Sliding into Kerry

view from the road

My musical acquaintances might think that this post is all about Kerry slides – lively tunes which get aired sometimes at our session: here are some fine examples played by Éamonn O’Riordan, Tony O’Connell, Brian Mooney and Gearóid Ó Duinnín…

But they would be mistaken: this is the tale of a little wintry but sunlit exploration which Finola and I undertook on the eve of St Gobnait’s feast day. It involved crossing the border into Kerry, something which is not lightly done by Corkonians because of traditional rivalries (mainly on the Hurling and Gaelic Football fields). So we had to ‘slide’ over into the Kingdom and hope that none of our friends noticed our temporary absence.

Sheep flock on road

We had things to do in Kenmare (have a look at Finola’s post), but afterwards we took to the byways. We knew there is a remote, lonely and very beautiful road winding up over the mountains, shared only by a few wandering sheep, and determined that would be our way home. We headed off to the tiny settlement of Kilgarvan and there saw a signpost that said Bantry 25: we turned on to the boreen that follows the Roughty and Slaheny Rivers and immediately entered another world.

Macaura's Grave signpost

We hadn’t gone very far along the road before we were intrigued by a brown signpost – beckoning us along an even smaller boreen. Macaura’s Grave: neither of us had any idea who Macaura was, so we had to go and investigate. After about ten minutes of twisting and turning and trying to guess which of the unmarked and unsigned lanes to take whenever we came to a junction, we found ourselves back on the road we had just left! By now we were determined that Macaura was not going to get the better of us, so we flagged down a young lad who was in charge of a fine red tractor. He was very forthcoming, and told us that the grave was well worth a visit, then proceeded to give us a set of instructions that involved turning this way and that – signifying to the air which ways these were. Not a little confused, we drove off again.

View from near grave

It was no hardship to be exploring the magnificent countryside in south Kerry: the views were breathtaking and the variety of colours on the mountains in sunlight and shadow this early spring day was astonishing. A bit more head scratching and a few more twists and turns down a stony trackway and we were there!

Modern sign

Now we knew. Not only had we found the grave of Macaura – that’s the old Irish way of saying McCarthy – but we had come across the site of one of the most significant battles in Irish history! The Irish chieftain, Finín McCarthy (named as the ‘King’ of Kerry – and that’s why Kerry is known as The Kingdom), joined up with the O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork and the O’Donoghues from Ross Castle to rout the Normans, who were led by Sir John Fitzgerald. This battle took place in 1261. 1261! Over eight hundred years ago… This confirms my thesis that you can’t go anywhere in Ireland without stumbling over history. The Anglo-Normans had claimed their stake in Ireland from 1169 when Strongbow (Richard de Clare) arrived with the blessing of Henry II (and the Pope – who saw the Irish church charting its own course and not following Rome!). Reasonably, the Irish chieftains objected to the Norman invaders, hence this confrontation.

Grave Inscription

In the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1961, Volume 66, there is a comprehensive – but not entirely enlightening – article by Diarmud Ó Murchadha on The Battle of Callan:

…Finghin Mac Carthy had learned much from his opponents during his years of conflict, while he had the added advantage of knowing intimately the territory over which he fought. At Callann he chose his battleground, at a spot where a mountainy river called the Slaheny joins the Ruachtach, close by the castle of Ardtully. No doubt he reckoned that here the heavily-armoured cavalry of the invader could be used to the least advantage. Battle was then joined and Finghin mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh emerged victorious… Unfortunately no details of the conflict – apart from the names of those slain – are available. Incidentally, the fullest account of the battle is given, not by the Munster annals, but by the Annals of Loch Ce and Annals of Connacht:

AD 1261 – A great war was waged, and numerous injuries were committed in this year by Finghin, son of Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, and his brothers, against the foreigners.There was a great hosting by the Geraldines into Desmond, to attack Mac Carthy, but it was Mac Carthy attacked them, and defeated them…

The Annals go on to record the fact that Finghin followed up his victory at Callan by attacking and destroying every Norman castle and stronghold in Munster. As the sign over Macaura’s Grave tells us: …he liberated the Kingdom of South Munster from Norman domination forever…

battle-of-callan-site

But who is it that the Macaura Grave celebrates? ‘Donal, Chieftain of the McCarthy Fineens’… Presumably this is not the Finghin, who, according to the Annals, went on after the battle to rout the Normans out of Munster: the Finghin who is known as mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh – ‘son of Domhnaill MacCarthy’. Could it be his father (Donal is an Anglicisation of Domhnaill)? In which case it was the clan chieftain who died in the battle and his son who went on to clear the Normans out of Kerry. There are a few accounts of the battle, but none of them clarify this. It all happened a long time ago, of course, and memories fade. In fact this site was all but lost: an article in The Kerryman takes up the story, illustrated by this photograph:

1981-clearing-the-site-of-the-grave

…The men of Kilgarvan were busy in November 1981 – making a road fit for a king! The king in question is Finín McCarthy who died in 1261 after being the first Irish king to defeat the Normans, thus giving Kerry the name of the Kingdom… Legend has it that after the battle, McCarthy stood on a ditch to survey the battlefield, when a dying Norman killed him with an arrow. McCarthy was buried on the spot, and a large slab was used as a headstone. The grave now lies on a narrow little road in Callan beside Tom Healy’s farm. When retired Dublin civil servant Frank Shanley spent a recent holiday in Kilgarvan he went looking for the grave, which was buried by shrubs and bushes… He decided to organise a meeting of the local men to try and get them to improve the grave and access to it…. It was Dan O’Sullivan, Down, Tom O’Donoghue and Michael Teehan, who were slaving away widening the roadway from eight feet wide to 16 feet, when he visited in November 1981… Apart from the narrow roadway and the briars and trees, there was also a steady stream of water running over the grave, but the men got the pipes to divert the water in another direction. There was no actual inscription on the grave that the men could read, but there were a series of lines and crosses on it, which they hope will be examined by an expert…. They hope that when they have the roadway to the grave cleared, they can erect signposts to the grave, and notices around the grave telling the history of McCarthy’s death in the battle of Callan…

Macaura's Grave

So we have the ‘men of Kilgarvan’ – back in the 80s – to thank for leading us to this now tranquil but historically turmoiled and fascinating spot. There is still the puzzle of which McCarthy is commemorated: perhaps we’ll never know for sure. But it’s not bad to have access to a story which has survived for the best part of nine hundred years – just about within living memory by Irish standards! After this excitement we continued our journey over the spectacular Coomhola road through the mountains towards Ballylickey and gently slid back into West Cork. If you can cope with very narrow roads (it’s not so bad – we only saw two other vehicles, both local farmers, in the whole 25 kilometres!) it’s one of the great road trips of Ireland – with the added bonus of a history lesson to be taken in.

Beyond the tunnel

Sheep on the edge

The Winding Road

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