Ever since my younger brother Seamus was killed in a car accident on the Dublin road just outside Athy in November 1965, the eleventh month in which we commemorate the dead has held for me an extra special significance. Especially so when to the long list of those who have passed through this life has been added the name of another who was near and dear.
Last week a grand old lady passed away in her 95th year. She was my mother-in-law, Hannah Spellman. I first met her 37 years ago when she was living in the heart of Connemara. A Cork woman and proud of the fact, she first came to Connemara just four years after the founding of the Irish Free State and remained there for 46 years amongst the Gaelic speaking community of Fermoyle and the neighbouring villages of Gleanicmurrin, Seanafeistin and Knockadoo. It was there among the rugged beauty of the Connemara countryside that she reared her family.
I remember my first trip to Connemara in a Morris Minor car which I had borrowed from my father. Most of us, although I wasn’t at that time, are familiar with the main road out past Barna, Spiddal and Tully and on to Carraroe, but to get to Fermoyle I had to turn off at Rossaveal and wend my way another seven or eight miles deeper and deeper into the Connemara countryside. By then the road was tarred, but just a few years previously it was nothing more than a graveled roadway. Small cottages and bungalows were visible on the hillside, clustered together as if to protect themselves against the encroachment of the heather cloaked bog which surrounded them.
Half way on the road to Fermoyle the one-roomed schoolhouse where the Spellman children and their scattered neighbours had attended National School was pointed out to me. It was another three miles or more to Fermoyle Lodge and to a “townie” who had leisurely walked to his school and sprinted home at lunchbreak, it was a bit of a jolt to be told that Connemara youngsters walked three or four miles to school each day, hail, rain or snow.
My introduction to the Connemara way of life in the late 1960’s coincided with the last days of an older generation which had seen life under English rule and the emerging Irish Free State. Stories of Black and Tans and the escapades of Johnny Broderick, a Galway I.R.A. man and a family relation, was told against the backdrop of Fermoyle Lodge which World War I General, Kincaid Smith had often used as his fishing and shooting lodge.
The Spellman house was a céili house for the locality and at night time the local men (why never the women I now ask myself) gathered in the kitchen swopping stories, local news and jollity and smoking tobacco pipes. Every now and then somebody would get up and go to the back door and stand there looking up at the sky as if checking the weather. Nothing would be said as the back door was closed and the weather gazer stepped out into the dark. He always returned, apparently cheered and warmed, and it was sometime before I came to realise that the neighbours invariably brought with them a bottle of poitín which was carefully concealed in the bushes away from the house. Poitín making was, and probably still is, a tradition in the area, but ever mindful of the need not to implicate neighbours, the potent concoction was never brought indoors. Hence the constant toing and froing between kitchen and the garden where the treasured bottle was laid on the ground as gently as a new born babe in its first crib.
I remember the names of some of those men, all of whom have long passed on. The commonality of surnames in the West often required references to one’s antecedents so that identification could be properly and quickly made as conversation flowed. So it was that a man from Connemara was seldom simply called Sean or Pat. He invariably also bore the name of his father or grandfather, if required, as it generally was, to distinguish him from another of the same name. Hence Joeín Paudge Séan Dan was a well known figure in Fermoyle village and all the names were needed to distinguish him from another Joeín. Tom Máiread was a gentle quite spoken boat man whom I got to know in that part of Connemara. Tom was the son of Máiread and Mick, the son of Pat Mór, who was known as Mike Pat Mór and his good wife was known as Máire Pat Mór.
It was amongst the Gaelic speaking Connemara folk that Hannah Spellman, the Doneraile born Cork woman came to live. She spoke no Irish and over the years, whether through choice or otherwise, she never lapsed into the native tongue, even when conversing with her neighbours. They spoke Irish to her which she apparently understood and replied in English which they equally seemed to understand and both continued the conversation in different tongues without any apparent loss of meaning or understanding on either side. The first time I witnessed this it was a mesmerizing experience but both parties seemed to regard their linguistic exchanges as perfectly normal.
Another puzzling aspect of Connemara life for “a midlander” was the ease with which a few houses perched precariously on the side of a Connemara hillside could be referred to in conversation as “the village”. The first time I came across this I was puzzled when Mrs. Spellman, referring to a neighbour in the village, pointed across the open expanse of Connemara bog to the far hillside where three isolated cottages could be seen. That I learned was the village of Fermoyle, unadorned by the presence of Church, pub or post office. Indeed these facilities were to be reached only by travelling at least eight miles down the road which led in the direction of Rossaveal. The willingness of the Connemara folk to bestow civic status on a few isolated cottages was in a way similar to the American practice of designating anything larger than a crossroads as a city.
As befitting someone who had spent her entire adult life among the Connemara’s, Hannah Spellman was a gifted story teller. How often I heard the stories of the poachers, pronounced “poochers”, who netted the river for salmon to the disgust of the rod-men and the local boatmen. The dangers of the Connemara hills and bogs was recounted in the story of her husband John Spellman who was lost in freezing fog for two days but kept himself alive by continuously circling around a large rock until the fog had lifted. She was also a great advocate of the literary works of Canon Sheehan who as Parish Priest of Doneraile had baptised her in the local Church.
To my shame, although I had talked of doing so, I had never recorded her stories of life in Connemara. Some weeks ago I mentioned the possibility of organising an oral history project in South Kildare which would help to record experiences, stories and past happenings of this area so that future generations might better understand their past. The response to that piece would indicate that there may be enough people interested in pursuing the idea, and hopefully arrangements can be in place in the new year to start the project. More information about that at a later date.
Hannah Spellman was laid to rest in Bohermore Cemetery in Galway last week, a few months short of her 95th birthday. Her life was a long and happy one and as the cortege passed the mass grave of those who died in the K.L.M. crash off Shannon in 1954, I thought of those unfortunate men, women and children, some of whom were never identified, whose lives were cut short in such a violent way. To live a long and happy life is a privilege which not everyone is destined to enjoy.