Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Tom Ned McMahon (1919-2011)

(Photo: James Fennell)




‘Tis a bit of a wrong age for you to be turning dishonest, but you must do it now. On account of the depopulation, no shopkeeper can keep alive unless he waters the drink and sells short weight and robs both rich and poor.’

Thus spake Tom ‘Ned’ McMahon a hundred times or more. They were not his words as such. They belonged to Paddy King, an eighty-year-old farmer who reckoned himself to be ‘an irresistible ladykiller’ but who was, in point of fact, an innocuous numbskull.

Paddy King was one of the main characters in ‘‘The Wood of the Whispering”, a dark but poignant comedy about emigration and chastity written by M.J. Molloy for the Abbey Theatre in 1953.

In 1957, the play went nationwide with Tom Ned and the Inchovea Players, an impressive amateur theatre company from the tiny East Clare village of Inchovea. The eleven-strong company was founded by Tom Honan and his actress wife Carmel. Amongst other plays they staged were M.J. Molloy’s 1963 comedy ‘Daughter From Over the Water’ and Bryan McMahon’s powerful hunger strike drama ‘The Bugle in the Blood’. But ‘The Wood of the Whispering’ was their biggest hit and, having performed at Muintir Na Tíre festivals and fleadh cheoils across the country, the Inchovea Players returned home with several medals including an All-Ireland title and the coveted Rural Cup from the Killarney Drama Festival.

Playing Paddy King was the highlight of Tom’s acting career. ‘I wore a big black moustache which I clipped with a pair of sheep-shearers,’ says he. And as luck would have it, his brother Jack was playing the role of Paddy King’s deranged brother Jimmy in the play. ‘Oh, I gave him plenty of abuse alright,’ smiles Tom.

‘We were very brilliant at remembering our lines,’ he explains, when asked why the Inchovea Players were a cut above. ‘It’s something within you and if there is a bit of it in you, then you can act. The same as playing music. I had a big script but I just learned it.’

It undoubtedly helped that the Honan’s ran a tight ship. ‘I went into a pub before a play one night and I had the four whiskeys ordered for myself and three others. Tom Honan came in and clipped me around the head and said “what the hell are you doing Ned?” He wouldn’t let us touch them. But we were good. We were always well able for a play. And we partied very well afterwards.’

With so much travelling under his belt, Tom was a man to be admired. One neighbour remarked to him, ‘you’d need to be hammered and galvanized to listen to you, you had it so well off!’ ‘And I did have it well off!’ agrees Tom.

Tom’s father was James McMahon, a farmer who fattened his cattle on the same fifty-acre farm in Inchovea where Tom was raised. Tom’s mother Mary McCarty grew up near a waterfall known as the Seven Streams of Teeskagh. In the legends, these streams were the milk of a sacred cow. ‘When the big floods come down the mountain, the water tumbles through Teeskagh,’ he says.

Born in November 1919, Tom – or ‘Tomas’, as he was christened - was one of six children. To distinguish them from other McMahon’s in the area, they were known as the ‘Ned McMahon’s’.

He went to school in Inchovea where he excelled at Irish, which he also spoke at home. ‘They say it is a hard language to learn, but it isn’t,’ he insists. When Tom left school in 1934, emigration was considered the only option for many in Inchovea. ‘I knew seven girls from the one house that all went to England,’ he says. ‘And six of my father’s brothers were in America at one time.’ He still chuckles about a friend who feared that the skyscrapers in New York were getting so tall that soon the moon wouldn’t be able to get past them.

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However, Tom struck lucky and found work for a building contractor who is ‘dead since, the Lord have Mercy on him’. ‘I was never tempted to emigrate then, because I always had work here on the buildings and that gave me a few bob to rattle.’ He worked ‘as a kind of superintendent’, building a large number of houses around Corofin and as far south as Ennis.

Tom never married. ‘I kept the women to one side,’ says he. For him, life was about music and theatre and the occasional gamble on the geegees. ‘I was at the Galway races a thousand times,’ he says, recalling a victorious £114 treble, followed by an £80 win on the Tote, on the very day he witnessed The Clancy Brothers perform. He also went to the Galway racecourse to meet the Pope. ‘I was within the roar of an ass of him but I wasn’t able to shake his hand.’

Some divine compensation came his way in 1997 when the veteran stage actor was recruited to play in the "Annual, All-Priests, Five-a-Side, Over-75's Indoor Challenge Football Match" for the third series of ‘Father Ted’.

In 1998, he moved from Inchovea to his present residence in Kilfenora, a practical move that placed him within walking distance of shops, pubs and the church. Already famed across east Clare, he became an icon of Kilfenora, singing songs and telling tales. He can hum and lilt like his cousin Robbie McMahon of ‘Spancil Hill’ fame. His brother Jack was also famed for his rendition of Martin Reidy’s ‘Tangaloni’. And while he doesn’t play any instrument, Tom knows all the Kilfenora reels by ear. ‘The Three Flowers’ is a favourite song, he confides. And lo, as we sit and talk, he leans back in his chair and sings forth:

She took a flower and kissed it once
And softly said to me
“This flower I found in Thomas Street
In Dublin fair”, said she
"Its name is Robert Emmet
It's the youngest flower of all
And I'll keep it fresh beside my breast
Though all the world should fall."

With thanks to Katie Theasby.



Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.