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

Aweigh in Kerry

ursine setting

Adrift on the shoreline of Ballycarnahan townland in County Kerry is a most wonderful piece of architecture. It is a ship shaped house, seemingly half buried in the sand dunes, its prow and bridge emerging and facing one of Ireland’s most spectacular views.

view to derrynane

The view from the Ship House: across the water is Derrynane, the home of ‘Ireland’s Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell (soon to be featured on Roaringwater Journal). The Kerry mountains make a splendid backdrop

The house in the dunes was built as a holiday home by Francis and Ros Horgan of Macroom in the early 1950s. It is still owned by the Horgan family. As an architect myself I wondered about the history of the design: did the inspired idea of the ‘ship’ come from the clients? Or was it dreamed up by the architect? In which case the clients would have to be commended for going along with such a daring (and witty) concept.

from the road

Houses made from boats and marooned forever on dry land are not unknown: below are a couple from California; the Kerry house, however, is a purpose-built ‘one off’. Architectural ‘ship’ symbolism can also be found elsewhere in Ireland: the new Library in Dun Laoghaire by Carr Cotter + Neassens Architects has a definite nautical theme, appropriate for its site overlooking Dublin’s Dun Laoghaire Harbour.

green arks

Lexicon

Dun Laoghaire’s new library – the Lexicon – in the right of the picture above, acknowledges its maritime setting (photograph courtesy The Irish Times)

We were in Kerry visiting cousins of Finola: all of them were brought up in Lamb’s Head, just beside the Ship House. They were a mine of information on the house, which had been built by their grandfather Crohane Donnelly (he was named after the local saint) at a cost of one thousand pounds. Over breakfast this morning at Lamb’s Head, enjoying the same view across the bay to Derrynane House, I was delighted when cousin Annie came in with a newspaper cutting from the Daily Mirror dating from St Patrick’s Day 1969: the headline was Ahoy! It’s the Cosy Home that is Always Ship Shape, and it was all about the Ship House.

elevation

The house is named St Anne. I gleaned from the newspaper article that …she was one of Mrs Horgan’s favourite saints. A mass was celebrated when the house was “launched”, after the site had originally been blessed by Cardinal Griffin…

The upper deck of the three tier house – the wheelhouse – has a ship’s wheel which came from the HMS Pluto, which was being broken up in Cork. The lower deck, within the concrete ‘hull’, houses a garage and workshop, is known as ‘the hold’ and is lit by portholes. There is even a gangplank leading to the front door!

Quoting the Mirror: …Mrs Hogan, a quietly humorous Irishwoman in her fifties, explained how it all came about. “I’ve always had a great love for this spot, since I first came here at the age of five,” she said. ‘My husband and I used to come here every year for our holidays. We both loved the sea and boats.” She said that Mr Horgan, an engineering director and farmer from Macroom, Co Cork, worked on the plans with an architect. “First of all it was going to be a round house, then it just evolved into a ship. But,” she smiled, “I think that was what my husband wanted in the first place…”

from the driveway

sand dunes

In 1969 …The house now sprouts a TV aerial and has mains electricity. But Mrs Gorgan rather regrets it. “When we had a diesel engine for lighting, it used to chug-chug away. At night, looking across the bay, you felt you were sailing in a real ship right out at sea. I miss the diesel for that…”

bridge

Perhaps one day I will get to have a look inside the ship house – I wonder how the rooms are laid out? As well as bringing in the electric there are some obvious upgrades which have taken place – there are modern windows installed and the roof looks to have been renewed. But it’s still a holiday home, owned and used by the Horgan’s children. It must be one of the most unusual and eccentric holiday hideaways in Ireland!

Stop Press Since publishing this post yesterday, Cousin Annie has forwarded some more information. An album of photographs which were taken during the construction process was reproduced in the Caherdaniel Parish Magazine in 2014, with the permission of the Horgan family (owners) and the Donnelly family (builders). It’s a great contemporary record of an unusual project and some of those photographs are put together in this slide show – thanks, Annie!

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Here’s the final picture from that collection, worthy of a place of its own. It shows the completed project and the Donellys who built it. Crohane Donnelly, Annie’s grandfather, is on the left…

ship24 complete

head on

Ros Horgan (pictured below in the Mirror article) deserves the last word: …Her eyes twinkled. “The archaeologists in years to come are going to have a lot of trouble with this one. They are going to ask: ‘In what era did they have concrete ships?’…”

Thanks to all Finola’s Kerry cousins and their families for their memories and information on the Ship House, and for the wonderful hospitality which they heaped upon us during our visit. And thank you to Finola for allowing me to use her superb picture on the header, which would otherwise have featured in her own Into The Kingdom post!

Ros Horgan

 

Into the Kingdom

To the Skelligs

The Kingdom? No, we didn’t go to Britain – we went to Kerry. It’s always been called the Kingdom, possibly based on ancient Irish precedents, although other theories abound. Many people think it’s because of the sheer magnificence of the scenery, and I wouldn’t disagree.

Ballinskelligs Bay

Ballinskelligs Bay. The first photograph is also Ballinskelligs Bay, with a glimpse of the famous Skelligs Islands in the background – subject of a future post, we hope!

Our journey took us on the Ring of Kerry, along the south side of the Iveragh Peninsula, by the sea. This is prime tourist territory – bus after bus passed us and every lay-by was thronged with camera-wielding tourists, including us. We came back through the middle of the peninsula, through deep valleys and high mountain passes.

To Ballaghbeama

Not for the tour busses!

These are not roads that busses can manoeuvre through, so we had it mostly to ourselves, the locals, and a few tourists armed with small cars and good maps. I love this Iveragh backcountry. It’s where I spent my student days, conducting my research. I even recognised the place where I crashed my Honda 50 into a bog.

Ballaghasheen Pass

Although it seems totally mountainous, vast sheltered valleys occupy some of the hinterland of the Iveragh Peninsula  

We visited two stone forts, the mighty Staigue and the lesser-known Loher, and of course some rock art. Staigue Fort is generally reckoned to be Iron Age (about 250AD), while Loher, although very similar, was built later, around the 9th Century.

Staigue Interior and outlook

Loher Stone Fort
Staigue Fort (upper), at the head of a long valley, commands views to the sea. Loher is also strategically sited with extensive views all around.

We toured Daniel O’Connell’s House at Derrynane and took the Nature Trail walk along the dunes, using the app developed by local man Vincent Hyland.

Shoreline walk

Wild flowers a-plenty on the dunes at Derrynane. Top: Sea Pinks and Sea Sandwort. Bottom: Pyramidal Orchid and Kidney Vetch

We searched in vain for the holy well devoted to Saint Crohane, patron saint of Caherdaniel – we’ll have to go back with Amanda to help us find it.

Across to the Beara

We didn’t find St Crohane’s well but when we finished our search, in twilight, this is what was waiting for us. The mountain range in the background is the Beara Peninsula in Cork

In fact, the primary purpose of our trip was to re-connect with cousins that I haven’t seen for about 45 years. The last time I saw Annie and her siblings they were kids, and we were all piled on to a donkey and cart in a vain attempt to get from Lamb’s Head to Staigue Fort. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that the donkey came out the winner. Most of the family still live around Caherdaniel, in jaw- dropping surroundings, and we were accommodated and hosted with true Kerry hospitality.

The view from Annie's

Top: The view from Annie’s house, across to Lamb’s Head where the family grew up

Along the way we saw a house shaped like a ship (Robert has more – much more – about this!), had our first experience of bottle-feeding a lamb, and we watched Rex the sheepdog gently herd a flock of chickens into their pen for the night. We visited my cousin Betty’s grave – she died a few months ago, the heart of the family, much mourned. It was, we hope, the first of many visits, back and forth.

Abbey Island

Abbey Island, Betty’s last resting place, must be one of Ireland’s most beautiful graveyards. To access it, you must walk across the sand and keep an eye out for high tides. The original monastic site was founded by St Finian in the sixth Century, although the ruined church, Ahamore Abbey, probably dates from the 10th Century.

This post is to give you a flavour for our neighbouring county and to show you why it is justly famous for its history and archaeology, but most of all for what is surely some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

Lamb's Head to Scariff and Deenish IslandsScarrif and Deenish are the two islands out from Derrynane Bay. Uninhabited for 40 years, they are the site of salmon farms now. We walked down Lamb’s Head to get a better view of them.

Tiny green fields

As in West Cork, everywhere in Kerry you can see the traces of tiny settlements. Abandoned long ago, possibly after the famine, each field may have provided enough potatoes for one family. Now only the sheep graze peacefully.

Ballaghbeama Gap

We headed home through the Ballaghbeama Gap. On the south side is Ireland’s greatest concentration of prehistoric rock art. We wrote about this in our post Derrynablaha Expedition.

Down from Ballaghbeama

Heading down towards Derrynablaha and home

Derrynane Sunset

It was hard to leave Derrynane!

Slides or Jigs? Polkas or Reels?

young fiddler close

Two young musicians – from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. We do not know at what outdoor gathering this atmospheric picture was taken, but perhaps there is a polka or a slide being played there…

Way back in the last century (it was the nineteen seventies actually) I first came to Ireland in pursuit of traditional music. I found it a-plenty. At that time, the music of the Sliabh Luachra was very much in vogue: local sessions and Fleadh Ceols were full of polkas and slides…

Classic recordings of traditional music collected from the Sliabh Luachra during the sixties and seventies: The Star above the Garter is published by Claddagh, while the others are from the Topic Record catalogue

My post last week came to you from the City of Shrone, which is within this area, in the border country of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. The strong surviving music traditions here have an unmistakeable character – fast and lively. I was reminded of that tradition this week when I came to the wonderful Fiddle Fair in Baltimore and listened to Tony O’Connell from the Sliabh Luachra in recital with Brid Harper, a highly regarded Donegal fiddler. They are an excellent duo – here’s a little taster from that concert (Kerry Slides):

As an aspiring concertina player myself I was bowled over by Tony’s playing, especially of the quintessential Kerry slides. But what is a slide you might ask? And how do you tell a slide from a jig?

Saturday’s recital in Saint Matthew’s Church, Baltimore: Brid Harper and Tony O’Connell playing Kerry Slides

Here’s some help, extracted from discussion boards, specifically on the subject of slides and jigs:

…Uninitiated listeners and even some tune-book editors have mistaken slides as hornpipes, single jigs, polkas, or double jigs, since slides share various traits with each. Once you know a few, you realise they are distinct from any of those…

…Note that slides are peculiar to the Southwest of Ireland, and some are directly related to double jigs, single jigs, or hornpipes played elsewhere in Ireland. Musicians quite familiar with slides are generally unfamiliar with single jigs, and some otherwise respectable authorities on the slide have rashly pronounced that single jigs “are the same as slides.” We can have some sympathy with that by understanding that these musicians simply use the term “single jig” to mean “slide,” and are apparently unaware of the existence of the distinctive “single jig” rhythm in Irish music. Over the course of the 20th century the customary notation for slides shifted from 6/8 to 12/8, which I think is an improvement in accuracy…

Both these statements (from irishtune.info) tell us about the confusion between jigs and slides, but they don’t tell us exactly how you define either of them. Let’s try this, from the same source, regarding slides:

The tempo is rather quick, often in the 150 bpm range, if you were to count each heavy-light pair as a beat. But in practice each beat of a slide (counting around 75 bpm now) gets two pulses, which is either a heavy-light pair (very close to an accurate “quarter note, eighth note” distribution) or a quite even triplet – not a jig pattern. Thus if all four group-halves in a bar were triplets – which is uncommon – you’d have a twelve-note bar. The ratio of heavy-light pairs to triplets in a slide is slightly in favour of the pairs, which again clearly distinguishes them from double jigs. Most slides break the pattern once or twice in a tune by delaying the strong note for a bar’s second group until that group’s second half, creating a cross-rhythm with respect to the foot taps. Other unique characteristics of slides are not necessary additional information for identifying them – only for playing them…!

I’ve puzzled over this (and other advice) for some time: I sort of understand it, but I think it’s impossible to describe a rhythm in words… However, I was pleased to find this mnemonic for slides by the poet Ciaran Carson – it says it all:

“blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle”

gougane

An evocative engraving of Gougane Barra, in the Sliabh Luachra, by artist and writer Robert Gibbings, taken from Lovely is the Lee, J M Dent, 1945

How about polkas and reels? Polkas, in particular, are popular in the Sliabh Luachra tradition:

…The polka is one of the most popular traditional folk dances in Ireland, particularly in Sliabh Luachra. Many of the figures of Irish set dances are danced to polkas. Introduced to Ireland in the late 19th century, there are today hundreds of Irish polka tunes, which are most frequently played on the fiddle or button accordion. The Irish polka is dance music form in 2/4, typically 32 bars in length and subdivided into four parts, each 8 bars in length and played AABB. Irish polkas are typically played fast, at over 130 bpm, usually with an off-beat accent… (Also from irishtune.info)

Reels are probably the most popular tune type within the Irish traditional dance music tradition:

…Reel music is notated in simple meter, either as 2/2 or 4/4. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar…

fiddle fair outdoors

At the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, informal sessions are essential interludes

Definitions are all very well and these can only be generalisations. In the end it’s what is being played – and what you hear – that counts. For me, the music in Ireland is like history: it’s built into the landscape and the psyche. Irish people are survivors and have travelled all over the world and back. So has the music! This was emphasised today when we had another excellent recital in the church by Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney, fiddle and accordion.

foley gurney

They both come from the Southern Catskill Mountains in New York State. Much of the Irish music they play was learnt directly from Father Charlie Coen who emigrated to the United States from the village of Woodford in County Galway in 1955, bringing the music traditions from East Galway with him. Here’s an excellent example of the music travelling across the world and back again: Fr Coen played The Moving Cloud reel on his concertina, but his instrument had some buttons missing so he adapted it, and the adapted tune is what we heard Foley and Gurney playing in the church today. Listen first to another Fiddle Fair maestro, Noel Hill playing the reel from his 1988 album The Irish Concertina:

Now the same reel which has travelled from Ireland to Baltimore via the Catskill Mountains:

I hope you can hear those ‘odd’ notes! But there’s nothing so right or so wrong in Irish music: the grand finale for us today was a memorable concert with French Canadian fiddler Pierre Schryer, Donegal box player Dermot Byrne and Australian born guitarist Steve Cooney. They played music with an Irish bias but harvested from many traditions. It left us breathless…

The City of Shrone – and a talking cow!

shrone walls + gap

It’s May Day, and we’re in Ireland, so it’s no surprise that we should encounter a talking cow. We are in Kerry County and it’s a Kerry Cow that’s doing the talking. This is an ancient breed of cattle – probably the oldest in Europe – so our cow has a lot of stories to tell.

city cow

We found the cow – or, at least, the story she has written – in the City of Shrone. What sort of a metropolis is that, you wonder? It’s a pretty diminutive one: it’s almost certainly the smallest city in the world. It has no skyscrapers and no traffic jams…

no parking

Shrone does, however, have a long, long history. According to the local expert on this subject, Dan Cronin, …Historians have satisfied themselves that The City was one of the first places in Ireland to be peopled. It was here on a barren elevated site that the Tuatha Dé Danann had their base established, naming the mountains at whose base they had settled, Dhá Chich Danann, The Two Paps of Dana…

in the shadow

Dan’s book (published in 2001 by Crede, Sliabh Luachra Heritage Group) is the definitive work on The City, The Paps, and the life and traditions of the Sliabh Luachra – which is the name given to the mountains and rushy glens on the borders of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. It’s an area which has long been famous for its traditional music: at our own Ballydehob Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival – coming up in June – two of the most notable musicians carrying that living tradition, Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, will once again be in residence.

Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch

Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly in Ballydehob, at last year’s Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival

Meanwhile, back in the City, we have deliberately timed our visit for the First of May: this is Shrone’s big day! The City is 50 metres in diameter – it’s a very ancient stone cashel or ring fort. The Irish name for it is Cathair Crobh Dearg, meaning ‘Mansion of the Red Claw’. On the western side of the finely preserved four metre thick stone walls is an entrance (known as the gap), and anyone coming in that way has to pass by a holy well. Today is the Pattern Day for the well, and elaborate rounds are performed, culminating in taking the holy water. There is much to do with cattle at this site: the Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have originated in Boeotia – the Land of Cattle – in Greece, and the well water is notably good for cattle, especially on this day. The well was formerly in another site nearby and there cattle were driven around it to ensure good health and fertility for the herd. Farmers still take water from here and sprinkle it on their animals.

shrone aerial

Satellite view of The City of Shrone: the circular cashel wall is clear. On the left is ‘The Gap’ and the holy well. Beside ‘The Gap’ and inside the city is the ruin of Paddy Quinihan’s House (below and bottom): in the 1930s he was the deerhough (caretaker) of the holy well

keeper's house

the house

Today is Lá Bealtaine (pronounced Law Byowl-tinneh): the Irish word might refer to the ‘Fires of Baal’, reflecting a tradition of lighting fires on hilltops or in sacred places. In Ireland it was important to drive cattle through, or by, the flames as a purification ritual. As May Day was usually the first day that the animals were brought out of byres and sent to the summer pastures (booleys), it makes sense that the purification would have taken place at this time. So we have the various seasonal elements of water and fire connected with cattle and their health and fertility: it’s no wonder that our commentator at Cathair Crobh Dearg is a cow!

The holy well water at Shrone is good for animal health and fertility: Robert gives it a try!

The City of Shrone is below the Paps. According to Cronin, the early celebrants – the Danann – …were wont to go up to the top of the Paps for the fertility and immortality rituals. Fragments of ancient pagan altars still remain to this day. Petitions were made to the gods for fertility for man and beast, good return from the land, good crops and fodder. Even today, 4000 years later, several small offerings are placed on ledges near the ruins of pagan altars on top of the Paps Mountains for health of the family and of cattle and for fertility… Many of those acquainted with this old pagan custom have remarked on the peculiarity of its perseverance and continuity… I would like to explore those high parts but, ‘on the day that’s in it’, they are not even visible, and it would be unwise to venture into such a shrouded domain when, at this turning point of the year, the spirits of the hills might be abroad…

way to the paps

The way to the Paps: it’s unwise to venture there when you can’t even see the summits of the sacred mountains…

Cronin again: …So the May Day or Lá Bealtaine festivities were held each year and the years rolled by. On May Day, The City and its surroundings were a hubbub of activity. The music of pipes and fiddles re-echoed from the hills and valleys, and the lowing of cattle mingled with the sweet music of the harp. Jesters and jugglers plied their respective trades, with everybody trying to make themselves heard. It is very evident that ale was brewed here in plenty. Champions were performing feats of valour, while throngs of admirers looked on… What will we find happening today, May Day, at the smallest but most ancient city in the world?

mary and walls

Setting Up

Our Lady of the Wayside guards the sacred site now (above) while (below) preparations are made for the Bishop’s visit

It’s still a sacred site and the crowds still come. But it’s Our Lady of the Wayside who looks out over the City walls now. A Mass is performed within the Cashel on May Day afternoon. This year the Bishop of Kerry is in attendance, as is a devouring Kerry mist. I listen in vain for the echoes of harp, pipes and merrymaking. The City of Shrone on a cold, damp First of May seems a desolate place – yet an absolutely fascinating one. The pilgrims visit and the curious passer-by (like me) pauses to drink from the well. As always here in Ireland, history is writ large on the landscape, and continuity is assured both through holy ritual and piseogs…

making the mark

Pilgrims leave their marks on a ‘Neolithic altar’ under the statue of Mary

Another record of the day at The City can be viewed on Louise Nugent’s page, here. Amanda has covered the holy well at Shrone here. Voices from the Dawn website published an interview with Dan Cronin, who wrote In the Shadow of the Paps.