Anam Cheoil – The Music’s Soul

The Friday evening concert at this year’s Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry House was a tour de force: in all, probably the best concert I have heard at this festival in recent times. We went because on the programme were two of our favourite musicians who have come from the Irish tradition: Iarla Ó Lionáird and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. They were both on top form last night, and certainly didn’t disappoint.

Header: ‘Odyssey’ by Barry Linnane  frames beautiful Bantry Bay – host to the Masters of Tradition Festival. Upper – Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (RTE Orchestras) and Lower – Iarla Ó Lionáird (Fractured Air)

Using poetry, music and song, the two performers transfixed us. Both are imbued in the musical and poetic tradition of their country, which comes from deep, deep down. In my explorations of Ireland I am finding how much history is alive and embraced: this applies as much to the history of the culture here as it does to the physical relics of the ancestors in the landscape, whether it’s prehistoric rock art or medieval architecture.

The rushy glens of the Sliabh Luachra country in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is still very much alive

Iarla Ó Lionáird was born and raised in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, and imbued in the Irish language from birth. A near neighbour in his younger years was Seán Ó Riada, who lived in Ballvourney, and had established Cór Chúil Aodha, a male voice choir singing mainly in Irish, and which exists today under the leadership of Seán’s son Peadar. Iarla joined the choir as a child and sang with it until his early twenties. He now makes his living through his voice and is still very much involved in the Irish tradition while also exploring new grounds. Listen to this very beautiful rendition by Iarla of Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (the keening of the Three Marys):

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is best known for his unique expression of traditional Irish music on the piano. He claims that he was an introverted child, and that music was his saving grace. He went to UCC where he was also influenced – and taught – by Seán Ó Riada. Eventually he took over Seán’s job at Cork before founding and heading the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at Limerick University. He wasn’t born into the Irish speaking tradition but came to it later in life. In a recent newspaper interview he gave this memorable quote: ‘…I wouldn’t like to be reborn as someone else, not even for a day, I’m so worn out trying to be myself…’ Here’s an example of Mícheál’s playing:

In the course of the Bantry concert the two musicians spoke of a little-known collector of Irish folk-songs – someone of whom I had not heard. Alexander Martin Freeman was …a retiring English scholar of private means… who travelled in the Muscraí Gaeltacht in 1913 and 1914. He wrote down no less than 84 Irish language songs, and his work has been described as ‘…incomparably the finest collection published in our time of Irish songs noted from oral tradition…’ This is all the more remarkable as Freeman spoke no Irish. He painstakingly wrote the words, exactly as he heard them, in phonetic spelling, based on his own native English. For this reason, the texts were apparently ignored initially by Irish folklorists. But now they are viewed with interest by scholars as they give a great insight into the word-sounds of Irish speakers from those years – apparently the West Cork dialect has been changing with time! Over the years both Seán Ó Riada and Iarla Ó Lionáird have brought the songs back into circulation, and we were treated to some examples. Freeman’s field notebooks from Ballyvourney are held in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

Winter scene in the Muscraí Gaeltacht

In the Library of Bantry House these two performers gave us a very special experience through music, song and poetry. Although I don’t speak or understand Irish, I appreciated the beauty of the sounds of the words – a music itself. We and the audience were transfixed by the whole experience. Walking out on the terrace of Bantry House afterwards, I looked to the west where the sun was dropping behind the mountains over the calm waters of the bay. I felt that we had, through the music, been given a privileged glimpse into the soul of Ireland.

The Murdering Glen

On the walk

The long valleys that run eastwards from Bantry are filled with antiquities – Discovery Map 85 is dotted with red circles of places we want to tramp around. We have been particularly intrigued by the ‘Murdering Glen’, labelled on the map: can you see it?.

Murdering Glen Map

Today we got a chance for a thorough exploration of the Murdering Glen, on the invitation of our friend Bridget, who lives there and is a keen explorer herself. After a wonderful lunch supplied mainly from her garden we set out up the road towards the Glen, with Bridget assuring us that the place appeared peaceful enough these days and not to worry.

Murdering Glen

The Glen is indeed dramatic, with steep sides and an enormous overhanging rock – just the kind of place for a brigand to lurk. In this case the brigand (and his mother) were locals, by the name of O’Kelly, who would lay in wait for travellers and murder them for their gold, before throwing them into the Butcher’s Pool.

Murder Rock

In  the 1930s schoolchildren in every National School in Ireland were asked to write down the stories they heard at home and these were recorded, in their own writing, by the National Folklore Commission. Here is the outline of the project, as presented on Duchas, the website that now stores that collection:

For the duration of the project, more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours. The scheme resulted in the creation of over half a million manuscript pages, generally referred to as ‘Bailiúchán na Scol’ or ‘The Schools’ Collection’.

To my delight, I was able to find the original story in the collection – and here it is, in the handwriting of schoolboy Michael Keohane from Dromore National School. I think you will agree he has done a magnificent job of telling the local legend.

murdering-glen

murdering-glen-page-2Before we left the murderous spot Bridget led us up to the mass rock, on a ledge on the side of the valley. It was a block of sparkling quartz, with holes to collect water, into which you can dip your warts in hopes of a cure.

Bridget shows us the mass rock

We  walked then towards the Trawlebane Bridge, where Robert and I had joined the walk two years ago to honour and remember Chief O’Neil. Robert’s post, The Chief, will take you back to that day and show you the spot where, before we started the walk, participants decided to put on an impromptu display of Crossroads Dancing, just as local people would have done on a fine summer evening in the old days.

Trawlebane Crossroads

There was more, much more to see, just in the immediate neighbourhood. We spent time in a Cillín first, in the middle of a field, with a magnificent blackthorn tree to mark the lonely spot where unbaptised children were traditionally buried. Read more about this practice in my post Unknown Souls.

Cillín

Blackthorn TreeA little five-stone circle was next – a classic of its kind, with four stones set on edge and a recumbent stone marking the axial alignment. (See more examples of them in my post Family-Friendly Archaeology). Besides three sites in nearby Kerry, these small stone circles are only found in Cork. They mirror exactly the larger multiple-stone circles, just with fewer stones – an efficient variation requiring fewer resources to erect but accomplishing the same outcomes.

Five stone circle

Unfortunately, this five-stone circle has been filled with field debris, creating the appearance of a mound

We also passed numerous ringforts and several standing stones. Looming over us as we walked was Dromore hill, on top of which was erected, in the Marian Year of 1954, an enormous cross, now rather improbably lit up at night. The cross is clearly visible from the stone circle and the standing stones, presenting opportunities to ponder on the juxtaposition of what is considered sacred in its own day, and what communities will expend precious resources to erect at different times over millennia.

Cross above circle

CrossOn  our trip to Sligo recently Robert and I were sensitised to the phenomenon of monuments seemingly echoing or imitating the topography behind them – see his post Discovering Carrowmore for more about this. I was struck by one of the standing stones – the top did seem to echo the hill behind it. Coincidence?

Standing Stone shape

October in West Cork can feature some of the best weather and walking conditions of the year. Today did not disappoint, with blue skies and crisp air.

Tree

Thank you, Bridget, and our other exploring companions Amanda and Peter, for a marvellous day of Murder, Mythology and Megaliths.

At the rabbit ears