Jimmy Œthe Knaveš Fagan

The Eurcharistic Congress, the outbreak of War World II and the Great Snow of Œ47 are just some of the happenings that Archerstown octogenarian Jimmy ŒThe ŒKnaveš 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 four occasions.

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 Jimmy’s 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 Fagan’s 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 wasn’t 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 Jimmy’s 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 someone’s 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 lights.

“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 wouldn’t 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.

“We’d have our production ready for the start of Lent and over the next six Sundays, we’d perform in the surrounding villages of Clonmellon, Delvin, Crossakiel, Moylagh and Collinstown. There would be drama groups in those villages as well and they’d all come to perform in Archerstown.”

He continues: “We kept the drama group going until the 1950s. While you’d 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 you’d be relying on the big 200 watt light bulbs for a bit of heat!

“When you’d be up on stage, you’d see nothing only the glow of lighted cigarettes. For days afterwards, I’d 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 didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. And while times were tough, he doesn’t remember anyone going hungry.
“I was at the Delvin Fair when the War started. It was the first Friday in September and I don’t 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.

“They’d have to have coupons to buy nylon stockings and they weren’t in plentiful supply. The women would be banned from going to Mass if they weren’t wearing nylon stockings so what some of them used to do was paint their legs which would make them look like they were wearing stockings!
“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 didn’t see it again for six weeks! The snow started to fall on the first Saturday in February and didn’t stop until after St. Patrick’s Day.

“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 explains.

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 didn’t 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 around.

“But to tell you the truth, I’d 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 don’t know who their neighbours are. I preferred it when things were more laid-back,” he concludes.

Taken from Maroon & White 2004