Turtle Bunbury

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Vanishing Ireland

Pat Gleeson (1913-2006) & Bridget Ryan (b. 1918)

Farmer and Musician / Farmer’s Wife

Belmont, County Offaly

‘Mother of god’ exploded Mr. Rigney, ‘even if I had the brains of Edison and the energy of Mussolini, I still couldn't teach ye.’ The schoolteacher’s words still make Pat chuckle seventy years after he left the classroom at High Street, Belmont. ‘I met him again many years later,’ he recalls, ‘in a bar in Shannonbridge and we had a drink together and he wasn’t as bad as all that.’

Another of Pat’s childhood teachers was Mr. H Powers Love, a fervent musician, who regularly came to the Gleesons house and taught Pat and his sister the violin. The classical style, F-sharps, B-flats and such like. By the 1930s, the farmer’s son was a regular feature at the dance halls of the Shannon estuary, always clad in dapper suits, entertaining the crowds with his violin and his haunting voice. In later years, Pat turned his back on the classical and converted to the traditional fiddle. He found the native Irish style much freer, more infectious, a lot more craic.

‘Céilí and Old Time,’ murmurs the 93-year-old, supping on a midday whiskey. We are at his home in the depths of Offaly, outside the village of Belmont, not far from the old pilgrimage site of Clonmacnois. This is where Pat lives with his younger sister, Bridget Ryan, and Bridget’s family.

Pat and Bridget are two of six children born to a sheep farmer from the Slieve Bloom Mountains. They were raised in a once splendid Edwardian house near Belmont, originally built for the L’Estrange family. An incurable leak in the roof led to the house being abandoned in the 1950s. Today, the building peers sadly out from boarded up windows and wild ivy clambers up the old ballroom walls. Black holes gape where log fires once roared.

Bridget believes Ireland was a much more contented country when she and Pat were growing up. ‘There were great friendships among the people. They were always calling to see each other. If you needed a job done, your friends and neighbours would come and help. It’s different now, very different. They were happier days then.’

But the past wasn’t always a better time. Pat remembers being stopped by the Black and Tans on his way to school. ‘They put their rifles up and aimed at me,’ he recalls. ‘For a bit of sport! I wouldn’t have been six years old. They wouldn’t have bothered whether they shot me or not.’

Pat was one of countless thousand farmers from the Midlands who never found a wife. Instead, he found respite from solitude playing music in the company of friends, publicans and turf accountants. ‘Worry and you’ll die,’ he says, ‘don’t worry and you’ll die - so why worry?’ It is a philosophy he tried to hold with all his life.

Pat still has a great repertoire of rebel songs. The ones he sings to us are sorrow-hued tributes to Mick Dwyer and the heroes of 1798, to those who perished in the Famine, to the fallen brave of the War of Independence. At times he is clearly much moved by the words, his voice a barely audible whisper. ‘They say about the Irishman, his wars were merry and his songs were sad,’ he says.

When he sings, his blue eyes invite those who listen into his past – full of crumbling stonewalls, mud cabins, turf fires, long brown overcoats and grinning soldiers with evil eyes.

Pat Gleeson passed away in June 2006.

 

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.