Frank Hartes links with the Famine and 9/11 tragedy
90-year-old Frank Harte from Bermingham, Tuam is the man
whose mind is overflowing with crystal clear memories of
events during his own nine decades on this earth and also
about wheat he has heard and /or read regarding events as
major as the Irish Famine to the 9/11 tragedy and beyond.
My grandmother, on my fathers side, Mary Harte,
nee Murphy, lived to be 98, she was born in 1836 and lived
through the Famine and I have a clear memory of when she
died, even though I was only a youngster. While she was
lucky to have survived the famine, a son of my cousin Sean
Tierney was not so fortunate during the 9/11 tragedy in
New York and it was almost 3 months before they found his
body under the rubble, says Frank.
The young man who died in the 9/11 event was only
27 and he was a voluntary fire-fighter. He had just come
home after being on a night shift when he got the call to
go back out to the Twin Towers and he died there doing his
duty. The body was found 3 months later under the massive
piles of rubble and it was well preserved due to air being
excluded from the place where he lay. If there is any consolation
for his family it is that he is buried not far away from
where his sister lives in Staten Island, he added.
His dad, Sean, who teaches Irish to 2nd and 3rd generation
Irish in New York spoke about the 9/11 events on TG4 last
year and the family have visited us since, said Frank.
His own roots owe a lot to New York too because it was in
the Big Apple that Frank Hartes parents Patrick and
Margaret, formerly Conroy from Hollymount, met and were
married in 1910. He proudly points to their wedding day
photo which hangs on the the kitchen wall of his home, not
far from where another picture hangs of his parents which
was taken later in life when they were nearing retirement
age and living back in Birmingham.
Also displayed on the walls of his home are two unique mementoes
from this fathers days of working in a foundry in
New York. My fathers pals at the foundry made
those items for him as a wedding present and they had the
year, 1910, cast as part of the design, said Frank.
He also explains the significance of the designs on the
cast iron piece which also hangs proudly on the wall of
The heart symbol with the clasped hands signifies
love,the ships anchor shows that he has settled and
the cross is to mark his religion. The other piece which
they cast in the foundry if of the American Eagle and it
too has the date 1910 on it, says Frank. His father
was 93 when he was laid to rest in 1961. He was as
strong as a Shetland Pony and he worked down in the pits
in England too as well as in the New York foundry and of
course in farming here around home, said Frank.
Franks mother passed away at the age of 86 in 1970.
There were eight in the Harte family and Frank is the oldest
of the three who are still alive.
During some of the time that his mother was an Irish immigrant
in the USA she worked as a cook for a Swedish family. She
was a great cook and the woman of the house would often
get them to pick dandelions during Spring and make them
into dandelion tea which she claimed was great as a blood
purifier. My grandmother also spoke of how they would boil
nettles during the famine in a similar fashion and how the
nettle soup was high in iron, he added.
Franks grandmother raised a family of 12. He says
that most of them went to America and the last time she
would have seen them was when they waved goodbye to her
as they rounded the bend at Knockavannie as they walked
to the train station in Tuam for their first and final trip
Judging by their ages he says that his grandmothers
last child must have been born when she was about 55. She
was a hardy woman who worked in the fields too and she was
trained to waste nothing, even the waste cabbage leaves
and weeds would be thrown to the pigs for food. I think
that the bacon tasted better too when we cooked it in the
old days, mostly using lard. We killed the pigs ourselves
and when you ate a slice of that bacon which would be cold
in the evenings, having been cooked in the middle of the
day, it was so delicious you would be licking your fingers
after it, says Frank.
He also claims that the beef was tastier too when it was
mostly from Irish shorthorn breed cattle which were reared
in the fields and not wintered in slatted houses either.
There are too many continental breeds now and while
they might look good in the Mart they are too lean because
they are all muscle. The meat is like plastic when you eat
it and it lacks flavour and sustenance, in my opinion anyway.
The meat is not hung up long enough either after the cattle
are killed and that is not helping the flavour either,
When we celebrated his 90th birthday Franks extended
family and friends threw a surprise party for him at the
nearby Bermingham House, the home of his neighbour and friend
Oonagh Mary Hyland.
He says it was a pleasant surprise and wonderful occasion
with family and friends all around to fete him on reaching
the nine decades mark and it was a far cry from his 21st
We had no special parties to mark 21st birthdays in my young
days. When I was 21 we were probably either working in the
bog or out pulling beet in the fields, he said with
a smile. But Frank made up for his lack of a 21st birthday
by having a whale of a time at his 90th and he says he even
sang a verse or two of an old song at the party.
He has fond memories of shopping in Tuam with his mother
during childhood days. We would go to town with her
and it was a once a week treat to have loaf bread she would
bring home some lovely batch loaves.
He added that his mother usually mixed oaten meal with the
white flour on occasions the family even travelled as far
as Fureys Mills in Corrandulla to grind the wheat
made into meal for baking.
Many people would say that they (Fureys Mills)
were the best for drying the corn and making the wheat into
flour. Unless it was well dried there was the danger that
it could contain mill mites as their eggs could be in the
grinding stones and get mixed up with the corn. You needed
to put salt through the flour to preserve it and prevent
problems caused by mill mites, he added.
Speaking about mill mites and other unsavoury insects, Frank
deviates in his tale to tell about how he was told by his
Uncle Tommy, who fought in the 1914-18 War, that maggots
could actually cleanse wounds/ His uncle told them about
how some of the men that he fought with down the trenches
during World War I had very bad wounds but when they were
finally carried into the field hospitals, often many days
later, the wounds were perfectly clean because
the maggots had sucked the puss out of them.
Frank also remembers his uncle telling him about how the
soldiers had to re-use the horses urine during World
War I. He said that they would have containers and would
try and collect as much of the urine from the horses as
possible. This would be boiled again and allowed to cool
and used for drinking water for the horses. They might
often have little other option as they could be fighting
in trenches a long way away from any river or stream where
they could otherwise water their horses, said Frank.
Frank himself worked on the roads around North Galway with
a horse and cart during the days when potholes on the rough
surfaced roads needed regular shovels of sand. I would
get £5 a fortnight for working on the roads and this
was slightly higher than the other workers because I had
the horse and cart as well, he says.
Even though he still drives a car at the age of 90, Frank
Harte did not move on to motorised transport until after
his mother died and his present Fiesta is only the fourth
car that he has owned.
I bought a Honda 50 motor cycle first for £100
and the windshield and helmet cost extra. I was 58 when
I started driving and the late John Scully gave me a few
hints on what I should do while I also got good advice from
the late Rory OConnor and Tom Murphy in Murphys
Cycles of High Street, Tuam where I bought the bike.
But after six years he decided he had enough of cold journeys
on the motor bike.
But after six years he decided he had enough of cold journeys
on the motor bike during a number of severe winters and
Frank bought his first car. He got a few lessons from the
late John Joe Brinn and having passed his test Frank has
been driving ever since.
I sold the Honda 50 for the same price that I had
paid for it six years earlier and at my age I was better
off travelling by car. The car I have now does not have
power steering but that does not bother me as by keeping
the wheels pumped a bit harder it makes it easier to turn
the steering wheel when I am parking in town, he added.
Frank has a great interest in writing and poetry and has
won many prizes, going back to a cup which he won in 1953
and which is proudly displayed on the mantle above the range
in his kitchen. It has pride of place there alongside plough
shares and other pieces of ploughs from his farming days.
Frank Harte has many memories of sowing beet and pulling
it and crowning it on cold winter mornings and he has great
respect for the potato as a source of food for the Irish,
but he says that historians are still disputing about Raleigh
being responsible for potatoes becoming such a staple diet
among the Irish.
They say that it was his friend Sir Francis Drake
who was sailing around part of South America and when he
pulled into port in Peru he discovered that they were eating
He took some back with him on the ship and on his way home
he docked into Bantry Bay and he left some of them with
his friend Sir Walter Raleigh. He did not eat them all but
sowed some of them and the Irish have been eating spuds
ever since, concluded Frank with a laugh.