Journey into Purgatory

I was excited to be travelling to one of Ireland’s oldest – and most important – pilgrimage sites. Finola studies stained glass windows and their artists, and she knew that some particularly impressive Harry Clarke windows can be seen in the Basilica on Station Island, Lough Derg, in County Donegal. The roof of the Basilica, completed in 1931, towers over the island in the picture above, taken from the quay at Ballymacavany. Finola obtained special permission for us to visit the island to view and photograph the windows, after the main pilgrimage season was over: her account of them will appear in Roaringwater Journal in the near future.

It’s salutary to learn how many people and families we know have taken part in the pilgrimage at Station Island. It’s a particularly austere experience, involving a three day cycle of prayer and liturgies, bare-footed and with very little food or sleep. Finola’s father undertook the pilgrimage in the 1950s: the photograph above was taken at around that time, when pilgrims were ferried over in large open boats once rowed by eight oarsmen and subsequently motorised. One of these historic boats is kept on display at Ballymacavany (below). Nowadays the journey is made in a modern covered launch, as seen in the header photo.

Records of the number of pilgrims who travelled to Station Island have only existed in comparatively recent times. The peak seems to have been just prior to the famine around 1846, when over 30,000 went there in one season. The drawing above is by William Frederick Wakeman, who was a draughtsman with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and was probably made at that time. Through the twentieth century numbers seldom fell below 10,000 pilgrims each season, but in many years was considerably more. This news item from the RTE Archives demonstrates the strength of the pilgrimage in the year 2000.

The island’s long history takes us back to the time of St Patrick. Despairing at the arduousness of persuading the Irish people to accept his Christian teachings he appealed to God to help. The story is admirably recounted by Dr Peter Harbison, Honorary Academic Editor in the Royal Irish Academy:

…St Patrick … was having difficulty convincing the pagan Irish of the 5th century of the truth of his teaching about heaven and hell; they were not prepared to believe him unless one of them had experienced it for themselves. To assist Patrick in his mission … Christ showed Patrick a dark pit in a deserted place and told him that whoever would enter the pit for a day and a night would be purged of his sins for the rest of his life. In the course of those twenty four hours, he would experience both the torments of the wicked and the delights of the blessed. St Patrick immediately had a church built, which he handed over to the Augustinian canons (who did not come to Ireland until the 12th century), locked the entrance to the pit and entrusted the key to the canons, so that no one would enter rashly without permission. Already during the lifetime of St Patrick a number of Irish entered the pit and were converted as a result of what they had seen. Thus the pit got the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory…

(from Pilgrimage in Ireland: the Monuments and the People by Peter Harbison, Barrie & Jenkins, 1991)

The entrance to this cave is on Station Island, and is the reason for the enduring popularity of the pilgrimage, which has persisted there for over 1500 years. In the medieval illustrations above, the gateway into Purgatory can be seen on the right, while on the left is a knight – Owein – whose terrifying adventures in the cave in medieval times have been written about in many languages: a summary can be found here.

St Patrick’s Purgatory: the name is over the entrance at the reception centre at Ballymacavany, the point of departure for Station Island. The cave which marks the entrance into Purgatory was permanently sealed up in October 1632 when the pilgrimage was suppressed by order of the Privy Council for Ireland; in the same year the Anglican Bishop of Clogher, James Spottiswoode, personally supervised the destruction of everything on the island. Later, in 1704, an Act of Parliament imposed a fine of 10 shillings or a public whipping …as a penalty for going to such places of pilgrimage… The site of the cave entrance lies under the bell tower, seen above. In front are the penitential beds where pilgrims perform rounds to this day. It is thought that these formations are the remains of monks’ cells or ‘beehive huts’.

On the left is a map of Station Island by Thomas Carve, dated 1666. The words Caverna Purgatory, centre left, show the site of the cave entrance. In spite of the efforts of the Penal Laws to suppress the observances, pilgrimages have continued unabated. Above right is a photograph from the Lawrence Collection, dated 1903, showing pilgrims about to embark for the island.

A young St Patrick portrayed as a pilgrim stands in front of the island: the Basilica is on the right. This view indicates the huge development  of the island since its complete destruction in the 18th century and shows the facilities provided for the many thousands who have come here over the generations.

The Basilica is the focus of the pilgrimages today: it was formally consecrated in 1931. The entrance door is a modern interpretation of Romanesque architecture, while the tabernacle is an impressive example of fine bronze work.

Ireland’s great poets and writers have visited St Patrick’s Purgatory, and have responded to the experience:

Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1244) “Chief in Ireland for poetry”:

Truagh mo thuras ar loch dearg
a Rí na gceall is na gclog
do chaoineadh do chneadh’s do
chréacht
‘s nach faghaim déar thar mo rosg.

(Sad is my pilgrimage to Lough Derg, O King of the cells and bells; I came to mourn your sufferings and wounds, but no tear will cross my eye)

Patrick Kavanagh:

Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal,
Christendom’s purge. Heretical
Around the edges: the centre’s hard
As the commonplace of a flamboyant bard.
The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow.

W B Yeats:

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is Seamus Heaney whose moving contemplations took him back through his life experiences and produced twelve memorable poems in a volume entitled Station Island:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.
I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night.
And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven all peoples
although it is the night.
And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

Finally, here’s a contemporary journalist’s view, well worth the read!

 

On the Passing of Poets

Ireland: ‘land of Saints and Scholars’ – and poetry, as we found on our travels. In just a few days we have discovered how three pre-eminent Irish poets – whose passing has spanned a century – are being celebrated and commemorated in their own townlands.

Bellaghy, County Londonderry, in Northern Ireland was the childhood home of Seamus Heaney  who was born at nearby Mossbawn on 13 April 1939, the eldest of nine children. Heaney passed away on 30 August 2013 and, in accordance with his own wishes, he is buried in the Cemetery of St Mary’s Church, Bellaghy. A Book of Remembrance is kept in the church, and on his headstone is a line: Walk on air against your better judgement, from one of his poems – The Gravel Walks.

Exactly a year ago – October 2016 – a new building was opened to commemorate Heaney, the Nobel Prize winner, who has been described as ‘…the most important Irish poet since Yeats…’, ‘…the greatest poet of our age…’ and ‘…probably the best-known poet in the world…’ The quality of the HomePlace centre reflects this reputation and provides excellent facilities for the sheer exploration of words as well as performance, lectures and research.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of the death of another of Ireland’s country-born poets: Patrick Kavanagh. We visited Inniskeen, County Monaghan, to search out the old St Mary’s Church, which has been transformed to a Centre – open to the public – which displays information on the poet born and raised on a nearby farm in 1904, the fourth of ten children. The Centre also carries out research into the poet’s life and work, and organises an annual event to celebrate him. I am grateful to the staff of the Centre for allowing me to photograph the interior of the former church.

Appropriately, the grave of the poet can be found in the churchyard. Strangely, an elegant memorial to the poet and his wife (below left) vanished in 1989 and was replaced with a simple wooden cross (below right), said to have been carved by his brother, Peter. I could not get to the bottom of this matter: there are various reports to be found on the internet, including this one from RTE.

Like Heaney, Kavanagh’s strong influences came from his rural background. Some of his best-loved works portray country life, but without sentimentality. He remained on the farm in Monaghan until 1931, when he walked the 80 kilometres to Dublin. At first rejected by the literary establishment, his work eventually received appreciation. Seamus Heaney acknowledged that he had been influenced by Kavanagh.

When Kavanagh died on 30 November 1967, at the age of 62, he was recognised as …Ireland’s leading poet in English…

For our third commemoration we travelled to Slane, County Meath, to find the Francis Ledwidge Museum. This poet died exactly a hundred years ago, a victim of the Great War.

The Museum has been created in the cottage where Francis was born on 19 August 1887, the eighth of nine children. Again, he came from a rural background. His father died when he was only five, and he spent much of his life as farm hand, road builder, and copper miner. He was an active campaigner for better working conditions, became an early Trade Unionist, and attempted to organise strikes.

The Ledwidge cottage in Janeville, Slane, around the end of the nineteenth century (top), and the cottage – now the Francis Ledwidge Museum – today (lower)

Francis had written poetry all his life, and some was published in local newspapers when he was 14 years old. He attracted the patronage of Lord Dunsany, who introduced him to W B Yeats. Like many other artists, writers and poets, Ledwidge’s life was tragically cut short by the war. In the Third Battle of Ypres he and five companions were hit by an exploding shell. Father Devas, a Chaplain who was a family friend, recorded ‘…Ledwidge killed, blown to bits…’ A memorial was raised to him on the place of his death in Belgium, and a replica of this memorial can be found in the garden of the Janeville cottage.

Seamus Heaney also acknowledged Ledwidge as one of his influences

During our travels we have seen that poets in Ireland have respected the work of their compatriots. Wordsmithing is a time-honoured profession: there’s a common thread running from the Bards of old, who carried traditions, myths and genealogies through generations and over centuries.

Below – a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the Welsh artist Jeffrey Morgan hangs in the HomePlace Centre, Bellaghy

Betjeman in Ireland – Poet and Spy?

1970s st enodoc

I remember well the day they buried Sir John Betjeman. The graveyard of St Enodoc’s Church (above, from a 1970s postcard), is close to the Cornish village of Trebetherick – his home for many years. On that day in May 1984 there was a downpour of torrential proportions, and all that could be seen when they laid him to rest was a sea of black umbrellas. The poet himself would have loved the very English spectacle of it.

Left – the larger than life 2007 bronze statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras Station, London: the sculpture is by Martin Jennings (photo Christoph Braun). Betjeman was a founding member of theVictorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture: his campaigning was responsible for saving the Station and the Chambers from demolition in the 1960’s. Right – the headstone of Betjeman’s grave in Cornwall

The poet is well known for his accessible and, often, highly amusing writing: perhaps less well-known are his Irish connections. During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’ in Ireland), John Betjeman was posted to Dublin, ostensibly as a press attache in the British embassy, tasked with planting British propaganda in newspapers and trying to counter the activities of Deutsche Nachtrichten Büro – the German Press Agency which, in 1939, appointed its own official representative in Ireland, Dr Carlheinz Petersen. As the war got under way British media were swamped with propaganda stories against Irish neutrality: for example, it was suggested that German submarine crews were being entertained in remote villages in the west of Ireland, and that wireless transmitters up in the mountains were at the heart of a vast espionage system against Britain. When Ireland refused to lease back its ports to Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic, the idea began to take hold in Britain that ‘neutralit’y was a wilful act of hostility against the allies. John Betjeman was drafted in to the Ministry of Information to help calm the situation. Betjeman’s job was to rein in these anti-Irish fantasies. Luckily for future Anglo-Irish relations, he managed to put a stop to a Ministry plan to disseminate propaganda leaflets in packets of tea, soap and toilet paper. Betjeman recommended “the stopping of anti-Irish articles and cartoons”. Instead, propaganda should concentrate on backing De Valera “and showing the tightrope he is walking”. Although De Valera was convinced Germany would win the war, the poet said: “There is no doubt that he and most of his ministers feel that the better interests of Eire will best be served by a British victory. For this reason Mr de Valera is Britain’s best friend in Ireland.”

Betjeman and family Dublin

A surviving photograph of John Betjeman (left) in Dublin during the war years – note the two pipers; the context is unknown

It’s hard to know whether Betjeman was actually a spy – even his biographer can’t clarify that. But the IRA thought so, and dispatched two men to permanently put him out of action. Diarmuid Brennan was the IRA army council’s head of civilian intelligence in 1941, and he was approached by two gunmen from the second battalion of the Dublin IRA who were looking for a photograph of …a fellow called Betjeman… These second battalion types were known to us as the Edward-Gees of the IRA, after Edward G Robinson… 26 years later Brennan wrote to John Betjeman telling him about the plot: …I got communications describing you as ‘dangerous’ and a person of menace to all of us. In short, you were depicted in the blackest of colours…

However, Brennan was interested to know more about this condemned man and began to read his poetry. The story goes that Brennan was swayed by reading Continual Dew, a 1937 volume that contains several poems about Ireland and another about Oscar Wilde, as well as Slough, in which he implored the Luftwaffe: 

…Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow…

Brennan decided that someone who was as passionate about poetry as Betjeman should be given the benefit of the doubt and aborted the assassination. There’s no doubt that Betjeman liked Ireland – and had some appreciation of the Irish outlook on life, in particular the love of literature. He was a lifelong friend of the poet Louis MacNeice and also of Patrick Cavanagh, who wrote a poem for Candida – Betjeman’s daughter – in celebration of her first birthday in 1942:NPG x78423; Candida Lycett-Green; Sir John Betjeman; Penelope (nÈe Chetwode), Lady Betjeman; Paul Betjeman by Bassano

Candida is one to-day,
What is there that one can say?
One is where the race begins
Or the sum that counts our sins;
But the mark time makes to-morrow
Shapes the cross of joy or sorrow.

Candida is one to-day,
What is there for me to say?
On the day that she was one
There were apples in the sun
And the fields long wet with rain
Crumply in dry winds again.

Candida is one and I
Wish her lots and lots of joy.
She the nursling of September
Like a war she won't remember.
Candida is one to-day
And there's nothing more to say.
The Betjeman family: John, Candida, Paul and Penelope 1948 (Bassano)

Betjeman is also particularly remembered for the part he played in bringing Laurence Olivier to Ireland to film Henry V on the Powerscourt Estate. This film, itself a piece of wartime propaganda, brought a short period of prosperity to County Wicklow in 1943. The doughty yeomen who faced the French in the Agincourt battle scenes were actually Irish farmers: these ‘extras’ each received an additional pound if they brought along their own horse!

Photo_ENsemble_1.202222324_large-1

Battle scene – Agincourt in Ireland, Powerscourt, Co Wicklow

The small towns of Ireland by bards are neglected,
They stand there, all lonesome, on hilltop and plain.
The Protestant glebe house by beech trees protected
Sits close to the gates of his Lordship’s demesne.

But where is his Lordship, who once in a phaeton
Drove out twixt his lodges and into the town?
Oh his tragic misfortunes I will not dilate on;
His mansion’s a ruin, his woods are cut down…

(from The Small Towns of Ireland, John Betjeman)

The Melodeon

A personal perspective – by Robert – to celebrate St Cecilia, the Patron Saint of music, on her day: 22nd November

Girl with Melodeon

…My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside the cow‑house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable‑lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water‑hen screeched in the bog,
Mass‑going feet
Crunched the wafer‑ice on the pot‑holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — The Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
“Can’t he make it talk” —
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box‑pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door’post
With my penknife’s big blade—
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

from A Childhood Christmas by Patrick Kavanagh 1943; the photo of the girl is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
Traditional musicians playing ‘squeeze boxes’ – top: Fred Pearce from Norfolk and Johnny Connolly from Connemara, both playing ‘The Melodeon’ – a single row instrument, while below: Jackie Daly from the Sliabh Luachra area (Cork / Kerry borders) and Joe Burke from Galway play the Irish Button Accordion

I have been playing the melodeon for well over 50 years: I should be a lot better at it than I am… My father didn’t play it: I didn’t even know that melodeons existed until I saw a secondhand one on sale in my local music shop when I was a teenager. I was fascinated by the look of it – it beckoned me; it was ten pounds, and in those days I earned seven shillings and sixpence a week from my paper round. Eventually I had saved enough to buy it, took it home and scratched my head over it.

Spot the difference: Robert then (playing a one-row melodeon) and now (playing a two-row button accordion – photo by Peter Clarke)

There’s a logic to playing a melodeon, but it’s not an immediately obvious one. Perhaps I’d better explain that a melodeon is one sort of accordion, and the definition varies depending what country you are in. I was in England then, and the term ‘melodeon’ there covers pretty well everything that has a button keyboard, bellows, and produces different notes when you move the bellows in or out; it doesn’t refer to a ‘piano accordion’ where the keyboard has – well – piano keys, and the movement of the bellows in either direction doesn’t make any difference to the notes.

Dermot Byrne and Steve Cooney

Expert Irish button accordionist Dermot Byrne, accompanied by Steve Cooney at a recent Baltimore Fiddle Fair event here in West Cork: Dermot is playing a rarely seen Briggs diatonic instrument

Now I am in Ireland and the term ‘melodeon’ only refers to an instrument with a single row of buttons on the keyboard; anything with more than one row is known as a ‘diatonic button accordion’, and you will probably most often come across the latter when listening to traditional music here, although nothing is ever simple, and there are a number of Irish players (including many really good ones) who play instruments with a single row of buttons.

Sharon Shannon

Sharon Shannon from Corofin, Co Clare has taken Irish button accordion playing to a different level: her concerts often include magical lighting effects and state-of-the-art electronic accompaniments

By chance, that first instrument that I saved up for had only one row, so it would be a ‘melodeon’ in both England and Ireland. I now tend to play mainly instruments with two rows, and I can’t stop calling them ‘melodeons’ even though that’s incongruous to players here.

Kerryman Seamus Begley – noted Irish accordion player and entertainer; in the right hand picture he is joined by concertina maestro Noel Hill at last year’s Corofin Festival, Co Clare

In an earlier post – The Clare Trumpet – I talked about concertinas, and the invention of those instruments by Charles Wheatstone in England, getting on for two hundred years ago. He took out a patent in 1829. In the same year Cyrill Demian – an Armenian organ and piano maker – filed a patent in Vienna for an ‘accordion’ which was exactly the same as today’s melodeon:

…In a box 7 to 9 inches long, 3½ inches wide and 2 inches high, feathers of metal plates are fixed… with bellows… even an amateur of music can play the loveliest and most moving chords of 3, 4 and 5 voices with very little practice… Each claves or key of this instrument allows two different chords to be heard, as many keys are fixed to it, double as many chords can be heard, pulling the bellows a key gives one chord, while pushing the bellows gives the same key a second chord…  many well known arias, melodies and marches, etc. may be performed similar to the harmony of 3, 4 and 5 voices, with satisfaction of all anticipations of delicacy and vastly amazing comfort in increasing and decreasing sound volume… it is easy and comfortable to carry and should be a welcome invention for travellers and parties visiting individuals of both sexes, especially as it can be played without the help of anybody…

martin connolly

Excellent accordion maker and mechanic Martin Connolly of Ennis tests out Robert’s Oakwood 

That’s true: the ‘squeeze box’ is one of those instruments which you have to learn to play just by doing it. Of course, you can get books of instructions – and you can get experienced players to help you get started – but in the end it comes down to instinct – and a lot of practice, preferably out of earshot of anyone else. You can pick up the diatonic system inexpensively by picking out tunes on a mouth-organ – which is a melodeon without the buttons or bellows!

Concertinas / melodeons / button and piano accordions are different instruments but all share certain characteristics including the means of producing a note through a vibrating ‘free reed’ – a small metal leaf held at one end in a frame. A bellows pushes or pulls air through the frame and the reed vibrates, producing a musical note. The size and weight of the frame and leaf governs the pitch of the note. The quality of metal used for the vibrating reed – its density, flexibility  and tempering – determines the overall sound quality of the instrument. The best instruments use hand made reeds.

Outside Rosies

Squeeze boxes in evidence in this recital from young members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann outside Rosie’s, Ballydehob, during the Trad Festival

Enough of the technicalities! What matters is the music that can be got out of an instrument. I like the push-pull (bisonoric) squeeze boxes because you have to move the bellows so much to get the changing notes. This adds dynamics to the music: movement and rhythm. As so much of traditional music is used for dancing, this is a definite advantage – there is already ‘dancing’ in the music itself.

800px-Bourrée_d'Auvergne

There are so many really good traditional music players in Ireland: you will know that because of our reports on the festivals we go to. Who are the best players today of melodeons and diatonic accordions? You have to decide that yourself by going out and listening to as many as you can. Or, second best, you can stay at home and use the internet – Youtube is a seemingly endless resource. There’s also The Session, which is a very good site for finding tunes and discussions on music and musicians. I also recommend ITMA – the Irish Traditional Music Archive – an invaluable free resource of information including thousands of sound recordings, videos, images and manuscript collections all related to the music tradition here in Ireland.

post-436-1116811091

If you’re twisting my arm as to who are my melodeon ‘heroes’, I’ll reel off a list of players I would (and do) go out of my way to listen to: Johnny Connolly, Bobby Gardiner, Jackie Daly, Joe Burke, Seamus Begley, Dermot Byrne, Sharon Shannon… However, I seldom have to go far because they all seem to come, sooner or later (and often frequently) to our little corner of the world here in West Cork.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hail Cecilia!