The death of Jimmy McGarvey of Clones, Co. Monaghan on 17 August 2019 marked the end of an era for the border town where the McGarvey brothers were once amongst the best-known faces.
They were often to be spotted making their way down Fermanagh Street, ambling across the Diamond or talking with friends in the shadow of the ancient Round Tower. When not in public view, the brothers were almost certainly in a public house. The joys of celibacy meant they had little to trouble them other than raising the price of a pint.
Their father Mick McGarvey was a thatcher and grew up on a farm at Lisnagore, a few miles west of Newbliss. ‘Daddy thatched every house in the county’, recalled Jimmy McGarvey (1942-2019) when we met him during the Vanishing Ireland project in 2008. ‘And at that time every place outside Clones had a thatched roof.’
In 1920, Mick married Rosie Smith, a farmer’s daughter from across the border in Roslea, Co Fermanagh. ‘I don’t know how they met but they come together anyway and we’re the living proof of that’, added Jimmy’s older brother Johnny McGarvey (1938-2014). Johnny and James were the fourth and sixth of Mick and Rose’s nine children. They had a nomadic boyhood, fetching up on a small farm by Newbliss, with a goat and ‘a lock of hens’. Of their five sisters, one died young in Belfast, three settled in England and the youngest one Alice is the matriarch of Larkin’s Garage in Brandrum, Co Monaghan. The young McGarveys were educated at the Largy School which then stood on Church Hill in Clones. Jimmy said he was ‘kept back so long at the Largy’ that, by the time he left, all the other kids thought he was the teacher.
Neighbours recall the McGarveys as one of the poorest families in the area. The children would walk to the Largy in their bare feet, even on days when the ground was glittering with slush and ice, their clogs slung over their shoulder. Only when they got to school would they slip into the clogs, all in the interests of preserving leather.
When their school days were finished, the brothers took on work as seasonal labourers, shovelling, fencing, threshing, building the roads. In the evenings, they went ‘night-fishing’ with tilly-lamps, casting for perch in the winding waters of the River Finn.
For a time both Jimmy and Johnny McGarvey worked for the O’Gradys of Glynch House where their older brother Pat was something of a foreman. After work, the brothers would reassemble in the pubs of Clones. They were famous for greeting one another with a hearty ‘Hi-Boy’ and shaking one another’s hands warmly, even if they had only just seen one another. One of their favourite haunts during the early 1970s was the Round Tower. When the McGarveys were working in the UK, they would come home on occasion and spend two weeks straight inside the Round Tower drinking, without break, putting away 12, 14, maybe 16 pints over the course of the day.
In the early 1950s, Johnny secured a reasonably permanent job with Mrs Clegg, a retired school-teacher, who had a small farm outside the village of Drum. He frequently herded her cattle into Clones for the Thursday markets. ‘There’d be nothing only cattle in town and the place would be packed’. Clones had been one of the busiest towns in Ulster before the Second World War. The railway station was the main junction for all trains travelling between Dublin or Belfast and the Enniskillen to Sligo line. Right into the 1950s, Clones enjoyed the benefits of being a border town. Its streets were lined with buoyant shops, its pubs were esteemed for traditional music and young people came here from all over Ireland to enjoy themselves.
That’s what Clones was like when Johnny McGarvey crossed the Irish Sea in 1955. He took a train direct from Clones, via Larne and Stranraer, to Glasgow, where one of his sisters was living. Within a week he was working on the railways, laying tracks and heaving sleepers. ‘Aye, driving keys into the side of the ditch, that was quare hard work’, he recalls. One of his first jobs was near Falkirk and his eyes still widen at the memory of the twin spans of Kincardine Bridge opening to let a ship sail up the Clyde. He hailed the bridge as the finest engineering achievement he ever saw. ‘There were a good lot of Paddies went to Scotland that time’, he said. ‘From all over here and from Carlow too … and there were a few from Connemara who only spoke Irish’. He did not know how long he was in Scotland – ‘a lock of years anyway’ – but he did not pick up the Scottish accent.
Johnny spoke with a kind but gravely Ulster rap, each sentence laden with unprintable words. Jimmy, on the other hand, sounded almost like an Englishman. He spoke in riddles, cracking jokes from the side-lines and cackled harmlessly at the world going by. But between the jigs, he explained how he left Ireland in 1957, the year Clones railway station was shut. And, like Johnny, he went to work on the railways. ‘I was only a wee lad of 14 and a half when I went but I built the British Rail’, he said. ‘A man called Paddy McManus, a ganger on the railway, sorted me out. He said ‘Come on out’, so I did. I waited a couple of days and he got me the job. Whenever I left this country I was getting £3 and ten shillings a week. When I went there, I had to work a fortnight, but when I did get paid, it was big stuff!’
Jimmy’s first big job was to remove all the old tracks and lay down new ones between Huntington and Peterborough. Relaying this information, he casually asided that Oliver Cromwell came from Huntington and that Catherine of Aragon is buried in Peterborough. Clearly those extra terms at the Largy did him some good. When not working on the railways, he was employed at the Shell Haven oil refinery on the north bank of the Thames. He stayed in England ‘from 1957 to 1967 to 1977 to 1987, thirty years all up’. He finally returned to Ireland and got a job with Monaghan County Council. I think my favourite story about Jimmy is the time he got a taxi home in London. “That’ll be five pounds, Guv,” said the driver. Jimmy counted his change and only had £4.50. “Can you drive me back fifty pence and I’ll walk that bit?’ he asked. At the time I interviewed him in 2008, he was living between Clones and Cootehill.
Sean Cooper recalled drinking with Jimmy in Nulty’s Bar in Cootehill when the coal man arrived with a bag of coal. On hearing the price, Jimmy said ‘I remember when we used to get coal for 5p and it would keep us warm for 6 months.’ When asked how they managed that with a 1bag of coal, Jimmy said, ‘every time me and our fellas got cold we put it on our shoulder and run round the kitchen.’
One night Jimmy was about to set off home from Adamson’s of Clones with a belly full of booze when he had a brainwave and knocked on the door of one of the Civil Guard who lived locally. It was three o’clock in the morning and the civil guard was understandably shocked to be awoken at that hour. Jimmy then asked him for a lift home. When the guard said ‘are you mad?’, Jimmy observed that he’d probably tumble into a ditch on the way home anyway, so it would be cutting to the chase if the guard brought him home now rather than being summoned out to pick him up in the ambulance later on. On another occasion Jimmy did end up in the ditch and lay in the freezing water for some time. By the time the civil guards got to him, he was suffering severe hypothermia and could barely speak. A pretty lady guard asked him how long he had been in the ditch, at which he came to and said ‘I don’t know but I could have stayed in there a while longer if you were with me.’
On one occasion, an officer stopped Jimmy and Pat on their Honda 50 (‘the nifty Fifty’ as Jimmy called it) and told Jimmy to blow into the bag. Jimmy said: ‘Get the fellow on the back to do it, I’m too drunk.’
Another old Clones hand recalled: ‘I remember one time seeing the McGarveys stagger up Fermanagh Street and wee Pat bumped into a lamp post and apologised to it. Many a time, you’d see them in the local chippy eating a plate of food & trying to get the peas on the fork and you’d hear them saying “come here you wee f**ker yea”. They’d meet each other like they hadn’t seen each other in years, even minutes after seeing each other.’
Meanwhile, Johnny came back to Clones for a couple of months and was dismayed to see the effects of the railway closure. ‘The whole town was totally different’, he recalled. He returned to Scotland where he was rather alarmingly placed in charge of the control room of a power station near Glasgow with ‘red buttons, green buttons, blue buttons, all kinds of button’ bringing to mind images of Homer Simpson. He then worked his way south through England before settling down as a bricklayer in London during the early 1960s. He maintained that he encountered none of the ‘No Irish Need Apply’ attitude in London. On the contrary, he worked ‘with some of the finest English fellows you’d ever meet in your life, damned good lads they were’. He dreamed of going one step further to the USA but was unable to raise the money. ‘An uncle of mine was in America for 33 years’, he said longingly.
Music was never far from the McGarvey’s ears. ‘Daddy could play the bow-fiddle and the accordion’, said Johnny, ‘and I sang the odd time’. In the early days, they were regulars at Willie Nicholls and, later Pat Grimes. One of their father’s favourite venues was the late great Treanor’s Bar on Fermanagh Street where he often played with Tom McGeough from ‘up the mountain’. Treanor’s remained one of his sons preferred taverns, although they might also be found supping brandy and stout in The White Star or The Towers or Adamson’s. They knew the pedigree and lineage of every pub in town, the name of every landlord who ever owned it and possibly the date of its establishment.
‘I don’t think I will marry now’, said Johnny a few years before his death in 2014. ‘Not the way things are going. But what can you do though? All you can do is the best you can’.
Thanks to the late Sean McQuillan, John P Graham, Martha & John O’Grady, Danny McAdam, Brian, Ross and Stephen Adamson and Michael & Mary Treanor.
Pat McGarvey came into Adamson’s of Clones one day and ordered a series of pints and half pints from Brian. ‘He was playing me,’ chuckles Brian, who asked how he would be getting home, one eye on Pat’s green Fiesta parked just up the road.
‘Oh,’ says Pat, ‘I’ll be having drinks tonight so I’ll leave the car behind and walk home.’ Or words to that effect.
At the end of the evening, Pat is the last to lave but shortly after Brian ejects him, he hears a loud revving of a car. He peeks out the curtain and sees Pat in the Fiesta, which is rolling backwards, slowly, down the hill. The car is clearly in neutral even though Pat keeps pressing the accelerator. Brian goes out and finds Pat effectively asleep at the wheel, and the car now rested against a wall. He puts his hand through the window and pulls the keys out.
Next morning Brian has just opened up when Pat comes walking in and orders a pint. Brian looks at him but gives him a pint. He also hands over his keys and Pat just nods and says thanks for looking after them. He has three or 4 pints and then heads back out to his car. He is standing by the drivers door trying to insert the key when a squad car pulls up beside him.
“How are you, Pat?” says the guard.
“Grand, grand, I’m just locking up the car. I had a few drinks so I’m putting it away for the night.”
Didn’t miss a beat.
Private John McGarvey (S/12158) of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 2nd Bn, may have been their uncle or great uncle. A son of John and Margaret McGarvey, of Lisnagore, Newbliss, he died on 24 April 1917, aged 36 years old. I suspect he was killed at Beauchamp, between Cambrai and Peronne, during the Second Battle of Arras. He is buried at Heninel-Croisilles Road Cemetery near Pas De Calais, France. The Reverend Monsignor Philip Murphy, John’s nephew, visited his grave in the 1950s. Born outside Edinburgh in about 1896, Monsignor Murphy was a son of Ellen / Helen McGarvey, born in Newbliss in 1875, who was herself a niece to Mary Anne Simpson. With thanks to Conor Byrne and Shamrock Cider