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

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