the Knaveš Fagan
Eurcharistic Congress, the outbreak of War World II and
the Great Snow of 47 are just some of the happenings that
Archerstown octogenarian Jimmy The Knaveš Fagan has vivid
memories of. He takes us back in time.
A truly extraordinary man is Jimmy The Knave
Fagan. In his 82nd year, Jimmy has lived all his life in
Archerstown, Delvin and is known throughout Westmeath and
further afield as a brilliant storyteller.
Such is the high esteem in which Jimmy is held as a storyteller
that he is regularly visited by university professors who
seek to further their knowledge about old customs and the
way things were in rural Ireland. It is hardly surprising
then that Jimmy has been invited to tell stories at venues
throughout the country. He has also been Leinster champion
in the Pioneer Total Abstinence Recitation competition on
We recently caught up with the popular octogenarian who
was only too delighted to share his memories on some of
the major happenings in his life.
Some of Jimmys earliest memories are of attending
the Eurcharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932.
There was about 40 of us who travelled up to the Phoenix
Park on the back of Gerald Fagans lorry, recalls
Jimmy, who was only 10 at the time.
All the children wore white sashes and we were accompanied
by Master Gaughran, who taught in Clonmellon. I can remember
Count John McCormack from Athlone singing and the Papal
Nuncio driving by. But the thing that sticks in my mind
most is seeing a coloured bishop. I never realised that
coloured people existed until then!
After the Congress, we made our way to Clontarf and
the first thing that hit me was the shocking smell of the
sea. For a lad who had never ventured beyond Archerstown,
it was an unbelievable experience.
Another experience I had that day was buying my first
ice-cream. The woman in the shop must have known I was from
country because she told me to eat it from the bottom because
it would make it look bigger! We also drank fizz
out of a big steel bath and I can tell you that there wasnt
much of it left by the time we were finished with it.
A bachelor who never drank or smoked, Jimmy recalls receiving
his primary school certificate in 1935. Shortly after leaving
school, Jimmy attended an Irish language course run by the
Clonmellon branch of the Gaelic League and has remained
a fluent Irish speaker to this day. In fact, many of his
stories are punctuated with Irish phrases.
Like most people of his age group, religion played a huge
part in Jimmys up-bringing. Indeed, his brother John
has been a priest for almost 60 years and is now based in
Limerick where he is chaplain to Milford Hospital.
After John joined the priesthood in 1942, there was
an onus on the rest of the family to stay on the straight
and narrow. You had to be in the good books with the local
clergy, he says.
By and large, the Church was very strict and formal
but there were a few light hearted moments also. I can still
remember the funeral of Fr Coyne in Clonmellon in 1935.
We were all standing at the graveside when someones
cap blew off his head and into the grave.
I can tell you there was consternation when that happened.
A ladder had to be lowered into the grave and the cap taken
out before the funeral could proceed!
The emergence of Brownstown as a major force on the Westmeath
hurling scene in the 1930s led to the setting up of a drama
group in Archerstown for fundraing purposes. And needless
to say, The Knave was one of its leading
Hurling was our breakfast, dinner and tea in Archerstown
at that time, he remembers.
When Brownstown started going well, funds had to be
raised and as the priest wouldnt allow dances, we
decided to set up a drama group. We used to get our plays
from books that were bought in Browne and Nolans in Dublin.
Wed have our production ready for the start
of Lent and over the next six Sundays, wed perform
in the surrounding villages of Clonmellon, Delvin, Crossakiel,
Moylagh and Collinstown. There would be drama groups in
those villages as well and theyd all come to perform
He continues: We kept the drama group going until
the 1950s. While youd get a great buzz from performing
on stage, the cold and the smoke was something else. There
was no heating in any of the halls and youd be relying
on the big 200 watt light bulbs for a bit of heat!
When youd be up on stage, youd see nothing
only the glow of lighted cigarettes. For days afterwards,
Id be coughing up black spit! There was no such thing
as the smoking ban in those days!
Jimmy can vividly remember the outbreak of World War II
in September 1939 and how it didnt come as a surprise
to anyone. And while times were tough, he doesnt remember
anyone going hungry.
I was at the Delvin Fair when the War started. It
was the first Friday in September and I dont think
anyone was surprised by the news as it had been building
for a while.
Thankfully no one around Archerstown was too badly
affected because we all had our own potatoes, meat, eggs
and so on. If anything, the women suffered more than the
men during the Emergency because they had to wear the same
clothes all year round.
Theyd have to have coupons to buy nylon stockings
and they werent in plentiful supply. The women would
be banned from going to Mass if they werent wearing
nylon stockings so what some of them used to do was paint
their legs which would make them look like they were wearing
Another memory I have from the War time is the army
coming out to help with the harvest. They used to go mad
for the homemade bread - none of us could believe it when
they told us they had never eaten it before.
Two years after World War II ended, further hardship was
caused by the Great Snow of 47.
Anyone who was alive at that time will never forget
the snow that fell. The cold was something fierce. I was
on my way to the Fair in Athboy when it started. I abandoned
my bike somewhere along the way and I didnt see it
again for six weeks! The snow started to fall on the first
Saturday in February and didnt stop until after St.
But the older generation will tell you that the blizzard
of 32 was even harsher. It started on the 23rd of
February and lasted until May. I know farmers who could
hear their lambs bleating under 20 feet of snow, he
Jimmy recalls how life returned to normal after the War
and it was only after the advent of the Common Market that
radical changes began to take place.
The next big happening was in 1958 when electricity
came to Archerstown for the first time. We didnt know
ourselves with the lights - they were terrific.
Things remained much the same until the 1960s when
the Common Market was set up. The price of everything took
a big jump around then and they have continued to rise since.
Life is a lot different today and there is a lot of prosperity
But to tell you the truth, Id prefer things
the way they were. People were happier in those days and
there was a great sense of community spirit. Nowadays, people
spend so much time rushing around that they dont know
who their neighbours are. I preferred it when things were
more laid-back, he concludes.
Taken from Maroon & White 2004