The ever youthful Jim O'Malley
(Photo: James Fennell)
Jim O’Malley’s eyes traverse the skyline from the Sheeffrey Hills to majestic Mweelrea rising beyond. ‘There wasn’t any place around that I didn’t walk’, he says. ‘I hunted all over those hills. Fowling, mostly. Me and the dog, looking for partridge and grouse. But I’m a little too old for that crack now’.
You wouldn’t think it. Perhaps it’s the damp Mayo air but this fresh-faced bachelor does not look 84.
He lives on a windswept shoulder of Croagh Patrick, just above the Atlantic. Through the window panes of his kitchen you can see the dark rolling waters of the ocean and the blue glow of Inishturk island. They peep from behind stone walls and raggedy trees. On the hill beside the house are the shadows of other cottages, now vanished, that stood here before the Famine.
‘This house is here about two and half hundred years’, says Jim.[i] The farm belonged to his mothers’ people, the O'Grádaighs. It is a small farm of seventeen acres, split into a handful of fields. Standing at the top of his property, you can see the strip quite clearly. Its’ borders were delineated by the Land Commission who acquired the freehold on this coastline from Lord Sligo in the 1880s. Jeremiah, a shy and aged donkey, lives in the closest field. On other slopes, in other people’s fields, you can see the heads of other donkeys and ponies jutting above the rocky walls and khaki grasses.
The O'Grádaigh women lived as long as trees. Jim’s mother was 102 when she passed away in 1984. Her mother lived to be 98 and her grandmother was over 100. The latter was a small child when General Humbert’s doomed French army captured Westport in 1798.[ii]
In about 1880, Jim’s grandfather Martin O'Grádaigh married a midwife who Jim knew only as An Oneen. ‘It means a small little old woman’, he says. Every morning, as they left for school, Jim would light her clay pipe. ‘First, you’d get a thrawneen [a rush] and clean the pipe. Then you’d get a bit of straw and twist it into a little sugán [platted straw]. You’d put the yoke into the fire and when it was lit, you’d light the pipe’.
‘My father was a tailor’, he explains, ‘and I go by the name of Jim Tailor because there are so many O’Malley’s here’. This is indeed O’Malley country and has been at least since Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen, ruled the Mayo coastline five hundred years ago. ‘And even to this day they talk about her’, he marvels.
James O’Malley, the tailor, secured the O’Gradaigh farm when he married Martin O'Grádaigh’s daughter [name?] in about 1915. He was a tall man, with a twirling, handlebar moustache, and eleven years senior to his wife. But, says Jim with one eyebrow arched, ‘they had nine in the family, so he wasn’t bad at it’. His tailoring business was chiefly suits and trousers, but there was plenty of trade making bawneens, the white woollen jackets. His wool was sent up from a sheep-farmer back in the bogs of Mullagh.
Born in this house in August 1925, Jim was the seventh of their nine children. All his siblings married and most settled in England. All are gone now, save for a younger sister living in London. Another sister emigrated to Chicago and Jim once crossed the Atlantic to visit her. Several of his aunts and uncles also emigrated to Chicago close on a hundred years ago and so he is frequently playing host to cousins from the New World coming to check on him. ‘Oh cripes, they come regular to me’, he laughs. Not all the O’Gradaigh’s fared well in America. His uncle ‘Patrick Grady’ was drinking in a tavern in Chicago when a drunkard ‘shot him through the hole of the key in the door’. Jim visited Patrick’s grave when he was over and was delighted to see ‘Kilsallagh’ engraved upon the headstone.
Jim was educated at the school in Kilsallagh [was he?], ‘a half hour walk on our feet’. They had shoes in winter but, once May Day came, the shoes were gone. He disliked his teacher – a power-happy bully with a stick. ‘At that time the teacher, the priest and the Garda had all the power’, he says. ‘And they were all in it together’. He is still loyal to the Catholic Church, a regular attendee at Lecanvey.[iii] ‘’I wouldn’t turn my back on the Church’, he says. ‘And I’m a real Fianna Fail man too. I’ll support any man that’s in Fianna Fail, no matter what they done. I voted Fianna Fail all my life and will do until I die’. There’s a cryptic twinkle in his eyes.
When they were young, the O’Malley family walked everywhere, or travelled by pony and trap. In later years, there was a black High Nellie but it was tricky pedalling around the sandy roads, before they became ‘blacktops’, as Jim refers to the tarmac. Jim never learned to drive. ‘I tried once but I got nervous’, he says. ‘I was headed for the ditches’. Since he gave up the bike, kindly neighbours now escort him around and chauffeur him to the pub.
James O’Malley taught his children how to swim, a useful skill for coastal dwellers. ‘In their generation they were great swimmers’, says Jim. ‘My father could swim three miles out to sea’. Being so close to the ocean, seafood was always a regular part of the family diet. The young O’Malleys frequently combed the rocks of Clew Bay when the tide was out. They’d return with sweet-cans crammed with periwinkles (weevon), mussels (baghnach), crannach and slouk. Jim still keeps a bag of an edible red seaweed called dillisk in his fridge. If you get it right, he maintains, boiled dillisk can be ‘as good as steak’. Up until recent years, he often ventured out in a fishing boat with his cousin, looking for ‘mackerel and cold fish’ in the waters around Clare Island and Inishturk. He describes fishing as ‘a hungry life’; his belly was always rumbling by the time he got back to land. It is clear that Jim was not just a keen hunter and fisherman, but also a fine cook. He keeps a near spotless kitchen and bakes his own bread in the gas-oven.
Jim left school aged fourteen and began working for the O'Clearys, who had a holiday home by Old Head in Louisburg.[iv] Jim looked after the garden, milked the cow and frequently took the O’Cleary children out on the trap. By the age of 20, he was cutting turf on the Bog of Allen, Co. Kildare, where he stayed ‘for the weight of three years’. In the pubs of Kildare, the barmen would leave ‘big white enamel jugs’ of porter on the table and everyone would help themselves. ‘The black cow’s milk, we called it’, says Jim. He later went to work for an old farmer near Newbridge, milking thirty-five cows daily by hand and then carting the milk to the Creamery.
When James O’Malley died in 1958, Jim took on the farm. Despite his adopted name, he wasn’t tempted to take on the tailoring business. ‘I couldn’t thread a needle’, he confesses. A sheltered courtyard behind his house leads out through white-washed sheds to the barn and fields beyond. A pile of turf in one shed exudes the promise of warmth. A paddle of ducks, including a marvellous Indian Runner, waddle round and round a sycamore tree by the barn. A mink has lately savaged some of his chickens. He is hopeful that his trusty hound Sam will beat the mink away when next it strikes. Otherwise, this is a quiet little farm.
Jim’s living room is centred upon a large stove, lately installed in place of the open fire that was here before. ‘When you went to bed at night, you’d rake the fire and cover the coal with ashes’, he recalls. ‘That way, the coals were still there in the morning. You kept it like that all the time. The fire never went out and the walls were always warm’. All well and good if the chimney had drawn properly. ‘But the heat never came into the room. Only the smoke. I’d always have to open the doors and windows to let the smoke out’. The idea of open flames, hobblers and swinging irons continues to have its romantic appeal, but Jim is delighted that he now has a fire that actually heats his house, as well as his water and radiators.
Along the walls hang pictures and photographs - the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Pope, his mother (‘taken by my brother-in-law who was a Yank’). The Sacred Heart of Jesus stands by a well stocked dresser and, like the fires of old, never goes out.[v] His armchair is to the right of the fire. The chair directly opposite is occupied by Sam, his soul-mate. ‘Ah, Big Sam he was a mighty man, the year of ‘98’, says Jim, distributing a brace of whiskeys.
Jim was never married, or tempted to marry, but knew a lot of women in his time. ‘A lot of women’, he repeats wistfully. That said, he is still recovering from seeing a Mormon gentleman on The Late Late Show who had seven wives. ‘Ah now, sure the wives were lovely’, he granted. ‘But they must be gone upstairs to be taking with a man like that’.
Jim is a regular down in Staunton’s of Lecanvey, one of the finest old school pubs in these parts, where they have musical evenings every Sunday. Jim’s party piece is
Shanagolden. He sings it with such a strong quiver that you can feel the chill from Croagh Patrick when he hits the high notes:
The cold winds from the mountains are calling soft to me,
The smell of scented heather brings bitter memories,
The wild and lonely eagle, up in the summer sky,
Flies high on Shannagolden, where my young Willy lies.
‘Sure anyone can sing’, he says. ‘People just don’t know they can’.
Jim O'Malley passed away on Friday 9th December 2016.
With thanks to Christine Poppelreiter Ogle and Vicky & Lochlann O’Mearain.
[i] A photograph of the cottage hangs upon his wall, taken before the thatch became slate.
[ii] Jim’s great-grandmother was Miss Walsh from Rooghaun, over the far side of the Reek [Croagh Patrick]. She often walked across the mountain from her parents’ farm to Kilsallagh.
[iii] His family are buried in Killgever, 3 miles west on the Louisburg road.
[iv] I believe this property subsequently belonged to Redmond Gallagher, founder of Urney Chocolates.
[v] There’s a photo of him stamped onto a mug in the dresser of which he’s very proud. It’s called Dolly’s Mug. ‘That’s me’, he concedes. ‘They call me that. It’s a word I used to be using when walking a pony, I used to call her ‘Dolly’. I used to say an odd time, ‘How do you do Dolly?’ and they called me Dolly’. When James takes one to many snaps, Jim says ‘Easy Dolly’ with a clear full-stop.