I never knew much about my great-grandmother except for the story my dad loved — how Catherine and her sisters would take off from the farm every year for a vacation at Salt Hill seaside resort (thus establishing the tradition of road-lust among Dunne women for generations to come).
Catherine Dunne was shrewd, by nature and by circumstances. She was part of a rural community that survived the Great Hunger (1845-1852) by growing oats in addition to the doomed potatoes. But post-famine Ireland was an uneasy place — post-apocalyptic, we’d say now. Their British rulers had been shown to be cold-hearted social-Darwinists who authorized the unblighted Irish crops to be sold overseas rather than be distributed to the starving, causing a million deaths and the disintegration of families as a million more emigrated in desperation. The economic chaos fueled political revolt and demands from tenant farmers for land reform.
It was in this atmosphere that Catherine married and bore nine healthy children in a three-room cottage. Their region was still organized in communal farms called rundales, where a groups of families leased land and were jointly responsible for the rent. The Dunnes lived in Ballaghduff, where most of the acreage was worked by about 15 families living in two adjacent clusters of cottages and out-buildings. The land was everything. Survival depended on the fine-tuned orchestration between farmer and nature. All the right notes in the annual calendar had to be struck in perfect harmony or chaos took hold. And in the darkest days of winter, the young village men went to England to work in the coal mines.
Whenever I enter Catherine’s world, I’m awed by the energy it took to get through from one day to the next. And yet they still had time for fun:
We could field a team for a hurling match in Wall’s field or a football team for a game in the lanes in Milltown… Our social life lacked nothing. A princeam (from the old English word “prinkum,” meaning a caper or house dance) was organised in a few hours and these took place regularly. Our musicians were locals who played fiddle, tin whistles and in later years, the accordion. Songs were sung, poems recited and stories of other days were told. [memory recorded by our cousin Philomena Kelly by another cousin Josephine Collins in “A Place of Genius and Gentility: Insights into Our Past.” © Oidhreacht Chill Choirí, 2006.
In the early 1900’s Catherine made some changes. She had her last child and sixth daughter, Katie, in 1902, at age 35. In 1907, she sent her oldest child, 17-year-old Ellen,* to America, so she could work as a domestic, send remittances home to her family and perhaps find a husband. She was able to stake her with $25.**
About that time, land reforms were finally implemented that let farmers buy property from the big landowners. Catherine managed to get her hands on a farm at Cooloo, about 12 km. downhill from Ballaghduff. This was her I’m outta here! moment.
With her oldest son John (who would have been 19 in 1910) and six little kids, at about age 40, she moved to the new home-house and started her own farm. Her second son Michael stayed at Ballaghduff with his father, so that the family could work both farms. They were all still poor but none of them ever went hungry again. And Catherine got her vacations at Salt Hill.
I guess as I accumulate these stories of my ancestral women, I continue to be impressed by their big ideas of themselves — their refusal to be beaten down by poverty, their independence and initiative in coming up with ideas and strategies, their readiness to pick up and go, and their self-confidence in business. They leave me smiling.
*aka Helen or Auntie
** about $500 in 2008 dollars. I have read that it was traditionally Irish mothers who staked their daughters’ passages to America… and then the first daughter staked the second, which was the case when Auntie sponsored my grandmother Bridget’s passage to the U.S.