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In My Own Light

A Memoir
Raymond Deane
The Liffey Press


Chapter l

My mother was a peripatetic child-bearer: each of her four surviving children was born in a different hospital, in a different part of the country. To facilitate my arrival on 27 January 1953, she chose a nursing home in Tuam, County Gal-way, run by the Bon Secours Sisters, affectionately known as the 'bone-suckers'.

The circumstances of my birth disqualify me from claiming Achill as my birthplace, but my first few unconscious days hardly qualify me as a Galwegian. These fine distinctions - the two counties rub shoulders and a couple of hours' drive separate Tuam from Achill - are of considerable importance in Ireland. But of course Achill is where I was brought up and must have played a major role in making me whatever it is that I have become.

Achill is separated from the mainland by a 200-yard bridge named after Michael Davitt, one-armed hero of the late nineteenth century land wars. I often tell people, usually gullible foreigners, that I was brought up on an island off the coast of an island off the coast of an island (Great Britain) off the coast of a continent. But whereas the mythology of such western islands as Aran inevitably evokes storm-tossed journeys by frail currach with attendant fatalities and posthumous keening, Achill, excessively accessible, doesn't feel like much of an island at all.

The village of my upbringing is called Bunacurry, and is situated in the centre of the island. Whereas the bulk of the village was officially designated a Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking region, the 'high street' where we lived belonged to the Galltacht (gall = foreigner). In reality, most denizens of this particular Gaeltacht had retained just as much of their native language as secured them the sum of £5 sterling per annum, bestowed on the recommendation of a Cigire (Inspector) who never troubled to probe too deeply the linguistic skills of those who entertained him during his annual flying visit with cups of tea and lamentations about the weather - for which a very minimal vocabulary sufficed.

In those years the island was an impoverished place, although it had been lent a certain mystique by the Belfast artist Paul Henry (1876-1958) who painted many evocative land-and seascapes there in the second decade of the twentieth century. Some years later, in 1954, the great German novelist Heinrich Boll visited the island and conveyed his impressions in his Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Diary). Although not free from a certain romanticising tendency, the book gives a vivid image of life in pre-contraceptive rural Ireland, alongside moving reflections on the phenomenon of emigration that was then a defining feature of Irish life. Boll's cottage, exquisitely situated in Dugort under the protection of Slievemore mountain, has since been turned into an artists' residence.

An earlier temporary resident of the island with an eye for a seascape was Captain Charles Boycott. Perhaps he should have remained in Corrymore House with its spectacular views of sea and cliffs instead of moving to the mainland in 1877 as estate agent to the Earl of Erne. It was there, near Ballinrobe, that he got into a spot of trouble with Charles Stewart Parnell, 'the uncrowned king of Ireland', who recommended that the Captain's tenants should punish him for his colonial ruthlessness 'by putting him in a moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old...' The Captain's name was transferred to the tactic that drove him out of the country, and the term 'boycott' was born.

The house that my maternal grandfather John Connors built is called The Grove, and is situated on Bunacurry Crossroads, also known in his honour as Connors Cross. As ever, reality is refractory and this crossroads is merely a T-junction of the main thoroughfare with a secondary road leading to The Valley, Dooniver and Dugort.

John Connors was a Waterford man who at some point changed his name from O'Connor to Connors in a curiously pointless anti-nationalist gesture. This decision would rebound against him when he found that the Connors were a prominent clan among the local 'tinkers' or travelling people in Mayo, and hence the name had a different social stigma attached. My mother, who resented the name-change, liked to claim this unintentional elective kinship as a badge of honour.

John O'Connor/Connors had been an officer in the pre-dominantly Catholic Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the British police force during the years of occupation. Throughout the 1918-21 War of Independence the loyalty of its members was severely tested, many choosing to collaborate with the IRA rather than work alongside the bloodthirsty British recruits known as the Black and Tans. Not so my grandfather, who according to one legend helped train these nasty characters in Dublin. The truth, rather less unsavoury, seems to have been that he trained RIC recruits in what was called 'gunnery', or the handling of firearms.

When the Irish Free State attained independence in 1922, it is hardly surprising that John Connors was one of those officers of the now disbanded RIC forced to leave the country. He took his wife and children into exile in Liverpool. This, even if something of an Irish ghetto, must surely have been an inhospitable environment for my Anglophobic mother. On returning to Ireland a few years later, John retreated to his wife's native county (she was an O'Malley from near Westport), purchased six acres of land, and built a two-story house that, for its time and place, was handsome to the point of ostentation. The homestead was adjacent to Lough Naneaneen (Loch na n'Einin - Lake of the Little Birds), a modest expanse of water that I regarded as 'ours', although we didn't actually own it