The Last of the Name Hardcover – 1 Sep 1999
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His voice is wonderfully appealing...--Carol Peace Robins "The New York Times "
About the Author
Charles McGlinchey (1861-1954) was a weaver by trade, and lived his entire life on the Inishowen peninsula in the northwest of Ireland. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, McGlinchey dictated his personal memories of life and Irish history to a local schoolmaster, and these eventually formed his memoirs entitled The Last of the Name.
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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.
The book is superbly produced-- from the book design to its typefaces, it's beautifully executed. Considering how this material was obtained, the book is well edited. To me reading the book is like sitting around a turf fire in Ireland, listening to a very old man lovingly describe a time that was long since past. He mentions many people and places, mostly within the parish of Inishowen. One thing I would have liked to see is an index. Without an index it's difficult to determine if an ancestor is mentioned in the book.
The book contains many Irish words and common phrases that were in use at the time. The book also contains songs and poems in Irish (with English translations) that perhaps are not recorded anywhere else. Much of what he recounts was part of the Oral Tradition of the countryside.
In some ways reading this book brought sadness to my heart. My great-grandparents were born in Donegal around 1820. This book describes some of the hardships that they had to endure. It chronicles a way of life, and a people that are no more. McGlinchey speaks to this regarding the Irish language, "Down to my young days there was nothing spoken in this parish at fair or chapel or gathering of any kind but Irish.... The English language came in greatly in my own time and in the one generation Irish went away like the snow off the ditches."
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