A View of Athenry from the Outside – Christmas 2001
In 1997 my wife and I decided to take up the challenge of moving to Europe and trying our hand at surviving in the First World Economy. We arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport on 3rd January I998.
In 1999 I was invited by the Industrial Development Agency of the Republic of Ireland to visit their country to evaluate for myself the business opportunities that existed.
Janet and I had visited Éire during a Northern Hemisphere holiday tour in 1994 and had promised us that one-day we would return and buy a small Irish cottage in which to retire.
This Journal is about our stay in Athenry County Galway from the 1st August to 4th November 2000. It was inspired by the Parish Priest Fr Tony King and is dedicated to all the Irish people who made our stay so memorable.
St Paul made a real issue to the early Christians about our two selves, that of the Body and that of the Spirit. Well, our bodies may have returned to our home and family in South Africa but our spirit will forever be with our new extended family in Athenry.
Janet and Michael Nightingale
Janet and I were born in the East End of London, very close to what was known as the London Royal Group of Docks. Our forebears were attracted to the area by the abundance of Work opportunities in the factories and wharves between Woolwich and the Isle of Dogs.
Janet and I returned to London in 1997, to witness this changed Britain, after living in South Africa for thirty years. In South Africa the new social democracy had instituted a truth and reconciliation commission. In Britain they had just thrown out the Tories and placed all their hopes in the New Labour Party.
Ireland or Éire is seen as a clever little country that has found that, by being small, humble and underdeveloped, is on the Boom or Bust spiral with growth in Gross Domestic Product exceeding ten percent for several years and likely to hit thirteen percent in the 2000 fiscal year. Ireland is the largest exporter of software in the world and the fastest growing economy in Europe. Englishmen now cross the Irish Sea come not to subjugate but to seek employment and a better way of life. Oliver Cromwell must be turning in his grave!
My paternal grandmother was Bridget Corcoran born in Omagh and my paternal grandfather was John Edward Nightingale, a Quartermaster Sergeant Major in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, born in London, a professional soldier who served in India and South Africa. My father was born in Avon Street, Newtownards Road, Belfast Urban 12, County Down, Northern Ireland and went to school in Hollywood. A fact about which he boasted, disappointing most film fans around the world.
My father and I always promised to return together to Ireland to find the house where he was born and to visit Omagh and find, if possible, the Corcoran Clan of his mother. He died in I988, never to have returned, but I wear his I935 wedding ring, and one day …?
My maternal grandmother was born Harriet Galloway in I896 and my maternal grandfather was a Reuben Moore from a middle-class Irish émigré family. Unfortunately, Reuben was killed in I914 on the Belgium/French border with the British Expeditionary Force. My Great Grandmother was little Katie Galloway, born 0’Hara in Galway, but who eloped to England with Jimmy Galloway from the Blackwater near Clonmel, to take the Queen’s Shilling and become a boy soldier around I885, away from the dreaded famine.
In 1999 I was advised to contact the Irish Government’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) about a certain project and they insisted on me ﬂying to Dublin, which I did. And so, I found Ireland, without my Father, and was given a guided tour of Eire, by Jim Beggan, a very friendly and helpful member of the IDA staff.
Finding the “Ford of the King”
Just east of Galway City, on the Dublin road there is a Heritage Town with a Norman castle and walled town by the name of Baile Átha an Rí, the Ford of the king, on the Clarin River known in English as Athenry. Janet and I drove into the town but did not find the castle, but were amazed to find a community living in an unspoiled town so uncommercialised that we could not find the castle or the heritage centre.
Living in Athenry
On our first morning in Athenry we were awakened, not by the singing of the birds but by the bellowing of a humping bull, bullock duteously serving both his farmer and his harem of Friesians. Everywhere we looked from the upper ﬂoor all we could see were fields full of cattle. It was a fantastic welcome to the agrarian world of the Irish. We could see Athenry Castle and the Norman walls and turrets of the old Town built some 800 years ago.
Beyond that, we could make out the Burren of County Clare across Galway Bay. We had died and gone to heaven! The sky was clear with a large Sun coming up from the Dublin direction. This was not the Ireland I had been told about; where was the rain and the clouds that gave Ireland its Green Isle reputation. It was indeed green and very beautiful; looking out across the field of Athenry.
The fields divided into pastures by crooked lines of dry-stone walling running up and down, side to side, some with gullies or ditches. One assumes these are for drainage but at the same time one notices that they also act as cattle barriers before the walls, keeping the old bull from the young heifers.
We arrive at about 13:00, too early for the Esker Fair. Things are still being set up and at first, we think that the locals are not gregarious or they do not go in for village fairs any more. However, we meet several nice people who pounce on us to buy tickets for the wheel of fortune, the blood pressure table, guessing where the Heifer will defecate and similar novelty items. The one fund-raiser that is really intriguing is the “Throwing the Wellie” pitch. We watch the local lads and quickly realise that our education was sadly neglected. There is true technique in throwing the Wellington boot. Yes of course it helps to have a strong right arm, but more importantly it is the grip of the upper part of the boot, the back-swing and the angle of elevation of the throw, making sure that the heel is the leading edge as it leaves the throwers grip.
The heifer escapes and there is an appeal over the public address system for young men to come to the aid of the organisers to help capture the heifer, as it is churning up the Pitch & Putt course. It is eventually captured and we later see the poor animal looking perfectly contrite, but now solidly tethered. Janet and I spend several hours at the Esker Monastery Fair and are totally impressed with the local people and the way they enjoy the simple pleasures of being together with their families, no computer games here. The children, excited, joyful but well behaved and the parents equally excited to share these simple almost stupid events and country fare. A cup of tea and coffee with home made cakes for the adults. An ice cream and cold drink with the occasional bar of chocolate or come to that, anything that is sticky or sickly for the children. Bliss, perfect bliss.
Mass at the Church of the Assumption
Athenry was not what we expected. In the first place it was one of these post Vatican 11 churches in the shape of a quadrant. Very “concrete and ﬂuorescent lighting,” if you know what I mean? Extremely functional and there was no doubt where the action took place. I am sure the acoustics were excellent although at the masses, I attended, it was obvious the parishioners were all very shy, as only a fraction of them ever sang. Very disappointing, as my Irish relatives could sing their hearts out. Especially when it was Danny Boy, If You’re Irish, Come into the Parlour, The Isle of Innisfree, Forty Shades of green, Heaven Around Galway Bay, Dear Old Donegal, The Fields of Athenry and the like, bringing tears to your eyes.
We prefer the Saturday Vigil Mass and arrived at about 19:15 to find that this amphitheatre of a church will take some filling. At 19:25 feeling almost lonely in this great big church with Janet and I sitting nervously in the middle and a few others around the perimeter. However, at 19:29 every pew is now occupied and people are even jostling and squeezing up, to make room for others still coming into Mass. The Priest walks in mufti from behind the altar to the rear of the church and as we turn to see where he is going, we realise just how many people have silently slid into the pews in those last few minutes, their timing is impeccable.
Your Mass obligation is fulfilled in just over 30 minutes. I have since been told by an MSC from Cork that there is an annual aware for the fastest priest in Ireland. Following the Ite Missa Est, the celebrants just win the race back up the main aisle; but only just. The exodus continues for some time but it is orderly, so we wait patiently until it is easy to exit.
Outside the people of Athenry are once again their gregarious selves; everybody milling around chatting to friends, relatives and neighbours. Parishioners surround the priest, now this is the real Judaeo-Christian ethic. People loving one another and showing it; surely that is living in the Spirit?
It takes just twelve minutes to walk from our house to the Town Square. The walk is a pleasant one down Lady’s Well Lane to the Esker Road and then left into town past the junior school on the left, the town farriers on the right, just by Castle park through which flows the Clarin River. This in August 2000, is just a small stream ambling across a few barrages to make small pools and flows under the road into town, keeping on the outside of the Norman town walls, almost forming a natural moat.
Our first walk into town is to talk to the young lady at the post office. We have been told by Nuala that we must report that we are now resident at Kingsland, that our names are Michael and Janet Nightingale and that we live in the yellow house down Lady’s Well Lane in the house owned by the Dalys. The young lady was exceedingly pleasant, inquisitive about our background, and wished us well during our stay in Athenry.
The people of the town greeted us politely if not knowingly aware that there were newcomers about. Shopkeepers generally asked if we were new to the town and where we had come from. They asked if we were here to stay? Where were we living? Why had we chosen Athenry? How did we find Athenry? The questions were asked, not impertently, but with a genuine interest and caring. We did not feel that anyone was being just “nosey” in fact we enjoyed the interest in our well being, it seemed as if the people of Athenry cared for us and wanted us to feel part of the community.
15th August — The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Even before our first day at Athenry, Nuala Daly had told us that we must be part of the Athenry August Medieval Festival and on 15th the Pilgrimage to Our Lady’s Well. The Medieval Festival began with a parade down Old Church Street starting at the Library & Civic Buildings. We were a little nervous about joining the crowds, as we did not know where the parade would go or what was to happen. However, as we moved closer to the library a friendly voice called us by name. It was Annette and Tony our neighbours of a few days. They were with family and other relatives and welcomed us. Annette explained the basics of the Pageant, which made us feel more at home and confidant to join in the fun. This we did, and finished the day by dancing the evening away in the Town Square to the strains of a traditional Irish Band.
Photo: Lady’s Well, Athenry – Gerry Ahern
The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary had always been of significance to Janet and I. We were married in the Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Upton Park next to the famous West Ham football ground. That was back in the days when the late Bobby Moore, captain of England’s World Cup team, had his sports shop opposite the Church. The day of the Pilgrimage was another fine day, with the sun blazing down from the heavens. We walked down to the Town Square. At Mass the Parish Priest had said that the people should assemble there with their banners and that Fr. John 0’Gorman would lead them.
We sang good old-fashioned hymns and said prayers with banners held high, all the way through the town, past the castle and park, turning across the Clarin River, passing the old Farriers and down the Esker Lane out towards Kingsland.
The sun continued to burn down on the procession and here we were dressed for Irish weather and what we were getting was more like South Africa. My baldhead was getting nicely cooked when at last we reached the little shade provided by the trees and shrubs lining Esker Lane.
We halted at the turn into Lady’s Well Lane, which gave some respite from the sun; but then on again turning right and passing our yellow and grey two storey home, to the beautiful grounds of Our Lady’s Well.
The first thing one notices here is the statue of an Irish foot-soldier kneeling before Our Lady praying for forgiveness. In the twelfth century war against the Normans, who had now made Athenry into a walled market town of substance, the Irish refused the Norman request for a truce on Our Lady’s Feast day. The area is now a place of pilgrimage and solitude with a grotto and shrine and the Well forming a focal point for mediation and prayer. The grounds and gardens have recently been cleverly laid out in the form of a Celtic Cross, on the opposite side of the stream to the Well and Grotto to Our Lady. It is alongside the Well that there has been added the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
On the day, a special purpose mobile altar was moved into place between the Well and the Grotto. The procession filed in front of the altar still singing to join the many others that had arrived earlier. The Solemn Mass was concelebrated by at least six priests some of whom had returned to Athenry, especially for this Pilgrimage and Celebration. Janet and I found the Daly family close by us but our concern was still the heat and by now we were very weary and tried to sit on the grassed bank of the stream. It was a memorable day in many ways and we felt privileged to be part of this very special Commemoration and ritual.
Our Lady’s Well became a special place of reﬂection and solitude for Janet and I. Being so close to our home, we would regularly walk the Lane towards Esker then stop off at the Well to enjoy the peace and tranquillity that this haven, in our little bit of Irish Heaven, provided.
The Joy of Athenry
We “reported” our presence to the Parish Priest Fr. Tony King fairly early on in our stay and were invited to visit him at the presbytery. At the Altar Fr. Tony had looked a serious, stern shepherd of the ﬂock but sitting and chatting with him Janet and I soon felt very much at ease, to the extent that I am sure we almost outstayed our welcome. It was at this visit that we confided our impressions of the loving kind new family we had been allowed to join in Athenry. We described our feelings of joy at being so welcomed, acknowledged and made to feel an important part of the community.
At Mass the following week, Fr. Tony King, in his homily, addressed the importance of the family and the extended family of the community. He told the congregation about two South African newcomers, at which point Janet and I lowered our heads, as he repeated our compliments of our fellow parishioners. We felt as if the whole church turned and looked at us, as he encourages them to extend the Christian love shown to the “South African” newcomers, to one another and thereby strengthen the bonds of the Catholic community of Athenry.
Our neighbours and new friends in the community stopped us, for the next few days, to tell us that they had heard at Mass that we had visited Fr. Tony King and appeared to have made an impression. Janet and I pride ourselves as amateur historians and love to investigate the local history, visiting museums, churches and libraries. I also love languages and was a little upset with myself for having little or no knowledge of the Gaelic tongue, especially as I have spoken Spanish, Afrikaans, Italian, Japanese, German as well as related Germanic languages and even a smattering of Zulu and SeSotho.
We decided early on in our stay to join the local library. On the first occasion, we went fairly late in the evening. Immediately we realised that Athenry was a family community for in attendance was Grandma, Grandpa and Grandchild. Grandma welcomed us as we tentatively approach the counter and reassured us that we are most welcome. She explained that if we wanted to become members then we could pay IR£5 and have the run of the place. She was interested in our arrival in the Town and was sure that we would enjoy living here. The kind Grandma gave us the library opening times list and explained that we could come back to see the Librarian for our membership cards at any time to suit ourselves.
That evening we had a good look at the small but comprehensive library and chose a few books mostly about Galway and Athenry itself. A few days later we returned to meet the Librarian, pick up our membership cards and ﬁnd out more about the services. The Librarian almost immediately became our friend. She was kind, considerate and interested in us as newcomers. She was a great help with the local history and personalities and recommended various books on local history and the Gaelic language. This was yet another joyful relationship until the very day we left, it was like leaving family.
There were many such joys with the townsfolk; at the bank, the chemist, the grocers and the greengrocers and ever the farrier. One day the Farrier took time off from his smithy, first to comment on the weather, but then on this particular day, having seen me pass so regularly on my way to town, his curiosity got the better of him and he asked where I was from. He was fascinated to learn that Janet and I came from South Africa and even more when I told him my father had been born in Belfast and my Great Grandmother Katie O’Hara, had been born in Galway before eloping with a young man from Blackwater, Cork, called Jimmy Galloway. After this he would call after me, if I failed to greet him. My one regret is that I never took the time to stay and watch him shoe the ponies and horses, as I had done when a child.
It was a beautiful night and we walked into Town, which again impressed Mark our son, and ordered our meal at the Claymore. Mark is a big steak eater, as are most South African males and he duly ordered the steak with some salad as an hors-d’oeuvre. The meal was excellent and we washed it down with some good Chilean Red recommended by the ladies of the Claymore. The time passed quickly as we enjoyed the family reunion and discussed all the fantastic sights of Mayo and Connemara and how we wished that Michelle had been with us to complete the perfect day. The wine may have had something to do with our sentimentality as we reminisced about the family home in South Africa.
That night we partied and drank the health of the Springboks with solid Guinness and we sang our way back to Kingsland. What a fantastic end to a fantastic day. Mark ﬂew back to Stansted on the early morning business ﬂight from Shannon on the Monday morning. It was mid-morning when Annette, from the lovely little bungalow next door called to invite us to the next Station Mass to be held at her place in a few weeks. We had noticed in the Church bulletins that there were Station Masses being held around the Parish but we did not really understand the tradition.
Nuala Daly asked us later if we were going to Annette and Tony’s for the Station Mass. So, we asked her to explain the tradition and it was, we thought, like the House Masses we used to have in South Africa. In the event we were wrong. On the night in question, we waited until we saw other people arriving next door. We then went in ourselves. The house had been transformed with the lounge turned into a small chapel with rows of seats facing a small altar. Behind us were more chairs in the corridors and still more in the dining room and kitchen behind that. There was accommodation for half the town, or so it appeared.
Fr. John 0’Gorman, the priest who had sung us all the way from Town to Our Lady’s Well; was to be the celebrant. The Mass was suitably short without losing any of the liturgical solemnity. It was the Homily that made Janet and I squeeze one another’s hand and turn to look at each other. The message was the importance of the family and the responsibility of the members of the family. It seemed to us that Fr. John was talking directly to us.
Maybe we should recognise the last three years of the Jubilee 2000 were really a pilgrimage of faith for Janet and I. We should now return home to underpin the final Jubilee year-end in South Africa, where we had begun it all. Home with our children. Janet could then be part of the bride’s preparation plans and enjoy the excitement with her daughter Michelle.
Farewell to Athenry
Things moved fairly fast once the decision was made. We discussed our dilemma with Nuala Daly who encouraged us to think of the family first. She said that she could never be separated from her family. We talked to Annette and the word started to spread. We talked to Fr. Tony King. We were at prayer in the church when we met Fr. John. We told him it was his fault that we were leaving for South Africa as his homily, was too much to the point for us. The message for us was quite clear, which together with all the other miracles and messages of the Holy Spirit, even we could now see that we must return home to South Africa.
The removal and shipping contractors from Limerick arrived early on the morning of Wednesday, the 1st November 2000 and spent the whole day cataloguing and packing all the things we would take back to South Africa. Some of the boxes had never been unpacked, since it was first packed in November 1997, in South Africa almost three years to the day. We had arranged for Athenry Taxis to pick us up on the Saturday morning to take us to Shannon Airport. These last few days were memorable and somehow strange for we had only been in Athenry for three months yet it was like leaving home. Fr. Tony King came to wish us farewell, Nuala was continuously supportive, Annette visited us to wish us God’s Speed and Maura came with a bon voyage card.
Written by Michael Nightingale
Published here 24 May 2023 and originally published Christmas 2001