The story of Benny and Maggie Tierney

By Sean Murray

What better subject could I have for this year’s contribution than resurrecting memories of a close-knit family - brother and sister - who served their local community so well - so very well, indeed - in Corrawillan town-land in the shadow, so to speak, of the “Big Tree.”

Benny Tierney and his sister, Maggie, were the scions, offspring or descendants - call it what you will - of the oldest family in Lower Lavey. This fact is clearly brought to notice when the town-land of Lavey is indicated on the oldest ordinance survey maps as “Lavey Tierney”. My late friend and eminent historian, Rev. Dr. Terry Cunningham, expressed the opinion to me on many occasions that this family (Tierneys) were, from the 12th Century onwards, “erineachs”, i.e. lay managers of the local church lands which were, in turn, subject to the overall supervision of the Abbot of Fore Abbey. This would, indeed, assure readers that the Tierneys are not “blow-ins” to Lavey.

Now, with this snippet of local history, let me get back to Benny and Maggie. Their forebears had been in this corner of Corrawillan where they managed to survive on a small farm of about 15 acres. Both were unmarried; Mary Anne, the only other member of their family, married Paddy Tierney (“Paddy Matt”), Grellagh.

Benny - the same age as my father - was born in 1876; Maggie was a year or two younger. My father - using the local jargon - used to say that he, Benny Tierney, Ned Duke (Killyconnan) and Pat “the Child” were “in or about an age”, meaning that the four of them were around the same age. All I know of Pat “the child” is that he was from Carriga and was, possibly, of the surname Conaty.

In the early years of the last century Benny showed initiative far beyond that of his local peers and set up a roadside shop in a small room in the family’s old-world thatched dwelling house. To get to the shop, one had to pass through the kitchen, and in this way, Maggie was deprived of any semblance of privacy as she attended to her domestic chores. This was an era of essentials only, not only in that part of Lavey served by Tierney’s Shop, but, one may say, throughout the country in general. The present day type of up-market shoppers, who would like to patronise such retail outlets as Marks and Spencer and Superquinn, etc. would have no business - no business at all, indeed - in expecting to find that special or usual item in Benny and Maggie’s Corrawillan Emporium. But those honest, simple-living, hard-working and even contented people in the surrounding town-lands of Lavey, Killyconnan, Leiter, Feaugh, and as far away as Lateever and Cuttragh, had no farther to travel than about 50 yards east of the “Big Tree” to get their “messages”. The usual shopping list was predictable: tea, sugar, salt, jam, bread (the occasional cottage loaf from Cassels’ bakery, Cavan), paraffin oil (for the single or double wick lamp), tobacco, (plug - Clarke’s Perfect and Walnut only) and cigarettes, (Players Navy Cut at one shilling for 20 plus a packet of matches for which Master Kearney was the chief customer), and Wild Woodbines, sold in paper packets of five for those who had two old pennies to splurge.

Benny’s department extended to the heavier materials. He tackled his horse and cart on Tuesday mornings and travelled to Cavan by the “mountainy” road (va Cuttragh) where he loaded up with two hundred weight bags of Indian meal and other goods at Tommy Donaghoe’s, 62 Main Street.

Benny displayed his business acumen by returning with his heavy load by the “broad” (Dublin) road, and thus avoiding his horse’s heavy pull up the steep gradient of Blake Brae. Despite the fact that he was but of average build, these heavy bags were unloaded by himself unto a bench in a store beside the shop.

Benny knew from experience what goods were required by his customers - mostly all farmers. There was always the bag or two of bran in the store for retail by the stone weight for such use, usually, as a stimulant for a cow after calving or, indeed, any sick animal.

And how thrifty Benny was! He had to be, of course, to survive in those years. His practice in measuring paraffin oil in gallons or half-gallons demonstrates this in no uncertain way when he had always a flat-shaped mud turf placed length-wise under the tap of the oil drum. In this way the drops from the tap after the lever was closed (shut) were collected on the sod or turf. After a period - say, a few weeks - this turf was removed and broken up carefully for use in lighting the kitchen fire and replaced by another sod. Ah, how he would be amazed, surprised, flabbergasted - call it what you will - were he now to see the life-style of the grandchildren/great grandchildren of his customers of that era!
So much for Benny: we must not forget Maggie, a tidy, neat, slim little lady, who, as far as I can recall, was always dressed in black with occasionally, a bright coloured cross-over apron. Herself and Benny partook of their meals as they sat on either side of the “crane” on the open-hearth fireside.

A most unusual feature of Maggie’s kitchen was a little box-like article on the wall - about 12”x12” - with two little doors to the front. Now, believe it or not, this apparatus was a technological wonder to the locals. And why you will, naturally, ask? I will explain!: it forecasted the weather by very simple means, i.e. by baromatric pressure. If the pressure was high, a little lady appeared from one of the doors and dry weather was forecasted, but with a change of pressure the lady retreated to her hideout and a wee man - will we call him her partner? - appeared and predicted doom - bad weather, rain, floods and an abundance of mucky gaps. And what dependence the people had on this application or gadget, which, in their wildest imagination, they could not understand how it worked. My father - not a bad judge himself of how the elements were going to behave - sent me over so often to ‘Tierney’s Shop’ to hear what was the likelihood of good weather when he was about to embark on such farm work as cutting hay, making the hay-reek, reaping corn, threshing, all of which required dry weather.

Yes, indeed, Benny and Maggie’s wee man and wee woman served a useful purpose in the community so long - so very long - before their present day well - groomed, well-spoken and demonstrative successors tell us on our screens not only what the following day’s weather will be like at home, but possibly in Siberia and Alaska as well. This gadget, which cost but little, was in all probability, given to Benny by one of his suppliers in appreciation of his custom - possibly by Tommy Donoghue who, in turn, got it from one of his suppliers.

Tierney’s Shop - especially on a Friday night was a centre for the dissemination or spreading of news and gossip. Andy Smith, Pullamore, would arrive late on Friday evenings in his lorry with supplies and have with him the eagerly awaited copies of the “Celt”; the word “Anglo” was never used then and, in all probability, is still not used. Friday evening/night was, also, the occasion when women brought buckets and baskets of eggs to Benny in payment for the “tick” received during the previous week.
And how dextrous, or handy, Benny was when taking out handfuls of eggs from the baskets and dropping them so quickly into the squares in the specially provided egg-boxes; he never seemed to break any.

What a decent honourable pair they were! What patience they had in waiting for the balance to be paid: they never pressed any customer for payment and understood so very well when money was scarce with some families.

Yes, Benny and Maggie Tierney set an example of Christianity which would be hard to follow. Their remains now rest in Lower Lavey cemetery; may the light of Heaven shine on their gentle souls.

Alas! Tierney’s Shop is no more as are so many - so very many - similar-type shops throughout Ireland, which served their local communities so well for generations. They have been ousted unceremoniously by the impersonal and greedy conglomerates, which tend to monopolise retail outlets in the State.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2001