The remains of the Gavin homestead in Clonown.

Remembering all the strong women of years gone by


Most of us never knew our great grandmothers. We regard them as long lost in history. Yet, it’s interesting to realise that our own mothers are our grandchildren’s great grandmothers. The gap is not so wide.

For those of us aged over 70, our great grandparents were born in the years just after the Famine, in the second half of the 1800s. These were desperate times in Ireland. In 1860, life expectancy here was only 39.6 years. No wonder we never met them!

Now, life expectancy is 83 years.

Back in January, I wrote, ‘When an elderly person dies, a library of history and a volume of knowledge is lost.’ I advised you to sit down and write your story. I wonder did you?

How I wish that the woman reared in this old cottage had done so.

Rosaleen Fallon, a local historian from Clonown, contacted me last October. We always knew that my great grandmother was born in Clonown, but we knew nothing else about her. Clonown is on the west side of the river Shannon, south of Athlone.

Rosaleen told me that an American man had been in touch with her. He had researched his roots, very thoroughly. This man was arriving to Clonown, from Boston, the following Sunday. He was coming to find the homestead of his great grandfather, John Gavin, who had left Ireland more than 100 years ago.

She informed me that this John Gavin (who emigrated to America) was from a family of nine children. One of them, John’s sister, was my great grandmother, Kate Gavin. Rosaleen wanted to know would I come up to the community centre in Clonown to meet this American man, called Larry.

My sister, brother and I decided that if our third cousin (previously unknown and unheard of) was coming 3,000 miles from Boston to visit his ancestor’s home, we could surely drive the three miles there.

Well, when we met him, this Irish American was beside himself with joy. He clasped us to his bosom, absolutely delighted to be meeting his genuine Irish relations at long last! He was thrilled to have found ‘his roots’ and declared it one of the best days of his life.

We all drove to see the old homestead, in Buggane, near Clonown Church. It appeared to be standing in a lake! Wellingtons were produced from the boot of a car. Our American third cousin made his way across the floods to take this photograph. He took a stone from the old building and we could see that this meant a lot to him.

Unlike us locals, he was very knowledgeable about the breed and seed of the Gavin family.

The nine Gavin children were born just after the Famine. These were truly awful times in Ireland. And I imagine that they were particularly bad in Clonown, under water for a lot of the year.

My great grandmother, Kate Gavin, was born in 1861, 90 years before me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she had kept a diary, which we could read now?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read what life was like for her, as child, in those post-Famine years? How did they survive, at all?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know why this woman didn’t settle for a match to be made for her, with a local farmer? That was the custom then. I’d love to know how a romance began between her and a shop owner in town, my great grandfather, Bernard Coyle. How did she like living in town? How different was her life there, living over a butcher shop, in O’Connell Street? (I was reared in the same house.)

What I would most like to know is where her interest in education came from, back in those days. All her children attended secondary school. My grandfather, born in 1893, was sent as a boarder to Rockwell College, in County Tipperary.

Kate Gavin died in 1941, ten years before I was born. Until our long lost American relation arrived, we knew nothing about her. Mustn’t she have been very healthy indeed to have lived to be 80? (Maybe ‘twas because she had lots of fresh meat to eat daily, being married to a butcher!)

In the future, our great grandchildren will wonder about us. They’ll be reading in their history books about Covid and more. They’ll be wondering what life was like when we were young.

I strongly advise you, again, to write down your memories of the past. Write about the women and men who went before you. You may not realise it now but this information will be of huge interest to your great grandchildren and future generations. During the weekend that we celebrated Mother’s Day I came across the following, which is worth quoting here. "You are a strong woman, because strong women went before you. It is not just your mother who may walk with you in spirit, it is her mother too, and her mother’s mother.

Generations and generations of female energy, are watching in admiration as you forge ahead, living better and feeling better than they ever did. As they very much hoped you would.

Remember them, feel them. They are with you in everything you do. You are the ‘moment in time’ of many women gone before you, and you will lay the pathway, like they did, for those who come next.

What a beautiful unending legacy." End of quote. Their DNA goes on and on forever within us.