a few words of a kind…

Pure Clare — the Flanagan side of my family

My great-grandmother was Máire Ní Ríada, from Moher, in West Clare and she married Pádraig Flanagan from the hamlet of Barr Trá on the other side of Liscannor Bay. The O’Ríadas were a musical family, as were the Flanagans, and both were staunch Irish speakers. At that time, there were seven Flanagan families in Barr Trá and their ‘taoiseach’ was Murt Mór, Pádraig’s father. They were a tight knit clan, fishermen and small farmers, black haired and genteel, and partial to fun and sport. They were cynically called the ‘Barr Trá Gentry’ by their English overlords, who they refused to kowtow to.

Pádraig and Máire’s wedding took place at her house in Moher, and seven currachs of Flanagans rowed across the bay for the celebrations. They came ashore in Clahane, a mile or so from the O’Ríada house. Other guests walked the 10 miles by road to get there. The Barr Trá Flanagans were related to the Doolin Flanagans (also musicians) who were there in force and the wedding must have looked like a meeting of the clans. The celebration was said to have lasted two days and nights with much music and dance, songs and stories.

When it was time to return to Barr Trá, the sea was choppy and the Flanagans stood at the shore in Clahane and looked out at the breaking swell, near where the sunken village of Killstiofín lay. Men spoke in whispers and Murt Mór pulled a fistful of grass from the ground and tossed the blades in the air to see how the wind was blowing. North east and swirling. Not great weather for being on the sea. The sky was darkening and they decided to and make a dash across the bay. They figured it would be safer for the women and the older men to walk home along the coast road and Máire blessed her husband and watched the currachs launching. The crowd waited on the shore at Clahane until the boats had ploughed through the breakers and into the open sea. They said prayers for their safety and walked up to the road and headed for home.

By the time the group had reached the village of Liscannor, it was raining hard and they couldn’t see beyond the breakers. They proceeded to Lahinch, and took the cliff road to Barr Trá. It was a slow walk, hampered by wind and rain. Every now and then they looked out to sea, but there was no visibility. It was dark when they reached home, the men had not arrived, and the village worried.

The Barr Trá people built a bonfire on a height above the shore to guide the currachs to safety. They doused it with kerosene and the flames danced wild in the wind. The women looked to sea and said prayers for the seafarers. Old Murt Mór and his friends smoked pipes and muttered. They knew it was a terrible night to be on the sea and they feared the worst.

Four hours passed before the first currach came ashore. The shattered boatmen brought tales of mountainous seas and the dreaded reefs of Killstiofín. It was their fear that the sunken village would rise from the depths and take them down, as was known to happen back then. They said the currachs were scattered like the Spanish Armada and they had lost sight of the others. More prayers were said and more turf was fed to the bonfire.

One by one, five more currachs arrived with drenched and weary men who said they had never been on a sea so wild. Then there was a lull, and hope was fading for the safety of Pádraig and his men. By dawn the sea had calmed, and a black speck was seen way out in the ocean. At last Pádraig made the shore with his crew, after nearly 12 hours at sea. The men were hugged and blessed and Pádraig took my grandmother to her new home. She boiled the kettle while he undressed and dried himself. She was going to make tea, but Pádraig got a bottle of poitín from a cupboard, so she made hot punch instead. He said he was saving that bottle until he had something to celebrate, and today was the day.

The newly weds were still in bed that night when the Strawboys came rapping at their door. It was party time again, and Barr Trá lit up for a mardi gras. There were celebrations to welcome the new bride, and to thank the sea for not taking the 20 and more Flanagan men who had gone to bring her home.

Barr Trá by Phillip Morrison

Pádraig and Máire had eight children, of which seven survived into adulthood. My grandmother Susan was the youngest and played fiddle and concertina. True to her roots, she became an active member of Cumann na mBán during the War of Independence. After the Rineen Ambush on 22 September 1920, the Black and Tans burned the town of Lahinch, including the Flanagan house on Main Street. Susan’s boyfriend Mick Lehane, a local IRA commander who was wounded at Rineen, and her sister Bridget perished in the blaze. Susan escaped through a hail of bullets, and was declared an enemy of the Crown for her part in the aiding the IRA and more. She went on the run and months later, arrived in Philadelphia in Feburary, 1921. From there she went to New York where three of her sisters lived and became active in the Biddy Earlys, the Clare branch of Cumman na mBan in NY. She told me that for years afterwards, she woke up with nightmares of that horrific night of The Burning.

The Golf Hotel, Lahinch —where British Army officers stayed and played. It was mysteriously burned down in the 1950s.

Susan returned to Ireland with Sinéad de Valera after the Treaty. She arrived home to the Civil War and seeing old friends shoot at each other disillusioned her. She wanted to go back to New York, but her mother pleaded with her to stay. She did, and got married a few years afterwards. Thirty years or so later I was born in West Clare, her first grandchild and the fourth great-grandchild of Pádraig and Máire Flanagan.

A few years ago, my son Aindrias was playing at an Irish trad session in Sydney, Australia. The session was led by an accordion player from Moy, near Barr Trá, an older man who didn’t take to easily to strangers joining his gig. When he left down the accordion to get a drink, Aindrias played a few tunes on the fiddle that he had learned from me, tunes I got from my grandmother Susan. After he finished, the accordion player cried, “Hey! I know who you are now! You’re Flanagan from Barr Trá!”
Aindrias carries their music and their dark looks. Goes to show you can’t beat breeding, as they say in West Clare.

I heard the story of my great-grandparents wedding and the aftermath from the late Micheal Flanagan, from near Spanish Point, who was from one of the seven Flanagan families of Barr Trá. It came back to me during the week and I thought it better to write it down before it left my mind again.

images courtesy of Clare County Library and Phillip Morrison

Books by Eddie Stack

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18 thoughts on “Pure Clare — the Flanagan side of my family

  1. Ellen D. Murphy on said:

    Eddie, this story makes me cry. Thank you for it.

  2. Thanks cousin…shed a tear or two myself when realising all the obstacles that had to be overcome to bring me into this world.

  3. What a wonderful, vivid story, Eddie. Music tradition is in the genetics.
    An Banner abú!

  4. Maureen McCarrick on said:

    ……what an inspiring story, love it **
    ……my favorite part,
    …..True to her roots, she became an active member of Cumann na mBán during the War of Independence. (what a woman, you must be proud) !!!

    • Thanks Maureen,

      I’m certainly very proud of Susan. From when I was a toddler, I spent more time in her house than at home. She was one of the greatest influences on my life.

  5. G’day Eddie – Lovely story -thanks. Coincidentally, I stayed with a family at Barr Tra last summer while going to the Willie Clancy Festival, which I have been doing for about 12 years now. I also believe I have Flanagan heritage on my father’s side (his father), although this is unconfirmed. Coincidence – that’s Ireland! Nora

  6. great stuff. Thanks for the mention. I played Patcheen’s Jigs! – we’ll have to give them a lash in San Francisco when I get there!

    I love the scene of the boats been guided home with the bonfire.
    And Killstiofín rising up from the Atlantic – classic!


  7. Hey you Barr Trá Boy!

    Good to hear from you. No doubt you’re flying the Banner where ever you are.

    look forward to the few tunes with you in San Francisco soon.

    beir búa,


  8. Pauline Stack on said:

    Thanks so much for that wonderful piece of family history. As I have said to you before Moher is a very special place for me… in the genes I suppose. Thanks for writing it down too..I will treasure it, it really makes you think and value the fact that we are here..
    Granma Would be so proud of you! ..ya, you were the favourite one..
    Much love xxx

  9. Triona O'Loughlin on said:

    Loved this piece! Triona from Miltown Malbay

  10. It is good to honour our fore bearers. We’re all here thanks to God knows what struggles and sacrifices they made. It should give us pause. Well, you know some of the struggles. Thank you for remembering them.

  11. John Norton on said:

    Thanks for this story of your family and grandmother. My maternal uncles from Co. Roscommon were also in the War for Independence. My namesake is my uncle John Vaughan, killed by the Black and Tans. A ghastly event which became a family story, passed down from one generation to the next. He’s the archetype for my own rebelliousness and fight for political and social justice.

  12. What a wonderful story, it had me on the edge of my seat and brought tears to my eyes when your great-grandmother made the punch for herself and Pádraig! I’ll bet your son was thrilled to be recognized as a Barr Trá Flanagan from his fiddle playing!

  13. … also, thanks for posting the Phillip Morrison painting it’s beautiful!

  14. “Pure Clare — the Flanagan side of my family Onwards” definitely causes me personally contemplate a tiny bit further.
    I personally cherished every individual piece of it.
    Many thanks -Eunice

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