Peter Ward, the last man to leave
the village of Aill na Cailli.
(Photo: James Fennell)
See also: The Village of Aill na Cailli.
‘To look at it now, you’d think no one has lived here for a hundred years’, says Peter Ward, quietly surveying the deserted Connemara village where he lived for six decades. Aill na Caillí is a labyrinth of crumbling granite walls, reddening fuschia bushes and boot-sucking mud tracks. Songbirds weave through the air. Cattle meander freely around the abandoned homesteads, tugging at the grasses that sprout between clumps of daffodils and hawthorn trees that drip with lichen. The air smells of gorse and manure, with a hint of seaweed from the nearby shores of Cloonisle Bay. Peter observes the fallen walls within which his cousins once slept, the sunken enclosures where the donkeys were kept, the ivy-choked fireplaces by which he often sat and listened to the old men talk.[i]
Aill na Caillí lies directly north-east of Roundstone, a tiny coastal hamlet sheltered from the Atlantic storms by the isle of Inishnee.[ii] In Peter’s childhood, there were eight houses here, each occupied by a different family.[iii] ‘Many is the moonlit night I would go through the village and visit with my neighbours’, recalls Peter. ‘It was a lively village at that time’.
The house where Peter was born and raised was on the western frontier of the village, accessible by a stepping-stone track laid across the bog by his grandfather over a hundred years ago.[iv] Born in 1936, Peter was the fourth of five children.[v] While the world was at war in the 1940s, he and his siblings would make their way across this track every morning and onto another stepping stone track that cut north-east across the bog to their school in Toombeloa. Peter remembers a time when thirteen barefooted children would convoy along the School Track. ‘You had a coat and a hat and you’d have shoes in the winter frost’, he says.[vi]
Cutting through the bogs by Toombeola. (Photo: James Fennell)
It is not known when the first settlers arrived in Aill na Caillí but there is something defiantly ancient about these tumbling homesteads. The earth still seems to echo with the sound of the thudding mallets that first broke the rocky ground into walls. The inhabitants were small-time farmers. Each house had its own enclosure for animals, their low walls now submerged beneath the long grasses. Cattle and sheep grazed on the commonage either side of the entrance to the village. The Wards, for instance, owned four black cows and four calves, a dozen sheep, a few pigs, hens, ducks, geese and ‘a donkey for drawing turf off the bog’.[vii] The women milked the cows and churned butter. The men tilled the earth, all day, every day. ‘In those times, people had to live off the land’, explains Peter. ‘If you hadn’t vegetables and spuds, you were ruined’. As well as the food they grew, the villagers lived upon poultry and seafood, particularly plaice, trout and mackerel, which they caught in the calm salt waters of Cloonisle.[viii]
Extra money was to be made ferrying flour and provisions into the area from Galway by currach, in an age when everyone in the village had a currach. ‘It was like a motor car then’, says Peter.[ix] Others worked up at the Barnanoraun Marble Quarry in the Twelve Pins, carting the marble slabs down to boats waiting by the piers of Roundstone and Cloonisle Bay. [x]
Like many Atlantic coastal villages, Aill na Caillí was hit by the famine and hardships of the 19th century. A new railway link between Clifden and Galway from 1895 put many currachs out of business. Emigration became the only option. Three of Peter’s aunts secured husbands and employment in New York. One uncle became a bank manager in Manhattan.[xi] Another uncle Mickey - ‘the wild man of the family’ – found work on the ranches of Saskatchewan. ‘That was a rough place in those days but Mickey was a tough old gent’. Mickey once encountered a lion sun-bathing in New York Zoo, with one paw sticking out of the cage. ‘And what did my bold Mickey do?’ asks Peter, ‘only, passing him up, struck his paw. Well Holy God, the lion was that height to the ground. He caught the bar and tried to pull it out. The Keeper said it will take the day to calm that fellow down again! Poor Mickey now, he’d do wild things. But if the lion had got him, he would have made fair work of him’.[xii]
By the end of the Second World War, there was no work here anymore, explains Peter. ‘The young people were fed up living off the land’. Attracted by the bright lights of distant cities, the village slowly emptied. Most went to England, Peter included. He stayed in London for four years where he dreamed perpetually of home, of the freedom ‘to walk across other people’s field and gardens and go where you like’. He returned to the village and found work on the nearby Ballynahinch estate, planting up woods which have long since grown and been felled.[xiii]
Peter was the last person to leave Aill na Caillí. For twelve years, this intelligent, bashful man was the village’s only inhabitant.[xiv] ‘It was nice and peaceful and I liked it very much’, he says. ‘It’s a place where you don’t meet many, only the birds’. He says he acclimatized to the loneliness quickly, just like he acclimatized to walking home across the bog in the pitch dark. Sometimes he would stroll into Toombeola for a pint and, after that pub closed down, he moved on to Rounsdstone.[xv] By day, he fished and hunted for hare and rabbits. ‘I shot a few snipe too - very few - and it was only by chance I hit them for I missed seven times more’. He has climbed most of the Twelve Pins. ‘In my young days, I used to get about like an otter’. That said, he concedes that he is wary of heights and had to turn back the only time he nearly reached the summit of Cashel Hill.
Having walked this cryptic landscape every day for nearly seventy years, Peter has an extraordinary ability to bring every distant rock or copse of trees to life.[xvi] He seems to have intimate memories of every ruin. One such abode belonged to Martin Ward, a first cousin of his father, known as ‘the man that went to America’.[xvii] One autumn day, young Peter and his grandmother called here and found Martin playing with a brand new gramophone. Martin wound it up and put on a record. Peter, who had never heard music before, erupted in tears. ‘I remember the song. ‘Red is the Rose in Yonder Garden Grows’. Isn’t it funny that when you are young like that, you never forget it?’ The timber beams of Martin’s house are still there but the Bangor Blue slates have gone. At the age of 44, Martin decided to take his chances across the Atlantic and set sail with his wife and two children. They settled in San Francisco where Martin died just eight years later.[xviii]
Peter left the village in 1995.[xix] ‘I needed to get closer to the road’, he says simply. [xx] His home today is a small mobile box-hut next door to his old school, long since closed, by the Toombeola Bridge. A German flag flies outside in tribute to some pretty blonde frauleins who visit him every summer. His front door is permanently open. The chances are that Peter is sitting within at this very moment, his head buried in a history book.[xxi] He makes it his business to go for a long walk every day and often returns to his home village. Aill na Cailli was purchased by a foreign investor in 2008. Its’ fate remains open. ‘I would love to see people living there again’, says Peter. ‘To see smoke coming from the chimneys and light in those houses … that would be grand to see’.
With thanks to Mikey Coneally, Brian Davidson, David Gill, Ally Jones, Pat McDonagh, Archie Phelan, Pat &Yvonne Phelan, Paddy Power, Tim Robertson, Tom Sykes and Peter Ward.
[i] The ivy is tearing the walls down and the building are inching ever deeper into the earth. It won’t be long before the house walls will be indistinguishable from the enclosures. The stone continues right down to the swampy shore where they’ve built rocky breakers to fend off the waves. Brambles grab at my coat willing me to stay.
[ii] It runs along the western shore of Cloonisle Bay, near Roundstone. Inishnee Island was the subject of some controversy since the 10-acre property on the island was acquired by US Senator Christopher Dodd and William Kessinger, partner of convicted inside trader Edward Downe Jr.
[iii] At its peak there were twenty houses here. ‘In my young days there was eight families living in Aileenacally in eight different houses’, says Peter. The other families were the Joyces, the O’Donnells, another family of Ward and three lots of Connneely. The Conneelys and the Wards lived in slated houses, but their neighbours had roofs thatched with the reed straw that grew in the fields about them. ‘It’s a different age now, by God, it is’, concludes Mikey.
[iv] Indeed, Ballynahinch Castle may have the longest avenue in the world, being the main road form Galway, but the road to Peter Ward’s former home is certainly of equal curiosity. The stepping stones were laid across a bog by his grandfather in the 1890s. Peter believes the house itself is over 200 years old. It was once owned by a man called Gilloway.
[v] His father was Stephen Ward. I don’t seem to have his mother’s name. Peter’s eldest brother John joined the Gardai but was crippled with multiple sclerosis and forced to retire less than seven years later. Another brother also joined the Gardai and was a Sergeant in Raheny for many years. His two sisters, Mary and Peggy, live nearby, one married, one not. He calls in to visit Peggy from time to time, particularly during stormy weather when it becomes difficult to concentrate on reading in his hut.
[vi] ‘But lads were tough in those days. I don’t know whether the younger generation would be able to stand for it because they came up softer’. As for his schoolteacher, Miss Carberry from Mayo, well, ‘some people say she was quiet but I didn’t see much quietness in her’, says Peter, the recipient of many a facial slap from her. ‘I’d say she was a cross sort of a lady’. They generally walked on bare feet. ‘Things weren’t good at that time’, says Mikey.
[vii] ‘That time you’d be looking for someone to take the donkeys away’, says Mikey. ‘Now, they’d be looking for €2-3,000’. The Conneallys had a turkey too. This is a relatively barren terrain and you would expect each cow would require a good chunk of land if it was to remain nourished.
[viii] ‘We often fished out in front of the house and got mackerel’, says Peter.
[ix] They went to church in Roundstone. ‘We walked, cycled or went by currach’, says Peter. The Wards kept their currach by their own small pier. The others kept theirs at the main pier and by a series of small jetties that have since disappeared. Integration with other people from the area was limited and one senses it might have been tricky to meet a girl from a different townland. That said, they did meet others on the road to Roundstone, mainly from the neighbouring villages of Cushatrower and Toombeola.
[x] In the 16th century this part of Connemara was O’Flaherty country. In the 1690s, it became part of the vast estate of the Martins of Ballynahinch Castle. Aill na Caillí’s slim black pier probably dates to the 1820s when the enterprising Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo was operating in the area. A clearly defined right of way runs down to the pier and is bordered by big walls known as ‘climor’. At times it is a sheer slope. Other time sits boot-sucking mud. The allotment has lately been fenced off with green barbed wire by the neighbouring landowner. A contemporary of Nimmo described the local people as ‘a rare breed … wild like the mountains they inhabit’.
[xi] He was a manager in the ‘Bank for Savings’ in Manhattan for 25 years.
[xii] When Mickey later tried to cross the border back into the USA, he was caught, thrown in jail for a week and deported back to Ireland where he found a wife and had three daughters.
[xiii] He cycled to work along the treacherous, slippy sand tracks that were the roads of Connemara. ‘There were no cars in those times’, he says, ‘only bicycles and horses and carts and, later on, tractors’.
[xiv] Mikey Conneally left Aileenacally after the death of his father in the 1960s. The journey to and from the house was too arduous for his aged mother and he was now working full time as head groundsman at the Ballynahinch Estate. He purchased some land by the bridge in Toombeola and built the house where he now lives. After the Conneely’s departed in 1976, Peter was the village’s only resident for twelve years.
[xv] And always he came and went by his grandfather’s bog track. ‘I went along there all day and night by hail, rain and sunshine. Sometimes I had a torch, sometimes no. I was used to the dark at that time, you see, and when you get used to the dark, you can walk a dark night – unless it is very dark’.
[xvi] One second you are looking at the ruins of a house, the next you realize it’s just a bunch of rocks and furze bushes that look like gables. ‘This place was called Keely’s Bushes', he says, for instance. 'They used to say one time, ‘I met a man by Keely’s Bushes’. He identifies every ruined cottage in sight and can tell you who lives there. ‘That house was called Hughie’s House’, he says of a roofless shack we pass walking down the road. ‘It was a fine building, for those days’. ‘D’you see that house there? A fellow lived there by the name of Tom Joyce one time. And he sold it to a Dublin man called David Gill.’ The house by the pier belonged to Stephen O’Donnell and used to flood in ‘a big tide’. There’s a sturdy rock beside it which the lads used to test their strength. ‘I only knew one man that could lift it. Josie Lennon, and he was as strong as a mule’. Close to the pier he points to a tree where flash lightning struck a tree and sent a big rock hurtling into the sky. If one only had the time, Peter can tell you stories about each of these inhabitants.
[xvii] Martin Ward’s house is one of the first houses you approach coming off the man road. It’s a 40 x 15 ft house with thick 4 foot walls. As we approach, a Connemara hare bounds out of the moss-stained doorway. It gallops over a low wall and runs off in the direction of Aill na Caillí dark black pier.
[xviii] The gramophone was a gift from Martin’s sister who returned from a visit to America in about 1943. Peter says Martin staked too much on his youth. ‘He was too old for it. He worked in a factory in San Francisco and wished he had never left Aileenaclly’. Martin had a stroke that left him speechless for eight years before he died. Peter points to a hole in the wall. ‘There was a little pane of glass here’, he says, ‘where his [Martin’s] mother would be looking out to see who was coming down’. Cement above the fireplace betrays the houses’ modern origins. Sure enough, ‘1915’ is etched upon a window sill. ‘I often times sat beside the fireplace’, says Peter, ‘and listened to their stories. Pat Ward would sit there, Kitty here and me here. Pat was a great boatsman. He used to be sailing to Galway in those days and he’d be telling me about Galway and Golum Head and all those places’. Pat and another villager Mark Conneally made a career out of drawing ‘flour and stuff’ in a currach from Galway City into Roundstone.
[xix] He sold the house to Ken Thompson, the Cork-based stone carver. ‘I left because I needed to get closer to the road’, he says simply. Ken’s brother Rodney lives there today and Peter regularly returns to visit, often bearing gifts of carrot and potatoes. It is the only house in the village that is still inhabited.
[xx] The school is being converted into a home by one of Peter’s nephews. It is a curious anomaly that fellow Aill na Caillí villager Mikey Conneally lives the other side of the school. There are not many other past pupils living in the area. Most emigrated and many more have died. As Tim Robinson noted, Toombeola should more appropriately be called Tuaim Beola, or the Tomb of Beola, being the legendary burial place of Beola, the giant who once walked the Twelve Pins. It would barely classify as a village in the present age as its post office, public house and school have all closed. A few hundred metres from the mid-Victorian bridge are the ruins of a monastery founded by the Dominicans of Athenry and occupied by monks as recently as 1720.
[xxi] Irrespective of season, a Jack o’ Lantern pumpkin hangs from a holly tree. On my visit, his book was ‘Berlin: The Downfall 1945’ by Antony Beevor. Other books he has enjoyed include The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far, The Death of a President, War & Peace. A portrait of Jesus Christ shines from one side of his dresser. On another wall is a poster of the ‘Seafood of Ireland’, beside a framed photograph of Festus Nee, a local man who we chanced to encounter and photograph for the first volume of ‘Vanishing Ireland’. ‘Festy was a nice old fellow’, he muses sadly. ‘He was a great friend of mine and he used to always call into me’. Festus pneumonia and died quickly in the spring of 2008. Directly above Festus is a drawing pin board dotted with perhaps a dozen photographs of attractive women, mostly blonde. ‘Them are my German friends’, says he. It seems this committed bachelor has a regular fan club of visitors from Germany who return to Connemara every year and visit him. Hence the flag and hence, possibly, the book on Berlin. A visit to Germany is surely on the cards? He is a modest, intelligent man with a shy, bashful smile. He sports a cowboy hat, a gift from an American who was riding in the fields opposite, perhaps part of an equestrian centre. ‘Tell Paddy Power that his friend Peter Ward was asking after him’, he says. ‘And we’ll meet again with God’s help’.