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.