Liza Mulvihill (Photo: James Fennell)
‘I didn’t like to break the hearts of them all, for the sake of one.’ Liza Mulvahill blinks her playful eyes twice as she offers this explanation as to why she never married. And then she breaks into a laugh that knocks about ninety years off her age.
That is the thing about Liza. It is completely possible to forget she was born nearly a hundred years ago. Listening to her tales, you would reasonably conclude that she is still a rather beautiful young woman gearing up for a bit of craic and the next dance night.
Such as the Sunday night when her friend Kitty Walshe persuaded a young fellow called Dick Mahony to drive them both to the Tarbert Regatta on his donkey and cart. ‘We sat down in it very proud, riding down the road to Tarbert with our donkey.’ While the girls had just enough money to get in, they did not have enough for Dick. So they tied the donkey up in a nearby farmhouse and the two pretty girls strolled up to the man on the door. They explained that they would love to attend the dance, but that ‘our driver does not like dancing’ and would not enter unless his admission was free. Hearing the word ‘driver’, the ticket man assumed this pair of damsels came by motor car and were thus persons of wealth. ‘So he said all right and we went and got Dick in as quick as we could. We enjoyed ourselves to perfection, but we had two dates, with two boys, and we didn’t want them to see us going home in our ass and cart. So we stole out before the dance was over. At two o’clock in the morning, we came on up the road in the donkey cart as happy as if we were inside of a plane.’
Nearly seven decades have passed since but, close your eyes when Liza tells these tales, and you can quickly envision her twirling around and coyly stomping her feet at likely lads. As well as the Tarbert Regatta, there were the open-air platform dances in her home village of Moyvane which took place on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. ‘It was three pence to get in but my sister and myself never had the full amount,’ chuckles Liza. ‘The man that owned it knew us and we’d throw the money into the box quick. But one night his wife was at the door and we hadn’t the full amount. We threw in the money but she said, “Have you another penny?” Well, if another penny would have put us up into Heaven, we hadn’t it. So we ran away through the crowd and she didn’t follow us!’
By and large, they danced to accordions – ‘You couldn’t have anything else out in the open in case it rained.’ But she recalls one St Stephen’s Day when fifteen flute players arrived on a tractor and trailer and performed blissfully in the rain.
‘I was born on 19 August 1915,’ says she. ‘I remember it well. And I’m better able to walk now than I was then. I wasn’t able to walk at all then!’ She was the fifth of ten children born to Paddy Mulvihill, a thatcher, who lived ‘in the heart of a mountain’ near Moyvane, ‘with a lot of turf all around us’.
‘There was an awful lot of Mulvihills in that townland and they’re all Paddys and Mikes, so we used to have quite a job with the post. We had to put ‘Thatcher’ on my fathers’ letters.’ As it happens, Paddy was ‘a very good thatcher’ who ‘got more work than he could cope with’. ‘I’d see houses looking so bad and a day after my father was there, you wouldn’t know it was the same house at all, it’d all be looking so straight.’
Handiwork was evidently a genetic thing as Paddy’s parents were both weavers, ‘making sheets and coats and things like that.’ One of Liza’s aunts recalled how Michael Mulvihill, Paddy’s father, would walk the 60km from Moyvane to Killarney to gather the flax. Michael’s wife died young, leaving him with six children, the youngest of whom was Paddy, then a child of two years. In time, Paddy married Mary Anne Kiely with whom he had five sons and five daughters. Liza remembers her grandfather Michael and how he told her about the dead bodies he saw strewn along the roadside during the Great Famine. It is an amazing thing that many of the people we have met during the Vanishing Ireland project are the grandchildren of people who were teenagers during the Famine.
One of Liza’s earliest memories is of standing with her mother at the cottage door when a troop of Black and Tans began coming down the mountain. ‘I got afraid seeing all the men and I ran. One of them put up the gun to shoot me. They thought I was running to tell the IRA they were coming. My mother was in a panic until another one said, “Stop, don’t shoot the child.”’
She was more fortunate than the three unarmed local men who were gunned down by some drunken Tans in the nearby valley of Knockanure.
At the age of six, Liza went to the national school in Ballyguiltenane, across the border in County Limerick. ‘It was a long walk through the mountain, no road, and we’d be barefoot from the first of April until November. We had sore feet from hitting off the stones and my father would have to pick the thorns out of my legs after. We’d wear strong boots at other times, with nails and tips. On frosty mornings, we’d have a couple of sods of turf under our arms and that would be our heating, although we wouldn’t get near the fire … for fear that we would fall into it!’
‘I liked my first teacher, Miss Fahey. She was from Tipperary, very nice and I was able to learn from her. But then I went to a new teacher who was all slaps and she scattered the brains altogether on me. She had a stick and, I tell you, your hand would be sore.’
Liza left school aged fourteen and went to work ‘out with the farmers’. It was 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash. Her brother Mike was already in New York but another brother Ger arrived just as the economic downturn was becoming serious. ‘We were expecting money of course,’ she recalls, ‘but he didn’t get work until November. He sold his own coat to buy food. It was terrible. But when he got a job, he did mind it. He didn’t go from job to job. He kept on there until he retired. He had a lot of people to pay back for his digs.’
Back in Ireland, Liza’s day sometimes began as early as five in the morning, ‘You’d have to go through the fields and stir the cows up and bring them in for milking. And maybe you’d have to feed the little suckler cows before you’d have breakfast.’ A boy would then take the milk to the creamery although, in summertime, the boys would be ‘doing the harder work’, so Liza brought the milk in on a cart driven by ‘a big old horse that’d bite you’. She worked every day, including Sundays, when she also walked four miles to mass. Once a month, she went to Holy Communion. ‘I’d be fasting from midnight, after milking the cows and all, but you couldn’t have Communion if you weren’t fasting.’
At other times, she stayed up all night while sows produced their litters. ‘And sometimes you’d work all the next day, without a minute’s rest, having been up all the night,’ she says. ‘But it was the same with everyone that time. We all worked hard.’
Liza worked on a number of different farms and houses. ‘Some of them were very nice, like your own home, where you ate at the table with them and were treated the very same.’ Others were less welcoming, and her mind wanders back to a rather snooty lady whom she worked for in Foynes for a number of years. One day, Liza opened the door to find another fellow who worked there looking for his bicycle which one of the houseboys had borrowed. The man had ‘drink on board’ and made his way to the dining room where the lady of the house was seated with guests. As he stood in the door, the lady admonished him for his impudence, to which he spookily replied, ‘God blast your dirty rotten stinking pride, the crows of this parish will be flying through your dining room yet.’ Liza shivers deliciously when she recalls passing the same house many years later. It was a ruin and crows were flying in and out of its windows.
Liza rather enjoys the ghostly side of life. She and a farm boy once dressed up as ghosts and went out on the road to terrify two friends who were walking home in the dark. But she had payback in full whilst staying in the long thatched house at Foynes, when she heard a bang on the wall that shook the entire house. There was nobody else around and a terrified Liza cried for the rest of the night. ‘It was certainly from the other side,’ she concludes.
The reason Liza did not marry is because her younger sister died during a botched gallstone operation, leaving a two-year-old boy and a baby girl. Liza recognised her destiny as she and her mother basically took on the two children and raised them until they were old enough to go out in the world and marry. The house in Glin, where Liza now lives, belongs to one of these children. Before she moved there, she was helping with another niece who had multiple sclerosis.
Liza has always had a sense of adventure. In 1975, that came to the fore when the sixty-year-old flew to New York to watch the St Patrick’s Day parade. While in the Bronx, she made the acquaintance of Mayo-man Jim Gavin and his wife, Nellie, who employed two of her nephews at their Golden Hill House resort up in the Catskill Mountains northwest of the city. They offered her a job as a cook at the resort. Liza declined as she had not come to America to work, ‘but I was tormented and finally I gave in and I stayed’. She headed up shortly after St Patrick’s Day and remained there until September. ‘It was so mountainy that when I would be going up from the city, I’d think I was going back into Kerry.’ Irish dancing was the highlight, with musicians like Paddy Noonan and her own cousin Martin Mulvihill. ‘I danced more there than I did here in Ireland,’ she marvels. Although she returned to Ireland after six months, Liza enjoyed her time in the Catskills so much that she did it all again the following year.
Still perfectly switched on about current affairs, Liza has her theories as to why Ireland has changed. ‘Much wants more,’ she says. ‘They got too well off, and now they’re feeling it hard because the work isn’t there. People ask me now if I’d go back to the olden times or do I like the present day? I’d go back to the olden times. And nearly everyone that’s my age would go back. You had no cares. You didn’t mind what the next one had. You didn’t try to keep up with the Joneses. You were quite pleased with what you had and that was it! People today don’t know what want is. But we had happiness too, because you’d be so glad to get any money and to be let go to the dance. Now, they have everything and they don’t know what happiness means.’
Liza Mulvahill passed away on the morning of Sunday 3 May 2015, just three months short of her 100th birthday.
1. She recalls walking to open air platform dances at Moyvane every Wednesday and Sunday evenings. You’d get maybe 200 people. ‘There was no other place to go’. We used to have two or three pence to get into a dance. That was very hard. My sister and myself never had the full amount. The man that owned it knew us and we’d throw the money into the box quick. But one night his wife was at the door and we hadn’t the full amount. We threw in the money but Mary Walsh said ‘have you another penny’ but if another penny would put us up into Heaven, we hadn’t it. So we ran away through the crowd and she didn’t follow us! We used to enjoy them. Another time there was a regatta in Tarbert and I was working in the same house [Foynes]. My girlfriend had no bicycle. But she knew a young fellow that had a good donkey. So she got him to drive us down to Tarbert. We sat down in the car very proud, riding down the road to Tarbert with our donkey. We tied the donkey in a farm house and went on then to the Regatta. That evening we had enough money to stay for the dance for the two of us but we had no money for Dick who drove us. She thought of a plan and said ‘I’ll go to the door and tell him that we’d like to go but our driver doesn’t like dances unless if he be let in free!’ well he thought we had a car so he said alright. We went and got Dick in as quick as we could. We went in then and we enjoyed ourselves to perfection. We had two dates then, with two boys, and we didn’t want them to see us going home in our ass and cart, so we stole out before the dance was over. At two o’clock we came on up the road as happy as if we were inside of a plane.
2. ‘There was one crowd went out in the rain one. They had to hire a tractor. Half of the town of Listowel was after them. They had been practicing for a couple of months but it was lovely to hear them. They’d have a dance then. When the platforms started, the girls wouldn’t have to pay any money but they boys would have to pay a penny. You’d see the poor boys going off down the road when the collection would be out to get the money … they’d be trying to keep the price of a packet of Woodbines!’
3. She recalls the dances on the pier in Glin, but she was never there.
4. ‘I was from Moyvane, County Kerry, the last townland before you’re into Limerick. It’s only up the road from here. I was born and reared there, inside the heart of a mountain with a lot of turf all around us. I couldn’t call it a farm. We had two cows. My father was a thatcher and he was very good at it. He used to get more work than he could cope with. I’d see houses looking so bad and a day after my father was there, you wouldn’t know it was the same house at all, it would be looking so straight. I have seen thatching that was done by one’s who went away to train. My father didn’t train. My grandparents were weavers so there was a touch of the hands there. They died before I was born. They made sheets and coats and things like that. My father was only two years old when his mother died and he was the youngest of six.
5. An aunt of hers recalled how her grandfather walked in 1920s from Killarney to Moyvane to get flax to carry on for the weaving. ‘That was an awful long walk. But there was no cars or bicycles in that time. The only thing anyone could afford was a horse and cart’.
6. ‘I remember I was out in the field and my mother saw them coming down the mountain and when I saw them I ran, I got afraid seeing all the men, and one of them put up the gun to shoot me. My mother was in a panic and another one of them said ‘Stop, don’t shoot the child’ … they thought that I’d be running to tell the IRA to hide, that they were coming. They burned houses around. I remember the men being shot in the valley of Knockanure about six miles from here. Walsh, Lyons and Dalton were shot. He was from Athea. Con Dee escaped. For the ballad of Knockanure, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Valley_of_Knockanure
7. ‘She has a lovely way,’ concurs her neighbour Paddy Faley who also attended Ballyguiltenane school.
8. ‘I was at the national school in the parish of Glin because that was closer. It was in Ballyguiltenane, a few miles from where I lived, on the road to Athea. I started there when I was six. Now they all start at four but of course they have transport now. We had only to walk. It was a long walk through the mountain, no road. We’d be barefoot from the 1st April until about November. We had sore feet from hitting stones and getting thorns. My father would have to pick the thorns out of my legs. We’d wear strong boots other times with nails and tips. On frosty mornings, wed have a couple of sods of turf under our arms and that would be our heating. We wouldn’t get near the fire though … for fear that we would fall into it. There was no ranges that time, or coal … it was all turf. I liked my first teacher, Miss Fahey, she was from Tipperary and she was very nice and I was able to learn from her. But when I went out then to Mrs Culhane she scattered the brains altogether on me. She was all slaps. No bother on her to fall on a weakness. She had a stick. I tell you, your hand would be sore. But it was a great school though, at the back of it all, and they’re nearly all closed. It’s still open but they’ll have to keep fighting for it to stay open.’
9. ‘I met one ugly place in Foynes. You couldn’t please her. The class distinction was there. You wouldn’t sit at the same table. I was a hard worker. Four o’clock in the morning. My first pay was £10 – for the year. Did you think it was for the week?’ (laughs). ‘First of all, you’d have to go through the fields and stir the cows up and bring them in. then you star milking them. And maybe you’d have to feed the little suckler cows before you’d have breakfast. Then you’d have breakfast. There’d be a boy and he’d be gone to the Creamery with the milk. I used to go to the Creamery too, in the summertime, because the boys would be kept doing the harder work. I’d go in a horse and cart, just myself, a big old horse and he’d bite you! Nearly all my neighbours were like that. There was no free education that time.
10. This was when Foynes Airway was coming in then and Shannon was starting to be built too. The seaplanes. I used to have to be up at four o’clock in the morning. If they were going out, I’d have to be up to give them their breakfast. [So they had lodgers?] I was house cleaning and waiting on the table for those that were staying, and milking cows. [She was listening to those who’d flown across the Atlantic, and then the roar of the airplanes] but her boss was tricky … there was a man called Paddy Culhann who worked there and drank a lot and had a temper and one night he went to the dining room and wanted his bike to get back home so he went to the dining room door and asked one of the lads working there for a loan of a bike. The lady came out and said ‘how dare you?’ and he said ‘god blast you and your Scottish pride, the crows of the parish will be flying through your dining room yet’. And they were. I saw that a couple of years ago. I was there at a funeral a few years ago and the crows were flying through the roof of that house. I was delighted he said that to her.’
11. ‘I suppose I might have been. I wasn’t too young when I frightened people! I worked in a place in Shanagolden and then I worked in another house, O’Connor’s, but I still went back to the one house to the girl that was working there and she was gone out with another girlfriend. Liza turned up while the girls were out and a lad who was working there called Paddy. ‘Paddy,’ she said, ‘ get a sheet now and out it around you and I will get another sheet. You stand at the gate and I’ll go over the road. So I went over the field and over the road. The two of them came on and there was the ghost at the gate. They turned back and there was the ghost afore them again. They thought it as the same one. We kept them on the road for a long time then! We used to do a lot of things like that then. Not a harm. Not like today.’
12. ‘The bedroom I had was in a long thatched house.’ It was a scary room and she heard a lot of noise one night so ‘I said I’d stand up in the bed and see who was trying to frighten me. There was no one there. But my God, the room door got a bang and it was like the house went down, I cried for the rest of the night, afraid. It shook the house. It was certainly from the other side.’ Her brother was there at the time, but he was out walking and nobody else was about.
13. She didn’t marry because ‘there was always something to stop me’. Her younger sister was married with two children. She went to have gallstones removed and she died. Patrick was 2.5 and Sheila was 13 months. ‘So my mother and myself took on the two of them. They’re married now. As a matter of fact, this house belongs to them’.
14. ‘I went to America then and I got a lot of news from a man by the name of Jim Gavin who was originally from Mayo. He had a place where two or three hundred people stayed up in the Catskills, very mountainy. I would be going up from the city and I’d think I was going back into Kerry. I did not go with the intention of working. I went over to see the St Patrick’s Day Parade. Then my sister-in-law was looking for jobs for her two grandsons – there was eight in the family and she raised two of them – one of them became a priest and he comes very year from America to see me – she got a place for the two of them at Catskills, one washing pots and the other in the bar – and they heard that they were looking for a cook … so Liza got the job. ‘I said no’ because I thought I wouldn’t be doing anything in America at that age. But I was tormented and I came down to the Bronx and finally I gave in and I stayed. The place didn’t open until June when the children had holidays. But I went up in April to clean the rooms and I didn’t like that. There was nobody staying there that time, only preparing the rooms for the summer. I got on fine then. Jim, the boss, and his wife, the three of us got up early every morning. He was a very holy man and there’d be a long ways to travel to get to Mass … East Durham … but we had no trouble at all. He was a better cook than me! They were very nice people, great fun. The dining room would be cleaned up after the dinner at night and there’d be a band playing and I danced more there than I did here in Ireland. All Irish dance too. Paddy Noonan was a lovely player. Now and then I heard him here and I’d be delighted to hear him. The people who came were the guests and the neighbours from all over the world.’
The resort closed again in the winter, ‘but I think they stay open now because they do skiing, but the one’s I worked with are dead and gone. There was a man from Belfast called John Trotter who used to play music for the dancing. Of course he wasn’t supposed to be working and nor was I. one day the boss whispers to me ‘would I go to my room’ and I thought ‘why in the name of god would I go to my room’ and he whispered again ‘they’re here from emigration’. So I ran to my room then. But it wasn’t me they wanted at all. It was John Trotter who played the music and he was caught and deported back to Ireland. But he got out again but he’s there now and he plays with Paddy Noonan.’
I got into the Niagara Falls on my day off. I thought that was lovely.’
15. ‘I suppose people got too well off and now they’re feeling it a bit hard because the work isn’t there … and they’ll have it harder and they’ll know what want is yet … but I always said they were going to far ad too wasteful and building houses. Some of them had fine houses and they’d knock them and build castles! There was no need. I know there was people who did need houses, but there was a lot that didn’t. I think there is where the money went sky high with them … when the power station in Tarbert started that was the beginning of people getting great pay and being well off. That’s nearly closed now too … there’s only about fifty or sixty workers then.