Jottings of my Life in Tyrone, Ireland – Happenings

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Compliments of Port of Galway

Happenings at Tyrone House

I had another uncle, William, who also lived at Tyrone but was confined to his bed. Uncle Willie, as we called him, was rather good looking and very jolly. But being a great epicure, his food had to be “just so,” as we say. He suffered from gout very badly at times and when my sisters and I used to hide in the corridor and listen to him groaning, we opposite his bedroom door. It always annoyed him because it was not a picture of a good-looking member of the family. And to put it mildly, judging from some of the choice remarks that were flung at her, it was a good thing he could only see it when the door was open Then at other times the butlers, cooks and maids would come in for their share of his sarcasm.

There was one particular maid who was a long time in my grandmother’s house: she was on a pension but kept staying around interfering with the other servants and making a general busy-body of herself. Kate Kane was her name and where she came from or who she was, nobody seemed to know. She had the habit of singing to herself Irish ballads while she dusted around the corridors, and this would irritate Uncle Willie so much that he would summon her to his bedside, compliment her on her beautiful voice and black hair, and say that grey hairs would be ashamed to be seen on her old head.

Speaking of epicurean tastes, I have often wondered how Uncle Willie could eat some of the food I saw: the wild birds were kept until they were just about ready to fall off the hooks before they were cooked. Although he was really very jolly at times, the servants had quite a trying ordeal suiting his appetite. He always remarked that God made the food but the devil made the cooks.

When he was a young chap, he had a large sailing vessel in which he would journey to Paris, where he spent a lot of his time attending parties, etc. When his boat was wrecked later on, he gave up sailing or going to sea and took to his bed for the want of anything better to do. It was too bad because he never had any ambition for anything after that. On some winter evenings my brothers and I used to enjoy sitting before a roaring fire in his bedroom listening to his wild tales about his travels and hearing him sing old chanties and other songs of the sea. Then he would ask one of us to ring the bell for the maid, when port wine Negus and all sorts of lovely biscuits and cake would be served.

Sometimes I hear about young men acting rather wildly, but I think most of the present-day young chaps are quite sensible when compared with a few of my relations who told of their escapades while in the exuberance of their more active days. Uncle Willie, for instance, told us how he and others used to carry on at the elections in Galway when he was a young man. He and his party would have lunches and large dinners at the Railway Hotel, and if anything went wrong, they would have a terrible battle with each other and end up by throwing all the ornaments and furniture out of the windows. When asked why they did not throw each other out, he would laughingly reply, “Oh no, we all realized we had only one life to live, and it is a peculiar thing, no matter how much we drank, we never forgot how precious we were in our own estimation.” Now, if they had not had plenty of money, they could not have carried on their pranks to such extremes. But, as it was, smashing up whole suites of furniture was looked upon as a huge joke, the hotel proprietor knowing full well that he would be well paid for the damage done. In fact, they were only too willing to compensate him handsomely.

While I think of it, I must say that Uncle Willie seldom came back from Paris without a generous consignment of presents for us. There would be bales of lovely silk and a great variety of perfumes, the very best he could buy, not to speak of the casks of French brandy, all-of which he could get for much less than he would have had to pay if bought in the British Isles.

Another uncle of mine, Uncle Tom Lambert, was considered one of the finest looking men of his time, and of course he naturally took great pride in his appearance. When he was on a visit in Rome, one night he met some friends there and, of course, the choicest of wines were indulged in at a late supper. Feeling rather tired after such hilarious proceedings, he thought a little stroll before retiring would clear his head, but it seemed it was only getting worse. Happening to pass a marble statue, he thought, “What right has that person to be towering over me and making me feel so small?” So, he attacked it and broke his walking stick in doing so, Then, he tried to pull up some iron railings that were near, with which to beat the statue over the head. Just then, two policemen marched up to him, and after a struggle, carried him off to headquarters where, they held him until he came to his senses, and then informed him of his behaviour towards the statue. So, he, being a good sport, had a good laugh over it and then paid them for their trouble.

There was a large field some distance from the house, where we used to play; it was called Nelson’s Field. In it was a very high hill, on top of which was a tremendous pile of stones. They were collected years ago when improvements were being made on the land and carried up the hill to be out of the way. When seen from a distance, they looked like a massive tower. When I was out with my brothers, we used to climb to the top of it. As no one would think of anybody being up such a height, we thought it would be a good hiding place, away from everyone, so we built a breast-work around the top for shelter. It was so cosy there, even in stormy weather, that we used to have little picnics up there. And what a magnificent view of the surrounding country was to be seen from our “lookout”: the sea coast with the turf boats and trawlers on one side and the tree-clad hills on the other.

One afternoon, when we were there, we heard voices underneath. On looking over the wall, we saw two men with sacks of something on their backs standing at the base of the stones so we became very quiet and heard them speak about something they wanted to hide. Then we noticed that they had started to pick out some of the stones and after a while when all was silent again, we noticed the men leaving, but this time without their sacks. We crawled down and searched everywhere but to no avail, hoping to find the place where the stone had been moved. Then we returned home and told the servants what we had seen. That night several of them went out to investigate the spot on their own account and were so successful that they were hardly able to stand on their feet coming down the hill. When the owner of the stuff returned before day-break they found all of it was gone. Of course, you can guess what was in those sacks.

When Grandma and Uncle Jim heard about it, they requested the wood-rangers and police to keep a watch on the estate. But that didn’t by any means end the affair, for in a few days’ time we were all surprised to hear that one key of the vault was missing. ‘Now this was not a wine vault but one in which coffins and their contents were allowed to mellow with age. A reward was offered and a thorough search was started, but the key was never found that I can remember. But we were greatly shocked to hear that spirits were found concealed right over the resting places of our highly respected ancestors.

How to Make Poteen 

It seems that a man called Mickey Moore, who did quite a business in the poteen trade, managed to bribe someone among the stewards with a promise of sharing in the profits, so one of the keys was stolen and given to the old man. It was his idea that the vault would be the only safe place when so many were on the lookout for contraband spirits. If anyone called at his cottage to purchase some poteen, he would always say that he had to take a little walk outside to see if anyone was on the lookout. In the meantime, he would stroll across a large field near his place and go into the vault and return with the choice liquor. As this was generally done at night with the aid of an old lantern, he was never detected until he was surprised by Uncle Willie’s wild son, who happened to get an inkling of what was going on. This young man (Willie was his name, too) got one of the casks of whiskey from the old man and went on such a tear that he nearly lost his mind. And this chap was supposed to be looking after his father’s interests (Uncle Willie being confined to his bed, as I mentioned before).

Young Willie caused much fun in the kitchen when he knew Grandma and the other people who used to stay in the house, were away. He would order whiskey and beer to be given freely to the servants and then he would dress up so as to look like a minister of some sort, take the beautiful old family Bible, and call them all to the servants’ hall. He would then quote parts from it and threaten the servants with dire destruction if they told anyone about his ways. His language was choice, clever and strong. Of course, he was popular with everyone because he was so generous. One night he seemed so concerned and worried about his dad’s health, he offered to sleep in his father’s room. During the night he was called several times but there was no answer, and when the servant came in the morning to inquire what was needed for breakfast, my uncle said that he could not waken his son during the night and he thought he was still asleep, so he asked to have him called again. But there was still no answer, so the man pulled the bedclothes off and, to his surprise, what did he see but a tube in his young Willie’s mouth and the other end of it in a small cask beside the couch. Of course, the cask contained Jameson’s whiskey, which the astute Willie had been sucking off and on all night. All sorts of restoratives were tried, and after hours of uncertainty, he gradually came back to his senses.

I heard from my brothers that some of the servants at our home were having an anxious time inquiring about the peat, or turf, boats that would bring in the poteen. There were certain times in the month when it would be delivered to several agents who were on the lookout for it. Of course, Grandma would not allow this contraband stuff to be landed on her demesne, so they were pretty careful not to offend her. The butler, who thought he was the wisest of the lot, used to stroll along the beach late in the evenings “for his health” so the servants used to say. One evening he got a tip about a boat that was to arrive that night. Well, he put on a sort of blue uniform and went out for his usual walk. After a while he saw a trawler coming in sight, and since the boat was keeping close to the shore as if to locate a suitable landing place, he got out one of our row boats and went out to investigate for himself. He ordered the Connemara men who were on board to stop, saying that he was an officer of the government and that he had to inspect the cargo. The poor fellows knew it was all up with them when, having inspected the turf they carried, he found several ten and twenty-gallon casks hidden underneath. He ordered them to dump the casks into the sea where they were, close to the shore. They did so, and went on with their cargo of turf, glad to be out of the mess so easily.

When the tide was out, the wily butler, with the help of a few cronies, got the whiskey ashore and hid it in one of the cellars under our house, where he kept it until all suspicion had died out. Later he sold it to buyers who gave him a good price.

Another time when some boatmen made a sale of poteen whiskey to the men working around the stables and gardens, somebody sold a bottle of it to one of the laundry women who used to work in the wash-house. Now she was very fond of a little spirit now and then, so when the other wash-women had gone home for the night, Biddy Gorman (that was her name) thought she would remain a little longer and enjoy some of the “creature.” Unfortunately, she imbibed more of the fiery spirits than was good for her so she went upstairs to a large room that was used for cleaning feathers to put into pillows and feather beds, and must have fallen asleep among the feathers. The next morning when the girls arrived for work, Biddy, who of course had been asleep all night, came to her senses and walked down the stairs. I can well picture her appearance, covered thickly with a mass of feathers, she must have looked like some prehistoric fowl, and the fright of the girls, not knowing what it was! Of course, they all ran away, and Biddy, not realizing what it was all about, followed them, and fell down as she was running over a little hillock in the woods just outside the laundry. When someone returned to see what it was, you may imagine their astonishment when they found it was not some monstrous bird, but Biddy.

Now, I think I will return to my story about Uncle Jim. Having the management of his mother’s estates, he could indulge in his favourite hobbies, farming and stock-raising, in both of which he was expert. But he was never too busy to send out his Clydesdale horses to help people who could not have their ploughing done without them. It was his thoughtful acts of kindness that made him so popular with those who lived on his property. I was very fond of him, and whenever anything would go wrong, I would try to find him and tell him how vexed I was about something my elder sisters had said to me. He knew my youngest sister and I had a few admirers who used to come and fish on his river near Kilcolgan Castle, and he never told anyone about it. One stormy evening when he was returning through the woods near the river, he saw two military men who, he said, told him that their yacht was partly wrecked. He asked them to dinner but they refused, saying that their men were getting it repaired, and that when the storm had lessened somewhat, they would return to Galway where they were stationed. That evening he told me about them, and I started to laugh when he said, “I just wanted you to meet two fine looking chaps, so I asked them to dinner, for I know well that your sisters never give you a chance to meet anyone worthwhile.” If he only knew that I had invited them to come along with their yacht and take my sister and myself out for a sail, but I, fearing a thunderstorm at the last moment, was afraid to go with them. This just goes to show how nice he always tried to be to me.

Right behind our home was a large wooded area, separated from the house by what we called the “back lawn.” What we called a lawn over there was not just a little patch of grass in front of the house, but acres of green sward sometimes reaching as far as the eye could see. The woods stretched for several miles along the coast, backed by magnificent hills.

One walk that was very popular was through what we called the Fishery Woods to the seashore, where we had our salmon weir and oyster beds. Hundreds of salmon were caught by net, and thousands of oysters dredged for use in the house or sent to friends and relatives who lived in town. What was left would be sent to the Dublin markets. I spoke a little while ago of a V-shaped opening being cut in the trees to allow us to get a glimpse of the sea. Well, there was another V-shaped opening cut in the far side of the front lawn but for a different purpose. This one enabled us to see the beautiful carved—stone window of the vault in which Lady Harietta St. George and others were buried.

Feature Image – Traditional Galway Hooker courtsey Port of Galway

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About this record

Written by Elizabeth La Hiff Lambert

Published here 22 Aug 2022 and originally published 1979

Page 0081 of the Athenry History archive.

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