The Day Máirtín Ó Cadhain Visited North Mayo

By James Reddiough

Ellaghmore is located in Bonniconlon, North Mayo in the foothills of the Ox Mountains and in the summer they have a dark green colour with the occasional light patch here and there with a stone path leading up to the bogs. The house where Sean Loftus was born and lived for most of his eighty – three years was located there not far from that path.

The upper village of Ellaghmore was once a populated spot and the older people used to call it an Baile Thoir or the village beyond to the east.  There were eight to ten houses there at one time in the 1900s and there were five houses in the upper region when John was recorded in 1957 – depression and emigration was taking its toll on the area at that time.

The recording must have been conducted with a battery operated machine because there was no electricity in the townland of Ellaghmore at the time. This area did not have the ESB until the late 1960s and early 1970s.  This was the way life was at the time and the people were afraid of the electric light because they were nervous that it would set fire to the house when they switched it on. 

Poor John was a little apprehensive about the recording machine initially and he told them that they could stop it if they wished but they offered him a drink to put him at his ease and the rest of the session went smoothly.

John Loftus was 80 years old when Máirtín Ó Cadhain visited him to record the lore and history of the area and no better man than John to do the job as he set down in detail the traditions and folklore and songs of the people. 

The recording took 75 minutes and it is a valuable source for historians.  Máirtín Ó Cadhain was a famous Gaelic author who started life as a primary teacher and then lecturer in Modern Irish in Trinity College, Dublin.  John was a farmer and labourer in England all his life.

John Loftus was a native, fluent speaker of Gaelic and was a singer too, so Ó Cadhain was delighted to meet and record him.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain himself was no stranger to the farming life and would have seen the seasonal, migrant labourers leaving Connemara for England for the Summer and Autumn, and the landscape through which he had travelled would have been similar in some respects to the Cois Fharraige region. 

An Cadhanach was born in 1907 in An Cnocan Glas, An Spideál in the Cois Fharraige Region of South Connemara and of course he was one of the foremost authors in the Irish language when he came to Ellaghmore so it is a great honour to say that he came to the area at the time.  He was very gentle and patient with John all through the recording.

John spoke about Diarmaid Mór and Captain Gallagher; the growing of flax and the carding of wool; and the ghosts and fairies too; dating the stories back to when he was a boy in the 1880s and 1890s.  People worked hard and had good fun too playing football and throwing the half hundred weight and they would visit each other for the rambling house too. 

John was 16 when he first went to England to work on the farms in 1893.  He had a vast repertoire of Gaelic songs some of which he sang for Ó Cadhain on the day of the recording.  Although he was 80 years old he cut a fine figure of a man and he had the energy to keep talking and singing for over an hour.

As the conversation/recording continued what was unfolding was a history of the area in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Sean Loftus was born in 1877 and first went to work in England in 1893 when he was sixteen; interestingly enough this was the year that the Gaelic League was founded. 

When describing the way, they were trying to hold a bullock to mark it he said in pure Mayo Irish “Ni thigeadh leo fáil coir a bhullian or they could not get the better of the Bullock or when asked about the fairy folk he said in Mayo Irish dream iontu fein or a crowd onto themselves.

The stories that Sean told about Diarmaid Mor and Captain Gallagher were legends built around the feats of two men who were born in the Attymass area. They have gone now from the tradition of the people and had it not been for the work of O’Cadhain and the memory of the people, along with the school’s project in 1937 – 1939, and the efforts of individual collectors them most of the stories would be lost forever in a changing world. 

John was delighted that he had been recorded and he rushed back to his daughter’s house to tell her that he was going to be on the radio and she did not believe him at first but in the end she did.  That day An Cadhanach went to other people in the general Ox mountains to record them and these recordings are in the Department of Irish Folklore in University College, Dublin.

It was a big important day for the area when O Cadhain came to visit the people and record their stories and preserve much of what would otherwise have been lost had it not been for the memory of John.  John Loftus died in March, 1960, aged 83, and Máirtín Ó Cadhain died in 1970 aged 63.  It was through the relatives of Ó Cadhain that I obtained the tape and it is one of the prize possessions of this writer.

This was in the Spring of 1989 when I was a student teacher in St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin and I was so proud to bring the tape home to my relatives and they were in tears when they heard their grandfather’s voice for the first time in over forty years.

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