Eva Halpin’s great-uncle John Malone was farm manager at Lisnavagh. She married Alfred Ruddall shortly before his death in action at the battle of Spion Kop.
St Agnes, Cornwall, England Spion Kop, Northern Natal, South Africa. North Wall, Dublin, Ireland Lisnavagh, Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, Ireland Bunbury, West Australia
There are times when this globe of ours becomes incorrigibly small, when the ghosts of generations past glide across the oceans of time to leave one frankly gob-smacked.
The following tale should appeal to those amongst you who enjoy the peculiar dynamics of family history.
It begins with Lieutenant Alfred Rudall of the Imperial Light Infantry who was killed in action on 24th January 1900, while fighting the Boers at the battle of Spion Kop. The 23-year-old was leading a charge when a pom-pom shell landed on his head.
I discovered Alfred’s fate while researching the Rudall family for my prospective (and…
Farewell to Jack Lonergan of Tickincor, Clonmel, County Tipperary, who died on Sunday morning. James Fennell and I enjoyed a lovely day with Jack during the making of the third volume in the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book series. Here is an abridged version of my account, alongside some of James’s photos.
In my young years I went around on a horse and trap but there’s no living for a horse and trap on the road now. When the motorcar came in and the petrol got plentiful, that was the end for the horse and trap’.
As if on cue, a car whizzes by and Jack’s eyes narrow. ‘I never drove’, he says, watching the car vanish over the horizon. ‘I could never have been a driver. The Raleigh bicycle is my machine. I was six or seven when I got my first one. A man’s bike. You’d get more falls off it but you’d get a greater idea of balance then.’
Jack is the ‘general factotum’ at St. Joseph’s Industrial School outside Clonmel. The job title means one who has many diverse responsibilities and derives from the Latin fac totum, meaning ‘to do or make everything’. The name is a legacy of the Rosminians, the Catholic order who have run the reformatory school ever since it was established in 1884.
Better known as Ferryhouse, St. Joseph’s was the brainchild of the Home Rule politician Count Arthur Moore who represented Clonmel in Westminster from 1874 to 1885. Moore loathed the dreaded workhouses to which offending boys were traditionally sent. He conceived of St. Joseph’s as a place where such children might learn some of the skills necessary to improving their general lot in life. Sadly the Count’s legacy was ultimately to be perverted and St. Joseph’s was one of those institutions exposed in the Ryan Report of 2009 for the systematic abuse of the boys within.
Above: James Fennell’s photo of Jack inspired the winning entry of Category B in the 2012 Texaco Children’s Art Competition by the then 14-year-old Shania McDonagh of Mount St. Michael Secondary School, Claremorris, Co. Mayo.
Jack Lonergan (pronounced Londrigan) and his friend Jimmy Walsh started at Ferryhouse in the 1970s. ‘I was in and out of here for a long time and then I became a constant,’ he says. ‘We were helping out on the land, picking spuds and saving hay. There were thirty-five cows at one time and they were milked every day. There was two other men then, Willie Norris and Pat Lyons. Pat was constant on the cows.’
Jack was also assigned to look after the school ponies which graze today in a meadow behind the school playground. ‘That one is a bully for his belly,’ he says, watching a hefty piebald called Magnum throw his head into a hayrick.
Jack has worked with animals all his life. His father was a cattle farmer. ‘We always had seven cows for milk and butter,’ he says. ‘We’d give some of them funny names. There might be a light, thin cow and we’d call her ‘the Heavy One’.’
As children, Jack and his sisters made butter which their father sold to the Creamery. Jack often helped his father drive the cattle into Clonmel for the monthly fair. On those days the Tipperary town was awash with farmers from the outlying parishes herding their cattle down the streets with great roars and considerable humour. ‘We’d sell the cattle up in the Mall’, he recalls. ‘Big cattle were up Johnson Street by the chapel, small cattle were up the Main Street, sheep were above at the West Gate and horses were back in the Mall again.’
‘The fair was always busy but there were no great prices going. It was a day out, I suppose, but we were young and we looked forward to anything. If they made the money, they’d celebrate. Some wouldn’t come home afterwards at all if they could avoid it.’
John Lonergan, Jack’s grandfather, came from Ardfinnan, a village between Clonmel and Cahir on the River Suir. A modest farmer, he kept a few pigs and cattle. During the 1920s, Jack’s father Daniel relocated to the townland of Tickincor on the outskirts of Clonmel. The nearby ruins of Tickincor Castle were all that was left of a once formidable three-storey fortress built during the reign of James I.[ii] It’s last inhabitant Sir John Osborne died in 1743.
Jack’s mother Maggie was a Kelly from Rathgormack, Co. Waterford. She grew up beside the ruins of the Augustinian-built Mothel Abbey. In her grandfather’s day, many from Rathgormack left for the “New World”, settling in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, as well as New York and Boston.
Jack and his sisters were all born at Tickinor. As well as cattle, their father kept a horse and a cob. ‘The one horse is no good. You’d have to have the second one to get anything done.’ Jack often rode up on the cob to get around. The family had no car although if there was a funeral far away, his father would hire one for the occasion.
Jack was educated on the opposite side of the River Suir in Newtown Anner. To get to school during the fishing season, he often went down to Derrinlaur where he met the Walsh brothers, Paddy, Johnny and Jimmy. The four of them would lower a long, narrow fisherman’s cot into the river and paddle across from one bank to the other, keeping their eyes (and occasionally their nets) alert for any passing salmon. Amongst those whom the boys met on their daily voyage were some of the dexterous cot fishermen from the Suir whose skills were prized as far away as Newfoundland.
Jack realised that if he was to earn a living after school, it would be up to his own initiative. The Lonergan farm was too small to bring in any real income. He joined forces with Jimmy Walsh and the two became something of a double act. They started off picking stones for Geoffrey Wilkinson who had been gifted the Gurteen Kilsheelan estate by his uncle Count Edmond de la Poer in 1968.[iii] ‘Mrs. Wilkinson would come for us in the morning, about 10 o’clock, when we had our jobs done at our home place.’
The Wilkinson’s then gave them other work – making silage, erecting fencing around a paddock, harvesting corn. ‘The weather was an awful drawback’, Jack recalls. ‘It could put a lot of work and hardship on you’.
During one fearful wet season, he remembers Mr. Wilkinson eyeballing seventy acres of rain-sodden barley with dismay. ‘If I could just get enough barley to do the cattle, it would be okay,’ he pleaded. When the corn was eventually cut, Jack was impressed when Mr. Wilkinson hired an enormous electric fan to successfully dry the crop out. After Mr. Wilkinson’s premature death in 1982, Jimmy Walsh ‘stayed on constant’ at Gurteen while Jack became ‘constant’ at Ferryhouse.
Jack has a strong empathy for the Ferryhouse boys. ‘There were up to two hundred here at one time. Their parents weren’t able to provide for them so they came here and stayed until they were old enough to get a job. A lot of them went into the army afterwards and some headed off to England.’
Jack never married ‘and thank God for that’, says he. With eighty years under his belt, he is perhaps at maximum ease when ambling around the paddock of a mild spring morning with Magnum and the other horses.
‘There was a barber in Clonmel who used to say, “When you’ve gone over forty, your years are getting scarce.” We have no value on our youth. It goes too quick. But youth is great. You can hope when you have no hope.’
With thanks to Nicola Everard.
Jack died peacefully at the Fennor Hill Care Facility in Urlingford on Sunday 26 July 2020. He was laid to rest Killaloan Cemetery after a funeral mass at St Mary’s Church, Gambonsfield, Kilsheelan.
Between 2001 and 2013, historian Turtle Bunbury and photographer James Fennell met with over 300 people from Ireland aged between 70 and 108. The subjects of their interviews were primarily working class Irish – blacksmiths, fishermen, farmers, dockers and nurses – as well as priests, nuns, teachers and representatives of disappearing professions like saddlers, thatchers, lace-makers and turf-cutters.
The stories appeared in four volumes of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series, published by Hachette. The Irish Independent described the series as ‘an invaluable record of times past’. The first, second and fourth volumes were all short-listed for Best Irish Published Book of the Year. It was a wonderful project to work upon and hopefully some day we will find the opportunity to produce a fifth volume.
The books are increasingly hard to find but I have placed the content of the (extended) interviews online at the links below.
July 1902. Of all the delegates who attended the convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Denver, Colorado, that summer, it was the blue-eyed, Havana-smoking Edward Frances Blewitt who caught the eye of the Denver Post correspondent. Blewitt, whose father was born in County Mayo, Ireland, had been president of the order’s formidable Pennsylvanian branch for a decade prior to his departure for Mexico in 1893. To the Denver Post, the 43-year-old civil engineer was ‘a typical son of Erin’ with the ‘humor of the Hibernian in his cooly meditative eye’.
By the close of the convention, Blewitt and his fellow Hibernians had offered their unqualified support to their fraternal brethren in Ireland, stating that should the Irish ever ‘take up arms against Great Britain’, they would support them every step of the way.
Joe Biden, the Democrat’s presidential hopeful for 2020, is Edward Blewitt’s great-grandson. ‘I am proud to be descended from Irish immigrants, from County Mayo and County Louth,’ he declared in 2016. ‘Being Irish has shaped my entire life.’ On another occasion, he stated: ‘Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.’ Indeed, by heritage, Mr Biden is about five-eighths Irish, with the families of Finnegan, Arthur, Boyle, Roche and Scanlon, as well as Blewitt, swirling in his bloodline.
The Blewitts were the most successful of his forebears. They hailed from Ballina, Co. Mayo, a town that happens to be twinned with Scranton, Mr Biden’s ‘very Irish’ hometown in Pennsylvania. His first named ancestor was Edward Blewitt, a brick-maker who supplied 27,000 bricks for the construction of Killala Cathedral in 1827. Edward also appears to have been one of the civil engineers who helped map Ireland for the Ordnance Survey during the 1830s.
Edward’s son Patrick F Blewitt was born in 1832; baptism records of Mayo’s Kilmoremoy parish clocked him as “Patt Bluet”, a resident of nearby Ardagh parish. He set off to sea at an early age and, after serving his time as a cabin boy, he lived for a period in Chile. He later joined his parents and six siblings when they upped from Mayo and sailed for America in 1851.
The elder Blewitt was among the settlers who laid out the streets of Scranton. As an engineer, he was also active in the Pennsylvanian coal industry from an early stage. Patrick duly joined his father and worked as a draughtsman, later serving as surveyor and engineer for various coal and railroad enterprises. In November 1857 he married Catherine ‘Kate’ Scanlon, who bore him thirteen children, of whom three sons and five daughters survived childhood. At about this time, he went to Iowa and opened up the state’s first coal mine at Mt. Pleasant.
The Bleweitts later moved to New Orleans but when the US Civil War broke out, they sagely headed south to Brazil. They returned to Scranton after the war and by 1869 Patrick was a Mine Inspector in two of the Pennsylvania’s biggest coal-mining counties, Lackawanna and Luzerne. He was almost certainly recruited to implement new safety procedures in the wake of a massive fire at the Avondale Colliery in Luzerne County which caused the death of 110 workers, mostly Irish.
Patrick’s report for 1872 shows how hideous it was to work in the Pennsylvanian coal mines. His district accounted for just over 10,500 ‘inside workers’ and nearly 4000 ‘outside’, a third of whom were boys, as well as over 2000 mules and horses. 67 miners were killed in 1872 alone, primarily from falls of coal, slate and rock, while a further 187 were injured. The deaths left 38 widows and 112 orphans. They had mined over 6.5 million tons of coal which meant each death was worth 98,000 tons.
Coal mining in Pennsylvania was very much an Irish business in the 19th century. It was also one of the most hazardous and dirtiest jobs in the US, as every Irishman working the mines knew well. Not only were they working 60 hour weeks but they were paid a fraction of what their Welsh or English counterparts received. Lackawanna was one of the most violent districts with untold numbers of unsolved murder and assault cases every year.
Not surprisingly the mines became a hotbed of discontent and they provided a fertile breeding ground for the Mollie Maguires, a secret society that emerged in the Pennsylvanian coalfields during the 1870s. By intimidation and violence, they sought to pressurize the state’s anthracite mining companies into improving the worker’s lot.
The Mollies also appear to have infiltrated the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a conservative Irish Catholic fraternal organization founded to protect Catholic immigrants from discrimination and to work towards an independent Ireland. The AOH was in turn closely affiliated with both the Fenians and Clan na Gael.
However, the Mollies’ activities proved too much for the Catholic church and, by the 1870s, priests were refusing Catholic burial to suspected members. The crisis peaked in the late 1870s when 20 alleged Mollies were hanged – ten on the morning of 21 June 1877 – although their trials were later deemed unjust and the dead men were granted posthumous pardons. Ten of those dead men came from North West Donegal.
By the time of Patrick Blewitt’s death in 1911, aged 78, the veteran Irish mining and civil engineer was considered ‘one of the best known engineers in the United States and in South America’ while his ‘original maps of the anthracite regions [were] among the most accurate in existence.’ He had survived Kate by ten years. The Irish link held fast in the next generation with three of their daughters marrying into the Hayden, Gallagher and Roche families.
Patrick’s son Edward Frances Blewitt was born in New Orleans in 1859 and edcuated at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania. He followed the family path to become a Civil Engineer and in 1883 he was appointed Scranton’s chief engineer, a post he held for a decade. During this time he served six years as president of Pennsylvania’s AOH. He subsequently went to the Mexican state of Jalisco where he was Chief Engineer on a $3 million project to build 138 miles of sewer and 90 miles of water piping for the drainage system and water works of Guadalajara.
Edward, who wrote poetry, was also head of the Hibernian Order in Mexico during his time there, not that that counted for much. ‘There are just 18 of us in all,’ he admitted in 1902, ‘but they’re Irish boys, and they stand together for all there is in the blood … As Hibernians down there, we’re for distinguishing our old country by helping each other do the best that’s in us.’
He was the Mexican delegate at the A.O.H. National Convention in Denver in 1902 . Atendees decalred that if ‘Oom Paul’ Kruger, the Boer leader in their war against the British, had turned up, he would have received a warmer reception than any man alive, except the Pope.
Joe Biden described Edward as ‘an engineer with a poet’s heart‘. A few months after his mother’s death, he found an old box of Edward’s poems in the family attic. ‘In his poetry, my great-grandfather spoke of both continents, and how his heart and his soul drew from the old and the new. And most of all, he was proud. He was proud of his ancestors. He was proud of his blood. He was proud of his city. He was proud of his state, his country. But most of all – he was proud of his family.’
Edward Blewitt’s Irish roots were never far away. He chaired Scranton’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1897. Nine years later he founded the Irish American Association (which became the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick of Lackawanna County in 1939). Recalling his father’s home turf, he was also a member of the the Mayo Men’s Benevolent, Social, Patriotic and Literary Association. In 1907 he stood for the Democrats and became just the second Irish Catholic senator in Pennsylvanian history, retaining the seat until 1911.
He was popular with both coal miners and farmers, having championed much legislation in their respective favours. He also used his skills as a civil engineer to develop the state’s road system, as well as the construction of a canal from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. Another of his legacies was a hospital in Scranton to counter the tuberculosis epidemic that was killing an average of 1,000 Pennsylvanins a year.
Edward was married in Scranton, 1879, to Mary Ellen Stanton with whom he had four children before her death from typhoid fever aged 27. Geraldine Blewitt, their youngest child, was born in 1887 and married in about 1909 to Ambrose Joseph Finnegan.
The Finngeans were from Lordship Parish in the Cooley Peninsula of Co. Louth. The first to reach the US was Owen Finnegan, a shoemaker who sailed from Newry to New York in 1849. Coincidentally Barack Obama’s Irish ancestor, Joseph Kearney, was also a shoemaker. Owen and his wife Jane (nee Boyle) were the parents of James Finnegan, a blind fiddler who married Catherine Roche in 1866, shortly before they moved to Scranton.
Born in 1884 but orphaned by the age of ten, their son Ambrose Finnegan was raised by his maternal uncle, Peter Roche, whose company manufactured signs and bulletin boards. He was a student at Santa Clara College, California, and happened to be in San Francisco when the earthquake struck. He returned to Scranton, married Geraldine Bleweitt and found work as an advertising solicitor for a newspaper.
Ambrose and Geraldine had a son, also Ambrose, an airforce pilot who was killed in the Pacific during World War Two, and a daughter Catherine Eugenia Finnegan, known as Jean. Born in 1917 Jean married Joseph Robinette Biden Sr. in 1941; their son Joe was born in 1942. First elected to the US Senate in 1972, he came to international prominence when he served as Barack Obama’s Vice President for eight years.
All up, it is no mere coincidence that one of Joe Biden’s greatest heroes is Wolfe Tone. Or that he should have connected with Enda Kenny, another Mayo man, when he visited Ireland in April 2016. Or that when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in August 2020, he should recite from the poem, The Cure at Troy, by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney*:
‘History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave, But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.’
* He also closed his speech with this poem at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in March 2020.
Ahead of the day that’s in it, I greatly enjoyed this article from the Wexford People ofSaturday 23 June 1888. Thanks to Allen Foster for referring me to the hoax in the first place.
PRACTICAL JOKING AT SANDYCOVE.
A stupid, silly, and unfeeling hoax was played on Monday last at the expense of General Rice, 2, Bayswater-terrace, Sandycove-road, Bullock [Dublin], and several of the leading merchants both of Kingstown [Dun Laoghaire] and Dublin.
It appears that during Sunday and Monday mornings several funeral proprietors, hirers of floats and furniture vans, wine merchants, grocers, all sorts of provision dealers, builders, plumbers, shoemakers, barbers, chimney sweepers, &c., received instructions, either by letter or post-card, all bearing the Kingstown post-office mark, to call at General Rice’s residence on Monday afternoon at 2 o’clock, and the consequence was that at about that hour might be seen crowding round Bayswater-terrace vans from Brooks Thomas’s with mirrors; from Mansfield’s, Grafton-street, with dressing cases, &c.; from Keating’s, Dame-street, with paints and decorations; from Sibthorpe’s, Dockrell’s, Henshaw’s, Edmondson’s, and Fry’s, while a dray from Boland’s, Grand Canal-street, brought a sack of flour; Cramer, Wood, & Co. sent a large van with a piano ; Sweetman’s sent a dray with two barrels of porter, and Cantrell and Cochrane sent a load of mineral waters.
The 2 o’clock train from Kingstown could not accommodate all that wished to travel on it, and all bound for No. 2, Bayswater-terrace. Young ladies from several of the fashionable shops also came on the scene, prepared to give the finishing touches to toilets for a picnic party that did not come off.
By this time a large crowd had assembled from Dalkey, Glasthule and Kingstown, and some good-humoured banter took place at the expense of the disappointed parties, some of whom took the joke very badly, while others seemed to enjoy it immensely. Two chimney sweeps, who arrived early on the scene, had a rough-and-tumble-fight as to which of them had been sent for, but a constable informed them of the joke, when both laughed heartily.
A barber came dressed up to kill, with a large expanse of shirt-front, and huge collars and cuffs; he nimbly tripped-up the steps of No. 2, and gave a gingerly tap to the knocker, after which he kept washing his hands with imaginary soap until the door was opened, and he was informed how matters stood, when he instantly collapsed. The information seemed to have taken the starch out of him completely, and he wended his way home quite limp, a sadder, but probably not much a wiser man.
Hearses and mourning-coaches also arrived, having received letters worded as follows : “General Rice wishes to have a hearse and mourning-coach sent to his residence on Monday at 2 o’clock sharp, to have a coffin removed to the railway station. Please send bill at same time. ” 2, Bayswater-terrace, June. 1888. “To Messrs. Waller & Son.”
The post-cards ordering vans and floats were thus worded : “General Rice wishes Mr. Meehan to send two vans at 2 o’clock on Monday to convey some furniture to Rathmines. 2, Bayswater-terrace, June, 1888.”
Others were:— “General Rice requires barber to shave and cut hair, &c.” Mr. _____ will please wait upon General Rice at 2 o’clock on Monday.”
The provisions ordered were of many kinds, and the wines of every vintage. It was rumoured that several of the Dalkey shopkeepers were also favoured with orders, but on making inquiries of them, they all denied receiving any instruction to forward goods to Bayswater.
General Rice declined to give any information in the matter further than that he had received over a hundred telegrams and post-cards during the morning. He was quite at a loss to understand why he should have been so treated as he had never done any harm or injury to any person, and was at peace with all his neighbours.
The Kingstown Commissioners also received a post-card from the perpetrator of the hoax, asking them to have General Rice’s ashpit cleaned in the afternoon, a request, however, which could not be complied with, as this sort of work is only done in the township early in the morning.
It is generally believed that General Rice can lay his hand upon those who played the nonsensical joke. If so, we hope he will not spare the hard-hearted wretches who perpetrated such a scurvy trick upon, amount others, poor, industrious float owners, and as the Star Chamber clauses of the Coercion Act are now in force in the County Dublin it is open to those who run that act not to be slow in using those clauses for the purpose of finding out and punishing the well-dressed ruffians of the law and order class, who think it no crime to put people to expense and worry for the purpose of gratifying, probably, some private spleen. If the powers that befail to take advantage of these clauses now it will be farther proof—if proof were neceesrry—to convince us that Coercion was passed for one class only of the people of Ireland.
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.