As of 2011, over five billion human beings own a phone, mobile or cell, call it what you will. If you want to speak to almost anybody on the planet, all you need are the right digits and you can be having an ear-to-ear chinwag in less than a minute.
‘Twas not ever thus. When Penny and Bridget O’Malley were youngsters, making a phone call was a long and complicated procedure. They were probably better at it than most, but that is because their brother Michael King looked after the only phone in the neighbourhood. It stood in the post office which he ran at Drimmeen, on the westernmost tip of Connemara’s Errislannan peninsula.
The post office had been in the family since the 19th century when Bridget Coyne, grandmother of Penny and Bridget, ruled the roost. Born on the eve of the Great Famine in 1844, she married Tom King, scion of a family who have been ensconced on Errislannan since time began. Mrs. King always dressed in a long black skirt that matched her jet black hair. She wore a white shawl over her shoulders. In 1926, two years before her death, her eldest son Donald took on the post-office.
In Donald King’s day, all the post was delivered by a man on a bicycle, his big black cape fluttering over his handlebars and front basket to try and stop the driving Irish rains soaking into the packages and letters. The service was inevitably much slower at Christmas time and the poor man would still be pedaling around the dark roads long into the night. If the weather proved too severe, he would rest up at the King’s house until the break of dawn. ‘They put in some hard days’, says Penny. ‘But I tell you it didn’t do them any harm; they all lived to a good old age!’
Postmen and postmistress alike must have wondered at the future possibilities of communications when, in June 1919, Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Brown completed the first ever non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from America to Europe. Their plane crash-landed on the spongy blanket bog of Derrygimla, close to the school in Ballinaboy where the O’Malley sisters were later educated. The fearless duo flew 1,800 miles across the ocean in an open-cockpit Vimy. Their extraordinary adventure dominated the banter around every kitchen table in Connemara for weeks after the event. One of the King’s neighbours, Pateen Conneely, was working in the Marconi radio station beside the bog where the plane landed. As his work colleagues ran out to see whether the pilots had survived, Alcock stood up from his seat, removed his goggles and announced: ‘We are Alcock and Brown. Yesterday we were in America’.
In 1925, five years after Alcock and Brown’s landing, Stephen King, a 40-year-old farmer, married Penelope O'Malley, the daughter of another farmer from Rosmuc near Carna, County Galway. Six children followed, two sons and four daughters, including Penny and Bridget.
The girls enjoyed a quiet and contented childhood. They went to school in Ballinaboy, a three-mile walk from their home. The building was later demolished but the pillars still remain. Their world was a small one. Bridget did not visit Dublin City until she was at least eighteen and even then she was eager to return home quickly. They may have cycled all around their native peninsula but generally it was a slow and steady pace of life. ‘People used to be gathered around talking at crossroads and by walls and things. Today people don’t have time to talk because everyone is rushing on to the next thing!’
During the Second World War, Ireland’s neutral government established a series of look out stations across Ireland, complete with telephones which operators could use to inform the authorities that German, or perhaps British, bombers were looming overhead. One such station was built upon Doon Hill, close to where the O’Malley sisters live today. When these stations were decommissioned after the war, the telephone from Doon Hill was dispatched to the sub-post office on Errislannan where Bridget and Penny’s eldest brother Michael had now succeeded as postmaster.[i]
Bridget and Penny can well recall the kafuffle of making a phone call in those times, dialing the number over and over again as you sought to make contact with the telephone exchange in Clifden, and then waiting an age while they attempted to connect you to the person you actually wanted to speak with. Each call made had to be logged in a book, complete with its time and length. As the postmistress was invariably listening into the call, everyone had to be excessively polite to one another. ‘There was no gossip talked down the line,’ laughs Bridget.
In September 1952, Bridget King married Padraig O’Malley of Aillebrack, a muscular fisherman who spent his days at sea in a currach, hauling up baskets of lobster and crayfish, or reeling in salmon from the pier by his home.[ii] He sold his catch from the pier at Bunowen, to which buyers came from all over Galway and Clare. When French ships moored off Aillebrack, the lobsters which Padraig caught sometimes went all the way to the fine restaurants of Paris. Shellfish and salmon formed a major part of Bridget’s daily diet, and she confesses she got utterly bored of both. She and Padraig had eleven children, ten of whom are still alive and scattered between Chicago, Dublin, Galway and the Aran Islands.
On 19th March 1955, Bridget’s younger sister Penny waved goodbye to Ireland from the decks of R.M.S. Saxonia, an ocean liner that set out from Cobh (Queenstown) and docked in New York six days later. ‘Everyone on the boat was Irish, the same as yourself, and we were all going to America to start a new life. There was great excitement. A lot of people from south Connemara went to Chicago, and I had cousins in Cleveland also. Others were headed for New York and Boston. But the voyage was lovely, no gales or anything, and there was so much to do. Every morning they put a programme under your door telling you about all the entertainments they had planned for the day, the films and dances and things. It was like a holiday cruise really!’
On reaching America, Penny went west to Pittsburgh where one of her mothers’ brothers was working in the steel mills. She spent the next five years in the city, working as a housekeeper with a well-to-do family called Evans. Every summer, the family headed 600 miles west to Cape Cod for their holidays. Penny travelled with them and then went to visit her own relations in Boston and New York. In 1960, she received word that her mother was seriously unwell back in Connemara. She packed her bags, thanked the Evans’s and flew home in time to be by her mothers’ bedside when she passed away. ‘I’m glad I went to America,’ she says. ‘But I’m also glad I came back because this is where my family were.’
In 1962 Penny married Jimmy O’Malley, younger brother of Bridget’s husband Padraig. Jimmy was the first of his family to become a blacksmith, learning his trade at the Technical College in Ballinasloe. He started off shoeing workhorses but quickly realized that tractors were overtaking horses as the beast of choice for most farmers. ‘Horses were actually a lot harder work than tractors’, says Penny. ‘You had to run out in the morning to catch them, where you could just get up on a tractor and turn the key! And a tractor could do in a hour what might take a horse a day.’
Jimmy’s welding skills became ever more elaborate and, during the mid-1950s, he won several competitions, including a prize at Dublin’s An Tóstal for a hand-forged candlestick holder he designed. His skill as a farrier also brought him work with both racehorse owners and movie producers, and his handiwork can be seen in films such as ‘Into the West’ and ‘Three Wishes for Jamie.’ He also taught metalwork on the Aran Islands.
Penny and James had five children, two sons and three daughters, before his premature demise in 1991. His eldest son Thomas tried to keep the forge going but had to abandon it in 2004 when the microscopic fumes from the welder began infecting his lungs, a pertinent reminder of just how poisonous blacksmithery can be. Thomas has since framed a wonderful array of the horseshoes his father designed, all branded with the ‘James O’Malley’ stamp. It’s easy to think horseshoes are a ‘one size fits all’ procedure but Jimmy’s collection shows the contrary to be true as he created tailormade shoes to counter the various diseases that can afflict a horses’ hoof. The samples displayed carry names such as corn, French rocker, single dub toe, double dub toe, normal fore, full bar and three-quarter bar.
The landscape around Aillebrack was smothered in holiday homes during the Celtic Tiger years, particularly with the opening of the nearby Connemara Golf Club. Today, holiday homes easily outnumber those that are occupied all year round. ‘But the actual population has not changed that much,’ says Penny. ‘A lot of people went to the States and did well in construction and things. Then they came back and built some fine houses. I suppose families are smaller now, but more people have stayed. In the last twenty years, there was hardly any emigration. That has changed again now unfortunately. If there’s no work, the young people will go away again.’
[i] Michael King featured in the first volume of ‘Vanishing Ireland’ for which he was photographed just a few months before his sad passing. Click here to read his story.
[ii] In later years, he acquired a 28 foot boat with an out-board engine.