‘Music brought me to Mayo’

American couple Bob and Pat Cohan have slowly but lovingly restored a tiny abandoned cottage, built about 1798, near Kilcolman, outside Claremorris in Co Mayo. Bob’s three cousins once lived in it and their memory is still kept alive

In the summer of 1977, when a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was Democratic US president, a young North American music teacher was en route across the Atlantic on a backpacking tour.

As Bob Cohan made his way to the west of Ireland, the first Apple II computers were about to be marketed, British punk band The Sex Pistols was making headlines, and Fleetwood Mac's newly released album, Rumours, was on every self-respecting turntable. "And all I wanted to hear was The Clancy Brothers and the music in Co Clare," Cohan laughs. "And then my mother said I must visit her distant cousins in south Mayo. "

Sisters Teresa, Delia and Mary Ellen Oates lived in a tiny whitewashed cottage, built about 1798, near Kilcolman outside Claremorris. The laneway which Cohan walked up to led on to a church and graveyard named after St Colman, around which a cluster of houses had once stood.

Delighted to see him, the sisters agreed to stand outside as Cohan took out his tripod, set the timer on his camera and photographed them all. Some 39 years later, a framed print of that moment hangs on the wall of the same dwelling which Cohan and his wife, Pat, have recently restored.


“Well, it is still a work in progress, but we are nearly there,” Cohan says, as he opens the half door into the stone-floor kitchen, with a turf fire roaring in the large open fireplace. When he first visited, the cottage had one bedroom, one large living room, no kitchen or toilet. The thatched roof was covered with tin, as were the roofs of a nearby shed and byre.

“It was well known as a rambling house, where visitors would call and exchange news and stories,”Cohan says.

Local historian Kevin McGuire was able to tell him it had been part of a cluster or “clachan” of 33 dwellings close to the church in 1841. Six years after the onset of the Great Famine and subsequent clearances to use land for grazing, that number had dwindled to nine, and then to just three by the 1890s.

McGuire says it is quite likely the Oates house, also lived in by Kearneys, survived as it was a herders' cottage. After he returned to the US, Cohan taught for five more years, and then opened a pub in Saratoga Springs, New York. The Parting Glass, as it was called, became a well-known venue for Irish traditional music. "I suppose the music was always in my blood, since my grandpa Denis Keohane left Dunmanway in Co Cork for the US," Cohan says. "At some point, the surname's spelling was simplified."

Lasting impression His 1977 sabbatical in the west of Ireland had left a lasting impression. In 1990, he returned and opened a pub in Cornamona, close to the Galway-Mayo border. Two of his cousins, Mary Ellen and Delia, had passed away in the previous three years, but he made a point of visiting surviving sister, Teresa, almost every week until her death in August 1994.

“I would drive her to Knock, and she knew I wasn’t so religious, so I’d head off,” he says. “And then she’d enjoy a whiskey at the weekends.”

When the cottage was put up for auction in 1995, Cohan put in an offer. A report in the Farming Independent compared Cohan's quest to that of fictional boxer Sean Thornton, played by John Wayne in The Quiet Man – except Cohan was more fortunate, as the neighbours agreed not to bid against him. He secured the property on 0.4 of an acre for £3,000. Cohan wasn't quite sure what he would do next and "life took over" for about 20 years, he says.

“I would have neighbours check on it, but it really became a ruin, the kitchen dresser disappeared and it was a pretty abandoned and overgrown sight when I came back in 2008,” he recalls. A year later, in 2009, Cohan and his wife Pat were sitting in May sunshine, having a picnic outside the cottage when he set up his camera again. This photograph was of Pat, on a rug, minutes after they decided to turn the cottage into a home.

" Barack Obama had been elected US president the previous fall, so I suppose this was our 'yes, we can' moment," Pat Cohan says. "We went back to Richard Finn, the auctioneer who had sold the house to Bob, and he said he knew just the man who would help us,"she adds.

Builder Tim Hughes said little as he assessed the task ahead. He knew the area well, remembered the sisters, and his mother and friends had cycled to a dance hall close to their cottage. "But, actually, I thought the Cohans were mad and that it was a lost cause," Hughes smiles now.

The project was undertaken in stages, to match the budget. Each summer from 2010, the couple would make the trip over from the US – initially staying close by. There was no architect involved, Pat Cohan says. “We would make suggestions and Tim and his team would come up with brilliant plans.” she explained.

Hughes began with the tin roof, which he stripped off, along with the thatch underneath. The building had weathered much from the late 18th century, but seemed very fragile at that stage, he says.

Holding structure together To hold the structure together, he inserted several steel beams which were then wrapped with rod iron and cement. Within the first year, the cottage had a new roof of composite slates, eaves were reinforced and he then tackled the kitchen and floor. There was a difference of 12 inches in height between the front door and bedroom, and he dug it out by hand – finding the foundations were clay.

The original stone hearth was restored, as was the chimney – complete with an iron crane originally used to hold pots over the fire. He welded a griddle on which the Cohans cooked their first fry.

“The chimney was known not to have a proper ‘pull’, which was why the house was always full of smoke, so I had to do a fair bit of work to reline it,” Hughes says. “For some reason the sisters had become so used to the smoke that they never thought to have the chimney repaired.”

To the right of the fireplace is an alcove known as “the hag”, where either sick animals or elderly people were kept close to the heat. This has been retained with original stonework and a timber beam. It now serves as the computer room.

The Cohans did not seek any Heritage Council advice or funding, as they say they preferred to have the freedom for certain comforts. So, kerosene central heating has been installed, and the main bedroom, with its stone walls repointed, has a wood-burning stove.

Replacement windows Sash windows were replaced, with Hughes endeavouring to keep new versions as close as possible to the original. Over the kitchen, a timber loft has provided an extra bedroom as skylights catch the light which the sisters never had, and the original half door, which had been rotting, was replaced.

The Cohans’ next concession to the 21st century was a bathroom and utility room, and this required an extension at the back. The cottage had been linked up to the local group water scheme in Barnacarroll. “We had told Tim in 2014 that we were going to stay, and so we brought a commode to get us by,” Pat Cohan says. A large chamber pot and jug have now been consigned to an overhead shelf. The cottage extension has been completed and the brickwork will be rough plastered and whitewashed to match the main building.

The house has already been “warmed”, with Hughes playing his box accordion in a session last year and singer Seán Keane among visiting friends.

“So we have spent eight weeks here this summer, and we just love it,” the Cohans say, as they brew up tea and talk of their next visit over. Above the fireplace, they have hung a series of photographic portraits of the three Oates sisters, while there is also a plaque to previous residents outside the half door.

There is a momentary silence as we catch the eye of Delia, captured by Cohan as she walked down the lane in jumper, skirt, apron and boots, carrying a scythe . . .