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Paddy Faley (1919-2011) – Poet, Ganger & Farmer of Glenbawn, Ballyhahill, County Limerick

Photo: James Fennell.

‘It has long legs and crooked thighs, a small head and no eyes.’ Paddy Faley looks directly at me, his eyes luminous, as I scratch my head and look increasingly confounded.

‘The tongs for the fire!’ he says at length. ‘Another one. It has a bow-legged father, a fat-bellied mother and three little children all the one colour.’[1]

Riddles were a big part of Paddy’s childhood. In general, the answer lay within view of the boys and girls gathered around the blazing turf fire. And the riddles they relayed were little different to those which had perplexed their parents and grandparents before them. Indeed, says Paddy, much of the entertainment laid on when he was a youngster was the very same his father had enjoyed as a boy in the 1870s.

One such game involved the lighting of a small splinter of bog deal which was handed from person to person, around and around, until the flame went out. Upon receipt, each person would say ‘Jack is alive and alive is he still, if he dies in my arms, what must I give?’ The unfortunate soul left holding the wood when the light went out had to make a forfeit. And thus, as Paddy eloquently explains, ‘there was a great urgency to pass it on as it was about to quench, and a great reluctance to accept it for fear you would be the one who would have to pay the penalty.’

Another favourite was ‘Fool in the Middle’ where one person stood in the middle of the room and everyone else occupied the corners. At a given moment everyone had to sprint from one corner to the next without being caught by the fool.[2]

Paddy clearly enjoyed his childhood. In fact, he seems to have enjoyed all ninety-one of his years. However, that cannot be entirely true because he has experienced great sadness along the way. His beloved wife Nell died in 1962, less than ten years after they were married, leaving him with five small girls to raise. When Paddy mentions this, there is the briefest of shadows, but he is quickly on the up again.

The Faleys are a resilient tribe who originated in Kerry. His grandfather Mick Faley (or Fealey) was born in 1838, shortly after Queen Victoria ascended the British throne. In 1859, he married Ellen Sheehan, the daughter of a farming family from Kilbaha, County Kerry. ‘The Sheehans were famed for tricks for meeting their future husbands,’ says Paddy. ‘She saw a young man sitting on the bridge in Athea and she seduced him.’ Family lore holds that Ellen was twelve years older than Mick but on the 1901 census the age gap is kindly reduced to two.

During the 1860s, Mick found work as a road labourer and joined the force of a private contractor called James Lynch, ‘making the Kerry line’ as the road from Shanagolden into County Kerry is known.  In 1866, Mick acquired a remote five-acre patch of bog from Mr Lynch where he and Ellen duly built a house and settled. The bog was in Glashapullagh, Kilmoylan, County Limerick. The family simply called it ‘Glasha’ and this was the house where Paddy was raised. ‘We didn’t have an avenue. We lived three quarters of a mile from the road, inside the mountains. You walked there, across the bog, from whatever direction you were coming.’

Mick and Ellen had seven children, two boys and five girls, all of whom stayed in Ireland. Denis, their oldest son, was Paddy’s father. He was born in 1868 and married at the age of 41 to Bridget White, fifteen years his junior. Five sons and a daughter followed. Paddy, their fourth child, was born in Glasha on what he describes as ‘a dewy April’s morn’ in 1919. He has happy memories of Glasha.[3]

Of his father twirling his moustache and telling tales of old.

Of scampering across the bog to the shop to fetch a half quarter of plug or Bendigo tobacco for his father, or maybe a half-ounce of Clarke’s white cap snuff ‘for my mother’s pleasure.’

Of loading eight-gallon milk tanks onto his back and striding out across the bog to leave the milk out for the creamery truck; Denis kept a handful of cows in a small meadow beyond the turf.

Of ragging and bashing away at drums and cymbals with his brothers. Paddy topped six feet but his brother Mick had a couple of inches on him and was evidently a strapping fellow. ‘I could lie down on the floor and Mick would catch a grip of me with his teeth and rise me up. He must have had awful teeth. When he went on to England after, they said he was the strongest man in the country and that he done the work of three men every day.’

From 1926 until 1931, Paddy was at school in nearby Ballyguiltenane, alongside Mikie Kinnane, where he remembers being cautioned against the pitfalls of alcohol. ‘And I took heed of it,’ says he firmly. ‘I was never tempted to taste it since, and I only took one pull of a fag in my lifetime.’ He then spent two years at Knocknagorna, just north of Athea, before leaving aged fourteen to work on the bogs.

He got a job with Limerick County Council, mending the roads his grandfather had built the previous century.  He ascended the hierarchy to become a ganger. The men generally met in Glin or Ballyhahill at eight o’clock in the morning which meant an early start for Paddy. ‘There was a time in the war that you couldn’t get a bike so I had to walk to work. I would leave Glasha at quarter to six in the morning, come down the mountain and straight out from the bushes. In all kinds of weather! It used to be dark when I was leaving. But my eyes would get so accustomed to it that I wouldn’t miss a step.’ He then worked until midday, an hour’s break for lunch, back to the job until the Angelus rang out at six o’clock and home across the bog.

During the Second World War, the value of turf shot up and Paddy joined his father and brothers harvesting the bog.[4] ‘We had nine or ten employed at Glasha back in that time but bog was a great asset and we lived right in the middle of one.’ In the 1950s, Limerick County Council built a new road across the bog and suddenly the Faley’s house was accessible to the world. ‘I stayed on with the council but I also went into farming then.’[5]

By 1959, Paddy had made enough money from the bog to purchase the Woulfe’s farm three miles east from Glasha at Glenbawn, Ballyhahill, where he lives today. He moved there on 25th April 1959, his fortieth birthday. And that was the day he became a poet because he wrote his first poem that night, ‘The Home I Left Behind’, which began:

My father was a labourer,
And worked the humble spade,
We could afford no luxuries from the wages he was paid,
But still we were so happy and the peace of God did find,
In that little earthly paradise, the home I left behind.

More poems followed and Paddy soon began appearing at Fleadh Cheoil competitions and Féiles across West Limerick. Sometimes he told stories too. ‘Recitations,’ he says softly, making that one word alone sound like an ancient melody.

In 1977, he co-founded the Ballyguiltenane Rural Journal, an annual compendium of local lore, anecdotes and history, for which he has written over 250 articles. In 2003, he published a compilation called ‘The Life and Rhymes of Paddy Faley.’  All five hundred copies sold out within three weeks.

In 2000, aged 80, Paddy Faley headed off to Britain as part of Joe Harrington’s annual Irish Rambling House tour. [6] He quickly established himself as ‘the Grandad’ of the group and he proved such a success that he returned again in 2001. Both tours were recorded as ‘The Tour of Britain’ and ‘Live at the Galtymore’.

While he amassed medals and trophies galore, perhaps his greatest achievement was with the weekly ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ competition on RTE Radio 1 in the 1970s. He regularly won the ‘one guinea’ prize as his story was broadcast to the nation. Paddy was still working on the roads at the time and his supervisor repeatedly marvelled, “what education did you get with your spade and shovel, to be winning things like that?”’ Paddy duly converted his supervisors’ remarks into another winning entry for ‘Dear Sir or Madam.’

‘I never wrote a thing until I came over here,’ he says. ‘Isn’t that a strange thing?’ Paddy’s gift is all the more extraordinary because it is inherited, and yet neither of his parents could read or write. ‘They were both illiterate,’ he explains, ‘but my father was a great storyteller. He could remember long stories, every word of them, like a seanchaí. And he’d pronounce every word correctly. He could compose, but he couldn’t write. When I was young, he told us stories about fairies and ghosts and giants and leprechauns. And he could sing and play the Jew’s harp. At night we’d say ‘tell us a story Daddy’ or ‘sing us a song’ and my mother would decide which he would do.’

Paddy’s best-known poem is probably ‘Minding the House’, written in 1960, which describes a time when his wife Nell was ill and asked him to mind the house. ‘And everything I did went wrong.’  (The poem follows in full below).

Nell was a cousin of Paddy’s who grew up in the West Limerick village of Templeglantine. They were married in 1952 and had five daughters. After her death, aged 37, in 1962, Paddy raised the girls alone. All five are married and live in Ireland. On the day we visited, his granddaughter Lisa Daly gave birth to his first great grandson, Noah.

And, oh yes, the bow-legged riddle? Pot hooks and a three-legged pot stand, of course.




Paddy Faley passed away on 17 October 2011, the day before the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ book in which he featured was launched. Happily, his daughter Bridie managed to show him a copy of the book which he even managed to sign before he died, with his daughters close at hand. The book was opened to his page and on display at his funeral.




With thanks to Eoghan Ryan, Bernard Stack, Tom Donovan, Lisa Daly and Kay O’Leary.



Minding The House

(Written in 1960)

Thank God it is all over, ‘tis a relief to my brain
My wife she is now better and is on her feet again
One day last week she got the flu and in bed she had to stay
She said to me “Paddy, I can’t get up. Could you manage anyway?”

“Yerra, Nell, “ says I , “Why not I. What is there to be done
Only get the children out to school. To me twill be just fun.
But, now I know what fun it was and you’ll know just as well
When you hear the muddle I got into – those days were just like hell.

I always thought that women had the finest time on earth
Just gossiping with the neighbours while sitting by the hearth
But now for them I’ve pity –  they’re wonderful no doubt
How they find time for gossip, I’ll never figure out.

On the day I was housekeeping my wife said from the bed
“Is there any chance now Paddy you’d throw down a cake of bread”
“I will”  said I “just tell me the ingredients I want
I’ll blend them together and I bet you twill be grand”.

Before I had it finished I’d a path made to the bed
Asking where I’d find this and that to put in the cake of bread
And when I had it finished and ready for to bake
There was as much flour on my hands and clothes as there was inside the cake!

I put it in the oven over a fire of black ciaráns
And I said now while tis baking I’ll run for butter to Mullanes
I happened to be delayed there and alas when I returned
And looked into the oven my cake was black and burned.

I tried to scrape off the burned crusts to make it edible for the children and my wife
But I only broke the handle of a Sheffield Stainless knife.
I cursed and prayed together – I was nearly off my head
I had to throw out the homemade loaf and go for Bakery bread.

Then she informed me that she was longing for a fry
She told me how I’d cook it and so I said I’d have a try
My fry was going grand in top gear, t’would delight the heart of man
T’was singing like a fiddle and dancing in the pan.
But when I poured in some water to make ‘dip’ out of the grease
The whole thing then exploded and the frying pan went ablaze.

I grabbed the burning frying pan and for the door did wheel
The dog he came before me and I was pitched head o’er heel
Hot grease was splashed all o’er me as my forehead hit the floor
The dog roaring with a scalded arse out through the window tore!

That evening the children from school came rushing in
I couldn’t hear my ears with them, such a racket and a din
Quarrelling over this and that – I never heard such rows
Or why did they wait to pick this day to go mad around the house.
They were calling for their dinner and with hunger they did shout
When I went to boil the kettle the fire it had gone out!

When at last the night came on and the children did retire
I sat down exhausted on my chair beside the fire
I took up the daily paper to read it for a while
But soon I was in darkness the lamp ran out of oil.

I caught the globe it was red hot and God forgive me I did fuck it
For at that very minute I was praying to God to kick the bucket
I shook my hand with the burning pain and from the wife there came a scream
As she heard her fire proof Pyrex globe landing on the floor in smithereens.

Now she was beseeching God and His Blessed and Holy Mother
To get her out of bed while there was something left together
She said “Go there to the dresser, behind the dishes and you’ll find a candle there
There’s one left over after Christmas and mind don’t break the ware!”

Well I am one cursed man wherever there’s another
For I broke a China Vase – a wedding present from her mother!
Another lecture from the bed saying “Aren’t you an awful curse
Instead of you improving you’re going from bad to worse
No one in the world knows what I am going through
Or how did the good God ever splice me to an awkward Hoor like you!”

Anyway I lit up my candle and the light was not so clear
To have it close by me I placed it on the range I was sitting near
I then read on my paper ‘til the light grew dim and strange
When I looked there was my candle like a pancake on the range!

After mopping up I got into bed and was nice and warm there
When I heard a cry of anguish from a child in bed upstairs
Saying “Dad, come up quick. I think I’m going to puke!”
To comfort her I had to hop out from my warm nook.

Probing in the darkness up the stairway I did go
I struck my foot against the step and disjointed my big toe
When again I had got into bed under the warm clothes
With aching head and painful toe I had started off to doze

The dog he started barking and she woke me with a roar
“Saying “As sure as God, Paddy, that’s the fox. Did you close the fowlhouse door?”
To add to my misery there I was again
Running out to close it and I naked to the skin.

I returned from the henhouse, my backside as cold as clay
The frost had froze my thighs and toes and perished what I won’t say.
I squeezed in beside her for the heat – I was like a walking corpse
She said “ Keep out from me with your icicle or you’ll give me the relapse!”

But I won’t be caught again for I know what I’ll do
The very first sneeze I hear out of her – I’ll start sneezing too!





[1] Another riddle: ‘As round as a ring, as flat as a pan, with half of a woman and the whole of a man’. Answer: The old penny.

[2] There was also a guessing game which involved the passing of a ring from person to person, the ring at all times being hidden in the palms of hands held in a praying manner.

[3] His earliest memory is of being taken to Glin to be inoculated against the pox … or ‘cut for the pox’ as they called it. Four incisions were made in his arm and ‘I quite clearly remember kicking up a screaming scene with Dr. Barrett as he was making me immune to small pox.’

[4] ‘One of my nieces went to America and she sent home tea, sugar and 10-stone of flour during the war. Wasn’t that something to send? But the only place you could get flour was the black market, from shopkeepers like Dan Cartney in Newtown, and they’d charge a big price for it.’

[5] Paddy retired from the Council aged 66 in 1985.

[6] Paddy has not travelled much but he has a daughter who lives ‘up country’ in Cavan. He was in Dublin a few times and has travelled around the neighbouring counties of Clare and Kerry a good deal. He went to England a few times, to a funeral. He wasn’t tempted to emigrate. ‘I always had work with the council and things. I wasn’t a man for emigrating.’