(Photo: James Fennell)
‘When you got a blow from Master Henry, you wouldn’t get up for three days’.
‘Master Henry’ was Henry Curran, a powerfully built, curly-haired Republican employed for protection during the Irish War of Independence by German Hawkins, a Protestant farmer from County Wicklow.
‘He was a burster alright’, recalls German’s son George. ‘But we never had any trouble at Tourboy because we had him sleeping in a loft near the front door. He was one of their men. They wouldn’t touch you.’
Curran was ostensibly employed as a shepherd. That said, given the late nights, he was more often to be seen snoozing on a big rock with the two sheepdogs seated beside him. His lodging were in the loft at the Hawkins farmstead in Tourboy, Co. Wicklow. In the evenings, he’s ‘get a big dinner’ from Mrs. Hawkins. ‘And then he’d be off on his bicycle sending messages’.
In 1920, one of the Hawkins’ Protestant neighbours was burned out of his farm.[i] His cattle were due to go under the hammer at the Carlow Fair and German resolved to buy them. At 5 o’clock that dark wintry morning, German set off with horse, trap and Master Henry by his side. Both men were wrapped in blankets to ward off the chill. Shortly after they passed Killerig Cross, a voice hollered out from the blackness.
‘Halt! Who are you?’
‘I’m German Hawkins from Tourboy over Rathnagan’.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m going for the fair of Carlow to get out cattle from Mr Salter’s place’.
There was a flare of a match as Master Henry lit a cigarette.
‘Oh Jesus, it’s you Henry!’, said the voice. ‘Go on about your business’.
As chance would have it, Henry had been out the night before with the very same Republicans.
‘They were tough times’, says George. ‘But, anyway, they went on to the fair and got the cattle and everything was grand.’
When George tells stories of the old days, he becomes the characters about whom he talks. As such, he has entire role-plays in his head, complete with soliloquies and the rat-a-tat-tat exchange of dialogue. For instance, he recalls a ‘Free Stater’ called Jimmy Harman who worked with his father after the war.[ii]
‘Mr Hawkins, you’re lucky I’m alive’, says George, metamorphosing into how Jimmy might have sounded at the Hawkins breakfast table eight decades ago. ‘I met the IRA, the Fianna Fails. They had four guns and put me up against the ditch. But for God’s sake Mrs Hawkins, didn’t Seamus O’Toole come forward and say ‘hold on till I get a look at what you have.’ And he looked at me, Mrs Hawkins, and he knew me. ‘Put down your guns. I went to school with him.’ He was a gentleman, Seamus. ‘Get the hell out of here as fast as you can Jimmy’, he said to me. Poor O’Toole. He was a decent nice fellow.’
‘I remember hearing O’Toole’s body was on the side of the road’, says George, becoming George again. ‘The Free Staters got him and Myley Carroll at Straduff. They named the dance hall in Rathdangan after him. Henry Curran helped draw the sand and stone for it. He went off to America then, poor Henry. He lived to be 92 by some accounts. He came home once, after years away, and went over to Mullan Cross on the Aughrim Road but he didn’t know where he was, and him born within a mile of it. He forgot the country that he was born and reared in!’ [iii]
It is thought the Hawkins family originally hailed from County Laoise, perhaps descended from the gutsy Englishmen who settled in that county during the reign of Mary Tudor. (Laoise was originally named ‘Queen’s County’ in her honour).[iv] By the 18th century, a branch of the family were tenants of the Earls Fitzwilliam at the Coolattin estate in south Wicklow.
‘The Fitzwilliams were the best landlords in the world’, says George. ‘They took three Hawkins boys and two girls out of Coolattin and put them into the old farmstead at Tourboy. That was the last farm I had and I owned it for ten years.’
Tourboy lies at the foot of the snow-capped Lugnaquillia. The land belonged to ‘a rich crowd’ called Freeman who divided it between three farming families – Driver, Eager and Hawkins.[v] George recalls the Freeman’s living a merry life, ‘swallowing whiskey’ at point-to-points and driving around in Bentleys long before anyone else had a motorcar.[vi]
George’s great-grandfather Richard Hawkins was the first to settle in Tourboy.[vii] His son George was born in 1838 and married 23-year-old Louisa Finlay in 1874. Her people owned a large farm in Knockanarrigan, close to the present day army camp at Coolmoney. Louisa was petite and George was tall so they made something of an odd couple. But they enjoyed 35 years of married life together during which time they had three sons and four daughters.[viii]
George’s father was born in 1880 and christened German Hawkins. It was a common first name for the families of Tourboy, although some spelled it Jermyn or Jerman. ‘He didn’t like it much,’ says his son. ‘When he met his cousin German Finlay, he addressed him as ‘Namesake’’.[ix]
Upon the death of old George on St Patrick’s Day 1909, German succeeded to the farm. Four years later, German married Katherine Drought, with whom he had two sons, George and Fred, and two daughters, Kathleen and Louisa.[x] 1913 was an extraordinary year for the Hawkins family as five of the seven children were married, including German. Each service was followed by a party back at Tourboy which took place in the loft, the same place where Master Henry would later sleep. ‘It was a powerful loft with a double floor over eight cows’, explains George. ‘You wouldn’t even know the cows were below you.’
One of the 1913 weddings was between George’s youngest uncle - his namesake George Thomas Hawkins – and 22-year-old Meta Hobson from Rathdangan. George Thomas was reputedly his mother’s pet but for reasons that continue to baffle the family today, he later emigrated to New Zealand with Meta and never contacted his family again.[xi]
George junior was born at Tourboy on 3rd October 1914, two months after the outbreak of the First World War.[xii] His arrival coincided with the globalization of the conflict. That same day, 33,000 Canadian troops sailed for Europe; the largest force to ever cross the Atlantic.
On his second birthday, his grandmother gifted him a Cheviot sheep.[xiii] ‘It had a bluish face that I can still see to this day. I have owned a sheep ever since which is 94 years … isn’t that a long time to have owned sheep?’
George was at school in Rathdangan where his father had 700 acres of mountain upon which he farmed sheep. While George enjoyed the outdoor life, his brother Fred was fascinated by the internal workings of a transistor radio. At the age of fifteen, Fred built his own radio. It was designed for home use but soon became a focal point for the parish. Every Sunday, the local community piled into the kitchen at Tourboy, grabbed whatever long stool, chairs or floor space they could find and awaited the news. Fred’s radio was considered such a marvel that when the parish priest encountered two men whispering on a roadside near Tourboy, they gingerly explained: ‘No, we haven’t lost our voices Father. It’s just that Hawkins over there has a new machine and it’s able to hear every bit of news in the country. We’re afraid it can hear us too.’
German Hawkins rented some good fields near Naas where his cattle and sheep could savour the short grasses during the winter months. Throughout his late teens and twenties, George herded the livestock down from his father’s lands at Tourboy and Rathdangan and across to these fresh pastures. Katie Bollard, one of German’s sisters, lived at Bluebell beside Naas and George would stay there for weeks on end.[xiv] These were carefree days when he rambled from house to house, listening to stories, telling more. When opportunity knocked, he attended point-to-points, the Punchestown races and sheepdog trials.
In 1950, George married 25-year-old Betty Boyd with whom he enjoyed 59 years before her passing in 2009, four days after his 95th birthday. ‘She was the most generous wife anyone could have’, says George. ‘She was my master. She always won.’
George and Betty experienced considerable personal tragedy although you would never get that impression from talking with George.[xv] In May 1951, their baby daughter Pamela was stricken with spinal bifida and died. Seven years later, their six-year-old son Richard succumbed to cystic fibrosis. The same disease accounted for a third child Beryl, aged fifteen, in the summer of 1976.
In 1954, while his parents were still at Tourboy, George purchased a farm at Ballyhackett near Tullow, Co. Carlow. He was now making his mark as a cattle dealer and was frequently travelling across Ireland, exhibiting his prize-winning cattle.[xvi] In later years, he ran the farms at Tourboy and Rathdangan. He was also a leading member of the Sheepdog Association of Ireland.
His son Spencer has run the farm since 1987 and keeps thoroughbred horses, suckler cows and sheep. Spencer’s wife Fiona (nee Hoxey of Dwyers Cottage fame) ensures the old fellow gets his daily nutrition.
George’s daughter Norah is married to another farmer Edwin Burgess whose father Bill Burgess appeared in the first volume of ‘Vanishing Ireland’.
Undoubtedly the most remarkable thing about George is his memory. He remembers the precise size and topography of every field through which he has trodden, the breed of sheep that were watching him, the length of every potato drill, the weight of every sack of potatoes he handled, the type and quality of the potatoes within, the number and names of all men, horses and machines who were in the field with him and why so-and-so wasn’t there. He recalls, or at least has a glorious stab at recalling, the exact chain of events, including dialogue, between cause and effect. The movement of limbs, the colour of walls, the quantity of money exchanged, George lets none of it go unnoticed.[xvii]
‘Ah I could tell you stories forever,’ he says when our conversation must come to a halt. ‘There’s a lot more to be said’. Undoubtedly there is but as I watch the 96-year-old zoom off down the farm avenue in his Volkswagen, I reckon we have plenty more years to go yet.
With thanks to Spencer Hawkins and Norah Burgess.
[i] ‘My father had a lot of land from John Lee Salter down by Ballybit, where the Gorman’s are now. Salter was put out of it. He was a cousin of Betty, and German used to often call in on him. When Salter’s cattle went up for sale, my father wanted to go the fair in Carlow and buy them. They left at five o’clock in the morning. Henry had to be back after sending messages down to where the IRA’s were all in, like at Hyde Park in Kiltegan which they burned and other places. This morning ‘Master Henry’ went up the hill and sat down by the Clahown Big Stone. He fell fast asleep, the two dogs beside him, when they do a bit of gathering on the sheep. One day, Curran came in late and he wasn’t able to eat the rashers, only a bit of porridge, and got a beer in the night … they got out the cattle and when they went to Killerig Cross, German wakened Henry, he had two coats and a rug in a roundabout trap. The fellow got very little sleep. And he got nothing for it. They were at the cross – it wasn’t staggered at that time – and he knew there was a trench where the Republicans were hid. My father told me all this but I was only just going to school then. He gave Henry another 15 minutes, when opened his eyes, to a field owned by Benson … who guided him down the roads but then ‘Halt!’ and out come a big box of matches and a ‘Who are you?’ My father said : ‘I’m German Hawkins from Tourboy over Rathnagan’. Where are you going? ‘I’m going for the fair of Carlow to get out cattle in Mr Salter’s place’. He unstrapped Henry and the lad lit another match. ‘Oh Jesus, is it you Henry’. And he’d seen Henry the night before, whatever they were at. ‘Now go on about your business’. The neighbours said to my mother: ‘How do you think he will ever come back?’ They were tough times. But anyway, they went onto the fair and everything was grand.’
He also remembers the battle of Graney. His neighbour Mr. Twomley ‘was going to school and there were bullets flying like mad … they escaped in a pony and cart.’ There is a lot buried there in George Corrigan’s farm after that battle. ‘There was a lot of trouble alright’.
[ii] ‘Jimmy was a little fellow. He was helping my father re-roof Tourboy in 1925’.
[iii] Seamus O’Toole and Myley Carroll were killed in a skirmish at Straduff, Shean, near Garryhill, on 5th December 1922. Other farmers who helped build the Seamus O’Toole Memorial Hall included George Driver of Croan (nr. Shillelagh). ‘Next thing they had a dance in the hall and the girls at home and two lads said they would go. One of them was Henry and he was put to mind the money. He was good at that. When you got a blow from Henry, you wouldn’t get up for three days’. He brought the money to the grotto and lay down to sleep along with the money but nobody dared go near him.’ It was a great dance with an accordion and a fiddle, George says, though he wasn’t actually there.
‘Curran got two wages on the quiet, you see. My mother dreaded it because she didn’t know my father was giving this crowd back-handers. My brother Fred said my father must have been a Republican. He wasn’t! He was only saving his own bacon. You had to be very quiet in what you said in those times.’
One of Henry Curran’s sister worked as a maid with the Caldbecks of Tullow. Another sister was blind in later life, as was their mother.
[iv] ‘They used to say the four Hawkins came out of Laois. One of my neighbours Rathdangan said she heard the Hawkins came out of Aughavanagh years ago’.
[v] The Igors were also installed by the Fitzwilliams and own what George says became George Hobson’s place.
[vi] ‘There was a race meeting in Kildare in gone by days, a proper point-to-point and Freemans had something in it. Freeman drank a bottle of whiskey every day, but his wife’s side were real business people. This is before there were lorries or motors. She said: “Look, you’ve been swallowing whiskey since this morning and you think this horse is going to win. It’s not. We’re training a horse for nothing. Now change your clothes.” She was an only daughter and left her mother farming with three men in America. She wrote to them for years after. She’d drive around in a Bentley.’
[vii] One of the Hawkins girls from a previous generation married William G. Despard, a big coal merchant from Honeoye Falls, New York. William G. Despard was born in LeRoy, New York, on 9th August 1881. He hailed from ‘a breed of the County Laois Despards’. The couple met out ‘that country’. They had three girls and a boy and lived on a nice house by a lake. They went out on the lake one Sunday, the boat turned over and the boy was drowned. George recalls one of this family coming to visit, a woman who was ‘a pure-German, the grandest person that you could meet’. She took a cutting from one of his roses. She may have been a daughter of Mr and Mrs John Heimlech who is referenced in the article from ‘The Daily News – Batavia’ of 1918 about the family home on fire.
[viii] At the time of the 1911 census, Louisa Hawkins was living at Toorboy [Tourboy] with two sons German (1881-1975) and George Thomas (b. 1890) and two daughters Louisa (b. 1883) and Rebecca (b. 1885). Another sister Katie was born in 1886 and is mentioned on 1901 census but appears to have been married by 1911. The other brother Richard was father to Katherine Gillespie. ‘There were six Hawkins got married in Tourboy in 1913’, says George, including all four girls and two sons.
[ix] German Finlay of Ballytoole was born in 1886.
[x] German Hawkins died aged 94 on 4th May 1975; Katherine Sarah Hawkins died on 10th August 1983.
[xi] Born in Kiltegan in 1891, Meta was the eldest of (at least) six children born to George and Maria Hobson of Rathcoyle (Ballinguile) near Rathdangan, a relative of Olive Hobson. They emigrated to New Zealand and had two daughters still living in 2011, although ‘they’re up to 90 now’. Their brother Stewart Hawkins died recently. He was his mother’s favourite but after he left for New Zealand, he apparently never contacted his mother again.
[xii] George was christened in Kiltegan.
[xiii] Louisa Hawkins died in 1931, aged 80.
[xiv] ‘I went to the Punchestown races in 1928. My aunt [Katie Bollard] and uncle owned Bluebell House, a lovely farm going into Naas. They were burnt out of Cowen in Knocknarrigan, two hay-sheds burnt. My aunt wouldn’t live in Cowen anymore and come to live with us in Tourboy.’
[xv] I should have told Mary McAlese that I was ‘Uncle George’. If she’s said ‘To who?’, I’d say Ivan and Deirdre Yates. Betty was Deirdre’s aunt.
[xvi] He frequently went north with his brother-in-law **** Lawson, husband of Betty’s sister Joan. He was a Protestant cattle farmer from Ulster. On one occasion, George attempted to purchase a shorthorn bull calf but the seller refused his bid ‘because you belong to Dev’s crowd’. ‘I told him I wasn’t from Dev’s crowd but he said ‘Sure, you’re from down where the shagger lived’. He wouldn’t have sold it to me for a million pounds’.
[xvii] He has endless tales of harvesting potatoes for Iris Kellett, of watching Lord Rathdonnell’s hounds gallop through High Park, of the IRA executioner George Plant. The latter ‘knew too much and had to be shot. He used to come this country and sleep the night here.’ High Park was formerly home to the Westby family, and latterly the headquarters of the St. Patrick’s Missionary Scoiety, known as the Kiltegan Fathers.
He has a bold humour. For instance, he delights in the memory of a season when a brother-in-law in Ulster was unable to get a spoonful of honey from a hundred bee hives, while Betty was drawing 28lb from the one she kept.
George is still fully mobile and completely active and, while he might not ride his motorbike anymore, he still enjoys whist and enjoys the occasional outing to the bowling green.