Potato & Cattle Farmer
Cloonanaha, County Clare
In 1954, the American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) arrived in west Clare and began to click her shutter. The exquisite images she captured were republished in “Dorothea Lange's Ireland”(1998) with an editorial by Gerry Mullins. Among the subjects in this remarkable collection was a young farmer by name of Mick Kenneally.
This lovely warm man continues to live at the same hillside farm where he was photographed all those years ago, though he and his wife, Bridie, have built a new house. The new build was prompted when the old house succumbed to an accidental fire in the winter of 1999.
The land between Inagh and Miltown Malbay is a barren, sparse terrain of soaking wet bogland, rickety cottages, glum trees and forsaken grassland. Mick’s farm occupies 60 acres along the eastern brow of Mount Callan. The eldest of six children, Mick is the seventh successive Michael Kenneally to farm this land. Like his forbears, his day-to-day life principally revolves around donkeys, turf and potatoes. He grew up eating potato cakes cooked by his mother Nora, another of Dorothea Lange’s subjects. ’We used to sow a lot of spuds on the flat land down below. For ourselves and the pigs. But we have no pigs now – and we can get the spuds from the grocer!’ He delivers this last line with a hearty, ironic cackle. After centuries of back-breaking work to grow a decent crop of potatoes, one can now pop down to the supermarket and get a bag that’s probably been flown in from Poland. In recent years, he has kept the show simple and farms a small herd of dairy cattle.
‘It was tough going in those days,’ he says of the 1950s and 1960s. ‘You’d get up around seven o’clock and keep going until six in the evening. You’d be off cutting turf for the winter. All cut by hand. You wouldn’t be kicking inside the bed after a day like that!’ Mechanised turf-cutting made life easier but Mick insists the ‘the turf you cut with the saw is still a lot better’. As such, he still goes out to cut his own turf by hand. It takes the month of June to dry – or four good weeks of sunshine. He points out the bog where he goes and a nearby ridge along which ‘an ass and basket’ used to carry the turf. ‘Before the tractor it was all donkey work,’ he says. ‘I used to bring them to town and every place. But there’s feck all donkeys around now.’
The local community would gather every Sunday for mass at the church of Cloonanaha. At its peak in the 1950s, the church was so busy that there might be up to a hundred celebrants standing outside. Bridie says the principal attraction was the gossip. ‘They’d all meet after mass and stand around chatting for hours. That’s gone now. Then everyone got motor cars and they drove away afters. Back then it was all walking. There was maybe the odd bicycle or a few asses and carts. But everyone else walked. You’d wear a white shawl to keep off the cold.’
Mick met Bridie MacMahon at the nearby school in Letterkenny Cross just after the war. She was a blonde and he a fiery redhead. ‘We were in the same class,’ says Mick. ‘She used to do the sums for me.’ Bridie was a farmer’s daughter from across the mountain, the fourth of five girls with two brothers to boot. Her childhood sounds enchanting, dancing around turf-fires and ‘riding donkeys along the tops of the hills’. The couple married in 1959, went to Dublin on their honeymoon and subsequently raised three sons of their own.
Mick seriously doubts there’s much future for the area. ‘There’s no one around who would want to farm here.’ He points to a nearby hill where seven houses were levelled to make way for a woodland plantation in the early 1990s. On another hill to the west, all five houses have been abandoned. ‘I’m telling you, it’s near wiped out now,’ he repeats. ‘All the houses are closed down. And all the farmers are buried, dead and gone. When we are dead and buried, it’ll all be gone.’
In spite of all of this, Mick manages to retain a humorous, optimistic outlook. Indeed, he concedes that he can’t be the first Mick Kenneally to feel that the end was nigh for the rural community of Cloonanaha. Perhaps, he proposes, if they can get the valley connected to wireless broadband, they might attract some new blood.
With thanks to Eoghan Corry and Gerry Mullins.