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Festus Nee (1935-2008) – Pony Whisperer – Cashel, County Galway

Photo: James Fennell

Legend has it that when Oliver Cromwell was emptying the prisons of Ireland during his dictatorship, he encountered a large number of men who had no idea what their surnames were. ‘Well, we shall name them after their body parts!’ concluded Cromwell. And so was born the tribes of Hand, Foot, Head, and so forth.

Whether or not this is how the forbear of Festus Nee acquired their surname is unknown. Although he is only seventy-two, there is a certain look about Festus to suggest that he was actually alive during the time of Cromwell. He was named Festus for a little known saint tragically beheaded in Tuscany at the order of Emperor Diocletian.

We encountered Festus on a Sunday afternoon as we were driving around the sumptuous Bertraghboy Bay on the southern edge of Connemara. He was walking to Bolger’s Drinking Consultants in Cashel. His motives were two-fold. Firstly, he wanted a glass of whiskey to blast the flu that had been plaguing him for the past week. As he put it, ‘I was sound a week ago tomorrow and then the following day I had it.’ And, secondly, he wanted to raise a glass to a Fine Gael politician who had died that morning.

The second of seven children, he hails from a small island near Roundstone called Inishnee (‘the island of the Nees’) where he has lived all his life. He has found the changes in the past decade overwhelming. He spoke of the ‘pure hardship’ of his younger days, of tragic deaths in murky bogs and endless rainfall. For many years, he worked closely with a herd of Connemara ponies. He remembers ‘the hullabaloo’ when Charles de Gaulle and his wife came on holiday to nearby Cashel House Hotel.

Festus Nee is courteous and kind and understands the nature of our quest. He stands by a stone wall, sporting a Texan hat given to him ‘by an old girlfriend last summer’. He puffs on his pipe and thinks for a while. At length, he scratches his chin and says ‘No, I’d say all the old timers are gone now.

 

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In November 2013, five years after the passing of Festus, I was contacted by an Australian gentleman called Patrick Gorham who wrote: ‘He was a very good friend of my family. When I was a child in the 1970 (with no TV ), he would come to my home and make wooden toys for us 6 children, and tell us stories. I now live in Sydney in Australia but on my visits back to Inishnee he would come around to our home and talk about days gone by. He had a kind heart, and experienced life and nature, was a friend to his horses and dogs, and he is sadly missed.’

In February 2024, I was contacted by his niece Bridget Ann Nee from Hertford, UK, who advised me that Festus’ parents were Michael Nee (born 1909) and his wife Bridget, née O’Donnell (born 1908), both from Errisbeg East. I suspect Michael’s family is the one listed on the 1911 census here. Their children were:

  1. Festus, born 1935.
  2. Patrick, known as Paddy, born in 1936 and known to all as The Great Man, now deceased.
  3. Michael, known as John, born in 1939, now deceased, who who appeared in ‘A Portrait of Connemara.’ He moved to the UK and was father of Bridget Ann Nee who supplied this information.
  4. Sally came to the UK, now deceased.
  5. Bridget, settled in the UK and had a family of her own.
  6. Dennis, settled in the UK.