a few words of a kind…

Archive for the tag “Doolin”

A Doolin Christmas

here’s Paddy Pharaic Mhichil Shannon remembering Christmas time long ago in Doolin, County Clare. This is an extract from ‘The Way We Were’ chapter of Doolin: people, place & culture

paddy pharaic mhichilThe longest memories I have are of Christmas. We’d be getting ready for Christmas for weeks. There used to be great excitement. The house would be cleaned from top to bottom and decorated with holly and ivy. Thee used to be big markets in Ennistymon and my mother would go there with other women from the village. That would be their biggest shopping day of the year. We’d be down at the bridge, waitin’ for them to come home and wonderin’ what they’d bring us back. If we got jam and baker’s bread we’d be over the moon. We never got toys or do-das, but all the same we had plenty to play with. I remember gettin’ a small piece of currant cake from my mother one Christmas Eve and goin’ down to the street so the other children would see it, I was that proud of it. Even though money was scarce, Christmas was much nicer then, a lot of the old customs are gone and forgotten now.

Except for the gentry, Christmas was the only time in the year that people here got a letter or a card. A lot of money came from America and other places then. Sometimes parcels arrived too, mostly with clothes. On Christmas Eve, before we had the tea, my father would gather us in the kitchen to light the Christmas candle. It was the youngest of the family that always lit it and I remember my father holdin’ my hand to do it. He used to say a prayer in Irish, to welcome Mary and Joseph to the house if they happened to be passin’. From that candle, other ones were lit and put in the windows. Every family did the same, and it was beautiful to look across the countryside and see all the little lights in the cottages. I remember walkin’ to Mass on Christmas morning with my mother and father when I was very young. It was pitch dark and there was a candle lighting in the window of every cottage. All the people goin’ to Mass were talkin’ Irish and givin’ blessings to each other. I’ll never forget that.

It would still be dark on St. Stephen’s morn when you’d hear horns blowin’, callin’ the Wren Boys. If you looked out the window, you’d see all the candles bein’ lit in the cottages all around. The Wren Boys used gather below at the bridge in Fisherstreet, they might be thirty or forty people in the batch, between dancers and players and an amadán (male fool/clown) and an oinseach (female fool). They’d be dressed up with coats turned inside out and crossed with ribbons of green and gold. Stepheneen Hardy was their leader when I was young and he rode a black ass.

The Wren Boys would travel the country that day and come back here at night. We’d hear the noise of them comin’ and everyone would go down to the bridge to meet them. Stepheneen would lead them through Fisherstreet and stop below outside O’Connor’s pub. That was their last stop. There used to be great excitement and of course ’twould go on for hours, music, set dancin’ and a bit of singin’.

What money the Wren Boys collected was always put towards a Swarie. In this village, I remember great Swaries down at Anthony Moloney’s house near the bridge. Dancin’ an’ singin’ went on all night, they were great times, so they were. And what ever drink and cake and the likes was left over was the makin’ of another great night. Them nights were called Scrap Parties and were often even better than the Swarie. ’Tis a pity all that died out.

paddy Pharaic house

photos @ folklore dept UCD

Read a book by Eddie Stack this Christmas

doolin cover

Doolin: people, place & culture — Amazon Bestseller by Eddie Stack

When Angels go Home for Christmas (part II)

here’s part II, read first part here Enjoy + share…

When Angels go Home for Christmas

mummersThe mummers next stop was Dawltawl, a lonesome village that was cold as a mortuary slab even in the finest day of summer. There were few houses here and no children to welcome them. But their antics and music cheered the people to recklessness and they pressed mugs of whiskey on them, in the hope that they might stay longer. Drink went to the Healer’s head and he sang a rousing ballad called The Wild Rover, to the beat of the kettle drum. The Missing Postman had no letters to deliver, but loosened by whiskey he related all the news and lies he could think of. When he got stuck for words, the white haired lady sang an emigration dirge that brought the villagers to tears. Weeping faces bade them farewell and blessings and prayers echoed after them for miles.

Several of the batch were merry from drink, including young Hawkins, who broke into song when he saw the sea in the distance. He gave a fine rendition of The Boys of Barr na Sráide, a classic song about mummers and his compatriots joined in the last line ‘when the Boys of Barr na Sráide went hunting for the wran.’ After that Bachus sang ‘The Black Velvet Band’ and everyone sang the chorus:

‘Her eyes they shone like diamonds,
You’d think she was queen of the land,
With her hair flung over her shoulder,
Tied up with a black velvet band.’

The mummers called at a few more house on their way to the coast and they were well treated with drink and coin. The collection box was heavy and several of them were drunk by the time they reached the sea. It was snowing now and the sky darkened. Two of the Softwood brothers were bickering and Uaigneas Gallagher had a fit of swearing.

“Will ye all shut up to Hell’s blue blazes!” cried the white haired lady, “We have miles to go before we’re finished. Miles to go!”

She stared at the troublemakers and then snuggled against G’way Bawn on the pony. He turned right on the sea road and led the troupe along The Flaggy Shore.


The snow was falling fast and heavy when they came to the Neither Lands, a large apron of coast broken into twenty or more small islands by centuries of floods and tides. Steppingstones and humpbacked bridges connected islands to each other. Some were inhabited, others were deserted and more were said to be haunted. The mummers crossed the causeway to the Near Island and called to the house of Brewdor, an old man with a young wife. Apart from a huge bed, the room was empty and hushed as a seashell. A blazing fire and several Christmas candles lit the space. The Brewdor clapped his hands and shouted,

“Music! Music!”

He stood in the middle of the floor, bowed graciously and waited for the tune. Running on whiskey, the mummers played fast and reckless and the little man soon wilted. His eyes rolled, his feet tangled and he collapsed in a heap. His wife rushed to his aid and screamed,

“Open the door and let in the fresh air!”

The musicians retreated from the casualty and The Healer went outside for two handfuls of snow and laid the mush on the old man’s face. His eyelids fluttered to life for a minute or two, and he asked to be put to bed. The wife cradled his body in her arms and laid him under a quilt. She turned to the mummers and said,

“Ye nearly killed him, ye’re a proper disgrace, playin’ music like that. If anything happens to him, I’m gettin’ the magistrates after ye.”

“Don’t bother with no magistrates!” G’way Bawn cried, “The Healer will cure Mr. Brewdor. He’ll stay with ye ’till the good man is right as rain. We’ll call for him on our way back to the mainland.”

The mummers slipped outside, the woman mounted the pony behind G’way Bawn and he led the batch to the next island. Bacchus Tobin and Ocras Burke rode in the cart with Dado and progress was slow. Noses dripping, they journeyed across three deserted islands without seeing a house or any sign of life. It was like Napoleon’s retreat from Russia: slow rattle of the kettle drum against the blizzard, cart wheels and pony hooves skidding on ice glazed stones, freezing troops protecting instruments beneath their inside-out-coats. In blind faith they followed G’way Bawn until he shouted,


The troop halted at a cul-de-sac in Illawara, an island of crumbling cottages, emptied a century earlier by a mysterious sadness.

“Back! Back! Back!” ordered G’way Bawn, tension in his voice.

The white haired lady tightened her grip around his waist and pressed her bosom against his bony shoulders.

“Christ,” muttered Dado, “I’m thinkin’ that we’re gone astray.”

On the Near Island, Brewdor thanked Hawkins for not poaching his wife.

“But you have to leave now,” he said, “because we’re goin’ to sleep.”

“And thanks for your help,” she said. “Only for you I’d be a widdaw. And don’t mind the rest of ’em, ’cause you’re the best of ’em.”

wren20With prayers and charms they sent the Healer on his way, and promised to relate his powers to whoever they met. Reeling from praise, he hurried through the snowy night in search of the mummers. He heard the shrill sound of a whistle and it drew him like a mating call. Hawkins followed the notes across three islands before finding a small child blowing a toy do-da outside a thatched cottage. When the child saw him he shrieked,

“The mummers! The mummers!”

The child’s mother appeared and asked,

“Where’s the rest o’ ye?”

“I’m lookin’ for ’em.”

“Well they didn’t call here yet,” she said, “and G’way Bawn’s mummers always call. Come in and wait for them.”

Inside she warmed a pot of fish stew over a driftwood fire and stole glances of him when he took off the Chaplin mask. She inquired who he was and shook her head and smiled when he told her.

“Well it’s a small world,” she said, “tell your grandmother that you met Rince Lynn. She brought me into this life twenty-five years ago, when my mother was a servant girl for the Downwaves in Bearnagweithe. Your grandmother was a very lucky midwife and a great healer.”

“She’s teachin’ me to be a healer.”

“’Tis in you,” she told him, serving the stew.

Rince Lynn listened to how he revived the man on the Near Island, and when she casually mentioned that her little son had eye trouble, he sat the child on his lap and tested his sight by making animal shadows on the whitewashed walls. He concluded the youngster had a lazy left eye and treated it by covering the good eye with one of his Mummer’s ribbons.

“You can change the cover every few days,” he said, “feed him plenty carrots and bathe the eyes in water from Tubbarmacdara if you can get it.”
Rince pressed two silver doubloons on him for his service.

“What are these?”

“Old money from the sailin’ ships. And isn’t this a strange thing, it was the man you cured on the Near Island that gave me a bag of ’em one time. I make brooches and rings out of ’em for the man with the traveling shop. That’s how I get by.”

“It’s time for the mummers to be calling,” the Healer said after she had put the child to bed. He opened the cottage door and stepped outside, listening for their racket. The snow had stopped and all he heard was the whirrey-whirrey of sea birds and the faint lapping of the tide on the winter shore.

“They’ll be here yet,” Rince said. “They’d never leave the Neither Lands without calling. G’way Bawn always calls here.”

hollyShe poured two jugs of brandy, lit a candle and prayed the mummers would leave them in peace. Not since the man with the traveling shop visited in November had she any company from the mainland. And this visitor was streets ahead of the man with the traveling shop.

“What other news have you,” she asked, feeding the fire, “tell me about the world abroad.”

“I was in Bearnagweithe just before the Christmas and I saw d’electric light. They have it in a lot of the shops and pubs.”

“What’s d’electric light?” Rince asked.

Without thinking too much, he gave a long explanation that brought a frown to her face and she wondered if she had given him too much drink. He rambled through the world of science, alchemy and magic and predicted advances in civilisation that made her shiver. She thought him too young to know such things and she stared at the fire, her mind wandering back to the last time she was in the company of a drunken man. That was the day herself and the man with the traveling shop got drunk on a cask of rum she’d found on the shore.

She slept with him that same night and when he called again, she was with child. A pious and honest man, he was smitten with guilt and became impotent. He lost his power, and she could never arouse him again. But he still called to see her and their son, leaving them provisions and buying homemade jewellery for his wife. The man with the traveling shop had left a puzzle in Rince’s mind: she didn’t know if she had fooled him, or if he had fooled her.

Soft snores brought her back to the night. The fire was dying and it was time to bed down. She wondered about the young man who was collapsed in a drunken sleep on the sugan chair. Should she put a blanket over him and pile up the fire to keep him warm ’till morning? Or take him to bed with her, just for the company, just for the warmth. She leaned over him and whispered,

“You’ll be more comfortable in my room.”

Rince led him by the arm to room behind the fireplace. She unlaced his boots and helped him out of the fur coat and woman’s dress. He looked at her in the cold blue night and gently touched her head.

“You can go in the inside,” she whispered, pulling back the covers.

The Healer climbed into bed and slid towards the wall. He lay on his back, listening to her clothes fall on the floor, smelling the heat from her body. She cuddled into him and whispered,

“Put your arms around me, this bed is freezing.”

Shy and innocent, he wrapped himself around her and wondered what to do next. The angels were all gone home for Christmas, so anything could happen. There was just Rince Lynn and himself, on a small island in the Neither Lands. Peace on earth and clumsy passion on a goose feathered bed. Lost lovers finding their way home on Saint Stephen’s Night.


Read a book by Eddie Stack this Christmas

Doolin: people, place & culture — Amazon Bestseller by Eddie Stack

When Angels go Home for Christmas

long time no blog…here’s a Christmas story in 2 parts…enjoy!!

When Angels go Home for Christmas

The blizzard stopped late on Christmas night and St. Stephen’s Day woke under two feet of snow. There was peace on earth: Hawkins felt it from the gentle white rolling hills and the black skeletal bushes, he smelled it in the cold thin air coming through the crack in his bedroom window. In all his seventeen years this was his first white Christmas.

Up stairs in the same cottage, the Missing Postman stared at the same scenery but it made no impression on him. He had a savage hangover, his stomach was cramping and his head hurt. On top of everything, his brain was addled and he wasn’t sure what day it was.  But knew he had been here since the day before Christmas Eve, when he came to deliver a parcel from America. Snowed in and drunk ever since, he was miles away from base with a sack of undelivered mail.  The snow hurt his eyes and he moved from the window and sat on the bed. Voices sounded below and he put on his cap, straightened his tie and descended the ladder from the loft to the kitchen.

”God Bless ye!” he announced.

“And God bless you, M.P.” Nan and Dado said in unison.

They appeared busy and he wasn’t sure if they were ignoring him or not. He didn’t give it any more thought, and stood in front of the fire. Dado was getting dressed for the Mummers and wore an overcoat turned inside out, polka dot lining exposed. He was the postman’s age, sixty-two or three, but twice his size. Nan was as big as her husband and fussed around him, crisscrossing ribbons of green and gold over his shoulders and around his waist.

Hawkins came from the room behind the fireplace. He was responsible for dragging the postman eight miles or more into the back of beyond with a Christmas parcel from America. An innocent-eyed lanky fellow with wild dark hair, he was the couple’s grandson. Known as The Healer, he could cure certain disorders and took after Nan in that way. He was wearing a woman’s dress and a tattered black coat.

”Good morning M.P.” he mumbled.

“God bless you,” hailed the postman.

Hawkins blew notes on a penny whistle while Nan wrapped green and gold ribbons around him. Dado took up a two-row melodeon and vamped a couple of chords that segued into a reel. When the music built up steam, the Missing Postman’s feet tapped and he swirled like a clockwork ballerina and danced sparks from the flagstones. The little man with the snipe legs, bloodshot face and elfin ears, hopped high as popcorn, and stopped in mid-air when the music ended. The old couple and their grandson clapped.

“Come with us,” encouraged Dado, “you’ve great steps.”

”And you might be able to get rid of a few letters on the way,” said The Healer,

“And the fresh air will do you good,” Nan added.

He felt they were psyching him out of the house. Tiny silver stars danced and zinged around his head. He sighed and turned his coat inside out like Dado, an assurance against going astray.

“And maybe I could wear your cap,” suggested the Healer.

“God knows but I don’t know.” he muttered, staring at the head gear Dado offered him: a soldier’s helmet from the revolution.

The Healer pulled a Charlie Chaplin mask over his head and gave an Al Capone one to his grandfather. These were in the parcel that came from America, the youth told the postman. Nan fixed a goose quill to the Missing Postman’s helmet and stepped back to look at them.

“No wan will know ye!” she declared.

Muttering a prayer in Irish, she sprinkled blessed water on them, and sent them on their way to rhyme and roam.

IMG the handThey set off by pony and cart for the Hand, a flat slab of rock where the five roads of the parish met. It was a brisk ride, the pony trotting through the snow to keep warm and the three charioteers sharing a bottle of poitín to shorten the journey. Barren bog land was white and snow capped stonewalls looked like iced scones. The sky was a happy blue and The Healer declared that the world was different today. Dado said you’d know well that all the angels were gone home to heaven for Christmas because the fairies were everywhere.

When they reached The Hand, several musicians were already there. A kettle drummer and a cymbal player beat the daylights from their percussion to welcome them. Bacchus Tobin, robed as a woman with red petticoat and black shawl, waved a holly bush and a money-box.  Nylon stockings pulled over their faces, like terrorists with fiddles, the Softwood brothers and Úaigneas Gallagher tuned their instruments and sounded like a swarm of bees.  Under rouged faces and British bowler hats, Ocras Burke and a hunchback called Awful Sound, danced sean nós on the road. The Hand hummed like a Tibetan temple and young Hawkins’s mind took flight and he burst into an uncontrollable fit of yelling and yahooing.   

The racket stopped when G’way Bawn arrived. Tiny and wizened, he was a piper and rode a small grey pony. Dark and dour as Napoleon, he wore no disguise and looked like a bird crow, with his beaked nose and backcombed hair. G’way Bawn circled them without a word. For a few minutes there was silence and the winter sounds were heard again—cold crow caws, the curlew’s cry and the lonesome lowing of faraway cattle. G’way Bawn raised his right arm and led the troupe west towards the sea.

After a mile or so the mummers came to their first stop—a cluster of thatched cottages at the butt of the Knocknashee hills. To the sound of the kettledrum, G’way Bawn called out:

“They killed the Wran to carry the can,

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

Give us a penny to bury the Wran.”

Before he had finished, children rushed from houses shouting,

“Mummers! Mummers! The mummers are here!”

The batch trooped through the street in single file— fiddles, flutes, pipes, whistles and melodeons pumping notes, drums and cymbals lashing, holly bush dancing. It was a kaleidoscope of colour, music and mayhem. Children marched behind them and adults clapped and shouted encouragement.  Ocras Burke and Awful Sound danced with wives and daughters, sometimes wheeling them from one house to another. The postman trailed behind, delivering letters and Christmas blessings, consuming whatever he was offered.

The mummers were hailed with drink and thanked with copper and silver coins.  Before they departed, G’way Bawn enticed a tall white haired woman with singing eyes to accompany them. She bundled together a few possessions, shut the door of her cottage and mounted his pony to a rowdy cheer.


to be continued….

Read a book by Eddie Stack this Christmas


This is the opening of Bonzo, one of the stories in my recent collection, Borderlines.

Bonzo stood out. His face looked a cross between WoodyIMG_0008 Allen and Harry Potter, but he was much plumper than Woody, and taller too. There was a reserved, almost studious air about him and no matter what the circumstances or situation, Bonzo never seemed out of place. He blended in at parish weddings and opera galas, local funerals and rugby matches. He was a man for all capers.

Nobody was sure what he did for a living, or if he did anything. He grew up in the parish, the only child of a small farmer and his wife. A gifted student, Bonzo won a scholarship to some prestigious college when he was twelve and left the village. The next time they saw him, he was a young man with a bookish look. His mother said he had a big job in Berlin, but someone else said he was working in Boston.

When his father passed away, he returned to Ireland and got a job in Dublin. Every weekend he came to visit his mother and when she died suddenly, he took to the booze for a few weeks and announced that he might become a hippy. From then on, he lived in the home thatched cottage and let twenty acres of land go wild around him. He came and went a few times a week in a yellow VW camper van with a surfboard-rack on the roof.

Some nights he walked down to Cleary’s pub in the village to listen to the music and have a few pints. Once in a while he got drunk and danced alone to jigs and reels, to the glee of the drinkers. Crumpled and cockeyed, he would shake hands with everyone and whisper that they were always welcome in his house.
“I mean it,” he’d say, squeezing their hands.

Sometimes after the pub closed, a small crowd went back to Bonzo’s cottage with packs of beer and bottles of spirits. When musicians came, there was a rollicking session. The parties took place in the old country living room, decorated with pictures of saints and a red Sacred Heart lamp. Books overflowed from shelves to the floor and people built them into seats and sat on them. There was an open fire, a couch and a few sugán armchairs, which were given over to the musicians. He was a welcoming host and cooked up plates of charred sausages and sardines on toast. On those nights, Bonzo got really spaced and was often first to hit the floor.

His land stretched down along the sea road, from the edge of the village to a ruined castle once occupied by his ancestors. It was prime development land and Bonzo let it be. Every few months a hippy named Guy came with horses and grazed the place for him, but other than that the land was idle, left to itself. When he was drunk one night in Cleary’s pub, Bonzo said he was going to ‘plant it, plant it with trees. Broadleaves, native trees.’ It was good for the planet, he said and a few drinkers cheered, “Good man Bonzo!”

Backpackers knocked on his door once and a while asking if they could camp in his fields and he gave them permission. One Dutch girl stayed for two weeks and slept with him a few times. An American woman with a lemon Citron van pitched there every May and again in late summer. She was a photographer and took the picture of Bonzo and the cat that hung in Cleary’s Bar.

The first time Kiki McFadden met Bonzo, he was backing the camper van out to the road, being directed by Guy the hippie. She stopped her silver jeep, got out and approached him.

“Hitting away for the weekend,” she smiled, noticing sleeping bags and backpacks in the van.

Bonzo nodded and Guy hopped in beside him and began rolling a smoke.

“Are you going to the Electric Picnic?” she asked, smiling broader.

“You got it,” nodded Bonzo and Guy chuckled.
“You lucky things, you,” she sighed, “God, but it’s well for ye and some of us slaving away to try and make a living.”

“You’re keeping us all going,” smiled Bonzo.

“Listen,” she said, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Will you give me a call when you get back, I’d really appreciate it. God, I should introduce myself, I’m Kiki McFadden from Round Tower Real Estate in Ballygale.”

They shook hands and he said,

“Hi, I’m James, James Callahan.”

She gave him her business card and said,“God that’s gas, you have the same name as a cousin of mine in Mayo. I know you to see as Bonzo.”

He put her card on the dashboard and said,“Nice meeting you, Kiwi.”

“Kiki,” she corrected.

“Of course,” he smiled, “Kiki”

The VW pulled away slowly and Bonzo scoped her out in the wing mirror as she went back to her jeep, taking a call on her mobile. She had a full figure, tight power suit and sexy swagger.

“She’s a smooth operator,” he said.

“They’re on to you, man,” warned Guy.

He didn’t call Kiki McFadden when he got back from the Electric Picnic. The outing lasted longer than he had planned. On the way home he made a detour to West Cork with two English women and stayed with them for three days. Then Kiki’s business card disappeared from the dashboard and he forgot all about her.

Autumn arrived and he was away a lot. There was no VW parked beside the cottage when Kiki passed and after a few weeks, she slid a note under his door.
“I heard the Picnic was great. Hope you enjoyed it. Give me a call for lunch sometime when you’re free — All the Best, Kiki.”

Bonzo put the note beside the phone and it got covered with piles of mail. Guy came over with horses and they went to a Christy Moore gig in Lisdoonvarna. Then Bonzo disappeared and nobody saw him for weeks.
Kiki’s head turned when she noticed the camper van tucked behind the cottage. She parked the jeep and knocked on Bonzo’s front door. It was Sunday and he was having a snooze by the fire, a weekend radio talk show chattering away unheeded. Her knock woke him. Dang! Bet they have heard the radio, I’d better see who it is, he thought.

“Hello Bonzo,” Kiki, greeted and he was startled. For a second he didn’t recognize her, she was dressed for heavy weather in an Australian outback raincoat and broad brimmed hat.

“It’s Kiki, remember?”

“Of course, of course, Kiki.”

“Is this a good time to call on you? I know it’s the weekend, but I can never seem to get you at home during the week. How’re things anyway?”

“Fine, fine, great. Yeah, come in. Please, you’re welcome. The place is a bit of a mess.”

“Arrah it’s fine, what are you talking about. You should see my place! God this is grand, Bonzo, lovely and cosy.”

“Thanks. Would you like coffee.”

“God I’d love a cup, d’you know that? This is a lovely spot, and you have the open fire and all. God but I’d love a place like this…”

“Milk and sugar?”

“No sugar thanks. I s’pose you don’t have soy milk?”

“I’m afraid not. Sorry.”

“Arrah, it’s grand…just black is fine.”

They made small talk about the weather and she asked about the Electric Picnic.

“I’d love to go there next year. You’ll have to remind me when tickets come on sale. God but you have a very interesting life Bonzo. And d’you mind me asking, what do you do for a living?”

“Nothing very exciting, pen and paper work,” he said vaguely.

“I bet you’re a writer,” she smiled, “you have that look. Do you write poetry?”

“On occasion,” he replied, “but I wouldn’t consider myself a poet.”

“I would,” she said, “and I bet you’re very good. A lot of great artists didn’t consider themselves as good as they were. D’you know what I mean? Like Van Gogh, like.”

“Poor Vincent,” sighed Bonzo.
“Yeah, he cut off his ear, didn’t he? But listen,” she said, slowing her voice a gear, “we have a client who is very interested in buying some land from you.”


“Yes, I can’t say who it is at the moment, but it’s a serious player. They’d be interested in buying as much as you’d sell them along the road.”

“For development, I presume. It’s not somebody who wants it to farm.”

“Yes, for development. As I said, they’re serious. And they would make a sizable offer.”

Bonzo looked into the fire and Kiki bantered on about the holy pictures, chipped statues of Jesus and family photos that stared at her from every wall. She said she envied his lifestyle and longed to give up the rat race and retreat to an island and write poetry. Or just meditate. Kiki sipped her coffee and silence seeped around them.

“Well,” she said, “will you think about it anyway. The offer would be in the region of 300K an acre. Say, 5 to 6 million for the whole place.”

“Jesus, that’s a lot.”

“Of course it would be conditional on planning but the client is well connected and thinks that wouldn’t be a problem…”

Bonzo’s head swirled and he felt dizzy….

Borderlines is 3 long stories by Eddie Stack — Carnival Cop; Bonzo; One for the Rover. The stories are set in the West of Ireland. Kindle edition costs $0.99. Download here

Books by Eddie Stack on Amazon

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Lisdoonvarna via The Hand

The leaves are beginning to curl at the edges, there’s a nip in the air and crows are cawing like supporters at a sad All Ireland final. Here, there, everywhere, lonely hearts and bouncing hearts are stocking up on perfume and aftershave, condoms and Viagra, praying to Jude and Josephine, rehearsing chat lines and touching up hairlines. Love is in the air, it’s Spa Time…to us locals, that is. To the outside world it’s Lisdoonvarna Match Making Season.

Big business nowadays, Lisdoonvarna became famous some hundred and fifty years ago when a Doctor named Foster discovered therapeutic springs there. The doctor swore the waters could cure anything from arthritis to zoomorphism, and soon people began to flock to the town in late summer and early autumn, to get tuned up for the winter chills. ‘The Spaw’, as it became known locally, was the perfect place to unwind after the summer slog: mineral baths, sulphur tonics and the likes worked wonders on tired bones and weary souls.

drinkers2To cater for the Victorian masses, hotels were built that made so much money in six weeks, they could afford to close down for the other forty-six. The Spa became Ireland’s first health resort and saints and scholars smiled at the new consciousness dawning on the land. But the waters worked other wonders, and the tonics soon had people looking for bedmates to help keep the winter chills away. Lisdoon became a place where you could waltz all night, drink till dawn and get the bus home in the morning. The Spa season became two months of madness, when the town danced from dusk to dawn, keeping three shoemakers on the go full-time, mending heels and worn soles. Marriages were made, marriages were lost, hearts were shattered, new ground was broken.

Even in today’s hi-tech world of the Internet, lusty chatrooms and dating sites are buzzing about the Spa at this time of the year. My friend Jay Spelman accidentally discovered this virtual world of Spalovers when he was trawling for a soul mate on a wet Sunday afternoon. Jay is recovering from a messy divorce and only dipping his toe in the water again. It astounded him that in all corners of the globe, people knew about Lisdoonvarna. Surfing the chatrooms became his nightly kick, logging on at half-ten, the same time he used go down to the pub in the last century. He took the moniker Spaman and threw in comments about the town and environs, making it known he was local. And just like he had drinking buddies in the pub long ’go, he now had friends online like ‘Brown Eyes’, ‘Sore Toe’, ‘Sexy Sixty’, ‘Miss Dickie’. He became known as a Spa expert, taking hours to explain the difference between the Lisdoonvarna Music Festival and the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival. In chatrooms, if anyone wants to know anything about Lisdoonvarna they ask Spaman. He gives recommendations to those intending to visit the town: Where to eat, drink, stay, avoid…and what to do, say and hope for. Then he got into a jam and called me: he had ‘met’ an American lady online and she was coming to Lisdoonvarna the following week.

“Tell me more,” I encouraged.

“Well like, I can’t meet her in the Spa,” he said, “Everyone would know my business…they’d know that I was ‘on the pull’, so I’m meeting her in Ennis on Tuesday.”

“Next Tuesday? The day after tomorrow?”

“Yes,” he muttered quietly, “and I was wondering if you’d sorta come along with me…”

“You want me to be the ‘gooseberry’?”

“Not really…just to lend a bit of moral support…I haven’t had a date since I split up with Stella…”

I agreed because I didn’t want to hear another monologue about Stella.

On Tuesday morning, Jay called for me and we drove to Ennis in his van. He was spruced up in sports jacket, white shirt, blue tie and Dunne’s Stores slacks. He chain-smoked all the way to town and I could get little out of him regarding the lady, except that she was fifty-five and five foot-six. That made her both older and taller than Jay and when I pointed this out he sighed and lit another cigarette. He was heavily doused with cologne, and seemed to be wilting as we approached town.

We got to the hotel fifteen minutes before the date and sat in the bar from where we had a good view of the lobby. I ordered a pot of coffee because Jay was in the jitters and pretty much speechless. All my efforts to find out about Internet dating met with sighs and shrugs. So what’s her name, I asked eventually.

“Kelly O’Shea,” he said in a half-whisper, “she’s Irish-American.”

“Well that’s good, at least she’s hardly a whacko then.”

He whimpered into panicked rabbit mode. We waited and watched people coming and going through the hotel lobby. The Cathedral bell pealed time and Jay shivered. Stay cool, I advised and he nodded and went outside for a smoke. No woman like the one he described came, but a heavy-set lady with a coiffured white head and studded denim jacket appeared at the front door. I pointed her to Jay when he returned and he shook his head. Ten more minutes passed and the lady still stood at the door. Jay got edgy and muttered that he had been stood up. Again. Happens every time, he sighed, shaking his head. Then, over the intercom we heard the sweet tones of a receptionist say,
“Will Mr. Jay Tobin please come to the lobby…Mr. Jay Tobin, your party is here to meet you.”

We stared at the lobby, empty apart from the white-haired woman in denim.

“Oh fuck,” whined Jay.

“You have to meet her,” I pressed, “she came all the way from America…”

He closed his eyes and sweat pressed through his forehead. The receptionist paged him again and the lady looked around with an anxious face.
“Go on Jay, ” I encouraged, “she might be a millionaire…”

“I can’t…” he stuttered, “I fucking can’t…”

Then he looked at me with those sad rabbit eyes of his and said,
“Would…would you go and meet her…say I’m sick or something…please…”

“You’re a horrible libe,” I hissed, “and a terrible bad ad for Clare tourism…she could complain you to The Gathering authorities and have you exported.”

“Please…please…I have to go to the jax…I’ll be back in a while…just hang with her til I get back.”

I left the seat and went to the lobby. As I approached, the lady smiled and came towards me.

“Jay,” she drawled, “so good to meet you…”

We shook hands, she looked me up and down and I lost my ability to speak. On every finger there was a ring or two and she gripped my hand like a frisky sixteen year-old, though she was a good sixty if she was a day. I looked around to see if any neighbours happened to be in sight and noticed that Jay had disappeared.

“You never told me about the beard,” she chuckled, “and you look just like Van Gogh with that long coat and black hat…”

“Welcome to Ennis, Kelly…” I said.

“Like a drink or some tea?” Kelly asked, beaming up at me.

“Sure,” I replied and we walked to a discreet table in the bar.

“I’m really glad you came,” she said with a smile. I nodded and forced a smile. “Well, as I told you in my last e-mail, I’m searching for my roots, and I’d like to retire to Ireland and meet someone I could have a relationship with…”

All I could do was nod. A waitress came to the table and I ordered a brandy for myself, and tea for Kelly. After a sip, words came to me.
“So how have you been?”

Fine, she said and told me her life story: widowed twice, no children, just a sister in a retirement home in Florida. She’d like to give it one last try, grow old gracefully with an Irishman. A North Clare matchmaker had arranged for several men to meet her, she said with a glint.

“But I haven’t made any commitments…I thought I’d meet you first…your e-mails were so sweet…and thanks for all your information about Lisdoonvarna.”

I shrugged and wondered where in Hell was Jay. Then she asked me about ‘my farm’ and I told her about Jay’s spread, adding sixteen horses and forty head of cattle to the mix. She moved in the chair and said she liked to ride horses and told me about the lovely western saddle her first husband had. After that I ordered another brandy and told her about the lake in the middle of the farm and how we used swim there in the long hot summer nights. The acreage grew until I was the second biggest landowner in West Clare and said that my grandfather had sold the Cliffs of Doneen to the Council for a song. There was no going back after the fourth brandy and Kelly took my hand gently and said,

“You’re such a nice man…I should tell you though…I was very skeptical about this Internet dating business…I mean Jay, one never knows.”

I nodded and agreed, “You’re right, one never knows…”

“So before I came to meet you, I went to the police station and said, ‘look, I’m meeting a man called Jay Tobin from Tobarwiska in the hotel…here’s his telephone number…so if I don’t come back and say I’m OK, you know who he is…’ I hope you don’t mind, Jay…”

It took a few minutes for it to sink in and then I had flashes of the Guards tapping pens on desks, recalling all they knew about Jay. It was a horrific vision, because they knew a lot. Kelly gave me a kiss on the cheek and whispered,

“So I’m going back to the police station to tell them I’ve met the nicest gentleman in the world…and when I return maybe we can learn more about each other…”

When she returned I was gone, but later I heard from Jay that she found the note I left on the table beside her tea-cup. He said I dropped him in the shit and he hasn’t spoken to me since.

“Darling Kelly,

Sorry I had to rush away, I just got a call saying cattle broke out. I would love you to come to dinner tonight at my house, I’m cooking roast duck with all the trimmings. We can crack open a bottle of champagne in the hot tub and watch the stars. Maybe take a ride up Mount Callan if you’re up to it. Below is a map how to get to my place. Be careful making the right turn at The Hand. I look forward to seeing you and call if you get lost.

all the best,


photos copyright of Clare County Library

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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

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The Festival of Lúghnasa: an Irish harvest festival

Yesterday was Féile Lúghnasa, the pre-Christian Irish harvest festival, which is still celebrated at a few locations in Ireland. One time it was held at around 200 sites, nearly always remote, inaccessible places that were on heights, or near water. The festival was dedicated to Lúgh, the young and most brilliant god of the Tuatha de Danann. Lúgh was the god of light, god of arts and crafts, father of inventions and the likes. It was he who saved the harvest by vanquishing Bal, the sun god who was in the process of scorching all the country’s plants and crops with relentless heat.

Lúgh was a good time god. His festival was a young peoples gig and it was party central. In the Irish calendar it was the biggest celebration, the harvest was safe and the population could go and boogie. Held at remote locations, only the young, the fit and the agile made their way there.

As was its practice, the Catholic Church cast their net wherever there was a crowd. They took over Lúghnasa and put a religious stamp on it. One of the most glaring examples of this hi-jacking is Reek Sunday on Croagh Patrick, an ancient Lúghnasa site. The Irish Church said that St. Patrick spent 40 days and nights on the mountaintop, fasting and praying for the salvation of Ireland. If he did, he failed. But it’s more likely a pr job and the nearest Paddy got to the mountain was Campbell’s pub in Murrisk or maybe Matt Molloys in Westport. Anyway, year in and year out, thousands of the hoodwinked faithful climb the mountain on Féile Lúghnasa, saying prayers to Patrick, Mary and Jesus. Some climb barefooted, others climb blindfolded. Lúgh is probably shaking his head at the pain, wondering why they no longer believe in a good time god.

Bridget: Irish goddess disguised as a nun

In west Clare, the oldest Lúghnasa site is Dabach Bríde, also known as The Blessed Well or Bridget’s Well. Near the Cliffs of Moher, it’s a well in a little grove and has the sense of an ancient place. The Well is unique, as it’s the site of pilgrimage on Féile Bríde (February 1) as well as Lúghnasa. One time, thousands of people came there on Lúghnasa and later went down to the seaside village of Lahinch to sport and play. In recent times attendance has been slack and it’s mainly a scattering of diehard locals like myself who turn up to ‘pay our respects’ to the local deity, i.e. Lúgh.

So I went over to the Well yesterday afternoon. It was misty up by the Cliffs and I had a sense that the year had turned. When I was a youngster, Lúghnasa was the highpoint of our summer. We knew it as Garland Sunday, the last Sunday of Hungry July. It marked the day when we could harvest the new crop of potatoes — the ‘floury spuds’ and we gave thanks.

There was nobody at The Well when I got there. Inside, there were a few candles flickering, the faithful had been and gone. I paid my respects and walk up the old path three times to do ‘the rounds’, went back to the well again and sipped the water. Outside the sky was a bit brighter, the mist had cleared and I could see across Liscannor Bay and down along the coast of West Clare.

all around the shrine, there are offerings, prayer requests, memory cards

As I was about to leave, I heard the chattering of young voices, and saw a troop of teenagers coming down the road. They stopped outside The Well and looked at maps or guidebooks. They were young German hikers. One of them approached me and said,
‘Please, what is this?”

So I told him about Lúgh and the tradition and said it was auspicious that they came this way on his feast day. He related the story to the others. They asked questions and I answered best I could. They were respectful and asked if it was ok for them to enter the shrine and taste the water.
“Sure,” I said, “Lúgh would be delighted.”

Young German hikers about to meet Lúgh...

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Turas Bride — Bridget’s Journey through Ireland, 2010

Tomorrow is February 1st, known in Ireland as Féile Bride or St. Bridget’s Day. It marks the beginning of spring in the Irish calendar, a day dedicated to the ancient goddess of fertility, animals and agriculture. Bridget has a pagan and Christian side, depending on who’s mind she’s in. She’s a patron saint of Ireland, like Patrick.

Bridget's Cross

We grew up believing that Bridget travelled the country on the eve of her feast day and we made small crosses from rushes on Jan 31 to honour and welcome her. On her travels she blessed people, animals, barns, fields and winter crops. After her feast day, the weather always improved and winter was over; farmers went to work in the fields and fishermen began getting boats and nets ready for the coming season.

This year when Bridget does her tour of the country she’ll see a lot of changes. Strolling through the streets of Galway, she’ll notice how quiet and almost serene the city has become since last year. She might be curious at the absence of all the pinstriped men and women, the twenty-thirty-forty-fifty somethings who strode around clutching important files and rabbiting on cell phones. Auctioneers, and engineers, solicitors, bluffers, bimbos, con artists, bankers, developers, builders, architects, shysters and hustlers — in previous years they pushed her out of their way. They’re ghosts now, and just the echo of their well tipped heels remain. She’ll say a quiet prayer that the musicians, poets, writers, artists and actors who gave Galway her counter-culture edge will return and retake their territory.

Bank advert from the Boom

Out the country, she’ll wince at the desolate half-built housing estates on once green meadows; monuments to greed and folly, the land is littered with them and they’ll never be finished. She’ll frown at all the lopsided ‘For Sale’ signs outside buildings and she’ll need a lantern to guide her way on the potholed roads. Craters deep enough to drown a calf will concern her and she’ll wonder why the county councils are not repairing them.

If Bridget rambles into any supermarket around Gort, she’ll notice that shelves are not as well stocked as last year. Gourmet is passé and some sections are combined — Asian, Italian and French food stuffs are all lumped together. She may wonder if people now have curry risotto with white wine sauce over noodles, sweet and sour coq au vin with fettucine. She’ll notice the East European and Brazilian shelves have given way to own brand juices, toothpaste, bathroom tissue and firelighters. She’ll see that shoppers are spending more time browsing prices, weighing up options. They’re more mindful and the days of ‘pick and toss into the cart’ are gone. But she’ll wonder why farmers are buying imported fruit and veg rather than growing their own. She may feel slighted by this, and file it away for future reference.

As she tracks out of Gort and over to the Burren, she might think the flapping remnants in the roadside trees and hedgerows are prayer flags in her honour. Coming closer she’ll see they are plastic bags and debris left behind by the floods. In most places the high water mark will be well above her head. Then she’ll know that the sandbags around some houses are there to keep out the water and not the rebels.

Colman's Stash

It will be late in the night when Bridget reaches Glencolmcille in the Burren. She’ll head to the glimmer of light in the hazel valley, the cell of Saint Colman, poet and mystic. He’ll have the kettle boiling and greet her with a mug of hot potín and a verse of blessings. Bridget will tell him what she has seen, as she does every year and he’ll listen in silence, only moving to feed the fire. Then he’ll give her his take on the place since they last met. He’ll tell her the circus has left town, but there’s still a few clowns around. Most of the trapeze artists and the contortionists are in hiding, but the Houdinis have escaped.

While the night wears on, Colman will relate stories of the boom, and how former taoiseach Bertie Ahearn had assured the nation that they were on the pig’s back and urged them to ride that hog all the way to the bacon factory. People didn’t understand how to ride pigs and they did the daftest of things. Small town taxi drivers bought apartments in Dubai and farmers became builders. School kids got their own cars and crane drivers took to cocaine. Hot tubs were installed in neo country cottages and swinger parties replaced the Saturday night game of cards. Lattes out did Barry’s tea for the morning jolt and the Panini trumped the sandwich. And then it turns out that there were no pigs, it was all an illusion and the fall was a heavy one. Colman will say that those who held Bridget in their hearts were unscathed by the boom and its aftermath.

Bridget will promise to pray for the country and rise to continue her journey. Colman will wrap his winter robe around himself and they’ll cross the Burren mountains towards the Atlantic. Over near Fanore they’ll reach the coast road, turn left for Doolin and continue to the Cliffs of Moher. Before dawn they will reach Dabhach Bride, Bridget’s holy well. She’ll bless the water as the sun rises and Colman and herself will recite prayers for those resting in the surrounding graveyard. Then they’ll hang in the shadows of the sacred grove above the well and wait for the pilgrims to arrive.

Dabhach Bride @ 1900

Colman will note that Clare still believes in her, that the tide has turned and more and more people are arriving every year: locals, strangers and New Age pagans. They’ll gaze across Liscannor Bay and down along the West Clare Coast and recall times past when huge crowds assembled at the well from as far as the eye could see. In the afternoon, the gentle sound of jigs and reels will seep from Murphy’s pub nearby. They’ll know the tunes, local to the core — The Piper’s Chair, The Heathery Breeze, The Doonagore Reel, Paddy Killoughery’s Jig.
“My duty is done,” she’ll say to Colman and they’ll stroll down the path and into Murphy’s.
Colman will order two hot whiskeys and they’ll sit by the fire and listen to the fiddle and flute. They might have a second drink and then leave as quietly as they entered. The fiddler will ask who they are and the barman will say,
“I don’t know their names but they come here every year since I was a boy at least.”

Maybe they’ll still be around when I go to Bridget’s Well tomorrow.

Dabhach Bride photo: Clare County Library

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Wrenboys, Swarees and Scrap Parties in County Clare

On St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, groups of musicians and dancers would get together in Clare, dress in disguise and set off around the countryside. Known as wrenboys or mummers, they called to houses, played music and danced sets, sang and recited. Then they collected money and invited donors to a mummers dance or swaree, which would be held locally a few nights later. A troop of wren boys was called ‘a batch’ and they gave a great boost to the Christmas.

Paddy Pharaic Shannon of Doolin, County Clare recalls the wrenboys of the 1930’s:

T’would still be dark on St. Stephen’s morn when you’d hear the horns blowin’ callin’ the wrenboys. If you looked out the window, you’d see all the candles bein’ lit in the cottages all around. The wrenboys used gather below at the bridge in Fisherstreet, they might be thirty or forty people in it between dancers and players and an amadan and an oinseach. They’d be dressed up with coats turned inside out and ribbons of green and gold. Stepheneen Hardy was their leader when I was young and he rode a black ass.

The wrenboys would travel the country that day and come back here at night. We’d hear the noise of them comin’ and everyone would go down to the bridge to meet them. Stepheneen would lead them through Fisherstreet and stop below outside Connor’s pub. That was their last stop. There used be great excitement and of course t’would go on for hours, music, set dancin’ and a bit of singin’. And then a few nights later there would be a big swaree beyond in Anton Moloney’s place.”

Swarees were held in houses that had a big kitchen with plenty of room for dancing. They were the most clandestine of country dances and had a wild edge or energy — Christmas spirit gone native. The ring of the word swaree conjures up mayem, even though it’s a corruption of the genial French word soiree. There was loads of drink at swarees and they lasted from dusk to dawn and longer. Nothing sent parish priests around the bend more than a confessional whisper that a swaree had taken place in the fold. It was like an ambush of the faithful by Beelzebub.

A notorious swaree took place in Coor, near Miltown-Malbay, County Clare in the 1950’s. Held in the house of a ‘strong’ farmer on the 28th of December, the place was mobbed and makeshift bars were set up in the cowshed to cater for the attendees. Musicians came from as far as Doolin and dancers from Inagh were there out of a face. Late at night there were emergency dashes to Miltown, Lahinch and even Ennistymon for barrels of porter and bottles of whiskey.
The following night there was a scrap party from the leftovers— a ‘low key’ event for the musicians and high dancers. This was also a mighty night and went on very late. And just when it was winding down, musicians arrived from a swaree in Cree with crates of beer.
Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the drink seemed the replicate itself or something, and there was enough booty for a third night’s lashing. Word traveled fast and far and the second Scrap Party was a whale of a session. The Kilfenora crowd arrived, long coats and hair oil, machine guns in fiddle cases, they could have been from Chicago. Their music was turbo charged: their players took no prisioners and their dancers could batter heel or sole.
People said that the music from the swaree and the scrap parties hung over the countryside for weeks, like some sort of a fog. There wasn’t a minute of the day when they weren’t hearing jigs and reels and the clattering of steps on a flag floor.

A priest raided a swaree in the parish of Liscannor, County Clare. The ‘night’ was held in John Killoughrey’s house on New Year’s Eve. The place was packed and there was two barrels of porter and assorted bottles of poitin and whiskey in the parlor. On the kitchen table, Pakie Russell, concertina; Gussie Russell, flute; John Killoughery, fife; Paddy Killoughry, fiddle. The place was hopping when the priest arrived. He told John that the devil was in the house. John said,
‘Well isn’t it great work Father but I can’t see him.’
The priest supposedly tried to turn John into a pillar of salt or something, but the mumbo jumbo didn’t work.
‘And then he came at me with the umbrella,’ said John, ‘and wasn’t the dog under the table and didn’t he go for him. Well he got the fright of his life. He thought the dog was the devil! He ran out of the place roarin’ prayers.’

I took part in one of the last wrenboy expeditions who went collecting for a swaree in North Clare. We were a strange crew— a matchmaker, a carpenter, a boatman, a farmer, three students and four women mad for dancing. We weren’t the best mummers in Clare but we had rhythm and style. It was a rainy day and our progress was slow, delayed by hospitality and hot whiskeys. Our route took us through Corofin and there we tarried in Bofey Quinns, when we met a group of kindred wrenboys from Ruan. We played tunes and drank porter and lost track of our mission but had a mighty session. By the time we got back to Ennistymon that night, we were footless. Our money box was empty — only a few copper coins and a miraculous medal from Lourdes. There would be no swaree, a tradition was breaking.

The swarees died out in Clare in the 1980’s but the wrenboy tradition continues. So let it rip on day, Banner boys and girls, though my heart is in San Francisco, my spirit is with ye. Beir búa.

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The road to Lisdoonvarna, Doolin and the Aran Islands


It’s strange how sometimes you’re thinking about somebody you haven’t seen for ages and then suddenly you meet them. It happened to me recently in Ennis. I was having a cup of coffee with my friend Seán and we were reminiscing about Doolin and the people who hung around there back in the the good ol’ days. Seán said,
“Come ‘ere, have you seen Molly Dolan at all? I wonder is she still around?”
I hadn’t laid eyes on Molly for years. She was a Cork lady, came to the Lisdoonvarna Festival the year Emmylou played and never went home. Molly did a bit of fortune telling at the Cliffs of Moher, read palms, Tarot cards and that sort of thing. She was goodlooking, long dark hair, parted in the middle, wore ankle length dresses and occasionally played the whistle.
“Molly was a great character, ” I said, “I wonder what ever became of her.”

A few hours later, just beyond the Maid of Erin roundabout, on my way to North Clare, there was Molly, standing like an apparition, in hippy dress and colorful pathwork bag. I stopped and she ran to the car. When she recognised me she cried,
“I don’t believe it! Hello stranger! How’ve you been?”
“I was only thinkin’ about you a while ago,” I said, “where you goin’?”
“Kilfenora..and where you hittin to? Doolin I s’pose.”
“That’s the plan…I was half thinkin about goin out to Aran.”
“Jesus I’d love to go with you…I haven’t been in Aran for years..and it’s a right day for it…”
“Why don’t you come?”
“I have to work tonight…”
“In Kilfenora?”
“Not exactly…I’m doin’ telephone work.”
She wagged her mobile phone and said,
“I got this great job with a psychic helpline…I get a euro a minute.”
“Yeah, I’m at it for a few months and have loads of regulars…they all want to talk to Molly!”
“You were always a popular girl…”
“Stop will you!”

I slowed down to turn off for Corofin and Molly told me how unsettled the country was, according to her callers.
“Like, there’s an awful lot of unhappy people out there. Some have huge debts and others have loads of money and tons of trouble. It’s no known to god all the marriages that are on the rocks. People are very lonely…most of them only call me to talk about their problems.”
“And where are these craturs from? Are they local?”
“They’re from all over…I have a few local clients too…I think they’re local…I don’t ask…but one woman definitely is.”
“And what’s her problem? Or is it confidential?”
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all.”
Molly rolled a fag as we passed Toonagh, let down the window and lit up.
“Well, this woman is in love with a priest.”
“Jesus! You’re not serious?”
“Totally. He’s one of these trendy hip padres…champagne set type…into horse racing and all that goes with it…he’s much younger than her…she’s in her early fifties…and he keeps ignoring her and telling her to go away but she really believes that he loves her too and that he’s just playing hard to get…so she get all these face jobs done…you know, botox, stuff done to her lips…new hairdos…and of course she’s married. Married her first love…apparently he’s very abusive and he’s playing around… having it off with someone else’s wife…”
“My God..”
“There’s lots of that goin’ on…and not just in towns and cities..in the countryside too. But anyway, this woman began stalking the priest…turning up at services he’d be doin’…funerals, christenings…you name it. And d’you know what she did last week?”
“She went to confessions to him and told him.”
“Told him she was in love with him?”
“Yeah. And a lot more too. Her fantasies and stuff.”
“And what did he say?”
“He gave her two decades of the rosary and she fecked him out of it and wouldn’t leave the confession box.”
“And what happened then?”
“He left..disappeared…and hasn’t been seen since and she’s completely up the walls…she spent an hour talking to me last night.”

Molly rolled another cigarette as we crawled through Corofin and we recalled the great sessions that used be in Morgans and Cahers. I reminded her of the night we went to a party in the cottages but she had no memory of the night. Just as well…

“I’d go to Aran with you,” she said dreamily, “if I thought I’d have good reception for the mobile…I’ve a regular client calling at 9 tonight and I promised him I’d take his call. Dick. He’s a lovely.”
“Yeah, poor Dick. He’s a dwarf…he’s down south somewhere. He lives with his sisters and they treat him like shit. He’s very small…I mean tiny! Three foot something and he’s 42 or 43 years old. He loves U2 and dreams of working for them. You should hear him mimic Bono! Jesus, he’s a laugh. But anyway, the sisters are real mean to him…make him sleep in a cot and sit on a high chair at the table. Every weekend they go on the razz and then bring people back from the pub and have a party. Dick hates the weekends. The sisters get him up out of the cot and make him sing U2 songs for the drunks…terrible carry on. They make him drink whiskey and everything. One time they gave him poteen and he went demented, started biting them so they tied him up with a clothes line! And the poor guy asked me if it was wrong to think they were mean. Can you imagine! I’ve told him time and time again to call the Samaritans but he won’t. Says he prefers talking to me.”

We passed through Kilnaboy and I heard how Dick had joined an online dating site for short people but failed to find love. He also put an ad in a freak’s magazine and received several queries from carnivals and one from a circus in the Ukraine which he was very tempted to take. But he was afraid to run away, Molly said.
“He couldn’t see the cage door was open and that he could go.”
“And where’s he at now…like, how’s he doin?”
“Well apart from the sisters, he’s ok. He keeps writing to Bono but never hears back, which is sad. He actually composed a song and thought Bono and himself might do a duet. He sent him a tape of it but again, no response. But really, it wasn’t very good..terrible actually…he sang it over the phone for me. And Dick can’t sing…it was shaggin’ awful…and it was all about loving a woman he saw on the bus…Poor Dick…I had to say it was great. You know, I just couldn’t tell him it was shite.”
“Poor guy…but I s’pose it’s good for him to have some way to express his feelings…”
“Yeah, that’s what I said too and then last week he told me he’s thinking of making a CD of his songs…and I cringed. I mean what can you say? Poor Dick.”
I nodded. There wasn’t much you could say.

We passed Leminagh and the Kilfenora Mart and Molly rolled another cigarette. The sun was shining and swallows danced in the sky. I slowed down behind a convoy of green tractors barrelling off to make silage, yellow lights flashing urgently.
“Jesus,” she quietly, “the more I think of it, the more I’m inclined to go to Aran with you. Like, I’m not looking forward to listening to Dick singing his latest compositions…but I promised him.”

For the rest of the journey she was silent. I was hoping she’d change her mind and come to Aran. She sighed sadly as we entered the village and rooted in her bag. I pulled up outside Nagles and she gave me her business card — Molly Dolan, Psychic.
“Ok darling,” she said, leaning over to kiss my cheek, “just text me the next time you’re goin’ to Aran and maybe I’ll be able to go.”
“Sure,” I said, gave her a hug.

I swung the car towards Lisdoonvarna, Doolin and the Aran Islands as Molly’s business card glowed on the dashboard.


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