Above: Hannie Leahy
Annesgift, County Tipperary
Country Markets Secretary and Treasurer
Born 1 September 1919; Died 27 March 2015.
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘Everything is disposable nowadays,’ observes Hannie Leahy. ‘We were forever washing nappies in soap and water, putting them out on the line. Now you just put the nappy in the bin and get a new one!’
Hannie Leahy was born Hannah Crean in Fethard, County Tipperary, on 1 September 1919. Martin Crean, her father, was a gardener at Tullamaine Castle, a few miles northeast of Fethard, where the gardens were full of Victorian glasshouses for vines and peaches.
Martin was a man who dressed smartly and sported a fine handlebar moustache. His wife, Ellen O’Meara, was the daughter of a neighbouring farmer and bore him a son, Willy, and two daughters, Hannie and Kitty.
Two of Martin’s brothers and a sister had emigrated to New Zealand, acquiring land near Christchurch where they both raised large families. ‘They never came home,’ says Hannie. ‘I suppose they hadn’t the money to come back, and it took a long time to travel at that time. But their grandchildren come regularly, once a year nearly.’
In time, Hannie’s only sister, Kitty, would also emigrate to New Zealand with her Dublin-born husband, Brendan, who served as a prison officer in Wellington.
When Hannie was born, the War of Independence was in full flow. Assassinations, reprisals and the burning of entire towns as well as barracks and mansions caused widespread turmoil across the country. Tullaimaine Castle, where she spent the first months of her life, was always under threat.
One day, Martin was walking home with ‘a big bough of wood’ over his shoulder when a group of British soldiers swooped down upon him, thinking it was a rifle. He was fortunate not to be shot dead. By the close of 1920, Tullaimaine Castle had been burned and looted.
After he left Tullamaine, Martin became gardener to the Hughes family at the Annesgift estate, close to the small farm where he had grown up, sheltered beneath the shadow of Slievenamon.
Hannie and her siblings enjoyed a relatively happy childhood with seemingly constant entertainment. ‘There’d always be card playing and neighbours coming around for a chat, someone telling a few old yarns.’
Amongst the many photographs scattered around her home is one of the Moyglass senior hurling team who became South Tipperary champions in 1934. Hannie remembers almost every member of the team, not least her first cousin Johnjo O’Connor. ‘There was lots of sport at that time. Hurling and football and camogie. I was never good at it, but I loved to watch.
‘When I was young, there was an awful lot of shops in Fethard,’ she recalls. ‘After I came out of Mass, I would go to Cummins’ for a penny-packets of sweets. And then another sweet shop started opposite the hotel. I think all the sweets came from the Geary’s factory in Limerick.’
It wasn’t just Geary’s sweets that tickled the young Creans’ appetite. ‘We always had home-made bread during the week, but we used to love the weekend because my mother would buy two loaves of white shop bread for us!’
The children went to school in Coolmine, a half-mile walk across the fields from their home. ‘It was short but it could be a terrible walk if the weather was against you.’ The girls would arrive armed with kippeens, short thin sticks for the fire, while the boys would heave their way in with buckets of ‘beautiful, lovely water’ from the well.
One of her neighbours was her future husband, Jack Leahy. ‘My husband, Lord have mercy on him, was born and reared in this house. I don’t know when it was built, but I suppose it’s the oldest house in the parish. When we were younger, we were always playing together. He was from a big family and his mother died when he was young. His father was wonderful and reared the whole family. Dan was his name and he was ninety-six when he died. He worked on the land in Annesgift, half-a-mile from here. Donal, my son, is the fourth generation to farm there, but I’m not sure if the fifth will be interested!’
Hannie left school at the age of sixteen. ‘I loved school and I hated leaving,’ she sighs. ‘I still write letters, with paper and pens, nearly every day of the week. But, at that time, you had to pay for secondary education and I never had any chance of that.’
In 1935, she went to work in the Rectory in Fethard where Canon Patton, the local Protestant clergyman, operated a market garden. ‘I was an under-secretary to Phyllis O’Connell, his secretary, doing all the invoicing and organising the dockets for all the plants to go off by rail. It was a lovely job and they were lovely people.’
Hannie remained with the Pattons until her marriage to Jack Leahy in 1942. ‘And then I had to go home and look after my children.’ Alice Leahy, the oldest of the five children, is the co-founding director and guiding light of Trust, a voluntary organisation that looks after the homeless in Dublin. Then came Eileen and Donal, both married and living locally, followed by the twins Martin and Mary, born in 1954. ‘My father was a twin and one of Eileen’s boys had twins too, so it really does skip a generation,’ she says.
During the 1940s, Jack and Hannie also befriended the Hughes family at Annesgift. ‘Major and Mrs Hughes were wonderful people. The major was in the war. He was a good farmer. She was a Cruickshank and married at nineteen but she had no children. Mrs Hughes was a great woman and an amazing organiser. She worked for the National Council for the Blind and she was also involved in the Country Markets.’
In February 1947, both Hannie and Mrs Hughes took their seats amongst the founding members of Country Markets Ltd. They established their first country market in Fethard.
‘I am the only founding member of the Country Markets still alive,’ she says with a reassuringly hearty chuckle. ‘But we got the market going – and it’s still going! In the very same place that we started in the town hall. I was secretary and treasurer for thirty-one years. We got all the smallholders to sell their eggs, vegetables and brown bread. Everything was home-produced, labelled, inspected, covered and properly priced. It ran every Friday morning from eight till eleven, and I think it has run every Friday ever since we started it, except for when Christmas falls on a Friday.’
Jack continued to work until he was struck down by a stroke in 1992 and died after a very short illness. In coming to terms with his passing, Hannie went to Lourdes four times. She was also much bolstered by their five children.
Her living room wall is papered in a style reminiscent of William Morris, with pictures of Pope John Paul II, St Martin, Jesus and the Sacred Heart running alongside photographic portraits of family members, including a fantastic group shot of the entire Leahy clan from 1960 with the twins up front.
Hannie continues to be active, even if she does not travel as much as she used to. That said, she has now been to Lourdes a total of six times and would like to go again.
She still attends regional meetings of Country Markets Ltd, and the annual meetings in Dublin, where she might pop in for a quick browse around Clery’s. She’s been a Pioneer since 1936, as well as an active member of the Irish Countrywoman’s Association. Otherwise, it’s all about crosswords, reading books, mass on Saturday evenings and a few rounds of Twenty-Fives which she plays an impressive five nights a week during the autumn.
‘I remember Mrs Hughes had a Phaeton, a two-seater pony cart, which she used to love taking off for a drive on the roads. There was very few cars at that time. Major Hughes was one of the first to have a car or a telephone. Annesgift 10 was his number. I hadn’t a telephone until twenty years ago and if I wanted to make a call, I would go to the neighbours. Now everyone has a telephone in their pockets. It’s all go-go now. Cars, here, there, everywhere. Rushing. There’s no time for anything!’
With thanks to Jasper Murphy and Alice Leahy.
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