The McGarvey brothers are amongst the best-known faces in the border town of Clones. They are often to be spotted making their way down Fermanagh Street, ambling across the Diamond or talking with friends in the shadow of the ancient Round Tower. When not in public view, the McGarvey brothers are almost certainly in a public house. The joys of celibacy mean these two men have little to trouble them other than raising the price of a pint.
Their father Mick McGarvey was a thatcher and grew up on a farm at Lisnagore, a few miles west of Newbliss. ‘Daddy thatched every house in the county’, says James. ‘And at that time every place outside Clones had a thatched roof’. In 1920, Mick married Rosie Smith, a farmer’s daughter from across the border in Roslea, Co Fermanagh. ‘I don’t know how they met but they come together anyway and we’re the living proof of that’, adds his brother Johnny.
Johnny and James are the fourth and sixth of Mick and Rose’s nine children. They had a nomadic boyhood, fetching up on a small farm by Newbliss, with a goat and ‘a lock of hens’. Of their five sisters, one died young in Belfast, three settled in England and the youngest one is the matriarch of Larkin’s Garage in Brandrum, Co Monaghan. The young McGarveys were educated at the Largy School which then stood on Church Hill in Clones. James says he was ‘kept back so long at the Largy’ that, by the time he left, all the other kids thought he was the teacher.
Neighbours recall the McGarveys as one of the poorest families in the area. The children would walk to the Largy in their bare feet, even on days when the ground was glittering with slush and ice, their clogs slung over their shoulder. Only when they got to school would they slip into the clogs, all in the interests of preserving leather.
When their school days were finished, the brothers took on work as seasonal labourers, shovelling, fencing, threshing, building the roads. In the evenings, they went ‘night-fishing’ with tilly-lamps, casting for perch in the winding waters of the River Finn.
For a time both brothers worked for the O'Gradys of Glynch House where their older brother [Patrick] was something of a foreman. After work, the brothers would reassemble in the pubs of Clones. They were famous for greeting one another with a hearty 'Hi-Boy' and shaking one another's hands warmly, even if they had only just seen one another.
In the early 1950s, Johnny secured a reasonably permanent job with Mrs Clegg, a retired school-teacher, who had a small farm outside the village of Drum. He frequently herded her cattle into Clones for the Thursday markets. ‘There’d be nothing only cattle in town and the place would be packed’. Clones had been one of the busiest towns in Ulster before the Second World War. The railway station was the main junction for all trains travelling between Dublin or Belfast and the Enniskillen to Sligo line. Right into the 1950s, Clones enjoyed the benefits of being a border town. Its streets were lined with buoyant shops, its pubs were esteemed for traditional music and young people came here from all over Ireland to enjoy themselves.
That’s what Clones was like when Johnny McGarvey crossed the Irish Sea in 1955. He took a train direct from Clones, via Larne and Stranraer, to Glasgow, where one of his sisters was living. Within a week he was working on the railways, laying tracks and heaving sleepers. ‘Aye, driving keys into the side of the ditch, that was quare hard work’, he recalls. One of his first jobs was near Falkirk and his eyes still widen at the memory of the twin spans of Kincardine Bridge opening to let a ship sail up the Clyde. He hails the bridge as the finest engineering achievement he has yet seen. ‘There were a good lot of Paddies went to Scotland that time’, he says. ‘From all over here and from Carlow too … and there were a few from Connemara who only spoke Irish’. He does not know how long he was in Scotland – ‘a lock of years anyway’ – but he did not pick up the Scottish accent. In 2009, he speaks with a kind but gravely Ulster rap, each sentence laden with unprintable words.
James, on the other hand, sounds almost like an Englishman. He speaks in riddles, cracks jokes from the side-lines and cackles harmlessly at the world going by. But between the jigs, he explains how he left Ireland in 1957, the year Clones railway station was shut. And, like Johnny, he went to work on the railways. ‘I was only a wee lad of 14 and a half when I went but I built the British Rail’, he says. ‘A man called Paddy McManus, a ganger on the railway, sorted me out. He said ‘Come on out’, so I did. I waited a couple of days and he got me the job. Whenever I left this country I was getting £3 and ten shillings a week. When I went there, I had to work a fortnight, but when I did get paid, it was big stuff!’
James’s first big job was to remove all the old tracks and lay down new ones between Huntington and Peterborough. Relaying this information, he casually asides that Oliver Cromwell came from Huntington and that Catherine of Aragon is buried in Peterborough. Clearly those extra terms at the Largy did him some good. When not working on the railways, he was employed at the Shell Haven oil refinery on the north bank of the Thames. He stayed in England ‘from 1957 to 1967 to 1977 to 1987, thirty years all up'. He finally returned to Ireland and got a job with Monaghan County Council. He now lives between Clones and Cootehill.
Meanwhile, Johnny came back to Clones for a couple of months and was dismayed to see the effects of the railway closure. ‘The whole town was totally different’, he says. He returned to Scotland where he was rather alarmingly placed in charge of the control room of a power station near Glasgow with ‘red buttons, green buttons, blue buttons, all kinds of button’ bringing to mind images of Homer Simpson. He then worked his way south through England before settling down as a bricklayer in London during the early 1960s. He maintains that he encountered none of the ‘No Irish Need Apply’ attitude in London. On the contrary, he worked ‘with some of the finest English fellows you’d ever meet in your life, damned good lads they were’. He dreamed of going one step further to the USA but was unable to raise the money. ‘An uncle of mine was in America for 33 years’, he says longingly.
Music has never been far from the McGarvey’s ears. ‘Daddy could play the bow-fiddle and the accordion’, says Johnny, ‘and I sang the odd time’. One of their father’s favourite venues was Treanor’s Bar on Fermanagh Street where he often played with Tom McGeough from ‘up the mountain’. Treanor’s remains one of his sons preferred taverns today, although they might also be found supping brandy and stout in The White Star or The Towers. They know the pedigree and lineage of every pub in town, the name of every landlord who ever owned it and possibly the date of its establishment. ‘I don’t think I will marry now’, says Johnny. ‘Not the way things are going. But what can you do though? All you can do is the best you can’.
Thanks to Sean McQuillan, John P Graham, Martha & John O'Grady and Michael & Mary Treanor.