FAMILY PORTRAIT Author Bennie Scahill (neé Heneghan) pictured with her family in the 1960s. Front, from left: Martin, Tom, Anto and Sarah Heneghan. Back row, from left: Bennie, Mickey and Mary Heneghan.
Watching The Hunger, RTÉ’s powerful new two-part series on the Famine, brought a lot of emotions back to Bennie Scahill.
Bennie (neé Heneghan) has just released a wonderful memoir, ‘Living Outside the Castle Walls’, about growing up in Breaffy, Castlebar.
The impact of the Famine is writ large on Irish people still, and while researching the book, Bennie discovered just how devastating the impact was on her family.
The story hadn’t been passed down to her generation, but Bennie uncovered that her great-great-grandfather’s brother, Michael Heneghan, was evicted in January 1848 for being unable to pay rent and he and his family were left starving on the road. He had to dig a hole in a bank of clay for shelter for himself, his wife and their three children while they waited for food promised to them.
It never came, and Michael died from starvation. His wife, Mary, was left with three children, aged four, two and a baby. Bennie could find no record of what happened to them.
“Watching The Hunger the other night was shocking altogether. It was unbelievable what was allowed to happen, what the English did to them,” Bennie told The Mayo News this week.
“We are lucky to be alive when you consider my great-great-grandfather survived, but his brother did not.
“The poor people were put to the bogs, and the landlord classes had all the big houses and they didn’t want for food during the Famine,” she said.
“The 1800s were so cruel for our people. That’s the poverty we came from, and we’re so lucky to be alive today when you consider what our ancestors had to live through.”
The Brownes, the landlords in Breaffy, lived in Breaffy House until the 1960s.
Bennie writes about the relationship the people of Breaffy had with the Brownes in what is a fascinating exploration of the social divisions evident in that era. Though neighbours, there was a chasm between those who lived outside the walls the those inside.
It’s in the title of the book. Those castle walls, Bennie explains, were a dividing line between the Brownes, who lived a life of plenty, and locals outside, who had to work very hard to eke out an existence.
In their home, there were mixed feelings about the Brownes.
“My mother (Sarah) hated the gentry! She knew what was going and would be listening to what people were saying. I think my father’s people, because of the eviction, were subdued. My uncle worked for the Brownes and they were probably glad to have the work.”
Her story is a very personal one of her formative years growing up in Breaffy in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, but it is one so many people will relate to.
Many of Bennie’s generation will recognise much of their own upbringing and some of the charming memories combined with some of the challenges that generation knew as just normal life.
Anyone interested in social history will find the book very enlightening, a great insight into life in those decades.
And anyone from Breaffy will enjoy discovering more about places and people they know and go on a journey of discovery about home.
“What I really wanted to do was remember those who came before us and show my gratitude for the sacrifices they made in very difficult times,” explained Bennie, who was christened Bridget but the nickname Bennie stuck after her brother Mickey put it on her.
“My parents’ generation worked so hard. They worked so hard like everyone else to eke out a living. We had no land so my parents opened a shop, in addition to my father working seven days a week in the Bacon Factory in Castlebar,” she recalls.
Her father, Tom, was one of the first people in Breaffy with a car, and he also operated a hackney service. Bennie recalls being brought down to Rineanna Airport, now Shannon, to collect emigrants returning from home, and that aspect of Irish life in the 1950s is superbly detailed in the book.
The trip was a rare chance to spend a lot of time with her father too. “We didn’t see much of him because he was working so hard,” said Bennie, whose love and appreciation for her parents leaps off the pages.
She has amazing recall of her younger years and some wonderful stories are vividly recalled. There’s everything from hilarious escapades to poignant episodes as Bennie brings you on an entertaining journey along her childhood.
You get a great insight into a community who really looked out for each other. There’s vivid memories from all sorts of fascinating episodes in the family shop, located across the road from the football pitch in Breaffy, such as the arrival of toys for the shop for Christmas and the need to use gelignite to create a hole for the petrol pumps.
Bennie, with good humour, recalls some unwanted attention she received from some customers too.
There’s memories of school, Fahey’s forge, playing camogie and the joy of the kids when Bennie’s Dad got their first television, much to their mother’s chagrin.
Bennie also tells the poignant story of her uncle Michael. He had, unfortunately, been one of those incarcerated in St Mary’s in Castlebar. It seems he struggled after serving in the Irish Army, and it’s quite likely he would have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Then, though, there was nothing for Michael but to be left to languish in St Mary’s.
Like many in there, Michael would have benefitted from the more enlightened approach to mental health that we see in the 21st century, but this was a different time. Bennie recalls him ‘escaping’ in order to see his dying mother and being put into solitary confinement as punishment.
The story had a more uplifting ending though. Bennie’s brother Mickey returned home from the UK and took the decision to sign him out and take responsibility for him. He got the council to provide a prefab house next to his own and Mickey, his wife Margaret and their family looked after him for his remaining years, where Michael became a character in the village, enjoying his trips to the Shamrock Bar and revelling in the freedom that his nephew had provided.
“Mickey carried out a wonderful deed for our uncle Michael … My dad would be so proud of him to take the courage into his hands and do the right thing for him,” writes Bennie.
Bennie also interviewed people from Breaffy, like Nellie Reddington and Joe Duffy, who gave great insights into the past.
The book is populated with wonderful pictures of Breaffy people from down through the years, and also comes with an accompanying CD.
‘Living Outside the Castle Walls’, by Bennie Scahill, is available for sale in Breaffy Post Office and in Castle Book Shop in Castlebar and mayobooks.ie.