Glann, Oughterard, County Galway
Cattle Farmer & Horse Breeder
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘Would you believe that I cried when I stopped school? I loved it. I didn’t want to leave. I thought it was the end for me.’
Rare words indeed for anyone educated in Ireland in the middle decades of the twentieth century. And yet, Eamonn is so genuine about his love for school that he soon launches into a ballad he learned from his teacher, Miss Leyden, about a strange encounter with the Blessed Virgin, Queen Victoria and Mary, Queen of Scots.
He doesn’t sing the song. He recites it.
‘I’d love to be able to sing, but I don’t have a voice,’ he claims, although I imagine that when he is alone upon a tractor, he belts it out like a baritone.
There were two teachers in his school in Glann and he liked them both. Nancy Leyden came from up the mountains and was not to be trifled with. ‘Nancy would work the stick all right but she never gave me a tip with it.’
The other teacher was Mrs Manning, from Irishtown on the Galway–Mayo border, with whom Eamonn kept in touch until her death. ‘She never once gave me a slap but she gave me a mug of tea every day.’ And not just any old tea. It was Lipton’s.
‘Some of the lads used to call me the teacher’s pet,’ he admits, ‘but that’s beside the point. The teacher had the authority to let you out when help was needed in the springtime, following the horse and plough, spreading potatoes and seed. If you didn’t know your catechism, you wouldn’t be let out. I made sure I knew my notes and that gave me the freedom to get out.’
Eamonn was born on the farm where he has lived all his life. His father, Tommy King, was an adventurous soul. Born in 1881, Tommy was sixteen years old when he and his neighbour James Clancy ran away one Sunday morning. Tommy had stashed some money earned while working for the local landlord, Mr Hodgson of Currareevagh, while James had rustled up some cash from the Clancy family trunk while they were all at mass.
The two boys took a train to Dublin and a ship to Scotland, and made their way to Glasgow where a man called Kelly put them up in a bug-infested shack. After a few months working long-shore in Glasgow and Jarrow, Tommy saw a sign offering ‘Passage to America’. He was to spend the next two decades in the USA where, joined by his younger brother, Pat, he worked in the copper mines of Butte in Montana, laboured on farms in North and South Dakota, and hunted for moose and elk amid the snow-swept wilds of Alaska.
In the late 1920s, the King brothers returned home with their hard-earned cash and bought a farm each. Tommy hadn’t been in the country since the mid-1890s but he had met Éamon de Valera when the latter was on a fundraising trip to New York in 1920. Many years later, Eamonn and his sisters would find the, by then, worthless $100 and $50 bonds Tommy had bought to help bankroll the Irish government. He had never cashed them in.
Tragically, Eamonn’s uncle Pat was fatally paralysed while throwing weights near Spiddal. ‘He was to get married but he died sitting by the fire at the age of thirty-seven,’ says Eamonn.
Tommy had lost touch with his other brothers, Michael and Coleman, who had become priests and settled in Idaho. In fact, Coleman was born after Tommy ran away so the two brothers had never even met. One year, Tommy returned to America and tracked down Coleman to a school in Kellogg, Idaho. He arrived unannounced to find his brother playing basketball. Coleman, known for his fiery temper, was berating a kid for having missing the basket. Coleman then had a shot at the hoop and also missed.
‘Say, fellow, you ought to get yourself a basket,’ said Tommy casually from the sidelines.
Coleman reeled upon the stranger. ‘And you’d better take a walk down the highway or they’ll be taking you out in a basket,’ he warned.
‘Whoah, now,’ said Tommy. ‘That’s no way to talk to an old fellow who came three thousand miles to see you.’
They were destined to become great friends, and Coleman was a frequent visitor to the family farm at Oughterard during Eamonn’s childhood.
In 1931, Tommy married Mary McDonagh and they had three children. Born in 1937, Eamonn was their only son. His two sisters have both passed way. One was a butter-maker who lived in Ballyshannon, County Donegal. The other was a nun who taught at the Convents of Mercy in Galway and Spiddal.
Eamonn may have been a teacher’s favourite at school but, as a young teenager, he briefly flirted with his rebellious streak.
‘When I made my confirmation, I took the pledge. But, God forgive me, I didn’t keep it too long anyways. I tasted all kinds of drink – whiskey, brandy, rum, vodka, Sandeman’s Port, nearly every drink that I came across. Anyone can open their mouth and let it fall down, but carrying it is another thing. And one time, when I was fifteen, I got mad drunk on poitín. The big man inside trying to get out. I drank nearly a bottle of it and I went to milk a cow and I fell and I had to be carried home. I was cracked, gone mad altogether. I came home to my father with a hangover next day and I think he thought I was going to be a proper renegade altogether. I was so mortified that I made a promise that I would never drink again. And I have not tasted alcohol now for sixty years.’
Having exorcised his drinking demons, he focused on work. Every morning, he would cycle along nine miles of sandy road to a bog beyond Oughterard where he gathered up turf for the council at sixteen shillings a week. He also served a short stint with the forestry department but he came back to help his father on the farm aged twenty-one, ‘and I have been here ever since’.
Finding a wife was tricky enough. The parish priest opposed the very notion of courtship. When he heard Eamonn had been sitting with a girl, the priest accosted him. ‘Only for I have respect for ye, I would give you a toe in the underpants,’ said he.
Eamonn was unimpressed. ‘How were you to get a wife if you weren’t to meet and get to know them?’
In time, he met his beloved wife Peggy Connor, mother of their six children, at the dance hall in Oughterard.
The Kings’ farm at Farravaun runs along the mist-shrouded southern shore of Lough Corrib. Lichen clings to every branch of the whitethorn, birch, hazel and oak that blossom from the dampened ditches. The rocks are covered in moss. This is one of the wettest parts of the west and it’s a constant challenge to keep the farm sustainable.
‘I’m all my life trying to improve the land, God help me’, says Eamonn. ‘All my life digging for gold, but I’ve not found it yet. This is all granite around here, and hungry for manure. And it’s getting wetter.’
He points to a marshy field full of rushes, which he recalls ploughing a few years ago. Another field where he once grew oats has sunk and metamorphosed into a full-blown lake, complete with perch and roach that he suspects one of his fishing-mad sons may have something to do with.
On the higher ground, he farms cattle, including a particularly handsome and virile Charolais bull. As a boy, he drove the ancestors of these beasts across the mountains to the fairs at Maam Cross and Spiddal. It was an arduous trek and ‘the cattle would lie down for two days afterwards, never mind me’. Once or twice, he took them straight into the Fair Green at the heart of Galway city.
He also still breeds a few draft horses, which he rode in his younger years, although he has moved away from the Connemara ponies he once raced at the Oughterard Races.
Towards the end of our visit, Eamonn shows us the mossy ruins of a house built in a sheltered hollow beside one of his fields. Long years ago, he met a man who had once visited the old woman who lived here. She shared the house with a cow, which she kept tied behind the door. During the man’s visit, the cow had a call of nature. Dreadfully embarrassed, the woman belted the cow and then addressed the startled creature, ‘Sorry to hit you, but you’ve no manners before a stranger.’
‘Poor thing, God love her,’ sighs Eamonn. ‘Weren’t they tough times?’
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