Out Ye Black and Tans
Mai McMahon has stories to tell about Clare.
Mai McMahon sits in the living room of her Kilrush home
and talks and talks. Talks with the benefit of first hand
experience about things the rest of us can only read about
in books and have handed down to us.
And, we all know about hand me downs - they are second hand
and not the real thing. But listening to 100 year old Mai
McMahon is the real thing, an education without recourse
to books or second hand information.
This was first hand from a remarkable woman talking the
talk. It was time for this interviewer to sit back and enjoy
the journey, hang on to every word that brought with it
something new, some education.
Like jumping aboard the time machine and going back in time.
Hard times. Not so hard times. Happy times. Times when people
were in fear of their life. The latter times when the Black
and Tans were in town and country.
We had the Black and Tans and I remember them well.
They were down at Heckmans in Killimer. They travelled everyday
in this big van. They went up to Kilmihil and took over
the barracks there. I remember when they came to Tullycrine.
As she speaks, you can almost visualise members of the West
Clare Brigade in action. See them cut roads, break bridges
and lie in ambush for the Tans. Then imagine the Tans in
their khaki uniforms and their tam-o-shanter type hats aboard
the Crossley Tender. Then youre waiting for the volley
Mai has no need to imagine these things. She was there -
saw the khaki uniforms and funny hats; heard their surly
accents and heard the volleys of gunfire. She was gripped
A trap was laid for the Black and Tans near us, about
a half a mile across the country at Haughs house. There
was a big hill at one side. They cut the road, cut a big
square in the road and covered it in with light bits of
timber and put gravel on top of it. The lorry came on and
down it went. They started firing then.
The Black and Tans were dangerous. I remember there
was a raid in Tullycrine, in ODonnells which was back
the road from us and up on a hill. There was one man killed
anyway. They raided every house in the area and we were
Everything was tossed in the house. I was plucking
a goose, getting it ready for thoven and indeed I
wouldnt look around when they came in, I was so afraid
of them. They searched every bit of the house.
There was a reek of turf having been brought home
from the bog with the horse and car. It was at the back
of the house, up along the yard. The turf was freshly built
and they riddled it to the ground, thinking there were arms
there. We werent involved in that at all.
The ODonnells Mai talks about also provide a link
with one of the few Clare contributions to the Easter Rising.
Art ODonnell from Tullycrine was the man, who, on
getting news of the rising, donned his volunteer uniform
and marched eight miles into Kilrush and presented himself
for action. He was promptly arrested, his Rising over.
We didnt know much about 1916 because it all
happened in Dublin. Dublin was a long way away then, as
far as America is now. We only knew what we read in the
Mai also remembers reading the newspaper reports from the
Great War, reports from the slaughter fields of Flanders,
the Somme and Verdun. A lot went to war from Kilrush
but none of the country people were in that war, except
if they were in America and were conscripted there,
They were even conscripted from Australia. My fathers
aunt and uncle owned the land in Tullycrine and they came
from Kilrush. It was the Reidys that had the land. There
were seven boys and a girl there. The mother died and I
suppose they werent well off, so they sold the farm
and my grandfather bought it. That was before 1900.
Those seven boys went to Australia when they were
children but were conscripted when the war was on. Their
sister Mary Anne was a nurse. The boys were in Flanders
fighting and I remember all of them coming back to see the
house in Tullycrine they were born and reared in,
The Reidy boys survived the fighting in Flanders. They were
the lucky ones, unlike the 11 million who died in the trenches,
in the air or at sea. And, the maritime mention sends Mai
into rewind again, this time back to one of the most poignant
events of the war - the sinking of the Lusitania.
There was a first cousin of my husband, Galvin, running
from the war in America. They were conscripting in America.
There was a Dr. Garry from Kildysart. They were on that
ship and were all drowned before getting into Queenstown.
I was about eleven or twelve years that time.
Around the time the Lusitania floundered off Queenstown,
Mai made her first move from home - a move to further her
education. For a year, she stayed with her uncle who lived
in Derra just outside Kilrush.
When attending the local Technical School for the year,
she could see the poverty around her every day. It was poverty
she never witnessed in the countryside, whether on her fathers
farm or with some of her less well off neighbours.
There was terrible poverty in the town but the country
people were alright. They always had a few cows and had
tillage. They made ends meet. We were well off. It wasnt
a tough life for us because we always had a servant boy.
There were plenty servant boys going that time, for very
little money. If they got a pound a month, it was grand.
My father was a great farmer and we had a lot of land.
There were farmers near us and they had only enough space
for two or three cows. We had over 100 acres. We were flying.
We had land in Tullycrine, Carniska and Drumdigus.
My father was a great man for the cattle and he was
grazing Heckmans land. They were landlords, Protestants
down towards Knock. He had over 100 herd of cattle there.
He paid the Heckman so much a year to graze the land.
I remember Mrs. Heckmans people coming up to the house
looking for the money. He had the land for years.
Some of this land was later divided between the smaller
I knew them. Heckman had taken the land off them because
they couldnt pay the rent. They wanted the land divided
and it was divided.
All the famers got ten acres free. There were walls
built on the land and thats the way it was divided
between each farmer.
When it came to her fathers land, tradition dictated
that it went to the eldest son Dan, while another holding
went to Willie in Kilmore. For two of Mais brothers,
it was down to Queenstown. Emigration and American wakes.
Families broken, never to be together again.
Those American wakes were sad occasions. Thered
be crying and a lot never again saw each other. When you
went to America that time, as my husband used to say a lot
of them would come back if they have the price of it.
Patrick went to America when he was twenty five or
six and then John Joe went later. We never saw Patrick again.
He had an operation for a hernia in the month of June. Dont
you see, he got a clot and that finished him. John Joe was
coming and going all the time.
But Mai wasnt going anywhere. She stayed in Kilmurry
The Parish Hall was the hub of activity in Mais youth.
By shanks mare theyd go the local hall for dances.
A place where matches were made. Men on one side, women
on the other side - moving towards each other and meeting
Dance hall days when thered be no pints, just pioneer
pins. If you were at a dance long ago, half a crown
was the dance. Once these two came in drunk, two first cousins.
No one would dance with them. They were running away
from them. That was the reference of the drink long ago.
Youd see no drink long ago. They had no money for
And, it wasnt just drink money people had to do without
as Mai remembers from being behind the counter of her husbands
shop for over fifty years.
There were a lot of people who had small farms and
wed used the book tick as youd call it and wed
wait for the payment.
The day they came with butter was the day theyd
pay for what they get. But then they wouldnt have
butter the round of the year. In winter time if you had
enough milk for the tea, thats the way it would be.
But there was trust in those days, trust between friends
and neighbours. You might be waiting weeks and months
but youd know them and always trust them.
And, there was hospitality in those days as well. Hospitality
towards the delivery men from Glynns bringing the
flour and meal. Thered be a meal waiting for them.
Something simple but Mai just looked on it as part of the
job, a simple courtesy. She was sad to leave it all behind.
I came into Kilrush twenty four years ago to my daughter,
Mary and she has been looking after me ever since. It was
a big change coming in from the country and I found it hard
for some time. You just had to get used to it.
This was Mai starting out on a new chapter, a new chapter
that brought back memories of old.
Kilrush has changed a lot from Mais teenage year in
the Technical School. But some thing hadnt changed.
Still the market town, still the same memories she had from
her year in the Technical School.
Thats because she could be reminded of these memories
every day. It was all in the street name Vandeleur. She
knew people that suffered at Vandeleurs hands.
Vendeleur was like the rest of them. Anyone that didnt
pay the rent, they evicted them. There were the McGraths
in Moyasta. They were evicted and I remember them. They
had no compassion for you.
And, lack of compassion didnt end with land evictions.
They took property as well, properties belonging to the
Grogans, Mais family.
The Grogans came from Spain, theyre Spainiards
as my son Willie says. My great grandfather came here to
Kilrush from Wexford on a boat and was buying and selling
He owned the most of Francis Street below. All those
houses on Francis Street, from Burkes at the corner,
were built by my great-grandfather. But Vandeleurs came
on them and took it all off of them. Theyd be praising
the Vandeleurs but theres another side on them.
A side that some people choose to forget, but that Mai will
never forget. In fact, Mai has forgotten little in her 100
years. Years on the farm, that gave way to years on in the
shop that gave way to years on Valdeleur Street with her
Mary had a knitwear store on and did great business.
She was the only one who had a knitwear machine in Kilrush.
They were coming from Lissycasey, Ennis, not to talk of
Kilrush and all of Kilmurry. She made a great living out
of the machine.
The knitwear store is still on Valdeleur Street as is Mai
McMahon. Still the same Mai with her memories, educating
people as she speaks. It could be about affairs of state,
referendums, eircom shares or simple pleasures like going
It was all religion in my youth. People were very
religious, no matter how old they were. Theyd walk
it miles to Mass and dress up. You wouldnt be out
any other place the rest of the week. When I moved to Kilrush,
Id go to Mass every morning until I was about 94.
Id walk it.
Walk it when people half her age hop behind the wheel to
go anywhere and everywhere. Maybe, therein lies the secret
of her long life. Active all the time, active of mind and
And, if you havent guessed it already, Mais
secret is simple and to the point.
I was always happy. Your health is your wealth.
She should know after 100 years.
-courtesy of Joe OMuircheartaigh, The Clare Champion