Turtle Bunbury

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Joan Crowley

At home with Mrs Crowley.
(Photo: James Fennell)

Vanishing Ireland
Ballymote, County Sligo
Born: 1931

‘There’s been worse times than this, that’s for sure,’ says Joe Muldoon. ‘And so long as you have a bit to eat, the price of a pint and a bed to lie in, then what about it? Let tomorrow be the worser day.’

We met him first in Hayden’s of Lord Edward Street, arguably the handsomest bar in Ballymote, dressed in a dapper suit with a long, dark overcoat and a trilby. He comes here every Wednesday evening to drink a few black stouts and listen to the traditional music session that commences shortly after nine o’clock. He invited us out to his farm the next time we were passing through.

Three weeks later and Joe Muldoon is standing out in his field with a scythe. He wears a long khaki jacket, held tight by bailer twine. The weather is about to turn and he’s slightly breathless. He’s been clearing rushes out from the ditch and the hawthorn bushes that mark the boundary of his land. ‘You sleep well after a day out with this,’ he says, tapping his scythe. ‘There’s not many to work it, bar myself.’ He bids us in from this increasingly dirty day and we move towards the 1950s cottage where he eats and sleeps. It was built by the council and later bought by himself. He has lived here for close on quarter of a century. ‘It’s my own now anyway,’ he says. ‘I can’t be put out of it.’

Joe was born on another farm in 1931. ‘The old place’, as he calls it, was a pretty farmstead in Rathdoony More, a few miles northwest of Ballymote. It belonged to his mother’s people, Rooneys. Joe’s father, Patrick Muldoon, was an elderly man when he married Kate Rooney. Rare for such times, Patrick had been married twice before, but the children from these marriages had emigrated to America long before Joe Muldoon was born. He believes his half-brother may have died in the trenches during the First World War. Joe does not know what his grandparents did – he never met any of them – but assumes his family were farmers for many generations.

Kate Muldoon bore her husband three strapping sons, Paddy, Sonny (John Patrick) and Joe. In 1933, when Joe was two, his father availed of the terms of the new Land Act to purchase five-and-a-half acres just outside Ballymote from the Land Commission. This land, where Joe lives today, was previously part of the estate of Captain Gethin, the land agent to the Gore-Booth family. ‘He owned all this land one time,’ says Joe, ‘from Ballymote to the butt of the hill.’ Joe recalls this area being one large woodland in his youth but the Land Commission later sold the timber and the woods were harvested by Regan’s Sawmills of Ballymote.

Patrick Muldoon was all set to convert his new land into a small, working farm when he was taken ill and died kidney trouble in 1935. His widow took their three young sons to live with her bachelor brother, at ‘the old place’ at Rathdoony by Temple House Lake.

The school where the Muldoon boys learned to read and write was demolished some years ago. It was a solitary cottage in the village of Emlaghnaghtan, run by kindly Miss Kilcoyne from Tobercurry and ‘a thundering bulldozer’ called Mr Cassidy. Joe says the latter was always pulling ears and whacking children with his cane. One time, he ‘threw the full fist into the side of my face and splayed blood up onto the roof’. Joe’s mother hurled a scalding torrent of words at the teacher but revenge became rather more physical when Joe, aged twenty-one and with ‘a good few scoops of porter’ on board, encountered Cassidy at a céilí in his old school and let loose with his fists.

For all that, Joe is a peaceful man. When he talks, his eyes light up every wrinkle on his face. He speaks earnestly and importantly, and enjoys a good laugh. He drinks calmly and smokes a couple of John Player’s after he’s had his tea.

When Kate Muldoon died in 1967, Joe’s elder brother, Paddy, succeeded to the seventeen-and-a-half-acre farm at Rathdoony. Joe’s middle brother, ‘Sonny’, had served in the Irish army but was now working as a postman in Tullamore where he lived until his death in 1982. Joe decided to take on his father’s field at Ballymote and see what he could make of it. The land was still full of stumps when he arrived, the legacy of Regan’s blades. ‘But I took out all the butts,’ Joe says. ‘I spent days out there pulling out the roots, every beech and fir. I got down and take the hatchet to them. That was hard work all right, and it took time to change it, but I got there.’ Paddy and Joe then joined forces, building up a herd of thirty-five cattle which they grazed on their respective lands. Every now and then they would bring some heifers into the Thursday market in Ballymote and see what price they could get. Generally, that gave them enough to live on but 1975 was ‘a bad old year’. ‘You couldn’t sell a cow at all,’ he says.

When Paddy succumbed to cancer in 1995 , Joe succeeded to his land. He sold the bulk of it on, retaining an eight-acre field where, today, he keeps a dozen heifers. He also inherited the thatched farmhouse and successfully applied for a Section 5 grant ‘to get the iron’ on the roof.

Joe Muldoon was married twice. His first wife was Miss Bridie Murphy from Riverstown but she was taken ill early in the marriage before they had any children. ‘She died in England,’ he says quietly. ‘Her sister came back from America and took her over there to see a faith healer. It was as well to let me run this country, but she left in November and I did not see her and she died on 3 March 1978.’

In April 1979, he married Margaret ‘but it didn’t work’. They had one daughter Catherine, born in 1980, who represents the solitary Muldoon of her generation. A trainee childcare supervisor, she has inherited her father’s shining eyes and regularly visits him with her Lithuanian boyfriend and her two sons. Although she grew up on her father’s farm, Catherine now describes herself as a townie though she misses the peace of the countryside.

‘When the weather gets good in the month of April, I will be away with the lads cutting turf on the bog,’ says Joe. That is about as far as he will go. He has never left Ireland and only visited Dublin once. ‘To get him as far as Sligo is a challenge,’ interjects Catherine. One technical flaw to travelling is that Joe does not drive. He gets about on a rusty-belled High Nellie bike or avails of lifts from kindly neighbours. In the good old days, he kept a small herd of donkeys and went about on a cart, gathering turf and hay. ‘But with the way the traffic is now, you can’t go out on the road like that or you’ll be killed,’ he warns.

With thanks to Catherine Muldoon.


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