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Tuesday, 28 July 2009

How I met the Conneely family

Many years ago, about 35 probably, I went on a hitch hiking holiday round Ireland. (Mother didn't know I wasn't travelling by bus!) Those were the days! People were more than willing to pick up a hitch hiker who was going their way, and the craic was generally good. Now here I must explain that craic is pronounced crack, and isn't an illegal drug! Craic is a Gaelic word, Scottish and Irish, that means something like good fellowship, enjoying other people's company, as in Did you enjoy the crack?, or The crack was great tonight!

Now as is my habit even today when I go travelling, I like to read up about the places I am going to, and though nowadays that tends to be by way of the internet a lot of the time, in those days you still relied on the good old hard back book!! One book I read was called In Search of Ireland by HV Morton, quite an old book as it turned out but I didn't realise how old at the time and I obviously didn't read it properly.

In the book was a photograph of a village to the west of Galway city, called Claddagh. It was very attractive-looking in the photo - little old whitewashed houses with thatched roofs - and I was very keen to see them. So it was I came to Galway with my rucksack and tent on my back, having hitched my way from Larne, in Northern Ireland! I explored the city and then headed past the Spanish Arch, over the bridge and turned left along the quayside and past the church. This should be where the Claddagh was to be found, but not a sight of a whitewashed, let alone a thatched house did I see. There were signs that this was indeed Claddagh Quay, so where was I to look for the village. Instead there were rows of dreadful little concrete box houses, one with a canary in a wooden cage hanging outside, and others with painted scenes on the gable ends, while along the shore front were bigger nicer-looking houses, which, I only just discovered, were built for ex-servicemen.

I must have looked pretty mystified as suddenly a voice at my side made me jump.
"You look lost! Can I help?"
It was the coalman, delivering bags of coal and brickettes of peat from his lorry to the houses nearby.
I explained what I was looking for, and to his credit he didn't laugh, but kindly explained to me that I was actually standing in the Claddagh; that the old village had been done away with years before because it was insanitary, and the awful little houses were what had been put up in its place.

I must have looked very disappointed because he continued,

"Now just you carry on along this street till you come to number 20. That's where Mrs C. lives. She and I were brought up in the old village, and she'll tell you all about it and show you pictures."

I thanked him but wondered if I would in fact take up his suggestion. I wasn't as forward then as I am now!!!

"Just tell her Paddy Curran the coalman sent you!" he called, as I began to walk in the direction of Number 20. Of course I was hoping Paddy might carry on with his delivery and leave me to carry straight on and take the next turning out of sight.

Walking a little way, I turned round to see what Paddy might be doing. He was watching me and indicated that I should go on further, which of course then I had to! I arrived at the gate of number 20, and again turned round, hoping that perhaps he was satisfied I was going in the right direction and had gone on his way, but no! He was still watching and signed me to go in! So what else could I do?

Once through the gate there was no going back. The front room window overlooked the gate, and I knew that more than likely someone inside had seen me, so I crossed to the door and knocked (or was there a bell? I can't remember and anyway it doesn't matter!).

The door was opened by a grey haired, elderly - as I would have said then - woman wearing a wrap around apron. I explained why I was there and without further ado, I was welcomed in, and after being introduced to her husband and brother, ushered into that front room overlooking the gate, and shown two pictures hanging on the wall.

"You have a look at those while I go and make a cup of tea." she said.
These are the pictures, two paintings of the old Claddagh..... now on the wall of Michael and Bernadette's new house.

Yes, these were like the pictures I had seen before. Mrs C. came back from the kitchen with an enormous mug of tea for me, and some pictures from an old calendar. While I drank my tea she pointed out each house and told me who had lived there, who they were related to, how many were in the family..... All the houses were single storey except one, and all had thatched roofs. There were geese running around freely in the foreground of one or two, and the occasional old woman with black shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders was seen bustling along the road or standing on a corner in conversation with another, but the houses in these old black and white photos really didn't look that attractive. It was soon obvious why the village had finally been condemned.

We talked for a good while, then Mrs C. asked when had I eaten last. She would go and get me something to eat. The something was a huge plateful of bacon rashers, eggs, sausages, and goodness knows what else! What hospitality! Knowing that there was at that time no hostel in Galway, I enquired if there was somewhere nearby I could put up my tent for the night so it was duly pitched in the garden, and later when Mrs C's family called round, the two little girls, Roisin and Louise, had a great time playing in it! (I had a beautiful photo of the two of them in that tent, but it was lost, along with all my other photos, in a house fire some years later.)

Mrs C's son, Michael, had been born and brought up in the new village - in this very house - and was extremely passionate about the Claddagh and its history. He considered himself a Claddagh man before he was a Galwegian. His wife Bernadette was a lovely young woman, a lot quieter than her husband, and we all got on very well. Michael and I shared several interests, and even had the same favourite authors in Walter Macken and Maurice Walsh.

a pictorial map of the old Claddagh, drawn by Michael.

The time went on and soon the family were ready for home, by which time it had been decided that I would not sleep in the tent but in the spare bedroom, and that the next day I would go out on the boat with Michael and Berny, fishing on Galway Bay. I was so totally overwhelmed, but stay I did, and next day I first went to the market with Mrs C. for fresh produce that no doubt had come in straight from the country that morning. At that time the stalls were nothing more than flat boxes and baskets laid out on the flat donkey carts or on the road beside, and I remember Mrs C. chatting and discussing with some of the other women, one or two wrapped in their traditional Galway shawls. Michael and Berny came by again later and off we went to catch some mackerel in the bay which we brought back to number 20 and cooked. Never has fish tasted so good!

Next day I was persuaded to stay a bit longer and as Mrs C. was going to church with the girls, her grandchildren, I went along too, feeling slightly conspicuous for not taking part in the Mass, not being RC, but it was all very casual and laid-back, so I needn't have worried.
What else we did that weekend I don't remember, but we parted firm friends, and have kept in touch throughout the years. I visited on other occasions, staying with Mrs C, and have been visited by Michael and Berny in Scotland, and last time I visited was when Kathleen, as I learned to call Mrs C. was still alive, though Martin and Micky were gone, and an addition in the form of little Mary had been made to the family.

Here's a photo of the family in 1986 when Martin and Kathleen were obviously celebrating something with "juice of the grape" and cake! That's Berny on the left with Roisin in front, Daddy Martin and Kathleen next and that's Lulu on the right.

Now it is Daddy Michael instead of Daddy Martin (the family's title for grandfather), with his seven grandchildren, Roisin's four in Wales, Lulu 's two, just up the road a bit and Mary's little Ella.

As Michael said on this visit, Where did the years go? Indeed, indeed, but here we are, all these years later, and we have our memories of them as fresh as ever in our minds - nearly!

So, to Paddy, the now retired, coalman, I want to say SLAINTE, and a big thank you for indirectly introducing me to this wonderful family! Imagine if he had gone on his way and I had walked on past the gate at Number 20? What a friendship I would have missed!

Talk again soon.

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