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The House of Music
The House of Music by David Pierce
‘Cherish what you have’ was a motto often heard in the family, and I do so again as I look back to that time before time began when I was fated to wander into a County Clare house of music. I write about that attachment in the introduction to Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader and in various places in Reading Joyce. Most of my books testify to this particular filial obsession. Recently, with this book of memoirs in mind, I have undertaken some more research into my Irish family to reflect again on that heritage of continuity and discontinuity, of roots and uprootedness, of loss and struggle.
In the 1911 Census for Ireland, I notice that the entry for my Irish grandparents indicates that they spoke Irish in the house where I took my first steps. They could also read and write. For the purposes of the Census, their address is given as 13 Caherbarnagh, Ballysteen, County Clare. House numbers are clearly a bureaucratic if necessary imposition, for they were never used in that part of the world, and the district was spelt by our family without the –gh, simply Caherbarna, the townland of the gap. To distinguish my side of the Kilmartin family from the other one nearer St Bridget’s Well, we sometimes used Caherbarna East. In the 1920s there were eleven houses in Caherbarna East and nine in Caherbarna West. More importantly, my grandmother’s age is given as 35, when in 1911 she would have been 29 (she was born in 1881). That must be a simple error on the part of the returning officer, Constable John Sheehan. There was nothing to be gained in exaggerating your age, unless you were close to pension age. It seems unlikely that she wanted the age gap with her new husband to sound less dramatic. It’s quite possible, on the other hand, that she didn’t know her own age or miscalculated when asked by someone in authority.
Two other people occupied that house on the night of Sunday 2 April 1911: Thomas Kilmartin, who was a year old, my grandmother’s first born, and who died in infancy, and Robert Greene, aged 72, who was my grandfather’s father-in-law. My grandfather had married one of Robert’s daughters and moved into the house at Caherbarna, and effectively the house switched ownership from the Greenes to the Kilmartins. When she died, the house was occupied I believe for around two years by just Robert and Patrick, and then my grandfather married again. The house itself had been there for some time because in Griffith’s Valuation of 1855 there is a house in Caherbarna registered to Robert’s father, Michael Greene, who paid rent, as did most of his neighbours in the village, to Captain Francis MacNamara.
In 1911 Patrick Kilmartin, aged 55, a farmer, is recorded as Head of Family, and we learn that Robert Greene couldn’t read or write but could speak two languages. In the 1901 Clare Census, Robert’s age is recorded as 55 and at that time he could read and write. Make of that what you will. Robert’s wife, Margaret, was 46 and they have four children, two boys, Patrick and John, and two girls, Katie or Kate aged 17 and Lizzie aged 7. Patrick died the following year in 1902 aged twenty one, the same year as Robert’s wife, Margaret. John emigrated to the States and in 1913 married Mary Flannigan in Somerville, Massachusetts. Kate was also supposed to emigrate to the States, but she was too frail to go, so her sister Margaret went instead.
Some time after 1902, Kate Greene married my grandfather. The marriage was short-lived and she died on 28 December 1907 at the age of twenty four. There is a story in the family that she may have died giving birth, but she might have just been always frail and in poor health. She is buried near the entrance to Kilmacreehy Cemetery, where many members of the Greene family are interred. When she was fifteen, and four months after the death of her sister, Lizzie Greene emigrated to the States in April 1908, being vouched for by another sister, Margaret. That would have meant Robert was then living in the house alone with my grandfather. Margaret’s grand-daughter, Nancy, recalls her grandmother telling her what is part of a classic emigration story, how Robert Greene sat down on the side of the road and began crying. ‘Some people passing by offered him help, but he told them he was all right, just sad that he had just sent the last of his children off to America, and would never see any of them again.’ In 1913 Lizzie herself got married and lived all her life in Massachusetts. Some time between April and June 1915, Robert died at Caherbarna, surrounded by none of his own family, who were all either dead or in America.
So in 1911, three years before my English grandparents got married in Brighton, my grandmother (Minnie as she was known to neighbours) is living at Caherbarna and has a young son by a man who was, according to the 1911 Census, nearly twice her age (he was born in either 1859 or 1867). Until the 1901 Census went online the family thought my grandfather originated from somewhere near Doolin. The Census confirms this, for in 1901 he is living with three other siblings in his parents’ house in Cronogort West, which is near Doolin. Regarding his age, this is given as 34, which would suggest he was born in 1867. But that doesn’t explain how he put on twenty one years between 1901 and 1911! I think the view that was handed down in the family was that he was much older than my grandmother and that when he died he was in his seventies, not his early sixties.
As for his marriage to my grandmother in February 1910, that was like many at the time, namely an arranged one. I wish it was more romantic. The spa town of Lisdoonvarna was famous for its matchmakers, who plied their trade at the end of the harvest in the month of September, but the practice would have been widespread in Ireland. One woman in the village, who later married one of my uncles, was rowed ashore from the Aran Islands in the hope of marrying a rich farmer, only to discover the rich farmer was none other than the boatman himself, who earned his living as a ‘blocker’, that is the intermediary between farmers selling cattle. This is an extreme case by any standards, but the number of arranged marriages suggests that love wasn’t uppermost in many people’s eyes when it came to a partner for life, and it was for life because divorce was unheard of in rural Catholic Ireland. An arranged marriage I should add was not a forced marriage. My grandmother had the right to say no.
As for the house itself, this was a typical one for that part of County Clare, with thatched roof, thick lime-washed walls, flagstones for a floor, three rooms, and cow cabin attached. There was no running water and no electricity. Creature comforts were few. The bedrooms tended to be damp and the thatch periodically leaked. Oil lamps and candles nightly transformed the interior of the house into a stage for ghosts and shadows where it proved at times difficult to discern who you were talking to across the room. ‘Is that you, Maggie? I didn’t see you come in.’ Outside, there would have been a stack of turf for the fire, and a pile of dung mixed with straw from the cow cabin. Drinking water was fetched in a white enamel bucket from a trickling spring a little distance away, and water for washing from the log, as it was called, an Irish word meaning well. The house faced south with stunning picture postcard views down to the Atlantic Ocean and Liscannor Bay and then across to Mount Callan where before the coming of Christianity in the fifth century fires would be lit to the ancient god Lugh. I suspect the room my grandmother slept in when she arrived was nearest to the setting sun, the best room in the house. The kitchen was large enough to be a living room, somewhere to cook, wash, entertain, and dance the night away. I cannot imagine what went through her mind the first time she crossed the threshold and took the holy water from the font near the door. What I can report is that almost immediately she became pregnant, her oldest son being born in December 1910.
Her father, my great-grandfather, was John Kelly, who migrated to Liscannor from the area of Gregan’s Castle near Ballyvaughan in north Clare, settling in Ardnahea in a little cabin upon marrying Mary Cross from Ennistymon. The cabin is still there, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a hut. In the 1911 Census he is recorded as speaking Irish and English but he wasn’t able to read or write and signed the form with a cross. Under his occupation the record states he was a shepherd, but, according to my cousin Margaret Davis, who has taken over as the family’s historian from her mother, he was known as a ‘drover’ in that he drove, herded and lived with his flock. In the 1901 Census he is simply a ‘caretaker’. Whatever the case, the shepherd, drover or caretaker had ten children, six of whom survived. His daughter, Margaret, emigrated to the States and married John Shannon. Years later, in a letter written in 1960 from Tewkesbury, Massachusetts, Margaret’s husband asks my mother what it’s like living in England. Such comments are like ripples in time, there to be noticed as part of a longer passage of history.
In Wild Life in a Southern County (1879), Richard Jefferies suggests that shepherds know their fields like a book, studying and lingering over every letter. By degrees ‘a habit of observation grows upon him’. The only real shepherd I have ever encountered was in Avila in Spain in February 1971. He had wandered down from the mountains to the raised slopes overlooking the beautiful, mystical city of St John of the Cross and St Teresa, a city which at that time in 1971 was nearly completely surrounded by medieval walls. I was with my student, Fernando Bauluz, on a weekend away from the polluted city of Madrid. Fernando approached the shepherd, who was wearing loose-fitting garb and home-made sandals not unlike huaraches worn by Mexican peasants. It was apparent that the shepherd lived away from human society for he struggled to talk about anything except the weather, but he spoke like a visionary, someone in touch with the movement of the stars. Fernando told me afterwards that these shepherds lived for six months of the year in complete solitude with their animals, on account of which they were recruited by Australian sheep farmers in the outback. I wonder how I would have engaged in conversation my great-grandfather. Four generations apart, would we have anything in common or would the water under the bridge have drowned all meaningful contact? In 1971 Fernando constantly spoke of taking to the mountains like Che Guevara and leading the revolution against Franco and western capitalism. But John Kelly I suspect was no Ned Kelly.
John Kelly, my great-grandfather, is like a figure out of ancient myth rather than history. He wanders down into the Liscannor area and spends his life wandering with his sheep and livestock. At the same time he begins to put down roots and has a large family with Mary Cross, a woman from Ennistymon. From that union comes my grandmother, then my mother, then me, and then my son. But we know precious little about the paterfamilias or indeed his wife, though my mother remembers her in her last years being looked after at Caherbarna. Recorded time took a long time to catch up with my family or hunt us down. John Kelly’s family went unrecorded in history; there is no mention of the Kilmartin family until the 1901 Census. Indeed, in Griffith’s Valuation of 1855 there are only some twenty two references to Kilmartin as a name in the whole of County Clare.
It always amuses me to see T-shirts or postcards emblazoned with something like ‘I have Irish roots’; for many of us, I suspect our roots in Ireland are indefinable or take quite a research effort to define. John Kelly drifted into Liscannor and set up home in a hut in Ardnahea. My grandfather, Patrick Kilmartin, had the good fortune to take over a house in Caherbarnagh that belonged to the well-established Greene family. Hardy’s Tess could trace her history back to more blessed times. Beyond a certain moment, my roots are unknown and the only thing I’m now sure about is that we came out of the Irish dark. I delight in that. We were the real thing, close to the bogs of Ireland, unmixed with anything that was above our station and, moreover, untraceable. As I write this memoir, in an act of revenge against the forces of history, I take delight in setting straight whatever record we possess – or don’t possess.
When I first examined the 1901 Clare Census, I couldn’t locate my grandmother’s name Mary Kelly, and for the best part of a year I assumed she was lost to history. She would have been eighteen at the time, and I searched the whole of County Clare for her name, initially without success. The assumption I made was that she was in domestic service and hence away from home at the time of the Census. If that was the case she would have been registered as a domestic servant. There is a Mary Kelly in the Carmody family of shopkeepers in Ennis, but I didn’t believe this was my grandmother. She did work for a time in Ennistymon Hospital, but about any other work she may have undertaken before her marriage that was unknown. As far as I know she only travelled once to the county town of Ennis, twenty miles away, to visit a chiropodist. She frequently visited the spa town of Lisdoonvarna, which is about ten miles distance. She would walk there and back from Caherbarna to see her sister-in-law, Susan Madigan, who had married into the hotel trade. She didn’t get to peer over the Cliffs of Moher until we took her there by car in the 1960s.
Six months later, in the summer of 2010, I returned to the 1901 Census when it went live in Ireland as a whole, and after further perusing the records I came across a person who had been transcribed by someone in the National Archives as ‘Mine Kelly’. I was pretty sure that first name was a mistake, so I got up the original return. The handwriting is not terribly distinct but to my eyes it looks as though the name should be ‘Minnie’. Her age is given as 20, she is a domestic servant. She can read and write and speaks Irish and English. The house where she resides belongs to Bridget Thynne, aged 39, a shopkeeper in Liscannor, who is a widow with one son, Peter, 14, and a mother, Maura Liddy, 75. Pat Maguire, 24, an agricultural labourer, who is described as a ‘servant’, is also living in the house. I would be surprised if ‘Minnie’ wasn’t my grandmother, and if I’m right it would be the first time she is mentioned in the history books and archives of Ireland. Little by little the past returns to us. Appropriately, it was a struggle for me to identify her. In the family, we all knew she was called ‘Minnie’ and we all knew her real name was ‘Mary’. What we didn’t know was that from her earliest years she was called ‘Minnie’, and what we never imagined doing was looking up ‘Minnie Kelly’ in the various Census records.
Minnie’s brother, Michael, or Mikie as he was known to us, was a frequent visitor to the house in Caherbarna trudging up the long, sodden field in front of the house like a survivor from a different age to see the sister he had grown up with in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In 1911 he is registered as an agricultural labourer. In the 1950s, he was never at home when we would be entertained by his smartly-dressed wife, Nora, in what became a ritualistic feast. ‘Now eat ye all up,’ she would insist hovering over us before returning to the kitchen for another dish to serve up. At Caherbarna there was only a crackly radio but Nora possessed a gramophone and a collection of old 78 LPs of traditional ceili music, and it must have been in the front room of that cottage that we first heard ‘Miss McCleod’s Reel’ and other favourites from the pre-war period.
In his engaging play about memory, Dancing at Lugnasa (1990), Brian Friel focuses on something blind and desperate about music and that generation in the 1930s in rural Ireland, but this was never my experience in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps we were slow learners in my family and couldn’t see the break-up that was coming. The children and grandchildren of Mikie and Nora had music running in their veins, and it still had some way to run. Their son, Tommy Kelly, was a prize-winning dancer. Mikie’s daughter, Mary, who was married to Paddy Haugh, always threw house dances for us when we were home on holidays in their tiny cottage on the hill at Ballyhean. Theirs was a hospitality that let you into its heart, and it was invariably associated with music and with songs.
In that tiny, rented, low-ceilinged cottage on the hill, there would be a pause in the dancing, and from out of nowhere the songs would start up with no introduction, and everyone would hush. ‘Where the River Shannon Flows’, sung as always with perfect pitch by Mary herself, was one I remember:
There’s a pretty spot in Ireland
This would be followed by her daughters, Nora Donoghue and Maura Ball, launching into ‘The Cliffs of Doneen’ and the topography of the west:
Take a view o’er the mountains,
fine sights you’ll see there.
There was something unashamedly direct about the words of the songs and it was matched by the seemingly impersonal style of singing. That combination of unaccompanied singing, utter stillness and bleeding hearts was captivating, constituting a form of ownership over their culture as well as over their locality and way of life. Old style, or sean-nós in Irish, is how it’s often described. Where the tradition came from I don’t believe anyone knows, but it was everywhere in evidence. Nothing is ever rushed and everything is somehow suppressed and at the same time expressed. No matter how tragic the song, the singer never broke down.
Micho Russell, who can be heard on several CDs, played the tin-whistle and flute in similar fashion. Give each note its due and end on a long note. Before becoming famous, he played at our house dances in Caherbarna and Loughloon. I remember taking him to see Patrick Kelly in Cree, south of Miltown Malbay, in County Clare. I’d picked him up from outside his house on the exposed coast road high above Doolin. His mother, who was a concertina-player herself, was never keen on him spending any time away from his jobs around the farm, and she would have ‘roared’ at him, as they say in those parts, if she’d seen her sixty-year-old, grey-haired son tiptoeing out for the day across the field in front of the house. The fiddle-player, Patrick Kelly, who was no relation, was one of the custodians of the tradition and consulted by leading musicians; it was Patrick who passed on one of the missing parts of ‘The Foxhunter’s Reel’. We found ourselves in his kitchen one afternoon toward the end of the 1960s. On account of his ill-health Patrick spent much of his time in bed but came down to greet us. He had been born in 1903 and had learnt his music from George Whelan, a blind fiddler who came to Clare from County Kerry some time in the nineteenth century.
He had heard of Micho, who was then finding an audience beyond his immediate neighbourhood in north Clare. Patrick needed no priming but began by reminiscing about teachers of traditional dancing and how he could discern who had taught a person to dance just by watching their movements. In that part of Clare, around Quilty, they produced not only tons of kelp, from which they extracted iodine, but also an amazing crop of lively and distinctive dancers, who would delight in bold, swirling movements, picking up their feet, and clicking their heels. Micho beamed and I listened. At Caherbarna in the 1920s, my mother recalls a travelling dance tutor called Hennessy staying at the house while he was giving a course at Ballycotton School. Patrick’s kitchen filled with afternoon sunlight from the south ruffling the still air.
Patrick asked Micho to play a few tunes. ‘John of the Fog’ or ‘Seán sa Cheo’ was one of his favourites at that time. Patrick then took down a tin-whistle from the dresser, rested his elbows on his knees, and cleared his throat. ‘That tune you’ve just played. What name have you on it?’ He waited for Micho’s reply, and then said, ‘This is how I would play that.’ We were in the presence of a master. His playing was forceful and designed to allow you, the student, to discern how the tune was structured. Where Micho would coax the notes to perform for him, Patrick attended to the phrasing, deliberately forcing the air out of that humble, little instrument of the poor. Micho couldn’t read music but he was absorbing all he was being told. Nothing, however, altered his style. In that regard, he never married but always had a twinkle in his eye and lived in hope that he would one day reel in a pretty colleen. I always found it interesting to watch the encounter between traditional musicians, and my only regret was that no one encouraged me to take up an instrument as a child.
In 1911, John Kelly’s youngest daughter, Bridget, was 18, and she would have been conceived when my great-grandfather was about 60. After the Great Famine in the 1840s such late marriages became common, which meant that there was a significant age gap between fathers and children. Again, there is a discrepancy in the 1901 and 1911 Census about the age of my great-grandmother, Mary Kelly. In 1901 she is 50, in 1911 68. If we accept that latter figure and the age of her youngest daughter as 18, then she would have given birth at 50, which is unlikely. If we accept the 1901 figures, she would have given birth to her youngest surviving child at 43. My grandmother’s last child, Susan, was born when she was in her mid-forties. Late pregnancies and males who married late increased pressure for families, but there were some advantages. For a man to start a family in his fifties meant care by his partner in old age, time to enjoy his young children, and handing on the tradition. My mother remembers being coached by her father in the art of step-dancing and the Clare half-set. In his later years my grandfather suffered from rheumatism and the farm was neglected, but I never heard any member of the family say anything other than positive things about him. After all, it was he who bequeathed to us a house of music.
Children, rather than love, were at the heart of such marriages. By way of contrast, but not unrelated, at the heart of the parish was the celibate priest. In the 1911 Census, our relations, the Kilmartins in Caherbarna West, had seven children under 13 and their parents were just 43 and 38. Most of the children in that family never married, but the ones I met as adults were all delightful. Lizzie and Katherine retired to Ireland after being in service to a shoe manufacturer in Boston, Massachusetts; in the 1950s, when home on holiday, they would come to our house dances wearing galoshes to protect their shoes from the treacherous roads. Their brothers, baby-faced John and Jim, were inseparable when I would join them on market days in Katherine Kinnane’s pub in Ennistymon. Whenever we stopped by to visit them at their farmstead on the way up to Donegore and the Cliffs, the slightly innocent Mary Ann would greet each of us twice, once at the gate and then again inside the house:
‘You’re heartily welcome.
Tyrannical fathers, on the other hand, were all around us, some as neighbours, some within the perimeters of our own family, and one father abandoned his family for a campaign of drink and years of homelessness in London. As children we would compare notes on the lie of the land in our respective families. One group of cousins lived in constant fear of their lives because their father got the youngest child to spy on the others. Occasionally, when they had done something that might be misconstrued by their father as misbehaviour, such as inadvertently dropping a large stone on someone’s foot or dirtying a pair of shorts, they would plead with us not to say they were responsible. But, on the whole, the families I knew well and the Kilmartins in particular tended to be very affectionate with their children. My uncle Pat Kilmartin, for example, was an exemplary father, ever attentive to his children’s needs.
How much love developed between my grandparents after they married, I couldn’t say. I hope they enjoyed years of tenderness in between the time of sorrow and death of five of their children. My cousin Padraig, John Kilmartin’s son, has recently erected a tombstone at St Bridget’s Well to the five who died. Thomas, the eldest, fell into a bowl of boiling water which had been left on the kitchen floor. He was three years old. Two other children died within a week in April 1918, perhaps from measles. We believe a daughter Mary, born on St Patrick’s Day 1914, who had been farmed out to a family in Lisdoonvarna, died of a broken heart, of ‘pining’ as it was called, when she was eight. Some of these children, such as Mary and Bridget, have the same names as those who survived, so their uniqueness has been partly obscured. The Susan born in 1926 replaced the Susan who died in 1916, but she too died in infancy. It’s as if my grandparents wanted to replace sorrow with joy by a simple process of renaming. In the first year of her life, my mother, the second Bridget, survived double pneumonia, that is pneumonia affecting both lungs. So some of the children were lucky to survive childhood. The story duplicates what happened to Robert Greene’s family who lived in the house in the previous generation. Robert had ten children but four of them died in infancy. In that house you had a more or less even chance of not surviving childhood. And it didn’t stop there. Two of Robert’s children in their twenties, John and Kate, died in that house. I describe number 13 Caherbarnagh as a house of music but in many respects it’s more accurate to call it a house of death.
We don’t possess a photo of my grandparents together, and indeed I don’t know what Patrick looked like. I’ve always assumed his eldest surviving son closely resembled him. All the time I knew her, my grandmother wore reams of ankle-length, cotton, black clothing, tied up her long black hair into a bob at the back, and couldn’t hide the fact that, as with all her children, she had none of her own teeth. Every summer when we returned, her voice became huskier and the arch of her spine curved ever closer to the ground. In her middle years, she never flinched from lifting heavy sacks of flour and animal feed, and that was the result, a bent back in old age. When I read about Mother Ireland and ancient Irish mythology or the revolutionary appeal of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, I recall my grandmother with a goose-wing feather reaching down to sweep the dust off the Moher flagstones into the grate or shouting at her son, John, in the settle bed in the early morning to get up for fear he would be late for the creamery.
For her party piece she would sing ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’, a ballad about a bonny boy who’s young but he’s growing. Was that a lost love of her youth, or why would she spend time with a boy who married at the age of fourteen and was a father the following year? One verse is about an arranged marriage, and I wonder if subconsciously she was trying to reveal something about her own fate when young:
Father, dear father,
I never saw my grandmother dance, but every summer when we were there at Caherbarna, she would ensure we enjoyed at least one house dance. Friends and family and neighbours from around the parish would be invited, some by special invitation, while others would get to hear of it and just turn up. Singers, dancers, and musicians from the various neighbourhoods of Liscannor including St Bridget’s Well, Loughloon, Ballycotton, Ballyhean, Ballyvorda, and Luogh would all descend on the house. Preparations for the evening were carried out as if it was a familiar routine. Bottles of Guinness and porter would be carried over from St Bridget’s Well, sandwiches made. The kitchen would be enlarged by repositioning the table near the door. The wooden chairs would then be placed on the kitchen table for the musicians, and the remaining súgán chairs would be pushed back against the wall or used for those taking tea inside one of the bedrooms. Extra oil-lamps would be hung from the rafters, the floor swept, the settle bed folded up to become a bench, and we would then await the visitors after dark. In The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland (1844), N.P. Willis and J.S. Coyne observed that ‘The love of dancing appears to be inherent among the Irish, and constitutes a striking feature in the national character’. A century later, in the early 1950s, I was an inside witness to that scene from antiquity and, if asked, could confirm that observation from my own experience.
Some years ago I got my Aunt Mary to commit to paper some of her memories about the house of music, and this is what she wrote:
By the 1950s mummer dances, where people danced to the sound of an instrument imitated by the human voice, were a thing of the past. There were always musicians at the house dances I recall, and they were always revered, as they were for Mary when she was growing up. Among the neighbours Danny and Norrie Malone with their son, Michael, would be among the first to arrive. Dan Considine, with his darting, deep-set eyes, accompanied by his wife, would follow. Then the Guerins and the nearest neighbours, along with the many branches of the Haugh family from every direction. Michael Gorman, one of the richest farmers around and a great help to the family when it came to harvesting and bringing home turf from the bog, would also show up. The music would start and four sets of couples would take it in turn to dance the Clare half-set, a series of dances including reels, jigs, and a hornpipe which lasted for about twenty minutes or so. I didn’t realise at the time that I was witnessing the end of the era of house dances in Ireland.
Nearly everyone could dance, but from my vantage-point, seated on the wooden, folded-up settle bed, it was plain who had music flowing through their veins. Great dancers like Michael Malone were the complete thing: extraordinary nimbleness on their feet, from the waist down all movement, from the waist up as solid as a well-made, dry-stone wall, perfect timing and anticipation, and always utterly in control as they avoided the dresser and the edges of uneven flagstones, and negotiated with their partner round the enclosed space that during the day was a multi-purpose kitchen and living room. Such dancers were a delight to behold, and you could tell by their expressions how much joy their bodies gave them. In those intimate surroundings, they were never showy but they recognised they were special, and they would in turn lift the music.
The adjectives frequently employed in my family to describe great music were ‘fierce’ and ‘brutal’, words which I always considered rather odd and not that easy to define. Fierce and brutal had nothing to do with wild or savage. The Aran islanders who turned up at St Bridget’s Well for Garland Sunday at the end of July and who wore ropes for belts looked fierce. Fierce music was music that would wear you out, that showed no mercy that is. It was as if the dancers were in a competition or determined to do justice to what they heard, and it seemed to involve taking things to the limit, how only in that way could the full joy be experienced or extracted. You couldn’t sit it out if you heard good music starting up. ‘Leppin’ like a hare’ or ‘handling the fut’ is how Percy French puts it in his gently humorous take on the Irish poor and their love of dancing in ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball’.
In between the sets there would be unaccompanied singing, or people would be invited into the room inside to take some food or drink, or they would make for the door, desperate for the air outside. Among others, I recall Dan Considine singing moodily about ‘The Waves of the Silvery Tide’, and Michael Malone the beautiful Fenian song, ‘Down Erin’s Lovely Lea’. Throughout the night, to keep the dust from rising, the Moher flagstones would be sprinkled with water, and the turf-fire would be allowed to die down. Just before dawn, people went home to milk the cows and go to the creamery or adjourn to bed. I rarely got to that point, for some time in the night I would be carried like a sack of potatoes over the shoulders of one of my aunts into bed. Maudie Kinnane, who never married and lived on her own, would have the last word: ‘The poor crathur’s tired and past his bedtime.’
Some time in the 1930s the local priest invited himself to one of our house dances. There had been a clash of timetables and no one had deigned to attend the dance he had scheduled in Liscannor. Discovering his parishioners were all at Caherbarna, he decided to come up to the house and harangue them all for their non-attendance. This was the decade when the Church was attempting to influence the morals of the people by taking control of dance halls and to raise revenue in the process. The priest in this case, whose irritation must have increased with every pothole in the road he failed to negotiate, got more than he bargained for, because my grandmother was a determined woman who was a match for the red-faced priest. That confrontation must have been some sight, worthy of a scene out of a novel by Emile Zola.
Perhaps she recalled the incident ten years before, during the War of Independence, when the Black and Tans, in pursuit of Michael Collins, searched the house for weapons. This time, with a sickly, young son, John, in bed, her response was immediate, and she hunted them, but their irritation was such that, before departing, they cut her hair in revenge. That, too, would have been a triumph of sorts for my grandmother against the male aggressor from over the sea. The English soldiers had not got what they were seeking and she had stood firm against them. I remember as a child watching her in the evening unfasten her black hair to comb it and being struck by its length for it reached down to the small of her back.
In the case of the priest, I assume my grandmother was initially confused by the entry of the uninvited guest, but then her hackles must have risen as soon as she realised what was happening. Part of her anger must have been fuelled by the annual humiliation of having her name read out in the local church and her meagre contribution to the clergy of the parish broadcast. It seems she went for him, and, in the scuffle which ensued, she grabbed his collar and hunted him out of the house. I can hear her shouting and see her arms flailing, ‘Out, Father. Take yourself off. You’re not welcome in this house. Who do you think you are coming in like that?’ I don’t know if the crowd then cheered or if they continued with the dance. I suspect there would have been an embarrassed silence. After all, their instinct was to welcome visitors, and what they all understood was something that Hely Dutton had observed in 1808 about County Clare: ‘In no part of Ireland is hospitality more practised than in this county.’ Anyway, the following day my grandmother walked down to Liscannor to return the collar to the priest, and in the process she presumably apologised. I don’t think that particular priest interfered again with the house dances of his parishioners, for he must have realised he had overstepped the mark.
When her husband died in 1931, my grandmother was on her own, approaching fifty, with responsibility for her mother, Mary Kelly (who died in 1935), and for five surviving children, Patrick, born in 1912, Margaret, born in 1917, John, born in 1919, my mother, Bridget, born in 1921, and Mary, born in 1924. One morning, then, in March 1931, aged perhaps seventy two, my grandfather, who was one of nine children who survived and the eldest son of John Kilmartin (b 1831) and Susan Scales (b 1838), collapsed with a thud on the flagstones of the kitchen floor. The first thing my grandmother did, after ascertaining her husband was dead, was to put on her coat, embark on the hour-long walk down to Liscannor, and collect his pension. If that is considered unnatural or the act of a devious and scheming individual, then it is also the recourse of someone who is emotionally tough and determined to survive. In her final years she clubbed to death a fox which had broken into the hen house. Her father, born about 1833, had survived the Famine, as had her mother, born about ten years later. And she was married to someone whose parents had survived the Famine, but on neither side of the family had their economic fortunes shown much sign of improvement in the century between the 1830s and the 1930s. My grandmother and her dependants were still one week away from hunger. The only thing they did have was the rarely used key to their own door. A clear-eyed cynic might with justice conclude they were no longer tenants but were now owners of their own poverty.
From the outset, my grandmother, a drover’s daughter, must have recognised that the world owed her something and nothing, a little something, that is, but largely nothing. She was in turn driven by the need for shelter, and for shelter in all its forms. Constantly hemmed in, she didn’t have the luxury to experiment or to step back and discover her true self, and, as with most of her generation, she was not one to practise indulgence. I think of her as someone whose childhood and youth was spent in aligning character and personality for the long road ahead. When she moved into Caherbarna she gained security and a roof over her head, but she had an old man to look after as well as a husband nearly twice her age. The pattern of care followed by more care continued. The creamery was a cooperative venture in rural Ireland, and there was a tradition of people helping each other with harvesting and various forms of exchange and barter (meitheal is the related Irish word used for a gathering of people for work), but all this can serve to mask social differences and distinctions. The poor frequently faced utter isolation in a cruel world. ‘Save yourself’ was a phrase I never heard in the family, but in effect this is what ‘community’ sometimes amounted to.
Laying out the bodies of those who had died provided my grandmother with some income. She also received some money from the Flanagans for doing their laundry. This necessitated a journey through rain-soaked, treacherous fields to Luogh, which was some miles away. Then there was income from the milk which they took to the creamery, but, again, this too was fairly meagre since they only had a few cows and the land where the cows grazed was known to us as ‘the mountain’. They were at the bottom of the pile known to historians as the rural poor. Only agricultural labourers, who tended to have no land or very little land such as my uncle Jack and my aunt Mary, faced a more precarious existence. The oil lamp near the fireplace was lit only when there was no more light in the sky.
On that walk to collect her husband’s pension in the spring of 1931, a knitted, black shawl round her, the years must have spread out before her and behind her. A quarter of a century divided her from her husband in terms of age, but she lived for another forty years. The following ten would be crucial in terms of giving her children the best start in life, but by 1940 three of the five would have left home, never to return except on vacation. I wonder if she passed any prying neighbours as she hurried on down to the pension office and whether there was any panic in her voice when she stepped inside the office and confronted the official: ‘I’ve come to collect my husband’s pension. Patrick Kilmartin. Caherbarna.’ Perhaps the rural poor, and their offspring, always have something to hide.
No account of Caherbarna would be complete without mention of John Burke. He was one of Bridget Kelly’s children who was brought up by her sister, my grandmother. To distinguish him from the other John at Caherbarna he was always known by the name John Burke, never simply John, a sign perhaps of his ambivalent status. With tremendous persistence he taught himself how to play the violin and to accompany John Kilmartin on the flute, and the two could sometimes be heard at Considine’s pub at St Bridget’s Well. He had an innocent, fresh, ruddy face and combed-back hair.
One of the few early photos we have of him was taken in the summer of 1948 in a meadow during haymaking. It shows him looking directly at the camera with an infectious smile on his face for he was always cheerful. He has an arm around my mother. My aunt Margaret, who suffered from multiple sclerosis in later life, is also there in the photo with her first-born, Christina. My grandmother is sitting upright in the middle with my sister looking up at her, while my curly-haired brother John is, characteristically, looking away at something that has caught his eye in the distance. I have another photo, an internal one in my mind, and it is of John Burke on the cabin roof whitewashing the gable end of the house as we arrived one summer from England for holidays, for they were always late in Caherbarna and had been caught out. ‘You’ll be late for your own funeral’ was one of many catch-phrases I grew up with. Like his cousins in that household, John Burke spent most of his life as an emigrant in England, in his case playing Irish music in pubs ‘off the Harrow Road’ as he used to say.
He was a sweet musician like his namesake, the famous Kevin Burke, and would play at our house dances alongside Denis Guerin perched on a kitchen table inside the door in the corner near the holy water font. Years later, with my aunt Mary I visited him in a dark, ground-floor, council flat in north London, but emigration and years of poverty had taken its toll. The family had given him everything except the means to adapt. I can still hear him now singing to his own accompaniment ‘Fare-thee-well Lovely Mary’, a beautifully tender emigration song which seemed to suit his temperament and to give him comfort away from home, which in his mind he had never left:
Fare-thee-well lovely Mary, for it’s
now I must leave you,
So don’t let my long absence bring
any trouble to you, love,
The big ship is sailing, lovely Mary is
As for neighbours, the Guerins lived next door. Denis, their youngest, was a lively dancer and sensitive fiddle player. He would enter the house unannounced, bless himself with the holy water and stand by the door. ‘God bless all here,’ he would declare like a priest from the altar, and stay standing with hands in pockets, grinning. Later, he emigrated to New York to become a liftman in a block of apartments. His impossible father shouted at me as a child when I brought in from the field a frog that had one leg missing to show him nature’s capacity to adapt when scythed down. ‘Take that thing out of the house, and leave it where you found it.’ The elderly Nora McDonagh, another neighbour in the village, would sit by the hob of an evening and smoke her pipe and take not the slightest notice of children pointing at her beard or refusing to kiss her.
Tom Wren, who was the wildest man in the parish, one day rode up to the house on a huge red stallion that he had difficulty controlling. Once I spent a day helping him with the harvesting near the Cliffs of Moher. When I arrived at his cottage, he went to collect something in the room off the kitchen, but had to force the door. So much straw tumbled out that I wondered where the pig was. For lunch, we shared warm tea in a lemonade bottle and thick, white bread sawn off by Tom’s blunt knife. Overhead, we were distracted by the call of a pair of curlews flying high on their way south. I never knew anyone in those parts whose face didn’t light up when the name of Tom Wren was mentioned.
Our immediate neighbour, Pat Dunleavy, was the exact opposite. He possessed one of those classic faces of the west, full of the passage of time where the lines registered both the harshness in the environment but also a softening. I can still hear him asking after my family in England ‘How are all over?’ even though, as far as I could tell, he had never set foot outside of his native county. Blessed with an abundance of native charm and lively conversation, Pat would lend me his bicycle when I was around on holiday. He and Maggie never had any children and I wonder on reflection if I brought out the father in him. In the long ago there is no recourse to evidence or corroboration and the world just slips away from us. My mother recalls Pat’s father, Tom Dunleavy, conversing in Irish with my great-grandmother at the house in Caherbarna. Then there was Paddy Carroll, the intellectual in the village, who used to spend his days playing chess with me or John Kilmartin or with anyone around, until one day he decided to emigrate to Canada. His tiny house by a bridge over a stream has been a ruin for the best part of half a century.
The loosening ties
Some things in Ireland such as agricultural machinery lived on long after they had been abandoned in England. In A Song for Every Season (1971), Bob Copper’s father, who was born in 1882, recalls gathering hay into rows with a machine they described as a ‘tumble-down-dick’. That would have been in fields near Brighton at the end of the Nineteenth Century. In the 1950s I recall working such a machine at Caherbarna. I can’t remember what we called it, perhaps just a hay rake. You sat on a cushion on a metal seat and, reaching forward, with the reins in your left hand, you steered the horse in a neat circle, anti-clockwise, round the uneven, lopsided meadow, while with your right hand you periodically lifted the ‘comb’ as it gathered the spread-out, cut hay. I managed just the one circle before being ridiculed by my elder brother and conceding defeat to what I concluded was nothing more than an instrument of torture.
The wooden, flat cart my uncle John owned was also from a much earlier period. According to the historical geographer and social historian Estyn Evans in his classic survey Irish Folk Ways (1957), they were in use in Scotland in the late eighteenth century, but to the small farmer in the west of Ireland until a generation ago they were invaluable for all kinds of farm work. Thus, every morning, after being harnessed to our incredibly stubborn black pony, the Scottish cart carried the two or three large, heavy cans of milk down to the creamery in Liscannor along lanes which struggled to do justice to that term. As we waited in the queue for the cans to be offloaded at the creamery, I would look enviously at carts which had rubber tyres.
Always you felt the world lagging or dragging behind, but the time difference for me makes itself felt in another way, for I am conscious that all the people mentioned here would be surprised, perhaps horrified, if suddenly they rose from the dead and saw their names in print and translated into a narrative such as this one. ‘They were happy days’ is the phrase Mary uses in recalling those times, and I have no reason to disbelieve her or to dismiss her comment as simply nostalgia. In evoking the past, that generation believed there was once a glow or aura surrounding them, which contrasted with the more prosaic or less happy present. In illo tempore, at that time, the priest would say at Mass introducing a reading from the Gospels, a marker to separate off a blessed time when Jesus walked the earth. Nostalgia, too, shares something of the sacred about it. In the long ago, the cycle of the seasons, the pattern of daily life, must have given meaning and comfort to their lives. In the morning you milked the cows and went to the creamery. On Sundays you put on your best clothes, polished your shoes, and walked to Mass, shoulders back, head high, after which, if you were a man you adjourned to the pub nearby, and if you were a woman you hurried home to prepare dinner.
It was, however, a happiness based on circumstance and ‘making do’. It wasn’t a lifestyle of choice but of necessity, and, with the advent of modernity and the demand, especially by women, for self-fulfilment whether in terms of relationships or careers, it has passed away. Those of us who have inherited that lost world are never free from a certain hesitancy as we reflect on the past, a certain tension, that is, between the head and the heart. With my neighbourhood in Worthing it was possible for me to ask about the ties that held us together; with the neighbourhood surrounding my Irish family there was never any doubt about the ties (nor about the claustrophobia). At the same time, to the patient observer and social historian, the injustice of it all as a way of life can be overwhelming, and not just on account of the poverty. Young labourers were driven from home for stealing paltry sums from the farmer for whom they worked; young women were forced to give up an illegitimate baby or to undergo an abortion in England for fear of the shame it might bring on their family. Not everyone left Ireland in search of work or because of the colonial encounter.
Some sharp, and at times painful, things, then, have to be said by the next generation, judgment exercised, and lines drawn. Take away the music and the all-night house dances, and what was it but ‘the sigh of the weary’, a lifetime of duty and drudgery but precious few rewards. For those who face it day in day out, there’s little to be said for poverty. My mother was the exception, but it would sometimes surprise me the bitterness I heard among members of my family against those who were better off. They would slip into that mood almost without prompting. I say mood rather than attitude, for it was not a noble rage but more like some irritant they wore next to their skin. In Lancashire and the industrial north, you’d hear a comment such as ‘It’s well for some’, but among my family in a face-to-face community the inequality was more pointed: ‘They’re the people with the money, the big Moher farmers, and we have nothing. ‘Tis all right for them.’ For whatever reason, perhaps because she had emigrated at an early age, my mother shielded us from such sentiments. ‘Never let the sun go down on your anger’ was one of her favourite expressions.
It’s not surprising I spend so much time in Light, Freedom and Song, my cultural history of modern Ireland, on loss and struggle. I stress both loss and struggle, because it wasn’t simply loss. Loss dwells on sentiment and gives too much to the forces of inevitability. Struggle allows room for human response and for solidarity. It also calls attention to the idea of witness, both at the time and on behalf of the future. Not everything comes under the heading ‘loss’, and one of those things is ‘struggle’. My grandmother’s struggle through life has value for me and for my family. The poverty she endured was as close as it gets to the edge of human existence without falling into the abyss. She belonged to a generation whose parents had survived the Famine in the 1840s when over a million of her fellow citizens either perished or emigrated. Like many grandmothers, she was an example to us all of how not to succumb even as adversity strikes.
As I lay out the bodies of that generation in this memoir, I see her again trying to stretch her back. Resting on the table in the kitchen, she pulls herself up to full height and, with the corner of her black apron, she wipes the rheum from her eyes. Unseen, her grey-black hair tied in a bob and brushed back from a pallid, care-worn forehead, she pauses for a moment, peers out of the low window across the uninterrupted, sodden fields strewn with clumps of reeds to the south, and, with a sharp intake of breath, mutters a comment to herself about the weather. ‘Never give in. Never give up.’ That’s the lesson she taught us, the determination to keep alive the generous instinct and not to let go of our sense of belonging.
The ties of family, then, loosened over time. Pat, my grandmother’s eldest surviving son and an early pathfinder in the family, who would cycle forty miles down to Limerick to a dance, left Paddy’s green shamrock shore in his twenties, never to return. But in this case, unlike Robert Greene’s children who emigrated to the green fields of Amerikay, the destination of choice in the 1930s was England. With his friend, Joe Culligan (who later emigrated to California), he worked his passage across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, then, after working his way as a farmhand through North Wales and the English Midlands, he arrived in the London area, eventually settling in Burghfield Common, near Reading, and close to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. As soon as he approached manhood, Pat, who was never that keen on farming or killing animals, must have realised that Caherbarna was quite simply the ‘back of beyond’, as we used to say, and no place for someone who wanted to get on in life or make a go of things. The eldest son normally inherited the farm, but Pat had other ideas. Not that he betrayed any signs of triumph over his origins or indeed any resentment against the new Irish Free State that couldn’t provide for its own. Even though it was forced on him, his adopted country provided him with a new life, and he ensured a certain continuity with his past. He married late for example, had a large family, and never lost his smoking habit or his rich, throaty voice and distinctive accent.
For most of his working life, Pat was a labourer with Laings the builders, who provided him with a very small pension but were generous in looking after him when he retired, fitting out a new kitchen, laying new carpets and so on. He never complained. Like his father, and indeed like my mother, Pat was a great dancer. Indeed, according to Packie Russell, the great concertina player from Doolin, he was among the finest dancers he had ever played for, which was a real compliment coming from the frequently irritable brother of the angelic Micho. Without music we would have been lost as a family, for it was like a religion, something which Maxim Gorky once observed about the Russian peasantry in the nineteenth century.
The new field of Migration Studies must be full of such accounts as I am here recounting. Within a few years of arriving in England, Pat found openings for two of his sisters. In October 1937 my mother left Ireland when she was just fifteen and the following year went to Worthing to work in Pearce’s Dining Rooms, a bed-and-breakfast near the town’s railway station and run by George and Daisy Pearce. ‘70 Vic’ as she used to say, that is 70 Victoria Road. This was where Pat had lodged when working locally as a labourer on the roads. Here she met my father, who was George’s nephew, and they got married on 11 January 1941 when she had just turned nineteen and he was twenty one. The following day my father returned to his unit in Portsmouth and in the following weeks my mother, a wartime bride, could be heard by the Pearce boys crying herself to sleep. Margaret, the saint in the family, was delayed. Otherwise, she would have ended up in Worthing. But Margaret fell hopelessly in love with Patrick Spratt from Limerick, and eventually settled near Heathrow in Feltham, Middlesex, where she raised a large family at the end of one of the busiest runways in the world.
John Kilmartin stayed home and never married until late in life. He was the one member of that generation in the family who would have benefitted from a university education, for he was always reading late into the night and always displayed an interest in history and ideas. Mary, the custodian of the family’s history and indeed of the history of parish since she acted as clerical officer for Kilmacreehy Cemetery, spent two years in Worthing, as I mentioned in a previous chapter. On returning to Ireland, she married Jack Haugh and raised a family of four in an agricultural labourer’s cottage overlooking the same graveyard where she is now buried with Jack and where her own mother was interred in 1973. They chose well, for they all lie beside the restless Atlantic Ocean and near the ruins of a church dedicated to a saint who flourished in the sixth century. There are portraits of Mary in my other books, for she was my favourite aunt and taught me more than I know about the sympathetic imagination. It was in keeping that the three songs she should recall as part of her earliest memories were emigration songs, the view of Ireland that is from exile.
My mother survived them all, but she didn’t survive to tell the tale for her memory is now very patchy. I have many cousins from that side of the family but it’s only on formal occasions such as funerals and weddings that I get to see them. Families now are more like dispersal points without the spark which once lit up the world. I don’t mourn the passing. We live a long way from each other, I no longer call myself a Catholic, and my academic career has taken me further from home than perhaps I would have liked. Along with the Church, distance enabled me to get on in life, but, wherever I go, I am accompanied by a sense of absence and echoes of displacement. These feelings of emptiness come at me all the time and trigger something that I can only describe as perfectly understandable but strictly irrational. I resist brassy talk of ‘community’ or, for all the intensity of my own working-class family background, strong expressions of community, preferring instead something less visible and more ruminative. I like to imagine, however, that not forgetting, while not the same as always remembering, is a tribute to something that still defines me. When I attended the funeral of Margaret Spratt’s eldest son, Patrick, in August 2011, it shocked me to see the large turnout, especially among his colleagues from the crew and cast of EastEnders. Patrick left school at 15, but, wherever he went, he was surrounded by a heightened sense of community, something I rarely encountered in my working life as a teacher.
I haven’t been inside the family home at Caherbarna for some forty years now. In the early 1960s, around the time we moved in Worthing from the intense, working-class community of Newland Road across the railway tracks to the quieter area of Broadwater, my uncle John Kilmartin received a government grant and built a new house alongside the house of music. I can still see the excitement on his face as he spread the architectural plans on the table and discussed the layout of the rooms. It was to have a slate roof with wooden floors, electricity and a porch. Gone were the whitewashed walls, the thatched roof, the open hearth and the flagstone floor. With the new house came something else: there would be no more house dances in Caherbarna. The end of tradition was to be the price of modernity.
I pick up again the letter he composed in his mid-thirties to my mother at Christmas 1955, which is at once full of brotherly love and a reflection of his generous self. The new curate in Liscannor, Fr Kelly, had set up a new ceili band, and John writes: ‘He is a lovely young priest God bless him you could say anything to him.’ The times were blessed when you could write like that about the clergy. John expresses so much anticipation in the letter about the church and the new school in Liscannor. It was to be called ‘St Brigid’s Ceilidhe Band’ after St Brigid’s School and St Brigid’s Well, the local shrine once visited by Lady Gregory in research for her book Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). Members of the band included John himself and Micho Russell (flutes), John O’Loughlin (Patrick), Denis Guerin and T.J. O’Driscoll (fiddles), Mikie Flanagan from Luogh (Pátie), Joe Leyden from Doolin (accordions), Paddy McCormack (drummer). The Killourhy brothers would join them later after their period of mourning with the death of an uncle. ‘If you were over at school Sunday night you’d have no shoe coming back if you heard that music. The priest and people said it was terrific. OH BOY.’
Some things were meant not to last, and perhaps the world I associate with my childhood and adolescence is one of them. Why shouldn’t the ties of family and neighbourhood loosen? After all, I took my first steps in a place that knew all about gaps: Caherbarna in Irish means something like the townland of the gap, the gap between the stones or cliffs. Toward the end of her life, my aunt Mary, the inhaler beside her, would wonder aloud to me, ‘How did we end up like this?’ It was a remark that seemed to sum up a whole generation overtaken not so much by a lifetime of smoking as by the forces of history itself. If my name was Thomas Hardy or Frank McCourt, I could write some of these stories as examples of tragedy. But that too would be misplaced or part of an exaggerated response. How could anyone in their right mind want a return to the hard times and restricted lifestyle of my grandmother’s generation? How could her children be blamed for alighting for the new territory, wherever that might be and however it turned out? Today’s younger generation have their own sets of problems and it could be they won’t be comforted by traditional supports of old such as music and religion. But this doesn’t mean they won’t discover other support networks.
You can observe a small reminder of difference in first names for their children. Within a generation or so there won’t be a need to include brackets after a person’s name or place-names such as Doolin and Luogh as John does in his letter, for the labels individuals wear round their neck, a sign of an altered, less tribal view of the universe, will be much more distinctive and perhaps sufficient, at least for the present. One of my cousins, for example, who now lives in Limerick, has just named her daughter Ava Grace, a name which can only with difficulty or clerical perversity be traced back to the ‘Hail Mary’ in Latin (Ave Maria, gratia plena, Hail Mary, full of grace). In the 1970s, an Art teacher I knew in Ennis bravely named his children after left-wing leaders such as Salvador Allende and Rosa Luxemburg, but that was in some ways a more political decade.
Good things, then, can come from loosening ties, and it’s on that note I want to end this chapter on the house of music. My thoughts go back to the early 1980s when I visited the ghost town of Bodie in California, which in the second half of the Nineteenth Century was a bustling mining town where prospectors came from all over the world, including Ireland, in search of gold. In 1879 its population rose to ten thousand. Now it is among the best preserved ghost towns in North America, complete with saloons, classrooms and cemetery. I was there with my California friend, the novelist Kirby Wilkins, and we began to talk about all the people who had pitched up there. I was impressed by the poignancy of the scene and the evaporation of dreams in the harsh landscape on the edge of the desert. ‘Not at all,’ was Kirby’s response. ‘These were people who abandoned Europe for the prospect of a new world, and what drove them must have been stronger than what they found.’ I hadn’t been expecting that response from Kirby, for his natural cast of mind was for lacrimae rerum, for the tears of things. But I must confess the point of view has stayed with me, not as a comfort but as a corrective to any maudlin sentiment to which I am occasionally prone. As Joe Culligan discovered, one winter spent in shorts on the warm California coast is enough to convince most emigrants from the west of Ireland to abandon any plans of ever returning home.