CULTURE Legacy of Lankill

Legacy of Lankill

Áine Ryan

CLEARLY there is more to Delaway cabbage than boiling up ‘a ballast of it’ and eating it with a big plate of good greasy Irish bacon. Just ask the Hughes family of Westport. You could say the story of this kale-like brassica provides an analogy for the colourful and cross-generational narrative that imbues their extended family.
Of course, when in 1993, Charlie Hughes of Lankill gave Anita Hayes, the founder of Irish Seed Savers, some of the cabbage seed he had saved from the previous year – and for the six decades before that – he didn’t realise its pure genesis would create such interest among horticulturalists and gardening enthusiasts.  
The spring cabbage had been brought from America by a neighbour and given to Charlie’s father, Owen, who started the annual tradition of sowing the cabbages on the family farm, while always allowing a few heads to go-to seed to save for the following year’s crop.
Just like the Delaway seeds, the progeny of eight generations of a family, with deep roots in Knappagh, Cloonskill, Ballinlough, Errif and Lankill, have settled in many corners of the globe, excelling in business and the professions and, of course, farming.
However, hundreds of them gathered in Westport last month for a mammoth reunion that included much ceol agus craic, golfing, cycling and children’s activities. Naturally, there were also formalities, which included the launch of a family calendar, outlining its complex genealogy, as well as a booklet of essays and yarns, articles and poems, focussing an eclectic lens on this colourful family.
Speaking at the launch, Cathal Ó Háinle, Professor Emeritus of Irish Literature at Trinity College, said: “Owen Hughes and his wife Mary Geraghty and their 13 children are, of course, the heart of this record. But in a prologue the story reaches back over three generations, on the Geraghty side to the Kelly family of Farnaught and the Geraghty family of Knappabeg and on the Hughes side, to the Hugheses of Lankill and the Hugheses of Cloonskill.”
The Mayo News had better, for a moment, put this complex familial web into a simplified chronological context: Owen Hughes (1873) married Mary Geraghty on May 10, 1896, and the couple had 13 children. Owen’s brother, Charles Hughes (1876) was the founder of a business empire that today includes Portwest, Carraig Donn and Hotel Westport while his nephew, also Owenie, was a Mayo county councillor and expert in the Irish language. It was Owenie’s brother Charlie who ran the family farm in Lankill and, moreover, retained an invaluable oral record of the family’s history and lore, which included much heroism during the Land War and the fight for Irish sovereignty and independence.
A ‘sense of place’        
AT the reunion, Charlie’s daughter, Mary, observed that ‘a sense of place’ was integral to the core values that were instilled in her and her siblings as she was reared on the farm at Lankill – a farm that is in the family for 250 years and has now, through turbulent and good times, sustained eight generations.
She described her birthplace to relatives from Denver and Birmingham, Mexico and Australia, Dublin and Galway: “For those of you that don’t know and have never been to Lankill it is a small townland situated approximately three miles (five km) south of Westport on a quiet byroad.
It is a long strip of land sloping down to Ballinlough lake much of which was covered in woodland up to the beginning of the last century, when it was cut down for export. Hidden in this woodland were church grounds, the remains such as a Mass rock, a cillín (children’s burial ground) a standing stone with pagan markings crossed with a  cross, all indicating an ancient monastic site, and so Lankill (Lainn-Cilleadh) in Irish means a long narrow stripe of woodland which contains church grounds.”
When Mary Hughes was growing up ‘life still moved at a relatively slow pace’, just like it had done for the generations before her. The Celtic Tiger had not even been conceived and her world ‘was defined by the names of the local families, the villages, the animals and fields’.
Unsurprisingly, for her cousin, Úna Uí Chuinn, who helped organise the reunion, ‘it was absolutely fabulous for the children of this extended family to be exposed to the humble history of their forebears’.
“This generation have had no first-hand experience of deprivation. Like many west of Ireland families, our ancestors survived many privations and difficulties.
In our case they survived the Battle of the Diamond in Armagh in 1798 and the Great Famine of the 1840s. They were great workers and some of them were offered a land agency but were once again evicted by  Lord Sligo when they refused to change religion,” says Úna Uí Chuinn. 
“I believe this reunion evoked a race memory for all of us and can be used as a bedrock for a value system in the future. We all have learned something new about the simple integrity and political convictions of our ancestors who survived stoically in much more straitened times than we are grappling with today, ” she added.
Over the reunion weekend in early April, the sun shone as Kathy Quinn sang Ár nAthair at a special celebratory Mass in Aughagower.
All was still in the nearby graveyard as her cousin, Devin De Santis, a professional singer in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, followed with Faith of our Fathers.