I am writing this just a few hours after our Taoiseach announced in the Dáil the cutbacks planned to lead us out of the current recession. Last August when talks of a recession were still in the future I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the company of 82 year old Seamus Farrell of Skehana, Ballylinan who claims he was ‘born in a recession, reared in a recession and lived through a recession.’ I had previously met Seamus when he played his tin whistle to a small gathering in what was once the Grand Canal Hotel at the Canal Harbour where, courtesy of Gargoyles Restaurant, a few hardy souls came together to celebrate the birthday of Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh. It was an enjoyable evening of song, music and recitation and Seamus played a number of Irish tunes on the tin whistle with a vigour and an enthusiasm which belied his 82 years. His expertise on the whistle was matched by a facility with words which was amply confirmed when we later met in his snug cottage in Skehana some weeks later.
His story and that of his father and grandfather is a most interesting one, typical in so many ways of Irish families who in Seamus’s words ‘always seemed to live through recessions.’ For a man who lived through a succession of recessions Seamus can proudly claim never to have drawn the dole. He worked ‘at everything for a while’, as he explained himself, including two years in the Air Corps, then on the roads with Laois County Council and on the local bogs before going underground in the Wolfhill Coalmines. After that he worked 9 years in the I.V.I. Foundry in Athy, followed by 29 years in the local Asbestos factory from where he retired in 1984.
Interestingly he worked there when Charlie Stephens was the manager, a time when a workman could be sacked for taking a tea break or smoking a cigarette. The arrival of Jens Preisler brought changes, with organised tea breaks and a more relaxed working environment introduced by the new manager who was described by Seamus as ‘well liked, and a very fair man’.
Seamus’s first memories were of the national school in Ballylinan where one of his teachers was Mrs. Fleckney, a sister of Val Vousden, actor and music hall star whose recitations and monologues were at one time very popular on Radio Eireann. Vousden, Seamus tells me, often visited the school in Ballylinan where his sister taught, travelling over from Carlow where he lived for a while. Seamus was the youngest of nine children born to Dan and Mary Farrell. Dan, who was born in 1882, went to work for a farmer at 12 years of age after his father’s British Army pension was withdrawn. Patrick Farrell had been granted a pension following Army service in India and the loss of four fingers and the pension of 9 pence a day supplemented his earnings as a shoemaker. Its withdrawal because of his conviction and imprisonment in Kilkenny Jail for involvement in anti-government activities caused family hardships which necessitated his 12 year old son joining the adult working world. Dan Farrell worked for James Furney who was the local Resident Magistrate and also in Hannons Mills at Ardreigh. During that latter period he lived in Ardreigh where Seamus’s eldest sister was born.
The nine members of Dan and Mary Farrell’s family, 7 girls and 2 boys, all emigrated to England as they reached adulthood and only Seamus, the youngest of the Farrell family, returned to live in Ireland. The emigrant boat always played a huge part in the life of Irish society, but dependency on overseas employment became even more acute following the foundation of the Irish Free State. The sadness and loneliness which this caused can be imagined and was brought home to me when Seamus, now well into his 9th decade, said ‘the family were only once together and that was for my mother’s funeral’. But even then Seamus had overlooked the fact that his father had predeceased his mother 15 years earlier.
Mary Farrell died aged 75 years in Scunthorpe England in 1962, to where she had travelled some months earlier to see her children for the last time. Seamus was working the day shift in the Asbestos factory the day she travelled by car from Ballylinan to catch the boat at Dun Laoghaire. He well remembers his mother calling to the factory to say goodbye to her youngest son and telling him, ‘this is the last time we will meet.’ She obviously knew that her end was near and yet made what must have been a difficult sea journey to see her children who had emigrated years earlier.
Another story connected with the passing of Seamus’s mother was the kindness and generosity prompted in a local man when he saw the grieving son wearing the diamond shaped black patch on his coat sleeve as was the usual then to indicate the death of a family member. Sam Shaw enquired of Seamus as to who had died and on being told, later gave him a gift of £30, knowing perhaps all too well that Seamus was unlikely to have enough money to attend his mother’s funeral in England. It was an unsolicited gesture which still evokes Seamus’s admiration and respect 47 years later.
Apart from a few short periods he spent in the Air Corps and in England, Ballylinan has been home to Seamus all of his life. Like everyone else in the area he participated in the local community events and especially recalls the local Fife and Drum Band which was reformed around 1936. An earlier band which had been based in Ballylinan during the First World War died out soon after the start of the War of Independence. In 1936 a committee of local men under the chairmanship of Jim Wynne was elected to reform the Fife and Drum band using the original band instruments including a British Army big drum which had been stored in Jim Hurley’s house. The Ballylinan Fife and Drum band continued in existence until 1943 and featured at many events in the Athy and Carlow areas. One of the big occasions on which the band participated was the opening of Flemings Fireclay Factory. Among the fife players was Seamus Farrell who joined in 1937 and he vividly remembers the band practices held two nights a week in the local national school. The first band master was Bill Day of Athy and later when Tom Wrafter of Abbeyleix took over, the old fifes were replaced by new five keyed flutes, effectively making the band a flute band, although it still continued to be known as the Ballylinan Fife and Drum band. It disbanded in 1943 and the surviving band members are Tom McDonnell, Paddy McDonnell, Jimmy Farrell and Seamus Farrell.
Seamus was also a member of the local L.D.F. unit which he joined in 1941 when he was just 15 years of age. The local L.D.F. captain was Mr. Fleckney whose wife was a teacher in the local national school. Tom Flood, publican of Leinster Street, Athy and a former member of the Dublin Brigade I.R.A. during the War of Independence was the area commander. Other L.D.F. officers remembered by Seamus were Bill Horgan, Des McHugh, Tim McCarthy and Frank Gibbons. Seamus is very proud of the service medal he received for his wartime service after the LDF was disbanded in 1946.
Seamus married in 1956, his bride being Mary Walsh of Rossmore in Carlow and they were blessed with five sons, Donal, Paddy, Anthony, Michael and Brian. Sadly Mary died in December 2006 and was buried on Christmas Eve. The effervescent 82 year old Seamus has an extraordinary memory of times past and his telling of what must have been difficult times is full of joyful and cheerful recollections which charm the listener and show the benefit of a positive outlook on life.
Athy Heritage Centre is still receiving material for the War of Independence Exhibition which will open on Easter Monday to coincide with the first day of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. If you have any photographs, press cuttings, memorabilia or anything related to the War of Independence Margaret Walsh of the Heritage Centre would welcome the loan of the material for inclusion in the Exhibition. Margaret can be contacted on (059) 8633075.