Francie McFadden the Gravedigger
(Photo: James Fennell)
Glancing out his bedroom window on the evening of Monday 24 February 1947, seventeen-year-old Francie McFadden shivered. The penetrating Arctic winds had been blowing for several weeks. That night, the first powdery flakes began to fall. By the morning, the world – or Ireland at any rate – was utterly unrecognisable. Every field, road and rooftop was submerged under a thick blanket of snow. Known to posterity as ‘The Big Snow’ or ‘The Blizzard’, this was the greatest snowfall of the 20th century, lasting from Monday through until midday on Wednesday. The freezing temperatures solidified the surface and it was to be an astonishing forty days before the snows began to melt.
‘People said Ireland was finished’, says Francie. ‘It was pure black frost, night and day constant, and the snow was as high as the hedges.[i] A lot of the houses around here were backed up to the roof’.[ii] For old-timers, those bone-chilling weeks marked a dreadful era and many succumbed to the temperatures. Amongst the dead were two colleagues of Francie’s father who were caught in a snowdrift while returning from the bogs. They were found four days later with the bags of turf frozen on their backs.
But it was also a time of collaboration and resourcefulness. Francie recalls how the quick-thinking bakers and milkmen of Sligo constructed sleighs from old barn doors and attached them to their donkeys and horses in order to supply their snow-besieged customers. Similar sleighs were used to carry coffins, although sometimes it was easier to find six men to carry the coffins up the railway tracks.
For the younger generations, the snow also provided much entertainment. When the seventeen springs of Bellinascarrow Lake were found to have frozen to a depth of nine feet, a group of young lads took the shoes off their horses, loaded their carts up with several tons of sawdust from the Ballymote mills and poured it all over the icy surface. ‘And didn’t they set up a stage on the lake with poles and lights and big heavy batteries!’, marvels Francie. ‘They had bands and done dancing on it and the music could be heard above Boyle.’ One foolhardy gent won a whopping £30 when he drove across the lake on a BSA motorbike. [iii]
Francie’s father was one of twelve children. Francie was one of twelve children.[iv] And Francie is the father of twelve children.[v] All thirty-six McFaddens were born and reared in the house where Francie lives today.[vi]
In a field just opposite the McFaddens stands a megalithic boulder with the ghostly profile of a man carved on one side.[vii] Archaeologists have discovered the tracts of thirty-seven small but distinctive houses in this same field. ‘Every house had one room and a kitchen and maybe enough land to keep a goat’, says Francie.[viii] The ancientness fascinates him, and he has a healthy respect for the spiritual. He points to an ash tree growing by a nearby holy well. A local farmer became obsessed with the idea of burning this tree but despite all his endeavours, which included surrounding the trunk with burning coals, the ash has survived and the farmer is long dead. ‘Never harm a Holy Tree’, warns Francie. He recalls an old lady, born in the Famine, who used to come out to this same tree, brush its trunk with lime and affix ribbons to its branches. A swing used to hang from one of its sturdier limbs. Francie confesses nobody ever swang with complete confidence as to slip might leave you face down at the bottom of the well.
Francie’s great-grandfather ‘Old John’ McFadden was a blacksmith. His father Frank made his money cutting turf on the bogs a mile or so from Carrigans. And the bog is where young Francie earned his first shillings, heading out with a donkey and cart, day after day, gathering, shaping, drying and distributing.[ix] He has a special fondness for the bog. ‘It was like the seaside’, he insists. ‘And it was very healthy work.’ When not working the bog, he was out with a scythe, mowing pastures and hedges on Frank Oliver’s 150-acre farm for £1 a week. ‘That was enough to get a few pints’, he says.
Local legend has it that Francie could put away thirty pints a day in his prime but he is not easily drawn on the subject. ‘A few will do you no harm when you’re working’, he counsels. ‘And working will do you no harm, as long as you don’t overdo it’.
Young Francie was a keen fisherman. He still revels in the catching of a huge pike, ‘by god he was a monster’, with his brother and another man by the bridge in Temple House Lake.[x] He also played accordion with a band in Castlebaldwin on Sunday nights.
When the Second World War ended, he moved to England and found work on the building sites of Luton and London, where he narrowly avoided death. ‘I was up high, wheeling concrete along a plank, and didn’t the plank crack. There were six men under me. I was lucky at the sort of timber in the plank. It didn’t crack on the snap. It backed up for me. Nice and slowly. A cool head and dry feet were needed. If I’d gone over, the men below would have been killed by the concrete, and I along with them. When I came down the ganger said ‘were you ever in the circus?’ ‘No’, I said, ‘but I’ve met an awful lot of hooring clowns’. The incident didn’t deter him from heights but he always checked the quality of the timber ever after. ‘I often heard jockeys say that if you fall off a horse, you have to get back on straightaway or you will lose confidence’.
In the early 1960s, Francie returned to Ireland where his digging skills earned him a full-time job as gravedigger. He was based at Carrownanty Cemetery in Ballymote, but worked at other graveyards all around the county. He’s not sure how many graves he has dug since but, ‘the Lord save us, there must be hundreds and hundreds’. In the old days, he travelled about on a Honda 50 with a shovel, pickaxe and 14lb sledge strapped to the side. These days the 80-year-old widower journeys by tractor and, despite his great age, ‘I still dig them yet’.[xi]
[i] ‘If you hadn’t your oats sowed by Patrick’s Day, they said you were finished’. As it turned out, the snow and frost seems to have done the seeds a favour for the crop of 1947 was as lush and bountiful as any there has ever been.
[ii] ‘You couldn’t go outside the door without a good heavy coat on you’, he says. And there was no sky to be seen at all, or no sun.’
[iii] When Francie recalls the Blizzard, his mouth still contracts into a disbelieving grin, that such a thing could have happened. He has an easy laugh and is constantly preparing the next wise-crack.
[iv] Only Francie and a sister living in England are left from this twelve.
[v] ‘But none of us carried on the tradition’, laughs his daughter. Francie’s wife, nee Miss Gaffney from Mullavagh, died in 2007.
[vi] Extended in the 1980s, the house stands amid a small oasis of decking, lawn and flowerbeds on the side of Carrigans Hill. The site forms part of an eleven-acre farm which one of his sons looks after. Francie used the hoof of a tub to build the curve on his wall, the hollow of which he filled with glasses, nagons, poitin bottles and such like. It’s an old trick to keep the rats from coming through, he explains. ‘At least the rat would be dead in the wall’. Pooohf.
[vii] Apparently there are two boulders just like this in the graveyard at Castlebaldwin and another at Kesh, forming a near perfect triangle but I would like to have this confirmed.
[viii] There is a cave here too for Francie remembers the night a wayward bullock was wedged between its rocky walls. A neighbouring farmer crawled over the top of the poor creature and forced it to back out.
[ix] He recalls being down in the bog during the war with another fellow and a lump of sponge cake for their lunch. They forgot a knife and had to use half a crown. ‘And wasn’t he lucky he had half a crown to cut it’, chortles Francie.
[x] The fish broke two rods and it required the strength of all three men to get it into the boat and over to the bank.
[xi] The graveyard was originally a racecourse before the Tower footballers brief tenure. Among the more unusual graves he has dug is one for a traveller who is buried beneath a blue van, complete with rubber wheels.