Vinegar Hill

Recent travels took us to County Wexford, and we immediately immersed ourselves in the locality. For years I have played the tune usually known as Boolavogue, without fully understanding the significance of the piece – and its place – in Irish history. Firstly, here’s a masterful rendering of this most heartrending of airs  by Davy Spillane and Aly Bain (from the Transatlantic Sessions) – enjoy the beauty:

That’s the instrumental but, according to the history books, the tune was originally called Eochaill (Youghal Harbour), used as the melody for a song written in 1898 by Patrick Joseph McCall to commemorate the centenary of the Irish Rebellion: the song was known as Fr Murphy of the County Wexford, and became ‘Boolavogue’ in more recent times. Here is Eochaill beautifully played by Paul Davies who I met on my first visit to Ireland back in the 1970s: he took me on a musical trail around County Clare where I met and heard some of the then ‘greats’ of Irish Traditional Music, including concertina player Paddy Murphy. Sadly, both Paddy and Paul have passed away now, but it’s good to keep their memories alive.

It may not be immediately obvious that Eochaill and what we now know as Boolavogue are the same melody, but comparison of the tunes is a good exercise in the study of evolution in musical traditions. What’s more important to our subject is the words of the song, and the reasons for the writing of it.

At Boolavogue as the sun was setting
O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
and brought the neighbours from far and near
Then Father Murphy from old Kilcormack
Spurred up the rock with a warning cry:
“Arm! Arm!” he cried, “For I’ve come to lead you
for Ireland’s freedom we’ll fight or die!”

The header picture is a view from the top of Vinegar Hill, just outside the town of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Above is a view of the summit of the hill: it’s peaceful in the wintry sunlight. In 1798, however, it was a scene of carnage, as the United Irishmen, led by Father John Murphy, gathered to meet the British forces. George Cruikshank, the British caricaturist, produced illustrations for a history of the Irish Rebellion written by William Maxwell in 1845: he was not kind to the Irish cause but his drawings are probably accurate in their depiction of mayhem, slaughter and atrocities which were reportedly committed by both sides.

Cruikshank’s first drawing shows the Irish encampment on the summit of Vinegar Hill: women and children are evident. The windmill, which became the rebel command centre, dates from the 1600s and can still be seen on the hill today (shown in the photograph above). Disused probably since the time of the Rebellion, it fell into serious disrepair in the 1960s and a notice was affixed to it:

“Vinegar Hill, scene of glorious battle in 1798 between Insurgents and British Crown Forces. Carefully maintained by British Government from 1803 to 1922. Abandoned by the Irish Office of Public Works when freedom obtained. Only historic monument in the care of Irish Government in Enniscorthy area. Thank God for it.”

In our travels we chanced upon the ruins of another old windmill not too far away from Enniscorthy – in Tagoat. Today it’s in poor shape (but surely worthy of conservation) – we were unable to get close to it, but Finola managed to take this view:

Cruikshank’s imagining of the Battle of Vinegar Hill (above) could be a fair depiction. The engagement took place on Midsummer’s Day in 1798 and saw a rebel army of up to 20,000 – mainly armed with pikes – pitched against military forces of 13,000. Further military forces attacked nearby Enniscorthy.

He lead us on against the coming soldiers
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight
‘Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Bookey’s regiment how men could fight

Look out for hirelings, King George of England
Search every kingdom where breathes a slave
For Father Murphy of County Wexford
Sweeps o’er the land like a mighty wave

Father Murphy is remembered everywhere in Wexford. He has a fine memorial in Ferns (above), and a centre dedicated to him at his former home near Boolavogue. No lives were spared by the British at Vinegar Hill; rebels who escaped marched to the midlands but dissipated after failing to garner enough support to continue the uprising. Father Murphy and a companion were captured but not recognised. Even when mercilessly tortured neither man revealed their identity. Both were hanged in the market square in Tullow. The yeomen cut off Father Murphy’s head, put it on display on a spike and burned his body in a barrel of pitch.

At Vinegar Hill, O’er the pleasant Slaney
Our heroes vainly stood back to back
and the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
and burnt his body upon a rack

God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open Heaven to all your men
the cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again

There’s a 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy, but it was closed on the day we visited. We also looked for the Father Murphy Centre at Boolavogue, but the fine iron gates leading down to it were locked up for the winter. This Irish Rebellion deserves more exposure in this Journal – something we will address in the not-too-distant future. But I am pleased to have gained a greater insight into one of my favourite Irish airs: Boolavogue. Here’s an interesting rendering of P J McCall’s version, by ‘Flying Column’ dating from 1972: it’s preceded by Seamus Heaney’s sonnet Requiem for the Croppies, inspired by these same events.

 

Murphy wins by a neck!

High Stakes

Romping home! Dirty Dick Murphy winning the Salthill Fiesta, Galway, in June 1977 (photograph Connacht Tribune)

In the All-Ireland Name Stakes we’ve always known that Murphy is the front runner. In fact it’s the most popular surname, significantly outnumbering the next in line: Kelly. This was the case in 1890 – when the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Robert Matheson, compiled the first comprehensive analysis of names for the whole of Ireland. Then, there were 62,600 Murphys and 55,900 Kellys in a population of 4.7 million. More recently the phone network company Eircom published A Survey of Irish Surnames 1992-97 compiled by Sean J Murphy from telephone directory records in the Republic and Northern Ireland (making it comparable to the 1890 study): this showed 70,900 Murphys and 59,800 Kellys in a total population of 5.3 million.

The race

Runner-up! A Kelly, perhaps… from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s

So Murphy wins – by a margin. Let’s have look at the name: Ó Murchadha (or in modern Irish Ó Murchú) means ‘sea warrior’ (Irish Medieval History gives Murchú as ‘hound of the sea’). Most of the Murphys are evidently here in County Cork, with Counties Wexford and Kilkenny next up. There are O’Murphys – mainly confined to Ulster, where the family were part of the tribe claiming descent from Eoghan, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was responsible for kidnapping St Patrick and bringing him to Ireland. Otherwise the Murphys usually trace their ancestry back to Diarmait Mac Murchadha – King of Uí Cheinnsealaig and King of Laigin (Leinster) who lived in the twelfth century and was himself descended from the High King Brian Boru through his father’s grandmother.

Key players in Murphy geneaology and Irish history: Brian Boru, Diarmait Mac Murchadha and Henry II

Diarmait Mac Murchadha was deprived of his titles by the then High King of Ireland, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, and asked the English King, Henry II, to help him retrieve them. In return, Mac Murchada pledged an oath of allegiance to Henry, who sent troops in support. As a further thanks for his reinstatement, Mac Murchada’s daughter Aoife was married to Richard de Clare, the second Earl of Pembroke, popularly known as ‘Strongbow‘. The result of all this was that the Normans came to Ireland – and stayed – and it’s all thanks to the Murphys!

murphy's irish stout

We mustn’t forget Murphy’s Irish Stout! (advertisement by BBH London)

Now let’s look at some famous Murphys. Father John Murphy – an Irish freedom fighter – is immortalised in the ballad Boolavogue. Fr John was born in 1753 and studied for the priesthood in Seville as this was the time of the Penal Laws when Catholics were persecuted in Ireland. He returned to his homeland in 1785 and there he was only known as ‘Mister Murphy’: Irish priests were not styled as ‘Father’ until the 1860s. John Murphy led a group of rebels against English forces in the 1798 uprising. He was captured, tortured and brutally executed at Tullow, Co Carlow. Here is a rendering of the beautiful elegy Boolavogue composed by Patrick Joseph McCall in 1898, the centenary of the Rebellion, played on the pipes by Davy Spillane, with Aly Bain on fiddle:

Boolavogue is a town in Co Wexford where the rebels secured their first victory before they were captured. Here are the words to the ballad:

At Boolavogue, as the sun was setting
O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier,
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
And brought the neighbours from far and near.
Then Father Murphy, from old Kilcormack,
Spurred up the rocks with a warning cry;
“Arm! Arm!” he cried, “For I’ve come to lead you,
For Ireland’s freedom we fight or die.”

He led us on against the coming soldiers,
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight;
‘Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Booky’s Regiment how men could fight.
Look out for hirelings, King George of England,
Search ev’ry kingdom where breathes a slave,
For Father Murphy of the County Wexford
Sweeps o’er the land like a mighty wave.

We took Camolin and Enniscorthy,
And Wexford storming drove out our foes;
‘Twas at Sliabh Coillte our pikes were reeking
With the crimson stream of the beaten Yeos.
At Tubberneering and Ballyellis
Full many a Hessian lay in his gore;
Ah, Father Murphy, had aid come over
The green flag floated from shore to shore!

At Vinegar Hill, o’er the pleasant Slaney,
Our heroes vainly stood back to back,
And the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
And burned his body upon the rack.
God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open heaven to all your men;
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
In another fight for the Green again.

Two of my Murphy heroes are musicians: Denis Murphy (1912 – 1974) was a great fiddle player from the Sliabh Luachra area of Cork and Kerry. There were so many Murphy families in that area that Denis’s father Bill was always known as ‘Bill the Waiver’ because his people had been weavers of flax in olden times. I have Denis in my collection of Irish music cd’s but was never able to hear him playing live. I did meet my other hero, however, on my first visit to Ireland back in 1975. That’s Paddy Murphy (1913 – 1992), the renowned concertina player from Co Clare. I was privileged to be taken out to a private session in a remote townland somewhere north of Kilmihil. There, in a bar which seemed like someone’s front parlour, I heard Paddy play and talk of his family history and his very individual virtuoso style of playing an instrument which I have been trying to master for the last 50 years!

Noted traditional musicians: Denis Murphy (left) from the Sliabh Luachra and Paddy Murphy (right) from County Clare

Next is someone we have met before, in our posts on Saint Gobnait and The Tailor and Ansty: that’s the sculptor Seamus Murphy (1907 – 1975). This Murphy, from Burnfort near Mallow, Co Cork, became Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Hibernian Academy. He is also known for his book, Stone Mad, which was published in 1950.

Murphy in studio

Seamus Murphy in his studio: pictures top and lower left are from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s

The last Murphy that I want to mention (and there could be so many) is, perhaps, an unexpected one – she is Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who lived from 1737 to 1814. Although she was born and died in France she was of Irish extraction: her grandfather Daniel, a former army officer, had left his home in Cork for Rouen, where he worked as a master shoe-maker. When just in her teens, the physical features of young Mlle O’Murphy were spotted by Giacomo Casanova, who recommended her to King Louis XV. As a result she became the King’s Petite maîtresse – little mistress (or, rather, one of them) and bore him a daughter. However, the King’s favourite, Madame de Pompadour, decided that Marie-Louise’s presence in the royal household was too challenging and she was sent off to the country to marry a nobleman – and also received a handsome dowry for life. Marie-Louise O’Murphy (who was given the name of Marie-Louise Morphy de Boisfailly – possibly to raise her status in Versailles) is familiar to us as the artist’s model for François Boucher’s Resting Girl, painted in 1751. The canvas is now in the Wallraf Richartz Museum, Cologne.

A colourful note on which to end our survey on the Murphys of Ireland (and beyond), perhaps. We apologise to all the thousands of Murphys who we have not mentioned, but we’d like to hear from any of them…

Racing stamps

 

 

The Clare Trumpet

The Clareman's Trumpet - two fine modern concertinas, by Wim Wakker (left) and Colin Dipper (right)

Two fine modern concertinas, by Wim Wakker (left) and Colin Dipper (right)

We went to Ballyvaghan, County Clare so that I could take part in the Concertina School run by Maestro of that instrument – and Clare man – Noel Hill. I have played concertinas for over 40 years but never in the ‘Irish’ style: here I am in Ireland so – in my seventh decade – it’s back to school for me! The concertina – a small squeezebox – has a long history in Clare, and in Ireland. It was pioneered by an Englishman, Charles Wheatstone, in the 1800s. Wheatstone’s real fame came as co-inventor – with William Cooke – of the electric telegraph which was arguably the forerunner of all our present day telecommunication systems (so thank you, Wheatstone, for my iPhone) but he was also prolific in his invention and improvement of many other devices, including musical ones. He took the Mundharmoniker – a German metal-reeded mouth blown instrument and turned it into the mouth-organ we know today; he then used the metal reeds and leather bellows to develop the concertina itself, a very portable instrument which has a tone and range similar to the violin. High quality concertinas bearing the Wheatstone name are still being made, as are many others, but it was the ability to mass produce these instruments at a low cost (far lower than the fiddle) which ensured their popularity in Victorian drawing rooms and in ale houses, dance halls and kitchens.

Noel Hill and Seamus Begley give a rousing finale to the Corofin Festival in Clare 2014

Noel Hill and Seamus Begley give a rousing finale to the Corofin Festival in Clare 2014

The concertina can be loud: the smaller the area of the bellows on a squeezebox, the more powerful the pressure that can be exerted on the steel reeds. Consequently the instrument has a very bright tone which carries above most others and is therefore ideal for accompanying dances in noisy rooms – or certainly was, before the days of amplification. Imagine a flag-stoned floor in a parlour or outhouse with a lively Irish set in full swing: the sound must have been fairly overwhelming, and it needed a loud instrument to be heard above the melee. Clare was and is a musical county, and gatherings for dancing (and socialising and matchmaking) were a major past-time in rural districts. The concertina was a boon on these occasions and is now an instrument forever associated with the area and its musicians. Because of its volume and its strident possibilities, the concertina has become known as ‘the Clareman’s Trumpet’.

old bog road music

I could write a whole post on the many varieties of concertina which have been developed since Charles Wheatstone took out his patent in 1829. Suffice it to say that you are likely to encounter only two types in your normal travels: the English Concertina – where each button plays the same note regardless of which direction you are moving the bellows – and the Anglo Concertina – where each button gives you two different notes: one on the push and another on the pull – similar in principle to the modern mouth organ. My instrument is the Anglo, and this is also the one most commonly (but not exclusively) found today in Irish Traditional Music.

pub signNo mention of the concertina in Clare would be complete without a note on Mrs Elizabeth Crotty of Kilrush. She lived between 1885 and 1960 and was famous in her day as an Anglo player. Crotty’s pub is still there in Kilrush, and still in the family. I went there on my first visit to Ireland almost exactly 40 years ago. Mrs Crotty’s memory had not faded then. I played in the pub on that visit and was told (by her daughter) that this was the first music that had been heard in the pub since the First Lady of the Concertina had died. It’s a different matter today: there is live traditional music most nights in Crotty’s, and in so many other establishments all over the county. More Clare concertina names include Paddy Murphy (who I was fortunate enough to meet and hear at a wild and remote session on that first visit), Chris Droney of Bell Harbour, still playing in his eighties, and many another.

cds

But Clare’s musical connections are not limited to the concertina: as we travelled around we became very aware of how important is music in all its varieties in this windswept, largely treeless but peculiarly beautiful part of the island. There are instrument makers: Finola grew up with Martin Doyle in Bray: he’s now one of the top producers of hand-made wooden flutes in the world! We visited his workshop – a well-equipped timber shed on the edge of the Burren. It was a great reunion: while the stories were in full flow in walked Christy Barry, renowned traditional flute player – also a Clare native, to join the chat.

Friends from school: Clare flutemaker Martin Doyle with Finola

Friends from childhood: Clare flutemaker Martin Doyle with Finola

Raw material - and traditional Irish flutes in the making

Raw material – and traditional Irish flutes in the making

I mustn’t forget Martin Connolly, first class button accordion maker from Ennis, nor my all-time Irish music hero Martin Hayes (perhaps there’s something about the name Martin?) renowned fiddler and Director of the Masters of Tradition Festival every year down here in West Cork: he hales from East Clare.

Martin Connolloy - Clare accordion maker

Martin Connolloy – Clare accordion maker

The roll call is endless, but perhaps pride of place (for now) should go to Willie Clancy, not a concertina player but a master of the Uillean Pipes. He has made famous the name of his home town, Milltown Malbay, where they have honoured him with a fine bronze statue. Every year in July around 10,000 people descend on the small West Clare town and swell its normal population tenfold. There are workshops, classes and concerts but, most of all, there is just constant music – in pubs and cafes, and on every street corner: the craic is mighty!

willie