HIS room in St Theresa’s Nursing Home, Kilrush is neatly dotted with photographs and postcards.
The photos include local GAA teams and shots of Michael McMahon with his brother, Stephen, who has lived and worked in England for 50 years.
Until he was robbed and abruptly left his dilapidated home in Cree six years ago, Michael lived without electricity or running water. He had to leave his front door permanently ajar. Otherwise, his house would fill with a dense smoke from the turf fire.
He kept to himself and didn’t mix, not realising what he was missing out on. Now, he is certain that he could never return to that lifestyle.
“I’d be dead in a week. The cold was immense. When I’d be going to bed, my fingers would be stiff with ice after handling the clothes on the bed. I’d have to go up to the fire to try and loosen them. I was looking at a bleak future. People didn’t know how I stuck it but I always had a determination to survive. On the coldest night of the year, I had to leave the door open. The smoke was so thick, I was smothered. My father [Thomas, RIP] didn’t care. I often walked into the house and he’d be below in the chair and it was like he was in a fog,” Michael recounted.
Hard to believe but Michael never picked up a flu or any serious ailment.
“I didn’t even get a cold. I had plenty of clothes down on me in the bed. I had about 10 items in all. I had six blankets and a lot of other things. Only for I was doing things like that, I’d be frozen in the bed in the morning. And do you know what I was doing? The roof was asbestos and I had a barrel outside for water. Now, they’re saying asbestos is poison. I used that for years.
“I was also drinking water out of a well in the middle of six acres of turberry. I was drinking that back raw. Tom Mac, who had the shop in Cooraclare, said it was alright. He said it was soft. I got a great shock one year though. I took up a cup to drink it and the cup was thick with live little insects. They were alive. There’s no known how many of them I drank. After that, every cup of water, I boiled it. I never again drank it raw. I must have been the last of the bog men.
“It’s like heaven now. I had no idea in the world what I was missing,” he reflected.
Such was his yearning for privacy, Michael did not intend reporting the 2012 robberies to the gardaí. He just wanted to live out his life alone and on his terms.
“I have to admit I never intended to report it to the guards. I was so private when I was at home. I put in the windows in the house myself when they got old. There was a man near me who was going to Kilrush every day. Rather than to bother him, I brought all the timber and glass out from Kilrush on the bicycle. Four big panes of glass and enough of timber to make the windows on the carrier. Wasn’t that private?”
Until this week, Michael had not visited his home for 12 months.
“I went back several times, although I haven’t been there with a year or more now. I don’t miss it at all. I don’t think of it even. I have the bike here [nursing home] but I don’t cycle. I walk down to Kilrush occasionally but I have no feeling to go out in public. I’m happy here. I have everything that I want.”
In September 2016, Michael met his brother Stephen for the first time in 23 years. The meeting did not evoke any discernible emotion though. They just took up where they left off, without any fuss.
“We shook hands. We’re the sort of people that don’t like to show too much emotion. I think we’d be a bit embarrassed if there was anyone watching on. I hadn’t seen or talked to him. I wouldn’t use a mobile phone at all. A mobile phone would be only bothering me.
“I got a phonecall from him of a Saturday evening. He said he wasn’t far away. He was in Kilrush. The health isn’t great with him but if he’s good enough, he’ll come this summer again and he’ll stay longer. He stayed for four days and we were everyday on the road. He was in great form,” he said.
They don’t meet too often but they remain close. “He spent all his life in England. He lives a 20 minute walk from Old Trafford but he was never there. I think he’s there 50 years now. He left home at 15. If he didn’t do that, he’d be like me. Our road was a road where people didn’t go anywhere. They all stayed at home. There wasn’t many in any house but the few that were there, stayed there.”
Michael briefly emigrated himself in 1966. “Myself and a neighbour, Seán Hastings, went over from the 1966 All-Ireland. A lot used to go to England for the winter that time. I stayed for six months and the neighbour stayed for 42 years.”
Marriage was on Michael’s agenda once or twice but it wasn’t the done thing.
“I’d say there was a possibility a few times but the trouble with our road was, no one stepped out of line. It wasn’t a marrying road. The last child that was born on my road was in 1949; the brother [Stephen]. It’s a mile and a half long and there was a good few people there. Your mind wasn’t on romance much. It wasn’t that type of place. You might say of course that my father married. Another man married and he died after four years. That didn’t encourage the younger men to go for it,” he smiled.
For 52 successive years, Michael hand-cut turf with the sleán.
“The first year I cut turf was when I was 14. I cut it and spread it. The bank of turf was exactly 480 yards back from the house. I estimate that every time I went back for a barrow of turf, that was half a mile. The best I ever did was 17 barrows in a day. That would be eight and a half miles. I’d have my shoes off and my trousers up to my knees. I felt nearly good enough to play in an All-Ireland. I had the bank of turf stripped again the day before I came in here. I probably had seven or eight trailers of turf cut. That’s all covered with grass now. I was stocking up for the future.”
His future is now in the nursing home, a place where Michael never intended ending up in.
“I didn’t fancy going into homes at all. The brother used to work in them in England and he said they weren’t great. I even said it to the HIQA lady. I said to her that I didn’t think homes were like this.”
As he got older, Michael became more reclusive. Paradoxically, he felt that his loose tongue gave away too much information.
“When I was a little less than 60, I suddenly realised that all this talk was doing me damage. I’d tell people private things and, for a finish, I said to myself that I was telling people everything. Bit by bit I started thinking I was just as well off if I didn’t meet anyone at all. Lads did say to me that I had too much talk. I got money from my aunt in America and lads said I’d be as well off if I kept that to myself. That’s how I got caught. When I got the American money, ‘by Christ’, said I, ‘now I’m independent. Never again will I ask a penny from anyone’.
“I’ll tell you what was wrong with me. I was afraid to get in debt to anyone who I’d owe a compliment.”
His primary fear was ill health. “I didn’t like the idea of going to any hospital. It was the same with everyone on our road. My grandfather never went to hospital. That was the attitude we had. A few went and they died within a short time. That didn’t encourage me. My mother [Susan] and father weren’t long in hospital and they died,” he noted.
Michael did not rely on the State for an income for almost three decades.
“I never drew one cent for 28 years. I was getting big dole but I got afraid of my life when I heard of an inspector going around. I lived on a very small amount of money. I hadn’t a bill in the world to pay. I could live on about 20 pounds a week because, at that stage, I had given up cooking and everything. I was living on tinned cans, the carton of milk and the glass jug of carrots. I loved carrots. That’s where the money was kept,” he revealed.
Hoarding money was not unheard of, particularly generations back.
“In my grandfather’s time, every time a man living alone would die, someone would come along and buy the mattress. I heard of a man who made it his career, buying mattresses after old people dying. They had a great fancy for sticking the money in under the mattress.”
He feels that while his lifestyle was an uncomfortable and lonely existence, he was deliberately disciplined in his efforts to remain on the margins of society.
“I set myself a course and there was no variation from that. I went to Cree to shop for years and I went to Kilrush once every five or six weeks. It was like someone that was preparing for boxing. You stuck to one course and there was no deviation. Not an inch. For the last 15 years, not one person put his foot inside my door. Yet I could change when I came in here. It wasn’t too long until I was talking to everyone. Isn’t it funny? But I never let my mind go. If I had let the mind go, I’d have gone into despair and I wouldn’t be here now. I never got into despair, although it was on my mind a few times. You could go down and throw yourself on the bed and say ‘I’m finished’. I held up well.”
In his younger days, Michael played football and socialised at Bermingham’s in Doonbeg.
“I couldn’t go to bed any night without going up. You’d see few old women with a pint of stout but no young girl. But as soon as Bermingham’s opened, there was every age there. I rose out of drink and football at about 24. I regretted that very much. I thought I could have done better at the football,” he said in a whisper.
He was close to his father and missed him when he died.
“When I was eight years of age, I was at a county final in Miltown, brought up on the handlebars by my father. And remember that he visited two or three bars coming home and we never crashed. So I was used to going to bars. You’d be surprised with a father and son but we were competitive. Once he died, I sort of fell away.”
Michael was educated at Shragh National School, where Joe Hurley was his principal, while he only spent two months at secondary school in Kilrush. This did not go down well with his aunt in America, Delia Aherne, his mother’s sister.
“I always think of the advice she gave me. She wanted me to continue at secondary school. She said if I qualified for something, she’d bring me to America. Of course, I didn’t do that. I didn’t like school at all. I went to the CBS in Kilrush for about two months. She never invited me to go to America after that, even on a holiday. She stuck to her word. The only thing she said was ‘you’ll spend the rest of your life pottering around a small farm’. And she was right.”
Postcards addressed to Michael have dropped through the letter box at St Theresa’s from across the globe, including China and the US. Many of them are pinned to the four walls in his room, along with photos of Clare, Cooraclare, Kilmurry-Ibrickane and Doonbeg GAA teams.
“I’m a supporter of all them. I can’t confine myself. I’m always looking out for great teams and great men. Kilmurry impress me greatly. They have a great attitude.”
The events of February 2012 were terrifying but having to leave his old life behind was the best thing that ever happened him. Michael is content and feels safe these days.
“I wasn’t here long when I felt at home. That’s why I started putting up the photos. It’s even more homely when you have the photos. Before this, all I was looking forward to was to just live away. I always expected something would happen. I knew I’d have to go some place but I never thought it would be a nursing home. I’m better now than I ever was.”
By Peter O’Connell