by John McGagh
At a time in our history when the recurring theme is one of doom and gloom a chat with Tommy Shaughnessy is an antidote to the woes that people in our country are currently experiencing. Although Tommy has lived through the founding of our state and the poverty that ravaged our country in his own early childhood and which was an ever present feature of our country until the years of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, his optimism is infectious. In Tommy’s life there was no wallowing in self-pity.
People accepted the realities that life presented and tried to make the best of what were often difficult circumstances. Indeed Tommy’s early childhood and again his later life were visited by trying time, which he relates with stoic acceptance. A constant companion throughout his life appears to be a quiet belief in the Almighty, though this is never overstated coupled with a commitment to family. His longevity he attributes not so much to hard work but more to the satisfaction derived from the completion of work, which undoubtedly was often arduous and tiresome. He still sows a garden and only recently planted cabbage plants for spring consumption.
Doubt surrounds Tommy’s actual date of birth. He believes that there was a delay in registering his birth which resulted in him being officially registered later than his actual birth date. However, the 3rd of January 1916 is the date on which his birth is recorded. During his life Tommy has moved from his birth place in Caherlea to Addergoole upon marriage and in 1962 to his present home in Cluide. In Tommy’s early years in Caherlea there were only two houses in the village, Dooleys and his own family Shaughnessys. When the Dooleys moved to Liscananaun their holding was purchased by Bernie Stewart, father of Michael who still resides in Caherlea. Later Martin Keavey (father of Michael, Aughclogeen) moved from the Gate House of Cregg Castle into the village.
Tommy’s earliest memories date back to 1919/1920 when Ireland was still under British rule. At that time British Auxiliaries known as the Black and Tans (Tans), because of the colour of the uniform that they wore, were spreading terror amongst people in rural Ireland. Tommy remembers that they would call to Kelly’s Public House in Aughclogeen (now Peggy’s Bar) for a drinking session before setting out along the Mill Road. The Mill Road refers to the road between Kelly’s Pub and Wade’s Mill (now the home of Denny and Zelie Driscoll and referred to as Cregg Mill). At that time the land between Caherlea and the Mill Road was flooded. This flooding was due to the fact that the Cregg River had a dam built by Francis Wade of Wade’s Mill in order to build up pressure for turning the mill wheel.As a result there was an abundance of wildlife and in particular wild ducks in the flooded land. Tommy remembers that the Tans would shoot at the wild ducks. On one occasion they shot at his home house and his mother put them all under the table for safety. The Tans succeeded in breaking a window, which Tommy remembers resulted in “a cold night that night”.
Tommy remembers walking to school in Corrandulla in bare feet. The school was run by Franciscan Brothers. He remembers a particular occasion when he arrived at school with a very bad cut in one of his feet. At that time people in the locality looked after sections of the road. One morning on his way to school Patrick Small and three of his lads were working on the road. They were ploughing the side of the road. Tommy surmises that this was in an effort to widen the road. He was watching this maintenance work in progress when he injured his foot on a sharp stone. On arrival at school his foot was bleeding profusely. However, one of the Brothers washed his foot in a basin of water and Jeyes Fluid. He then bandaged his foot and wrote a note home to Tommy’s mother stating that he would do the same on successive days until the cut healed. Tommy never forgot this act of kindness.
Tommy was the fourth of ten children Pat, Michael, Nonie, Tommy, Katie, Willie, Brigie, Nellie and May (another boy Martin died as a baby); born to his mother Mary, née Creaven from Aughclogeen and his father John. However, his father John died of cancer at the age of thirty six when Tommy was twelve years old. His mother was left to rear the family at a time when subventions from the state were paltry or non-existent.
However, Tommy stresses the positive and points out that they had their own eggs, butter and flour made from their own corn which helped greatly. Mrs. Keavey, who then lived in the Gate House of Cregg Castle, told his mother that she would ask her husband about a job for Tommy in Cregg Castle in the line of cleaning out the stables, providing bedding for the horses and minding the sows. Hence it came to pass that Tommy went to work at the age of thirteen in Cregg Castle earning nine shillings a week.When Tommy started working in Cregg Castle it was owned by Mrs. Kearns and her husband Christy Kearns. She was one of the Blakes of Cregg Castle. Christy Kearns was an agent for Denis Kirwan and he had a holding of his own in Oranmore. He had horses bringing Guinness from Oranmore to Clarinbridge, Ardrahan and as far as Gort. Tommy worked there for over thirty years, first under Mrs. Kearns and later under Mrs. Johnson a Scottish woman, who bought Cregg Castle and lands in the 1940s. Indeed at an earlier time Tommy’s grandfather John had been a coachman in Cregg Castle, responsible for driving the coaches and training horses. His grandmother, John’s wife, was Honor Glynn from Corofin.
One of Tommy’s first jobs in Cregg Castle was looking after a sow. Tommy was accustomed to pigs and recalls that at that time people would bring sows into the house when they were about to give birth. He relates that the first teat suckled by a new born bonham is the teat that they return to thereafter and then declares, “Nature, there is nothing to beat it.” However, nature was to provide Tommy with one of the scariest occasions in his life.
It was during his second year working in Cregg Castle on the occasion of a sow having a litter of bonhams. Tommy was detailed to stay with the sow on the first night after she had given birth. During the night the animals started to settle down and go to sleep. The horses and cows settled and eventually a time came when the cats, dogs and even the rats and mice that had been active earlier in the night went quiet. During this quiet period often referred to as the ‘dead of night’ Tommy longed for the cock to crow and break the eerie silence that had developed. It conjured up images of the ‘other world’ and the time of night which tradition maintains that the spirits of the dead came to life. To this day he remembers the fear that he experienced on that night.
When growing up in Caherlea the local shop was Denny Murphy’s which was nearby in the town-land of Drumgriffin on the main road close toWade’s Mill. This was where they would go for tea and sugar. It also had a post office. Malachy Keady’s travelling shop from Headford also called to their house. People went to Galway to shop for clothes often in the horse and cart as there were no buses. Summer evening were spent in the company of neighbours playing ‘pitch and toss’ near Cregg Mill. Coins were placed on a comb and tossed into the air. The coins had to spin in the air for the toss to be legitimate. The faces of the coins were referred to as ‘heads’ on one side and ‘tails’ on the other. The winning of money was dependent on the number of ‘heads’ that faced up after the coins were tossed. Also, he travelled to football matches on foot across the fields to Corrandulla if it was a local match or on the bike to matches played further away. He gives particular mention to Frank Leonard of Addergoole and Ricky Burke of Cluide for their prowess on the football field.
Another pastime was attending dances. As there were no cars the popular mode of transport was by bicycle or walking if you lived near the dance hall. At that time there were not many dances locally and Labane Hall, in the Parish of Ardrahan had a reputation for great dances. Tommy remembers one particular fateful night when he decided to cycle to Labane to attend a dance. It was Christmas time and Tommy’s sister Nelly was working in Oranmore. He had promised her that he would go to the dance and he fulfilled that promise. However, on the way home his bicycle tyres punctured and he had to walk approximately eight miles to arrive home in time for work at Cregg Castle. His day did not turn out to be the normal ‘run of the mill’ day in Cregg Castle, as there was a twist in store. It happened to be the time of year for sending off the beet to the factory in Tuam. An empty beet lorry passed Tommy as he turned the corner at Kelly’s Pub. However, Tommy was not too perturbed as the beet was not due to be collected until later in the week. Unfortunately for Tommy when he arrived for work the beet lorry was waiting to collect the beet. This was the day after St. Stephen’s Day so there were no other employees to be seen. The lorry had to be filled; therefore it fell on Tommy to fill the load of beet. This was a night and a day that he will never forget.
Horses were to feature prominently in Tommy’s life. He remembers going to the Horse Shows in Corrandulla in the early 1930s. He recalls that Patrick Furey, Pat Silke and Christy Kearns were judges at the show. He bought his first pony at the Show in 1932 for £5. Tommy has an encyclopedic memory of the horses and ponies that he bought, the foals that they sired and the diseases that they encountered including one that contacted lymphangitis on two occasions.
At Cregg Castle Tommy graduated to work with the horses when he got older. He worked with teams of horses ploughing the fields for crops. Fertiliser was spread on the fields prior to ploughing. In relation to fertiliser he remembers Tommy Duggan, Kilgill, bringing lorry loads of sea weed from Oranmore. This was well mixed with wheat and barley straw before being spread on the stubbles in January or February.When working in the fields a bell would ring to call the workers in for dinner. Tommy remembers how the horses would prick their ears on hearing the bell and quicken their stride to get to the headland to have the traces removed so they could make their way to the stables to be fed. On one such occasion he had removed the traces and mounted one of the horses to head for the castle. It coincided with the recent purchase of his first pocket watch, which he bought for five pounds. On mounting the horse the chain of the pocket watch caught the hames and the watch and chain disappeared out of sight. On leaning over Tommy spied the watch between the horses’ hooves. He lowered himself slowly and was greatly relieved to retrieve the watch before it was pulverised by a hoof. Tommy has the watch to this day.
During the time that Mrs. Johnson owned Cregg Castle, Tommy accompanied horses for sale in Newmarket, England. In 1947 the year often referred to as ‘the year of the big snow’, because snow lay on the ground for several weeks that spring, Tommy brought a horse to Newmarket. The trip was long and difficult as first they travelled by train from Galway to Dublin. From Dublin they took the boat to Holyhead inWales and from there embarked on a thirteen hour journey to Newmarket. His job was to deliver the horse to an agent who would sell the horse on behalf of Mrs. Johnson.
On another occasion Tommy remembers travelling with five horses and their foals to Newmarket, accompanied by his brother Michael. In Mrs. Kearns time Tommy remembers hunting on a grey mare named Snowball. Later, during Mrs. Johnson’s time as owner of Cregg Castle, Tommy remembers a thoroughbred hunter on which he had a terrifying experience and from which he thinks that he was lucky to escape with his life. It was an occasion when six of the horses were being exercised in the field where Annaghdown GAA pitch is now. His horse, a thoroughbred hunter, was a fine specimen with strong bone and great definition and a famous show horse. However, his temper was suspect from the time it was bought by Peter Wallace who was Mrs. Johnson’s manager. Indeed when the horse first arrived in Cregg, the boy accompanying the horse warned those who would be working with it to be careful as there was what the boy called a ‘bad drop’ in the horse. By this he meant that he could be dangerous and unpredictable and in fact prior to that he had killed a man in a horse box.
Returning to the day Tommy was exercising the horse, he noticed the horse’s eyes bulging on the side of his head and on turning a corner in the field the horse gave a side jump and Tommy was thrown but his boot got stuck in the stirrup. However, he managed to hold tightly to the reins and eventually succeeded in controlling the horse and regaining his balance. Unfortunately Mrs. Johnson was not quite so lucky when it came to this same horse. She was Master of the Galway Blazers Hunt in the season 1955/56. While out on the first hunt of the season in November the horse reared and Mrs. Johnson was thrown to the ground. She suffered a broken collarbone, a broken hand and she received back injuries. Injuries which Tommy feels greatly shortened her life.
While Tommy admits to traveling many a mile to dances in pursuit of female company however, the woman that he eventually fell in love with and married was living all that time within a mile of him. This was Nora Forde from Gardenham. They met at the first dance to be held in Fr. Garvey’s Hall (Corrandulla Community Hall) in Corrandulla. It was near the end of September and earlier that day Tommy and three or four other lads had gone to Knock Shrine, as it was the last day of the pilgrimage season. When they married some time later Tommy and Nora moved to live in Addergoole where Nora inherited a small holding from two uncles. Nora and Tommy had eight children Mary, John, Nora, Teresa, Ann, Bernie, Pat and Gerard. They moved from Addergoole to Cluide in 1962 where the youngest of their children Gerard was born. Tragedy visited Tommy and his young family in 1976 when his wife Nora died. Nora’s death was sudden and unexpected. Tommy’ voice lowered noticeably as he talks lovingly of Nora’s energy and work ethic and one can sense the effects of that great loss still. Tommy is a gentle person whose gentleness comes through in his conversation. However, he has also a steely resolve, a resolve which has carried him amicably through his life’s journey to date. I found my time in conversation with Tommy to be uplifting and rewarding. Fear lách cineálta is ea Tommy. Míle buíochas dó as ucht an cuireadh a thug sé dom dul leis ar an aistear iontach seo ar bhóithrín a smaointe.
This article first appeared in Anach Cuain 2010. Tommy Shaughnessy died on 16 June 2012.