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.
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:
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…
You will all know about Finola’s interest in stained glass, and in particular her admiration of the work of artist George Walsh: she wrote an article about him in the Irish Arts Review this year. So I hatched a plan, together with George, to give her a window of her very own! Here it is, just installed in our house, Nead an Iolair. Not so long ago, Finola wrote another Irish Arts Review piece about Ireland’s newest stained glass window, and there’s a Roaringwater Journal post about it here. I think it’s safe to say – as of today – we have in our house Ireland’s new ‘newest stained glass window’! It’s an artwork with a story – several stories, in fact. I’ll tell you some of them.
This is George Walsh. He apprenticed in the world of stained glass under his father – also George – who apprenticed under Harry Clarke, so he has an eminent lineage. He worked with his father in the United States and Ireland, and eventually set up his own Dublin studio, where he has been prolific. Finola is currently visiting and cataloguing every one of his publicly accessible projects which can be seen on the island of Ireland: it takes us to some far-off and fascinating places. To date her list includes 61 buildings which have George Walsh windows, and it’s certainly not complete. While most of George’s work can be found in churches, he has also produced a secular opus and our window has now added to that. George says that he enjoyed this commission because it was very different from so much of his work, but I guess that he always enjoys his work – you can tell by the exuberance, dynamism and sumptuous colouring of his pieces.
The Finola Window tells the story of our Finola, but is also about a famous Finola (or Fionnghuala – fair-shouldered) in Irish mythology: she is the heroine of The Children of Lir, one of Ireland’s most well-known ancient wonder-tales. Fionnghuala (above, being transformed into a swan) is the eldest of the four children of King Lir – the others are Aodh and twins Fiachra and Conn. Their mother, Aobh, died when they were young and the King remarried. Unfortunately, this is where the story turns into a wicked stepmother tale, as the King’s new wife, Aoife, becomes jealous of the children, and casts a magic spell on them. I hope you are keeping up with these names! Our Finola – a stepmother herself – has always been sensitive about negative portrayals of that position, so I asked George to play down the role of Aoife and in fact he has left her out of the window altogether. I’ll just let you know, however, that she received full punishment for her malice by being turned into a Demon of the Air – and she still hangs around on dark, haunted nights. Watch out!
All four children were turned into swans by Aoife, and their fate was to spend three hundred years on Loch Dairbhreach (a lake in Co Westmeath), followed by three hundred years on Sruth na Maoilé (the stormy Straits of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland), and a further three hundred on Inis Gluairé (an Atlantic island in Erris, Co Mayo). The swans kept their human voices and they spent much of their exile singing beautiful songs which became all the traditional music of Ireland.
George has skilfully woven into this window many elements of our Finola’s life: in the details above you can see Newgrange – where Finola dug as a student; Irish rock art – which was Finola’s main area of study as an archaeologist; my hands playing my concertina (all the musical notes are descending from the swans); eagles flying over Nead an Iolair; the Scholar and his Cat Pangur Bán (the Irish medieval poem is one of Finola’s favourites); St Brendan’s voyage (Finola is a great teller of the tales of Irish Saints) and – of course (at my specific request) a golden hare! George Walsh has always been a master of detail, something we have particularly admired in his work. We feel he has excelled himself here. These images are some of the resources given to George while he was making the window:
Image gallery for George – top: Finola’s 1973 drawing of a piece of Kerry rock art; centre – the flight of the eagles over Nead an Iolair; lower – my hands playing music from the swans through my concertina!
I was privileged to see some of the work in progress in George’s studio earlier in the year. He showed me how he uses ‘flashed glass’ where a thin layer of coloured glass is melted on to clear glass. Acid etching is used to take off the coloured surface leaving a design. You can see where the etched piece (below) is being prepared to fit in the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of glass shapes that will be joined by leading to form the final window.
Above – George’s ‘cartoon’ design sketch together with his explanation of the subject matter: these now hang close to the completed window in our house
The culmination of the Children of Lir story comes when St Patrick’s bell is first heard on the shores of Ireland (detail below), and Fionnghuala and her brothers are released from the spell. As they regain human form their bodies are aged and they have time only to receive baptism into Christianity before they crumble to dust.
Decorative borders, details and motifs abound in George’s windows and ours is no exception. It’s a bit like the marginalia in a medieval illuminated manuscript: your eye is constantly drawn to all the minutiae. We will never tire of looking at it. The panel is mounted in a west facing window in our study: when the sun comes around to that side in the evenings the whole room becomes alive with flowing colour.
Thank you, George, for so wonderfully fulfilling my vision of a window especially for Finola. I couldn’t imagine anything more fitting and she is – of course – over the moon! Here we are in George’s studio on the day of the ‘reveal’.
West Cork has festivals all year long, but right now we are gearing up for some of our favourites and they are looking terrific!
We’re planning the field trips. for the History Festival. Top photograph is of last year’s tour of Reen Farm, John Kelly’s Sculpture Garden and above is the Bronze Age Altar Wedge tomb, which this year’s Mizen field trip will visit
For us, the most significant is the West Cork History Festival, because we are very involved. Have you ever thought you might like to go along on one of our field days? Well, here’s your chance as we will be leading two field trips on Aug 8 and 9 and Carina Jeisy of Beara Baoi Tours is leading another. All the details are here and you can buy tickets there too – if you hurry.
Dev, by Seamus Murphy. Seamus’s daughter, Orla Murphy, will be at the Festival to speak about her father and his legacy. Dev? Well, he’s part of the reason Irish history will never be uncontested
The Festival is now in its third year and this year’s line-up of speakers and events is looking particularly engaging. From former Taoiseach John Bruton, to current Ambassador to the USA Dan Mulhall, to professors from many of the major institutions, to TV and news media presenters, online ‘public’ historians and local experts – there’s sure to be lots of food for thought and discussion. If the two past festivals are anything to go by, some controversy is sure to arise, since not everyone has the same take on historical events – especially in the hotly contested fields of Irish history!
The closing speaker will be Daisy Goodwin, the writer of the hit TV series, Victoria. Daisy also happens to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Robert Traill, who gave his life trying to feed the hungry around Schull during the famine. He was a complex character: see this post and this one in my series Saints and Soupers. Daisy gave him an active role in the episode in which Victoria finally finds out about the full horrors of the Famine. It was an episode that shocked British people, who had never been taught about the Famine and Daisy will talk about that, writing Victoria and her West Cork connections.
Esteemed local historian Gerald Butler, in conversation with one of last year’s speakers, William Casey, will talk about Daniel O’Connell’s Skibbereen Monster Meeting
This being West Cork, there’ll be lots of food on offer over the whole weekend and music too – I’m really looking forward to the Saturday night concert, exploring the music of Canon Goodman (who is also the subject of one of the talks). Wander over to the website and take a browse through the programme. If you enjoy our blog, you will love this Festival.
Taking us up to the History Festival is the superb Skibbereen Arts Festival. I have rhapsodised about this tour de force of culture and variety in previous posts (see this one and this one) and I feel the same way about the offerings this year.
We have tickets to several events and we know we will be dropping in to some of the exhibitions, galleries and shows that are running all over town. I am looking forward to Manchán Magan’s Aran agus Ím (below)- billed as a show that celebrates the Irish language in an engaging, accessible bilingual way, through sourdough bread and home-churned butter and that takes place in a Bakery.
For some time Skibbereen has hosted the Speakeasy Sessions once a month, and there’s a special edition during the Festival. It’s part of a significant Spoken Word programme at the Festival this year. Speakeasy is hosting a Story Slam Competition where 12 people will compete for a prize. One of the judges is our own Cormac Lally, popular local poet: here he is with his Ninja Baby Moves Number 214.
Botanist Rory Hodd on an Ellen Hutchins field trip
At about the same time in Bantry is the annual Masters of Tradition Festival, with formal and informal concerts, talks and sessions, many in the wonderful setting of Bantry House. With Martin Hayes as the Artistic Director, this annual festival is always a treat. Here he is playing the Sailor’s Bonnet.
This is actually just a drop on the bucket of all the things going on in West Cork from now until the end of August. I’m seriously going to need a holiday in September! No – wait – that’s the Taste of West Cork Food Festival! I’d better go into training. . .
We traversed the Dingle Peninsula on the way to our week-long ‘Irish Immersion’ course. Our route included the Conor Pass (above) – possibly Ireland’s highest mountain pass with a summit of 456m: not to be missed, as the views from it are spectacular in all directions. Do be careful, though, as it’s included in the list of ‘the World’s most dangerous roads’. That’s because in places it is only a winding single track, with the way almost tunnelled out of steep rock faces: don’t try it in a bus!
Once over the pass, however, it’s plain sailing and sunshine all the way down to Dingle itself, a busy waterside town (which sells the best ice-creams!), where we stayed while we were on our course. Here’s the view from Coastline House, our very well-appointed B + B:
So why would I want to learn the Irish language? And how easy is it? The answer to the second question is: it’s fiendishly difficult – especially for an ear that’s been attuned to English for a lifetime! But – here I am in my eighth decade, an Irish citizen and a permanent resident of West Cork – so what would be more natural (and good for the ageing brain) than being able to communicate in the native tongue? Finola, of course, learnt Irish right through her schooldays (it’s been compulsory since the founding of the Irish State) and can hold her own in conversation, but she wants to improve her knowledge and took a course at a higher level: I was in the raw beginners’ class, together with our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, with whom we enjoyed great craic in our free time.
The western part of the Dingle Peninsula is a Gaeltacht area: that means it is a place where Irish is the dominant language; all street signs, traffic signs etc are in Irish only; anyone in shops, businesses etc is likely to speak in Irish, and there are a number of schools where teaching is all in Irish. Our courses were based in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (in English it would be known as Ballyferriter) – to the west of Dingle town (which is, in Irish, An Daingean). You can tell from many of the photographs in this post how stunningly beautiful the landscape is in this part of Ireland. The upper picture above shows the very fine school building of Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne, which hosts all the Irish classes. The ones for adults are run by the Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne – you can find all the details here if you’ve a mind to give it a try yourself.
It’s a different world in the Gaeltacht areas: can you guess what the sign above is saying?
You ought to know, also, that the Gaeltacht area here is known as Corca Dhuibhne, which translates literally as ‘the seed or tribe of Duibhne’ and derives from the clan who anciently lived in this part of County Kerry. Try saying ‘Corca Dhuibhne‘ . . . How did you get on? This is what I should have heard:
Above – streetscapes in the lively village of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter). Note the signage in the upper picture. The lower picture will be self-explanatory to Star Wars fans: the film series is set “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” – Fadó Fadó is the Irish way of beginning a fairy-tale, meaning literally “long long ago….”. And – just to confuse you (and me) – Ar an mBualtín means “in Ballyferriter”! I know – I just told you that the town is Baile an Fheirtéaraigh in Irish, but the townland is known as an mBuiltín, which is in fact another way of describing a “booley” which, you will no doubt remember from my post here, is the place where cattle are taken up to the hill pastures in the summer. So, all things Irish are often not straightforward. Just to explain a connection: parts of the latest Star Wars episodes have been filmed on the promontories above Ballyferriter – a great ‘selling point’ for the local tourism industry!
Green roads lead to the hillside pastures which dominate the Dingle Peninsula
Our course was taxing, and I have the greatest admiration for our múinteoir (teacher), Caitríona Ní Chathail – a wonderful lady of infinite patience, and great enthusiasm for the language which she shared with us throughout the six days. We were allowed some treats – Caitríona took us out on a walk and introduced to us some of the history of the area (kindly, she spoke bilingually); on one evening we were given a talk on archaeology by Isabel Bennet, the very knowledgable curator of the museum in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, and on the final evening we combined our various talents to give a concert to all the students, Oíche Airneáin – literally a “night of visiting”, and we each had to introduce ourselves in Irish!
Upper – Caitríona’s history walk around the locality; lower – my contribution to the Oíche Airneáin was some tunes played with Christy Martin on hammered dulcimer. Christy, a fellow student, is a professional travelling musician from California
How do I feel after the course? Exhilarated by the experience of having concentrated for a week on one fundamental aspect of Irish culture, but daunted by the very long path upon which I have embarked – and uncertain as to how to make sure to build on that grounding. One thing that impressed me above all is the obvious passion that the people of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh and Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne have for their particular Gaeltacht: Caitríona made sure that we realised that the Irish which she taught us is specific to Corca Dhuibhne: each of the Gaeltacht areas has its own dialect, although – whichever version of Irish you learn – you will be understood by speakers from the other areas.
Traditions and stories are abundant in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht: upper picture – the Wren is hunted on the Peninsula at Stephen’s Day (26 December), and I caught a glimpse of some ‘straws’ hanging behind a door: part of the costumes worn by one of four ‘Wran’ groups who keep the tradition alive in Dingle. Lower picture – two of many gullauns (standing stones) dating from ancient times and which remain in the landscape of the Peninsula: the backdrop is Mount Brandon, named after the 5th century saint – Brendan – who discovered America long before Christopher Columbus!
I was pleased to be presented with a certificate by Caitríona at the end of the course! We all had one, and mine will serve as a reminder of the intensive week. Hopefully, it will also serve as an incentive to delve further into the mysteries of Gaeilge. I am already determined to revisit the wonders of Corca Dhuibhne as soon as possible!