The Jones brothers based the song on letters from their great-great-grandfather, Brian Hunt, to his son John, their great-grandfather. As Brian was illiterate, the letters were actually written by dictation to the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, who had been a friend of John’s
One hundred years ago today on the 17th December, 1902, Pat McNamara, the schoolmaster so fondly commemorated in the beautiful and touching ballad “Kilkelly, Ireland”, died in Orlar near Kilmovee and close to the Roscommon border in this part of East Mayo.
Pat taught in Tavrane school and walked the four miles to and from the school throughout his long years in the profession. Born on the 6th March, 1830, he married Catherine Finan from Loughglynn and they raised a family of nine children, five sons and four daughters.
One of the family, Jim, was to continue the teaching tradition of the family and together with his wife Annie (nee O’Grady) later taught for many years in Tavrane school. Indeed, the McNamara association with this school was maintained right into the 1960s.
Pat McNamara, the schoolmaster in the song, was grandfather of Hugh Flatley who now resides in Tubbercurry and formerly of Aughadeffin, Kilmovee. A diary maintained by Pat has been in Hugh’s possession for many years as well as a number of photos, documents and others items that throw an amazing light on the social life of a rural community over a century ago.
Few people were able to read in many parts of rural Ireland back then. Literary people like the local school master were in demand to render a host of services such as writing letters to family members of neighbours and friends away in America or England. Neighbours would come to the schoolmaster or priest and convey to them what they wanted to say in the letters.
Letters found in attic
It is clear that Pat McNamara provided a fine service for the people of the area. Back in the 1970s or early 1980s, Peter Jones, an American-born composer whose great-grandfather was John Coyne from the general Kilkelly area, found a batch of old letters tied together in a box in the attic of his parents home in America.
These letters had all been posted in Kilkelly and as he poured through them he was overcome with the emotion which re-united him in an extraordinary way with the land of his forebearers.
The end result of Peter’s deliberations was “Kilkelly, Ireland”, the poignant story of a father who sees his sons emigrate from Mayo to America, never to return. But the words of friendship he so lovingly despatched, with the help of Pat McNamara his friend, convey so much beauty and hidden heartache that they stand out in the classic mould.
The words in the song are taken directly from Mr. Coyne’s letters as dictated to Pat McNamara and thus carry a powerful resonance which cannot fail to touch the psyche of people raised here in the rural West.
A whole history of a family is unfurled before our eyes …. And the song finishes with the remarkably touching lines of the brother at home finally taking over the father’s duties in writing to the ‘lad’ in America – “And it’s funny the way he kept talkin’ about you, he called for you at the end”.
The song was first recorded here by Danny Doyle and a number of other versions, including one by Jimmy Whittington from Charlestown, have also been put on albums. Peter Jones, the writer of the song, visited Kilkelly a few years ago and was honoured by the locals on that occasion.
Reading Pat McNamara’s diary is like unearthing a gem. It is a treasure and records the day to day events in the fields and the countryside. The writing is small but remarkably clear and well preserved through the ages.
Though they are a number of diary entries for August and September, 1879, there is no mention at any stage of the apparition some miles away in the village of Knock. Instead, like so much of the diary, matters are all relating to the land. The entry for August 14th, 1879 notes – “Bid Glavey footing turf”.
On June 17th, 1880, we find the following detail: “John Coyne’s cart and Pat Morley’s ass drawing turf. Paid John Coyne 2/-.
So detailed are some of the entries that over a six day period in late August, 1880, he notes the amount of stooks of oats he cut each day, coming to a grand total of 195 at the end of his labours on September Ist.
1880 September 30: Kitty Wier, Mary Coyne, Nelly Keane, Mary Duffy (Harry), Biddy Mc – spinning wool, finished about 5 o’c. October 16 – John Glavey (Owen), Owen Cafferky, Pat Harkeson, Mick Tarpey, Sonny Tarpey, Biddy Harrington, Pat Hopkins, Thomas Boyle, Pat Duffy, Mick Coyne, Sonny Connolly, Bid Glavey commenced digging potatoes.
On July 21st 1883, Harry Henry’s horse and cart was drawing turf and he was paid 3/-. James Feeney, Mary Callaghan and Winnie Callaghan were reeking and filling turf on the road. “Owen Cafferkey attending at reek. Thomas Sharkey, mare and cart from 3 o’c till night. Paid 3/-. Thady Glavey, assisted at reek in the evening.”
There are mentions of such matters as “filling old streets”, building walls, finishing threshing, spreading manure, rolling the oats, “Pat Morley thatching stacks and barns with Mick Tarpey, Orlar, attending”.
On January 31st, 1891, Pat notes “James Bones, splitting bogdeal, 2 whiskey”. And on February 5th, we see “Michael Kenny bought 48 palm plants, finished planting all 14th February ‘91. In April of that year, Mick Henry “ploughed for potatoes, 35 ridges, headlands and all.”
It appears as if the women did a lot of the work when it came to “turning out” the turf from the bog to the road. There are several pointers to this fact. One such refers to June 25th, 1891: “Mary Brennan, Anne Phillips, Bid Forkin, Margy Hunt, Catherine Cafferky, Catherine Forkin – commenced turning out turf on road.”
On the 17th and 18th June, 1892, there is the following entry: “Mark Lydon built chimney to the back of the kitchen chimney and supplied chimney stones and spud stones. Paid 10/- for doing all.” Pat Morley’s ass and cart were easily the most “in-demand” services as noted on several pages of the diary.
1896: April 3rd Bridget Henry – sticking potatoes. April 9th – Mick Henry shook and harrowed oats assisted by John Grennan. April 18th – Shaking special, 3 bags, went to bog, cutting turf. Day wet from 11. April 27th – Rolled oats evening (Mick Henry). May -24th – Ellen Henry drawing out turf. Oct. 13th – Finished early, fencing after till night.
* The McNamara family resided in Orlar in the home where Mrs. Nora Conroy (nee Grennan) lives today. Pat and Catherine McNamara are resting in peace in the Abbey cemetery on the shores of lovely Orlar lake. One hundred years on, we remember them and their generation in a special way this day.
Source: Michael Commins, Western People – Thomas Crosbie Holdings, Ireland, 2004
Source: Mayo on the move, Diary of Pat McNamara, the Schoolmaster