Kiltimagh, 1989: ‘The town they left behind’

From the Archive: In 1989, The Irish Times visited Kiltimagh, Co Mayo which, like many Irish towns, was being drained by emigration after the good years of the 1960s and 1970s. In the first of three reports published that January, Caroline Walsh talked to those still living there


Everyone in Kiltimagh has his own barometer of the effects of emigration. For Frank Maye, proprietor of the Westway Hotel , it’s a problem with the bands. “I might have a band booked for a function in the summer and then two weeks before the date you get notice that they’re emigrating.

It’s so bad now they won’t even take a deposit because when the day comes they might be gone, working as brickies in the States or England or building a camp with Taylor Woodrow Wimpey in the Falklands. “

For Thomas Charlton , auctioneer and Irish Permanent agent on Main Street, it’s the 40 per cent of properties on his books put there by emigrants – and the fat lodgements that roll in regularly from illegals in the States.

The GAA has its own disaster story. Of the senior team that started last spring, half are no longer in the area. The name of Kiltimagh, an east Mayo town of 1,200 people, once smacked of merriment. It was the venue for the Culchie Come Home Festival and the ancestral home of the world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. These days, it has a different feeling.

“What a legacy, such a tragedy / thousands are saying goodbye / one last look cast Behind us / as we bid the green island goodbye,” crooned the voice of Paddy Reilly on the radio as I turned off the Charlestown-Knock road the other day, heading for Kiltimagh: it was a graphic soundtrack for the deserted homesteads looming out there in the rain, some not all that ancient.

“It sounds like another world,” someone said on the phone from Dublin , and in this other world many things are different. By the time you’ve met your fourth or fifth American citizen in Kiltimagh it begins to seem more than just a coincidence.

Here too you will talk of Albert Reynolds and his Budget, but just as often you’ll hear talk of British house prices and mortgage rates and the vagaries of Nigel Lawson.

Here, the meanness of the Irish subbies (sub-contractors) in Britain, the knack of getting taken on by a main contractor and the good money on the Isle of Dogs in the London docklands are hot topics.

“Christmas fathers”, away working in England for the bulk of the year, and “jet navvies”, working an 80-hour week at £5 an hour and hopping home via Knock Airport for a week every six weeks or two months. These are some of the terms you learn. Here, hardly anyone is not touched by emigration.

After the bustle of the midland towns of Westmeath and Longford on the way west, the sleepy stillness of Kiltimagh in early morning is immediately perceptible . “Sure what jobs would people be going to?” says a cynic.

It’s a year now since the local curate, Father Padraic Brennan, completed “The Kiltimagh Diaspora”, a survey of 657 young people who left second-level education between 1978 and 1986. The results were bad enough then, but when he did an update the other day they were worse. Thirty-eight per cent of those students are now emigrants.

The flight of the pearls is what Jerry Walsh of the Raftery Room bar and restaurant calls it. To the Vice-Principal of the St Louis Secondary School, Hugh McTigue , what’s at stake is the survival of the community.

It drives Padraic Brennan mad when he hears politicians talk of the brain drain — the loss of the cream to abroad. Yes, they’re a loss, he says, “but they have the brains and the skills to figure it out for themselves,” to make out in the long run.

Forty-five per cent of the boys in his survey who went to England never got beyond the Inter Cert. Many of them would have found it hard to cope in school and these are the ones who worry him. A 42-year old native of Charlestown, 15 miles north of Kiltimagh, Father Brennan spent six years in London , in East Acton.

Though emigration was only nearing its floodtide when he was leaving in 1984, he knows the world of the swaying drunks, of the derelict London Irish. “If you go around the dosshouses in London you see it. They’re filled already with the casualties of 1950s emigration and the way we’re going, in the year 2000 they’ll be filled with the casualties of 1980s Ireland. It’s the same old cycle we’re letting happen all over again.”

Many of those going are the children of local people who returned home from the States and England in the late 1960s or early 1970s on Sean Lemass’s “rising tide” or amid the air of boom and expectancy that accompanied Ireland’s entry to the EC. Drawn by the pull of the home place, they moved wives and children out of Queens and Jersey City, out of Kilburn and Camden, Crouch End and Brixton, back to the dream that died after only a few years.

“They got badly stung,” is the local verdict on them now. Looking back, that buoyant time is no longer seen as a watershed but only as a brief hiatus “in a tribal tradition going back generations. It wasn’t long before the old pattern reasserted itself in places like Treenagleragh, the boggy townland on the side of Sliabh Chairn that is both beautiful and bleak at the same time.

Once it was ablaze with lights at night, like a Christmas tree. Now there are just a few lighted windows dotted here and there on the hillside.

It was back to the home place here that Joe Walsh came in 1956, bringing with him his wife Alice from Academy Street in Navan, whom he had met in a queue in Euston Station when both were on their way home to Ireland for Christmas five years before.

Here they reared their six children; often Alice was left behind with Joe’s mother when he went back to England for six months at a time to work in the building trade in London or on the construction of the Ml and M2, living in digs and rooms, saving, and sending back every penny he could.

What propelled both of them was the notion that they were rearing their children for something better than the emigration boat. What baffles her now is how useless was all that cycling her children did through rain or hail to get a decent secondary education at St Louis’s.

“All of them are so well educated, with their Leaving Certs. They all did higher courses. I thought when they finished school and had such a good education that there’d be something for them here. They were such good scholars.”

Three of her boys are now working in construction in England, living in the same area of Neasden as their sister who’s nursing and studying over there too. “My three boys were trained for something other than the spade and the shovel — though there’s no harm in that. They could have gone on to the buildings in England without even an Inter Cert.”

The only reason they didn’t pack up and go back to England themselves is that by the time they realised how things were going it seemed too late. “If I was young again, there’d be no Ireland for me – only for holidays,” says Joe. “It would have been better to see the writing on the wall and make a life over there. The ones who stayed in England, who went over like us in the Forties and Fifties have beautiful homes now, their children have good jobs and they have them near.

“Of the five children in Alice’s childhood home, she’s the only one still in Ireland. Of the four in Joe’s, only two are still here. “And then to see four of my own going it’s unbelievable really,” says Alice. “Over there they have to cook in their rooms and share bathrooms. There might be 30 in a house sharing two bathrooms. It’s just work, work, work, and for what? You’d be wondering all the time.”

The only light she sees on the horizon is that two of her sons are going out with Irish girls. “There’s that bit more of a chance that the girls might draw them home.”

“Can you imagine tilling or ploughing up those hills?” asks Joe, surveying his 30 acres. The young people, he says, will be slow to come back, knowing the hardship others have endured.

WHEN Frank Maye trained with the Savoy Group in Britain he could hardly have guessed that when he came home to buy the Westway Hotel, the backbone of his business – the young people – would be gone; that as one side of his trade diminished , the other would increase; that much of his business would come from “American wakes” – the farewell parties for departing emigrants; from the hard-earned pounds and dollars of other emigrants home on holidays; or from the caskets coming into the airport at Knock.

“Take a bereaved family from Achill,” Frank Maye says. “In the old days they’d have to go to Dublin, which would take eight hours. The body would have to be cleared. It could be days before the remains arrived home depending on the flight or the crossing. Now they come home to Knock. The hearse drives out to meet the coffin. The flight might come in around 2pm but they’re not due home, or out to Crossmolina, Newport, Westport or Bangor Erris until 7pm for the arrival, so they might come in to me for lunch.

“The average would be a party of 70 to 100. You could put it down as a late lunch or a high tea. The undertaker or the family would organise it. I might get 12 to 14 of those a year.”

Making money out of these people isn’t what he envisaged when he went into business first; a trade based on leaving and on dying. Emigration has brought in business for Thomas Charlton, too. Illegal immigrants to the US, unable to bank there, send him lodgements that are never less than $100 dollars and sometimes touch the $1,000 mark.

Over Christmas, home on holidays, they came in droves to see him. “Yesterday I had seven or eight in to know that I’m still here, to see the face they’re sending the money to.” Because they’re still using American addresses, their money is on deposit with the Irish Permanent tax-free and sometimes they’re not just saving, they’re saving with a specific goal in mind. Some would have saved well into the five-figure mark with him by now.

“’Tom, if there’s anything going you think might benefit me, let me know,’ they’ll say, especially if they come from a farm and particularly if they think they are going to get the home place. They’d be interested if 10 or 15 acres came up next to it. Mammy and Daddy will farm it in the meantime and then when the time is right, they’ll come home themselves.”

The heartbreak end of his business is among those selling up, those who came home to the bit of a farm, or a pub or a shop, but had to pull out when there wasn’t a living in it. Even when emigrating for the second time, many still can’t cut all the cords.

“A large number of them still hold on to a corner of something. Maybe just a site – 10 acres. It’s the old saying: the savage loves his native shore. They still have the idea they’ll retire here ,” says Tom Charlton.

If there was a death knell here it was the closure in March 1987 of Irish Spinners, a victim, among other things, of the severe recession being endured by the textile industry. Of the 120 people employed there in its heyday of the early 1980s, most were long-term employees of 20 to 25 years’ standing, many of them farmers and family men using the job in the Spinners to supplement their income. When the Spinners collapsed, it took a way of life with it.

Given that the redundancy money was good and that their pay-related benefit is only running out now, it’s reckoned locally that the worst effects of this collapse haven’t been seen yet. “They had their big fat redundancy cheques but “£15,000 or £16,000 doesn’t last forever. They might feel rich for a few months, years even, but then?” says Jarlath Heneghan, who acted as management accountant to the factory.

Efforts were made locally to buy it. At one hectic time Heneghan was up in Dubiin six times a week trying to work something out, but as he sees it the State rescue agency Foir Teoranta – those lenders of the last resort – let them down by denying backing at the eleventh hour. “The only difference between this place and the Titanic is that they had a band,” reads the sign over the desk of Tom Higgins, chairman of the district community council.

While intent on listing all the good things about the town – the community centre, the squash courts, the indoor and outdoor ball alleys, the local theatre and the plans for the St Patrick’s Day parade with a band coming in from Philadelphia – he is weighed down by the emigration like everyone else.

He litanises some of the 50 businesses he reckons have gone from Kiltimagh. “Starting at the convent and going down Main Street . . . McNicholas’s pub, Corcoran’s pub, O’Dwyer’s, Ruane’s shop, McNamara’s shop, Higgins’s pub, our own place, Corcoran’s shop.”

Yet another of the ubiquitous US citizens in these parts (he lived there for 13 years, served in its army) his children have the citizenship as well: “It was no load for them to carry.” Summing up much of the local sense of loss he says yes, he understands the Government’s push to reduce interest rates, keep borrowing down; but by the time they’ve got things right, who’ll be left to enjoy it?

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