Jack Connolly of Glin
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘Keep your eyes open, your legs closed and send home your money’. That was John Healy’s wise counsel in the book ‘Nineteen Acres’ and it was the best advice Jack Connolly’s four sisters got when they left Ireland in the 1930s, two for the USA and two for England. Emigration was in the blood. Their uncle Mick sailed for India with the Christian Brothers but later became a gardener in England. ‘But you know what they say?’, says Jack with merry eyes. ‘The fool is always left behind’.[i]
‘I’ve never been out of Ireland’, says the 92-year-old farmer. But he quickly takes comfort in the fact that the late Mary Lynch from up the way never even left the parish of Glin and all her brothers and sisters fetched up in America too.
Jack’s father Patsy did not leave Irish shores either. Patsy’s father Paddy moved west from Glenagragra, near Athea, to Glin in the 1860s. He took on the lease of the modest 16-acre farm which stands on the high ground above the Knight of Glin’s demesne. The farm has fine views across the Shannon to the rolling hills of Co Clare where his wife Margaret McMahon was born. She had crossed the river to work in Glin Castle as a young girl.
Patsy’s brothers went to America. ‘Uncle Jack’ was due to take on the farm but instead found work on the railroads of Illinois. ‘Uncle Dan’ became a policeman in New York where his grandson is still on the beat today. When his money was made, Dan sent money home to convert the thatched farmstead to slate and to install a new cooking range in the kitchen.[ii]
Meanwhile, Patsy Connolly ran his small farm and sought work elsewhere in this landscape of small rush-filled fields, thatched cottages and rickety roads. He drew stones from the quarries for the surrounding roads. He did nixers at a nearby blacksmith’s forge. And he became a thatcher of considerable renown. He was very particular about the wheaten straw he used, and would not touch straw that had been through a thrasher. ‘Broken straw wouldn’t last two years’, explains Jack who was frequently at his father’s side, stuffing the rooftops. ‘If you did it right and you had a good cut of reed, the roof would last you about 10 years’.
Patsy’s distaste for threshers may have stemmed from the time his index finger was sliced in two by one such machine. Jack was with him that day and recalls his father washing the severed bone in a stream, wrapping it in a cloth and taking it home. He spent the best part of a month in the Limerick infirmary. A neighbour was killed turning hay when his tractor seat unexpectedly buckled, hurtling him under the reversing tractor.
Patsy’s wife Sarah concentrated on raising their six children, keeping the house in order and milking the cows. She was a Lynch from Ballyculhane and had also grown up on a farm.
In 1918, Sarah Connolly went into labour at the thatched farmstead and gave birth to her sixth and final child, Jack. Ireland was in the throes of the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic which killed two of Sarah’s siblings. The War of Independence was also close at hand and Glin went through what Jack describes as a ‘lively’ time. During the Civil War, he recalls how his uncle and first cousin, both IRA members, were obliged to go on the run. Patsy was cutting hay with a scythe when a truck arrived at the farmstead. ‘It was the Staters’, says Jack, referring to the army of the Irish Free State. ‘They turned the house upside down and pulled everything out, but found nothing’. (Check this?)
Jack went to school in Glin, a half-mile saunter through the Knight’s estate. It was a doddle compared to the long march his elder sisters and brother had to make to their school down in Ballygoughlin. Mick was lucky to survive a bout of pneumonia he picked up during one such walk. ‘He was crossing a ditch and fell into a dyke. His clothes were drowned but he never told us. They had to get Doctor McDonald down. If a doctor came to you at that time, you were bad’.
‘I don’t know if there were any nice teachers at that time’, chuckles Jack. The head teacher was a ‘hard but fair’ man, backed up by a mild-mannered young man called Duggan who taught Irish for 2 ½ hours a week. ‘But I have no Irish at all now’, he admits. ‘There wasn’t much of that around here’.
Jack secured his first job at Glin Castle at the age of 12 when he was singled out by the Knight to carry his bag during a shoot. ‘All the lads in Glin had a job carrying the bags for everything they shot and for the cartridges they used’, he explains. ‘We got five shillings in the end. It was a fortune. And lemonade’. He was later employed as a beater, charging headlong into deep thickets of laurel, bramble and gorse, urging woodcock and pheasant to fly into the path of the hidden guns. As well as their pay, beaters were rewarded with ‘a keg of stout and sandwiches made from real baker’s bread’.
During the Emergency, the Glin estate was subject to a Compulsory Tillage Order by which the Knight was obliged to convert much of his lawns and his coursing field into barley, oats, wheat and potatoes. Jack remembers the Knight walking around one rainy afternoon, watching the men at work and muttering: ‘They tell you everything about what to sow but they tell you nothing about the damned weather’. Once harvested, Jack helped drive the crop to the pier in Glin from where it would cross the Shannon to the mills of Kilrush. As well as crops, there was always the cattle to be looked after. Spare a thought for the milkman Ned Scanlon and his wife who milked all thirty cows by hand twice a day. ‘I don’t think there was a machine in the parish of Glin at that time’, says Jack. [iii]
When not working, Jack entertained himself playing football with the lads, walking the farm and enjoying the occasional drink. There were plenty of dances in those days, at the hall in Glin, on the pier and sometimes, ‘they had platforms at the crosses [cross-roads] where we’d meet on Sunday evenings and it used to be marvellous’.
In about 1945, he came across young Mary Culhane of the same parish, the mother of his eight children and to whom he has now been married for 59 years.
Jack is a quietly lucid individual. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of family pedigrees in the area. Not only is he able to identify any man or woman down to their nearest (or farthest) second cousin twice removed, but he can reel off the year of their birth, their occupation and their present address. And of course he is so venerable that when he talks of Young Bobby Scanlon, it takes a while to work out that ‘Young Bobby’ is now in his late 70s.
Jack once came upon an elderly woman sawing up a tree. When he offered to help, the woman pointed at the logs she had already cut and, presumably a slight breathless, said ‘Ah no, sure this will warm me twice’. Jack Connolly may be one of the oldest men in County Limerick but boasts a similarly impressive vigour for life.[iv]
[i] ‘He was a good man to work, he’d milk cows early … Willy Hayes said he was the only man who would stay all day milking a cow’.
[ii] For Jack and Dan’s generation, the first emigrants were expected to send home enough money to enable the younger ones to obtain the passage across the Atlantic. The younger ones were to send money to pay for the maintenance of their parents. When Dan came to admire the stove, he was dismayed to see the room filled with smoke. He summoned Danny Dalton the stonemason and suggested he take a gauge from the top of a nearby hill to see was the chimney above or below it. Danny replied that the chimney stopped short some 6 inches under the hill’s summit. ‘Rise it another foot’, replied Dad. Danny did and the fire smoked no more. Dalton’s father built the stone kiln at Glin, as well as various cow-houses around and about, as well as a blacksmith’s forge by the nearby crossroads and perhaps the pier too.
[iii] ‘There was 3 in the kitchen garden then. There was 4 in the farm… and a milkman and his wife. Ned Scanlon was the last man there. Mikey’s father. Before that it was Jack Daney and his wife. They milked by hand. They had no machine at that time. I don’t think there was a machine in the a parish of Glin at that time. There were 24 cows and they were all milked by hand. And they fed the calves. That was his work, every summer, from the 1st May to 1st December. They got a house, one of the lodges. The cows were milked in the farmyard. They had housing for 30 cows’.
[iv] The original farmstead was felled in the 1960s to make way for Jack’s present home. The Connolly’s farm stands opposite the farm of local historian Tom Donovan. Tom’s grandfather returned from 10 years in America to buy land opposite. (He was one of three boys dispatched to the USA with nametags around their necks so a relative could identify them when they got there; two later came back to Ireland). The Donovan’s place originally belonged to a ploughman called Cassidy who worked on Glin. Many of the families who came to work there were Scottish, like Jameson, Cassidy and Ayres, a gardener at Glin of Scotch origin, whose sister sold their land when she moved to Australia.
With thanks to Tom Donovan and the Knight of Glin.