An Irishwoman's Diary

Broadhaven Bay, which runs in to Sruwaddacon Bay, a fishing spot favoured by the young "Ginger"

Broadhaven Bay, which runs in to Sruwaddacon Bay, a fishing spot favoured by the young "Ginger"

 

POLLATHOMAS PRIEST Fr Seán Noone tells a story of a missionary, preaching about the evils of drink and the terrible effects on health. The Redemptorist places two glasses of clear liquid on a table as he exhorts a west of Ireland congregation to repent.

One glass contains water, the other poitín. The missionary holds out two earthworms in the palm of his hand, then drops one of them into the water. It swims around happily.

He drops the second worm into the illicit spirit, and it shrivels up.

“Now, that’s what poitín does to your inside,” he roars. “It burns your guts. I want you all to come up here, and take a pledge that the good Lord will preserve you from such evils.”

The congregation files up, with each individual swearing not to touch the “crathur” ever again.

One man has other ideas, however. On reaching the sanctuary, he asks for a sup of the hard stuff. “I’ve got worms!”

“Ginger”, as Fr Noone calls himself, includes many such tales in a recently published account of his life in and far beyond north Mayo – a life that began on the ninth day of a Christmas some decades ago when a district nurse had to cancel her planned weekend away with her boyfriend.

“What a time to have a baby and me about to leave for Galway,” the nurse reputedly told Ginger’s mother. “I’m out of here within an hour whether you like it or not, so you’d better get on with it.”

Whether by “fright or by favour”, the child “leapt” in his mother Nellie’s womb, and followed instructions at their home in Knockalower.

Ginger’s extraordinary powers of recall would stand to him later, for he had much to do before he took a “late” vocation in the church. The early life he describes is one governed by the close relationship with the field, the bog, the near shore, and the cycle of seasons.

That cycle began on February 1st, St Bridget’s Day, when people began “scrawing” or removing the top heather sod, of bogs. Then there was turf cutting, land draining and fence repairs to be tackled. Early potatoes and cabbages had to be planted by St Patrick’s Day, and then fields had to be ploughed and harrowed, the first spuds dug, and meadows mown by late July.

Rick-making was one of the social highlights, for it involved a meitheal from the community. As summer moved into autumn, oats were cut, sheaves gathered and built into stooks. After a couple of weeks’ seasoning, the stooks were “carted” into the haggard, built into a stack in a circle and lined with dry turf. It was, he recalls, an “artful” exercise.

It is a measure of how farming life has changed that many of the terms used by Ginger in his book are disappearing from daily vocabulary.

There was a mutual dependence between town and country back then, and this has all but vanished. During the second World War, for instance, Mayo County Council bought lorryloads of turf from local farmers to transport to urban homes east.

One square in the northside Dublin suburb of Phibsborough was “covered” in stacks of peat, Ginger recalls.

Emigration, which was “painful, inevitable and necessary”, was part of that cycle, with seasonal “tatie-hoking” squads from Erris travelling to England – the Noone lads among them.

Like so many of his compatriots, Ginger missed the life at home of dance halls and card games and strawboys at weddings, the “stations” in houses, and catching plaice in Sruwaddacon Bay.

Against his mother’s wishes, he opted to become a priest, studying with the Franciscans in England where he initially got into trouble for whistling.

After a number of years away – in Italy, England and in north America – he returned to Ireland to the Dublin parish of Rathgar, where he was also part-time chaplain at St Luke’s Hospital.

It was while he was in Rathgar that he began working on his first book – a history of Erris – with the encouragement of Martin Ryan of the National Library of Ireland and Peter Thursfield, photographer and former picture editor of this newspaper.

Ginger’s life was to take many twists and turns thereafter. He moved to a west Dublin parish in Clondalkin, where he became acquainted with a tougher life than that on the city’s south side.

Through his love for travel, he joined the Apostleship of the Sea, founded in Glasgow in 1899 to minister to the needs of seafarers. It would offer endless opportunities to work as chaplain on cruise ships.

However, if his account seems to reflect an idyllic existence, it is partly because he makes light of negative experiences.

At 4am one December morning, five men in balaclavas broke into his home in Dublin and confronted him in his bedroom. Ginger sustained four fractured ribs when struck with an iron bar. A bed sheet was stuffed in his mouth. The men were looking for the sacristy keys, and took away the weekend collection.

The Garda found some of the money later, but hadn’t enough evidence, he says, to bring the suspects, including the late “General”, Martin Cahill, to court. To this day, Fr Noone considers himself lucky to be alive.

The author is donating proceeds from the book to victims of the recent flooding in the west, and to several charities, including Mayo/Roscommon Hospice.

Crossing the Channel: An Amazing Adventure, by Seán Noone, is available from Erris Publications, Pollathomas, Ballina, Co Mayo.