Stories from Árainn of wartime love,
incredible endurance and heroic rescue.
The above photograph shows several men and women gathered next to Árainn's famous cross. In the background is the old St. Columba Hotel, as it was known at the time. The spot had originally been the site for the local Catholic curate's thatched house.N.L.I photo
The St. Columba Hotel was sold and later run as "The American Bar" by the Connolly and O'Toole families. Today it is known as "The Bar".
Not long before she died in December 2000, Eileen was asked who the people in the photo were and she identified the man on the left as Willie Gorham of Cill Rónáin and the man on the extreme right as a visiting teacher who was learning Irish. Like most Gaeltacht people of those days, she humorously referred to teachers like him as a, "Lá breá" (fine day). As they could initially speak very little Irish, those two words were all the conversation one could get out of them. Amusingly, “Lá breá” was the salutation even if the seagulls were grounded because of driving rain, and the sea was breaking over the cliffs at Dún Dúchathair (The Black Fort).
The photograph of Willie Gorham and others standing in front of the St. Columba hotel is linked to a story of wartime love, endurance and heroism.
Major Alfred Smith 1890-1926
Major Alfred Smith
Alfred Smith had been born in India, where his father was stationed. He later rose to the rank of Major in the British Army and fought in the Great War of 1914-18. After being injured, Alfred ended up recovering in a hospital in the north of Ireland. While recovering, he fell in love with his nurse, May Cloherty (from Galway town), and in 1916 they married. When Alfred retired, he and May moved to Árainn in 1921 and took over the running of the St. Columba hotel and bar (featured in the old photograph). He also worked as an agent for the British steam trawlers which called regularly as well as serving as Galway County Council's rate collector.
Before the First World War, Alfred had been an outstanding soccer player with the famous Bohemians amateur club in Dublin and had played centre half for Ireland as an international player. He had been signed from the Northern Nomads, a well known English amateur side and, after his military career brought him back to England, he continued to travel over to Ireland to play with Bohemians. He and two of his comrades at Bohemians had written home from the war in 1914, telling their team mates that they expected to be home to play again before the season ended. Like many another soldier, on both sides of that terrible slaughter, their hopes for a short war were unduly optimistic.
The story of Alfred Smith leads us to a small windswept, uninhabited island at the very western end of Árainn, called Oileán Dá Bhranóg. In the photographs below, the little island can be seen under a blue sky on a fine day, and on a dark and stormy day with rough seas.
Early on the 12th April 1926, four or five currachs landed there to cut and gather seaweed. There were just two boats still at the island when they noticed the sea getting up. They rushed to their currachs but, even before they reached the mouth of the Calladh, the waves coming down the Bealach were beginning to break. The leading boat, owned by a descendant of Connemara poitín (moonshine) makers and for whom turning back was never an option, managed to battle on and reached the safety of Bun Gabhla shore.
Men and Women of Aran
In the 1970s, the late George Stoney film "How the myth was Made", dealt with the making of the 1934 film “Man of Aran". There was some mild controversy when some suggested that director Robert Flaherty had exaggerated the amount of physical work the women of Aran did in days gone by. It is worth noting that an old man has recalled that the currach that managed to battle home as the storm broke, was "manned" by Patch Sheáin Uí Thuathail and his daughter. Proof indeed that cutting seaweed and rowing a boat was no problem for that generation of Aran women. Those who have read the recently published memoir of Patch Sheáin's grandson, Padraig O'Toole, will be familiar with this part of the island. Pat has written a very warm and amusing account of growing up around these shores in the 1940s and 50s. An older generation of Islanders are brought alive once more , if only for the duration of the reading. His book is called "Aran to Africa" and is available from Amazon, Charlie Byrne's and all good bookstores.
Eeragh lighthouse with Oileán Da Bhranóg behind it. (Photo Irish Air Corps)
The Rescue Attempts
Proceeding to Cill Rónáin, the S.T. Leukos reported their sighting and Alfred Smith organised a rescue attempt. Realising that a landing might prove impossible, Alfred prepared a barrel containing food and drink. Returning by steam trawler to the scene, they launched a currach and attempted to land but were driven back by mountainous seas breaking on the rocky shore. They managed, however, to launch the barrel with the food and drink and were delighted to see one of the marooned men retrieving it from the surf as it drifted ashore.
The Eventual Rescue
Josie Doyle and Willie Gorham featured in many other rescues, as they later served on the new lifeboat, which was established in 1927 under the command of Coxswain John Gill. This rescue and the loss of two trawlers between Slyne head and Clare Island the previous year had highlighted the need for a proper lifeboat station on the West coast. Those other stories are for another day.
When Alfred died, May Cloherty found herself with four sons to raise: Paddy, Arnold, Wyndham and Freddie, the youngest, who was just five years old. She sold the hotel and managed to get her sons educated at the Duke of York Royal Military Academy in Dover where she herself got the job as Matron. Like their father, who had also once been at school there, all four spent time in the military.
Their mother, May, later went to Belfast and helped the great northern politician, Joe Devlin, in looking after the welfare of poor Catholic girls during troubled times. She later returned to Árainn and lived out her life in a beautiful rose-filled cottage in Cill Rónáin which is now, alas, derelict.
May died suddenly in 1961 in Árainn, while Wyndham was on board a ship, emigrating to New Zealand. She was buried beside Alfred in Relig Chill Éinne, a graveyard by the sea at the eastern end of Árainn. Many Islanders still remember May as a friendly, stylish woman whose only weakness was a love for nice hats.