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Archive for the tag “set dancing”

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

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

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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.

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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,

“Whoa!!”

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.

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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.

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to be continued….


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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.
people

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,

Jay”



photos copyright of Clare County Library



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From Bob Dylan to Clare Sets

The Reflections had neither a rehearsal space or sound equipment. We just had our instruments, and we hired out gear when we gigged. I never remember us having any formal rehearsal, apart from what we did in venues when we got there early, which was rare.

We were North Clare latchicos, playing songs most people never heard of. And when we did popular stuff, we put our own twist on it and that was always different. Officially we were a four piece unit — Brendan Killoran on piano and keyboards, Johnny Rockett on bass, Jimmy ‘Drummer’ Hill on the sticks and me on electric guitar. Most nights we were joined at some point by a ‘ghost’ fifth member, Aughty Tá, an older multi-instrumentalist from Ennistymon. Aughty played sax, flute, piano, whistles, fiddle, clarinet and saw. Sometimes he just joined us for the National Anthem and the booze up after the gig. Other times he could be at the venue before us, ready to rock and roll, in a blue blazer from Micky Hogan’s band. You never knew how the night could go with with Aughty Tá.

Unwittingly, we were Clare’s poor version of the Grateful Dead. Like them, we arrived late and took a long time to set up. Sometimes band members were a bit canned or maybe well canned, when we hit the stage. Occasionally our starts were disastrous, and we had to stop and begin the number again. But it was all part of the show, and our fans forgave us. And like the Dead, we had long solos that could go anywhere, especially if Aughty was on board. He was a genius to improvise and go ‘out there’.

Ennistymon used have a Happy Family Festival back in those days. It was held in July and the pubs stayed open legally until 2am. The town used be mobbed every night. There was a huge white marquee in Blake’s Field and the showbands played there. Open air dancing was held in the town square, where ceili bands played on a stage. Fr. Easton, a hip padre, asked The Reflections to play for a teenage hop in the marquee one Wednesday night. He offered us twenty pounds, to play from 9pm to midnight, and we agreed. By Aughty’s calculations, that was at least two hundred pints.The same night, the Kilfenora would be playing in the square, and there was sure to be a huge crowd in town. We were looking forward to the gig. We’d be finished early and in good form for a bit of craic.

The Reflections had two roadies at the time: Talty the Vet and Tires O’Dwyer. Talty had a grey Ford Anglia estate, reg number DIE 999. His parents also had a grey Anglia Estate with the same reg. Anyway, he was in charge of things electrical and Tires’ job was to make sure the gig went smoothly, by opening bottles of beer and cider, and rolling spliffs for the band. Tires was a cousin of Aughty Tá’s.

On the afternoon of the gig, Talty and myself went to rent the sound gear from Mr. Tierney in Corofin, a local genius who had recently built a one-man submarine. Mr. Tierney showed us the craft and told us of his plans to launch the sub in Lake Inchequin. He already had 2 crates of Harp larger for the celebration. Talty said we played a song called ‘Yellow Submarine’ and Mr. Tierney smiled and said, “See, everything is connected.” He opened a few bottles and we drank to that. Several more bottles clinked while we listened to him expound on physics, cosmology and hydromechanics.

The rest of the lads were loitering around back-stage when we arrived with the gear. There was a bit of annoyance that we were late and a tad oiled. Aughty said,
“Let there be no panic. Sheo! Sheo and a Box. Galtee, voo!”
I knew he was half-pissed too.

The roadies set up the gear in a hurry, and plugged us in. Father Easton looked a bit nervous and had four frowns ploughed across his forehead. Drummer Hill clicked the sticks and we just hit the groove like turning a tap. We sort of surprised ourselves. Everything was spot on — the sound was just right and the band was earnest and tight. I spotted Aughty playing maracas to ‘Lovely Rita’ and thought, ‘this is going to be a great night’.

In no time at all, we had the marquee hopping, and lashed out all sorts of stuff. We knew the melody and chorus of many songs, but not a lot of the lyrics. Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was in that zone, but we did it anyway. Killoran played a masterful introduction, swirling on the keyboards, and I invoked Bob, making up the words as I went. The rest of the lads joined in the chorus and so did the crowd. A few girls from Liscannor swayed in front of the stage, screaming “How does it feel? How does it feel?” and that drove us further. I think our version had more verses than Dylan’s one.

The gig was flying, when one of the roadies thought we needed a light show. We were in the middle of a Stones’ number — ‘No Expectations’ or ‘Sweet Lady Jane’ — a slow, check to cheek song anyway, when I noticed activity a little away from me. Tires was standing on a beer barrel with a black cable, which was strung with colored bulbs. Soon a string of flashing lights ran across the top of the stage, with a huge Christmas Star shimmering in the middle. We went into another orbit.

Whoever was ‘doing’ the lights — switching then on and off — couldn’t keep time to the music, and Drummer Hill got pissed off by the distraction. But it’s hard to tell a roadie anything. Eventually the light switch burned out and everything returned to normal on stage. Johnny Rockett sang a Doors’ number and the drummer did “Sunny Afternoon,” by the Kinks. We were back in the groove.

Just as I twanged the opening of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” the light show began again. It was horribly out of time, and I shouted at the roadie to stop. No good. When Aughty did a searing sax solo, I smelled electrical discharge and looked around. I saw a spray of sparks coming from behind the stage, like there was welding going on. Everyone else seemed oblivious, as if it was part of the show. Aughty stood on one leg like a yogi, eyes closed and he blew his heart out. Suddenly there was a boom, total darkness and a little sizzle. Then confusion.

The audience began foot stamping and shouting, “We want more! We want more!”

But there was nothing we could do. It was an emergency beyond the band’s control. A man from the Festival Committee appeared in a hurry with a long silver flash light and announced that the gig was over and told everyone to go home. Two cops arrived and shouted “Home! Home!” Then Fr. Hannon and Fr. Easton rushed into the tent with flashlights, and escorted the audience outside. The Committee man fecked us out of it, said we couldn’t play for nuts and our shit had blown the town’s electrical transformer. We had plunged Ennistymon into darkness. He was drunk, and Aughty told him to shag off before he banjaxed him. Fr. Easton passed me twenty quid and sighed ‘thanks’. Then we were left to ourselves in the dark, until Aughty produced a candle from his sax case.

While the gear was being packed away, we finished the beer and smoked a few spliffs. Aughty decreed that we, The Reflections, did NOT blow the town transformer, per se, BUT we may have conspired the circumstances for such an event to take place. He said it MAY have been written in the planets, and that strange stuff could, and DID happen when great music was being played. He reminded us that the crème de la crème were playing in the town that night: the venerable Kilfenora Ceili Band, and us, The Reflections. Timidly, one of the roadies suggested that he might have helped the situation along, because he recalled something going wrong while he tipped two naked electric wires together, to the beat of Revolution.
“Anything is possible,” Aughty conceeded, “Strange things are done in the midnight sun, by the men who mine for gold. Sheo! Sheo!”
I knew we were not far from launch time.

We left the marquee and strolled up the road to the square. The town was in beautiful blue darkness, and night was happy to see us. There were stars in the July sky and candles in every pub. The Kilfenora Ceili Band played on without amplification, warriors that they were. Dancers did sets in the dark and battered sparks from the road stone. It was magical to hear the rousing cheers from the town when the band changed tune, like someone had scored a goal. And they had. We stood listening to the jigs and reels, tapping and shuffling our feet as good as the rest of them. A few West Clare girls who had been to our gig, dragged us out for a set. From Bob Dylan to ‘The Pigeon on the Gate’, in no time at all. That was Clare in those days. Music had no boundaries. We were all tuned in, in some inexplicable way.

The Kilfenora Ceili Band


(courtesy of 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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Long nights, short days with a Clare danceband

The Springs Hotel before the deluge

The Springs Hotel before the deluge

My music career began the year I joined Mickey Moran’s Country and Oldtime Stars. I was seventeen, had long hair and played electric guitar, one of the solid red axes like Keith Richards had. Good for the image, Mickey said. There were four of us in the ‘outfit’, as he called it: himself played a piano accordion, Tats was on the drums, me on guitar and Tony Flynn covered clarinet, flute, maracas and tambourine. Mickey did the vocals and encouraged singers from the floor.

That season, we had a residency in The Springs Hotel, a ghost of a place that had been closed for about forty years, until a nephew of the owner came home from England in a knife creased blue suit and decided to put the clock back.

they're playin' our song, Paddy...

they're playin' our song, Paddy...

He brushed away the cobwebs, swept the floors and opened the doors: everything else was the same as the day it closed, maybe even the drink. The place had an eerie feeling about it, like a Frankenstein movie set. Dim chandeliers and dank carpets, huge wall mirrors, long velvet burgundy curtains, weighed down with dust. Shadows everywhere, strange people passing through, like they were searching for their youth.

The bandstand was in the lounge, a long narrow brownish room with a bar inside the door, a huge floor with chairs and tables strung along side walls under huge tarnished gold-framed mirrors. The Springs took a long time to warm up and only got going when the hot spots down town bubbled over. By then, half the band were drunk. This was my introduction to another side of life after school: steamy dancing, free whiskey, untipped cigarettes and the girls in short skirts who sat near the stage. Life became a minefield of possibilities.

The oddest things happened in The Springs. One night, just as the crowd were loosening up, a bat flew into the lounge and half the women in the place and all the men with toupees went hysterical. We played a waltz and Mickey asked for calm while the nephew, drunk as a coot, tried to catch the creature with a child’s shrimp net. Bottles broke, chairs crashed, tables overturned. But we played on, smiling that everything was ace.

The Nephew: Total control, full flight, loaded

The Nephew: Total control, full flight, loaded

Another night, an elf of a man in a pastor’s grey suit danced into the hall embracing a live-sized cardboard cutout nurse, who held an Irish Sweepstake ticket aloft in her hand: I’ll never forget the way she smiled over his shoulder as they wheeled by the bandstand. Then there was the night the cops arrived, a dozen or more, running like troopers, looking for a weightlifter from East Clare who had overturned a chip van in the town square. One of the lawmen fell out of rank and hung on at the bar. Sans hat and tunic, he lashed back gin and tonic and at four in the morning when everyone was yawning he did an Elvis Presly impersonation: “Crying in the Chapel”, “Wooden Heart”, “Blue Suede Shoes”. Eyes closed in ecstacy, while Tats did a drum solo, he danced off the stage and went to hospital with a broken leg.

where did it all go wrong?

the lads from Ballybockock

The final night we performed in The Springs, the place was totally empty. Nobody there. It was the weekend after the Listowel races and the crowd had gone to boogie elsewhere. The party was over, Winter was slicing in and all the sinners had flown. The night was brutally wet and windy and there was a cold blue light on the street. Most other places had closed, but the nephew wanted to go down with the ship. And so he did, keeping himself busy by filling drinks for the band and bringing them to the stage. Have one himself, then another round for the band. I had forsaken bottled beer by this time and was maturely supping shots of vodka with a dash of red lemonade. On we played, windows rattling, breeze whistling through the cracks.
Sometime late, a hippy lady who had a caravan outside the town traipsed into the lounge, black dog behind her. After a couple of pints she came up and sang with us: Marianne Faithful songs. Then the nephew invited her to dance and Mickey slowed down the tempo to a crawl. After another few numbers, the nephew and the hippy were kissing under a fly spattered chandelier, while Tony Flynn warbled “Stranger on the Shore “on clarinet. Vintage stuff. Tats drunkenly tapped along on and Mickey and myself vamped blue chords to fill the gaps.

bar for the band

bar for the band


Before taking his dance partner off to more private quarters, the nephew told us to help ourselves at the bar and lock the door behind us when we were going home. We played the national anthem, drum rolls and all, to an empty hall at half-past midnight, then took up positions at the bar. Mickey asked what we were having and God alone knows what we drank.

At some late hour, I remember being outside, black rain pelting down from heaven, trees groaning in the wind. Tats trying to lock the hotel door and catching the hem of his coat in it. Tony Flynn standing on the lawn, crooning “Blue Moon” towards the one lit window in the Springs. Mickey shouting at us to get into the car.

We proceeded out of town with the utmost caution, took the unapproved way home and got lost. Mickey drove around boreens and bog roads until we ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere. There we sat in the pitch black, smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey from a bottle Tats found in his coat pocket. Waiting for daylight, wondering where we were, freezing cold, deafened by the rain dancing on the tin car roof. Tats muttering,
“The road downhill was the easy one, and that’s the one we took.”

Bandwagon, Barrahurra Bog, October morning

Bandwagon, Barrahurra Bog, October morning

A version of this story was previously published in Out of the Blue, a collection of short stories by Eddie Stack



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car photo: kyle cooper, Flicker
all other photos: Michael John Glynne + Clare County Library


De Dannan

that's the way I remember them best...

that's the way I remember them best...

The De Dannan row has being simmering for years and most people close to the Irish trad scene were aware of the tensions between some former members of that band. It went into the public domain over the last few weeks and erupted on the airways Wednesday of this week on RTE’s Liveline. Sad situation really, when one recalls the great music, song and fulfillment De Dannan gave us all since the 1970’s.

On the surface, the row is over the name De Danann. When Alec Finn and Frankie Gavin — the last two original members of the band —went their separate ways in 2004, Mr. Finn ‘registered’ the name, which he says was to stop exploitation by others. Incidently, it was banjo player Charlie Piggott who originally came up with the name for band. Over the years, band members had come and gone, some to greater things. Each new member added an ingredient to the De Dannan sound, but the perception was, that the cooks were Messrs Finn and Gavin.

There was a lot of chatter between jigs and reels about the breakup of the Gavin – Finn marriage. A mendicant singer penned a ballad called Frankie and Alec, based on the old Frankie and Johnny song. The weary and the perceptive knew there would be blood down the line, that it’s a long road that doesn’t have a turn. Plus there were a few casualties on the roadside who had tumbled from the De Dannan bandwagon over the years.

Things came to a head recently when Frankie Gavin and De Dannan were billed for a concert at the 2009 World Fleadh in Castlebar. The World Fleadh is produced by Eric Cunningham who plays percussion with Frankie’s new ‘De Danann’. Advertisements announcing gigs for ‘Frankie Gavin & De Dannan’ appeared in the Hot Press magazine.

Solicitors for Mr. Finn wrote to the magazine pointing out that the name was registered by Finn as a business name pursuant to the Business Names Act 1963. The letter asked that the magazine not exhibit or publish or use the words “De Dannan” in any “advertisement, placard or leaflet” without consultation with Alec Finn. That was followed by an interview by Mr. Finn with Hot Press in which he said: “This is not De Dannan. If you want to go and spend your money on something that is not De Dannan, go. But don’t be taken in that you are actually going to see a reunion of the old members of De Dannan.”

Then a piece appeared in the Irish Times about the resurrected De Dannan in which Mr. Gavin said: “…the fact is, it’s difficult to make a living playing music. If it’s a business and a trade name that I’ve built up over 30 years, I think that I would have every right to use it.
“The name De Dannan commands quite a bit of respect, and all the people that I’ve chosen to play in the band over the years have gone off and had separate, individual careers, with great success, in most cases. So I don’t see what the problem appears to be with me starting up a new De Dannan and getting a new kick-start.”

Frankie Gavin + 'De Dannan' 2009

Frankie Gavin + 'De Dannan' 2009

Other papers fanned the flames and the issue snowballed like a divorced couple arguing over the name of their starter home. Then the fracas hit Live Line, Ireland’s confession box, the afternoon call-in radio show hosted by Joe Duffy.

On air Alec said he ‘owned’ and registered the name and that Mr. Gavin was taking the punters for a ride if said punters expected to see the old De Dannan on stage. He said Mr. Gavin had hand picked a group of young musicians to be the band. “If the Rolling Stones were billed as ‘Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones’ and the other musicians were a bunch of unknowns, would you go and see them?” he asked.

Then Johnny Ringo McDonagh came on the air from a pub in the Aran Islands. He was a founding member and percussionist with the band and agreed with Mr. Finn, that Mr. Gavin had no right to use the name De Danann. Next, singer Dolores Keane was on the radio, saying she was disappointed with Messrs Finn and McDonagh…she was De Danann’s first singer and would be guesting with Mr. Gavin and the new line-up. Ms. Keane intimated that it was her song Rambling Irishman which put De Dannan on the map back in the 1970’s.

The Mist Covered Mountain album cover by Alec Finn

The Mist Covered Mountain album cover by Alec Finn

Like a stealth bomber coming out of the clouds, accordion player and radio producer Tony McMahon was on air and I could feel the nation bracing itself. He announced that Gavin was the driving force behind the band and Johnny Ringo was “a first-rate accompanist, Alec is a second-rate accompanist. You’re not . . . in the same league.” He followed up by saying McDonagh and Finn were not musicians, they were only accompanists.

My phone was jumping with calls and texts, requests for flack jackets, nuclear bunkers…nobody was safe. Mr. McMahon recalled that when he broadcast De Dannan first back in the 1970’s that the only information his researcher could find about Mr. Finn was that ‘he came from Yorkshire, lived in a castle and kept hawks.’ Buckets of jelly were hitting the fan and the issue of the De Dannan name was lost in the mix. But then again, maybe the name was never the issue, just a symbol of the real issue.

In the heel of the hunt, only Mr. Gavin and Mr. Finn know what the real issue is. They were close — onstage and off — ‘thick as thieves’ as the saying goes. And like a lovers’ quarrel, common sense goes out the window when blood boils. God help us, but Ego and self-righteousness are a terrible curse. There are no winners in this one, apart from the listeners who were rolling on their floors laughing at the on air spat.

Come to think of it, there was a full moon last night…maybe that brought out the crackedness. It was the Lughnasa full moon, and Lugh was the brightest god of the ancient Tuatha de Dannan. Payback time for taking god’s name in vain?



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Irish Traditional Music: thoughts after a night in East Clare

A view of Ennistymon from the Falls

A view of Ennistymon from the Falls

For those of us who grew up immersed in Clare music, we were always aware of a friendly rivalry between our two great ceili bands, The Tulla and The Kilfenora. Each had won several All Ireland Ceili Band Championships, and had huge followings, both in the county and far beyond. Every year they battled it out at the famous fleadhs of the Fifties and Sixties, packed halls and were often on the radio. We were proud of them. The Tulla were based in East Clare and the Kilfenora in North Clare, but in our county, a few miles made the world of difference in musical styles, tunes and rhythm.

The Tulla Ceili Band, 1952

The Tulla Ceili Band, 1952: Ennistymon's Martin Garrihy on drums + George Byrt on piano

Both bands had musicians from my home town of Ennstymon, and a few musicians changed bands over the years. Though we were geographically closer to Kilfenora — and were part of their ancient diocese — we also had a proud East Clare connection. Our native poet Brian Merriman, who wrote the famed Midnight Court, had moved to Feakle some 200 years earlier. Art stands the test of time in Clare, and so Feakle and Ennistymon were bonded forever by him. Merriman was also a fiddler, so we played that card as well.

Brian Merriman — poet + fiddler

Brian Merriman, poet + fiddler of Ennistymon & Feakle

Almost like political alliances, there were Tulla supporters and Kilfenora supporters in the town, there were closet supporters and suspect supporters. There were torn loyalties, blood loyalties and each year the town awaited the outcome of the All Ireland Fleadh Ceili Championship like the winning score of a hurling final. This was back in the days before television, computers and texting, and our contact with the outside world was a public phone in the Square, a green kiosk with a rickety concrete slab floor and broken windows.

our only contact with the outside world

our line to the outside world

I remember the Sunday evening of The All Ireland Fleadh one August when I was a boy. A staunch Kilfenora female supporter stood beside the kiosk smoking a cigarette and fumbling with rosary beads. She was waiting for ‘the call’. I was watching her from the door of our pub and every now and again my mother would appear and look down anxiously at the woman. My mother was smoking too, the tension was sizzling. A few men in pub were discussing drummers — Ennistymon men drummed for both bands.

The ringing phone echoed up the quiet square on that warm evening. The woman rushed into the box and you could hear her shouting “Hello?” above in Dublin. Then we heard her say, “Thanks be to Sweet Jesus and his blessed mother, I was prayin’ all day…”
My own mother announced to the bar,
“The Kilfenora won.”
The following year it was probably the Tulla. We were blessed with great music in Clare.

The Tulla, Ennistymon Hall, 1/1/1962 (Martin Vaughan drums, Francie Donnellon + PJ Hayes fiddles)

The Tulla, Ennistymon Hall, 1/1/1962 (Martin Vaughan drums, Francie Donnellon + PJ Hayes fiddles) courtesy of Clare Co Library

When bands played at the hall in Ennistymon, they drank in our bar and generally took a crate or two with them for the road home after the dance. One night The Leitrim Ceili band from Galway, anchored by accordion player Joe Burke, played in town. They had a great crowd, collected their crate of porter or beer for the road and headed home through the Burren. They were travelling in an old VW bus and somewhere near the Corkscrew Hill, they slowed down so an on coming vehicle could pass. It was the Kilfenora Ceili Band on their way home from a gig so they stopped and everyone got out. The bands had a chat, discussed the night and the crowds they played to, praised and razed dancers. Then another vehicle approached and slowed down. It was the Tulla, bringing home a few of the Ennistymon boys. So they stopped too, got out and there was great jollity. There was a full moon, and the musicians sat on the silver limestone wall, opened multiple bottles and had the crack. A most beautiful summer’s night, moon beaming down on the Burren and away in the distance, the twinkling light of Galway in another province. Then someone said,
“You know, since we all met, we might as well play a tune.”
And so it was. Music was played that would make the stones dance. A gift to the night and the moon, a gift to the land from where the tunes came.

The Tulla, 1982 (Andrew Mac + Martin Hayes on right)

The Tulla, 1982 (including Martin Hayes, Andrew + Mary McNamara and Jim Corry)

Last weekend was Kilfenora’s big do, a celebration of one hundred years on the go. This past weekend, there was a small gathering in Feakle, East Clare in memory of PJ. Hayes, a founder and leader of the Tulla Ceili Band. I rambled over there on Sunday afternoon and can say there’s many more than forty shades of green in East Clare. It was a beautiful sunny evening and nature was alive after rain. I lost count of the shades at fifty…

There was a session in full swing in Peppers Bar, fiddlers Martin Hayes and Mark Donnellon, local box player Seamus Bugler and guitarist Dennis Cahill. East Clare music, lyrical with a swing, the boys were back in town. Tunes in minor keys, tunes by Cooley, Fahey and Canny. It was like finding a well spring for the soul.

After the session finished there was the chat and the catch up. Accordion player Andrew MacNamara arrived, just back from a tour of Australia with guitarist Brendan Herrity. Stories are related, experiences parlayed. We discussed boomerangs and the size of kangeroos…Jim Corry, the Tulla piano man enters the company, he’s back from a week in Spain with the Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band. He apologised for his tan: in these stricken times, not many can afford a tan. Jim is excused and has a pint of beer before getting ready for a gig with the Tulla Ceili Band in the tent behind the pub.

The Tulla in Ennistymon, 2006

The Tulla in Ennistymon, 2006

A photographer comes to the table as Martin Hayes, Mark Donnellon and myself are finishing dinner + discussing the state of the nation. He’s from a local publication and needs a photo of the lads…Instruments are taken out of cases for the shoot and a session begins…a few more musicians join, evening sun shines through the window and there’s a golden glow in Feakle. A well known business man comes in with Rayban shades on his head and tiger trappings around neck…he does a bit of glad handling and back slapping and a wizened man with a pint and a cap mutters, “Will someone tell that shaggin’ idiot that the boom is over…”

Mark and Martin stop playing after an hour or so, take a break before going on stage with the Tulla for the ceili. Andrew Mac takes out his box in the bar, twirls a few notes and like bird call, a flock of musicians join him. His side-kick Brendan Herrity twangs the guitar and the energy amps up. Dance music rocks the bar and a group of locals hit the floor for a half-set. Mac is in his element, driving his box like a man in control of a rocket heading for the moon.

High voltage music from Andrew MacNamara in Feakle, May 2009

High voltage music from Andrew MacNamara in Feakle, May 2009

Sometime later a Cajun box player comes in from Seattle— he’s a fan of Andrew’s and he joins the session. Cajun two-steps, songs in French, we all play along. Music is music, it all comes from the heart and soul. A Japanese violinist joins and amazes everyone with her playing of East Clare reels. Mac smiles broadly when a man known as ‘The Waneling’ tries to sing a song called ‘Johnny on the Mountain’. It’s a magical night in Feakle, a fitting memorial to PJ Hayes, the quiet man who guided us all here with his music.

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The Kilfenora Ceili Band — a century of great Irish music

Some of my earliest musical memories are of Kilfenora musicians playing in my father’s pub in Ennistymon in the 1950’s. Kilfenora was the home of my paternal grandmothers people, the Murphys, and so our ‘house’ was a natural ‘stand’ or calling house for people from that parish when they came to town. The first time I saw or heard a tape recorder, was when my cousin Tim Murphy came to our place with a huge Grundig and played a recording he’d made of the Kilfenora Ceili Band. To us youngsters, the Kilfenora had the aura, energy and spell of U2. They made us feel good on the dark nights and the rainy days. They were friends of the family and as their then leader Kitty Linnane used whisper to me ‘We’re all the one, we’re all connected.” And so we were through bloodlines and through music.

This year the Kilfenora are 100 years on the go…that’s a lot of Clare music, a lot of Clare sets. Here’s a brief History of the band from their website:

“Kilfenora boasted a fine fife and drum band founded in 1870, which later gave way to an accomplished brass and reed band in 1910. It appears the fife & drum was regarded as a boy’s pursuit. The move to the brass & reed was in order to hold onto the musicians into adulthood. The trumpet player was Jim Mulqueeney
who was a founder member of the céilí band and became a seminal
influence on the fiddlers of the area. The Brass & Reed band proved to be a
solid foundation for the céilí band that started in 1909.

Kilfenora Brass & Reed Band, 1908

Kilfenora Brass & Reed Band, 1908

“In 1908, the parish of Kilfenora was in debt. The new priest, Canon Cassidy from Moughana set to clearing the debt and refurbishing the church. At the fundraising dances he held in the schoolhouse, members of the old Brass & Reed band like John Joe Lynch, (fiddler and drummer) and Jim Mulqueeney (fiddler) were involved, though were deferential in the presence of the senior players such as fiddle master Michael Slattery.

“The ’20s core group consisted of Jim Mulqueeney, Jim McCormack, John Joe Lynch, Austin Tierney and Lynch’s sister, Mrs. Brigid McGrath, on concertina. Tom Ward – (fiddle) Lil McCormack, (piano), Paddy “Pepper” Linnane, Tommy Mulqueeney, Pat Madigan (banjo, clarinet, bass), Jimmy Leyden (drums), brother and sister Paddy and Nora “Marshall” McMahon (flute and fiddle respectively) and Maureen Kelly (piano).

By the thirties, there were already a couple of radios in Kilfenora village. The first broadcast by the band was in 1932 from Athlone. The radios were taken out in the open, as the crowd of listeners was as big as when Eamon de Valera came to the village for the Clare election in 1917. There was another broadcast in June 1935 relayed from the town hall in Ennis. They were half-hour programmes and entailed lengthy rehearsal beforehand. On June 30th 1940, the Kilfenora broadcast from the Convent of Mercy, Ennis on Radio Éireann, a prize for winning the Céilí Band Competition at the Ennis Carnival.

They had a three-year standing contract to play for the céilithe in the Queen’s Hotel, Ennis, during the winters of ’35, ’36 and ’37. The regular lineup during the ’30s was: John Joe Lynch, Jim Mulqueeney, Tom Ward, Nora McMahon (violins), Paddy McMahon, Jim McCormack (flutes), Jim Ward (piccolo), Paddy Byrt (concertina), Pat Madigan (Sax & Clarinet), Jimmy Leyden (drums).

During the ’40’s some of the Kilfenora stalwarts played under a different banner. The Corcomroe band was organised in 1942 by, Barry Ward from Northern Ireland, who came as an engineer to the phosphate mines in Doolin, which were opened in that year. According to Jim Ward, this Barry Ward (no relation) played the piano accordion and was “music mad but apparently didn’t know much about traditional music”. It was his good fortune though, to gather around him some of the finest traditional musicians in North Clare.

Kilfenora-Corcomroe Ceili Band, 1946

Kilfenora-Corcomroe Ceili Band, 1946

The Byrt family featured very much in this band and the photo shows four of them. Paddy Byrt, a founder member of the Kilfenora in 1909 was a gifted musician with an unmatched knowledge of music and traditional lore, which he passed on to his sons, one of whom, John in particular was regarded as one of the foremost fiddle players of his time and according to some of his peers, he possessed more tunes than any other of his contemporaries.

As a young adult, P.J. Lynch liked to go off for a few days playing music with his friends and he smelled an opportunity for enjoyment when he heard of the All-Ireland fleádh to be held in Athlone in ’53. He was excited by the concept of a céilí band competition and took part there with a hastily assembled ad-hoc band of musicians he met at the festival.

During the autumn after his return, he assembled a group of musicians from within a five-mile radius of the village. They rehearsed and started playing for céilís every Sunday. They enlisted the assistance of Molly Conole, daughter of Michael Slattery, the 1909 founder, as coach. They duly travelled to the ’54 fleádh in Cavan and a vigorous performance brought them victory.

Kilfenora CB, 1956

The Kilfenora obviously had devised a winning formula. Much to the delight of their supporters, they triumphed at the next two fleádhanna, completing the celebrated three-in-a row on home ground in Ennis in ’56, The lineup that year was: Gerry Lynch, Kitty Linnane, Frank O’Mahony, PJ Lynch, Gerald O Loughlin, Shamus McCormack, Gus Tierney, Noreen Lynch, Jim Ward and Ita Mulqueeney. (

The 1958 album The Kilfenora Céilí Band was the only commercial recording by most of that line-up. After that, there were substantial changes in personnel and it was a very different band that won at the fleádh in Swinford in 1961. .

P.J. Lynch stepped aside and the steady hand of Kitty Linnane steered them through the next three and a half decades. The band was extremely busy on the céilí circuit. They played every county in the Republic. They went on a series of trips to Britain during Lent when demand was quiet at home. It is surprising that caution prevailed in preventing them from accepting the numerous invitations to the U.S.

From the mid-’70s onwards, their work as a full-blown céilí band was greatly diminished. During the early ’70s, the band did produce two more albums, Clare Céilí (E.M.I.) and The Kilfenora Céilí Band (Transatlantic). By the ’80s, their activities were limited to special occasions of nostalgia. The fact was that set dancing was at that time becoming pub-based and céilí bands weren’t getting many bookings till the resurgence of the ’90s.

The band members who appeared on the Clare Céilí album were: Kitty Linnane, Paddy (Organ) Mullins, Tommy Peoples, Gus Tierney, Jim Ward, Michael Sexton, Jimmy Leyden and singer P.J. Murrihy.

During the ’70s and ’80s, the aforementioned fiddler Gus Tierney was passing the music on to the next generation during his classes all over North Clare. Many of his pupils went on to turn professional and several formed the basis of the present Kilfenora band.

With Kitty in failing health, John Lynch, son of P.J. stepped into the breech in ’91. He assembled a young lineup to carry the torch. The group (with the help of mentors Phil McMahon and Gerry Lynch) achieved three titles in a row from ’93 to ’95, forty years after the original achievement.

The band in the past decade has been commercially very active. This is the third album by the current personnel (sixth in all by the Kilfenora). They gig the length and breadth of Ireland and travel regularly to Britain, Europe and the United States. Their performances are no longer confined to playing for céilí dancers and they regularly entertain at the larger U.S. festivals for audiences of thousands.
KCB, 2002

Lynch has been very careful to preserve authenticity by keeping innovation to a discreet minimum and staying true to traditional instrumentation and repertoire. To date, the band has continued in the style of its predecessors.

(for more info: http://www.kilfenoraceiliband.com)

PROGRAM OF CENTENARY CELEBRATIONS

23-26 April 2009, KILFENORA, CO. CLARE

Thursday, 23 April 2009
9 pm Céilí with Four Courts Céilí Band – Vaughans Barn
10 pm Singing Night – Linnanes Pub, Session – Nagles Pub

Friday, 24 April 2009
9.30 pm – 12.00 am Céilí with Kilfenora Céilí Band – Community Hall

Saturday, 25 April 2009
10 am – 12.00 pm Childrens’ Sean Nós & Step Dancing Workshop
1 – 3 pm Recital by local musical families – Community Hall
4 – 5.30 pm Lecture on History of Kilfenora Céilí Band by Garry Shannon and Photography Exhibition (from 3.00 pm) – Community Hall
8 – 10.30 pm Gala Celebration Concert with Kilfenora Céilí Band and special guests – Community Hall
10.30-1.30 pm Old Time Céilí with PJ Murrihy and Michael Sexton Vaughns Bar

Sunday, April 26th 2009
11 am Aifreann Traidisiúnta for deceased members of Kilfenora Céilí Band
– St. Fachnans Church
12 pm Unveiling of plaque commemorating 100 years of the Kilfenora Céilí Band – Burren Centre
1.30 pm Traditional music and entertainment by local musicians and school children – The Square, Kilfenora*
3.30 pm Launch of “Century” CD by Kilfenora Céilí Band – The Square, Kilfenora*
4.15 pm Tulla Céilí Band – The Square, Kilfenora*
5 pm Final concert including presentation to past members of Kilfenora Céilí Band – The Square, Kilfenora*
9 pm Céilí with Four Courts Céilí Band – Vaughans Barn
*Please note: Programme subject to change. In the event of rain, open air sessions will take place in the Community Hall
TRADITIONAL MUSIC SESSIONS IN ALL PUBS NIGHTLY

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