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 Nora Cleary: An Appreciation by Tim Dennehy


Nora Cleary's songs in the Carroll Mackenzie Collection

From those same hills you can see the lights
Of that lovely town so rare,
When we wee young and carefree then,
On those grand old hills of Clare.

Nora Cleary spent most of her life in the family cottage at The Hand, at the foot of Mount Callan. She was born here in 1924, the second-youngest of a large family, and apart from relatively short periods of time spent in nearby Clounlaheen and later in Manchester, the neatly kept cottage was always in a real sense her home.

We should remember that we are talking here of an era when singing formed an integral part of people’s lives – verses hummed through daily chores as well as the more slightly formal house gatherings. Nora inherited her love of singing from both her parents, Daniel and Catherine, and from her teachers at Shanaway National School. It was a love that she retained all her life.

I had met Nora only briefly on my visits to Miltown Malbay in the 1970s. It was only when I had settled in West Clare and some singing friends began to meet in Christy McCarthy’s pub in Clounlaheen once monthly that we became friends. She really enjoyed those few hours of stories and song, an occasional half-set, glasses of Guinness, a warm turf fire and the best of company. When the night reached its natural end I would normally drop her off at the cottage – she sang all the way and it always seemed natural to turn off the engine and let this brief farewell end again in the quietness of a song.

It was this sense of fun, even devilment, which was Nora’s strength. Her style of singing was straightforward, though she did possess a soft, gentle quality when singing songs like 'Bessie of Ballantown Brae'. She loved all local songs, be they political like‘Mac and Shanahan’ or in praise of the beauties of her own area like ‘Tirmana Hill’. Indeed she was not slow to put pen to paper herself and her compositions included two humorous songs on local hostelries, ‘Bridgie Kearneys’ and ‘Tobins’ (now The Kilmaley Inn). But it was in songs of a slight bawdiness that she really reveled and songs like 'The Codfish' and 'The Trooper', and the reaction of her audience to them, caused her great merriment. She was a born performer.

Nora’s illness and eventual demise left us all with a sense of great sadness. She died at Halloween 1988, leaving us with many fond memories and her songs in our hearts.

And when my soul shall reach God’s goal,
How I will embrace the clay,
Were I so blessed that my bones would rest,
Near my own Miltown Malbay.

May her rest be peaceful.

Tim Dennehy

Note:
The stanzas quoted at the beginning and end are from a song 'My Own Miltown Malbay.' The author is unknown. Three of Nora’s songs can be heard on the Topic Record 'The Lambs on The Green Hills: Songs from County Clare,' on which she is joined by Ollie Conway, Siney Crotty and Mick Flynn. Finally, I wish to acknowledge the help of Nora’s friend, Peggy McMahon, in clarifying some details on Nora’s life.