The Life and Times of George Curtin le Pat Kelleher. Tógtha as ‘A Time that Was in Clondrohid, Macroom, Millstreet, Kilnamartyra and Ballyvourney’.
George Curtin was born the year of the Fenian Insurrection, 1867. His home was just a few hundred yards from that of An t-Athair Peadar Ó Laoghaire Gael and Land Leaguer. In Mo Scéal Féin, an tAthair Peadar describes the hunger and starvation that surrounded the countryside in which he was born. It was against this background that George Curtin grew up. His education was the sum total of one day in Carriganima National School. When asked how he got on there, George replied: “I learned how little I knew”. Later on, he attended Irish classes, which were held in Barney O’Leary’s house, these classes were held during winter nights and organised by an t-Athair Peadar.
George’s mother was semi-invalided and when George was small the only income which she derived was from knitting. Nevertheless, the neighbours were always kind to her. It was difficult for George, therefore, to receive any education since at the age of nine, he had to provide the livelihood for the home.. They were always good to him, giving him milk, butter and potatoes.
George’s house straddled two townlands, Curraleigh and Derryleigh. It was but a house of 2 rooms, mud walls and a thatch roof. George was often heard to describe his house in the following lines –
George Curtin – Curtins’ Hotel,
He lives in a long low thatch house,
lived inside with cobwebs, soot and paper,
Plenty water for irrigation but no place to irrigate
It is difficult to establish when George composed his first song. What we do know is that at a card play at Barney’s where the Parish Priest, Father Aherne attended, I was given the following extract – when the cards were dealt, the priest said “have you anything George?” He replied: “With all your theology, poetry and wit, the priest and the poet are not getting a bit”. Fr Aherne was PP of Clondrohid 1883-1893.
George Curtin’s first language was Irish and his first songs for a number of years were composed in Irish, some say he wrote better songs in Irish than in English
My Pup Came Home from Claedach
Mike Sullivan’s Clock
Jerh Foley’s Boat
The Two Donkeys
Thade Shea’s Cow
Patsy and Tim
The Man that came home from Pretoria
The Threshing Engine
Creedon the Runner
When one writes about the life and times of George Curtin, I cannot help feeling a little envious of the type of lifestyle that George and his neighbours had, every incident was a song; Curtin had hundreds of friends. Wherever he went, people gathered to meet him, his closest friends were Creedon the Miler and Thade Sweeney. Thade and George worked together for Mick Herlihy, George was an expert at closing drains.
George Curtin’s real name was Michael Twomey. Why he took the name George Curtin, nobody can figure out. He was a confirmed bachelor. So also was Barney O’Leary and Jack Murphy (Seán ó Bharr a’Chnoic). George composed about them-
Jack Murphy lives on the hilltop high
Where the snow drifts up to meet the sky
He’d want a wife this winter stormy
He’d want a wife as much as Barney.
Barney Leary has his mother
And whilst he has her,
He’ll get no other!
In 1913 tragedy struck George Curtin’s family. His first cousin, Jack Walsh, know as The Rover, shot dead a neighbour called Mick Leigh. It happened in the Ballyvourney/Coolea area and owing to the sensitivity of the case, I will not go into detail. It took Mick O’Leary’s Victoria Cross to save The Rover from the gallows. He served 16 year in Portlaoise prison and was released on the condition the he stay so many miles from the original house. For a few years, The Rover worked around the country in various places, most of the year he stayed in Ullanes. He and two other from the Ballyvourney area were the last Spailpíní Fánacha. Every September, they walked to Millstreet station with three spades, took the train to Tipperary town and worked their way around Cashel and Thurles, arriving home at Christmas on the train to Millstreet.
Mick Herlihy was a very progressive farmer and George always said to Thade that he was starved for the world, in order not to be wasting Mick sometimes brought out a pot of gruel to George and Thade, and George composed a few lines-
Long fasting in drains
It plagued those men
The blood in their veins
Grew pale and thin
That bill posting paste
That we eat in haste
And it made us sick
Mick Herlihy bought a farm in Ballygiblin and sold his own in Derryleigh. On the day he was going fifteen horses lined up to remove him.
Their goods included hens, pigs, sheep, straw, hay, oats, turnips and furniture. The convoy stopped at Banteer for a few drinks and purchased a half tearse if porter to celebrate the night in Mick’s new house. When they got there, they unloaded their produce and Mick proceeded to tap the barrel. With the rattling on the road the barrel blew up, the porter hit the ceiling and ran out the door and the lads were left looking after it, with their throats dry and their mouths open.
In the last years of his life, George seemed to fade and keep more to himself. On the day before he died, he went to the doctor in Millstreet and his last confession. He came to Thade Sweeney’s house that night and the last person he talked to was Mary Jane, Thade’s wife. He told her he was not feeling well, and that he had been to the doctor. She asked him what was wrong and he said “I think it is my head”. On Sunday morning, Bina Lehane saw George on the roadway at Danganasillagh. He paused for a while on the roadway and disappeared behind Corkery’s new cowhouse, which he himself had helped to build. The following morning which was Monday, John Concubhar and John Connell were on their way to Patrick Lehane’s threshing. On crossing the river from the Ardeen side, they found George’s body in the wate.
The countryside were shocked by the discovery. That evening, the remains were removed to an old out house opposite Connell’s pub in Ballyvourney. The following day, he was buried in St. Gobnait’s cemetery in an unmarked grave. There were no elaborate nuptials in the church. Suicide and murders were treated as outcasts by the church. Before I conclude this article, there are a number of questions which spring to mind – George’s real name was Michael Twomey – why did he take the name George Curtin? His funeral expense were payed for by Seán Dubh. Seán was from Millstreet, he went around his local area with a jennet car and a barrel for killing pigs. Some people say that he was a brother of George’s. In an t-Athair Peadar’s Mo Scéal Féin, there was a Michael Dubh that took to the road from his cabin at Derryleigh. Or did George Curtin return to that same cabin with his mother, when George was born in 1867? As I said, George Curtin rests in peace overlooking the mountains and valleys and the people he loved so well. For almost 50 years, he provided them with poetic entertainment.
The valley where George worked all his life has changed considerably since the famine, the mud cabins have been replaced by neat houses, slatted units dot the landscape. Every arable acre is cared for with meticulous attention.
Buried in St. Gobnait’s cemetery with George are many great men and women. But the two most frequently mentioned are Seán Ó Riada and Seán Ó Ríordáin. Their graves are marked with neat headstones. It is now time we did the same for Georfe Curtin.