During the past week I read a publication edited by Kildare poet, Ann Egan, in which a number of our senior citizens published their memories of times past. Among the contributors was Michael Wall of Chanterlands.
This week I am giving over the Eye on the Past to some extracts from Michael’s memories of when he was a young boy in County Mayo.
“In the early twenties the War of Independence was raging and like most people of that era, my father was an ardent supporter of Sinn Fein. To counter the British hold on the country, Sinn Fein set up their own Courts and administered justice, the best possible. The Court for South Mayo was in Claremorris and my father cycled to these Court sessions. The Judge was a local Solicitor – later to become Lord Chief Justice for Ireland – Conor Maguire. My father and one other acted as his Court clerks. When a client was convicted for some offence he was hooded and kept “incommunicado” for one week and was fed bread and water. Prisoners were never molested in any way. After one week they were released and warned to behave themselves. As a result of these courts there was very little crime in the area.
As a result of my father’s activities he became known as the local Sinn Fein activist. To use a mafia term, the local R.I.C. Sergeant put the finger on him and he became ‘a marked man’. One night they raided the village and searched the house looking for my father. My mother was terrified but they pushed her aside and felt the bed clothes. ‘The bed was warm but the bird had flown’. He took to the hills and was ‘on the run’ for a few days.
My next memory as a child was being taken out of bed and being hoisted up by a dark stranger. He tells me I’m a grand wee lad. I tell him – you’re a ‘quare aul lad’. He tells me I have great use of my tongue. There is also another stranger present. He is the leader of the South Mayo Flying Column. Men from this column used to train in one of our sheds and used dummy rifles. Both these men were involved in a major ambush in West Mayo. Some weeks later sadly the ‘quare aul lad’ was killed.”
Michael’s grandmother had a grocery shop in Ballinrobe and here he takes up her story.
“Business was booming during the War years. She sent one son to train in Edenderry as a cabinet maker; another went to Rome to train as a Franciscan. The third and youngest son she kept at home and bought a car for him for hire work. Around about 1920 number two son was being ordained in Killarney and the family set off for Kerry. To get there was just a nightmare journey as the War of Independence was at its height and many bridges had been blocked or blown up. They criss crossed from one county to another but finally got there. Number three son was just sixteen at the time.
Often in those days the ‘Black and Tans’ called to the bar for drinks and failed to pay. The Granny let them know what she thought of them. One day when my uncle was out on a call he was captured by them and for one week he was forced to drive them around the country. He returned safely however, much to the relief of the family. Some weeks later the I.R.A. called him in and told him that they knew of his exploits with the Tans. He replied that it was at the point of a gun. He drove them around for another week. During the Civil War both Grandad and Uncle were captured and taken prisoner for one week by the anti-treaty factions. Grandad always called them – the Bolshevics. They were not harmed but the car was burnt out.
Tension was very high in that part of South Mayo in 1923. The local Parish Priest spoke out against them (I.R.A.) at all parish functions, much to their great discomfiture. As a result of such opposition they torched the local Post Office and then proceeded to the church armed with tins full of petrol. The Parish Priest met them in the Church and threatened them with ‘fire and brimstone’ so that they moved on. About that time the Anti-Treaty Group (I.R.A.) made an attempt to torch the local workhouse. My Grandad and Uncles were making hay in a field close by and seeing smoke issuing from the building they rushed in and were lucky enough to extinguish the fire. They certainly weren’t ‘flavour of the month’ in certain quarters in South Mayo.”
In 1929 Michael’s parents bought a farm in County Laois and the Wall family moved to Mountmellick which Michael described as “a colossal house, single story in front and rising to two stories at the back.” It was, he later discovered, a safe house for Republicans during “the troubles” and during the Civil War was often home to anti-treaty forces. During the 1926 election the Mountmellick house, which the Walls were to take over three years later, was district headquarters for Fianna Fáil. De Valera was a frequent visitor, while Countess Markievicz and Terence McSweeney’s widow stayed there for the duration of the election campaign.
Another important episode in Irish history was recalled when Michael wrote of his grandmother who as a youngster going home from school one day saw a man surrounded by soldiers being escorted to the local R.I.C. Barracks. He was Captain Boycott of Lough Mask House and on the next day the man who gave the word “boycott” to the English language departed from the local railway station for his home in England.
Recalling such memories gives an immediacy to the re-telling of Irish history which academic theses can never hope to do. My thanks to Michael Wall for allowing me to share his very interesting memories of times past with my readers.
May I take the opportunity of wishing the readers of “Eye on the Past” a very happy Christmas and every good wish for the New Year.