‘A great town to get a letter from’ Early recollections of Tom Murphy (1935- 2018) ‘HOME TOWNS’ by Fergal MacCabe

Tom Murphy reduced, a drawing by Fergal MacCabe 400 dpi

 

 

One evening in the summer of 1962, in ‘The Queen’s Elm’ on the Fulham Road, Tom and I had a long conversation about our home towns. I knew Tuam reasonably well but Tom had never been to Tullamore and was curious. Who were the big men? Who the failures? What made the town tick? In Tuam patois, who were the ‘fly shams’ and the ‘rager shams’? His interrogation covered the multiple interactions and complexity of a society whose scale created a close-knit but relatively comprehensible, socio-economic unit.
We both agreed that growing up in a provincial town was a very valuable education in that it gave insights into the kind of experiences and personalities that would later be replicated in the bigger world. How things worked in small town society could be observed and understood in a way that would not be so comprehensively available to those living in a rural community or a metropolis. For us Tuam and Tullamore were the formative catalysts.

In his great works On the Outside which he wrote with his friend the solicitor Noel O’Donoghue, Conversations on a Homecoming and A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant Tom was to provide the definitive pictures of life in small town Ireland in the 50s and 60s – that peculiar era between the end of de Valera’s agrarian and authoritarian vision and the onset of Lemass’s technological and capital driven new world. We were both children of that era and therefore acutely aware of its downsides as well as its benefits. When I had finished my overview, Tom dryly observed that Tullamore, like Tuam, ‘must be a great town- to get a letter from’. In other words, while we had both got a lot from our home towns, there was no going back.

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Amateur Drama
Our early friendship was based on a shared experience of the amateur drama movement. Tom had been an enthusiastic member of the Tuam Little Theatre Guild and was well known for his portrayal of Christy Mahon in their production of The Playboy of the Western World which had reached the finals of the All Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone. I had recently been involved in ’The Runners’ the Tullamore drama group who under the direction of their talented producer Noel MacMahon and with wonderful actors such as Mick Shelley and Joe Kenny, had won first prize in the Festival in 1956 and 1957 and whose earlier production of Yeats’s verse play The Dreaming of the Bones had scooped honours also.

By the early 1960s ‘The Runners’ were still a force to be reckoned, particularly for their productions of plays by contemporary European writers such as Henri Gheon and Diego Fabbri or the Anglo Irish playwright Bridget Boland. At a time when the staple diet of amateur drama groups were the kitchen comedies of T.C. Murray or Brinsley MacNamara, such productions were unfamiliar and exciting. Significantly however, all these plays had Catholic themes which made them acceptable, particularly to the Jesuits in Tullabeg who were at that time, the arbiters of more sophisticated artistic endeavours in County Offaly and who I have always suspected, suggested their production in the first instance.

This was to be proved when the company took a more independent stand and decided to put on a production of Step in the Hollow by Donagh McDonagh. Jesuit approval was not forthcoming (for reasons which escape me when I read the play today) and resulted in a split the company which led to its eventual demise and the departure of MacMahon to Dublin.

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Tom Naughton
Amateur drama gossip such as this, gave Tom and I a lot to talk about and also I was now familiar with Tuam which Tom had left two years previously. In particular we shared a good friend, the handsome and charismatic businessman Tom Naughton, a Waterford native who had moved to Tuam to manage John Egan’s, the wholesale drinks suppliers and who owned the Imperial Hotel, the social centre of Tuam located in the town square. Tom had been introduced to me by Andy O’Mahony with whom I shared digs at 45 Percy Place in Dublin.
Tom Naughton had gathered around him a stimulating and colourful group of friends including Michael O’Nuallain, the artist and brother of Myles na Gopaleen, Sean Purcell, the great Galway footballer and P.J. Grealish the local businessman and talented actor. As Andy recounts in his wide ranging autobiography, Tom who had ‘the mind of a scholar and the sensitivity of an artist’, attracted all kinds of stimulating personalities into his version of Camelot.
His obsession with John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the interaction of politics and the arts was to be reflected in Tom Murphy’s bittersweet evocation of the times Conversations on a Homecoming, written after Tom Naughton’s tragic death in a car crash early on a morning in February 1973. His massive and emotional funeral was literally the end of an era and a first experience for his friends of ‘the awful fucking finality of death’ as Tom Murphy put it at the heart-breaking wake in Tuam.

Tuam
However, before the watershed of Tom Naughton’s death, Tuam had begun to seduce me and as a student I had set out on the Galway road every Friday evening to hitch there or to Tullamore, depending on the time or traffic.
Tuam, I would have to say, had the edge over post MacMahon Tullamore, at that time. Everyone seemed to be writing plays or novels, usually about the doings of the town and their friends. It was expected at social gatherings that even the shyest person would perform a party piece a song, a poem or in the case of one particularly tongue tied gentleman-stand on his head. The drinking culture was much more intense than it was in Tullamore and violence was always just below the surface. Also, the pain of emigration was more evident in Tuam than it was in Tullamore, though in the late 1950s the crowds heading for the Holyhead boat were at their highest and the loss of friends and family was the principal feature everywhere in that dismal decade.

London in the 60s

By 1962 when we first met in London, Tom was an established playwright revelling in the success in the previous year of Whistle in the Dark, which the critic Kenneth Tynan had described as ‘the most uninhibited display of brutality that the London theatre has ever witnessed’. I had gone over with the notion of exploring a career as a stage designer and had managed to get a job with Sean Kenny, the Tipperary born architect from Portroe who had taken London by storm with his radical set designs for the Lionel Bart musical Oliver. I did some work on the sets for Blitz also by Bart, which was such a musical failure that Tynan claimed the audience came out humming the scenery.
I then worked for the charming former Guardsman Nicholas Luard on the conversion of a strip joint in Greek Street in Soho. The ground floor was to be laid out as the ‘Establishment Club’ where Nicholas, abetted by Peter Cook, would host the cabaret Beyond the Fringe with Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore and which soon became the catalyst for and inspiration of the future British satirical movement. Offices for Sean Kenny were to be located on the upper floors. However, as Sean was a bit erratic and tended to disappear for long periods, my engagement didn’t last very long, and I sought more reliable architectural employment elsewhere.
My new day job was boring but that didn’t matter very much, as for anyone interested in theatre, London at that time was the most exciting place in the world to be. The New Wave dramatists John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter were at the height of their powers and critics such as Harold Hobson illuminated their works. Kenneth Tynan was running the National Theatre and Laurence Olivier starring in its numerous successes.
Meeting Tom in the ‘Elm’, there was quite enough to talk about, but one play which made a particularly strong impact on both of us was the legendary production directed by Peter Brook, of The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Its theme of the disruptive impact on a small town of the return of a vengeful exile was one which Tom would later explore in some of his own work, such as the novel The Seduction of Morality in which the former prostitute Vera returns home to claim her inheritance of the Imperial Hotel.

The ‘Queens Elm’ and ‘Finch’s
Haunt of artists, minor royalty, actors, sportsmen, journalists, Russian spies, Great Train Robbers and playwrights, the ’Elm’ (long closed and now a florist) was at that time the foremost arty pub in London, with ‘The Coach and Horses’ in Soho coming a close second.
Tom who had made it his local, was a golfing companion of the landlord, Sean Treacy, also a Galway man and from Glenamaddy. A former member of the Irish Air Corps, Sean not only tolerated fights in his pub, but actively encouraged them to the extent that they were causing damage to the furniture and fittings. When asked by the writer Laurie Lee why he permitted such mayhem, he replied ‘Because I love the smell of broken glass’- a phrase that became the title of his wonderful name-dropping biography which is essential reading for anyone exploring bohemian life in London of the 1960s.
Occasionally for the sake of variety, I would visit Sean’s former pub ‘Finch’s’ further along the Fulham Road, usually to meet my friend the architect and sculptor Eamonn O’Doherty and his girlfriend Miriam McFarlane and it was here that I got into the first and last fight of my life.
Responding over aggressively to a barman who had rudely snatched a glass out of Miriam’s hand at closing time, I swung an ineffective punch. Eamonn joined in but within seconds a coordinated and almost balletic counter attack by the staff, found us standing out on the Fulham Road. As all our belongings were still inside, we had to return and apologise, but the now courteous barmen, for whom this was a regular occurrence, bore no ill will and we were not barred.

Sometime in the early 80s, Tom rang me and to my surprise asked if I had ever been in a fight. I had presumed that the author of Whistle in the Dark would have been able to draw on his own personal experiences, but nevertheless proudly recounted my scrap in ‘Finch’s. I was astonished therefore at the first night of Conversations on a Homecoming, to find that Tom had transcribed our conversation almost word for word into the mouth of Michael, who, home from America, is trying to impress his friends with his involvement in a pub brawl in the States. Possibly because it was such an inconsequential affair which fails to impress Michael’s friends that my own pathetic tussle hit the spot. However, any pride that I might have had in furnishing Tom with material, was diminished by the line- ‘this buddy of mine-and he’s only a little guy-took a swing at the barman….’

Tom’s Music
At his funeral in the Mansion House, Dublin on the 18th of May, Fintan O’Toole observed that had Tom been a slightly better singer, Ireland might have lost a great playwright and during the service we were treated to renditions of his favourites such as ‘Macushla’, I’ll Walk Beside You’ and in particular, that great favourite at funerals in the west of Ireland and appropriate for the month that was in it, ‘Queen of the May’.
Tom’s sweet tenor voice could silence a room. Staple songs for after dinner sessions at which I would sometimes accompany him ineptly on the guitar, were ‘Carrickfergus’, ‘All in an April Evening’ and in particular ‘Silent Worship’ by Handel, sung as a duet with his wife Mary. As the night progressed, the hymns of Catholic boyhood would inevitably emerge- ‘Hail Queen of Heaven’, followed, if things were getting a bit out of hand, by ‘Tantum Ergo’.
After one party, a record producer who was present, was so impressed by Tom’s singing that he and I were invited together to do a demo tape the following week in his studio. We turned up and went through our repertoire. I was to hear nothing further about our efforts until almost fifty years later.
When we met for the last time in March of this year, I asked him about that trial recording we had made many years ago and whether it had ever gone anywhere. With his characteristic wry humour which lasted to the very end, he told me that he didn’t want to tell me until now but that he had had a call from the producer the following week who said ‘That went very well Tom and I’m sure we can do something with it- if only we can get rid of your man with the guitar.’

Small Town Theatre
I was extremely lucky in growing up in Tullamore in the 1950s at a time when there was a vivid cultural scene. Bunny Kennedy was organising exhibitions in the Market House which brought the most advanced painters of the time such as Louis Le Brocquy, Patrick Scott, Gerard Dillon, George Campbell and many others to our attention. An Realt and the Patrician Society presented serious debates on the topics of the day and organised archaeological exhibitions. There was a well-stocked local library and an enthusiastic county librarian. Cultural standards were high and second rate was not lightly accepted.

It was in drama however, that Tullamore excelled in that brief period and it certainly took hold of my young imagination as it had Tom’s in Tuam. Why the social structures or economic circumstances of provincial Ireland in that peculiar time were so conducive to a ready opening to the arts, particularly drama, is an interesting question. Possibly because it was the era just before television and a reliance on self-entertainment meant that more people could sing, play an instrument or act. Incomes were rising in the towns at least, and younger people were beginning to have more leisure time, so that involvement in local musical and dramatic societies was at its height. Certainly it was the era in which playwrights from provincial towns such as John B. Keane in Listowel and John Murphy in Charlestown made their mark while Brian Friel was immortalising his quintessential small town of Ballybeg.
The work of all of these writers attracted enthusiastic local audiences, because nothing can ever rival the intensity of engagement and emotion that immersion in a great theatrical performance can bring. I was aware and proud that Tom was a talented dramatist, but did not realise how great those talents were until the opening night of The Gigli Concert in the Abbey Theatre in September 1983. On that first night, when the final curtain had dropped, the audience sat totally silent in their seats for eight (I counted) seconds. They then stood to their feet as one and roared their appreciation of the advent of one of the greatest plays in the Irish theatrical repertoire. I will never forget that moment.

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The stations at Turley’s of Clerhane, Shannonbridge, Autumn 1951, by Pádraig Turley

By Pádraig Turley

When I was a child growing up on a farm in Clerhane, situate about two miles north of the village of Shannonbridge there were two occasions each year when the folk returning from Mass would carry a very important piece of information. This news was the name of the family nominated to have the Stations. This occurred once in spring and once at autumn time. There was clearly a roster, and the priest would call out the name of the next family during Mass on a Sunday. We were lumped in with the townland of Cloniff resulting in a combined number of households of ten between the two townlands.  This meant that one would expect to host the stations once every five years. Notwithstanding this, people were always pretty shocked when their name was called out.

The particular holding of the stations that I wish to tell you about happened in 1951. It was Sunday 19th August 1951 when my mother arrived home from First Mass, jumped off her bicycle, rushed into the house and spluttered out ‘Guess what’s the news I have?’ ‘What?’ enquired my grandmother. ‘We’re to have the stations’. My grandmother had an expression to describe a person in bad form, she would say they had a face like a summons. Well on this Sunday morning she donned a face like a summons.  ‘Bad cess to it, I thought it was the turn of the Mannions.’ Continue reading

Nellie Scully (née Craven) of Kilgortin, parish of Rahan and Kilbeggan Bridge, Tullamore, July 1922 – May 2018. James Scully with thanks to the Tullamore Tribune

001 east view Terrace, taken from Kilbeggan Bridge 1948
East View, Terrace beside the Kilbeggan Bridge in the 1940s

James Scully on the life and times of his mother Nellie at her funeral oration on Monday 7 May 2018 in Clonminch Cemetery, Tullamore.  Mrs Scully, her late husband Jimmy (died 2000) and their friends and neighbours represented the life and times of another generation and many of our readers overseas will be happy to recall these days. The importance of housing can be seen too and of having good and appreciated neighbours.

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James A. Ennis, 1901-83, Solicitor, County Registrar and founder member of the first Offaly Historical Society in 1937-8. By Valerie Ennis

James A. Ennis was born in 1901 at Rhode, Tullamore, Co. Offaly, the fourth of six children of parents, James and Sarah (Grogan) Ennis, Shopkeeper, Merchant, Publican and Farmer, Offaly County Council representative.

The Ennis siblings were Patrick (later York, USA), Michael (Clonmeen) Rhode, James A. (Tullamore) Mary, Catherine, and Rose (nee Stephenson). The girls all lived their lives in Rhode as did Michael. All were educated in Rhode national school but James Anthony was sent to Mount Saint Joseph’s College in Roscrea where he received his secondary education completing his leaving cert in 1920. Continue reading

The 1918 by-election in North King’s County/Offaly: victory for Sinn Féin and the abandonment of Westminster Michael Byrne

Congratulations to the people of Offaly in having secured as their member Ireland’s Ambassador to America. Their unanimous endorsement of his mission is particularly opportune. Dr McCartan will voice a united Ireland’s demand that the Irish people be given the right of self-determination and will tell the world that Irishmen will not fight as England’s slaves. De Valera telegram to Dan MacCarthy, McCartan’s election agent for North King’s County by-election, April 1918. Irish Independent, 20 April 1918.

‘Up Offaly’ the Tullamore and King’s County Independent told its readers that ‘Offaly men can proclaim through their votes that they are no sons of a miserable English province’ but descendants of a royal race. They were not to be deceived by the ‘hireling band’ of paid politicians who would descend on the county for the by-election. ‘Poor Ned Graham’, it said, drove them out in 1914 aided only by a few priests and local nationalists. Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 30 Mar. 1918.

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Sun too slow, sun too fast – Ethel and Enid Homan Mulock of Ballycumber House. By Lisa Shortall

Anyone who has read the Ballycumber chapter of the recently published Flights of Fancy: Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly by Rachel McKenna, may have noticed a remarkable set of snapshots from a photograph album of the Homan Mulock family of Ballycumber and Bellair. The album is still in Ballycumber House, now owned by Connie Hanniffy and thanks to her generosity, its pages have been digitised revealing life in the big house in the early 1900s. The album is more of a scrapbook filled with illustrations, sketches, and notes alongside the many photographs relating to the leisure pursuits of the Homan Mulocks. Particular interest is shown in horses and equestrian events locally and in England, with photographs from the Pytchley, Grafton and Bicester Hunts; racing at Punchestown; the Moate horse show; and polo matches and gymkhanas at Ballycumber House in the early years of the twentieth century. Continue reading

So who were the Offaly women leaders: the first woman bishop, a literary ‘salon’ hostess, a formidable woman whose home was her castle, a multi-talented photographer with dash and dosh, an artist and microscopist with a difficult husband, some teacher activists and a playwright. By Cosney Molloy

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St Brigid of Croghan Hill, Offaly

Mary McAleese kicked off International Women’s Day on 8 March 2018  with a lecture outside the walls of the Vatican – no codology there.  She could have adverted to the first woman bishop in Ireland (no man handed her the veil), St Brigid. St Brigid was born at Croghan Hill, County Offaly and not near Dundalk or in Kildare. Her father was of the Fothairt people, mercenaries to the Uí Fhailge dynasty (Kissane, 2017, p. 105). Cogitosus says she was consecrated a virgin at Croghan Hill by Bishop MacCaille who is associated with that place. Will you be there on St Patrick’s Day for the burning of the furze?

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Interview with Dan Lawlor, a Mount Bolus character of the last century Interviewed by Jim Kenny. Recorded on 22nd November 1994. Dan Lawlor died 20 years ago this month. “She’s a good girl, she’ll earn her keep”

Dan Lawlor was born in 1907 and in this interview (extract – for the full interview follow the SoundCloud link) he talks about his early memories of growing up in the early 1900s, attending national school in Mount Bolus. Starting to work at the age of 14, where the wage was 3 shillings for a boy and 5 shillings for men and the working day was 8 or 9 hours at least.  He also recalls growing up during very disturbed times, the 1916 rising, the Black and Tans and the First World War.  Going around the rambling houses and the stories he heard about the Famine 1846 – 49, the big wind in 1903 knocking down all 13 acres of Colonel Biddulph trees, the big storm around 1803 (or was it 1839).  The telling of ghost stories, attending wakes, clay pipes and match making where the father gave £100 and those who couldn’t afford it and gave nothing would say “she’s a good girl and will earn her keep”.  His love of hurling in Killoughy, making their own hurleys and using a tin can if they couldn’t afford a leather ball.  He also speaks about the 1920s not being great times, but the crops were good for anyone who minded them, farming all his life also all his family, the farm evictions and the Economic War.  He also mentions about 80 years ago there was a brewery in Monasterevin called Cassidy’s and a monk in Clara who worked miracles with the mortar, they called him Cassidy’s Monk. Continue reading

Remembering Michael McDermott, Durrow, Co. Offaly (1895-1976), an old IRA soldier of the War of Independence, by Máirtín D’Alton

My grandfather Michael McDermott of Durrow, County Offaly was born in 1895 and died on 30 March 1976. My mother later stated that he was actually aged 81 years (not 79 as on the gravestone) when he died. What caught my particular attention was that his gravestone records him as ‘CO (sic) North Offaly Batt. IRA’.  But he was not in fact the OC of the North Offaly Battalion as claimed. For the funeral, as is usual for old IRA men, the coffin was draped in the Irish tricolour, and the ‘Last Post’ was played, with a firing party over grave. My cousin still has one of the spent cartridges from the blanks. Continue reading

Memories of the old days on Charleville Road, John Mahon, sleeping sickness, school to the nuns, O’Moore Street people, Mrs Kenny’s dancehall, Mahons of Killurin and more. Part 2, By Nuala Holland (nee Mahon)

You can read part 1 of this story on Offalyhistoryblog. This is our 51st blog this year and have had almost 16,000 readers. Enjoy this one and thanks to all our contributors living and remembered. Nuala Holland, now deceased, late of Charleville Road, Tullamore lived in England in her later years. About fifteen years ago she wrote for Offaly History of her childhood memories in Tullamore. She was a daughter of Sean or John Mahon (the county accountant with the first Offaly County Council) and her mother hailed from Kerry.  They lived at Knockaulin, Charleville road. This was one of the first of the new houses on Charleville Road and was almost opposite the entrance to Dew Park on the Birr side. Nuala recalled the War of Independence, saving turf in Ballard bog, and schooling and living in Tullamore. Part one appeared in our blog last week. This week Nuala has recalled for us her own father John Mahon, the sleeping sickness in Tullamore, school in Bury Quay, Killeavy’s butcher’s stall, some people who lived in O’Moore Street and Mrs Kenny of the Tullamore musical  family. 

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