Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Brian Hughes 'The Beat of the Breath'

The instrumental tradition of music playing in Ireland has been sustained over the generations for the most part by musicians who have seldom attained national celebrity status.  The few exceptions have included the likes of Michael Coleman, Leo Rowsome, Johnny O’Leary and from the present Matt Molloy and Tommy Peoples.

While the established singing tradition blossomed following the British folk revival, instrumental musicians never quite stepped into the limelight in the same way as did the Clancy brothers and the many groups and singers who emerged after them.  Traditional instrumentalists did record and continue to do so but never apparently managed to hold the public’s interest in a music scene dominated by songsters and balladeers.   Fiddle players, concertina players and whistle players tend to make up the greater part of the recorded instrumental music available today.  The tin whistle is undoubtedly the most popular instrument in traditional music today and although felt by many to be a beginners instrument, in the hands of a master musician it can lend itself to creating a exquisite sound.

Athy based musician Brian Hughes provides a fine example of what can be achieved on the tin whistle on his latest CD ‘The Beat of the Breath’ which is being launched in Athy Arts Centre on the 3rd of May at 8.00 p.m.  This is Brian’s third solo recording with a total of fourteen tunes ranging from reels, slip jigs, hornpipes, polkas, marches, slides and my own favourite slow airs.  Drawing on sources as diverse as Breathnach’s ‘Folk Music and Dance in Ireland’ and O’Neill’s ‘Dance Music of Ireland’, the young musician offers a veritable tour of Irish music both ancient and modern.

I was particularly impressed with the two slow airs, one of which was an early version of the air ‘Tàimse Im Chodladh’, found in a 1710 Scottish manuscript where it was described as an Irish tune.  As an asling, which is a poetic form associated with the Jacobite period of Irish history, the composer exhorts the listener to fight for Ireland against its enemy.  Brian dedicated his playing of this beautiful air which he learned from the Cùil Aodha sean nòs singer Iarla O’Lionaird, to the memory of the young Athy guitar player and singer Martin Conroy who died last year.  Brian played with the late Martin on a CD recorded by another Athy musician Niamh Nì Dhèa in 2012.

The second slow air which I found appealing was Brian’s version of ‘Slàn le Màigh’, a song composed in 1738 by a little known Co. Limerick poet who lived in Croom.  His was a song of exile in which the poet laments having to leave Croom after the local Parish Priest banished him on account of his somewhat decadent lifestyle.

‘The Beat of the Breath’ is a wonderful addition to Irish instrumental music and Brian Hughes throughout gives a virtuoso performance.  His work adds to the now well established work of Irish traditional musicians stretching back to Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and others whose work continue to have a profound influence on Irish traditional music.

In this recording Brian is accompanied by Donnchadh Gough, bodhràn player of the Waterford group Danù and by Sean McElwain on bouzouki and guitar of the band Tèada.

The launch of ‘The Beat of the Breath’ takes place on Friday next 3rd May at 8.00p.m. in Athy Arts Centre.  Brian and his friends will be providing music on the night and I’m told refreshments will be available.  A good night is promised so do come along and support one of Ireland’s finest musicians.

Community support of another kind was evident during the last two weeks or so as Athy witnessed the passing of so many of its townspeople.  Death has cut an extraordinarily wide swath through the town with the passing of Mrs. Conway, Joe Phillips, Mrs. McNulty, Joe Delahunt, Christy Byrne, Billy Tierney, Patsy Kelly, Mrs. Norton and Anthony O’Sullivan.  Friends and neighbours came out in numbers to follow the corteges as they wound their way to Church and each final resting place.  I am mindful of the fact that I shared a classroom with Christy Byrne in the local Christian Brothers national school and recall with sadness the number of former classmates who have died over the years.  Mrs. Conway reached the extraordinary age of 104 years and to her family and to the families of all who died in recent weeks we extend our sympathies.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sir Ernest Shackleton and Francis Kennedy Pease

In the early hours of the morning of the 5th of January 1922 the Kilkea born explorer Ernest Shackleton died on his ship the Quest, anchored off the island of South Georgia. He was 47 years of age. On learning of his death, his wife, Lady Shackleton decided it would be more appropriate that he would be buried in South Georgia in the area to which he journeyed so often. Shackleton was buried in the cemetery in Grytviken, South Georgia and the crew of his ship erected a simple wooden cross over his grave.

This would remain his grave marker for a number of years and Alastair Hardy a zoologist, visiting Shackleton's grave in 1926 was shocked to find it had no proper headstone. This was remedied the following year when the ship RSS Discovery on an expedition to study the biology of the Antarctic waters delivered to South Georgia a headstone for Shackleton's grave. The Discovery was the ship on which Shackleton had first sailed to the Antarctic in 1902 as an officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scotts first Antarctic expeditition.

Fittingly a member of the crew of the RSS Discovery was the Kildare born Francis Kennedy Pease. Kennedy, a young midshipman, was born in the Curragh on the 13th of February 1908 where his father Major Charles Pease was an officer in the British Army. 

The Captain of the Discovery, J R Stenhouse, who had served with Shackleton, and being a relation of Pease secured Pease a place in the crew. Pease himself had met Shackleton as a schoolboy and wrote “I, myself, had met Shackleton. It was years before, when I was a boy, aged 15, a pupil of St. Helen's College, South Sea and I had had the great privilage of been presented to him. He was then just departing on one of his expedititions to the Antarctic. It was he who first inspired me with desire for Polar Exploration. Looking at him I thought how wonderful, it would be to be a man like him.”

In his book 'To the Ends of the Earth' he recorded the ceremony in which Shackleton's headstone was installed “Most memorable, of all my South Georgia experiences was the unveiling of the tombstone on Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave. The grave was in the little cemetery at Grytviken, on the slope overlooking the harbour, and we had brought the tombstone in the Discovery from England as far as the Falkland islands, where it had been suitably engraved and then brought here to South Georgia. It was South Georgia's great day – her greatest day. All the whaling work was stopped for the occasion. The whale catchers came in from the sea; the little harbour was filled with their ships. In their hundreds the men lined the slopes about the little cemetary; old men and young, nearly all Norwegians, seabooted, heavy woollen gloves on their hands, thick mufflers about their throats. Almost all of them had known Shackleton. There were whale captains who had been his great friends – rugged, large hearted men. A hymn was sung - “Abide with me”. Leaflets containing the words in both English and Norweign had been supplied. There was no music, nor was any wanted. All hands sang with all their hearts. Their voices went over the snowclad slopes, resonant and deep. There was no mistaking the throb of it. Some of them who had known Shackleton closely found it hard to sing at all. I knew what they were feeling. At the end of the ceremony another hymn was sung, deep and resonant like the first and buglers in the guard of honour sounded the last post. The men were in no hurry to drift back to the whale work on their ships. They stood about the grave. The eyes of many were wet. Shackleton's grave was in the midst of the graves of seven whale captains and two Polar Explorers. There was something infinitely moving in the fact that he should be in such fitting company.”

Pease, after leaving the Discovery Expedition continued his Polar Exploration career with a period in the Arctic in 1934. After service in the Royal Air Force in World War II he spent the rest of his life as a landscape contractor dying in 1987. He enjoys the unique distinction of being the only other Kildare born Polar explorer who met Shackleton.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Athy Centenary Committee

Five years ago Athy Town Council established a sub-committee to harness the good will and abilities of volunteers willing and able to help in improving the appearance of local cemeteries which over the years had fallen into disrepair.  The sub-committee has been very busy since it was established and St. Michael’s Cemetery on the Dublin road has benefited enormously from the volunteers work.

The remains of what is believed to have been the first Parish Church in Athy lies in the centre of St. Michael’s Cemetery.  Known locally as “The Crickeen” it represents an unusual feature for an anglo norman town as it was located outside the walls of the medieval town of Athy. Why this was so is not clear but the Dominican friary and St. Thomas’s monastery both within the town walls may well hold the answer. Was it a case of French speaking clerics serving the Anglo Norman settlers to the exclusion of gaelic speaking native Irish?  The answer still eludes us today.

Burials are likely to have taken place while the church of St. Michael’ was still in everyday use.  As such, it was properly known as St. Michael’s graveyard but now that the Church is derelict, St. Michael’s is today described as a cemetery.  Burials have take place there for hundreds of years and the work done by the cemetery sub-committee in clearing and conserving the plots has added enormously to our understanding of the number and range of burials there.

One of the major undertakings by the sub-committee was the development of the underpass which linked the cemetery with the Fairgreen on the opposite side of the railway bridge. Engraved panels were fitted to the walls and granite slabs were laid to create a space suitable for services.

A number of grave markers which had been lost due to ground erosion were recovered and replaced while some grave slabs long buried were brought back into view.  Amongst those grave slabs was one commemorating the Daker family, members of which were owners in the late 18th century  of the tanyard located at Tan yard lane off St. John’s street. Part of that area is now given over to the Dominican friary and Tanyard lane is now called Convent lane.
St. John’s cemetery which once formed part of the Monastery of St. Thomas and the Hospital of St. John has had a makeover in the last two years.  Honor McCulloch, working largely on her own has recovered St. John’s from the wilderness which  had  enveloped it since the project undertaken some years ago by the Athy Alternative Project Team. St. John’s is surely the oldest cemetery still identifiable as such in Athy. The north wall of the cemetery includes a portion of a wall which may have been part of the original 13th century monastery or hospital.  St. John’s is now under the remit of the cemetery sub-committee and its town central location coupled with its historical connections makes it an important part of our local heritage.

Just across from where I am writing this article lies Ardreigh Cemetery where we can find the remains of an ancient church amongst collapsed masonry in the centre of the cemetery.  The recent archaeological excavation in Ardreigh unearthed the remains of the medieval village which was served by the Church and the surrounding graveyard. The cemetery has recently been cleared by members of the Kilmead Community Scheme in conjunction with the cemetery sub-committee.

The huge task undertaken by the cemetery sub-committee with regard to the opening up and conservation of the cemeteries in and around Athy is beginning to show results. The sub committee is grant aided by Athy Town Council but I suspect that like all voluntary groups, it would benefit hugely if more volunteers came forward to help in its work.

In last week’s Eye on the Past,  I mentioned medieval burials in the Dominican friary then located on the east bank of the River Barrow.  Until recent years, the friary site was occupied by a large house now demolished, known as the Abbey.  The Abbey site is now lying somewhat derelict and unlikely to be developed for some time to come.  This presents an opportunity for this important historical site to be investigated archaeologically before it is given over to development.  Any such investigation would add enormously to our understanding of the early years of the Anglo Norman village of Athy and especially the religious house of the Friar’s preachers. 

It is a topic I hope to return to again but in the meantime, the members of the cemetery sub committee are to be congratulated on their wonderful work over the past five years in restoring and conserving one important element of our past heritage.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Easter Sunday Morning at Ardscull and Sr. Rita Murphy

There was an early start to Easter Sunday when in the chilling cold of our unusual March weather a hundred or so hardy souls gathered on the top of the Moat of Ardscull. The occasion was the now annual Ecumenical Prayer Service which brings the community together on one of the principal feast days of the Christian calendar. This year several African churches were represented alongside the mainstream churches as voices were raised in song atop the ancient man made mound of Ardscull.

The pleasant surroundings gave little hint of the troubled past of the “hill of the shouts” which was first recorded in the Book of Lecan as the site of a battle between the Munster men and the Leinster men in the early years of the second century.

Holinshed in his Chronicles of Ireland recounted the burning of the village of Ardscull in November 1286 and the murder 23 years later of Lord John Bonneville near to the village. Bonneville was buried in the church of the Friars Preachers in nearby Athy as were many of Edward Bruces supporters and followers following the battle of Ardscull in 1315. Somewhere between Offaly Street and the River Barrow in what was once the Friary of the Friars Preachers lie the remains of those killed almost 700 years ago in or around the village of Ardscull.

Ardscull is the location of a deserted borough being one of those many early Irish settlements which once enjoyed borough status. It was described at one time as having 160 burgages extending over quite a considerable area. There are now no traces over ground of the village but a short distance south east of the Moat lies a graveyard within which there is a raised area probably the site of the Church of Ardscull. This church was noted in the 13th Century as being part of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

As we took our leave following the Ecumenical service the Moat of Ardscull was returned to the rooks high in their perches in the trees above us. The sound of battle which once echoed in and around Ardscull is no more while the singing and praying voices of separated churches will hopefully return in a year's time as a community comes together again to pray.

At 12 o'clock on Easter Sunday the extended family of Sr. Rita Murphy who died in America on the 6th of March came together in St. Michael's Parish Church. Sr. Rita was the grandaughter of James McNally who for over 60 years was Sacristan in our Parish Church. I wrote of my memories of James the Sacristan in December 1993 in Eye on the Past No. 66. Sr. Rita, who as a lay person was known as Irene, was born in 1937 and lived for the first 13 years of her life with her grandfather James and the Mullery family in Convent View. She attended school with the local Sisters of Mercy and made her Confirmation in St. Michael's Church in 1948. Two years later she went to live with her parents in Dublin and at 16 1/2 years of age she entered the religious life as a postulant with the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in America. She was to spend the next 59 years of her life in the Convent at Carrollton, Ohio where she was Superior from 1981 to 1992. Sr Rita served in many capacities as teacher, as School Principal and as Coordinator of Education in the Steubenville Diocesan Office of Education. As Superior of the Convent of St. John's Villa in Carrollton she was regarded as a kind, considerate and efficient administrator and Superior. Sr Rita Murphy passed away on the 6th of March of this year and was interred in the Convent burial grounds three days later.

The large family group which came together to attend the 12 o'clock mass in St. Michael's Parish Church on Easter Sunday did so mindful of Sr. Rita's links with Athy and the part played in her early life by her grandfather, James McNally, whose contribution to the church was marked by the presentation of the “Bene merenti” papal medal in 1953.

James McNally and his grandaughter Sr Rita are today remembered, one for his contribution over many decades to the town of Athy, the other for her contribution over 59 years to education in the American town of Carrollton, Ohio.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sisters of Mercy Athy and Sr. Rita Cranny

‘The idea of a convent in Athy originated with Miss Goold of Leinster Street who won the support of Fr. Patrick Byrne C.C., Mrs. Fitzgerald of Geraldine House and her daughter Ann Fitzgerald.’  These opening lines in the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy Athy were penned many years later by Fr. Thomas Greene C.C.  He noted that the sudden death of Fr. Byrne, followed soon afterwards by the passing of Ann Fitzgerald, left the matter in abeyance.  However, Ann Fitzgerald left £100 in her Will for the endowment of a local convent, following which her mother, the widow of Colonel Fitzgerald, offered the sum of £50 for the same purpose.  Patrick Maher of Kilrush similarly offered £50.  The availability of these funds prompted the parishioners of St. Michael’s Athy to convene a meeting in the Parish Church in the spring of 1843 to consider ways and means of advancing the idea first put forward by Miss Goold several years previously. 

The enthusiastic support for a convent and more particularly a convent school in Athy resulted in arrangements for a weekly collection to be taken up in the main streets of the town every Saturday night.  When Fr. Thomas Greene came to Athy on 12th May 1843 he found a very efficient collection system in place, with £150 already collected.  The first stone of the new convent was laid in August 1844 by Reverend Laurence Dunne, P.P. of Castledermot.  Fr. Greene’s written account then refers to the ‘dreadful distress then prevalent’ which resulted in the discontinuance of the weekly collection at a time when almost £1,400 had been spent on a new convent building.  The ‘dreadful distress’ referred to in Fr. Greene’s note was of course the famine which started with the failure of the potato crop in 1845 and which was to continue until 1848 and beyond for many families.

The weekly collection resumed in 1848 when the worst of the Famine conditions had improved, but as Fr. Greene noted, ‘the old staff of collectors had been broken up and their subscribers had gone to America’.  The principal organiser of the collection was Mr. Thomas Fegan of Market Square (now Emily Square) and his efforts and those of his voluntary workers accounted for a substantial amount of the £2,035 which was incurred in building and fitting out the convent between August 1844 and December 1852. 

The convent closed in May 2000 and during its 148 years it received upward of 144 or more young women who joined the Sisters of Mercy.  On entering, postulants wore a white bonnet for the first six months and a white veil for the next two and a half years before taking their first vows three years later.  At the end of six years in the Convent perpetual vows were taken.  Postulants and nuns followed the same daily routine which started with a bell ringing out at 5.25 a.m. followed by Matins and Lauds, then private meditation for 40 minutes and Mass.  Silence was maintained at all times other than during the 45 minute recreation period late in the afternoon.  Evening Vespers was followed by 30 minutes of spiritual reading in the Convent Chapel, concluding after a further short period of recreation with night prayers and the ‘great silence’.

In 1938 Rita Cranny from Ballylinan entered the local Convent of Mercy.  She made her triennial vows on 11th February 1941 and her perpetual vows as Sr. Rita three years later.  Like her fellow sisters she dedicated herself to the religious life and in doing so joined a religious community committed to providing education, social care and health care to the wider community of south Kildare. 

The religious orders were an important part of Irish life as far back as the early decades of the 19th century.  Nowadays Irish Society is a more secular society and the religious orders, especially the female orders, are downsizing to the extent that in a few years time many will have disappeared.  Within our local community we are witnessing the gradual but inevitable withering of that wonderful religious order which for almost 150 years has been an enriching presence in this area. 

Last week Sr. Rita Cranny died aged 95 years and with her death is closed another chapter in the life of the Sisters of Mercy congregation in Athy.  We are indebted to Sr. Rita and her religious colleagues for their charitable work and their contribution to education and health care, first commenced in the dark days which followed the Great Famine.  Athy has changed enormously since those early days and much of those changes are due in no small measure to the educational opportunities afforded by successive Sisters of Mercy to the young people of this area.

The involvement of the Sisters of Mercy and indeed that of the Christian Brothers in the education of the Irish people played a vital part in the resurgence of this country and the recovery of national pride which underpinned the events of the early decades of the 20th century.  Now that we are about to embark over the next few years commemorating the centenary of those events I hope we will remember the part played by Sr. Rita Cranny and past generations of the Sisters of Mercy in nurturing and instilling the national pride which helped give this country the freedom it enjoys today.