A Letter to the Galwegians – Frank McNally on an old Glenamaddy custom aimed at keeping emigrants in touch
“The young man was at first puzzled. Then he realised he had become just the latest recipient of a ‘Corner House Letter’, a sort of news-bulletin on local events, issued to those who had left.”
On foot of Wednesday’s column about the “Fartown Phoenix”, I received a very nice email from Sean Brogan, a proud son of Glenamaddy, long exiled. He was delighted, but not surprised, at the story of a house rebuilt from its ashes, without payment, by neighbours.
This was in keeping with a place where, as he said, “everyone knows everyone” and they look after their own. By “their own”, he added, he didn’t mean just blood relatives or even natives. Being neighbours was the key thing. “[Glenamaddy] is as multi-cultural a village now as Galway is a city, but it is still local.”
Anyway, the story also reminded him of something that happened when he first left there for London back in the 1980s. Soon after he arrived in that vast city, so did a letter from a publican back home: John Keaveney, aka “Seaneen Tom”, proprietor of the “Corner House”, as the pub was known.
The young man was at first puzzled. Then he realised he had become just the latest recipient of a “Corner House Letter”, a sort of news-bulletin on local events, issued to those who had left.
It was a tradition handed down from Keaveney’s father and grandfather. Now he too was taking it upon himself to keep emigrants updated and – as Sean puts it in a lovely phrase – “to remind them they belonged somewhere”.
So it continued, for years. As well as news of births, marriages, deaths, and other events, the letters would also sometimes include clippings from the Tuam Herald or Ireland’s Own, on subjects of interest to the recipient. And always they would be signed off the same way: “Take good care of yourself, a Mhac, yours, John and Bridie Keaveney, The Square, Glenamaddy.”
Their frequency diminished eventually, for the usual sad reasons. But when the old publican died a few years ago, Brogan returned a long-earned compliment, first for his funeral, and later to deliver a public eulogy to the man who had shown such fatherly concern “for a local lost soul”.
Keaveney was not just a letter-writer, apparently. He was also an avid reader, with boundless interest in the world at large, in part expressed by requests to people to bring him postcards of where they had been.
Upon delivery, Brogan recalled, “we would talk for hours about the wonders of those places and I was often left in bewilderment at which of the two of us had actually visited…”
But the publican had two specialist subjects, nearer home. One was the Maamtrasna murders of 1882 (which led to a notorious trial in which an elderly Irish-speaker was wrongly convicted in an English he couldn’t understand, something James Joyce saw as Ireland’s fate then in microcosm).
The other was the epic march of O’Sullivan Bere and his followers in 1603, northwards through a scorched-earth Ireland after the Battle of Kinsale. Their trek passed through east Galway. So Keaveney used to hold forth on both those subjects – with illustrative maps – like a “professor”.
One of the things Brogan learned from him was the value of all things local.To the outside world, a place like Glenamaddy might seem eccentric, he thought: “But who was the outside world to decide what was normal?”
This reminds me of something a wise Monaghan man used to preach. No, not Big Tom again – even if he and Glenamaddy were synonymous. The other Monaghan man: Patrick Kavanagh.
Crucial to Kavanagh’s philosophy was the pre-eminence of the parochial over the provincial. The provincial mindset looked to Dublin, or London, to find out what mattered. Meanwhile, everything that really did matter was already in the local parish: Inniskeen, or Baggot Street, or Glenamaddy.
It may be useful to recall here that Kavanagh’s surname was not really Kavanagh.It had mutated over two generations, from his grandfather’s Kevany. Furthermore, the latter had migrated to Monaghan from Connacht. Maybe he and the publican were related.
Another coincidence worth nothing is that Sean Brogan’s family business is a bakery, begun in Glenamaddy in the 1960s, but now headquartered in Dublin and delivering to many parts. As such, he shares a vocation with Jeremy Zanni, the man whose house was rebuilt and a baker too.
Galway is well supplied with its daily bread (and shortbread), reassuring in a county that still bitterly remembers Trevelyan’s corn. But in suggesting on Wednesday that Jeremy’s customers include the Connacht Rugby Team, I inadvertently omitted the middle man. He doesn’t supply them directly. He supplies the Badger & Dodo café, near the rugby grounds in Galway, which the players have been known to frequent for their flat whites and sandwiches.