Harvest Time

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, Mizen Productions, 1999)

This selection of photographs is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, 1907 – 1967, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. I have chosen his pictures that concentrate on gathering the harvest – and the fairs that are associated with harvest time: the festival of Lúnasa. They are generally not captioned, so we are not aware where these were taken. When I travelled in West Cork during the 1990s I remember seeing traditional stooks in the fields: this method of collecting the corn was practiced by the small farmers then, although now I believe it has completely vanished.

…Most of the people on the Northside had holdings that were so small that they could only grow corn (barley or oats) or wheat, for their own use. The land wasn’t good for corn crops. By the middle of August, the stooks were seen in the fields. As with the bringing in of the hay, the cutting of the corn was a great event with a meitheal to help you if needed. For cutting, a reaping hook or the scythe was used. When buying a scythe it had to be sharp enough to lift a penny off the floor. A man followed the cutter, collecting the corn, a sheaf at a time, and putting it out behind him. This was called ‘taking out’. Two people followed the man ‘taking out’ and bound the corn into sheaves with a bind, making sure that the ears on the bind lay with the rest of the ears. Six sheaves were made into a stook and left for a week, then the small stooks would be made into a stook of twelve sheaves which was left in the field to finish ripening for the rest of the month. The stooks were gathered into the haggard, by donkey or horse and cart, and made into a barrel stack ready for threshing in October… (Northside of the Mizen)

Lúnasa is one of the important turning points in the Irish calendar: harvest time, fruitfulness, and the onset of autumn. The others are Imbolc – 1st of February (the coming of the light and new life, spring), Bealtaine – 1st of May (onset of summer and a time of growth), Samhain – 1st November (winter and darkness). All these points have to be marked and celebrated. Lúnasa, or Lughnasa is probably the most fertile time for celebration, and festivities could last for days or even weeks. There was always a fair: the most well-known one still celebrated is at Killorglin, in the heart of County Kerry, where a great wild Puck goat is crowned and reigns above the crowds.

 

‘Will the Hare’ – and the Mizen Olympics!

street market

…In ancient Ireland the festival of the beginning of the harvest was the first day of Autumn, that is to say, it coincided with 1 August in the Julian calendar. This has continued in recent tradition, insofar as Lúnasa or Lammas-Day was still taken to be the first day of Autumn; the gatherings and celebrations connected with it were, however, transferred to a nearby Sunday, in most parts of Ireland to the last Sunday in July, in some places to the first Sunday in August… The old Lúnasa was, in the main, forgotten as applying to the popular festival and a variety of names substituted in various localities, such as Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday), Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday and others…

making the stack

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Generally, the locations of the photographs are not noted, and very few are likely to be specific to the Mizen: they do however record life as it would have been lived at that time in all the rural areas

Today we celebrate Lúnasa – the festival of the bringing-in of the harvest. Kevin Danaher (The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972) wrote (above) about what he observed in the middle of the last century, when things were already changing and many of the old customs were, as he notes, ‘in the main forgotten’, although still talked about. What changes do we see in Ireland, a few generations on?

seascape

Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes was written in 1999 (Mizen Productions) and is a collection of memories and stories still being told then about traditional life in this westerly part of of the country:

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

…Once in the year Carbery Island was the location for a dance and in settled weather the Northsiders could shout across and give the signal to the people of Muintir Bháire to meet at Carbery Island. As many as forty-five people in three boats would cross Dunmanus Bay to the White House, and a good crowd of men and women from Bear Island would also come to the dances. They were great hearty people. Ann Daly from Kilcrohane and Agnes O’Donovan of Dunkelly played the melodeon…

I like the idea of the Northsiders shouting across the water to the residents of the Sheep’s Head, two miles away! I wonder if they would be heard nowadays?

horse race

…There were competitions at Dunmanus for swimming, running, jumping and weight lifting, and you could be sure that the Northsiders were well represented in each of the events. ‘Will the Hare’ (William McCarthy of Dunkelly Middle), was good at the long jump and the running races and would often win and bring great honour to the Northside. It was said that ‘Will the Hare’ got his name by catching a hare on the run! It was also said that when you blew the whistle to gather the men for seining, by the time you had finished, ‘Will the Hare’ would be at Canty’s Cove waiting!

boat race

…Wild John Murphy would take the lads to the Crookhaven Regatta which was held on The Assumption (15th August). It was a long pull around the Mizen but a good time was had by all. The Northsiders were great with the oars, but it was hard to beat the Long Island crews in the boat races…

(Danaher): …In very many localities the chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people from the surrounding area congregated, travelling thither on foot, on horseback or in carts and other equipages… Many of the participants came prepared to ‘make a day of it’ bringing food and drink and musical instruments, and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking and dancing…

picnic

…Another welcome feature of the festive meal was fresh fruit. Those who had currants or gooseberries in their gardens, and this was usual even among small-holders in Munster and South Leinster, made sure that some dish of these appeared on the table. Those who lived near heather hills or woods gathered fraucháin (‘fraughans’, whortleberries, blueberries) which they ate for an ‘aftercourse’ mashed with fresh cream and sugar. Similar treatment was given to wild strawberries and wild raspberries by those lucky ones who lived near the woods where these grow… A number of fairs still held or until recently held at this season bear names like ‘Lammas Fair’, ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’…

market in town

One interesting custom was the driving of cattle and horses into the water. This is mentioned in the 1680s by Piers in his Description of the County of West-Meath:On the first Sunday in harvest, viz in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched; I deny not but that swimming of the cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them…

at the fair

True to Life

at the hearth

Old photographs are irresistible. The collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Ó Muircheartaigh’s pictures record rural life and – most impressively – the people who lived it. This is a post, mainly of portraits, taken from a book of his work published posthumously in 1970, and now hard to find.  

hat and string

Tomás was President of Conradh na Gaelige (The Gaelic League) between 1955 and 1959, and his photographs appeared on the cover of many editions of the League’s monthly magazine.

Gealic league advert

The portraits, sadly, do not record the names of the subjects nor – often – their localities. We only know, on the whole, that his travels were centred on west Kerry and the Blasket Islands. The images, however, are powerfully evocative and time and place are, perhaps, irrelevant.

calendar

shawl

mower

on the bussweetshop

Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh 1907 – 1967, sketched by Sean O’Sullivan:

tomas

 

Slides or Jigs? Polkas or Reels?

young fiddler close

Two young musicians – from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. We do not know at what outdoor gathering this atmospheric picture was taken, but perhaps there is a polka or a slide being played there…

Way back in the last century (it was the nineteen seventies actually) I first came to Ireland in pursuit of traditional music. I found it a-plenty. At that time, the music of the Sliabh Luachra was very much in vogue: local sessions and Fleadh Ceols were full of polkas and slides…

Classic recordings of traditional music collected from the Sliabh Luachra during the sixties and seventies: The Star above the Garter is published by Claddagh, while the others are from the Topic Record catalogue

My post last week came to you from the City of Shrone, which is within this area, in the border country of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. The strong surviving music traditions here have an unmistakeable character – fast and lively. I was reminded of that tradition this week when I came to the wonderful Fiddle Fair in Baltimore and listened to Tony O’Connell from the Sliabh Luachra in recital with Brid Harper, a highly regarded Donegal fiddler. They are an excellent duo – here’s a little taster from that concert (Kerry Slides):

As an aspiring concertina player myself I was bowled over by Tony’s playing, especially of the quintessential Kerry slides. But what is a slide you might ask? And how do you tell a slide from a jig?

Saturday’s recital in Saint Matthew’s Church, Baltimore: Brid Harper and Tony O’Connell playing Kerry Slides

Here’s some help, extracted from discussion boards, specifically on the subject of slides and jigs:

…Uninitiated listeners and even some tune-book editors have mistaken slides as hornpipes, single jigs, polkas, or double jigs, since slides share various traits with each. Once you know a few, you realise they are distinct from any of those…

…Note that slides are peculiar to the Southwest of Ireland, and some are directly related to double jigs, single jigs, or hornpipes played elsewhere in Ireland. Musicians quite familiar with slides are generally unfamiliar with single jigs, and some otherwise respectable authorities on the slide have rashly pronounced that single jigs “are the same as slides.” We can have some sympathy with that by understanding that these musicians simply use the term “single jig” to mean “slide,” and are apparently unaware of the existence of the distinctive “single jig” rhythm in Irish music. Over the course of the 20th century the customary notation for slides shifted from 6/8 to 12/8, which I think is an improvement in accuracy…

Both these statements (from irishtune.info) tell us about the confusion between jigs and slides, but they don’t tell us exactly how you define either of them. Let’s try this, from the same source, regarding slides:

The tempo is rather quick, often in the 150 bpm range, if you were to count each heavy-light pair as a beat. But in practice each beat of a slide (counting around 75 bpm now) gets two pulses, which is either a heavy-light pair (very close to an accurate “quarter note, eighth note” distribution) or a quite even triplet – not a jig pattern. Thus if all four group-halves in a bar were triplets – which is uncommon – you’d have a twelve-note bar. The ratio of heavy-light pairs to triplets in a slide is slightly in favour of the pairs, which again clearly distinguishes them from double jigs. Most slides break the pattern once or twice in a tune by delaying the strong note for a bar’s second group until that group’s second half, creating a cross-rhythm with respect to the foot taps. Other unique characteristics of slides are not necessary additional information for identifying them – only for playing them…!

I’ve puzzled over this (and other advice) for some time: I sort of understand it, but I think it’s impossible to describe a rhythm in words… However, I was pleased to find this mnemonic for slides by the poet Ciaran Carson – it says it all:

“blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle”

gougane

An evocative engraving of Gougane Barra, in the Sliabh Luachra, by artist and writer Robert Gibbings, taken from Lovely is the Lee, J M Dent, 1945

How about polkas and reels? Polkas, in particular, are popular in the Sliabh Luachra tradition:

…The polka is one of the most popular traditional folk dances in Ireland, particularly in Sliabh Luachra. Many of the figures of Irish set dances are danced to polkas. Introduced to Ireland in the late 19th century, there are today hundreds of Irish polka tunes, which are most frequently played on the fiddle or button accordion. The Irish polka is dance music form in 2/4, typically 32 bars in length and subdivided into four parts, each 8 bars in length and played AABB. Irish polkas are typically played fast, at over 130 bpm, usually with an off-beat accent… (Also from irishtune.info)

Reels are probably the most popular tune type within the Irish traditional dance music tradition:

…Reel music is notated in simple meter, either as 2/2 or 4/4. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar…

fiddle fair outdoors

At the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, informal sessions are essential interludes

Definitions are all very well and these can only be generalisations. In the end it’s what is being played – and what you hear – that counts. For me, the music in Ireland is like history: it’s built into the landscape and the psyche. Irish people are survivors and have travelled all over the world and back. So has the music! This was emphasised today when we had another excellent recital in the church by Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney, fiddle and accordion.

foley gurney

They both come from the Southern Catskill Mountains in New York State. Much of the Irish music they play was learnt directly from Father Charlie Coen who emigrated to the United States from the village of Woodford in County Galway in 1955, bringing the music traditions from East Galway with him. Here’s an excellent example of the music travelling across the world and back again: Fr Coen played The Moving Cloud reel on his concertina, but his instrument had some buttons missing so he adapted it, and the adapted tune is what we heard Foley and Gurney playing in the church today. Listen first to another Fiddle Fair maestro, Noel Hill playing the reel from his 1988 album The Irish Concertina:

Now the same reel which has travelled from Ireland to Baltimore via the Catskill Mountains:

I hope you can hear those ‘odd’ notes! But there’s nothing so right or so wrong in Irish music: the grand finale for us today was a memorable concert with French Canadian fiddler Pierre Schryer, Donegal box player Dermot Byrne and Australian born guitarist Steve Cooney. They played music with an Irish bias but harvested from many traditions. It left us breathless…

Hill of Slane

abbey + college

Our travels took us to the Hill of Slane. On its summit overlooking the River Boyne a depleted Saint Patrick (he’s lost his hands) looks forever out to the east, facing towards the mound of Millmount at Drogheda, about 15 kilometres away according to our Crow. Millmount is reputed to be the site of an ancient passage grave – and the burial place of Amhairgin mac Míled, who was regarded as the originator of the arts of song, poetry and music. The very first Irish poem The Song of Amhairgin was recited by him as he entered Ireland from the River Boyne, below the mound. Here’s a version of it translated (from the original Irish) by Lisa Gerrard:

I am the wind on the sea
I am the stormy wave
I am the sound of the ocean
I am the bull with seven horns
I am the hawk on the cliff-face
I am the sun’s tear
I am the beautiful flower
I am the boar on the rampage
I am the salmon in the pool
I am the lake on the plain
I am the defiant sword
I am the spear charging to battle
I am the god who put fire in your head

Who made the trails through stone mountains?
Who knows the age of the moon?
Who knows where the setting sun rests?
Who took the cattle from the house of the Warcrow?
Who pleases the Warcrow’s cattle?
What bull, what god created the mountains’ skyline?
The cutting word – the cold word?

The Saint lit the Pascal Fire on the Hill of Slane soon after his mission in Ireland began (the flame is still lit at Easter). That seems to me a symbolic action: a challenge issued, perhaps to the pagan traditions that had gone on for generations before the new religion arrived. Patrick’s fire-raising activities are also a comparatively recent addition to the lore of the hill: according to the Metrical Dindsenchas – combining poems from the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, the Rennes Manuscript, the Book of Ballymote, the Great Book of Lecan and the Yellow Book of Lecan – all sources well over a thousand years old and themselves most likely compiled from the timeless oral traditions of the Bards – Slane is the burial place of an ancient king:

…Slaine, whence the name? Not hard to say. Slaine, king of the Fir Bolg, and their judge, by him was its wood cleared from the Brugh. Afterwards, he died at Druim Fuar, which is called Dumha Slaine, and was buried there: and from him the hill is named Slaine. Hence it was said: Here died Slaine, lord of troops: over him the mighty mound is reared: so the name of Slaine was given to the hill, where he met his death in that chief abode….

(Translated by Edward J Gwynn in 1903)

The ‘mighty mound’ must surely be the enigmatic earthworks hidden in the trees to the west of the abbey and college ruins: these are variously described as a barrow or a motte.

Over the gate

Top: medieval profile; Above left: ‘Creature of Slane’ decorating the walls of the old college, and Above right: the tower of the monastery which dates from the 16th century

Mostly what we see today on the summit here is medieval: the hill remained a centre of religion and learning for many centuries after St Patrick. A friary church was established on the site of an earlier monastery in 1512: it was abandoned in 1723. Beside it is a medieval college, probably also 16th century. The stonework here includes some extraordinary carvings, sadly much dilapidated.

I musn’t shy away from another tradition associated with Slane Hill: the authors of this book make a convincing case for an alignment right across Ireland that takes in several historically important sites:

41s5jHsihjL…The Millmount-Croagh Patrick alignment stretches over 135 miles from the east coast of Ireland to the west, and has significant St Patrick associations … we found that the line from Millmount to Slane westwards travels all the way to Croagh Patrick, perfectly intersecting the little chapel on the summit of The Reek with breathtaking accuracy. Significantly, this line skirts the hills of Loughcrew on its way, and also travels directly through Cruachan Aí, one of the largest archaeological complexes in the whole world, with 200 monuments located in a 10-mile radius. Croagh Patrick, known in prehistoric times as Cruachan Aigle, is the place where, according to legend, Patrick banished the serpents from Ireland…

If nothing else, the theory at least demonstrates that St Patrick’s influence stretches the length and breadth of the country: witness his statue looking out from the Hill of Slane and another looking across from the lower slopes of The Reek!

croagh patrick 6

croagh patrick 5

Pilgrimage for St Patrick on The Reek: Photos from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s

St Patrick (his day was last week), Easter (this weekend), the Boyne neolithic monuments, Irish poetry, ancient kings and their battles, a little bit of astro-archaeology, the commemoration of the 1916 uprising in Dublin, the fight for Irish freedom… All seem to have joggled along beside each other in our recent explorations. Somehow they fit together and define an Irish-ness which is all-encompassing but not overwhelming. History is dancing all around us: alive and relevant.

watching saint p

 

Images

looking out

Images: we take them so much for granted, because it’s easy for us to go out with a camera or phone and capture a place, an event or our friends and family. I’m sure we have now all got hard disks, memory sticks or ‘clouds’ full of hundreds of pictures – perhaps far too many for us to appreciate individually.

sheep may safely graze

Here are some images of Ireland, both old and new. The old ones are taken from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s – that’s between sixty and eighty-something years ago. I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of his book of photographs when it first came out: now it’s ‘rare as hen’s teeth’*… The new ones are taken locally by my favourite contemporary photographer – Finola.

nuns walking

The thing about a photograph is that you know it is an actual moment, a fraction of time, which has been captured and held forever. A painting is not the same – it can be very beautiful and emotional, but it is always a fantasy: it’s the artist that has made it live in the way that she or he chooses. Ó Muircheartaigh’s photographs affect me emotionally: they depict places and, more importantly, people that were once real – living landscapes, personalities… There’s a lot of nostalgia surrounding them because they show us the world – Ireland – as we want to think of it: halcyon, idyllically happy, peaceful, carefree. All the photos in Ó Muircheartaigh’s book picture this blissful state: that’s because he saw rural Ireland in that light, or because he wanted his audience to view it that way. In his work we never see hardship, rural deprivation, illness or pain – and we are completely unaware that there could be a terrible world war raging just over the waters.

Goleen

P1010179

Precious moments: how special that through the expert wielding of a camera lens Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh could use a negative to create a positive world! We can still do that: Finola’s photographs capture, digitally (and beautifully), a different world – our own modern Ireland – but also record the essence and enduring appeal of this place which we are pleased to call home. It’s all about the focus…

4 men 3

Not many of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh’s photographs carry captions to indicate where they were taken. We know his travels encompassed the west coast, particularly the Aran Islands, Kerry, Galway and Mayo. We don’t know exactly where these three views are from (anyone who does, please comment) but it’s interesting that the wonderful portrait of four drinkers, above, has been turned into a painting now hanging on the walls of Levis’ Corner Bar – one of our local hostelries – in Ballydehob! Finola’s photos are all taken on our own Mizen Peninsula

Session, Levis's of Ballydehob

*Birds did once have teeth – up until about 80 million years ago. Occasionally today, but very rarely, a ‘throwback’ bird is hatched with teeth!