Meeting the Neighbors in Maghera

On the day my wife Marie, my son Robert, and I arrived in Maghera, we had the good fortune to meet two talented artists living there, Bernard and Jean Dowd.

Bernard and Jean live in a restored schoolhouse that was built in 1929.  My father’s sister Ellen was a local schoolteacher, and the schoolhouse was built by her husband, Michael “Mick” Broderick.  The schoolhouse has enormous windows, and as Bernard and Jean are artists, it serves not only as a comfortable house but as a fantastic studio space.

In this photograph, Jean poses with her painting of Michael Kenneally sitting by his fireside.  

During our visits to Maghera, Bernard and Jean were enormously helpful.  As they are very friendly with the older residents of the community, they essentially served as our ambassadors to the neighborhood.  They were exceedingly generous with their time, and accompanied us on visits with people who had lived in Maghera for many years.  Being able to meet the neighbors allowed me to conduct impromptu interviews about local history.


A Concert in Michael Dinan’s Kitchen

We had a magnificent time visiting with Michael Dinan, a retired carpenter in Maghera.  Michael’s father, a carpenter and coachbuilder, was a very good friend of my grandfather.  Michael’s mother was a noted local musician who played the concertina and lived to the age of 106.  Michael himself is known locally as a great fiddler.

While visiting Michael’s house, where we had tea with him and his sisters, who were also visiting, we enjoyed a treat most American tourists would never experience: Michael took out his fiddle, which he crafted himself, and played an impromptu concert for us in his kitchen.

Note the unusual triangular shape of Michael’s fiddle.  It is his own design.  The craftsmanship of the instrument is remarkable, and Michael proudly showed us how he uses pieces of bog oak, ancient wood which has been preserved in Ireland’s peat bogs, for particular parts of the fiddles he builds.

Michael’s fiddling appears on a compact disc entitled Music and Songs From East Clare.  The liner notes for the compact disc mention that Michael built his first fiddle when he was 16. 

We felt honored to be able to hear Michael play for us in his own kitchen.  Besides playing jigs and reels for us, Michael and his sisters told us many stories about my grandfather, whom they saw nearly everyday when they were children.  As Nora Dinan put it, “we considered your grandfather an extended part of our own family.”


Stories (and Stout) with Tommy Murphy

A truly unforgettable character I met in Maghera was Tommy Murphy.  Tommy won’t reveal his age, but people who know him suspect he’s about 80 years old.  He lives with his sister Mary, who is a few years older, and the two of them keep to very traditional ways.  Though they could easily afford a modern kitchen, they still cook in their fireplace, using pots suspended from an iron crane.

When we visited Tommy’s house he insisted on serving us Guinness, and though we tried to dissuade him, Tommy simply wouldn’t listen to the word “No.”  I can’t imagine any force on earth could have stopped Tommy from pouring me that glass of stout.

We sat by the fire and I interviewed Tommy about the neighborhood history.  

When Tommy was young, he knew my grandfather, Patrick McNamara, whom he recalls as “The Doctor Mack.”  My grandfather and Tommy would fish for trout together in the small river that runs alongside the road through Maghera.  The Irish forestry service has since dammed the river upstream, and its days as a good trout stream are long past, but Tommy says some fine trout were taken from its rushing waters in the old days.

A Visit with Mrs. Whelan

Jean was kind enough to take us to visit Mrs. Whelan, a retired dressmaker who came to live with her aunt and uncle in Maghera 80 years ago, when she was seven years old.  

A highpoint of my visit with Mrs. Whelan was being able to show her old snapshots of a thatch-roofed cottage and having her positively identify it as “The Nestor House.”  She recalls that her uncle and other older residents of the community always referred to the property by that name.

As we looked at old photographs together, Mrs. Whelan told me wonderful stories about my Aunt Tessie.  She remembers my aunt’s wedding to Tom Kenneally very well, mentioning that as they were married on a hot day, the ceremony was actually held on the lawn outside the local church in Maghera.  She also remembers that she made the suit my aunt wore to go away on her honeymoon. 

Mrs. Whelan seemed to enjoy reminiscing about my Aunt Tessie.  At one point she remarked, “Tessie only had one flaw as a person, and it was that her heart was bigger than her pocketbook.  She would do anything to help people.”

My father’s sister Ellen is also fondly remembered by Mrs. Whelan as “Mrs. Broderick,” her elementary school teacher.


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