(Photo: James Fennell)
‘My mother sometimes smoked a pipe’, recalls Annie Conneely. ‘She would light it off the kitchen fire with a piece of paper. All my people smoked a pipe at that time. Luckily I didn’t like smoking at all.’
Annie’s people were the Conneely’s of Cloonisle Bay near Roundstone. Her father Pat Conneely was born in 1877 and grew up in the village of Aill na Caillí on the bay’s western shore. Traditionally the families of Ail na Cailli sustained themselves through a combination of farming and wily currach trips to Galway where they bought flour and other provisions to sell to the townsfolk of Roundstone and Clifden. However, the arrival of the railway link between Clifden and Galway in 1895 put many such currachs out of business and gradually the people abandoned Aill na Caillí. Today it is one of many deserted villages on that windswept Atlantic shore.
Pat was in his 20s when he left the village. He did not stray far, acquiring a cottage and fourteen acres from the Land Commission which directly overlooked Cloonisle Bay.[i] The cottage, built in 1914, is where Annie and her sister Mary were born and remains Annie’s home today.
Annie’s mother Bridget was also a Conneely, though “no relation” of her husband. She hailed from Mweenish, an Irish-speaking island near Carna.[ii] Her childhood memories are happy ones. She and Mary often accompanied their father on trips in his small boat out on Cloonisle Bay. He taught them how to fish and she gleefully clucks at the memory of a particularly good haul of white-bellied pollock.[iii] Sometimes Pat took the girls back into Aill na Caillí where they talked with the ‘good, kind, ordinary country people’ who still lived there. [iv]
At certain times of year, the girls cut and gathered driftweed along the shore at Cloonisle. The driftweed was then loaded onto Pat’s boat and taken to the factory in Kilkieran from where it would sail to Scotland. The girls also dragged some of the seaweed back home. ‘We’d put it on the land as manure when we were making new ridges for the potatoes and turnips and carrots and oats we sowed.’
There was always work to be done, tending to the cattle and sheep, feeding the chickens and turkey, preparing the land for the upcoming season, knitting clothes and preparing meals. Fish was a big part of the daily diet. ‘Mutton was a rare treat but my mother didn’t like any meat except chicken, wild geese and sometimes turkey.’ Many contented hours were spent in the kitchen, converting their home-grown potatoes, flour, buttermilk and egg into pan-fried boxty.
Everything was cooked on an open fire using water from a nearby spring well. There was no running water, electricity or gas in the house and at night they talked in the glow of paraffin lamps.
The house smelled of tobacco. Annie’s mother may have enjoyed puffing on a pipe but no women was ever seen smoking in public. The last person to bed raked the fire, threw fresh turf on top, covered the turf in ash and left it to smoulder overnight. The fire was never allowed to go out, even in summertime. The moment the last chimney stopped smoking in Aill na Caillí was the moment that Pat Conneely’s home village became abandoned.
In 1925, when Annie was six, an unusual neighbour moved into the area. Prince Ranjitsinhji, the Maharajah of Nawanagar, was one of the world’s greatest cricketers and had stood as the Indian representative at the meeting of the League of Nations in 1923. He befriended the Irish delegation and was invited by President WT Cosgrave to enjoy some Irish sport at the Tailtean Games at Croke Park. Impressed by Ireland, the Maharajah – better known as Ranji - bought Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara, with 50,000 acres, from the Berridge family.
Ranji’s move to Ireland placed Connemara squarely on the map for well-to-do tourists from all over the world. Mary Conneely was one of those employed to work at the Ballynahinch in Ranji’s day but Annie is too discreet to impart any high society gossip her sister might have let slip.[v] Suffice it to say that in Connemara it is believed this lifelong bachelor kept at least seven wives back home in India.
In 1933, the Cloonisle milkman told Annie that the Berridges were looking for a housemaid at their home on beautiful Lough Inagh. Richard Berridge’s father was a wealthy Catholic brewing magnate from Middlesex, England. In 1883, the tycoon had purchased over 170,000 acres of Counties Galway and Mayo, becoming, at a stroke of the quill, the biggest landowner in Ireland. When his son sold Ballynahinch Castle to Ranji, he moved to a sturdy fishing lodge sheltered within the Recess of Connemara and sublimely pitched above Lough Inagh.
Annie was not long finished her schooling at Toombeola when, aged sixteen, she walked the ten miles to Lough Inagh Lodge and secured a job as the Berridge’s housemaid.[vi] She was given a full-time job as a housemaid, with a bedroom at the house. She had every second Sunday and one afternoon a week off, and three weeks holiday annually. There was a gardener but, for a long time Annie was the only house help.[vii] ‘I was cooking, washing up, laying the table, making the beds, any kind of work they’d have me do.’
As with her own home, meals tended to be fish but there was the occasional roast and sometimes stew. The working hours were long, 8am until perhaps as late as 11pm or whenever the Berridge’s guests left the dinner table. Annie could not climb between the sheets until ever pot, dish and wineglass was scrubbed and dry, and the table set for breakfast. ‘But I liked it good enough’, she maintains. ‘I was near home and that satisfied me.’
Meanwhile, the Second World War broke out and ‘things got very scarce here. Tea, flour, bread, sugar, tobacco – it was all rationed.’ Colonel Richard Berridge was captured by the Germans. When he returned to Galway after the war, Annie reckons his body-weight had fallen to six stone. ‘He had a hard time’, she says quietly. ‘He was a nice man and he always seemed to get on with the people.’
In 1951, the Berridge family relocated to Screebe Lodge near Maam Cross. The lodge had formerly been a holiday home for the St. George family and had some interesting historical links. The portrait artist Sir William Orpen was a regular visitor during his four year affair with one of the Mrs. St. George’s. Padraig Pearse learned his Irish in nearby Rosmuc. There was also the ghost of Lady Rachel Dudley, the gorgeous wife of a former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who drowned in Screebe’s waters in the summer of 1920. The salmon that abounded in those waters were said to have been brought over from the River Rhine in the Victorian Age.
In any case, Annie did not care for Screebe Lodge because the distance was too far from home. When her mother took ill, Annie returned to help her father. She continued to work part-time at various country houses in the area, notably at Cashel House when it was a private house belonging to the Browne-Clayton family. She also worked two summers at Ballynahinch Castle which was sold after Ranji’s death in 1933 and later converted into a hotel by the affable Noel Huggard, owner of Ashford Castle.[viii]
Annie is a quiet, unassuming woman, at ease with a copy of ‘Ireland’s Own’ and her memories. When she looks out across Blackhaven Bay, she can visualise the Galway hookers setting out from Achill Island. When she closes her eyes, she can see the twirl of the house parties that took place in her home when she was young. ‘There’d be a round from here to Glinsk and Carna’, she recalls. ‘And maybe they would head on from here, around by boat to Inishnee Island, all in one night!’ Annie was never an alcohol drinker but she reckons a couple of shots of poitín will alleviate a chesty cough. ‘They say that if you rub it onto yourself it’s as good as drinking it.’
With thanks to Josie Keaney.
[i] Another brother stayed at home in Aill na Caillí when Pat ‘came up here’. There was another brother who ‘wasn’t well’. The brother’s son Mikey Conneely lived at Toombeola beside the school and is Annie’s first cousin.
[ii] Although Bridget was a Conneely too, Annie says she was ‘no relation’ to Pat.
[iii] ‘He had a little boat and he showed me how to fish’, she laughs. ‘I got a lot of fish one time. Pollack mostly. I managed it alright. Gunners [sic] and mackerel. You drop a line over the side and pull them in. I got quite a lot of them one day’.
[iv] ‘I knew a few’, she says. ‘The people in the village. The McDermotts lived down there and they were ordinary country people. They worked on the land. When I was a young, the Reillys had a house and he was a stonemason but they didn’t seem to care a lot for work on the land. They were more inclined to work on buildings. There was a house down here with a Joyce from Frahawla [sic] – his wife, I don’t know where she was from, up the country somewhere – she used to teach cooking and knitting. I was very young myself so I didn’t do much of that myself at the time. I could knit a little.’
[v] Mary O’Toole (nee Conneely) would later work for solicitor Henry Connolly but has died since.
[vi] ‘A man that used to deliver milk to them said they were looking for someone to work so I went to the house and I asked them had they any work, and they said they did. It was difficult to get anyone at that time because everyone was going to England. There were very few workers around here at the time.’ Mary Ward, an aunt of Peter Ward’s, was apparently there before her.
[vii] ‘After a while they got another girl to help and she’d do the rooms.’
[viii] Annie spent two consecutive summers at the hotel, from April until the end of September, where the affable Mr. Huggard instructed her in the arts of haute cuisine and excellent service.
Annie reckons that back in the day there was only one blacksmith in Roundstone (Paddy Crane) and another in Clifden. There was less need for horses in these parts because tillage was so limited. ‘A lot of the horses were in the mountains and didn’t have shoes because they’d pull them off in the bogs’. Many men from the area had sufficient knowledge of smithery to be able to put the horseshoes on themselves. ‘They’d get them from a foundry and nail them on.’