During the 1960s, Mikie Kinnane developed an ingenious and cost effective system for transporting his family around. He removed the front wheels from an old Volkswagen Beetle and attached its undercarriage to a tractor hitch. His wife Annie and their children would then get into the car, along with any neighbours whom they might meet along the way, and bumble on up the bog roads, perhaps bound for the shop in Glin or to attend Sunday Mass. It worked perfectly, not least on days when the sky was filled with wind and rain. When Mikie enquired about insuring his system, he was advised that there was no need for insurance, so long as he did not put a football team in it.
Probably the most important bog road in Mikie’s life was the one built in 1836 which linked Athea and Glin, traversing hundreds of acres of blanket bog on the Limerick side of the Shannon estuary. The road was constructed by Sir Richard Griffith, the Dublin-born engineer who gave his name to ‘Griffith’s Valuations’, an immensely helpful record of the names of nearly every landowner and householder in Ireland during and after the Great Famine.
Griffith’s new line of road completely changed the economic outlook for people in West Limerick. A massive swathe of bogland was now accessible in an age when turf was the foremost energy fuel. People used turf to warm their homes, to cook their meals, to burn limestone in their limekilns, to boil the water in which they mixed the meal for their cattle and horses.
Turf was also the number one cash crop for the area. After Griffith’s long, straight and inevitably bumpy road opened, smaller roads and lanes quickly began to radiate off it as more and more people rushed in to stake their claim to the bog and the barren hills which surrounded it. By the mid-19th century, the people in towns as far away as Adare, Croom, Newcastle and Rathkeale were supplied with turf from this district.
Mikie’s grandfather William Kinnane was born in Ardagh in 1845, when Griffith’s road was so young that it had barely had time to grow a pothole. By his marriage to Johanna Riordan, he came into the Riordan family farm at Glenagragara, near Glin. The Riordan’s original house was probably a mud-walled cabin, typical of these parts, with a roof made of crooked beams of bog deal. The roof was insulated with sods dug from the top layer of bog, to which rushes were then affixed. Windows and doors were literally cut out of the walls after the house was built with a trench spade. Their son Jack sunk a well beside the house which, just two foot deep, still provides clear spring water for Mikie and his wife Annie. They maintain that it makes a superior cup of tea.
In 1903, William and Johanna built a new stone house. This was undoubtedly completed with the aid of a limekiln on the property. Limekilns were valuable assets in those days. Rocks of limestone were thrown into the kiln and heated to such a temperature (900 degrees centigrade) that only the lime remained. This white powder was not just useful as a mortar and stabilizer for building walls, but also acted as a fertilizer for the fields in which the Kinnane’s grazed their cattle and the lazy beds wherein their potatoes grew. In order to get the limestone, they would journey by horse and cart twelve miles to Askeaton where, according to Samuel Lewis in 1837, ‘limestone of good quality is obtained in great abundance.’
The Kinnane’s lifestyle was one of subsistence, growing enough potatoes and vegetables to feed the family and a sufficient amount of turnips and barley oats for their cows and horses. It was also very much about the turf and Mikie’s chest heaves with passion when he starts exhibiting his treasure trove of turf-cutting tools. Some of the more beautiful implements were made in County Wexford, including a stainless steel brest-sleán for cutting the peat blocks that he is particularly proud of. ‘It will never rust and it will go through anything.’ Some were tailormade down at Jack Adam’s forge in Glin, such as the ash-handled right-footed winged-sleán his father used for cutting turf. And others were purchased in a hardware shop, like the hay-knife or scraitheog he used for cutting the heathery ‘scraw’ off the top of the bog. ‘Would you like a sod to take home with you?!’, he asks, producing a rather beautiful sod of sleán-carved turf. ‘Not this one though, I’m leaving that for my grandchildren!’
In one corner of his tool shed is a grand collection of ropes including super strong towropes made on Aughinish Island. ‘The very best’, he says solemnly. Nearby is the quin to which he tacked plough horses in autumns past. And elsewhere there are other gadgets designed to keep the livestock from straying off-piste – a spancil for hobbling their legs and a fetter he made for a restless donkey. ‘If you didn’t fetter him, he’d be gone off and you wouldn’t have him in the morning’, says Mikie. The donkey-cart stands nearby, its’ timber wheels bound by an iron rim.
‘The common car as we call it’, chuckles Mikie, giving it a tap. It was made by Danny McGrath of Turraree and shod by Glin blacksmith Tim McGrath. That said, there hasn’t been a donkey at Glenagragara for over 40 years; the banded wheels vanished quick when the ‘rubber wheels’ came in.
Mikie’s father William was born in Glenagragara in 1893. His mother was Catherine O’Donnell. Born in 1932, Mikie, or Michael, was the second of their three children. He started school in Ballyguiltenane at the age of six. ‘Any sooner than that and you would not be able for the long walk,’ he recalls. ‘I walked there and back again every day, barefoot as was the custom in those times, and there was no road there then. My sister Josie took me the first day. I still remember that morning. Micky Normile had a mud-walled house with a mound of subsoil piled nearby. He had his cows walking in a circle on it. This was to temper the mud for the construction of the walls. I often heard that the women did the same job in their bare feet. The women of today would have better legs if they could do the same job.’
The school principal in Ballyguiltenane was Master Casey. ‘He was a very learned man and made great scholars.’ He was strict but did not indulge in the savage canings of many of his contemporaries. He also taught gardening and sometimes keep the boys in after school to tend to his beds. As with many schools, the pupils were obliged to bring a sod of turf in with them every morning but Moiky developed a neat ruse for getting around the rule. ‘If you brought a donkey load in one time, then you didn’t have to bring a sod with you every time! That was the trick.’ His fellow pupils included Paddy Faley and Mick Hanrahan the blacksmith.
Mikie left school at the age of fifteen to help his father on the farm. His older brother John emigrated to England where he worked as a painter and decorator in Essex. His sister Josie spent much of her life working as a housekeeper for Catholic priests in Limerick City, including twenty years with Canon O’Brien.
When William Kinnane died in the summer of 1957, Mikie took on the running of the farm. That same year, his brother gifted him the black bicycle which, when not on the tractor, he was to be seen pedalling around upon for the next fifty years.
Like his father, Mikie kept the farm modest, a couple of horses, a scattering of chickens and duck, and never more than seven cows. He also added an extension to the house his grandfather built. He has never left Ireland and has rarely left the county in which he was born. He and Annie live at ease with a cheerful sheepdog called Tony. Their two sons live locally.
Mikie Kinnane passed away in March 2020.
With thanks to Bernard Stack, George Langan (Historian) and Eoghan Ryan.