‘I’m the only John Cooney on the island. The other man was a second cousin of mine and he was buried a fortnight ago.’ John Cooney is also the oldest man on Achill Island. From 1939 to 1958, he was postman for Achill Sound, the first village on the island after crossing the bridge from the Irish mainland. You see him walking around, a tall man in sporty shirt, tie and woolly hat. A slight limp, hands behind back. He’s eighty-four, well-read, insightful and kind. He lives in a Roadmaster cabin pitched between a toy shop and a 250-year-old building that belonged to his mother’s family, the Corrigans. Within a minute of meeting him, he has hopped into the back of our car and said, ‘You met the right man! I’ve nothing else to do and I’m sober. Come on and I’ll show you around.’
John was born on 14 June 1922, the only child to a sheep-farming couple on Achill. His father’s father lived on the nearby island of Achill Beg, electrified but deserted since, while a great-grandfather by name of Hanue came from Inisturk further south off Clew Bay. ‘I don’t know where they came from before then. The family call themselves Heaney now.’
Young John was educated in a three-teacher school in the Sound, since closed. For the first eleven years of his life, he spoke only Irish – the Achill dialect – but he ‘picked up the English quick enough’ as a teenager. His expanding mind was nourished by a near exclusive diet of seafood. ‘I didn’t know hardly a thing about meat when I was young. It was all fish. We had the real breakfast in the morning. The egg would be warm after the hen laying it. The sausages were made by the butcher and had a lovely taste to them.’
Although Achill prospered in the early 19th century, famine and emigration ultimately dragged the island into a downward spiral that lasted 150 years. Captain Boycott, the land agent who inspired the expression ‘to boycott’, lived on the island and was among those embroiled in the subsequent conflict over land. The population tumbled from its peak of 8,000 and today rests at about 3,000. Many islanders headed west, via Cobh, to America. Large droves found their way to Cleveland, Ohio. ‘That became the passage of assistance,’ says John, ‘and it became an Achill stronghold. I had two aunts and an uncle that went there and I have cousins there now. One of them sent a text over to McLoughlins [his local pub] wishing me a Happy Easter!’ In 2003, the citizens of Cleveland commemorated this extraordinary relationship by twinning their home city with the parish of Achill.
In the 1930s, a closer option for summer work was Scotland. All the young lads would catch the train from Achill all the way to Dublin and then head up to the tattie fields around Glasgow. John shows us a Celtic Cross, erected in Kildavnet Cemetery in September 1937, to mark the resting spot of ten of these unfortunate boys, killed in a fire at the village of Kirkintillock. ‘I was at school with them,’ he says. ‘Most were related to me. They weren’t fourteen years of age. They were classed as muck, poor devils. Picking potatoes. Someone set fire to them. They were locked from the outside. The Mannions lost three sons at the once. It was an awful calamity. Their coffins came in on the train and that was the last train that ever came to Achill Sound.’ Across from their grave is the hollow ruin of Granuaile’s Castle. ‘Wasn’t it changed times since?’ says John quietly, looking at the castle.
John Cooney did not emigrate. His parents were getting older so, as the only child, he stayed. ‘My mother ran a bed and breakfast so I would help her with that. We were fairly well off. They never wanted to see me going.’ In 1939, he secured work as the Achill Sound postman. ‘I was eighteen years when I started! I had to cycle to all the villages. Or walk. By God, I was fit as a fiddle!’ He swam – ‘like a fish’ – and a priest taught him how to box. He cycled everywhere on his Raleigh, sometimes as far as Croagh Patrick which he’d climb for the day and then cycle home again afterwards, ‘no bother’. In summer evenings, he and his friends would climb the island’s summits to behold the leisurely sunsets. In 1942, he played centre half-back for Achill when they won the Mayo Championships – ‘And I’m the only one left of that team still alive!’ Four years later, he cycled 150 miles to Tuam to watch Mayo lose to Roscommon in the Connaught championship final.
After the war, John was obliged to head east for England in the autumn to work for a few months. ‘It’s not what you know but who you know. Lads from over here were in charge over there so you’d find work quick enough. I used to be counting the days until Christmas. In Irish they say “níl aon tinteán le do thinteán féin” – “there’s no fireplace like your own fireplace”.’
In 1959, he stopped being a postman and secured regular work as a carpenter on the vast power stations of Wales – ‘where the sheep were small and the cattle had horns six feet wide!’ At the steelworks in Newport, he was one of 600 Irishmen working all the hours God sent. These were rowdy years for John but all that changed when JFK was shot on 22 November 1963. ‘I didn’t drink for a long time after that. It was a terrible thing to happen. A big shock. He will be remembered for all time.’
Instead, he returned home to look after his mother permanently. ‘I stayed with her all the time. She went into the wheelchair in the finish. Otherwise I’d have been married and gone away.’ She died in January 1972 and his father passed away that July. ‘My mother always said, “When you’re in England, always go to Mass.” When I miss a Mass, I think of her.’
As we make our way west across the once sandy roads of the island, we pass endless abandoned stone cottages. John tells us these were all thatched in his youth with oftentimes ten children to a bed. ‘The thatch was very warm but it was cool in summer time. The birds would nest in the roof in the spring. They kept the home fires going all year round for the cooking. The fires never went out on Achill.’
These blind, scalped ruins stand at odds with the shimmering new developments of the present generation. ‘All these houses are holiday homes,’ he sighs. ‘You’d think we had a great population but nobody’s actually living here.’ Our journey takes us through a landscape of treacherous bogs, contrary bends, plunging cliffs, flourishing gorse and mighty mountains. At length we reach Moyteoge Head and gaze out at the deep blue ocean beyond. ‘Well lads,’ says John, ‘There’s nothing between here and America but the Atlantic Ocean.’