Ireland (cover) Barna Memories
from Eilís Dillon,
Chapter 5

Eilís Dillon lived in Barna, County Galway, in the early 1920s, when the village was very different from today. Here are some of her memories of Barna, from "Inside Ireland". There is more about this book on a separate page: Inside Ireland

Chapter Five

THEIR determination that their children should know the Irish language decided my parents on our next resting-place. There were other, more comfortable possibilities but, as they said, this opportunity seemed too good to miss. They settled in Barna, then an Irish-speaking village four miles from Galway, on a sandy road that led by the sea until it reached a cross-road with two public houses facing each other from opposite corners. Each of the public houses was also a shop. To the right, a narrower sandy road led over a boggy mountain and back to our beloved Dangan. The other, only a few hundred yards long, led to a small pier that had been built as a relief work during the great famine of 1847. Ahead, the road continued for fifty miles until it reached the islands. A girls' school, a scatter of cottages along the roadside for a quarter of a mile or so, and a post office made up the rest of the village.

We had two tiny houses side by side on the quay road within twenty-five yards of the sea. Each had a kitchen and a little parlour downstairs and three bedrooms above. There was no bathroom or lavatory. Commodes abounded, and there were two huts at the top of the garden, which sloped uphill, with dry lavatories of the kind we had had in our last school. One of the parlours was instantly filled with books, the other became a store-room. One kitchen had a range and the other had an open hearth on which our maids baked the most beautiful soda-bread in the world, in a pot-oven. Both doors stood constantly open - it would have been considered ill-mannered to keep them shut by day. The cottages were quite new because the Black and Tans had burned the whole row a few years before. Water had to be drawn from a well on the bog road, ten minutes' walk away, across the main road, then through a field of brambles and long grass where the water bubbled secretly out of the ground. It was important to draw water in a field where there were no cows. The owner of the field had gone to America long since and his house was in ruins, but the well kept his name alive: Máirtín Bhairbre, Martin the son of Barbara.

We lived in Barna for a glorious year....

Though Barna is now a suburb of Galway, in those days it was a remote community living on its own resources. These were fishing and the cultivation of plots of potatoes, mostly for consumption by the family, but some to be sold at the Galway market. No money was earned unless the road passing one's door was being repaired. Then the men of the house had first choice of a few days' work. The lucky families had a cow. Almost everyone had a few hens. A goose or a turkey was wealth. Any girls who did not emigrate hoped for employment as maids in Galway, but they knew that those who went to America had better prospects.

For most people the poverty was appalling, and had been intensified by the large number of deaths from the 'flu - known as the black 'flu - that struck in 1918 just as the World War ended. Many families lost their only supporting men, so that there was no one to work the land. Any who were left were in constant danger of contracting tuberculosis, which removed the young very quickly unless they got away to America. Various attempts at outdoor relief had been defeated by lack of knowledge of the people and their language, and by distrust of all do-gooders on the part of the people since the famine days, when some charitable Protestants had been accused of forcing their religion on the recipients of their soup. Rescue-workers who came out from Galway at the time of the 'flu epidemic found whole families dead in their houses, and in most of them there was not so much as a saucepan in which milk could be warmed for the sick and dying.

Though conditions were somewhat better when we were there, my mother made a habit of leaving a loaf of bread ready on the table so that she could quickly cut some for any passing child. Some of our school friends availed themselves of it before setting out on the long walk home, sometimes four or five miles.

At that time the houses were all thatched, and to poor people or women living alone they were a constant worry. Straw and a thatcher had to be paid for unless a neighbouring man would do the work to oblige them. A leaking roof in that climate was a disaster. The houses were built of mortared stone with concrete floors throughout, and would have been dismally damp but for the great turf fires that were kept burning always. Since the turf was harvested by the work of their own hands they were always sure of plenty of it, and a long stack of it lay against a wall close to every house. With the kitchen in the middle and a bedroom at either side, the heat penetrated everywhere.

There is more about this book on a separate page:
Inside Ireland

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