Article MT019

Here is a Health ...

Songs, music and stories of an Ulster community
collected and edited by Seán Corcoran

©Arts Council of Northern Ireland 1986

Although it was published some years ago, I have only come across the cassette Here is a Health fairly recently.  Aside from the songs, music and stories - which are tremendous - I was overcome by the quality of the writing in the acompanying booklet.  It is wise, insightful, and often just plain beautiful.  I felt obliged to share it with you at the first opportunity.

Seán Corcoran gave his consent and was intending to contribute some photos, which were not in the original.  However, in the end, these were not to be found - and requests and searches from other sources have failed to produce results.  In the end, I have decided to publish it 'as-is', and hope that should any reader have access to any appropriate photos, they will be willing to offer them for later inlusion.

John Moulden has some copies of the tape at £6 including the booklet - available from his UlsterSongs web site.



To all the singers and musicians of Fermanagh but especially to Michael John ('Mick') Hoy,
singer, fiddler, storyteller and to the late Ben ('Sketch') MacGrath,
who knew the value of a song - Here is a Health ...

The pub stands on a hillside overlooking the Bottoms where the little Silees River meanders around the Coal Bog on its way to the Big Lake.  The building is an old single-storey linear house, snuggling to the contours of the hill, with a small bar in one end and a well-stocked grocery store.  A sign in the window proclaims a forthcoming 'Big Traditional Night'  to raise funds for a cancer scanner for a local hospital.  A small army of yellow bottled-gas cylinders stands gleaming in the yard and on the roadside; a man in overalls, surrounded by various pieces of a car engine, is staring into the innards of a Ford Escort.

Hidden behind the old building, almost dug into the hillside, is a huge modern lounge, like some exotic hybrid grafted on to an old apple tree.  The lounge is equipped with television, slot-machines and video-games, and also a 'dancing-deck', a wooden floor area specially constructed for dancing.  Along the walls a local amateur artist has painted huge images of the valley outside.  In an annexe off the lounge there is a bar built to resemble the caves which honeycomb the surrounding hills, complete with 'cave-paintings' and a mock-crude wooden bar-grille.

It's mid-morning and the lounge is empty.  The tiny front bar, however, is full, mainly with elderly men, dappled in the hot summer sun which streams through the window in dust-sparkled shafts.  They've just got their pensions and the 'crack' is lively.  The air is loud with banter and laughter, conversation bouncing back and forth across the smokey room.  The man from the Ford Escort enters and announces that he will have to go into town to get a starting-motor and the chat turns to engines, spare-parts, prices, the oil crisis and the duplicity of politicians.  Suddenly, in the midst of all this, the car man turns to the elders and says, "I bet there's not a man among you can sing The Flower of the Moy!"  His challenge obviously has a specific target, for a man with clear blue eyes and a wheezing laugh immediately responds.  "Dammit, I can, and forty more songs just as good.  But first I'll sing you an ould one that's ten times better!"  Scarcely pausing for breath he starts to sing in a clear high voice and a rugged empathic style.  A performance begins...

Here is a health unto all true lovers
And to my true love where e'er she be.
This very night I shall be with her
Though many's the long night she is from me.

The Session

The session continues well on into the afternoon.  Young men on passing tractors stop and are enticed away from their work in the fields.  Three young women who 'just dropped in for a few messages' are pressed to stay, for one of them is a fine singer.  Standing at the counter, clutching a large tartan shopping bag, she renders three songs before she is allowed to leave.

The performance is a continuum of song, discussion, anecdote and chat.  All contribute something but the 'stars' are three older men and one of the young lads from the fields who impresses the elders with his large repertoire.  "Begod, you have a bran-bag full o' them, Packy!"  The audience is only occasionally hushed and reverential.  Songs are peppered with intervening comments and 'cracks' (sometimes from the singer himself) and accompanied by shouts of encouragement.  There is no Master of Ceremonies, yet the whole event seems to be conducted by an unseen hand.  A discussion follows each song - has the singer the right words, is the story true, where it came from, who sang it in the past - leading to further reminiscences until the focus returns to another song.  Democracy in performance does not mean an absence of criticism.  "I mind J... B... singing that.  He'd put a skirl to it like a cat going to buck!"  Local song-makers of the past are recalled (a song is always made, never written and certainly never composed).  One of the young men sings a surreal piece about a Mummers' Ball which ends in chaos.  - "J... F.. made that one.  He could make a right tight song!" - "No he never!  He brought the whole story home to his mother and she made it!"

The genius of Peter Magennis, a local schoolmaster folk-poet of the last century who translated the cross-rhyming style of Gaelic poetry into his songs, is extolled.  "Now he was a poet!  See, Kipling and Byron and all them boys - he could poet the lard out o' the whole lot o' them!"  No song stands isolated but is linked in some way with the life and the soul of the community.  Usually the link is with a 'character' from the past.  "That was one of oul Isaac Britton's.  Ah, poor oul Isaac.  Not a haet about him now!"  The elders discern family traits in the younger singers.  "Good man Packy!  That's the Leonards o' the Coal Bog coming out in you!  They were all fierce singing people.  Like a concert in it every night!"

The session weaves its way into the hot afternoon, a community delving into its own culture, seeking out its touchstones, redefining itself.  The performance is a debate both with the past and with the future.  Its very existence is a debate with the dominant culture, the manifestations of which are all around it - the television droning away in the empty lounge, the ads on the walls for discos and bingo and 'Take Your Pick' nights; an hermetically sealed culture which is carefully packaged according to the results of market research, a sanitized culture lacking the unexpected or the dangerous with carefully monitored units of excitement or sentiment; a one-way culture with no opportunity of response - you can't shout encouragement to a juke-box, nor ask it where it got that song and would it give you the words in trade for one of your own?  A culture 'popular' only in consumption, arriving prepacked and apparently untouched by human hand.  But the songs of the Fermanagh singers show the marks of many generations of human hands and are even now being reworked and replenished.  As the session intensifies singers become more adventurous with their airs, varying the rhythmical phrasing and adding melodic embellishments, to the delight of the company.  "Aha, he's putting a wee skirl to it now!"  Words, phrases, even stanza-order can be changed by the singer according to his or her personal tastes, altering shades of meaning and intensity, so that each singing of each song is, in effect, a re-edition.

Song-making is a common craft here and the session wends its way through a series of local songs.  A song in praise of a small mountain lough noted for its trout and also for the fact that a mermaid has been sighted there since the suicidal drowning of a young girl in the lake many years ago.  A song on the depredations of a wandering donkey called 'Jack the Ripper', with an imagined ensuing court-case at which the donkey solemnly gives evidence.  A song on a man who went into the village to shop and got drunk instead, spending not only his own money but also the price of a loaf which a neighbour had asked him to buy, causing a bitter quarrel between them.  The price of the loaf was, apparently, the price of their friendship.  Songs which deal with powerful and potentially disruptive themes - passion, jealousy, envy, greed and intercommunal strife - but which have 'the hurt taken out of them' by the use of a gentle wry humour.

The man from the Ford Escort is known to be a particularly gifted song-maker, with the dangerous gift of satire.  It is suspected that he is the origin of a song which mysteriously appeared recently, the text going from hand to hand around the district.  The piece directs barbed shafts of humour at a local man who 'thinks he's a ha'pence above everybody.'

The company press him to sing.  "Anything at all.  God knows, you've made scores!  Not a haet about them.  Sure, aren't they only songs!"  He demurs, pleading that he has to get to town before the garages close, but the crowd keep insisting.  The banter continues and - after another bout of ritual refusals and excuses - he finally succumbs and, abandoning his quest for the starting motor, he surrenders himself to his song.

The Cassette

The recordings which this booklet accompanys are mainly of traditional songs, with a few fiddle-tunes and stories, made in the Derrygonnelly area of West Fermanagh at various times between 1979 and 1985, with the assistance of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.  They are 'field-recordings'.  (Actually they are mostly kitchen-recordings with a few pub-recordings and even one bedroom-recording).  The performances were recorded in their own natural context where art and life are not separate.  Hence the occasional background sounds of food being prepared, of tea-cups rattling, clocks ticking, pots boiling, tractors passing.  Singers are also usually surrounded by family or friends who comment or encourage and even help out if the singer's memory lapses.

The selection of a couple of dozen items from a vast amount of recorded material was quite a difficult process and meant the omission of many fine singers.  It is hoped that this may be rectified in a future publication.  The intention was to give a general impression of the kind of material to be heard at a typical 'house-kayley', with its mixture of serious and light-hearted songs, stories, jokes and fiddle-tunes.

The political or 'party' songs are excluded since I believe their documentation requires a totally different approach.  They are obviously highly-valued by their respective sides of the community yet their importance is socio-political rather than musical.  Besides, they constitute a tiny proportion of the full traditional repertoire and are seldom performed at the normal 'house-kayley'.

Another significant omission is a representative of the many place-praise songs, an extraordinarily resilient and still widely popular tradition, with its roots in Early Irish poetry.  While many of these songs are of great beauty the texts are too localised for general consumption.  The same may be said for the humorous and satirical songs on local events and characters, another numerous class.

In religious terms the district has a 'mixed' population.  Suffice to say that the performers on this tape come from both religious persuasions, although to the singers and musicians themselves this is of little consequence.  The song tradition is concentrated on here because, although it is the most widespread and vigorous aspect of Irish traditional music, it has had the lowest profile and its processes the least understood.  It is a tradition of the hearth, personal and almost secretive, conservative in form yet radical in content, an expression of regional and communal identity and at the same time, a vehicle for the most individualistic, and often anarchic, statements.  No living culture dies a natural death.  It is killed off either by direct attack or by more subtle means.  The social changes which are cutting the ground from under the oral culture represented here are not Acts of God, but of men.  It is a culture which does not lie easy with commercialism, nor with regimentation, nor with bureaucracy.  Many of the performers have been for many years passing on much of their repertoire and skills to a younger generation and it is hoped that this tape will play a part in furthering this process.

This is not the music of the past.  In fact, an understanding of its processes may reveal the secrets of the music of the future.

The Performers

Vincent Duffy, Rossgor.  (Side 2, track 10)
Well known in his locality as a singer, dancer and mummer.  In his late sixties when recorded.  A strong singer with a powerful direct style.  Dances in the old Northern two-man style with his friend and neighbour Johnny Magee, who is one of the finest traditional step-dancers I have ever seen.  In his younger days played fife and accordeon.  Always plays the part of the Doctor with the local mumming team, of which he is one of the 'stars'.

Mick Hoy, Blaney.  (Side 1, tracks 1, 5, 6, 7, 12, 13 and side 2, tracks 4, 7, 11, 12, 13)
Singer, fiddler, storyteller, wit and authority on the traditions of his area.  In his late sixties when recorded.  His singing style is subtle with beautiful use of glottal stops and variations in phrasing.  One of the finest fiddlers of his generation, his powerful style is an interesting blend of Northern and Southern elements.  He has a stock of distinctly local tunes, many of which he got from his old friend, the great flute-player, Eddie Duffy, who died in 1986.  Renowned for his slow airs on the fiddle, which he accomplishes by playing in exactly the same style as he sings, with memorable effect.  Many of his songs and tunes come from his mother who played the accordeon.  In his youth he hired at Derrygonnelly Fair with a farmer who played the fiddle so that he could learn the instrument.  Played in the '30s and '40s with local céilí bands, the Sillees and the Knockmore.  His name is now internationally known since he passed on many tunes and songs to Cathal MacConnell of the group 'Boys of the Lough'.

The kingpin of oral culture in his area and one of the most important figures in Irish traditional music today.

Mrs Rose Johnson, and her husband, Tommy Johnson, Ardgart.  (Side 1, tracks 10 and 11)
Rose's family, the Reillys, were renowned as singers and their house a famous 'kayley house'.  With her husband, Tommy, she carries on the tradition and singers, musicians and dancers (Vincent Duffy and Eugene Judge among them) regularly call to kayley at their home.  Her brother, Paddy, who spent his life working as a miner in England, and her sister, Alice, are also fine singers and when the whole family gathers the singing sessions can last until daybreak.

Tommy is a member of the local mumming team, and, although he doesn't sing very often, when he does he comes out with 'a right tight comic one.'

Eugene Judge, Beleek.  (Side 2, track 6)
Originally from the Garrison area his family were also well-known as singers and musicians.  In his early '70s when recorded.  His mother bought ballad-sheets, pasted them onto cardboard and hung them on the bedroom walls to encourage her children to learn the songs.  A stylish and accomplished singer with a huge repertoire.

Ben MacGrath, Monea.  (Side 2, track 2)
Died in 1986, aged 75.  A member of another well-known family of singers.  Named 'Sketch'  by his friends for the very good reason that he was an endless source of songs, entertainment and fun.  As is usual in singing families in Fermanagh he 'chorused'  (sung in unison) with his sisters Alice and Jane.  A brilliant raconteur, his experiences included service in the Second World War in North Africa and Italy.  He has passed on his songs to his son, Jim, who is also an exceptional accordeonist.

Mrs Annie MacKenzie, Boho.  (Side 1, tracks 3 and 8, Side 2, tracks 5 and 8)
Landlady of the Linnet Bar in Boho, a focal point for local singers and musicians.  Originally from Derrylin in South Fermanagh she learned most of her songs from her mother and from 'farmers'  boys'  - hired men, mainly from Co Leitrim, who came to work in the area.  Reorganised the Boho mummers some years ago.  Since it was unheard of for women to mum she thus revived one tradition by breaking another!  Also a good song-maker, she has crafted many fine pieces on local and topical events.  She makes a song "... in a couple of hours going about through the kitchen.  When I'd think of a bit of it I'd write it down and then go back and piece it all together."  Her daughter, Eileen, is also a fine singer.

Mrs Bridget Magee, Belcoo.  (Side 2, track 1)
A member of yet another singing family - her sister is Mrs. Cassie Sheeran (nee Masterson).  In her middle sixties when recorded, she has the voice of a young girl.  Originally from Derrygonnelly, her mother was well-known as a singer and her brother played the melodeon so 'there was never any shortage of kayleyers.'  A fine dancer in her time and a wonderful source of information on the traditional group dances.

Jimmy Maguire and Eddie Stinson, Derrygonnelly.  (Side 2, track 9)
Jimmy died in 1984 in his early '70s and Eddie a year later in his middle '80s.  They first met in the 1920s when Jimmy, originally from Belcoo, came to work near Boho as a 'farmer's boy', and for many years they 'chorused' together in kayley houses throughout the Barrs and Bottoms of Boho.'  Jimmy's house in Derrygonnelly was a kayley-house right up until his death, where his friends, mainly elderly retired men who shared the same background of hill-farming and kayleying, gathered in the afternoons to 'kill the time along'.  Both men were brilliant wits and storytellers, with 'a bran-bag full o' songs'.  Even a chance meeting with Jimmy in the street could turn into a kayley.

Mrs Cassie Sheeran, Knockmore.  (Side 1, tracks 2, 4 and 9.  Side 2, track 3)
A wonderfully stylish singer with a huge store of songs.  (See section on her sister, Mrs Briget Magee)  In her early 70s when recorded.  A widow, she lived on her small-holding on the rocky windswept hillside of Knockmore, overlooking Lower Lough Erne.  Her singing is full of variation in phrasing and decoration, both melodic and rhythmical, and is reminiscent of some North East American styles.

Around Sweet Lough Erne's Shore ...

The area covered by this collection stretches roughly from Enniskillen to Beleek in West Co Fermanagh, a cluster of mountain-ridges, bounded in the North by Lower Lough Erne and in the South by Loughs Melvin and Macnean.  Nineteenth-century travellers dubbed the Lough Erne area the 'Killarney of the North', and its natural beauty is indeed impressive, with its huge lake, studded with islands, its craggy hills with sudden cliffs, waterfalls and underground rivers erupting from rock-faces, its many tiny loughs nestling in the mountain glens.  It's a beauty apparent not only to the eye of the stranger, for every lough, river and rock has been celebrated by some local song-maker.  In the '30s and '40s, when 'céilí bands' were in vogue, the local bands were named, not after the area, as was usual, but after two geographical features, the hill of Knockmore and the river Sillees.  The loughs teem with fish and wildfowl and many local inhabitants, of both sexes, are highly skilled with rod and gun, another aspect of local life which the song-makers did not overlook.

Lough Erne provided a major thoroughfare for all kinds of incursions since Neolithic times, when the system of hill-farming, based on sheep and cattle, was much the same as today, as recent excavations have shown.  In the early Christian period it was a hive of activity, with large monastic settlements on the islands and the huts of zealots and hermits high up on the mountain slopes.  It was always an area of conflict because of its strategic position and its accessible waterways.  The Vikings came to pillage the monasteries and later it was the cockpit of the struggle between the last bastion of the old Gaelic order and the expansion of the Tudors, hungry for land and capital.

In the plantations of the seventeenth-century the area was given to Scots settlers but this involved no great shift in population since the hill-farms were left in the hands of the original Irish tenants who simply had a change of landlord.  So, in terms of dialect and traditional culture, there is little evidence of any significant Scottish influence.  Cultural division operated along social rather than religious lines.  The minority of small-farmers who were Protestant integrated into the cooperative lifestyle of the hill-farmers.  The Gaelic language, however, retreated, so that the census of 1911 showed that the heaviest concentration of Gaelic speakers was along the border with Co Leitrim, between Garrison and Holywell (10%) with a figure of 1% over the rest of the area.

The new masters did not neglect the old music.  On the contrary, some of them played an active part in its promotion and patronised pipers, fiddlers and harpers.  The renowned harper, Turlough &0acute; Carolan (1670-1738) was a frequent visitor to the Big Houses of the area but his gentle tinkling left no echo in the music of the people.  Some of the rollicking gentry were not much interested in gentle tinkling either.  The Marquis of Ely took part in the May sports in Garrison in 1867 where he participated, among other things, in a Pig Hunt.  'A little grunter' was shaved, soaped and started, and the populace, including the Marquis, tried to catch him.  Afterwards the young Marquis was carried to his hotel where he entertained a select party.  Outside, dancing was kept up during the evening.  Lads and lasses danced nimbly, to whom pipers and fiddlers played fast and furious.'  However, for the people whose culture generated the songs and music represented here, the small-farmers and farm labourers, life was an interminable cycle of hardship and poverty.  The bitter agrarian struggles of the last century intertwined with sectarian differences, disrupting the bonds of neighbourliness.  Yet, social life appears to have been active.  An Enniskillen newspaper in 1867 listed the main local pastimes as, 'fiddling and dancing, fishing, cot-racing, (cot means flat-bottomed barge used on Lough Erne) cock-fighting and party fights.'

Despite the immense social changes in Ireland since the turn of the century, this part of Fermanagh has always been renowned for its fiddlers, flute-players, dancers and singers.  One of the great names of the past is that of William Carroll, the flute-player, whose sound was so powerful it is said that he could 'blow the delft off a dresser.'  Carroll passed his tunes and skills on to another extraordinary flute-player, Eddie Duffy of Derrygonnelly, who died in 1986 at the age of 93, and who was still playing until shortly before his death.  Eddie in turn, passed his store of tunes on to Mick Hoy, the fiddler from Blaney, on the shores of Lough Erne, whose fame has now spread far beyond the hills and loughs of Fermanagh.  (See side 1, tracks 1, 5, 6, 7, 12 and 13, and side 2, tracks 4, 7, 11, 12, 13).  Mick, in his turn, has generously passed on the tradition to the young musicians and singers of the area like Jim McGrath (acc.) and Seamus Quinn (fdl.) and Rosie Stewart (singer).

Many of the old mountain kayley houses are now silent as families are moved into the villages.  Yet this has not diminished the vitality of traditional song and music.  Increased social contact and activity has given a new lease of life to the old culture, with many young people becoming involved, and traditions like mumming and old-style social dancing reinvigorated.  The notion that 'modernisation' inevitably smothers oral culture is strongly contradicted by the singing, dancing, kayleying people of the Barony of Magheraboy.

Your Kayley was Short ...

In real life, unlike folk-music collections, a song does not exist on its own with a wee note attached telling you where other versions can be found in print.  Rather, it exists in performance, like a currant in a cake, sung in relation to, or in response to other songs, the whole lot being laced together with chat, stories and banter.

In Fermanagh, the breeding ground for songs (and indeed, for verbal skills in general) is the 'kayley'.  From the Gaelic word 'céilí, it simply means a night-visit to a neighbour's house to 'kill the time along' with chat or card-playing, stories, songs and occasionally, music and dancing.  It is the major arena for the transmission of traditional song and is essentially the preserve of small-farmers and farm labourers who depend on mutual aid for their survival.  It is not part of the culture of the 'strong farmers' whose relations with their workers are basically monetary.  A man goes 'out on his kayleys' or he 'kayleys to' a certain house.  But the actual kayley itself, like a song, is 'made'.  "There he was, standing in the middle of the floor, making his kayley until one in the morning."

The kayley is an intense and gentle context of performance.  Unlike the male-dominated pub session it includes young and old, women and children.  The pub session is dominated by instrumental music with no dancing.  The kayley is dominated by song and if music is played it is usually because somebody wants to dance.  In pubs even traditional singers perform a very limited band of their repertoire, usually place-praise songs and 'comics'.  Large sections of the repertoire (e.g., children's songs) are considered unsuitable for singing in pubs.

Although the kayley is largely spontaneous it still has some formal elements.  Even if a kayleyer has been boring a household to distraction until all hours in the morning the standard expression of farewell when he finally leaves is, "Ah now, your kayley was short!"

A Dangerous Song

From Jimmy Maguire:

Charlie Love from Boho went on a bit of a spree one time and a man called Joe the Flush went home and told his mother the whole story, and begod, she made a song of it.  George Stinson (an accordeon player and singer) got the song and Charlie Love heard that he was singing it in the pub.  They met in the shop one day and shook hands.

Charlie waved his stick and said, "Stinson, you have that song that that blackguard and his mother made on me and I hear you're singing it round the country."  "Well," said George, "I heard it, now."  "Aye, and you're singing it," says he, "And, begod,2 says he, "if you don't sing it for me," says he, "I'll split your skull where you're standing!"  "Well," says George, says he, "I don't want my skull split,2 says he, "so I'll sing it for you 'til I get home safe."  So George sang it for him.  Says he, "It'd a been far better," says he, "Joe the Flush," says he, " 'd a been working," says he, "and save his farm o' land," says he, "instead o' making songs!"

The Trouble with Cubs

The trouble with cubs nowadays is:
they can sing none,*
they can dance none
and they can't tell lies!

Eddie Duffy, (at the age of 89).  *pronounced to rhyme with stone.  Lies means tall tales.


To all the singers and musicians of Fermanagh; to the MacGrath family of Monea for endless help and hospitality; to Maire MacConnell for putting me in the right direction and to her mother, Mary for advice and insight; to Helen Brennan for her support and enthusiasm and also for her dancing; to Pat Magee of Rossgor, Eileen and Annie MacKenzie of Boho, Gabriel MacArdle of Enniskillen, the Hoy family of Blaney, Anne Flanagan of Belcoo and to all those who helped me with this highly-enjoyable, and at times, curious, task.

Contents of the Tape

Side 1
  1. Mick Hoy (fdl.)... Jig Away The Donkey (0'42")
  2. Cassie Sheeran... My Little Fiddle (1'02")
  3. Annie Mackenzie ... Coleraine Town (2'54")
  4. Cassie Sheeran... Floro (3'27")
  5. Mick Hoy (voc.)... Bonny Wee Charlie (1'51")
  6. Mick Hoy (fdl.)... Bessy The Beauty Of Rossinure Hill (2'05")
  7. Mick Hoy (story) ... 'You're a Liar,'&Nbsp; Says the King (2'05")
  8. Annie Mackenzie ... The Frog's Wedding (3'20")
  9. Cassie Sheeran ... Three Bunches of Black Ribbons (3'14")
  10. Tommy Johnson ... You Boys of the City (1'47")
  11. Rose Johnson ... Lovely Ann (2'13")
  12. Mick Hoy (voc.)... Jolly Roving Tar (2'10")
  13. Mick Hoy (fdl.)... Neil Gow's Highland (0'57")

Side 2
  1. Bridget Magee... Courting Coat On (2'44")
  2. Ben Macgrath... The Oul Yellow Cow (3'43")
  3. Cassie Sheeran... Behind the Barley Knowe (2'23")
  4. Mick Hoy (voc.)... The Banks of the Bann (1'11")
  5. Annie Mackenzie ... I'll Sing you a Song (1'21")
  6. Eugene Judge ... Barbry Ellen (2'37")
  7. Mick Hoy (fdl.) ... Lannigan's Ball (1'00")
  8. Annie Mackenzie ... Mick Dolan (2'31")
  9. Jimmy Maguire and Eddie Stinson... The Irish Girl (3'49")
  10. Vincent Duffy... Campbell the Drover (4'33")
  11. Mick Hoy (voc.)... He's Waited Long for Me (0'54")
  12. Mick Hoy (story) ... The Skinned Horse
  13. Mick Hoy (fdl.) ... The Black Rogue Jig (1'52")

Notes on the Songs

Much of folk-song scholarship tends to concentrate on the song rather than on the singer, which, to my mind, is a case of putting the cart before the horse.  A traditional song exists only in the moment of its performance and the shape it takes each time it is sung depends upon the context of the performance and, ultimately, on the artistic decisions of the singer.  So, in the following notes it is not intended to give an exhaustive list of all the published variants of each song (which, generally, leaves the reader none the wiser) but to add a few comments which may enhance the listener's appreciation of the performance.

For those who would like to read further on the subject there are accessible and extensive bibliographies in Hugh Shields' Shamrock Rose and Thistle, Belfast, 1981 and Peter Kennedy's The Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, London, 1975.

1.1 Jig Away the Donkey - A confusing name for a reel but also played as a 'highland' (schottische).  Northern fiddlers readily adapt their reels to highland tempo (2/4 time) and this tune seems to fall between the two.  Mick got this distinctly Fermanagh version from the late Eddie Duffy.  The last four bars are played at the beginning as an introduction for dancers.

1.2 My Little Fiddle - The singers call these nonsense songs 'ramases'  (from the Irish, ráiméis; rubbish) or, more usually, 'courants'.  "Sure it's only an oul courant."

1.3 Coleraine Town - Widely sung throughout the area.  Mrs MacKenzie learned her version from Willie Thompson of Derrygonnelly - 'a small wee man with a big moustache and a big voice.'

1.4 Floro - A song of English origin which has travelled as far as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  A Tyrone version is published in the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, IV, p.23.  Exceptionally stylish singing with beautiful use of slides, glottal stops and rhythmical variation.  Mrs Sheeran uses the 'hard' vocal tone beloved of the older traditional singers, and in general her singing is reminiscent of some Eastern USA styles.

1.5 Bonny Wee Charlie - Another 'courant'.  Mick also plays this tune on the fiddle as a jig with the same title.  The jig is widely played and in Kerry is a favourite of the Wren Boys.  The Lancers is a quadrille (square dance) still popular in the North.

1.6 Bessy the Beauty of Rossinure Hill - Much revived slow-air playing tends to be elaborately over-decorated and bears little relationship with the vocal original.  Older players speak of 'playing the song' and this is beautifully demonstrated here by Mick Hoy.  Rossinure Hill is just outside Derrygonnelly.  The air appears in many variants throughout the North, the best-known being associated with The Green Fields of America.

1.7 'You're a Liar!', says the King - A masterful piece of tale-telling.  Mick told this ancient and widespread story (it's known in most European languages and also in Irish) during a joking session as musicians relaxed between tunes and songs at a kayley in a back room of MacKenzie's pub in Boho.  I later recorded it at a kayley in the ever-hospitable house of the MacConnells of Bellinaleck.  The use of the phrase, 'he says', as a rhythmical device to build up tension is skilfully demonstrated here.

1.8 The Frog's Wedding - Learned by Mrs MacKenzie as a child from a 'farmer's boy' from Co Leitrim who came to work at a farm close by her home at Derrylin.  This song, of Scottish origin, has charmed children for at least four-and-a-half centuries now.  In a poem called the Complaynt of Scotland (1549) shepherds sing The frog cam to the myl-dur.  Known in tradition all over the English-speaking world.  There is even a version in Welsh.

1.9 Three Bunches of Black Ribbons - Another example of the beautiful 'high lonesome' style of Mrs Cassie Sheeran.  She is singing here at a small kayley at her own home with some of her family and grandchildren present, all of whom seem to know the words of her songs!  Her use of stops in unusual places (e.g., labour-er) is a distinctive aspect of her style.

1.10 You Boys of the City - A comic song of ballad sheet origin.  The tune is the popular jig, Larry O' Gaff.

1.11 Lovely Ann - Irish-language poetry and song uses various complex patterns of internal and cross-rhyme and in the last century many folk-poets and hedge-schoolmasters adapted this technique to songs in Hiberno-English.  This fine example of the type is ascribed by local singers to Peter Magennis, a nineteenth-century schoolmaster-bard who wrote in this style although the song also appears on early ballad sheets.

1.12 Jolly Roving Tar - Another song of British ballad sheet origin known all over Ireland and also in America.

1.13 Neil Gow's Highland - The highland (schottische, or in folk-speech in Ireland, 'seteesh' / 'satoosh') is still a popular social dance in this part of Fermanagh and can be seen danced in pubs on Saturday Nights.  Neil Gow (1727-1807): Scottish fiddler and composer of dance music, patronised by the aristocracy and befriended by Burns.

2.1 Courting Coat - A delicate and stylish piece of singing.  Of Scottish origin, the song is also sung by Irish travelling folk in a version called Navvy Boots On.

2.2 The Oul Yellow Cow - One of Ben's favourite songs which he sang with great dash and humour, standing in the middle of the floor, and helping himself along with tremendous gestures.  The song is a popular one in the area and the air has been used for some local songs.  Of English origin (sometimes called The Yorkshire Bite) it's well-known on both sides of the Atlantic and ballad-sheet versions very close to Ben's were printed in Belfast in the early nineteenth century.

2.3 Behind the Barley Knowe - Mrs Sheeran took great delight in this widely-sung tale of role-reversal.  Of Scottish origin, it's sung all over Britain and North America.  A version very close to this one appeared on ballad sheets printed in Belfast in the early nineteenth century, entitled The Childish Husband.

2.4 The Banks of the Bann - Mick Hoy displaying all the intricacies of the local style of singing.  One of the many Irish songs which entered the British tradition through the ballad-sheet industry.

2.5 I'll Sing You A Song - Another 'courant', this time a 'back to front' song.  The air is a variant of that used in Derry for the classic British ballad Little Sir Hugh (Little Harry Hughes) and also of that used for the Donegal religious song Seacht Subháilce na Maighdne.

2.6 Barbry Ellen - Performed at a big kayley at the home of Rose and Tommy Johnson, at Ardgart, Beleek, to the accompaniment of the sounds of washing-up from the kitchen.  Barbry Allen/Ellen has for long been the most popular of the older British ballads.  The diarist, Pepys, heard it in London in 1666.

2.7 Lannigan's Ball - Mick's version of the familiar jig.

2.8 Mick Dolan - Another song learned by Mrs MacKenzie as a child from hired men from Leitrim.  Widely circulated through ballad sheets, entitled The Wild Irishman in London.

2.9 The Irish Girl - This was recorded in Jimmy Maguire's house in Derrygonnelly one hot sunnner's afternoon when some old friends gathered to have their hair cut - Jimmy was a very handy man!   It's a good example of the Fermanagh love of 'chorusing' (singing in unison), indulged in by close friends or family groups.  Outside Ireland the song has been recorded in Scotland and throughout North America.

2.10 Campbell the Drover - One of Vincent's favourite songs and always in demand.  Also known as The Irish April Fool it's sung all over the North and also in Nova Scotia.

2.12 The Skinned Horse - Another tale told in MacConnell's of Bellinaleck.  Older versions of this story linked it with waterhorses from Lough Erne.

Seán Corcoran

Article MT019

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