Written following an encounter in circa 2005 with thresher John Flynn (born 1943), store manager Pat Flynn (born 1939) and the late postmaster, Eamon Bolger (1931-2009).
‘I’m Ballyduff baptised, Ballyduff confirmed and Ballyduff married,’ says sixty-three-year-old John Flynn, with a nod, a wink and a grin in equally quick succession. He is standing outside the roadside premises where he operates a small hardware store. The building was originally the school but that closed in 1979 when a new school opened just outside the village. John was born in the latter years of World War Two to a contract farmer from St Michael’s Well.
The Blackwater Valley is one of the more fertile regions of Ireland and much of the surrounding land is given over to crops. During the 1950s and 1960s, John worked alongside his father threshing and binding corn for local farmers. ‘We had a mighty business going at one stage,’ he recalls. ‘We’d be started with the cutting of the corn on 15 August and we would not finish until the first days of December – and once or twice up to Christmas itself. It was a fierce long season.’
But when the arrival of the combines arrived in the Blackwater Valley during the late 1960s, that ‘pulled the plug on the threshing‘ – and the dancing that went with it. The Thresher’s Dance was one of the highlights of the calendar for the rural community. Covered ‘in chaff and oil and cabbage‘, everyone would set to in the kitchen, dancing jigs and twirling reels, as local musicians played on the melodeon and fiddle or just lilted a few tunes. ‘They’d maybe have a keg of porter or two and they’d go until 3 o’clock in the morning, nothing more. ‘I love music,’ he says, ‘and I would give anything to be able to play the accordion but I wasn’t able to play it by ear like the old fellows.’ His grandfather hosted dances once a week at his home near St Michael’s Well. ‘He was a great accordion player and used to play on the stage at Mocollop Cross. My mother was lovely at the waltz.’
John is full of praise for the people of Clare who kept the céilí music alive when it appeared to be dying everywhere else. ‘How they done it, I don’t know,’ he says in awe, ‘but it seems the whole west coast from Donegal down is alive with it now.’ And although the Thresher’s Dance might have stopped, the new community hall in Ballyduff offers ‘lovely space‘ and is ‘a hive of activity’. ‘One thing we have here is great social activity. We’ve twelve nights of drama in the spring, then all the dancing and music and more drama in the autumn.’ The village is also home to the award-winning Ballyduff Drama Group.
Aside from music, John’s grand passion is vintage tractors. He regularly tours Munster’s vintage rallies with a 1947 Allis Chalmers WC, all the way from Wisconsin, and his father’s threshing mill. From his pocket, he plucks an article about a steam engine that has just re-emerged on the coast of Florida seventy years after it disappeared. He gazes at the photograph with the same reverence Darwin might have bestowed upon the newfound skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The new hall impressed John greatly but then they closed down the Creamery in February 2006. ‘That was a great blow to us,’ says Eamon Bolger. The postmaster has lived in Ballyduff all his life – the school where he was educated in the 1930s is the very same building out of which John Flynn’s business now operates.
Before the Second World War, Eamon says, Ballyduff was a vibrant place, awash with donkeys and carts coming to and from the Creamery. Now, the village struggles to cope with an endless reel of juggernauts, buses and cars pouring over the old bridge across the Blackwater. Where once there were nine grocers in the villge, now there are two.
Eamon points at various buildings, dishevelled, dismantled, converted and shimmering, and tells tales of inhabitants past and present. Like the fellow who kept an aviary full of canaries which he’d exhibit around the neighbourhood but then ‘he shot himself one time and that was the end of him’. He even unearths a familiar chestnut about how the architectural plans for the turreted village barracks were mixed with those of a police station on India’s North West Frontier. (There is hardly a village in Ireland that does not claim this story.) Such tales are perhaps the prerogative of postmasters. And Eamon is no ordinary postmaster.
‘When that man was appointed,’ says John proudly, ‘he was the youngest postmaster in Ireland.’ Eamon is more modest and says his family had run the post office since ‘the British times‘. ‘I’m the last though now,’ says the seventy-five-year-old bachelor, although there are those who think his sister’s son, Donal, would make an excellent postmaster.
Pat Flynn says he is no relation of John. Their common surname is just a coincidence. Pat came from a family of eight, farmers from the hills above Ballyduff. His mother was deeply religious. Every night they would say the Rosary after supper – twice if they had guests. He came to the village to work at McCarthy’s General Store in 1954. There was twenty five staff at the time, all shifting furniture, stacking boxes and shovelling grain. Ballyduff was wonderful back then, full of loyal friends and common goals. ‘You’d know the name of every child in the village.’ However, the boss ‘got it too easy and spent it too easy and the business went down‘. Pat went to work in England for the bulk of the 1970s, then came home and purchased the store. It’s still called McCarthy’s – ‘There’s an old thing that you should never change the name and I never did.’
We leave the three men chatting outside the post office. John is going to spend the afternoon trying to reorganise his store. ‘It’s hard to get things out,’ he explains, ‘because one thing is in front of the next.’ Eamon turns to us and says, ‘You may come back and do a book on ‘Vanishing Ballyduff‘.
Pat looks from one to the other and is about to make a comment when his wife hollers out from the store, “Someone’s on the phone looking for an osmosis water filter.” He raises his eyebrows.
‘Back to work so.’
Eamon Bolger passed away on 27 October 2009.