The house that neighbourliness built – a heart-warming story from Co Galway

An Irishman's Diary by Frank McNally on a community’s good deed

None of the reconstruction team asked for any payment, only a regular supply of tea

None of the reconstruction team asked for any payment, only a regular supply of tea

 

Thanks to Big Tom, it’s well-known that there are four roads through Glenamaddy, a small town in Co Galway. One of them leads east towards a place called Faartan, or Fartown (from an Irish word meaning “burial mound”). Which is where, until early last month, French-born Jeremy Zanni, and his partner Melanie, along with their son Finn (9), were living in a 300-year-old thatched cottage.

Then, on the night of March 2nd, they had a chimney fire. The brigade was called, the fire put out, and extreme precautions taken to ensure it didn’t attempt a comeback, with flame-retardant foam sprayed everywhere it could go. 

But a renegade spark must have made it deep down into the thatch, undetected, and the next day, it was off again. This time there was nothing the fire brigade could do.

The old part of the house, with its authentically ancient walls of mud-and-horsehair, was burnt to a shell. Only part of a recent extension survived.

To add to the family’s disaster, the property had been uninsured, because it was uninsurable. Premiums would have been exorbitant and accompanied by plenty of small-print disclaimers. So the inmates were left without home or compensation.

What they did have to fall back on, however, was the generosity of neighbours. Heart-warmingly, that turned out to be enough.

The original house

Work on what has been called the “Fartown Phoenix” was instigated by one neighbour in particular. His name, Michael Fitzmaurice, is well known in Dublin thanks to its involvement there in another centuries-old house – on Kildare Street – where he is an Independent TD. 

But as Jeremy insists, that was incidental. It was as a neighbour they knew him, and as a neighbour he and all the others who got involved reacted. That said, everyone concedes there was an element to this very localised housing crisis of “showing Dublin how it’s done”.

They didn’t try to recreate the old structure. They just built a new, same-sized one on its footprint, with cement blocks and a slated roof this time. What it lost in charm, it gained in durability. None of the reconstruction team asked for any payment, meanwhile; only a regular supply of tea.

Perhaps they can also look forward to a few free baguettes in years to come, because it so happens that Jeremy is a specialist baker, whose customers include the Connacht rugby team.  

In any case, the cross between a meitheal and an Amish barn-raising resurrected his home within weeks. The family hopes to be back in it this weekend.

In another stroke of luck, they had been able to get all their belongings – except for an unlamented exercise bike – out before the blaze took hold. And speaking of luck, among the things they found in the ruins was an old donkey-shoe that had been incorporated in the original. Even if its magical powers must have waned over the decades, it has now been built into the new house too.

Had this all happened a few years ago, Big Tom might have gone down to perform the official reopening. Alas, he died last April, whereupon Glenamaddy was heavily represented at his funeral. It was recalled then that he had played the town’s ballroom on the night it closed for good, an occasion said to have featured “more crying than dancing”. The funeral had a bit of both too. 

No doubt the man who sang about “the four dusty byroads to my heart” would have been delighted, if not surprised, to hear about the Glenamaddy building project. The Co Galway community’s own heart is still in the right place, clearly. But it was a sub-theme of the song that, while the four roads led into the town, they also led out. And all too often, that was the defining direction for young people from such places. Hence the homesick crowds who also thronged the Galteemore Ballroom in Cricklewood whenever Big Tom came to London.

In this vein, while reading about Glenamaddy just now, I was interested to see mention of a man called Thomas Hussey, who is said to have left there at some point last century to go to Birmingham and work in construction.

I can’t find out much else about him anywhere, except that he became notable for employing many other Irish emigrants. Together, they built such Birmingham landmarks as the Post Office Tower and the Rotunda. They worked on transport infrastructure too.  And the detail I most like – I hope it’s true – is that, in contrast with his origins in the town of the four country roads, Hussey’s monuments also include Britain’s most famously complicated interchange, Spaghetti Junction.

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