Turtle Bunbury

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George Thomas

George Thomas seated by the fire of his home in the Wicklow Mountains.
(Photo: James Fennell)

Vanishing Ireland
GEORGE THOMAS
Farmer
Greenane Mor, Co. Wicklow
December 1926 - June 2009


In the spring of 2008, George Thomas accepted that a chapter had come to an end and closed the door of his mountain farmstead. It was, without doubt, one of the last of its kind. George lived without electricity or mechanization. He had no car and saw no need for an avenue. This was ‘rein up your horse’ territory. The one storey farmhouse was hidden in a field behind a hedge of cypress trees near sunny Greenane Mor. To access the property, one opened a red gate off the road and walked across a grassy field, sheep on one side, heather on the other, with the glacial slopes of Glenmalure rising in the distance. George ran his farm with a degree of modesty, perhaps best expressed in the trim garden that perambulated around his house. Two strips of box hedge and a rickety gate pointed straight to his front door. In former times, the baker left a loaf of bread by the red gate. The postman also left his mail there.

The ambience of George’s home was unquestionably serene. We have already become too used to the persistent buzz and crackle of electrical goods. In George’s paraffin-lit kitchen, the only noise was that of the turf burning on the vast open hearth, the fire gently fanned by a wheel-operated under-floor pipe. Above the fire was the crane with a couple of hanging pots, used by George for both baking and cooking. The pots and kettle could be raised or lowered, or moved sideways as the occasion demanded. The décor was simple and rustic, a photograph of de Valera and a poster of a cannabis plant hanging mischievously between a sheet detailing upcoming events at the Rathdrum Historical Society where he was a highly regarded institution.

George loves to talk of bygone times. Charles Stewart Parnell, who lived in nearby Avondale, is one of his heroes. So too is de Valera. Many who frequented pubs such as MJ Byrne’s of Greenane or The Cartoon Inn of Rathdrum benefited from George’s wise words and historical anecdotes, delivered while he drank slowly from a large bottle of Guinness, served at room temperature.

George has traced his father’s side back to the prosperous Rhondda Valley in Wales. ‘It would seem that after Cromwell took over Wexford town, he gave the land to his troops and that’s how the Thomas’s got in down there’. By 1900, his grandfather, John Loftus Thomas, was farming 60 acres at Sheephouse, Co Wexford, where he lived with his wife Lucy (nee Charlton) and their seven children.

In May 1910, tragedy struck when 50-year-old Lucy was drowned. The Irish Times explained that she has become ‘strange in her manner of late’ to such an extent that her daughter Eva was about to inform the family Rector in Rathmacknee of her condition. When Lucy did not return from an egg-collecting venture one morning, her 24-year-old son Alfred set off to locate her. He found her body at the bottom of a three-foot marl hole. [1]

In the late autumn of 1910, John Loftus Thomas took his three sons to Australia. One son, Wilfred, settled in New Zealand and never returned to Ireland. John and his other two sons, Alfred and Loftus, took exception to what was a particularly hot summer and returned to Ireland a few months later. In 1913, John purchased the farm in Grennane Mor where he remained for the next quarter of a century. The 18th century house once belonged to the Grant family of Kirikee, close allies of the rebel patriot Michael Dwyer who had a safe-house nearby.

In 1924, Alfred married Sarah Mary ‘Sadie’ Williams at Ballinitone church, just down the road from Greenane. Like the Thomas’s, the Williams family were of Welsh origin. In the 18th century, they ran a blacksmith’s forge at Ballyhad, near the Vale of Clara. In the aftermath of the 1798 Rising, it was noted that the Williams family, although Protestant, had been involved in the manufacture of pikes for the rebel army. Perhaps this would explain why Sadie’s grandparents were evicted from their home in the 1850s. ‘They were left on the side of the road, with a big family of children’, says George. ‘It was most unusual for Protestants to be evicted like that. They were taken in by the Brady family of Ballinderry Cross, if you ever heard tell of them? Wasn’t that a very charitable act?! For a Catholic family to do that for a Protestant family’. With the Brady’s assistance, the Williams’ moved west around the mountain to Ballinabarney where, even in George’s childhood, people would point to a ruined forge and say ‘That was William’s Walls’.

Sadie herself was born in a small house by the Greenane bridge, underneath which the Avonbeg flows. Her mother died when she was young and so she was raised by her father, Paddy Williams, a tenant of the Kemmis family who farmed sheep on the slopes of Ballinacor. ‘He never went to school and he couldn’t read or write’, says George. But he could sing a powerful song and, with his long beard, was known far and wife.

Alfred and Sadie had two children, Eileen, born in May 1925, and George, born in December 1926. In April 1930, Alfred found work in South Dublin as a gardener to a family called Moore in Kimmage Road East (now Terenure Road West). The Terenure of George’s childhood was a peaceful landscape of flourishing gardens, small estates and empty roads where children played.

George’s favourite hobby was collecting cigarette cards, specifically those depicting footballers, ships, horses, film stars, butterflies. ‘My dad only smoked a pipe so that was my handicap, but I had no qualms about approaching strangers who were smoking and asking ‘have you any cigarette cards’. You wouldn’t do that now!’ But his impudence served him well and one of his abiding memories is of a sailor ‘going 20 yards up the path who opened a new pack, took out the cards, lay them down and gave me a shout’.

When John Loftus Thomas died in 1938, his son Loftus and daughter Elsie took on the farm at Grennane Mor. Loftus died during the harvest season just three years later and the fate of the farm fell to Alfred, then gardening in Kill. He duly moved his young family back to his late father’s house, where they lived with aunt Elsie.

George developed into a most athletic teenager. His teenage holidays were spent cycling to race meetings in Punchestown and the Point-to-Point’s in Ballyknockan with his friend, the late Tommy Snell. He also enjoyed the occasional ale in the taverns that he passed such as The Old House in Kill.

In 1952, his sister emigrated to Australia where she lives to this day. Sadie accompanied her to London from where she caught the boat. Devastated by her departure, Alfred, a non-drinker, went to the pub to drown his sorrows. He continued to run the farm until his death in April 1966 aged 82, when George took the helm. George’s mother Sarah passed away in 1974 and aunt Elsie in 1977.

George concedes that he would never have been allowed to live his old world existence if he had married. ‘You couldn’t bring any lady to live under my conditions’, he joked. ‘It’s been declared unfit for human habitation – but luckily I’m not human’. It was to be tricky for him to bring a girlfriend home to the family farm when his parents lived there. And after they died, he had to look after blind aunt Elsie, whom he adored. By the time she died, George was 51 years old and ready to enjoy his bachelordom.

George knew that his days in the antiquated homestead were numbered. His last chicken died the week before we visited and he felt the death marked the end of an era. He was also somewhat blessed when, riddled with pneumonia and pleurisy, he was found unconscious in his bed by an Australian relative who happened to be staying with him that night. It was not often that George Thomas had guests staying the night. George's last months were spent in St Colman's Hospital, Rathdrum, where he remained one of the cheeriest residents until his passing on Saturday 27th June 2009.

With thanks to Denis O'Reilly, Fiona Symes and the staff of St Colman's Hospital.

FOOTNOTE

[1] The Irish Times, Saturday, May 7, 1910, claimed John Loftus Thomas had been ‘been living in England for some time past’ at the time of the tragedy, but his granddaughter Eileen disputes this.

 

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