Most people in Athenry today will always remember May Cronnelly as our town’s motherly former sacristan. As an ex-alter boy who served during the “the Cronnelly years” I can never remember an occasion where she raised her voice, no matter if you rang the bell at the wrong time or if you were caught sneaking a mouthful of alter wine. Nevertheless, you always got the message that if anything wasn’t good enough, you had to improve it. However, May Cronnelly had a much more eventful life than making sure that alter boy’s sutans were put on straight. Indeed, she is a window to the past.
May, whose maiden name was Holland, was born in 1908 and her earliest memory is being arrested by the R.I.C. during the Easter rising of 1916. Then aged only eight years old, she was delivering a bag of flour from Brendan Higgins’ yard (now the Hop Inn) to Frank Kilkelly’s grandmother when both herself and Mrs. Kilkenny were arrested by the police to see if they knew anything about rebel activities. The police would not let May go and escorted her to the barracks along with Mrs. Kilkelly. She was so small that she could see the revolvers under their capes when she looked up and says that she would “know them now if they came in.” Eventually, at about five o’clock, they were released and Mrs. Kilkelly gave her a slice of bread and jam to eat while driving the ass and cart home. “I thought it was great” she recalls.
May grew up in a house in Park where life for a young rural girl was hard. There was always a job to be done and it was usually done by the girls. Boys worked the land during the day and could relax in the evening. For girls it was different, they not only had to work all day cooking and cleaning but they had to take care of the men when they came in from the fields. Washing was done on a Monday and clothes were much more comfortable and durable than they are today; “If you were out in a blizzard nothing would go through them”.
People were generally self-sufficient and had all their own vegetables, milk butter eggs and bread. The only items that were bought were tea, sugar, flour and tobacco and the trip to town was made once a week. Compared with today, life for a child or teenager seems to have been pretty dull. May is adamant that there was little or no leisure time, no sweets apart from chocolate or “Peggy’s leg” and presents were rarely given or received.
People then took religion very seriously; “If they were dying, I think they would go to Mass” she says.
Courting or “company keeping” in the past centered around the dance floor as it does now. However dancing then was real dancing “not like the jizzin’ around today.” Dances took place in different houses on a Sunday afternoon under the watchful eye of parents and grandparents. On Midsummer’s night the dancing was moved to the crossroads.
Match-making was not uncommon but the main problem with this, as May says, was that; “the older the fella was, the younger he wanted the bride”. Any young man wishing to court would first have to declare his intentions to the father of the “object of his desire”. If approval was obtained then you were “doing a line” for a few years before you got married. Indeed, it was at a dance that May met her husband. May says that there was a lot of jealousy, begrudgery and greed when it came to marriage, with couples being split up because they weren’t bringing enough land or animals with them.
The Protestant community were very wealthy compared to the ordinary Catholics and travelled in great style when attending Sunday service. Were they I asked, an object of envy? According to May, ordinary Catholics did “not much envy them, but hated them”. There was little or no mixing of the two communities, the gentry going so far as too bring most of their staff with them rather than hire locals.
People then were also very superstitious. Cutting down a lone tree or walking into a graveyard were just two things to be avoided. May doesn’t remember any stories of haunted places but heard that a “Wise Woman” used to live in Crumlin. It was said that on the night she died the people inside the house heard thunder while those outside did not. Old Wives’ cures were rarely used, as castor oil was the main cure all in those days.
However, “the good old days” had some very dark periods which May will not forget easily. During the infamous days of the Black and Tans, she saw the body of a man lying in a field. Both he and his horse had been shot dead by the ‘Tans in an argument over land. May says that when the Irish were discussing the ‘Tans” hate was a mild word”. The I.R.A. were quite active in Athenry at the time and the local priest Fr. Fahy, “would help them on the quiet.” “The Civil War did not have much of an impact in Athenry” she says, “apart from different parties shouting at each other after Mass.”
May attended the convent school in town which had about thirty-six nuns at the time. They were strict and “t’was no picnic”, but any over-zealous corporal punishment is forgiven by May who says that the nuns were under a lot of pressure and strain themselves.
Neighbours were more important then, probably because people did not have much and shared what they had. Everyone helped each other but kept their generosity to themselves unlike today, May thinks most people do it “for show”. At that time there was no dole or no pension and work was not plentiful. There were no outward signs of marital difficulties as they were all kept behind closed doors. If a girl became pregnant outside of marriage she would be “denounced from the altar” and the priest would just stop short of mentioning her name.
May describes emigration in those days as “killing”. Indeed, the four o’clock train was known as “The Heartbreak Train” because so many of those who left saw neither their homes or their families ever again. Money would be sent home from abroad until the emigrant had started his or her own family. Someone who stayed at home may be lucky enough to get a job in Corbett’s and earn fifteen shillings a week. Otherwise, there might be work to be found in other shops, the railway companies or just simply hiring oneself out as a labourer. Land was not divided so emigration was often the only option for the sons and daughters who did not inherit the land.
As regards the major political events of the day May remembers the air of disillusionment after the Economic War. The Second World War was a time of shortage, with no fruit, sweets or other such luxuries. Everything else was rationed and even Christy Howley went as far as to make wooden toys so as not to disappoint the children of Athenry at Christmas.
May thinks that people today have a much higher standard of living and a much easier life. She says that in her day children would not have been as mischievous for fear of the strap or the cane. Modern Ireland is not all good in her book; “They have made a bit of a laugh of marriage, its kind of gone on the rocks a bit and I don’t like that”.
May Cronnelly is a woman with no regrets; “I’ve had a great old life in my own tin pot way”. And how would she like people to remember her? May thinks for a moment and chuckles; “She was a bit of a devil!” she says. Now, what could one add to that?
Written by Paul McNamara
Published here 09 Feb 2021 and originally published June 1995
Athenry Medieval Festival 1999
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