Irish and Anglo Irish life and days
The micro-society of the extreme west of Ireland into which we became integrated in this middle of century was predominantly rural. It was only occasionally of a maritime nature, in spite of the fact that the sea practically surrounded it on all sides. In the course of this second half of the century it changed considerably, as did all Irish society in general. It definitely brought an end to its near total isolation, which, first the struggle for Independence, then the Second World War and its consequences, had contributed towards maintaining. It ceased little by little being simply a European colonial dependency of a world empire it had fought against and that had disintegrated.
Marcel Samzun had known the Ireland of the twenties. He often spoke to me of the poverty that ruled in these remote areas, at the time when he visited them.
“Their clothes had more holes in them than cloth,” he said.
In 1950 traces of this remained. Torn and tattered clothing was not unusual. Living conditions continued to be very primitive. I had been shocked in Dublin to see the little newspaper sellers, barefoot in all weather, covered in dust or wading in mud. It was the same here: most of the children had no shoes, not even for attendance at Sunday Mass, which was the occasion every week to wash and put on clean clothes.
Medical and social assistance were virtually unknown, in spite of the existence of a midwife appointed by the State, or were on a very small scale, even for large families and there were many of these. All this changed little by little as the State consolidated its position, as Irish society on the whole became more affluent, introducing the concerns, economic and social measures into its legislation and administration that had already been introduced by other European States in their own countries. When these problems are evoked, their relativity and chronology must not be forgotten: social security and medical care for all were not, after all, established in France and in England until after the two World Wars. It dated back just twenty years when I landed in Ireland. Little by little they also made their way here.
One of the architects of this change, and probably the most important one was Dr. Noel Brown, young Health minister of the coalition government following elections in February 1948. These elections had put an end to twelve years of government led by De Valera and his Fianna Fail party. Although it was a disparate coalition, comprising pell-mell the socialists from the Labour Party, the Republicans close to the IRA of Clan na Poblachta and the moderate nationalists of Fine Gael. Noel Brown became minister on the same day he entered Parliament and began a vast program of construction, modernisation and enlargement of public hospitals. He was fortunate in that he was able to use funds from the Sweepstake, a kind of national lottery involved in horse racing. Within a few years, the results of his policies were spectacular. Several thousand new hospital beds had been created; tuberculosis that still raged, as it had done in Brittany, had caused the death of Dr.Brown’s father and he himself had been affected, was now practically eliminated.
Finding that infant mortality rate was one of the highest in Europe, Dr.Brown had presented a motion to Parliament proposing a law that would provide all mothers, before and after birth, and their children until the age of sixteen, with the right to free medical care.
Until then, the only ones treated free of charge were the poorest and those from families able to show proof that they were without means. The medical profession fought against the proposed law. They opposed it, just as also around that time, in England, they opposed a proposal for social protection that Aneuryn Bevan’s Labour government had presented, and, in the United States, the proposal President Truman had presented. In Ireland, those opposed to the reform, which had been generally well received by public opinion, found an unexpected ally in the Catholic hierarchy who contested the right of State organisations to intervene in the private lives of citizens, as much in educational as in health matters. They considered these fields should fall under the parents’ exclusive responsibility. To do otherwise was to open the doors to the worst State intrusion into fields that should not be its concern.
There is no denying that the growth of State intervention into the private lives of citizens, when it has no right to do so, can only decrease and dull their sense of individual responsibility. Every man, if he truly wishes to remain a responsible citizen, vis-à-vis himself and his family, as much as vis-à-vis society as a whole, must be able to preserve an acute sense of this responsibility and the freedom of choice it implies; this is one of the main factors enabling one to distinguish between a society of free people from a society of slaves, a democratic society from a totalitarian one. There are a number of fields in a free society where the State should never penetrate, nor force or oblige. It should limit itself to offering choices, within which each can exercise their responsibility. It is up to the family, and the family alone, to choose the schools where their children will be brought up and educated. The State should have no other role but that of coordinating the latter and to help them all equally, as much in creating as in running them. No education can be completely neutral, and lay education is no exception to that rule. However, to extend this principle to modern social services and medical services, in particular protesting against their availability, free of charge, to everyone, was to disregard the solidarity that unites members of the same society. In this matter, simple charity that had been the hallmark of all social aid up to the beginning of the century was no longer sufficient. It was also confusing the Catholic Church’s immutable teachings and moral principles, with what was simply a social policy that had, through necessity, to adapt to the times and to the various challenges confronting it. The Irish Catholic hierarchy was possibly theologically and philosophically correct, but in this matter it was socially and sociologically wrong, particularly in view of the fact that Dr.Brown’s proposal did not oblige mothers and their children to avail themselves of the proposed facilities.
The controversy raged on when I settled in Cleggan that summer of 1950. The press seized on it, as did the advocates on rostrums. His cabinet colleagues, including the socialists, finally abandoned Dr.Brown. They were all practicing Catholics. They felt unable, as in fact did also Sean Mac Bride, leader of Clan na Poblachta, to confront the Catholic hierarchy. Dr.Brown refused to abandon his proposal and finally had to resign. General elections followed in 1951, bringing De Valera back into power for another three years. Shortly after, in 1959, he was elected President of the Republic.
It was not the first time that I had observed the power wielded by the Catholic hierarchy, not only in Irish society but also in the workings of State and its institutions. Whenever a strike lasted too long, it was often the Archbishop of Dublin who finally settled it. It was also the custom for government ministers to respond to his summons: they were the ones to travel to see him and not him: did not the constitution provide for Catholicism to be the State religion in Ireland? This does not prevent all others from having a right to complete freedom of expression, including the right to open and run schools. But Catholics would be committing a “mortal sin” if they attended Trinity College, one of the oldest British universities that remained Anglican protestant, to continue their studies. One of our neighbours in Cleggan, of French origin and catholic, Yvonne Holberton, who had married an Irishman of the Anglican religion, fell out with her parish priest: he had reminded her of the state of sin she was in for allowing her daughter Evelyn to continue her studies at Trinity College, without having previously sought permission from her bishop. She had remained French to her fingertips and in her prejudices. Always very well groomed, a touch authoritarian, she was strong willed and there was never any question of her yielding. From then onwards, she went with her husband to the Anglican services and refused to set foot again in the Catholic Church. Much later, one of my daughters married one of her grandsons.
It was also inadvisable for a Catholic to attend a Protestant funeral: he had to remain outside the temple or church if he wanted to attend. I have never taken any account of these interdictions, disguised or not. I felt it was high time that Christian Churches stopped fighting or ignoring each other, faced with the perils and assaults from all sides that threatened them. It was only in 1970, helped along by the opening of Vatican II, that Catholics were finally allowed to register at Trinity College without having to request their bishop’s permission. The first Catholic chaplain in the history of the college was appointed that same year.
The prestige and influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in that country of deep faith and widespread practice of the religion, cannot just be explained with theological and faith reasons. An observer of Irish contemporary society should not forget the long night of the Roman Catholic Church, forbidden and banned by the monarchy and State authorities ever since Henry VIII, breaking away from the papacy and excommunicated by Pope Clement VII, had the English Parliament proclaim him, in 1531, protector and supreme head of the English Church, thus giving birth to the Anglican Church and to an ecclesiastical hierarchy different from that of Roman Catholicism. Although accepted by the Anglo-Irish classes of society, this schism was never accepted by the lower classes that in their immense majority held on to their faith and their priests. This was also the case in Brittany, when the French Revolution wanted to impose the civil Constitution of the clergy. A shadow Church came into being. But whereas in Brittany it only lasted for ten or so years until Napoleon’s Concordat that established freedom of religion, it lasted in Ireland for three centuries, at the end of which the Irish nationalist, Daniel O’Connor, finally obtained Catholic Emancipation. During those three centuries, it had been deprived of places of worship and forbidden access to public functions and the professions. In order to practice any of these, they first had to pass a test, declaring that they did not believe in Christ’s transubstantiation, or in the worship of the Virgin Mary and the saints, all considered to be idolatry. For a Catholic this was an abjuration of their faith. In the Irish countryside to this day, fingers are pointed at the descendants of families who had once been Catholics and of pure Irish stock, whose distant great grandparents had converted for the Sunday soup kitchens, which only served those who belonged to the official protestant church and not to Catholics.
The Irish rebels and patriots of all kinds had automatically, during those three centuries, benefited from the confusion that had reigned between the struggle for religious emancipation and the struggle for political emancipation. Traces of this can still be seen today in the problems and troubles of Northern Ireland, though this has ceased, a long time ago, to be simply a religious war between Catholics and Protestants.
But the confusion goes back a long time. One of the leaders of the Geraldine League, one of the numerous Irish rebellions, soon after the creation of the English Church by Henry VIII, replied to those who reproached him for burning down Kildare cathedral:
“I would certainly not have done so, had I known that heretic Archbishop was not in there at the time.”
The Roman Catholic Church had certainly become well established again after O’Connell, known as the uncrowned king of Ireland, had finally obtained emancipation. This small country with a population of under five million has today over 150 catholic religious orders, a hundred of which are female orders, four archbishops and thirty-four bishops. Amongst them, on a practically permanent basis, is a cardinal: usually the Archbishop of Armagh in Northern Ireland.
Maintaining normal relations with British political authorities, the catholic hierarchy in the XIXth century had even deemed it necessary to condemn the taking part in the armed rebellions that led to Ireland’s independence. Thus in the XIXth century it had condemned the Fenians. At the beginning of this century, it had condemned the Irish nationalist revolutionaries: even to excommunicating a large number of them. Noel Brown, reproaching his government colleagues for their pusillanimity vis-à-vis the catholic hierarchy’s condemnation of his proposal to provide social services for mothers and children, had pointed out to them, not without some irony, that 80 per cent of them had recently been excommunicated, whilst he himself had not: he had actually been too young to take part in the rebellion. But the official position of the Catholic Church had not prevented him from vehemently protesting, when in 1918 shortly after the 1916 Easter Rising, the British government wanted to extend compulsory military service to the Irish, adding in an official declaration that, ” The Irish have the right to fight this by using any means that are in accordance with the law of God”.
An established church can never escape from a certain ambiguity, in Ireland even less so than anywhere else. At the very time when the hierarchy kept its distance from the leaders of the rebellion, its priests had no hesitation, together with their faithful, in rallying around them and their followers. The question of whether by doing so they were contravening an official directive from the Church did not enter into it. The story goes that a priest was giving confession to one of these “bad boys” liable to be excommunicated, who confessed to the sin of having killed a man. Taken aback at first, the priest enquired about the circumstances surrounding the committing of this sin and whom it was that he had killed.
“It was an English officer”, admitted the penitent. “ I killed him during an ambush we had planned for him.”
The priest remained silent for an instant:
“You did right in confessing this, my son,” he finally said to him.
“But now we should go on to examine your sins…”
It is just as normal for an Irishman to believe in God as it is for him to breathe. The Church represents what is best and of primary importance on earth. Its ministers therefore hold a special place in society. In this country where there is no elected municipal authority, except in large cities where the administrations are concentrated at departmental or county level, the priest enjoys a privileged position in the country districts. He is the natural authority as well as the spiritual one. He is generally on the schools council, organises the sports associations, the cinema and even the Sunday dances. He is the one who from the pulpit makes administrative announcements concerning the population. He sees to it, of course, that all this is done in accordance with the Church’s moral code. It was unthinkable, forty years ago, to openly discuss sexual problems, contraception and its methods as they are discussed today, even in Ireland. All of this was never spoken of: it was proper to ban from the vocabulary everything related to it. It was the priest’s role to see to this and to protect his faithful from the inevitable weaknesses of the flesh.
Some were extreme in their zeal. Of the three or four priests I knew, who had succeeded each other in charge of our parish, Father Jennings was undoubtedly the most zealous, as well as being the most militant and colourful. He had no hesitation, after a dance or the cinema, driving around on mild nights, along roads and paths, to ensure that the young people of the parish were not in ditches engaged in any forbidden games, easier to detect in the glow of the headlights. He visited the families of those who had not assisted at Sunday Mass, enquiring into the reason for their absence, and reminding them, when necessary, of their duties. Catching sight of a small group of men from the village that generally remained at the door of the church during Mass; he had no hesitation in interrupting the service and calling out to them to take their place on the benches. He had been known, during the service, to give his faithful a demonstration on how to genuflect correctly or bless themselves correctly instead of a sort of flick of their hand that looked like nothing.
“Before my arrival here”, he told his congregation one day with a hint of anger, ” I had been told that you were stupid; but I did not realise you were that bad.”
Fr. Jennings had done part of his studies in Paris. Therefore he did not share the generally held idea that France was the eldest daughter of the Church on the continent. He remembered the cawing sound of a crow he frequently heard in the streets of Paris whenever he walked around in his cassock. For him, England and the continent were countries in perdition whose contaminating influence had to be avoided. But he was certainly not devoid of culture, even though carried away at times by his apostolic zeal, he made clear-cut judgments. He had wanted to become an architect: he spent a good part of his time making plans for houses and churches. He was the one who designed and had built the little house he lived in, near Claddaghduff Church, which passed on to his successors. The Church itself owes many of its more recent improvements to him.
In spite of both the priest and the families’ vigilance, “accidents” still happened, as they happen increasingly everywhere. In spite of the weather, often inclement, and the wet ground making it more difficult for lovemaking outside in the shelter of stone walls or rocks, it did take place from time to time. The priest was usually the first one to be informed of the dreaded, expected fruits that were the consequence of the weakness of the flesh. He was often the one who intervened between children and parents to ensure that the baby was born to a couple legally married. It was not always easy. Some preferred to immigrate rather than to face the “disgrace” and the anger of the parents. Mary was pregnant with Thomas’s child. As they were both of age, the priest agreed to marry them without telling their parents. After the ceremony, they returned to their respective homes as if nothing had happened.
Margaret and Patrick finally told their families of their relationship. But they had delayed so long that the wedding ceremony had to be postponed as, the morning it was to take place, the future bride felt the first pangs of labour: she had to be brought to the hospital.
“I do not understand about this baby”, repeated Patrick. “It must be a miracle.”
The belief was that to prepare the cradle and layette for the baby beforehand was unlucky: it was also necessary to baptise it as soon as possible. Shortly after giving birth, the mother had to undergo a purification ceremony at the church. Adherence to the Books of the saints was still followed to the letter here.
In these can also be found the noisy and sometimes joyous celebrations that accompany death. Is it not proper to rejoice at the thought of a new soul being welcomed into the Kingdom of God? After all, there exists only an intangible frontier between earthly life and that of the hereafter. When death strikes in one of the homes of the parish, the deceased is often clothed in a brown tunic reminiscent of a religious habit. Beforehand, the priest will have administered Extreme Unction. Mary Murray’s father who lived alone and felt his strength was leaving him, did not want to die before receiving this sacrament; he had therefore taken his precautions: twice, with only a couple of months in between, he had walked the two or three kilometers to the priest’s house in order to receive the sacrament.
News of a death spreads rapidly. Relatives, friends and neighbours arrive to join in the funeral wake: each brings his own chair, bench or stool. People play cards, chat and joke, sometimes noisily. The daughters of the house serve tea and biscuits. At frequent intervals, people gather in the deceased’s room, dimly lit by a candle. All together, they recite a decade of the rosary before returning to the main room where the turf fire smolders. The body is placed in the coffin the day after the decease. The coffin is carried to the church where it will remain until the funeral. This generally takes place a few days later.
John Delappe told of the wakes in his youth that were much less imbued with piety and not as calm as they are today.
“We had good fun,” he said. “Placing, in the eye sockets of the deceased, over the closed lids, coins that shone in the half-light of the trembling glow of the candle. One day, my friends and I passed a cord, hidden by the sheets, under the armpits of the body. Whenever a mourner came to pay his respects to the deceased and to pray at his side, we pulled slowly on the cord to raise the upper part of the body. It nearly always resulted in the mourner fleeing in terror, much to our delight.”
Accustomed as I was to the respect and ceremony shown to the dead in Brittany, I was certainly a little horrified at these stories.
Funerals like wakes are thus generally much less devoutly carried out than in Brittany. It is true that the distance from the Church to the cemetery on the island is long; having to go over wet sand, through puddles left by the sea just receded. I was shocked, one day, to see the children of the deceased, sons and daughters, smoking as they followed the coffin of their father that had been placed on a small cart pulled by a horse. The funeral procession generally walked over to the cemetery. Many took off their shoes to walk across the strand. Today, the hearse is motorised and most of the mourners cross over by car.
At the cemetery, the priest reads the last prayers in front of the open grave and the coffin is lowered down into the hole in the sand. Men take it in turn to fill the grave that is then covered over with sods of grass carefully cut and rolled up in preparation. The mourners recite a last prayer, sometimes a decade of the Rosary before dispersing. When some years ago already, we accompanied John Delappe to his resting place, the weather was dreadful, low clouds, rain and gusts of wind all at once. One of our neighbours whispered in my ear.
“John was a difficult character. He could never do things the way everyone else did them. He obviously had to choose a day like today for his funeral.”
Unfortunately, the cemetery in Omey, like many other cemeteries in the rural areas of Ireland, is nothing more than a field of wild grass and weeds, with here and there some crosses emerging and mounds showing where the older graves are. It is difficult to avoid walking on them. The day of the dead is not celebrated here with the same respect and piety as in Brittany with its flowers on the well-tended graves that are easily located along well-maintained pathways.
Another tradition that was still very much alive and practiced throughout Connemara when I arrived was that of the “stations”. Twice a year, in spring and in autumn, Mass was celebrated in one of the houses of each village. They would take turns. This tradition goes back to penal days, before Catholics were given back freedom to practice their religion, when Mass was said in hiding wherever it was possible, in stables or caverns, on beaches or in the bogs. Lookouts were placed around the area to warn, when necessary, of the arrival of police or English soldiers.
Today, it is still an occasion for the occupants of the house where Mass is to be celebrated to undertake a big clean up, repainting or whitewashing the walls, weeding and cleaning the areas surrounding the house and the floors. We ourselves adhered to this custom shortly after our house was finished. Father Downey, our priest at the time, took the opportunity to also bless our boats and our pond. Unfortunately, this custom is gradually disappearing, like many other customs of our people united by the Christian faith.
But a custom that continues to be very much alive is the celebration with the St. John bonfires, a much older custom. Our children never fail to celebrate it with our neighbours the Laffeys and Delappes, whenever they happen to be in Connemara on that day. The custom associated with the ten days at Christmas, from the Nativity to Three Kings day, is also faithfully followed. For ten days, candles or lamps must be lit and placed at night on the window ledges inside, in order to guide the Holy Family and other heavenly travellers on their journey to meet the Infant Jesus. Thousands of lights thus pierce the long dark nights of winter, throughout the countryside, villages and pathways. In clear weather, like the St.John bonfires, they can even be seen in the distance shining on the islands.
On the other hand, there is seldom a midnight Mass, this being replaced usually by one at dawn the next morning. Churches are never very far from pubs that close just in time for those who want to go on to a service at night. Too many men, at that hour, were arriving drunk at the church, thus disturbing the celebration of that solemn occasion.
Only just a few years after the Second World War, emigration remained the endemic disease suffered by the country. It had become more of a habit than a necessity. Granted, salaried employment was scarce; alleviated to a certain extent by unemployment benefits. But there was no shortage of opportunities for those who showed a little initiative, some education, a liking for work and a desire to improve their practical knowledge. Skilled work in every sector of manual activity was at a premium. Many did not think of it, probably victims of the spells I mentioned, but also of the easygoing attitude they induced. Poverty and the lack of means are much easier to bear within the simple lifestyle of the countryside than in the more sophisticated environment of the cities. Emigration was the easy solution for those who became destitute or whose parents could no longer assume responsibility for them.
Nearly all the families had brothers or sisters, uncles or aunts, in England or in the United States: they provided readily available places to stay for the new emigrants. Through sheer necessity, the Irish have in fact frequently displayed far more initiative and inclination for work away from home than they have in their island.
Samzun and I, in general, had very good relationships with our agents and neighbours as also with the fishermen. As means of transport improved, they came directly to the Pond to sell us their catch. There were, of course, the odd “tricks” or false descriptions of the quality of the merchandise, a feature of any kind of business in Connemara at the time. Our business was no exception. Because of their curiosity, their love of speeches and their tendency to exaggerate, the Irish are often very good salesmen. They are not always good business people. We had to examine carefully the merchandise they brought us. I learnt that when purchasing bags of winkles, it was often necessary to empty the bags and transfer them to other bags: at the bottom of the one being sold to us, there were often stones, sometimes quite large ones, pieces of seaweed and gravel that added considerably to the net weight.
Discussions regarding the quality and liveliness of the lobsters and crayfish were sometimes difficult. We had to buy them alive, as we could not sell them ourselves if they were not alive. Consequently each one had to be carefully examined. We had to take the risk for mortality rates in the pond. At times, while we held them in stock, this could be quite high, more so for lobsters than for crayfish, because of the cannibalism of the former. I talked to John O’Neill about it one day.
“I do not understand,” I said, ” Why some fishermen try to sell us lobsters or crayfish that they know very well are dead or dying, though we are paying them the price for merchandise that is alive and in good condition.”
He looked at me for a moment and started to laugh.
“You still do not know us very well,” he replied. “As far as Connemara fishermen are concerned, selling is a game like any other. You know very well that in any game, the art is in trying to trick your adversary. It is the same in this case. Selling you a hundred good quality lobsters is certainly profitable, but it is even more profitable to succeed in selling you one that is worthless amongst the hundred that are not. That, at least, is a bit of sport!”
I had actually forgotten, as I had not put the two in the same category, this passion for gambling, betting, and games of chance that the Irish are so fond of. This is what passes the time at their wakes with their card games, what fills the smoky offices of professional bookmakers who, in all the towns and small villages, take bets for horse races.
Most of our neighbours frequently lived in poverty or in any case very simply. This did not preclude some of them from spending ostentatiously and probably needlessly in order to ensure the regard and envy of the other families around them. The superfluous, for many, seemed more necessary than the necessary. Few attached importance to comforts in their house, even though it was not unusual to see parked in front of their door, in a poorly kept yard, a big second-hand American car to demonstrate their “standing” vis-à-vis their acquaintances. One of our drivers, John o’ Toole, lived with five or six children in a small cottage with a thatched roof where the whole family crowded in. It was picturesque, but even more uncomfortable and much smaller than the one we had lived in on our arrival. From the ceiling hung a quantity of empty tins, mostly rusty: they were there to catch the drops of water that seeped through the roof when it rained. Nonetheless, in the house was a radio and later on the very latest television set; outside was a large car, a bit dented, but impressive looking.
All these people were frequently gathered together in the evenings, at one or other of their homes, to talk, exchange news, pass on gossip and comment on events. Peter Freyer, one of our neighbours who lived in a tiny thatched cottage, a couple of hundred metres from our place, was seldom up before the afternoon. He lived in extreme poverty: but he had never thought of working apart from watching his two or three cows grazing along the sides of the road. At night, on the other hand, his cows shut in a field, he went out in all weather, braving the rain and storms, or dreaming under the moon. He visited one or other of the houses in the area, where he was usually offered the evening meal of tea and bread. I suppose that was his only nourishment. He was very tall, somewhat emaciated and spectral, so much so that he sometimes frightened children. He acted as public chronicler, reading the cards and singing on occasions. At night, a car’s headlights sometimes picked out his long dark silhouette, severe and always dressed in dark clothing, as he regained his solitary shack.
There were quite a number of others who were single, usually bachelors of mature age, who also never thought of working. Their unemployment benefits or public assistance allowance, when they succeeded in obtaining them through various means that were sometimes not very regular, together with milk from their cows and eggs from their chickens, were enough for them to live on. They lived on thin air, solitary contemplation, in isolated cottages, in hillside hollows, in the middle of rocks that emerged from the soil of their fields and the sand or pebbles of solitary creeks. They were seldom seen emerging from their solitude except at night when they sought out the society of others. As a general rule, the Irish, and those in Connemara are no exception, love to talk, discuss and converse. They animate and fill the wakes or long sessions in the pubs. Their imagination is given free reign. I do not know if they always believe everything they say but they at least pretend they do. Discussion thus becomes an art in itself: it feeds on itself. The simplest things become complex, sustaining new reasons for talking, provoking new morsels of eloquence. Oscar Wilde, himself a child of Dublin, said one day with pride to his compatriot, the young poet Yeats:
“We are the best and the finest speakers since the Greeks!”
On the other hand, apart from a few remarkable exceptions, the Irish do not write much. Writing brings you back to reality, whilst verbal expression allows for the dream. The rigid structure of words and phrases that are written seem incapable of containing thought. The latter being too dense, too complex, too fleeting and too wandering to let it be locked up that way. The Celts have always preferred verbal expression and eloquence, words jostling each other, flowing like a torrent and enabling brilliant improvisations that leave no other trace than the epic traditions, inscribed in the memories of those who heard them. Each person adds, deforms, embellishes, as medieval storytellers and transcribers had already done. One can only listen until one gets tired of it. It is thus easier to understand the appreciation that Winston Churchill, one of the English negotiators of the Anglo-Irish treaty that was a prelude to Irish independence in the early twenties, had for Arthur Griffith, one of the Irish negotiators of the treaty, confronting him. Faced with the latter’s behaviour and his firmness of character, he expressed surprise “to find himself in the presence of such an unusual occurrence as that of a silent Irishman”!
I had been struck on my arrival by the attraction the United States held for Connemara’s families. They nearly all had direct links with American society. It was not unusual to see women or young girls milking cows in the fields, wearing fashionable Broadway evening dresses: they had to be made use of. They came in parcels from America. Those who could do so, in this way, helped their families who had stayed in the old country. They often enclosed some dollars. These were legal tender, as was English or Irish money, in the shops of Galway, Clifden or Westport. They were accepted without any problem. In the minds of the local children, America was very near, even though there was an ocean to cross. It was much closer than the European continent. When I told one of the young girls we employed in the house that we might take her to France with us for a visit, she appeared frightened at the thought of going so far away from home. The distance separating us from America seemed much less to her. I had to show her a map of the continents to convince her. New York or Boston are much more real for the people of Connemara, than Dublin, London or Paris. The writer J.J. Plunkett was discussing this phenomenon, one day, with Father Gilligan, assigned to one of the parishes on the Aran Islands at the time. The latter said to him:
“Stretch your hand out with fingers open towards the sun in the east. They look like black shadows against the clear sky. Well, what you are seeing there are the chimneys and skyscrapers of New York.”
Claddaghduff church, just two kilometers east of our place, is said to be the last one before reaching Boston!
This tradition of emigration to America went back over a century, at the time of the Great Famine, the last major catastrophe of its kind, apart from those that may have affected the rural areas of the U.S.S.R. under the reign of Stalin that are still not fully known. Cromwell, two centuries earlier, had driven all native Irish of the catholic religion, west of the Shannon. It was therefore overpopulated. The British authorities had set up a special body to administer it, called “The Congested District Board”. It operated for a long time, even after independence. Through force of circumstances, Connemara and the other western regions of Ireland had particularly suffered from the Famine. It had the largest quota of emigrants to the United States. Galway had become a transatlantic port. It remained so until the Second World War.
After the outbreak of this last war, the migratory current shifted towards Great Britain, where the Irish still had the same civil and social rights as the English. This emigration was and remains less permanent and more seasonal or temporary, unlike the emigration towards the United States. Once they had gathered together a small nest egg in the English urban centers, the emigrants returned to their country to spend it. The length of their stay often depended on the extent of their sobriety, short if they frequented the pubs, longer if they did not. They left again when the money they had saved had run out. It is a fact that the conditions they were faced with in the big English cities were hard: they were no better than the conditions the Bretons had to face in the Paris region at the beginning of the century. The hardest work and the least sought after, the most sordid living conditions were always reserved for them. Fifteen years after the end of the war, when my eldest daughter Rozenn had recently married and settled in London, I still came across notices in front of houses that were letting apartments or furnished rooms in the Kilburn and Willesden areas, which had written on them “No children, no coloured, no Irish”.
Emigration of any description is bound to entail some personal dramas, spiritual suffering and heart wrenching. It affects those who leave, as it does those who are left behind. I understand them and am able to discern them around me, as I suffered from them deeply myself, and still do. It is with good reason that the claim for work in their own country remains a priority for our people. If it is fulfilled, it is a strong factor for personal and social stability. The application of this policy should be assisted in every way, and the return be made easier for those who had to leave, particularly in the case of civil service or salaried employment. Many of our social problems today can be explained by this voluntary or forced uprooting and by the traumas it provokes. I had many examples of it in Ireland.
From time to time, when I was building the house, I had employed young Owen. He was not yet eighteen years old. He already had two older sisters in America. They were pressuring him to come and join them. Attached as he was to his friends and his corner of land that he had never left, barely out of childhood, he still hesitated. He decided to try England first, as it was easier to return from there. He did not make it further than Galway and walked away when he was about to take the train. He tried again, a few weeks later: this time he made it as far as Dublin. The city confused and frightened him: he felt a complete stranger there. He made it as far as the pier where the boat for England leaves from Dun Laoghaire. Rather than get on the boat, he spent the night in the station and came home the next day. It was not until later, when one of his sisters, settled in New Jersey, came on a visit that he decided to accompany her back to the New World. Since then, he seldom returned to his country.
Gerry was already over thirty when he decided to leave his work at the pond to go and work in Northampton, an industrial town in the English Midlands, where one of his sisters had settled. Another sister had settled in Oxford where she was doing some studies. Gerry was very popular in the area and a great friend of all the young people. Marie-Madeleine drove him in our car to Galway where he was to catch the train. Word of his departure had spread and groups had formed at all the crossroads between Aughrusbeg and Clifden to bid him goodbye and wish him well on his journey. Some of the children were crying as they saw him leaving. All had tears in their eyes. Long stops had to be made each time. Gerry held out for ten years or so in his exile, probably because he lived with family members. On returning for a holiday, he decided not to go back: shortly after, he took up his work at the pond again.
Since the death of his parents, Pol lived alone in a small cottage situated just below the road to Clifden. He was well over thirty. He looked after his two or three cows and his few fields. He cut his stock of turf from the hillside nearby, planted and harvested his potatoes. He seldom frequented the pub and he was not known to have any female involvement. He lived a very withdrawn and solitary life. Every time I passed by that way, I could see that he was busy building a sort of extension to his cottage. Whenever he was asked about this extension, he would simply reply that he needed a workshop or a stable and that he felt a bit cramped in his cottage. Little by little the extension took shape: it soon had a roof. Yet nobody could boast of having seen the interior of the new extension that he was building by himself with great care.
In reality, Pol was living in hope of the return of a young girl he had been seeing for a few years before his parents died. But, tired of waiting maybe, she had emigrated. It was for her, in reality, probably to please her, that Pol was building this new house. Yet he never said a word about it, like many Celts, he was reserved about his feelings.
The young girl never returned. Pol sank further into his solitude, cherishing his dream, at the same time as he cherished the new house for the loved one who would never occupy it. He became rather odd, constantly talking to himself as he paced up and down the path from where he could watch the horizon. Whenever he cycled to Mass or to go shopping, he covered his mouth and nose with a sort of mask so as not to absorb the dust or breathe in the fumes from the few cars he would pass on the road.
Old Maureen lived in a small house on the side of a hill, between its summit and the road. She was a widow. She only had a son from her marriage. He had decided to emigrate soon after the death of his father. Maureen remained alone. She milked her cows, planted her potatoes. She lived as best as she could from her widow’s allowance. Her neighbours helped her as much as possible. She could hardly read. In her old age, she had asked her son to return home, but there had been no reply from him. Everyday she would watch the road when the postman was due on his rounds. As soon as she spotted him from afar, she would go to meet him.
“Is there no letter for me?” she would ask him, anxiously.
“No, there is nothing for you today,” Tommy invariably replied. “Maybe there will be something for you tomorrow.”
This went on for over a year. Tommy, who had a kind heart, came to dread these meetings: he suffered himself to see the disappointment mixed with mental anguish and grief that he involuntarily conveyed to her. One day, he could stand it no longer and wrote himself to Maureen, arranging to have the letter posted from England. He wrote as if he were her son, explaining that he could not come back yet and asking her to be patient. At Maureen’s request he opened the letter and read it out to her. Maureen’s radiant face rewarded him for his subterfuge. This was repeated several times with long months in between. However, the son never returned. Maureen died alone in her small house on the hillside surrounded by rocks.
In Brittany also, these kinds of personal dramas, for the same reasons, were not uncommon. Father Pierre Bourdellés, an excellent theologian, Breton speaker and Anglicist, who had been a professor at St.Joseph’s in Lannion, became chaplain for the retirement home in Gouarec, towards the end of his life, told me a similar story, on one of the last occasions we met.
“One of our elderly residents died recently. She was from a village nearby. The farmhouse she had lived in had been in ruins for some time already. We did what was necessary to advise her children who lived in the Paris region. It was the only address we had. We even delayed the funeral for twenty-four hours to allow them time to arrive. But nobody ever came.”
It was, indeed, mostly with the small community around us that we had the most contact, not least because of our business activities. But there was another community, completely separate, which had only work related or neighbourhood connections with the former. They were frequently unaware of each other. This was the small Anglo Irish landed aristocracy that had remained in Ireland or had returned after the guerrilla years. The expropriation from the lands had mainly affected owners of very large estates, landowners who were frequently not permanently resident in Ireland. They themselves seldom worked their lands, and the abuses of their stewards, in charge of collecting the revenues, had been one the main causes behind the agrarian unrest that had dominated Irish political life at the end of the XIXth century. The Land League, inseparably linked to the protestant Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish nationalist group in the London Chamber of Commons, called for the redistribution of land to the small Irish farmer. Little by little it came about, even before the establishment of the Free State speeded up the process.
The Land League unrest led to the voting in 1903, by the British parliament, of Wyndeham’s law, named after its initiator. This law provided for widespread repurchasing of land by local people with the State’s financial assistance. Once it was in place, the Free State carried it on, though not before the guerrilla and the civil war in the twenties had provoked the departure of a number of big English landowners. One can still make out, here and there in the countryside, the ruins of large properties that were burned down at the time and are now practically obliterated and overgrown with brambles. Their owners generally never returned, being content with receiving the compensation that had been awarded to them for the expropriation. The Irish parliament had finally put an end to the annuities fifteen years later, shortly before the Second World War. The English government however continued to make the payments.
But even though the large estates had been expropriated or repurchased, the fishing rights, held by the owners, of the rivers and lakes that bordered on or crossed their old estates had not been expropriated or withdrawn. With the development of tourism, these fishing rights would become an important source of profit. Some owners returned to exploit them. A number of them settled on the banks of the large lake Corrib, which has become a much appreciated fishing place with peaceful scenery stretching for over fifty kilometers, before flowing out at Galway bay. The small town of Oughterard, in particular, is their center. They get together and visit each other by boat. For them, Ireland is an easily accessible place of leisure, a remnant of the Empire lost in the extreme West of Europe.
Others, who possessed smaller estates, had not been completely expropriated, as they had been able to prove that they themselves or their families directly exploited their lands, or what was left of them. This was the case, notably, of the Armstrong-Tulloch and the Twining-Holberton families, not far from our place, on the far side of Cleggan. Since before the war, Marcel Samzun had known Madame Holberton, who was of French origins. The Tullochs and the Holbertons were related to the Irwin family. Dr. Irwin was, as we know, one of our first doctors. His brother was the protestant minister of the small Anglican parish of Moyard. It was through some of these that we were introduced to the members of this local Anglo Irish society. They were mostly protestant, mainly of the Anglican faith. They were few in number and did not mix with the generally more modest catholic society that surrounded us. Their members had welcomed us warmly, right from the beginning. Some of them knew of my situation as a political refugee but never spoke to us about it. Neither did the Marcadé, the first French people we met since our arrival when they were on holidays near Clifden in 1952. We remained friendly with them; in spite of the fact that Marcadé was the Commercial councilor of the French embassy in Dublin at the time. I avoided discussing politics, to avoid embarrassing him, but gathered from various remarks that he did not think kindly of the repressions perpetuated by the Resistance government at the time. Some years later, we had a similar relationship with one of his successors, René Miot.
In reality, the limited number of members of the Anglo Irish society hardly bothered with politics. Some of them felt as much Irish as English. However, they had maintained the ways, the traditions and even sometimes the prejudices of the good contemporary English society. Many of them perceived the consequences of the country’s independence, though they had accepted them, with a lack of understanding. They were unable to perceive either their cause or their necessity. Most of them continued to send their children to England for their studies. The children of those who remained in Ireland normally finished their education in Trinity College, whose university studies were considered to be of a higher level than those of the Catholic universities. Many of them had cousins or links with English families, sometimes in London. The latter did not always reciprocate the consideration they had for them, referring with semi disdain to their cousins from the bogs. Some of them also had been engaged in colonial careers in the British Empire’s overseas territories. It was not unusual to come across retired ex officers.
We did not go out much: I hardly had the time for it. Contrary to Marie Madeleine, whose elegance and beauty always sparkled on these occasions, I have never had a fondness for society gatherings. But our children knew each other and some of them came to join us on our beach. From time to time we joined them for a cocktail, generally during the winter season. It was not unusual to travel thirty to fifty kilometers in order to attend these occasions. The Robb’s, for example, lived near Cashel, on the far side of Roundstone. We generally returned the invitations once a year, around Christmas time, when the children were on holidays. We were also invited to dinners and dancing parties.
These occasions gave me an opportunity to become more familiar with the British ceremonial for receptions that I had had no knowledge of previously. English good manners are noticeably different from those on the continent. In general, they dress up for dinner, the women in evening dresses and the men in dinner suits. It is often the host who fills the plates and glasses of his guests as there are seldom menservants or sommeliers to do so any more. He sits at one end of the table and his wife faces him at the other end. It is not considered good form to empty your plate completely nor to put your hands or elbows on the table. After the cheese, which has been preceded by the dessert, the hostess rises from the table, leading away her lady guests. This, in principle, provides the latter with an opportunity to ‘wash their hands’, a euphemism meaning to go to the bathroom and rearrange their faces before returning to the lounge.
The gentlemen guests remain alone at table around the host who serves them with a port. This is the moment to exchange more liberal topics, even rather risqué stories, away from female ears that should not hear them. A little while later, the men also return to the lounge.
As a general rule, the Anglo Irish society has remained very attached to horses and all equestrian sports. They attribute the horse, a noble animal par excellence, with an intelligence it does not have. They frequent horse races assiduously, which also provides them with an opportunity to satisfy their passion for gambling. The ultimate achievement is to own your personal stable or raise horses. Connemara is endowed with a breed of horse, small in stature, called ponies. In the month of August, buyers of all nationalities frequent assiduously the Clifden Pony Show. Brendan Behan, in his poetic language, justly associated the man of power and influence with the image of a protestant mounted on a horse. Malicious gossip says that those passionate about horses, attach more importance to the appearance and cleanliness of their animals’ tails than to that of their own hair, and that they generally dress in tweed clothes that are the colour of mud or horse dung, to save on having to clean their clothes too often. It is true that nowadays, apart from a few exceptions, ostlers are no longer available to look after them. It was also said, rather nastily, that ‘horsy people’ kept their stables much cleaner than their kitchens. But they had the satisfaction of knowing that their equestrian occupations categorized them automatically in the ranks of high society.
They did not all display these failings. Garnett, Dr. Irwin’s daughter, the only one of his children who had remained with him in Ireland, was passionate about horses. She did nothing else but look after them. Short and slim, she raced them herself in the local races that were held on Omey strand or on Bunowen strand, near Ballyconeely. She often won prizes.
The members of the Anglo Irish society and the protestants were not all ‘horsy people’, far from it, though Graham Tulloch used his lands for a business in Connemara ponies. He came back at the end of the war, in 1945. He had enlisted as a volunteer in the R.A.F., his plane had been shot down over Bohemia: he had been taken prisoner and reported to have disappeared. The Holberton brothers were involved in sheep rearing on Cleggan head. Dr. Brooks’ wife had founded a riding school in Errislannan. Her husband was a famous surgeon in London. A specialist in hand surgery, he had amongst his clientele a certain number of emirs from the Gulf. As to the Millars dynasty, they had founded a tweed factory in Clifden, the only small industry the town possessed. A flourishing salesroom had been added. The Millars were thus practically the only protestant business people in Clifden. All the others were Catholic, and amongst those of course were a certain of number of pub owners. The few hotels and guesthouses each had their own pub.
The fashion for supermarkets had not yet reached the country. Few articles were priced. With some, bargaining was still the rule. The ironmongers had practically disappeared. Old O’Connor, a short thin man with lively eyes and a scarcity of grey hair, sold some nails and tools as well as timber and sacks of cement. A picturesque character who, having been a bachelor for a long time, finally married his housekeeper. The latter waited on him hand and foot. Should someone arrive before eleven in the morning, she made the clients wait until the master of the house had finished his breakfast. From behind his counter, O’Connor slowly proceeded to serve you. When the time came to pay, he watched you, while keeping his face persistently lowered before throwing a random price at you. He undoubtedly fixed his price by the look of the client. He then raised his head in order to judge the effect of his proposal better. Before starting his own business he had been employed in a similar business that had since disappeared. He once naively told me that at his previous employer’s shop, the prices were generally dropped during the period of the religious feasts and when the Catholic Church held its “missions”, days of prayers, penance and recollection.
“Clients could not be asked,” he told me, “to pay high prices during those days.”
P.J. O’Connor got up late, but he was not the only one. Moran, the chemist, a quiet man of few words, was already in semi retirement when his son came to take over from him.
“My father,” the latter told me one morning when I found him alone in the chemist shop, “rarely makes an appearance before midday. He is not an early riser.”
When old Moran appeared, he settled into an armchair behind the counter, close to the till. From there, he was able to watch the comings and goings along the footpath. He had positioned some mirrors that allowed him to watch, not only those people coming in his direction, but also those coming from the other side. He did little else all day.
The shops in Clifden generally did not open until ten in the morning, even later if there had been a dance or a longer session in the pubs the night before. These customs had not changed much in 1969, when de Gaulle and his wife spent a few days in Connemara. They stayed at a hotel in Cashel that, in order to receive the general, had been obliged to place two beds end to end. Madame de Gaulle, having come to Clifden to make some purchases, questioned her plainclothes Irish police guard, surprised that the shops were still not open around nine thirty in the morning when she arrived.
Here also the civil war had left its mark. Memories of it aggravated strained relations between competing businesses. The Joyce dynasty was Fianna Fail and faithful supporters of De Valera, passed on from father to son. That of the Mannion’s was Fine Gael. Also, there was a Fianna Fail butcher and a Fine Gael butcher, a Fianna Fail lawyer and a Fine Gael lawyer, some Fine Gael café owners and others Fianna Fail. These differences, in reality, were not obvious in practice, except at election time, when feelings ran high. It was difficult, in fact, to find any difference on an ideological, social or political level, between the two dominant parties. Only the memories of a past that was not more than thirty years old separated them. Right wing or left wing ideals and ideological concepts that are too often arbitrary had no place here. The Irish, like the English and other Nordic nations, are far too pragmatic in politics to entertain this. It is not the first time that I have realised Montesquieu was right when he wrote in his ‘Esprit des Lois’ that “Le nord de l’Europe est la fabrique des instruments qui brisent les fers forgés au midi”, which can be translated as “the north of Europe is the manufacturer of instruments that breaks the wrought iron of the south”.
Alongside these two deeply rooted societies in Connemara, a certain number of strangers to the country were found and still are found, generally new arrivals. They have settled there, often by choice but also, as was our case, through force of necessity. They were welcomed without a second thought, even if one did not associate with or see them often. Their presence alone brought a certain activity and glamour to the area. Some of them were Irish, such as the writers Kate and Edna O’Brien, and the film actor Peter O’Toole. They had settled there in order to be able to write, escaping from restrictive social circles and environment, or to find a certain peace.
Kate O’Brien had settled in Roundstone in 1950, around the same time as we settled in Cleggan. She had bought a house called “The Fort”, situated directly on the rocky shores of the bay. The sea at high tide washed the walls of her garden. She lived there alone with her cats. However, she did not last longer than ten years there before returning to live in England. Her colleague, Edna, who lived a little closer to Clifden, did not last much longer. Her first book, ‘The Country girls’, had created a scandal in some Irish country circles. An overzealous priest, close to her native village in County Clare, had confiscated all the copies he could find and burnt them in public with his congregation around him. She had compared the members of the small Connemara society to “fish that swim around a glass bowl”. They had undoubtedly both fallen victims of Connemara’s spell, often fatal to inspiration and work. As for Peter O’Toole, he only spent short periods at his place on the headland of Kingstown bay. He often frequented the horse show in Clifden during the month of August. He could drink in peace in his retreat, regaining his momentum and a better health there.
Many others only spent occasional periods in Connemara. This was not the case with Eddy O’Brien, who had nursed the intention of settling there for good, probably for the same fiscal reasons that caused many members of well-off families to flee from England and the Scandinavian countries, out of reach of over zealous fiscal authorities. He was of Irish origin, descendant from the long line of O’Briens, once kings of Thomont. Although he had remained a Catholic, he was as anglicised as his wife Liz, who was purely of English descent. He remained quite secretive about his past and seldom spoke of it: we maintained the same discretion on our side. It was mainly through his wife that we saw them from time to time, as his daughters were friends and schoolmates of mine in Kylemore, and learnt that, during the war, he had been parachuted several times into France and had returned with a serious throat injury, which made it difficult for him to breathe properly. Before coming to Connemara, they had lived in Madrid. It was rumoured that he was or had been in the Intelligence Service. Both of them spoke fluent Spanish and French.
Around the time when we arrived, O’Brien had bought Rossleague, Miss Brown’s large house surrounded by a park and outbuildings, which overlooks the far end of Letterfrack bay. Miss Brown was also a very important person. At the beginning of the century, in London, together with her friend Miss Robinson who lived with her, she had been an ardent suffragette, chaining herself to the railings of public monuments during demonstrations to obtain the right of women to vote. During the Second World War, she had founded a small secondary school in her home, for the protestant daughters of the high society in the area. She was also a descendant of the Twining family. She had retired with her friend to a much smaller house than Rossleague. She was already a centenarian when she died suddenly, while playing bridge, a few years ago.
O’Brien only remained about twelve years in Rossleague. After having auctioned the precious furniture it contained, he put the house up for sale. He separated from his wife after having settled her into a smaller house he had built for her in the park of the big domain.
“I’ve had enough of it all,” he had told me one day, “looking after so many things. There are times when I yearn to posses nothing but one jacket and a single pair of shoes.”
He ran a restaurant for a few months in Ballyconneelly as he enjoyed cooking. He quickly tired of that and bought a yacht on which he lived most of the time. He became one of those rich wanderers of the Mediterranean, mainly anchoring his boat in Cyprus and the Greek islands close to the Middle East. His wife remained settled in Ireland. A kind and sociable person, she was a voluble talker. She continues to enjoy society events and cocktail parties. Rossleague was bought by the Foyle dynasty, hoteliers from Clifden, and is today a Hotel. It has been enlarged and renovated for this new purpose.
Oliver Saint-George Hawksley was a very colourful character. His daughters were classmates of my daughter in Kylemore. English of good stock, deeply patriotic, he had joined the British army at the age of seventeen during the First World War. At the end of the war he had married and founded a small private school in Norfolk. He had not been able to further his studies on account of the war: he was nonetheless well cultured and had several works of poetry published. His patriotism, his anti-communism, his love of panache and need for action had led him to become the Norfolk county representative of the party founded by Sir Oswald Mosley, shortly before the Second World War. The new movement had been founded along the lines of the Italian fascist party: it had adopted the black shirts and a fondness for uniformed demonstrations. Right from the beginning of the Second World War, the English Government, having also set aside the guarantees of individual liberties assured to citizens by the principals of habeas corpus, had arrested and interned the main leaders of Mosley’s party, under suspicion of both pacifist propaganda and being Nazi sympathisers. Hawksley had been one of these. He had therefore spent eighteen months in Ascot and York internment camps. Liberated in 1941, he was placed under house arrest and police surveillance, far from his home. He settled on the small island of Gigha in County Argyle. On a clear day, the high peaks of Northern Ireland can be seen from it. He had a difficult life there with his wife and four daughters. Meanwhile he had converted to Roman Catholicism and, although already legally married, he had insisted on having his union consecrated according to the rites of his new religion. This had given his daughters the occasion of assisting at the religious marriage of their parents. At the end of the war, having succeeded in selling his property in Norfolk, he decided to settle in Ireland. One of his friends made this move easier by giving him the use of his country house in Dooneen, on the shores of Letterfrack bay, not far from Kylemore. He arrived there in 1947 and three years later decided to take over Rock Glen, a small hotel overlooking a briny lake, known as the Salt lake, at the far end of Clifden bay, very close to a Franciscan monastery.
That is where I met him for the first time. He was older than I was by at least twelve years. His wife, assisted by their daughters, did the cooking. He took care of the reception, general administration and public relations. He had purchased at a good time, just when the flow of post war tourists was just beginning.
He was the ideal person for this new role. An open, distinguished and handsome man plus a way with words, who did not have his head in the clouds, in spite of being quite a poet. He was not lacking in ideas or initiative. Our somewhat similar misfortunes brought us together and he was the one who introduced me to his jurist friend P.Veale, author of ‘Advance to Barbarism’, that I had undertaken to translate into French. I still remember walking along the beach hammering out words and sentences of the preface I had written for it. Rock Glen Hotel still exists: but was sold shortly before the death of its owner and the return of his wife to England. Two of his daughters remained and settled in Clifden where one of them, Lavinia, had married.
We were very fond of Joan Fretwell, who had also recently arrived in our area. She was of Cornish and Welsh origins and had only come to Ireland to follow the Irish husband she had married. The latter had started up a small band and would hire out his services to hotels, pubs and privately organised dances or receptions. However, Fretwell drank away all his earnings and Joan finally left him, taking their daughter with her. She had managed to obtain an old schoolmaster’s house in Moyard, which was dark and in poor condition. The French writer Bernard Clavel recently bought a house opposite to it. Thanks to her hard work she had succeeded in transforming Crocknaraw into a small guesthouse and seasonal restaurant that was bright and welcoming, surrounded by a small park and well tended gardens. We always sent her any passing visitors we had. Joan was outspoken and quite a personality. She was an expert in astrology and always asked what sign of the zodiac you were born under. She died a few years ago, leaving her daughter Lucy, also a friend of our girls, to continue running the small establishment.
The end of the world that is Connemara, by its geographical remoteness from urban centres, is an ideal refuge for those who wish to escape from their previous life, forget everything, reject everything, or start all over again. Amongst these of course, one can rely on there being a number of eccentrics. The retired British army colonel, ex military attaché to Moscow and the Russian wife he brought back, can be classified as one of those. He had bought an isolated house, situated at the far end of Streamstown bay, below the Clifden to Westport road. The Shaw-Smiths took it over later. Mrs. Shaw-Smith, in the relative isolation of the place, was able to devote herself in peace and quiet to the art of glass engraving. Her predecessor, the colonel, after settling in, had circulated a card to all the members of the Anglo-Irish society in the area who might visit him. He made it clear that although he had settled in Streamstown, he had no intention of visiting anyone and had no desire to receive anyone. Nobody went there, apart from the odd craftsman from time to time. One of them told me once that he had installed wireless sets in every room in the house, including bedrooms, bathrooms and toilets. Undoubtedly, the colonel preferred the company of machines, and music from a box, to that of humans.
From time to time, one would come across another of these eccentrics, a German who had the title of doctor; it was not clear in what. He would mostly be seen at cocktail parties, as he was too fond of whisky and alcoholic drink to keep away from them. He lived in a house that was back a bit from the road on the way to Galway, from where one had an admirable view of the Twelve Bens mountain range.
“I do not know what he is a doctor of,” Gerard Todd, another English eccentric who had wandered into our area, had told me. “But he is, in any case, certainly a doctor in ebrietatis.”
Todd was an expert in the matter. Kind, courteous, articulate and well bred with a deeply lined face and sleek thinning hair; he always wore a checked tweed jacket closed with only the top button. He held his drink well; on condition he did not abuse it too much, though he did so practically every day. I had employed him for a time at the pond as caretaker on a temporary basis during my absence. However, I had to part with him quite shortly, as it was not unusual for him to have absorbed a half bottle of whiskey by lunchtime and the rest in the evening. Wherever he was the drink had to be locked up.
“Ah, Brittany!” Todd’s German emulator had told me one day in a tearful voice with a glass in his hand. “Cocagne!, or land of plenty, I came to know it thanks to the Occupation. I was billeted with my men to a place near Châteaulin. One day, we had been searching through a large farm and when I asked them if they had any cider eau de vie, I was taken to the bathroom. Can you believe it, the bath was full to the brim of it,” he added bursting out laughing as he recalled that memory.
He did not tell me whether he had bathed in it. His men must have had trouble bringing him back to their billet.
But all the newcomers were not of the same mould. In Recess, a few kilometres from our German, in the old railway station of the small railroad that used to link Clifden to Galway that he had purchased and renovated, lived Sean Lester, the last secretary general of the League of Nations. Originally from the North of Ireland, protestant, he started his career in journalism, first in Belfast and then in Dublin. A dedicated Irish patriot, he entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Free State when it was created in 1922, before being appointed, in 1927, Irish permanent representative to the League of Nations in Geneva. His political career brought him to the post of High Commissioner of the League of Nations in Danzig, a German town, but at the junction between Poland and Germany and consequently endowed with the status of Free city under the protection of the League of Nations, after the 1918 treaties. Returning to Geneva in 1937, he began as assistant secretary general to the L.O.N., and went on to become secretary general after the collapse of the French and the resignation in August 1940 of the French secretary general, Joseph Avenol. The L.O.N. had not been able to maintain peace, despite the efforts of those in charge. Sean Lester endeavoured to maintain its neutrality during the Second World War. However, being Irish and neutral he was suspected by the Americans, who had never been a member of the L.O.N., and by Soviet Russia who had been expelled from it shortly before the war. In April 1946, the L.O.N. was done away with and was replaced by the U.N.: thus it was that Sean Lester was given early retirement and came to live in Connemara. He died there in 1959, leaving behind the memory of an honest man of integrity, of high principles and good will, who was dealt an ill turn by events. They prevented him from attaining the higher posts he was capable of, yet he held no bitterness. Men cannot always control their own destinies.