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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

Fields of Rye

      Des Garvin was born and reared in the townland of Shrataggle, County Mayo. In his recently published book “Fields of Rye”, he uses Shrataggle as a blackboard to illustrate life in all of rural Ireland in the last century and before.

      Traditional music was always one of his passions and he has been a leading light in Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireannn for many decades. Involved in Peace Groups in Northern Ireland for thirty years his leadership ability became evident as a young teenager. When Rural Electrification was introduced to his native heath the Ground Rents proposed by the ESB was exorbitant. He tells us, “ . . . the ground rent on our house was calculated at £15and that was payable every two months. Today, that is roughly the equivalent of €290, and it was extortion plain and simple.”

      It was highly unlikely that any of Des’s neighbours would sign up. Out of economic necessity there were forced to say no. Tony Blair said that the art of leadership is to say no but Des wouldn’t agree.

Des Garvin

       The young boy from Strataggle convinced all and sundry to say “yes” despite the outrageous price quoted, “ at least until the lines arrived in the village.” The result? The ESB was left with no choice but to join the village to the network. As luck would have it, between the beginning of the project and the houses of Shrataggle being connected the government of the day introduced a subsidy which reduced the ground rent to £2 every two months. The island of Inishlyre, in Clew Bay, County Mayo, was only connected to the national grid in September 2000. Obviously they didn’t ever have a young Des Garvin living there!

       An in-depth genealogical analysis of Garvins, O’Malleys, Cormacks, Gilroys and every other family that inhabited Des’s part of Mayo for centuries is a collector’s item. A photo gallery of 157 images contains pictures – including “ The Bridge at Sharaggle and Last Rick of Hay”- that would, otherwise, have been lost but are now moments frozen in time and recorded for posterity.

      97 year-old Catherine Garvin, from Shrataggle, has been living in New York since 1939. She educated herself and had a very successful career in the travel trade and later the legal and banking business. She was one of 40 travel agents on board, in April 1958, when Aer Lingus introduced its trans-Atlantic service with the Seaboard Super Constellation. A few months ago Des interviewed her for his book. She told him of how she attended secretarial school after arriving in New York and became proficient in shorthand and typing. ( And . . . whether cutting turf in Mullach Padda Bhain or negotiating with people who were key figures in the Good Friday agreement, Des Garvin would leave no stone unturned .) He gave the Shrataggle nonagenarian a sentence and asked her to reproduce it in Pitman shorthand . She produced the result, ” . . .in moments.”

      The author doesn’t go overboard in blowing the trumpet of his own family. Although he does point out that his aunt Anne, who worked as a cook in the Royal Victoria Club in Leeds, was responsible for introducing chips and Yorkshire pudding to Shrataggle.

       Some years ago Cllr Joe Mellett, , said of John Healy, that other great writer from Mayo : "He's a guy that we can associate with especially in bad times. He made the rest of the country aware of what was happening then.” The comment also describes Des Garvin. Wren-boys, Cillins, Missioners, blasting with gelignite , illicit distilling and travelling shows feature. It’s all there.

       In my working days Des was my boss for a number of years and am I glad that I didn’t ever cross swords with him. What would be the point of taking on somebody who, when barely out of short trousers, convinced a stubborn rural community to take action against a semi- State body that would result in an 87% reduction in ground rents?

      Link: Details of “Fields of Rye"

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