Pic of Nally plot

The Nally plot at Clonmacnois.



In the old days honey was widely used because sugar was scarce. My grandmother knew all there was to know about bees and she always had a few swarms about the place. So from a young age I was used to hiving bees and putting them in the wooden boxes. I wasn't a bit afraid of them even though they used to crawl up the legs of my short trousers. I just used to stay quiet and let them work their way down again and from those days to this I was never without bees. At one time I had 35 stocks and I used to sell run-honey in jam pots to Mr O'Brien, Mr Fleming and the other shopkeepers in Athlone.
I remember, I think it was in the 40s, a disease struck called the Isle of Wight disease and it wiped out stocks all over the country. An agricultural instructor called Kinsella came out to me this day as he heard that my bees were healthy. He told me that little insects were getting into the bees' breathing apparatus and blocking it up, and that they were getting a kind of diarrhoea and dying off. He looked at all my swarms and asked, "What do you leave it down to, Frank, that you don't have the disease?" "I don't know," says I. "Except that I smother the bees like my grandmother and the people around here did from the beginning of time." Then Kinsella said, "Frank, I couldn't recommend that or my job wouldn't be safe."
Anyway when Kinsella left I gathered "me" head, and I puzzled out why my bees were healthy. You see I smothered the bees to made it easy to get the honey out. I used to place an old bath over the hives and a few lighted coals under it; then I used to throw a few handfuls of sulphur on the coals. The sulphur fumes killed the bees. The problem arose because you can take honey directly out of a bar-frame hive, or what they call the American hive; however you could have the same swarm for 20 years and that's where the risk of infection comes in. I smothered half my swarms each year and this cleared up infection and disinfected the hives - just like a sulphur candle in a fever house!
After a few years they found a cure for the Isle of Wight disease called the Frau method which was invented by some German fellow. It was made up from a mixture of nitrobenzene, petrol and oil of wintergreen. You put a couple of drops on a bit of a felt hat and you place it on the flight pool where the bees come out of the hives. It has the same effect as sulphur, as the fumes go into the hive and kill the microbes. You don't hear anything about the Isle of Wight disease nowadays.
But Isle of Wight disease apart, bees are uncanny creatures, there's something strange about them. I could go out and stand in front of a hive and you could stand ten yards behind me and every bee would go for you. I don't know why, some say it's body odour. It's like a dog which is able to know when you're afraid of him; there's some nerve or something which gives out a smell that annoys them. I remember once there was a three years old child here. His parents went off to Mass and left him with me. The next thing I went to the door and here was "yer" man in font of a hive and he talking to the bees and pushing them in as they were coming out. Isn't it a strange thing none of them stung him. As I say, they're uncanny creatures and of course in the old days there was a custom that if someone died belonging to you, you had to go out and tell the bees. You'd have to tell the bees, "Paddy (or whoever) is dead."
Out this way the banshee used to cry for the Dullys, the Mackens, the Foxes and some of the Nally families. Of course at the time I'm talking about the people "waked" their dead all night and as there were no lorries or motorcars they could hear everything that happened. When my grandfather was dying another fellow was along with me at the back of the house some part of the early morning. Suddenly we heard this cry and then we heard it again about half a mile further away; then the next cry was surely a mile or more from us. The next day my grandfather died and only then did we realise that what we heard was the cry of the banshee. It was the only time I heard the banshee but there was a woman out our country who went to town on a bicycle every night and she heard the banshee 40 or 50 times.
But getting away from the banshee, one summer's night at about 12 o'clock I was coming home with my auld dog when he got into a drain after a rat. I had my back turned to the road and I trying to get him to come home. Then I got this notion that someone passed behind me, so I stepped back out onto the road and there was this big man, about 6 feet 4 inches, gliding along in front of me. To this day I could swear he was dressed in a long brown robe. How I could realise it was brown on a dark night I don't know but I did. He was like a huge Friar and I think the brown robe was a habit, like they used to use to bury people in. Before that happened I was never afraid of a ghost and when people told me they saw a ghost I used to say to them, "Go about your business, they won't heed you."
Some years later I was out shooting badgers on a May evening when it was coming on to dusk. This badger came out of a burrow and started moving up along the ditch. I started stealing along trying to hear him and I was getting ready to take a blind shot. Suddenly I realised that the cap was rising on my head. Now if I was thinking of ghosts I wouldn't mind but I was concentrating on the badger at the time. I had to go about a mile to get out of the field and, though I could see nothing with the fright, that presence or whatever it was, was behind me all the time. I sung hymns, I whistled and I did everything ever I could but still it followed me until I came out onto a road near my own house. The following year at the same time I went to shoot the same badger earth with two lads. I shot a badger but the lads shot "nare a wan". So we parted, they went one way and I headed for my house; but before I was half way across the field didn't the presence strike me again. One of the boys looked back from away up the field and shouted, "Frank, are you all right?" I was too proud to say I wasn't as the presence stayed with me until I walked that mile of a field and came out onto the road. I never set foot near that fort or badger earth again as I have a feeling there's something evil there.
I read in the paper that the Russians made a study of psychic people and they brought it out that certain people are born on the same wavelength as the dead and that they can receive messages from them. So after my experiences I'm always inclined to leave him down as an ignorant man, the man who tells me he doesn't believe in ghosts. If I heard a strange story I'd listen to it, and I'd say to myself, "It could happen, we don't know."
I was only three years old and I hardly knew what was going on when I assisted at a cot funeral, that is a funeral where the body was brought from Clonbonny to Clonmacnoise by boat. A day before the funeral a priest came out from Athlone and blessed a plate of clay which was taken from the garden outside the dead man's house. Then the coffin, the plate of clay, baskets of sandwiches and several dozen bottles of stout were loaded onto the cot. Then the cot set off down the river followed by a number of rowing boats. When they pulled in at the shore below the monastery, the coffin was brought up to the Cathedral Church and the grave digging began. Eventually prayers were recited and the coffin was lowered into the grave; then the priest shook the plate of clay over the coffin. When the grave was closed up and all the work was done, the gravediggers and everyone else started into the sandwiches and porter. In later years the people used to ask Mrs Devery, who had a shop in Clonmacnoise. to boil a kettle for them.
I remember the cot funeral of Jane Mulrean who was married to a man named King. It was a windy day and the flood was real high. Fr Dardis or Fr Kilroe came out from Athlone and just before the people were due to set sail for Clonmacnoise this old woman turned to the priest and said, "Father, they'll be all drowned, can you do anything for them?" With this the priest pulled three handfuls of grass from the shore and flung them on the water; shortly afterwards the storm abated and the people got to Clonmacnoise safely to bury the corpse.
In the old days Clonbonny people organised their own funerals and they only went to Athlone to bring back a coffin in a horse and car. They bought coffins from the undertakers, people like the Farrellys and the Geoghegans in Athlone. Later on it became fashionable to hire mourning cars which were horse-drawn and held four people; it was easier to get to Clonmacnoise by horse and car than by water. Then of course motor hearses came in and that finished the horse hearses.
Traditionally Clonbonny people were buried in Clonmacnoise and it didn't matter whether a funeral went there by foot or horse-drawn hearse it had to stop at Tullow Hill In the old days this place was the outside of the monastery grounds and nobody was allowed to pass it. The monks were afraid of raiders because the monastery had been plundered more often by Irish than by foreigners. So the monks stopped all funerals at the Fighting Hill and took the corpses into the monastery grounds and buried them; as a result relatives didn't know rightly where their dead were buried. Even to the present day when a funeral goes up the road into Clonmacnoise it stops for one minute on the top of the Fighting Hill.
There are two huge dykes about ten or twelve feet deep, which we called the claoidhnán, between the Fighting Hill and the graveyard; it seems that they had guards along them in the old days. The first dyke was connected to the Shannon and Loch of Clonfanlough and was the first line of defence; raiders had to swim it to get across it. Now there's another theory that timber was floated down these dykes when they were roofing the churches. But I think the true explanation is that they were lines of defence. A fellow told me the other day that in Irish claídh means a dyke built on sodden ground on the bank of a river, claoidhnán means ramparts and claoíchán means field fencing or a low embankment used as a defensive measure.
My great-grandfather on the Feeney side wasn't entitled to be buried in Clonmacnoise; so his body was carried on a bier from Clonbonny to Benown graveyard on the road to Killinure. It seems the Feeneys must have come from up there, somewhere near Glasson, I suppose he wasn't long enough in Clonbonny to have a grave in Clonmacnoise. However, when my granny married Nally we became eligible to burial in Clonmacnoise in the Nally plot were there were 14 graves.
Since the foundation of Clonmacnoise the people followed certain rules when burying the dead. First of all, no corpse was disturbed until it had been buried at least 15 years. Then when another family member died he or she was buried in the grave which had been closed the longest. This grave was opened, all the bones and the breast-plates from all the old coffins were taken out, and the grave was sunk again to its fullest depth, about five or six feet. Then, before the new coffin was lowered the old bones and breastplates were dropped down beside it. I often saw graves being opened in Clonmacnoise with maybe ten breastplates; the lads who did the digging used to rub grass on them and try to read them. They'd try to figure out who the dead were and how far back they went. With this system, when there were three or four related families in one plot, as was the case with the Nallys, the dead were all mixed up. The father might be in grave number one, the mother in grave number five and some other relative in grave number eight and so on.
I remember on Pattern Day in Clonmacnoise the lads used to try to lift this big stone, it wasn't a hundredweight but it was such a shape that it was difficult to grip. Anyway the Canon here, he was Donoghue from Coosan or Clonbrusk, figured out it was a distraction on pattern day so he sent down a few boys with sledges and they made bits of it.

When the old cemetery was closed in Clonmacnoise the people of Clonbonny were assigned to Coosan because the journey to Clonmacnoise was considered too long. However, some families whose forefathers were buried in Clonmacnoise bought plots in the new cemetery there.


Pic of Geoff at front gate

The editor of this book, Geoffrey Foy, visits Frank's cottage.


Pic of Paul and Frank

Paul Breen visits Frank Hemstead at home.


In Clonbonny we had all our own cures and a man only called a doctor when he was thinking of dying. For colds we had what was known as scalded buttermilk, or whey, which was made by boiling buttermilk and pouring new milk on top of it so that it curdled. It had a kind of a acid taste; so to sweeten it we used a grain of sugar or honey or sugar candy which had an amber colour. We drank it down hot and sweated colds out of ourselves. We had white bread or porridge poultices for drawing the badness out of a cut or a festered wound. I even saw salted bacon used on a cut. All the old cures have gone now and instead people go to the doctor for tablets which are supposed to cure everything.
It was said, and my granny had it from the old people, that any man who could span the Cross of the Scriptures in Clonmacnoise with his hands and fingers could cure a woman who was having a difficult pregnancy. If that man put his hands round the woman, he cured her and the child was born in the best of health. There was another cure associated with the Cathedral Church where there was a rock, with a hollow in it, where rainwater used to collect. If a person drank a "sup" of that water, or rubbed it on his or her forehead; headaches and migraine were cured.
If you have a field of corn which is turning yellow and being destroyed by the yellow jacket grub, you should go and get some clay from St Ciarán's little cell in Clonmacnoise and shake it on your crops. The yellow jacket is the forefather of the crane fly or daddy-longlegs, a big auld grey lad, which eats the roots of corn. Anyway, when you shake this clay on the four corners of your field you'll be amazed to see it turning green again. But you have to go especially for the clay; it's no use going for it if when you pass Clonmacnoise and you out for a day's fishing.
Then there were many other old customs or "piseogs" associated with our lives, for example it was bad luck to give a man a coal to light his pipe while churning was taking place. If you mentioned a neighbour's name when you went out on a May morning to skim your well, it was said that you stole his butter. That meant he could be churning and churning all day but "divil" the bit of butter would he ever produce. Then the old people used to make out that if you walk on hungry grass, the féar gortach , you'll get weak with the hunger. No one knows why certain spots in certain fields cause this to happen, it's all to with the fairies; you just walk through the féar gortach and suddenly you're hardly able to get home with pure, solid hunger.
Apart from those old cures there were plenty of faith healers around, people who could cure ringworm, shingles, jaundice, burns and whooping cough. Faith healing is still practised. You could be a faith healer and not know it. I can cure all sorts of pains and burns myself. I was even smuggled into Portiuncula hospital in Ballinasloe to cure a child who sat into a bucket of boiling water while his mother was scalding a hen to take off its feathers. I licked the child all over on a Monday night; by Thursday he was healing and he was discharged. I don't know the ins and outs of the case but I was talking to a relation some time later who said to me, "Do you know," he said "that child's bowls had gone haywire, his kidneys were haywire, his temperature was rising and falling and the doctors only gave him two days to live. Well," he said, "Frank, you must have great power because that child is perfect today."
On another occasion I met a man in a pub in Athlone, I won't mention his name but I can tell you that he's not awfully religious. He said to me, "Frank, will you lay your hand on my back, I hurt it one time and it comes at me now regularly." Anyway he finishing his pint and I hoped he'd forget about the idea and take me out of a "hault". However he asked me again, "Frank, will you do it for me?" and of course I had no alternative but to go ahead. So I brought him out to the toilet and left my hand on his bare back and rubbed it down along. If anyone were to see us "adin" they'd think we were one of those "quare" boys! Well, to make a long story short he tells me he never took the pain in his back since.
I have the cure for the burn because my granny told me about a lizard you seldom see nowadays which the old people called the alpluchar. He has a velvety touch and he's as cold as death. She told me that if I ever got that lizard and licked him and then killed him that I'd have the cure. Well one day I was footing a "lock" of turf below in the bog and turning it into "stooks" when here was the lad on top of a sod. He hopped off and I grabbed him and held him by the head and the tail. His four little legs were going and it was very hard to lick him but I licked his back and his belly and then I squeezed his head and killed him. From that day to this I have the cure. A lad told me the other day that my granny's word "alpluchar" comes from the Irish "earc luachra" which means lizard or newt. The word "earc" is the Irish word for lizard and "luachra" comes from "luachair" which is the word for rushes.
Apart from curing burns I remember a woman asked me one day, "Frank, will you cure baldness?" "Well," says I, "I'll give you my blessing anyway," but I got it very hard to keep from laughing. She had a little bald patch on the crown of her head. So I put my hand on her head and she tells me she has the finest head of hair ever since. In all my years there's many a person I cured and people still come to me from all over. Healing is all based on faith so it's better if a stranger approaches me, someone who believes.
Apart from cures I fixed many a chicken's leg and a couple of dogs' legs too. You'd often have chickens with broken legs where the auld cock jumped on them. All you have to do is pull the bloody leg and then you get a bit of canvas and pitch. You buy pitch in a solid block from the chemists and you melt it like tar. It would amaze you how much a leg shortens when its broken. You have to have someone holding the chicken or the dog because you have to pull and pull until you feel the bones beginning to knit. When you feel them rubbing, you try to get your fingers round them to fit them into place. I never could do anything with joints but I'd chance a collarbone.
Clonbonny people used to drink in Hughes (now Conlons), Stephen Kelly's and Tom Curley's (now Gill's). When the young fellows started to drink they went to the Connaught side of Athlone where they wouldn't meet anyone belonging to them. They were full of "divilment" and they used to drink in Babe Murray's (now Higgin's), Plunkett's (now The Castle Inn), Councillor John Grenham's (now Tommy Grenham's pub and travel agency) and Lennon's of Connaught Street (now closed). One evening a group of them started off in Babe Murray's in Pearse Street and then moved out the country to the village of Ballinahowen; from there they went on to Belmont. They weren't let into Flynn's of Belmont but they were handed out a dozen of stout through the window.
After Belmont they moved off to Boher where there was a dance in the local hall. That evening the dance-hall floor was covered with white powder called Rinso. One of the lads was out on the floor for every dance but each time he landed on the broad of his back and of course it wasn't long until he was as white as a miller. The rest of the lads kept egging on the "miller" to ask this real "haughty tauty wan" to dance. Of course she refused and the boys said, "Try her again she's only restin' herself." So he kept on at her and she kept saying. "No, I'm not dancing!" It went on like this for a while until the two had words and the "wan" went up to complain to the Master of Ceremonies. Then the M C came rushing down and said to "yer" man, "You insulted a young lady here and you'll either apologise now or you'll have to leave the dance hall." "What... er... er what," he says, "be god I'll apologise!" So he walked up to the "wan", and straightened himself as best he could, but "begad" didn't he insult her again. Then all hell broke loose and all the lads were bundled out on top of their heads - that put an end to their "divilment" and the dance in Boher Hall!
Some horrid tricks were played in the old days and the people never seemed to get tired of them. As I said we spent much of our time travelling pathways through the fields; there were usually planks to help us get over the drains. Fellows would think nothing of getting down in a drain and cutting a plank, fair in the middle, so that some poor "eegit" would come along and end up in the bloody drain.
In the old days people dug "hare holes" to drown hares as they passed from the high bog to the low bog. These holes were covered with grass and they were wider inside than at the top. Grouse holes were a similar idea. A Macken from down at the back of Fintan Nally's must have been "working his head" because he came up with the notion of applying this idea to human beings. He thought nothing of going to where there was a path running through the bog, digging a hole, four or five foot deep, and carrying the clay out of it. Then some fellow would hop down off the high bog, some poor unfortunate "eegit", and in with him, up to his eyes in water. It was "quare" craic and horrid labour as well. You'd be in gaol for it now because no fellow would take it, but at that time it was a joke.
I heard of a fellow who had a whole pit of mangles left on the headland this night. The next morning they were floating in a drain where the "good boys" pegged them. Then there was a big family in Bunahinly who held an "American wake" nearly every year because the family were leaving one by one for America. At these American wakes it was the custom to only give tea to the women. Anyway, this time the women were making tea and all the men were "adout" on the street. This fellow went in supposedly to get a light for his pipe and didn't he cut a "junk" off his ounce of plug and drop it into the kettle. When the women drank the tea they got a "quare" dose and they were runnin' in and out all night.
There was an Aspell family up at Campbell's gate at the top of the hill of Knockinea and they had a dance this night. There had a step down into the kitchen and there was a barrel under the eaveshoot for catching water. Some of the "good boys" left the barrel on its edge and worked it along and leant it gently against the door. Then they knocked on the door and ran off. Poor old Tom Aspell opened the door and the barrel of water fell in on top of him.
Then people used to go for miles, with sacks, to rob the orchards of big estates where there were always lots of ordinary apples and a few crab apples. The crab apples were used for making crab-apple jelly. These estates also had blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes and an acre of a vegetable garden, the fruits of which they used for making preserves. There was also usually a herb garden which provided the sort of herbs they sell in healthcare shops today.
Once, after a day's shooting myself and Tom Longworth called to Babs Nally's house down at the Shannon - Mary Nally was her right name. Anyway weren't there four or five mice playing around the dresser and Babs was terribly annoyed. Now, she wasn't afraid of mice but they were annoying her because she hadn't intended to go to town, where she could buy a mouse trap, until the following Friday. None of the boys around wanted to lose time walking to town for a mousetrap. So begad didn't I remembered an auld plan we had. I found an old dúidín (pipe) and I tapped a few grains of oaten meal well down into the bowl; then I put the head under a big mug and left the stem sticking out. When the mice got the smell of the oaten meal they went in under the mug. Then they kept pushing at the bowl of the pipe until they pushed it out from under the mug and, of course, the mug fell on top of them. Then I just filled a half bucket of water and I got Longworth to scrape the mice along the dresser and into it. If you were to see Babs looking at us; we just said, "Now Babs, you need never be short of a mouse trap!"