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Eamonn Who?

I am Eamonn Henry, an ex- teacher living in Dublin, the capital city of Ireland.
That's me on the right, pictured with my brother, Sean, at a reception some years ago.

The photo, along with the bio stuff that follows, was taken from the pages of the now-defunct “Mayo Gazette,” a website similar to this one, which I shut down almost a decade ago. I couldn’t keep up with the volume of work that was required to maintain this very popular Mayo-related site and putting my health before my hobby, I regretfully took the site off-line.

Now, with more time on my hands due to retirement and with my health in reasonably good shape, thanks to the good medical people who maintain it, I hope to take up where I left off with the beloved “Gazette.”

  I am a native of Swinford, a town in East Mayo which is in the western part of the country. The townland I hail from is called Ballydrum. Ballydrum, like only too many other townlands or villages has suffered greatly from depopulation in recent times and many of the households I remember as a youth are now no more.
In my younger days when I lived there, most people in the area could be classified as small farmers. The farms were small, mostly about 30 - 35 acres, and the farming carried on was mixed. Farmers kept a few cows, often sending milk to the local creamery. Almost all kept store cattle; cattle reared to be sold to the local butcher or at the monthly fair in Swinford.
Almost every household grew enough potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables for domestic use. Many people also cultivated small crops of oats to feed poultry, which were kept to provide eggs for the family. Nobody made much money from farming but nobody starved either.

Rural electrification was a great step forward and came around this time

The demise of the oil lamp and the novelty of boiling a kettle without the hassle of using an open fire were great talking points and I can vividly remember al the scratching of heads and the proffering of opinions as to what the future would hold. Well, the future did bring many changes, not all of them for the good.

The arrival of the first motor car in the village proved as much a wonder and talking point as did the coming of electrification. But the changes mechanical transport brought soon wrought a subtle change in the pattern of everyday living. People were not so interdependent on each other. It had hitherto been a fact of daily life that, if one household ran short of, say, sugar that someone merely called to a convenient house with a cup or similar container and borrowed enough to keep going until some family member could be dispatched to Swinford. In time the loan would be returned and naturally this system of helping out one's neighbours lead to a close community spirit and people kept in close contact with neighbours. For one thing, people needed each other.

Increased independence meant a lessening of communal bonds.

People no longer visited each other's houses as freely as in former days. One of my earliest and happiest, memories was of "visiting". In the evening, especially in wintertime, when darkness came and the days work was over my mother would often bring me along on a visit to a neighbour's house. It was just a casual visit to break the monotony of the daily grind. She would get a chance to chat with the adult people present and I would be allowed to play with the neighbouring children. Of course other neighbours returned these visits and in this way people kept in touch with, and helped out, each other.

The "meitheal" was a good proof of this. A meitheal was a gathering of neighbours to help someone in need to do what ever needed to be done. This might be "save" the turf or the hay. Because of illness to a key member of a family or due to a bereavement or some such natural, common occurrence a family that otherwise might be in trouble could rely on the help of the community at large. People needed each other; it was as simple as that.

Increasing prosperity meant less dependence on one's neighbours and friends. From the '60's onwards the way of life in my native community began to change quickly and irrevocably. Many changes were undoubtedly for the better.

The Fairday was replaced by the"Mart".

At the mart cattle are put in holding enclosures or pens and are sold in lots, called into the auction ring in rotation. They are kept off the streets and are generally brought there by motor transport, no longer having to be driven there on foot. This had meant journeys along the road for maybe 10 miles or more and in the event of not being sold, the same process had to be undertaken in the afternoon.

Of course the mart is a more efficient way of buying and selling cattle. Not even the most way out traditionalist would welcome back the hardship and uncertainty of the old fairday. My mother, who died in 19884 ofte4n told me to forget about the "good ol' days".

In her opinion, they never existed and she had no hankering to turn the clock back.

Neither do I, but progress has been at a price. Many homesteads of my youth are deserted. Many of today's younger people preferring, like myself, to move away to more populated areas. Many old people live alone. Young folks are conspicuous by their lack on numbers on the streets of Swinford whenever I re-visit. Locals fear they are being overlooked by the powers that be and that insufficient resources are being made available to help provide the economic infrastructure needed to keep Swinford and like regions as viable self-supporting regions.

So, visitors to the area today may find much to interest them but the old spirit of community help and mutual interdependence has gone. But so too has the heartbreak of parting that emigration caused. I have deep and vivid memories of the general sorrow and wailing that was the scene on the railway platform at Swinford railway station after the August Holiday week. Anguished parents and friends bade farewell to the people departing for England after an all too brief trip home.

Nowadays there may still be the pain of parting for some but the proximity of the airport and the convenience of flying makes regular trips home more feasible for those who want to come. On the downside, the railway station is also just a memory and with it the hustle and bustle it brought to the lives of those connected with it. Comparing life in Mayo in the fifties, when I grew up there with the scene there today when I am far away and approaching my own fifties is difficult. It is hard to be objective and my long absence from the place does not give me the competence to adjudge things properly but I do think that my mother if she were alive today would still snort at the thought that the old days were to be recommended.
And what of myself?

I am aware that I have strayed a bit from the mark in that this article is not about me but rather it is about the Mayo of my youth and the changes I have witnessed there since then. I really don't think my life story makes for much interesting reading in any event. I left Mayo in 1967 having completed my secondary level education when I undertook the Leaving Certificate examination at St. Patrick's College, Swinford. This college has also mirrored the changes that have taken place in Mayo since my early days there.

Because of falling student numbers the school was amalgamated with the local convent, or girls' secondary school, quite a few years ago.

To the uninitiated, colleges are second level schools for boys while convents perform the same function for girls. No co-ed schooling or the likes for the young folks of Swinford in my young days! To be sure there was a Vocational school in the town in those days. This was a mixed gender school where there was more of a vocational bias in the range of subjects offered than was the case with the other places, which had a more academic slant.

The "Tech," as it was known has long gone; declining numbers being the culprit here also.

I came to Dublin on the foot of my Leaving Certificate results to study at St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra. "Pats", as it was commonly known, indeed still is, was a Training College. It was a third level institution geared specifically for the training of male students for careers as Primary schoolteachers. Today it has undergone a name change and has gone co-ed. (I have always felt a sense of deprivation in my life; a sense of being a little bit before my time!)

I left Pats in '69 and having secured a position on the staff of St. Kevin's BNS in Finglas West I have dutifully laboured at the chalkface there until I retired in 2006 as a result of a brain anuerysm.

I have always maintained a strong sense of affinity with my home place, but my links are fewer and more tenuous than in days gone by. Since the death of my parents, my mother in '84 and my father in '87, my visits west have become fewer. The increasing pace of change as the years go by doesn't help me to maintain my links either but I still go west when I can and still contact friends there on a regular basis.