(Photo: James Fennell)
‘Farming never paid around here,’ says Pat Green, as the evening sun spreads over the barren rocks beneath his Connemara home. ‘Just look at the colour of that land! It is not great by any means. There are more rocks than soil. Even if you had a thousand acres, you wouldn’t survive farming around here!’
He has a point. The Greens twenty-two acre holding is certainly rocky pasture for the handful of cattle and sheep they farm.[i] On account of all the rocks, there is no chance of using a tractor. Hence all the tilling and mowing is still done with spades and scythes. ‘It’s slow hard labour,’ says Pat. ‘But still, it kept the people going. At least everyone was independent and had their own little place. Without a few acres, we’d be nowhere.’
The Greens’ homestead sprawls upon the western shore of Damhros Bay, a small inlet on Connemara’s Atlantic coast, some 4 miles from the village of Carna.[ii] Pat’s ancestors have been living in this Gaelic-speaking area for ‘surely four generations, whatever about the fifth.’
The air is rich in maritime aromas. Dull orange buoys and tattered ropes, rickety ladders and seaweed-strewn rocks, driftwood surging on the olive-green tide. An ash-grey donkey hee-haws like a dinosaur somewhere yonder. A grey gander and a white goose waltz around a boulder. A youthful sheepdog bounds out from a corrugated shed and bounces upon a currach.[iii] A smoky cat hides behind a lobster pot, glowering at the dog.
Pat never met his grandfather who was ‘a part-time farmer, part-time fisherman, like myself’, but he has hazy memories of his grandmother Kate Green who was born at the time of the Famine, or Gorta Mór (Great Hunger), which struck in the late 1840s. Her family survived by grace of their location on the Atlantic coastline. ‘There was always fish and shellfish to be got from the sea,’ explains Pat. ‘But those who lived inland with small farms were all starving. And when they flocked towards the sea, it became very overcrowded around this area.’
The landlord of Damhros was Thomas Martin, the son of ‘Humanity Dick’ Martin, founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Pat points to an isolated hulk of land on the near horizon. Originally known as Croaghnakeela, this has been called Deer Island since Humanity Dick converted it into a deer sanctuary.
Through starvation, fever and emigration, Connemara’s population tumbled from 33,465 in 1841 to 21,349 by 1851. Amongst those who died was Thomas Martin, a victim of famine fever in 1847. The Martin family were declared bankrupt two years later. By the time Coleman Green, Pat’s father, was born in 1881, the Martin estate belonged to the Berridge family. And, as Pat says, shortly before his own birth in 1926, ‘the land was divided and everyone got their own piece.’
‘I was born at Christmas,’ says Pat. ‘And I heard there was plenty of poitín to celebrate my arrival.’ His mother passed away in 1930 when Pat was only four and his younger brother just ten months old.[iv]
Coleman and his bachelor brother Padraig then reared the two boys on the small farm. ‘Musha, it was hard times for them,’ says Pat. ‘There was no soft money going, no social welfare or anything.’
Every farmer was also a fisherman. ‘Fishing was the mainstay when my parents were growing up,’ says Pat. ‘Only for the sea you wouldn’t survive around here.’[v] When Arthur Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland, travelled through the west of Ireland in 1890, he was shocked by the poverty. Pioneering a new British policy of ‘killing [the desire for] Home Rule with kindness,’ he established the Congested Districts Board to tackle the problem. Tenants were given loans to buy their own economically viable holdings.
And, as Pat says, the CDB also ‘got boats for the poorest coastal counties of Ireland, to give them a chance to earn a living.’ Advancing out on their currachs, families like the Greens fished for lobster, crayfish, escallops, periwinkles, mackerel and herring, depending on the time of year. The policy worked and the fishing industry thrived in Connemara until the outbreak of the First World War which obliterated the vital French and Russian markets.
Having a boat was also exceptionally useful for getting to Roundstone, ‘our main trading town,’ which is 23 miles away by road, but only three by sea.[vi] The Greens still shop by boat when opportunity knocks and if they return on a high tide, ‘you’d nearly land your bag of flour on the kitchen window sill.’
Being of fisherman stock, Pat became a champion rower and frequently competed in the contests that took place in bays all along the Galway and Clare coastline during summer months. ‘We used to have great rivalry between ourselves and Roundstone,’ he recalls. ‘We’d lose and win equally but there was no spite once the race was over.’[vii]
Pat’s childhood memories are a blur where it ‘was not much different from one year to the next’ and it was ‘probably the very same’ for his father and grandfather. ‘We were brought up speaking Irish at home, with the odd English word in between. My parents were better English speakers than we are. In their time, English was the only language allowed in local schools. But they had the Irish from the cradle. And all three of our sons are fluent Irish speakers too.’
Pat went to school in Carna, a fine granite structure, since demolished, with two teachers for forty pupils.[viii] After they left, the majority of his classmates emigrated. ‘Most went to England first,’ he says. ‘It was very easy to go to England.[ix] There was no expense and if you got fed up, you could come home the following day. After the war, there were more Irish lads and lassies in England than there were in Ireland. They were all emigrating! And when they had their eyes opened in England, a lot went further on to Australia and America.’
While Pat was helping his father on the farm from the age of fourteen, he also became a part-time emigrant. For three Septembers in a row, he caught a bus from Carna to Galway, then took a train to Dublin. At the North Wall he boarded the Princess Maud, sailed across the Irish Sea and made his way to the English Midlands.
‘We don’t forget what the English did in this country,’ says Pat. ‘But, still and all, England is a great country and they were very nice to the Irish.’ Like ‘every young person around here’, Pat worked in the sugar beet factories of Nottingham and Newark. He slept in a large hut beside the factory; each hut accommodated up to fifty men at once. ‘We’d stay until January and if you completed the campaign, you’d be paid your ticket home.’[x]
‘I might have stayed longer,’ he muses. ‘But there was nobody at home except my father and he was getting old.’ With his younger brother by then an established resident of Liverpool, Pat returned to look after his father, as well as his cattle and sheep.[xi]
Shortly after Coleman Green passed away in 1968, Pat married Annie Kane, a farmer’s daughter from Tiernakill in the Maam Valley. Three fine sons followed – Aidan, Donal and Declan – all of whom live at Damhros today.[xii]
Pat maintains that the changes in his lifetime are ‘for the better, and there is no point denying that ... If you had £1 long ago, you were considered a rich man. But now, with radios and televisions and washing machines, life is far better.’
With thanks to Donal Green and Pooh Bolton.
[i] They had no pigs although ‘I heard that every house had a pig before my time. They were still in places around but not around here. They were more interested in the sea around here.’
‘There is no land here at all. But I tell you one thing; there was a big price on land a couple of years ago. There are a lot of holiday homes now from people from Dublin and Germany and France and everywhere. They got them very cheap in the 1960s. But a lot of them did up the houses with material from their own country except the water and the concrete. But the houses got too expensive and the buying stopped.’
[ii] ‘Well, “damh” means an “ox” or a big, stout beast like that. And “ros” means “peninsula,” So “Damhros” means a peninsula that looks like a big, stout beast. And does it look like a big, stout beast? Indeed it don’t. It could be anything.’
[iii] The building where the cows used to be tied up in winter time is now a general storage.
[iv] Pat’s mother was from Derryrush.
[v] When they fished, they would go out to Deer Island, a black hulk where Berridge once kept deer and one day a year there would be a culling. ‘The sea was the only place you could get a pound. Some of the boats were made in Arklow and others were made by builders here. This was from about 1908 to the First World War, but when the war came, it upset everything. They couldn’t be sending the fish out to Russia or France.’
[vi] They never went on around to Clifden as Slyne Head too dangerous, so they cycled there instead, 27 miles, not including the vertical distance in potholes. Cycling kept them fit.
[vii] ‘The most games we had around here was rowing the currachs.’ There used to be competitions in Roundstone and nearly every bay. There would be three in a boat, with six oars, and he was ‘normally in front.’
He always followed football and admires the ‘fine’ new pitch nearby. His sons don’t play.
[viii] The fine, granite building was controversially knocked down at the behest of a parish priest and its replacement has also since closed. ‘No scholars,’ explains Pat.
[ix] ‘It was easy to travel to England and to come home after. It wasn’t like America or Australia where you’d be saying goodbye for a mighty long time.’
[x] ‘Every young person around here used to go over to the beet factories in England, especially the farming country of the Midlands. It gave us an extra bit of money.’ They sent an agent around every parish, especially the Gaeltcht. All you had to do was give your name and you’d be called sometime in September. You’d be in the beet factory then until sometime in January. If you completed the campaign, as I used to call it, you’d be paid home. They would give you a ticket and you had free travel. And you’d be paid 10 shilling off it every week.’ They slept in large huts with ‘anything from thirty to fifty’ sleeping in a hut. It was just beside the factory, ‘very, very handy.’ To get there he bussed from Carna to Galway, took a train from Galway to Dublin and then the Princess Maud from the North Wall … ‘I did that for two or three years but there was nobody at home except my father and he was getting old. There was a few cattle and a few sheep and I had to stay at home. I had another younger brother who is in Liverpool.’
[xi] ‘There was very little work. You might make the odd pound on the sea.’ But he did not allow himself to think of emigration after that because he had a responsibility.
[xii] The eldest son Aidan looks after the farm, six cows and a flock of sheep, which he reckons is probably the same size as his grandfather would have farmed. The second son Donal is exceptionally well-travelled, zipping to every part of every county to buy bits of timber and machinery for his boat-making business. ‘I was useless at timber,’ says Pat. ‘But I had an uncle who was very handy with it. Donal had an interest in it and he learned the trade and he’s very good at it now. There was a lot of boat builders long ago because every house had at least one boat.’ In the wake of the sinking of the Asgard, former Defence Minister Willie O’Dea alleged that there were no boat builders left in Ireland who could restore the Asgard. Donal took that as a serious insult and proposed restoring the ship with a team of seven. O’Dea didn’t answer. It sank symbolically, like Ireland, but the government symbolically didn’t bother bringing her up. The third son Declan is a fisherman. Their mother Annie is wearing Ugs when we call.
They didn’t have a radio when he was a kid. Pat was the first of the family to get one, in the mid-40s, when he was all grown up. It was a wet and dry battery one and the battery was a nuisance that wouldn’t last long. He recalls how it would run out in the middle of a game with Michael O’Hehir commentating. He is a big fan of Irish radio generally. ‘There’d be somebody dead and we’d give anything to be at the funeral but they’d call to the house and we would be out and we wouldn’t hear about it … only for the radio. The radio is mighty.’ And as for music, ‘they used to have dances in Carna but I never had any interest in it. I’d love to hear music on the radio or television but I wouldn’t know one tune from another.’
Pat knew the late Festus Nee who featured in the first volume of Vanishing Ireland.