07 Aug 2022

An obituary for Mikey Phelan

Mikey was a local farmer with an incredible understanding of nature and life, diarist and gifted musician


Words by Julie Dorgan

Picture a steadfast milk stand of old which still acts as custodian to the entrance of a country laneway which gently descends (with only the odd hump and bump) a distance of about five hundred yards, escorted by unfaltering blackthorn and hawthorn ditches which shade the way from sharp northern blasts and rainy southern winds.

At just over the halfway point there is a sudden bend to the left and the route continues past the late Pad Phelans house and then to Martin and Mikey Phelan’s very exact stone entrance. Once a visitor arrived at the front door and said to Mikey “That’s a very long lane”. To which Mikey replied “Well if it were any shorter it wouldn’t get here!”

To begin with it is just not possible to mention Mikey without including his brother Martin. Both were born in the townland of Russellstown near Attanagh, Co. Laois and spent all their lives together in the house they were reared. Martin and Mikey were inoffensive, kind and extremely intelligent men. To say they were peas in a pod underestimates their capabilities as they were more akin to the components of a clock in that they worked away day by day ticking along in unison but preferring to say consistent and diligent in the background.

In the times that Martin and Mikey grew up farm work was hard and even though neighbours helped out one another the work was labour intensive. However, they still made time to enjoy themselves. Not much money could be made but entertainment could be. Mikey just loved music and he could also play. He mastered the accordion, violin, piano and in later years taught himself how to play the saxophone.

For as long as he was able he travelled to McCullough Piggots and Walton’s music stores in Dublin to buy records and tapes. One of his first musical outings as a young chap was to a house party in Tooles, Grennan where John Kennedy from nearby Barnderry, Attanagh, Co. Laois was playing. John was an extremely accomplished accordion player and he invited Mikey down to his own homestead to play music. From then and for many years after Mikey went everywhere John Kennedy asked him to go and it was very easy to follow John Kennedy as he possessed a most jovial and warm personality.

John Kennedy formed a band called the Rhythm Aces with Joe Kelly, Durrow (accordion); Richie O’Rourke, Durrow (banjo); Joe Connors, Ballacolla (drums) and Jack the “Lock” Phelan, Grantstown (accordion). John Kennedy’s son Sean amusingly remembers his father saying that at the beginning they only knew two tunes but it was a start. Mikey wrote down all the places he played with John Kennedy and also with other bands including Billy Ryan’s band from Rathdowney. Mikey played everywhere from local house dances to concerts in Abbeyleix, Ballyragget, Durrow, Freshford, Urlingford and as far as Birr. Even in Mikey’s latter years he played in the children’s concert in Ballinakill with Catherine Hyland (music teacher and renowned musician).

When John Kennedy, Barnderry passed away on the 19th January 2002 it was indeed a sad milestone for Mikey but ever resilient he kept on playing music. I have childhood memories of him playing music at socials, as they used to call them in Ballyouskill Hall during 1980’s with Jimmy O’Gorman, Ballinalacken (drums) who is still an active dancer and his late wife Joan (accordion).

When Attanagh Residents Association celebrated their 40th anniversary in the Wheel Inn, Ballyouskill in September 2014 I was delighted to see Mike arrive as his brother Martin had only passed away a month before. He came in the door, looked around and decided it would be a good idea to go home for his violin. He greatly added to the celebrations.

I live in Attanagh, Co. Laois and some readers may be aware that we have a New York only a mile or so away in Lower Grennan. Now you don’t have to take a plane or use a freeway to access this New York you just head to Attanagh and down the New York lane. They always say that New York is the city that never sleeps and this concept could have been applied to Micky and Hanora Dooley’s house (the grandparents of the present day Michael Dooley, New York) up until the late 1950’s.

It was a house of music, dance and card playing. Sometimes the card playing would be as lively as the music. Mikey and Martin would have crossed the fields from Russellstown to New York and often arrived back in the early hours of the morning. Dooleys’ was a hive of activity. Hanora Dooley was a great musician and loved to play her melodeon. Those who farmed in the fields nearby often ate their food in Hanora’s kitchen and she would play while they were eating. There were great parties there and no shortage of characters and neighbours in attendance.

It is surprising for my generation to hear that there were so many musicians in the area at that time but I have to remember that money was scarce and people had to make their own entertainment. Some of the musicians included Martin Phelan, Attanagh (accordion); Paddy Moore, Bogfield (violin) who actually taught Mikey Phelan how to play the violin; Sean Bergin, Grennan (accordion), Mikey Egan, Grennan (melodeon), Mick Dooley, Attanagh (accordion), Jack McEvoy, Castlemarket (violin). It was in McEvoys that Mikey said the front door was often removed to make a dance board.

Micky Dooley was a very enthusiastic card player and if there were too much visitors heading to the music end of the house he would have to hi-jack one or two at the door to play cards. Julia Phelan, Earlsgarden recalls that herself and her sisters “lived in Dooleys.” There was the odd argument over All Irelands and local loyalties and if the debate persisted the sparring parties would be put out and could still be heard arguing going up the lane and I’m sure by the time they got home things were sorted out. The present day Michael Dooley told me that when himself and his wife Marian were travelling home from Germany some years ago they got talking to a man at the airport who surprisingly told him that one time he had been on a train which broke down in Attanagh and this gentleman and a number of the passengers ended up in a party in Dooleys!

J.P. Delaney, his wife Mary and family together with his brother Charlie and family often visited Mikey Phelan and were very fond of him. Mary told me about the great friendship between her father Mick Fitzpatrick, Toberboe and Mikey. Julia Kennedy late of Earlsgarden passed away on the 15th August 2018 at the age of ninety five.

It was at her 80th birthday party in Castlecomer where Mikey found a new musical buddy in Mick Fitzpatrick. Another great musician who could play accordion, bodhrán, mouth organ, melodeon and violin. Mick was involved in Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann along with Maureen Dunne, Aharney (music teacher and accordion player) and the late John O’Shea, Durrow (accordion). They were involved in the SCOR competitions in the 1980s. As explained in the Scór rules – the competition was established by the GAA in 1969 with the aim of promoting Ireland’s traditional past times and culture.

Mick was a ceili dancer with Comhaltas and was responsible for reviving the thrashing set which was preformed on the dance boards at the cross roads in years gone by. On Sunday evenings Mick Fitzpatrick would visit Mikey and they would get out their song books and play for a few hours. Some of the songs they loved to play included Wild Flower, Going to California, The Rose of Mooncoin and Dirty Old Town. On other occasions they would swap venues and go to Fitzpatricks. John O’Shea would be picked up on the way and the music would continue in Toberboe. Mick Fitzpatrick passed away on the 6th May 2017.
The Diaries

Mikey kept a diary and he could have began writing these in his late twenties. I was privileged to have sight of these diaries (by kind permission of Seamus O’Gorman) for the years 1950 to 1968. At a glance it looks like Mikey just wrote a line a day but on closer inspection all these lines together paint a remarkable picture of life at that time. Mikey recorded the weather and it was particularly important to note what the wind direction was on the 1st May as this would indicate the type of summer ahead and also on the 1st November to denote how tough the winter might be. He recorded the beginnings and ends of lives of those he knew locally and whom he came across in life.

He noted the comings and goings to their house – social visits from family and neighbours to those carrying out work on the farm. What is most interesting is the meticulous record he kept what had to be done on the farm on a day to day basis. I knew there was little machinery to assist and a lot had to be done by hand but looking at how each day was filled really brought it home to me. Every year the names of all the fields and their uses were recorded. The brothers planned and noted how many drills of barley, oats, potatoes, beet etc were to be sown in each field. How the big cow, the little red cow and the speckled cow were progressing. Mind you Biddy the cow seems to have been herself in 1954 but even today a lot of farms have to contend with a troublesome Biddy or two.

Since I began reading the diaries my father has been peppered with farming queries and having to throw all sorts of shapes in our front room trying to explain what a creels, sugáns and reeks were; the laborious process of harvesting beet from sowing, grubbing, thinning, pulling, crowning and then taking the beet to the Attanagh Railway Station to load the wagons by hand which took several treks with the horse and cart. The whole other world of harvesting cereals such as barley and oats and my father explaining what opening roads meant, reaping, binding etc. Trying to save the hay.

There must be thousands of paintings in existence of romantic, rustic scenes of men cutting meadows with a scythe effortlessly under a patient sun or groups of people resting at the bottom of a hay cock drenched in sunshine and no end of it either. There are no paintings of the auld lad shouting about dark clouds gathering in the distance that are heading to nobody else’s fields only his. His company, as a matter of courtesy, look towards the impending doom only to be told to pick their jaws off the ground and work quicker. The pigeons cooing in the trees nearby are also part of the conspiracy. To date though most people wouldn’t notice, a pigeon settling himself into the one spot for hours with a constant coo-coo signals rain is very near.

Both Martin and Mikey were always very interested in cures and medicine books. When they had to get the vet in for a sick animal they wrote down everything he said and kept it for future reference. Neither Martin or Mikey got married but if they did they would have been some catch because in 1950’s Ireland they were way ahead of their time with regard to domestic duties. There are many newspaper cuttings on clothes care, stain removal etc.

Mikey drove his car for as long as he was able. He used to go to Ballyragget and frequent Mrs. Whelan’s café for his dinner and by golly did he praise Mrs. Whelan’s culinary skills. He often said that Mrs. Whelan would feed you like you were going ploughing behind a horse for the day. He loved going to car boot sales on Sundays to look for music. When he wasn’t able anymore his cousin Seamus O’Gorman would take out Mikey for his dinner every day to Mrs. Whelans and also his neighbour Pad Phelan who passed away on the 7th December 2016. Seamus and Mikey also went further afield on Sundays for other adventures. Mikey loved a drive and especially observing how things worked in other parts of the country.

When I visited Mikey I learned how simple things in life kept him more than happy such as visits from family and his good neighbours and outings to anywhere. He possessed an attribute that modern society should learn – to sit quiet at a fire for a few hours at peace with oneself and just content to ponder.

Mikey loved nature and feeding the birds especially a magpie who was treated to biscuits every day. Also a robin would nest in his tractor every year and no way could that tractor be moved until the robin had reared her family. He didn’t bother with television but often told me that his stove was his telly. Mikey Phelan lived quietly and passed away in the same manner on the 30th October 2019 heading towards his ninetieth year. In his last years when Mikey was travelling out the lane he would comment “there’s nobody left on the lane now”. He was the last of his name on that lane and his passing ended nearly two hundred years of Phelans in Russellstown. Mikey and Martin will always be fondly remembered.

I would like to sincerely thank the following: Seamus O’Gorman, Rathbeagh; Sean Kennedy, Barnderry; Julia and Mikey Phelan, Earlsgarden; Michael Dooley, New York, Grennan; Dermot Dorgan, Attanagh.

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