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Atty Dowling (1916-2005) – Farm Labourer, Tobinstown, Co. Carlow

Vanishing Ireland – Atty Dowling from AWAY2TRAVEL on Vimeo.

Atty would not be drawn into a discussion about his extraordinary tea towel collection. He just stoked the turf fire and changed subject. Now that he is dead and gone, the world will never know the purpose of the tea towels, strung like bunting across his kitchen. It is an Arthurian mystery in itself.

Dear sweet Atty Dowling. He was a lovely man. He lived in a white-washed cottage near the Tobinstown Cross in County Carlow. It was the same house where he was born on 9th November 1916. ‘Arthur’ was his given name and he was the youngest in a family of three boys and two girls.

His father Joe was ‘a gentleman, very proper and dainty, always dressed to the nines‘. Joe worked in the dairy of Lord Rathdonnell’s estate at nearby Lisnavagh. ‘It was the heart and soul of him,’ Atty said. ‘He’d get up in the morning, take a sup of tea, light the pipe and get on to work.’ His job was to milk the cows by hand, morning and evening, and deliver the milk to ‘the Big House up above‘. To carry the milk around, Joe would strap his arms to a wooden beam with weighty churns at either end. The other lads on the farm called him ‘The Crucifix’.

‘Mrs Dowling was a very brilliant, clever woman,’ remembered the late Bill Burgess, Atty’s neighbour. ‘Too much for her good or their good. She came up here one day where she wanted to know, “could you boil a rabbit with the hair on, Miss?” Another time she had a cook and went up to Mrs. Ryan who was up above her for a cup of milk.’

In 1919, the deadly Spanish Flu called by Tobinstown Cross and took Atty’s mother.

‘Her funeral was the most miserable funeral I ever saw,’ recalled Bill Burgess. ‘She died in Carlow and was buried in Ardristan  [a graveyard on the south side of Tullow, on left side of new stretch of road to Bunclody]. I went along with old Thomas Ryan. He had a pony and trap. We represented the funeral. That’s all that was at it. They had a jennet with old Joe Dowling and his eldest lad, Mick. They borrowed it from Mrs. Ryan. That’s all that was at it. And there was a man there, Mick O’Driscoll, who had the grave open and put her in it and that was all. There was none of the young there only Mick’.

WIth his mother dead, that left Atty’s father Joe and a maiden aunt to raise the children.
We were five brats,’ concedes Atty. ‘My father used to say, “How in the name of God is it everyone else could rare natural childer but my childer are like wildies?“‘

By day, the young Dowlings would charge around the house, pretending to be Jesse James or Buffalo Bill, shooting each other from behind the settle bed. If they were still acting the maggot when Joe got home, the exhausted milkman would take off his brass buckle belt and ‘lap it around‘ for a while. ‘We’d think he was going to split our skull and we’d be pure terrified – but of course it’d always be the wall he’d hit.’ Joe would then calm his riotous brood by sitting them on cushions around the fire and teaching them songs.

In 1932, sixteen-year-old Atty secured a job looking after the shorthorn cattle at Lisnavagh. Before long, he was teaching frisky bullocks how to walk prettily up and down the farm avenue in preparation for the Dublin Spring Show. ‘I’d have sooner taken my chances with a court martial but that was the job I got and so I stuck to it.’ And he remained at Lisnavagh, on and off, for the next fifty years.

Atty Dowling and his towel collection. He had the same again on a clothes line out the back. Enough towels to film a Daz ad, but what were they all for? We shall never know. Photo: James Fennell.

He was a great thinker, a mighty talker, a wholesome vegetarian, a modest drinker. He never married and lived alone, with two cats outside to take care of the rats. He took a keen if anxious interest in current affairs and his knowledge of Second World War military campaigns was striking. The last time I met Atty, he poured two large whiskeys and told me his organs were failing. He accepted it as ‘natural enough, thanks be to God’ and he swiftly moved on to the next conversation.

Atty’s house is gone now, rearranged, extended, converted. And so too is his immaculate kitchen. The solid fuel Raeburn range, orange kettle ever bubbling on its top. The fridge, stacked with cans of baked beans and processed peas. The box of Daz. The trilby. ‘The Proclamation of Independence‘ unfurled from the GPO in the year of his birth, hung between Jesus and Pope John Paul II. On another wall hung the Red Cross certificate he was awarded in 1943 and a blurry photograph of himself as a young man, long of face, bright of eye.

He never had much truck with religious differences. ‘That didn’t come into anything at all,’ he said. ‘Protestant and Catholic, we lived as a peaceful community and I hope to God that’ll always prevail. There’s no use living in the past. We have to try and live in the future and forget whatever petty differences there was among any of us.’ But the decline of the Catholic Church certainly upset him. ‘It’s gone a queer time,’ he said. ‘And it’s leaving us all in doubt because all the great things we learned … we’re inclined to think that they were wrong now.’

Nonetheless, Atty forecast a world where ‘everyone will practice their own religion and forgive everyone else for whatever their orientation or colour‘. The first black man he ever met said to him, ‘I hope you don’t mind the colour of my skin.’ ‘I don’t care what colour anyone is!’ protested Atty, shocked. To me, years later, he confided, ‘I have an opinion we’re all negroes; it’s the climate has our skin the way it is.’

Atty worried that times had gone ‘nearly too good‘. ‘People get everything so handy! In my young day, no one could fall out with anyone because you didn’t know the minute or the hour or the day you might have to turn to that person. But now, every one is gone independent, even the poor people, us poor people, and we hardly know who lives next door.’

He says everything went different with ‘the Machine Age‘. That was his expression for it. With machinery, came change. ‘But,’ he countered, ‘surely to God nobody will go through the hardship the old people went through. O God it was a hard life. Everything – the hardest of work – was done with the hands. But it was a grand life. And whatever the hell way it was, people was somehow happier and more contented.’

Atty Dowling passed away in March 2005, while sitting beside his cooker, just as James photographed him. The Garda called in on a Sunday after Paddy Delaney noted his TV was still on and that he wasn’t outside awaiting a lift to Mass.




A great man for loading you up with early morning whiskey. Even Edwin Burgess was given the whiskey treatment one springtime and ended up being so tanked he didn’t even notice when a cow that had just given birth gave the feeder beside him a Zidane style head-butt.

Another time, Edwin recalled Atty shaking up the 7Up to see was it fresh, alongside a fridge full of baked beans and stale Marietta biscuits.

He was very superstitious about hedge cutting near magpies.

He was a very hard man to get away from. The fellow who brought him his briquettes every month said it was a nightmare trying to get paid and then get away!

A fuller version of my interview follows below.




See the full interview with Atty below. Photo: James Fennell

Other stories from the Vanishing Ireland series are available to read here.

Interviews with Atty Dowling 2002 – 2003


Betty Scott was a lifelong friend of Atty. Photo: James Fennell

I first interviewed Atty in March 2002 when, alas, I did not have my recording device on my possession. It was my debut meeting with Atty, a lifelong friend of Betty Scott, who has lived by the Tobinstown Crossroads since his birth on 9th November 1916. She said he was on a mission to convince the Vatican to canonize someone called Arthur, of which Atty is an abbreviation. He worked part-time at Lisnavagh during the 1930s and 1940s and subsequently with William Burgess at Oddfellows. His brothers Mick and Bill had worked full-time for Sir John Langham, agent to the Rathdonnells at Lisnavagh, and Mick later worked for Mrs. Makin, mother to Barbara Herring.

He lived in a small whitewashed cottage near the Tobinstown Inn. This is where he was born and raised, the youngest of three boys and two girls. In 1919 his mother fell victim to the Spanish Flu, an epidemic which carried off more people than the Great War itself. Bill Burgess lost a brother the same way and Betty lost an aunt. Atty was three years old at the time. The children were subsequently raised by their Roman Catholic father Joe Dowling, with occasional assistance from a maiden aunt on his mothers’ side. His father taught him to read. Betty recalls Joe Dowling as a gentleman, very proper and dainty, much like Atty, always “dressed to the nines”. He worked in Lisnavagh dairy, during which time he wore a white coat over his clothes and a white hat. His job was to milk the cows by hand at half past nine in the morning and half past four in the evening. He would then deliver the milk and cream to the Big House at Lisnavagh. Betty says the preferred milk transport system in those days involved a wooden beam which Joe would strap his arms around, each end supporting a churn. Betty called it the Crucifix. Hilda Kaye was the housekeeper of Lisnavagh during those days and her livelihood depended on the milk being ready at the right time.

During my first conversation with him – a phone call – Atty told me a story about my grandmother, Pamela Rathdonnell, and Mr. Giff, the agent at Lisnavagh, arriving on horseback in the Cow Field. It was a cold morning in February 1939. Atty was working in the field at the time with his cousins from Williamstown – Jack, Pat and Tom Dowling. They were following a hoodless tractor, stomping in the sods of earth kicked up by a herd of cattle who’d been grazing there over the winter. Everyone was smoking cigarettes. ‘Ah it’s very cold, Lady Rathdonnell’, they said. ‘It is’, said she, ‘it’s a lazy wind that wouldn’t take the time to go around you but would go straight through’. Mr. Giff apparently then asked her why she thought a European war so inevitable. ‘Because the Jews have bought the stocks of the world up’, she said. And she was right. Six months later we were at war’.

On our first meeting he spoke of the times when Lisnavagh was the main employer in the area. He said that if you got a job at Lisnavagh ‘you were safe’, you had a job for life, much as if you’d secured a post with the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. Anybody seeking such a post had to first obtain a reference letter from the parish priest Monsignor Delaney. And if he got wind of a bad word about you, you may as well leave the country. He started work at Lisnavagh in 1932.

My second meeting took place six months later in September 2002. For both meetings we sat in his main living room, an immaculate kitchen with a solid fuel Raeburn range, the kettle ever bubbling on its top. The décor is minimalist. A box of Daz. A trilby. On one wall, a copy of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence unfurled from Dublin’s GPO six months before his birth. The Sacred Heart of Jesus and a Bridget’s Cross partially obscure a painting of Pope John Paul II. On another wall, the Red Cross certificate he was awarded in 1943 and a blurry photograph of himself as a young man, long of face and bright of eye. Other photographs lie on other walls – a Garda, a group of smiling youngsters and such like. The most outstanding feature of the room was a clothes line running across the centre, laden with fresh clean tea towels. I had seen a second line out the back of his house, also laden with tea towels. Despite two meetings, I have yet to discover the meaning of this collection. Two rooms lead off the living room – his bedroom and a bathroom.

He’s a great thinker, a mighty talker, a wholesome vegetarian and a modest drinker. His knowledge of the Second World War is impressive and he takes a keen if anxious interest in current affairs. He never married and lives alone in the house of his father. Two cats live outside his premises.

This interview took place in October 2002 when I surprised him at about 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning.

Atty was in mid-flow when I got my mini-disk operating. He was aware that he was being recorded.

AD: Away from here there was Mr. Burgess’s above and very very good people they were and if they could oblige us or do anything for us or help us in anyway and we got on very well with everyone. And even although that we differed in religion … well that didn’t come into anything at all. We lived as a peaceful community all the time and I hope to God that’ll always prevail. And I was thinking after did I ever say and I hope I didn’t say anything that was offensive to anyone that ever was in Lisnavagh or about it because I mean, it’s like this. I’m not saying that there was anything terrible or anything wrong or anything. But the way it is is this; there’s no use of us living in the past. We have to try and live in the future and forget our petty differences or anything like that that was among any of us. We always got on terribly well and found Lisnavagh, the Rathdonnells now, great people. And I always said it, they were great employers in the olden time. And I often heard Father saying here – he was 40 year in Lisnavagh and – our mother died when we were all very young – five childer – and he had to work every day Sunday, Monday, Christmas Day and everyday – and he never rode a bike or anything. He’d get up in the morning and he weren’t a terribly strong man. He’d get a sup of tea there, light the pipe and get on to work. He’d walk back then at dinner time and get a bit to eat and go on back at one o’clock again and come back at six o’clock.
In his young life he learned or was about to be a baker. And the doctor advised him that if his health wasn’t good to get an outdoor life so he gave up that but though he never seemingly qualified to be a baker when he’d come in here at night to get a bit of supper and we were all small childer and he’d wash his hands, turn up the things, get a basin, throw a bit of flour into it there and make cakes and that was that. The young life that he went through stood to him to make bread. So there we were.

AD: But I hope to God there never was any bad feelings among us about the difference in any peoples. It didn’t matter. God bless us and save us, a black man, a Negro, come a couple of times into me and he was collecting for something and he said ” I hope to God”, he says, “you don’t mind the colour of my skin”. We don’t care what colour anyone is, says I, whether they’re black or white. But I tell you a thing now, I don’t know, I don’t like to talk about it, but I had a opinion which is this and I didn’t say it to after. I said to somebody after and I hope that this doesn’t offend you. I have an opinion we’re all Negroes. It’s the climate has our skin the way it is.

He said that with a big sweet cheeky grin.

AD: But anyway. I’m 86 years of age and my hearing … Dr. Keogh’s my doctor in Tullow and he syringed out my ears some time ago – my hearing was gone altogether – I used to have the television up at the highest level and I couldn’t hear it and the neighbours would come in and say “God you have it terrible loud” but anyway he syringed out my ears and he took out a lot of auld wax and things … but still it’s the old age with me, the organs and everything are gradually failing. I suppose that’s natural enough. Surely, yep. Surely. Thanks be to God.

I hadn’t had much opportunity to contribute to the conversation so I just sat back and listened as he continued on.

AD: Now there were a people who used to live here called the Abbeys (Betty’s cousins), a great old people many years ago. Great hard-working honest people. They worked hard and got lots of hardship and everything like that and sure everyone did. And in a way, do you know?, I suppose it’s wrong for me to say it, I think time’s are nearly too good now. People have forgot. They get everything so handy. Everything comes so easy. In my young day no one could fall out with anyone, with a neighbour or anyone, because you didn’t know the minute or the hour or the day you might have to turn to somebody. One lived on the other and the other and they were in and out amongst each other’s houses. But now every one is so well to do they’re gone independent, even the poor people, us poor people, and they hardly know the people next door. They go in and out and in and out and hardly know anybody. That’s it.

He was silent for a moment, a fleeting moment.

AD: It’s gone a queer time. I don’t want to bring religion into question. Our religion has gone sort of quare too. There’s terrible quare things happening and it’s leaving us all in doubt because the great people, we’re inclined to think that they’re wrong now. Some of them. I don’t know, I don’t like to talk about this and I shouldn’t, I suppose, but I tell you what I do do for them people. Now I take a Bishop or a priest and I do pray for them because I say look it they’re people and look at them, and the shame and the let-down it is to them and look at the joy that there was to put them in college and pay for their education and pay for their ordination and now to see the whole thing. Or even if it was a minister, I’d say the same thing about him. You’d wonder … I suppose that’s just to prove that they’re human beings, that they can err, that they’re human, that they’re not altogether God Almightys on the Earth. And even the different people, different religions, it doesn’t matter. It’s all the one same God for us all. And people is tearing the heart out of one another over the differences!

AD: But that day is wearing out. We’ll forget all these things one day and we’ll all become one community. Everyone will practice their own religion and everyone will forgive everyone else for whatever their orientation and it’ll become the same difference as the colour of skin or anything. We’re all human beings. That man said I hope you don’t mind the colour of my skin . Oh God, I don’t care, says I, whether you’re black or white, tis all the one thing. But anyway that’s that. Well it’s lovely to see you, thanks be to God, you’re surely welcome. I couldn’t make out who you were and I was hurrying to get my breakfast with the kettle on the gas and I hope it doesn’t boil up…

TB: I’m sorry Atty. Have I interrupted your breakfast? Perhaps I should drop back later?

AD: No no, sit down. Will you have a drink, a drop of whiskey or something?

TB: Errr, no, not at this hour of the morning.

AD: Is that right?

TB: Yes.

AD: A 7UP or something?

TB: 7UP would be grand.

AD: I have something anyway.

TB: You like 7UP, Atty?

AD: Well, to tell you the truth, as regards drink, I didn’t drink much because we never had the money to afford it. I never was fond of drink, thanks be to god. A few bottles of stout would do, they’d be heavy enough and we’d sing an auld song or something and that was all right when life was slow enough but then when the Machine Age come it was too dangerous to drink because if you were working any sort of a machine, it’d be too dangerous to be drinking. I don’t even take beers now. My blood pressure is high and I’m on tablets for pains and aches and soreness. There are two drugs: tablets and drink. And they don’t mix. What I drink an odd time to break the monotony is a glass of soda water and a drop of lime in it and that’s my drink now this long long time.

TB: That sounds lovely. Very refreshing.

AD: Well that’s what would keep me going! Here’s my fridge.

He opened up a small fridge with two shelf units sagging under the weight of a dozen cans of baked beans and processed peas. Four cartons of cranberry juice occupied the ground shelf.

TB: That’s a great fridge Atty.

AD: I often wonder how did people, especially poor people, live years ago. We poor people are always inclined to think we were the hardest hit. Now, will you sit down? Sit down there now. Will you have a biscuit?

TB: No thanks. Not to worry. Thank you.

AD: Have a biscuit.

I thought this might be a good opportunity to address the issue of Atty’s tea towel collection. There must have been 30 or 40 tea towels hanging on a clothes line that ran across the centre of his kitchen. I knew from my last visit that there were another 20 or so tea towels hanging in his back yard. It looked like a Taliban Convention had just left the room to get their hair washed.

TB: You’ve a great tea towel collection Atty.

Aye, thanks be to God. Thanks be to God almighty.

He wasn’t to be drawn. I figured I’d try again later. Atty continued to rummage around in his kitchen, in pursuit of biscuits and a plastic bottle half-full of 7UP, rattling plates and glasses and speaking aloud as he went.

AD: I’m afraid I’m low in biscuits at the present time. But anyway, we’ll do the best we can and maybe don’t care about it.

He placed a plate of six biscuits and a glass of 7UP on a stool beside me.

AD: We poor people are inclined to think we were the hardest hit. But the way it was everyone knows where the boot hurts them and, in fair play to everyone, farming people and the farming community were harder hit because they were living at the mercy of the Heavens , the weather, and if a crop failed or anything like that it was their whole livelihood was gone. And I remember years ago they used to try and force on crops and we had this thing called Basick Slag, something like green lime, but it was no use, it wouldn’t spur on anything. I don’t know, do you take milk or sugar?

TB: That’s perfect, thanks.

AD: But now you’d nearly think that there was no God. People that time would be praying that the weather would be good and to save the crop and that the pigs get fat and that they get to make the hay … (laughing) … but it’s a different thing now. Thanks be to God.

TB: It is different now, isn’t it?

AD: It is.

TB: Tell me, Atty, did you grow up in this house?

AD: Pardon?

TB: Were you born here? Did your father own this before you? Was this your family home?

AD: Oh yes, this is where were all born and rared. Jo Dowling was his name. Atty Dowling, of course, is my name. He loved Lisnavagh and worked every day, every day, a good constant job, sure wages, and O God he got on very well. It was the heart and soul of him. But the way it was with him – and most labouring people – they went in and out and they done their job and now, just to say to you, you might think, I wouldn’t know too much about Lisnavagh because we used to thin turnips or beet or mangles and the Steward would take us in for the hay-making – mostly I used to be working in gripes, laying down pipes and clayning up and if a drain or anything was choked I’d be sent on to relieve it and that was more or less it – but the way it was with Father and them, Lord rest all their souls, they went in and out and they’d never talk about … they were that much, don’t you know, engrossed in their job and in what they had to do at home … they were too much took up with trying to live to bother about anything outside of it. They went in and done their job and whatever if it was cows or bulls or whatever they had to do and they’d never talk about what they did. Father would come in and get the supper, and it’d be all to make a few cakes, wash a few clothes, something like that. It was a hard life.

TB: What did he do for his lunch?

AD: Oh, he’d come home for his dinner every day. He’d walk home and walk back. And I remember when he was failing, in the after years, when he was failing, he had to do Sunday work, and he’d go on and he wouldn’t be able to come home then and get a bit to eat, he’d be home about 6 or 7 o’clock and get something to eat and then he’d go on, and he’d tidy himself up and then he’d go on up the path, up Kinsellagh’s Hill, and out there and he’d go on to Mass in Rathvilly. That time Mass was on at 8 o’clock and11 0’clock (in the morning) There was no evening mass nor you couldn’t go to evening mass till the next day. And then he’d get Mass and he’d come back again and get a bit of dinner or a sup of tay and go on, he’d have about 3 or 4 hours work to do then and that was that. He’d come back then about 6 o’clock or 5 o’clock in the Sunday evening. And that was that.

AD: We’d go to bed, could be anytime, could be all hours, could be early, we had no set time. Usually we had a fire there – there was no cookers at the time – he’d get us all down round the fire there, sitting on cushions or chairs or whatever we had and sing songs, he used to teach us little songs, we’d sing songs, then say a rosary and a few prayers and go on to bed. He was terribly good living man, not just because he was father but I will say this now. I worked on and off with a lot of those people in Lisnavagh, a bit of hay-making or harvesting or something like that. And there was one lovely thing I always remember – you hardly ever heard a man using a filthy word. No matter what went wrong or what way things went or what went agin anyone or what wrong anyone done on anyone – it might be a little petty thing – but you never heard them swear. Now my own father here, he rared five of us and we were five brats. That’s what we were – five of the wildest childer brats – he used to say how in the name of God is it everyone else could rare natural children but my children are like wildies – you see, we had no mother to tend us, but anyway, no matter what we done – maybe we’d break a pane of glass in the window playing ball or we maybe break a few cups or saucers – wed rise up among ourselves here and one would want one thing and another would want another thing – but I never heard him, I never heard him, and it’s a quare thing to say, I never heard him using a filthy word. And that was the general rule among all people at that time. And the Steward in Lisnavagh, he was told if you used filthy words or you were gone with that.

AD: I give you one example. I remember when I was a young man and knocking about among people and the usual thing that goes on. And I heard a word and of course I wanted to use it because you’d be a man if you could use a certain word. I remember I was standing there and it was only a bit of a curse-word and I used this word. And he was sitting there and he said to me: “Where did you hear that? You won’t use it here. And wherever you heard it, you can go back now and live with them but you won’t be here”. So I had to shut my mouth and there was nowhere to go, no one wanted me, I shut my mouth and be a good boy and that was that. It’s different now. It’s gone different now. The usual thing, it’s not right for me to say it. Then an elderly person or an elderly woman, you had to call them Sir or Ma’am. But of course, it was nearly too much so. But if ever an older person came in and complained – he always wore a belt with a big brass buckle and he’d take it off and he’d lap it around and of course we’d think he was going to split our skull and he’d give a slap at it and he’d drive us into the corner there and of course it’d be the wall he’d hit, with the buckle and we’d think he missed us and was going to split our skulls. He put the fear of God in us but thanks be to God anyway, things worked out alright!
Well now, in latter years, and its shameful to say it, children call their mother Maggie or Mary or whatever it is. And that’s not right you know. Or they call their father Tom or Joe or Patrick or something like that. You’d think they were complete strangers. It’s different. The world has gone different. The people is gone different. The lifestyle is different. And more’s the pity.

AD: But surely to God I don’t ever hope or pray that anyone will ever go through the hardship that the old people went through. All that had to be done were with them hands. There was no lifts nor nothing. Everything, the hardest of work, had to be done with the hands. There was no lifts or mechanical wheels or anything like that. O God it was hard life. But it was a grand life. And whatever the hell way it is, people was happier and more contented. It’s nearly too good now. But I suppose we have to go with the times. O God I often thought I’d never live to see … as the world is quare, I often prayed to God years ago and I felt very little good for it and the work’d be terrible hard and whoever I’d be working for, I prayed to God I’d be as good as him … and wait till I tell you, they’re dead and gone years ago. Dead and gone years ago. And I was praying to God that time to be like them. And if I had of been like them I’d be dead and gone years ago and they’d be here. Heh-heh!

Atty let forth a fine chuckle at this irony before continuing.

AD: But the old people were great anyway. I was talking to Betty Scott there. They were great people too. And her people, the Abbeys, lived up down here in Tobinstown, further up, there’s people by the name of Dowlings living in their cottage now, but they were the hard working and honestest people that ever lived. The Abbeys were always very well regarded, they were poor working class people the same as ourselves but they were terrible daycent, honest, hard-working people. And I remember when I was a chap and it was in the winter and there was two of them up there at Mr. Burgesses and you’d hear them across the snowy morning at six or seven o’clock coming down that road walking, going on up to work, and they’d do two or three hours work and they’d go back at nine o’clock and get a bit breakfast and change their clothes and walk on to Mass in Rathvilly. Hard life. Come back from Mass and get a bite to eat and go back up and do two or three hours work again and back home again. And that was there life.

TB: The Abbeys were Betty’s mothers family.

AD: Ah, Betty was a great girl. I loved Betty. The Abbeys were great people. The same as ourselves. All poor, working class people. But one thing about them, they were the best neighbours in the world but, by janey, if you crossed them or anything God help you they were fiery. They’d lift you out of it, by janey. If you happened to say a wrong word – there used to be an old saying long ago that familiarity breeds contempt and maybe we’d make too free and happen to say something – but by janey they would lift you out of it on the minute. But they were grand people. They were noble and often talked about, even now, as the honestest and daycentest people that ever lived. I remember Betty telling me quite a story about the Abbey boys. They’d attended the funeral of one of the Burgesses and they were made to walk to Carlow and back every day for a week because it’d been a Protestant funeral. By the Bishop. But I think they stopped in a few pubs on the way. They were grand people. But sure everyone was more or less the same.

TB: Atty could I just borrow your telephone?

AD: Ah yes. Yes yes. Lift it up and dial whatever number you want.

I talk with James Fennell (my friend, the photographer) and tell him to come on down when he’s ready, locate me at the Farm House and we’ll head down to photograph Atty then. Atty was in his bathroom messing with a radiator when I finished up.

AD: When the cooker overheats, I have to turn on the radiator. If I didn’t, it’d burst one of the copper pipes. So that’s what I was at there. You’d think it was thunder.

I comment on his abundant supply of turf.

AD: Ah yes. Briquettes. They’re the handiest. We used to get blocks and timber and one thing or another but they’re handier, for the cooker.

He shows me his cooker, opening the door to reveal the volcanic orange glow of burning briquettes.

TB: Tell me about the cottage. How old is it?

AD: I can’t really tell you exactly. I’d say its over a hundred year. It must have been the late 1800s they were belt. Be careful you don’t rest your hand on the hot plate now. But all these cottages were different cottages and this was a cottage with a half acre of ground and two rooms. They were really only built for man and wife. They never were meant but then people had to accept whatever it was.

He stood up and walked towards his bedroom, inviting me to join him. It is a tiny room with a solitary bed, pyjamas neatly folded on a pillow.

AD: This is where I sleep. My sleeping quarters. I wasn’t expecting anyone today. And the other bedroom I converted it into a bathroom. And then there was a toilet outside, a dry toilet, because there was nor running water at that time.

TB: When did you get running water here?

AD: Oh the mains come by the house a good bit ago. Now this is the other room, and I converted it into a bathroom and that’s the circulating pump and the emersion but they were really only meant for a man and wife but people of course got married and had children. I tell you the way it used to be. There were five of us in the family. Three boys and two girls. They’re all dead now. And Father and us three boys used to sleep in that room [his bedroom] and the two girls used to have that room [the bathroom] to themselves. In later years we got a settle bed – I don’t know if you ever seen one but they were an old way, anyway, and you could let them down and make a bed out of them at nighttime and you could let it up and make a long seat out of them in the day – they were called a settle or a settee bed and it used to be there and … I slept everywhere. Will you have another drop of that?

TB: I should leave you be to your breakfast.

AD: There’s no danger of you getting drunk on that!

TB: Not on the old 7UP.

He laughed.

TB: So you never married yourself, Atty.

AD: Oh thanks be to God.

I laughed.

AD: Thanks be to God. I have the best of good neighbours. I have the Dowlings, no relation of mine, and they live up the way there. And they often call. And then I have relations up there, near Codd, and I have a woman coming up today and she’d be a friend of ours and she had a very serious operation yesterday in the Blackrock clinic in Dublin on her throat. She used to come down here and maybe have a drink or two with me and talk with me and – Sheila O’Neill is her name – her husband drives the van for Mr. Patten in Tullow and he drives all over, he could be in Donegal or Belfast or Waterford or anywhere, travels all around – anyway, she’s coming home today. She went in Monday and she was to have her operation yesterday and I waited here all day, they told me that they’d ring me – it was very serious because the surgeon told the doctor at the beginning that if they touched the nerve, a certain nerve, she might never talk again – and he gave her a fortnight to consider whether she would have the operation or not. Anyway, she decided she would. So she went in on Monday and had her operation yesterday and I waited here all day. They said they’d ring me. I had little turns to do outside which I was afraid to do in case they’d ring me and I’d miss it. We were all hoping and praying to God that the operation would be a success. But very late yesterday evening or last night the husband rang to tell me she was over her operation and alright. Thanks be to God and you and everyone. She was very hoarse but they said that would wear off and that was the effects of an anesthetic and when the effects of the anesthetic wore off she’d be all right. But Eamon told me – that’s her husband – on the phone that she was very hoarse. Well, says I, I wouldn’t be in authority to give advice to anyone but I tell you what you should do, don’t talk too much to her, don’t talk to her, let her rest, and she’ll come home today. Isn’t it wonderful times to think she had an operation that serious and she’s to come home today. They had told her she’d be there about 4 days but she’s to come home today, sometime today. She told me there, she was sitting there, and she told me all about it and that they’d told her that, if they touched a certain nerve, she’d never talk again. God bless us and save us. It set me thinking, you know, we should never be done thanking God. I often do think of God, I suppose, and of how in our young days how careless we were in our speech and using filthy words and using God’s name wrongly and when you think of things like that I wonder, God bless us and save us, He didn’t take our speech away from us or something like that to persecute us. God was good to us all. Surely. I don’t mean you now but I mean us. Because we knew no bounds and we used the filthiest of words.

AD: I tell you another thing I’ve wondered at and I’ve often said it. We were here when we were younger children and we’d have certain things we had to learn for school the next day, a catechism or something. I was often there and I’d repeat it and my father would ask me to sing a song. I’d go down to that school the next day and the teacher would ask me and I’d be like the man in the moon and wouldn’t know a half word about it! Well, you wonder why I say that. But now, if a child heard one curse, they have it for life then. Isn’t that quare? I often said that. Or a filthy word. If you just heard somebody saying a filthy word, you’d have that. It goes in one ear and stays in. But I often was [caught by the teacher] and she beat me with a large plant and the more she beat me the more I’d be confused and I wouldn’t know a calf from a bull’s foot at the latter end of it. But it is quare. It is surely quare. No doubt.

TB: Atty, how’s Paddy? Your friend Paddy? Is he out of hospital?

He stared blankly as I stuttered.

TB: Err, your friend Paddy. Is he out of hospital. Errr, do you not have a good friend called Paddy?

AD: Eamon?

TB: No Paddy, Nolan is it? Paddy Nolan? Betty said she met you both the other day.

AD: Paddy?

He scratched his head and came up with nothing.

AD: Was it Paddy Dowling his name?

TB: Maybe.

AD: The only Paddy Dowling I knew got cut off his two feet. He had gangrene. It wouldn’t be him?

TB: No.

AD: No.

TB: He was in Carlow Hospital with Bob and a few others and now he’s out again.

Atty’s friend and neighbour Paddy Delaney in his garden. ‘We all have to face whatever is coming for us. We don’t know why we’re alive and we won’t find out until we’re dead.’

AD: It must be the same man, Lord rest his soul.

I wasn’t convinced we were talking of the same man. My Paddy was still alive. I later met Paddy properly and got to know him well; it was no less a soul than Paddy Delaney

AD: But there was another Paddy Doolins or Dowlings across the road and another Paddy Dowling on the Carlow Road and there were Dowlings up here who were no relations of mine and Dowlings on the way to Tullow who lived by the bog and sometimes the postman would be cycling around not knowing which way to go.

We laughed.

AD: I remember I had beet sowed years ago and the postman called at the gate there with a letter. I was pulling at the beet there at the end of the plot and you know the way me hands was so I went to the gate and he gave me this letter and I just looked at it. Mister A Dowling. It was from England. Now berragh, I didn’t question anymore, didn’t wash my hands or anything and says I, this must be from somebody I went to school with years ago who thought to write to me. And I flittered it open, wasn’t too particular what way I opened it, tore it open and my hands were all clay and everything and I read it and I couldn’t make head or tail of it. And it was from a girl in England and I knew here – of course – and she was going to be married a Captain and she was writing home to her mother – they were farming people – she was writing to her mother to get a letter of freedom from the parish priest – and be the holy man child, says I, I’m in trouble now, what am I going to do. So begob I washed my hands and put it together as well as I could. And, of course, most people, what they do is they give it back to the postman but begob I couldn’t ask the postman or anyone to go with the letter in that state. Says I, it’s my responsibility, so I put it back and wiped it and did the best I could with it and went on. Now the woman that I went to, they were farming people that lived over the way, and she came out and she were a terrible nice woman and says I “I’m terrible sorry, Mrs. Dowling, but I was pulling a bit of beet and the postman gave me this letter and I opened it and now I know it wasn’t for me”. She were terrible nice about it. I often think of her, God rest her soul. They were farming people. But there used to oftentimes be a mistake, there were so many Dowlings.

AD: I have nieces down in Cork now, people by the name of Pynes. I have a first cousin that lived down in Clonmore. She went down to Cork and married a fellow by the name of Eddie Pynes. She died – she died tragically or suddenly not long ago. She used to come here to visit me and we’d go out for a bit of day. I tell you what happened to her. The health wasn’t too good with her although she wasn’t that old and they had three children, three girls, and two of them are school teachers and there’s one teaching school where they went to school, down in Cork, and the other girl was interested in welfare business and is married and living up in Naas or somewhere up there. But Nancy Pyne was her name and she died suddenly. Her health wasn’t too good and her husband took her out to the seaside resort down near Ballycotton. And they were there and they had a picnic or something and Nancy said she’d go off for a bit of a walk along the shore. Usually she’d only be about 20 minutes away but there was no sign of her coming back and Eddie, the husband, got anxious and he went along the shore and he met a woman down from Clonmore and he said to her “Nancy has gone for a bit of a walk and she’s not returning” and she said “could she have maybe went home” and he said she couldn’t have gone home because she’d have had to pass by where she was sitting to go home … so there was no account of her, they looked everywhere and the woman from Clonmore was on holidays down there and she had one of those things you can phone from, a mobile home – phone – and begob they rang the Garda and they searched and she was somewhere further up, lying on the beach. And she was dead. She died suddenly. Seemingly the heart gave well. They thought she fell or something but the heart gave way or maybe she sat down on the sand and died but whatever way it was, she was dead.

TB: That’s very sad.

AD: Yes. So there’s two school teachers. One of them is in London on a contract but now she’s on a higher paid job and she got married to a man by the name of Woods.

TB: No relation of the Woods who were here? Walter Woods?

AD: There was a man called Woods here, Walter Woods, he was the chauffeur up at Lisnavagh years ago. A very nice daycent woman. I often asked Mr. Burgess above – they had one daughter, Cicily Woods, and I often wonder what become of her because when Walter died and Mrs. Wood died, Cicily went to England or somewhere. And then there’s people I often enquire about and they were people by the name of Doynes, Mrs. Doyne, and Miss. Doyne, and they lived where Mrs. Makin lived. And a brother of mine, Mick Dowling, he used to do a bit of work for them. And got on very well. And any extra but of work they’d have, he used to give it to me, and they were very nice people, lovely people. They left Lisnavagh and Mrs. Doyne died and Miss. Doyne, I think, went to England. I often ask Mr. Burgess above and he said that for sometime after that Miss. Doyne used to come to holiday with them and then she didn’t come this long time nor they didn’t know. And whether she’s alive or dead, nobody knows. And that’s that. They were very nice people. They owned the Abbey in Tullow, a huge big place like Lisnavagh, and you know the green in Tullow where the cattle market be?

TB: Yes.

AD: In the olden times in Tullow the Doynes owned all that and all the house property and as time went by … I often heard there’s people by the name of Caldbeck lived there and he was an agent in the olden times and they owned a lot of property in Tullow and as time went by that faded away I suppose and that was that. And I think – I won’t be certain about this now – but I think I heard on and off it was them Doynes or their ancestors who gave the site for the chapel in Tullow. But now I wouldn’t be certain of that. I often heard that but I wouldn’t be certain. They were great people. She lived in a big place too – I often heard her talking of it, Mrs. Doyne, God rest her soul – a place called Ravenswood. It was a big huge wooded estate down by Wexford or somewhere, I often heard her talking about it. Oooo, she’d say, it’s a weird old place, a weird old place.

TB: Atty, how many Lord Rathdonnells do you remember? Do you remember Thomas Kane? He’d have been in his 70s or 80s when you were a young fellow. He was the fellow who liked the cattle.

AD: Well, I suppose I would remember him, but the way it would be is this. All our lifetime would be about the Rathdonnells coming home, usually we’d just hear that Lord Rathdonnell or Lady Rathdonnell is coming home or that Lord Rathdonnell or Lady Rathdonnell is home in Lisnavagh. You’d never hear of them called by a usual name. Possibly I do remember him or should remember him but then they were always referred to as Lord Rathdonnell or Lady Rathdonnell and that’d be that, the title was used all the time. And everyone here would be saying “I hear that that Lord Rathdonnell is coming home” and that would be the news all around. “Lord Rathdonnell or Lady Rathdonnell is coming home”. And the after so many weeks or whatever it’d be “I hear that Lord Rathdonnell or Lady Rathdonnell is going away”. But you’d never hear them referred to as any other name, like the common name of Tim or whatever. They were very much respected and very much loved. Oh God it surely was a huge place. I often heard Father saying, I don’t know what Lady, it’s be Lady Rathdonnell going back a good bit, and it was the time of the Boer War and the 1914 – 18 War, whatever war that was, and she used to go around to the poor people and she gave them wool and knitting needles and every pair of socks or stockings that they’d knit she’d give them half-a-crown for it. She’d give them the wool free and the needles and half a crown and them was for the soldiers in the trenches. They were very charitable people, you know. Half a crown in the old money, I don’t know if you’d remember this, was 2 and 6 pence. It was a big round silver coin. Two and sixpence. And I remember the time that half a crown would put five loaves of bread on the table. It was good money. They were very charitable. And they gave great employment. I don’t remember the real good old times but I often heard it talked about. I don’t know how may people would have been working in it but sure most of the people around here and Williamstown, Rathvilly and everywhere, they’d be all working in it.

TB: What do you mean by the good times?

AD: Well the real good times, you’d go back I suppose 80 or 70 year ago. They were good times. Everything was very cheap at that time. As I say half a crown would get five loaves of bread. I remember a good big loaf of bread was sixpence and half a crown was good money. And of course everyone was working. Everyone was working. It was surely tremendous, tremendous, surely tremendous, surely, surely.

TB: Atty, I’m going to let you get on with your breakfast and come back later.

AD: Well thanks be to God and I’ll pray in my prayers that Sheila’ll be home today. And thanks be to God I was here when you come down and please God Almighty we’ll see you in a little while.

I came back again later with James who was intent on photographing the whole house. Nest Magazine in America had expressed an interest on the back of the first shoot he’d taken of in April. We’d passed Atty on the road, himself on board a black Nellie bicycle, saying he was just going to post a letter at Tobinstown Cross and would be back in a moment. Which he was. It was a lovely blue-skied day and his house was lovely and warm. James took his photographs while I sat and tried to elicit further information from him.

Atty had been listening to the news since our morning conversation and was greatly disturbed by the reports of the Washington sniper who’s identity still remained unknown. The sniper now had nine victims to his name and Atty was appalled to hear of new threats that further targets would include school children. “Isn’t that terrible? Wouldn’t you think that with all the FBI and everything …there’s one thing I dread and have no time for and that’s terrorism. Nobody wants war but I think it’ll have to be put down. It’ll have to be put down. I know war is a terrible thing and all these chemicals will be used but the world will nerve be the same”.

James interrupted by showing Atty the original photographs he’d taken of Atty and his kitchen six months earlier.

Atty was delighted.

“That’s lovely, that’s lovely”, he repeated, “and look at the kitchen, be the janey, that’s lovely!”

He wanted to give us money for them but we were having none of it.

He turned to me suddenly and said: “Well, will you have a drop of whiskey. You said it was too early in the day before but its not too early now”.

I again protested that it was still too early – it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon – but he was already on his feet and James was fully egging him on towards the whiskey bottle while simultaneously saying he personally couldn’t drink because he was driving.

I conceded, a small drop.

James and I discussed the sniper while Atty poured.

“So he’s not Al Quaieda”, concluded James, “just a loony who wants money”.

Atty about turned with my glass half full of whiskey and the bottle in his other hand. “Will I put another drop in that?”

No, I said, that’s plenty.

“Oh I’d say go another drop”, countered James.

The spirit level rose in tandem with my eyebrows.

“And will you take some 7UP with that?”

“I think I will, yes”.

“Now I don’t want to spoil it”.

Bolstered by admiration for the good old days I consumed this slowly over the next hour and fetched up the far side so drunk that I fell asleep for an hour when I got home.

We proceed on, me supping, James photographing, Atty talking, bidding me sit down by the oven and be careful of the hot plate. Atty addressed me while James prepared his tripod and camera.

He tells us about his first job seeing that the Lisnavagh shorthorns were looking their best before they set forth for the Spring Show in Ballsbridge. They used to parade each bull individually down the road between the Farm and Tobinstown as a practice. I’d have sooner taken my chances with a court martial but that was the job and so I stuck to it. At the farm itself, Atty concentrated on keeping the horns straight, using a small chain connecting two large metal thimbles which would be attached to the horns when they were calves.

AD: Now here’s a thing I meant to tell you about Lisnavagh. We surely have happy memories of Lisnavagh. And I tell you one incident now. I had a brother Mick and he used to do a lot of work for Mrs. Doyne. There was an agent in Lisnavagh – Mr. Langham was his name – they were a titled family – Mr. John Langham was his name – his father was Sir John Langham and they lived in the north of Ireland – Fermanagh – a manor – and they had huge gardens that used to be open for three days every year and there was no charge for entering into it but anything that was got went into a benevolent fund for old soldiers or invalided soldiers but now, go back to what I originally wanted to tell you about him. Every year he was a great fisherman and to begin with he used to walk down to the south of Ireland and he used to being Mick down with him and the first thing they’d do above, Mrs. Langham would pack sandwiches and flasks of tea and everything and he and Mick would go down, usually to Kilmichael Point below in Wexford, a great fishing point, and he’d say to Mick now you can go and walk along the sea shore and be back at a certain time and we’ll have lunch. And that was very good of him, you know. Then he’d get back to the car at a certain time and they’d have lunch and then, four or five o’clock in the evening, they’d come home together.

AD: But annually or every year he went to his home, his parent’s place in the north of Ireland, for a fortnights’ holidays. And he’d bring Mick with him. And the first time it happened – my brother Mick, he had asthma all his life and he didn’t like going too much out of place – and he often consulted me and would say “I’m invited for a fortnight’s holidays with Mr. Langham to the Manor up in Fermanagh and I don’t know whether I’ll go or not” because his health wasn’t too good and he was a bit nervous of it. But he wasn’t afraid of anything there ort anything. He was afraid that his health would break down and he’d be an awful nuisance. Anyway. What he done every year was Mr. Langham would say “now you go into the Square in Tullow and take the bus to Dublin and take the bus from there to wherever, north of the Border”, and all his expenses were paid from the time he left here till the time he came back again . It wouldn’t cost him one penny. And while he was there he had his own quarters. And he was only a workman doing the work, the same as worked for any agent that’s ever been in it. And he had a quarter to himself and enjoyed himself and could go wherever he liked. And I know this. There was a man who was Premier in Northern Ireland at this time, Brookeborough, Lord Brookeborough was his name – I don’t know if you ever remember him or heard tell of him – and Mick used to always boast about this – Mr. Langham was asked to lunch with Lord Brookeborough and he brought Mick with him and by God we were all great Fina Fail supporters and the boys around here were all Fine Fail, even Mick too, and he going off to dine with Lord Brookeborough! “Oh by God, I dined with Lord Brookeborough!”, he’d say. And it never cost him one penny! So wasn’t that something. So you see, we have very happy memories of Lisnavagh. We were nothing out of the usual, just the usual working people, doing a bit of work at Lisnavagh and we had no unusual conversations or anything.

AD: When Doyne finished, Mick’s health wasn’t so good. One time he told me he was walking down the sea shore at Kilmichael point and there was a young man sitting in the one place, just staring out to sea, and of course Mick passed him by and didn’t know him at all but after a couple of days he struck up a conversation and asked why he was always sitting in the one place looking out to the sea. He had no fishing rod or anything. The man told him he was a priest and he was two years ordained and he had cancer and God bless and preserve everyone but he only had a short time to live. He used to go to the sea and sit there looking out and he knew his time was imminent. I often thought of him. A young man knowing his time was limited and that’s the way he spent it.

It was on this rather beautiful note that my mini-disc stopped recording. Atty talked a good deal more that afternoon, about changing times and how he and his siblings “brats” used to love the Westerns and they’d assume roles like Jesse James and Buffalo Bill or go and hunt for Indians hiding under the mattress. He implied that his mother had died of a nervous breakdown because she had been incapable of raising them all without counseling. He also spoke of Bob Murphy as a great gentleman who, every now and then, would spot him walking down a street and would grab him and take him to the pub and insist on buying a drink. For the old times, Bob would say.

Thursday, January 09, 2003


In the wake of Atty’s death, his house was rebuilt. It really was a tiny house.