CLIFDEN IN THE EARLY 1890s – Anonymous memoir recounting a childhood in Clifden in the early 1890s, with introduction by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill.

The following is a short memoir by an unknown author, recounting a period in his youth, some 70 years earlier (probably in the early 1890s), when he lived with his family in Clifden. The typed script was found among some family papers, with no information or background on the author. The family concerned have kindly given permission for it to be published here.

The manuscript may have been intended as part of a fuller account of the author’s life that was never finished. Nonetheless, brief as it may be, it portrays an idyllic childhood spent by the author frolicking with his siblings and pet donkey at Clifden Castle, fishing and bathing at the beach below the castle and ice-skating on lakes near the town in wintertime. The author mentions his father, mother, grandmother, two sisters and two brothers; Daisy, George, Tom (the youngest) and Eva, who was attending a convent school in Newry. However, he does not give us his own name or his family name.

Incidents recounted in the memoir provide some clues to the identity of the author and to his time spent in Clifden. During their stay, the family first lived in Clifden Castle (rented from the Eyre family) and later at Bank House, the bank manager’s residence in the town. From this it seems safe to assume that the author’s father was the manager of the Clifden branch of the National Bank of Ireland (Bank of Ireland today) and that they lived in Clifden sometime between 1886 and 1895; Dr. Pitt Gorham, the neighbour referred to in the memoir, took up residence next door to the bank in 1886 and the Galway to Clifden railway opened in 1895, replacing the horse-drawn open car described as being the transport to Galway.

According to early records, the Clifden branch of the National Bank was opened about 1877 and the first bank manager was a Samuel R. Potter. During the period covered in the memoir, the bank manager was either Edward Vize or F.M. Fisher, indicating that one of these men could be the father of our author.

Bank House was originally built as a private residence for Dr. William Suffield. Suffield was the medical officer for the Clifden Union from 1841 to 1868, when he retired and moved to Letterfrack, where he died in 1872. Dr. Christopher Payne replaced Suffield as medical officer and purchased his house in 1868. Ten years later, in 1878, Dr. Payne purchased the former post office next door (Sea Mist B&B today), and took up residence there, leasing his old residence to the directors of the National Bank. The bank later purchased the house. Dr. Payne died suddenly in 1886 and was replaced as medical officer by Dr. Patrick Gorham (Pitt). Gorham purchased Payne’s house in 1886 and continued to reside there until his death in 1920.

Clearly, the author’s time in Clifden left a strong impression on him. His account of life at Clifden Castle is the only one we have by someone who actually lived there.  His description of Clifden Bay in the moonlight, with its ‘phantom’ ships disappearing in the morning light, and the noise of the waves crashing against the rocks in a storm, conjure up images of childhood terrors. He was convinced the castle was haunted and could hear the swish of women’s dresses and their footsteps on the stairs at night. Nevertheless, he portrays a happy, carefree childhood, with fun-loving parents who spent their evenings dancing under the glass chandelier in the large castle ballroom and seemed to enjoy their time at Clifden as much as their children.

KATHLEEN VILLIERS-TUTHILL

 


 

CLIFDEN 70 YEARS AGO

Anonymous

 

Clifden Castle, Co. Galway, stood on high ground overlooking Clifden Bay, with the high hills and rocky coast of Eiraslanan [Errislannan] across the Bay. At the entrance to the Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, on the south was Eirslanan [Errislannan] Point, having a large man made of metal on it called the Metal Man. On the north side opposite the Metal Man were high cliffs, and a jagged reef of rocks coming out, which were almost covered at high water, and over which the sea broke heavily as the great waves came in from the whole Atlantic Ocean. Between the reef and the “Metal Man” was the narrow channel into Clifden Bay and yet schooners laden with coal used to sail into the Bay about once a year.

It was a great day when we saw the sails of a schooner rounding Eirslanan [Errislannan] Point. When it anchored in the bay, Daisy and I once rowed out to it and they gave us biscuits. The schooner later was pulled by men on a long rope up to Clifden Quay through the narrow channel between sandbanks.

Clifden Castle itself stood fairly high, having a steep wooded hill at the back and lovely woods and grottos and small lily ponds at one side. There were nice paths leading down to the sandy beach at one side, which came out on the beach between high cliffs. When there was a gale of wind the waves made a great noise against the rocks which one heard booming at nights. The woods at the back of the Castle were swarming with rooks, which had their nests at the tops of the high trees. These rooks kept up a continuous cawing most of the time especially in the early morning and again in the evening.

On the right of the main entrance [to the Castle] was a large ballroom, which I think had an oak floor, and had a large glass chandelier (for candles) in the centre of the ceiling. Mother had her piano there and we all danced in bare feet, waltzes and Polkas etc., in the late evenings, while Mother played for us, and danced for hours.

Off the ballroom was a circular room called the Library where father sometimes entertained any friends of his with I expect a bottle of whisky and cigars. I know there were cigars because George used to collect the stumps next morning and spread them out to dry on the windowsill of our bedroom, which was over the hall door. One day I was messing about with these broken up cigar ends on the windowsill when father was talking to his friend on the doorstep underneath, a small breeze of wind blew some of the leaf down on top of them. He did not say anything at the time, but I think asked George later if he had been smoking, George said he had, so I think father persuaded him not to and I don’t think we did anymore.

There were a lot of stone or flagged kitchen and storerooms under the Castle, from which a long flagged passage led out into a walled courtyard at the back of the Castle. There was a large arched gateway leading out of this courtyard, on top of which was a large bell. Then from this gateway a long paved passage led down to an oblong enclosure, which you entered by another gateway and which contained the stables, coach house and harness rooms etc., all these buildings faced inward.

On the back of the Castle high up on the wall was a large iron tank, fixed to the wall by iron bars and brackets. This tank caught rainwater from the roof and was more or less full always. It supplied the bathroom. One iron bar came near the bathroom window, so George got out the window and climbed along this bar and got in the tank, no clothes on him. He was having a lovely time swimming about in the tank, when Mother happened to come upstairs, she looked out the window and was very vexed. Told George he was to come in at once, etc., and said she would stay there till he did, but of course George wouldn’t get out of the tank until she went away. This tank was at least 20 or 30 feet above the paved courtyard, and of course the whole Atlantic was not big enough to swim in, George had to climb out the bathroom window and swim in the tank!!!

We had a green lawn in front of the Castle made into a tennis court with a wire fence to keep the cows from grazing on it, and we played tennis a lot. The field then sloped down to a nice little sandy cove where we used to bathe. There was an old bathing house here, but the cows used to go in there out of the Burr so it wasn’t used by us, anyway it was falling to pieces and we didn’t want any bathing house anyhow as we just undressed under the rocks and as far as I remember we never wore any shoes or stockings at the castle. We were mostly on the beach bathing or fishing and always ate cockles raw, as we felt them under our feet when walking about in the water, just picked them up, opened and ate them, they were good.

There was no end of periwinkles on the rocks, which we took home and cooked and ate them out of the shells by hooking them out with a pin also mussels, which we cooked. There was also a light kind of seaweed called “Dilisk” [Dillisk], which, when dried in the sun was nice to eat and of course quite salty. Some old women picked it sometimes and sold it in Clifden on market days going about with large baskets full of it. We were always bathing and fishing as there were plenty of soles, we all had fishing lines and sometimes caught a nice sole or plaice.

One time George and I sat on a cliff about 30 feet above the water, we could see a large lobster crawling about on the sand below the water, so George lowered down his hook and bait. The lobster would get hold of the bait and George pulled him up several times to the top of the water but when the lobster felt himself coming out of the water he always let go, and went down to the sand again so we couldn’t catch him after all.

Granny, who was with us at the castle, couldn’t walk all the way down to the beach through the grass, (and a steep slope up again). She always wanted to put her feet in salt water, so George and I would take buckets down and “bale out” Clifden Bay, then carry the water up to the castle for Granny to put her feet in. We often got thistles and things in our feet, and it was always Granny who got them out. What Granny didn’t know about curing anything wasn’t much; she always had the bottles of cures handy and did all the curing whatever the ailment was.

On moonlight nights Clifden Bay looked beautiful with the moon shining across the Bay and showing up the dark high land of Eiraslanan [Errislannan] opposite, leading out to the Metal Man and entrance from the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, it was so quiet and lonely somehow that it seemed as if it had been so for thousands of years. But to see the sun setting over Clifden Bay was wonderful as all the rocks and cliffs showed their colours up then with the waves breaking white over the reefs at the entrance to the bay it was a wonderful sight. I suppose it still goes on now just the same.

One night when we were going to bed and looking across the bay we saw a schooner at anchor, with its sails just clewed up and not furled so we were terribly excited. We were going to get up early to see it, when we looked in the morning there was no schooner in the bay at all, so it must have been a ghost of a ship we saw as no ship could leave that bay at night and anyhow would not come in at all just to anchor for a few hours especially in fine weather such as it was then. So we firmly believed it was a phantom ship of long ago. Perhaps it was, in it was a weird lonely place.

[I] often woke George at night, hearing from the flow, flow of ladies dresses and foot steps coming up the main stairs to the landing outside our door. George was mad sometimes at me waking him up and would tell me to put my head under the bedclothes and not take any notice as they wouldn’t hurt us anyhow, but of course I was scared stiff and looked out the window where the light of the sky was the only light there was, then that light went out suddenly, as if there was something between me and the window and not a glimmer of light to be seen. So I’d wake George up again and tell him. I can remember these strange things as if it were yesterday. I would quite forget these happenings next day or until something like it happened at night another time.

We had a donkey and a gennet [jennet] (a cross between a horse and a mule) also a tricycle, a mail cart and two boats (a big safe punt and a wherry), the latter called “The Blue Boar” because it was painted blue outside and white inside. Father had a sail made for the blue boat and often sailed from Clifden out to Clifden Castle after the bank closed. Of course we were all down at the little cove when he arrived. He always had something to amuse us with and made small cork boats with one mast and a piece of paper for me to sail.

One time he hauled the blue boat up the sand a little clear of the water and had rolled up the nice sail and left it in the boat. We all went up to the Castle, when we came down to the cove again there was a cow standing over the boat chewing the nice sail and had chewed holes all over it. I do not know what the cow thought it was or whether the milk from the cow turned out as a shirt or what, but the cow apparently thought it had to eat it. Father was very vexed and I think had to row back to Clifden when he returned.

The tricycle was a strange affair. There were two high wheels one each side and had a long iron bar running across the axle with a small wheel at each end of it. It had two sets of pedals and two people sat “side by side” to pedal. There were handles beside the saddles to hold and the steering was done by thin bars running from the handle to the front (quite a long way in front), by turning this handle, you turned the front wheel right or left. It had solid rubber tyres [that] were always coming unstuck and had to be stuck again with solution. On the long bar behind where the other small wheel was, father had a seat or box fitted so we put Tom in that if we took him with us.

One time father and a friend of his cycled from the Castle to Roundstone, about 10 or 12 miles from Clifden. When they got there, after peddling that machine, they put up at a small hotel for the night and came back by jaunting car next day, leaving the tricycle at Roundstone. After about a week he asked Daisy and I if we could cycle all that way. Of course we said we could, looking forward to great excitement. So he hired a jaunting car to drive us and mother, and himself, to Roundstone. When we got there we had a couple of buns, we were hoping to have tea there also and then he said we had better start well before them, as they would overtake us near Clifden.

Daisy and I peddled off on the tricycle and it began to get dark, when father overtook us about a mile or two from Clifden. They went on of course and we followed. They got home to the Castle long before we did, as we had to go across the bridge at Clifden and then cycle all the way out to the Castle.

We decided to cycle down the beach road, which we did in the dark and it was dark by then, then we got the tricycle into the field were the cows were, and had to push it up the field. We were pushing it through the grass and it was so dark we pushed it into a cow that was [lying] down asleep, I suppose if cows sleep. Anyhow that cow woke up with a start and moved off somewhere else in the dark. Father had hung a lantern (with a candle in it) on the fence in front of the Castle “to guide us”, we never saw it until we were beside it, and then wondered why it was there, until father told us. I think he was a bit worried when it got so dark and we had not arrived.

Sometimes we took Tom on it, but he always yelled all the way whenever we took him out on the tricycle or in the mail cart. When at the Bank house in Clifden, we often took Tom in the mail cart when we went down to the beach. Tom began to cry and yell as soon as we started, and yelled all the way to the beach, we never took any notice and let him yell as it was no use trying to stop him. When we got to the beach we sat Tom on a rock in the sun where he yelled all day. We paddled about in the water, and picked up cockles. One day as the tide was coming in and had got up to Tom’s rock, Tom yelled so much that he slipped off his rock into about a foot of water. Daisy picked him out, and took off every piece of his clothes. [She] sat Tom on his rock again and spread all his garments on the rocks to dry in the sun. Tom went on yelling on his rock just the same, clothes or no clothes. We just put him in the cart again when it was time to go home to tea. Tom still yelling all the way home. We never knew why he yelled as he did, as he was alright and quite happy any other time. We didn’t want to take him to the beach, but Mother said we were to take Tom with us, so we took him.

Once Daisy and I were paddling about among a lot of stones and rocks and I walked on a broken bottle. A spike of glass went into the sole of my foot. Daisy sat me on a rock and pulled out the glass and then kept my foot in the salt water until the bleeding stopped. Then we limped home and they got the doctor to see it in case there was still any glass in my foot but Daisy had pulled it straight out without breaking it and it soon healed up again. Daisy was only 8 or 9, I suppose, at that time.

We had a donkey, as I mentioned, when at the Castle and at night we just let him roam about the field to graze. We, Daisy and I, would go out early in the morning to catch him and of course he was quite frisky, and for a long time he wouldn’t let us get hold of him, I think that animal was just having a game with us. We both got on his back when we caught him, Daisy in front, and he trotted along quite good. One day we were up at the main gate to the Castle grounds with him, and both on him. There was a rather swampy pile of grass near the gate and the donkey just threw the pair of us into this wet patch. He put his head down and threw us over his head into it and then just stood there, looking at us as if it were a fine joke. We got on again and the animal just trotted along to the Castle as good as gold.

George was on the donkey one day, trotting down the grass path, I was running after, making the donkey run. I had a stick with a pin in it and gave the donkey a prod when he walked. This donkey’s backbone was rather prominent and George was bouncing up and down on it when the animal trotted (no saddle). George was yelling at me to stop prodding the donkey or he would fall off. So I gave the donkey another prod and of course the donkey put on another spurt. George tried to get off and fell off on the path, and of course I ran for all I was worth. George, I think, got some gravel in his hand, but it soon got alright, anyhow it didn’t stop him from chasing me until he caught me.

On wet days Daisy and I took the donkey into the flagged passage under the castle and rode him along the stone passage. Sometimes the animal would get it into its head to suddenly go into one of the rooms, or kitchen, off the passage and scrape our bare legs against the stone wall going in, all we had in the way of reins was a thin piece of rope on his bridal, there wasn’t any bit or anything. He was a lovely little donkey really, and seemed to be laughing at us most of the time, he went where he liked mostly when we were on his back we couldn’t stop him. I never remember that donkey having any food except grass, when he was free to eat as much as he liked when we let him out to graze at night-time. The gennet [jennet] or mule we had was a bit of a problem. He was for mother to drive the Phatom [phaeton], one of those old ones, with seats facing each other and a place between for ones feet, called the “Well”.

High in front there was a seat for the driver, but mother always drove from the back seat. One time we were all down at the beach, mother and granny and Tom came in the Phaetom [phaeton] with a basket of feed etc. When we were ready to go home, George harnessed the animal to the Phaeton and the rugs and hamper, and I think Tom, were put in the Phaeton, when the gennet [jennet] ran away along a long strip of grassy spit on the beach, all full of holes and stones, dragging the Phaeton with him, then he made for the road, but George managed to just catch him by the bridle and stopped him, of course everything in the phaeton was all mixed up in the well. After all this mother and granny got in and drove home.

Another time mother and granny and, I think, Eve, drove into Clifden and the gennet [jennet] would stop at every pub they came to, and wouldn’t budge until a man came and dragged him past, then would do the same at the next pub. After the last pub he ran away and didn’t stop until he got to his old home (some farmhouse in the country).

The farmer had to send mother and granny home in his own trap. I expect the farmer who sold the animal to father put in a lot of time at these pubs on fair days and that animal would take him home alright, even if the farmer went to sleep on the way, the gennet [jennet] knew his way home well enough. I think father got rid of it after that escapade.

The only way of getting to Galway in our time was by the mail coach, which was a long “Outside Car”, where about 6 or 8 people could sit each side back to back, or rather their backs against a long box place that went between the seats for the full length of the crack. The mails were put in from the back and shoved along inside. The driver sat on a high seat in front and drove 4 or 6 horses tandem. They had to change horses three times, at various stopping places, on the way; these stopping places were pubs – hotels. It was 52 miles from Clifden to Galway and the coach arrived about 6 p.m. at Clifden.

When it arrived, George and other boys would ride the horses down the hill to where the tide came in, and walk them out in the water until they swam, then gallop them up the hill again, to the stables where they were kept. The driver would gallop those horses along the roads with the coach swaying and the roads were all stones and dust and holes, with a ditch each side yet I never remember hearing of them having an accident. This coach went in summer and winter, so how the driver drove along those country roads in the dark with 4 or 6 horses I do not know. Besides, all the passengers sat out in the open, with their feet on a long step which was on hinges and swayed about as the coach went over stones, or into holes in the road, and there wasn’t anything to hold on to except whoever was next you, so there was no shelter from rain, or the cold. Of course people would take their own rugs to put over their legs, but ones feet got very cold on the swaying step in cold weather.

Sometimes on fair days a ‘poucawn’ [Púcán](which was a very large open boat) would come across the bay and land on the beach, it was full of men and women, calves and goodness knows what, which they were taking to Clifden fair. They were a tough looking lot and I think spoke Irish.

The women and girls would carry bundles of produce and baskets on their heads, along the road to Clifden, which was about 2 miles. They were all fine looking and very straight with long black hair and blue eyes and I suppose carrying things on their heads made them look taller and upright. I believe there is a bit of Spanish blood mixed with the natives of that western strip of the coast. The men seemed all big to us and they rowed the “Poucawns”, [Púcáns] a long way (or sailed if possible) with great long heavy oars. They looked more like pirates than anything else. They never spoke to us, though we used to stand near and see them unload the boat and then pull it up clear of the water and go off with the calves and gear. I expect we were in bed when they came back from the fair, probably full of Porter and whisky, so we never saw them going away again. I expect they usually bought enough flour and provisions during the summer to last them for the winter unless they went by road to Clifden, which would be a very long way.

Sometimes we went out in the “big boat” fishing with father, and then rowed out to Eiraslanan [Errislannan] Point. We caught a fine Pollock sometimes which was about the size of a salmon. We used spoon baits which father had, like a rubber eel on a fishhook, which we towed after the boat. The water was so clear we could see skate and flat fish at the bottom of the bay. Father had a long pole make with a spear like a fish hook at the end which he meant to lower down very gently and spear the skate or flat fish with, but the least movement of the water near the fish and they were off. He did manage to spear a skate once, I think.

The Bay was full of fish, pollock, sole and plaice and the sand full of shell fish ray or fish and other small silver eels and things, I forget the name of now.

In the autumn, I think it was, boys of our own age, or bigger came down from the hills with donkeys to collect seaweed and take it up the mountain to use as manure; I suppose for their potato patch. These donkeys had two square large brackets hanging from a wooden crutch by rope loops, one each side of the donkey. The bottom of the basket was on a hinge and was kept shut by a wooden peg through a staple opposite to the hinge side. Sometimes these boys would let us get on the donkeys, when the baskets were empty going down to the beach. One day we, George and I, wanted to get on [but] the owner of the donkey wouldn’t let us, so he and George had a fight. George won and vaulted into the empty bucket but the wood peg came out, and George went through on to the road as the bottom of the basket opened. The boy and the donkey ran off. We never saw these boys any other time, and those donkeys were never shod. Their hoofs turned up in front from climbing up steep hills and mountain paths, I expect.

There was one small cottage on the way to the beach from Clifden in which an old woman lived alone, as far as we knew. Daisy and I often stopped and talked to her, she always gave us a big chunk of potato cake, or a drink of water if we wanted it. Everyone was very fond of Daisy wherever she went.

Eva went to a convent school in Newry, I think, and came home on the stagecoach for the summer holidays. Daisy and I would walk a long way past Clifden to meet the coach and if it didn’t come when we expected it, we would lay down on the road and put our ear on the road. We could hear the horses hooves and rumble of the coach a long time before it came in sight. The driver would put us on somewhere, and drive us back to Clifden with Eva.

In the winter, sometimes there was a hard frost. We made slides on the road and all the boys would congregate and slide, at least those with army boots and shoes. George smuggled a second pair of his out to lend to Joe Casey, so that he could slide too. I think father was vexed as he had enough to do to keep us alone in boots!! much less Joe Casey. Joe Casey is the doctor for Clifden now.

We all had skates, the old wooden ones, with the steel barb running along the centre and a screw at the heel end, which screwed into the heel of ones boots. We skated one year on a large lake up on the hills outside Clifden. The frost went on that year for a long time. In summer, George and I once went up where those lakes were. There were deep streams between the lakes which were full of trout. We used to catch them with a pin on a line and a worm on it.

At Xmas we never knew what we were going to get, as all the presents were kept in the drawing rooms and mother locked the door. On Xmas morning we could get up as early as we liked and get our presents from the drawing room. They were all laid out on the table then [and] the door unlocked. Daisy and I would get up about 6.30 in the dark, get our presents, as well as stockings (hung up) then take them all back to bed, until it was time to go to Mass. We went to the 7.30 a.m. mass, because it only lasted half an hour, and we could do as we liked for the rest of the day as long as we had been to Mass. It was scarcely light and very cold going to church and colder in church, but we ran there and back to get warm. When we got home again we would get all our toys out and take them down to the office, which meant the space outside the counter in the bank, where the floor was either flags or cement, but a good place to make trains or toy carts go. It was pretty cold here also of course, and we hadn’t any breakfast or anything up to now, and of course there wasn’t anyone up yet. We didn’t mind, and it didn’t seem to hurt us anyhow, we did justice to our breakfast I expect when we got it; always a scramble to see who would have the nice fresh crust cut off a new loaf.

When we came home from skating, we got slices of bread and butter, with plenty of butter and toasted it at the fire. The butter of course would drip and sizzle as it was toasting but it was good. Sometimes we roasted potatoes in the ashes. We would put all the skates on the dining room table after tea and clean them, using no end of sand paper to brighten the steel part, until there was no rust anywhere. Father was more keen than anyone, and didn’t care how much mess there was, as long as there was skating. Then the straps would have to be put right and holes in them made, to make them just right. The next thing was probably a thaw, which would put paid to all our skating.

Dr. Gorams (Dr. Gorham’s) house was next the bank. He was a big man, and I think liked plenty whisky, anyhow he had a housekeeper, whom George and I used to annoy. One time she picked up an empty bottle and was going to throw it at us, and waved it about by the neck. So we got over the back garden wall once and George filled the bottle with water, then [we] did something to bring her out. She picked up the bottle again and all the water ran down her arm when she waved it. I think she complained about us after that.

Anonymous

16 Comments

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*