A Memoir of a Girlhood in Rural Ireland
“Up an airy mountain,
down a rushy glen,
we dare not go a-hunting
for fear of little men.”
I look out the window of my small pebble-dashed farmhouse to see a green and rolling County Monaghan along the border of Northern Ireland. I see gently sloping fields lined with hedgerows separating pasturelands from potato drills or oat and barley fields. I hear cows bellow and calves bawl in the hills while dark circles of rooks squawk overhead. This is my birthplace. I am a descendant of the early MacMahon clan going back to the 10th century when they were fierce warriors living in crannogs, or island fortresses, in the middle of Monaghan’s many lakes. The McMahon clan motto is “This hand is an enemy to tyrants,” and their coat of arms bears the image of a proud black ostrich. Fierce warriors they were, as early Norman settlers attested, especially when they went “beyond the Pale” of their settlements along the northeastern Irish seacoast. The MacMahons held Lurganmore Valley near Castleblayney as far back as the 1500’s, a small piece of which was the birthplace of my dad, Edward McMahon and his siblings. Not even the British could seize this valley from the old MacMahon clan.
The word “Monaghan” derives from the Gaelic “Muinechain” meaning “little hills,” and it is a county of a thousand little hills, almost always green in a soft and gentle rain. Tullyraghan is a town land in the district of Muckno lying some six miles southwest of Castleblayney and our residence rests on the crest of a wee hill overlooking fields and braes with Mullyash Mountain rising eastward, a delightful ridge now crowned with a dense grove of hemlock and spruce and a mysterious rock cairn perched at its highest point. According to local historians the ancient druidic celebration of “lughnasa” occurred each summer solstice up to 1947 when I was just seven years old. We ourselves did do something that goes way back in time. We drove pennies into an old beech tree near Lake Muckno for good luck.
Monaghan is laced with ancient Celtic sites and even much earlier megalithic sites such as courtyard graves or “giants’ graves” as local farmers call them. This county was the seat of the 200 years’ rule of the MacMahon (later shortened to McMahon) clan. I am a descendant of these rulers, though my childhood abode at Tullyraghan is but a humble farmhouse on ten acres of land. At the time of my birth and that of my twin sister Margaret (Peg), dad and mom had several dozen chickens, some pigs, a pony named “Dick,” a border collie named “Carla” and two milking cows kept in an adjoining byer when they were not grazing the pasture. We harvested crops of potatoes stored in a potato pit covered with layers of rushes and earth allowing for fresh potatoes even during a heavy frost. Granddad O’Hare (Thomas James) shared his mother’s old home (the Farnins) with the McMahons from the time of the marriage of Edward and Mary to the birth of the twins and up to granddad’s death some twenty-one years later after I had come to America. Such an arrangement was necessary because Edward’s brother Tony and his family lived in the old homestead at Lurganmore.
On the cold and damp day of January 21, 1940, Mary Catherine McMahon gave birth to a baby girl Peg with the help of Nurse Mallon. But something didn’t feel right. She remained swollen with child. A few minutes later a second baby girl named Mary (Maura) entered this world. Each baby weighed only three and a half pounds, premature by today’s standards.
I was born in a modest pebble-dashed cottage having only a kitchen, open-hearth fireplace and a small bedroom with high gabled wooden ceiling. There was no electricity or running water. The open hearth and bedroom fireplace served as the only source of heat. A “byer” or cowshed adjoined the main house with two milking cows and a chicken coop housing several dozen Rhode Island Reds which provided fresh eggs every morning. My father built a hog pen to the west of the house and once in a while he had a neighbor friend butcher a pig on location which provided fresh meat such as white sausages, and black pudding and thick-cut rashers of bacon. A plump gooseberry bush grew immediately north of the house near a small garden providing cabbages, carrots, turnips and parsnips. My mom’s favorite tree, a shapely white “snow bush” or hydrangea, grew along the garden wall. She delighted in seeing its blossoms each spring. Beyond the garden lay the crossroads field with fifteen or twenty drills of potatoes, each drill being perhaps forty meters long. In this field rose a small mound of earth and rushes covering a potato pit. To the south of the home grew a lovely damson plum tree with beautiful springtime blossoms. It yielded fresh plums all fall long and even dried prunes into the winter months. An old oak tree grew in the middle of a nearby field. Farmers never cut it down but ploughed around it in respect for the elf people who held it dear. Our wee farm provided our family well with staple items unavailable to the very poor living in the back alleys of Dublin or Limerick or Belfast.