Dermot MacManus, ‘Killeaden and Anthony Raftery - 1784-1835’ (1965)

[Source: Paper held in the papers of Joseph Johnston (1890-1972) and digitised by his son Roy Johnston; archived on internet - online; acccessed 15.02.2015.]

About 1350 AD or not long after, a group of Franciscan monks settled on the banks of the river Gwestion in County Mayo at the spot where centuries before a hermit - some say St Aiden [Aidan] - lived in a small stone cell. There they built their church, enclosing the cell in the churchyard, and dedicated it to St Aiden - hence Kill Eaden. Their parish of Killeaden still exists and includes the town of Kiltimagh; a later development.

In due course the two or three monks in charge of the farm built a house near a delightful spring which had been famous far back into pagan times. This monks” farm-house is today the site of the front portion of the present Killeaden House, perhaps partly the building itself. The monks, lovers of God’s beautiful creations as they were, planted widely throughout the centuries ornamental trees such as beech, oak and fir, a few of which still survive.

At the end of the seventeenth century these monks were exterminated by the Williamites, the church was destroyed and the land given to a branch of the Knoxes, a powerful Anglo-Irish (Cromwellian) family round Sligo. These Knoxes built the present stables and either they or the Taafes built a back extension to the house, but separated from it by a yard. My grandfather many years later joined these two parts into one whole building. The Knoxes had intended to build a new and larger house but the last of them died before anything was done.

The Taafes, an old Norman-Irish Catholic family, bought the place about 1780 or a little later. The first Taafe, Patrick, built the Garden House in the big orchard. He was a great duellist and after killing a man in a duel had to flee as the County Sheriff, Dominic Browne, wanted to hang him for it. But shortly after this Patrick was himself killed in a quarrel and his son, Frank, succeeded him.

Before fleeing, Patrick buried all his valuables somewhere in the estate and his cache has never been found though his son was reputed to have often wandered about at night, trying without success to meet his father’s ghost.

Patrick was a small man but Frank was tall, broad-shouldered and well-built and an outdoor sportsman. He kept a pack of hounds - one of his kennels still exists - and also drank and swore vigorously.

Raftery was one of his tenants and the bard often used to sing and tell his stories under the old trees in front of the house to Frank’s great delight. As well, Raftery would hold his own ceilidhes under the great beeches in the orchard or under the old oak tree at the foot of Lis Ard, which is one of the largest and best preserved forts in Mayo and reputedly a great fairy centre. This was certainly Raftery’s view.

Raftery never forgot those earlier happy days and his intense homesickness later inspired his famous “Song of Mayo”, locally and more accurately called the “Song of Killeaden”. In wet weather Frank would allow him to go up to the granary in the evenings and there hold his court for the people of the estate and the surrounding country. They were always intensely proud of him and this pride was still a strong living thing when I was young at the turn of the century. A spirit of true and brave love for Ireland and of resistance to the invader ran through most of Raftery’s songs and talk which is all the more to his credit as those were dangerous times, indeed, for patriots.

Raftery was lithe and spare in build and not very tall but he was wonderfully strong and a good wrestler in his manhood, blind and all as he was. He always wore a long frieze coat and corduroy breeches. He played the fiddle but not too well, perhaps because his fiddle was a bad one. He was born in Killeaden in 1784 and died in Craughwell, County Galway, in 1835. He lost his sight from smallpox when he was only nine years old. He always had a great liking for Frank Taafe at the Big House and this lasted all his life. Frank, for his part, also had a warm spot for Raftery in spite of his, Frank’s, roughness and heavy drinking. The story of Raftery’s marriage to Hilaria was a fable invented by Donn Byrne, the novelist.

We owe to three people nearly all that is known of Raftery today, as but for them his work would have disappeared with the language and only a vague memory would have remained. These three are, first Dr. Douglas Hyde, the founder of the Gaelic League and later first President of Ireland; then Lady Gregory, Hyde’s close friend who lived in County Galway where Raftery spent his later life. The third was my aunt, Miss L MacManus, the Irish historical novelist who, born and bred in Killeaden, was brought up steeped in his tradition.

Dr. Hyde was a family friend of ours and he stayed at Killeaden a number of times while he collected all he could about Anthony Raftery, chiefly in Irish for all knew it then. Lady Gregory, also a friend of my aunt’s, stayed at Killeaden House to get stories and accounts in English. My aunt was constantly working on the subject herself, both on her own and in conjunction with her two friends. Nearly all this work was in due course published.

My grandfather’s head herd, Thady Conlon, was a fount of information regarding Raftery and both Dr. Hyde and Lady Gregory had long sessions with him. As a small boy I remember the old man as I listened enraptured to his stories of humans, of fairies and of Raftery.

My family bought Killeaden early in the last century from the executors of Frank Taafe who was, it appears, connected with us on the distaff side, and years later my grandfather and grandmother, retiring from planting in Demarara, took it over from my great-grandfather and settled there to bring up their family. Tales are still told of how they were for Years troubled by the ghost of Frank Taafe, still restless and rough as in his life and presumed by the countryside to be in search of his father’s treasure. Many years previously my great-grandfather, having heard shocking tales of other landlords, one day collected all his tenants on the slopes of Lis Ard and there solemnly promised that from that day on we would never “Quench a fire on a hearth”, a promise which my family has always kept to the full.

Today the great oak and three pollard beeches planted by the monks in front of the house and under which Raftery so often played and sang are still there, also a tall strong white thorn nearby which, according to old Thady Conlon, Raftery loved greatly as a gentle, or Fairy-loved, tree. A massive ash close to the house was recently blown down in a great gale but miraculously a shoot from its root sprang up and is growing strongly to carry on the tradition. The huge beeches in the orchard as well as the oak below Lis Ard still survive and all these trees are today the only living things that knew and sheltered Raftery.

It was in Killeaden House that Miss MacManus formed the second branch in all Ireland of the Gaelic League. It was there also that she wrote all her famous Irish historical novels, The Silk of the Kine, The Professor in Erin, In Sarsfield’s Days and all the rest. One, Within the Four Seas of Fola consists entirely of local tales and lore. As well as this, nearly all the stories in The Middle Kingdom come from Killeaden and its neighbourhood.

Truly, the brave old place holds an honourable position in Irish history. Its future lies in our hands.

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