John Joe Conway
(Photo: James Fennell)
The short avenue leading down to his cottage is treacherously icy but that doesn’t stop John Joe from skating across the frozen puddles like a fearless toddler. ‘By God and you’re welcome, lads. Come in out of the cold and make yourselves comfortable.’
John Joe’s home lies amid the hills of West Clare in a place called Knockanedan which, rather cryptically, translates as The Hill on the Brow of Another Hill.[i] The other hill is Knockalunkard, the hill of the long fort, where John Joe’s late mother grew up. Located along the old Lisdoonvarna to Ennis road, memories of ages past still linger over these remote green hills. Pitched between two ancient ringforts are the grass-covered rumps of an abandoned village. ‘I knew an old man who could remember the women from the hill village,’ says John Joe. ‘There is still contact with those times but so much of what was around here has gone over to forestry since. The Forestry Department didn’t give a tinker’s damn for the past. They would have planted trees on this kitchen floor if they could.’[ii]
John Joe’s forbears came from the townland of Ballycannoe, just north east of Lidsoonvarna, which was once called Conwaystown ‘and there was no one there except Conways.’ They were ‘cleared out of it in the troubled times and moved up to Galway.’[iii] They returned to Clare in the 19th century and Michael Conway, John Joe’s grandfather, arrived in Knockanedan from Miltown Malbay. He was essentially adopted by his uncle Paddy Conway and his wife Bridget, who had no children of their own.
It had been Michael’s intention to join the civil service in Dublin. However, as he prepared to depart for the city, Paddy pleaded with him to stay and offered him the farm. The young man reluctantly bade farewell to his administrative dreams and stayed.[iv]
Michael married Bridget Donoghue from Maurice’s Mills who bore him three sons and three daughters. However, she died giving birth to their youngest girl in 1901. Michael then reared the six children himself, in the same house where John Joe lives now. Two of the six later emigrated to England – John to work on the railways in Manchester and Mary to work in catering in Luton – but the other four remained in County Clare, including Michael’s eldest son Patrick who was John Joe’s father.[v]
John Joe’s kitchen is a large, open-plan room with a concrete floor and a strobe light overhead. Bags of turf encased in yellow plastic gather behind a settee between the staircase and the Stanley range. Along one wall runs a 1950s dresser, laden with chipped teacups and tick-tock clocks. ‘I’m a clockaholic’ he confides.[vi] Another wall is adorned with portraits of Padre Pio, Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II, whom he went to see at Ballybrit in 1979, ‘the greatest day in my life.’[vii] Amongst other photographs is a 1940s shot of the Conway family standing beside the haybarn at Knockanedan in their Sunday best. John Joe, his parents and his four brothers.[viii] The boys all wear shorts; no young man wore long pants until he reached his sixteenth birthday.[ix]
‘It wasn’t easy to rear a family in those times,’ says John Joe. ‘But they did it, however they did it.’ His father was evidently a towering figure. ‘And terrible strong too,’ he says, with a respectful nod of the head. ‘He was a tug of war man’. Patrick’s wife Mary Ward was a cattle farmer’s daughter from nearby Knockalunkard.
As a youngster, John Joe often helped his father with the cattle. The prices were sometimes so low that they had to take the stock to two or three fairs before they found a buyer.[x] While they awaited a sale, they lived on credit with the local shop like everybody else. ‘They were so terribly honest in them times that they all did pay because if they didn’t, the shopkeeper wouldn’t be able to keep going.’
The Conway sons were all educated in Inchovea, a handsome nineteenth century building which was demolished in the 1950s because it was deemed too damp.[xi] ‘A bucket of mortar would have sorted the leak out,’ says John Joe indignantly. ‘The tradesman who knocked it nearly failed because it was such a fine structure. It didn’t want to be knocked. He made more money selling the lead flashing than it cost him to buy the place and knock it down.’
By the time he left school in the mid-1950s, John Joe knew the family farm was headed his way. Two of his brothers had emigrated to Luton, one to work with Vauxhall, the other to become a plasterer, and there they both remained until they died a few years ago.[xii] Another brother Patrick joined the Christian Brothers and settled in Clara, County Offaly.
The fourth brother Martin played flute with the Irish Army No. 1 Band for nearly thirty years and now lives nearby. During the 1960s, Martin was based at Batterstown, County Meath, and the biggest journeys of John Joe’s life were his annual 500km round trip to visit him. This coincided with the much-relished “Clareman’s Do” in Harry’s of Kinnegad, a gathering of all the farming men of County Clare who had moved east and settled in Meath and Westmeath. ‘We used to let our hair hang down – full length’, he laughs, eyes crinkling as he reels off the names of the lads he met for the ‘dancing and sing-song and that carry on.’
Like his grandfather before him, John Joe was not particularly excited by the prospect of taking on the farm. ‘I felt it would be nothing but hardship,’ he says.[xiii] ‘But I got used to it.’ When his mother’s brother passed away in 1962, he acquired a second farm on Knockalunkard Hill. ‘So I doubled up, but it was still small, about 60 acres in total, and not the best land in the world.’
He bred pedigree Shorthorns and he has a quiver full of scary tales about cows and bulls that have run amok. The pick is probably the one about his neighbour, ‘a strong man who was never afraid of anything’ and who fetched up the wrong side of a bull. This is how John Joe tells the story:
‘One day the wife looks out and she sees the bull is going down on him, trying to crush him to bits. So she runs over to the paddock with an apron and throws her apron at the bull. The bull turned and went down on the apron and was satisfied to be belting away at that instead. She got her husband up and began dragging him out but, as they were leaving, she looked back and she said ‘Michael, could you ever hasten, he’s coming again …’ and he was thundering up the paddock after them, breathing up the back of their necks, for to give them the doubts. They got out the gate, she pulled it shut and the bull banged his head on it after. Michael had six cracked ribs and was scratched and bruised all over his face. Michael’s two brother-in-laws would not believe the bull was so bad. They brought a heifer along and stuck her in the field with the bull. He took no notice of her so they went in after her with their forks. The first lad didn’t even get to draw the fork. The bull hit him so hard. Took the two legs up from under him and lifted him. The other lad stuck his fork in the bulls’ guts then and that worked. That’s what he had to do or the bull would have killed the two of them. The bull started trying to wrench himself until he got rid of the fork and that gave them enough time to get out. They had to put the bull down after that.’[xiv]
‘You would have to be alert to the bulls,’ he warns.[xv] But cows can also be extremely dangerous, particularly Limousin cows. ‘When they are calving, they have some temper. For three days after the calf is born, they are terrible.’ He recalls a friend being chased up the field by one such cow. ‘Only for that he was an athlete, she’d have had him. She chased him a hundred yards or more. I was watching him twisting and turning and zig-zagging but I couldn’t do anything. I think it took more out of me than him.’
John Joe is more at ease in the company of horses. ‘They used to say there was a four leaf shamrock wherever a mare foaled. I love horses. Their intelligence is something else. They know your step. They know your voice. They know if you are grumpy and they keep out of your way! The very moment you handle the reins, they know to a T what you’re made of. And when you ride them, they know when you’re in charge and they know when they can dump you. And dump you they will!’
‘I had a breeding mare, a draft horse. I bred foals from her and I brought them to the fairs in Ennistymon and Ennis. I often hopped up on her, with no bridle or anything, for a gallop through the fields. She was a nice mare with plenty of speed. But until she wanted to stop, you couldn’t come off. We were out once and her leg went down a closed drain. She scrambled and scrambled so much that I thought she was damaged. I never rode her again after that. I realised this country was too dangerous for her.’
John Joe also had a couple of workhorses.[xvi] ‘The trick with the workhorse is to keep him working. When they aren’t working, they start acting up, plunging and rearing and shying at this, that and every other thing they meet on the road. But when they are working they are lovely and they really can work.’ [xvii]
John Joe sold his last ‘little mare’ in 2005.[xviii] He was anxious for her health because she had developed water scabs on her back and he did not know how to cure her. ‘She was never trained but she was a beauty to lead. After she was gone I put down eight or nine terrible nights. The line was broken. Every morning I would bring her feed … but when she was gone, I was put off my stride.’[xix]
He found some consolation in music. ‘Oh the Lord yes, I am stone crazy mad for traditional music. I played a tin whistle back in the past and I used to sing, with porter. Aye, when the medicine was on, I’d sing. ‘Putting on the Style’, Lonnie Donegan. That was one of my songs.’ In fact, John Joe frequently hosted céilidhs in his kitchen, drawing crowds of anything up to forty people. ‘A couple of lads would play and they’d dance a few sets and waltzes and maybe sing a few songs. Everybody would be to and fro and there was the occasional romance out of it. It wasn’t men on the one wall and women on the other.’
That said, John Joe never married. ‘It was a pity for all the bachelors in this area that all the women left for England and America. Or they married the bigger farmers. I suppose they were afraid of the drudgery of marrying a smaller farmer.’ The population duly tumbled and many local businesses were no longer viable. In the last decade, the creamery, the shop and the school have all closed.[xx] ‘This area has been turned upside down,’ says John Joe. ‘But there was nothing we could do. Like a lot of the country areas, it came so gradual at first that no one took any notice.’
With thanks to Katie Theasby.
[i] Knockanedan lies in the hills of West Clare, at the heart of a ring of towns – Kilfenora, Corofin, Inagh and Ennistymon.
[ii] John Joe recalls a visit by a gang with metal detectors. ‘I’d like to preserve all those old places if I could’, he says.
[iii] One of the Galway branch arrived into Ballyea near Ennistymon. Another branch moved from Ballyea to Miltown Malbay ‘and my grandfather came down from Miltown Malbay to here.’
[iv] The Conways. The story about them is that we came from Lisdoonvarna, a place called Ballycanoe which is called Conwaystown. And once there was no one there except Conways. They were cleared out of it in the troubled times and moved up to Galway. Later they came back again and one of them married in Ballyea in Ennistymon. Another branch moved from Ballyea to Miltown Malbay. And we came down from Miltown Malbay to here. Paddy Conway married Bridget Hughes who lived here. They had no family and they sent for their nephew Michael Conway from Miltown Malbay and he came here. He hadn’t much interest in land. He went from school from here 9 or 10 miles north east to Roughan on the Killinaboy Road where they had a great teacher. A long walk across the country. Healthy legs on him. He passed some great exam and he was called to go to Dublin for the civil service. But then Paddy Conway said he would lose his life if Michael left and he said he would give him the land. So he gave him the place and he stayed. Michael was my grandfather and he was buried before I was born.
[v] Michael’s wife was a Donoghue from Derry, by Maurice’s Mills, a parish near Inagh, but she died young, leaving him with three boys, three girls. ‘I’m bad at dates’, says John Joe. His father was Patrick Conway, eldest son, born 1888. Another brother John worked on railways in Manchester where he lived and died. The other brother Michael married ‘up into the Burren country.’ Of the sisters, Adela married Paddy Pearse [sic] in Killinaboy; Nora married down in Ballyea in Inagh; Mary went to Luton in Bedfordshire.
[vi] He has a fine collection, one with a barometre, and a Telstar from Ennistymon and one with an hourly ring that kept him awake all night until he turned it off.
[vii] He went to see the Pope and it ‘was the greatest day in my life’. 17th September 1979. ‘I went up to the Galway racecourse at Ballybrit. I was as close as you are to me. We were in the last coral going into the racecourse. Everyone had binoculars so we could see the pope the very far end and we were satisfied. But then it was announced that he would go through the corals in his Popemobile and he came up right beside us. I nearly dropped! This was more than I had expected. This was fantastic. A couple of yards. That was the greatest day of my life. ‘ And if Benedict came, he would go and see them’. The Pope is also the Bishop of Kilfenora and the parish priest of Kilshanny. Those are his Irish titles way back! Kilfenora is the city of the Seven Crosses.
[viii] It was taken by a visiting nurse from England. ‘There was terrible excitement that day’, he recalls. ‘We were in our very best clothes.’
[ix] Like all boys of his generation, John Joe wore shorts until he was sixteen. ‘The holes were in the knees when you fell over,’ he says, ‘but you’d be laughed at if you wore trousers before your time.’
[x] Cattle prices were so low you had to sell the weaning calves of 9 months old and you might have to bring them to 2 or 3 fairs to sell them, and when they would be sold there would be a big backlog in the shops for credit.
[xi] John Joe was a neighbour of Tom Nedd (qv) who grew up just north at Knockroe, a farm now owned by his nephew. John Joe and Tom were at the same school in Inchovea.
[xii] Tony died in 2008 and Michael in 2009. They both moved to Luton to stay with their aunt Mary. Patrick was the youngest brother.
[xiii] John Joe says he ‘hardly got time’ to consider emigration. He didn’t want the place when he got it because he felt it would be nothing but hardship. He was in his early 20s. ‘But I was satisfied to work under orders’. His father passed it on to him to run. ‘I wasn’t full happy with it in the beginning but I got used to it’.
[xiv] Another run in with a bull which ‘did fairly scare me’ was as follows. The bull was on the farm and on his own. John Joe was crossing the field and ‘I didn’t like the way he was watching me so I hopped out over a wall. Next thing I see him making for the gate and I could see he was in bad humour. He stayed at that gate until he tore it down. He went in under it and got it over his back. I was standing beside a rick of hay so I grabbed a fork. There were three lines of wire between me and him but the rate at which he was thundering towards me I thought he would come through them anyway. He wouldn’t stop. But he did stop and he went around to a small gate and he couldn’t come any further. And I scrammed. But he did fairly frighten me.’
[xv] Your best bet is to fix an angry bull up with a chain four and a half feet in length. ‘That is an awful hardship for them. It’s too short for him to be able to throw it up on his back because he’ll step on it’.
[xvi] ‘They have the Ennistymon fair revived now but the horses got so plentiful that everyone was at it and now you can’t get rid of them. Now they put them into bogs and forest to die and leave them there to starve. I do not like that, Lord bless us’.
[xvii] ‘They did work, the horses, but they were going good then. The horses they used for ploughing in the limestone tillage countries, Killinaboy and places … I heard of a man, a real horseman, who used to plough with a horse called Bob who was so used to plough in the open drills that he was able to plough without reins or bridle or winchers or anything, only put on the plough, and when he came to the headland, Bob set in and went onto the headland and he’s swing around the plough and go on up the next line. He was so used to what he had to do that there was no need to guide them.’
[xviii] The last foal he had, he liked petting but he was aware that a foal can also easily kill you. She used to come and nuzzle him daily while he was making his way to the cattle and he would rub her back happily. One day she reared up on him and her hoof caught in his jumper. ‘I froze then because if I moved or is she pulled sideways, I was killed. But she took the leg out and turned around to give me her two hind legs. And I turned of a shot and ran. And never again would I venture to do anything but lay a hand on her. They are so nimble they can twist and turn and have you ruined.’
[xix] ‘I hadn’t any big name for her and she was never trained but she was a beauty to lead … but when she was gone it was very different and it took me nine days to get into my stride again. Next to a human, they say the horses are next. The intelligence they have is something else.’
[xx] A new school built in the 1950s has closed because there simply weren’t enough children about. The building is now a dwelling house.
John Joe Conway was recorded by Tomas MacNamara from Clare County Council called the An Cuirt [sic] group in 2010. ‘There were two words we used in the past for going out’, he says. ‘One was roganach [sic] and one was cúirt.’