He may be in his ninetieth year, but Galway man Christy Healy remembers everything – great hurling days, The Emergency, rural electrification, going to school in his bare feet, the changing face of farming . . . all the simple touchstones of a life well lived.
He remembers, for example, when his family switched on their first electric light, following the ESB’s roll-out in the 1950s – amid fears ‘from black magic to setting houses on fire’.
“Some didn’t know what it was about,” says Christy, who lives in the East county Galway village of Abbeyknockmoy. “I remember one local fella would switch on the electric light for just enough time to light his oil lamp, before quickly switching it off again.”
Christy listens to local radio news, watches the main RTÉ news broadcasts and reads at least one newspaper a day cover-to-cover.
He loves his stories – he has one for every situation. While listening to his wonderfully told anecdotes about days gone by, it’s impossible not to be struck by how different Christy’s attitude to challenging times is from younger generations.
As a widower, and having lived through depressions and times of economic uncertainty, Christy knows better than most the virtues of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality.
So, considering that, for younger people with less life experience, the pandemic might be the first major crisis they’ve encountered, Christy’s generation provides a much-needed source of wisdom, perspective and sage advice.
“My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren find my stories interesting,” says Christy. “I wonder sometimes if they believe the things I tell them.”
Like how his grandfather Thomas was evicted from his home because he couldn’t afford the rent and, like many at the time, lived in a mud hut for several years.
That was in the days when the landlords were the ‘backbone’ of the political elite in Ireland and before land distribution was implemented to alleviate the dire poverty of small farmers who could barely eke out an existence.
The Land Acts transformed land ownership in Ireland. By 1916, most farms were owned by their occupiers – and among those new land owners was Christy’s grandfather.
Having a lifelong interest in politics and history, Christy knows that Irish society is still coming to terms with both historical grievances and traumatic episodes from the recent past – from 1916 to the Troubles, the Famine to institutional abuse.
He talks about the early decades of the new State, for instance, when the Catholic Church and Irish government, instead of radically reforming the inherited system of institutions, doubled down on the worst kind of Victorian morality – which was revealed in the investigations into how women and children were treated in Irish mother and baby homes.
Growing up under the shadow of one great conflict and in the expectation of another, Christy’s memories of dealing with shortages, upheavals and uncertainties have helped him to adjust to the pandemic much easier than most.
Christy remembers definite parallels during the Second World War – that period referred to in Ireland as The Emergency.
Just like today, “public health was a concern,” he recalls. While Covid is a new threat, he remembers other public health nightmares, like tuberculosis – a disease that prematurely took his mother’s life when he was just twelve years old.
After Christy’s mother Mary died, his father Patrick became both father and mother to the family, ensuring that they wanted for nothing.
Christy has lived in the same house all his life. His house was built by his grandfather on the redistributed land that his family has owned and occupied since the Land Acts implemented by the Irish Land Commission more than a century ago.
In all directions, there are memories of his childhood. He remembers bottle-feeding newly born calves, tending to crops by hand, and making cocks of hay with his older brother Tommie, who passed away recently at the age of 91.
These were just some of the everyday jobs to be performed but they provide happy memories for Christy . . . the times with Tommie and his two younger sisters, Mary and Celia.
“Our farm kept us going; we bought nothing but tea, sugar and flour,” says Christy.
Today, Christy’s house makes for a modern home that is easy and comfortable to live in but, growing up in the ‘hungry thirties,’ he had “no running water, no electricity, no central heating and no indoor toilet”.
He remembers his mother drawing water from the nearby well and carrying it home on foot. “For every fill of hot water, she had to lift a very heavy kettle on and off the fire,” says Christy.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Christy started out as a small farmer – but after serving his apprenticeship in bricklaying, Christy became sufficiently prosperous to provide for his family.
“I was delighted to get ‘the start’ as a bricklayer,” says Christy. “It not only gave me a chest and shoulders – it also provided me with a strong back. There were some tough times and the job was hard, but there was always humour. Thank God for that. It makes everything brighter.”
Christy’s proudest achievement as a skilled craftsman occurred five decades ago on a job on the banks of the River Corrib – originally the grounds of the old City Gaol – where, with master stonemason Michael ‘Tip’ McGrath, he hung the stone-work of artist Gabriel Hayes, who was commissioned to carve the Stations of the Cross for the newly-built Galway Cathedral.
The Stations comprise of 28 life-size figures, cut in stone, and “took three months to hang”, says Christy, quick to point out that he only takes credit for hanging the last two Stations and that the inordinate amount of time that the entire job took wasn’t because of the intricacies of the task at hand, but because “we had to keep downing our tools every time another mass was about to start”.
Of all his memories though, the ones he keeps closest to his heart are when, as a young man, Christy would meet up with his beloved late wife, Mary, at the local dance hall.
Recalling how Mary, like all the other young women cycling in from nearby villages, would remove her headscarf and raincoat in the cloakroom and apply her ‘lippy’ before joining him and dance the night away.
They married in 1957 and would be together for more than 60 years. Mary died in 2016 and Christy says “when the woman of the house goes, the house goes with her because nobody can take her place.”
For Christy’s five children – Bernadette, Padraic, Michael, Irene and Christopher – who nearly all live close by, their father’s stories create bonds between the different generations of the Healy family.
They hear of Christy as a little boy, as a teenager, his adolescent years sowing spuds and looking after the sheep and cattle. They also hear about Christy and their mother Mary as young parents – the stage in life where some of Christy’s grandchildren are now.
Christy walked three miles to school every day, bare-foot in the summertime, accompanied by his siblings and carrying his lunch under his arm – two cuts of his mother’s homemade brown bread and a slice of bacon, and always wrapped up neatly in the Connacht Tribune.
As a younger man, Christy loved his days out at the races, and while he never concedes to any gambling disasters, like most punters, his memories are not so much about losing money as missing the chance to win it.
At the weekends, Christy cycled on his trusty bike to matches all over Galway and much further afield. “I remember in the 1940s cycling to Birr to see the All-Ireland Hurling championship semi-final: Galway against Kilkenny,” he recalls.
“It took hours to get there and hours to get back, but I cut off a few miles by going across country instead,” says Christy.
“Everywhere I could, I would stop and get a drink of water. I’d look back the road and see lots of people on bicycles also cycling to the match. It was all bicycles then.”
Despite Galway losing the game by just one point, Christy says that “it was worth it to watch Inky Flaherty”. Galway’s Michael John ‘Inky’ Flaherty (RIP) was regarded as one of the finest hurlers of his generation.
Recalling an often-romanticised era of Irish life during the 40s and 50s, Christy vividly remembers the days when man and horse came together to ‘break the soil’ in springtime to plant the crops.
The tractor was gradually replacing the horse for ploughing and carrying out lots of other farm-related work, “but we didn’t have a tractor on our land,” he recalls.
“I once ploughed an Irish acre in a day,” he says proudly. He was a great man to work. “There wasn’t too many able to do it,” he remarks. “All I had to keep me going was a few sups of tea from a bottle.” His hard-working Clydesdales had more than their fill of oats, of course.
Christy fills and lights his pipe once more and remembers when local farmers gathered outside the door of the village blacksmith with their horses waiting to be shod.
“I loved the noise of the blacksmith working and how the smell of the fire in the forge filled the air,” says Christy.
“On busy days there was a lovely atmosphere; farmers chatting away and sharing the local news. It was the way rural Ireland was then.”
But then and now, hurling has been Christy’s abiding passion and has remained so all his life. And he’s at his happiest, bursting into an enthusiastic monologue and stream of consciousness while evaluating Galway’s prospects of winning Liam McCarthy again.