Dr Paul McNamara

This book examines the ‘Recovered Territories’ which came to Poland from Germany following the Second World War. In particular, looks at Sovietisation and the levels of conflict and compromise between ordinary Poles and the communist regime in Poland’s settlement of its coastal provinces between 1945 and 1956.This book examines the ‘Recovered Territories’ which came to Poland from Germany following the Second World War. In particular, looks at Sovietisation and the levels of conflict and compromise between ordinary Poles and the communist regime in Poland’s settlement of its coastal provinces between 1945 and 1956.

Other publications by Dr McNamara

‘The Free City of Danzig’s rejection of its hinterland, as seen through events concerning the League of Nations and Danzig, 1933-1937’ (in press)‘The Free City of Danzig’s rejection of its hinterland, as seen through events concerning the League of Nations and Danzig, 1933-1937’ (in press)
in Robert Lee (Ed.) Port-Cities and their Hinterlands: Migration, Trade and Cultural Exchange from the early seventeenth-century to 1939, · Jan 1, 2018in Robert Lee (Ed.) Port-Cities and their Hinterlands: Migration, Trade and Cultural Exchange from the early seventeenth-century to 1939, · Jan 1, 2018

‘A Tragedy of European Concern’ – The conflict between Sean Lester, High Commissioner of the League of Nations and Danzig’s Nazi Senate, 1934-1937,’ ‘A Tragedy of European Concern’ – The conflict between Sean Lester, High Commissioner of the League of Nations and Danzig’s Nazi Senate, 1934-1937,’
Symbolae Europaeae, vol. 9/2016 · Jan 1, 2016Symbolae Europaeae, vol. 9/2016 · Jan 1, 2016

‘Sean Lester, Liga Narodów i Polska w Wolnym Mieście Gdańsku, 1934 – 1937’ in Polska-Irlandia: Wspólna historia?‘Sean Lester, Liga Narodów i Polska w Wolnym Mieście Gdańsku, 1934 – 1937’ in Polska-Irlandia: Wspólna historia?
Instytut Historii, UAM, Poznan · Dec 1, 2015Instytut Historii, UAM, Poznan · Dec 1, 2015

‘Competing National and Regional Identities in Poland’s Baltic “Recovered Territories”, 1945-1956’: Communism, Nationalism and State Building in Post-War Europe, History of Communism in Europe, vol. III/2012‘Competing National and Regional Identities in Poland’s Baltic “Recovered Territories”, 1945-1956’: Communism, Nationalism and State Building in Post-War Europe, History of Communism in Europe, vol. III/2012
Zeta Books, Bucharest · Jan 1, 2012Zeta Books, Bucharest · Jan 1, 2012

Sean Lester’, entry in Encyklopedia Gdańska‘Sean Lester’, entry in Encyklopedia Gdańska
Fundacja Gdańska · Jan 1, 2012Fundacja Gdańska · Jan 1, 2012

‘Sean Lester and Polish Foreign Policy, 1934-1937’ in Sabine Egger and John McDonough (Eds.) Polish –Irish Encounters’Sean Lester and Polish Foreign Policy, 1934-1937’ in Sabine Egger and John McDonough (Eds.) Polish –Irish Encounters 2011Peter Lang: Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien · Jan 1, 2011

‘Could this Irishman have stopped Hitler?’, History Ireland (Cover story) May 1, 2009May 1, 2009

Sean Lester, Poland and the Nazi Takeover of Danzig 
Irish Academic Press, Dublin and Portland · Jan 1, 2009Irish Academic Press, Dublin and Portland · Jan 1, 2009

Sean Lester, a Belfast protestant and Irish nationalist, became one of Ireland’s first truly international diplomats when, in 1934, he took up the post of High Commissioner of the League of Nations in the Free City of Danzig, a Baltic port which both Germany and Poland coveted. Finding himself in a cauldron of intrigue, Lester made strenuous and courageous efforts to frustrate the Danzig Nazi Party’s attempts to gain complete control of the city and return it to the German Reich. By mid-1936, having become virtually the only obstacle left in the way of Nazi conquest of Danzig, the Irishman soon became the focus of a very aggressive, and eventually successful campaign by Hitler and the Nazi movement to have him forced out of the Free City. As it was the only country to have official rights in Danzig, Poland’s position regarding these events is crucial and perhaps was more important than that of the League of Nations itself. Extensively based on material regarding Lester from the Polish state archives never before seen outside Poland, this book examines the circumstances surrounding the Irishman’s tenure in the Free City where he became one of the first western European diplomats to see the Nazi mask slip. Other primary sources used in the book are the National Archives, London, the League of Nations Archives in Geneva, Sean Lester’s diary and papers and to a lesser extent German foreign ministry archives. The failure of European governments to heed Lester’s warnings and to subsequently allow his ‘removal’ from Danzig turned out to be a missed opportunity to stop Hitler in his tracks three years before the outbreak of the Second World War. Of all the parties involved in this tale of intrigue, misjudgments and bad faith, Irishman Sean Lester is the only one to emerge with his honour intact.

Red Star over the Baltic examines the Sovietisation of Poland’s Baltic provinces, a region which witnessed sweeping changes regarding its borders and population as formerly German territory was incorporated into a re-constituted Polish state following the Second World War. Although under-populated and geographically peripheral, these ‘Recovered Territories’ were central to the raison d’être of the post-war Polish state and were to be in the vanguard of spreading communism into central Europe. At the same time, due to a common desire to reclaim these lands for Poland, the Polish communist regime’s policies of rapid ‘degermanisation’ and ‘repolonisation’ were supported by both the Polish Roman Catholic hierarchy, as well as the anti-communist underground.

Moreover, forced migration and ordinary push-pull settlement to this region placed groups of Poles with strong regional and cultural differences into a transnational social and demographic mosaic. The imposition of Soviet-style policies, therefore, added yet another layer of complexity to a region already in extreme demographic, social and political flux. Although religious practice was an obstacle for the creation of a new sovietised society, in practice the regime recognised that the presence of the Polish Roman Catholic Church was essential in order to attract settlers to the Baltic provinces. Despite the Red Army’s looting and asset-stripping, the regime engendered the fear of German revanchism among the settlers in order to justify the region’s ‘protection’ by Soviet forces.

Based on Polish-language archive material and personal testimony, much of which has never been published before, this monograph provides an insight into how much local Polish officials were driven by pragmatism or ideology in forming flexible but uneasy alliances with settlers and the Church in order to achieve regional and national goals. It also looks at how Polish settlers and indigenous communities in this peculiar region developed effective strategies of compromise and/or resistance to Sovietisation.

Originally from, Athenry, County Galway, Dr Paul McNamara has been based in Poland for many years, and currently works at the Technical University of Koszalin. His principal research focuses on Poland during the 20th century. He is also the author of Sean Lester, Poland and the Nazi Takeover of Danzig (2009). Paul has also translated several Polish academic works into English, most notably Prof. Beata Halicka’s monograph The Polish Wild West: Forced Migration and Cultural Appropriation in the Oder Region, 1945-1948.

Although Poland used to be a country where you had to queue all day for a bottle of vinegar, everything seems to have radically changed in the past seven years. Today, I can walk to the local shop and buy everything that is available in Athenry (except a St. Mary’s GAA Club lottery ticket and of course The Athenry Journal). The only catch is if one has the money to buy what’s on offer.

Undoubtedly, this country is stunningly beautiful most of the time and one doesn’t have to go very far to see sweeping landscapes, extensive deciduous and coniferous forests and the amber strewn Baltic coast with it’s huge sand dunes. However, you only have to scratch the surface to see the dreary immediate past. The people here will readily tell you how difficult things were ten or fifteen years ago during the period after the military coup in 1981 which lasted for almost two years. In their ration books (which have now become souvenirs of Communism) they will show you how much butter they were allowed to have and tell you how they traded their cigarette and chocolate coupons to buy more meat or bread.

It is difficult for us to understand standing in line for hours only to find that all the state shops are only stocked with vinegar and mustard. Even today, the taste of unsalted butter is literally the taste of freedom from the salted varieties of the Communist era. Ironically, some shops had everything but only if you had the hard cash to pay for it. I know families who queued all night with their life savings outside any type of department store. Once inside, they bought three or four vacuum cleaners, ovens, washing machines, televisions or anything they could get their hands on with the express purpose of bartering them for food later on. Gradually, most people learned how to work the system or got to know someone who could help then get what they wanted.

Although today there is a sense of relief that the bad old days of Communism are gone, it is understandable how some people think they have swapped one set of problems for another. With mass unemployment (around 30-40% where I live), a huge rise in the cost of living and a widening gap between rich and poor, the breakneck pace of change is too fast for many. It is sad to see so many of Poland’s young men staggering the streets drunk out of their minds to forget the lack of work.

The average pay cheque in the north of Poland is about £100 per month. That’s right – per month. Having said that, the cost of living has recently settled down somewhat to about one third of Ireland’s even though inflation is still 17%. For many years, unemployment was hidden in Poland by dividing a job that one person could do among three or four people. This meant that while the Communist ideal of “everyone has a job” was realised, many people just sat about talking, playing cards or reading the paper. There is an old Polish joke about a worker who comes to his foreman to tell him that his shovel is broken. “Don’t worry” says the foreman, “go and lean on the cement mixer instead”.

Today, the visitor to Poland will notice a huge difference from western Europe. There is a lot of building and renovation rapidly taking place to take the “worn at the elbows” look away. Poland is home to some of the most beautiful cities in Europe and is crammed with interesting places to see. This is my second year teaching English and living in Lebork, a town of approximately 38,00 people situated about 50 miles west of Gdansk (formerly Danzig).

The region around the Baltic is called Pomerania and it is primarily a rural area with the Tri-city of Gdansk, Gdyia, and Sopot as its main centre of population. Gdansk is one of the best examples of a medieval merchant city one could ever see and retains its beauty in the depths of the Polish winter. Unfortunately, its famous shipyards are in deep financial trouble at the moment although it is there that Lech Walesa (pronounced “Vawensa”) has returned to work as an electrician after being voted out of his job as president of Poland. Up to the Second World War, Gdansk was a free city of Danzig while Lebork was just a few kilometres inside the German border. Therefore, Pomerania has a strong German flavour both in its history and architecture.

Quite often you see elderly Germans visiting their childhood homes from which they had to flee in order to escape the advancing Russians at the end of the war. (World War 11) When shop assistants discover that I am a foreigner they start speaking to me in German. The trouble is that although I know some Polish, my linguistic skills in German are just non-existent.

As regards the Polish landscape, there are two things that an Irish person must get used to. Firstly, there is the vastness of the land which is something you realise when you stand in a field that goes from one horizon to another. Secondly, this vastness is accentuated by the lack of stone walls, fences or any kind of boundary (presumably from collectivisation). The rolling country-side yields crops such as potatoes, wheat, beet, strawberries, etc. and there is also some dairying. Unlike, the west of Ireland, there aren’t many sheep and the Poles think that killing and eating a lamb, as opposed to a grown sheep, is uneconomical and even cruel. The continental climate here swings from one extreme to another. During the winter, which lasts from November to March, there are two or three feet of snow on the ground, literally six inches of ice on the roads and last February the temperature plummeted to -28 degrees Centigrade. lt’s not as bad as it sounds as the air is also quite dry and it can be refreshing to go to work in -10 degrees, although anything below -15 degrees is uncomfortably cold. Fortunately, houses are well heated here with lots of Polish coal. However, the worst thing about the Polish winter for me is when it starts getting dark at 3 p.m. The best thing is when all the lakes and rivers, and even some of the waves at the beach, freeze over to a depth of about six or seven inches. The huge amounts of powdery snow here turns everyone into a child again. Summer is the opposite, with temperatures of up to 37 degrees last summer and cloudless blue skies.

Snow on the beach of Leba, a costal resort on the Baltic Sea. The mansion, now a hotel, was used as a summer residence by the infamous Nazi propagandist  Josef Goebbels.

One question you might ask is how do people drive a car on six inches of snow. The answer is I don’t know, but they do it anyway and the extensive bus and rail networks never seem to cease operating, no matter what the weather. By far the most common type of car in Poland is the Fiat 126 Bambino which can barely fit four people and you can forget about luggage. Nevertheless, they’re everywhere. The rich, of which there is small but growing number, in Poland like to show off their Mercedes Benz, BMW and some sort of sports car which may or may not have been stolen in Germany. There is a Mafia here which is dominated by the Russians. At our local market the Russians can get you anything from a Kalashnikov with ammunition to an angle grinder.

Organised crime here does not put you in personal danger as it concentrates on stealing high value goods in Germany and then trying to sell them here or in Russia. They are also involved in prostitution. The only place that I have been warned about is the capital city, Warsaw, where I have been told that it is best to keep a low profile.

Polish are remarkably similar to the Irish. They have many of the same attributes about living and working and their hospitality knows no bounds (once you break the ice that is, which is very thin). They are quite religious and more especially so in the countryside. The churches are always packed and they have a lot more ritual attached to the Mass than we do in Ireland. Both our countries have had sad and troublesome histories and even though Poland was wiped off the map for 123 years, they have had the tenacity to hold on to their native language. Poles are very proud of their country and are trying very hard to bring Poland up to western standards although sometimes I feel as if they are throwing a lot away just to have the material benefits of democracy.

At the moment, I have a comfortable, stress free life in Poland and although the money I earn is not a lot in Irish terms (£65 per week), it affords me a middle class lifestyle here. The school, I work for also, provides me with free accommodation (which is great), satellite TV, a cleaning lady, a 50% reduction for train travel and I only work I8 hours per week. They also pay my gas and electricity bills and I have no income tax. Most of this I didn’t have at home although my mother would disagree about the free accommodation, no bills and definitely about the cleaning lady?

The food here takes some getting used to. It is richer and contains more fat but this is a great help during the winter. Apart from Advent and Lent, the Polish diet is centred around meat and lots of it. Many have meat, in some form, for breakfast. dinner and tea.

Once, I was invited to dinner at a student’s house where I was given a choice of fish or chicken suspended in a mould of pure animal gelatine or the dish, I unwittingly chose, which was a big plate of raw mince-meat garnished with onion and raw egg. And yes! I ate every last bit. However. most Polish food is great. Dishes such as Bigos (cabbage and sausage). Barszez (red cabbage soup: and Kielbasa (enormous sausages) are the stable diet of many.

All of the ingredients are found in Ireland but they really know how to use and combine them here. Poland’s top culinary achievements are in breads, biscuits and pastries which can be found in its many bakeries. Therefore, Poland is neither a country for vegetarians or weight watchers, I’m afraid.

Slavic languages have a reputation for being difficult and while Polish looks and sounds intimidating, it’s not as bad as it first seems. That’s not to say that it is easy – far from it! For example. the name of the first person I met in Poland was Grzegorz and it took me over a week to learn how to pronounce his name correctly. Polish people are not used to hearing foreigners speak their language and find my accent difficult to understand sometimes although they are very encouraging when they hear you attempt to use it.

As a holiday destination, Poland is certainly different and has as much to offer as any country in Europe. Cities such as Krakow, Gdansk and Posnan and their castle and cathedrals are equal to Paris, Vienna, or Prague in my mind. There is so much here that nobody in the west even knows about and the great thing is that even though tourist facilities have really improved in the last few years, Poland still offers great value for money. In the south there are spectacular mountains and in the east virgin forest and the wildlife that goes with it. The only area to avoid would be the Katowice industrial belt in the south west. If you think of the money you could spend on a belt tightening two week holiday to France or Germany, you could have an amazing time in Poland for almost half the money. As well as that, there is a lot of high quality but inexpensive jewellery to be had in the north but here we also have reminders of the horrors of war at the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek.

The Gas Chamber and Concentration Camp Crematorium at Stutthof, northern Poland

I suppose I’m a bit biased at this stage but in all sincerity, Poland does not deserve its image in the west as a cold, poor, deprived backwater. It’s a very exciting and interesting time here at the moment and I’m very glad I came when I did. If you ever have the desire to see something different you could do a lot worse than to visit Poland. To paraphrase a famous nineteenth century American quote, my advice is “Go East, young man!”

As someone who has been away for the best part of a year, it is great to see the old town looking so well this summer. The efforts of Athenry’s residents, both in an individual and communal capacity, have transformed some parts of the town. Most noticeably was the profusion of hanging baskets on the shopfronts and houses of many of our streets.

Caheroyan Road seems to be maturing beautifully at the moment, with some very pretty and well planned gardens coming to fruition – obviously the result of some very hard work. It is also great to see the residents of our town willing to break the chains of drabness and take the risk of using brighter colours on their houses and doors. Somebody once said that you have to go away and then return to realise what you have at home.

I must say that a fresh lick of paint coupled with a few nice gardens have made coming home that bit more pleasurable. Well done to everyone who made an effort, especially in Caheroyan, Árd Aoibhinn, Park, Swangate, and the streets of our town centre. Your hard work has been noticed by many.

During all of her 89 years Nora O’Brien (nee Egan) has seen and experienced very much. She has witnessed extreme brutality and lived in a climate of fear during one of lreland’s darkest and most divisive periods.

Nora Egan was born on the 10th of November, I906 in Egan’s Pub in Coshla. She had a large family of three brothers and sisters, all of whom are now dead (two died in infancy), except herself. Her father was Tom Egan and in 1901 he opened a public house on the Galway- Monivea road. According to Nora, their pub soon had the highest record of Guinness sales in Galway, which was no surprise when you consider it was only 2d for a pint. During all their time, she proudly recalls, their licence was never endorsed as they never received one conviction. Incidentally, Nora has been a pioneer for over 70 years.

Her early childhood was almost idyllic. Everyone had their jobs to do and did them with no backchat. In the evenings they played the accordion and danced around the kitchen. However, this was all against a political backdrop of violence and turmoil which would soon have drastic personal repercussions for the whole family, when their father was shot dead in front of them by the Black and Tans.

Nora believes that her father’s murder in October 1920 was a reprisal shooting for the assassination of the landlord Shaw-Taylor, the previous March. She says that her father’s killers mistakenly took the fact that Shaw-Taylor had been shot near their pub as an indication that the IRA were using it as a meeting place. Shaw-Taylor, Nora Says, came from Ardrahan and bought Moorpark and Castle Lambert estates. He was a young man with a wife and three small children who lived in Moorpark House.

Apparently, some of the locals wanted land from him and a deputation went to meet him to discuss it. His refusal was not appreciated and while he was travelling to the Galway Fair his killers placed an ass-cart across the road and shot him as he passed. While Shaw-Taylor was drawing his last breaths lying on the road, he was beaten to death with ash-plants.

Later that day, as the investigation started, the District Inspector said that he couldn’t understand why Tom Egan did not know more about the death because two men were seen entering the pub late the previous night. In fact, says Nora, these two men had come to ask her father to help them to fill a form regarding a prize-winning bull.

Soon after Shaw-Taylor’s murder Nora saw his children being brought for a walk by their governess and playing around her house. By this time, Moorpark House had been abandoned and looted and Mrs Shaw-Taylor received constant police protection. Later, that October a man came to speak to her father to warn him that the Black and Tans were in the area. A young Sonny Egan also told him that he could see about twenty men “on the run” hiding across the road and suggested that his father should go too, but Tom replied that he could not abandon his family. Almost all the neighbours would not come to the pub as they were so afraid of meeting the ‘Tans.

At 10:30 p.m. the children were getting ready for bed when the youngest one, Jim, woke because of a knock on the door. Tom Egan, who was 47 years old, went downstairs with his wife to answer it and four Black and Tans entered. The Sergeant, (Nora can remember the three stripes on his arm) stood with two other men in the corner of the bar while a fourth stood at the foot of the stairs. Suddenly a shot was fired, missing Tom Egan and hitting the wall. The next shots found their mark, hitting him in the head and throat. Like Shaw-Taylor he did not die instantly and Nora can still remember vividly, and will never forget, the sight and sound of her father breathing heavily on the floor during the final moments of his life. Nora can also remember her mother mopping up the huge pool of blood which had collected beside her father. Needless to say, this event had a great effect on all of them.

For the next three nights before the funeral Mrs Egan did not know just who would open the door if there was a knock at it as she was so worried that they would all be shot. Her mother, who cried herself to sleep for a long time afterwards was the strongest one but others in the family, especially her brother, Jim, never got over it.

Although this event took place almost 76 years ago, today we are at a very sensitive time in our country’s history where we must ask ourselves whether we want to learn from our past and prevent other families on this island from suffering the same. If we changed the place and time of this story I’m sure that it would be indistinguishable from many we have heard over the news in the past twenty seven years. ls this what we wish to return to?

Bloody deeds at Cashla in 1920 | Tuam Herald- Mairéa O’Brien

Usually it is the people from a rural background that we think of when wanting to record the reminiscences of times past.  However, we sometimes forget that the change in the town is often far more rapid.  Just ask yourself how many shops and houses in Athenry have changed hands in the past ten years.  Therefore, I was lucky to have the opportunity to speak to Winnie Kennedy, a woman who has watched this town grow and evolve over most of this century.

Being a townie myself, I was surprised to find a very different Athenry exists today in contrast to the one of the 1920s and 30s.  For a start, I doubt if today we would find many people in Athenry killing a fowl and sprinkling its blood in the four corners of their home.  According to Winnie, this was done every St. Martin’s Day on the 11th. of November and its purpose was to ward off evil.  Other customs included each area erecting a May Altar which was decorated with eggshells and candles.  There was also a Maybush from which the townspeople took a branch to put over their door.  St. John’s Night and Hallowe’en were big bonfire nights as there are now, but Winnie describes peculiar Hallowe’en games involving three plates, one filled with water, another with clay, and a third containing a ring.  If the blindfolded person picked water it meant that they would cross the sea, the clay meant death and the ring meant marriage.  If you fell in the graveyard you would be the next to die and that went for any time of the year.  Christmas was a very special time of the year and on Christmas night the front door had to be left open no matter what the weather so that if the Blessed Virgin Mary was passing, ‘She could come in for a rest.’ Winnie remembers how everyone would look forward to the Christmas Box from O’Neill’s shop which was delivered by Johnny McNamara (my great-grandfather).

Winnie Kennedy (nee Byrne) was born into a railway family at Athenry station in 1914.  She amusingly recalls that she was so used to the sound of trains that she found it difficult to sleep for a long time after moving to her son Frank’s house set in the tranquil surroundings of Farnablake.  Was growing up in the age of steam as railway children a romantic way of life?  I asked.  Her answer was that they felt they were different to others, that ‘we were special people.’ Listening to her following story I was immediately convinced.  One day she was in the signal cabin and unfortunately fell out of the window.  By a stroke of luck, Mikie McNamara from Caheroyan (my grand-uncle) was delivering goods to Sweeneys and passed by just in time to catch her. This sense of near invincibility must have also belonged to her father who had to pass the staff to the train driver at speed while running along the platform.  If the driver dropped the staff this was called  ‘a staff failure’.  The train would go on to the next station where it had to stay put until someone drove there by road to give the staff to the train driver so he could continue his journey.  Indeed, many was the time my own grandfather had to do this job of ‘beating the train’ so as to keep any delay to a minimum.  Winnie’s father was a country boy from Roscommon who ran away from home to join the railway and met her mother while he was posted in Achill Island.  Eventually he ended up transferred to Athenry.  These were the days of the railway companies such as the Midland and Great Western Railway Company which ran through Athenry. ‘The station had to be shining when anyone important such as the engineer arrived.  He would come to the station in a special railcar which was like a little house on wheels’.  Another advantage of being a railway child was free or reduced rate travel for herself and her family.

Winnie remembers the night Eamonn de Valera passed through Athenry in the early 1920s.  There was a guard of honour stretching from the station itself along both sides of the railway track to the bridge at Prospect.  Each man had a pitchfork on which was stuck a blazing oil-soaked sod of turf.  Her earliest memory is of Lady Day when every girl in Athenry got a new dress.  She says that it was quite nice growing up in a town although she had a strict upbringing.  However, during her late teens she was allowed to go to the ‘practice dances’ which took place in Murphy’s Hall. It cost sixpence to get in and they ran from 9pm to midnight.  Some dances, such as those for the agricultural show and the coursing committee, ran all night and they had an entrance fee of half-a-crown which included supper.  It was Jimmy Payne who brought ‘the pictures’ to Athenry and Winnie remembers that the piano was played by Mrs. Broderick, who married Christy Broderick, the chemist.  Once, at 18 years of age, she was all set to go to the coursing dance in Loughrea but regrettably her parents decided otherwise and disappointed a young gentleman caller who had driven to her house and knocked at the door.  Not surprisingly, Winnie met her husband at a dance but she was engaged before she even told her parents of her liaison.  She thinks that they probably knew anyway as there was a lot of gossip in those days.

Winnie attended the convent school as a young girl where most of the nuns were ‘very nice people’.  However, there were one or two who weren’t so nice who she thinks were frustrated that they had been forced into a way of life that they didn’t choose for themselves.  She can remember brown paper being pinned on the end of her skirt by the nuns if it was considered to be too short.  Sometimes pupils were made to wear the dunce’s hat and either stand in a corner or parade themselves around the school.  Later, she took the relatively unusual step of going to ‘the Tec.’ in Galway rather than staying on at the convent to finish her education.  There she learned typing, shorthand and other office skills.

During the 1920s and 1930s attitudes to religion were very different.  The priest, indeed God himself, was an object of fear.  She remembers how one priest used to go around with a torch at night looking for courting couples until someone made a very brave-for-its-time gesture of telling him to mind his own business.  In contrast, other priests of the time were popular such as Canon Farragher, and especially Canon Conway who was very generous and gave all his money to the poor.  ‘I believe he hadn’t tuppence in his pocket the day he died,’ Winnie says.  Business people and the wealthy seemed to make sure that there was at least one priest or nun in the family and she thinks that there motives were more to do with keeping up with the Joneses rather than the propagation of the faith.  Of course, the rich had nothing to fear when the dues were being read out from the altar and some tried to keep even more well in with the priests by giving them geese and the ‘odd bottle’. Much as we might not like to know it, according to Winnie there was class distinction in Athenry.  She can remember a nun threatening to tell the rich parents of a pal of hers that she shouldn’t be hanging around with Winnie and ‘that would put a stop to it’.  This kind of snobbery was not just the preserve of the rich, indeed, the people of the town thought they were better than Caheroyan, or as Winnie puts it ‘you weren’t supposed to have anything to do with anyone the other side of the Arch’.  Unlike people in the country who were largely self-sufficient, the people of the town bought everything and frequently used catalogues to buy there clothes.

By the way, Winnie says that she never heard the name ‘King John’s Castle’ until recently and always called the castle where I now work ‘The Old Court’, as did everyone else in Athenry.  Incidentally, I was taken down a few pegs to find out that I am currently working in a building that was used as Athenry’s Public Latrine for the past century and not as a castle. Winnie had one brother and four sisters. Her older brother and sister left for America in the late 1920s.  Regrettably, they never heard from their brother again after he left at the age of eighteen years and they do not know whether he is alive or dead.  Indeed, she adds that every single week there was a ‘funeral’ at the station for someone emigrating. Regarding the political events of the day, she can remember the Black and Tans passing over the railway line pointing their guns at them.  She draws a distinction between the ‘Tans’ and the British Army who were billeted in the Railway Hotel.  She says that unlike the ‘Tans’, the British army were very nice people, polite and well-disciplined.  Indeed, one British soldier used to call to their house regularly to bandage Winnie’s knee after she suffered a bad burn, and needless to say, it healed perfectly.

The Civil War did not have much impact on her as she was still very young but she can vividly describe the hardship of the Economic War during the 1930s.  Many found it very difficult to make ends meet and there was thriving black market in the shops where you could buy rationed items such as tea under the counter for a certain price.  Nevertheless, even through such hardship Dev. still had huge popular support.  During the Emergency, Winnie’s husband was a volunteer in the Irish Army and his picture proudly hangs over the mantelpiece.  It was with her husband that she rented out Mattie McNamara’s shop (my grandfather) on Old Church Street.  They had a travelling shop which meant that they used to collect eggs from the local farmers and sell them to a company in Dublin called, funnily enough, Carton Brothers.

Markets and fair days were very busy times.  Cattle were loaded onto the trains often with a bit of cruelty involved – the animals being whipped until they bled to get them into the cattle cars.  At the end of the day the council gathered all the cow dung into pools in the middle of the street and journeys on foot through the town at night would want to be kept to a minimum, considering that there was no street lighting in those days.  It goes without saying that many found out the hard way. There were a few Protestant children going to school in Athenry and they went out to have their lunch during the Angelus and Catechism.  The Byrnes had more contact than most people with the Protestant community as they lived close to the Old Rectory.  Winnie says that all the ministers living there ‘were lovely people’.  The rector, Mr. Bomfort, had a lovely garden from which he sold flowers.  Surprisingly, he used to give free flowers for the Catholic procession on Corpus Christi.  Winnie sees a lot of differences in Ireland today.  ‘There are no really poor people in Ireland and life is much easier’, she says.  She doesn’t believe that religion means anything to people today.  It did then although the church had its fair share of ‘crawthumpers’ going through the motions so that people would notice them.

Earlier on, Winnie said that she felt people on the railway were special people.  If Winnie herself is anything to go by they must have been very special people and interesting people indeed.  It really is a pity we don’t have more recorded about the trains in Athenry given that they have contributed so much to the life of this town.

Paul McNamara for the “Athenry Journal” August 1995

Paul McNamara is the author of “Sean Lester and the Nazi Takeover of Danzig” 2009

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?

Farming is one aspect of life that has seen drastic changes in the last eighty years.  The arrival of the tractor and, later, electricity revolutionised farming not just in Ireland but the whole world. John Hanley from Ballydavid is a man who has lived through and adapted to these changes from the 1920s on.

John, who is 88 years old, grew up in a lovely cut stone cottage which lies behind the modern one in which he lives today. It was built by Pat Hynes in the 1830s with his two sons, Frank who was a carpenter and Tom who was a stonemason. There were two rooms with a parlour and a kitchen and the loft was entered by a ladder. There was more tillage farming then as people did not have the land for pastoral farming. Animals were often borrowed and most families had one horse and one cow. They also had two calves, one of which was sold to “ranchers” such as the Lamberts. The family in which John grew up was small, with just two girls and a boy and he was the youngest. He can remember the farming methods which have now become obsolete such as “squitching”. This took place when wheat was cut with scythe – a chair was placed upside down in a barn and a stone was placed in the middle of it. Then the ends of the wheat stalks were hit off the stone until all the wheat grains fell off. The bare stalks were then used for thatching. Bluestone (copper sulphate) mixed with washing soda if sprayed on potatoes will keep away disease and actually make them bigger. A potato cut into slits or sections will increase its yield when it is sown in a ridge.

John can also remember wheat being winnowed in a special wooden container with a good draught behind it. Wheat was the most common type of grain sown. Oats were also important and as John says, “A hen will only eat good oats”. The wheat was taken to the mill which was owned by the Irvines during the 1930s, who bought it from all the farmers in the area. There was no such thing as a “sliced pan” in those days as people then baked their own bread. There were different strains of wheat also. “Attle” was used for white bread and “Brownie” for brown bread. Goodbody’s Mill in Galway would grind wheat for white bread. Prices generally were very bad and as John says, “There was no money”. A turfcutter was paid a pound for five long days’ work. Stalkers and beet pullers were paid about ten to twelve shillings. “If you had half a crown at the races, you were a rich man”. The fair days are still vivid in John’s mind. There were three every year on the 5th May, 2nd July and the 25th October. Fairs also existed in Oranmore and Monivea at the time. At the fair in Athenry a cow cost about seven or eight pounds, a sheep cost one to two pounds, a bag of potatoes cost twopence halfpenny and oats were five pence (old pennies) a stone. The previous evening the farmer marched his cattle about half way to Athenry and left them in a field for the night. The following morning he had to rise at 3.00 am or 4.00 am and herd them in the rest of the way. The town would be thronged with both people and animals.

Shopkeepers put up boards over their windows to protect them from cattle who were not dehorned in those days. However, shopkeepers endured this kind of thing gladly as the farmer bought much of what they had to sell. Most of the business was done around Glynn’s corner in Old Church Street where the factory buyer or “jobber” would approach the farmer and ask for a price at which he would laugh derisively. He would then send a friend to bid less, knowing that the farmer is getting worried that he won’t sell. The jobber returns and shouts “Will you give them‘?” and the bargain is struck. As John says, “You needed your wits about you”.

There was also a tax or “custom” of 6d (two and a half pence nowadays) a beast, taken by Mikey Tierney, which went to the County Council. Once the deal was struck, the jobber gave the farmer a docket so that the beast could be delivered to the railway. After the cattle were in the railway cars the farmer received another docket and brought it back to the jobber who was usually drinking in one of the pubs. If the two dockets tallied the farmer would get paid.

Every shopkeeper swept his or her part of the street and at 4.00 am. Then the County Council gang under the able leadership of Joe Shaughnessy brushed all the cow dung into a channel to be carried away later. One had to be careful walking the streets on the night of a fair as there was no electric street lighting at that time.

The first electricity supply according to John belonged to James Ruane of Prospect until the E.S.B. took it over.

The house that John grew up in was also the house in which he raised his ten children. John also thatched this house, a craft he learned from his father. Wheaten straw and hazel scallops were used for thatching. The wheaten straw was thrashed with a flail but sometimes reeds were obtained from the Shannon or as near as Caheroyan. According to John the knack in thatching is to put up the first row and tighten it. The second row is then bound to the first and the following rows are layered. The roof pitch has to be at least 45 degrees for the water to run off without penetrating the thatch. Depending on the straw the thatch would last about twelve to fourteen years. The hazel scallops were bought in Polnabanney for a shilling a bundle. The thick ones could be split in two if you were getting short of them. After the thatch was up it would be treated with bluestone to preserve the wheaten straw for up to three years extra. Hiring a thatcher then would not have been expensive, costing only five old shillings a day.  Any hired labour stayed in the house with all the meals provided for them. Farmers then were basically self-sufficient apart from tea, sugar and tobacco which were bought in the town. John says, that people then ate a lot of fish and up to the 1920s a van would pass once a week selling herrings and cod. Everyone had a wooden container with a grill at the bottom for holding fish called a “skid”. The fish would last a week.

Bacon was also important and smoking made it very sweet. Every family in the district reared and killed a pig. This was a gruesome but necessary event on the farm. It involved tying two of the pigs legs together and throwing it onto a table. A special man, a local “butcher”, was brought in to kill the pig which he usually did by cutting it’s throat. The blood was then drained and collected by the women of the house. The animal died very quickly and the butcher started to “scald” the pig. One local man, Connor, charged half a crown but he needed a jar of porter for each stage of the butchering. The pig was scalded in a barrel and the hair was scraped off with a piece of tin. The pig was opened and the puddings were taken out and given to the housewife which she would prepare over two or three days. The pig was hung up and butchered and nearly everything was used. As John says “The only waste that was in the pig was her screech”. Another method of killing a pig was used by John Coffey. The pig was held with a looped rope on a stick and was stuck between the eyes with a pole-axe. This would make the pig drop and a knife was then plunged into its throat and heart. The blood was then collected in a bucket with salt in it to stop the blood clotting. Instead of scalding a blow lamp was used to bum the hair off and then the skin was scraped. Surprisingly pigskin was not utilised for leather goods.

Old or sick animals were sent to the factory to be processed into bonemeal, fertiliser or manure. Fertilisers came on the scene with the arrival of “Guano”, which was from deposits of bird droppings from the South America and Pacific Islands. This was mixed together with “super”, which came in a 16 stone bag, and potash to give better growth. After the manure was mixed and put into an eight stone bag, it had to be spread by hand by throwing it with the wind. This was important because if it was ever blown back in your face “it would burn the eyes in your head”. John says that farmers today force the land by strip-grazing it but other new techniques like slatted sheds for collecting manure are very beneficial. Forking manure used to be a very big job on the farms of yesteryear.

John also thinks that although there was a lot more work to do, they were nicer times. There was no rushing with things like saving the hay. A farmer then was doing well if he brought in ten cocks a day with a horse and cart. Today this would be done in five minutes. Driving in the hens and ducks was a difficult job when they wanted to stay out in the rain after slugs. John also thinks that rushing is the cause of accidents on farms. In the old days farm accidents were quite rare and, even in a farm activity as dangerous as threshing, John can only remember one incident when a man in Craughwell had his arm taken off. It was only in serious cases like this that a doctor would be called. For ordinary illnesses you would just grin and bear it as John can’t remember if there were any old cures. He also thinks that people were not as prone to sickness then as they had a simpler diet. Because the people ate less sugar their teeth were better, although a “black” man at the fair used to do good business pulling teeth without an anaesthetic.

Also at the fair was a “cheap Jack” who sold good second-hand clothes. Sometimes John’s mother made clothes for him and the rest of the family. Men’s woolen trousers were very warm but were only partly lined with flannel which made them were itchy on the legs. According to John, men wore soft hats because they would soften blows received from ashplants during any faction fighting. The farmer of the times past rotated his crops in the following fashion. The first crops sown were wheat and oats. Then came early potatoes such as May Queens and Epicures which were sown in February and dug in May. Next came a second crop of oats and potatoes from April to June. Crows were a big problem on the farm and a scarecrow was the solution although that had to be changed once the crows became used to it. The last crop of the season was turnips which were sown in July and pulled in November. At Christmas a goose was killed, cooked and served with cabbage and turnips. The bird was put in a special grill in the oven so that the grease could be collected in a pan below. Hot coals called ciarans were placed under the oven and “if the ashes got in you didn’t mind”. The finishing touch was to cook a few slices of the bacon on top of the goose. As regards machinery, there were mowing machines, ploughs and harrows but no tractors. Preparing soil was very tedious and involved harrowing, tilling and cross harrowing before the oats were sown. After sowing, the ground was harrowed again and then the roller was brought out. Ploughs were mended by blacksmiths such as Maddens, Brodys and Quinns, who also manufactured gates, shovels and forks.

In those days land went to the eldest son. The second son had to spend most of his youth working on the family farm. After that emigration to America or England was on the cards. Women on the farm had to milk cows, feed pigs, hens and turkeys as well as do the knitting, darning, sewing and cooking. Churning butter was another duty and when a man entered the room the women of the house expected him to give the chum a twist.

Marriage was for either love or land or both. Matchmakers were common at fairs and dowries would be set at either fifty pounds or one hundred pounds. The father of the bride had to walk the land before the marriage ceremony to see if the groom had what he said he had. More than a few let the neighbour’s cattle in to confirm their status in their perspective father-in-law’s mind. John says that the arrival of the dancehalls like the “Seapoint’ in the 50s put an end to widespread matchmaking. Before the showband era, dancing took place at the cross-roads or more usually in the kitchen of one of the big houses like Monivea or Castle Lambert. A Government Licence Controlling where dances could take place put an end to all that later on. The arrival of electricity under the Rural Electrification Scheme was of major benefit to the towns since the 1930s but did not come to the countryside until the 1950s. According to John there was some resistance to electricity by those who thought it was too dear or just useful for giving light. John agrees that this, together with the arrival of the tractor, was the biggest change in farming this century if not for all time. Before it took place radios had wet and dry batteries which had to be charged. In Athenry the wet batteries were charged by Joe Loughnane who was often called upon during a match.

Farm horses had to be brought out early or late in the day because of the horseflies. The other solution to these pests was brushing Jeyes Fluid onto the horse’s chest but after a while this would be sweated off. John says that there are less flies, which is a good thing, as they would torment the horses. The Irish Draught and the half Clydesdale were the most popular breeds of workhorse on Irish farms at that time. Cattle breeds were limited to Shorthorn, Angus and Hereford. There were no A.I. stations in those days – bulls were obtained from neighbours like the Murphys or the Maddens. Unlike today, there were no catalogues and bulls didn’t have fancy names or extensive pedigrees. “So how did one tell a good bull from a bad bull?” John says that. “A good bull should have square hind-quarters and broad shoulders”. For service a cow was brought down the road, sometimes for about 2 or 3 miles, to the field where the bull was held on his own. Once he saw the cow he started roaring and she was then led into the field to her fate. Cows came in heat all year round and were fed by putting them out to pastures.

There were no nuts. In the winter they were given turnips, mangolds and crushed oats. In a bad year the farmer had to keep the feed for his animals at the same level as a good year. The same went for seed. If there was any cutting back to be done it was with the farmer himself, and often the family just had to do without.
The Economic War of the 1930s was particularly tough for farmers with very poor prices such as four pounds being offered for a good cow, and five to ten shillings for a sheep. Things got so bad that people were killing calves for their skins. The small farmer found it difficult to survive with no money coming into the farm. ‘The only transport he could afford was shank’s mare or maybe a bicycle. The horse and gig or trap was for the better off farmer.

Religion was taken very seriously by everyone that time. Some priests were objects of fear. “You’d go in over the wall to avoid the priest”. If he saw a boy and girl walking together ” he’d nearly attack them”. A woman would never walk into a pub. Women rarely drank, or maybe “a glass of port wine at the Stations”.

Drinking in public was a man’s preserve.

When John grew up football was actually more popular than hurling in Athenry.  This was due to the De Wetts football team whose popularity was probably more to do with the fact that they were doing military drills at the time rather than with football. Handball was also a much more popular sport here in the past than it is today and Athenry had some champion players then.

Superstition was much more prevalent when John was growing up. On May Day the butter could be stolen from the milk. At the fair there was red tape on the tail of each cow to show that their milk would give butter. There were pisrógs such as the burying of eggs and bacon in fields and in hay to take the good from the land.

Magpies also carried superstitions as John says, “One for luck, two for joy, three to get married and four to die”. When John was a child it was common for very young boys to be dressed as girls. This was done up to the 1930s and John was no exception to the rule. John looks back to the past as a time when farming was much more satisfying.

Ploughing with horses was actually better than with tractors. The satisfaction was in literally seeing the sweat of your brow being returned. Controlling potato blight is much easier now but John thinks that farmers today harvest potatoes far too early. In his day he would wait until the stalks were white and dry which meant that all the sap was in the potato itself. Perhaps the last thing to be said should be what John thinks would make a successful farmer. “If he’s interested in his work and put his money to the right use, then that’s what would make a good farmer”.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Eamonn Brady, Moanbaun, for his invaluable assistance in researching this article.

Feature Photo: Three Generations John, Brian and Tom Hanley.

Sean Leister, a Belfast Protestant and Irish Nationalist, became one of Ireland’s first truly international diplomats when, in 1934, he took up the post of High Commissioner of the League of Nations in the Free City of Danzig, a Baltic Port which both Germany and Poland coveted.