Living, working and playing in the glow of Diamond Mountain and the shadow of cruelty
A SECRET HISTORY OF HOUSES:Letterfrack is synonymous with brutality these days but growing up in a converted haybarn over a pub and shop at the village crossroads has many positive memories for Deirdre Veldon
ONLY LATELY DID I realise I had spent my childhood in a haybarn. Clues to the building’s previous life – like the rain belting down noisily on the corrugated roof at night – were lost on me. We called it “the flat”, when it was still fashionable to live in a flat. It meant we could properly live over the shop.
When my family arrived in the village of Letterfrack, Connemara, in Co Galway, in 1973, as the new owners of pub and shop, the accommodation problem soon emerged and needed fixing, fast. The previous owner, Michael Neary, kept a farm and his haybarn out the back was quickly converted into living quarters and annexed to the main building, thereafter known as “downstairs”.
In every way, we were acutely attached to the business that went on downstairs. We lived it, from first thing in the morning, when you’d wake to hear the lads talking tins of peas with the delivery man in the store below, to late, late at night when, amid laughter and the odd shout, the world had been put to rights from a barstool and the last worker pulled the back door quietly behind them.
Letterfrack was only a speck on the western seaboard, but, for me growing up, mention of its name drew instant recognition. Few people born after the mid-1970s had a notion where it was. Others, especially men of a certain age, would cringe and recall childhood threats of being sent to the industrial school at Letterfrack, or “the ‘Frack”, as Mannix Flynn called it, in his account of his time there.
Almost 40 years after the reformatory closed, memories of Letterfrack bubble up constantly in the slow emergence of abuse that happened there. It’s strange to be from a place so strongly associated with cruelty and brutality. Occasionally, I had to tell people that I didn’t go to the industrial school. But far from being damaged by living there, if anything, the school’s existence enriched my childhood.
When the Christian Brothers left Letterfrack in 1974, we were left with the run of the place. It was our very own adventure playground. We chased down the corridors; marvelled at the expanse of the dorms; played hopscotch and football in the concrete yard and spooked ourselves trying to get past doors locked against us.
What had, or hadn’t happened when the boys were there was just an echo for us, at that time. We wondered a bit about the graveyard with two headstones bearing hundreds of boys’ names. How did so many young boys die, we mused. Hadn’t they very bad luck, the Brothers? Then we would be diverted by something else, and we’d be off.
MY HOME PLACE pre-dates the industrial school by many years. It lies on the southwest quadrant of the crossroads in Letterfrack. The crossroads was the village, so it was easy to be at the centre of things.
But we didn’t know how far back we could trace our home in the village’s past.
That’s where the maps came in. In the County Galway Ordnance Survey map of 1842 the single house at Letterfrack crossroads is marked on the site of my family home. This is corroborated in the “parish map” of Ballynakill from 1839, which shows a building in this spot on the area of the map marked “boggy”.
Both show half a dozen buildings peppered around the foot of Diamond Mountain, in what is now Connemara National Park. A few houses were thinly scattered a mile or so in any direction.
Our house might have remained alone on the crossroads, but for the arrival, in 1849, of a wealthy Quaker couple from Bradford, James and Mary Ellis.
Moved by the devastation they had seen during a visit to Connemara, the Ellises wanted to help with the post-Famine effort. They leased nearly 1,000 acres of rough land and set about reclaiming it, farming it and planting it with woodland. They built a schoolhouse, housing for tradesmen, a shop, a dispensary, and a temperance hotel.
After eight years, James Ellis’s health failed and he brought Mary back to Yorkshire, so she wouldn’t be left alone when he died. Their legacy was great. They had employed up to 80 people for fair wages, giving training in new methods of building and farming and doing charitable works for the poorest families. They left behind a village no longer destitute, getting to its knees. The Ellises are still remembered with fond respect in Letterfrack.
In the mid 1880s, the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr John McEvilly, bought the Ellis property and established St Joseph’s Industrial School. It was about as far away from Dublin as you could get and the – mostly city – boys who were sent there, saw it a remote and harsh sentence; the juvenile equivalent of being sent to Van Diemen’s Land.
Some observers saw it differently. On August 13th, 1904, an “OF” wrote in this newspaper of a day trip to Connemara. “We saw, some distance from the road, about 50 boys bathing. Such a jolly time as they seemed to be having. We were told they were from the industrial school kept by the Christian Brothers at Letterfrack, and we saw the fine building a little off the road under Diamond Mountain. What lucky boys to live in so beautiful a spot. I wonder do they appreciate it?”
Plenty has been written about Letterfrack’s industrial school in recent years. I doubt if much of it describes the gratitude of the “lucky” boys at being sent to this beauty spot.
The 1901 census records around 160 boys at the industrial school, a few of them as young as six. At that time, there were 284 inhabitants in the village.
In 1901, my family home, across the road from the industrial school, was being run as a shop by Michael (42) and Ellen Mullen (25). They had four children, May (5), Bridget (4), Martin (3) and Patrick (2).
By the 1911 census, Ellen is dead and Michael has another son, also Michael, now aged 10. It’s possible Ellen died in childbirth, given the high rates of maternal mortality at the time.
In the intervening decade Michael has added “spirit grocer” to his occupation of “shopkeeper”. Joining the licensed trade must have improved Mullen’s fortunes considerably, as also listed in the household is “car driver etc”, John Coyne. It is surprising that people of apparently modest means had a car, let alone a driver at this time.
In 1911, there were 297 people living in the village’s 28 residences, with females outnumbered by at least three to one (224 males, 72 females), again thanks to the reformatory. It jars a bit to note that while the children at school were described in the census as “scholars”, the boys at the industrial school were “pupils”.
While the Christian Brothers contributed to the local economy in offering employment, they didn’t patronise the two local shops, including the Mullen’s across the road. According to Mary Ellen Aspell, now 91, who worked at the monastery adjoining the school in the 1930s, the Brothers preferred instead to source supplies in Clifden or Galway.
According to the deeds, my family home was sold by Michael Mullen in 1922, to one Michael Walsh. The business returned to the Mullen family in 1933, when it was bought by Martin Mullen, Michael’s son.
HARD AS IT IS to imagine, Letterfrack was the location for two technological leaps in the early 20th century. The first of these occurred when the Italian radio telegraph inventor Guglielmo Marconi selected Letterfrack as the site of the transatlantic wireless receiver station for his new duplex transatlantic wireless service. From 1913, eastbound messages were sent from his Marconi Towers, Nova Scotia high power wireless station to Letterfrack.
Though it probably got a small benefit from Marconi’s work, Letterfrack saw huge advances when electricity was introduced in 1925; a quarter of a century before the rural electrification scheme brought it west. This was thanks to the hydro-electric generator run from the rainfall from Diamond Hill by the industrial school.
The tradition of local innovation and resourcefulness came full circle, starting in the late 1970s, when the industrial school was bought by community-owned development company, Connemara West. It is now the site of an acclaimed furniture college, prizewinning architecture, a radio station and a range of thriving local services. The industrial school is giving back to its community in spades.