When Michael King was born eighty winters ago, the Errislannan peninsula in Connemara probably didn’t look a whole lot different to the way it looks today. There would have been a few more stone cottages in the 1920s, the last traces of the homes occupied by the tenants of the island’s four landlords. One of these landlords, John Byrne, was Collector General of Rates in Dublin in about 1850. ‘He owned property all around Wicklow, Dublin and Galway,’ says Michael. ‘But he lost the job in Dublin through some fiddle. They were tough times but I suppose he wasn’t bad as landlords go.’ And as landlords go, he went. Michael does not say that the Kings numbered among Byrne’s thirty tenant families. Instead he says that the Kings have been on Errislannan forever.
They certainly held the Post Office for a long time. Michael’s grandmother became postmistress of Errislannan in 1871. In time, she was succeeded by her son who was in turn succeeded by his nephew, Michael. That latter transition took place in 1946 and, for the next fifty-seven years, Michael was centre stage to all activity on the peninsula. In 2004, An Post closed the office citing too little business and so brought to an end 133 years of King dominance.
A quiet, philosophical man, Michael was born in what has now become a summer house for a Dublin family. He was the oldest of six children. His brother and four sisters were all to the good when we met him. Their father was a ’50-acre farmer’.
Michael built the house where he and his wife live today over fifty years ago. ‘I carted all the stones for it here on a horse and cart.’ In a small field next to his birthplace, he keeps a magnificent pedigree Charolais bull by name of Sam. ‘I’ve farmed all my life,’ he says. ‘Although it wasn’t farming really – it was slavery!’
Among Michael’s possessions is a thank you letter from Bertie Ahern. It relates to his service as President of the Thomas Whelan Cumann in Clifden. The cumann is named for one of Michael Collins trusted men, a young Connemara volunteer who was captured by the British after Bloody Sunday and hanged in March 1921. Shortly after the execution, the local IRA gunned down two Royal Irish Constables in Clifden and, on St Patrick’s Day, the Black and Tans retaliated by burning fourteen houses in the locality, killing one civilian and wounding another. Michael says the presence of the Tans in Connemara had a powerful effect in fanning the flames of revolt. ‘They were jailbirds and they let them loose here, right into the islands. They were given guns and told to shoot the Irish down if need be.’ Not surprisingly, the people of Connemara have a high regard for General Tom Barry and ‘the boys of North Cork’ who waged the most effective resistance to the Black and Tans within Ireland.
‘Then the Civil War came,’ says Michael sadly. ‘Brother against brother. Collins was told, “Take that or prepare for immediate and terrible war.” What answer had they? They were on their knees! But the country split and so did every house in Ireland. Collins’ crowd became Cumann na Gael and later became Fine Gael. De Valera’s became Fianna Fáil. They haven’t made friends yet!’
Michael says it is astonishing how the bitterness still rises after all this time, especially in elections. As such, he wondered would the divisions ever heal. However, as the number of East European migrants to Connemara escalates, he concedes that such ‘old world’ perspectives might change rapidly in the coming decades.
Michael has the physical look of a wrestler. In younger years, he cycled a good deal and fished the waters of Mannin Bay for salmon and lobster. He says there was no hurling or football on the peninsula. ‘It didn’t get this far! Anyway, if you were from here, you’d never get onto the county team … the East Galway fellows would never pass you a ball!’
He and Mrs King, a Ballyconeely girl, have two daughters and two sons. One of his sons is on target for a place in The Guinness Book of Records; Gerard King has played prop with the Connemara All-Blacks for the past twenty-three years. ‘He’d be gone three years ago,’ explains his father, ‘but they haven’t found anyone to replace him!’
Michael remains astonished by Ireland’s new-found opulence. As with many of us, it just wasn’t a circumstance he considered possible. There are, of course, downsides to the boom. He calculates that for every occupied house on Errislannan, there are five holiday homes. ‘But it’s better to have them that way than in ruins.’
He is also wary of those who insist everyone is prospering. ‘Tourism is blown up to be a great shape in these parts but its not really. Outside Clifden, the B&Bs have gone to the wall these last few years.’ He says the clamp down on drinking and driving has had a major effect. ‘We used to go out on the long winters nights for five or six pints. We’d drink them slow, then drive home after. Now the pubs are all empty and people stay at home with a take out. If you’re not within walking distance of the pubs, you may forget it. I can see the point of it. But it has killed country life definitely. Any place you have to drive to is affected. But I suppose there’s no other answer.’
Michael King passed away in June 2006.