BROTHERS IN ARMS Ray (left) and Peter McHugh are pictured behind the counter at McHugh’s canteen outside the Ballinrobe Mart last Wednesday.
Tea the way it should be
It’s highly unlikely Finney Church ever merits a mention from lecturers in marketing institutions. But it was there the late Peter McHugh of Cong pitched his first stall. From such humble beginnings spawned a business that has now become a dining experience. His sons Ray and Peter trace the story back to its infancy. At all times they refer to their late father as ‘The Dad’ uttered in affectionate and admiring tones.
Ray takes up the story. “The Dad was a native of Ballindine and he came to Cong working with the ESB. John Ford picked the village as the location for the film ‘The Quiet Man’ so the electricity had to be available. That’s how we got the Telephone Exchange as well.
“He married Lily O’Connor from down the street and they set up home in the centre of Cong where they opened a grocery and hardware shop. He even had a piggery in the backyard and when they were sending pigs to Claremorris Bacon Factory Mick Waldron helped load them. He got 20 Sweet Afton for his pay. They built a ramp later but the pigs wouldn’t go up it so Mick was kept busy.”
Then he began selling ice-cream outside the church in Finney after Sunday Mass along with Martin Maloney from Claremorris who sold meat there so that’s probably where it started.
“It was also the time of the fairs and the Dad saw a niche because farmers were out all hours with nothing to eat so he converted an old caravan into a canteen selling tea and sandwiches. Our sisters Yvonne, Lillian, Jacqueline and Aileen helped Mum out in the shop and I was brought to the fairs. He gave one knock to waken you in the morning and up you got.”
Peter McHugh travelled to all the fairs in radius from Dunmore to Westport outside Toby’s and back Clifden and around Connemara. It was often a long haul on icy roads and Ray tells a lovely yarn about carrying a stone on his lap. “We’d leave Cong on Sunday night and the dancing still going on below in Nancy Murphy’s Hall. I had a stone on my lap and if the roads were slippy I’d jump out and chock the rear wheel if the canteen was pulling the van back on a slope.”
There were other tasks. “Anytime we were driving by cattle on the road I’d have to get out and walk alongside in case they went in between the van and the unit. Sometimes you’d nearly shanks mare all the way to Ballinrobe with the amount of farmers walking stock.”
Peter was akin to the mobile phone then. “When we arrived at the fair the Webb’s, Cribbins’, Concannon’s, McGreal’s, Peter Cregan and Sean Toole were up to us inquiring if we passed many cattle on the road.
“There was a lot of work because there was no sliced pan then and he had to slice the high plain loaves. We got the bread from Keane’s Bakery in Ballinrobe and Claremorris ham and he had a little slicer for that.”
Moya Doherty wouldn’t choreograph the intricate movement that took place in the small confines of that kitchen and the same routine still applies today and everyone has their own manoeuvre.
“The kettles boiled on gas burners and he gave a little pinch to warn you he was about to pass with boiling water for the urn. He bought the urn in 1964 and it’s in constant use to this day. It was ham or cheese sandwiches, club milk bars and sponge cake and that was it. He was a perfectionist and he prepared everything himself. I did the washing and going around gathering the mugs left outside.”
Other lovely little anecdotes pepper the conversation. “He might have bottle and if a fella was feeling cold he’d infuse the tea with a drop of the cratúr. Willie Crawford from Maam went home half locked one time from the Clonbur Fair and he never stood inside a pub. All he drank was tea. You wouldn’t get away with that crack now.”
The last weekend in July was the big shift. On Saturday afternoon they travelled to Murrisk to feed the multitudes. The Reek was climbed in dark of night then. On Sunday they went from there to the Seven-A-Side Football Tournament in Shrule to set up again where teams played late into the evening.
Eventually marts replaced fairs and the cultural change brought structure to his working day. Even through failing health he battled on and a call from Headford Mart in 1985 to the younger Peter signalled the rolling of the credits on a wonderful era. He passed away shortly after at a young age and Ray and Peter believe it was because of his huge workload even though he loved every minute of it.
In Cong, Clonbur and Cornamona Ray McHugh is at the epicentre of everything that enhances the quality of life in the region. Be it Town Crier or entertaining audiences on stage, The Dawn Mass, football, cycle races and even the preparation of people’s final resting place Ray pins up his sleeve and gives his time and total commitment freely to any venture. The word ‘no’ doesn’t feature in his vocabulary. “I get unbelievable help and all I have to make is a few phone calls and I’d have twenty people out because there’s a meitheal type attitude around here.”
Among personal highlights he cites winning the 1983 South Junior championship beating Kilmaine in the final and more recently the celebration of the 60th anniversary of ‘The Quiet Man’ film when Maureen O’Hara revisited Cong again. It plucked an emotional chord – a reminder that it was her impending arrival six decades earlier that brought The Dad to Cong. “I wish he was around to see it and I know how proud he’d have been about that.”
For his unyielding commitment to all that is good in the community Ray received a Mayo People of The Year Award last November. “Mary Ann Naughton and Mary O’Haire nominated me and people sent in lovely letters. When Rehab contacted me first I thought it was a wind-up.
“On the night Marian and I celebrated our silver wedding anniversary I got the official word and the timing was significant because Marian, Doran, Megan and Killian are brilliant support to me. I’m hardly ever home and whatever venture I’m involved in they are fully behind me. The award was for them and all the people who put their shoulder to the wheel with me.”
Peter operates McHugh’s Canteen now. “I found it a challenge at first because customers were more used to seeing Ray with The Dad and they were wondering where this lad came out of but I stuck with it and I wouldn’t give it up now. My wife Frances works with me and without her I couldn’t do it. I love humour and the craic and, while I’m at that and the bit of ball-hopping, Frances is doing the work. My sons Rory, Peter and Christopher help out too so the next generation are lining up.
In 1998 fate dealt the McHugh’s the severest blow of all when their son and brother Conor lost his life in a drowning accident on Lough Corrib. “It’s something that never leaves you and you never fully get over it. He still comes up in conversation and his memory will live with us for as long as we’re alive. And, just as Frank Huddy was the Dad’s right-hand man all those years ago, Ray is mine and I turned to him. He did all the things I was unable to do. He’s as much a friend as he is a brother and he got me through the worst of it. But it’s not just us because other families have to cope with tragedy also and there’s no shortcut around it.”
Work was therapeutic. “It was like working on the set of a play. Customers were coming to me expecting tea and regular conversation so I had to go out and perform leaving the grieving on the back burner until I pulled down the shutter.”
It was those same loyal customers who rallied around last year helping Peter raise €20,000 helping elect him Mayor of Ballinrobe. “I never asked them to buy a ticket. It was enough taking the price of tea from them because everyone is struggling now.
“But in Ballinrobe, Headford and Maam and all the other places they were taking away books of tickets to sell for me and it was because of them I’ve been given the honour. Some lads think there’s clout with the title. I’ve been asked to get a road tarred up in Ballyrourke and hedges cut. I even had a woman looking for a medical card but I’m afraid it’s only an honorary position. Even the chain is plastic but I’m still immensely proud to be Mayor of Ballinrobe.”
McHugh’s Canteen is embroidered into the fabric of society in this region. It’s a gathering point as was the parish pump in another era. All human life is there and you don’t have to be a seller or a bidder. People who wouldn’t know a shorthorn from a foghorn converge and banter and wit is the currency they trade in. A visit still triggers magical childhood memories garnered at a Ballindine Fair or a football field in Shrule in bygone days.
It’s a mirror image of the blueprint The Dad started out with. It’s based on trust, goodwill and respect for the customer always. It traces the road right back to a Cong of "The White O’Morn cottage" in the land of Inishfree.
And the tea is brewed from the leaves of tradition.