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From Clonbur to Meath - and back again


STEPPING BACK IN TIME Margaret Mulroe and Ciarán Burke start the dancing at the function in Ti Bhurca in Clonbur, 75 years after Ciarán bade a tearful farewell to Margaret as 24 local families left for Meath.

Twenty-four families left north Galway for County Meath 75 years ago. The bond to home remains constant

Willie McHugh

Saturday, April 6, 1940 was the day 24 families left Clonbur, Cloughbrack and Cornamona to take up permanent residence in Allenstown, County Meath. The move weakened the pulse of the region.
He was only twelve years old but Tommy Mannion of Cloughbrack still remembers the evening. “The buses taking the people to Meath parked at the American crossroad in Cloughbrack. It was the first time I saw a bus and I tried to get on it but the driver wouldn’t let me.  
“I couldn’t understand why old people were crying and them getting a spin on a big bus. I thought they were daft but I didn’t realise fully what was happening. To me it was only like they were going over the road to Cong or Kilmaine maybe. The trucks left the night before with whatever livestock and bit of furniture they had. Some of them were carrying all their belongings in a bag under their arm.
“They came back to visit afterwards and a few even cycled down. The young crowd who were born up there were great for coming to the west of Ireland and it’s wonderful how they’ve kept that link to this place even to the present day. In fairness they were better at coming down to see us than we were going up to visit them.”
Roseanne Higgins makes many such trips. She was born in Allenstown but Cloughbrack still beckons her home. “The first visit I remember was when I was about thirteen and I came with my mother and sister in a hired car. My uncle lived here and we stayed with him during our summer holidays.
“I come down regularly now but this journey is special because we are representing our parents and all the families who made such a big move. But they all lived around the one place and looked out for each other and it’s still the way it is to this day. It’s one of the traditions they handed down to us.”
Some had other reasons to visit. In September 1940 John ‘Mhailic’ O’Halloran cycled from Allenstown to Glantrague to propose to Bridget McGuire. She graciously accepted and they married in Clonbur. The long road of romance went both ways. Pete Casey pedalled from Ballydoolough to Bohermeen in Allenstown to marry Mamie O’Halloran. In Allenstown Maggie O’Malley from Kilbeg Upper married Jim Mulroe from Bookaun.  
Other yarns surrounding the great exodus get the odd airing. There’s a story sometimes told around Clonbur and Cloughbrack firesides of a man looking out on one of the vacated houses three weeks later and seeing a dog pining at the door. The telling goes that the poor mongrel was all the worse for wear having returned back to Ballyveane from Meath. The Clonbur jury deliberate still on whether it’s an authentic narrative or just the imparting of an inventive mind.
The boy who bid them farewell at a Cloughbrack’s American crossroad is a man now. Tommy Mannion was in Clonbur Church on May Bank Holiday Sunday when the parish held a commemorative mass for those who left.
As was Ciarán Burke, the then seven year old boy who cried as the convoy of buses departed Clonbur village on that unforgotten day. “I was heartbroken because Maggie O’Malley was on the bus. Maggie was nineteen and she’d worked for my parents in our shop in Clonbur and she was so good to all of us. It was like one of our own family leaving.”
While celebrant Father Michael Mannion donned his vestments in the sacristy the hum of friendly banter echoed across the aisles. The bonds forged over the years between two places almost a country apart grows ever stronger. There were welcoming handshakes, embracing hugs and genuine inquiries as to each other’s wellbeing.
On the altar 24 candles burned brightly honouring the families who left. To the altar they carried gifts evoking memories of the move. Steven Canny carried a faded photograph of the buses and lorries lined up in Clonbur on an April day that will ever live in the memory. Maggie Mulroe brought a painting of Lough Mask and Mount Gable. Cliona Kenny fetched a stone from the ruins of one of the old homes and Margaret Kerrigan came with a cake and a bunch of ripe grapes as the bread and wine offering.
Helena Moran recited ‘Clonbur’, a poem composed in the 1970s by Father PF Malone who ministered in the parish. Then the melodic tones of Catriona Canny singing of ‘Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears’ captured the very essence of what the reunion was about. For her sounding note Catriona had tapped her tuning fork to memory of a bygone era the long road taken. Her lyrical waxing plucked every tender strand of an attentive congregation’s emotions.
Her dirge chorused an apt resonance because in Clonbur of the 1940s Allenstown may as well have been in America or Meath in Melbourne such was the distance. The world beyond Cong or Ballinrobe existed only on the map of imagination.
In the church grounds afterward they planted two trees in memory of those who left. Maureen Kerrigan was the first child born to a family who moved to Allenstown and to her fell the honour of setting the first one and Thomas O Maille from Kilbride beyond The Ferry Bridge rooted the second.
When Brendan Varley’s open side trailer parks in Clonbur it’s the dais all great homecomings are celebrated on. As it was when the visitors from Allenstown partnered their Clonbur kith and kin in the dancing of a stack of Barley around the village Crane to the music of Matt Keane.  
In the afternoon the old double decker bus took them around Clonbur, Glantrague, Kilbride and Cloughbrack to visit the ruins of ancestral homes. A gap in a wall where a gate once opened or the ruins of an old hearthstone buried in the undergrowth are still poignant reminders of the homes and farms they left behind.
That night they mingled merrily again at a supper and social gathering in Ti Bhurca. Ciarán Burke and Maggie Mulroe danced the first dance. The gasúr waving at the crane was dancing now with the nineteen year old girl he cried after on a bygone April day. Ciarán and Maggie waltzed to the rhythm of the past. Allenstown is no longer a world and lifetime away from Clonbur. Together two communities have built a bridge spanning seventy five years.
The buses go both ways now.