THE CLADDAGH MAN By Fern Balaun (for January 2017 Celtic Connection , Denver Colorado)
Mr. Neil Johnson from CROI heart association in Galway presenting a certificate to Tommy Holohan for the fundraising he has done for this heart association. Tommy’s two sons who ran with him in the NYC marathon in November are pictured along with Tommy’s wife Maire, and two grandchildren.
Patricia Dolan presenting the book “The Claddagh Boy” to Tommy (from Fern), according to the story!
Most think of the word “Claddagh” as a ring built of love, loyalty and friendship but there is more, so much more. The Claddagh. It is a memory echo of old Eire, its people, its culture, its unique flavor faded to those memory echoes now.
Those whose heritage is that of The Claddagh people of old, well, they are special people. I know one. His name is Thomas Holohan, known to me as “Tommy.” This is my story of Tommy as I know it which is, at its best, an incomplete picture of a Claddagh Man. You will find a little more of Tommy in his talk, “I Was Born in the Claddagh” that was recorded at the Galway Museum in 2015. He is a modest man so you will not learn everything there is to know about him there either. But, to me, he is the quintessential Claddagh Man as I understand that to be. There are no few words that can describe this term, but a few of them are that a Claddagh person’s spirit is rooted and stays in The Claddagh. Tommy is that person and he is as familiar with the two old streets of the Claddagh, Rope Walk and Dog Fish Lane, as if they were still being traveled today. He has a drawing of every cottage of the Claddagh and the names of the people who lived in each cottage in the day…a marvelous drawing. The thatched cottages there were planted at haphazard angles, close together in the hospitable Irish way, side by side, end to end, giving a jigsaw effect. It was written of that day, “It is a triumph of unconscious beauty.”
Tommy has all the articles of his Claddagh thatched cottage home which was torn down in the 1930s. He is an expert on the history of The Claddagh as known by the descendants of those ancient people, not that written by “outsiders.” He knows the stories and the lives of his Claddagh family intimately – the O’Tooles and Conneeleys.
Tommy told me one time about the Claddagh men who were fishermen with their specially built boats for the rough Irish Sea, called Galway Hookers. And he said the men caught and brought in the fish but the women took over from there, processing the fish, giving the men a little money for their drink, then leaving the men with the babies and peddling the fish in Galway Town. But for me, the most endearing thing about his telling me of the Claddagh men was that they were all very good at calming the babies for they were the only men of Ireland who cared for the little ones while their wives were taking care of the fresh catch and handling the family money. I asked Tommy if he was good at calming the babies and he said, “Oh yes, I am good with the babbies” (The Irish pronounciation of babies).”
So that is only scratching the surface of the stories that Tommy will tell you about his heritage in the Claddagh.
Then there is Tommy, the painter. I do not know that side of him as well because I got so caught up in Tommy, the Claddagh Man. But in addition to his antique collecting of Claddagh memorabilia and the history of the Claddagh, he is also a runner. At 65 years, he still trains and runs marathons to raise funds for two Irish heart associations.
As I understand it, Tommy has never smoked and does not ever drink. He runs. When I was in Galway for the seven months in 2014, I would be here or there in the city and there would be a man running and training his body to respond to long distances. I might yell out to him and wave and he would wave but never pause. Then I found out he was about to set a record in Ireland. Yes, at that time he had run 18 consecutive New York City Marathons and the record would be 20 consecutive years.
So now, it is 2016 and he has run the 20th consecutive year and set a record. His two sons ran the record setting run in New York City this year along with Tommy and all finished together.
I tried my best to get the news of that record being set and finally learned that nothing was made of it! I couldn’t believe it, partly because a big article and interview was held after the 18th run and now nothing? Something must be done. Could I help? Stay tuned to my story.
Now back to my meeting Tommy – I don’t believe it was a coincidence. An arranged meeting I would call it. You see my great, great grandmother was born in the Claddagh in 1800 and immigrated as a young girl to the United States. She married here to Joseph Campbell and is listed in the early 1800s census records as “born in Ireland” but never where in Ireland. I searched most of my adult life for legal records of her but even a hired genealogist was unable to trace her back to Ireland. So, when I decided to live in Ireland for a year (which eventually became seven months), I looked for legal records everywhere possible. Not finding any, I became reconciled to finding out what it was like in the days when she would have lived there. This search was a time when Madelaine of Peg’s Cottage in CO Tipperary was posting a lot of Irish information on Facebook so I posed the question of where and how I might look while I was in Galway. She kindly posted my question and, in answer to my quest, Helga Gleeson came into my life. Yes, she knew a man who might be helpful in my search and his name was Tommy Holohan – and friendships were born. I called Helga as soon as I arrived in Galway and then called Tommy. I believe that call was on a Sunday and Tommy was soon wheeling up to my place in Westside with a load of Claddagh information, photographs, history, memorabilia and a book, “Down by the Claddagh” that he left with me to read. From then on until I left my lovely dark isle, I searched all the places suggested but found nothing. So, I walked in the Claddagh regularly, feeling very much like my family was there in a thatched cottage. When I prepared to return home to Colorado, I tried to return Tommy’s book but he gently kissed my cheek and said, “It is yours.” I couldn’t believe it but there it was, the kindness and hospitality of the Irish right there in the Claddagh Man!
So, I am home now and in 2015 I wrote of my time in Ireland and the book was published in the fall. I rested and Ireland waited. Yes, my destiny was to return to reflect on all I had learned there. So, in August 2016 I returned to Galway to see those wonderful Irish folks who I met there and who have become my friends. I phoned Tommy thinking he was one busy person so he would probably not have time to come to see me. But he did! Not once but twice and, in the second meeting he brought another book with information about the Claddagh in it for me. The reason I tell you this is that, while we were all talking over coffee, he stated that he would really like to find a copy of the book, “The Claddagh Boy.” He had only ever found one copy and it was very expensive.
When I returned home in August, I began looking for the book. I did find a copy. It was expensive. I pondered. I pondered some more. I contacted the seller and he would not budge on the price – it was, after all, a collector’s item. So, I made a deal with myself. I really, really wanted to give that book to Tommy for all the kindnesses he had shown to me. So, how could I do that. It came to me, I did that and the book is now Tommy’s, with gratitude from one very connected to her Irish ancestors in the Claddagh.
In addition to the surprise gift congratulations to Tommy on the recognition of his record 20th run in this year’s marathon and the money he have raised to help those in need in your country. And thank you for being a great historian for your people in The Claddagh. Thank you for your part in the story, Claddagh Man! Fern Howe Balaun,