Saturday, 19 November 2016

Carrie’s rural memories have a certain Irish lilt

Robby McMahon
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 Bobbie) 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. 


Dorothy’s family connection to Wexford history

Father John Murphy
History is never far below the surface in Ireland and ordinary conversations will often reveal extraordinary connections with notable people and important events of the past. This is what happened when Wexford resident Dorothy Kenny (nee. Walsh) told me recently about her ancestor Father John Murphy.

Dorothy and husband Seamus are Wexford born and bred; they have raised their five children, Aoife, Doireann, Sinead, Conor and Sarah-Jo at Monamolin near Gorey. Both played for Wexford based GAA teams, Dorothy told me:
“Both of us played for Buffers Alley. Seamus played both hurling and football for 'The Alley' and was Chairman for 10 years steering the club through a major building development project. I played camogie for Senior Wexford and won an All-Ireland in 1975.”

Like many from the ‘model county’, both Seamus and Dorothy have family connections going back to the 1798 rebellion. Whilst this event took place over 200 years ago, it had a profound effect on an otherwise peaceable and very rural county and every Wexford family was affected, often in very traumatic and brutal ways. It is therefore not surprising that there is still a strong tradition of oral history dating back to 1798 in the county.

Dorothy told me that her family were descended from the sister of Fr John Murphy who played a leadership role in the 1798 rebellion. We therefore attempted a search to discover the connections between Dorothy’s family and John Murphy. This is a slightly unusual way of doing family history research, as one normally starts at the current generation and slowly works backwards, discovering ancestors along the way. However, in this situation we started at two different points in time and set out to fill in the gaps in between.

John Murphy was a Roman Catholic priest born at Tincurry, Wexford in 1753. He was executed by British soldiers at Tullow, County Carlow on 2 July 1798. John was a tenant farmer’s son from a big family, his brother Patrick was also killed in the 1798 Rebellion at Vinegar Hill. He also had a sister, Katherine, who married John Patrick Walsh. The parents of John Murphy were Thomas Murphy and Johanna Whitty.

John Murphy was educated in a hedge school by a local parish priest and grew up speaking Irish and English. He was described as a splendid horseman, excelling in athletics and handball. Following his ordination, Fr John Murphy went away to study at a Dominican college in southern Spain in the 1770s. Returning home five years later, Fr Murphy was made curate in Kilcormuck, better known as Boolavogue, where he had a thatched chapel.

Fr Murphy was initially against rebellion and actively encouraged his parishioners to give up their arms and sign an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. However, on 26 May 1798 he gathered with a group of local men to decide how to defend themselves against the brutality of yeomanry patrols. That night Murphy’s group encountered the burning down of a local family’s cabin and a confrontation took place which ended with the killing of two of the yeomen. That night the Wexford Rebellion started with Fr John Murphy leading it alongside other local United Irishmen leaders.

Through the next month, Fr John Murphy led a growing army of poor Wexford tenant farmers against the might of the English army. Initially armed only with pikes and pitchforks, Murphy’s ragged army of rebels defeated well-armed militia and yeoman with cavalry at Oulart Hill, Enniscorthy, Wexford town and Gorey. From a few hundred men with pikes, the rebel army grew quickly to a force of 10,000. But with reinforcements from England, including German mercenaries, the rebels were badly defeated at Arklow and at Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy. English retaliation was brutal, wounded rebels were shot or worse and more than 30,000 Wexford people were killed in the five week uprising. Father Murphy and a man named James Gallagher were captured in the Blackstairs Mountains and taken to Tullow where they were summarily tried, found guilty of being rebels and sentenced to death. Both were hanged in the market square in Tullow. The yeomen cut off Fr Murphy’s head, put it on display on a spike and burned his body in a barrel of pitch. Fr John Murphy is remembered in the Irish ballad Boolavogue.

Our search to discover Dorothy’s line of ancestry back to Fr John Murphy began by identifying her father Edmond Walsh’s family in the 1911 census living at house 12, Effenorge, Tinnacross, Wexford. The family included Edmond’s parents Aidan and Mary Walsh (Dorothy’s grandparents). The family were also recorded at Effernoge in the 1901 census. It is well known that Irish census records become more difficult to find for the 19th century, but increasingly we find church baptismal records for that period are available to view online. Using these records we could identify the baptism of Dorothy’s grandfather Aidan at Ferns in 1853 and the baptisms of his siblings. The beauty of a baptismal record is that it also names the parents, therefore taking us back another generation.

Another useful source of records is the Griffith’s Valuation of the 1850s which tells us that a farmer named William Walsh was occupying 70 acres of land at Effernoge at that time. Finally the Tithe Applotment books of 1824 show two separate tithe payers named William Walsh residing at Effernoge. It would be fair to speculate that they may be a father and son. The Tithe Applotment books move us much closer to the generation of Fr John Murphy and the 1798 rebellion. William Walsh senior of the Applotment books could feasibly be the same generation as Father Murphy or, more likely, his mother may have been Katherine, the sister of John Murphy who married John Patrick Walsh. Incidentally, Effernoge is close to both Boolavogue and Tincurry and there was also a farmer named Michael Murphy recorded at Effernoge in the Tithe books of 1824. Whilst we need more information to confirm these connections, I can’t help feeling that we are there or thereabouts in plotting the line between Dorothy and her 2 x great grandmother Katherine Walsh (nee. Murphy).

Thank you Dorothy Kenny for sharing this interesting family connection to the momentous events of 1798. If any of our readers have further information to offer, we would be very interested to hear from you.