90-year-old Frank Harte’s 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 father’s 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 Harte’s 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 father’s days of working in a foundry in New York. “My father’s 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 his home.

“The heart symbol with the clasped hands signifies love,the ship’s 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.

Frank’s 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.

Frank’s 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 to America.

Judging by their ages he says that his grandmother’s 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,” he added.

When we celebrated his 90th birthday Frank’s 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 birthday.

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 Furey’s Mills in Corrandulla to grind the wheat made into meal for baking.
“Many people would say that they (Furey’s 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 O’Connor and Tom Murphy in Murphy’s 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 potatoes there.

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.