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Mikey Kelleher of Quilty: A man for the old songs
by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie

Mikey Kelleher's songs in the Carroll Mackenzie Collection

During August 1977, while recording Irish Traveling people who were stopping in Deptford, South East London, we met Mikey Kelleher from Quilty. We were having a pint in The Engineer public house after an evening’s recording when one of the Travelers pointed to a man across the bar and said, “If you want the old songs, that’s your man.” We saw a tallish, slim, elderly man, smartly dressed in a dark suit and flat cap, clothing which indicated his origins before he opened his mouth. And when he did speak, 35 years in England had not altered his native accent one bit.

Having introduced ourselves, we asked if he remembered any old songs. He promptly took us to a small passage outside the bar where, without hesitation, he launched into half a dozen or so songs, including The Old Oak Tree, The Leon, Nancy Hogan’s Goose and one we had not previously come across which he called The Quilty Burning. Mikey always said he had never been a singer but, over the next few months, he managed to remember nearly sixty songs, several of which were quite new to us.

Michael Kelleher was born in Quilty on 4th July, 1907; “I was three months old when the Leon went down”. (The Leon, a French ship which sunk off Quilty in October, 1907, and the subject of some songs and much folklore.) Both his parents were singers, mainly in Irish, and from them he inherited his love of music and song, although he did not learn any of their songs as he did not speak Irish himself. He had tried to play the flute but, “I didn’t make much of fist of it so I packed it in”. However, he did become a superb dancer and skilled at lilting tunes for dancing. Several people from around Quilty remember his expertise as a dancer and he told us on a number of occasions – with a fair degree of pride – that he “wasn’t too bad”. He also told us that, as a young man, he was forever jumping on a bike and cycling off to house dances. He especially remembered the night he traveled down to the lighthouse at Loop Head; “I finished up dancing on a table, then I jumped on my bike and cycled home. I was up as usual for work the next morning. You didn’t think twice about doing things like that when you were young.”

Mikey was very friendly with Pat Barron, the dancing teacher. “He and I were great mates; it was from him I learned to dance The Job of Journey (Journeywork)”. Even in his seventies he retained his love of dancing; he was the most energetic and sprightly 70 year old you could imagine. We took him to the Galtimore in north London one night to hear the Tulla Céilí Band and we could not get him off the dance floor all night. On another occasion, after an evening’s music at the White Hart in Fulham, he was still whirling Pat around on the pavement outside an hour after closing time. A vivid memory still with us both is the way he would dance a few steps in front of the car as he was crossing the road after we had dropped him off outside his home; he never failed.

Concertinas, Canoes and Gramophones
Mikey never lost his love of Clare and this is reflected in his repertoire of songs and stories and in his reminiscences. He remembered with great affection musicians like John Fennell, Joe Cuneen and Paddy Breen. “There was never a house in Quilty in my young days but there wasn’t a concertina, a fiddle or an accordion. It was the women who used to be the good concertina players.” He recalled with great pleasure dancing to Junior Crehan’s playing: “He was a great man to play for the dancing: nice and easy, good to follow.”

While he was very much a traditionalist and disapproved of the way many bands play for dancing nowadays: (“They’ve shortened everything now; you always end up on the wrong foot!”), he was not adverse to getting his music from records and had a good collection himself. He told us: “I remember the first time we heard a gramophone in Quilty; the people couldn’t believe a man or a woman could be singing on a record. One man said, 'I bet he have a small little man inside that'.”

In Ireland, Mikey had tried his hand at a number of jobs: on the land, gathering carrageen and sea fishing, although he was put off this last at one time when the boat he was in overturned and he was nearly drowned. “I was in the water for half an hour before they managed to pick me up.” The work he liked best was making the canoes and he described in loving detail the processes involved in making them: bending the wood over a barrel – ash for the bows and oak for the bottoms – fixing the canvas covering on with "skin nails" and pitching and tarring to make it waterproof. “They were great little things: I’d sooner go out in one of them than a big boat; she’d defend herself against anything.”

Rehearsals and Recordings
In 1942, he left for England, getting work in the building trade, first in Bristol and later in London. He told us that a number of English people had trouble with his accent: “One landlady couldn’t understand what I was saying so she called me ‘Micky the Greek’ and that stuck to me for some time after.” He married a Clare girl, Mary Collins of Creegh, and they settled down in south east London and raised a family.

Although claiming he was never a singer (a fact corroborated by those who knew him), Mikey had great feeling for the old songs and talked at length about singers, particularly mentioning Katherine Cuneen: “She had a lovely voice and knew a lot of the old songs.”

When we asked if we could record the songs he knew he was more than willing, although he was shy of singing at home and asked that we record in the car. The day after we first met him, we picked him up in Deptford and drove to a quiet side street where he sang seven songs without hesitation. It was obvious right from the start that, not only could he remember songs, but he was well able to sing them. He would always finish the session by lilting a few tunes; an indication that he had done enough for that evening.

Afterwards, we would adjourn to a local pub for a drink and to try him with a search list of songs we thought he might know, always gaining a list of new songs to record on the next occasion. It soon became clear that his repertoire was fairly extensive and the more we worked with a search list, the more songs he was able to dredge from his memory. We were impressed by the way in which he would sing with so little hesitation. Some time later, however, when he took us home to meet Mary, his wife, she told us that he would practice the songs that he was going to record for us although he had not told her what we were doing. “He would lie in bed at night singing; I told him he was going cracked!” We also found out that, if we asked him about a song that he could not fully remember, he would go and “check the words with my mate from Kilrush”, who then lived in Camberwell, a neighbouring district. He was insistent that, “The old way of singing was best; you must always start at the root of the tree.”

On the first night’s recording, we discovered that Mikey had a great fondness for telling
‘the cracks’, as he called them; he would sit in the pub and tell joke after joke in rapid succession. However, many of these were not run-of-the-mill jokes and, in fact, lacked a punch line; they were actually shortened versions of traditional stories. One which he called King William of Orange, The Priest and The Fool, was a version of a tale found extensively throughout Europe and also as a song sometimes known as The Bishop of Canterbury. Another story, The Blind Man Up a Tree was used by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century for his Merchant’s Tale. A somewhat rare story he recounted one night, The Merchant and The Fiddler’s Wife, tells of a man so confident of his wife’s fidelity that he wagers his fiddle against a ship and cargo, and can be found as a ballad in a collection called "Pills to Purge Melancholy", first printed in 1707. Mikey’s story has two recited verses:

He says: “Hold on, my love, hold on, my love, for just half an hour,
Hold on, my love, hold on, my love, and the ship and cargo will be ours.”

She says: “You’re late, my love, you’re late, my love, he has me by the middle,
I’m on my back, we’re a having crack and you have lost your fiddle.”

These are very similar to two verses in the 1707 version.

In addition to songs and stories, Mikey gave us a number of local traditions and reminiscences: the story of the Stackpole murder at Bealaclugga Bridge (which he claimed was also a song); the time he saw the ‘water dogs’ on Mutton Island – a breed of dog like a retriever that lived in the sea (“Water dog” from the Irish “Madra uisce”, meaning otter); and meeting a giant animal on the Mullagh Road late one night.

A Legacy on Tape
We went on meeting and recording Mikey into the middle of 1978, throughout which time he continued to give us songs and stories. Eventually, however, pressure of other commitments, particularly to the Travellers who we were also recording, and who had long been moved on elsewhere, made it more and more difficult for us to make the journey across London to Deptford. At no time did we lose touch, visiting him and Mary at home several times and keeping contact by post.

Mikey never did go back to the home in Quilty that he was so fond of; his house, backing on to the Atlantic, still stands empty. Last year we received a letter from Mary, his wife, saying that, after a fairly lengthy illness, Mikey Kelleher had died on 6th March, 1987 aged 79 years.

We consider ourselves very lucky to have met Mikey, a chance in a million (or several million, actually) in London and look back with enormous pleasure to the times we sat in the car taking down his songs and stories. It is thanks to people like him that the old songs and stories have not disappeared before now and they will continue to exist, if not in the mouths and memories of men and women, at least on tape to which present and future generations can listen and perhaps get some ideas of life in West Clare in the first half of the twentieth century.

This is a list of songs collected from Mikey Kelleher by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie.

Mikey Kelleher’s Songs:

The Old Oak Tree (Laws P37)
Mike Hogan’s Six Foot Daughter
Bonny Irish Boy (Laws P26)
Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down
Nancy Hogan’s Goose
The Quilty Burning
The Leon
Female Sailor (Cabinboy) (Laws N12)
Mac and Shanahan
Delaney’s Chicken
Baby in The Kitbag
Farewell to Erin
Cod Liver Oil
O’Donnell From Donegal
Come Into My Cabin Red Robin
The Rineen Ambush
Connemara Queen
Father Tom O’Neill (Laws Q25)
Lonely Banna Strand
The Clockmaker
Nora Daly from Kilmaley
Flower of Sweet Strabane
I Wish I Was Single Again
The Cruel Mother (Child 20)
Five Nights Drunk (Child 274)
The Titanic
Curtains of Night
Riley to America (Laws M8)
Early, Early All in The Spring (Laws M1)
Willie Lennard (Laws Q33)
Brian O’Linn
Window Where Grandmother Dwells (Laws O18)
My Old Corns
Bold Tenant Farmer
The Codfish
In Carlow Town
Daughter Dearest Daughter
Galway Bay
Mother Mo Chroidh
The Real McCoy
I Don’t Mind (Care) If I Do
Devil and the Farmer’s Wife (Child 278)
Lowlands Low (Child 286)
Mary on the Banks of the Lea
Johnny Walker’s Whiskey
Paddy and the Ass
Dingle Puck Goat
Caroline of Edinburgh (Laws P27)
John Mitchell
The Ram (3 verses)
Cliffs of Dooneen
Down in Tennessee
Town in the Old County Down
Let Mr. Maguire Sit Down
The Two Rivers
Kate Muldoon
One Fine Summer’s Evening (Grá Geal Mo Chroídh)

This article was first published in Dal gCais vol. 9 (1988).