The Fiddle-Maker’s Ghost

ballycowan sunset

We were chasing ghosts on our whole journey, following in the wake of Angela and Tom Rolt who travelled the waterways of Ireland exactly 70 years ago – in 1946; their odyssey was described in Rolt’s book Green & Silver. I received this book as a prize for essay writing when I was at school in the early 1960s and it fanned my interest in canals but also in Ireland. I had always intended to explore the canals of Ireland and this year Finola and I did just that – to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Rolts’ voyage, and to mark my own seventieth birthday.

Robert at the feeder house

Top picture – ghostly reflections beside the Grand Canal at Ballycowan. Above – Robert photographing the impressive sluice house on the Royal Canal Feeder at Lough Owel: sadly, the house is empty and now deteriorating

The first ghosts we looked out for were the Rolts themselves. Would anyone have remembered them? Did they make enough of an impression – two eccentric English travellers intent on discovering a way of life in Ireland which had almost ended at that time? Their book is remembered today by canal enthusiasts; in fact there is a plaque given to anyone who completes the circumnavigation of the Royal Canal, the Shannon and the Grand Canal. It’s known as the Green & Silver Route. As the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland says, …with the closure of Ireland’s Royal Canal in 1961, Rolt’s Green and Silver offered successive generations of boaters the only opportunity to experience this journey by boat. His book offered a glimpse of what might be experienced if, and when, the canal was restored. Rolt was the first to document a successful transit of the route in Green & Silver, a book which had such a positive influence on the development of the Irish waterways… The book has gone into five editions, so the journey is certainly not forgotten. However, we did not meet anyone who had stories to tell about the Rolts; nothing seems to have passed down through the generations about them – perhaps this post might bring something out?

Left – the frontispiece of my copy of the Rolts’ book. Right – the Green & Silver Plaque, presented to boaters making a circumnavigation of the now restored route that the Rolts followed seventy years ago

But there are other ghosts in the pages of Green & Silver. The Rolts passed through Draper’s Bridge Lock on the Royal Canal:

…The canal bore a more and more disused appearance the farther we went westwards, and at Draper’s Bridge lock beyond Abbeyshrule it was obvious that the chamber was rarely filled. Clumps of yellow musk in full blossom were growing out of the chinks in the masonry and looked so beautiful that we were sorry to drown them. The lock-keeper insisted on presenting us with some magnificent new potatoes which he dug from his garden while we were locking through. He refused to accept payment but, noticing Angela’s camera, asked if she would take a picture of himself with the family. She gladly agreed and took a photograph of ‘himself’ with his handsome silver-haired wife and two small boys standing before the half-door of the lock cottage. I hope he was satisfied with the print we sent him…

keeper and family

Angela Rolt’s photograph of the lock-keeper’s family at Draper’s Bridge Lock, Co Longford, taken in 1946

The children in this photograph could well still be alive, in their seventies. Some of the lock cottages on the canals are still lived in by families who have connections with the canals through generations. We were hopeful that we might discover someone at the lock who could point us to these young faces, a lifetime away?

Draper's Bridge Lock House

Only ghosts, alas… The cottage is in ruins today. This is unusual, as most of the original lock cottages on the Royal Canal have been retained. There is no sign of why this one has not survived. The Rolts did not name the lock keeper in the book, but I have since discovered that he was Jack Keenaghan. A ghost now with a name, at least.

drapers bridge lock

Lock 39 on the Royal Canal, at Draper’s Bridge. Samuel Draper was Secretary to The Royal Canal Company during the construction of the canal

The Rolts were able to include part of the lower Shannon and Lough Derg in their voyage. They met up with a friend who lived at Kilgarvan, and I was intrigued by this description of a visit to Ballinderry:

…That afternoon our friend and I walked into the nearby village of Ballinderry where we visited Dick Stanley the local baker and proprietor of the village shop…

…In the intervals of baking bread and minding his shop, Dick Stanley makes violins. His art is entirely self taught, he uses the crudest of tools, and he finds and seasons his own materials. He showed us one instrument which he had recently completed and another which was in the course of construction. Though my companion had already told me something of his activities I had expected something which, though praiseworthy enough, bore all the evidence of amateur workmanship. Consequently, even if I had been told nothing I could scarcely have shown more surprise when Dick Stanley put own my hands the beautiful, perfectly finished violin that he had made. Had I not seen the same fine craftsmanship exhibited in the other instrument which was under construction, I doubt if I should have believed that he really had made it. The sound-board was cut from a pinewood beam salvaged from a ruined mill nearby, the body was of sycamore, the pegs of holly wood, while the bridge and frets were of black bog oak dug from the neighbouring bog. None of the instruments he had so far made were exactly the same. He had begun by copying an old fiddle, but he had discovered the improvement and differences in tone which were produced by subtly varying the shape and depth of the sound-box or the thickness of the sound-board. No doubt these critical dimensions are well known and have been standardised by commercial makers but Dick Stanley took nothing for granted. Like all true craftsmen he strove for perfection and expressed a dissatisfaction with his violins which was not false modesty. He admitted, however, that each instrument he had made had a better tone than its predecessor, and his latest one certainly sounded the mellow soul of sweetness as he ran the bow over it. Unfortunately, however, he could not give us an adequate idea of its capabilities because, strange to relate, he was no performer on the violin. He played the flute, using an old finger-stopped instrument with which he often obliged at local gatherings and it was his son who played his fiddles…

…When we had taken our leave of this accomplished craftsman we adjourned to John Tierney’s bar close by, where, to the accompaniment of much village gossip and racy badinage, we fortified ourselves against our walk through the rough weather with pints of porter. Then back to Kilgarvan where we were once more royally entertained despite our protestations that we had surely outstayed our welcome. Never were storm-bound travellers so fortunate in their haven…

We determined that this self-taught fiddle maker was one ghost we were definitely going to track down. Sadly, no photograph of the man or his fiddles is included in the book; nevertheless we felt an exploration was worth making: it would be impossible that no-one in the village remembered the existence of such a craftsman. I even entertained the hope that someone might still have one of his fiddles – and give us a tune!

ballinderry

The ancient bridge at Ballinderry over the Ballyfinboy River, built c 1790

We arrived at the village and admired the old stone bridge over the Ballyfinboy River before walking up through the single street of the settlement. On the right was what had obviously once been the village shop and bar: Elsie Hogan’s. Attached to it was a fine stone residence, resplendent with red painted doors and window surrounds, although now fading.

hogan shopfront

The fallen shop sign was not a good omen. We peered through the windows and could see empty shelves and an old weighing machine. It felt desolate, but its abandonment – if it was abandoned – could only have been recent. Was this Dick Stanley’s shop? Or might we have been on the wrong track? We pressed on up the village street. There were other houses, and another pub – The Tavern. This also appeared deserted.

the tavern

No sign of life: the deserted village of Ballinderry was determined not to give up its ghosts

We walked the length of the village. We knocked on doors. We shouted: no shout echoed back. A car repair shop was locked up, in the middle of the afternoon. Houses were obviously occupied but, on that day, no-one was at home. We listened – silence. Yet, did we hear or did we imagine – far off, perhaps on the wind – the thin, ghostly sound of a fiddle being tuned up?

scroll

Two Seáns

after gaiety

Meeting the President at the Ó Riada sa Gaiety Concert, March 1969 – from left: Seán Ó Riada, Seán Ó Sé, Niall Toibín, President Éamon de Valera, Ruth Ó Riada and Breandán Ó Buachalla (Irish World)

Festivals are high points of summer here in West Cork. Whatever the weather (and it’s always erratic), there is a very predictable buzz abroad wherever they happen. Rain or shine, people gather – the streets are busy, the cafés are full, the excitement is palpable.

Bantry from the water

Colourful Bantry in the festival season

A highlight for us at the moment is the Literary Festival in Bantry, and we were particularly engaged this week by a couple of hours of chat, readings and songs from a ‘Bantry boy’ now turned eighty – Seán Ó Sé. Last year Seán became an author or, more exactly, he collaborated with Patricia Aherne to tell the story of his life – which is a fascinating one.

Seán_Ó_Sé

This Seán comes across as completely honest, unpretentious, and with a deeply embedded faith. Life has taken him on a long journey from Ballylickey – on the shores of Bantry Bay – to a world stage. Woven in with a full time teaching career in Wicklow and Cork (…I never took a day off in my teaching career to go singing… says Seán …Singing was for sport, but if there was jam, that was fine too…) he has been to – and performed in – Canada, America, Cuba, Russia and China, and is still a legend in his own country of Ireland – and particularly in his own corner of it, County Cork.

Mannings

Seán Ó Sé was brought up in Ballylickey; he remembers Mrs Manning (Val’s mother) opening the shop – Manning’s Emporium – that now has a coveted reputation as one of West Cork’s favourite good food venues

He is both raconteur and singer and he has been close friend and colleague of our second Seán: Seán Ó Riada – a most profound influence on music in Ireland in the twentieth century. Seán number one told us about his first meeting – an audition – with Seán number two in the 1960s. In spite of being chronically shy the younger man must have made a good impression, and Ó Sé worked closely with Ó Riada on many of his major projects until the latter’s untimely death in 1971 – at the age of 40.

Famously, Seán Ó Sé was part of a group led by Ó Riada who performed at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in March 1969. The concert was recorded and is now regarded as classic: …crucial in the outburst of quality traditional music in the 1970s and ever since... (Gael Linn). It’s interesting that this group debuted sounds that were hitherto little known in Ireland, where traditional music was mainly seen as a past-time indulged in only by ‘rural individuals with string tied around their trousers’ or by large ceilidh bands following in the dance hall convention. In fact, Ó Riada’s vision was already a reality in the Irish communities around Camden Town in London in the 1950s and 60s, fortunately recorded by collectors such as Bill Leader and Reg Hall. And, in any case, many of the members of the Ó Riada sa Gaiety group had been playing together since 1962: they called themselves The Chieftains!

Seán Ó Riada (left) and (right) the memorable Ó Riada sa Gaiety concert that ushered in a ‘new’ era of Irish Traditional Music: this is Ceoltóirí Chualann in March 1969, (l–r): Seán Ó Riada (Director and harpsichord), Peadar Mercier (bodhran), Éamon de Buitléar (accordion), Mairtin Fay, Sean O’Ceallaigh, Sean O’ Cathain (fiddles), Seán Potts (whistle), Micheal O’Toibride (flute) and Paddy Moloney (uillean pipes). Seán Ó Sé (vocalist) is at the front. Courtesy Gael Linn. The dress code was at Ó Riada’s insistence

Before the Gaiety concert Ó Riada had already made his name writing scores for Irish films, including the 1959 documentary by George Morrison on Ireland’s struggle for freedom in the period 1896-1918. Mise Éire (I am Ireland) uses music which draws on traditional themes. The film was hugely popular when the 1916 rising was commemorated fifty years on, and in the recent 2016 centenary commemorations the main theme – based on Róisín Dubh was often featured.  Róisín Dubh means “Dark Rose” and is one of Ireland’s most famous political songs. The modern translation is credited to Pádraig Pearse. Here’s a link to a fascinating recent TG4 documentary about the making of the film, which includes extracts.

mis eire film

Mise Éire was a sensation when it came out in 1959. It was widely shown during the 1966 commemoration of the Easter Rising in Dublin

Our own Seán – Ó Sé – entertained us thoroughly at the Bantry Literary Festival, telling us his stories of a full and fascinating life, and his memories of growing up on the shores of Bantry Bay. Of course, he sang for us as well: a real treat…

singing in the mariners

That book title: An Poc ar buile; it means ‘The Mad Puck Goat’. Wherever Seán goes he will be asked to sing the song, and our session with him in Bantry was no exception. It’s supposedly a patriotic fighting song. In Irish, it tells the tale of a large billy goat who defied Cromwell and ran down the mountain to warn the people of Killorglin, Co Kerry, of the invading army. Killorglin survived the attack, and the event is commemorated every year on August 10th, when a wild goat is raised to the top of a scaffold tower and presides for three days over the festivities. Here is Seán singing about the goat’s exploits at the Cavan Fleadh Cheoil in 2010.

puck-fair

Killorglin’s Puck Fair, 1900

Ag gabháil dom sior chun Droichead Uí Mhóradha
Píce im dhóid ‘s mé ag dul i meithil
Cé casfaí orm i gcuma ceoidh
Ach pocán crón is é ar buile…

curfá

Ailliliú, puilliliú, ailliliú tá an puc ar buile!
Ailliliú, puilliliú, ailliliú tá an puc ar buile!

Do ritheamar trasna trí ruillógach,
Is do ghluais an comhrac ar fud na muinge,
Is treascairt do bhfuair sé sna turtóga
Chuas ina ainneoin ina dhrom le fuinneamh…

curfá

Níor fhág sé carraig go raibh scót ann
Ná gur rith le fórsa chun mé a mhilleadh,
S’Ansan sea do cháith sé an léim ba mhó.
Le fána mhór na Faille Bríce…

curfá

Bhí garda mór i mBaile an Róistigh
Is bhailigh fórsa chun sinn a chlipeadh
Do bhuail sé rop dá adhairc sa tóin ann
S’dá bhríste nua do dhein sé giobail…

curfá

I nDaingean Uí Chúis le haghaidh an tráthnóna
Bhí an sagart paróiste amach ‘nár gcoinnibh
Is é dúirt gurbh é an diabhal ba Dhóigh leis
A ghaibh an treo ar phocán buile…

curfá

As I set out with me pike in hand,
To Dromore town to join a meithil,
Who should I meet but a tan puck goat,
And he’s roaring mad in ferocious mettle.

Chorus:
Aill-il-lu puill-il-iu – Aill-il-lu it’s the mad puck goat.
Aill-il-lu puill-il-iu – Aill-il-lu it’s the mad puck goat.

He chased me over bush and weed,
And thru the bog the running proceeded,
‘Til he caught his horns in a clump of gorse,
And on his back I jumped unheeded.

Chorus

He did not leave a rock that had a passage through,
Which he did not run with force to destroy me,
And then he gave the greatest leap,
To the big slope of Faille Bríce.

Chorus

When the sergeant stood in Rochestown,
With a force of guards to apprehend us,
The goat he tore his trousers down,
And made rags of his breeches and new suspenders.

Chorus

In Dingle Town the next afternoon,
The parish priest addressed the meeting,
And swore it was The Devil himself,
He’d seen riding on the poc ar buile.

Chorus

old bohereen

Learning from the Masters

matt + jackie

It’s midsummer – and time for the Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival in Ballydehob. Amongst the distinguished guests this year are these two regulars: Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly. They hail from the Sliabh Luachra on the Cork, Kerry and Limerick borders. I’ve made mention of this area before, particularly in Slides or Jigs and The City of Shrone: the name means ‘Rushy Mountains’. I can’t resist quoting from this anonymous and wry review of a book published in 2003:

…I’ve just come across a book which may interest serious Sliabh Luachra obsessives, though not those merely in search of new polkas and slides.  “Sliabh Luachra Milestones”, by Diarmuid Moynihan, is an attempt at the first general history of the area, and grew out of a thesis on early road development in Sliabh Luachra.  It covers, in outline at least, such topics as archaeology, Christianity (traces have been found, apparently), early descriptions by English invaders, historical events, settlement patterns, maps, and of course, roads…

rushy glen

The rushy glens of Sliabh Luachra – from a woodcut by Robert Gibbings

So, am I a Sliabh Luachra obsessive? I think I probably am… It all started in the 1970s when my good friend Danny gave me two books by Robert Gibbings – Lovely is the Lee (J M Dent 1945) and Sweet Cork of Thee (J M Dent 1951). They are my most treasured books in our extensive collection of Irish literature and both are set, in part, in the Sliabh Luachra – and it was these books that set me on a journey that – 40 years later – has brought me here to Nead an Iolair, and to the wealth of musical tradition that we enjoy.

Gibbings books

Sweet Cork title

Jackie Daly is only a year older than I am, yet I remember looking up to him as a master when I first started listening to Irish music half a century ago: I suppose we must both have been more youthful then! He grew up with the music of course: his father played the melodeon, and he played at local ‘crossroads dances’ with a neighbouring mentor Jim Keefe. I still have – and still play – the recordings of Sliabh Luachra musicians that I bought in the early 1970s (and which are still available from Topic Records). Matt Cranitch is a distinguished and respected fiddle player who has also has an academic career and has lectured widely on Irish traditional music.

Here’s a taster from the Festival sessions – Matt, Jackie and friends finishing up a set of iconic Sliabh Lauchra slides in Rosie’s Bar

I was fortunate to attend a workshop with Matt and Jackie in Levis’s on Saturday. After a fascinating talk on their traditions we all ended up learning a set of polkas. Wonderful! Those without instruments were cajoled to sing the tunes, so it was a communal affair.

Here you’ll catch the end of a tale by Jackie and a few bars of a beautiful slow air (Maidin Ró-Mhoch) from Matt

The workshop took place in the intimate setting of the back parlour of Levis’s Corner House – on its way to becoming one of the top music venues in Ireland through the efforts of Joe and Caroline yet always keeping its distinctive character.

Levis midsummer day

It takes me a little while to pick up new tunes but the duo were good and patient teachers and we were doing quite well by the end of the session. I thoroughly recommend their latest CD Rolling On (2014), which includes Maidin Ró-Mhoch and many other fine Sliabh Luachra pieces.

As usual, Ballydehob has embraced this festival – one of many through the summer – and the town is rocking in the rain… there are visitors from afar: Hyttetu – a maritime themed male voice choir from Norway, Swansea shantymen Baggyrinkle and very many others, including someone who has been at the forefront of the Irish folk music scene for many years, Andy Irvine.

yellow poster

festival time!

Festival time – midsummer’s day!

So many thanks to all the organisers, particularly Dick Miles and Cathy Cook, and the landlords of all our local hostelries: it wouldn’t happen without them. Now I’m off home to get dry and practice those tunes!

3 polkas

 

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.

Images

looking out

Images: we take them so much for granted, because it’s easy for us to go out with a camera or phone and capture a place, an event or our friends and family. I’m sure we have now all got hard disks, memory sticks or ‘clouds’ full of hundreds of pictures – perhaps far too many for us to appreciate individually.

sheep may safely graze

Here are some images of Ireland, both old and new. The old ones are taken from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s – that’s between sixty and eighty-something years ago. I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of his book of photographs when it first came out: now it’s ‘rare as hen’s teeth’*… The new ones are taken locally by my favourite contemporary photographer – Finola.

nuns walking

The thing about a photograph is that you know it is an actual moment, a fraction of time, which has been captured and held forever. A painting is not the same – it can be very beautiful and emotional, but it is always a fantasy: it’s the artist that has made it live in the way that she or he chooses. Ó Muircheartaigh’s photographs affect me emotionally: they depict places and, more importantly, people that were once real – living landscapes, personalities… There’s a lot of nostalgia surrounding them because they show us the world – Ireland – as we want to think of it: halcyon, idyllically happy, peaceful, carefree. All the photos in Ó Muircheartaigh’s book picture this blissful state: that’s because he saw rural Ireland in that light, or because he wanted his audience to view it that way. In his work we never see hardship, rural deprivation, illness or pain – and we are completely unaware that there could be a terrible world war raging just over the waters.

Goleen

P1010179

Precious moments: how special that through the expert wielding of a camera lens Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh could use a negative to create a positive world! We can still do that: Finola’s photographs capture, digitally (and beautifully), a different world – our own modern Ireland – but also record the essence and enduring appeal of this place which we are pleased to call home. It’s all about the focus…

4 men 3

Not many of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh’s photographs carry captions to indicate where they were taken. We know his travels encompassed the west coast, particularly the Aran Islands, Kerry, Galway and Mayo. We don’t know exactly where these three views are from (anyone who does, please comment) but it’s interesting that the wonderful portrait of four drinkers, above, has been turned into a painting now hanging on the walls of Levis’ Corner Bar – one of our local hostelries – in Ballydehob! Finola’s photos are all taken on our own Mizen Peninsula

Session, Levis's of Ballydehob

*Birds did once have teeth – up until about 80 million years ago. Occasionally today, but very rarely, a ‘throwback’ bird is hatched with teeth!