|The Bog isn't a Place, it's a Feeling...
by Mattie Lennon
Sean McCarthy was born in Listowel, one of ten children, on 5th July 1923. He attended Listowel Primary School and his first teacher was Bryan McMahon who later said of him; "He was always a special person. I'll even go so far as to say he was unique" And unique indeed he was. A fact much appreciated by his fans world-wide and particularly his friends in North Kerry.
The annual Sean McCarthy Memorial Weekend, in Finuge, has been going from strength to strength since it started in 1991. This year Michael O Muirchearytaigh opened it on Friday 04th August. We learned that Michael; Taught Luke Kelly, Likes greyhounds, Thinks Dublin might win another All Ireland.
The Dingleman with the famous voice regaled us with stories serious and amusing and went on to introduce Jim McCann who played to a packed Teach Siamsa. And I'm sure DeValera would have been delighted with the assembly of comely maidens at the crossroads dance, which followed, even if the male half of the company wasn't made up entirely of "athletic youths".
On Saturday morning legendary songwriters Pete St. John and Mickie McConnell gave a workshop on Ballad-writing. They shared a few tricks of the trade with us and while it's unlikely any of us will go on to write another "Fields Of Athenry" or "Only Our Rivers Run Free" it was an educational experience.
Meanwhile Eimer O' Connor was giving a course in Art at a local school. Later, Mike Joe Thornton and, the David Bellemy of North Kerry, Paul Kennelly, took us on a bog trek which included a demonstration of cutting, spreading, futting and clamping the native peat while a docile donkey stood patiently by waiting for the "drawing out". I wouldn't like to give any politician a swelled head but I have to say Jimmy Deenihan is a fair man with a slaen. When I told a man from Drumcluck that in my turfcutting heyday, in my native Wicklow, I could "keep two in the air and one on the slaen" he wasn't impressed. But it can be difficult to impress a Kerryman.
We were treated to "tay" made in the traditional manner and a very special boxty. I tried sweet-talking a local female but failed to wheedle the recipe out of her. (Even in my younger days Kerrywomen always were too cute for me) Thanks to Paul Kennelly I now know that about 100,000 years ago, at he end of the last ice age, Innismore Bog was a basin of calcareous boulder clay, where water accumulated creating a lake. This was gradually overgrown with fen vegetation and infilled with fea peat. As the dept of peat grew the surface vegetation was deprived of the mineral-rich water below. The fen plants died through lack of nutrients and bog mosses, which are much less nutrient demanding, survived on the few nutrients present in rainfall. Due to lack of oxygen plants could not decompose completely and so the remains of dead vegetation accumulated as peat with the energy trapped and concentrated. And so the fossil fuel burned by the people of Killocrim, and surrounding areas, was formed by a process even slower than that of the refund section of the Revenue Commissioners.
It is very fitting to have a bog-day in memory of Sean McCarthy. For wile he was free from county, and indeed, national prejudice, his heart was always in the bogs of North Kerry. He once said; " The bog isn't a place it's a feeling. You don't grow up in the bog... you grow up with the bog". He wrote 160 songs, 24 of which have been recorded on two albums by Peggy Sweeney. Many of his songs feature the area around his childhood home, which he described as "a house of entertainment". Once on Arthur Godfrey's radio show, in America, he expressed what he perceived as his own inability to describe "... the sheer magic lunacy of the Rambling House as experienced by a barefoot boy". He had a very early awareness of the power of words and once said; " The writing of songs, poetry or indeed any type of creative writing is a drug to me, I can do without whiskey, wine, even food for long stretches but a week without writing something if only a four line poem, would be a wasted week".
Yet I'm sure he would agree with Shakespeare; "For those fellows of infinite tongue, that, can rhyme themselves into lady's favours, they do always reason themselves out again". Sean had great admiration for local songwriter Paddy Drury, who wrote "The Valley of Knockanure", but illustrated the pitfalls of being a poet with the following story which he told, with relish, about Paddy; Paddy Drury was employed by a Vicar whose housekeeper, Kate Nealon, even by the standards of that double-gusset-knickers-era, kept her lions exceptionally well girded... out of bounds to Paddy who said; "She has so many iron bands woven into her corset that it would take a blacksmith two weeks to open her up...". Paddy found himself unemployed after he expressed his bewilderment, and frustration, in verse;
There was no such risqué material in the songs of any of the twelve finalists in The Sean McCarthy Ballad Competition on Saturday night. The winner was a young man from Glencolumcille, Eunan MCIntyre, with his own song "Josie". And as Eunan took the long road to Donegal with his £600, perpetual trophy and special prize, of an expensive piece of Waterford glass, donated by Pete St. John, the night was only beginning. The dawn was breaking over Rathea when D&D SOUND played the last note on the road- side platform.
The Sean McCarthy Memorial Committee has purchased a thatched cottage in Finuge for a nominal price and on Sunday afternoon the sprightly vendor, Patrick Sheehan, officially handed over the key to Eamon Kelly, Seanchai. The "scraw-roof" with the "couples" and "cross-laths", the open fire, the half-door and whitewashed walls provided a perfect set for Eamon's account of what happened "In My Father's Time". I had witnessed the dedication (and humility) of the 86 year old pro in The Listowel Arms earlier in the day. His request, to a member of staff, for rehearsal facilities was a polite; "I wonder could I have somewhere where I could talk to myself for a while"? At three o'clock the "Bogadeers" arrived. Yes, who are they? You may well ask. Well, they are a pageant group made up of the cream of singing, dancing, acting, story-telling and musical talent of North Kerry. And this time they were embarking on a very authentic "journey to the bog". They gave a very fine performance to a distinguished audience. And when octogenarian John Lyons arrived his mode of transport brought to mind Kavanagh's poem "Kerrs Ass";
The asse's cart was loaded with slaens, forks, barrell-sacks, enamel mugs and a cast-iron "kittle". Not an anachronism in sight. There was even a butterbox bearing the name of a long forgotten co-op in the Kingdom, containing farmer's butter, soda bread and home-cured bacon (not too well shaved) John Lyons even had a spare item of tackling, which he gracefully gave me as a gift.
The evening finished with another al fresco session with music by Country Moonlight. But I couldn't wait for the National Anthem. It is a long road back to Kylebeg and I left at 3 A.M. I was stopped by a tired Garda, with cap at a rakish angle, in Borris-in-Ossery, who didn't comment on my present from John Lyons, which was on the back seat. But I would have strenuously argued that an asse's hames is not an offensive weapon.