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!

Mizen Mountains 3 – Letterlicky Cairn, or ‘The Old Bog Road’

I confess I’m stretching things a bit here: the 297m peak in the townland of Letterlicky, West Cork, fits well enough into my definition of mountains – anything above the 200 metre contour line. But is this one on the Mizen? We think of our own village of Ballydehob as being ‘The Gateway to The Mizen’ in the south-east, and it would be logical to have another ‘Gateway’ at Durrus, where the northern coastline of the Mizen meets the Sheeps Head. If you draw a straight line between these two points, then today’s subject misses out. But – there are no straight lines in nature, and this peak is a continuation of a natural ridge line that rises down on the Mizen near Mount Corrin and runs east.

But if you are uncomfortable with my concept of what is or isn’t the Mizen, just go with the subtitle of this post: The Old Bog Road. We found Letterlicky Cairn quite by accident as our exploration set out to follow a trackway that we had often passed, on the high road to the north of Ballybane West. We had no idea where the track would take us, but it’s very well defined, roughly paved and probably quite old. As we journeyed up into the hills, we could see that the track was there to serve peat workings which must have been used for generations. The extent of the peat workings – and the line of the old road serving them – show up well on the aerial map view below.

It was a sunless mid-March day when we set out: the wind was in the east and there was little colour in the landscape. There were, as yet, few signs of spring. We could see the ridge in the distance and, happily, the track appeared to climb towards it. In Ireland, the days of cutting peat for fuel are numbered: commercial operations will cease by 2025. Generations of families in rural areas have historically cut peat by hand and lay claims on the rights to do this. Increased regulation will eventually see this tradition declining along with all other fossil fuel production as carbon neutral ways to produce energy are developed. It seemed significant that the large array of 20 giant wind turbines on the high land to the east was a constant backdrop on our journey along the Old Bog Road.

Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh (1907 – 1967) was an amateur photographer who recorded life in rural Ireland during the first half of the twentieth century. We have used examples of his work in previous posts. These two prints (above) demonstrate the hand-working of peat faces and the transporting of sods from the workings. Our Old Bog Road would have seen similar sights in its heyday.

As we threaded our way through the peat workings, we could see the track carrying on towards the ridge. We had done no prior research into the area we were traversing, but as the way grew higher and higher – and we realised we must be coming to a high point in the landscape – we wondered whether there would be any signs of ancient activity on the mountain top. We could see other high points around us – Mount Kidd to the south and Mount Gabriel to the west – and, beyond, a spectacular distant view over Roaringwater Bay: a place like this would have been considered special, surely, to those who knew it thousands of years ago.

Views from the Old Bog Road: upper – Mount Kidd; middle – Mount Gabriel, and lower – the islands of Roaringwater Bay

As we rounded the last bend in the trackway we could see the summit ahead of us. Initially, we were delighted to see a substantial cairn. But we were surprised by the number of larger, roughly shaped boulders and slabs which were lying around it. Also, there seemed to be a substantial earthen raised platform.

To add to the interest – and the enigma – there were some 21st century monuments on the same hilltop. An inscribed bench and a carved wooden marker which resembled a gravestone, with wording on both sides:

Our subsequent enquiries have given us a little information about Mick Townshend (1951 – 2012). He was well know locally, related to the Townshends of Castletownshend, and lived near Ballybane West. The bench was made by his friend Charlie, and was intended to be installed in Ballydehob: we don’t know why it is now here at the mercy of the elements, but it’s easy to imagine someone finding such a place inspirational, and perhaps asking to be remembered at this spot.

Although it wasn’t the best of days, the view to the north was exceptional, taking in Bantry Bay and the Beara mountains beyond. It’s a place that demands to be returned to. As we prepared for the descent we heard the sound of a small engine, and suddenly there was farmer Florence McCarthy arriving on a quad bike with two collies running behind: they were searching for lost sheep. Good chat was had – although, in deference to the Coronavirus crisis, we all kept the currently regulation distance apart. It felt very unnatural to not shake hands, and we forgot to ask for a photograph, until Florence was just disappearing over the brow of the hill!

Florence

The cairn is a scheduled monument, described prosaically on the Archaeological Survey Database as: Circular area (19.5m N-S; 19m E-W) defined by scatter of large rectangular stones. The Duchas folklore collection proved far more interesting, although I can’t be sure that this entry from Gort Uí Chluana School, Bantry, in 1936 is referring to the same cairn:

Long ago when some of the people from the north of Ballydehob used be carrying their “firkins” of butter to Cork they used go through an old road in the town land of Letter Lickey . . .


On the side of this old road it is supposed that one man killed another with a stone. After that it was the custom with the old people; who ever happened to pass that stone should throw a stone near the spot the stone was dropped at the man or if not something would happen to the person afterwards. Up to the present day there is a cairn of stones to be seen on the side of this old road . . .

The Day the Sun Came Out – in Ballydehob!

It always happens: you go through a ferocious winter of gales, floods and bitingly cold winds and then one day – probably not too long after St Brigid’s – you realise that spring is arriving! It happened this week, here in Ballydehob. Suddenly, the sun came out; the sky was deep blue and all the coloured houses, bars and shops lit up and made us remember what a wonderful place we live in.

Ballydehob – that’s the name in Irish, above, on the gable of the community’s Bank House. A literal translation would be Town of the ford at the estuary of two rivers and, indeed, the Bawnakeane and Rathravane streams converge here before flowing out into Ballydehob Bay, once a hive of water-borne commerce with coasters, schooners, sand-boats, and punts and skiffs from the inhabited offshore islands arriving and leaving, while the tiny train puffed and rumbled across the viaduct on its way from Skibbereen to the Schull terminus.

When you feel the spring in the air for the first time, you begin to look anew at your surroundings. Shapes, reflections, the play of images on water: there’s such a difference as the ‘ordinary’ is changed through the quality of the light. That’s the freshness of annual renewal.

There are so many little details in the townscape that we can overlook, or just take for granted. Ballydehob has a long history of creativity, which is reflected in shop signs, decoration, window dressings. Take a stroll in the sunshine and see if you can find anything new!

You don’t have to wander far from home to welcome and experience the joys of a new spring. You will also find yourself looking forward to the seasons still to come, which will bring Ballydehob to life with its visitors, galleries, festivals and gatherings. Not to mention the hostelries which feed the body as well as the soul.

We are looking forward to many sunny days to come as the year warms up. Meanwhile, we can always revisit happy memories of our village life through our photographic archives. Thanks to Judi Whitton for the endpiece watercolour featuring our wonderful Budds, just turned five years old this weekend: congratulations to Jamie and his dedicated team!

Fingal Mummers

On Stephen’s Day we went up to Fingal County to see the Mummers – it’s a mere hare’s leap from Nead an Iolair. Until 1994 there was no county of Fingal: the area was part of Greater Dublin. Since that time this county has recorded the highest birth rate and population increase of any community in Ireland. Why? I would like to suggest that it’s because Fingal has , for countless generations, been the home of a Mummers tradition.

On our new green last evening here was presented the drollest piece of mummery I ever saw in or out of Ireland. There was St George and St Dennis and St Patrick in their buffle coats and the Turks likewise and Oliver Cromwell and a doctor and an old woman who made rare sport till Beelzebub  came in with a frying pan upon his shoulder and a great flail in his hand threshing about him on friends and foes, and at last running away with the bold usurper whom he tweaked by his gilded nose – – and then came a little Devil with a broom to gather up the money that was thrown to the Mummers for their sport. It is an ancient pastime they tell me of the citizens . . .

This account of Mummers in Cork is supposed to date from 1685, and is found in a manuscript collection in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, lodged by Thomas Crofton Croker in the 1840s. It is probably the earliest recorded portrayal of the custom in Ireland or Britain. Three hundred and thirty four years after this description of ‘an ancient pastime’ was written down, recognisably the same ‘mummery’ is happening every year across these islands around midwinter.

The Fingal Mummers ‘entering in’ (above). Following a revival in the 1950s, this group travels around several towns and villages on Stephen’s Day, performing their play to crowds who gather to see them. We tracked them down to their starting point, O ‘Connors Inn, Ballyboughal, which seemed a quiet little settlement until we walked through the door of the pub and realised that every resident of the village – and quite a contingent of visitors – was crammed inside waiting expectantly for the visiting players. The excitement was tangible, and everyone was in good spirit, enjoying the Christmas cakes, puddings and treats that were being freely handed around.

It seemed that the visit to O’Connors was a purely ritual appearance, as the crowds and the noise were too overbearing to permit a performance of the play. There was music and singing, but the group eventually moved on – with us following – to the next venue: Man O’War! This bar, which also gave its name to the scattering of houses around it, was evidently established in 1595 and became a toll point on the turnpike section of the main Dublin to Belfast road in the 1700s. The road has long since been superseded and is now a quiet lane. The pub, however, has grown in size and reputation and, on Stephen’s Day was packed: a large number of musicians was seated around an enormous table, and post-Christmas festivities were in full swing, with an air of expectancy leading up to the arrival of the Mummers.

It was at Man O’War that we saw the Fingal play performed. There are around a dozen characters, which include St Patrick, Prince George, The Doctor, The Butcher, Jenny Wren and Beelzebub. The main protagonists, Patrick and George, fight with swords until the former kills the latter (obviously!). A quack doctor is brought in and raises George to fight another day. There is considerable humour, innuendo and – always – music and dance. A most important aspect, however, is the appearance towards the end of the play of a character – Slick-Slack – who carries a large family on his back (usually dolls and teddy bears).

From upper picture – heroes Patrick and George, fiercesome Doctor and musicians

For me, it was just slipping back to old times: from when I could barely walk we attended the Mummers play at Crookham Village in Hampshire, England, every Boxing Day, and I absorbed the tradition into the rhythm of 1950s life. Here are the Crookham Village Mummers around that time:

A mid 20th century photograph of the Crookham Mummers, Hampshire: could the little boy on the right be me? The characters in this play, left to right – Roomer, Slasher, Trim Tram, Doctor, Turkish Knight, King George, Old Father Christmas

Into adulthood I never questioned the existence of the Mummers: they were just an essential part of Christmas – like carols, bells and reindeer. As soon as I was able, I joined the Mummers myself and now, after decades of performing it, carry the complete play in my head (the Hampshire version of it, anyway). It was only when my interest in folklore became academic that I asked myself: what is all this about? And then I became aware of the significance of mummery in the traditional cultures of northern Europe, Scandinavia – and beyond – and saw its place and relevance to the season when the sun gets to its lowest point and then has to be encouraged back again: cold and darkness have to be replaced in the natural cycle with light, warmth and regeneration. The old spirit of winter has to be supplanted by the young fertility character who carries his wife and (large) family on his back. In Fingal that is Slick-Slack; in Hampshire it is Trim-Tram who rounds off the performance:

In comes I, Trim-Tram, left hand press gang: press all you bold fellows to sea to fight the French and Spanish. Although my name be Jolly Jack, wife and family on my back – although my family be but small, I thinks myself best man of all . . .

Trim-Tram fights with Old Father Christmas and kills him, causing some consternation to younger members of the audience. Trim-Tram concludes:

Ladies and gentlemen, see what I have done: killed my poor old Father Christmas, just like the setting sun. So, while I sits and takes my ease, good people – give us what you please . . .

At which point the hat is passed around, giving the watching crowd a chance to partake of the ‘luck’ which the Mummers bring to the communities they visit.

The Butcher is on the left – replete with carving knife and turkey!

Masks and straw headpieces are common in the Irish Stephen’s Day traditions. Remember the workshop we had in Ballydehob a few weeks ago? That was in preparation for a Wranning there this Christmas just gone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t magic ourselves to be in two places at once on the day, so we will have to wait for next year’s event. Meanwhile we were very happy to have the Fingal experience. Long may that county continue to hold on to the luck, and perpetuate its fecundity!

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post!

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we come with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

 

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him.

 

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

 

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

 

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

 

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

 

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

 

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

 

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

 

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob – which is the subject of Finola’s post today. He’s on the left in the upper picture, looking on at the Wran Workshop which he allowed to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared a whole lot of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example in the lower picture.

The afternoon started outside, in Levis’ garden, where we were all given guidance on preparing the straw. We had to strip away the leaves and any heads which had been left behind, and produce bunches suitable to be plaited and then turned into ropes which would form the basis of the  hats or ‘masks’ traditionally worn to disguise the wren hunters.

On the right here you can just catch a glimpse of workshop maestro Sonia Caldwell, inspecting another fine mask. Sonia is determined that Ballydehob will embrace the Wran tradition (vestiges of which have appeared on the streets over the years) and re-energise it in the way that only this West Cork village’s vibrant community knows how. I can just imagine that in a couple of years’ time people will be flocking to see ‘The Wran’ in the same way that they flock to the Jazz Festival and all the other festivals and events that happen annually here.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. You can see for yourself how successful the day had been in the last picture below. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

Sonia is holding a further workshop – also at Levis’ Corner Bar – next Thursday 28 November at 7pm. It’s free to attend: please come and join in: you’ll learn more about the history of The Wran, and there’s likely to be some music too! And then on Stephen’s Day itself it’s out into the boreens and byways of Ballydehob to look for a wren . . . Don’t worry – the days are long gone when our (almost) smallest bird would lose its life: it’s a token hunt, the point of which is the disguising, the visiting around the streets, and the celebrations afterwards, which will extend late into the night!

Many thanks to Pól Ó Colmáin for providing this wonderful photograph of the results of the workshop!