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Making a History of the Homeplace

Breandán Mac Suibhne

Beagh is two miles from the two-street town of Ardara, south-west Donegal. It lies west of three hills, Tullycleave, Tullymore, and Tullybeg, that in spring rise green above rust coloured caorán, lake-dotted bog and heath, which stretches four miles from the Owenea to a fertile swathe in Kilclooney. Beagh also rises, but it scarcely forms a hill and its scraps of arable amount to little beside the best land in the Tullies.

At the centre of Beagh is a thatched building, twelve feet wide and twenty-two feet long. Erected in 1845, it was the local national school until its replacement in 1894; it is still “the Old School”. Here, in 1856, the schoolmaster was 24-year-old Patrick McGlynn, and that summer he turned informer on the Molly Maguires, a secret society behind a wave of “outrage” that had begun in the years of the Famine. The result was the arrest of over two dozen men, most from around Ardara, but some from Dungloe, Fintown, Glenties, Carrick, Killybegs, and Mountcharles.

One of several reasons given by the schoolmaster for informing was a concern to protect a tenant farmer, James Gallagher of Beagh, who the Mollies had targeted. Gallagher had acquired land in sordid circumstances from three neighbours. The first neighbour was a man named Mulhern. In return for his land, Gallagher paid his passage to America in “the time of the Famine”. The others were an indebted widow, Nancy Sweeney, whose debts he cleared for half of her holding, and a hard-drinker, Pat Kennedy, who had “mortgaged” land to him for whiskey; Kennedy was left with a third of his land. But it was not Gallagher’s acquisition of land that riled the Mollies. Rather it was what he proposed to do with it: specifically, Gallagher had resolved to evict four families of subtenants (three of whom were landless) from his expanded holding.

Breandán Mac Suibhne’s The End of Outrage is a story of betrayal in a small community. It touches the gold rush towns of Australia in the 1850s, the mine patches of north-eastern Pennsylvania in the 1870s, and Oakland, California in the 1910s. But it returns, time and again, to west Donegal, the town of Ardara, and the townland of Beagh, and it ends in our own time.


OWEN … a man long dead, long forgotten, his name ‘eroded’ beyond recognition, whose trivial little story nobody in the parish remembers.
YOLLAND Except you.
OWEN I’ve left here.
YOLLAND You remember it.

Brian Friel, Translations (1980), II.i

Beagh was the beginning, and it shall be the end. Like any other place, it has been home to some imponderables. One is an adamant insistence by people of the same surname that they are not related. In 1857, when Patrick McGlynn left for Melbourne, eight extended families held land in Beagh directly from the Marquess of Conyngham; and those eight families would own that same land in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Among the eight were two Sweeney families whose descendants today deny any connection to each other. There were also three Kennedy families and two Gallagher families who always insisted on their separate and distinct lineages.

In this place of short men, my granduncle Con Kennedy was uncommonly tall at about six foot, and, in youth, he was fit. In the 1920s, Francis Watson was the fishery inspector in Ardara. An accomplished athlete, he used to go out with his bailiffs to “watch the river” and “hunt” poachers, and he is remembered to have said that the greatest insult which he ever received was Con Kennedy of Beagh, when being pursued with a net, turning and running back towards him to retrieve a shoe that he had dropped.

Something of Con’s character can be glimpsed in his father’s will (emphasis added):

On the 3rd of Jany in the year of our Lord 1931, I John Kennedy, Beagh do make this my last will and testament:
I bequeath to my wife the upper room & £5.
The house, land & stock to my son Con, with the provision that he is not to act the part of boss over the other members of the family.
I leave £30 to Annie, £20 to Mary and £20 to Joe.
I leave £2 for Masses for the repose of my own soul.
I leave £2 for Masses for the repose of the souls of my father, mother, brothers & sisters.
I leave 1/– to my son Patk. and 1/– to  my son Neil both of whom are at present in America.

Con, then, was bossy, and he was stubborn too. There was a right way and a wrong way to do things. Con’s way was the right way. And he had no time for “ignorance”. One Sunday in the 1970s, when the bus struggled up the hill-head in Ardara after Mass, he remarked to nobody in particular that the “internal combustion engine” was a wonderful thing, and he was duly appalled when a traveling companion sniffed, “It isn’t worth a damn without the diesel.”

No one now remembers Con mentioning anything of what had happened in Beagh in the mid-1850s, a half-century before his birth. Still, genealogy ‑ he might have said “breed” ‑ mattered to him, and he had the bearing of one who knew that he came of people of more substance than he enjoyed. In the chemist’s shop in Ardara in the 1960s, he was once mistaken for one of the Táilliúr Kennedys. When the innocent chemist responded to his abrupt denial with “But are you not related?”, Con retorted in the English-clad Irish spoken by that generation, “Not one drop’s blood!” The joke was on the indignant one. The Táilliúrs had more and better land than Con Kennedy’s people since his great-grandfather, Pat, “mortgaged” the best part of the second best “cut” in Beagh to James Gallagher to get money for whiskey. That is what the Táilliúrs knew, and the records of state and estate ‑ rates and rents, the paper trail of the poor ‑ confirm that in 1855, Con’s grandfather, James Pat, succeeded the old man as tenant of a much reduced holding.

The state only started trying to record all Irish births, deaths and marriages in 1864, and if baptisms, funerals and marriages were ever systematically recorded before 1867, by Ardara’s “economical” priest, John McGarvey, no register now survives that would allow the accepted notion that families with the same surname are not related to be traced any further back in time. And, of course, records could only carry it so far—at some point, all are related. But, here, fact lies beyond the horizon of history, and some facts do not need to be known. On a summer’s day in the early 1970s, the same Con Kennedy squeezed his long frame into the back of a tiny grey car beside three small children. Seat-belts—not compulsory for drivers in the “South” of Ireland until 1979 ‑ were then an added extra, and a child’s car seat a puzzling contraption seen only in mail-order catalogues.

 “Adam and Eve and Nip Me went over the bridge to bathe. Adam and Eve were drowned, who was saved?” The boy who answered received a sharp pinch from calloused fingers. It was an old catch—as old as some mummers’ rhymes. And the lesson was valuable in that place in the 1970s. The wise contemplate the consequence of putting words on what they know, and sometimes the shrewd say nothing at all.

The shrewd may say that the boy should have known better than to make a history of the homeplace. Níl coir san fhocal nach ndeirtear, There is no harm in the word not spoken, was an adage between the Tullies and Downstrands when the events described in this book took place, and it is not bereft of wisdom. An English historian has compared his method to that of a policeman looking for clues. An Italian historian has reflected on how his weighing and considering evidence compares to the method of a judge. And a historian of rural Ireland accepts that he risks comparison to that most reviled figure in the criminal justice process—the informer, somebody like Patrick McGlynn.

But a history has been made of the homeplace, and central to it is James Gallagher. Translations (1980), Brian Friel’s great play about language and politics, learning and betrayal, loss and failure, is set in the same time and place. Redcoat engineers are mapping south-west Donegal. A local fellow, a schoolmaster’s son, who does not live there anymore, is working with them to elucidate place-names. And he scoffs at having to explain how a well came to be named after “a man long dead, long forgotten, his name ‘eroded’ beyond recognition, whose trivial little story nobody in the parish remembers”. James Gallagher had not been entirely “forgotten” before the making of this history; after all, I heard of him before I read of him in a magistrate’s file in a state archive and before I pored over his rates and rentals, and those of his neighbours. His “trivial little story” was known to me.

Still, the story that I heard had been so “eroded” that it did not include some crucial facts. It was the magistrate’s file and press reports of a resulting court case not some fireside story, that revealed Gallagher’s decision to clear his subtenants to have precipitated the Mollies’ raid on his house on 9 March 1856; the threatening letter left on his dresser that night had explicitly warned “your royal highness” to “relinquish your idea of dispossessing people”. It was those same archival sources that established that, when Gallagher did not heed that warning, the prospect that he would be beaten to death was a factor in McGlynn’s decision to write to Daniel Cruise and turn informer. And it was a government land valuation that identified the dispossessed as Brogans, Mooneys, McCaffertys, and O’Donnells. Significantly too, so eroded was the story in my time, that while I had heard that Gallagher purchased land, in sordid circumstances, from tenants—the Mulherns “in the time of the Famine” and hard-drinking Pat Kennedy (but not, for some reason, indebted Widow Sweeney)—nobody ever made mention to me of the man having got rid of those four families.

This history has offered an explanation of that omission: the people cleared were subtenants, and the stories that I heard were told by the descendants of tenants, people with their names in the agent’s book. They and their forbears had been chosen to remain in the place, when their siblings left. The chosen ones ‑ among the Sweeneys, my grandfather (b. 1900) back at least to his grandfather (b. c. 1830), and as many generations among the Kennedys ‑ were beneficiaries of emigration, for they got the homeplace. But they were tied to the homeplace too, obligated to remain there and to look after elderly parents while the prodigals disported themselves in the bright cities of America, Scotland, England and Australia. And many of them resented it, quietly cursing the bog and the potato patch, the rain and the reproach of neighbours that were their fate. In autumn 1936, Brian Ó Baoill, 77, of Mín an Chearrbhaigh, in the hills south of Ardara, raked over the ashes of his life with Seán Ó hEochaidh:

Tá mé suas le ceithre scór bliadhan  … I am coming up on eighty years of age and in my early years … yerrah, I didn’t see worldly pleasure in my early years, just trying to live as best I could. I had few of my own people around. I only had my mother, and, indeed, I had it tough in my early years, and I would have to pity my mother trying to do the best for me, and when I was able to fend for myself I had to look after her. I decided to leave my mother, but there was no way to leave her by herself, and I used often have a thought of going away and leaving this place. But then, I used to think that the neighbours would cast it up to me, and I would bring ill-luck on myself, for leaving her by herself.

Other people did get away. In the 1910s Barney McNelis (b. 1881) of Kilgole, outside Ardara, got up one morning, and he went to the bog with a creel and sleán or turfspade. And there he took a bundle with his Sunday suit and good shoes from the creel and he walked to Glenties, to get a train to Stranorlar, connecting to Strabane and Derry, where he took ship to Glasgow, and then to New Zealand. Nobody at home had known he was leaving. They said that he must have wanted to avoid any upset in the house. Perhaps he did, but Barney McNelis left Kilgole like a runaway slave.

The elderly, indeed, sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to keep the chosen one at home. In 1908, one of the Táilliúrs, Patrick, in America sent a son, Tommy, born in Pennsylvania in 1891, back to Beagh to live with his sister Nelly and her husband William Gallagher; they had married late, in spring 1896, when she was in her mid-40s and her husband ten years her senior. The marriage had been childless, and Tommy would have been expected to get the place after them. Over a century later, in 2015, in Long Island, New York, Tommy’s surviving children (b. 1920s and 1930s) remembered him saying that Nelly told him that his by then widowed mother in Philadelphia had died. It was a lie, a cruel delusion only broken on a day in 1914 when Nelly was out and the postman arrived with a letter addressed to the young fellow, then in his early twenties. It was from his mother, asking why he never wrote. Nelly had been destroying letters from America in hopes of keeping him in Ireland. Tommy left for Philadelphia. In 1920, he came back to marry Con Kennedy’s sister Sarah. But they saw no future for themselves in Beagh, and in 1923 with an 11-month-old son, Patrick, they returned to the States, and settled in Brooklyn.

Such was the place in which the “trivial little story” ‑ the smallholder-transmitted memory that was received in my own time ‑ preserved details of Gallagher’s unseemly purchase of land from tenants but nothing of his clearance of subtenants. And, for the same reason as those details were preserved, the story told of how the man with most land in Beagh let his father go to the poorhouse. That letter left on Gallagher’s dresser in March 1856, warning him against dispossessing people, had also advised him to treat his father with more kindness. And, in time, when the dispossessed were forgotten, his neglect of his elderly parent became his greatest sin. He had not done what they who told his “trivial little story” did; he had not shouldered his burden. And there lay a great irony ‑ a man who had thrived in the place made by the squaring of the farms in 1838-40 had not been “accountable for his own portion”, the redolent phrase of the land agent who had overseen that “new division’.

Irony gets other twists too. In the dark time before the squaring, when so little can be known of Beagh, only a single sentence uttered by any person from the townland can be said to have been put down on paper. It is that sole direct quotation from Nancy Sweeney’s husband Patrick (his surname then rendered McSwine) when he testified to the Poor Inquiry in the 1830s. “For fear it would be cast up to me”, he said, “I would support my sister, my mother, my father, or even my uncle.”

James Gallagher had broken that old rule, yet he had only done the complementary reverse of what those who told his “trivial little story” did themselves. He had simply done to a prior generation, to his father, what every smallholder did to his own generation and the one coming after him, that is, to his siblings and his children. Gallagher apprehended the logic which others here, until the last few decades, have denied: if every man is only accountable for his own portion, then every ‘sentimental veil’ must, in time, be torn from the family.

The scholar John O’Donovan, who settled the forms of placenames in south-west Donegal for the Ordnance Survey, was the model for the character in Friel’s Translations who resists having to tell a “trivial little story”. “Tradition”, O’Donovan himself once observed, “scarcely ever remembers more than six generations …” Six or more generations have now passed through some of the houses built at the time of the squaring. Making a history of the homeplace was never an exercise in casting up the doings of the long dead to the living, and, indeed, the history that has been made only underscores the absurdity of calling anybody to account for their ancestors. Each of the eight families who held land as tenants in Beagh in 1857 had benefited from the clearance of half-a-dozen families when the place was squared less than twenty years earlier. Then, from the Famine the eldest children in every house early understood that their mother would one day stand in the door and throw the tongs after them ‑ a charm performed when somebody was setting off on a long journey ‑ and that one of their younger brothers, often the youngest, would get their father’s holding. And later, after tenants had become owners and there was a need for things to be done legally, they knew too that when the day came for the old man to sit down to make his last will and testament his only thought of them would be to bequeath them a shilling, so that they, like Con Kennedy’s elder brothers in America, could not dispute what had been determined at their birth. Those people who broke the pattern and remained at home with no prospect of inheriting, led quiet, celibate lives, and every decade, when the census was taken, the truth was told on state paper ‑ a brother was their master, and they were “labourers” or “servants” in his house.

Beagh is different now. In the 1990s my uncle John Joe Sweeney complimented Danny Sweeney (no relation, not one drop’s blood) on the fine house that his son Myles was building. “It is a monster!”, Danny said, according to John Joe, who told things well: “It is too big. Houses these days are too big, and nobody living in them. Way back, houses had only a few rooms. But if you went out in the morning, you could count the wains coming out the door to go to school—one, two, three ... maybe ten. And if you went inside you would find a man and a woman and some auld hoor cocked up in the corner.”

That was Beagh, through the early 1900s ‑ a place made in the time of the Famine, when its people’s relationship to each other and their dead gained new definition, and they found their place in the wide, wide world.


The Epilogue of Breandán Mac Suibhne’s The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2017) is reproduced here by permission of Oxford University Press. © Breandán Mac Suibhne 2017