I was born in a small thatched house in Abbey, Loughrea, Co Galway, on 14th December 1935 to Kathleen Keane wife of Francis Keane. It was, at that time, customary for an expectant mother to return to her mother’s house when about to give birth. This necessitated a journey of about twenty miles from our own home in Garrymore, Aughrim, Ballinasloe. Such journeys were usually undertaken in pony and trap; surely cold and uncomfortable in mid-winter. I was following in the steps of my sister Marie, later to be followed by brothers, Pat and Mike with the final brother, Bernard, being born in Garrymore. My first password was heard by a neighbouring nurse who had the privilege of welcoming most of the babies in that parish and beyond. Babies were baptised within a day or two of birth; I, by Fr Heagney, RIP in Abbey parish church of the Assumption. A week or two later I was on my way to Garrymore.
Our house in Garrymore was a two-storied, slated house with kitchen and parlour downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs – no bathroom. Most of the houses in this townland were similar, having been constructed when The Land Commission divided the estate. Few builders of that time knew the meaning of the word insulation; windows let in light and cold, and chimneys let out heat and smoke. It was a win-lose situation, the stuff of life. A light wire-netted DIY door was fitted inside our back door. Daylight could enter here, farmyard fowl couldn’t. At this divide a growing child could study the outer feathered world and still have the security of a mother-centered kitchen. The backyard had everything: a turf shed, a barn, a pig-sty, a cowshed. A centrepiece heap of farmyard manure stood nearby.
The number of farm acres was small, about thirty statute and the number of fields was relatively small too: the two small fields on either side of the house, the hill field, the middle field and the far field. The far field was home to the special blessing of St Patrick’s well. Most local families took their spring water supply from this well and it also provided a plentiful supply for livestock in summer. Originally, there were small heaps of stones erected close by, called stations, around which people walked, while praying. Nobody knows if St Patrick ever visited the area but the belief is supported by the mark of his knees on a large stone in a neighbouring farm. This well was serviced by a narrow road, thirty yards away, giving the cyclist an opportunity to carry his bucket or buckets of water on the handlebars of a bicycle. Older people just pushed the lot while walking beside the bicycle.
In my first couple of years of life, my sister and I were moved to Abbey, the home of our birth. We do not know why, but at the time, it was quite common to leave a child or two with a grandmother for a few years. Perhaps too, it helped a mother to avoid the excess strain of too many children, born in close sequence. Also, mothers helped with outdoor work, particularly during the peak seasons of sowing and reaping. Moving two children at the same time gave company and security. We adjusted well, in the company of a grandmother Maria, grandaunt Kate, two uncles, Tommie and Martin and a man from Tynagh, named Mick Moran, who had settled with the family in earlier years. It was now a family of three generations and three different surnames.
Sleeping capacity was stretched, and a barn loft was used in addition to the three bedrooms in the house. There was a big kitchen, with front and back doors leading directly in – no hallways or back kitchen and no bathroom! The parlour or dining room was ‘special’ and was only used at Christmas and other special occasions. It did provide some storage facilities and had a side table and mantlepiece. There was one press there, which stored the family bible. I think it was the only book in the house then. A mirror over the mantelpiece provided an opportunity for a quick check before departure for Sunday Mass. A picture of St Pius X hung on the back wall. Beds were made of iron or timber with mattresses and pillows stuffed with feathers. Duck down had the highest rating for comfort and only the presence of a flea could prevent a perfect night’s sleep. The discovery of DDT in the early fifties put a welcome end to his enjoyment and the phrase ‘a marked man’ would now mainly refer to sporting activity. In the kitchen, small windows provided light which was augmented by leaving one door open all day; wind direction determined which door. Light at night spread from a paraffin oil lamp. A glass globe kept the light from being quenched and a little mirror reflected the light outward. The light was weak in spite of many efforts to cut the enclosed wick straight. Reading was thus difficult even for those who could read. Inability to read was kept secret as this could imply a lower level of intelligence or wasted school years. However, it was much more likely to reflect absence from school due to a need for help in the home. One of my uncles left school at eleven years of age but could read and write very well. Many had poor eyesight and hoped for a pair of reading glasses if somebody with similar deficiency died. As a child, I did not have the same desire for wearing spectacles and had prompters in place for my first eye test. Fortunately, the prompters exceeded the appropriate volume. So did the teacher later!
My first day at school at about four years was exciting because I ran away from the classroom towards our nearby home to be met by a threatening uncle who made me make a hasty return. John and Mrs Power, the teachers, were distant relatives of the family and this gave a shortcut to home reports on progress or lack of it. John Power was my godfather; this was in an era when God and father generated a less merciful image than now. Despite small fights in school or perhaps because of them friendships grew quickly and remained.
My uncle carried me on the crossbar of his bicycle for six miles to have my measurements and fitting of my first communion suit. Boys wore short pants then and the whole suit was made by a dressmaker or tailor. We all wore gallices in the forties; we called them braces or suspenders later on. Braces were attached to buttons then, but now, in this post button and present zip era, they are attached directly to trouser by clips. Adult men would also wear a belt which could be dual-purpose in pre-politically-correct times as it could be used for disciplinary purposes. As the short pants gradually began to wear it was fitted with a saddle-piece and the coat could be fitted with pieces of light leather on the sleeves, as the elbows wore. By that time it was suitable for school or weekday wear. Low shoes were worn on Sundays and boots or wellington boots on the weekdays. My brother Pat had clogs one winter; these were comfortable but noisy until one timber sole split completely while playing football. From the 1st May each year boys began to walk to school in bare feet. Our feet were gradually toughened on the stony roads; so much so, that we would do without shoes for the whole week until Sunday. There would be cuts, bruises and thorns, but this caveman experience gave an earthy, tough feel and only a ‘softy’ would renege. There were concessions for girls.
One of the first sins that we knew about was the lie. Sometimes, during the war years, we were confused about lies. A shopkeeper would tell us that he had no butter, tea, cigarettes etc, when we knew well that he had the lot under the counter. We were too young to know about ‘mental reservations’ if such exist. Some boys, myself included, yielded to the temptation of slogging apples from orchards, where we would be heard or where a dog would bark. This heightened the excitement. All this could be labelled devilment, mischief or experiential learning. I believe it was the first mentioned and the resultant, experiential learning took place at home later.
The Abberton family members were born into a home of strong religious conviction, which was well supported by the local parish services and many devotions at local shrines. There were the 5th century ruins of the monastery of Saint Feichin, patron saint of the parish, and a well-kept ruin of a Franciscan monastery from the 14th century. Devotions are still practised at a nearby, holy well and Holy Mass is said in the monastery grounds on the 15th August each year. This monastery was originally founded for the Carthusian order of priests in the 12th century, being the only Carthusian foundation in Ireland. Later, it housed Franciscan Bro Michael O’Clery who was the chief compiler of the Annals of The Four Masters, a historical record of Ireland up to 1616. The surrounding grounds are now a cemetery and it is here, that my father and mother are buried, my mother dying on 14th November 1953 and my father on the feast of St Joseph 1986. Mick Moran shares the same plot, as he had expressed a wish to be buried with them. On the other side of the cemetery, the Abberton plot contains the remains of the direct Abberton line and a grandaunt, Kate and her brother Patrick.
Marie left Abbey to become a boarder in Ballinasloe Convent of Mercy in 1947 and I left for Garrymore to become a dayboy in Garbally in 1949, cycling in and out each day. Pat replaced me in Abbey and he in turn was replaced by Bernard two years later. I had done an entrance exam to Garbally but was poor competition for the boys from the town who had done intense preparation for the entrance scholarship. I did not sit for the Inter Cert in 3rd year due to a severe pneumonia. Fortunately, penicillin was more widely available then and I was back for a normal 5th year with Leaving Cert in 1954. My annual college fees were twelve pounds when we started in 1949 and this had been saved in a post office account. I had a new Raleigh bicycle, bought in Hickeys of Killconnell. Despite good rainwear we sometimes were wet when cycling home against a westerly wind and rain. Fortunately, my very good mother had a hot meal ready each evening and our main concern was getting our homework done.
On 14th November 1953 our cosy home was shattered forever: our mother died and all in one day at the age of forty five. She had come home from visiting a neighbouring mother and newly born baby when she had a stroke and died that night. We took some comfort in the fact that she had been such an excellent, God-loving, neighbour-loving and family-loving mother, but we all had died a little on that day. Only The Resurrection makes sense of it. It is difficult to talk about deceased parents. They are too near. Little need be said about very good ones. The baton has been handed on and a new generation tries to stumble on in their shadows. The cross of a family loss is a big one for all.
Marie had done her Leaving Cert and had been accepted for nursing in Galway; she sacrificed the nursing and stayed at home to help the family. This was a lucky day for all; the family needed a replacement heart and found an excellent one. Pat had attended the Ballinasloe vocational school and by now was an apprentice to a carpenter in Killconnell. Mike was working in Hickeys grocery and hardware and Bernard had not yet started his years in Garbally. Mike, an unassuming and gentle soul, would later go on to be the main support and carer of our father until his own death in 2001 at the early age of sixty one.
Being dayboys we were far removed from many of the inner happenings in Garbally. We weren’t rugby players; we were hurlers and it was usually the boarders who took part in the annual Roger and Hammerstein pantomimes. Our home-study timetables were of our own making and we enjoyed our relative freedom. The boarders longed for such freedom and above all for more food. They really enjoyed our homemade bread or sandwiches when we were given a sudden half day. I sat and passed my Leaving Cert in 1954 and had a summer ‘treat’ that August when, with the good Fr Pat, I visited Cork for the first time.