How Bill Moran walked out the reform school gates, and into the freedom of Daingean
Story by Vincent Henry • 1st January 2023
I don’t know what offence he committed, but those who knew Bill Moran reckoned it must have been harmless. Mitching from school, or stealing a pack of cigarettes perhaps?
He never talked about it — and we never asked.
He spent two uninterrupted years in Daingean Reformatory, an institution that was established for “treating children who were criminals in a different way than adults”, according to the language and thinking of the era.
When his time for release arrived, 17-year-old Bill emerged through he gates of the reform school into the free world — but instead of going back to Dublin, he walked into Daingean.
Work and money were scarce. Most Daingean people emigrated, farmed, harvested their own turf, worked in the bog or the ESB. Some might have been lucky enough to work in a factory in Tullamore or Edenderry.
But if your reference showed that you were a Dub and had spent the previous two years in the reformatory in Daingean, your chances of finding work diminished considerably.
As evening drew to a close, he found himself at the last house on Clonad Lane, about a mile from the town. This was my father’s home place. Bill knocked at the open front door and was greeted by my grandmother: “Come in.”
It was a greeting Bill hadn’t been used to. My father’s people were easy-going by nature. If there was work available there were no questions asked as to who you were or where you came from. Even though it was a large family, there was always farming chores to be done about the place.
Directly across the road from my grandparents’ house was the old ramshackle building where two of my granduncles once lived. This house now lay idle, and Bill was welcome to accommodate himself there until something more appropriate might come his way. Bill gladly accepted.
He spent the next 50 years of his life in this same house, and it would become known as Bill Moran’s house.
With a roof over his head, it must have pleased him that it contained one of those big old settle-beds (a bed by night and a table by day), an open fireplace and a griddle iron on the hearth. A large mahogany table and press had permanent places in the centre of the floor, unmoved since the day my granduncle died.
There was also a dilapidated rocking chair and an old cracked-face grandfather clock that hadn’t worked for many a day. All those items of furniture had more than served their purpose, or else they would have been moved across to my grandparent’s house. Bill set to work.
He began tinkering with the chair and the clock and succeeded in restoring both items so they worked perfectly. He rocked at the fire on those cold winter nights and listened to the tick-tock of that old grandfather clock.
He loved rambling to the many neighbourly houses on the lane
Bill Moran spent the next half century farming the land with my uncles and my first cousin Joe Molloy, cutting and saving turf, making hay, milking cows, threshing, cutting corn, driving the tractor, feeding cattle and helping at the mart and creamery.
He had the freedom of the family home and it was here he had his meals every day. As time went by, he was regularly offered a bed. He always had the same mannerly reply,
“No thanks, I’m happy across the road.”
He loved rambling to the many neighbourly houses on the lane. He’d go from the Henrys’ to the Rowans’ and on to the Briens’, listening to stories of bygone days. He regularly called on Paddy Brien, the nearest neighbour to my grandparents’ house, where he would frequently recite the poem Clonad Lane that Paddy himself had penned.
He played cards, recited poetry, kept abreast of the news of the day. The thatched home of the two bachelor Kilmurray brothers was one of the most noted music houses in Daingean. One would often cut Bill’s hair with the music in full swing.
A tooth or two was even known to have been pulled in Kilmurrays’ — up to 10 traditional music instruments going full blast while this little operation was in progress.
My father called to Clonad in the van every Friday night for many years. Alice, my aunt, did the shopping in the van, and if Bill was around the place, he always insisted on carrying in the groceries.
When they were placed on the kitchen table he’d come straight back out to buy his three bottles of stout, an order that remained unchanged down the years.
Bill was a creature of habit. He talked to the lambs at the same time every day. He drank his bottle of stout at the same time every night. He went to the same mass every Sunday, occupying the same seat.
He had his chat with my father at the same time every Friday night. Bill would go down to Brock’s pub at the same time every Sunday morning. It was the closest pub to Clonad and the furthest pub from the reformatory.
Sunday morning was the only time in the week he frequented a licensed establishment. Some of the other pubs would bring him into closer contact with the high walls of the reformatory, and the sight of those big walls had too many unpleasant memories.
Joe Brock could set his watch by Bill Moran on a Sunday morning. He drank his few bottles and was a central figure among the pub’s clientele.
Whatever papers he’d get his hands on would be read from cover to cover. He would have all the stories, from local to national to world news.
Locals were in awe of his knowledge. If a debate or argument was causing unnecessary differences among customers, Joe Brock would settle it by simply saying: “Ask Bill.”
His health began to deteriorate in the late 1960s. He could no longer live alone and fend for himself. He was transferred to the county hospital and from there to the county home in Tullamore.
Despite his many visitors, he was lonely from the moment he was admitted. Nothing could replace the open fire and rocking chair, the open fields and animals, the rambling at night-time.
But most of all he missed the people of Clonad Lane.
Bill Moran made two major requests throughout his life from the Henry family. The first he made the day he left the reformatory and sought work, the second from his death bed when he requested that he be buried in the Henry plot in Daingean cemetery. He had no need to make this request.
Bill Moran is buried in one of the Henry family plots with my aunt Kathleen, her husband Pat and my cousin Joe (Kathleen and Pat’s son) in the cemetery in Daingean, with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins a stone’s throw away.
He died on St Patrick’s Day 1970. He was 74 years of age.
Bill Moran was one of 5,275 boys who served time within those walls — before the reformatory was finally closed in 1973. Just like Bill, each one no doubt had his own very distinctive story.
An edited extract from ‘One Last Bend: A Personal History of Peter Henry’s Travelling Shop’ by Vincent Henry