The Two Mothers: A Portrait of Castleisland in the 1930s

The Two Mothers by Castleisland author, T M Donovan, was published in 1933.  The book, described as ‘a realistic story of rural life in Ireland, of typical Irish homes and families, of honest work and earnest striving,’ is rare.



The story is set in ‘Inishciar’ (Castleisland) in the period before and during the economic war.  The Connichan family of Church Street consists of John, a carter; his devout wife Margaret and their three children, Seumas, the eldest, who is at college training to be a priest; Andrew, pious, but working in a local garage with dreams of the priesthood, and Kate, hoping to marry.


The story opens on a celebratory note because John has secured a six month contract carting gravel and building stones.  The celebration is short lived however, for a letter arrives from Seumas with news ‘worse than death for his family’: he has abandoned his training for the priesthood, and acknowledges that ‘all Inishciar will be scandalised’.


In such times, this meant estrangement from his family forever.  He was now ‘a spoiled priest … his mother threw her apron over her head as a sign of shame.’


Mrs Larretti is an old school friend and neighbour of Mrs Connichan, of considerable wealth, the ‘spiritual mother’ of the Connichan children.  Having lost her own family, she has bore most of the cost of sending Seumas to college.  When Mrs Larretti hears the news of Seumas, ‘if she were struck with a bullet she could not have received a greater shock.’


And so the story unfolds as news of the scandal spreads.   Margaret Connichan’s brother Dan Dunnelly, who has also helped to fund his nephew’s studies, must be informed.   He lives with his wife Bess and the mysterious Nicholas Wilson at Ballaveg, a thinly disguised Scartaglen, three miles from Inishciar near ‘the round hill of Droumultan’ and the ‘woods of Ceanguilla’ on the Brown Flesk River.


Bess, whose character Donovan based on his own wife – ‘a kind of savage tartar’ – has a bad tongue which ‘never rested day or night.’  Donovan provides a lengthy description of her delight in the bad news – ‘to her it was good news.’


Mrs Larretti decides that all is not lost; she can fund Andrew into the priesthood.  The Very Rev Canon Drimmand, ‘a most avaricious cleric’ whose desire for money was insatiable, disapproves, though his curate, Father Charlie, ‘loved by all,’ approves.   Retired teacher Mr Crimmins provides Andrew with a crash course in the classics and Andrew is subsequently waved off to college by the whole town.


The story follows Andrew’s journey into the priesthood.  Various characters are introduced on occasions such as the missions, the stations (which, according to Donovan, evolved in Penal times and are only known in Ireland) and tea parties.  Donovan utilises these characters to deliver treatises on religion and politics of the day.


The story, simply told, conveys family and community pride in rearing a son for the priesthood in the 1930s.   Society’s conformity to the teachings of the church is powerfully evinced in the language and the everyday practices of the community.


As a social tract, The Two Mothers demands study.  The able descriptions of the characters mean that many might be identified.  Sylvy Fennelly is a bachelor who lives in the Great House with his sister Margaret, ‘the only farmer who owned a motor car in the district.’  The Dennihy family of the Emporium is the ‘biggest merchant’ and richest family in Inishciar.  Some characters Donovan revealed himself, such as John Mackim the postman, who was John McKenna, and Father Charlie, who was Rev Charles O’Sullivan, CC.


The Two Mothers records an era that may still be recognised but is arguably almost erased by modern times.  Its local setting makes it a highly valuable addition to the corpus of Castleisland literature.