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Joe Whelan with his vintage Massey Ferguson tractor collection. Photograph by John Kelly

Joe brings Fergie-time to Kilrush

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“If it ain’t red, leave it in the shed” the old tractor saying goes. And Joe Whelan Senior of Whelan’s Garage tractor dealership in Kilrush has gone one step further in elevating the humble Massey to legendary status at his newly opened Ferguson Family Museum.
The tractor museum, which is dedicated to the life of Harry Ferguson, opened on March 18, the day after 80-year-old Joe was honoured as Grand Marshall of the local St Patrick’s Day Parade.
The museum is part of the Museum of Irish Rural Life located on the Cooraclare Road in Kilrush, which is already firmly on the West Clare tourist map.
The tractor museum has 14 fully restored vintage Ferguson tractors on display including the Ferguson Brown which was the first modern tractor from which all tractors are copied. There are also a number of grey models up to the 100 series, and reds like the Ferguson MF35 four-cylinder engine, the Massey 65 Mark 1 and Mark 2, and the Massey 35x.
Born in September 1943 at Shragh near Kilrush, Joe is one of a family of seven boys. His parents lived in Buffalo in the United States for 15 years where his father worked with the Ford Motor Company, and his mother with the Goodyear Tyre Company. However, when the trade unions closed the Ford factory down following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the couple lost everything and so they returned home to County Clare in 1936.
Inheriting a farm, the Whelans settled down at Shragh where they worked the farm and reared their young sons. The family were a hard-working one and the children were brought up in a mechanised environment.
With the West Clare Railway running right past their house, this no doubt inspired young Joe’s interest in farm machinery and indeed transport. Once he came of the right age to attend secondary school, he was sent to the Christian Brothers School in Kilrush commuting by train, and he figures he clocked up in the region of 19,000 miles travelling on the famous railway during that time.
Joe’s parents brought back new ideas and novel ways of doing things from America, which marked the Whelans out as being a family who were somewhat different to other people in the area, and with a reputation for getting things done.
“They had got a lot of ideas, and everyone thought we were kind of funny because we were brought up in a different atmosphere,” said Joe.
“You know the traditional Irish way of doing things; get up in the morning at 10am, we’ll save the hay if we feel like it and we we’ll go for a pint, there would be no toleration of that in our house, there was rules and you obeyed them.”
Leaving school when he was 18 and a half years old, his father wanted him to study history as he had achieved 90% in the subject however, Joe told his dad he wanted to do aeroplane flying.
True to his word, he went on to spend the next five years as an aircraft engineer with the Irish Air Corps as Baldonnel. He left there in 1967 to set up his tractor business which has expanded over the years to a farm machinery business operating out of three locations in the mid-west.
However, history has always been his passion, and so when he bought the old creamery site on the Cooraclare Road towards the end of the Celtic Tiger years, a history related enterprise was to the forefront of his mind. And in a spirit of entrepreneurship, he has completely transformed the site single-handedly without assistance like grant funding.
“We just do what we have to do for ourselves. Most people in business work 15 or 16 hours a day, I would have worked 15 hours a day every day of my life for the past 55 years, except on a Sunday – I don’t work on a Sunday. And hey, it is the only way you can get moving – that is twice the hours of any public servant,” he said.
“Self-employed is no joke. You have to look every week and see where you are going to get the wages of 50 or 60 people.”
Down the centre of the tractor museum is a long wooden table which Joe cut by chainsaw from timber of an 180-year-old Monterey cypress tree, and crafted himself. The tree was given to him by Declan and Peggy Byrne after it fell on their property.
It is approximately 30 feet long and Joe and his staff are sure it is the longest table crafted from a chain-saw in Ireland. The museum’s striking doors and windows to the museum are also constructed from the same timber.
Carrigaholt based artist, Cortney Westhoff O’Farrell has painted the murals inside the tractor museum by copying the photos from the Henry Ford website.
One of the murals she painted depicts the famous handshake agreement between Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford when they pulled the table and chairs from the Ford house in Deerpark, Michigan outside to make the historical deal. And Cortney’s murals of Ireland’s history are features on the exterior walls of the Museum of Irish Rural Life building,
Central to Joe’s Museum of Irish Rural Life is the original Whelan family farmhouse kitchen with its authentic fireplace, hearth, flagstones, cooking utensils and crockery. The house which was originally built in 1854 “the same year as the Brontë lady came here” he laughs, referring to nineteenth century novelist Charlotte Brontë honeymooning in nearby Kilkee.
Joe tells of how he and his team transferred the farmhouse kitchen from Shragh to the museum. They marked all the stones first and then brought the whole lot to the museum which now houses most of the original contents, except the table. And many of the museums’ exhibits are linked to his family’s story, but he believes these are things that if they are lost forever, they can never be found again.
He points to a framed picture of the late US President John F Kennedy hanging up on the walls.
“The reason it is up there is because, when he came to Ireland, I was in the guard of honour for him. We were in Dublin Airport when he came off the plane,” he explains.
The Shragh man was in the Irish Air Corps at the time of the JFK’s state visit to Ireland in 1963. However, he was already dabbling in other enterprises like working behind the scenes on the film Blue Max which was made by 20th Century Fox and filmed at Weston Aerodrome in Kildare amongst other locations in Ireland. The World War 1 film starred Ursula Andress, James Mason and George Peppard, and he worked for them for three months.
With enough money made from working on the Holllywood film to enable him to buy three new tractors, he returned home to Kilrush in 1967 where he set up Whelan’s tractor dealership. Building up the business, work would sometimes take him abroad, and on a business trip to the former Czechoslovakia for the Zetor tractor agency, he unwittingly took a front seat at history in Prague witnessing the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“We were offered the Zetor agency from Czechoslovakia so a group of us went there and hired a bus and as we drove down the road from Brno to Prague, there was lines of Russian tanks coming against us, we said this is normal and couldn’t figure out anything until we came to Prague airport to come home and there were two lines of Russian tanks. And they had done away with the prime minister. That was the ‘68 revolution and I was in Prague when it happened,” he recalls.
Last but certainly not least, Joe proudly shows me an original 1911 HMV gramophone Monarch Model V on display inside the front door. The record player still functions playing music through the horn. Not only does it bring back warm memories to many visitors but this humble device is a sort of symbol for the nostalgia people experience coming through the doors of Joe’s rural life and tractor museums.
“A woman came in here with a few old folks from the hospital across the way…and I put that [the gramophone] on for her. ‘God, she says Joe when I was young your mother used to put that up on the pier of a gate on a sunny summer’s evening and all of us down in the council houses would dance to that a mile down the road’. I would say that memory from coming in here did her as much good as a week of watching television,” he said.

Sharon Dolan D'Arcy

Sharon Dolan D'Arcy is originally from Ennis. Her work as a print journalist has appeared in a number of regional publications. She worked as court reporter at The Sligo Weekender newspaper and is a former editor of The Athenry News and Views. She covers West Clare news.

About Sharon Dolan D'Arcy

Sharon Dolan D'Arcy is originally from Ennis. Her work as a print journalist has appeared in a number of regional publications. She worked as court reporter at The Sligo Weekender newspaper and is a former editor of The Athenry News and Views. She covers West Clare news.

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