A clothes merchant from Upper Dirreen, Athea, County Limerick, recalls his time as a soldier in the British army in World War Two and working as a turf cutter on the Bog of Allen, as well as his kinship with Denis Guiney, the Kerry draper who owned Clery’s department store in Dublin.
‘My father had a great pair of legs. I was able to waltz okay, but I wasn’t any good at the step-dancing.’
Seamus is recalling his father, Joe Vaughan, a slim and agile man who worked as a ganger with Limerick County Council, but his true passion was step-dancing.
He was one of the finest teachers in County Limerick and his fame spread across the Atlantic to New York. ‘I had a brother, Jack, who was a great dancer in America,’ says Seamus. ‘And my daughter, Aine, was a fine dancer too.’
Shortly after the end of the First World War, Joe met and married Margaret Ahern, a fellow native of West Limerick. They had both lost their fathers young – Joe’s father died aged forty-four with a burst appendix and Margaret’s father Paddy Ahern was killed in a quarry accident in Dirreen while digging for flagstones.
During the War of Independence, Joe served in the Irish Republican Army. Many young men from this area had been stunned when Conn Colbert of nearby Athea became the youngest of the Easter Rising leaders to be executed in 1916. Seamus, apolitical himself, does not know whether his father saw any action but he mentions that a nearby bridge was strategically blown up at the height of the war. In later years, Joe served with the Local Defence Force.
Like the Irish Free State itself, Seamus was born in 1922. ‘When I was to be baptised, I was taken in an ass and cart to the village. I suppose people would pay good money to go to a baptism in an ass and cart these days.’
He went to school at Knocknagortna, a four-mile walk from his childhood home. The young Vaughans would march barefoot across the fields, carrying sods of turf and bottles of tea. All the bottles were lined up around the school fire so that the tea would be nicely warmed up for the children by lunchtime.
From school he went to work for a local farmer. Seamus was always strong on mathematics. As such, he wasn’t thrilled when, after twelve months of hard work for on the farm, he totted up his total earnings to fourteen shillings.
Seamus decided enough was enough, handed in his notice and, one way or another, joined the British army. The Second World War was in motion and, although he was sent to France, young Seamus was spared from any action. One of his most lasting memories was looking up at the skies over Brittany and watching the Wellington bombers returning from a night assault on Germany.
After the war, he briefly served in the Irish army and was stationed at the Curragh Camp in County Kildare. On one occasion, he served the final meal to one of the last men hanged in Ireland. ‘You eat it,’ said the condemned man. ‘You’ll need it more than I will.’
Army life was not for Seamus either. He was increasingly inclined to think that there was only one person in the world from whom he should be taking orders – and that was himself.
He made his way to the Bog of Allen and began harvesting turf. Now he just needed a way to get the turf from the bog to the customer. At this point, he became close friends with Joe Burns, an Ulster-born turf dealer living in Newcastle West. Joe taught Seamus how to drive and inspired his keen understanding of the turf industry. And perhaps, most importantly, he lent Seamus a Bedford truck with which he could distribute his turf from the Bog of Allen.
Turf became his foremost business. ‘I was carrying turf to people all around. I was selling it by the lorry load. I took it to Limerick city and Kildorrery and all parts of County Cork. Everyone around this side of the country made money from the turf at that time. That is the way it was.’
By 1951, Seamus had made enough money from the turf to buy a Hillman as well as his own truck. ‘I insured my first lorry for £9 and my last for £1,000,’ he marvels.
Seamus would become famous in West Limerick when he ran an unofficial bus service to Sunday mass in Athea. He would set off from home in the lorry and gradually collect more and more people, putting the elderly up in the cab alongside him, with everyone else – his children included – standing in the back, holding onto the rails. By the time he got to church, he sometimes had as many as thirty people in the lorry.
The Hillman was also sometimes recruited for ecclesiastical service. On one occasion he carried the coffin of a deceased relative, strapped to the roof, on behalf of an undertaker whose hearse was out of action.
During the course of his travels, he met and married Miss Mary Sheehan, a fluent Irish speaker, whose parents ran a small grocery from their home in nearby Kilbaha. Seamus and Mary had thirteen children, eight girls and five boys.
Margaret, their eldest daughter, was born in 1953. She says her father always managed to bring home enough money to ensure that there was plenty of food on the table and clothes to wear.
Indeed, if Seamus’ lorry wasn’t full of turf, it was invariably stuffed with clothes. A considerable supply of these came from Clery’s department store on O’Connell Street in Dublin. Seamus’ sister, Eileen, was married to Johnjo Collins, a nephew of Denis Guiney, the Kerry draper who bought Clery’s in 1941 and converted it into one of the biggest success stories of post-war Dublin. A photograph of Eileen and Johnjo’s wedding hangs proudly on Seamus’ wall.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Seamus would power up to Dublin in his lorry, fill it with clothes from Clery’s and then make his way back to Munster. ‘I’d be selling all sorts of clothes, wherever I could sell them,’ he recalls fondly. ‘At the fairs and markets, anywhere. I went down into Kerry and up into Clare, Ennistymon and such like. It’s full of Vaughans up in Clare.’
‘When Daddy was in the rag trade, we got the best of what was going,’ adds Margaret wistfully. ‘We were always beautifully dressed in Clery’s finest!’
‘I’m sure there were difficult times,’ she adds, ‘but we certainly never felt like we were poor. Killing the pig was a big day. We’d bring all the best pork steak around to the neighbours so that when they killed their pig, they’d bring the best back to us. We ate a lot of trout from the river, which my uncle, Tom Sheehan, would catch. Sometimes, we’d have rabbit or pheasant. And I remember we had goat kid one time too which I wasn’t mad about.’
As the family grew in size, so the Vaughan family home was extended this way and that. ‘Daddy would say that he earned more money than anyone in County Limerick,’ says Margaret, ‘and that he spent it as well.’
In the early 1980s, Seamus had a bad accident at Ferry Bridge. ‘And I didn’t drive the lorry any more after that.’ He did continue on in a van, selling fruit and vegetables, and he also continued to be involved in the turf trade. On one occasion, he went to visit a farmer outside Listowel to enquire about purchasing some turf. The farmer told him that he was emigrating to America the following week, with his wife and six children, and asked Seamus if he knew anyone who might buy his land. That evening, Seamus arrived home to his family and told them that, for £600, he was now the owner of a small farm outside Listowel.
Mary passed away in 2011 but Seamus still has plenty of family in the neighbourhood. He is particularly proud as a father because the entrepreneurial gene has so evidently made its way through to the next generation.
‘I’ve done every kind of a job. Collecting turf, drawing turnips, selling clothes. I had a go at everything. It’s simple. If you worked for a farmer, it would take you a month to earn a pound. If you worked for yourself, you could earn quicker. Every one of my sons is working for themselves now.’