Supporting Local News

Greatness on the doorstep – Ballinasloe writer’s novella a work of literary magnitude

By Fergal Lenehan

Growing up in Creagh, Ballinasloe, in the 1990s, I scrutinised the daily newspaper to find out what was happening in Dublin – what films were shown at the art house cinemas, what exhibitions were on in the various galleries, what public readings were taking place. Culture was something that happened in places like Dublin, and certainly not in places like Ballinasloe, or so I thought.

But I thought wrong. Great art has actually been crafted from the very marrow of Ballinasloe, in the experimental novella An Lomnochtán (translated into English as I am Lewy), by Ballinasloe-born bilingual author Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (1919-1982).

I had never even heard of Eoghan Ó Tuairisc until recently, and he remains a lesser-known figure in Irish literary history.

But Ó Tuairisc was elected as one of the very first members of Aosdána in 1981, the government funded association which “honours artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the creative arts in Ireland”.

He was, thus, a respected literary figure at national level.

Born as Eugene Watters in Dunlo Hill, Ballinasloe, in 1919, Ó Tuairisc/Watters was a gifted student. He won a scholarship to Garbally College in Ballinasloe and then later to St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, where he trained to be a primary teacher.

He remained in Dublin to teach and married Una McDonnell. Their marriage was also an artistic union; as Una Watters, she became a well-known and respected painter, while her husband became a writer of poetry, drama, novels and short stories, in Irish as Eoghan Ó Tuairisc and in English as Eugene Watters.

Ó Tuairisc also began translating literary works from Irish into English, such as the much-loved stories of Galway writer Pádraic Ó Conaire. Una and Eugene visited Ballinasloe often, and for a time spent their summers in the town, writing and painting.

Una’s untimely death at the age of 47 in 1965 devastated Eugene. For many years he was unable to write and suffered from depression. He moved back to Ballinasloe, and eventually married the poet Rita Kelly, also from the town.

It was during this period that he worked on and eventually completed the autobiographical novella  An Lomnochtán / I am Lewy. A novella is a text that is longer than a short story, but generally shorter than a novel and, in the European tradition, pivots on one central and transformative event.

Mícheál Ó hAodha’s translation of Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s novella An Lomnochtán (literally the naked or nude person, or the ill-clad person) as I am Lewy opened up the novella to a wider reading public. It is an experimental, modernist work set in Ballinasloe that centres on the child Lewy, clearly a version of the author himself.

I read the original Irish-language novella and the translation in tandem, which was a wonderful reading experience. My youngest daughter found it hilarious; reading two books at the same time, one in each hand.

Although I am far from being a Gaelic scholar, An Lomnochtán is unique, I think, as an Irish-language literary text interspersed with English-language slang with a Ballinasloe/Midlands/East Galway tone and accent – an Irish language narrative telling a story that actually happens through Ballinasloe English.

The novella, seen through Lewy’s eyes, plays largely around the centre of Ballinasloe – St. John’s Church of Ireland, Dunlo Hill, the Fair Green, St Michael’s Square – in the early to mid 1920s.

The Earl has left, and Lewy’s family now pays their rent to a solicitor in town. Lewy’s father fought in the British army at the Somme and in the “Passiondale”, he doesn’t have much respect for “Rippublicans” and meets an old comrade from the “Connawt Ranjahs” during the October Fair, at Toff’s funfair. The residue of the Civil War is still felt, and a Free State soldier has killed by a bomb in the Square. Irregulars/IRA roam east Galway and south Roscommon, especially the area surrounding Dysart. Lewy’s father has a car, which is in demand from all sides, and this results in an action which changes everything for Lewy and his family.

The small Bullaun Press published the translation of An Lomnochtán in 2022 which resulted in a short flurry of interest in Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s book.

Una Watters’s work as a painter has been enjoying a substantial renewal of interest for a while now too. The author Mary Morrissy has a wonderful blog dedicated to Una and a painting of Una’s was recently donated to the National Gallery where it can be viewed among masterpieces of twentieth century Irish art.

An exhibition dedicated solely to Una Watters took place in 2022 – the first of its kind since 1966, shortly after her death. The 1966 exhibition was organised by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc and, subsequently, he gave away most of Una’s paintings to family, friends and acquaintances.

This was, I’m sure, was an act of kindness but because of this Una’s work has been scattered and hidden from view, which has negatively affected her legacy and the understanding of her painting. A series of Una’s water colours were ‘found’ a few years ago in the Emerald Ballroom in Ballinasloe – a present given by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc to the Ballinasloe Bridge Club.

Eoghan Ó Tuairisc died suddenly from a heart attack in 1982. Not only does great art exist which was distilled from the limestone buildings, the streets and the speech patterns of Ballinasloe, the people who created it are also buried there, a short walk from where I grew up. A daffodil and a sword of light marks the couple’s simple joint gravestone in Creagh Cemetery. Their names are engraved simply as Eugene and Una.

An artistic marriage, united forever.

■ This article appeared in full in last week’s Connacht Tribune. Fergal Lenehan is a university researcher based in Germany. He grew up in Kiltormer and moved to Ballinasloe at the age of ten. His parents, P.J. and Phil Lenehan, still live in Creagh, Ballinasloe.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App

Download the Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App to access to Galway’s best-selling newspaper. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

Or purchase the Digital Edition for PC, Mac or Laptop from Pagesuite HERE.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app

The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

More like this:

Sign Up To get Weekly Sports UPDATES

Go Up