Born on August 3rd, 1903, in the townland of Glendoan, or the hamlet of Snugborough, Ardara, to give it its official name, my father, Charles Keeney, later known as Sonny, as distinct from his father Charles senior, entered the world at a time of unprecedented change in the technical, inventive and industrial revolution that would eventually affect the way we all live. After all it was only four years previously that the famous quote of “Everything that can be invented has been invented” was uttered by no less an individual than, Charles H. Duell who was the Commissioner of US patent office in 1899.
By using that particular introduction, on my father’s entrance into Irish life, one may get the impression that he was destined to become a great inventor; not true of course, but in the then, underdeveloped part of the world to which he was born, I think it would be fair to say that, despite, or because of those limitations, the notion that, ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ became his destiny. By that I mean, he was ever up to the task of problem solving whenever mechanical break-downs occurred on the road, the farm, the workshop or the home itself.
Much of that self reliance was probably developed from a youth that, among other experiences, included cycle racing, his favourite sport. Without the benefit of mechanical back-up in those days, all maintenance had to be carried out by the cyclist. Much of his physical and road cycling skills would have been build up by virtue of his daily trips to his place of work as a fresh-fish hatchery attendant at Glenties, a facility aligned to the restocking of the nearby Owenea River for the benefit of rod-fishermen. As with all young people of his age group, I suspect from the stories he related to me, in later life, the winning of cycle races all around sough Donegal meant more to him than the considerable good fortune of steady employment.
I remember a time around 1952 when my eldest brother John brought home his first car, a Ford Prefect, and discovered that due to a common fault in the gearbox of that particular model, the gear stick, when changed to the forward and higher position, consistently slipped back to neutral while going forward, leaving the driver no option but to manually hold it in gear. My father came to the rescue by fixing a swivel bracket beneath the stick that was easily released when a gear change was needed. Some years later in 1961, I wished he was around when I did my driving test in London on the same model with a slipping gearbox and with the eyes of the examiner on me, to hold the gear-stick in place during the test manoeuvres. My abiding belief being, that he only passed me for effort needed rather than any skillful driving technique.
From an early age, it becomes apparent that he was drawn to the challenge of learning the ancient, but almost dormant craft of the hand-weaver. One only has to look at the long history of this particular industry in Ireland to see that around the first quarter of the 20th century, it was not in a very good place. We are indebted to the diligence of the late Ardara historian, PJ McGill, FRSAI for his work on this subject from a History of the Parish of Ardara, when he issued the following information that briefly gives an indication of the historic links we as a people had with the woollen industry.
Bronze Age Discovery; of bronze objects (preserved by antiseptic action of bog) wrapped in woollen cloak of herring-bone design – white warp, dark weft…Professor McAllister comment, “it gives us a high opinion of the ingenuity of the artificers in textiles in the fifth period of the bronze age“
And Again: At a later period; It emerged that the use of alum in wool dying (Scotland) was taken to Scotland by Irish Missionaries.
In the Middle Ages
Superior Irish cloth, popular and selling will in Europe caused difficulties for English. Manufacturers, and the Red Book of Bristol (1439) tells how trained Irish weavers were captured by sea-merchants and sold to manufacturers in English towns….a struggle existed during the reign of Henry V11 and Elisabeth I.
The small Saxon spinning wheel, invented in Nuremberg, Germany, was introduced to Ireland and replaced the big wheel in many areas.
A ban on any export of Irish woollen goods except to England, from where they were virtually excluded by tariffs that included a seizure of goods and the ship that carried them plus a £500 fine!
So by 1672 the stage was set for full time smuggling; as Ireland had a sheep population of around 4,000,000 at that time. In one year alone 40 ships left Ireland supposedly bound for England but actually destined for France. Soon the country was flooded with French wine; the most popular method of payment for wool. A ‘small creek’ at Pollaniska on the west coast of Slieveatooey (S.W.Donegal) is remembered for the concealment of kegs of wine and also flags where rolls of tobacco were laid out as part of the exchange. Men would later carry these goods on their backs for trading purposes to the local towns of Killybegs, Ardara and Donegal Town.
By the 1860s, when manufacturing got under way again much of the expertise was lost; particularly in the field of wool-dying and the variations in design. The craft was sadly reduced to a level where a typical tweed product would consist of what was know as plain home-spun, white warp and dark weft; or an all-white simply known as Bainin.
The 1870s saw local business man and Hotelier, Neil McNeilis enter the home-spun industry, selling mainly to institutions with some difficulty due to the lack of variety and colour in design available.
In 1884 Philanthropist, Dr. Ernest and Mrs. Hart of London came to Donegal to investigate the poverty-stricken areas with a view to look at the potentiality of advancing the industry of spinning and hand-weaving in the county. Dr. Hart, who was editor of the British Medical Journal at the time of his arrival, sadly did not live to see the success of their plans and the wonderful energy applied to that commitment by Mrs. Hart in the pursuit of that goal. Important milestones in that venture would be the securing from the British government of a grant for £1,000 and the establishment of a warehouse in London W1. ‘Donegal House’ in Wigmore St. became a major attraction for home and foreign visitors alike in the years that followed.
By 1893, with the help of the Congested District Boards, a type of quality control was introduced to the industry. The man in charge who was also the inventor of the modern handloom, WJD Walker, from Co. Down, led to higher standards and markets opened up.
In the year of 1908 alone, income earned by home-spun workers in south Donegal reached £11,000; a figure of several million euro surely in today’s terms. However, home-spun products were often sold from stalls or benches at local fairs or markets. The difficulties of this method of trading can well be imagined in the harsh Donegal winters of yesteryear. An indoor facility for measuring, inspecting and selling woollen products was planning by the CDB, constructed and officially opened by the Glenties born, Cardinal O’Donnell in 1912. Known locally as ‘The Mart’, the building still serves the industry today in the ownership of the well known Ardara Company, Triona Design.
By this time, market forces were looking to the wider picture and we started to see a demand for what later became known as Donegal tweed. Using machine-spun yarns from English mills, a trend that caused some unease at home but the industry continued to attract attention on the overseas market. However, as World War 1 began to take effect on raw textile supplies from abroad, many cottage industry workers reverted to home-grown traditional materials to keep up with demand for clothing. This demand continued to increase until around two years after hostilities ceased, when in 1920 it all ended in a crash. It is interesting to note, that in the year 1919-1920 alone, a figure of £70,000 was paid out for produce of the Ardara cottage industry of woollen workers by the traders at the Ardara mart. In addition to the above, local traders McNeilis and Molloy & Co. were also exporting large orders.
As was customary after a boom period, the industry remained somewhat in the doldrums until around 1928 when a fresh approach was made at the Ardara mart. Gaeltarra Eireann was founded there as a vehicle to train young weavers and streamline the industry in securing raw materials which included a spinning mill based at Kilcar which supplied the finish yarns in prepare warp form. It was around this time that my father, with a number of newly trained young men joined the company as an ‘outdoor weaver’ on a piece work basis producing the then, famous Round Tower brand.
This development, with the introduction of new textile designs from what was now a semi-state company, moved the industry to a wider market and with the benefit of a young workforce the lost skills of former times were being gradually realised. However, as with any fashion product, market forces determined the smooth running or otherwise of sales both at home and overseas which often resulted in periods of unemployment for the craftsmen.
1939 and Europe is plunged into World War 11. The irony of that situation was not lost on people, who had experienced the shortages of a previous war of just a generation back. Early skills came to the fore, when spinning wheels were harnessed and wheelwrights worked overtime to meet demand.
The up to now part-time weavers, including my father were also trying to cope with the return of the rustic home-spun yarns provided by country folk in their enthusiasm to be part of the boom. It was reported that the material fetched prices that trebled that of the previous boom period, with up to 2,000 families employed in the S.W. Donegal area alone. Quality control kicked in with regular checks at the Ardara Mart but much of the material failed the test and was sold off at local markets.
However, as the war raged on, free-lance weavers like my father were issued with machine spun wools from Gaeltarra Eireann as the raw materials to produce what was known as ‘shirting’ for armies in battle. As the name suggests, the shirting or clothing for this purpose was essentially of a much lighter or finer quality than was customary in handloom production. As an example of the intensity of shuttle-use on this particular material, it may be of interest to some that in order to weave one inch of cloth, the shuttle has to travel (manually) 28 times through the warp, and my apologies for this, but I calculate that my father would have thrown his shuttle a staggering 80,640 times in order to complete the standard 80 yards of cloth for the princely sum of $1.50 (30 shillings) at that time. Nevertheless, my guess is, he would have been most grateful for the employment!
As the war ended and markets returned to peacetime conditions, the demand for tweeds slowed and it was decided by management for a time to install wool breaking machinery in the mart at Ardara; the raw material being transported from Kilcar for this purpose. Around this time, my father, now an established weaver, joined the well-known Donegal Town based Magee & Co. as an outdoor handloom weaver. Warps were delivered and finished tweeds collected by the company from his workshop, a system that really appealed to him. He would look back on those ten years or so in the employment with Magee & Co. as the happiest period of his working career.
There was also the added attraction of what is meant to work for a privately run company. To be on ‘first-name terms’ with the Managing Director, a mantra practised by Magee & Co. appealed to him, as did the official but friendly visit from the company to my mum at the local maternity hospital when my youngest sister was born. My mum loved the flowers! Another interesting little sales gem practised at the time by the Magee firm was the inclusion of the weavers name on all their overseas tweed sales, giving the buyer a ‘three dimensional’ interest in their purchase. To emphasise the artistic element in the product, like a good book or painting, was the simple but effective sales method used by a very successful company. An appreciative letter from very happy lady customer in Paris, France around 1953 and delivered to my father in his workshop in Glendoan, slowed down the morning’s work but was well received. It was good to know that our tweed was making it in one of the fashion capitals of the world!
One of his favourite hobbies, writing songs and poetry, was given free expression during that time. He once confided to me that many of his songs and stories were composed in his head as he sat on his loom being entertained by the antics of various birds on an evergreen tree just outside his workshop window, in Glendoan; where they sang and bounced playfully among the branches; almost drowning out the sound of his shuttles.
His other great love, apart from my lovely mother, whom he married as a nineteen year old bride in 1933, was music and dance. The button accordion being his favourite instrument at parties or performing for dancers at local fun places. I had reason to be grateful to him in my childhood for his patience in teaching me the basis of sheet music and its application on another favourite instrument, the fiddle, which I never really mastered, but still use for the purpose of reading dance music and song. Looking back on those times, I am now fascinated by the energy displayed by my father, a busy man in the time and effort he gave to all of his 9 children in teaching us the ways of the world. Perhaps there is a compliment in there somewhere too for the huge part my mum played in that demanding task. Life had somehow reached a point where it seemed as if the angels were on his side.
Around this time each of the two elder boys in the family served their time in learning the weaving craft and then it was my turn. My time spent in his company perfecting what he termed ‘the weavers trade’ gave me an important insight into his take on life as he saw it. It was an opportunity for shared opinions on many issues and I look back with great fondness on those times. He spoke to me of the insecurities of his earlier life when he found it necessary to study the basics of house building ‘from the ground up’ in order to remain in employment, and it is fair to say that much of that knowledge which he passed down set me on my way to study the joinery trade, which I was to rely upon for a lifetime career. One abiding memory of those times is the figure of my father kneeling by his loom each evening to offer thanksgiving for the blessings of employment; an ominous and timely reminder to young eyes of what had gone before!
Then just as life seemed perfect for him, a visitor drew up outside his workshop in Glendoan one day, a member of the management team from his old company Gaeltarra Eireann. I had the experience or privilege of being present on this occaasion. The man had come to offer him a supervisory post at the Mart in Ardara where the workforce had now built up to around forty weavers with young trainees coming up the line. My father was understandably hesitant to accept but the man was very persuasive, pointing out that the work would be less physically strenuous than his present position.
It was with reluctance I believe, that he decided to take up the offer. He was now on his way to what would prove to be the final chapter of a career that was certainly hectic but never dull. In many ways it was the ideal occupation for my father. His knowledge of the handloom, the variation of design in the tweed manufacture and quality required were all meat and drink to him. He was also favoured by a very competent workforce of people who knew their business and were prepared to work diligently for a living. Nevertheless the attention to detail was very demanding as was the importance of securing the basics warps, wefts and paperwork from the G.E. Headquarters in Kilcar on time for continuity of employment of piece-work workers was very challenging. Happily though due to the popularity of tweed throughout the 1960s, employment continued on a fairly regularly basis at the Mart until a slowing down in the 1970s when quite a few of the senior members, including my father had reached retirement. It was the end of an era, in 1975 when probably due to production costs and a reluctance of the then markets to appreciate a unique handcrafted fashion item, Gaeltarra Eireann ceased trading.
While the immediate outcome of that decision was not welcomed in the area, indeed it was a difficult time for families who faced unemployment as a direct result of that situation, the fact that a number of former workers set up their own workshops in order to maintain and utilise the now sophisticated extent of design available was encouraging news. It had also transpired that, of those who took that courageous step to keep the craft alive, among them, John Molloy & Sons, The Mulhern family of Triona Design and the well known Eddie Doherty tweeds of Front Street, the demand for this special handmade craft remains as keen as ever.
As for my father, retirement really suited him. He continued to take part in the social aspect of the town, taking up his accordion at the drop of a hat or doing his stand-up routine when jokes and recitals were called for. whenever Santa Claus appeared in the town, he was usually somewhere around. He and my mother visited New York for the first time to call on family members and meet up with long-lost friends. Possessing a rather vivid memory of times gone by, he recalled a long forgotten dance, the ‘Donegal Sets’ and with the help of a young gentleman from Falcarragh, a cultural enthusiast, had it written into Donegal folklore for posterity.
He also took to charity work through the well-established local Conference of St. Vincent de Paul, an occupation which included travels to various functions throughout the region as well as attending to demands much nearer home. One such outing was a Christmas time visit to a fairly austere nursing home, where they entertained the patients with song and stories. On their way out they found the exit door to be locked. A hurried message to the staff doorman, and help arrived letting them out onto the tarmac, from where their group leader politely offered a ‘thank you very much for allowing us in’, at which point my father was heard to say ‘and thank you very much for letting us out’.
One month before his death in the month of June 1982, he had the great pleasure of being a guest at the ordination of neighbour and close family friend, The Rev. Fr. Noel Breslin. It was fitting that a well loved neighbour’s child, like Fr. Noel, with his great sense of fun provided him with the opportunity to say his final goodbye, as it were, to the social life in a community where he lived all of his, nigh on eighty years. It was also a fascination to me to remember that his favourite recitation or party piece was the story about the boy-next-door ‘who threw the snowball’ and grew up to become the authors’ favourite priest. Sometimes life does imitate art.