14 Aug 2022

Reflections on a lifetime well spent in an Offaly parish


John Howell

Born and reared where I am now in Killurin, I never left there was never a need. My father was James Howell, a Wexford man, from Enniscorthy and he met and married my mother Mary Cruise from here.

My mother was 25 years younger than my father and yet he lived three years longer than her. He came from a tillage farm in Wexford so we were always self-sufficient growing our own vegetables and rearing animals. Ducks and hens were always rambling around the yard. We had to buy in very little, having a small farm growing up, we had enough to eat and we never went to school hungry. There were seven of us, three boys and four girls and I was the eldest. My siblings all moved away to different parts of the country, Westmeath, Cork, Roscommon, Dublin and Daingean.

We always had work to do before school, pulping turnips and the likes. When we were very young my mother and father would bring us to school on the pony and trap. Our nearest school was Killurin, where Paddy and Breda Fay live now. When we got a bit older we used to cross the fields to school and we had to pass Mrs Kelly’s house on the way. As we passed her house each day we would ask her the time and her reply every morning was “half pass cups and saucers'', we always knew what she was going to say but we asked anyway.

School was a lot different that time, you would bring bottles of tea, let it be porter bottles or glass bottles and we would leave them beside the open fire to keep them warm. We brought a few slices of homemade bread and jam for lunch. My mother was a great baker. Everyone baked that time and I remember seeing all the white soda bread in the windows cooling on my way home from school.

I remember having some great days in school and some lovely teachers. There were two classrooms and two teachers in Killurin school. Each classroom had an open fire and the locals would supply the turf. A partition divided the two classrooms so if one teacher was out sick the other would teach all the children. When I was going to school, there were around 70 children in two classrooms. My mother told me that in her time there was 108 on the roll call. Just after my time, the numbers dwindled a bit and then Killeigh school was built. My younger siblings had to go to Killeigh school as it was hard to get teachers and so Killurin school had to close.

I remember the teacher Tom Cullen, he was a great man, and he cycled from Mountmellick every day. He later left and went to the Rock in Montmellick to teach. He used to tog out with us at lunch time to play football and hurling and as a child one would always be trying to get a crack at him. He was always understanding if you were late for school because of farm jobs, there was never a problem, he understood country living.

After Tom, a Master Power came along from Limerick, he wasn’t a country lad. He didn’t understand why we would stay at home for the likes of the threshing. Back then the threshing was a big occasion. I didn’t have much time for him as he gave me a hard time. He had a large stick. I remember Frank Garry and myself got into bit of trouble one time, Frank broke the master's stick and I stuck it down my rubber boot to try to get it out of the school.

The next morning he started looking for his stick and a young lad who wasn’t from Killurin landed us in it. He wasn’t from the area and he didn’t know the score about not telling tales, that everyone got a slap if nobody told. However he told Master Power that Frank broke the stick and that I hid it in the ditch. Needless to say he sent the young fellow out to get another hazel stick and gave us six slaps on each hand before the 10 o'clock tea break and a few more in the hurling field at break. You’d take your punishment then because you knew you deserved it. I remember my sister used to come home and say to my mother “that Master will kill John” she was terrified, but I never wanted to worry my Mother so I never told.

At 14 I had to leave school, to take care of the farm as my youngest sister would have been 12 years younger than me, she was only starting school when I finished. My father was 54 when I was born, so by the time I came to 14 he was nearly 70. After leaving school, we had to teach ourselves all the changes, like money changing from shilling to pounds and then to euros, changes to weights from lbs and stone to now grams and kg, but over the years I taught myself and it never held me back.
I remember our first tractor, my father bought a grey Ferguson, a diesel 20 when I was about eight yeasr old, anything bigger would have been too big, he worked along with it and in 1963 he bought a new 35 x reg CIR41, and I know to this day where it is and it’s still going. After four years we bought a 135 Massy, a better one, made life a bit easier.

I often brought the tractor to a dance, there were no cars back then, we didn’t get a car until about 1968. Back then you’d probably plough four acres a day with the grey Ferguson and you’d be cold after it, as it didn’t have a cab, now they can do 20 acres or more in a day.

We got the electricity in 1952 and got the phone in 1980 and now everyone has a mobile phone. When I built this house in 1971 I didn’t even get a mortgage, I had a few pounds saved up and did it bit by bit. I had a few cattle and borrowed a few pounds. The house cost £4050. From 1980, the cost of building houses went up and up. At that time there was also a grant of £900 less the cost of the water scheme from the local authority, but if you're building a house today you have to give your local authority 2 or 3 thousand to build.

It was a great incentive to build houses back then because some people were living in very poor conditions. I remember people had no running water only a well and carry buckets of water to their houses. That was of course until Fr Kennedy helped set up Killeigh water scheme, it was great for everyone in the parish, it’s the biggest group water scheme in Ireland.

They were good times and hard at times but everyone was in the same boat, nobody had fancy machinery or cars back then. The harvest was very important and if you had a good one you were set up for the year.

The local threshing was like Christmas, 30 men or so and plenty of drink and food. The threshing moved from farm to farm. When we would be on the way home from school, my father would be working around at the Threshing and we would be sure to go around Deerings and Kidneys and others and we were always sure to get lemonade or something even stronger at times. I remember Matthews farm and Bill Mathews would let us into the dairy and the barrel of porter would be there and he never minded us having a sip but my mother might not have been happy if she knew.

When I was 16 or so we used to go to Gurteen hall, I remember the singer Ray Lynam coming to Gurteen hall to play music on a push bike with his guitar under his arm, himself and Joe Plunkett – they were first cousins, and Ray became famous after that. Also kicking football in Joe Condron's field. I joined Macra na Feirme around 1965. Willie Rourke, Billy Mitchel and the two Michael Dunnes were all involved at the time. Gurteen hall was still open at the time. It was used for plays and dances. Tom Kelly said one night that now Killeigh hall was up and running there was no future for Gurteen hall so we gathered up all the chairs and tables and dropped them off at Killeigh and that was the end of Gurteen hall. Christy Murray brought them all down in a van. He was a great man.

I remember great devilment, harmless fun on the way home from dances, one particular night we took underwear from a clothes line and threw them into Joe Condron's hayshed at Gurteen bridge, the next morning there was great rumours, Joe Condron went over to Lena and John Casey in the shop and told them “there were women's garments in his hayshed, whatever was going on?’. Harmless fun really. Gurteen bridge was always a great meeting point. We went down at the bridge four to five nights a week for a chat and a bit of banter. I often remember 30 or 40 lads down at the bridge.

Going to Killeigh one would pass three shops, a little shop where the McCanns live now and at Gurteen bridge there were two shops, the old horseshoe shop and Kellys . Head on to Killeigh, you had Connollys where Micheal Elliott lives now, a small shop but a good shop.

In 1968 I had met Patty at a dance in Killeigh but then met up again at a carnival in Killeigh. I used to cycle to her house in Rathville near Edenderry before heading to town to the pictures or a dance. Before I would leave home, the rosary would be said with my parents and then when I got to Pattys, often they would be in the middle of the rosary too, many a night I got two rosaries in before we headed to town. At that time Patty had a Honda 50, she had a better way of travelling than me. We married in 1972 and blessed with one boy Shane and then the girls Mary, Treasa, Patrice and Catriona. They are all reared and gone now but they all live near us. We have 19 grandchildren.

We did a bit of travelling in the last few years, we went to Australia and met up with a great friend John Mahon from Killurin and his wife Louise who live in Sydney, I always liked meeting people from the local area when we travelled so we could compare stories. We stayed in Tullamore in Daybora near Brisbane with Cruises. We visited cousins in Chicago, Marie-Ann and Margaret and Con Deering in 2018. I was the first Irish cousin to visit them in Chicago and I got a great reception. We plan to return again post Covid. Both Marie-Ann and Margaret came to stay with us here in 2019. We enjoyed showing them around Killurin, Gurteen and Killeigh and they caught up with their relatives.

So my main business over the years was growing potatoes and vegetables. It was hard work but rewarding as all of the kids helped out and we spent many evenings singing and laughing in the field. We sold the produce to Peter Phelan's shops in Tullamore. He was a gentleman and I dealt with him for over 40 years. We travelled to Claire and Limerick selling turnips and many a morning we left home before 6am. I also admired over the years how many a family from Killeigh set up businesses in Tullamore and are still going strong to this very day.

It’s a great community around here really and we have great connections. It’s fantastic to see everyone coming together to get the community centre going again. I remember helping to raise money for the new school in Killeigh also, Tom Flynn a Mountmellick man was principal at the time, and of course and I was delighted when Damien White took up the job, another farming background and one of the first local principals.

I remember a time when there was no GAA pitch or soccer pitches in Killeigh or Killurin and now with the help of the community there are two GAA pitches and a soccer pitch. Lots of great local people have died in the last few years and they all played their part in creating fond memories of our great parish of Killeigh.

If you would like to learn more about the development of the proposed Killeigh Community Centre and how you may be able to assist please visit our website

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