West Cork Finally Gets a History Festival!

For a place that’s dripping in history and archaeology, and with several active historical societies, it’s a wonder this hasn’t happened before.

Tom Barry, bust by Seamus Murphy

The inaugural festival of the West Cork History Festival will take place just outside Skibbereen on the last weekend of July this year. Take a look at their website – it’s a great program, offering sessions from medieval to modern, from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, revolutionaries and poets.

A Letter of Marque gave an individual permission to be a privateer – a form of legalised piracy

Although it’s got West Cork in the title, this is not only West Cork History. The organisers emphasise its eclectic nature and call it a festival of intellectual delights. National dimensions are obvious in discussions on the War of Independence and international ones in sessions on the First World War. West Cork gets a good look-in, though, with a thorough re-examination of Hart’s work on the Bandon Valley Killings (see here for a good summary of the events and the controversies surrounding the scholarship), in the light of the most recent research. Several active and respected local historians will contribute in their area of expertise.

War graves such as this one have been springing up all over Cork in the last few years. For most of the 20th century we maintained a form of collective amnesia about the Irish fighting in the First World War – see my piece Outposts of Empire

National and local topics are happily juxtaposed – tower houses, for example, will be the subject of two sessions, one of which places them in an all-Ireland context and the other in a West Cork context. (For more on tower houses, follow this link.)

Kilcoe Castle – an impressive example of the Irish Tower House, now magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons

I’m very much looking forward to learning more about Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork – a tremendous figure in the history of this area. But the Festival takes it one step further with a talk on the vital roles in Irish history played by the children of the Great Earl. I’m also going to make sure I take in a presentation on the Knights Templar by Dominic Selwood, yet another of the multi-talented speakers on the schedule.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork (1566-1643)

The opening and closing sessions will be major highlights. Prof Roy Foster will deliver the introductory lecture. How fitting – Roy Foster is surely among the most respected historians of his generation. Author of numerous books and influential articles, including Modern Ireland (1600-19720) and a justly famed two volume Life of W B Yeats. His topic, ”A Fair People”: antagonism and conflict in Irish history, will set the tone for a weekend that will not shy away from controversial and thought-provoking sessions.

Prof Roy Foster, considered by many to be one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary historians

The closing session features the writer (and highly entertaining speaker) Michael Dobbs, creator and author of the House of Cards series of books and TV shows. Titled Life, Lust and Liquor: how House of Cards wrote itself, this should bring things to a close with a bang.

And in between, there’s a host of academics, researchers, film-makers, journalists, writers and editors – and even a couple of ambassadors! It’s an eclectic mix and sure to be provocative and engaging.

The Festival features a screening of the Film Rebel Rossa, made by the great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A West Cork man, Rossa became famous and infamous for his Fenian activities. See my three-part account of him here.

The Festival is the brainchild of Simon Kingston, who, with his wife Victoria (a professional historian) has a long association with West Cork, which culminated in their settling at Rosebank, the dower house of Liss Ard Estate, just outside Skibbereen. Simon is a graduate of Trinity and of Oxford and describes himself as an historian at heart, although he makes a living in the world of executive recruitment. He’s put together an amazing program, sure to become an ongoing feature of the West Cork heritage landscape for years to come.

I’ve only managed to give you a tiny taste of what’s in store at this Festival – you will have to come and experience the terrific range on offer for yourself. Meanwhile, they’ve set up a Facebook page so you can keep up to date on all the latest news and announcements. Head on over and give it a Like and a Share. And are you a member of the Twitterati? There’s a Twitter feed just for you!

 Right so – on July 28 – see you there?

Back to the Beara

Mizen, Sheep’s Head, Beara, Iveragh and Dingle: these are the five peninsulas which make up the south-western coast of the island of Ireland. We live on the Mizen and, for that reason, we are always trumpeting the qualities of the place, historical and scenic. However – to be fair – the other peninsulas have much to offer. The Sheep’s Head is a mere stone’s throw from us – just over the waters of Dumnanus Bay – and our visits there are frequent. The Beara has been calling us recently: we tend to think of it (unfairly) as somewhere quite distant but we can be on it in less than an hour. In the last two weeks we have taken two day trips out there (with our holy-well hunting friends Amanda and Peter), in contrasting weather conditions, and we can report back that the landscape is stunning whatever the weather, and the visible history is palpable. We have visited before – a while ago now: see our posts here and here.

Header picture – I titled this photograph ‘unbelievable’ in our file: look at the tiny house and the monumental stone walls heading up the mountain above it, dividing up the land into enormous fields. Above – a typical view of mountain, meadow and wild scenery to be found on the Beara

The Beara comprises around 58,000 hectares, or 228 square miles, and covers 330 townlands. The larger, southern portion of the peninsula lies in County Cork, while the northern area is in County Kerry.

We were searching for – and found – some of the Beara’s holy wells. Head over to Amanda’s blog Holy Wells of Cork for more information on these (and hundreds more Cork wells!)

A significant and comprehensive study of the history of the Beara has been carried out by Cornelius J Murphy (more popularly known as Connie Murphy). In all he has examined and documented some twelve hundred archaeological and historical sites, some half of which had been known and recorded previously, but as many had not. Our little expeditions pale into insignificance compared to Connie’s work, but they will inspire us to spend more time ‘on the ground’ in the area, while also simply taking in the spectacular views of the wildly variable topography.

Top – Day 1, in the mist: standing stones can just be made out in the distance. Lower – same stones, different day! On our second trip we were most fortunate with the weather

Tradition has it that, in around 120 AD, Conn Céad Cathach (Con of the hundred battles) fought a fierce battle against Owen Mór, King of Ireland at Cloch Barraige – these are the words of Connie Murphy:

…Owen was badly injured in the battle. Those of his followers who survived took him to Inis Greaghraighe (now known as Bere Island) as a safe place for him to recover. There, the fairy Eadaoin took him to her grianán (bower) where she nursed him back to full health. Nowadays, this place is known as Greenane…

…Owen and his followers then sailed southwards until they reached Spain. There he met and married Beara, daughter of the King of Castille…

…Later Owen, Beara and a large army sailed from Spain and landed in Greenane. Owen took his wife to the highest hill on the island and looking across the harbour he named the island and the whole peninsula Beara in honour of his wife. Rossmacowen, Kilmacowen and Buaile Owen most likely are named after Owen Mór and his son. Owen’s wife, Princess Beara, died and was buried in Ballard Commons in the remote and peaceful valley between Maulin and Knocknagree Mountains….

Top – down by the water, a tiny settlement by the pier, and – lower – Derrenataggart Stone Circle, Day 1

Our first day’s expedition took in the southern side of the peninsula, from Glengariff to Castletownbere. The mist was down and we went off the beaten track to search for holy wells, standing stones and stone circles, and were rewarded with some good finds. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘raised ring fort’ at Teernahillane: I could not trace anything in the archaeological records to describe or explain it. Our conclusion was that it could be a natural phenomenon that has been mistaken for an unusual (and rather unlikely) form of defensible structure. There is no sign of any retaining stonework, although this might have been robbed but, other than being more or less circular, it bears no resemblance to any ring fort we have seen elsewhere. If anyone has any more knowledge or ideas about this site, please let us know.

On our travels this week we were rewarded with brilliant weather which cast a whole different hue over the Beara – and opened up the incredible views which are everywhere, but nowhere more spectacular than the journey over the mountains on the Healey Pass. This road was constructed as a famine relief project in 1847 on the line of an ancient trackway that connected Cork and Kerry and was first known as Bealach Scairt – the way of the sheltered caves. It was renamed after Timothy Michael Healey (who lived from 1855 to 1931) – a Bantry man, deserving of a future blog post, who achieved notoriety in the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stewart Parnell. The two fell out – and came to blows – when Parnell was involved in a sensational divorce case. After the 1916 rising, Tim Healy declared his sympathy with Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin movement, but was opposed to the use of physical violence. Healy returned to prominence in 1922 when he was appointed the first ‘Governor General of the Irish Free State’. In that post he pursued the improvement of the road between the Kerry side and the Cork side of the Beara Peninsula and, shortly after his death in 1931, the restored pass was dedicated to him.

At the top of the Tim Healey Pass we were treated to the most incredible views of our entire journey: our photographs hardly do them justice, but we hope they give you a sufficient taster to inspire you to journey that same way.

Top pictures – Christ looks down, on the summit of the Tim Healy Pass; middle – one of the views from the top: snowy peaks seen on the sunniest of days! Lower – another view from the summit, with the Iveragh Peninsula (and the Kerry mountains) in the distance

Other highlights of our second day trip included the Uragh Stone Circle – surely the most dramatic situation for any megalithic monument? Beyond that site – through serpentine narrow boreens – lie the Gleninchaquin Lakes, Woods and Waterfalls, on a privately owned and run park covering 700 hectares. The very modest entrance fee allows you to freely use all the walking trails, the longest of which – around the perimeter – will take you six hours! We chose a shorter route through unbelievably green meadows, passing the enormous waterfall and being treated to glimpses of newly born lambs, all in hot March sunshine worthy of the middle of summer.

Views of the Uragh Stone Circle in its magnificent mountain and lake setting and – lower picture – looking from the circle back towards the landscape

Ancient cottage in an ancient land; the green glens of Gleninchaquin

All roads lead to home and we found ourselves eventually in Kenmare – where we suppered and visited another rather special holy well – before travelling over the mountains to Bantry on another high road – spectacular also – the Caha Pass – which finds itself tunnelling through the rocks in places.

Saint Finian’s Holy Well, on the shores of the river at Kenmare – still visited, and still effective!

We hope these little descriptions, and the photographs, will stimulate you to explore the Beara. We are looking forward to many more visits there, and to the discovery of yet more of Ireland’s fascinating history.

Sliding into Kerry

view from the road

My musical acquaintances might think that this post is all about Kerry slides – lively tunes which get aired sometimes at our session: here are some fine examples played by Éamonn O’Riordan, Tony O’Connell, Brian Mooney and Gearóid Ó Duinnín…

But they would be mistaken: this is the tale of a little wintry but sunlit exploration which Finola and I undertook on the eve of St Gobnait’s feast day. It involved crossing the border into Kerry, something which is not lightly done by Corkonians because of traditional rivalries (mainly on the Hurling and Gaelic Football fields). So we had to ‘slide’ over into the Kingdom and hope that none of our friends noticed our temporary absence.

Sheep flock on road

We had things to do in Kenmare (have a look at Finola’s post), but afterwards we took to the byways. We knew there is a remote, lonely and very beautiful road winding up over the mountains, shared only by a few wandering sheep, and determined that would be our way home. We headed off to the tiny settlement of Kilgarvan and there saw a signpost that said Bantry 25: we turned on to the boreen that follows the Roughty and Slaheny Rivers and immediately entered another world.

Macaura's Grave signpost

We hadn’t gone very far along the road before we were intrigued by a brown signpost – beckoning us along an even smaller boreen. Macaura’s Grave: neither of us had any idea who Macaura was, so we had to go and investigate. After about ten minutes of twisting and turning and trying to guess which of the unmarked and unsigned lanes to take whenever we came to a junction, we found ourselves back on the road we had just left! By now we were determined that Macaura was not going to get the better of us, so we flagged down a young lad who was in charge of a fine red tractor. He was very forthcoming, and told us that the grave was well worth a visit, then proceeded to give us a set of instructions that involved turning this way and that – signifying to the air which ways these were. Not a little confused, we drove off again.

View from near grave

It was no hardship to be exploring the magnificent countryside in south Kerry: the views were breathtaking and the variety of colours on the mountains in sunlight and shadow this early spring day was astonishing. A bit more head scratching and a few more twists and turns down a stony trackway and we were there!

Modern sign

Now we knew. Not only had we found the grave of Macaura – that’s the old Irish way of saying McCarthy – but we had come across the site of one of the most significant battles in Irish history! The Irish chieftain, Finín McCarthy (named as the ‘King’ of Kerry – and that’s why Kerry is known as The Kingdom), joined up with the O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork and the O’Donoghues from Ross Castle to rout the Normans, who were led by Sir John Fitzgerald. This battle took place in 1261. 1261! Over eight hundred years ago… This confirms my thesis that you can’t go anywhere in Ireland without stumbling over history. The Anglo-Normans had claimed their stake in Ireland from 1169 when Strongbow (Richard de Clare) arrived with the blessing of Henry II (and the Pope – who saw the Irish church charting its own course and not following Rome!). Reasonably, the Irish chieftains objected to the Norman invaders, hence this confrontation.

Grave Inscription

In the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1961, Volume 66, there is a comprehensive – but not entirely enlightening – article by Diarmud Ó Murchadha on The Battle of Callan:

…Finghin Mac Carthy had learned much from his opponents during his years of conflict, while he had the added advantage of knowing intimately the territory over which he fought. At Callann he chose his battleground, at a spot where a mountainy river called the Slaheny joins the Ruachtach, close by the castle of Ardtully. No doubt he reckoned that here the heavily-armoured cavalry of the invader could be used to the least advantage. Battle was then joined and Finghin mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh emerged victorious… Unfortunately no details of the conflict – apart from the names of those slain – are available. Incidentally, the fullest account of the battle is given, not by the Munster annals, but by the Annals of Loch Ce and Annals of Connacht:

AD 1261 – A great war was waged, and numerous injuries were committed in this year by Finghin, son of Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, and his brothers, against the foreigners.There was a great hosting by the Geraldines into Desmond, to attack Mac Carthy, but it was Mac Carthy attacked them, and defeated them…

The Annals go on to record the fact that Finghin followed up his victory at Callan by attacking and destroying every Norman castle and stronghold in Munster. As the sign over Macaura’s Grave tells us: …he liberated the Kingdom of South Munster from Norman domination forever…

battle-of-callan-site

But who is it that the Macaura Grave celebrates? ‘Donal, Chieftain of the McCarthy Fineens’… Presumably this is not the Finghin, who, according to the Annals, went on after the battle to rout the Normans out of Munster: the Finghin who is known as mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh – ‘son of Domhnaill MacCarthy’. Could it be his father (Donal is an Anglicisation of Domhnaill)? In which case it was the clan chieftain who died in the battle and his son who went on to clear the Normans out of Kerry. There are a few accounts of the battle, but none of them clarify this. It all happened a long time ago, of course, and memories fade. In fact this site was all but lost: an article in The Kerryman takes up the story, illustrated by this photograph:

1981-clearing-the-site-of-the-grave

…The men of Kilgarvan were busy in November 1981 – making a road fit for a king! The king in question is Finín McCarthy who died in 1261 after being the first Irish king to defeat the Normans, thus giving Kerry the name of the Kingdom… Legend has it that after the battle, McCarthy stood on a ditch to survey the battlefield, when a dying Norman killed him with an arrow. McCarthy was buried on the spot, and a large slab was used as a headstone. The grave now lies on a narrow little road in Callan beside Tom Healy’s farm. When retired Dublin civil servant Frank Shanley spent a recent holiday in Kilgarvan he went looking for the grave, which was buried by shrubs and bushes… He decided to organise a meeting of the local men to try and get them to improve the grave and access to it…. It was Dan O’Sullivan, Down, Tom O’Donoghue and Michael Teehan, who were slaving away widening the roadway from eight feet wide to 16 feet, when he visited in November 1981… Apart from the narrow roadway and the briars and trees, there was also a steady stream of water running over the grave, but the men got the pipes to divert the water in another direction. There was no actual inscription on the grave that the men could read, but there were a series of lines and crosses on it, which they hope will be examined by an expert…. They hope that when they have the roadway to the grave cleared, they can erect signposts to the grave, and notices around the grave telling the history of McCarthy’s death in the battle of Callan…

Macaura's Grave

So we have the ‘men of Kilgarvan’ – back in the 80s – to thank for leading us to this now tranquil but historically turmoiled and fascinating spot. There is still the puzzle of which McCarthy is commemorated: perhaps we’ll never know for sure. But it’s not bad to have access to a story which has survived for the best part of nine hundred years – just about within living memory by Irish standards! After this excitement we continued our journey over the spectacular Coomhola road through the mountains towards Ballylickey and gently slid back into West Cork. If you can cope with very narrow roads (it’s not so bad – we only saw two other vehicles, both local farmers, in the whole 25 kilometres!) it’s one of the great road trips of Ireland – with the added bonus of a history lesson to be taken in.

Beyond the tunnel

Sheep on the edge

The Winding Road

Nest of the Eagle

eagles over nead

Nead an Iolair – that is the house we live in, here in the townland of Cappaghglass, West Cork. That’s it, in the picture above, with a pair of eagles flying overhead… We don’t see them very often. Well, in truth, we haven’t seen them at all – this is a bit of photographic magic – and wishful thinking. Nead an Iolair – our Irish readers will know that this means Nest of the Eagles – is a perfect name for the site, suspended way up above Rossbrin Cove – a good lookout with higher ground behind: exactly the right environment for the big birds. There were undoubtedly eagles here once – and in various other parts of Ireland – but when and how many? As with most things nowadays, someone has carried out the research and there’s a study available online. It’s worth a read, but I can summarise the main points: analysis of place-names and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years enabled the following diagrams to be drawn up:

eagles data

Data from The history of eagles in Britain and Ireland: an ecological review of placename and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years – Evans, O’Toole and Whitfield, RSPB Scotland 2012. Diagram (a) is 500AD and diagram (b) is 1800AD. The dots show Golden Eagle locations in dark grey, White-tailed Eagle locations in light grey and overlapping of both species in black

The diagram shows that White-tailed Eagles have lived here on the Mizen Peninsula 1500 years ago, and both species have been located a little further up the west coast as recently as 200 years ago. In 2001 fifty young golden eagles were released in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal, in an attempt to reintroduce the bird to Ireland. In a similar project to reintroduce white-tailed eagles,  one hundred of the birds were brought from Norway to the Killarney National Park between 2007 and 2011, and up to September 2016 thirteen chicks have survived. The aim is to get at least ten chicks flying from their nests each year. Six white-tailed eagle chicks have flown from their nests in Ireland in 2016, making it the most successful year yet; one of these chicks was born near Glengariff, which is only just over the hill from us in terms of an eagle’s range. So we remain ever hopeful that the white-tailed eagles (sometimes known as white-tailed sea eagles) will soon make their way down here to Nead an Iolair – attracted, perhaps, by the name. We’d be very pleased to see them circling overhead – they are the largest birds on Ireland’s shores. Already our bird feeders attract avians of all shapes and sizes, and they generally get along fine with each other, although the smaller birds do make themselves scarce when Spioróg turns up!

White-tailed sea eagle

A superb photograph of Haliaeetus albicilla – the white-tailed eagle or white-tailed sea-eagle, by Yathin S Krishnappa (via Wikipedia Commons). This was taken in Svolvaer, Norway – geographical source of the birds that were reintroduced into Killarney National Park within the last decade

Whenever we are on our travels we look out for the word Iolair (eagle) in place-names. We found one in Duhallow, a Barony in Cork County, just north of the wonderfully named Boggeragh Mountains. In fact we were alerted by signposts directing us to Nad or Nadd (nest) and found ourselves in a tiny settlement which was determined to point out its links with the eagles.

nad road sign

eagle on post 2

large eagle's nest sign

The village of Nead an Iolair in Duhallow, North Cork makes its associations with eagles very clear. The pub is named The Eagle’s Nest, and there is a fine sculpture of the bird sitting Nelson-like on a column beside it

Besides these features the village has a poignant memorial dating from the struggle for independence: a reminder of harsh realities still within living memory. The words that stand out are May God Free Ireland.

Back to the eagles and – in an interesting diversion into semantics – we noticed that the name over the door of the pub is in old Irish script and has introduced an additional character to the word Iolair – it looks like an ‘f’. Finola tells me that the use of the accent over that ‘f’ – which is known as a búilte – serves to silence the letter. In modern script it would be converted to ‘fh’: so fhiolair would still be pronounced ‘uller’. But we can’t find any precedent for using the word in this form. Perhaps an expert in Irish language can help us here…?

nead an fiolair

Regular readers will be aware that I am always on the lookout for links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland (and there are many). Interestingly, Nead an Iolair is one of them. Just outside St Ives, on the north coast of Cornwall, is a superb house, also called Eagle’s Nest. It was the family home of Patrick Heron, one of the influential St Ives School artists. When I lived in Cornwall I frequently passed by the house and was always impressed with its location – like us now, it is high up above the coast with a commanding view over the myriad small fields and out to the ocean. I always thought I would like to live there, because of that view… Now I have my own Eagle’s Nest – and I couldn’t be more content.

eagles Nest cornwall

Looking across the Cornish moorlands near Zennor, towards Eagle’s Nest – photographed by the artist Patrick Heron, whose home this was

Saint Oliver

plunkett window close

We revisited Inchigeelagh, in West Cork, as we remembered that the church of Saint Finbarr and All Angels had some fine examples of stained glass: Finola is preparing a talk on that subject and our travels are revealing an unexpected abundance of this art in our little bit of Ireland’s furthest reaches. Our last visit to Inchigeela was to inspect the unusual ‘rock art’ that has been built into the wall of the grotto just by the church door.

rock art inchigeela

We are none the wiser about the meaning of the ‘rock art’: suggestions include a dove of peace flying over mountains – but I have yet to be convinced. However, it was a good day for looking at the windows: the sun was streaming through the south facing glass panels and creating a kaleidoscope of colour on the surrounding walls.

There was plenty to occupy my attention in this church: I had to admire the bear of St Columbanus. This Irish saint spent most of his life on missionary work on the continent and stories about him include taming the bear and yoking it to a plough, and establishing friendships with wolves. I’m not quite sure why, but St Columbanus is the Patron Saint of motorcyclists.

the bear

There was one window I had failed to notice amongst the panoply of saints on my previous visit to Inchigeelagh – tucked away at the back of the church: it’s the one at the top of this page – Saint Oliver Plunkett. In some ways it’s the most extraordinary of the windows as it depicts the gruesome death suffered by this Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland at the hands of turncoats and perjurers – and it’s a far cry from rural West Cork. Plunkett was born in 1625 in Loughcrew, County Meath and died at Tyburn, London: hanged, drawn and quartered, in 1681.

Gallows

He was a victim of the Popish Plot, concocted by Titus Oates, an English clergyman who contrived a story that Plunkett was to lead an uprising involving 20,000 French soldiers. Whichever account you read, it seems that no-one believed the story: a trial was held in Dublin but there was no conviction. Plunkett was then sent to Newgate and put on trial again: again the trial collapsed. A third trial, at which Plunkett had no counsel, found him guilty after the jury had retired for fifteen minutes. That it was a monumental miscarriage of justice became evident very quickly: Plunkett’s accusers were arrested – the day after his execution.

Perhaps the reason why Oliver Plunkett appears in Inchigeelagh is topicality: he was canonised in 1975, thus becoming the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years. Above is his shrine in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth (his head is on display) and his Canonisation picture. St Oliver is the Patron Saint of Peace and Reconciliation, which in the mid-seventies was timely for Ireland. As ever, it’s timely for the world today. The Oliver Plunkett window was made by Abbey Stained Glass Studios, Dublin in 1992 and the artist was Kevin Kelly.

plunkett-15-stamp

All Silver and No Brass

title page full

Henry Glassie’s book has been sitting on my shelves for 40 years, waiting to be dusted off and revisited. As a Mummer myself, I eagerly searched out any book on this then neglected subject, and was pleased to find this volume which concentrated on the Mumming tradition in Northern Ireland. It is written and illustrated by Henry Glassie, a Professor of Folklore at Indiana University Bloomington, and is the product of an extended field trip to County Fermanagh in the early 1970s.

Henry Glassie – born 1941 – has written many books about life and traditions in Ireland. His first was All Silver and no Brass, published by The Dolmen Press in 1976

…Winter nights in Ireland are black and long. A sharp wet wind often rises through them. Midwinter is a time to sit by the fire, safe in the family’s circle, waiting for the days to lengthen and warm. It is no time for venturing out into cold darkness. The ground is hard, the winds bitter. But for two and a half centuries, and possibly for many years before them, young men braved the chilly lanes, rambling as mummers from house to house, brightening country kitchens at Christmas with a comical drama. Their play, compact, poetical, and musical, introduced an antic crew and carried one character through death and resurrection…

(From the Preface to All Silver and no Brass by Henry Glassie)

here comes I

saint patrick

Glassie stayed in Ireland during the Troubles, and deliberately chose a community that was close to the upheavals of those days.

…Mumming was neither my project nor my goal. My project was the creation of an existentially grounded ethnography of people in trouble… We settled next to the barbed-wire bound barracks in the southwest Ulster town of Enniskillen, in the County Fermanagh, about twelve miles north and east of the burning border. I began quickly, luxuriously conducting my study on foot. I came to know every dog, bog, path and field in a small area south of the town, lying west of Upper Lough Erne, its waters as bright, its isles as green as promised in the old ballad of the Inniskilling Dragoon…

Enniskillen, from a photograph dated 1900, and Henry Glassie’s illustration of the mummers ‘Doin the Town’ as remembered in the 1970s

I like the way the book is set out. One section transcribes a number of conversations that Glassie has with people who remembered – and had been involved with – the mumming tradition.

…Most of the kitchens at the centers of those white houses were opened willingly, generously to me. My Americanness set me outside the local social categories, so I got on well with people of opposed political and religious persuasions. More of the people were Catholics than Protestants, more were men than women, more were old than young. Almost all had made courageous adaptations within the terrors that frame our lives. That was what interested me most: how daily life passed sanely, even artfully, despite armored cars hurtling down the country lanes, despite bombs that cracked the air and rattled the windows. I had forgotten all about mumming. Then one evening Mrs Cutler and I were chatting about Christmas and she mentioned the mummers’ arrival as the season’s high point. Suddenly excited, I asked if any of the play’s performers were still alive, and she listed people I knew well. All of them were men in their sixties and seventies who had begun to stand out in my thinking as exceptionally energetic, outgoing, and articulate. From that time on, I asked many questions about the drama, its performance, meaning, and purpose. I learned that the memory of mumming is cherished…

wren-boys

Upper picture – Wrenboys from Athea, Co Limerick, 1946 and below – ‘Mummers hunting the wren’ in Macroom, Co Cork, around 1950

Glassie talks at length to two brothers, Peter and Joseph Flanagan, who have very clear memories of taking part in the mumming.

“…We’d just take every house that we faced, whether we’d be admitted or not. We’d just take every house that we’d face. Of course, there was people on the other hand that wouldn’t admit them because it might frighten the youngsters, you see, or cause some confusion. That’s the way. That’s the way it goes now. So, You all stood at the door and…”

He twists and rapidly knocks five times on the table.

“…’who’s there?’

“…’Captain Mummer. Any admission?’ Yes, aye, or no: that was the way. ‘Any admittance for Captain Mummer and his men?’

“and if the person was pleased to admit you, well, they’d open the door. Throw it wide open for you.

“And Captain Mummer walked in.”

Peter moves quickly from his seat and down the kitchen. His heavy boots sound sharp on the floor. He closes the front door behind him, raps on it thrice, and re-enters. He strides ten feet into the kitchen and stands to deliver his lines, turning his torso to project to the audience assembled in a semi circle that runs from the front table past the hearth to the back table. Joe and I are fixed upon him…

“Here comes I, Captain Mummer and all me men.

Room, room, gallant room, gimmee room to rhyme,

Till I show you some diversion round these Christmas times.

Act of young, and act of age, the like of this were never acted on a stage.

If you don’t believe in what I say, enter in Beelzebub and he will clear the way.”

Frowning, Peter returns to his stool. It has been years since he has thought of the rhymes. “Let me see now,” he says, and sits repeating the speeches of Beelzebub and Prince George under his breath. Joe picks up the large turf out of the fire with the tongs and sets them at the front of the hearth. He sweeps the thick ashes off the iron to his side with a besom, places new turf against the backstone, and arranges the old coals next to them. The smoke and glow increase as the new turf ignite. Joe, too, went mumming, but he went out less often than Peter and cannot remember the part he played. He sits back as Peter starts in again…

Henry Glassie’s drawing of ‘how a mummer’s hat is made’ together with two examples from more recent times

Glassie’s writing goes on to describe the recollections of the play from those who undertook the performances. It is an invaluable record: his informants have now passed away. They would probably be surprised to know that their plays have not been lost: a new generation is performing in the north – and elsewhere on the island of Ireland. They would be even more surprised, perhaps, to learn that their own play breathes again: there is a Mummers Centre in Derrylin and the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers (Aughakillymaude translates as the wooden field of the wild dog) perform regularly in the area around Christmas time once more, while at other times they travel across Europe keeping the spirit of mumming in Ireland very much alive:

aughakillymaude-mummers

Aughakillymaude Community Mummers in full cry (above)  and (below) Henry Glassie’s reconstruction of the performance before the hearth

the performance