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What was life like on Achill in the thirties?
The following excerpt was written by a native of Achill Island and gives a flavor of what life was like on Achill during the 1930s.

The Old Cottage
by Bridget Crabtree, of Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

My family, the McGinty's, emigrated to England in 1947, but I went back to Ireland to a funeral in Achill Island, County Mayo, in November 2001.

Achill has a road called "The Atlantic Drive", which bends and curves around the Atlantic cliffs ending where our "old cottage" still stands. It is known as "Atlantic Drive Cottage".

My grandfather, Michael McGinty, built it with local stone in 1924 in Ashleam village. This is where all my family were born and it's still there as we left it, but shuttered up. The life it once knew has gone forever.

It has three rooms, the one in the middle is the biggest with a back and front door and was called the kitchen. The rooms either side were bedrooms.

The kitchen was a room of many activities, where butter was churned, wool spun from the spinning wheel, buttermilk bread made and baked in the ovens on the peat fire. Irish stews were boiled in large skillets, hung over the peat fire on a hook hanging down the chimney.

Around the peat fire most things were done, knitting, sewing, and most of all story telling. Ghost stories seemed to be everyone's specialty! They seemed to take great delight in putting "the fear of God" in each other. I had a few sleepless nights whilst I lived there.

On the concrete floor we did our Irish dancing, jigs and reels mostly, but on occasions like weddings they let "rip" with Irish country dancing. We took it in turns to visit each other's homes.

Most families like ours had a strip of land, a few cows, two donkeys, a pig, as well as mountain sheep, hens, geese, dogs and cats - all needed on our "Crofters Farm". The cows to supply the milk and its products like butter, cheese and buttermilk. The donkeys to collect the peat from the bogs on the hills and bring it home where it was stored in large clamps near the cottages.

Peat was the only fuel for cooking and heating. Paraffin oil was used in lamps either hanging from the walls or on the tables for our light.

The sanitation was basic, enamel chamber pots under the beds and privys outside. Water was collected in buckets from the village pump. Bathing was a Saturday family ritual in a galvanized bath in front of the fire. Hair combing every night and "searching" for nits or lice before we went to bed. This had to be done because, with large families, as they were then, four children slept in a double bed, two at the top and two at the bottom!

Home produced food was plentiful for the needs of the large families. As well as having bacon from the pig reared during the year, there was pickled herrings, roast chickens, eggs, fresh fish caught in the Atlantic and mutton from the mountain sheep.

Money was scarce and the men had to go to England and work on farms in the summer and earn money for other needs of their families.

My mother was a good dressmaker and I can clearly remember when she was making my school dress in blue cotton with pink flowers. She sat by the fire when the others were at school except myself and Anthony, who was a year younger than me. I had to "mind" him whilst she sewed my dress by hand.

She said to me: "When you go to school work hard and get a scholarship like your big sister May, she is going to go to college and become a teacher."

"I will mummy, I'll be a teacher too - see I can count before I go to school -one, two, three, four, five, six, eight, nine, 10."

"And what happened to number seven?" my mother asked with a smile on her face.

"I'll start again. One two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. That was all right wasn't it Mummy?"

I asked and I'll never forget it again. And I haven't nor have I forgotten my mother encouraging me to learn.

In the summer of 1935, my mother took me to Ashleam National School in my newly made pretty dress with knickers to match, I felt very smart.

When I was five my mother had another baby and she called him John. He was still only a baby when she became ill with pneumonia and again she was pregnant. She had a premature baby who was not expected to live. Her illness continued as there was very little medication to help her in 1939 and our family doctor said she needed hospital treatment.

The ambulance and nurse came to take her away. In the bedroom I clung tightly to my aunt Catherine's skirt and watched the nurse change my mother's nightdress. Then she took scissors from her pocket and cut my mother's hair plait off and threw it in the blazing peat fire.

"Oh look Aunt Catherine she cut my mummy's plait off and burnt it in the fire." I sobbed into her long skirt crying. "I brushed her hair and did her plait not long ago."

"Shush darlin," Aunt Catherine whispered in my ear, "maybe your mummy will get better quicker if she hasn't got so much hair and when she comes home it will grow and you can do it again for her."

I dried my tears in her skirt and felt much happier.

We all took it in turns to say goodbye to my mother. May, the eldest (14 years old), was first to kiss her and said: "Goodbye Mummy, get well soon, and don't worry I'll look after them all until you come home again."

The last was baby Manus, just a mite in Granny's arms, and lifted to his mummy's face. She put her emaciated arms around him, kissed him and said: "God take good care of you darling until your mummy comes home again."

My dad put his arms around my mother saying: "I love you Mary and with God's help you'll soon be back home again."

My mother's last words to my father were: "Don't close the door Pat."

We waved the ambulance off shouting: "Goodbye Mummy get well and come home to us soon."

Every day after that my dad cycled to the post office to find out how my mother way. The Robinson family who owed it made sure he got in touch with the hospital and he was able to tell us how our mummy was before we went to school.

I'll never forget the morning we met him on his way to school. He got off his bicycle and said: "It's a sad day for all of us, your mummy has died."

He consoled us as much as he could and said: "Come on home to May."

We all shed a lot of tears together and didn't go to school that day.

After our sobbing and crying had eased, Dad said to May: "Now I can tell you what your mother meant when she said 'Don't close the door'. If she should die I was not to send you all to an orphanage."

May looked at us with her tearful eyes and picking John up in her arms cuddling him close to her saying: "Never, never will we split up, I'll do my best for our family. Her best she did do and we all loved her for it.

She died of cancer in 1992, the year I retired from nursing.

On the wet and windy November day with tears welling in my eyes, I walked from the cottage leaving my childhood memories both happy and say locked within its walls.

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Last Updated: Wednesday, December 02, 2009 05:54:01 PM