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The Lovely Sweet Woodlands of Ower

South of the border

Willie McHugh

The Lovely Sweet Woodlands of Ower

THIS gig can lead to some lovely places. Like last Thursday evening to Gortbrack where the Black River flows a borderline between Galway and Mayo. Gortbrack, Ballycurrin, Ower, Boula, Glassvalley and Rosstaff are among the many village strands embroidering this idyllic darning.
Kilroe National School is the hub of learning in the canton since 1849. Ger Heneghan of Shrule spent over forty years teaching there.
One of Ger’s many Kilroe anecdotes is of Mondays when the late Joe Geraghty of Boula arrived unannounced to parse over matches played the previous Sunday. “If the inspector happens to walk in on us you can tell him I’m enquiring about stray cattle,” Joe would say to Ger.
When Knockdoe native, John Henihan, served his time in Toher’s Sawmill in Ower, so enchanted was he with the beauty of the area that he penned his famous ballad, ‘The Lovely Sweetlands of Ower’. John Joe Garvey of Boula gave the dirge many a heartfelt public airing. At John Joe’s funeral, Matt Keane of the Caherlistrane singing dynasty serenaded him to his final resting place with a lovely rendition of Henihan’s sweet lament.
John Joe, Ger, Joe or any other denizens of this bailiwick could never have envisaged a day the Chinese Prime Minister would visit Ireland decades later to see cattle grazing in a rural setting and his search leading him down this very by-road.
But that’s exactly what happened on Sunday a week gone by when Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney and An Taoiseach Enda Kenny drove into the yard of Cathal Garvey’s family farm in Gortbrack. They were waiting in Garvey’s milking parlour to receive a visit from the Premier of the People’s Republic of China.
After Li Keqiang and his wife, Professor Cheng, disembarked their plane in Shannon Airport embassy officials ushered them to a waiting car. They didn’t set foot on Irish soil again until they stepped out in Cathal Garvey’s farmyard in Gortbrack.
Someone in the Department of Foreign Affairs had their finger on the strongest pulse here. If the idea was to give them a good first impression of rural Ireland they couldn’t have made a better choice than the Garvey homestead. Not only did they see an Irish farming way of life, but they also got to see a family who epitomise all that is best.  
And Enda must have been doing cartwheels of delight above in the office all week with the way the Garveys rolled out a genuine Irish welcome to his guests.
It was this good news story that took The Mayo News to Cathal and Mary Garvey’s well-appointed farm and welcoming home. You can read elsewhere (turn to pages 24 and 25, but only after you’ve finished reading this column please) of how the whole episode unfolded and goodwill it generated in the area.
The Garveys are proof that nice things happen to genuine people too. Cathal Garvey delegated milking duties to his sons Micheál and Paddy as he retraced Li Keqiang and Cheng’s footsteps for us. He and his wife Mary told of how privileged and humbled they felt to be welcoming their international guests into their home.
We sat at the table they dined at, and Mary and Cathal plied me with copious helpings of coffee. Their daughter Gráinne rhymed off the family roll call as youngest lad Dónal displayed his gymnastic skills.
They showed us an oak tree the Chinese Ambassador and his Irish counterpart planted by a pathway in their garden. And the lovely, “It could only happen in Gortbrack” yarn.  About how another John Joe Garvey breached all security barriers to stroll into the yard with the nonchalance of a neighbour arriving to lend a hand with a cattle test.  
Nobody regales it better than Cathal as he relives every minute detail of a famous day. And so he should. It’s a good news story that deserves many a telling far beyond the lovely sweet woodlands of Ower.

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