Posts Tagged ‘Fianna’

I have roamed through Ireland several times on extended trips of three weeks or more. In about 1980 or 81, I traveled with a group that took part in traditional Irish folk dancing in pubs throughout the country. Irish folk dancing or ceilthe consists of jigs, reels, quadrilles and the like set to traditional Irish tunes such as “The Walls of Limerick”, “The Waves of Tory” and “Antrim Reel.” On Saturday evenings in the remote villages when they stop serving alcohol in the pubs, they clear away all the tables and chairs, the musicians come in and the people of the village dance until the early hours of the morning.

One Afternoon, while on this particular trip, the group stopped at a pub in a little village in County Clare. There we met Junior Crehan* one of Ireland’s greatest fiddlers and storytellers. Sitting with him was the Irish singer and composer Tommy Lenihan** and a representative of the Department of Irish Folklore, Tom Munnelly.

Crehan and Lenihan were relatively elderly, in their late seventies or early eighties. We spent the afternoon and evening with them, buying them beer and listening to their music and stories.

Most of the stories described what it was like in the early days when they played their music at remote crossroads before the authorities and the priests found out and chased them away. At one point, however, after playing a tune, Crehan put down his fiddle, took a long swig of his beer, leaned back and said, “There was the time Diarmuid met the Queen of the West Indies.” (Diarmuid Ua Duibhne was a warrior of the Fianna and lover of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s [Finn MacCool in English] betrothed, Gráinne). He proceeded then to relate an elaborate tale about when Diarmuid and Fionn leader of the Fianna traveled to the West Indies and how Diarmuid tricked Fionn, bedded the beautiful but terrifying queen and got away with it. The telling, in obvious poetic rhythms, was mesmerizing and took the better part of an hour. Later Tom Munnelly told me that he had been following Junior around for ten years recording his music and hundreds of stories of the old Irish heroes and legends and had never heard that one before. The story also does not appear in the traditional canon of Irish myths and legends.

Tom Lenihan lived with his wife Margret in a farmhouse in Knockbrack, a few miles outside Miltown Malbay. He was a farmer and also the local butcher as well as a well-known Irish traditional singer. His most well-known album is entitled Paddy’s Panacea

Lenihan had just come from working at his farm nearby. When he was not farming he composed songs and sung them in the fields as he worked and at the local pubs. He had composed about seven hundred songs and recorded many of them. He sang a few of them for us. One of those songs was called The American Wake, a beautiful and melancholy tale about a father during the time of the famine seeing off to the US his daughter on one of the immigration ships knowing he would probably never see her again.

The American Wake has been recorded by Irish musicians and singers several times since then but I do not know if they are renditions of Tommy’s original or separate creations. Perhaps someday I may get around to listening to them.


Tommy Lenihan, Tom Munnelly and Junior Crehan on that day at the pub in Miltown Malbay

A few days later we traveled to Spiddal a Gaeltacht (Gaelic Speaking) village on the shore of Galway Bay a few miles northwest of Galway city. There we met with Mary Bergin*** and her husband at their Gaelic musical instrument shop. Mary Bergin is perhaps the foremost penny whistle virtuoso in Ireland. The penny whistle became an instrument of choice for Irish musicians because it was easily hidden. That was a necessity during the several centuries of English occupation when after failing in their attempts to kill all the Irish so that the land could be settled by the English they resorted to the interesting tactic of making the playing of music a capital offense. They did succeed in killing all the Irish Harpers. It was during this time that the Irish bagpipes (uilleann pipes) were developed so that the musician could sit down in a cottage and play pipes that were not as loud as Scottish bagpipes and hopefully could not be heard by a passing soldier. The pipers escaped the fate of the Harpers because the Ascendancy (Irish Protestant aristocrats) brought some of them into their homes as in-house musicians. Also, at this time Irish step dancing acquired that strange rigid arm at the sides form it is now noted for. It allowed dancing in the tiny cramped cottages where flinging one’s arms about would be difficult.

We spent the day talking with Mary and listening to her and her husband play music. Her husband was a well-known craftsman of flutes and an excellent flutist in his own right.

That evening we went to a local pub where we sat with a man who was introduced to us as Ireland’s premier Gaelic tenor. I do not recall his name and although he was relatively young by the standards of Junior Crehan, he only spoke and sang in Gaelic. Though we could not understand the words, it appeared clear that many of the songs were of unrequited love of some sort or another and suitably heart rendering.


* Junior Crehan died in 1989. Here is an excerpt from the Irish Times of his memorial tribute:

Musicians from all over Ireland gathered in the west Clare village of Mullagh yesterday to pay a final tribute to Martin “Junior” Crehan (90), the last in a line of great musicians who made that part of Co Clare a mecca for traditional Irish music and dance.

Although one of the outstanding traditional fiddlers, he also played the concertina and in his younger days had been an Irish dancer of note, traditions carried on by members of his family.

Junior Crehan was one of the founders 25 years ago of the Willie Clancy Summer School, which commemorated the great piper, who was a close friend of his.

Peadar O Riada played the organ and conducted the Cul Aodha Choir at the Requiem Mass in St Mary’s Church, Mullagh. They were joined by the piper Liam Og O Floinn, who later played a lament at the graveside. There was a graveside musical tribute also from members of the Crehan family. One daughter, Ita, played a slow air on the flute. Another daughter, Angela, joined her on the concertina, while a grandson, Tony Crehan, who now lives in California, played the fiddle. They received musical backing from members of The Chieftains and other groups,

** Tommy Lenihan died in 1990. According to the sleevenotes of the CD Around the Hills of Clare (Oidhreacht an Chláir Teo):

“ Tom had a very large repertoire and positive ideas about singing. He insisted that the story was the most important aspect; the singer’s involvement with the song was paramount. To him it was vital that the singer used speech patterns, made sense of the words, singing them as close as possible to the way one would speak; to fit the tune to the words, not to make the words fit the tune. One can appreciate why Tom had so many narrative songs in his repertoire; his attitude to singing is illustrated on the two tracks of speech.

*** Mary Bergin was born in Shankill, County Dublin, Ireland (19490. Her parents Joe and Máire were melodeon and fiddle players, respectively. Mary started learning to play the tin whistle at the age of nine.

Bergin was exposed to the music of many renowned musicians from an early age, but her style is particularly influenced by flute player Packie Duignan and the whistle playing of Willie Clancy. She plays the whistle “left-handed”, with the right hand covering the upper tone holes, unlike most whistle players who play with the left hand on top.

Bergin moved to An Spidéal, County Galway, in the early 1970s and played with many of the up-and-coming stars of the Irish music scene, notably De Danann and Ceoltóri Laighin.[1] She is currently a member of the group Dordán, who perform Irish traditional music and Baroque music with pieces by George Frideric Handel, Henry Purcell and a tune from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.

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