Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - Vanishing Ireland

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Above: The late, lamented Leitrim icon Johnny Fyfe who passed away on 13th
September 2012. (Photo: James Fennell).

JOHNNY FYFE (1930-2012)
Estate Manager
Killegar, Co Leitrim

 

Johnny Fyfe gazes around the yard of Killegar and says nothing at all. The decline began the night of the fire. And that was nearly 40 years ago. Before that, these crumbling walls echoed with activity. Beneath that arch is the stable where Ethel’s father, Tommy McGarvey, kept the horse traps. The one beside it, bricked up now, was for the workhorse. Over there was the cattle byre. It’s full of twisted, wet old logs now. And up there you can see where the lads hoisted grain sacks up into the loft. He hesitates before leading us out to the old Laundry Green, where the sheets and pillowcases of the Big House were hung out to dry in the summers of his youth. ‘The Lord would take a notion sometimes’, he warns.

 

During the early 1960s, the 3rd Lord Kilbracken, owner of Killegar, began to plant trees with a passion. He believed they would provide his heirs with a valuable source of income for generations to come. No part of the Lord’s estate was safe from cultivation. The best fields, the back lawns, the kitchen garden, even the tennis court was planted up. So too was the Laundry Green although the Norway spruces that stood here have lately been felled. Prematurely, in Johnny’s view. The contractors who ‘cleared’ it have left behind a wild, uncompromising confusion of briary bushes, amputated stumps and distorted limbs. Johnny Fyfe sighs wearily. One gets the impression that he often sighs wearily and that he may have done so for the best part of eighty years.

When Johnny was born on 4th October 1930, his father ran a small farm near Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, and operated as a thatcher in the locality. The farm belonged to Johnny’s mother’s people and perhaps old Mr Fyfe was never quite at ease there.[i] In 1942, he got the break he was looking for when the 2nd Lord Kilbracken offered him a job as head gardener at the Killegar estate just across the Leitrim border.

Mr Fyfe’s wife Jean-Anne was simultaneously appointed cook. The Fyfe’s duly took up residence in the small gardener’s cottage where Johnny still lives today. By the age of 12, Johnny was working alongside his father, sowing, weeding, gathering fruit and vegetables. At its peak, the garden could cater for the biggest shooting parties that Lord Kilbracken threw. Potatoes, cabbages, lettuce and onions arose from the nutritious earth. There were plums and gooseberries, pears and apples, and a grapevine that clambered around the greenhouse walls. People came from miles around to buy the Killegar strawberries.

The moody, ivy-clad mansion of Killegar House stands just three minutes walk from the Fyfe’s cottage. Built at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it was a standard Georgian villa, with views tumbling down grassy terraces to the white swans who sail upon the waters of Loughs Kilnemar and Donaweal.[ii] The first child to be born in the house was John Robert Godley, founder of Christchurch, New Zealand. Godley’s son Arthur, 1st Lord Kilbracken, was Gladstone’s private secretary and the longest serving Under-Secretary of State that India ever had.

Johnny Fyfe      Johnny Fyfe's Mollie

Johnny Fyfe in Fishing Gear. Mollie the Dog
(Photo: James Fennell)

In 1950, eight years after the Fyfe’s arrived at Killegar, the 2nd Lord passed away and his 30-year-old son John inherited the 600-acre estate. The young Lord had piloted a Fairey Swordfish for the Fleet Air Arm throughout World War II. Although the estate’s fortunes had waned under his father, he was determined to ensure Killegar prospered during his tenure. He rolled up his sleeves and set to work. Indeed, he was probably the first Godley to become physically involved in the estate. If a tree fell, he would personally orchestrate its clearance. During the harvest, he often drove the combine and, when the threshing was complete, he would throw a large hooley at the big house for the seasonal labourers. Amongst the lively recitations to echo down the corridors on such nights was Johnny Fyfe’s rendition of ‘The Boys of the County Armagh’. Many of the hooley guests would return to Killegar after the fire to help restore the house.

When ‘Lord John’ took on Killegar, it had a permanent household staff of fourteen, including a parlour-maid, a housemaid and a chauffeur. A further six men worked on the farm, while Johnny and his father were in the garden. The weekly wage bill was consequently robust.

The Lord tried everything to make ends meet, writing 118 columns for Tatler in the space of two years, manufacturing his own cream cheese and selling bogland by the square yard to rich Americans eager to own their bit of ‘the ould sod’. He published several books including Living Like a Lord, Shamrocks and Unicorns and a biography of the Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren. ‘Oh yes, I read them all’, says Johnny.

All other plans for Killegar came to a dreadful halt when the house caught fire in 1970. Johnny and the Lord were the only two people in the house that night. The cause of the inferno is unknown. A lit cigarette butt prematurely flung into a waste paper basket by his Lordship? Or perhaps the said basket was simply too close to the gas-fire? At any rate, the fire gutted the house and severely bruised Lord Kilbracken’s soul.

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Above: Johnny Fyfe at his 80th birthday cutting a cake on which Sue Kilbracken’s team cleverly
created an image based on his ‘Vanishing Ireland’ photo by James.

The trees Kilbracken planted were arboreal lightweights for the most part - poplars (for match sticks), black alder (for compost) and willows (for wood-pellet stoves). By now foreman on the estate, Johnny was always sceptical. ‘If I was going out to get a bit of wood for the fire, I wouldn’t be going for willow’. Elsewhere, red squirrels and pine martens continued to skip along the branches of mature specimen broadleafs, including what was once amongst the finest beech woods in Ireland.

The Lord planted his pasture with trees also, and so the 100-strong herd of pedigree cattle had to go. This was particularly devastating to Johnny who had helped build up the herd over two decades. He had often accompanied Kilbracken to the Spring Show in Dublin to watch these handsome Herefords and Shorthorns on parade. Johnny trained the bulls up from the time they were calves. When they became obstreperous yearlings, he was the one who wrestled them into submission. ‘It was a 24-hour job’, he says.

Inevitably, Johnny and Kilbracken began to disagree. ‘It was very hard to make money out of the place the way he was doing it. He thought he knew all about farming and that’s why me and him fell out latterly’.

Johnny sought employment elsewhere, in sawmills and forests ‘all over Ireland’, the Wicklow Mountains, the Partrys of Mayo, the Cooley Peninsula, ‘anywhere there was timber’.

He still lives at Killegar, in the same cottage where he has always lived. And he still keeps a close, if despairing eye on the going’s on in the woodlands of Killegar. The 3rd Lord Kilbracken passed away in 2006 and Killegar awaits its future with uncertainty. When the rooks are swirling in the night skies above the trees of Kilegar, as they do every night, Johnny sometimes think back upon the time when these woods were but a twinkle in his Lordship’s eye.

By day, this modest, soft-spoken, solitary man often takes his boat up the quiet Killegar River. Mollie, his gorgeous young Spaniel, is always by his side. (She is so quick that when Johnny once hurled a tea-bag over a hedge, she had retrieved it and put it on his armchair before he had time to get back into the house). On these still waters, Johnny casts his rod in pursuit of pike, perch and the occasional trout. He says that when the water is high enough, you can get into a boat and row up to Donegal. But the salmon that spawned here in Novembers gone by no longer get much further upriver than Ballyshannon. The night-poachers who once came here with pitchforks no longer bother.

In the evenings, Johnny might pop into Charles Farrelly’s in Carrigallen for a nightcap. Otherwise, he is most at ease in his own cottage, seated by the solid fuel burner that heats room, radiator and bathwater. Along his walls are his dart trophies and a series of photographs of trusty Spaniels, since departed. Johnny was always an enthusiast for shooting. When Killegar had a shooting season, he led the beaters through the thickets, spiralling pheasant and woodcock into the dangerous sky. ‘I was a keen shot too’, he says.

One of the photos shows a Spaniel slumped across the seat of a BSA 150 motorbike. ‘I got that brand new in 1957 and I paid for it with rabbits’, says Johnny. For every rabbit he brought to the butcher, he would earn half a crown. Thirty-six half-crowns (or thirty six dead rabbits) was the equivalent of his weekly wage of £4.50 at Killegar. ‘I had it paid for in 11 months’, he says. It’s not clear how many rabbits the bike cost but, given the appalling effects of myxomatosis in these parts, he’d have been hard pushed to achieve that today. ‘The rabbits are all gone now’, sighs Johnny wearily.

 

FOOTNOTES

[i] He was also called John. They were known as ‘Big Johnny’ and ‘Little Johnny.)

[ii] Donaweal is also known as the Glasshouse Lake.

WIth thanks to Sue Kilbracken and Sean Godley.

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