This is the tenth annual Sean McCarthy Weekend, in Finuge
Village, Co. Kerry. The Weekend has become a permanent
fixture on the Irish Festival Calendar, and attracts visitors
and balladeers from all parts of Ireland and beyond.
Over the years some of Ireland's leading ballad-singers have
performed at the Festival, including Johnny McEvoy, Shay
Healy, Brendan Grace, Pete St.John, Jim McCann, Carmel Quinn,
Mick McConnell, Peggie Sweeney and Danny Doyle
This year, the special guest is Johnny Carroll, the Man with
the Golden Trumpet.
I can promise a fun filled weekend.
Friday 03rd August 2,001:
Once again I am turning left in Abbeyfeale. My literary senses (such as they are) are assailed by the culture-vibes of North Kerry.
I am on my way to the Sean McCarthy Memorial Weekend in Finuge ; the annual festival to commemorate singer, songwriter, storyteller and legendry Kerryman, the late, Sean McCarthy.
The age-old adage; "A man in not a prophet in his own land" does not apply in this little village, 4 miles from Listowel.
Sean McCarthy was born in Listowel, one of ten children, on 5th July 1923. He attended Listowel Primary School and his first teacher was Bryan McMahon who later said of him; "He was always a special person. I'll even go so far as to say he was unique" And unique indeed he was. A fact much appreciated by his fans world-wide and particularly his friends in North Kerry.
The annual Sean McCarthy Memorial Weekend, has been going from strength to strength since it started in 1991. This year it was officially opened, on Friday 03rd august, by that famous Irish broadcaster whose twin passion is "Walking and talking", and indeed that is the title of his autobiography.
I am of course referring to Donncha O 'Dulaing.
Donnacha sat in the same seat in school as Canon Sheehan, though not at the same time. Chalk made him sneeze and it was in the Christian Brothers school that he learned that; "....... Protestants ate jam for their lunch and, what's more had more time than we had for it, as they ate their bread and drank their milk, while we unwillingly 'caddied' through a daily half-hour of Christian Doctrine."
In an autobiographical piece Donncha refers to a certain field near Doneraile where: "....I picked my first mushrooms......I picked bluebells for the 'May altar'; here too that I first heard of the 'Doneraile Conspiracy' and here too, that I first loved the actual soil of Ireland."
That love for the soil of Ireland has stayed with him, and is evident in everything he does and in everything he says.
In Finuge the famous voice regaled us with stories serious and amusing and went on to introduce Danny Doyle who played to a packed Teach Siamsa. I'm going to be very concise in my description of Danny Doyle: he is a talented gentleman. You can find out all about him at the D.Doyle website.
Danny told stories of Kerry and Dublin, Australia and America and of the night he walked up the rickety stairs of the Crubeen Club, at Clapton Junction in London and heard Sean McCarthy singing. That was when Danny's singing career took off and he makes no secret of the fact that it was launched by Sean McCarthy. I also heard stories from the locals about Sean McCarthy. Like the time he did the series, over a two- year period, in "The Kerryman" newspaper. The series was called McCarthy's Women and in it he profiled one hundred of his favourite women. Sometimes he would write two or three pieces before submitting them. Then he would ask a neighbour for a lift to Tralee; to the Kerryman office, with the words; "I'm after doing a few more women this week."
Sean had great respect and acknowledged his debt as a songwriter to local songwriter Paddy Drury. And he would tell the following story about Paddy with relish;
A Vicar whose housekeeper, Kate Nealon, even by the standards of that Double-gusset knickers era, kept her loins exceptionally well guarded; employed Paddy. Paddy once commented; " She has so many iron bands woven into her corset that it would take a blacksmith a fortnight to open her up".
Paddy found himself unemployed after he expressed his bewilderment, and frustration, in verse;
Kate Nealon's virtue remains intact
'Tis locked up hard and tight.
One puzzling aspect of that fact;
How does she piss at night?
And I'm sure DeValera would have been delighted with the assembly of comely maidens at the crossroads dance, which followed Danny Doyle's concert, even if the male half of the company wasn't made up entirely of "athletic youths".
The assembly broke up as daylight broke over Rathea
On Saturday morning Eimer O' Connor gave a course in Art at Dromclough school. And at two o'clock we set out on the bog-trek. Mike Joe Thornton and, the David Bellemy of North Kerry, Paul Kennelly, took us on a bog trek which included a demonstration of cutting, spreading, futting and clamping the native peat while a docile donkey stood patiently by waiting for the "drawing out." I wouldn't like to give any politician a swelled head but I have to say Jimmy Deenihan T.D. is a fair man with a slaen (I pronounce it "slane," I'm too stubborn to change but I get a terrible slagging in Kerry). When I told a man from Irramore that in my turf-cutting heyday, in my native Wicklow, I could "keep two in the air and one on the slaen (sorry "slane")" he wasn't impressed. But it can be difficult to impress a Kerryman.
Michael Joe Thornton is a very able Seanache and of course his story about The Earl of Baanmore runs parallel with the highest ideals of veracity. Song and dance ensued, and to see Danny Doyle engaged in The-Siege-of-Ennis on a turf-bank you'd never think he was a Dub. Donncha O'Dulaing recorded most of the proceedings for his programme Failte Isteach on RTE Radio One. This programme goes out at 22:15hrs on Saturday nights and is listened to all over the world "wherever there are Irishmen beneath those flags that wave." If you want a request played for a loved one or if you have a comment for Donncha you can send him an electronic epistle at email@example.com and mention me.
We were treated to "tay" made in the traditional manner and a very special boxty. I tried sweet-talking a local female but failed to wheedle the recipe out of her. (Even in my younger days Kerrywomen always were too cute for me.)
Thanks to Paul Kennelly I now know that about 100,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, Innismore Bog was a basin of calcareous boulder clay, where water accumulated creating a lake. This was gradually overgrown with fen vegetation and infilled with fea peat. As the dept of peat grew the surface vegetation was deprived of the mineral-rich water below. The fen plants died through lack of nutrients and bog mosses, which are much less nutrient demanding, survived on the few nutrients present in rainfall. Due to lack of oxygen plants could not decompose completely and so the remains of dead vegetation accumulated as peat with the energy trapped and concentrated. And so the fossil fuel burned by the people of Killocrim, and surrounding areas, was formed by a process even slower than a Scotsman reaching for the tab in a restaurant.
It is very fitting to have a bog-day in memory of Sean McCarthy. For while he was free from county, and indeed, national prejudice, his heart was always in the bogs of North Kerry. He once said; " The bog isn't a place it's a feeling. You don't grow up in the bog... you grow up with the bog." Many of his songs feature the bog area around his childhood home.
On Saturday night, once again to a packed house, the final of the Sean McCarthy Ballad Competition was held in Teac Siamsa.
The ten finalists included last year's winner Eunan McIntyre with "Leaving You Tonight" and the many-times winner Peter Kelly and "Al the Bright Stars."
This year's winner was John Kavanagh, from Dublinb, with "Welcome to Ireland."
The great Irish songwriter Pete St. John compered the show. And as John Kavanagh headed for the Metropolis, in the early hours, with his trophy and £600 (Kerry pounds) in his pocket, the Al Fresco session on the road was only starting. As I cautiously put the key in the door of the B&B the bird in the hall- clock said "cuckoo" five times.
Sean McCarthy's work seems to have a recurring motif of birds and women. And for some reason or other, in Listowel Graveyard, on the Sunday morning I couldn't help wondering if Sean would agree with Shakespeare; "For those fellows of infinite tongue, that, can rhyme themselves into lady's favours, they do always reason themselves out again."
There were only two males present; Fr. Pat Moore, who recited a decade of the Rosary, and myself. The rest were all "McCarthy's Women" including his favourite singer Peggy Sweeney whose beautiful rendition of "My Kerry Hill" floated on the serene air of the cemetery. When Sean was dying he summoned Peggy to his deathbed and asked her to record his songs, which she did. (Her albums are available from www.kerrymusic.com) And then it was back to Finuge.
In 2000 The Sean McCarthy Memorial Committee purchased a thatched cottage in Finuge for a nominal price. The "scraw-roof" with the "couples" and "cross-laths," the open fire, the half-door and whitewashed walls - and standing outside it is like stepping into the past. (A few bikers parked across the road reminded me of Eliot's "Times past in time present.")
At three o'clock the "Bogadeers" arrived. Yes, who are they? You may well ask. Well, they are a pageant group made up of the cream of singing, dancing, acting, story-telling and musical talent of North Kerry. And this time they were embarking on a very authentic "journey to the bog." They gave a very fine performance to a distinguished audience. And when octogenarian John Lyons arrived his mode of transport brought to mind Kavanagh's poem "Kerrs Ass;"
The winkers with no chokeband
The collar and the hames.
In Ealing, Broadway, London,
I recall their several names.
The ass's cart was loaded with slaens, forks, barrel-sacks, enamel mugs and a cast-iron "kittle." Not an anachronism in sight. There was even a butterbox bearing the name of a long forgotten co-op in the Kingdom, containing farmer's butter, soda bread and home-cured bacon (not too well shaved). Each member of the Bogadiers sported, in their lapel, a little gold slaen which was made by Johnny Lyons' grandson, who is a goldsmith in London.
At 3 o 'clock Jimmy Deenehan T.D. presided over the official opening of the Millennium garden in Finuge (I don't want any Kerry jokes about it being a year late.) The garden has been constructed on a plot of ground donated by the late Beth Collins and is in the shape of an All-Ireland football medal; being from Wicklow I hadn't seen one before. (An All-Ireland medal, I mean, not a garden.)
Next on the agenda was Celtic Clan in concert which took us up to eight o' clock and Ceol na Feile in concert with Karen Trench in Teach Siamsa. It was another late night with crossroad dancing and all that goes with it.
The Sean McCarthy Memorial Committee now have their own website Finuge (which sports a fine picture of the honored namesake.)
On the Monday morning I once again turned right in Abbeyfeale and into a philistine world.