On the Trail of an Irish Colleen, Part 1

Colleen, definition (Irish): a girl or young woman. Colleens are typically known for their beauty and mysterious ways.

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Nellie Hynes, my mother, was the one who got away. Of all her siblings, she was the one who didn’t stay at home in Ireland, but struck out on her own, looking for a different life. And of course she found it in Scotland, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Part of my recent trip to Ireland was all about trying to find out more about her childhood and youth in County Mayo. I’d heard that there were old photos and of course I hoped that there would be some of her as a child or young woman, maybe a wedding photo of her parents, that sort of thing.

There was nothing. Pictures of her nieces and nephews growing up – I shared some of those with you in my last post – some of her visiting Ireland in later years, but nothing from her childhood or adolescence. And there were none of her siblings either, or anything going back to the previous generation – I suppose it would have been unusual for photography to have featured in the life of the rural West of Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. I was tantalised by mention of a blue album containing older images, including supposedly a wedding photo. But it couldn’t be found and I had to resign myself to the possibility that it never would be. You can be sure that if those pictures ever do emerge, you’ll see them here first!

So, what to do? Nothing for it but to follow in her footsteps. The first port of call being the family farm in Davros, County Mayo (location for the high tea I told you about last time). The farmhouse was called “Na Liomai Ard”, which is Gaelic for “Tall Limes”, but the name seems to have fallen into disuse, and in fact the limes themselves were cut down years ago – there’s a lot of moss growing on that stump.

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Behind the stump you can see a dry stone wall which I like to think was one the young Nellie would help her father mend when she was a child. I don’t know who repairs the walls now – the farmland itself is rented out and it’s only the house and immediate grounds that are still occupied by sister in-law Phil. Below to the left is the house as it is today, all spruced up, and on the right an old aerial photograph which is probably closer to the home Mum would have known. It’s worth noting that in those days there was no inside toilet. You can see that this was before the trees were cut down.

Mum seldom talked about her past when we were growing up – she preferred to look to the future. But my sister Mary recalls, “I remember many times in the last 20 years, sitting with Mum in our garden, talking about her story and her family and about Dad. Perhaps the green grass and countryside brought it back to her.” It was these memories that Mary lovingly captured in a marvellous booklet which was distributed at her funeral.  In the absence of photographs I can do no better than to quote here the evocative word pictures Mary paints of Mum’s life at home in Davros. (With permission – slightly abridged).

“Ellen Hynes, was known to everyone as Nellie. She was the second of four children and described her mother, Margaret Morris, as a gregarious, ambitious person, while her father John Hynes had a creative, sensitive character. Growing up on the farm, Nellie loved to help her father repair the stone walls, look after cattle, plant hedges and help her mother bake the bread daily for the farmhands and the family.

She was musical and said she was very close to her father, a very fine fiddle player who always carried his fiddle in his pocket and would be found playing the traditional tunes sitting under the trees on the farm. The Hynes house was filled most evenings with all the neighbourhood folk holding a ceilidh, which in those days included recitations of legendary stories and poetry, tales of folklore and fairy-folk and discussions of history and news as well as the traditional music. Young and old contributed. Nellie would sit for hours in the evenings, loving and absorbing these traditional gatherings, and would herself sing a Gaelic song or recite a poem.”

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Some facts and figures (garnered from old diaries, notebooks, records): – John Hynes and Maggie Morris married in 1919, and had four children, though there might have been more if Maggie’s first pregnancy (twins) hadn’t sadly ended in miscarriage due to a fall. They went on to have Kathleen (1921), Ellen (1923), Patrick (1924) and Mary (1925). When John died in 1954, the farm, as is still largely the way in Ireland, went to the son Patrick (Pat). To be fair, there’s probably not a living for more than one family on the land, but putting my (occasional) feminist hat on, I can’t help wondering why it should always be the boy that gets the land? Anyway, Pat married Phil and they brought up their family on the farm. Kathleen, Nellie and Mary all eventually left home and married.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s get back to Mary’s memoir:

“As she grew up, Nellie was a very sociable person and she loved to attend as many social and family occasions as she possibly could. There was plenty of social life in the surrounding villages in the form of dances, markets and church socials, as well as her own home being the hub for ceilidhs for the local community. The roads were almost car-free in those days and she would bicycle far and wide with great freedom.”

“Nellie enjoyed school and performed very well there, proving to be a highly intelligent girl with plenty of drive. She developed her lifelong interests in literature, history and languages from her earliest days at school, where at that time all subjects were still taught in both Gaelic and English with a strong emphasis and pride in the great Irish literary tradition, culture and history. When she was about 15, an aunt offered her the chance to go with her to live in Chicago where many of the Hynes family had settled before, but it was decided that she would not go.”

In fact I think it was Nellie’s Morris relations, her mother’s family, who had emigrated to America. There are some colourful tales about their exploits, but they’ll have to wait for another time. In the meantime, let me show you Cloghans (An Clochan) National School which Mum attended as a young scholar.  A plaque has the date 1860 on it. I got a good shot of the rear of the building, but as you can see there was too much undergrowth to get a good one of the front, so the lower view is captured off googlemaps. If you’d like to “stand” in the road yourself, send me a request by email and I’ll forward the link to you.

Next door to the old school is its modern replacement. There was a dedication ceremony, I think to mark its 50th anniversary, in the sixties, which is shown in this next photograph. Look at the middle of the row of adults standing behind the children. See that tiny little old lady wearing the dark hat? That’s Mary Varley. She was headmistress in the old school for many years, and taught my Mum. She was also Mum’s aunt – I think John Hynes was her brother. She would have been in her eighties in this picture.

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It’s been a bit strange telling this story without Mum there to ask when I’ve wanted to check my facts. In episode 2 I’ll get to the part where she left home to find her fortune. One thing that’s clear to me so far is that although it sometimes seemed as if she had left her past behind without a second glance, she manifestly held these memories close to her heart throughout the decades. In her final days when she talked about “home”, she didn’t mean the West End Glasgow flat that she had made her own for 50 years, but her childhood home, her beloved Davros.

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