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Eamonn Who?

I am Eamonn Henry, an ex- teacher in Dublin, the capital city of Ireland.
That's me on the right, pictured with my brother, Sean, at a reception some years ago.

The photo, along with the bio stuff that follows, was taken from the pages of the now-defunct “Mayo Gazette,” a website similar to this one, which I shut down almost a decade ago. I couldn’t keep up with the volume of work that was required to maintain this very popular Mayo-related site and putting my health before my hobby, I regretfully took the site off-line.

Now, with more time on my hands due to my retirement and with my health in reasonably good shape thanks to the good medical people who maintain it, I hope to take up where I left off with the beloved “Gazette.”

I am a native of Swinford, a town in East Mayo which is in the western part of the country. The townland I hail from is called Ballydrum. Ballydrum, like only too many other townlands or villages has suffered greatly from depopulation in recent times and many of the households I remember as a youth are now no more.

   In my younger days when I lived there most people in the area could be classified as small farmers. The farms were small, mostly about 30 - 35 acres, and the farming carried on was mixed.  Farmers kept a few cows, often sending milk to the local creamery. Almost all kept store cattle; cattle reared to be sold to the local butcher or at the monthly fair in Swinford.  Almost every household grew enough potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables for domestic use. Many people also cultivated small crops of oats to feed poultry, which were kept to provide eggs for the family. Nobody made much money from farming but nobody starved either.  

My father, apart from being a farmer, earned additional money by working for the Council; firstly as a chargehand or "ganger" engaged on roadwork. He was in charge of groups or gangs of workers who worked repairing stretches of roads throughout much of the county.
 His work took him away from home from Monday to Friday much of the time. He often had to cycle from home to the Council yard in Castlebar, a journey of over 20 miles and from there get a lift on a lorry to Achill, Killalla, or wherever he was to be based for that week. This could mean leaving home at 5 o'clock on a wet and windy winter morning in order to get t o the Council depot in time. The reverse occurred on a Friday afternoon. This left my mother and a bachelor uncle, Martin, to look after farm work. As well as farming, my mother had to look after her growing family as well as her aged mother-in-law.
 I do not recall my father working away from home. I am the second youngest of a family of seven, (three brothers and three sisters). By the time I arrived on the scene my father had ceased his roving role and had become caretaker of the local waterworks station, supplying water to the town of Swinford and the surrounding areas. This meant usually just having to go to the plant each morning and evening, although repair works and new connections to the scheme could mean daylong absences from the farm.

My grandmother had died before my time but my mother's workload did not diminish as she undertook the care of an elderly local woman, Bridget Mc. Nulty, who lived alone nearby. Bridget was almost blind and severely hampered in her movements when I got to know of her existence. She had to sit in her armchair for long periods each day dependent on callers to make her a cup of tea or break the monotony of her existence by staying for a chat. In latter years she had. the company of a radio and this she considered a great help. Times were certainly hard but people did call and Bridget never was one to complain. Neither did my mother whose own workload was overwhelming without the added burden and indeed, neither did the many other folks who found themselves in somewhat similar situations in many other parts of rural Mayo and indeed rural Ireland in the 1950's.

Rural electrification was a great step forward and came around this time.

The demise of the oil lamp and the novelty of boiling a kettle without the hassle of using an open fire were great talking points and I can vividly remember al the scratching of heads and the proffering of opinions as to what the future would hold. Well, the future did bring many changes; not all of them for the good.
 For one thing, the day of the "bogger" went into history. "Boggers" were folks who went to the bog early in the day and returned in the late afternoon. (Watch the pronunciation!)
"Going to the bog," meant going to the place where one's family had a plot of bogland and where the turf was cut in early summer and spread on the ground to dry. Enough lumps, or sods, of turf would be cut to supply the family fires for the colder times ahead. After a couple of weeks the turf would be dry enough to turn over to allow the underside to dry and then, after another interval, the sods would be put into small heaps or "gróigíns" and left for several more weeks to harden. Then the turf had to be brought out to the roadside and, in time, taken home to be stacked for winter use.

   The arrival of the first motor car in the village proved as much a wonder and talking point as did the coming of electricity. But the changes mechanical transport brought soon wrought a subtle change in the pattern of everyday living. People were not so interdependent on each other.

It had hitherto been a fact of daily life that, if one household ran short of, say, sugar that someone merely called to a convenient house with a cup or similar container and borrowed enough to keep going until some family member could be dispatched to Swinford. In time the loan would be returned and naturally this system of helping out one's neighbours lead to a close community spirit and people kept in close contact with neighbours. For one thing, people needed each other.

 Increased independence meant a lessening of communal bonds.

   People no longer visited each other's houses as freely as in former days. One of my earliest and happiest, memories was of "visiting". In the evening, especially in wintertime, when darkness came and the days work was over my mother would often bring me along on a visit to a neighbour's house. It was just a casual visit to break the monotony of the daily grind. She would get a chance to chat with the adult people present and I would be allowed to play with the neighbouring children. Of course other neighbours returned these visits and in this way people kept in touch with, and helped out, each other.
 The "meitheal" was a good proof of this. A meitheal was a gathering of neighbours to help someone in need to do what ever needed to be done. This might be "save" the turf or the hay. Because of illness to a key member of a family or due to a bereavement or some such natural, common occurrence a family that otherwise might be in trouble could rely on the help of the community at large. People needed each other; it was as simple as that.

   Increasing prosperity meant less dependence on one's neighbours and friends. From the '60's onwards the way of life in my native community began to change quickly and irrevocably. Many changes were undoubtedly for the better.

   People like Bridget Mc. Nulty now could depend on better social help and coaches or minibuses taking old people into a daycare centre on weekdays became a regular sight on the roads around Swinford. The "Fairday", the monthly sale of cattle on the streets of Swinford became a thing of the past. This was held on the first Wednesday of each month and was a market and general meeting place for people, as well as a place t o buy and sell cattle.

   The Fairday was replaced by the"Mart."

   At the mart cattle are put in holding enclosures or pens and are sold in lots, called into the auction ring in rotation. They are kept off the streets and are generally brought there by motor transport, no longer having to be driven there on foot. This had meant journeys along the road for maybe 10 miles or more and in the event of not being sold, the same process had to be undertaken in the afternoon.

   Of course the mart is a more efficient way of buying and selling cattle. Not even the most way out traditionalist would welcome back the hardship and uncertainty of the old fairday. My mother, who died in 19884 often told me to forget about the "good ol' days."
    In her opinion, they never existed and she had no hankering to turn the clock back. Neither do I, but progress has been at a price. Many homesteads of my youth are deserted. Many of today's younger people preferring, like myself, to move away to more populated areas. Many old people live alone. Young folks are conspicuous by their lack on numbers on the streets of Swinford whenever I re-visit. Locals fear they are being overlooked by the powers that be and that insufficient resources are being made available to help provide the economic infrastructure needed to keep Swinford and like regions as viable self-supporting regions.

   Yet , all is not without hope.

Horan International Airport is nearby. With an enlightened approach from the regulatory authorities this can be developed to provide an invaluable industrial and tourist resource. The scope for tourism is very underdeveloped. Things need to change rapidly to accommodate the changing times.

   People around Swinford and in East Mayo generally, seem to be more upbeat about the future than was the case some years ago. A spirit of survival is now apparent that was not to be noticed in the recent past. There are so many changes evident in recent times that survivors of the times I wrote of earlier, the days of meitheals and fair days, find it hard to comprehend the changes.

   So, visitors to the area today may find much to interest them but the old spirit of community help and mutual interdependence has gone. But so too has the heartbreak of parting that emigration caused. I have deep and vivid memories of the general sorrow and wailing that was the scene on the railway platform at Swinford railway station after the August Holiday week. Anguished parents and friends bade farewell to the people departing for England after an all too brief trip home.

   Nowadays there may still be the pain of parting for some but the proximity of the airport and the convenience of flying makes regular trips home more feasible for those who want to come. On the downside, the railway station is also just a memory and with it the hustle and bustle it brought to the lives of those connected with it. Comparing life in Mayo in the fifties, when I grew up there with the scene there today when I am far away and approaching my own fifties is difficult. It is hard to be objective and my long absence from the place does not give me the competence to adjudge things properly but I do think that my mother if she were alive today would still snort at the thought that the old days were to be recommended

   And what of myself?

   I am aware that I have strayed a bit from the mark in that this article is not about me but rather it is about the Mayo of my youth and the changes I have witnessed there since then. I really don't think my life story makes for much interesting reading in any event. I left Mayo in 1967 having completed my secondary level education when I undertook the Leaving Certificate examination at St. Patrick's College, Swinford. This college has also mirrored the changes that have taken place in Mayo since my early days there.

   Because of falling student numbers the school was amalgamated with the local convent, or girls' secondary school, quite a few years ago. To the uninitiated, colleges are second level schools for boys while convents perform the same function for girls. No co-ed schooling or the likes for the young folks of Swinford in my young days! To be sure there was a Vocational school in the town in those days. This was a mixed gender school where there was more of a vocational bias in the range of subjects offered than was the case with the other places, which had a more academic slant.

   The "Tech," as it was known has long gone; declining numbers being the culprit here also.

    I came to Dublin on the foot of my Leaving Certificate results to study at St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra. "Pats", as it was commonly known, indeed still is, was a Training College. It was a third level institution geared specifically for the training of male students for careers as Primary schoolteachers. Today it has undergone a name change and has gone co-ed. (I have always felt a sense of deprivation in my life; a sense of being a little bit before my time!)

   I left Pats in '69 and having secured a position on the staff of St. Kevin's BNS in Finglas West I have dutifully laboured at the chalkface there to the present day.  I have always maintained a strong sense of affinity with my home place, but my links are fewer and more tenuous than in days gone by. Since the death of my parents, my mother in '84 and my father in '87, my visits west have become fewer. The increasing pace of change as the years go by doesn't help me to maintain my links either but I still go west when I can and still contact friends there on a regular basis.    
That, more or less, is what I have to say about me. What about you?  If would like to get in touch after reading this feel free to do so.