Michael Hanley’s memories of 1920s and 1930s

This week in Down Memory Lane we look at another of Michael Hanley’s contributions to the Castletownbere Christmas Newsletter back in the 1980s. Here Michael vividly describes happenings and people in Castletownbere in the 1920s and ‘30s, ‘Snapshots from The Past.’
When I was a very small boy and my father had taken me with him on a visit to our farm in Droum. We were returning home, and had only closed the gate when we heard a lorry coming from the west. My father was in a quandary: if he turned back, it would look suspicious, and he could not reach the haggard before the lorry would pass the field inside the gate. He decided to walk on towards the town. By now we could hear the drunken shouts and yells.

He took me by the hand, and moved closer to the fence. Before we reached Frank Hanley’s house, the lorry came abreast of us, packed full of soldiers and police. A soldier (not a Black and Tan) levelled a revolver at my father. Whether it was intent to fire or drunken bravado, a grim jest, I shall never know, for an officer knocked his hand aside. The lorry rumbled on towards town. That day they had killed a man near Allihies. He was crossing a field, buckets in hand, going to a well for water. He was deaf and dumb, and could not hear their commands to halt, so they riddled him.

The Civil War was on, and that Sunday we had been invited to Allihies by my Aunt Agnes and Uncle Henry. Aunt Agnes was my favourite relation on either side of the family, for she was the soul of generosity. We all set off by trap on a fine sunny day. The anti-treaty forces had tried to blow up Brady Hall Bridge. I and other children of my age had been over to Breen’s to stare at the crack in the road. However, it did not prevent traffic from crossing. Either they were short of explosives, or short of expertise.

The small bridge at Cahirgarriff was a much easier proposition, and it was completely down. My father knew the mare had never trodden on a wooden surface, and he was afraid she might prove restive, so he got my mother and his children to alight, and he led the mare forward. The gap was spanned by planks of wood, placed close together. As the mare heard the sound of hoofs on the planks, she went berserk.

My father tried to force her forward, but she reared and plunged uncontrollably, mad with fear. Eventually mare and trap went off the makeshift bridge, with my father clinging desperately to the reins. It was no great fall to the stream-bed, and he was not seriously injured, but a flying hoof had grazed his cheek and he was bleeding profusely. The Twomey family came rushing to his assistance, I can never forget their kindness to my parents and us terrified children. I remember sitting in their hospitable kitchen, wailing with fright, while Mrs. Twomey bathed my father’s cheek with hot water.
The mare was not seriously injured, but the shafts of the trap were broken, besides other damage to it. Mrs. Twomey made tea, and later one of the family drove us home in their own trap. The mare and damaged trap were left in Twomey’s, to be retrieved later on. Two of that family of good Samaritans were well known afterwards in Castletown, Dennis and Mark Twomey. We never got to Allihies that Sunday. There was virtually no traffic in those years

A Free State Army lorry killed Jack Healy’s dog, a white terrier. Healy’s house was in the narrowest part of the Street. I can remember his sister, her grey locks blowing in the breeze standing over the dead dog and cursing the soldiers with fluency and venom.
A party of drunken Free State soldiers came up from the Barracks Point, and headed for the old pier, carrying a bare deal coffin.

One of their number was a tiny little fellow known as Tich (Little Tich was a famous music-hall character in London during the First World War). They put Tich on the coffin and pushed him out to sea. The coffin floated quite well, and Tich hadn’t a worry in the world, for he was the happiest member of the whole party. He had not progressed very far, when a Bere Island man got into his boat and towed him ashore.

Half-dozen sailors from a destroyer at Furious Pier came strolling up the street. There was still very little traffic. One of them was strumming a banjo, and his companions were singing “Let’s all go to Mary’s “Ouse”, while their wide trouser legs flapped in the wind. “Too long and too loose like a sailor’s trousers, as we used to say, linking the saying with the French cities, Toulon and Toulouse.

At Brandy Hall we were learning a poem by Longfellow, the first verse of which ran; I stood on the bridge at midnight, when the clock was striking the hour, and the moon rose over the city, behind the dark church tower”. Brendan Lyne composed a parody:

“I stood on the bridge at mid-night, and the thought came into my head, What a fool I was to be standing there, When I might be at home in my bed”.

After that effort, we considered him a genius. He was home on holidays last summer from New Zealand, where he is a doctor. I didn’t meet him, but I would have liked to do so, for although I was somewhat older, we soldiered together in Brandy Hall academy, St. Brendan’s Killarney, and U.C.C., where we both resided in the Honan Hostel, (Sadly Brendan died in September last year).

It was a custom when I was a child that on Good Friday the best preacher in the area gave a sermon in the morning in the local church, his eloquence usually devoted to the Passion of Our Lord. This long sermon (and it was always long) began at 10 a.m. or possibly 10.30. One year Father Charlie O’Sullivan, who was then, if I remember rightly, a curate in Adrigole (many years later he was appointed to Castletownbere as Cannon Charlie) was chosen to preach the sermon. He devoted about two hours to a history of the Celts. ’Who were the Celts;” he declaimed, his right arm flung aloft in an oratorical gesture.

He traced the rise of the Celts, who at one time held sway over almost all the territory between Ireland and Asia Minor. He spoke of the P. Celts and the Q Celts, the Hallstatt culture and the La Tene culture, the beaker folk and the narrow folk, the brave, brilliant imaginative, impulsive Celts, who crushed the Roman armies, captured mighty Rome, risked the anger of the gods by plundering the oracle at Delphi, the arrogant boastful Celts, who could do everything but unite. It was a display of massive erudition, a magnificent tour-de-force, but it was completely irrelevant.

His tenuous link with the day that was in it was the story that the Ulster here, Conall Cearnach, went adventuring on the continent, joined the Roman legions, and was stationed in Palestine at the time of the Crucifixion. The Red Branch corpus was completely pagan in tone, and the tales of Conall Cearnach being in Judaea and the death of Conor MacNeasa were additions made in Christian times. Obviously Fr. Charlie was making a deep study of the Celts for a post – graduate-degree, or to while away the tedium of a country curacy, and all the knowledge fermenting within him came forth in a mighty purging wave. I heard many old people say afterwards that it was the best sermon that was ever preached in Berehaven.

Chris O’Shea asked me to go to the ship’s Regatta with him. Chris was a few years older than I was, but he was a neighbour, as we both lived in the Square. It was held in the first week in September, but the weather was more like winter, raw, surprisingly cold for the time of year, wild and stormy with great black clouds chasing one another across the sky. We set off and walked to Furious Pier, where three destroyers were anchored close together. After all the years I can remember their names, “Scythe”, “Sesame” and “Seawolf”, a neat piece of alliteration. Long gangways were laid from ship to ship, so that one could cross from one to the other, and we wasted no time in exploring all three vessels. Tall sailing ships with full canvas make up as graceful a picture as one could ask to see, but those destroyers with their long, grey rakish lines had a certain beauty too.

I was wearing what we then called a ‘Skull cap”, the type of cap that all boarding school boys were obliged to use, although I was years away from secondary school. Each school had its own crest. My cap had a crest also, but I have no idea if it had any significance. When crossing a gangway a capricious squall plucked the cap from my head and cast it into the yawning gulf by the ship’s side. Nothing daunted, we saw everything there was to be seen. The Regatta, we decided, was a wash-out, not a patch on our own Regatta that we had seen a month earlier.

It appeared to be a succession of boat races, and we had no interest in which crew won. Besides the boats were heavy tubes, and with the choppy seas and the gale they were not easily handled. Chris’s family supplied the destroyers with provisions, and Chris knew a surprising number of the sailors. We were brought below to the Petty Officers Mess and given tea, bread, butter, tinned salmon and jam. It was the first time in my life that I had tasted condensed milk, and I did not like it. Still we ate a hearty meal for the walk, the cold gusting air and our unfamiliar surroundings, all whetted our appetites.
Long before I was born, Rudyard Kipling had been a guest of the Navy at Furious Pier, but he had not dined in the Petty Officers’ Mess where Chris was treated like a prince. We faced back against the gale, and struggled against the wind that had grown more boisterous. We were lucky, for we reached home before the black clouds that had threatened all day, discharged their contents in torrents. It was the only time in my life that I enjoyed the hospitality of His Royal Highness, the King, or Her Majesty, either.

I think it was on the evening of the Regatta Day in 1927 that I saw the battle between Paddy the Thrasher and MacMillan. Paddy the Thrasher was not his name, but it will suffice. When the Allihies copper mines re-opened in 1926, he and his brother had returned from Butte City, Montana and had taken employment in Allihies.

Dave Power, publican in the West End, had been in Butte, too. His family is well represented in Castletownbere, and I met his sons, Tommy and Davy, when I was at home last May. It was a day of heavy showers, but there were dry periods occasionally, MacMillan was a Scottish Mining Engineer. The fight ebbed and flowed in front of Harrington Deenshs and Lyne’s public-houses. My Aunt Agnes and daughter Ita were in from Allihies, and of course, they knew both combatants well. We were sitting in what we then called the parlour, and its windows afforded an unrivalled view of the Square and the contest.

MacMillan was a very tall, slightly stoop-shouldered man; Paddy the Thrasher was of medium height, but possessed of immense strength, with a massive head. MacMillan tried to box his opponent, and his very long arms were an advantage here, but Paddy kept boring in, soaking up punishment, driving home punishing blows to MacMillan’s body. A veteran of bar-room brawls in Butte, he head-butted the Scot on several occasions, and soon MacMillan was bleeding freely from nose and mouth.
My aunt was very perturbed over the Scot’s condition, for she stated he was a thorough gentleman. I had spent two short holidays in Allihies and had seen MacMillan often in my aunt’s bar, and had found him to be a quiet, well spoken, courteous man, so I could echo my aunt’s opinion. But the victory rested with Paddy the Thrasher. I wondered what had driven a man of MacMillan’s calibre into such a position. Some grudge from work in the mines rankling for months, perhaps, and now brought into the open when the drink was in? A casual quarrel in a packed public-house? Or just plain John Barleycorn? I never learned the cause of the fight.

I will conclude these random recollections with a vignette, a seven line poem by William Allingham that was in our English reader in Brandy Hall long ago. Allingham is chiefly remembered now for his fine poem, “Adieu to Belashanny and the winding banks of Erne”, and his song about the fairies, “Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen”, the little poem went:

“Four ducks on a pond
A grass bank beyond
A blue sky of spring
White clouds in the wing
What a little thing
To remember for years
To remember with tears”.

Most of the people mentioned in these jottings are dead; May the clay rest lightly on their graves, and may Almighty God have them in His holy keeping. In 1931 the Allihies Copper Mines closed down, and I went away to boarding school.

There was no connection between the two events, but it was the ending of a phase in my life, the closing of a chapter.

Courtesy of the Southern Star