John William Seoighe
(Photo: James Fennell)
There is something about John William Seoighe that instantly connects him to the ancient world, to a time when the grizzle cheeked fishermen of Ireland’s Atlantic coast synchronised their oars with those of the great mariners who sailed the oceans from the Barbary Coast to the Basque and over the far horizon to the cod-plenty waters of the New World. His words are seeped in salty adventure and the richness of marine life. Just to look at him brings to mind the Paul Henry’ painting of those agile, woolly-jumpered fishermen launching their currach.
John William must have launched ten thousand currachs in his time. Together with three of his Seoighe cousins, he won a record four All-Ireland Rowing Titles, a three-in-a-row between 1956 and 1958 and a fourth in 1961.[i] They also won numerous Galway hooker regattas along Connemara and the coast of County Clare. And when he wasn’t racing, John William was making his money carrying turf from his island home to the people on the Aran Islands.
The Seoighe family has been rooted in the Irish-speaking traditions of Connemara’s island life since time began. The first named was Padraig Seoige, born in Carna in the mid-1700s, who set himself up as a boat-builder by the pier on the island of Inish Barra.[ii]
Padraig’s grandson Seán Seoige was born on the island shortly before the Great Famine of the 1840s. ‘It was like a cloud that came over the land,’ says John William. ‘But living on an island was much better than the mainland, because they had the seafood.’
Seán was John William’s grandfather and he too made his money by bringing turf from Inish Barra to the Aran Islands.[iii] He sailed in a thirty-foot boat called Bláth na hóighe (‘Flower of Youth’), built by Mártín O'Cathasaigh of Mweenish Island.[iv]
Above: John William Seoighe and his wife Bridget,
taken before their marriage.
Seán married Nan O’Donnell whose family had moved to Inish Barra from Roundstone in the early 19th century. In about 1902, their second son William and his new bride Peg moved to the island of Inse Gaine, or Sand Island.[v] Three sons and five daughters followed.[vi]
John William, their youngest son, was born on a spring tide in 1919. His childhood ambition was to build boats and he secretly constructed a miniature hooker, complete with sails. He longed to test it on the sea but he knew his parents would never let him near the perilous waters. So one day he dropped the boat out of his bedroom window for his young cousin John Babín to catch. But one way or another it landed on his father’s head instead.[vii] ‘And gwargh!’ recalls John. ‘He didn’t know what was going on and where did such a thing come from?!’ Realising the boys ‘were headed for the sea with it,’ his mother swiftly threw the boat on the fire.
John William went to school on Lettermore Island. There was a special path he could walk along to get there at low tide in the mornings but, when school was finished, the only was home was a one mile row by currach.[viii] ‘My brother Michael would row over and get me. There was a place on the rocks where he could see me from the island. I’d walk up and down there for a while, he’d see me and land the boat. We rowed back together and that’s the reason I could row.
‘Ah, I was fit as a fiddle then’ chuckles John William. He certainly was. Indeed, there are probably no shoulders more powerful than those of a currach rower. ‘Sailing, sailing, sailing. That was everything to me.’
John William was fourteen years old when he began delivering the turf. ‘My father came down with a sickness in his body and he wasn’t able to go on the boat anymore. My two brothers were a lot older than me and they did not like to sail. So I began sailing into the Aran Islands and out again, ten or twelve miles each time, with my cousin John Babín. We were over every two or three days. It was a tricky journey with the currents and the breakers and you couldn’t make it every day. Maybe you’d be almost there and you’d see how the waves were breaking and you’d have to get away again.’[ix]
Above: John William delivered turf by hooker, just like his
father and grandfather before him.
But opportunities in Connemara were scarce during the 1930s and England was the place to go. Shortly after he left school, John William made his way to a house in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, where six young Inish Barra islanders were living together. These included his sister Margaret, his cousin John Babín, John Babín’s sister and John William’s future brother-in-law Michael Conneely, ‘a rough looking character who had a lot of Irish flag tattoos on him.’ One evening, John William and Margaret were supping a cup of tea in the kitchen when twelve detectives burst into the house with search warrants. ‘They didn’t leave a penny without turning it,’ marvels John William. ‘They even opened up my accordion and checked inside.’ For the next few weeks, plainclothes British agents kept a close watch on the household, following them onto buses and into parks. ‘They thought that we were a lot of IRAs but we didn’t even know what IRA meant,’ says John William.
In any case, one night the Irishmen decided they’d had enough. ‘We packed our cases, wet washing and all, and, at two o’clock in the night, four of us got into a cab and told him to drive to Manchester. So that was it, bye bye Huddersfield.’[x]
From Manchester they made their way to a kip house in London.[xi] John Babín journeyed in a new suit but when they awoke, his suit had vanished. ‘He was in bad humour that day,’ recalls John William. ‘But that was the day we heard about Jersey Island!’
The four men duly sailed to Jersey. Once they landed, they split into pairs and set off to find work. Shortly after they left, John William turned to John Babín and said, ‘Arra, why don’t we give the others a chance to get a job and maybe they might find work for the lot of us. We’ll go back and get something to eat and have a good day for ourselves.’ As they sat down to eat, the other two returned having had the very same idea. “Ya bastards, ye!”’
But at length they all found work and they spent the summer on Jersey digging potatoes. ‘That was one of the nicest islands I ever met in my life.’ And then one day, John Babín uttered the forbidden words. ‘Wouldn’t it be a lovely day to be sailing over Golam Head?’ The four men looked at one another, said “what are we waiting for?” and by the end of the week, they were back in Connemara.
Towards the end of 1942, John William made his way back to England to work as a signalman directing trains and buses in and out of Crewe Station in Cheshire.[xii] ‘All the Englishmen were out in the war,’ he explains. ‘So they had women driving the buses and trains.’ One afternoon, a corps of American Marines arrived, numbering amongst them Big Andy McDonough, a 6-foot-six high and utterly fearless Irishman who was raised in Carna and later emigrated to New York. John William had met him during his childhood. ‘What in the name of God brought you over here?’ asked Big Andy. ‘Go back home and get away from these English buggers! They’re no good to anybody. We’re after coming 3,000 miles to fight their war for them.’
In September 1943, John William was married in Lettermore to Bridget Conneely of Inish Barra, with whom he had eight children. As well as fishing for lobsters and scallops, he was again bringing turf to the Aran Islands, and on down to Kinvarra, and sometimes to Ballyvaugahan and New Quay, County Clare.
Some voyages were more peculiar than others but none more so than the dark November night when he and John Babín were returning home from a trip to the Aran Islands.[xiii] As they came around Golam Head, ‘so close that I nearly hit it’, John William noticed a shadow trailing them. ‘And when I looked down, boy, what was coming up after us but another boat exactly like the one we had. She was only four lengths behind us, but you could hear her whistling through the water. Shuhhhhhhhh. I was never afraid of anything in my time but I know she was there. So close, but she didn’t come any closer. And there was nobody in it. Nobody was steering it. John saw her too. But she gave us no bother whatsoever.’ As they rounded Dinish Point, the vessel vanished from sight. But that night the two cousins stood on Inish Barra looking back out across Kilkieran Bay. ‘The night was still so beautiful that you could see everything and Christ didn’t we see her passing by, going up the bay with three black sails on.’[xiv]
John William smiles widely as he tells this tale, his eyes opening wider with every passing wave. He clearly relishes stories of the Otherworld and his baritone voice rumbles cheerily as he recalls other mysterious encounters.[xv] For instance, the story of Mweenish Island, ancestral home of his wife’s people, the Conneely’s, where a callous land agent once tried to burn their house down for non-payment of rent. The agent had already destroyed a handful of houses on nearby Feenish Island. When the burning party set out for Mweenish, the priest urged all the islanders to sink to their knees and pray. God heard the people’s cry and a thunderbolt shot out from the Heavens and struck the agent dead.[xvi]
When the ‘Big Wind’ tore through Ireland in 1839, it blew the roof off the Conneely’s home. Ten years later, the family relocated to Inish Barra where Bridget’s father Hughie made his living by transporting goods on a Galway Hooker between Galway City and the towns of Roundstone and Clifden. One day Hughie and his wife were down by the shore, harvesting seaweed. His wife returned home early to make the dinner but Hughie never made it home. ‘Whatever happened between, he got drowned’, says John William. ‘My wife was only a year old at the time. And it was a strange thing but when our children were coming down near the sea by where he drowned, they would look up and see a man sitting on the wall. It was their grandfather. He was warning them about the sea.’[xvii]
Bridget never trusted the sea after her father’s death. After their marriage, she and John William originally lived in her family house right on the island’s shoreline. At high tide, the choppy ocean water frequently came flooding though the front door. In 1957, some of Bridget’s cousins moved east to ‘the short-grass country’ of County Meath. With much relief, the Seoighe’s loaded their boat with dressers and beds, sailed around the island and moved into the vacated house.[xviii]
John William continued to fish and distribute turf through the 1950s and 1960s but Inish Barra was an increasingly depressing place to live. The number of houses on the island had fallen sharply from its 19th century high of forty to just eight by 1964, when the Seoighes emigrated to the USA.[xix] John William and Bridget’s two eldest daughters were already living in Boston. When their third girl decided to join them, John William concluded enough was enough and packed his wife and six younger children onto a boat. They sailed out from Inish Barra early in the morning, docked in Galway, made their way to Shannon Airport and the whole family flew off to a new life in Boston.
Above: John William recieves a rowing trophy from Eamon de Valera.
John William and Bridget stayed in Boston for six years. He worked as a carpenter and built his own house. ‘But you’d always be thinking of the old sod,’ he says. In the summer of 1970, homesickness got the better of him and he and Bridget returned to Ireland and purchased a new house in Galway City with money from the sale of their Boston home. ‘When we got tired of that, we decided to go back to Connemara again. I got this piece of land and we built this house for us to live.’
John William now lives with his son Padraig Seoighe, daughter-in-law Cait and their two young children, Róisin and Colm, an extremely talented pair, well known in the west for their singing, dancing and acting prowess. Róisin featured in the Irish language drama, Malartú Intinne, and has toured abroad with President Mary McAleese. It pleases John William greatly that his children and grandchildren still sail and fish in the waters of Inishbarra over which he himself navigated so many times.
[i] To qualify for the finals, rowers had to win qualifying races in their own Gaeltacht regions. Then they had to qualify in heats at Salthill on the day of the final. They Seoighe cousins, who qualifyied in Lettermore, won all their heat races too.
[ii] ‘The Joyces originally came from Carna over to Lettermore. Padraig Joyce was the original in mid 1700s, born in Carna. He was a boat builder and his brother Coleman stayed back. Padraig moved to Inish Barra and had a little house near the pier where he started building the boats. One day, he was called in for tea by his wife – he was working with táil and chopped a part of the keel which landed upside down which was a bad sign ; he went to his wife and said I don’t like that, something’s up and he died that night.’ [The táil was the first piece of wood, or shaving that he took off with the táil, which is a tool used to shave wood with a handle on it. You swing it like you would an axe. When the shaving landed face down, that was considered a bad sign.
[iii] ‘We have plenty of turf ourselves because when my father got the island, he got the turf as well. And we had the turf on Inish Barra as well. We had plenty of turf.’
[iv] The O'Cathasaighs, or Caseys, were highly respected boat-builders, considered the best in the world.[iv] John William says they had an extraordinary ability to whack a boat together without the use of a measuring tape. ‘They weren’t shoemakers, that’s for sure.’
Sean Seoige’s brother Tomás Seoighe was a Boatwright born on the island in about 1842. In 1873 he married Mary and their son Patrick was born the following year.
[v] William, John William’s father, was born on Inish Barra in 1860. Peg’s maiden name was Margaret Reaney. There were only two houses on the island at the time, the other being occupied by Val Cloherty. People still live on Inse Gaine still, including the children of John William’s brothers Pat and Mhicil. Three of John William’s sisters settled in Boston, Mass, while one of them had a small shop near the Town Hall in Co. Galway. One of John Williams sister Siubhan was about nine when she succumbed to a childhood disease.
[vi] Born in 1905, Padraig was the oldest.
[vii] This was his cousin John with whom he later rowed.
[viii] When he went to school, he had to bring a sod of turf for the fire. Some had to take two sods – if they were two brothers – and that would keep the fire going all day.
[ix] As a young boy on Inse Gaine, he sometimes drew freshwater to the still for the island’s poteen maker.
[x] ‘There was a good few of us in one house. Michael Connolly who owned the house. My wife’s brother but I wasn’t married that time. Myself and my sister went to have a cup of tea in the kitchen. I heard some tapping on the window and I looked around and I saw the heads looking in. “Christ!”, I said to Margaret. “Let’s look out and see!” And here comes two detectives walking in one after the other. They search the house. They didn’t leave a penny without turning it. They opened up the accordion and checked inside. Michael had a lot of Irish flag tattoos on him. He was a rough looking character. So they thought we were a lot of IRAs. And anytime I got the bus after that, I would always see those two men, one at the back of the bus and one at the front. They thought that we were IRA and we didn’t know what IRA meant at all at that time. Michael put the house up for sale right-away and sold it. We got our cases ready and packed. Wet washing and all. And the four of us left. We called a cab at 2 o’clock in the night and told him to drive to Manchester. Bye bye Huddersfield’.
[xi] ‘We stayed in London one night. An Irishman way up the street used to be taking people in and he had plenty of room for everybody. We went in with him and we were all set there.’
[xii] What brought you over to Crewe? “Oh, you wouldn’t know” he laughs ruefully. ‘I was young. It was after school”.
[xiii] On another foggy night, he was steering back from the Aran Islands when they got thoroughly lost. ‘We didn’t know where in the world we were … I never saw such a heavy sea in my life … oh God, it hit the boat and we went sideways … this time I was sitting down steering the boat and I stand up and I was right under Golam Head … we were thrown around all night and we didn’t have a clue because we could hardly see one another. She was a lucky boat you know.’
[xiv] ‘The boat was loaded with turf and it was getting late in the year. The week before was rough and we weren’t able to go to the Aran Islands. This evening it was very nice. Myself and John, my cousin, who owned the other half of my boat. It was our grandfather who got it built. We were waiting at the pier and it struck me as a beautiful evening to head out. There used to be a gate on Lettermore Island and we went down through that with the boat, instead of going around Golam Head. We were in the Aran Islands very fast. There was a fellow there waiting for us, Tom Feeny, Lord have mercy on him, he died since. He was our mate, our friend. He took the turf from us and we emptied the boat to go on. It was dark at that time and we sailed on for about an hour of darkness. It was still a nice evening. I used to be steering the boat the whole time and I head on for Golam Head and I came so close to Golam Head, I nearly I hit it. When you pass up Golam Head then, you have to pull on your sail or it will start slashing. I thought I saw something. A shadow or something. Down by Golam Head. And when I looked down boy, what was coming up after us but another boat exactly like the one we had. And she was only four lengths behind us. And you could almost hear her coming through the water. Shuhhhhhhhh. I was never afraid of anything in my time but I know she was there. So close but she didn’t come any closer. And there was nobody in it. Nobody was steering it. When I looked back, I saw her coming after me. We were half way up, passing up the land, and I asked John who was standing up on the ballast, nice and quiet, ‘do you see anything behind us?’ and he said ‘oh yes, I can’ and here she was, giving us no bother whatsoever. When we pass up the last island at Dinish Point, I looked again and she had disappeared, vanished. She wasn’t there anymore. We got on to Inish Barra there and we got home and I looked back across Kilkieran Bay. The night was still so beautiful that you could see everything and Christ didn’t I see her passing by. And I said to John ‘do you see now where she is now?!’ and she was going up Kilkieran Bay with three black sails on. The exact same size as the boat we had. She went up to Kilkerrin and we didn’t see her anymore. We blamed Halloween because that is the night of spooks. There was no other boat in Connemara at sea when we were out. We wouldn’t have been out if we could have emptied the boat before that.’
Another boat was sighted in the same place recently.
[xv] ‘There was two men that used to sail together years ago. They were always winning all the races. They were from this area. Anyway, one of them went to the United States and lived there for a while, in New York. When he was 20 years gone, his mate was playing cards every night over here. This man that went to the States died there after 10 years. This fellow was going to play cards and he saw a man coming towards him. And he didn’t know in the wide world who it walking the road was but it was his mate who died in America. That put the shakes on him alright.’
[xvi] ‘The landlord’s name was Bolustrum [sic]. He got twelve men and horses together. Four houses lost their rooves on Feenish Island in 1839 and he went and knocked down the stone walls. He then set his sights on Moynish where there were fourteen houses without roofs. As he approached the bridge, the priest learned what had happened and learning that Bolustrum was off to Moynish, he said “Get on your knees now, all of you, and start praying that he doesn’t make it. Get down on your knees and pray”. Meantime, Bolustrum and his men are crossing the bridge and a lightning bolt kills Bolustrum and his horse there at the bridge. He was a very bad man. His house was in Carna where the pub is now.’ This story was relayed by Padraig John William Seoighe.
[xvii] ‘They looked up at a wall up from the house and they could see a man there sitting down watching them. That was my wife’s father. He got drowned. Himself and the wife were cutting seaweed and they had the boat full of seaweed. She went home and said she’d made the dinner for him when he come home. Whatever happened between, he got drowned. He didn’t come home for dinner. My wife was only a year old. That’s a very sad story, she had a house full of children. But whenever our children Mary or Bridie were coming near the sea, they would look up and see your man sitting at the wall, giving them a warning. That was the fellow that drowned, their grandfather.’
[xviii] Their old house still stands today but has since lost it roof.
[xix] Today there is just one man on the island, Martin Joyce, an octogenarian cousin of the Joyce’s.
John William never drove a car in his life.
It is the wounds of younger years that can sometimes nobble you. John William Joyce hurt his legs when he was at school, a bad dose. ‘It never bothered me ever since until last year when it came back again. I was working and working and sailing and hauling turf and everything, and then last year it came back again’.