Forty Years at Gort Roe, Corrandulla
By John Arden
I came to Gort Roe in 1971, with my wife Margaretta D’Arcy and our four young sons. We had been living on an island in Loch Corrib, but because of the difficulty of getting the boys to school, we decided to move to the mainland during term-time. Margaretta went into Collerans, the estate agent, saying how much she was prepared to pay for a small house outside Galway that would be near a bus stop and near a shop. “Why, we have just the thing!” We could walk right into it that very day. Danny Griffin, shopkeeper in Wood Quay, had bought the house from the Cahills whose farmhouse it had been until they built a new bungalow next door. Mrs Griffin unfortunately had become ill so their dream of retirement into a cottage in the country was dashed.
So we were able to complete the contract and move in on a glorious autumn day. We knew nothing about Corrandulla and were amazed at the quiet richness of the countryside. Down at the river Cregg we saw the dance of the mating trout; we were told this should be considered a good omen. Our immediate neighbours, in particular the postman, the late Johnny Keaney, just down the road, made us very welcome. He supplied us on all occasions with local history, legend and deliciously detailed gossip, describing how he had started out as a liveried coachman for a landlord in Annaghdown; he made a point of his mandatory tall hat. The Blakes of Cregg Castle were spoken of as self-assured lords of creation, Mrs Blake driving her carriage through the mud of the untarred road, splashing and rattling and driving every humble pedestrian out of her way; the women had to curtsy, the men to doff their caps. Deference to the gentry in those days was an essential requirement for the rural people if they sought a secure life; it was not so surprising when the people at last rose up. We were told that the Blakes’ house in Annaghdown was actually besieged. Such turbulence of course ended with the Land Commission dividing the estate. The people who had worked the land now owned the land.
In our little enclave around Drumgriffin Cross there were all sorts of stories about the Solomonic judgments of the Republican Courts, a revolutionary social innovation I had read of but had never heard about from peoples’ first-hand experience. On one occasion a local small farmer was presiding from whatever piece of domestic furniture served as his bench; in comes his wife to interrupt the proceedings, “Your dinner is on the table and I won’t keep it for you.”
Our house turned out to be the birthplace of that Father Kavanagh priest at Knock in the days of the Land War, who lost a huge opportunity: he failed to go out in the rain when parishioners reported a miraculous vision over against his church gable. It was his father, we were told, who found starving people at his door one Christmas during the Famine: a mean-hearted man, he gave them miserable little white turnips instead of the big nutritious yellow ones. A century and a half later, this was not forgotten. Another Famine legend: people heard that food was available at Cregg mill; in their weakened state they walked from all over the parish; they got their fill of American meal but their stomachs were unused to it; their bellies became monstrously distended; half of them died before they even reached home.
The history of Cregg Castle is extraordinary. Some say that Brian Boru had a stronghold there, but the present house (unhappily messed about with so that the original architecture became lost under a waste of pebbledash) was built in the 17th century, the last fortified mansion west of the Shannon. A highly distinguished resident in the 1700s was the eccentric polymath Richard Kirwan. chemist, natural philosopher, musician, scientist, leading light of the Royal Dublin Society, first president of the Royal Irish Academy, self-destructive hypochondriac. He married a Blake and after his death the Blakes were the owners of Cregg. One of his famous visitors was Bunting, the musicologist who saved the ancient Irish harp music for succeeding generations.
It is told that the local priest was out hunting hares on the castle estate and the Blake of the day insulted him and ordered him off the property. The priest retorted in terms of prophecy. Yes, he said, he would leave, but before long. Mr Blake would also leave, unexpectedly, feet first, in the middle of the night: and so it happened: and thereafter, no more Blakes at Cregg. As for the neighbouring mill, during the Famine a man was said to have crawled in through the millwheel in search of food and somehow got crushed or drowned. From that time on, the mill was seen as a place of no good luck, and time after time its roof would fall in.
On the castle estate there is a beautiful little graveyard with a ruined mediaeval chapel. My neighbour Nelly Fahy was over ninety when she died and that’s where she is buried. She was a traditional healer, curing hundreds of the thrush. In fact she cured me of a vicious attack of athlete’s foot, which the doctor had not been able to diminish. I wasn’t sure if it was the same sort of thing as thrush, but she came into my house and gave the sole of my foot a terrific blast of her breath, as hot as a furnace: I couldn’t at first believe it, but the athlete’s foot was cured.
If I were to be asked what are the most characteristic features of Gort Roe that I carry away in my memory from the last Forty years, I would say, “the simple curves of the drystone walls, the perfect cocks of hay on their stands, the music of the Fordes.”
We are lucky to have found such a precious place to live in, even though today it is not the Blakes and their carriages that come sweeping past so arrogantly along the roads but the huge juggernaut trucks which have brought us overblown prosperity, and subsequent financial collapse; we are like those people in the Famine, near to death from our swollen stomachs… Or maybe one day it will once again be possible to stroll without stress from the river to the church, conversing at our leisure, greeting our neighbours, neither doffing caps nor curtseying, nor crouched in terror among diesel fumes at the base of the wall. Maybe.
Note: This article appeared in Anach Cuain 2010. John Arden died on 28 March 2012; his obituary in The Guardian describes him as ‘one of the most significant British playwrights of the late 1950s and early 60s’.