Turtle Bunbury

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Vanishing Ireland 4

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BORN 1941

(Photo: James Fennell)



In the summer of 1905, a thirty-one-year-old Irish-Italian engineer alighted from a train in Recess with a plan. Guglielmo Marconi was the second son of a wealthy Bolognese landowner and a daughter of the Jameson whiskey distilling family. It was his intention to build a radio station in Connemara from where he hoped to pioneer wireless contact with North America.

Today, Marconi is credited as the man who effectively made radio mainstream, winning a Nobel Prize in 1909. But when Máirtín Nee’s grandfather and namesake met the Italian at the station in Recess, Marconi was still an unknown entity.

‘My grandfather brought him and all his bits and pieces from Recess out here to Cashel,’ says Máirtín. ‘He was working here with his horse and cart and he took Marconi all around. They started across the road at Lehenagh where he got a small sort of a tingle on the radio. He went from there to Errisbeg, the hill over Roundstone, and he tried again up behind Josie Keaney’s house in Canower. He got a great signal at Errisbeg but he needed a lake for earthing, so he went on west.’

At length, Marconi settled on the three-hundred-acre Derrygimla bog, three miles south of Clifden, where he was able to direct his aerial straight across the ocean to Glace Bay, Newfoundland. A regular trans-Atlantic radio-telegraph service commenced in 1907. ‘Have I done the world good or have I added a menace?’ Marconi would later wonder.

Máirtín is well versed on the subject of Marconi. He has always known that his grandfather was once the great inventor’s chauffeur. When Marconi’s daughter, Princess Elettra Marconi, came to visit Connemara for the radio’s centenary celebrations in 2007, Máirtín got the call up to collect her. The Chamber of Commerce had the original trap in which Marconi had travelled 102 years earlier, and it was down to Máirtín to provide the Connemara pony and harness. He duly escorted Princess Elettra and her son, Prince Guglielmo, to Clifden for the celebrations.

Máirtín is a well-known breeder of Connemara ponies, the hardy breed which originated in this broad and beautiful landscape. ‘I rear them and I breed them and I sell them anywhere I can,’ he explains in his signature cowboy hat and pipe, something that makes him a famous sight at shows all over Ireland.

It all began in 1953 when, aged twelve, he cycled seventeen miles to Maam Cross with £10 in his pocket. ‘I bought a foal for £7 from the Mannions of Rosmuc. And I was so proud that the road wasn’t wide enough for me and my foal coming home.’

That foal was the first of over a hundred ponies Máirtín has owned in the ensuing five and a half decades, not to mention the scores he has bought and sold on behalf of other people. Many of his own have carried the name ‘Doonreaghan’ in honour of his home place near Cashel. Doonreaghan Marty, for instance, a yearly colt sired by Coolillaun Cushlawn (owned by Eamonn Burke) won his class at the 2010 All-Ireland Championships in Oldcastle, County Meath.

He allows a smile for a handsome colt he sold to a German which was named Máirtín in his honour, and he is proud of a stallion bred in Cork which he turned into a Grade A showjumper. ‘I trained him how to jump as high as any horse and he can now take on the best of them.’

Máirtín also trains his ponies for driving competitions, slaloming between cones, and he won the All-Ireland in 2006. He used to ride them himself but believes he is now too aged for such carry on.

A man with a keen eye for quality, Máirtín speaks in short, concise sentences. Considering all the foals and fillies he has bought and sold, he retains an extraordinary memory for detail, rattling off sizes and sires, dams and dates, with the same nonchalant manner that he pours an exquisite pint of stout.

Máirtín is no amateur at pouring a pint. For twenty-one years and seven months, he worked at the Zetland House Hotel on the edge of Cashel Bay. Built as a shooting lodge in 1856, this handsome building was named for the earls of Zetland, one of whom was Viceroy of Ireland from 1888 to 1890. In the early twentieth century, Johnny O’Loughlin, the local school teacher, turned the building into a Connemara institution, establishing it as a shop and a bar, and later as a hotel. By the time Máirtín began pulling pints in the bar, the hotel was owned by the Guinness Brewery.

‘I started off as a porter and I ended up as the bar manager,’ he says. The bar was replete with snugs in the tradition of the old style, while the shop served all the basic groceries required by the local community. The shop and the snugs have disappeared but the walls are still lined with photographs of characters from the good old days. Máirtín knew them well, the ghillies and boatmen and fishermen, many of whom were born in the nineteenth century.

‘I used to spend hours and hours talking with the old people,’ he says. ‘I found them awful interesting. But when they’re gone, they’re gone, and what they know goes with them.’

Máirtín, grew up in Lehenagh, where he was the third of seven children. His father, Johnny Nee, worked at the hotel for the O’Neill family who owned it before Guinness. Johnny spent his days gardening, milking the cows and making hay.

When he was young, Máirtín would count anything up to sixty Galway hookers out in the bay. Three of his sisters emigrated to Chicago in the 1950s and early 1960s, though two of them subsequently returned to Ireland. His brother and other two sisters have always lived in Cashel.

Although he spent three weeks in Chicago, Máirtín was never tempted to leave Ireland. Connemara was where he lived his life and met his wife. She was Mary Conroy, a waitress at the Zetland, and they were married in 1968. That was the year that former French President, Charles de Gaulle, called into the Zetland while staying as a guest at nearby Cashel House.

Máirtín and Mary have two sons and two daughters. They now live in Doonreaghan, a few minutes’ walk from the Zetland, in a house that overlooks Bertraghboy Bay with Glinsk on the far horizon.

Máirtín has always enjoyed arithmetic. As such, he was in prime position to celebrate at precisely 11:11 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of the present century. For on that day, this Connemara icon turned seventy.


All four 'Vanishing Ireland' books are available via Turtle's Amazon page at http://astore.amazon.com/wwwturtlebunb-20


With thanks to Josie Keaney, Mary Teresa Nee, Sharon Nee, Colm and the Zetland Hotel.


[ii] Carna had a small show way back and Clifden has had one since 1923, every August. He is also a key member of the Cashel Pony Show committee which is on the first Sunday of August ever year. Máirtín has always kept at least one well-bred stallion at Doonreaghan as well as a handful of mares. If a filly looks good, he might keep her. ‘I usually break them as a three year old and put them in foal then.’

[iii] He believes the downturn in the market for Connemara’s was inevitable because the money got too big too quick. The breeding was also regulated in times’ past whereas lately he says it has been inclined to be somewhat willy-nilly.

[iv] ‘You can do anything with a Connemara,’ he says. ‘I hunted my stallion. I have a drag and a harness for him. He can do all those sort of things.’

[v] Odium’s owned nearby Inver Lodge at same time.

[vi] ‘I used to have great chats with Máirtín Mulkerrin who bred ponies, he’s dead and gone now, and they had great ponies in their village.’

[vii] Máirtín’s mother was a Joyce from Recess.

With thanks to Josie Keaney, Mary Teresa Nee, Sharon Nee, Colm and the Zetland Hotel.




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