Abhainn na Seangán – River of the Ants!

What’s in a name? In Ireland – quite a lot, usually, although the meaning often takes some searching out. Perusing Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 85 on a late February afternoon when the sun miraculously appeared and lit up a countryside ripe for exploration, my eye was drawn to a river running through the hills to the east of Bantry: Owennashingaun. How could you overlook such a name? And how could you not be intrigued by the Irish place-name which must have preceded it before the surveyors put their anglicisation to it: Abhainn na Seangán? Even better was the discovery of the meaning of this name: River of the Ants!

Our byway heading into the hills

With high expectations we set out, with Finola at the ready with her camera. As with all West Cork locations, Abhainn na Seangán is but a few paces from Nead an Iolair, as the crow flies. Pausing only to pick up our friend Gill in Ballybane West along the way, we were soon heading north for the foothills of Mullaghmesha (Irish: Mullach Méise – Summit of the Altar).

Turning north at the Cullomane Crossroads on the R586 we almost immediately crossed the Owennashingaun River (I’ll use the Anglicised version as that is what usually appears on the map). Here it’s just a gentle, straight watercourse which follows the main road until it picks up the Ahanaclaurshee Stream (Irish: River of the Harp) and then becomes the Ilen River, which flows on through Skibbereen and eventually reaches the sea at Baltimore.

Glens, farms and distant highlands on our road heading for Mullaghmesha

We skirted two smallish peaks – Sprat Hill and Knocknaveagh (Irish:Cnoc na bhFiach, wonderfully ‘The Hill of the Ravens’) – before reaching the townland of Tralibane, an important Irish landmark as it was here that Captain Francis O’Neill was born in 1838. He travelled the world and had a colourful life of many adventures before being elevated to the role of Chief Superintendent of Police in Chicago in 1901. O’Neill came from a musical family in his West Cork childhood and is best known today as one of the most successful collectors of Irish Traditional Music. Here is a post I wrote about The Chief back in 2014.

From Tralibane we travelled north-east on deserted boreens, through a soft, green landscape of glens and standing stones (see the header picture), gradually rising towards more distant highlands, until we encountered again the ‘River of the Ants’. The source of Abhainn na Seangán is on the slopes of Mullaghmesha, whose peak is at 495 metres: we didn’t make it up there to look for the altar: a destination for another day. The name of the river remains enigmatic: I searched the excellent resource www.logainm.ie and found an archive record there dating from 1840 which gives the translation as: ‘river of the pismires’. I then had to look up ‘pismires’, which is evidently from early English:

1350 – 1400: Middle English pissemyre, equivalent to pisse to urinate + obsolete mire ant, perhaps Scandinavian (compare Danish mire, Swedish myra) cognate with Dutch mier; pejorative name from stench of formic acid proper to ants

There was nothing untoward with the smell of the river as we followed it – and we didn’t see any ants! So the mystery remains. Surely there must be a story embedded in local knowledge or folklore which could enlighten us?

Upper – sweeping views began to open up as the road climbed towards Castle Donovan; centre – the iconic ruined castle, which was taken into the care of the State in 2000 and has since received major stabilisation and renovation; lower – a splendid piece of signage at Castle Donovan – every possible disaster has been foreseen!

The ruin of Castle Donovan is as fine as any in West Cork, and is fortunate to be in permanent State care. Set on a plateau with the mountain rising behind it, it is an impressive focal point in the landscape, which can be seen for miles around. We passed by the castle and headed up on a rough, winding way: looking back, the silhouette of the tower house stands out with benign West Cork rolling pasture as a prepossessing backdrop.

The road very quickly becomes a true mountain pass, and an early evening haze seemed to hang over everything as we skirted the east side of Mullaghmesha. We hardly saw a soul on our whole journey, but we were eyed warily by sheep who plainly considered us intruders on their territory.

On the north side of the mountain we entered the Mealagh Valley, and were reminded of our recent adventures travelling through the Yellow Gap. Finding our way down to the lowlands again, we took our last look at the River of the Ants at Dromore, and bid it a fond farewell. In spite of its unfathomable name, it had taken us on a grand exploration. Give it a try for yourselves!

Upper, the distinctive church at Dromore, with its pencil-thin ’round tower’ and, above, our last view of Owennashingaun

Irish Roads

Heading towards the light

Driving the Gap of Dunloe in Kerry – it can only be done in winter.

To give you a flavour of what it’s like to drive in Ireland, I’ve put together a few of my favourite photographs of the roads we’ve travelled. Sometimes I wonder if we will get to the point where we take for granted the spectacular scenery which is such an everyday occurrence for us, but then we find ourselves pulling over once again to wonder at the wild landscape, the grandeur of the mountains, the way the sea cuts deeply into the sandstone cliffs, the old castles and ruins that dot the fields – and we know that we will never tire of Irish roads.

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I’ve chosen only photographs that have roads in them, so you can get the feel of travelling in Ireland. And yes, it does rain in Ireland and the clouds come down and cover everything and then driving isn’t as much fun. Find a pub to hole up in, wait a while, and try a prayer to St Medard

Dingle

Of course some  of you, dear readers, do this every day, like we do, so tell us your own favourite Irish roads – or share a photograph on our Roaringwater Journal Facebook page if you like.

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Obstacles are common – so don’t drive too fast along the rural roads as you never know what might be around the bend.

Tractor pace

And there’s no point in being in a big hurry…
Only room for one at a timeThere’s only room for one at a time

We do have freeways/motorways in Ireland, and tolled highways, and congested city streets with honking traffic. Our advice is to get off the highways and out of the cities as soon as possible. Get on this road, for example, that runs through the Black Valley in Kerry, and see where it takes you.

Black Valley, Kerry

Happy driving in Ireland!

By the lighthouse

Ah! Sweet Fiddler…

paddysmoke

How did I first become aware of Irish Traditional Music? Probably through this Long Player (remember those?) released by Topic Records in 1968. Paddy in the Smoke was – still is – central to my collection of folk music on vinyl and is available today as a CD or a download.  The recordings were made during the mid 1960s in a London pub, The Favourite, in Holloway. Irish musicians gathered there every Sunday between noon and 2pm (such were the licensing laws of the day!) and those sessions are now legendary, probably representing the epitome of ‘folk music to aspire to’ – certainly that was the case for this wet-behind-the-ears 22 year old attempting to play along with these wonderful tunes on an ancient single-row Hohner melodeon. Here’s a sample of one of the tracks on YouTube: you can hear how the atmosphere of the occasions has been wonderfully captured.

More from my collection of fiddle recordings

Jump forward a few years and in the mid 1970s I was making my first trip to Ireland, visiting Cork, Clare and Longford – looking for The Music: I found it in abundance. By then I was playing an Anglo Concertina, but I was very aware that wherever you went to in Ireland – or whatever you listened to from the Irish tradition – it was above all else the fiddle that seemed to be the king-pin.

Fiddles at the Chief O'Neill's Festival, Tralibane

Fiddles at the Chief O’Neill’s Festival, Tralibane

Now – dare I say it – almost 50 years on from hearing those first notes, here I am living on the shores of Roaringwater Bay and I am more than ever immersed in the music. Still it’s the fiddle that’s ubiquitous, wherever I go and whatever I listen to.

Fiddles to the fore: Friday night session in Ballydehob

I started to learn the ‘violin’ when I was 11 years old. It wasn’t a fruitful venture – I had given it up within the year and moved on to the piano. I suppose I have just always been happiest with an instrument that only requires you to press a key or a button to get exactly the right note. But I am filled with admiration for anyone who plays the fiddle – who is able to perfectly pitch the notes, and then ‘bend’ the music when the mood requires it. You can’t ‘bend’ steel reeds!

The Rakes dance band, founded in 1956 – Reg Hall, Michael Plunkett and Paul Gross. They introduced me to Irish dance music back in the day… They are still going strong! Reg Hall was responsible for the Paddy in the Smoke recordings, together with Bill Leader

A fiddle is a violin – it’s the same instrument. Generally, classical players of the violin call it by either name, but traditional music players invariably call it a fiddle. It’s a beautifully constructed instrument with a feminine, flowing shape – a piece of craftsmanship which has been made the same way for 500 years. A seventh century Irish poem The Fair of Carman describes ‘…Pipes, fiddles, chainmen, Bone-men and tube players…’ but we don’t know what the fiddle was at that time. An excavation in Dublin during the 18th century uncovered a fiddle and bow dating from the 11th century: this is the oldest bow known in Europe – the bow is of dogwood and has an animal head carved on the tip.

workshop

The violin maker’s workshop (www.violinist.com)

Can anyone learn to play the fiddle? Probably – with sufficient patience and perseverance – and a bit of musicality. But it takes very particular skills to put The Music into the instrument. We are immersed in good fiddling around here: we have so many music festivals – Baltimore Fiddle Fair, Masters of Tradition, Chief O’Neill’s, Ballydehob Trad Fest – right on the doorstep. The whole gamut of different regional styles and techniques is here for us to take in. If you have half an hour or so to spare, it’s well worth looking at this YouTube video dating from 2008: firstly, you’ll see Jeremy Irons learning to play traditional Irish fiddle, and you’ll see his mentors, including maestro Martin Hayes. But Jeremy lives in Kilcoe Castle, just over the hill from us – so you can also get a flavour of life down here in Roaringwater Bay – immersed in the sweet fiddle music…

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The Chief

fiddlers

Way back in 2013 I wrote about our chance discovery of the Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial – out in the deep countryside west of Bantry Bay. Just to remind you, O’Neill – always referred to locally as The Chief – was a West Cork hero who championed Irish traditional music, and many students of The Music have a copy of ‘1001 Gems: The Dance Music of Ireland’ – O’Neill’s best known collection of tunes, published in 1907. I acquired my copy over thirty years ago and so far I have learned only a fraction!

Birthplace and Homestead of Francis O'Neill, Tralibane

Birthplace and Homestead of Francis O’Neill, Tralibane

Ireland has a great tradition of honouring its heroes, and ‘The Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial Company’ was set up in 1995 to do just that for The Chief. It was timely, as the 150th anniversary of his death came in the summer of 1998, and the Company was responsible for erecting a plaque at Tralibane Bridge – the place of his birth – and on that day also reviving the ‘pattern dancing’ at the crossroads by the bridge, after an absence of very many years.

Dancing at the Crossroads, Tralibane Bridge

Dancing at the Crossroads, Tralibane Bridge

I’d better briefly recap on the man himself… He was born on August 28, 1848 at Tralibane in the Parish of Caheragh – the youngest of seven children. His parents had a very strong background in Irish music, and Francis grew up in a household which was a gathering place for musicians sharing and exchanging tunes, and accompanying the dances. Like so many of his peers he left home at the age of 16, embarking in Cork city on a sailing vessel bound for England and from there found work on other ships which took him around the world. Among his many adventures was a shipwreck while aboard the Minnehaha in the South Pacific. He was rescued by a passing ship which eventually docked in San Francisco, where he decided for the time being to stay on dry land. His journeyings took him on to Chicago, where he joined the Police Force in 1873. At that time 40,000 residents of the city were Irish: by 1900 there were over a quarter of a million there: a huge reservoir of Irish music for Francis to garner – something he revelled in. During his first months of service he was shot and seriously wounded in the course of duty. One of the bullets lodged in his spine and could not be removed: he carried it with him for the rest of his long life.

badge

Francis was good at his job: he was promoted to Lieutenant, Captain and, finally, to Chief of the Chicago Police in 1901. He had 3,300 men under his command – the vast majority of them were Irish, and one suspects that many of them were employed by The Chief because of their musical abilities and resources! All through his adult life Francis O’Neill collected and wrote down tunes; he was also an early champion of the phonograph, which helped him in his transcriptions.

Timmy McCarthy as The Chief

Timmy McCarthy as The Chief

We went out to Tralibane today and – sure enough – enjoyed music and dancing at the crossroads, but we were also entertained by The Chief himself, resurrected by Timmy McCarthy – a descendant and a fund of information. I am indebted to him for the above and for many tales and anecdotes which I don’t have room to include here. He was dressed the part: a Police Chief’s uniform complete with polished badge – and he wielded a truncheon! He walked us from the Bridge (where we had been treated to outdoor music and dancing) to the house where Francis had been born, and then on to the site of the O’Neill Memorial. There was food, drink, tales and more music and dancing. It’s the middle of November, and the sun beamed down on us, lighting up the mountains in the distant view. You must tire of me telling you how beautiful it is here in rural Ireland, but we can never get enough of this wonderful landscape.

The Parish of Tralibane

The Parish of Caheragh

O’Neill’s tune collections have been published under different titles in his lifetime and ever since. They are considered the most valuable source material for all students. Some say that The Chief ‘saved’ Irish music, but I am inclined to think that it would have survived regardless. It is certainly very much alive today, as our weekly sessions demonstrate – along with the very many festivals which we are fortunate enough to have right on our door step.

1001gems

Francis and his wife Ann had ten children, but sadly five died young. After an active retirement which was filled with fishing, pottery and photography as well as The Music, the Chief died of heart failure at his Chicago home: he was 87.

Plaques at the Memorial Site

Plaques at the Memorial Site

Statue of The Chief at the Memorial Site

Statue of The Chief at the Memorial Site

Francis O’Neill has left a legacy which is commemorated at Tralibane. There is a life-sized statue of him looking out over his own family countryside: he plays his flute throughout eternity. The large Memorial site often hosts meetings, music and dancing. We will return again next year…

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