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John William Seoighe (1919-2015) – The Oarsman of Connemara

John William Seoige, Currach Oarmsan and Hooker Sailor. Photo: James Fennell.

There is something about John William Seoighe that instantly connects him to the ancient world, to a time when the grizzle cheeked fishermen of Ireland’s Atlantic coast synchronised their oars with those of the great mariners who sailed the oceans from the Barbary Coast to the Basque and over the far horizon to the cod-plenty waters of the New World. His words are seeped in salty adventure and the richness of marine life. Just to look at him brings to mind the Paul Henry’ painting of those agile, woolly-jumpered fishermen launching their currach.

John William must have launched ten thousand currachs in his time. Together with his cousins John Bhabín Seoighe (1917-2011) and Máirtín Coilín Joyce (1935-2016)  from the island of Inish Bearachain, he won a record four Tóstals, or All-Ireland Rowing Titles, a three-in-a-row between 1956 and 1958 and a fourth in 1961. To qualify, the cousins – known as Seoighe Inish Bearachain – had to first win the races in their own Gaeltacht regions, as well as heats at Salthill on the day of the final. The Seoighe cousins, who qualified in Lettermore, won all their heat races too.

The Seoighe cousins after their first victory in the 1956 Tóstal at Salthill.

They also won numerous Galway hooker regattas along Connemara and the coast of County Clare. When he wasn’t racing, John William was making his money carrying turf from his island home to the people on the Aran Islands.

After the Seoighe cousins won the second race at Kilkee in 1957, they were presented with the trophy by the then president of Ireland, Éamon de Valera.

The Seoighe (or Joyce) family has been rooted in the Irish-speaking traditions of Connemara’s island life since time began. ‘The first of the line was a boat builder by name of Padraig Joyce,’ says John William. He was born in Carna, County Galway, in the eighteenth century. While his brother Coleman stayed in Carna, Padraig moved south-east to the island of Inish Barra where he began building boats from a small house near the pier.

‘One day, Padraig was called in for tea by his wife,’ recounts John William. ‘He was working with the táil and he chopped a part of the keel, which landed upside down, and that was a bad sign. He went to his wife and said, “I don’t like that, something’s up”. And he died that night.’ [1]

Padraig’s grandson Seán Seoige was born on the island shortly before the Great Hunger of the 1840s. [2] ‘It was like a cloud that came over the land,’ says John William. ‘But living on an island was much better than the mainland, because they had the seafood.’

Seán was John William’s grandfather, and he too made his money by bringing turf from Inish Barra to the Aran Islands. ‘We have plenty of turf ourselves because when my father got the island, he got the turf as well,’ explains John William. ‘And we had the turf on Inish Barra as well. We always had plenty of turf.’

Seán sailed in a thirty-foot boat called Bláth na hóighe (‘Flower of Youth’), built by Mártín O’Cathasaigh (Casey) of Mweenish Island. The O’Cathasaighs were highly respected boat-builders, considered amongst the best in the world. John William says they had an extraordinary ability to whack a boat together without the use of a measuring tape. ‘They weren’t shoemakers, that’s for sure.’

Map of Kilkieran Bay, showing the island of Inse Gaineamh, where John William was born in 1919, as well as Carna and Inishbarra, where his forbears lived, and Lettermore Island where he was at school.

Seán married Nan O’Donnell whose family had moved from Roundstone to Inish Barra in the early 19th century. Their second son William, John William’s father was born on Inish Barra in 1860. In about 1903, he married Margaret ‘Peg’ Reaney and moved north to the nearby island of Inse Gaineamh, or Sand Island. [3] There were only two houses on the island at the time, the other being occupied by Val Cloherty.

Padraig, the first of William and Peg’s three sons was born in 1905, followed by Michael and then John William in 1919. There were also five daughters – three later settled in Boston, Massachusetts, another had a small shop near the Town Hall in Galway while another, Siobhan succumbed to a childhood disease when she was about nine years old.

John William, their youngest son, was born on Inse Gaineamh on a spring tide in 1919. His childhood ambition was to build boats and he secretly constructed a miniature hooker, complete with sails. He longed to test it on the sea, but he knew his parents would never let him near the perilous waters. So, one day he dropped the boat out of his bedroom window for his young cousin, John Bhabín Seoighe, to catch. But one way or another it landed on his father’s head instead. ‘And gwargh!’ recalls John. ‘He didn’t know what was going on and where did such a thing come from?!’ Realising the boys ‘were headed for the sea with it,’ his mother swiftly threw the boat on the fire. John Bhabín would go on to be one of John William’s rowing comrades.

John William went to school on Lettermore Island. There was a special path he could walk along to get there at low tide in the mornings but, when school was finished, the only way home was a one-mile row by currach. ‘My brother Michael would row over and get me. There was a place on the rocks where he could see me from the island. I’d walk up and down there for a while; he’d see me and land the boat. We rowed back together and that’s the reason I could row.

Sometimes he was under orders from the school to bring a sod of turf for the fire. Others had to bring two sods – if they were two brothers, for instance – but that would keep the school fire going all day.

As a young boy on Inse Gaine, he sometimes drew freshwater to the still for the island’s poteen maker. ‘Ah, I was fit as a fiddle then’ he chuckles. He certainly was. Indeed, there are probably no shoulders more powerful than those of a currach rower. ‘Sailing, sailing, sailing. That was everything to me.’

John William was fourteen years old when he began delivering the turf. ‘My father came down with a sickness in his body and he wasn’t able to go on the boat anymore. My two brothers were a lot older than me, and they did not like to sail. So, I began sailing into the Aran Islands and out again, ten or twelve miles each time, with my cousin John Bhabín. We were over every two or three days. It was a tricky journey with the currents and the breakers, and you couldn’t make it every day. Maybe you’d be almost there, and you’d see how the waves were breaking and you’d have to get away again.’

Mairtin Joyce and friend transporting seaweed.

But opportunities in Connemara were scarce during the 1930s and England was the place to go. Shortly after he left school, John William made his way to a house in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, where six young Inish Barra islanders were living together. These included his sister Margaret, his cousin John Bhabín, John Bhabín’s sister and John William’s future brother-in-law Michael Conneely.

‘There was a good few of us in one house. Michael Connolly who owned the house. My wife’s brother, but I wasn’t married that time. Myself and my sister went to have a cup of tea in the kitchen. I heard some tapping on the window and I looked around and I saw the heads looking in. “Christ!”, I said to Margaret. “Let’s look out and see!” And here comes two detectives walking in one after the other. They search the house. They didn’t leave a penny without turning it. They even opened up my accordion and checked inside. Michael had a lot of Irish flag tattoos on him. He was a rough looking character. So, they thought we were a lot of IRAs, but we didn’t know what IRA meant at all at that time. Anytime I got the bus after that, I would always see those two men, one at the back of the bus and one at the front. Michael put the house up for sale right-away and sold it. We got our cases ready and packed, wet washing and all. We called a cab at 2 o’clock in the night and told him to drive to Manchester. Bye, bye, Huddersfield’.

Martín Coilín Seoighe

John Bhabín Seoighe (1917-2011)

From Manchester they made their way to a kip house in London. ‘We stayed in London one night. An Irishman way up the street used to be taking people in and he had plenty of room for everybody. We went in with him and we were all set there.’  John Bhabín journeyed in a new suit but when they awoke, his suit had vanished. ‘He was in bad humour that day,’ recalls John William. ‘But that was the day we heard about Jersey Island!’

The four men duly sailed east to Jersey in the Channel Islands. Once they landed, they split into pairs and set off to find work. Shortly after they left, John William turned to John Bhabín and said, ‘Arra, why don’t we give the others a chance to get a job and maybe they might find work for the lot of us. We’ll go back and get something to eat and have a good day for ourselves.’ As they sat down to eat, the other two returned having had the very same idea. “Ya bastards, ye!”’

But at length they all found work and they spent the summer on Jersey digging potatoes. ‘That was one of the nicest islands I ever met in my life.’ And then one day, John Bhabín uttered the forbidden words. ‘Wouldn’t it be a lovely day to be sailing over Golam Head?’ The four men looked at one another, said “what are we waiting for?” and by the end of the week, they were back in Connemara.

Towards the end of 1942, John William made his way back to England to work as a signalman directing trains and buses in and out of Crewe Station in Cheshire. ‘All the Englishmen were out in the war,’ he explains. ‘So, they had women driving the buses and trains.’ One afternoon, a corps of American Marines arrived, numbering amongst them Big Andy McDonough, a six-foot-six tall, utterly fearless Irishman who was raised in Carna and later emigrated to New York. John William had met him during his childhood. ‘What in the name of God brought you over here?’ asked Big Andy. ‘Go back home and get away from these English buggers! They’re no good to anybody. We’re after coming 3,000 miles to fight their war for them.’

In September 1943, John William was married in Lettermore to Bridget Conneely of Inish Barra, with whom he had eight children. They moved to Inish Bearachain from where, as well as fishing for lobsters and scallops, he was again bringing turf to the Aran Islands, and on down to Kinvarra, and sometimes to Ballyvaugahan and New Quay, County Clare.

John William delivered turf by hooker, just like his father and grandfather before him. Photo: James Fennell.

One foggy night, he was steering back from the Aran Islands when he and his fellow crew became thoroughly disorientated. ‘We didn’t know where in the world we were, and I never saw such a heavy sea in my life. Oh God, it hit the boat and we went sideways. One time I was sitting down steering the boat and I stood up and I was right under Golam Head. We were thrown around all night and we didn’t have a clue because we could hardly see one another. She was a lucky boat, you know.’

No voyage was more peculiar than the dark November night when he and John Bhabín were returning home from another trip to the Aran Islands.

‘The boat was loaded with turf, and it was getting late in the year. The week before was rough and we weren’t able to go to the islands. This evening it was very nice. Myself and John Bhabín, my cousin, who owned the other half of my boat. It was our grandfather who got it built. We were waiting at the pier, and it struck me as a beautiful evening to head out. There used to be a gate on Lettermore Island, and we went down through that with the boat, instead of going around Golam Head. We were in the Aran Islands very fast. There was a fellow there waiting for us, Tom Feeny, Lord have mercy on him, he died since. He was our mate, our friend. He took the turf from us, and we emptied the boat to go on.’

‘It was dark at that time, and we sailed on for about an hour of darkness. It was still a nice evening. I used to be steering the boat the whole time and I head on for Golam Head and I came so close to Golam Head, I nearly I hit it. When you pass up Golam Head then, you have to pull on your sail or it will start slashing. I thought I saw something. A shadow or something. Down by Golam Head. And when I looked down … boy, what was coming up after us but another boat exactly like the one we had. And she was only four lengths behind us. And you could almost hear her coming through the water. Shuhhhhhhhh. I was never afraid of anything in my time, but I know she was there. So close but she didn’t come any closer. And there was nobody in it. Nobody was steering it.’

‘When I looked back, I saw her coming after me. We were halfway up, passing up the land, and I asked John who was standing up on the ballast, nice and quiet, “do you see anything behind us?” and he said, “oh yes, I can” and here she was, giving us no bother whatsoever. When we pass up the last island at Dinish Point, I looked again and she had disappeared, vanished. She wasn’t there anymore.’

‘We got on to Inish Barra there and we got home and I looked back across Kilkieran Bay. The night was still so beautiful that you could see everything, and Christ didn’t I see her passing by. And I said to John “do you see now where she is now?!” and she was going up Kilkieran Bay with three black sails on. The exact same size as the boat we had. She went up to Kilkieran and we didn’t see her anymore. [4] We blamed Halloween because that was the night of spooks. There was no other boat in Connemara at sea when we were out. We wouldn’t have been out if we could have emptied the boat before that.’

John William smiles widely as he tells this tale, his eyes opening wider with every passing wave. He clearly relishes stories of the Otherworld, and his baritone voice rumbles cheerily as he recalls other mysterious encounters.

‘There was two men from this area that used to sail together years ago. They were always winning all the races. Anyway, one of them went to the United States and lived there for a while, in New York. When he was twenty years gone, his mate was playing cards every night over here. This man that went to the States died there after ten years. This fellow was going to play cards and he saw a man coming towards him. And he didn’t know in the wide world who it walking the road was, but it was his mate who died in America. That put the shakes on him alright.’

Or there is a story from Mweenish Island, ancestral home of his wife’s people, the Conneely’s, where a callous land agent once tried to burn their house down for non-payment of rent. The agent had already destroyed a handful of houses on nearby Feenish Island. When the burning party set out for Mweenish, the priest urged all the islanders to sink to their knees and pray. God heard the people’s cry and a thunderbolt shot out from the Heavens and struck the agent dead. [5]

John William Seoighe and his wife Bridget, taken before their marriage.

When the ‘Big Wind’ tore through Ireland in 1839, it blew the roof off the Conneely’s home on Mweenish. Ten years later, the family relocated to Inish Barra where Bridget’s father Joe Mhicil Hughie Conneely made his living by transporting goods on a Galway Hooker between Galway City and the towns of Roundstone and Clifden. One day Joe and his wife were down by the shore, harvesting seaweed. His wife returned home early to make the dinner, but Joe never made it home.

‘Whatever happened between, he got drowned’, says John William. ‘My wife was only a year old at the time. And it was a strange thing but when our children Mary or Bridie were coming down near the sea by where he drowned, they would look up and see a man sitting on the wall, watching them. It was their grandfather, my wife’s father. He was warning them about the sea.’

Bridget never trusted the sea after her father’s death. After their marriage, she and John William originally lived in her family house right on the island’s shoreline. At high tide, the choppy ocean water frequently came flooding though the front door. In 1957, some of Bridget’s cousins moved east to ‘the short-grass country’ of County Meath. With much relief, the Seoighe’s loaded their boat with dressers and beds, sailed around the island and moved into the vacated house. Their old house still stands today, albeit roofless.

John William continued to fish and distribute turf through the 1950s and 1960s, but Inish Barra was an increasingly depressing place to live. The number of houses on the island had fallen sharply from its 19th century high of forty to just eight by 1964, when the Seoighes emigrated to the USA. The last man to live on this island was Martin Joyce, a cousin of the Joyce’s, who was also interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.

John William and Bridget’s two eldest daughters were already living in Boston. When their third girl decided to join them, John William concluded enough was enough and packed his wife and six younger children onto a boat. They sailed out from Inish Barra early in the morning, docked in Galway, made their way to Shannon Airport and the whole family flew off to a new life in Boston.

John William and Bridget stayed in Boston for six years. He worked as a carpenter and built his own house. ‘But you’d always be thinking of the old sod,’ he says. In the summer of 1970, homesickness got the better of him and he and Bridget returned to Ireland and purchased a new house in Galway City with money from the sale of their Boston home. ‘When we got tired of that, we decided to go back to Connemara again. I got this piece of land, and we built this house for us to live.’

It is often the wounds of younger years that nobble you. John William hurt his legs when he was at school. ‘It never bothered me ever since until last year when it came back again. I was working and working and sailing and hauling turf and everything, and then last year it came back again’.

John William, who never drove a car in his life, now lives with his son Pádraic, daughter-in-law Cait and their two young children, Róisin and Colm, an extremely talented pair, well known in the west for their singing, dancing and acting prowess. Róisin featured in the Irish language drama, Malartú Intinne, and has toured abroad with President Mary McAleese. It pleases John William greatly that his children and grandchildren still sail and fish in the waters of Inishbarra over which he himself navigated so many times.

John William was 96 years old when he died at Rossaveal, County Galway, on 7 July 2015. I penned an obituary to him, based on the above, which was published in the Sunday Independent later that year.

 

*****

 

FAREWELL, PÁDRAIC JOYCE, 2021

 

I was much saddened to hear of the passing of Pádraic John William Seoighe, John William’s son, in June 2021. A  stalwart of the Atlantic Ocean, he was instrumental in helping us to track down several stars of the Vanishing Ireland books. We befriended Pádraic when we went to interview his late father. He subsequently brought us to meet two of his father’s closest friends from the fishing community at Kilkiean Bay, namely Coleman Coyne (1925-2016), a seaweed harvester), and his kinsman, Máirtín Joyce (1935-2016) who was a factory worker and oarsman. Pádraic also introduced us to the wonderful Sonaí Choilm Learaí Ó Conghaile, a melodeon player and fisherman, who we met at Coradh Bhuí by Leitir Meallaín.

Pádraic received this fine tribute written by Seán Ó Mainnín and published in the Connacht Tribune:

‘THE passing of Pádraic John William Seoighe, one of the most-well known traditional Connemara boatmen and owner of the halfboat, the Volunteer, was marked by the ceremonial lowering of sails at Galway Docks following Pádraic’s funeral at Séipéal Chill Treasa Naomhtha near his Ros a’ Mhíl home last Thursday.

Neighbours, friends and boat crews, who raced with and against Pádraic at many a Cruinniú Bád or regatta down the years, had earlier lined the footwalk from his home to the Church applauding the tricolour-covered coffin as it made its final journey under a very hot sun.

The group walking behind the hearse, led by his wife Cáit, sang traditional sea songs in his honour.

A deep lover of his country, its own language and traditions, Pádraic was ‘keened’ by well-known singer Sara Ghrial-lais – a unique, now almost vanished form of Gaelic homage – during the reciting of the Rosary the night before his funeral.

Known as the boatman’s boatman Pádraic had a Biblical knowledge of the traditional boat and could name the maker, owner and crew of almost every wooden sailing vessel going back several decades.

His leathbhádóirí or ship comrades were in awe of his wealth of knowledge and the tales he told as the Volunteer plied the waves in regattas along the Connemara coastline. His generosity with his time was also legendary and as common as a 50-mile journey to oblige a boatman in need.

On his journey to Shannon for cremation the hearse pulled by the Galway Docks where, watched by intrigued motorists in slow-moving city traffic, the boats, Mac Duach, Manuela, Croí an Chladaigh and Naomh Crónán dipped their sails in respect to a good friend of Bádóirí an Chladaigh.

Musicians Greg and Mary Cotter sang two songs in tribute before the cortege resumed its journey.

In Shannon, Máirtín Tom Sheáinín sang “Cuairt an tSrutháin Bhuí” while Pádraic’s daughter, Róisín, who, with brother, Colm, is emerging on the Irish music scene, brought Pádraic’s journey on this earth to an end with “Amhrán Pheter Mhicil”.

 

FOOTNOTES

 

[1] The tail was a tool used to shave wood with a handle on it. You swung it like you would an axe. When the shaving landed face down, that was considered a bad sign.

[2] Born on the island in about 1842, Tomás Seoighe, Seán’s brother, was also a boatwright. In 1873 he married Mary; their son Patrick was born the following year.

[3] People were still living on Inse Gaineamh in 2009, including the children of John William’s brothers Pat and Mícheál.

[4] A similar boat was reputedly sighted in the same place circa 2008.

[5] ‘The landlord’s name was Bolustrum [sic]. He got twelve men and horses together. Four houses lost their rooves on Feenish Island in 1839 and he went and knocked down the stone walls. He then set his sights on Mweenish where there were fourteen houses without roofs. As he approached the bridge, the priest learned what had happened and learning that Bolustrum was off to Mweenish, he said “Get on your knees now, all of you, and start praying that he doesn’t make it. Get down on your knees and pray”. Meantime, Bolustrum and his men are crossing the bridge and a lightning bolt kills Bolustrum and his horse there at the bridge. He was a very bad man. His house was in Carna where the pub is now.’ This story was relayed by Padraig John William Seoighe.