Souls of Song

by Dan Keane

If we are to accept that music in its broader sense means music, song and dance, then the soul of song must likewise embrace every aspect of the musical arena. To put on record every singer, dancer and musician that have graced the parish even in my lifetime would be a formidable task.

In two articles which I have written Cross-roads and Comhaltas in Moyvane and Knockanure, I have mentioned musicians I have known, and might I say musicians held in high regard.

Going back to my early childhood I can recall a white-haired old man sitting in his own corner singing songs. The man was William Leahy of Carrueragh, he must have impressed me as the memory lives on. In later years I heard his grandaughter playing the fiddle, she is also Mrs. Leahy.

My father and mother were both good singers, and if I leap forward in years I must say my nephew Michael O’Connor can take me back to memories of my father when he sings ‘Skibbereen’. Michael’s brother Bernie has an immense amount of songs but has a different style.

In my school days I remember the teacher Thomas O’Callaghan during singing lessons saying, “You can’t sing properly if you don’t open your mouth”. He even referred to the way Paddy Scanlon could sing. Paddy had a grand voice with a musical ring, he could sing in the bog or around the land, but like many a good singer he was too shy for the stage.

There was another schoolmate of mine, John O’Connor late of Kilmeaney. John was a wonderful singer, no gradh for the stage, but it was the magnetism of his singing which held the crowd at Flynns on the occasion of Willie Finnucane’s song on the raid at Flynns.

On the Coilagurteen road there was Paddy Creed and Mick Doody. Paddy Creed only walked with a crutch and Mick Doody was blind. Both were fiddle players. In Keylod Tade Flaherty and his son Mickey were well known on the tin whistle, while Moss Nash and his father Mike were also great exponents of the same instrument. I once asked Mike, “where did you learn to play?”. Mike said, “Love-a-God, boy, I never learned only played away like a child-id suck a bottle!”. At Morans we had very good singers. Patrick and Mary were outstanding and their brother Mickey played the fiddle. Molly’s granddaughter Oonagh O’Hanlon of Dooncaha is keeping our traditional songs alive.

Kitty Flaherty-Kennelly had a beautiful sweet voice, her daughter Joan is an outstanding singer. The Flahertys of Gortdromagowna were and I could say are noted flute players. Pat is living in Fines. It was at their house in Gortdromagowna I wrote ‘Dancing at Flahertys’. Up in Trien we have another supreme flautist, Joe Keeffe. Joe is a native of Athea. I couldn’t say he’s a-blow-in, he came from the east against the breeze. In Carrueragh Moll Flavin was the first woman I ever saw to play the concert flute.

In Carrueragh also was Pat Lynch, another schoolmate who was a fantastic whistler; he was the man I had in mind when I wrote ‘Mickey Malone’. In Kilmeaney was Michael Keane whose accordion was heard at many a raffle, and also there was Paddy Nash (Bill’s father), the man who said, “I declare to God, boyeen, if I lived long enough you’d see me in the Chapel with my little accordion playing at Mass”.

In the past Kilbaha was a real home of music. I understand there is an article being written on the Kilbaha wren boys or should I say wran boys, (as they were always called). Sigerson Clifford said, ‘don’t say Wren Boys or you’ll spoil it all’. I was once at a party at Thorntons and a man (a yank whom I didn’t know) told me he once saw eight Thorntons dancing a reel and three Thorntons playing fiddles.

At the present time we have Gerard Donegan on the accordion and on the flute an accomplished player in he person of Eddie O’Connor, Patrick Hanrahan and his son Paudie were both dancers, as also was Tom Sheehan. Above the road is the home of the Cunninghams whose choice of instrument was the flute.

In the field of singing Mrs. Kennelly, always known as Mary Jane, was a sister to Patrick Hanrahan and also a sister to Paddy Finucane’s wife, Lily. In 1936 I had the pleasure of hearing both. They were not identical in singing; Mary Jane had a powerful voice, musical and clear. Lily had a voice full of sweetness. As Jack Manaher once said ‘She was so sweet if she gave you tea you’d need no sugar’. Continuing in the field of sweetness Mrs. Cunningham, the woman always known as Nora J.D., had a beautiful voice. I can still hear her singing ‘Memories’. She’d be grand aunt to Karen Walsh-Trench, the well known singer.

Back the Hell Road we had Denny Moloney and Billy both fiddle players. Denny told me that as a young lad he went working to a man by the name of Stack a farmer in Moyvane. Stack’s daughter married Buckley, a school teacher. Denny never said what wages he got but he told me Stack taught him to play the fiddle. His son Brendan is a good fiddle player.

Here I must go back to a musician I have deliberately left out, Jim Moloney from Coilagurteen. Jim was a man of over six feet, broad shouldered and strong. It was intriguing to watch the small concertina which he always held on his knee. It used remind me of Robert Service’s line, ‘As he clutched the keys in his talon hands’. His music attracted no less a dancer than the famous Jerry Nolan but Jerry found more attractions than Jim’s music. He married Jim’s daughter.

Jerry was a fantastic dancer and danced solely for the love of dancing. He had some beautiful steps, and to show his interest let me tell you a story. Dan Finucane told me he was cycling through Ballylongford with Jerry, Jerry had no light. Passing the junction a guard shouted ‘halt’, Jerry cycled away and left Dan behind. The guard was on foot and made no pursuit. About two miles out the road, a voice called ‘is that Dan?’. Dan dismounted, Jerry emerged from under a hedge and said, ‘hold the light a minute I got anew step yesterday, I want to see if, I have it’. His son Jim is a great lover of dance and music and a great exponent of the accordeon.

There must have been a history of music in Jerry’s area, I once heard a verse,

“Better and better our Country is getting
Since Katie the settle took up her abode,
Not forgetting old Din with his bow and his string,
You may say we’ll have music along the Hell Road”.
On the Hell Road also was Jack Dunne. A good flute player and a very competent step dancer. In Gortdromosillihy we had Jack Dunne’s nephew Tom Stack another good flute player, and a master of the same instrument Johnny McAuliffe. Michael McEnery also came from the same area. He married in Leitrim. His favourite instrument was the fiddle. His grandaughter, Celine Kennelly is the great- grandaughter of Mary Jane Kennelly already mentioned. She is also the great, great-grandniece of Kate Heffeman ‘The Maid of Sweet Coolard’. On the 100th Anniversary of Kate’s death she sang the song in Coolard on an historic tour, she is an accomplished singer.

In Gortdromasillihy also was the Foley family producing many good singers. Johnny Enright, who was a relative of the Foleys, was likewise capable of giving a good song. The first man I ever heard to sing ‘Lough Sheelin Side’, away back in the 1930s. I had the pleasure of seeing Josie Enright dancing on the stage at Tom Connor’s hall. He was top class and was also a dancing teacher.

In the village we had Billy Cunningham, another great singer, his sons Maurice and Eddie masters of the concert flute, and on the art of singing we had Con Brosnan. I heard him once on the stage and his daughter Eileen whom I also heard once on the stage, a grand singer but also a stage shy person. Among the younger folk the Groarke family were excellent in music and song while the Doyle family of the Glin Road have wonderful voices and have likewise a great inheritance of music.

In the Aughrim area Mary Stack was also among the singing fraternity. As likewise were her namesakes the Stacks of the village, and in the Leitrim area Marie Quinn whose mother is Thornton is an outstanding singer. I cannot recall hearing any of the Quinn family playing music but I am informed it is a part of their inheritance. On the Mail road the Foley family are capable of revealing their inheritance of song and dance. In the Murhur-Clounprohus area the Hanlons were superb. Jerry had a slight impediment of speech which never impeded his singing, Tom his brother was also a great master of the art. Tom’s favourite was ‘On board of the Ship Melrose’ .

At Galey bridge there was a lovely sweet singer who sang specially for me, not on the stage but on my knee, her name Noreen Finucane, now Mrs. Stack. Back in Knockanure Ned Carmody was able to sing the real old fashioned type like ‘We’ll bolt the Back Door’. He had a grandson named McMahon, (whose first name I can’t recall) but he had a tremendous melodious voice, he went away in his youth. His father (whose first name also escapes me) was outstanding on the fiddle and the Gouldings also had the gift of song. Down by the Mail Road I must remember my friend Pat Ahern now living in Doonbeg where we shared the stage on a few happy occasions including once for Clare Radio. He is a good singer and a really good entertainer.

I must now cross the border in to Tarbert parish but we crossed the border many times for Mick Walsh a concert flute player and a good actor who helped to raise funds to build our church. Up the hill was Martin Ned Mulvihill a fair exponent on the accordion. I didn’t know his mother, but one time she was old and in hospital I heard someone making an enquiry to know how she was. The answer was, ‘She’s fine. She danced a step for the nurses yesterday’ .

I don’t know if Pat Bunce ever played a fiddle but I’m told he made one. Down to Leitrim to Moloneys, James was a step dancer, and I’ve an idea there was a wee bit of music. Over the fence to Sean Ahern and of course his brothers Father Pat and Father Dan, and by no means ignoring the girls of the family. There is no need for me to say Fr. Pat is a grand fiddle player a marvellous producer and like all great men, a man of modesty. I remember the first play Sean took part in and I remember the first time I heard him singing. In the acting he combined excellently with Mick Walsh, and did likewise in the music. In the singing he was really Heavenly, so good I hated to hear him singing comic songs, I thought it a waste of a grand voice, but he had to cater for all tastes.

One final story. Sean’s wife was putting the children to bed. She asked Sean to help by singing for one of the children. Sean sang and sang and sang was wide awake. Poor Mrs. Ahern decided to take over, the child looked up at her and said ‘Oh, Mammy! I’d stay awake all night listening to him’ – so would I.