Come 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 you’re waiting for the volley of gunfire.
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 by fear.

“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 O’Donnells 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 raided.

“Everything was tossed in the house. I was plucking a goose, getting it ready for th’oven and indeed I wouldn’t 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 weren’t involved in that at all.”

The O’Donnells Mai talks about also provide a link with one of the few Clare contributions to the Easter Rising. Art O’Donnell 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 didn’t 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 newspapers.”

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,” said Mai.

“They were even conscripted from Australia. My father’s 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 weren’t 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,” she adds.

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 father’s 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 wasn’t 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 Heckman’s 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. Heckman’s 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 farmers.

I knew them. Heckman had taken the land off them because they couldn’t 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 that’s the way it was divided between each farmer.”

When it came to her father’s land, tradition dictated that it went to the eldest son Dan, while another holding went to Willie in Kilmore. For two of Mai’s brothers, it was down to Queenstown. Emigration and American wakes. Families broken, never to be together again.

“Those American wakes were sad occasions. There’d 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. Don’t you see, he got a clot and that finished him. John Joe was coming and going all the time.”

But Mai wasn’t going anywhere. She stayed in Kilmurry McMahon.

The Parish Hall was the hub of activity in Mai’s youth. By shanks mare they’d 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 half way.

Dance hall days when there’d 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. You’d see no drink long ago. They had no money for drink.”

And, it wasn’t 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 we’d used the book tick as you’d call it and we’d wait for the payment.

“The day they came with butter was the day they’d pay for what they get. But then they wouldn’t have butter the round of the year. In winter time if you had enough milk for the tea, that’s 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 you’d know them and always trust them.”

And, there was hospitality in those days as well. Hospitality towards the delivery men from Glynn’s bringing the flour and meal. There’d 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 Mai’s teenage year in the Technical School. But some thing hadn’t changed. Still the market town, still the same memories she had from her year in the Technical School.

That’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t end with land evictions. They took property as well, properties belonging to the Grogans, Mai’s family.

“The Grogans came from Spain, they’re Spainiards as my son Willie says. My great grandfather came here to Kilrush from Wexford on a boat and was buying and selling corn.

“He owned the most of Francis Street below. All those houses on Francis Street, from Burke’s at the corner, were built by my great-grandfather. But Vandeleurs came on them and took it all off of them. They’d be praising the Vandeleurs but there’s 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 daughter Mary.

“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 to Mass.

“It was all religion in my youth. People were very religious, no matter how old they were. They’d walk it miles to Mass and dress up. You wouldn’t be out any other place the rest of the week. When I moved to Kilrush, I’d go to Mass every morning until I was about 94. I’d 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 body.
And, if you haven’t guessed it already, Mai’s 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 O’Muircheartaigh, The Clare Champion