The House of Gilligan


PASSING THE BATON  There has been a Matthew and Martin Gilligan in every second generation of the Gilligan’s undertaking business going back to the famine years. Pictured are Martin and Mattie with young Matthew at the front.  Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Undertakers central to town’s business community since 1847

Michael Commins

IN the town of Claremorris lies a story worth telling. It looks set to span two centuries and anchor us natives in an ever changing sea. In another time and another place far away in a land where heaven and earth forged the hand of history, they spoke of the House of David. This is the story of the House of Gilligan and the names of Matthew and Martin.
Since 1847, the Gilligan family have been involved in the undertaking business in Claremorris. Even more remarkably, only two names have been at the helm in every second generation - Martin and Matthew. That’s 170 years of uninterrupted tradition leaving the Gilligan family as probably the only one in the world with such a record to claim.
Mattie Gilligan is a true institution in Claremorris. You would travel many a long mile and ne’er a hope would you entertain of finding a soul to say a wrong word about Mattie. The soft voice and gentle accent of the west is in his every word.
People like Mattie teach us to respect tradition and love of place. The wisdom of the ages rests easy in the heart of the man who graduated with top degrees from the University of Life, the best teacher of all.
Gilligan’s Archway at the back of The Square is part of the history of the town. The great Jim Fahy of Co Galway, who was the RTÉ Western Correspondent for many years, did a lovely documentary on the archway and its people, in his acclaimed Looking West series which ran on Radio One from 1977 to 1984. Mattie and his wife Pat, along with Christy Foster and Jim Corbin and others, featured in that programme.
The year 1847 is embedded in the Irish psyche as the year at the heart of the Great Famine in many parts of Ireland. It was also the year that on May 18, Martin Gilligan from just over two miles out the road in Carrowsteelaun, bought a property at The Square from Lord James Browne.
“Martin was my great-grandfather,” recalls Mattie. “When the time came around, he handed it over to my grandfather who was Matthew Gilligan and he in turn passed it on to my father who was Martin Gilligan again.
“I got it from him and the name Matthew (Mattie) took over the reins and I operated the business until I handed it over to our son Martin. Martin and his wife Olive (nee McDonnell) have two children, Anna (11) and Matthew (8) so that ensures that the remarkable tradition of the names of Matthew and Martin will continue the family tradition here in Claremorris.” (Mattie and Pat also have a daughter Margaret who is married to Charlie Morley from Ballyfarna who played senior football with Claremorris in former times, and they have resided in Dublin for many years).
Mattie has an abiding love for history and has researched the arrival of the Gilligan family in Claremorris over the years. Indeed, the town was known as Clare long before the ‘morris’ was added to the title. (John Keane from Murneen is perhaps one of the last of the generation to still refer to the town as ‘Clare’ to this day).
“They were two thatched houses back then. Two of the clauses included in the sale back in 1847 were that two-storey houses would be built and they had to be roofed with Blue Bangor slates. There was also a stipulation in relation to the archway.
“My own mother died when I was only a week old and my father died when I was only a year and a half. My mother was Annie Jennings from Castlebar and she was only 29 at the time. My father was just 40 when he died. I never knew them. I had two sisters, Maureen who married Jack O’Brien here in Claremorris and Jo Moran who lives in Ballygar.
“A sister of my mother, Margaret Jennings, came from Castlebar to take care of us. She was running a pub for the family in Ballyheane at the time. The Jennings family had a pub on Main Street in Castlebar where Staunton’s Chemists are today.
“I came back to the business in 1944. I had to leave St Jarlath’s College at the time. It was towards the end of the War and was a bad time to be taking over a business. Everything was rationed at the time. I officially took it over in 1947.
“There was always a pub and grocery and hardware here back the years. My grandfather started the coach building which involved traps and side-cars and it was the big end of the business for a good few years. The undertaking goes back to the start and of course they were all horse drawn at the time.
“When daddy died the coach building more or less ceased but they continued with coffin making. You couldn’t be an undertaker if you could not make coffins back then. I made them at the beginning because I could not buy them wholesale at the time.
“I didn’t like the bar and I didn’t like the grocery end and started making bits of furniture behind the counter of the shop.”

The big move west
Mattie met his wife Pat Agnew in Dublin where she was nursing at the time. She was from just outside Crossmaglen in the county of Armagh. They were married in September 1960 and Pat made the big move down to Claremorris.
“It was a bit of a culture shock back then,” says Pat. “There are things that stand out in one’s mind and I always remember the warmth of the welcome extended to me by Jessie McEllin and John Balfe. Ned Glynn was another who made me so welcome in Claremorris. I always trusted his good advice. Christy Foster was a great friend from the day I came to town until the day he died.
“Jerry Higgins and ‘Busty’ Riordan used to come into the pub almost every day for a few glasheeens and they were great characters. They had a sense of humour and telling stories. Malachy McDonagh was another great character back in those times.”
Pat was one of a family of seven and the only one who did not enter the teaching profession. Her parents were both teachers while her brothers and sisters followed the same path. They were also immersed in the strong Gaelic culture of the region and had a special fondness for the Irish language.
“My sister Úna (Agnew) has always been a Patrick Kavanagh ‘fanatic’ and has written a book about the famous Monaghan poet who came from just a few miles away in Inniskeen. Along with our brother Art, she produced a compilation of Kavanagh’s work which is now available on cd format called ‘Love’s Doorway to Life’. They were both guests of Miriam O’Callaghan on her Sunday morning programme on RTÉ Radio One some weeks ago.
“While we handed the responsibility for the bar and business over to our son Martin a good few years back, I continued working in the bar up to eleven years ago. Around that time we leased it to Gerry Walsh from Crossmolina and Fiona Hunt has been running it for the last few years.
“I spent 47 years in the bar business and I enjoyed every day behind the counter. It was a way of life as well as a social life for me as well. But I was ready to finish with it when I did. It is better to know when to call it a day than to be told!” says Pat.  

Huge changes
Mattie Gilligan, who has now turned 90, has seen huge changes in the life of Claremorris down over the decades. His knowledge of the town and hinterland is instinctive and he is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to families with deep roots in the region.
At the family Funeral Home, Mattie is still there sitting quietly inside the door, accepting the handshakes from so many people as they pass through. They all know Mattie, the genial quiet spoken legend of Claremorris town, the man who has seen it all.
 “In this business you are continuously on call 24 hours a day. The phone is never on silent. There are times when you have to co-ordinate arrangements from overseas. The local priests have been central to so much of our work over the years. I remember when we had three curates and a PP in Claremorris and another priest out in Barnacarroll.
“Now, we just have Fr Peter (Gannon) here in town. He is a marvellous man who keeps it all going. His ability to speak at every funeral is exceptional,” reflects Mattie. “Tommy Lavelle from Barnacarroll has been so much a part of our team over the years. Tommy is the gravedigger and one of the most reliable people you could have on your side. He is extremely loyal to us and that is a great quality in anyone.”
“I never found it hard to cope with death and funerals. You would naturally have your feelings about various funerals but you couldn’t show them, you have to maintain a disposition and dignity.”
Mattie Gilligan has maintained that dignity and grace at all times. His son Martin now carries the torch. The people of Claremorris salute the amazing tradition of the Gilligan family in the life of the town and hinterland. Almost two centuries of tradition and still going strong. Generation after generation of Martin and Matthew, those stout hearted men from the County Mayo.