At home with Mick King in Lanmore.
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘I don’t know whose land it was to begin with. It might have been the Devil’s for all I know’. Mick King is speaking of the 37-acre farm upon which he was born 86 years ago and where he has lived for the vast majority of his life. Located on a rugged hillside some five miles south of Westport, the farm belonged to his mothers’ people, the Hanlon’s. The past is a transient, sometimes haunting place for him. He has vague recollections of his mother’s mother who lived with them during the 1920s. ‘A grand old woman’, clad in black, although he was so young when she died that ‘if she had a pair of horns, I mightn’t have taken a bit of notice of her’. The farmstead has changed little since his childhood save that the ancient sheds, once thatched, are now corrugated.
Mick’s father grew up on a farm six miles away in Drummin. ‘Well, I wouldn’t call it a farm’, counters Mick. ‘It was a bloody mountain place … but they had plenty of fields for the sheep’. Cousins have since sold the land and moved to England. ‘And I wouldn’t blame them’, he adds.
He is a quiet gentleman with a sharp, old-fashioned wit. When he heard about the Californian woman who had octuplets, he retorted: ‘Lord, she must be like a sausage making machine’. When he sees a sample portrait of himself on James’s camera, he whistles: ‘I don’t look too bad at all. I’m like a Reverend Mother. I’d turn a few [heads] on the road anyway’.
Born on 17th August 1924, he went to a school in nearby Lankill where ‘swallows flew in and out the broken windows’ and ‘you’d clap your hands every now and then to stay warm’. Like many in those days, he brought his own turf for the school hearth but ‘the master would soon have his big backside up to it, taking all the heat’. Mick left school at 14 and went to help his father on the farm. For entertainment, he went cycling and played football with other farmer’s sons from the parish.
England has always had a certain allure for Mick. One of the few times he saw Dublin was when he caught a ferry from the North Wall to England. ‘I just took a notion to go’, he says. ‘There were plenty from around here who were there then’. The journey on the Irish Mail train from Holyhead to London Euston passed quickly. In London, where his sisters lived, Mick found employment laying electricity cables in the north of the city. It was a long, long way from Mayo to Cricklewood but Mick reckons he was ‘settling in nicely’. And then he got the call up from his father who summoned him back to the farm in Ireland.
London was not the only place to which Mick escaped. When he was 28-years-old, he saw an advertisement from the Electricity Supply Board seeking workers for its new power station at Allenwood in Co Kildare. The company specifically sought men to harvest peat from the surrounding boglands to fuel the station. And so Mick followed the path of many from the west and went to work in the Bog of Allen. The men slept in ‘the best of huts’ by Allenwood Cross and worked hard. ‘You wouldn’t like to be too long on the bogs’, he counsels. Not all of the turf they cut went to the ESB. Some was barged off down the Grand Canal to Dublin and more went by lorry to the big towns of Leinster. The nightlife was good crack in Allenwood and Mick admits he did not keep too much change from his time there. ‘I often put away 8 or 9 [pints] in a night’, he says.
‘Do you take a pint, you do?’ he enquires. One of Mick’s greatest pleasures is the pub where, if he chances upon a session, he plays his accordion. He was a veteran of McGing’s of Westport, before it was done up. Johnny Geraghty’s on the Octagon was another favourite but has since changed hands. Otherwise, if a lift is offered, he heads to Aghagower or over to his fathers’ village of Drummin. ‘There was always a couple of old fellows there who’d get steamed up and you would have great crack’. He has cut down his drinking a good deal of late – ‘the drink is costly’ – and he managed to end 30 years of smoking cigarettes one Lent, just like that.
Mick’s other weekly outing is to the Sunday service four miles east in Aghagower, unless the weather is bad and had no transport. The church stands near a 10th century round tower on the Tochar Padraig, the pilgrimage route from Croaghan, the ancient capital of Connaught, to Croagh Patrick. Legend holds that a lightning strike blew the tower’s capstone half a mile away to the hill of Teevinish and that a local woman carried it back to the pub in her apron.
Mick is a contented bachelor. ‘I never bothered my head about marriage’, he says. ‘But I tell you, when my father and mother were alive, you couldn’t go bringing a woman into an old house like this. And it wasn’t easy to put up a new house at that time’. His father passed away in the 1980s at the age of 85. Mick duly took on the farm amid the windswept rolling hills. His older brother had long since decided against the farming life and drove the public bus between Westport and Achill Island for many years.
‘I used to grow the best of spuds’, says Mick. ‘Ten stone bags of Kerr's Pink. I often bought a half ton to Westport on a horse and cart’. He stopped growing potatoes in about 1990 and buried the horse five years later. At his peak, he fed and milked fourteen cattle. Today, he has no cattle but keeps a flock of forty sheep, housed in a series of white-washed buildings behind his house. He makes sure he is out and about on the farm by eight o’clock every morning.
When dusk falls, Mick retires to his living room, an open space lit by a bright electric strobe light installed by an expensive young sparky who was there for two days, most of it spent whistling and sweet-talking his girlfriend on his mobile. A Kelvinator fridge purrs in one corner. By and large he will have a roaring fire in motion, burning turf and whitethorn to create a smell so distinctive of old Ireland that it seeps into the inner soul. His loyal hound Patch slumbers on the concrete floor between the fireplace and Mick’s armchair.
Mick says this area was considerably livelier in his childhood. ‘There were houses everywhere’ and people walking on all the roads. ‘It’s a funny thing’, he muses, ‘but when I was a young fellow, lads about 20 or 30 years, I thought they were all old men. They had the big long coat and the hat and it made them all old looking’. The chill winds of the otherworld blow into the room when he talks of those who have died, including many friends who passed this winter just gone by. ‘I could be alive today and dead tomorrow’, he concludes. ‘And isn’t it the same for us all? Isn’t it equal? I never get the flu. But I’ll get something sometime. That’s for sure’.
WIth thanks to Redmond Cabot.