Turtle Bunbury

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Tomas O Niallain (Photo: James Fennell




BORN 1932

If they had to choose their absolute favourite, the cows would probably opt for the Kilfenora Céilí Band. Certainly when Tomás played the Kilfenora’s reels to his cattle, they stood easy and the milk flowed pure and simple. But when he threw on a rock n’ roll record, all Hell broke loose. ‘It had them cracked,’ he recalls. ‘They broke the machines and fences and everything.’ To play it safe, Tomás just sang while he milked and that did the job. ‘Republican ballads,’ he says. ‘Some of the cows sang-a-long.’

Tomás is a quick-thinking, inspirational and engaging soul. His farmyard is neat and intelligently planned.[i] His cattle live in a field that rolls up a hill, open to a conifer plantation on one side. ‘I have the conifers for shelter,’ explains Tom. ‘It protects the house from the wind and the animals can go in amongst the trees when they need to.’

At his peak, Tomás kept a hundred head of cattle, as well as a substantial flock of sheep. He used to ride out to inspect them on a horse. These days he has a herd of eighteen Charolais and life is somewhat easier. In fact, he has lately renovated the old cow-house into a new residence for himself and his wife Maureen. The place where his cows once milked and mooed is now the Ó Nialláin’s living room.[ii]

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Tomas leads a Turtle on horseback.

‘I was bred, born and reared in the shade of Lady Gregory’s Coole’, says Tomás. ‘But to tell you the truth I wouldn’t be sure when my birthday is.’ He likes to think it was the same spring day that Lady Gregory died in May 1932. His father was a tenant on Lady Gregory’s estate at Coole Park, just as his grandfather and great-grandfather had been. ‘My father had hopes to introduce me to her ladyship.’[iii]

Tomás was one of ten children, five sons and five daughters, raised by parents Packie and Birdie Ó Nialláin.[iv] As children they often played amid the abandoned house and gardens of Coole Park. That pastime came to an end in 1941 when the Board of Works made the dismal decision to demolish the house where Synge, Yeats, Shaw and so many others drew their literary inspiration. ‘It was a national disgrace,’ says Tomás.[v] ‘I have a very vivid memory of men throwing down the slates. There wasn’t a stone left upon a stone when they finished. But then a priest come to Gort and he had an interest in Coole so he turned it into a national park with lovely walks and seven woods and forty-nine swans and all this. It’s a very fine tourist attraction now.’

Talk of tourists leads to the tale of his neighbour Tommy Geraghty who was headed to the bog one day to cut turf. ‘At that time the tourists were all on bicycles and didn’t a Yank pull up to Tommy while he was walking and said, ‘Excuse me, is Spancil Hill far?’ ‘Well now’, says Tommy, ‘as the crow flies, tis about ten miles.’ ‘Okay’, said the Yank, ‘but if the goddamn crow was on a bicycle, how far would it be?’ ‘About twenty five’, conceded Tommy.

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Above: The area around Tom’s farm
is steeped in music and his eyes blaze as he
lists off the local legends, Paddy Canny,
P. J Hayes, Martin Hayes, Andrew and
Mary Mc Namara, Vincent Griffin, Robbie
McMahon, Joe Cooley of Peterswell, Joe
Burke, Charlie Harris, Chris Droney, Micko
Russell, South Galway musicians; Paddy
Jordan, Chris Nestor, Colie Moran, Sean
O’Flanagáin, Martin Roachford, the Tulla
and the Kilfenora ... it is certainly a
remarkable collection.

Another of Tomás’s neighbours was a basket-maker, the last of his kind, and it was he who taught Tomás how to make baskets from the branches of a willow tree. As Tomás rotates one such basket between his hands, he muses upon his motive for learning the craft. ‘I felt that if I live too long, then I won’t be able to walk or talk but maybe I will still be able to knock up a basket.’

Tomás is all about contingency plans, improving situations, making life smoother, smarter and, wherever possible, more enjoyable. Keeping busy is part of his raison d’être. ‘I couldn’t be idle. I belong to the great outdoors. I never went for rest or anything like that. I always have things to do.’ His desire to learn is lifelong; even at school he attended night classes, ‘woodwork, languages and things.’

After school, he spent five years working for a local stonemason, building private houses between Tubber and Corofin. ‘Construction was the only work going at the time,’ he says.

At the age of 23 , Tomás successfully applied to join the Dublin Metropolitan Police and went east to be trained in Phoenix Park. The young Galway man fetched up as a security man in Dublin Castle, with specific instructions to ‘mind and protect’ Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and any visiting foreign diplomats.[vi] ‘I was a young buck who knew no fear,’ he laughs. ‘But I had a wonderful time in Dublin. I met the finest men and women ever known in the police. I rowed in the Liffey, swam in the Forty Foot, boxed in the National Stadium … It was a great experience.’

After five years as a policeman, Tomás resigned his post and returned to his native county. One day in 1955 he went to a dance in the local ballroom and met Maureen Sheehan, a niece of the couple who owned the venue.[vii] ‘That was where everyone went at that time,’ says Maureen. ‘We would come in on our bicycles for five miles from every direction, from Killanena in east Clare and Tulla and Spancil Hill and Corofin and all along Tubber. It’s where we met and it’s where every one of my friends met their husbands.’ Says Maureen. .’

‘My own wedding was the first I had ever been to,’ he says. ‘The morning we got married, everyone was talking at breakfast and they asked me to say something. I was so excited and privileged to have the lovely girl. I wanted to thank her father and mother for giving her to me. But what the Christ did I say only I thanked them for giving me the farm.’

The marriage did indeed give the newlyweds a farm, close to Lough Cutra and just ten miles from Tomas’s childhood home. This is where they raised their three sons and three daughters.[viii] Once property of the Butler family, the Sheehan’s farm comprised of a couple of hundred acres of land which Tomás kept in immaculate condition over the ensuing five decades.

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Photographer James Fennell with Tomas behind.

‘I belong to the land,’ says Tomas, who strides across his farm every day, humming and lilting, with a handsome stray called Skippy by his side. During the 1960s and 1970s, he planted large numbers of ash, oak and lichen-hued beech, as well as the conifers beneath which his cattle shelter.[ix] In an adjacent meadow, as round as the sun, a white draught mare ambles alongside a young filly who has been handled so much that she is soft as a Spaniel. ‘If a man has a horse that doesn’t work, it’s the man that is wrong’, he says.[x] There are always challenges, the hard frosts, the falling prices, the wild deer that have been chewing his crops. He can view his entire farm from the summit of Sheehan’s Hill, with Lough Cutra, the hills of County Clare and the Atlantic Ocean glittering darkly far away, beyond Kinvarra.

Tomás produces a rickety Horner melodeon held together by masking tape. ‘When I was doings stonemasonry I had a very bad bicycle,’ he says. ‘There was a little shop in Gort with a Raleigh bicycle for sale in the window for £14. I was earning £1 and ten pence a day. I decided to buy it but when I went back, this melodeon was right beside the bicycle for the same price. So I walked with a bad bicycle for the rest of the time after that.’

With his eyes closed, he plays three consecutive polkas which his granddaughter taught him. The polkas were ‘smuggled up’ from County Kerry into this proud land of jigs and reels. ‘Did you like them?’, he asks when he’s done. ‘If you didn’t, I can play them again for you?’

Music has always been a major part of Tomás’s life. In his youth it seemed that everyone he met played some instrument or other.[xi] As a policeman in Dublin, he often slipped into the homes of ‘the poor people’ around the Coombe to take part in a session.

Tom’s mother was a genius with a single row melodeon, or button accordion.[xii] ‘She had one of the real old types, with four stoppers on the end. It had a most beautiful sound and she played it brilliantly, with great timing and great rhythm. She learnt from an uncle a long, long time ago and she knew the right amount of decoration to give a tune. That was the way we spent the long winters’ nights!’

A neighbour taught him how to use a double row melodeon, explaining how one row was for jigs and the other for reels. He is also a dab hand with the bodhrán. ‘It is sixty years since that goat came down from the Burren Hills’ he says of his goatskin bodhrán. ‘And Christy Moore was the last man to play it before me. If you put your face to it, you can get the smell of Christy’s sweat.’"

Maureen’s family were also great musicians; her mother was a noted concertina.[xiii] The musical blood ensures that Tomás and Maureen’s grandchildren are passionate players. Tomás often duets with his granddaughter which is surely one of the happiest places a grandfather can find himself. In fact, the Ó Nialláin’s frequently host ceilidhs in their kitchen and only three days before our visit there was seventeen playing, young and old, from all over the county.

There was dancing too, sean nós and sets. ‘We learned how to dance when we were children but we only learned the South Galway set,’ says Tomás. ‘We didn’t even know there was any other set because we never left the village!’ He got a considerable insight into alternative sets when a gang from County Clare stood up and performed the Caledonian on board a flight to Paris. As the dancers began reeling down the aisle with mounting excitement, the captain ordered them all to sit down ‘or they’d break the bottom of the plane and we’d all be drownded.’

Tomás was headed for Paris for a short rambling tour of France and Germany with his old pal Charlie Piggott, the banjo player who co-founded De Dannan.[xiv] The pair played together for over thirty years, mainly at the Royal Spa Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, and Tomás still sometimes performs the melodeon in the pubs of Gort.[xv]

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The Ó Nialláin home is an Irish-speaking one and Tomás is a proud gaelgóir, or fluent Irish speaker. As his daughter Martina puts it, ‘Is cáinteoir gaeilge atá an mheas agus grá aige don teanga agus go dtugann sé tacaíocht don Ghaeilge agus do fhoghlaimeoirí Gaeilge.’ (‘I am an Irish speaker with great respect and love for the language. I support it and the people who want to learn the language.’)

‘I’m hanging in by the toenails now,’ Tomás says of his senior years. ‘I’m stone deaf in one ear and I can hear nothing with the other one.’ There’s foggy cataracts, arthritic fingers and missing teeth too. But life moves on and you must play the tune accordingly. The concrete ballroom where Tomás and Maureen’s romance began was flattened in 2010 to make way for a supermarket. There have been other changes too, such as the local population. ‘Cromwell sent all the poor people here and then Maggie Thatcher sent us all the hippies,’ says Tomás. ‘One of them came up and asked me what was the Irish for water. ‘Uisge’, I told him, and that’s what he named his child. It’s a nice name, I suppose.’[xvi]

With thanks to Martina Neilin, Kevin Costello and Mary McNamara.


[ii] ‘We were only using it as a storehouse so we thought we may as well do something with it’. The original cow shed stone wall is now the living room wall. He is a resourceful fellow and while he had help, ‘ I did this sort of work when I was young. I spent five years with a stonemason all around here.’

There’s a holy well on the land where people used to go to cure their sore eyes.

He’s reading John Waters book, ‘The Fifty Feckers that Fecked Up Ireland’

[iii] Certainly Tomás was born about that time but, as he says, his actual birthday is unknown. In order to register a birth, his father would have been obliged to cycle all the way to Loughrea. Registering a birth was not a high priority for ‘the poor people’ at that time, especially given the shoddy roads. ‘I wouldn’t be sure when my birthday is to tell you the truth. But I can tell you we were no different to anyone else around there. We all came from the same environment. You did not need a birth certificate to get married. But you could not draw the pension.’

Tomás recalls the story of some elderly neighbours ‘who had grown old and their family was reared and gone off to Australia and America’. When the wife found out they were missing out on the pension, she sent her husband out to Feakle to see the famous Dr. Bill Loughnane, the Fianna Fail TD for Clare and Galway South. Off he headed on his bicycle to see the doctor and explain they were losing out on the pension. The doctor examined his lined face and rotten teeth and grey hair ‘and the old dewlap which hung like an auld stripper cow.’ He said “Paddy, you are pensionable” and wrote it down with the Fianna Fail stamp of authority. Paddy cycled home and told his wife how the doctor had inspected his face and head so thoroughly. “Well, that’s the best news I’ve had in years,” she said. “And if he’d looked down any further, you’d be entitled to the disability pension as well.”’]

[iv] His mother’s maiden name was Roachford. Tom’s eldest brother inherited the farm under the terms of primogeniture. ‘They wanted to keep the name over the door.’

Tom recounts the tale of the ill-fated Loughnane brothers, threshers of corn, who served alongside his father. They were slain by the Tans in a most gruesome manner, bound by their legs and dragged along the roads until they were dead. The local story runs that their hearts were removed, their eyes gouged out and their corpses covered in oil. A man from the parish had a dream of where they were hidden and that’s how they found them. Maureen’s uncle Sonny Mullins was the undertaker who put them in coffins and bought them home. Sonny was the man whom Joe Cooley said ‘kept traditional music along’ – he made fiddles as well as coffins.

[v] ‘That’s where we spent our youth, running around in through the house. Of course, we were no great help to the structure!’

[vi] I used to be minding and protecting him until I found out I was risking my life for his entertainment and I left it,’ says Tom.

[vii] Maureen’s aunt and uncle owned the local ballroom but it was flattened in the summer of 2010 to make way for a supermarket. It had been desolate for forty years. It was built in 1953, a single storey concrete block with a maple floor and a raised stage at one end. ‘We would come in our bicycles for five miles from every direction, she says. They’d come from Kilfeacle in east Clare and Tulla and Spanical Hill and Corfin and all along Tubber. There were very few cars there before 1954. That’s where all our neighburs met their wives. It’s where we met and it’s where every one of my friends met their husbands. It was a lovely place. They used to have all the coats drying around the fireplace while the people danced.’

“Tom was headed to Lisdoonvarna one night to play music ith a batchelor neighbour. In Kilfenora, they met three lovely girls and Tom said to them, “This man is looking for a wife, he is a good man, he has no bad habits. He has a nice farm and he’d like to put the name over the door,” And the woman says, “We won’t be candidates anyway, but what I would advise him to do is get a ladder and brush and paint the name up on the door himself.”

Tom and Maureen had three sons and three daughters. Their youngest son was tragically killed in a car crash ten years ago, but the other five children all have farms of their own now, either through marriage or purchase.

Martin Rochford, a cousin of Maureen Neilan, was a fiddler and piper of much skill. He once met a neighbour walking one morning. ‘How’s the missus?’ he asked.

‘She’s dead,’ the neighbour replied.
‘Oh God,’ says Martin. ‘I’m sorry, I never heard that. What age was she?’
‘She was 65’.
‘And was she long complaining?’
‘Sixty five years,’ repeated the neighbour.

[‘All jokes against women’ says Maureen despairingly!].

[xii] ‘My mother played the melodeon, a single row melodeon, and when she went to live in Coole, there were very few who played music that time. A couple of neighbours bought a melodeon for her. One of the real old type with four stoppers on the end of it. It had a most beautiful sound and she played it brilliantly. She knew the right amount of decoration to give a tune. She had lovely old tunes. She learnt from an uncle a long, long time ago. She had great timing and great rhythm and the curryfwibbles [sic] … ornamentations. That’s the way we spent the long winters’ nights. At that time there was no big emphasis on education.’

[xiii] Maureen’s mother was living there when Tom first arrived. ‘She was a beautiful concertina player,’ he recalls. ‘We got her recorded on a cassette twenty years ago.’ Maureen’s aunts form Scariff all played music too. So do their grandchildren and one of the daughters plays concertina and fiddle.

[xiv] Tom wasn’t crazy about Paris. ‘I don’t like towns or cities,’ he says.

[xv] ‘There’d be a different crowd every night but there wouldn’t be a night when we didn’t make friends,’ he says. ‘When it was busy, we’d be up there five, maybe six nights a week. It was great but I did not like the drive, Lisdoonvarna being nearly thirty miles away from the farm.’




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