This little book is a fascinating read and a must have for anyone with Irish ancestry. It was narrated by Charles MacGlinchey, whose family moved from the Finn Valley in Donegal to the Inishowen Peninsula and settled in Clonmany parish, where Charles McGlinchey was the last of his family, hence the title of the book. It's chock full of Donegal folklore, including tales of poteen stills, revenue men, men on their banishment, the famine, immigrants to America, landlords and tenants, kidnapped women, hedge schools and fighting sticks. Charles McGlinchey was born in 1861 and died in 1954. His life covered the period when most of our Irish ancestors were crossing the Atlantic in small ships with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a small cask of oaten bread for nourishment.
Don't look for a lot of genealogical information in the book. There is a mention here and there of a handful of families a fortunate few may be able to connect with; but on the whole this book is a living, breathing picture of life in Donegal when almost every Donegal man still spoke and read Irish as his native tongue and the Irish language had yet to melt away under the onslaught of English like the snow on a river bank, to use McGlinchey's phrase.
There are tales in the book of Donegal farmwives walking the thirty miles from Clonmany parish to the market in Derry and back again in time to do more chores before nightfall; of the oldtimers sitting with their backs to the fire at night sharing the ancient exploits of Finn and Cuchulain; of a rapacious Scottish landlord named McNeill from whom no comely lass in the parish was safe; of an Irish schoolmaster overly fond of the drink and of his eager young Latin hedgerow scholars; of a sodden Irish landowner who drank away his inheritance at the local pub; and of the great yearly fair at Pollan, a festive event attended by the entire community with occasional tragic consequences for the unlucky.
Books were almost unknown to the common man in Donegal. The few books McGlinchey mentions were mainly religious tracts, in Irish and Latin. He mentions offhandedly that a man of his acquaintance owned a book by someone named Aristotle. Tragicallly he also relates that many of the old Irish manuscripts were burned to prevent the spreading of disease in the community. Even if they had had books its doubtful anyone could have spent much time reading them. The cabins were dark at night and if anyone entered the cabin after dark the fire had to be stirred to raise enough light to see who it was. Homemade candles flickered in the windows on religious holidays.
Contrary to common misconception, the Irish did not just subsist on potatoes. The farmers made their own oaten and flour bread, which they ate with butter and washed down with fresh milk. They supplemented their diets with what they called "kitchen", which included everything from fresh fish to watercress from the ocean strands. Each family had a measure of corn for the winter, and most had at least a cow, perhaps a pig and a few chickens, although eggs were a cash crop reserved for the market at Derry. Red meat, as we know it today, was a rarity in their diet. Every farm had its rack of potatoes in the fields. The plows were wooden and drawn by horses. McGlinchey mentions a local farmer, one of whose horses took sick one day, and he took its place in the harness pulling the plow alongside the remaining horse for the rest of the day.
The famine did not seem to affect Donegal nearly as badly as it did much of the rest of Ireland. According to McGlinchey, an earlier famine in 1817 was much more devastating. It's not clear whether this condition pertained to Clonmay parish alone, or whether most of Donegal escaped relatively unscathed. But fly off to America nonetheless did the sons and daughters of Donegal and Inishowen, leaving behind forever the two-roomed thatched roofed cabins and the village fairs of their youth. Some of the more primitive living conditions common elsewhere in Ireland did not seem to prevail in Donegal. Sod cabins were almost unknown, except for temporary accommodations in the summer mountain pastures. Nearly every family had a cabin of stone, McGlinchey says, with lime covered walls, although rarely whitewashed, and hard clay or stone flagged floors. Some cabins even had windows. The fireplaces in early years lacked flues and the pall of smoke was ever present.
McGlinchey didn't write this book - he narrated it to a local schoolmaster when over ninety year's old. His often rambling text was edited by Brian Friel, and first published in manuscript form in 1986 in Belfast. The current edition is published by J.S. Sanders and Company, of Nashville, Tennessee.
I was especially struck by the fact that McGlinchey mentioned that the Donegal folk gave their farm animals, mainly cattle, pet names such as Starry and Missy. In our family we have a copy of the will for our immigrant Donegal ancestor, in which all of the family's cattle were so named. The twig, they say, does not fall far from the tree, and if you'd like to really get a feel for the world in which your Irish ancestors lived, then buy a copy of this book.
You won't regret it.