My grand uncle, Michael Canney was born to Honor née Keaveney and Pat Canney in Lisheenaheltia, Glenamaddy, in 1900. He was the oldest of four children, three surviving. He joined the Garda in 1923. The following is a transcript of an article he wrote for the Garda Review in 1977, when he was based in Mountcharles, Co. Donegal. The Western People also printed this article in April 2012.
As rural Garda stations continue to close, we look back on the establishment of many of these remote outposts. In this evocative article – first published in the Garda Review in October 1977 – former member Michael Canney recalls his youthful arrival in Rossport, North Mayo, in the summer of 1923.
The Manning of Garda Station
It was 7am on July 6, 1923, a morning that had dawned with clear skies and glittering sunlight that flared and fluttered over Dublin city and the surrounding countryside. The roars of the captive lions in the Zoological Gardens echoed through the wide expanse of the Phoenix Park, as the pearin-urraidh of the animal world proclaimed an empty stomach and jungle inheritance with thunderous rumblings. On the level-tarmacadam drill ground of the former RIC Depot, nearby, were lined up 200 plus clad recruits of the new police force, the Guard of Peace. Their early morning rendezvous had brought them there to receive final instructions and directions before departing to open and man police outposts throughout the then Irish Free State. Those recruits had been drilled, tutored and welded into a disciplined force amid the turmoil and strife of a bitterly fought civil war. Their three or four months training ended had found them fully fledged policeman parting from their late mode of life. They were of an age, all having seen their first daylight in the closing years of the 20th century. It would be correct to say that they all had seen the original Old Age Pensioners trudging on foot to their local post offices, with Queen Victoria. In her jubilee regalia embossed thereon, the dawn of the Welfare State. It would also be true to relate that all had seen the phenomenon of Halley’s Comet in the western sky after dusk. Before the setting of that day’s sun they were in gaze on places as widely separated as windswept Tory Island in the North, rugged Galtymore in the South and serene Lough Gill in the West. Like coins put into circulation from a mint, many and varied would be there experiences.
Some there would earn prominence, while others would fall by the wayside. That flood which is reputed to be in the affairs of men would bypass others in its entire tawny spate. They were the warp and wool of the original Garda fabric, being placed on the loom and shuttled shout. Many who were on that parade are today missing from the earthly scene. The remnant, new worn threadbare with the years, containing many grey hairs that have been fertilised by the worries which police life bring about. The loud resounding voice of the Depot Adjutant announced the different stations and their personnel in alphabetical order, and when Rossport, in County Mayo, was reached all and sundry heard that thither were to proceed, Sergeant Robert E. Gough (2623), Garda John O’ Donnell (3883), Edward Gilligan (2910), Nicholas Garvey (4159) and Michael Canney (4042) the narrator of this tale. There were hurried farewells, among those 200 men drawn from the extremes of Ireland from Carn a Need to Corran Barn and who had met for the first time some three months previously. Some there were who would never again meet; while others would not until you wary winter’s sun would have twice 30 times returned. The hurried farewells were soon interrupted by the arrival of Crossley tenders, with emerald painted over the grey war paint of their late owners, the Sasanach. Into them were packed the youthful carefree Gardaí and their belongings. The wide gate of the Depot swung open and out and down the North Circular Road, on route for the Broadstone railway station, went the contingent for Western Ireland to establish stations in places as far apart as Loughglynn, in Roscommon, Kilmaine and Glencalry, in Mayo.
The early morning sunshine had given way to cloudy weather when crossing the Irish Midlands, and by the time that Manulla Junction was reached the cone-shaped Mount Nephin was shrouded in mist, Leith Bealaigh go bun, and the sultry July rain was descending in torrents on the station platform. The men bound for Glencalry and Rossport had to change there. The Midland Great Western engine puffed from out the station, passed Ballyvary, Straide and Foxford, and to the accompaniment of the brown rolling waters of the River Moy, it reached Ballina behind schedule. Inspector Doyle of the local Gardaí met them and directed them to the Garda Station, and from thence to the Moy Hotel, where a splendid lunch was served for them for three shillings and six pence, old money. Green clad soldiers with ready rifles were on guard outside the banks, a grim reminder that they had reached disturbed country. Having partaken of lunch they were directed to a motor lorry of ancient lineage. There being no Traffic nor Transport Acts to say nay, into and on it went eight Gardaí, their belongings and station furniture. Their route lay through Killala, by Ballycastle, the reverse of General Humbert’s march, 125 years before, Inspector Doyle, who had brought the two Sergeants in his car to that place, parted company and bade them farewell. Their way lay through romantic country which bore signs of the recent strife, in broken down bridges and impassable roads.
With Ballycastle left some distance behind, a calamity befell them which brought them to a standstill and retarded their future movements. When trying to cross an improvised bridge the lorry got embedded in a quagmire and down it descended in a morass of mud. The young Gardaí found themselves stranded in a sparsely populated countryside, with heathy plains spreading far and wide in every direction. A council of war was held and it was decided to seek the only alternative conveyance – horse and cart transport. Scouts were sent out to contact the owners of horse and carts, but here another obstacle was encountered. They had then reached the outer rim of the hard core of the poteen-making area of North Mayo, and the distillers and their many sympathisers resented the coming of men who might harass them. The Gardaí found that horses and carts were not easily obtainable. The country was divided in opposing camps, politically, and that was to add to their difficulties. It is pleasing to relate that, in the evolution of time, those antagonists became their best friends, and that their children and grandchildren are now pounding the beats which the original men had trod. The traditional kindness of the Mayo people for the wanderer eventually overcame their reluctance, and after much searching and seeking, enveloped land and sea, from the top of Nephin Beag to the Stacks of Broadhaven, with nothing to break the eerie silence, save the sound of cart wheels and horse shoes on the rough gravelled road, and the footfalls of the Gardaí trudging behind. Night was descending, but the cloudy weather which had persisted all day then cleared. The moon appeared and cast its silvery beams on the dark slopes of ‘Mam a ‘Cheo, as they moved slowly westwards to their destination in that lonely valley. Their new abode, an ancient shooting lodge, once kept for the master’s pleasure and recreation, was cheerless and uninviting. On its bare, cold floors the ten men, tired and hungry cast their matresses and
Deep their midnight lair had made
In lone Glencalry’s heathery shade
They slept the oblivious slumber of youth, far from the exactitude of the Depot drill instructors, and the lecture halls of its legal tutors. The sun was high in the heavens above the Slieve Gamgh Mountain before the first of the weary sleepers woke to the new day, minus fuel, food or cooking utensils. However, a neighbouring family named McDonnell, had provided them with a splendid breakfast, gratis and without charge. Should they or their descendants cast their eye on this narrative I would like them to remember that Michael Canney at Mountcharles, Co. Donegal, in the evening of his long life, recollects them with gratitude. It was and as yet the end of the road for the men bound for Rossport, with a difficult journey between them and their destination by the Atlantic. After some searching they procured two horse carts. On those they placed their station equipment and belongings, and the five men traversed the long road on foot, in the wake of the carts. The shades of evening were closing in on the north Erris coastline as burly rugged Binn Bhuidhe Head hove in sight, with the grey-green waters of deep Broadhaven Bay spreading its tentacles in every direction. On that summer’s evening long ago they had their first view of the new station, a two-storey slated house, detached, aloof and isolated. There was no red carpet reception for them, but word of their coming was not without warmth. At the first intimation of Garda occupancy an attempt had been made to burn the building. The upstairs part had been already occupied by tenants, a man and wife, and access there to had been by ladder, as the stairs was missing, not stolen, but set on fire. The fire had, however, been put out.
The Garda quarters were confined in the scorched lower portion. Into the only available room went their beds, closely packed together. Their mattresses were of that hard “biscuit” type, lately abandoned by the Sasanach in his haste to get out, and commence the downfall of his Empire. The native government received them with gratitude and bequeathed them to their obedient servants. Those were the days before Arbitration, Conciliation or even Consideration. “But whatever is, is right”, said the Garda with Pope, and better this than repose on richest couch when anxiety wastes thy frame, and the absence of new pleasure renders life monotonous. The Garda Sub-District comprised a vast area of hilly country, interspersed by extensive bogland. It was difficult for access and isolated, but of remarkable scenic beauty, on the Atlantic seaboard of North Mayo. The nearest railway was at Ballina, some forty miles distance. There were no fairs nor markets, and only one licensed premises. One motor car there was, whose owner had not heard of road tax or identification numbers. The nearest doctor was at Belmullet, 14 miles distant, and on one day each week the aged and durable Dr Studdard had covered the double journey on a pedal cycle in attend the dispensary at Rossport and visit his patients. The Garda Sub-District was divided by Sruthfhadachinn Bay, a narrow arm of Broadhaven, which extended inland for some miles. The Garda station was situated at the mouth of the inlet, and in order to avoid a long journey in reaching a house about half a mile away. The authorities had provided a ferry service for the Gardaí an open rowing boat, operated by a local man. The rapid flowing waters which receded through the narrow opening with the speed of a mill-race had the local reputation of being one of the fastest sea-currents around the Irish coast. The perils that beset Lord Ullan’s daughter and her lover crossing Loch Gile in the highlands of Scotland, were as nothing to those treacherous undercurrents, when the loud sounding storms of the Atlantic came rolling in over Broadhaven Bay, and the weary Gardaí, returning from nocturnal poteen hunts, had to face the dark windswept channel in the frail open boat. There were occasion s when the brave boatmen quailed at the crossing. Then the Gardaí had to spend the night on the opposite shore of the channel, watching the friendly dayroom light, so near and yet so far, and listening to the roaring of the waves as they violently cast their spray inland. The ferry was a legacy from the days of the RIC. The deep and false waters of the channel had claimed no less than four of the members of that force as its victims. The channel was destined to claim one of the Gardaí too – Garda Finnegan – who tragically lost his life when crossing there one night in 1928.
A cairn of stones erected by the local people some distance from Rossport, and maintained by them with meticulous care, marked the spot where, according to them, a young RIC constable had murdered his comrade as they were returning off midnight patrol in the long ago. Those men probably suffered from “sameness”, a malady to which light-keepers and city or town-bred people, who have been compelled to live in isolated places, are prone to when there is nothing to relive the monotony of a lonely existence among associates of conflicting dispositions. The making of illicit spirits, poteen, was common and widespread, and the task of suppressing it hazardous and fraught with risk for the Gardaí. The people were law-abiding, affable, friendly and free from crime. But they venerated their stills and worms with the devotion of the Mahamedan for the Kaaba, and any intrusion on their illicit distilling was resisted with vehemence and determination. They were the remnant of the men and women who were banished from the rich lands of the Midlands and driven across the Shannon. They cherished a traditional resentment to authority which they associated with the usurpers. They husbanded, not their inheritance in the rich lands of Meath, but the barren seaboard and isolated hills of North Mayo. The writer of this narrative bears still graven on his head a many stitched scar, inflicted by their granite artillery during a raid on a still-house. A brand new spade was broken on the shoulder of another member of the Gardaí.
Space would not permit to give details of that episode in full, but as an indication of the interest taken in it by the Government and Commissioner, the following transcript of a minute in connection with it will be found interesting.
Minister for Home Affairs, Dublin
28th May 1924
I have before me the Deputy Commissioner’s minute of the 26th inst. Relative on the seizure of an illicit still, near Rossport, County Mayo and in reference thereto I desire to express my appreciation of the conduct of the members of An Garda on that occasion.
C. O. Higín
Minister for Home Affairs
Although life was monotonous at Rossport at times it was however, relieved now and again by the occurrence of the unusual. I can remember one wet night when a dispatch arrived from the District Headquarters at Belmullet, by pedal cycle, with instructions that it would be delivered that night at Glencalry, ten miles away, and a reply brought back. I and a companion set out on bicycles and duly delivered the document. There was loud laughter in Glencalry that night when it was revealed that one of those found guilty of the crime was a teetotaller. Rossport escaped the dragnet of that famous inquisition which contained the indictment without accusers, the trial without jury, and the conviction without evidence. Had Garda Rip Van Winkle slept on at Glencalry that night four and fifty years ago and awoke today he would discover that the good people of Rossport and Glencalry (later Belderrig) required no Garda to help regulate their honest lives, the Garda Stations there having closed their doors for the last time many years ago; that poteen-making had practically ceased, being barred by the law, condemned by public opinion and the churches, and a vacuum created by its manufacture by help from an unexpected quarter; the U-boats of the Third German Reich, which had sent to the bottom of the Atlantic the ingredients for its making – molasses and treacle. That only a few Garda were required to enforce the law in that wide area between Blacksod and Killala; that many people had voluntarily abandoned their homes – they had gone before but returned again, but then not at all, being jet propelled across the Atlantic and piston-driven over the Irish Sea, to make room for the Saxon, Slav and Tenton, and the ash, oak and pines of the Irish forester, that palatial dance halls had replaced the tapping of small feet on the floors of the ceilidhe houses of North Mayo, that powerful tractors had replaced the humbly harnessed donkey of the gravelled roads, that the recruit Garda on his first duty could survey his beat from the unholstery of a limousine, with the added amenity of a chauffeur-cum-guide, and directed by his master’s voice 20 mile away. And glorifying in a hair-do and side-whiskers from out of the old Testament, and that the prophesies of Brian Ruah O Carragan had come to pass in northern Condae Mhuigheo.
General O’ Duffy the Commissioner, visited Rossport on an inspection tour on June 26, 1926, and decreed that any member who completed two years’ service there were to be granted a transfer if he so desired. That ruling stood until the station was closed down. I left that year to transfer to Geevagh, Co. Sligo, I paid a visit to Rossport few years ago, and with apologies to the memory of Percy French:
I never could forget it
Though it’s years and years ago
That bog below Belmullet
In the County of Mayo.
Author: Garda Michael Canney