(Photo: James Fennell)
Some hold that the Reillys have been stomping about these parts at least since the short-legged Fir Bolg were sent packing umpteen thousand years ago. Certainly there was a tribe of that name who ruled a principality called Breifne O’Reilly in present day County Cavan before the Normans came. However, there was also an English family called Ridley who arrived here with the Normans and who later Gaelicised themselves as Reilly.
In any case, by the time Queen Elizabeth Tudor’s soldiers came marching in, the O’Reilly’s were one of the most warlike septs in Ireland, skilled cavalry men who lived in a series of castles scattered across the drumlins and valleys of Cavan and Leitrim. The Elizabethans played their ‘divide and conquer’ game to perfection, partitioning County Cavan into seven baronies which they then assigned to different family members. Withina hundred years, the O’Reillys had been divided and conquered.
One of the most memorable family members was Myles Reilly who was so highly regarded for his sword-weaving skills in battle that he became known as Myles the Slasher. During a skirmish at the Bridge of Finea in 1644, a particularly large Scots officer plunged his sword into the Slasher’s cheek. To the astonishment of the enemy, Myles gripped his attackers blade in his teeth ‘as firmly as if held in a smith’s vice’ and chopped the Scotsman’s head in two with his own sword. Other notable family members from this area include Count Andrew O’Reilly, an Austrian field marshal, and Count Alexander O’Reilly, the Spanish General who raised Ambrose O’Higgins, future Viceroy of Peru.
Terry Reilly believes his forbears have been sitting ‘right where you’re sitting now’ since about the time the Slasher was flailing his sword. His farmstead lies at Corracar, County Leitrim, just west of the border between Ulster and Connaught.
In 1823, Patrick Reilly, Terry’s great-great-grandfather, was listed as paying tithes on ten acres of land at Corracar. Tithes were the most hated tax of that era. In essence, it meant that one tenth of the produce of every farm had to be handed over to the local Protestant clergyman. Opposition to the tax led to the Tithe Wars, a campaign of mostly non-violent civil disobedience that ran alongside Daniel O’Connell’s emancipation campaign, both of which in turn inspired Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in India during the 1930s.
By the time Richard Griffith conducted his Valuations of County Leitrim in 1856, Patrick Reilly was noted as the lessee of a house, office and over thirty acres of land from John Godley who owned the nearby Kilbracken estate. This was the same John Godley who founded Christchurch in New Zealand in 1848, and whose bronze statue was shattered in the devastating 2011 earthquake, revealing two mysterious time capsules sealed within.
During the 1830s, Patrick Reilly married Mary Shannon, a neighbour’s daughter, with whom he had a large family. In 1860, their 22-year-old son Terence sailed for New York and was immediately thrust into the American Civil War. He served in the 4th Artillery Regiment of the Union Army, took part in at least ten actions (including the capture of Richmond, Virginia) and was wounded three times.
Meanwhile, Terence’s younger brother Patrick remained in Ireland, succeeded to the farm at Corracar and raised thirteen children. Three generations later, Patrick’s farm passed onto his great-grandson, Terry.
Terry was born in 1927, the youngest of four. His childhood was spent on the farm where his parents kept a couple of cows and planted oats, vegetables and potatoes. He went to school in nearby Drumeela until he was ‘near fourteen’ years old. ‘It was a good school,’ he says, ‘but there was a lot of discipline in it.’ Perhaps in an attempt to alleviate the pressures of an alcoholic husband, their teacher developed a passion for pulling children by the hair. Ultimately the boys decided their best option was to get out the kitchen scissors and give one another tight-knit crew cuts.
Many of those he was at school with emigrated to England during the 1940s, including his elder brother who settled in St. Alban’s.[i] Terry was never tempted to leave Ireland. ‘I was in Dublin a few times but to be honest, I didn’t get much further than where you are now.’
Instead, he stayed in and around Corracar, looking after his farm and working as an agricultural labourer in the locality. ‘There was a lot of us who would do seasonal work at that time, going around to work with other farmers, maybe with a horse and plough, doing whatever had to be done.’
One might have thought the Big Freeze which brought Ireland to a halt in the closing weeks of 2010 would have impressed Terry. But he holds that the Big Freeze had nothing on the Big Snow which struck Ireland in 1947, leaving livestock dead across the country.[ii] He was twenty years old at the time and still remembers how self-sufficient his family had to be during those weeks. There was no such thing as a local shop. But one canny solution they hit upon for sick calves during those ice-cold days was to give them a drop of poitín.
In 1962, Terry purchased a hydraulic mowing arm for cutting hay and so moved into the world of mechanization. ‘That was a breakthrough,’ he recalls with a whistle. ‘Between the mow arm and the Ferguson 20 tractor, that took a lot of hardship out of the farmer’s life.’
When he wasn’t toiling upon the land, Terry was kicking footballs about. There were five teams operating in the locality back then - at Drumeela, Tully, Carrigallen, Doogary and Newtown Gore. Contests were plentiful although Terry recalls that some of the teams were ‘rough enough’ and the occasional leg was broken. Nonetheless, Terry remained devoted to the sport. ‘Football was my religion’, he says.
Alternatively there were dances every couple of weeks at the John Dillon Nugent Hall across the border in Dooagh, County Cavan. The galvanized hall was built by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic fraternal organisation which had taken the pro-Treaty side during the Irish Civil War. Terry often attended dances here although the bachelor confesses he never had a great ear for music. ‘I might have sung the odd time when I was out on a horse and cart because I couldn’t hear myself then.’ However, someone put a match to the Hall and that was the end of dancing. ‘The burning wasn’t political,’ says Terry. ‘It might have been an insurance job or it may have been pure blaggardism. There was a song about it afterwards, “it bore the name of Dillon the Brave.”
Terry was never a man for the beer so once the dance hall was gone, he entertained himself with visits to the picture house in Ballyconnell. ‘I was mad on cowboys – and detectives – anything in that line.’
Terry views the changing times with a healthy degree of detached amusement. At one end of his farm stands Aghaboy Chapel where his forbears worshipped before the larger church at Drumeela was built. The chapel has now become the annual meeting point for upwards of one hundred and fifty motor-bikers from all corners of Ireland. When Terry first encountered them, he genially invited them all in for a mug of tea.
Terry was a great friend and neighbour of Johnny ‘Gouldy’ Golden who featured in the second volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series. While Gouldy’s dreadful murder in 2010 remains a source of great sorrow to all who knew him, stories from his life and times continue to entertain his friends. One of Terry’s anecdotes focuses on a failed attempt by three Catholic missionaries to convert the famously oil-covered Protestant mechanic. ‘They were trying to convert Gouldy?’ chortled a neighbour. ‘To what? Diesel?’
With thanks to John McCartin.
[i] His other brother and sister settled in the Killyshandra area.
[ii] He also maintains the spring of 1947 was so bad that they could not bring the hay in until August and that more livestock died as a result.
Terry is rumoured to have sometimes cleaned his teeth with methylated spirits.