Jack Holian is a gifted stonemason – but that’s only the half of it
THE Plains of Moytura is a tract of land between Cross and Cong. It’s renowned for the famous battle fought between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolg.
The name Moytura means plains of pillars or plains of towers. The region is home to the legendary Cowboy Jack Holian. Inquire for Jack Holian around these parts and you’re immediately directed to Daffodil Ranch.
It’s there you’ll find a larger-than-life character. What you see is what you get, and political correctness is sacrificed betimes in the telling of a good yarn. “Are ya with me?” is the catchphrase he uses to keep you in tow when he regales you with stories about his life.
As the original culchie, he entertained the nation when he appeared on The Late Late Show in 1989. Over a quarter of a century ago and the Cowboy looks back fondly on that era.
“I did a bit of a dance for Gay Byrne and sang ‘Catch Me If You Can’, which was a big hit for Brendan Shine.
“I still sing it in the local pubs and I play the drums and I throw in a bit of Riverdance as well and the tourists love it. I was on [Terry] Wogan afterwards and he came here to interview me in my humble abode and told me he envied my lifestyle. I don’t know what the Queen Mother made of my shenanigans when she saw it.”
So how did the Cowboy name – the moniker he’s most recognised by – come about?
“I always had a great interest in Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the old cowboy films. When I was in London, a shop in Chelsea sold that kind of gear. I bought the shirt first, then the waistcoat and the boots and hat later.
“I got a job in a club acting as MC and I’d sing a few songs myself. When I came back to Ireland I continued to use the gear and the name stayed with me. Hardly anyone calls me Jack. If you came around here looking for Jack Holian, they wouldn’t know who you were talking about.
“The name Daffodil Ranch came about when I was over in O’Malley’s pub in Cross one night. It was springtime and the place here was covered in daffodils. When I was leaving the pub Sal O’Malley, or Sally O’Brien as I affectionately called her God rest her, asked me: ‘Are you heading for the ranch, Cowboy?’
“I told her I was going to Daffodil Ranch. PJ Varley a well-known ironmonger below Cross, was listening. He said ‘that’s a lovely name’ and that he’d do something for me. A few weeks later he arrived with a piece of ironwork and ‘Daffodil Ranch’ done out in lettering. We put it over the gate and it’s been known by that name ever since. “I’m a big Mayo fan too and I hope they win the All-Ireland before I die but time isn’t on my side. I played a bit of football in London and with my home club here in The Neale. We won the county junior final a few years back for the first time in their history and it was a wonderful achievement for a small area. The club awarded me the Hall of Fame a few years ago and I’m very proud of that too.”
BUT look beyond the mirth and humour, and there’s a genuine sincerity to Cowboy Jack Holian. A gifted stonemason, every nook and cranny around his beautifully appointed Lackafinna home bears the hallmarks of the wonderful skills he inherited from his father. Lovely stone buildings and a fountain outside his back door that has become a wishing well that visitors to Daffodil Ranch throw coins into by way of making a wish come true.
With the ever jovial glint in the eye, Jack says he removes the coinage, washes it and treats himself to brandy in Danagher’s, Lydon’s Lodge or The Crowe’s Nest in Cong.
And it was to his masonry adroitness and gifted hands Jack turned when building a monument on his land in tribute to his late father.
“I built the tower in honour of my dad who died in 1986. I wanted to do something for him because he was a wonderful father.
“My mother died at the age of 37 and left a family of eight. My sister Nancy was only a year old when mum died and Dad reared us all. When Nancy was 12 she was sitting in the hob beside the open fire and her clothes caught fire. She ran outside and the wind fanned the flames more, and she got badly burned.
“She was in Castlebar hospital for 11 weeks and she died from the burns she received. My father had to suffer that tragedy after losing his wife and he’d come back here and sit in this spot. After he died I thought, I’d do something he’d be remembered by and I regard this as my best work.
“It took me six months to complete and it’s there now forever more as a lasting tribute to him and the whole family are very proud of it. It was shown on RTÉ’s Nationwide and afterwards loads of people came to visit it and I have no issue with anyone coming here to see it.”
‘The Big Valley’ and ‘The Little House on the Prairie’ are other manmade creations of his.
To build a road between the villages of The Derries and Gorthnacurra was always his dream. It was while standing on a quarry of stone overlooking the rugged landscape between both hamlets that the dream was first conceived.
“I stood on that hill one day talking to a neighbour and I remarked how it looked like the Big Valley. I often said to my father how great it would be if there was a road through it linking the two places. ‘Don’t be seafóid,’ he said, ‘you’d want to be a millionaire to do that’.
“I went to England and I met Rita Heverin from Tipperary and we married and had three children. Then she gave me the red card and divorced me and I came home. ‘Oh the wild goose is back,’ my father said when I returned.
“But I never let go of the notion about the road, and it took me over six years to finish it. I had to build a bridge over a stream and whenever I had a few bob, I’d buy a few posts and concrete railings to fence it off.
“While I was making the road, I also built the little house there and I called it ‘The Little House on the Prairie’. I had an old Ferguson 20 tractor and I brought all the stone from the quarry.
“Lots of locals use it now and they often go into the house to rest when they’re out walking. ‘The Edge’ who plays with U2, or Dave Evans (as we knew him) lived here for a while. He and his kids often came down to walk it and they were amazed by it.”
IT seems a clichéd question to ask a man of 81 summers down if he has any regrets. But he meets the query straight on and replies with total candour which is a true measure of the man. “I regret the way I treated my wife with all my messing around when we were married but women were my weakness and too often I gave into that.
“Rita is a wonderful woman, and when I got sick a few months ago, my daughter wrote to her and she came back immediately to Lackafinna to look after me. And with all the wrong I did, I hope I’ll be remembered for doing some good things in my life too.”
Through his gifted hands and stonework he’s already left a lasting legacy on the Plains of Moytura. And at home by the range in Daffodil Ranch is where he’s happiest now.
Easy enough find him too because there’s only one Cowboy.