Ellen O’Keeffe Born 1920 Houswife,
Timmy O’Keeffe Born 1931 Farmer
Patsy Kingston Born 1935 Farmer, Soldier and Bus Driver
Caherlaska, County Cork
(Photo: James Fennell)
In the late 1890s, Denis O’Keeffe of Caherlaska sold fourteen acres for £7, gathered up his family and set off on the 110-kilometre trek to Queenstown (now Cobh) to take an emigrant ship to America. When they arrived at Queenstown, the O’Keeffes discovered that the fare had gone up. They would have to leave one of their daughters behind.
‘My grandfather had to go down and bring the child back,’ says Timmy O’Keefe. ‘He had to carry her all the way. Every time he left her down, she would stay put until he came back and picked her up again.’
This heart-breaking story gains some relief when we learn that the girl’s family later sent over the fare for her passage and she did eventually join them. Many decades on, two of her daughters returned to Ireland and visited the home of their forbears, which Timmy’s father was by then using as a storehouse for turnips.
This tale is relayed to us while we sit in Timmy’s living room, the turf smouldering in the burner, with Timmy in one armchair, his neighbour Patsy Kingston in another and a sheepdog called Lassie ambling in between.
Timmy is the older man by a few years. They have been friends since childhood, despite the complications of one being Protestant and the other Catholic. ‘He went that way to school and I went that way,’ explains Patsy, and the two men laugh rumbustiously for a moment or two.
The townland of Caherlaska, where they live, lies on a headland just west of Schull in West Cork, overlooking the choppy Celtic Sea. The name Cathair Leasca translates as ‘stone fort of the Duibh Leasc’, although locals also refer to it as ‘the burned city’, after a village that stood here until it was deliberately burned to the ground during an outbreak of the deadly cholera.
The O’Keeffes have been here a long time. The 1901 census clocked Timmy’s great-grandfather, Daniel O’Keeffe, as an eighty-eight-year-old Catholic farmer who spoke both English and Irish but who could not read. The two-room house where he lived is now a shed.
Timmy lives in a house built in 1920 by his grandfather ‘Old Thadhy’ O’Keeffe who had secured funding for the construction through one of the last grants given out by the British government. Thady and his wife, Mary, had an arranged marriage. ‘That was standard practice,’ says Timmy. ‘People didn’t get much option to marry for love.’
The marriage produced five children, all of whom later emigrated to Boston or Brooklyn, except Timmy’s father, John.
Amongst the O’Keefe’s who remained in Caherlaska was Timmy’s cousin, Jeremiah O’Keeffe, a farmer. In 1945, Jeremiah married Ellen Wilcox who, now in her ninety-fourth year, still lives at Caherlaska with her son, Billy, and his wife, Mary. Ellen was actually born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1920 where her father William Wilcox, an Irish émigré, worked in the gasworks. Shortly after Ellen’s fifth birthday, William inherited a farm west of Goleen in County Cork from a cousin, so he left his job and returned to Ireland with his wife and children. The final leg of the voyage home took place in a storm and Ellen can still recall the sound of someone on the ship shouting, ‘There’s land! Look! Look at it!’
Ellen’s mother died in 1932, after complications giving birth to a daughter, during the very same week that Ellen was to be confirmed. A fluent Irish speaker, Ellen was initially called to train as a teacher but ultimately married Jeremiah and moved to Caherlaska where her six children were born and raised.
Her Wilcox ancestors descend from a shipwrecked sailor who came ashore in Ballycotton and went to work for ‘the Pirate Hull’ in Leamcon. Sir William Hull, the shady Vice-Admiral of Munster, was supposed to prevent piracy along this stretch of the Irish coast. Instead, he joined in the fun, converting Leamcon into a hub for the pirates of the North Atlantic and making a tidy fortune from the illicit cargos that passed him by. ‘Briseann an dúchais trí shúile an chait,’ remarks Ellen. ‘Nature breaks out through the eyes of the cat,’
Patsy Kingston knows all about the Pirate Hull. The farmhouse where he lives looks directly across to Hull’s stone castle at Leamcon. Patsy’s ancestor, Colonel James Kingston, was, like Hull, an Englishman. He served in the army of William of Orange and apparently once gave King Billy the use of his own horse for which he and his family were given substantial lands on the Beara Peninsula. These included a farm just west of Drimoleague where Patsy’s grandfather, Allen Kingston, was born.
Patsy’s mother, Katy Pyburn, had gone to Chicago as a young woman and struck lucky when she encountered a disgruntled cousin of the Wrigley family who was looking for a new nanny. She spent the next eleven years working in well-to-do Lake Forest in Illinois, where she also managed to secure jobs for three of her sisters. When her brother was bankrupted by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, she took him back to Ireland where she rekindled a romance with her childhood sweetheart, Sam Kingston. She then returned to the USA for three more years while Sam concentrated on farming – ‘and smoking his pipe,’ laughs Patsy. They exchanged letters regularly, although Patsy adds that his father was receiving similar letters from ‘a few more girlfriends as well at that time!’ Finally, the couple married and settled on the farm in Caherlaska where Patsy was born.
As a child, Patsy sometimes hitched a lift to school on his father’s donkey and trap. This enabled him to compete with his neighbour, Timmy O’Keeffe, who consistently managed to grab a ride to his Irish-speaking school at Lowertown on the creamery cart as it passed by.
The Economic War with England was ongoing during their childhood but, while times were tough, Timmy reckons it wasn’t so bad. ‘There was no money but people had no mortgages to pay, no overheads, no headaches. Not like they do now. They were able to live off the land. They only went to town for tea and sugar. But there was no sport around here only milking cows! Three cows before you went into school in the morning.’
‘We were hardy lads then,’ agrees Patsy. ‘You weren’t sitting down, twisting a wheel all day like the farmers are now. It was all manual labour, piking hay and corn. It all had to be handled. Even the men who worked in the docks did everything by hand.’
Patsy always yearned to travel and in 1953, the eighteen-year-old emigrated to Gloucester in England, where he found work conducting and then driving double-decker buses. ‘I was eight miles from Cheltenham,’ says Patsy, who enjoys horse-racing, ‘And that’s the best way you can explain it to an Irishman.’
As a bus driver, he was liable for two-years’ national service and so, in 1959, he was assigned to the Royal Irish Fusiliers and dispatched to their base in Armagh. The following year, he was sent with the North Irish Brigade to Libya where he drove lorries and ambulances up and down the border. The man in charge of one of the border posts was a young Bedouin by name of Muammar al-Gaddafi.
‘He was a very sulky man,’ says Patsy. ‘I said to my mates that if ever there’s to be a coup in this place, he’ll be the fecker who leads it.’
While in Tripoli, Patsy and his fellow soldiers also hosted the 33rd Battalion of the Irish army while they acclimatised before their deployment to the Congo. ‘They only had their heavy Irish uniforms which they’d have dropped dead in, so we gave them our tropical kit.’
He left the army soon after, having turned down an opportunity to train as an officer. After seventeen years away, he returned to Ireland to take on the seventy-five-acre farm after the premature death of his younger brother Edward. The woman he was with at the time stayed back in England.
‘And I never married either, but I was lucky to keep myself,’ says Timmy. He had remained in West Cork throughout Patsy’s absence, save for a three-month stint as a builder and farm labourer in Bedfordshire, England.
Now considered one of the wisest farmers in the area, Timmy is utterly familiar with every horse and cow, breed, seed and generation. But he would not like to have driven a double-decker bus. ‘I never even drove a car,’ says he. ‘A bicycle and a Ferguson 20 tractor were good for me.’
He often took the tractor down to Colla House, a small hotel nearby where he would sometimes sing a ballad or two. The hotel sadly closed in 2000 – as have nearly half of the sixteen pubs in Schull – although he still calls into The Bunratty on a Friday afternoon.
‘You could go down to Schull in the old days at any time and you’d meet someone in a pub,’ says he. ‘Now most of them don’t open until the evening and there is no one there except at the weekends. It was a different class of people back then. When the Celtic Tiger came, everything went mad and that finished it altogether. I wonder will the good times return? They would want to come fairly fast, I suppose.’
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