Kerry Leftovers

We spent a couple of days in Kerry a week before midsummer, and gave you some account of our discoveries on Church Island, Lough Currane, and up in the hills at Caherlehillan – both memorable Early Christian sites. Our adventures did not end there: we managed to take in, also, some other ancient treasures, a couple of Kerry characters, and some stunning scenery – hard to match – as we travelled back to West Cork along the Ring of Kerry road (above).

Firstly, here are Charlie Chaplin and Michael Collins (above), both familiar figures in Waterville. The Hollywood star spent his summer holidays in the coastal town for many years with his family and is commemorated by a bronze statue, while Michael can be found on most days in this much photographed location, always ready to entertain with Kerry polkas and slides on his accordion.

Here’s a much earlier Kerry musician: he’s known as ‘The Fiddler’, and is an unusual medieval representation of an instrumentalist found in the romanesque ruin on Church Island, Lough Currane. I was pleased to find this photograph in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Notes from 1908 by P J Lynch as it shows the carving as it was found by the OPW when they took over the site. Now the original, which had suffered accelerated weathering, is kept protected in a museum while a well-worn replica is in place on the site. I believe the carving is a good representation of a medieval bowed lyre, an instrument with six strings which survives today in some cultures, although Lynch gave the following commentary:

. . . The interest in this stone centres in the musical instrument. The examples of ancient carving in Ireland representing stringed instruments are few, and confined to harpers. The photograph illustrates this instrument very clearly. It is the ancient cruit or fidil, said to be the parent of the violin. There are six strings indicated by sunken lines in the stone. The figure appears to wear a kind of tight-fitting tunic. Dr O’Sullivan states that the word fidil being a teutonic version of the original name vièle, it may be concluded that the original instrument was introduced through the Anglo-Saxons, and not through the Normans. He adds that up to the eleventh century it consisted of a conical body, and after that it became oval. If this be a portion of the twelfth-century instrument, the older pattern must have survived. The Kerry people were probably as unwilling to change in those days as they are at present . . .

P J Lynch – Some notes on church island – RSAI 1908

Our trip out to Church Island (above) was accompanied by moody weather, but we were fortunate with other expeditions which included the discovery of ancient sites in the townland of Srugreana (Srúbh Gréine in Irish, which is translated variously as sunny stream, gravelly stream or – my favourite – snout of the sun: Kerry certainly offers some tricky pronunciations for those unfamiliar with the area, or the language!).

This extract from the 6″ OS map, dating from the mid-1800s, shows one area we explored on our Kerry day. It throws up some enigmas: Killinane Church (the church of Saint Lonan or Lonáin) is often referred to as Srugreana Abbey, but this is a separate site indicated further to the north-west on the early plan.

The church site at Srugreana is remarkable in many ways. A 2012 survey commissioned by Kerry County Council Heritage Office found there are at least 1,290 unhewn, uninscribed gravemarkers around the medieval church, and a significant number of ‘house type’ tombs, some of which are ‘two-storey’, like the one above. The concentration of graves – many of which cannot be dated – suggests how populous this now remote area was at one time.

The main purpose of our visit to Srugreana was to search out a holy well dedicated to Saint Gobnait (above). The expedition was led by Amanda, who runs the Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry website. You need to read her comprehensive article on this particular saint here. Interestingly, while we were visiting the well we met the new owner of the land on which it sits. She had no idea that there was a holy well here, and also was unaware of its apparently recent renovation! Note the crosses carved on the stones by visiting pilgrims, above.

From the above accounts, and our two previous posts, you can tell that we had a most productive time exploring just one small area in the ‘Kingdom’ of Kerry. I am rounding off this entry with some more photographs of our journey back along the coast. The weather gave of its best for this county which is our neighbour, and we will continue to explore it and look for more archaeological gems. Keep reading!

Sweet Ilen – Part 4

. . . A trip down the river Ilen, as it pursues its winding and picturesque course from Mount Owen (the hill of streams) to the harbour of Baltimore, a distance of about fifteen miles, is the most pleasant and interesting excursion during the summer months. Starting from Skibbereen, we can either steam or row, according to our pleasure, or rather as the tide suits, to Baltimore and Sherkin, a distance of eight or nine miles, and then out the harbour’s mouth, and cruise about the islands of Carbery . . .

Sketches in Carbery – Daniel Donovan 1876

The idea of boarding a ‘steamer’ in Skibbereen and voyaging down the Ilen River to its mouth is an attractive one – but not an option for us as we continue our exploration of this waterway in 2021, a year which has started with a frightening escalation of the Covid pandemic which is forcing us to stay ever closer to home. Fortunately, we are not too far from the broad stretches of the tidal Ilen as it nears its destination and meanders through peaceful, sylvan meadows passing by deserted quays, once active with commerce and vitality, now at rest apart from the occasional fisherman or boat mender.

We are fortunate to have a large archive of our photographs taken in West Cork over many years. I am revisiting (below) my pictures of the river at Creagh taken in 2014. This is on the south side of the Ilen, and certainly out of bounds for us at the moment because of distance. Situated at Creagh is a secluded burial ground, the resting place of Canon James Goodman who was Rector of Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen, during the nineteenth century. The three photographs below were taken there. My principal interest in him is the name he made as a collector of traditional music and a player of the uilleann pipes – that most singular of Irish instruments that we have also celebrated elsewhere. When the Canon died in 1896 he asked that his pipes were buried with him at Creagh – and they were. But, not long afterwards, they were dug up again. If you want to know what happened to the pipes and where they are now, read my earlier post about the Canon here.

We can travel to Skibbereen for essential supplies, and the road to that town runs close to the river. Just off the road, down a winding boreen, is another burial ground, Aghadown, beautifully situated beside the water – Finola has written about it here. Here are some views we took a few days ago during a prolonged spell of clear winter sunshine.

. . . The view down the river from near Creagh, on a fine day, is attractive. The Ilen, winding in a serpentine course towards Baltimore harbour, shining and sparkling in the sunlight like a silver thread, and dotted over with a multitude of rocky islets, whose recesses form a safe retreat and favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. Looking backwards, we are chiefly struck by the almost complete absence of wood, and the patchwork of irregular fields, enclosed by earthen banks, and the prominences so much admired by tourists and strangers, most probably on account of the novelty and singularity of the scene . . .

SKETCHES IN CARBERY – DANIEL DONOVAN 1876

The Ilen is a ‘Blueway’ – designated as a recreational activity trail for use by activity enthusiasts – anyone, in fact, who wants to get out and experience some of the best scenery in Ireland on the water itself or, like us, on foot. This would be in normal times, of course. Undoubtedly there are better days ahead. We look forward to an untrammelled future so that we can continue this exploration of a waterway to its source in the mountains ‘. . . where rain clouds perpetually hover about . . .’ and to its outfall towards Carbery’s ‘Hundred islands’. When we can make those expeditions, we will bring you there through the pages of our Journal.

Here’s a bonus today: you can hear an aspect of our recent walk! Donovan mentioned in 1876 that the river was a favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. We can vouch for that, having heard these sounds close to the Glebe burial ground. The loudest voices are – I think – from redshanks:

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3

Sweet Ilen – Part 3

Here is the third instalment of our wanderings along the Ilen – one of West Cork’s most significant rivers. Once a commercial highway connecting the merchants of Skibbereen with the coastal ports and scattered islands, it now plies its way from the summit of Mullagmesha Mountain taking a lazy and often secret course through lush valleys and pastures, showing itself to us only at a few crossing points until, boosted by many tributaries, it becomes a wide tidal waterway heading for Baltimore and the wild Atlantic.

Our explorations so far have taken us from Newcourt upstream to Ballyhilty Bridge. We have yet to ‘top and tail’ the river: that will be done, but only when restrictions and conditions permit. I doubt that we will be searching for the source in the mountains until next spring at the earliest, as those high paths are closed for safety at present. But, back in November, we were able to continue north from Hollybrook Demense and Maulbrack townland.

Images from top include the header showing the river at Caheragh with the distant mountains to the north; an anglers’ seat at Ballyhilty; and the broad river just upstream of Ballyhilty Bridge. The river is still wide as we follow it, but becomes shallower and is interrupted by rapids mixing with contemplative, deep pools (above).

Large parts of the river here are lost in the hinterland. We try to follow every small trackway that might take us close to it – and which certainly take us to the back of beyond – and catch the occasional glimpse such as this one (above), which is probably an ancient ford.

We delight in travelling the tiniest of boreens, which invariably open up new vistas for us, and make us feel so happy to be living in such a beautiful part of our world! This little used lane (above) takes us to the next crossing point – romantically named, as far as I can ascertain, Graveyard Bridge.

Two extracts from the OS maps of c1840 (upper) and c1897 (lower) show the site on the border of Ballaghdown South and Caheragh townlands, where an ancient road crosses the Ilen River. Both maps show a ford and stepping stones at this point. Today we found a bridge there dating (we believe) from the early twentieth century. We also found the remains of the old ford: large cobbles providing a trackway down the the waters’ edge: Finola is following the original line of the lane (below).

This river crossing was of significance in Medieval times. ‘Blessed Mary de Caheragh’ was a monastic site, said to be situated on the hilltop commanding the view above the graveyard. It was no doubt founded here because of the proximity of the watercourse.

1317 December 28, Geoffrey Fitz John de Cogan is presented by the King (by mandate to the Bishop of Cork), to the church of the Blessed Mary de Catheragh, in the King’s gift, by reason of his wardship of the lands and heir of John de Cogan

Tuckey’s Cork Remembrancer, from Durrus History

There are certainly earthworks, embankments and (reputedly) a souterrain on the high ground which overlooks the river, the ford site and the adjacent burial ground connected to Caheragh village. The Historic Environment Viewer suggest that this site (shown on both maps above) is a ringfort and makes no mention of an ecclesiastical settlement. I braved fierce cows and barbed wire to make the steep climb: it was well worth the effort (and the risk) for the views across the old fort ramparts which opened up to the distant mountains. There is no sign, today, of anything remotely monastic up there on the hill. There is another ‘ringfort’ a short distance to the south – enigmatically named ‘Bishopland’. Nowhere can I find any records or accounts of the fort or the small settlement to the south of it named Bishops Village: this confirms that there is still so much early history to be unravelled in the Irish landscape.

Caheragh Graveyard is located beside the Ilen here and it is also well worth making the time to explore. The village and present day church at Caheragh (which has some fine stained glass) are some way off to the west. You can see the spire on the skyline in this view from the graveyard itself (below).

The extensive Caheragh graveyard (above) – a view from the ringfort (and possible medieval site) looking across the river. The ford, roadway and later bridge are on the far left of the picture. Burial grounds are always a magnet for us, and we spent significant time exploring. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre has done sterling work researching this and many other West Cork graveyards: you will find information online here, and more in the Centre itself, which merits many visits. One grave which was important for me is that of the parents of Captain Francis O’Neill, the Chicago Police Chief who came from West Cork and collected thousands of Irish traditional dance tunes and songs which he gathered from the many Irish settlers in Chicago and who had kept the tradition alive far away from their birthplaces. I wrote about Chief O’Neill a few years ago. The ‘Celtic Cross’ memorial below was commissioned by Francis during a visit home in 1906.

Erected By Captain Francis O’Neill

Chicago, USA To the Memory of his Parents

John O’Neill of Tralibane

Died Nov 1867 Aged 66 Years

And Catherine O’Mahoney

Died 1900 Aged 88 Years

Requiescant in Pace

Amen

inscription in Caheragh Graveyard, West Cork

This aerial view above clearly shows the bridge that has replaced the old ford and stepping stones at this site. You can also see the ‘fort’ on the hilltop above it. The bridge should not be dismissed because it is relatively modern: it’s an example of practical civil engineering in Ireland, possibly in the early years of the Free State, and is functional rather than elegant, serving the purpose of helping to open up some of the remoter regions of the west of Ireland.

Here are the previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen and Sweet Ilen – Part 2

Living in Lockdown!

Main Street, Ballydehob: 4 April 2020. You’ve never seen it like this before on a Saturday morning. We are only out because we have urgent shopping to do. We are permitted to go to the shops, the dispensary and the dump (we live too far out of town to have any waste collections). Oh, and we can exercise within a two kilometre radius of home (here’s Finola’s account of that). It’s a strange life – but we are gratefully alive…

We completed our last ‘long’ walk on Friday 27 March – to the summit of Mount Corrin, for my Mizen Mountains post. On that evening the government announced the ‘lockdown’ and we are now isolated in Cappaghglass for the foreseeable future, although the 2km restriction will allow us to trespass into our adjacent townlands of Stouke, Cappanacallee, Foilnamuck, Rossbrin, Ballycummisk and Kilbronogue, provided we keep our distance from other walkers. We see very few.

When the sun is shining, there’s no better place to be than home – looking out over Roaringwater Bay! We have plenty to occupy us. Not least, keeping up with this journal and my new venture Swantonstown Sessions – compensation for the enforced adjournment of the weekly traditional music meetings in Ballydehob. It’s an online forum for sharing tunes, songs and related ‘chat’. Please join in!

There’s not much activity in Schull, our other centre for essential supplies, either. The main street (upper) and pier (above) are deserted on Saturday morning, when it’s normally buzzing. All the businesses in our villages and towns rely on customers: we hope for their sakes (and ours) that the situation doesn’t last too long, although we do all understand how necessary the restrictions are.

Join us for one of our walks – along to Rossbrin – to look at the water and the always changing scenery as spring gets under way. That’s the boreen leading down to it, above.

Rossbrin Castle, the home of the ‘Scholar Prince’ Finghinn O’Mahony in medieval times, is the local landmark which always draws us towards the Cove. It has stood for centuries, although very gradually returning to nature: parts of it will remain for generations to come, and will intrigue those who chance upon it, as I first did some thirty years ago. It is on private land, remember, but it can be seen from many accessible vantage points.

It’s no hardship to be ‘marooned’ out here in rural Ireland. The one thing we miss above all else is meeting and chatting with friends and neighbours: that’s unnatural. But we will survive it. After our walks there’s always the road home to look forward to (do you see the celandines lining the way?):

Roaringwater Journal wishes to heartily thank all those in our communities who are supporting the rural population through these abnormal times: medical teams, pharmacies, shopkeepers, producers and suppliers . . . All who keep our facilities and utilities going . . . They are helping us to stay healthy and upbeat in times of disquiet. We appreciate all of you.

Swantonstown Sessions!

At this time (March 2020) the regular Friday evening traditional music sessions in Ballydehob have become a casualty of the Covid19 pandemic: pubs are closed and meetings are banned. Things will change, and the sessions will come back – hopefully before too long. In the meantime let’s have a virtual session, courtesy of the internet!

Ballydehob was known as ‘Swanton’s Town’ until around 1820. It was named after a family from Norfolk who became prominent in the area in the 17th century. So, let’s call our new – temporary – venture: Swantonstown Sessions – It rolls well off the tongue, after all (once you get used to it)! There are still Swantons in the village, by the way:

To kick things off, I’m putting up a video of me playing a tune I have just learnt. It’s an easy enough tune, which you can all join in with: a waltz with a story attached. Here’s the tune – Rock All Our Babies To Sleep – I start it off in G and then play it in C, as I like the jump, which gives the music a lift:

Now, here’s the story . . . The tune was originally a cowboy yodelling song! ‘Cowboy songs’ were popular in the States in the 1920s and 30s, before there was such a thing as ‘Country and Western’. One of the earliest ‘cowboys’ to make his name was Jimmie Rodgers (James Charles Rodgers, 1897 – 1933).

Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk, and many of his best songs were his compositions, including “Blue Yodel”, which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music . . .

Sometimes known as “The Father of Country Music”, Rodgers was particularly remembered for his distinctive rhythmic yodelling style. Unusually for a music star, Rodgers was known best for his  extensive recordings rather than for his live performances. Rock All Our Babies to Sleep was recorded by Rodgers in 1932. He had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1924, at the age of 27, and died from the affects of the illness at the age of 35 on May 26 1933. We are fortunate to have this recording available on YouTube:

So how did the Cowboy song from 1932 get to a traditional music session in Ballydehob? By a process of evolution! And via Scotland, as it happens . . . I am a great fan of two traditional Scottish musicians: Phil Cunningham from Edinburgh and Aly Bain from Lerwick on the Shetland Islands. I heard them playing a waltz which they called  Rocking the Baby to Sleep and immediately decided I had to learn it. My method of learning is listening, and then playing until I think I have the tune – most of the time the method works; sometimes, I find that I have made up my own version of the tune. Here are Cunningham and Bain playing their rendering (which has moved on a fair bit from Jimmie Rodgers!) and you can compare this yourself to my oral interpretation of their playing, above. It’s a little different, certainly, but what’s important (I think) is that a good tune comes out of the fluid process. Incidentally, I have left in the second tune on the Cunningham/Bain track: Frank McConnell’s Three Steps – it’s something we could introduce to our session later.

So that’s the story of  the new tune I’m bringing into our session. I usually play it through once in G, once in C, then the third time back in G (it creates a good bit of variation) – then I launch straight into two rounds of my own take on a French Canadian tune that the session must have got used to by now: Louis’ Waltz.

So where do we go from here? I have put this up on our journal because it gets a wide audience, and anyone can access it. But I suggest we could create a short-term blog, free to join, which can be shared around. Anyone wanting to put tunes and songs on that blog can record them on a smartphone – audio or video – and send me a file. Better still, upload them on to YouTube and send me the URL. I will then add them to the new blog. We would also welcome all information about the tunes and any relevant stories – or just ‘chat’! There may be better or easier ways of doing this interactively: I’m open to all suggestions. You can get me on my web email:

robert@cappafin.ie

Here’s to when we can all meet and play together again in Ballydehob!

The Marvel of Margaret Barry

When I was in my college years, I lived on the fringes of London. It was the 1960s and – among many other cultural stirrings – there was a burgeoning Irish traditional music scene, in and around Camden Town. The Irish community in the capital had been thriving since the 1950s, when London was being rebuilt following the Blitzes of the recent war. Although not a close follower of Irish music at that time I had taken up the squeeze-box, and, curious enough to hover at the edges of The Music, was fortunate to briefly encounter many singers and players who are now considered legends. One of these is Margaret Barry, seen above in her later years and, below, when she was first becoming established as an Irish traditional music performer.

If you ever saw (and heard) Margaret Barry, you would never forget her. Her voice is unlike anyone else’s. She was born in the City of Cork, and has the distinctive accent of that place, whether she is speaking or singing. I find it completely compelling, but I can understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, whatever your own views, her story is fascinating – and at the same time a valuable social commentary on aspects of twentieth century Ireland. Margaret was born in 1917 – on New Year’s Day – and died in 1989. She made a living from music – and spanned the spectrum from obscure street performer to lauded professional much in demand on radio and television, performing in venues which included London’s Royal Albert and Festival Halls and New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

The reason I’m writing about Margaret Barry today is that she was the subject of a talk given at this year’s Drimoleague Singing Festival: “…A celebration of the human voice in the heart of West Cork…”, now an established annual event held around the feast day of Cork’s patron saint, St Finnbarr, September 25th. It’s great that Ireland’s special saints – who ‘kept alive civilisation’ during the otherwise Dark Ages in pre-medieval Europe – are still living and celebrated in traditional culture, which encompasses literature, art, music and folk tradition. Yesterday’s talk, in a crowded hall, was presented by Jason Murphy and Lisa O’Neill (pictured above mid-talk, with Lisa – Singer in Residence at this year’s Festival – giving her own extraordinary rendering of one of Margaret Barry’s songs). It’s worth watching the following YouTube video of Lisa singing a version of ‘The Galway Shawl’ to give you an idea of Margaret’s characteristic style as interpreted by Lisa, and sealing her own authority on the perpetuation of The Music:

Because Margaret Barry is a legend, it’s inevitable that the life and exploits of this lady from Cork have become imbued with folklore. This can happen very quickly in Ireland! Jason – a radio documentary maker – and Lisa – who has studied Margaret’s work – set out to shed light on the reality of her life, times and travels. The talk is work in progress – look out for a comprehensive programme coming up on RTE Radio soon. The talk in no way diminished Margaret Barry’s status and renown in the folk music world, but it did question some of the hitherto accepted accounts of her life. For example, when I first became interested in her singing over fifty years ago, I gleaned (mainly from notes on the sleeves of LPs) that she was from travelling stock, and that’s something you’ll still find quoted in practically every contemporary account of her life. According to Lisa and Jason, however, she came from musical families in Peter Street, Cork. Her mother’s father – Bob Thompson – was an accomplished uilleann pipe maker and player who was married to a Spanish Guitarist and singer. Living through hard times, Bob had to temporarily pawn his own uilleann pipes but lost them when a fire broke out in the pawnshop: he did not play again for ten years! Margaret’s parents and uncles were street singers and musicians, her father earning a precarious living playing the violin in silent-era cinemas and with dance bands. 

Another invariably quoted story is that she left home at 16 with nothing but a bicycle and a banjo tied to her back with string as she set off to busk her way through the harsh streets of Ireland. It’s an engaging picture, but probably simplifies a complex situation. Margaret’s mother died when she was only twelve years old, and soon afterwards her father married a girl not very much older than she was. It’s likely that she did decide to go off and fend for herself – and during her lifetime she did travel around Ireland, sometimes in a horse-drawn caravan, but she had also become interested in the musical traditions she experienced around her and took every opportunity to learn songs from every source, to teach herself to play the fiddle and banjo – and also to use her own talents to earn money wherever she could, and to survive. Here’s her own account of those times, recorded by American musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s:

Alan Lomax left a valuable collection of information on ethnic musical cultures from America, Africa and Europe, which he and a dedicated team collected over many years. Much of the collection is available online in the archive of the Association for Cultural Equity. Amongst the publications of the Association is a CD of Margaret Barry singing and talking about her life, which can currently be purchased as a download.

Margaret succeeded in her chosen life of itinerant song performer and always said that she had enjoyed it, regardless of the often hard times. She certainly achieved notoriety and featured in programmes on TG4 and RTE in her lifetime. She had a long-term relationship and musical partnership with the Sligo musician Michael Gorman, whose fiddle playing features on many of the recordings made of her. It seems appropriate to include here this 1965 recording of Margaret accompanied by Michael, singing ‘Still I Love Him’:

The talk we heard in Drimoleague on Saturday was a tour-de-force by Lisa and Jason, reviving my own interest in Margaret Barry, the ‘street singer’ from Cork (also known as ‘Queen of the Gypsies’, a title she was happy enough to embrace, whatever the true circumstances of her ancestry). To finish this post, here’s one of her songs for which she is, perhaps, best known: ‘She Moved Through the Fair’. Margaret was once asked if this tune had come to her from her traveller background: she is said to have replied that she had learned it from a recording of Count John McCormack…