The great thing about people’s memories of the past is how they often open the doors to further research. This is what happened when I received an email from Carrie Browne-Carey whose memories of a rural childhood in the townland of Lurgan in County Offaly recalled a celebrated Irish ‘lilter’ named Robbie McMahon.
Carrie began by recalling her childhood in the 1950s in the hilly townland of Lurgan which lies near the border of Offaly and Westmeath, close to Clara and Moate:
“In a small townland like Lurgan, everyone knew each other very well and we visited one another’s houses regularly. I spent a lot of my life in the house of the Conways and also with the Stone family. When my brother and I were small children our Dad went to work in Dublin and our Mother would sometimes go and stay with him. During this time we stayed with the Stone family.”
“I was very young but I do remember enjoying my stay and loving a dog they had called Lucy. Mrs Stone baked her own bread as did her daughters, but there was one cake that I can almost taste yet. They called it a sweet cake but it was just like a white soda cake with sugar in it and it was gorgeous.”
“Another thing I enjoyed was, they nearly always had a pet pig and I always made sure to be there in the evening while it was small to feed it with a bottle and then sit with it on my lap for ages.”
Carrie also remembered that very often local people would have musicians and singers performing in their own homes, especially if there was a special occasion.
“Mrs Stone had three daughters and two of them, Kitty and Liz went to work in Dublin. It seemed a long way away at that time. Liz only got home every summer for two weeks holidays and I looked forward to that time so much. Liz was such a lovely girl. I then remember Kitty got married to Eddie in Dublin and when they came back from their honeymoon, there was a big dance as I remember in their barn in Lurgan. It was such an exciting thing for me as a small child. There was music, dancing, singing and I remember doing Irish dancing, though it was simple as I was very young. Everyone went across the yard to the house for the tea.”
“As I got older I remember a musical family by the name of O'Reilly came to our house and also to the Stone residence and there would be a sing-song and dancing instantly. I remember on one occasion Liz was home on holiday and friends of hers called, I happened by chance to call in. I was very glad I did as one of the men was called Bobby McMahon from Spancil Hill in County Clare. Bobby was a man we heard singing very often on radio and of course his special song was Spancil Hill. He was also a great lilter. He would lilt Irish dance tunes and make it sound like a musical instrument, one tune that is still in my head is the Mason's Apron, he did a great job on that one. Anyway on that evening of course we got him to lilt and that started the dancing. We were doing a half set and I was dancing with him. Now I was only about 9 or 10 years of age so when it came to the basket swing, my feet were lifted off the ground and I kicked the lid off a skillet pot and it broke in two halves! I nearly died but Mrs Stone said “go on dancing, never mind it”. She had bad arthritis so she loved people to go in and party!”
Carrie’s wonderful recollection of live music in the farmhouses of rural Ireland are both reminiscent and captivating. Whilst many of us today are familiar with the musicians who entertain us in bars and clubs, the idea that this tradition was preceded by musicians performing in the humble parlors and barns of people’s rural homes is evocative of days-gone-by. Carrie has also educated me for one on the Irish tradition of lilting through her real-life memory of one of its greatest exponents, Bobby (aka Robbie) McMahon.
I have often heard the expression ‘the lilt of the Irish’ which refers to the characteristic rising and falling of the voice when speaking, the pleasant and gentle accent of many parts of Ireland. It is also used to describe the good humor of Irish people, or a certain cheery outlook I am certain we are all familiar with. But I had never heard of the traditional singing form of lilting, apparently most common in the Gaelic speaking areas of both Ireland and Scotland.
Lilting is music made by the human voice which creates the rhythm and tone of musical instruments with much diddling and jigging - if lyrics exist they are often nonsensical. Lilting may have originated in tough times when musical instruments were not available – though many dispute this theory because it did not develop in other peasant cultures under similar constraints. Whatever its origins, the energetic and compelling rhythms of lilting, accompanied by hand clapping, foot stomping and drumming of the table made it ideal for Irish dancing.
Robbie (or Bobby) McMahon was born in County Clare on 11 December 1926 and became well known as an entertainer on Irish radio. McMahon composed his own songs as well as singing traditional favorites. As Carrie pointed out, he is best known for his rendition of the beautiful ballad Spancil Hill which earned him the title of King of Spancil Hill. Robbie first sung the ballad at age 16 in the cottage of Moira Keane and in the presence of the nephew of the song’s author Michael Considine.
Robbie McMahon lived all of his life at Spancil Hill where he continued to farm and also continued to entertain in pubs, bars and, yes, rural cottages right up until his sad death in 2012. A film was made about his life called Last night As I Lay Dreaming.
Thank you to Carrie Browne-Carey for her enlightening email and for sharing her memories.