'It's Us They're Talking about' : Charlie Owen

Margaret Farren

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Charlie Owen was born in 1910 and is renowned in his townland of Gortnahinson and beyond for the keenness of both his memory and his wit. Enquiring as to how he can best serve the needs of this magazine, he assures me that, he can access not only his own personal history, but also a whole wealth of stories and folklore handed down to him by his father, who in turn had learned many of them from his father. I don't doubt him for a minute. He has the readiness to proceed of a man who is both sure of his subject and of his audience.

As with all of the people I have interviewed this year, Charlie's life spans most of the century, and his memories of it are so vivid, so well-informed and often so poignant that they proved to be store enough of material for our contemplation.

Liam Gibbons, native of a neighbouring townland and a good friend of Charlie's, accompanied me on my visit to his house back in late February of this year. Being thus put at his ease, Charlie quickly began to demonstrate the loquacity for which he is so famous. After a brief consideration of the interests of the Summer School, he quickly arranged his reflections under some broad headings, to facilitate me in writing them up. Among those were:

  • the priests who impacted most significantly on the life of the community.
  • the observance of feast days.
  • the ways and means of making a living when there was no money to be got.
  • the changes in living conditions over the years.

In true seanchai fashion, Charlie uses these headings throughout our conversation to keep him focussed on the task in hand, while still digressing far enough from the topic to remind you that this is not a history lesson, but a living memory.

Charlie conjured up a picture of his past so intricate and so immediate that within minutes I forgot I was sitting in a modern home at the turn of the 21st century, and was instead smelling the turf fires, hearing the clatter of the horses and carts and watching the beads of sweat trickle down the brow of the Black and Tan who stood before the 11 year old Charlie on a blistering hot day in June. Time and again, Charlies' reminiscences glide from the general to the particular, from the broadly political to the specifically local, with such an ease as would almost make you suspect that he had been orchestrating the course of events from the start.

He decides he'll start with pigs. [I was once told that pigs are a symbol of loyalty, friend- ship and a general good nature. It is fitting therefore that Charlie's many anecdotes hinge upon the fortunes of the local stock.]

"Everyone kept pigs. They were a quick return for money. If you had one pig and you kept it for three months it could make two hundredweight. Then you'd send them to Derry to the Butter Market in Foyle Street. There was a man up there for selling - in those days it was a man by the name of John Quigley. The market in Derry was twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday, Saturday being the day for the best prices. You weighed your pigs up in the Market House before you took them to the train station, and then you got a receipt for the pigs from the station master. Before the railway it was all carting. There were two or three cartiers from Cloughfin.

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