, a trusty companion for many years, was not so lucky. ‘Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me,’ she wrote to a friend. ‘The cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.’ 
Mary’s expertise found much favour with Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-American fossil-fish expert, who visited Lyme Regis in 1834. He was so grateful for her advice that he later named two fossil-fish species, Acrodus anningiaeand Belenostomus anningiae,in her honour – and a third after her friend Elizabeth Philpot. Another visitor was the anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen, who called in to the Fossil Depot in 1839. Three years later he was to coin the term ‘dinosaur’, from the Greek for ‘terrible lizard’. Perhaps Mary’s most unexpected customer was King Friedrich August II of Saxony, who popped in to the shop in 1844 and left with an ichthyosaur skeleton for his private collection.
In 1839 the Magazine of Natural Historypublished an article applauding what was claimed to be the first discovery of a hooked tooth of the prehistoric shark hybodus. In what would be the only writing she ever had published, Mary admonished the editor; stuff and nonsense, she’d found plenty of fossilised sharks over the years, some with straight teeth, others hooked.
The surrounding landscape was to dramatically change shortly after Mary’s fortieth birthday that same year. On Christmas Eve, a massive chasm opened up, cracking off a forty-five acre field of wheat and turnips from the fossiliferous coastline, to form present-day Goat Island.
Although Mary continued to hunt fossils in her forties, she was by now beleaguered by the cancer that led her to indulge in that ‘quietening’ cocktail of opium and alcohol. Unaware of her illness, her neighbours in Lyme Regis assumed that she had simply developed a chronic drinking addiction.
Mary succumbed on 9 March 1847 and was buried at St Michael’s Church in Lyme Regis, the Anglican church to which she had pledged allegiance at the age of thirty. The Rev. Fred Parry-Hodges, who conducted the funeral, subsequently received word from the Geological Society of London that they wished to install a stained-glass window in the church. Unveiled in 1850, it would commemorate Mary’s ‘usefulness in furthering the science of geology’ and her ‘benevolence of heart and integrity of life.’
That the notoriously chauvinist Geological Society was prepared to extol this woman’s remarkable achievements was due to the fact that the enlightened Henry De la Beche, Mary’s former patron, had since become its president. When the society met in London the February after her death, he delivered a eulogy in which he noted that Mary’s ‘talents and good conduct’ had won her many friends.‘Though not placed among the easier classes of society, [she] had to earn her daily bread by her labour yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge.’
The Gentleman’s Magazine likewise hailed her as ‘the celebrated geologist, a delightful discoverer of the fossils of the blue lias.’Charles Dickens concurred: ‘The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.’
After Mary’s brother Joseph died, in 1849, most of the Anning fossil collection was bought by the Earl of Enniskillen for his collection at Florence Court, his house in County Fermanagh, Ireland. These would later find their way to the British Museum.
Mary herself was largely forgotten by the time Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Speciesin 1859, twelve years after her death. That amnesia has been redressed since 2002, when the Paleontological Association devised the annual Mary Anning Award in her honour. In 2010 the Royal Society declared her one of the ten British women who have done most to influence the history of science.
In the autumn of 2015 a tiny metal coin was found on the beach at Lyme Regis. On one side it is stamped Mary Anning MDCCCX(1810), and on the other Lyme Regis age XI. Her story also forms the basis of the 2020 film ‘Ammonite’, starring Kate Winslett and Saoirse Ronan.
This story is extracted from Turtle Bunbury’s book ‘1847-A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery’, published by Gill in 2016. The acclaimed book is available via Amazon.
 Thomas W. Goodhue, in Fossil Hunter: The Life and Times of Mary Anning, 1799–1847(Bethesda, Md: Academica Press, 2004), p. 110, refers to her consumption of Godfrey’s Cordial. Further details on the medicine can be found in Anthony S. Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 34–5, and T. E. C., Jr, ‘What were Godfrey’s Cordial and Dalby’s Carminative?’ Pediatrics,issue 6, vol. 45 (June 1970).
 Quoted by Charles Dickens in ‘Mary Anning, the fossil finder’, All the Year Round(1865).
 Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
 Northampton Mercury,Saturday 30 August 1800, p. 3, column 5.
 Emma Austen-Leigh and Richard A. Austen-Leigh,Jane Austen and Lyme Regis(London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co., 1941), p. 31–2.
 W. and R. Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts,vol. 8 (1858), p. 383.
 Mr Henley, Sheriff of Norfolk in 1814, was also the owner of Sandringham Hall, Norfolk, which was purchased by Queen Victoria in 1862. Rosina Maria Zornlin, Recreations in Geology(London: John W. Parker, 1852), p. 197.
 The story of Thomas James Birch (later Bosvile) is told by H. S. Torrens in ‘Collections and collectors of note: Colonel Birch’, GCG: Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group,vol. 2, no. 7 (December 1979).
 H. S. Torrens, ‘Collections and collectors of note: Colonel Birch’, GCG: Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group,vol. 2, no. 7 (December 1979), p. 409. The author of the article intriguingly argues that this letter ‘strongly suggests what is supported by other evidence, that a major part of the early Anning fossil collection and dealing business in Lyme was conducted by Mary [Molly] Anning (c. 1764–1842), the wife of Richard, who died of consumption in 1810, after his death rather than the daughter Mary Anning (1799–1847), who has been given almost all the credit for Anning fossil discoveries by her many uncritical biographers.’
 G. A. Mantell, London Geological Journal, vol. 1 (1846), p. 13–14. See also H. S. Torrens, ‘Collections and collectors of note: Colonel Birch’, GCG: Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group,vol. 2, no. 7 (December 1979), p. 405. The British Museum, which bought several of the colonel’s fossils, possesses a copy of the sale catalogue that belonged to ‘the fossil shop at Lyme’, signed Joseph Anning.
 G. A. Mantell, London Geological Journal, vol. 1 (1846), p. 13–14.
 H. S. Torrens, ‘Collections and collectors of note: Colonel Birch’, GCG: Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group,vol. 2, no. 7 (December 1979), p. 407.
 Bristol Mirror,Saturday 11 January 1823, p. 4.
 E. Welch, ‘Lady Sylvester’s tour through Devonshire in 1824’, Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries, vol. 31 (1968–70), p. 23.
 W. and R. Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts,vol. 8 (1858), p. 383.
 Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
 Thomas W. Goodhue, Fossil Hunter: The Life and Times of Mary Anning, 1799–1847(Bethesda, Md: Academica Press, 2004), p. 84. Curiously Tray was the name given to the dog in ‘The Story of Cruel Frederick’ in the English version of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, published in 1848.
 Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
 Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
 The full inscription reads: ‘This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.’ The windowdepicts the six corporate acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners and the sick, and burying the dead.
 Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, vol. 4(1848), p. xxv.
 Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, vol. 27 (May 1847), p. 562.
 Charles Dickens, ‘Mary Anning, the fossil finder’, All the Year Round(1865).
The late John Joe Conway, the cattle and horse breeder from near Kilfenora, County Clare, was one of the kindest and most entertaining people we have met during the Vanishing Ireland project. We were introduced to him in 2011 by his great friend, the singer Katie Theasby, and featured him in the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. The following year, he was admitted to the Shorthorn Hall of Fame for the excellence of the Knockanedan herd. He also appeared in Katrina Costello’s charming 2017 documentary, ‘The Silver Branch’. This is a slightly extended version of my story from the book. I hope you enjoy John Joe’s utterly fabulous gift of the gab.
The short avenue leading down to his cottage is treacherously icy but that doesn’t stop John Joe Conway from skating across the frozen puddles like a fearless toddler. ‘By God and you’re welcome, lads. Come in out of the cold and make yourselves comfortable.’
John Joe’s home lies amid the hills of West Clare in a place called Knockanedan which, rather cryptically, translates as The Hill on the Brow of Another Hill. The other hill is Knockalunkard, the hill of the long fort, where John Joe’s late mother grew up. Located along the old Lisdoonvarna to Ennis road, memories of ages past still linger over these remote green hills. Pitched between two ancient ringforts are the grass-covered rumps of an abandoned village. ‘I knew an old man who could remember the women from the hill village,’ says John Joe. ‘There is still contact with those times but so much of what was around here has gone over to forestry since. The Forestry Department didn’t give a tinker’s damn for the past. They would have planted trees on this kitchen floor if they could.’
John Joe’s forbears came from the townland of Ballycannoe, just north east of Lidsoonvarna, which was once called Conwaystown ‘and there was no one there except Conways.’ They were ‘cleared out of it in the troubled times and moved up to Galway.’ They returned to Clare in the 19th century and Michael Conway, John Joe’s grandfather, arrived in Knockanedan from Miltown Malbay. He was essentially adopted by his uncle Paddy Conway and his wife Bridget, who had no children of their own.
It had been Michael’s intention to join the civil service in Dublin. However, as he prepared to depart for the city, Paddy pleaded with him to stay and offered him the farm. The young man reluctantly bade farewell to his administrative dreams and stayed.
Michael married Bridget Donoghue from Maurice’s Mills who bore him three sons and three daughters. However, she died giving birth to their youngest girl in 1901. Michael then reared the six children himself, in the same house where John Joe lives now. Two of the six later emigrated to England – John to work on the railways in Manchester and Mary to work in catering in Luton – but the other four remained in County Clare, including Michael’s eldest son Patrick who was John Joe’s father.
John Joe’s kitchen is a large, open-plan room with a concrete floor and a strobe light overhead. Bags of turf encased in yellow plastic gather behind a settee between the staircase and the Stanley range. Along one wall runs a 1950s dresser, laden with chipped teacups and tick-tock clocks. ‘I’m a clockaholic’ he confides. Another wall is adorned with portraits of Padre Pio, Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II.
‘I went up to the Galway racecourse at Ballybrit to see the Pope and it was the greatest day in my life. 17th September 1979. We were in the last coral going into the racecourse. Everyone had binoculars so we could see the pope the very far end and we were satisfied. But then it was announced that he would go through the corals in his Popemobile and he came up right beside us. It was fantastic, much more than I expected, and I nearly dropped!’
Amongst other photographs is a 1940s shot of the Conway family standing beside the haybarn at Knockanedan in their Sunday best. John Joe, his parents and his four brothers. The boys all wear shorts; no young man wore long pants until he reached his sixteenth birthday.
‘It wasn’t easy to rear a family in those times,’ says John Joe. ‘But they did it, however they did it.’ His father was evidently a towering figure. ‘And terrible strong too,’ he says, with a respectful nod of the head. ‘He was a tug of war man’. Patrick’s wife Mary Ward was a cattle farmer’s daughter from nearby Knockalunkard.
As a youngster, John Joe often helped his father with the cattle. The prices were sometimes so low that they had to take the stock to two or three fairs before they found a buyer. While they awaited a sale, they lived on credit with the local shop like everybody else. ‘They were so terribly honest in them times that they all did pay because if they didn’t, the shopkeeper wouldn’t be able to keep going.’
The Conway sons were all educated in Inchovea, a handsome nineteenth century building which was demolished in the 1950s because it was deemed too damp.[xi] ‘A bucket of mortar would have sorted the leak out,’ says John Joe indignantly. ‘The tradesman who knocked it nearly failed because it was such a fine structure. It didn’t want to be knocked. He made more money selling the lead flashing than it cost him to buy the place and knock it down.’
By the time he left school in the mid-1950s, John Joe knew the family farm was headed his way. Two of his brothers had emigrated to Luton, one to work with Vauxhall, the other to become a plasterer, and there they both remained until they died a few years ago. Another brother Patrick joined the Christian Brothers and settled in Clara, County Offaly.
The fourth brother Martin played flute with the Irish Army No. 1 Band for nearly thirty years and now lives nearby. During the 1960s, Martin was based at Batterstown, County Meath, and the biggest journeys of John Joe’s life were his annual 500km round trip to visit him. This coincided with the much-relished “Clareman’s Do” in Harry’s of Kinnegad, a gathering of all the farming men of County Clare who had moved east and settled in Meath and Westmeath. ‘We used to let our hair hang down – full length’, he laughs, eyes crinkling as he reels off the names of the lads he met for the ‘dancing and sing-song and that carry on.’
Like his grandfather before him, John Joe was not particularly excited by the prospect of taking on the farm. ‘I felt it would be nothing but hardship,’ he says.[xiii] ‘But I got used to it.’ When his mother’s brother passed away in 1962, he acquired a second farm on Knockalunkard Hill. ‘So I doubled up, but it was still small, about 60 acres in total, and not the best land in the world.’
He bred pedigree Shorthorns and he has a quiver full of scary tales about cows and bulls that have run amok. The pick is probably the one about his neighbour, ‘a strong man who was never afraid of anything’ and who fetched up the wrong side of a bull. This is how John Joe tells the story:
‘One day the wife looks out and she sees the bull is going down on him, trying to crush him to bits. So she runs over to the paddock with an apron and throws her apron at the bull. The bull turned and went down on the apron and was satisfied to be belting away at that instead. She got her husband up and began dragging him out but, as they were leaving, she looked back and she said ‘Michael, could you ever hasten, he’s coming again …’ and he was thundering up the paddock after them, breathing up the back of their necks, for to give them the doubts. They got out the gate, she pulled it shut and the bull banged his head on it after. Michael had six cracked ribs and was scratched and bruised all over his face. Michael’s two brother-in-laws would not believe the bull was so bad. They brought a heifer along and stuck her in the field with the bull. He took no notice of her so they went in after her with their forks. The first lad didn’t even get to draw the fork. The bull hit him so hard. Took the two legs up from under him and lifted him. The other lad stuck his fork in the bulls’ guts then and that worked. That’s what he had to do or the bull would have killed the two of them. The bull started trying to wrench himself until he got rid of the fork and that gave them enough time to get out. They had to put the bull down after that.’
Another run in with a bull which ‘did fairly scare me’ was as follows. The bull was on the farm and on his own. John Joe was crossing the field and ‘I didn’t like the way he was watching me so I hopped out over a wall. Next thing I see him making for the gate and I could see he was in bad humour. He stayed at that gate until he tore it down. He went in under it and got it over his back. I was standing beside a rick of hay so I grabbed a fork. There were three lines of wire between me and him but the rate at which he was thundering towards me I thought he would come through them anyway. He wouldn’t stop. But he did stop and he went around to a small gate and he couldn’t come any further. And I scrammed. But he did fairly frighten me.’
‘You would have to be alert to the bulls,’ he warns. But cows can also be extremely dangerous, particularly Limousin cows. ‘When they are calving, they have some temper. For three days after the calf is born, they are terrible.’ He recalls a friend being chased up the field by one such cow. ‘Only for that he was an athlete, she’d have had him. She chased him a hundred yards or more. I was watching him twisting and turning and zig-zagging but I couldn’t do anything. I think it took more out of me than him.’
John Joe is more at ease in the company of horses. ‘They used to say there was a four leaf shamrock wherever a mare foaled. I love horses. Their intelligence is something else. They know your step. They know your voice. They know if you are grumpy and they keep out of your way! The very moment you handle the reins, they know to a T what you’re made of. And when you ride them, they know when you’re in charge and they know when they can dump you. And dump you they will!’
‘I had a breeding mare, a draft horse. I bred foals from her and I brought them to the fairs in Ennistymon and Ennis. I often hopped up on her, with no bridle or anything, for a gallop through the fields. She was a nice mare with plenty of speed. But until she wanted to stop, you couldn’t come off. We were out once and her leg went down a closed drain. She scrambled and scrambled so much that I thought she was damaged. I never rode her again after that. I realised this country was too dangerous for her.’
John Joe also had a couple of workhorses. ‘The trick with the workhorse is to keep him working. When they aren’t working, they start acting up, plunging and rearing and shying at this, that and every other thing they meet on the road. But when they are working they are lovely and they really can work.’
John Joe sold his last ‘little mare’ in 2005. He was anxious for her health because she had developed water scabs on her back and he did not know how to cure her. ‘She was never trained but she was a beauty to lead. After she was gone I put down eight or nine terrible nights. The line was broken. Every morning I would bring her feed … but when she was gone, I was put off my stride.’
He found some consolation in music. ‘Oh the Lord yes, I am stone crazy mad for traditional music. I played a tin whistle back in the past and I used to sing, with porter. Aye, when the medicine was on, I’d sing. ‘Putting on the Style’, Lonnie Donegan. That was one of my songs.’ In fact, John Joe frequently hosted céilidhs in his kitchen, drawing crowds of anything up to forty people. ‘A couple of lads would play and they’d dance a few sets and waltzes and maybe sing a few songs. Everybody would be to and fro and there was the occasional romance out of it. It wasn’t men on the one wall and women on the other.’
That said, John Joe never married. ‘It was a pity for all the bachelors in this area that all the women left for England and America. Or they married the bigger farmers. I suppose they were afraid of the drudgery of marrying a smaller farmer.’ The population duly tumbled and many local businesses were no longer viable. In the last decade, the creamery, the shop and the school have all closed. ‘This area has been turned upside down,’ says John Joe. ‘But there was nothing we could do. Like a lot of the country areas, it came so gradual at first that no one took any notice.’
John Joe Conway, born 2 May 1935, died 9 July 2019, buried in the Island cemetery at Knockaneadan.
Harry Sullivan twitched his ears. What on earth was that? As he listened, the throaty growl intensified. Was it coming from the sky? The seven-year-old leapt from his bed and ran out onto the streets of Clifden, Co Galway. ‘I was just in time to see this greyish-coloured machine swooping over the main street’, he recalls. ‘Its huge wings nearly touched the top of the church. I watched as it roared away towards the bog, its wings swaying up and down’.
It was 8:20am on Sunday 15 June 1919 and Harry had just witnessed one of the most magnificent events in aviation history. On that morning, 100 years ago today, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown completed the first ever non-stop trans-Atlantic flight between America and Europe.
The seed for Alcock and Brown’s extraordinary adventure began in the winter of 1918 when Lord Northcliffe, the Dublin-born founder and proprietor of the Daily Mail, renewed his offer of a prize, worth £10,000 (approximately STG£400,000), for the first team to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.[i]
In early 1919, Percy Muller, superintendent of the Vickers works at Broadlands, Surrey, asked one of his test pilots what he thought of the contest. Jack Alcock replied: ‘I am on it any old time!’ Alcock had been obsessed with flying since he began making model planes during his childhood at Old Trafford, Manchester.[ii] By 1912, he was working as a mechanic at Broadlands where he learned how to fly.[iii] He served with the air-force during the war, targeting U-boats in the Dardanelles, but was shot down, captured and imprisoned in a Turkish POW camp.
With his eye now fixed upon the Atlantic Prize, Alcock sought a plane strong enough to win. He settled upon a Vickers Vimy IV, to be modified at Broadlands and fitted with two Rolls Royce engines. Now he needed someone capable of navigating the featureless 2,000-mile ocean without straying off course.
The meeting of Alcock and Brown took place completely by chance. Born in Glasgow in 1886, ‘Ted’ Brown was the son of an American engineer. Like Alcock, his passion for aviation stemmed from childhood, when he made and flew box kites. He served in the army at the Somme, before joining the Royal Flying Corps as an observer. In 1915, his plane was downed and, his right leg shattered, he was incarcerated in a POW camp in Germany. After the war, he started work with the Aircraft Production Department who, one day, sent him to discuss radiators with Peter Muller at Vickers. Alcock happened to be in the room with Muller when Brown arrived. Muller introduced the two men. They shook hands. And something peculiarly British happened.
Alcock told Brown about the Daily Mail contest. Brown told Alcock how he would navigate the Atlantic if he were to enter such a prize. Impressed, Alcock asked Brown if he would care to join him on the journey. Brown said he would be delighted to. And so the team was born.
Aged 33, Ted Brown was a thoughtful, unassuming individual, somewhat scarred by his memories of the Somme but due to marry a beautiful Irish girl called Marguerite Kennedy. An optimist, he regarded aviation as an ideal tool for promoting peace and prosperity across the world. Six years his junior, Jack Alcock was the more daring of the two, an acrobatic specialist who simply saw the flight as a tremendous adventure.[iv] Together the two former POWs plotted every last detail of the journey, right down to their electrically heated Burberry’s flying suits.
Their late entry ensured they were rank outsiders for the Atlantic Prize when they finally joined their seventeen rival teams at the take-off spot in St John’s, Newfoundland.[v] In the days leading up to the race, most of their competitors were obliged to withdraw with technical faults.[vi] At length, only four planes participated.[vii]
On the afternoon of Saturday June 14th 1919, Jack Alcock pulled the Vimy bi-plane into the sky above St John and roared into the dense, clinging fogs of Newfoundland’s coast.[viii] They would not see land again until Ireland.
Alcock and Brown’s circumstances required immense courage and endurance. The Vimy was a primitive beast. The wind whined ‘a ghostly melody among the struts and bracing wires’. It had an open cockpit, meaning that every time they passed through a band of rain, hail, sleet or snow – which they did frequently – it ‘chewed bits out of our faces’, to quote Brown.[ix] They were not long in the air when their radio broke. The exhaust snapped soon afterwards and the resultant sound, which Alcock likened to a machine gun battery, left the two men with hearing problems for the rest of their lives.
During the night, they had no option but to ‘cleave our way through an interminable mass of black marble’, with the luminous glow of the instrument panel providing just enough light for Brown to read the chart spread upon his knees. He skilfully steered them into a westerly wind that blew them towards Ireland. But that was accompanied by an intense blast of sleet which jammed the lateral control for half an hour.[x] It was extremely hard, physical work. Anything could have gone wrong at any moment. Not a pleasant thought when you are carrying a colossal 865 gallons of fuel, spread between seven tanks and a service tank.[xi]
At last, daylight broke and there was land ahoy in the shape of the islands of Eeshal and Turbot off the Galway coast. Brown recognised the tall radio masts of Marconi’s station at Clifden and recalled how, just days earlier, they had joked about hanging their hats on the aerial as they passed.[xii] Flying over Clifden, they fired two red flares but most of the town’s population were in church at the time. Alcock had hoped to fly all the way to Brooklands but with the mist-shrouded mountains of Connemara rising before him, he wisely decided to land. He aimed for a pristine, treeless field by the Marconi station. To both men’s surprise, they landed violently with ‘an unpleasant squelch’. The field was in fact the spongy blanket bog of Derrygimla.[xiii] As the startled Marconi crew reached the peat-drenched airplane, Alcock stood up from his seat, removed his goggles and said: ‘We are Alcock and Brown. Yesterday we were in America’.
It was 9:40am on Sunday morning. They had completed the 1,880-mile coast-to-coast flight in 15hr 57min at an average speed of 118.5mph. It was the longest distance ever flown by man. ‘What do you think of that for fancy navigating?’ asked Brown. ‘Very good’, replied Alcock. And they shook hands again.[xiv]
Ireland erupted on discovering what the two men had achieved.[xv] The older generation were particularly stunned. The voyage to America had always taken weeks. Yet this flying machine had done it in sixteen hours. On the road to Galway, Alcock and Brown were obliged to shake several thousand hands along the way. The train journey to Dublin involved standing ovations at every station. They were smothered in flowers by the children of Athenry and celebrated by a marching band in Mullingar. When they arrived in Dublin, a group of Trinity students ‘kidnapped’ Alcock and brought him to their Commons for a jar. Meanwhile Brown was dragged off to the Royal Irish Automobile Club on Dawson Street to regale its members with every last detail. The next day, huge crowds gathered in Dun Laoghaire to watch them sail for Holyhead. In England, knighthoods, portraits and a £10,000 check awaited.[xvi] Presenting the check at an elaborate luncheon in London, Winston Churchill hailed Alcock and Brown’s success as ‘a triumph of man over nature’.
It was certainly one of the most significant and dramatic flights in aviation history.[xvii] Nobody repeated the feat for eight years. It also marked the peak of both men’s career. Sir John Alcock was killed less than six months later – and only nine months after he and Brown first met – when his plane crashed in France.[xviii] Sir Arthur Brown married his Irish sweetheart and survived until 1948.[xix] But their triumph was an event of tremendous positivity for a world which, in 1919, was still riddled with self-doubt after the horrors of the Great War and the Spanish Flu. Moreover, America was suddenly less than a day away.[xx]
In 1959, a 14ft-high limestone monument of the ‘tail-fin’ was erected on Ballinaboy Hill, the quiet, primeval boulder-strewn Connemara bogland, over which the Vimy had flown on its way to the nearby Marconi station. It’s inscription reads: ‘Ta a ngaisce greannta as chlar na speire. Their heroism adorns the expanses of the sky’. In July 2005, the late Steve Fossett and Mark Rebholz completed their 18 ½ hour re-enactment of the flight and landed at Ballyconneely’s golf club.
Brendan Lynch’s book, ‘Yesterday We Were in America’ is a thoroughly researched and often exciting account of the pioneering flight, crammed with useful anecdotal tangents and informative titbits.
[i] Northcliffe had been pushing for aviation progress since at least 1906. After the Reims Airshow of 1909, he launched a series of prizes for pilots who could, for instance fly in one day from ‘within 5 miles of the London office of the Daily Mail ‘to a given spot within 5 miles of the Manchester office’. The original Atlantic Prize of £10,000 was offered, on 1st April 1913, to the first person who could cross the Atlantic within 72 continuous hours. Many viewed it as an April Fool’s joke; Punch magazine quickly a similar prize for the first flight to Mars. The offer was put on hold with the outbreak of war. When he died, Lord Northcliffe willed three months salary to each of his 6,000 employees.
[ii] By 1908, he was helping build a real Farman-type bi-plane.
[iii] Brooklands placed Alcock at the hub of British aviation, with such legends as Louis Bleriot and Lord Brabazon of Tara regularly calling by. Alcock was actually taught how to fly by Maurice Ducrocq, the eminent French aviator who ran a flying school at Brooklands.
[iv] Aside from some minor debates over the limited cockpit space for their respective instruments, the navigator and pilot got on famously.
[v] Other scheduled competitors included Tommy Sopwith, Paris Singer and the wartime pilot Leth Jensen who boasted that he would get all the way to Paris.
[vi] In those early days of flimsy airplanes, unpredictable instruments and snappable wings, a pilot’s life was a perilous one. No bomber, seaplane, biplane or triplane was safe. Among those killed flying was Charles Rolls (1877-1910), co-founder of Rolls Royce company whose engines would power Alcock and Brown into trans-Atlantic success. Countless aviators perished in their attempts to fly the Atlantic from Paris to New York, including Irishmen James Medcalf and Terence Tully. In 1927, Charles Lindberg succeeded in the Spirit of St Louis, the first solo crossing of the Atlantic.
[vii] The first to depart was the Sopwith team who promptly went missing, its crew presumed dead. When they were found safely bobbing in the ocean some days later, the press went into overdrive and the Atlantic Race became front page news across the Western World.
[viii] When the news reached Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail office on Fleet Street, the editor quaked. The Saturday take-off was the worst news possible; the Mail did not then have a Sunday edition! Sure enough, they were scooped by the Express
[ix] Lynch describes the cockpit as like a 1920s domestic hallway, with brass switches and ivory levers mounted on a varnished wooden fascia.
[x] There were also endless dispiriting levels of cloud to negotiate. When they completed 850 miles, they celebrated with a cup of coffee from a thermos.
[xi] Fuel consumption was estimated as 70 litres an hour and they aimed to travel at 90mph.
[xii] It was not lost on either men that Marconi had installed another Telegraph Station back at St John’s, Newfoundland. Set amid the empty boglands and mountains, the high-power, long-wave Marconi Station was later burned by nationalists in 1922. Ireland and Newfoundland were united again in 1928 when Captain James Fitzmaurice (who Lynch called ‘Ireland’s most neglected aviation hero’, suggesting his next book?) co-piloted the first successful east-west crossing from Dublin’s Baldonnel Airport to Greenly Island, Newfoundland, and again in 1932 when Amelia Earhart landed in Culmore, Co Derry, becoming the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo.
[xiii] The Vimy’s nose and half its propellers were buried in peat, and the tailplane elevated 16 ft high.
[xiv] Inevitably, elements of the journey were subsequently exaggerated, by the press and other writers. Lynch comprehensively dismisses the legend that the handicapped Brown walked on the iced-up wings to clear the ice and snow which had blocked the engine’s air intakes, a legend of Bigglesian proportions. He was, however, constantly chipping ice off the fuel gauge with a knife.
[xv] A quick reception in Clifden’s Railway Hotel and then they were driven on to Galway where they slept in the Great Southern and were gifted Claddagh rings by local jeweller William Dillon. When they awoke, they were global celebrities. It was, said Brown ‘a wonderland of seeming unreality’.
[xvi] A quarter of a million people gathered in London to welcome the two former prisoners-of-war. They were soon kneeling before George V and knighted. In the months that followed, Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown were touted far and wide for their achievements. They sat for portraits by Sir John Lavery and Ambrose McEvoy. Mahogany models of the Vimy went on sale, with propellers that revolved when the model was wheeled and a stash of matches in the tail end.
[xvii] It was certainly the greatest leap for mankind since the Wright Brothers staggered into the air in their powered airplane sixteen years earlier. Lynch hails the journey as ‘the logical outcome of man’s obsession with transport, which dated from the invention of the wheel in Mesopotamia around 4000BC’.
[xviii] After the flight, Sir John Alcock returned to testing Vickes aeroplanes at Brooklands and began plotting a new motor business in the Burlington Arcade in London. On 15 Dec 1919, now aged 27, he attended the presentation by Vickers of the transatlantic Vimy to London’s Science Museum. The plane had been washed clean of Irish peat and its nose repaired. (Some of the Connemara locals appear to have nabbed some parts of the plane, such as its canvas and propellers, for their curio collection). Three days later, he entered the cockpit of a single-engine Vickers Viking Mark I amphibian bi-plane and set off for the first post-war aero-nautical exhibition in Paris. The plane vanished into the low clouds of the English Channel. 25 miles north of Rouen, a farmer watched the Viking attempt an emergency landing when it suddenly collapsed in the blustery sky, ‘gave a great sway and fell to the earth’. Alcock’s head smashed into the windscreen, fracturing his skull. He never regained consciousness. His funeral took place in Manchester cathedral on Christmas Day and he was buried in the city’s Southern Cemetery beneath three coach-loads of wreaths. A Celtic Cross was later erected over his grave, an aeroplane propeller carved in its base.
[xix] On 29 July 1919, Sir Arthur Whitten Brown, resplendent in blue RAF uniform, married curly dark haired Marguerite Kathleen Kennedy in London. They would be feted on their honeymoon, an extended trip through America with Kathleen now known as ‘Lady Whitten Brown’. Brown subsequently became general manager of the Metropolitan Vickers plant in Swansea. Shocked by Alcock’s death, he became rather withdrawn in later years. During the Second World War, he helped train RAF pilots in navigation and engineering. His idealistic hopes that aviation would promote world peace were shattered and he knew many who perished in the blitz. His only son was shot down while flying over northern Holland. He recoiled from the use of planes at Dresden and Hiroshima. On 4 October 1948, he overdosed on barbitone at his home in Swansea and died. He was 62 years old.
[xx] As Brown said, this was the first generation of mankind ‘to see flying dreams and theories translated into fact’. He foresaw a future where aviation could create the possibility of a peaceful, prosperous would, where flight would knit the world together, not become the latest weapon.
In 1939, the first direct flight of a commercial flying boat from Foynes, Co Limerick, to New York, was flown by Charles Blair, husband of the actress Maureen O’Hara.
Farewell to the inimitable Joe McCabe who became an icon of the Laois junior hurling team in the 1930s and passed away earlier this year, three months short of his centenary. It’s now almost thirteen years since photographer James Fennell and I met with Joe and his great friend Micky Lalor at the McCabe home outside Abbeyleix. This is their story from the second volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series, subtitled ‘Further Chronicles of a Disappearing World.’
Micky Lalor is anxious to set the record straight. His daughter is married to Joe McCabe’s son. And Joe’s father was Micky’s schoolteacher in Clonad. And yes, okay, Joe’s father did have a wee romance with Micky’s mother. But that was a long time ago, before anyone was married. Above all, he and Joe are neighbours – and always have been.
It is clear that Joe and Micky regard the ongoing link between their two families as a happy coincidence. They are great pals. Joe swears Micky is ‘one of the best water diviners in Ireland – bar none‘. And Micky says Joe’s record as a hurler speaks for itself. The two were taking afternoon tea and cream buns when we called in to the McCabe house in Ballyroan outside Abbeyleix on a wet spring afternoon.
The two men sit in opposing armchairs chuckling at the old times, at stories they’ve heard a hundred times before yet which still carry an essential lightness of being. There is the story of the kindly fool who accidentally donated the entrance fee for a vital hurling match to the parish priest. Or the scoundrel who had the monopoly on bicycle tyres and wireless batteries during the war. Or the hurler who kept all his money in a matchbox but accidentally lost the box while making haycocks ‘so he had to unravel all his cocks with a pitchfork and start over again‘. Then there was Jack Lyons, a massive lad who had to get a bypass. ‘Doctor, a bypass is no good to me – I need a roundabout.’ Sometimes it is hard to grasp why stories are funny. It’s like trying to make sense of long gone currencies. And, as such, it is inevitable that older men look down in brief dismay that such wonderful memories can possibly lose their sheen over time.
But much of storytelling is about the way it is told and, eighty-seven years on, Joe McCabe’s endearing tales are as hypnotic as they ever were. Joe is the first of his McCabe line for four generations to not become a teacher. ‘I have sisters who were teachers. I have a daughter teaching – and a grandchild teaching too! But I was too thick for teaching!’
Instead, he evolved a passion for hurling. As a child, his native county still echoed with the roars of those who had carried Laois to victory in the 1915 All-Ireland Hurling Championship. The weather had been so wet that day the two teams played the second half in overcoats. One of his many colourful tales involves a midnight raid on a prosperous farm to pinch a lump of ash to make some new hurls. Luckily, even at the age of twelve, Joe could clearly run.
In the GAA’s Jubilee Year of 1934, the fifteen-year-old Joe McCabe, clad in short trousers, played for the Laois Minors in a match that saw them become Leinster Champions. Next up was Tipperary in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. What an astonishing prospect for any fifteen-year-old.
‘None of us knew Dublin,’ he says of the team’s arrival in the city. ‘We had nothing only our boots, tied together and thrown across our backs. And we carried our hurls in our hand. We had no cases, no pyjamas or anything at all. We walked along the quays and then up to Barry’s Hotel. We went to the pictures that night. The Plaza! I remember it was four old pence. We came out of it after and there was a chipper. We never had chips before but by jaysuz we got a tray of them and tucked in. I only had half a crown when I came to Dublin to play in an All-Ireland final. That’s all I had and there were lads who hadn’t even that! We ate the chips and went back to the hotel and we went to bed. We got up the next morning and went to mass and went on to Croke Park.’
Laois lost by a point after a second half that lasted forty-five minutes and Tipperary brought on nine substitutes. With teacher blood thick in his veins, Joe swears he took the train home straight after the match so that he could finish off his homework for the Christian Brothers in Portlaoise by the Monday morning. ‘We had a great big clock on the wall. I remember it was twenty-five to nine when I got home for dinner. My mother said, ‘You didn’t win today?’ – the hurling was on the radio or something – I said, ‘No.’ My father gave me a note for the Brothers in the morning.’
Joe is the only player to have been on the Laois minor team for five years in a row – 1933 to 1937. He continued to hurl until 1960 and says he got a welt from a hurl every time he went out. ‘We didn’t mind welts. We were working hard. That time we’d walk twenty mile and we’d work and walk home. We got so hardened. People were much tougher. There was nothing to eat only bread and butter and the bacon that hung above you. We’d eat anything, carrots or turnips or cabbage.’
After he left school, Joe’s father paid a welder to employ his son as an apprentice. Joe went without pay for the next three months – ‘to see was I any good!’ He got a salary of five shillings a week afterwards and ‘got up to fifteen shillings by the time I finished!’ His career path was set. ‘I welded all my life – the whole life I’m welding.’ He claims to have invented a crank shaft that cannot be broken – not even by a steam engine – but vows that he will take his secret recipe to the grave. In the end, he had a business of his own outside Abbeyleix, lately sold to make way for a residential estate.
Micky is a quieter man, one of six children born into a farming family from Portlaoise. At seventy-six, he has survived a bypass, a hernia and the complete loss of sight in his right eye. His gift for water-divining was revealed in his boyhood when his teacher – Joe’s father – asked everyone to give it a try. Micky was the solitary success, although his anxious father insisted someone was ‘codding‘ him. After school, he tried it again while checking on the cattle one evening and sure enough the magic sticks crackled over a source of water. ‘I don’t know is it a gift or not. It just works and that’s all. I’ve seen hundreds of people who say they can do it but I’ve only met two or three who actually can.’ He has four daughters and two sons but says none of them can divine. ‘It just doesn’t work that way.’ When Micky married, he gave up farming and bought a machine for well-drilling. ‘Every new house built around the country has to get water – and Mick is the man to find it,’ asserts Joe.
Another wonderful man gone onwards to ‘the great beyant’. Charming, ingenious Sam Codd of Aughrim, County Wicklow, passed away on 22 January 2019 in his 94th year. We met Sam at his home about this time eight years ago for a merry afternoon, after which I wrote the following account of his life and times for the third volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series. The photos are by my colleague and old pal, James Fennell.
Should you ask Sam Codd what a bone-setter does, he is quite likely to suggest that you throw your leg up on a stool so he can break it and then show you how to set it again. ‘If a leg is broke,’ he explains, ‘I put a splint on it, tie a bandage around and put you in plaster of Paris. The bone will fix then.’
He learned the skill from his father. ‘He used to set bones and I’d be tinkering around with him.’ At length he began bone-setting himself and ‘then one lad would tell another’ so that before long, ‘they started to come here from all over the country.’[i]
‘In cattle you have to leave the bone in plaster for about six weeks. In sheep it’s a little less, about a month. But it’s hard to set a horses’ leg unless they are under five years old. A horse has no marrow in his bone. The day a horse is foaled, its leg is as long as it ever will be. It never grows anymore but it thickens up. If you look at a horse the day it’s foaled, there’s a certain place to measure, from the point of the shoulder to the fetlock. Turn that up and that’s the height he will be when he’s done growing. It’s curious of them isn’t it?’
Horses have been a massive part of Sam’s life since he acquired a stallion pony at the age of twelve.[ii] His home, Granite Lodge Stud, is well known in equestrian circles as “The Home of Sammy’s Pride”. Sam purchased this sturdy stallion as a foal and stood him at the stud for many years. ‘He has foals and fillies all over the place! One went to England and won Horse of the Year three years running.’ [iii]
Sam was also famed for the manner in which he trained his horses upon the hilly meadows rolling around his home. He was often to be seen exercising them in his blue trap, pulling at his braces, tipping his cap at passers by. He also farmed the land with his horses. ‘Now it’s all tractors and pressing buttons but in that time everything was done with horses, working and walking alongside them all day, ploughing, harrowing, raking hay and everything.’ Sam continued to work his horses after he ‘got a tractor, same as everyone else’. But eventually he conceded defeat and gifted his last two mares to his daughters.[iv]
He has a handful of well-thumbed photograph albums in which his beloved equines graze, jump and occasionally dance. ‘Anything I asked that lad to do, he’d do,’ he says of one trusty steed. ‘If I told him to lie down, he lay down. If I told him to roll, he’d roll. I told him to stand on his hind legs and he done that too.’ He taught another horse how to sit down in a chair.
Sam was born in October 1926 and reared in Ballysallagh, near Hacketstown, County Carlow, on a farm which his brother now runs. ‘My people were there six or seven generations’, he says.[v] His father William Charles Codd married Susan Hawkins, a farmer’s daughter from Killybeg on the western slopes of Keadeen Mountain.[vi] Susan’s grandfather was a rugged Protestant mountain farmer called Sam Hawkins who married twice. He had twelve children by his first marriage and thirteen by the second. ‘It wasn’t just Catholics who had big families,’ concludes Sam. ‘At one time I had forty eight first cousins and forty of them were living around the Glen.’
Sam was the youngest of William and Susan’s children. ‘You could say I was reared on goat’s milk’, says he, referring to a puckaun (goat) he owned from an early age. ‘I always had goats.’
He left his school in Hacketstown shortly before his fourteenth birthday to help an elderly neighbour with the harvest and threshing. ‘And I was never short of a days work after that,’ says he.
He always made sure he earned his keep. ‘If you didn’t mind your job, you’d get a kick in the arse on a Saturday night and someone else would be in on Monday morning. You can’t sack anyone like that now – you have to give them redundancy!’[vii]
Days were long and there wasn’t much to do in the evenings. ‘You might sit by the fire and that’d be it. Next thing you’d get up in the morning and go back to work. We didn’t go to the pub at all really. There might be an odd card game or something in a farmer’s house. And there used to be dances after the threshing. They were great auld crack. I remember one lad, a fecker for doing tricks, who wasn’t asked to the dance. So he got a ladder up to the house and threw a grain sack over the chimney and smoked out the people inside. He said, “they asked me to the threshing, but they didn’t ask me to the dance”.’
In 1945, a bachelor cousin of his father passed away and Sam, aged only twenty, ‘fell into this place’, the forty acre farmstead on the road to Aughrim where he now lives.[viii] The house was thatched at the time but when combine harvesters took over from manual threshers, ‘all the straw was broken up so we done away with the good thatching’ and went for asbestos instead. In the summer of 2010, 85-year-old Sam replaced the asbestos with proper slate.
‘You had to be very fit to farm,’ says he. ‘That’s why I’m so fit still. I was never sick in my life. We used to be up at six o’clock every morning and to bed at ten or eleven at night. That was the custom. We had to work for a living. But we were all happy and healthy that time. It was a great old life. People had very little money but they were happy.’[ix]’ One particularly stocky job involved carrying grain barrels. ‘We’d be lifting the barrels and there’d be maybe twenty-three stone in a barrel. It’d take two people to lift it but there was a certain way of doing it.’
For a long time, Sam farmed cattle, thirty, maybe thirty five at a time. He milked them all twice daily, pumping the milk into tall aluminium cans which he then wheeled out to the roadside in a barrow. ‘The lorry came then and took the milk off to Inch Creamery.’ As technology evolved, so the creamery was able to pump Sam’s milk directly into a bulk tank and that was the end of the can.
‘We were paid on the milk according to the quality, the butter fat and all that,’ he recalls. ‘I was very lucky as I had the highest butterfat going into the creamery. That was because of the sort of cows I had. I started with Shorthorns – they gave good creamy milk – and I had an odd Jersey among them. Then I started on the Friesians and I built up a great herd from around here.’[x]
When the cattle were not in the fields, he kept them in a cow house beside his home. ‘Nowadays, cattle are all in on concrete floors and you might have three of four of them to a cubicle’, he says disapprovingly. ‘That’s why they’re slipping around and getting hurt.’
‘You can train a horse but there’s no great way of putting manners on pigs’, says Sam of his time as a pig farmer. ‘You just have to put up with them and give them the odd skelp with a stick.’ At his peak, he had ten farrowing sows and a couple of breeding boars that ‘went all over the country.’ Sam ran a tight ship and if a sow did not perform according to plan, she was liable to be ‘hanging up by the leg in Duffy’s bacon factory’ before the next full moon.[xi]
‘You’d always have a fat pig that time,’ he says. ‘You killed it and took two stone of salt to cure the bacon. You’d rub them on the table every night for a few nights, and when you’d be done rubbing and getting it cured, you’d hang them up on the ceiling. You had nothing to do then only cut off a rasher and throw it into the pan. And you’d have gravy enough to fry an egg. That time, you wouldn’t kill a pig until it was about twenty stone weight. Now they wouldn’t eat it because they’d think it’s too fat. They’d cut the fat off it! We lived off the fat!’[xii]
In 1947, Sam married Jenny Coe, a kinswoman of the bachelors who owned his farm. She passed away in 1987, leaving him with a son, three daughters and, at last count, fourteen grandchildren and half a dozen great-grandchildren.[xiii] ‘The auld years do slip by,’ says he.
As well as his bone-setting and horse-training prowess, Sam is well-known in the locality as the Morris Minor man. ‘The first car I had was a Morris Minor and I never had anything else,’ he says. ‘I used to travel around a lot, as a bone-setter, and I do be in a lot of the old farmer places and all that crack. I had two Morris’s here one time, one for taking the girls out on Sunday and one for everyday.’
With thanks to Philip Judge, Tara Quirke, Vanessa Codd, Susan Soden and Pamela Soden.
The Vanishing Ireland series and other books are available via all good bookshops nationwide, Kennys.ie and Amazon.
[i] It wasn’t just livestock with broken legs that Sam mended. He also attended to wounded humans, ‘with slipped discs and knocked out fingers and all that. ‘
[ii] ‘When I was a young lad, I always had horses. ‘ had my first stallion when I was about twelve year old. A stallion pony. I had several stallions along the way. And I kept mares here and bred with them and all that crack.’
[iii] ‘I used to keep horses and stallions here and everything. I’ve nothing now. I’m down and out and on the road’, he laughs. Sammy’s Pride, an Irish Draught stallion, was 16 3. ‘He’s over twenty years of age now but still to the good. He’s in Roscommon. I bought him as a foal. Lads used to come here from all over the country with their registered mares and they’d leave them here for a few days to get them in foal. He had a lot of foals and fillies.’ One of these was bred by Bridget Nolan, near Tullow, in a place called Rath, and won the Horse of the Year Show in England three years in succession.
[iv] ‘The last two mares I had here I gave to my daughters – one to a daughter living outside Bunclody and the last mare I had, Aughrim Mist, I gave to another daughter who is married up in Carrigallen, County Leitrim. She bred several foals from Sammy.’ Purple Joey was another beauty he bred but he was hit by the colic and eventually put down.
[v] They are distant cousins of George Codd in Paulville, as well as the Codds who live near Rathdrum, County Wicklow.
[vii] ‘When I was thirteen I spent the summer holidays working for an auld local farmer and when school started again I didn’t go back. The hay had to come in and then the harvest came in. and then we used to go around for a bit of threshing for the neighbours. I left a month before I was 14 and I was never short of a days work after that. That was it. You minded your job then because if you didn’t, you’d get a kick in the arse on a Saturday night and someone else would be in Monday morning. You can’t sack them now – you have to give them redundancy! It’s hard to get lads to work with farmers now.
[viii] ‘I fell into this place from cousins of my father here. I came here in 1945. There was three auld men here. They were all in their 70s. Two never married and worked around the country and retired back here. The other was an invalid in a wheelchair. They were Coles [or Coe’s?]. Their father married a woman who didn’t like the name Codd and changed it to Coe. They eventually died over the years and I came into this place then.’
[ix] ‘Most people have money now – some of them have too much.’
[x] ‘I was in the cows here for a while. I had thirty, thirty five cows and I’d wheel the milk in milk cans out to the road in a wheelbarrow before the lorry came and took them to Inch Creamery. Then there were bull [bulk?] tanks and the lorry collected it the same as the lads with the petrol, and he took the whole tank and that was the end of the milk can. We were paid on the milk according to the quality, the butter fat and all that. They were very particular about it. I was very luck as I had the highest butterfat going into the creamery. That was all because of the sort of cows I had. A lot of the lads went into different breeds of cow. I used to go to the auctions and buy a lot of springing heifers from Rothwells of Tinahely and so on. She’d calve in the spring then.’
[xi] ‘You’d sit up with sow the night they’d be farrowing. I bought one sow who was expecting and she had only the one pig. But I was lucky as three other sows farrowed that night and I took a few pigs off each of them and so she raised ten pigs. The next time she had only three piglets and I said that’s enough and next time she’s was hanging up by the leg in Duffy’s factory. She was never going to have any number’.
[xii] ‘When we had the milk cans we’d get back the skimmed milk to give to the pigs but when the bull tanks came in, that done away with that. They changed the system so I had to get meal lorry come around every Saturday from the co-op at Rath near Tullow. But at the end of it you’d have nothing only a heap of dung and it was costing you. So I got rid of the pigs then because the meal was so dear, feeding them.
[xiii] I married a lady [in Kilpipe church] who was reared in a cottage over the road. Her father was a brother of the Coe lads who lived here. Jenny Coe was her name. We had four chaps, three girls and Vanessa’s husband. The girls are now scattered all over the country. One in Leixlip, one outside Bunclody, one in Carrigallen and married to a lad by name of Mervyn Richardson. I have fourteen grandchildren and half a dozen great-grandchildren. About that anyhow?’ I make my breakfast every day but I get my dinner from my daughter-in-law. She lives about a mile down the road and gives me a bit to eat and all that crack. My son drives a lorry for people down Avoca way.’
This morning I called into the Tipperary village of Kilsheelan where the late Joe Hanrahan lived. Joe was one of the most remarkable people we met during the Vanishing Ireland project and went on to enjoy a good deal of local celebrity as the cover star of the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. Poor Joe had a sad finale, when his house burned down in November 2015. The site is now a fine grassy lawn but there is also a bench to Joe’s memory at the crossroads in the village centre. Walking past his vanished home, I recalled our lovely experience of meeting him as he took us back through his life and told us of his time as a farm labourer and trap driver. This is Joe’s story.
For the first eighty-one years of his life Joe Hanrahan did a pretty good job of keeping his eminence relatively confined. Sure, most people who lived in and around the Suir-side town of Kilsheelan knew him. The fellow with the wild hair and the sharp, affable eyes, always standing out by the gate of his cottage, dog at heel, raising his stick in friendly salutation at the motorcars passing him by. His face had a countenance that made people smile.
That’s why we couldn’t resist putting him on the cover of the third ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book. It made him something of a celebrity. Across the parish, the county, the province, the country … the poor man even had groupies calling into him from the faraway USA before the first year was out. And yet, I’m assured he adored it, that his unexpected latter-day fame was a source of great pleasure to him, which is in itself a tremendous consoling pleasure to me.
I first set eye on Joe Hanrahan, standing by that same gate, back in the early days of 2011. I was on a grand tour of Ireland at the time with my friend, the photographer James Fennell. Having united on two successful volumes of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series, we were voyaging through Munster in pursuit of more wonderful old timers to charm and enlighten us with their unspoiled spirit of the old world. The phone rang and it was a close pal with a keen understanding of the essence of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ project. She explained how she had lined up a very strong contender for us and suggested we make a b-line for Kilsheelan.
Within a few forgotten hours, we were seated inside Joe’s house, listening to his life story. Here’s how his story subsequently ran in the third volume:
When Joe left school at the age of twelve, the Second World War was three years old and, across the Irish Sea, Britain was practically the only other part of Western Europe that had not fallen to Fascists of one form or another. Churchill’s people needed a lot of things to survive. Faith, courage, fortune, resilience … and rabbits.
The rabbit trade between Ireland and Britain was massive in the early 1940s. And life for the bunnies who lived alongside the banks of the River Suir in County Tipperary became singularly less promising when Mrs. Prendergast, the Kilsheelan postmistress, began her conquest of the area.
‘She used to get loads of maybe four of five hundred rabbits at a time,’ recalls Joseph. ‘She had a pony and cart and I was her driver. We went all around County Waterford, gathering rabbits up from all the farmers. The rabbits were caught in traps beforehand. We’d put the carcasses onto crates and then she’d ship them all across to England. They lived on rabbits in England during the war.’
Mrs. Prendergast paid Joseph half a crown a week to drive her around the county, as well as her twice-weekly trips into Clonmel town. ‘Things were poor enough around here that time,’ he says. And jobs were ‘scarce’, so he was thankful for the work. Besides which, anything was better than school. ‘Oh Christ stop,’ he says. ‘I didn’t like school. Oh God, I didn’t. The teacher was fine but he was very hard. He knew how to work the cane.’
Joseph’s father Thomas was a ploughman who harrowed fields all around the area with a pair of workhorses. Joseph was the seventh of eight children who all grew up in the same house where he lives today. Also living there were his parents and his grandfather Thomas Hanrahan who died in his 75th year. ‘We got kind of squashed all right,’ he chuckles. ‘But I lived here from when I was very small until I was grown up.’
He strikes a match with his fingers and lights up a Sweet Afton. He casts the match into the open fire around which his living room is focused. Timber from the woods of the nearby Gurteen Kilsheelan estate is piled optimistically either side of the fireplace, an axe gleaming in the nearby darkness. But, despite the cold day, he has not lit the fire yet. Along the mantelpiece above the fireplace is an impressive collection of cigarette lighters, gathered ever since he smoked his first cigarette at the age of twelve. Cigarettes and black pints, the source of enjoyment for so many of Ireland’s 20th century bachelors.
In the summers of his youth, Joseph’s once-nimble fingers explored the surrounding woodlands for fleshy vitamin-rich bilberries, known in these parts as hurts or, in Irish, fraochán. ‘We used to go any place and pick them and sell them for a couple of pence to the old postmistress. She’d send them off to England, with the rabbits!’ The bilberries were traditionally gathered on the last Sunday in July, known as Fraochán Sunday. They were also collected in August for Lughnasa, the first traditional harvest festival of the year, and the quality of the bilberries was considered a good way of predicting the quality of the other crops come the harvest. ‘But there’s no demand for hurts now’, says Joseph, ‘and the bushes have all been smothered.’
All of Joseph’s brothers and sisters married and emigrated to England. ‘So I was left alone,’ he says. ‘But I was never tempted to emigrate. I never got the idea into my head.’ In 1948, six years after he first started with Mrs. Prendergast, he took on a job as a labourer for a neighbouring farmer with a wage of a crown a week. ‘I was too young to be drinking at that time so the money lasted well,’ he laughs. ‘But then I got bigger and I started having a pint and the money became valuable!’ For the next half a century, Joseph worked all around the Kilsheelan area, ‘a bit here, a bit there, anywhere I could get a few bob.’ For nearly twenty years he was employed at the nearby Gurteen estate to look after their cattle and poultry.
Joseph never learned to drive a car but rode a bicycle with confidence and reckons he could ride a horse too, ‘but badly’. The farthest he has travelled is Dublin, to which he once journeyed by train to watch Tipperary win the All-Ireland. He also used to frequent Thurles for the Munster Final, particularly savouring those occasions when Tipperary beat Cork. ‘We used to say Cork beat and the hay saved,’ he says wistfully.
As a youth Joseph hurled ‘for the craic’, although he dismisses the notion that he was ever a sporty type. He also used to be something of a card shark, flipping out winning hands of 25s in Sullivan’s pub in Kilsheelan. ‘But the money got bigger and then you’re gambling so I got out of it,’ says he sagely. Whilst he has occasionally been to the coursing competitions at nearby Ballyglasheen, Joseph was never one to wager his money foolishly, ‘not on man, dog or horse’. Instead he derives considerable pleasure from ceilidh music. ‘I don’t play and I can’t sing but I love it,’ says he. ‘I wouldn’t give tuppence for anything else I hear on the wireless except ceilidh.’
Joseph has always lived a quiet life, at ease with a newspaper, a cigarette and, so long as it’s ceilidh time, a radio. He often sits on the bench by the crossroads in Kilsheelan, peaky hat over his eyes, watching the world whizz by. A dog called Blacky is by his side and Joseph endeavours to walk him every day, irrespective of weather.
‘I’ve seen a lot of changes’, he says. ‘But for the good or the bad I don’t know which. People say they are happier now than they were but I don’t believe they are. Money is not all. In the old days you could go out in the morning and pick up an odd job. But now you won’t get work like that anywhere. It’s a very different world.’
After his portrait graced the cover of ‘Vanishing Ireland – Reflections of Our Changing Times’, Joe’s fame grew swift. The local community united and gave him a clock by way of a congratulatory present. And then the strangers began to arrive, looking to talk to him about rabbits and bilberries and ceilidh music. Some just wanted his autograph. One visitor from Pittsburgh, snapped a photo of him holding up her signed copy of ‘Vanishing Ireland’ outside Sullivan’s Pub last April, and spoke of him as a picture of health and joy.
When I learned of Joe’s tragic death on a Monday morning in November 2015, I posted an obituary to him on the Vanishing Ireland facebook page. It clocked 1000 likes in 24 hours as well as 200 plus comments. Many were by people who knew him, recalling a kind, friendly character who loved pottering about in his yard betwixt his chickens and his dogs. The granddaughter of one of his friends told how she would miss ‘your voice grumbling at me, or you waving your stick at me, giving out.’
Another told how she had moved into a new housing estate behind Joe’s house nine years ago. ‘There were still diggers and big machinery everywhere. Joe was standing in his driveway, looking back at it, somewhat lost and bewildered, scratching his head. I remember thinking how sad for him to have all the townies come in and invade his village. [It was] practically his back yard’.
Joe Hanrahan was a wonderful man and it was an exceptional honour to have him as a cover star.
By 8 November 1918, 100 years ago today, it was so nearly over. The war in Western Europe, I mean. Battles would still rage across the planet in the coming years, Ireland included, but the Big War, the Great War, was nearly at an end … 4 years, 3 months, and 16 days after it had started.
That long, brutal, bloody, futile war, so crammed full of sadness and twists and horror, was one of the most cataclysmic events in human history.
A century later, we are still grappling with its repercussions.
We have recalled so many events since the Centenary commemorations began … sometimes I feel as if I’ve been living a dual existence between the present day and a second life that took place a century ago.
First we marked the civil war that almost broke out between Unionist and Nationalist here in Ireland until Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo – and, in doing so, detonated the Pandora’s Box that was to become the Armageddon of the First World War.
Within weeks, the Germans had launched their astonishingly brutal invasion of neutral Belgium as the Kaiser’s army set its sights on Paris.
I think of the Wexford-born Dame Josephine, one of the Benedictine nuns at the Irish convent in Ypres, who, in her eighties, beseeched the Heavens as the German army rumbled ever closer, “Dear St Patrick, as you once chased the serpents and venomous reptiles out of Ireland, please now chase the Germans out of Belgium.” In her youth, Dame Josephine had known nuns who lived through the French Revolution; she would not survive the exhausting flight from Ypres to the coast.
It’s so confusing trying to understand the Great War – all of the alliances and ententes, the battle fronts and troop movements and military strategies … as all of those armies – vast and small – rushed to borders across Europe, north, south, east and west. And then the long slow grinding trudge … the relentless trench warfare, which – from an Irish perspective – led to so many grim battles on the Western Front – the Marne, the Somme, Cambrai, Amiens, Passchendaele …
The No-Man’s Land of machine gun nests and barbed wire entanglements, of artillery shells and pom-poms and Maxim guns and flamethrowers and gas masks and trenches caked in mud and blood. The clouds of poison gas that, for instance, spilled into the Irish-occupied trenches of Hulluch in France in April 1916, and killed more Irishmen than died across all of Ireland during the Easter Rising that very same week.
4,000 Irishmen died die in the bleak heat of Gallipoli. We have remembered Gallipoli – Suvla Bay and Seddelbahr – and all those forgotten fronts – Salonika, Serbia, East Africa, Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula, Mesopotamia … it goes on.
We have remembered too the poignant moments – the Christmas truce, the football matches and Silent Night, Stille Nacht, drifting on the winter winds from trench to trench. The nurses and orderlies doing what they could to treat the casualties of war and, by 1918, trying to contend with a new horror, the Spanish Flu influenza which would kill more people than the war itself.
We have recalled the war at sea – naval battles like Jutland and the U-boat campaign – the German submarines that prowled around the Irish coast sinking troop ships and merchant vessels and passenger ships like the Lusitania and the RMS Leinster.
We have looked to the air above us – there’s a memorial in the North Transept beside me to the Royal Air Force, honouring Irish air aces such as George McElroy and Mick Mannock who gave their lives taking on men like Baron von Richtofen, the Red Baron, as a new age of dogfights and aerial bombardments began.
I might add that on 10 November 1918, Erskine Childers very nearly blew up Berlin. The novelist, who became such a stalwart supporter of Eamon de Valera during the war of Independence and Civil War, was working as an Intelligence Officer with the RAF at this time. He was one of the brains who masterminded a major air raid — the first of its kind — which was scheduled to take place on Berlin on 10 November. The attack was postponed for 24 hours on account of bad weather. That was one of the greatest blessings Berlin has ever had because at 11am the following morning, the Armistice was signed and the Great War ended.
We have remembered so much of the war. And in between all that, our own commemorations of 1916 and the rise of Sinn Fein who swept to victory in the General Election 100 years ago this very month … as a new battle for independence began in this small nation.
In 2014, the Bushy Park Ironworks in Dublin was commissioned to design a memorial to the First World War for St Patrick’s Cathedral. They conceived the Tree of Remembrance, a lonesome wrought iron tree, ensnared in barbed wire, onto which visitors to the Cathedral could pin paper leaves, inscribed with messages of support and love for all those who suffer from conflict, past and present. The novelist Jennifer Johnston wrote and ‘barbed’ the first leaf. Every evening all the leaves were removed, ahead of the coming day, and placed in a box. By the autumn of 2018, over 220,000 leaves had been collected. By coincidence, this approximated to the number of Irish thought to have served in the war. To mark the Armistice on 11 November 2018, St Patrick’s brilliantly selected 36,000 of those leaves – each one representing an Irish man or Irish woman who died in the Great War – and threaded them them through long strands of fishing line that now hang down from the Cathedral’s roof, recalling all those who died in the war, serving as soldiers, sailors, pilots, nurses, engineers, medical corps, veterinary corp … many wearing the uniforms of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and, needless to say, there were Irishmen in the German army too.
Statistics are hard to grasp but a measure of the First World War’s violence can be seen in the casualty figures for the final days before the Armistice. 6600 lives were lost in the last three days of the war, 6600 men killed during the final push across the River Meuse. 11,000 were killed or wounded during the last morning of fighting. That’s more than all casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day in the Second World War, the difference being that the Allies had already won the war when all those soldiers died on 11 November 1918. The last British soldier to die was Private George Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. He was killed at Mons (where he had also fought in 1914) at 9.30am, just 90 minutes before the ceasefire.
On the Western Front alone, it works out that over 2,000 men died every single day of the war. The French lost 27,000 men in a single day. That’s the entire population of Kilkenny. At the Somme, 4,000 Irishmen died in a single day. On Bride Street, which borders St Patrick’s Cathedral, 31 men from the street were killed in the war.
All told, between 15 and 19 million men, women and children, lost their lives in the war, because of the war. And think of all the war widows and war orphans whose future lives were so harshly shaped by the conflict. Or the untold thousands of veteans who died in the decades after the war because of the war, who died of their wounds and the drink they drank to forget all those weeks and months spent wading through those poisonous trenches, watching their fellow men being blown apart in circumstances we cannot imagine. Thank goodness our understanding and empathy for what war does to a person has come on so much in 100 years.
As I say, these numbers are too overwhelming to get our heads around, but when you walk through the graveyards of the Western Front, you begin to get a sense of just how intense it was. At the Tyne Cot cemetery in Flanders, I was entirely overwhelmed by the immensity of it all when I walked alone down a path through line after line of those proud white headstones, with a wall blocking the view to my left. I thought I might have become immune to all the death by then but when the wall ended, I looked to my left and I slumped … because, behind the wall, the field of graves was replicated again and again as far as I could see, like the saddest dream ever dreamt. Endless rows of white upright slabs, framed at one end by the ‘Memorial to the Missing’ upon which were written the names of tens of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never identified.
And for what? To fulfil the ambitions of a bad run of egotistical monarch’s and war-hungry generals? That’s too simplistic, I know, but 100 years on, you have to wonder how it would have played out if there had been more enlightened leadership at the time.
And more fool them. Because when the Great War finally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, and when the world stopped to count the dead and the maimed, the shattered families and burning cities, most of those empires had fallen … Imperial Russia was no longer an empire, its entire Royal family murdered. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empires – they were all gone too. Britain, once the world’s impeccable creditor, was on the cusp of revolution and now hugely indebted to the banks of New York. Was that what they fought for?
I think of the Rev. Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin better known as Woodbine Willie, so named for his propensity of handing out Woodbine cigarettes to the wounded and dying in No Man’s land. He won a Military Cross at Passchendaele and went on to become one of the world’s most outspoken pacifists. ‘When I went to the war, I believed that the war would end to the benefit of mankind,’ he declared. ‘I believed that a better order was coming for the ordinary man, and, God help me, I believe it still. But it is not through war that this order will be brought about. There are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war.’
I think of Flora Sandes, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman from Kerry, a veritable tomboy if ever there was one … she went out to Serbia as a Red Cross nurse and then, by dint of her sharp-shooting and excellent gait in the saddle, fetched up as a sergeant major in the Serbian Army, marching through the icy mountains of Albania, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Bulgarians – for we were at war with the Bulgarians too. She won the Star of Karaðorðe, the highest decoration of the Serbian Military. ‘I never loved anything so much in my life’, she said of her time in the army. ‘I felt neither fish nor flesh when I came out of it. The first time I put on women’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’ And spare a thought for her commander, Colonel Dimitrije Milic. He was so shocked by the sight of his former sergeant major in a dress and hat that he threw his hands in the air and ordered her to put on a uniform without delay.
I think of those who did not join up, the conscientious objectors, who were handed White Feathers and castigated as cowards and traitors until they too threw themselves into the insanity of war. And I think of the pacifist Archie Brockway who received so many white feathers that he turned them into a fan.
There is tragedy in every family, in every graveyard, but the Great War was a different type of tragedy. After an unprecedented breakdown of diplomacy, we launched a ferocious civil war between our species, an existential assault by the human race on the human race.
A huge number of people in this country today were defined by what happened to their families a hundred years ago. My mother lost two great uncles; the last sons of their line. My father lost a great uncle at the Western Front; his grandfather returned home battle-scarred like the artist William Orpen and, like Orpen, he did not live for very long afterwards. I have no doubt that many of you who are reading these words also mourned the premature death of men and women in your families 100 years ago. The ripples of pain and tragedy and loss and hurt and heartache affected the next generation and the next and the next, right down to the present day. That is why we must remember. Because we are who we are because of that war.
In the Ireland of my youth, the history books seemed to suggest that the only wars that the Irish ever fought were to break the shackles of Britannia’s rule. I think we have matured immensely since the Centenary commemorations began. We have moved on. The silence is over. We need not agree with the reasons for the war – but surely we can now openly and freely acknowledge all those Irish men and Irish women who served. And, as the centenary of the Armistice approaches, it is right that we remember all of those who lost their lives in that hideous conflict.
Perhaps, by remembering them, we can also acknowledge in our hearts and minds how fortunate we are with all of our present-day creature comforts, and do what we can to end the unacceptable situation of so many souls across the world today who continue to suffer from the barbarity of war.
[A longer version of the above formed the basis of a talk I delivered at the launch of ‘Fallen’ in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 1 November 2018]
The sinking of the RMS Leinster, just one month before the end of the First World War, remains the single greatest maritime disaster on the Irish Sea. At least 550 people died when a German submarine sank the mailboat on 10 October 1918. The centenary will be the key historical event commemorated by the Irish state in 2018.
There were 22 men in the ship’s Postal Sorting Quarters when the first torpedo struck. Most were Dubliners. It was standard practice on a mailboat like RMS Leinster to ‘sort’ mail as the ship voyaged the seventy miles between Kingstown (as Dun Laoghaire was then called) and the Welsh port of Holyhead. On this morning, there were over 250 sacks of mail to go through.
The banter would have been free flowing among the postal sorters. They knew each other well. Together they had gone on strike the previous April as…