Coradh Bhuí, Leitir Meallaín, Contae na Gaillimh
Melodeon Player and Fisherman
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘Now, there is still music here,’ concedes Sonaí. ‘But I’m sorry to tell you it’s the wrong music. There is only one family playing traditional music in this part of Connemara now and that is my own family.’
Nóra enters the room with the tea, and listens to her husband of forty years as he lambasts the gyrating temptations of ‘disco music’ that has compelled younger generations to abandon melodeons and fiddles in favour of a boogie.
‘He’s mad every day with it,’ she explains patiently.
‘I am not blaming the musicians,’ continues Sonaí. ‘Everyone has to make a few shilling. But I am blaming the pubs that won’t give the trad musicians a chance to show people how it’s done and how it’s played.’
The Ó Conghaile family have been in the Leitir Meallaín (Lettermullen) area since records began, although Sonaí’s father was the only one of eight children who did not settle in either Chicago or Pennsylvania.
Their household at Coradh Bhuí has always been Irish-speaking and musical. ‘My father and all his sisters and brothers, my mother, my aunts … they were all singers and dancers,’ says Sonaí. ‘It was never competitive, mind. It wasn’t like they’d be out in a rowing boat, one trying to beat the other. They’d dance and sing and maybe they’d take a drink and they’d sing a song together. My father was a great sean-nós dancer when he had a few glasses of poitín on him.’
The symptoms were unsurprisingly genetic. ‘Music was always in my head,’ says Sonaí. ‘I was no good at school – myself and the teacher weren’t very healthy anyhow – but music, music.’
Sonaí was eight when he first took up the melodeon. And the one that he took up wasn’t his. ‘A fellow used to come here because his father would not let him play at home. He’d play until maybe eleven o’clock at night and when he left, he would put the accordion up on the dresser until the following night. I would be dying till he’d go home and, when he was gone, I’d take it down. I was watching his fingers and the way he moved them. And when I got the accordion, I started playing and playing. And from that day on, I got into music. I played melodeon at my first wedding when I was fourteen years old. And the fellow who got married was Jimmy Ó Domhnaill, and he and his wife are still alive. Ask him, “Who played at your wedding, Jimmy?” and see what he says.’
In September 1962, like so many a Connemara boy, he packed an old suitcase and made his way to London where he was soon ‘digging trenches and muck and sweating for Murphy and McAlpine and all them’. After work, he and his pals would head to the pub ‘instead of having water’ and make some new friends. ‘We’d have a game of darts and cards and some laughs and next thing you’re there till eleven o’clock. Up in the morning and go again. Oh, we got fond of the drink then and we lost a few days work out of it.’
He became part of the London Irish, living it up at The Shamrock and the Galtymore dancehall in Cricklewood, and playing melodeon at pubs and clubs all over the city.
‘You could never do anything like that here because there was no money here. If you came here for a couple of weeks in the summertime, you’d have the craic. But it was only yourself that was making that craic – it wasn’t there before you.’
So it was fortunate indeed that come 1964 he chanced upon a young Connemara beauty called Nóra John Michaelín ní Mhaoláin. They met at a Christmas dance in the hall in Tír an Fhia, a mile over the bridge from Lettermore. She had also gone to England where she’d been working at a hospital in Huddersfield. Much impressed by the girl, Sonaí applied his characteristically audacious gusto to invite her father to come home with him instead of her.
‘There was no flies on him, only dead ones,’ interjects Nóra drolly.
The couple dated for four years, then returned home to marry in Galway city in 1968. Three weeks after the birth of their first son, Michael, they returned to London for another four years. They fetched up with six children, three boys and three girls. Sonaí had long since given up the drink to focus on making money.
As such, when they returned to live in South Galway, the challenge was to find an income from a landscape so barren that even a beetle would be hard pushed to find a comfortable place to sleep.
The place had grown wild in his absence. ‘When the old people were here, there was always someone to look after everything. There were hens and the goose and the gander, cattle and sheep, and the land was always clear. But when my generation went to London working, we forgot our own village, our own house, and, by the time we got back, everything had gone wild. Even the fields were full of bracken and briars.’
Sonaí became a fisherman, setting off in his curragh around Golan Head, looking for lobster and crayfish. ‘I never took any liberty against the sea water,’ says he, ‘because she’s there, she’s the boss. So I go out and make sure my motor is all right and that I have an anchor.’
Nonetheless, he’s had several close shaves. One cold October morning, he and his son, Michael, who was fourteen at the time, took the curragh out to investigate an oil tanker that had come aground on the rocks the night before. The sea was still rough and black with oil from the stricken ship. ‘As I was bending down, a big bucket slips off the seat and bangs Michael, who’s steering. He slipped out the back, the boat flipped around and I went out the side. Luckily the lock was on the engine and it was going around and around. I could see the propellers spinning. I stretched out my hand and caught her while she was going around and I pulled myself in.’ Michael was still adrift, sinking into the oily swell in his oilskins, but Sonaí managed to take control of his vessel and sailed to the rescue. ‘And from that day until this, Michael was never in the sea again,’ says he.
On another occasion, the rope he was pulling to restart the engine snapped and he tipped back into the heavy seas, unbeknownst to his fellow sailor. When he resurfaced, covered in sand, he was already six yards from the boat, the distance growing with every second. But the gods were good and hurled the boat back his way, he caught the side and managed to scramble up the sides. ‘The worst moment is when your feet are slipping on the side of the boat.’
There was also a dark moment on a sunny Sunday morning when he was returning from a review of some cattle he kept on a nearby island. A black bag floating alongside the pier caught his eye and he called to a friend on the pier to help get it out. As his friend reached for the bag, it rolled over in the water and that’s when Sonaí realised it was not a bag but a body, ‘and ’twas the face of a man I knew, Lord have mercy on him.’
Back on shore, Sonaí and the kids would amble through the limestone boulders and granite rocks at low tide, digging for clams, razorfish and shellfish. Or else they would simply scoop up seaweed to bring to the factory in Kilkieran – red dillisk and carrageen moss, scarlet ribbon weed, purple laver and brown kelp.
‘Everyone was fishing that time, but now that’s all gone. If you sold a load of seaweed or moss now, the social welfare man would come after you and want to know how much did you sell. That’s what killed it for me. And that is why everyone is sitting down now even though there’s plenty of work to be done. Why would they do anything if the social welfare man will take the money off them? So we don’t earn money to spend money and now there is no market for anything.’
The air in Corra Bhuí is invigorating , as brisk as champagne, but it has never been an easy place for to live.
‘I see young fellows who are coming older now and I feel sorry for them because they’re going the same way. They’re on the pier and there’s nothing for them to do here and no place to go. So, just as we did, they must go away.’
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