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Honouring the Achill ferrywoman

County View

County View
John Healy

THE west of Ireland long has a reputation for formidable, strong seafaring women, and a plaque on the Great Western Greenway at Tonragee is a deserved tribute to such a lady.
Peggy Lynchehaun, a most resourceful woman for her time, operated a ferry service across the narrow channel between Tonragee in Achill and Ballycroy on the far shore, for over 40 years. And when the Greenway was opened a few years ago, Mayo County Council made the decision to commemorate her remarkable story with the plaque which bears her name.
In the early decades of the 1900s, the notion of a woman operating her own business was something of a rarity. When that business involved single handedly rowing her boat - for there was no such thing as an outboard motor - across the wild channel, in all weathers, at any time of day or night, it was even more unusual. And when the ferrywoman was also the mother of five young children, it made her exploits all the more unique.
The service provided by the ferrywoman meant that the 100 yards crossing of the channel would save the ten mile journey by road. Given the scarcity of motorised transport at the time, it made perfect sense to utilise the sea crossing, and such were the seafaring skills of the lady herself that neighbours on both shores reposed the highest trust in her ability and expertise.
The small, open boat would be moored at the Fish Road in Tonragee, and a white sheet pinned to the ground on the Ballycroy side would be the signal that the presence of the priest or doctor was urgently required. And Peggy Lynchehaun was always ready to answer the call, regardless of wind or rain or swollen seas.
Small wonder, then, that she became both midwife and undertaker to the coastal communities which spanned the north Mayo coastline. She delivered the babies and, when the wheel of life had come full circle, she would transport the dead on the final journey across the channel from Ballycroy for burial on Achill Island.
Her great grandson, Fintan Masterson, in the series ‘101 Mayo People’, tells of her key role in the transport of farm animals on market day to the fairs in Achill. The sheep would travel with her in the small craft; the cattle would be tied alongside outside the vessel and would swim across the bay to the landing point.
Fintan Masterson also recounts the story of how, on one occasion, his redoubtable ancestor lost all of her domestic hens to a marauding nocturnal fox. This was at a time when egg production was an important source of income for rural families, and the ferrywoman was naturally devastated at her misfortune. However, by the time word got around on the following day, each of her neighbours made their way to her house, each with a replacement hen, to make good her loss. It was the sort of kind act which demonstrated both the wonderful community spirit of the island, and the high regard in which the Ferrywoman was held.
The Tonragee plaque, and its inscription, is a fitting tribute to the legendary Mrs Lynchehaun, and to that entire generation who strived against great odds to eke a living from inhospitable surroundings. For coastal communities, they were times of hardship and toil. Family life often meant months of separation while men and boys took the seasonal boat for work in Scotland. And for the womenfolk like Peggy Lynchehaun, it meant hard, grinding physical work, with none of the social supports which are rightly taken for granted today.