The Stars of Ballymenone, New Edition
471 pages
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471 pages
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Description

A new edition of the classic portrait of the people, songs, and tales of Ballymenone from the award-winning author of Passing the Time in Ballymenone.


In the time of the Troubles, when bombs blew through the night and soldiers prowled down the roads, Henry Glassie came to the Irish borderland to learn how country people endure through history. He settled into the farming community of Ballymenone, beside Lough Erne in the County Fermanagh, and listened to the old people. For a decade he heard and recorded the stories and songs in which they outlined their culture, recounted their history, and pictured their world. In their view, their world was one of love, defeat, and uncertainty, demanding the virtues of endurance: faith, bravery, and wit.

Glassie's task in this book is to set the scene, to sketch the backdrop and clear the stage, so that Hugh Nolan and Michael Boyle, Peter Flanagan, Ellen Cutler, and their neighbors can tell their own tale, which explains their conditions and converts them into a tragedy of conflict and a comedy of the absurd. It gathers the saints and warriors, and celebrates the stars whose wit enabled endurance in days of violence and deprivation.

With patience and respect, Glassie describes life in a time and a place exactly like no other, and yet Ballymenone is like a thousand other places where people work on the land during the day and tell their own tales at night, forgotten, while the men of power fill the newspapers and history books by sending poor boys out to be killed.

The Stars of Ballymenone is an integrated analysis of the complete repertory of verbal art from a rural community where storytelling and singing of quality remained a part of daily life.


1. Remains 1
Our District of the Country 9
2. Ballymenone 15
3. Fermanagh 33
4. Northern Ireland 45
5. Carrying On 53
6. Stars in the Dark 67
7. Michael Boyle 115
8. Hugh Nolan 125
9. Peter Flanagan 155
10. Dwelling in Time 189
An Epic of Common Life 225
11. The Fireside 227
12. The Ceili 251
13. Saints 257
14. Saint Columcille 269
15. Battles 275
16. Black Francis 283
17. Experiences 289
18. Fairy Tales 301
19. Ghost Stories 319
20. Exploits 335
21. The Gift of Wit 345
22. Tales in the Ceili 375
23. Public Performance 381
24. The Twelfth in the Town 387
25. A Night at Swad 395
Afterword 419
Acknowledgments 435
Notes to the Book 437
Notes to the Compact Disc 517
Bibliography 558
Index 584

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Publié par
Date de parution 12 septembre 2016
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780253022622
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 3 Mo

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0025€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Stories and Songs of South Fermanagh
Recorded, Compiled, and Produced by Henry Glassie and Doug Boyd is located online at:
http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/media/t64g64vn2b
The Stars of Ballymenone

The Stars of Ballymenone
Henry Glassie
Photography, Drawings, and Design by the Author Compact Disc, Stories and Songs of South Fermanagh , Henry Glassie and Doug Boyd
This book is a publication of
Indiana University Press
Office of Scholarly Publishing
Herman B Wells Library 350
1320 East 10th Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA
iupress.indiana.edu
New edition 2016
2006 by Henry Glassie
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
Manufactured in China
The Library of Congress has cataloged the original edition as follows:
ISBN 978-0-253-34717-6 (cloth)
Cataloging information is available from the Library of Congress.
ISBN 978-0-253-02254-7 (paperback)
ISBN 978-0-253-02262-2 (ebook)
1 2 3 4 5 21 20 19 18 17 16
for
Pravina,
amar rani
The two things happen at the one time.
Things get better.
And they get worse.
- Hugh Nolan
Contents
1. Remains
Our District of the Country
2. Ballymenone
3. Fermanagh
4. Northern Ireland
5. Carrying On
6. Stars in the Dark
7. Michael Boyle
8. Hugh Nolan
9. Peter Flanagan
10. Dwelling in Time
An Epic of Common Life
11. The Fireside
12. The Ceili
13. Saints
14. Saint Columcille
15. Battles
16. Black Francis
17. Experiences
18. Fairy Tales
19. Ghost Stories
20. Exploits
21. The Gift of Wit
22. Tales in the Ceili
23. Public Performance
24. The Twelfth in the Town
25. A Night at Swad
Afterword
Acknowledgments
Notes to the Book
Notes to the Compact Disc
Bibliography
Index
The Stars of Ballymenone
Hugh Nolan s house, 1972
1
Remains
H UGH N OLAN, MY STAR of the Irish twilight, died on November 14, 1981. A curt note from a nurse at the Erne Hospital told me. She had no one else to write to, and I stood, the paper in my hands, while my mind gathered around the fact. He was an old man, and old men die. That is how it is, people come and go. Then, slowly, like fog in the night, understanding came over me, and I broke down and wept. No death has hit me harder. I knew what the world lost in his passing.
I had come to his place, Ballymenone, in the County Fermanagh, at the southwestern edge of Northern Ireland, to learn how country people endure in violent times. It was 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles. Every day, I walked out of the lovely town of Enniskillen, stepping to the hedge when armored cars hurtled past, turning in along familiar lanes to wander the low hills that pitch and drift beside the Arney River. Walking, I got to know every dog, bog, and pass, every farm, every house, every person who lived there, and, a practiced hand at agricultural labor, I worked with them, clamping turf and rooking hay. When questions built up, I took the old cart track over Drumbargy Brae, whistling reels, swinging my sack from shoulder to shoulder without breaking stride, and, happy with anticipation, came down to Hugh Nolan s house by the roadside.
His grandfather built it, a small brick house, whitewashed without, smoked inside to every shade of black. Mr. Nolan lived in one of its two dark rooms. By day he sat at the corner of the wide hearth, tending the fire beside him, feeding it new turf and splashes of oil from an old tin can. An iron crane reached over the smolder, a black kettle dangled from a black chain. His back was bent, and when he rose he had to rock back to look forward, making his way over the treacherous clay floor between the sharp edges of furniture: from the hearth to the bucket of turf by the door, from the table with the shaving mirror and brass candlestick to the table with the bread, from his hard chair to the ruined couch by the fire where he slept at night.
When I arrived, he was there in the corner, his cap and coat as black as the house. I unpacked the gifts bought on my journey: a wedge of cheese, fluffy sweet cakes wrapped in cellophane, two black bottles of stout. I draped another old coat over his powerful shoulders, and knelt to the fire, making our tea. When we were done, and I had washed the cups and spoons, I settled onto the thing he used for a bed. The white cat came to rest, purring on my knee, and I asked the first question. Mr. Nolan cracked a match, sucking the flame into the remains in his pipe, thinking, then put it aside to say, Well now, I ll tell ye the way it is. . . .
Age lined his face, the creases blackened with soot, but his eyes were as clear and bright as a child s-a sign at the scuffed surface of the fine light of his mind-and his words came forth in orderly array, unrushed and precise. Words, he believed, are precious: be careful, be clear, speak the truth; words are all we have to make connections among us, shaping affection, building society. His answers presumed a serious question; they spread with detail and moved smoothly to completion.
Hugh Nolan was born in this house on December 26, 1896. He had traveled to Scotland as a farm laborer and worked the dirt of his own home place, all the while observing, taking, he said, a mental note of what mattered. He had listened to the elders and studied with the masters of his youth, Hugh McGiveney and Richard Corrigan, accumulating information critically, becoming wise. His neighbors called him a great historian. He was my prime guide to the culture of Ballymenone, the best teacher I have ever known.
On our first days together, I listened and took notes. When, in good time, the tape recorder came out, all Mr. Nolan said was that he did not want to record anything harmful to the neighbors. So I showed him the button that stopped the reels from spinning. He never used it, but he paused to be sure the machine was going before he spoke, and during that first year, and all the years that followed, the tapes piled up, the notebooks filled. Slowly, what he knew I learned, and what one old man could know stunned me to tears at his death.
The last time I saw him, it was a few days before Christmas at the Erne Hospital in Enniskillen. He had always refused to be taken away. The heat in the hospital scorched him, he said, and he missed the freedom of his own wee house. But kind people worried around him. Mrs. Corrigan, his neighbor, who brought him hot meals, who read him my letters and wrote his replies, and the nurse who came to visit and the doctor to whom she reported-all had tried to convince him. For years he resisted, then, wonderful rational old man, he thought it over, realizing that he could be robbed, that he could be burned, that he could die alone, and when the doctor began his argument again, Mr. Nolan consented.
Neat rows of metal beds stood on the polished floor. A television flickered at the end of the ward. A green tree glowed with red lights. All he owned had been reduced to the contents of a single slim drawer in the washstand beside his bed. Tidy nurses slipped in and out, bearing stainless-steel trays with coils of clear plastic tubing, chromium clamps, sharp needles, and vials of pale fluid. Old men dozed and sat alone and wandered the aisles in bathrobes. We talked about history. His life s consolation, Hugh Nolan said, had been keepin the truth and tellin the whole tale.
A hundred times I had risen from his hearth, a hundred times he had come with me to the door, wishing me God s blessing as I walked Rossdoney Lane away from him. Now he swung the metal walker before him through the slick corridors to the lobby of the hospital. Gray rain streaked the glass. Good old man, he never had the bad taste to become intimate, but I looked into his eyes and said, I love you, Hugh.
I know, he replied.
No words were left unsaid, the circle closed gently, but I had hoped Mr. Nolan would see the big book I was writing to tell what I had learned in Ballymenone. The first book, All Silver and No Brass , an account of Christmas mumming, had pleased him and my other generous teachers: I love me book, Ellen Cutler said; The book is great, Peter Flanagan said; and a published book persuaded their neighbors that my work among them was serious. While the big book, a garrulous ethnography called Passing the Time in Ballymenone , rumbled through the press, I compiled a small one on the model of Lady Gregory s admirable Kiltartan History Book . Shorn of analysis, rendered down to the texts local people would find engaging, Irish Folk History was designed as a gift to the community, and I sent the first copy to Hugh Nolan. It was returned, unopened and marked addressee deceased, from the Erne Hospital.
Every household received the small book, and it delights me to find it disheveled from use when I visit. The big book landed in the homes of my principal teachers, there to be wrapped up and packed away. On the odd occasion, it was brought out to show the photographs it contained, their places marked by stains at the edge, but reading it was another matter. Reading is an antisocial act, and, though everyone was literate, the only reader in the place, William Lunny, told me he had to curtain the window and turn the lamp down low if he wanted a night alone with a book.
One group of young men assembled around the book s bulk-more than eight hundred dense, frantically footnoted pages-and they took it to the priest, asking him to tell them what they should think about it. They told me he kept it a long time, then gave it back, saying, You should be grateful. This man knows everything about you, but he didn t say it. I knew about moral lapses, I knew who made the bombs, but I talked about the present, as the old men did, through the indirection of historical analogy, leaving the living safe from reprisal.
No honest book can avoid all danger, all harm, and no one could live as long as I did in Ballymenone without forming friendships, developing opinions, taking sides, but, in writing, injurious facts can be suppressed, compassionate explanation can muffle the shock, and balance is not impossible. The local papers, the Reporter and the Herald , though opposed in political orientation, both published lengthy and overly kind reviews. Among the people, the main problem was envy. I divided the royalties, of course, among my chief teachers, and some of their neighbors overestimated the cash that scholarly books earn. But the sums were small, my loyalties firm, and I mailed the checks in time for Christmas. I ve lived a long time, Hugh Patrick Owens told me, and I always thought royalties was sons of bitches, but now I come to learn that royalties mean a lock of drinks at Christmas.
I sent the books across the ocean, and seven months after Mr. Nolan s death, I was in Ballymenone once more, sitting with tea in the gleaming clean kitchen of Francy Corrigan s grand home. He is one of the district s big farmers, a hard worker whose white shirt swept reflected light across the sagging black ceiling at Hugh Nolan s when we were inside talking and he passed by on his tractor. Francy told me he thought it was Hugh s heart, for he died suddenly while taking his tea.
The key to the lock on the door was lost, so Paddy Quigley, who bought Hugh s small farm for its land, loaned me a crowbar so I could pry the lock away and enter. His cane lay across the settle where I sat to record his words. A pair of socks hung over the crane at the hearth where he accepted me as an apprentice, teaching me as Hugh McGiveney taught him. The hearth where I stooped to make his tea was silted with soot and ash and rust and mold. When I lifted the kettle, it came apart in my hands. Around me, a moist darkness was pulling everything back to the earth. Furniture tilted on rotting feet. Cardboard boxes of sodden paper melted toward the clay floor.
Among the papers, I found letters from convents, thanking him for his weekly gifts. I sent him money to ease his hard life, and he sent it away to help others. In a soot-blackened, hand-stitched fragment of an antique geography book, I found the certificate of a pious vow he had made and an old letter from me saying I would be back in Ireland to see him soon.
Black pictures hung on black walls, holy pictures, for he was a saint. Big drums crumbled in a dim corner, for he loved music and the old Ballymenone marching band had stored its instruments in the room he did not use. I stood in the cell of my master, and the terrible clot of grief in my chest began to dissolve into melancholy. Hugh Nolan is gone. He told me what he could and left behind the first phase of an archaeological site, still standing, beginning to fall. Only the crockery on the dresser remained hard and white. Everything else softened and darkened, decaying beneath a thickening layer of soot and rot, seeking the earth.
I found a big penny and gave it to Francy s boy who remembered Hugh, a bent old man on a stick with a lot of cats. I took a mug from the dresser. Transfer-printed with birds in blue, chipped and lacking a handle, it is ware of a kind once made in Belleek and displayed on the dresser that stood across from the hearth in pretty country kitchens, now to be found in shards among the nettles at the sites of old dwellings.
As I had done so many times before, I walked away from Hugh Nolan s, turned uphill, and crossed the fields to Peter Flanagan s. During my first year, I had slept in the town to remain unaligned, and my neutrality served me as I got to know everyone, tracing out the networks of affinity, tracking the patterns of cooperative work and night visiting, puzzling kinship together, unriddling political opinion, and drawing maps of fields and plans of houses. But neutrality can be sustained for only so long, my foreignness failed me, and on the visits that followed, averaging one a year, I stayed with Peter and Joseph Flanagan, with my pals P and Joe, sleeping beneath a heap of blankets and old coats in a tiny, dank room off the kitchen.
Peter welcomed me to the fire, and we drew ourselves together with talk of the past, remembering our first day a decade before, when we talked about music, remembering our last visit, a week after Joe s death. He gave me news of the neighbors. James Owens who told me tales of ancient warfare, Jamesie died in January. John Carson has moved a mobile home onto the Hill Head in Drumbargy, the longest house in the world, Peter said. John had borrowed Peter s copy of Passing the Time in Ballymenone , and P complimented me more than necessary, praising the book s complication and its truth. He brought to the hearth the wooden flute he played when he was the band s star musician. While the sweet, sad notes ascended, the fire provided us a wavering halo of pink light. For a moment it felt as though nothing had happened. We made tea and talk and got another night behind us.
Peter was the last to go. His letters stopped coming, but he cashed the checks I sent, and then the silence was complete. I thought he was dead, but one night in 1991 my friend Bryan Gallagher was passing through the ward at the Erne Hospital when a gaunt old man stopped him. Bryan did not recognize him, but, I am Peter Flanagan, he said. For God s sake, tell the Yank I m alive. Bryan called, and I booked a flight. In Enniskillen, the nurse told me he had been released. His old home on the windy ridge was locked, abandoned, and the neighbors sent me into unfamiliar territory, south of the Arney. On the road, I met a man I did not know, who knew me as the man that wrote the book. He directed me to the home of Jim McManus, saying it would be the last time I would see P Flanagan.
Mr. and Mrs. McManus fed him and kept him clean. We laughed when we met, and for two days Peter and I reminisced, drinking tea and telling old tales, remembering, and then we parted. Soon his mind snapped free of the world, his body gave up. The obituary in the Herald stressed his musical talent, telling how he had marched in the band in the early days of the struggle for independence, identifying him as the teacher of the great fluter Cathal McConnell, as a major source for my now famous book. Peter Flanagan made it to the great age of eighty-six. He was the last mummer, God bless him, the last star, the end of a generation. They are all gone now.
What remains are scraps and fragments: a broken mug from Hugh Nolan s dresser; an iron trivet, smithed out of three horseshoes, given to me by Mrs. Cutler; a handmade brick, given to me by Hugh Patrick Owens; nearly three thousand photographs and more than three thousand pages of field notes; a plan of everyone s house; transcriptions from tape of every song and story they knew, the full repertory of verbal art from a lost generation in a small Irish place. There are also three books about their community, and a fourth, Irish Folktales , containing still more stories by Hugh Nolan, Peter and Joseph Flanagan, Ellen Cutler, and Michael Boyle. Now I add a fifth, taking another cut through data that remain unexhausted, writing because I must.
Early in his anguished masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , James Agee, the patron saint of travelers across social divides, wrote that it would be better not to write, better to offer up fragments: photographs, recordings of speech, pieces of wood and cotton and iron. But those scraps of the real could not convey the reality; they would be assimilated to old understandings. Agee had to write, and since he did, we know something of what it was like to be poor in Alabama in 1936. Late in Tristes Tropiques , which twins with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a monumental accomplishment and subversion of the ethnographer s craft, Claude L vi-Strauss concludes that it is hopeless. Memory and fatigue will distort the traveler s perceptions, and only the believable in the traveler s tale will be believed: its news, its disturbing truths, its revolutionary potential will be lost. But L vi-Strauss wrote anyway, so we know something about the Bororo and Nambikwara, about life in the back country of Brazil between 1935 and 1939. Writing will fail, but there is nothing else to be done. The photographs, the records of speech, the artifacts gathered for the museum will not suffice on their own. Words must march out to defeat, forming lines across paper in the belief that some of the reality will filter through their accumulation.
I wish my words would sound like a wooden flute in the night, feel like a steel chain on a farmgate in winter, smell like bogwater, but, a pupil of Hugh Nolan s, I must be content with a striving for truth, composing in this book, out of my experience, an essay on the significance of place and time and creativity in the culture of people who live by working the earth. Here, as in the books that have gone before, I take my stand, doing what I can to undermine the prejudice, held by thinkers to the right and thinkers to the left, against the rural poor. My angle is historical.
I write of a time when the dead were yet alive, a past era marked by two sets of conditions. It was a time of violence. The year I came began with Bloody Sunday, and the Troubles continued, setting rural life in a context of political conflict, of bombings and killings, rage and fear. It was a time of deprivation, when the technologies of the modern, long a comfort in other places, were only beginning to come to Ballymenone. When I arrived in 1972, there was no plumbing or central heat or electricity, no telephones, no televisions to trap folks at home, few cars to carry them away to the delights of the town. People labored through the day, hefting iron pots, turning the soil with spades, and they gathered at night by the fire to chat. Electricity came in 1976, making the place, in Mr. Nolan s words, a forest of poles. Televisions followed, and Hugh Nolan and Ellen Cutler both remarked with surprise that chatting stopped altogether.
The Troubles excited journalists then and concern historians now, but the conditions of deprivation are historically the more important. My story of a particular place at a particular time holds hints about a more general and distant Irish past, and, since I have lived in country places in Turkey and Bangladesh as well as Ireland, England, and America, I know it suggests something, too, about the people of our time, the human majority who continue to work in the fields, who shape the earth with their own hands and create their own entertainment, their own history and art and philosophy.
So, this is how it was in Ballymenone between 1972 and 1983, when bombs rocked the town and people sat by small fires, waiting for the stars who told the tales and sang the songs that made tolerable a life of violence and deprivation.
Our District of the Country

Ballymenone: Lough Erne and Inishmore, from Rossdoney

Ellen Cutler s, Gortdonaghy

Drumbargy, from Rossdoney

Hay peck

Rooking hay: Jerry McBrien and Gabriel Dorsey

Turf lump

Clamping turf: Hugh Patrick Owens and his son Michael

The Ford of Biscuits, Arney River
2
Ballymenone
D OWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN , the Arney runs a ribbon of silver through the green hills. Going east in search of low land, the river bends, straightens its course, swings southward once more, then flows into Upper Lough Erne. Where the river bends, a twisted tree grips the bank. There, in the Penal days, the priest stood and the people knelt in the wet grass to receive the body and blood of Christ. Where the river runs straight over a ford, the provisions of the English army drifted with the corpses after a great victory, won by the chiefs of Ulster at the end of the sixteenth century. Where the Arney meets the Lough, the land was named, in Irish, the Place of the River s Mouth: Baile Bun Abhann. Ballymenone, they say today.
The wind follows the river, blowing from the west and driving the skies. Low clouds cross quickly. Shadows shift and dip and break, throwing the hills into relief. Light erupts, a white house gleams on a field of green, then it is dark again, the topography flattens. Mrs. Cutler called it God s big picture show. Skies, gray with haze, turn baby-blue, then black and metallic as the clouds stream east, bearing Atlantic dampness. Two days out of three it rains-mizzling, drizzling, lashing rains that wreck all plans, keeping the farmers wary, quick to adapt, ready to act. Cloudy overhead, it is muddy underfoot on the hills that lift above the waters.
In the Lough to the east, drowned hills make islands, one, they say, for every day of the year. Northward in the wide bright waters of Lower Lough Erne, the islands hold archaeological evidence from the mythic, Christian dawn, when, in the centuries after Patrick s arrival, saints sought isolated sites for mortification, meditation, and monastic society. Southward, the islands swell and spread, squeezing the Upper Lough into a webby meander of narrow channels. Inishmore, the big island across from the mouth of Arney, was as close as Saint Patrick got to Ballymenone.
According to the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland , compiled by the Four Masters, Saint Patrick, ordained bishop by Pope Celestine, came into Ireland in the Age of Christ, 432. He destroyed the stone idols, gathered the old books, established seven hundred churches, and brought Irish men and women out of the darkness of sin and into the light of faith and good works. According to the old tradition preserved by Hugh Nolan, the Saint s travels carried him as far as Inishmore in Upper Lough Erne. Upon that fact, Hugh McGiveney, Mr. Nolan s master, shaped a bit of wit, which Michael Boyle, Hugh Nolan s old friend and fellow historian, relayed to me:
Hughie McGiveney used to tell a yarn, used to say-this whole district of the country was Ballymenone, and Saint Patrick, he says, never came to Ballymenone, when he was preachin the Gospel in Ireland.
He came to the shore, over at Inishmore, and he shook the staff, over at Ballymenone.
Michael Boyle sits up in his bed at the Erne Hospital. His fist forms around a shaft of air. He glowers into the distance, shaking the staff over his shoulder, while repeating the Saint s gravelly growl of dismissal:
Aw, Ballymenone, you are there, he says. I ll not bother callin to see you atall.
I know you re there.
Mr. Boyle laughs, coughs, relaxes. Well, he never was in Ballymenone, he said. He came to Inishmore, he says, and he shook the staff over into Ballymenone.
It makes you think. Ballymenone was there at the beginning, when Saint Patrick, born in Britain and a citizen of Rome, brought the Good News to Ireland, casting the past into irrelevance and commencing the human era we inhabit. Ballymenone was known then, but not worth a visit, so you live in a place where Patrick never walked. And this too: you live in a place where the faith is so strong, so deep that Ireland s Apostle had no need to come and exhibit his terrific powers of persuasion. This is our peculiar location, neglected and sacred: Ballymenone, where the river runs into the lake.
Out of Lough Erne, hills of clay rise and roll westward toward the mountains. Stretched into soft ridges or rounded into low domes, the hills offer firm footing for the homes of farming people. Each house, its walls plumb and bright with whitewash, separates in certain artifice from its natural surround of brown and green and gray. Each stands alone, sundered among a gathering of small fields. Hedges, bristled with trees, converge and diverge, dividing the upland into neat patches of pasture and meadow.
Late, raking light reveals the lines of old furrows, cutting downhill to carry the water away, telling you that once they cropped the upland. Landlords and laws could, at times, compel the farmers to act against their wisdom, but their goal is, through work, to discover the logic God built into the earth. This is no place for cropping, for agriculture, for the rip of the plow. Beneath rain-laden skies, grass grows in luxurious abundance. Grass feeds cows. Cows give milk. Milk brings money. Ballymenone is a pastoral-not an agricultural-place. God made it so.
What Ballymenone s people see as God s creation, scientific observers see as the natural environment, but farmers and scholars agree that the land frames human endeavor. The great interpreter of the Irish land was E. Estyn Evans. Raised in the Welsh borderland, Evans came to Ireland as a young man, founded the department of geography at Queen s University in Belfast, and fostered the development of archaeology, anthropology, and folklore in Ulster. During his long and heroic career, through direct analysis of prehistoric monuments and rural settlements, he came to bold conclusions. Academic thinkers customarily center national life among rich men in the cities, but Evans had the courage to overturn convention and locate Ireland s center among the historical majority. Ireland was a land of peasants, he wrote, and in rational adjustment to conditions, to topography, soil, and climate-to hills, clay, and rain-the peasants created a vast pastoral landscape, where houses stood apart, enabling the herdsmen to keep close watch over their stock, and people were drawn at once to feisty independence and cooperative union. Ballymenone fits the old Irish pattern.
Green in all seasons, the hills are crested with white houses and split by hedged ditches into fields, some for the cattle to graze, others to raise the hay that will see them through the winter. To the south, the land slopes down to the Arney. The Lough laps at the east, once flooding the bottoms, and farming men became adept at getting from place to place on stilts. To the north, the hills descend to the spongy, bumpy, brown bog.
A primeval swill of decayed vegetation, the bog holds the oaks that fell at the time of Noah s flood. Diggers at the bog find stumps and rare wheels of waxy butter. Peter Flanagan found one that lay around until the rats ate it. Two friends of mine came upon a pickled man, wearing the buckled knee-britches of the eighteenth century. His eyes-the tender membranes of his eyeballs glistened in pouches of leathery skin. Murdered they thought, as they covered him up, and said nothing. Bog earth, cut and dried, burns at home, releasing the medicinal value of ancient herbs, warming the kitchen while wrecking the lungs.
Wide and quiet and empty for most of the year, rumpled and pocked with the holes of old working, the bog sparkles in springtime with the white shirts of men. Three men is the way for the bog, Joe Murphy told me. They strip the sod from the bank. Then-neighbors joined in cooperation-they divide the tasks for efficiency. One man jabs a winged spade along the open face of the bank, cutting the slick turf into brick-like bits. A second man lifts them, the third wheels them to level ground where they lie on the spread, beginning to dry in the wind. Built into clamps, the shapes of ancient oratories, their drying is done, and the turf are rebuilt into thatched lumps and stacks that supply the fuel for the hearths of the hilltops.
At the edge of the bog, at the foot of the hill on the black moss ground, men nick along pegged lines, coping the sod with spades to fashion trim ridges and furrows. In the ridges, potatoes grow fat. The Epicure and Elephant, the Kerr s Pink and Sharpe s Express, the Flounder and Up-to-Date, the Arran Victory, Gladstone, and British Queen-spuds, wondrous in their variety, are dug out, boiled until they split their skins laughing, then served with salt. Throughout the year, in consequence of an intricate system of transplanting, cabbages sprout to add a touch of green to the meal.
The farmer s needs section the terrain into townlands. Their borders follow the drains in the bog or the roads that curve along the drier dips between the drumlins. Circular in concept, centered by a hill that tugs it out of shape, each townland supplies its people the sorts of earth they require for life: upland for houses and cows, lowland for fuel and vegetables.
This is a place put to use, where nature s arrangements are divided and named for utility, controlled and cajoled to yield. The land provides, and the people reciprocate honorably. They hack the hedges back and clear the fields of rushes, tending their piece of the planet with a craftman s care. Theirs is not the wild and rocky, sea-rimmed West, the Ireland of misty pictures. The landscape is supple and prone, lacking in drama, but, animated by shifting light and touched everywhere by the caring hand, it is quietly beautiful.
When first I came to Ireland, I drove the borderland. Every place would have done me, but I lit quickly beside the Lough. Though I knew no one, had no leads, I knew something about the people from the way they handled their land. On an early visit, I told Hugh Nolan that I had chosen Ballymenone because of the devotion displayed on the farmland, and I dared to call his place beautiful. Och, aye, he replied in unsurprise, and he told me a story about a local man who was found one sunny day, standing alone and gazing over the fields. To the neighbor who interrupted him, wondering what he was at, he declared, It s a lovely country, a lovely country altogether.
Mr. Nolan smiled, enjoying his story, a story as mild and unassuming as the landscape itself. Then he explained that the man was like a visitor who had never been here before, and yet he had lived here his whole life, had never been out. Such a small happening, such a simple comment-not the makings, it would seem, of a story worth preserving and telling. But the evanescent, particular event trapped an enduring and general idea. For a brilliant instant, one of the neighbors brushed aside the film of familiarity and actually saw his place. Good Patrick of Macha, they joke, thought it not worth a visit, tourists do not pause here on their whirl around Ireland, but-the issue of collective effort, a workaday blending of nature and will-the beauty of the land is a consolation to the poor, hardworking people who live here, a reason to keep going. The worst they will say of their place is that it is lovely in good weather.
On every return, I am jarred by unkempt detail, by the trampled muck at the byre door, the blackened splash on raw concrete, by rusted buckets and sagging gates, and I berate myself for cleansing the place in my prose. Then I walk. The land heaves sweetly beneath me, memories rise on all sides. The scruffy and trim mix in affection, and I let the farmer s intentions train my eye, coming again to the local conclusion: it is a lovely country altogether.
The lovely look of the land, with its smooth hedged fields, is not ancient. As recently as the eighteenth century, the woods here were so dense, it was said, that a squirrel could travel from the mountain to the Lough, hopping from branch to branch and never touch the ground. The forests are long gone, but the trees in the hedges, handy for timber and firing, can give the landscape a wild, forested feel, and the basic pattern of occupance, of houses set separately on the high ground, goes back to antiquity. Six of the hills-Gortdonaghy and Mullinaman most notably-are tipped with rings of trees, marking the sites of farmsteads from the early Christian era.
Forths, they call the rings of trees, and Peter Flanagan will tell you that Irish people lived there in the days of the Viking invasions, but now the forths are fairy places. Belief in the fairies is a topic for debate, but consistent tradition, founded on astonishing experience, makes of fairy behavior a realm of contrast, an ethnological alternative. Like human beings, fairies have a culture, a way of going on, and tales teach it is best to avoid them; they are, after all, the fallen angels who followed Lucifer into defeat at the War of Heaven.

Ellen Cutler, 1976
Billy Dowler met a fairy on Gortdonaghy Lane who promised him a crock of gold. All Billy had to do was spill a little blood, sacrifice some cat or cock, but terror rose within him. He hid in his house, a house now empty at the back of the hill, and the fairy walked through the locked door and struck Billy deaf as a stone.
Some believe. They have heard the music the fairies make as they ride from forth to forth. They have been hospitably entertained in fairy houses-long, cruck-built and wattled, thatched houses of the type that Irish people built in the Middle Ages. Others do not believe, and they mock those who do, but the forths are left alone to become circular preserves, spots of wilderness on the tamed land. The trees rise, rooted in earthen ditches, while the center tangles with weeds and fallen branches. No good comes to the one who breaks a stick of the forth as Ellen Cutler made plain in a story about her husband, a skeptic who ignored a believer s warning:
Me husband used to kill pigs for the market: hang them up, clean them. Tuesday used to be the market day.
But anyway, you see, when the pigs were hung up, the rope went up the front, and you cleaned out the hearts and livers. And you were supposed to put two skivvers to hold the pig open, to hold the skin back, for the pig to drain clean.
So, Billy run short of one. And he went to the forth.
I told him not to go.
But he cut a hazel stick from the forth, to make a skivver, you see. And he sharped each end.
And when the skivver went in, the two hams was broke. He brought it to the market, but he got nothin for it.
I seen it meself, and the two childer.
I tell you, he never went back into it to cut a bit of a stick.
The hams was broke in bits.
People would only laugh at you, but it was true. You may go into a forth, but take nothin out of it.
That s their place, do you see.
Community
Here is the landscape of Ballymenone: a sodden expanse of low hills, of trees confined in hedges and forths, of white houses, grassy fields, meticulous gardens, and windy wet bogs. There is no village, no cluster of houses around a center of worship, no architectural assembly surrounded by broad fields in the wideness of space. It is not like the compact settlements built by farmers on the flat delta of Bengal or the undulant arable of England or the stony slopes of Anatolia. There is no corporate entity to leave a documentary track for the historian, no visible unit to limit the effort of the social scientist intent on producing a community study. From the Lough to the mountains on the western horizon, the land spreads, rippling without conspicuous centers or edges. The community is not given out of time or defined in space. It is made daily as people cut the hay, walk the lanes, and sit in chat at the hearth. Community is a matter of action.
Ballymenone finds its center at the family s hearth. Fanned into flame at dawn, plenished with turf and splashed with oil, the fire burns through the day, providing the heat for a steady stream of small meals. Turf smolders and smoke rises, lifting through the soot-choked chimney to smudge the sky and signal the house beneath.
The house rolls its interior to the surface. Its plan can be read from afar. Heavy walls of stone or brick are pierced on the front with one window for each room. There is one door, the hole the mason left, and it stands open, welcoming winds and chickens and visitors. Neighbors do not knock-it is bad manners to thunder on the boards of the door with your knuckles-nor are they stopped at the threshold. Passing through the one door, they enter the kitchen with a swing of the hip, turning past the dresser and crossing the floor to sit in the hearth s small circle of light and warmth. Settling in, they are told to take tea, not asked: told. Protest is fruitless. The kettle hangs over the blaze, the water is hot, tea is in process. It is no bother at all, the host says, handing the guest a warm mug.
As shelter, the house is a failure, cold in the corners, cold in the rooms that flank the kitchen. As a machine for serving tea, for bringing people together in its lone spot of heat, the house is an entire success.
Assuming you are cold, wet, tired, the house does not baffle your entry, does not block your path to the hearth. Here is a chair for rest, a mug of sweet, creamy tea, and a cut of buttered bread to rekindle the beaten body. Here is a fire to warm the hands and hold the eye. An ashy, molten black mass, cracked with crimson, the fire is only marginally more interesting than the television that will replace it, but it makes an adequate, blessedly quiet focus for sociable exchange. Wisps of smoke curl and feather, fluttering among sparkles of gold, shimmers of emerald and rose, while the sweet smell of burning turf, the aroma of home, moves upon the air.

Peter Flanagan s, Drumbargy

Drumbargy Brae
Turf burns. Tea goes in, talk comes out. Warm, rested, and fed, you are entertained. The word is deep in Ballymenone: entertainment encompasses all that one does for another, intending benefit. Tea is entertainment, so is talk, and hospitably entertained, you must repay the hearth with conversation.
The house prevents retreat. Warmth is found only in the high, wide kitchen. Other rooms are low and cold, locked through the day. A fire burning in another room indicates illness of body or mind. Healthy people have one place to sit, and that is beside the kitchen s fire in the company of others. To be alone is to be outside. One takes a pump or wets a stone or loses a button behind a hedge. The depressed old man climbs out of a clammy bed to walk the road on his lone. Lovers, as the old songs say, wander down by the river. Coming inside, you take tea and make talk. Should you fall silent, it is the job of the company, of those sitting around you, to drag you into the chat.
Silence is a danger. Silent, you think, and thinking too much, brooding, you will descend into sadness, for existence brinks on the unbearable. You are always on the go, so you are, sloughing and plowing after the cows, trudging through muddy gaps under sacks of turf. Life is hard, and to what is it prelude? Life is short, Hugh Patrick Owens told me, and death is long. Pondering the human condition will do you no good, for thinking brings sadness, and sadness will suck you into despair, the worst of all sins, the conceited belief that God has chosen you, you of all the world s people, to forget. In despair, depressed, obsessed- lonesome -you are no use to yourself or the neighbors who need your help. So they press you to speak, to say something, to keep the air cracking with distracting sound. Like Didi and Gogo in Samuel Beckett s great Godot , you must work the mouth bravely, generously telling the old story yet again.
Everyone here has once risen and gone out through the dark. They have reached the edge and looked deep into the emptiness. All of them understand, and, knowing how it is, they have returned to the fire, accepting a cup of tea and with it the obligation to contribute to the chat that circles in the smoke. Trading tea and talk, cigarettes and matches, you are engaged, awake, safe.
This moment of exchange, when the neighbors come up through the night and gather at the hearth, is called a ceili (kay-lee). The word is flexible, both noun and verb: ceiliers ceili at ceilis. The event is central, essential. Life, they say, is just a little ceili-a brief visit, a flight out of the dark, when the body is warmed and fed, when social connections are made in the world. The ones close by you now, sitting, talking, are the ones you will work with tomorrow. On other nights, they will go to other houses, crossing the hills and linking the hearths one to the other in space.
A stage for the ceili, a machine for serving tea, the house is a tool for constructing community, a means the householder employs in meeting life s chief commandment, which they put like this in Ballymenone: Love your neighbor as yourself, and in this you shall live. Comfort and display, these are secondary considerations; the prime goal of architectural design is helping me in the difficult task of loving my neighbor. And who is my neighbor? All mankind, the catechism answers, and the house invites all mankind to the hearth. By acting generously, by giving tea to the English soldier, heavy with weaponry, who knocks at the door, to the tramp on the street, I travel on the right road through life, the one that leads out of the muck to an eternity of bliss.
In this life, confidence is the reward. While extending hospitality to the neighbors round about, I repetitively ratify a contract of mutual support. It is not that I like the neighbors, or they like me. When John O Prey shaped a fantasy of community life into a story of his own, it began with his wish to buy a rifle to fire at random across the road, and it ended with his neighbors kicking him black. The new day brings slander and insults, disputes and fistfights, but I know the neighbors, know their names and the names of their parents. I will meet them tomorrow, on the lane, in the bog. Somewhere else people are happy and fat, with money like hay. Here there is little excitement and no wealth, but here there are no final anxieties; we live, Peter Flanagan said, in trust and charity and confidence. When troubles come, the neighbors will help.
At night, a strange redness glows on the curtain at Peter s house. We move quickly, crossing the fields toward a scarlet sky, broken by the black bones of trees. In the heat, we melt into the mass of neighbors, working with quiet efficiency to get all of James Boyle s belongings onto the street before the fire consumes his house. Early the next morning, we join the methal of men who have the house rebuilt and roofed before sundown.
The hay lies on the broad band. Dark clouds roll and gather above, and the neighbors gather below. Paddy McBrien, a master of the farmer s art, takes command, and we move in martial order with our weapons, one squad with rakes, another with pitchforks, building rapid rooks to save the hay before the clouds burst open to drench the land.
One fundamental principle of the local culture holds that life is bad, brooding makes it worse, and safety is found in convivial company. A second lies in the saying, Your neighbor forenenst your friend. It reverses another culture s belief that blood is thicker than water. A friend is a blood relative, and saying your neighbor before your kin, the people of Ballymenone say that their first obligation is to their neighbors, that their neighbors are more reliable than their relations.
Hugh Patrick Owens showed me a family treasure, an old ledger, inked with entries beginning in 1835. It records births and deaths, recipes for cures, agreements between farmers, and through it runs a melancholy litany of exile, of family members gone away:
April the 12 1870 Hugh Owens went to America
Thomas Owens went away 22nd April 1872 the name of the ship is the city of Agra
May the 12 1877 John Owens went to Queens Land
Sectebr the 12 1878 John Owens went to America
Francis Thomas Owens went to America on Saturday 9th April 1927 + Johnny Owens Widdow also
Famine, cruel landlords, and the endless fight for Irish freedom-these are the reasons set forth in the old song of Skibbereen, mournfully sung by John O Prey, Peter Flanagan s neighbor on Drumbargy Brae. Causes change, destinations shift-America or Australia, Scotland or England-but emigration continues. A young woman enters her thatched house on the hillside, bearing buckets of water from the well. She stands in the doorway, the light behind her, her hair freshly permed into an extravagant sunburst of curls. When I compliment her appearance, she says, That s the last fuckin bucket I carry. Tomorrow she will turn eighteen, and, being of age, she will leave for London to seek employment, maybe in a bank, maybe in the public transportation industry.
When times of trial come, sure, what good is your friend and them ten or a thousand miles away in London or the Bronx? Hugh Quigley said. It s your neighbor you rely on. Relatives go. Neighbors stay. Among the neighbors, among the ones who stay, community is shaped and reshaped during work by day and chat by night. The community is a social arrangement for mutual aid, founded on Our Lord s commandment to love and developed through reciprocal action in the fields and ceilis. Its place runs from hearth to hearth over the hills.
The neighborhood of the townland-a scatter of houses upon a clay hill, linked with bits of moss and bog below-could set the community s limits, and as the roads hardened, cars came, and people covered distances quickly, the homeplace contracted toward the townland, which is the farmer s postal address. But in my day, in the period of this book s present tense, the decade of the seventies, local motion was wider, and the community stretched to the reach of a day s easy walk. Townlands connected; each house formed one knot in a net cast over space.
At the top of the hill, beside a forth, Ellen Cutler s fine long home commands, Hugh Nolan said, a beautiful view of the country. Her regular ceiliers are near neighbors: the Lunnys who live down the slope, and Meta Rooney who walks up from Bob Armstrong s on the roadside. But her web of dependency extends beyond the townland of Gortdonaghy. Gentle Joe Murphy comes from the west, walking over the bog from Sessiagh to repair the thatch when the rooks destroy the riggin. Peter Flanagan walks from Drumbargy on the east, crossing the Derrylin Road to labor for pay at harvest time. Affection does not bind them. Mr. Flanagan finds her speech rough, for Ellen savors the saucy word and relishes a robust laugh. Mrs. Cutler finds his manners pretentious and his talk preposterous. Peter strains for the polysyllabic synonym, sounding, she says, like he swallowed the dictionary. But they accede to one commandment and join in need. Without him, her cattle would weaken with hunger in the winter. Without her, he would lack the coppers required for a drink in the town.
They call it our district of the country, the community that centers itself at every hearth and shifts with social exchange, stretching beyond the townland. Once, Upper Ballymenone, the townlands of Rossdoney and Drumbargy, reached north to the Back Road, unifying with Lower Ballymenone. Then connections snapped at the bog, and affinities spun westward, past Gortdonaghy and Ross, to Sessiagh and Derryhowlaght. It happened long ago, but we can imagine the causes. One was political. On the matter of Ireland, on the nation s agony and destiny, the Back Road men were conservatives, while the people of Upper Ballymenone were radicals who found natural alliance westward with the radicals of Sessiagh. Another cause lay in the vein of sandy blue clay that follows the run of the Arney.
The blue clay was dug out, soured in a pit, then slapped into brick for sale. Slapbrick, Hugh Nolan said, was the industry of the country, the principal source of income for the small farmers who lived along the Arney. When Michael Boyle remembered the bricking, he stressed the strength and know-how of the men, and the collaborative style of their work. Shaped on the model of turf-cutting, brick-making demanded swapping, neighborly trades of labor that brought the farmers of the Arney into cooperative union. Three men- a full spade -was the way for the bog, and for the bricking, it took two men to mix the mud, five to mold the brick, ten to crowd the corbelled kilns and fire them with turf. Arney brick, loaded in cots and rowed down the Lough, was used to rebuild the island town of Enniskillen.
Ballymenone s last brick was burned in 1939. But where the earth was banked around the kilns, hummocky lumps remain to stir the memory and mold opinion. In recall, the sociable dimension of the bricking-at its height when the kilns were fired-brings a smile of delight. It was, Hugh Nolan said, a bit of sport for the boys who enjoyed pitching the brick, two at a time, when the kilns were arched. Paddy McBrien, who was young then, called it a great time, remembering the tea and music that accompanied the stoking of the kilns. It was a great entertainment, said the musician Peter Flanagan:
They d put up a canopy in front of the arches, and they would play fiddles and dance and sing. Everyone would take a turn, singin some wee song. Hugh Nolan would take his turn, singin songs of his own composition.
It was a great time, now.
It was a great time, and it was not. Thinking back, Hugh Patrick Owens isolated the labor itself, remembering the indignity of digging down in a hole, all over muck, remembering the pain in his back and the rage in his head when he and his brother, near the trade s end, burned five arches of brick. We walked together toward the river, the rumpled stands of old kilns around us, and Hugh Pat stopped to say:
My flesh crawls whenever I walk where they made the brick. I ve tried to explain it to my children, but they can t understand.
There s no work now so cruel.
That was brutal, slavish work. And it was blood money came from it.
Mr. Owens gave me an old, hand-crafted brick, crusted with whitewash, to carry to America and place on my desk, helping me understand while I write.
In Ballymenone, at home, in place, they move among meanings, using details of the landscape to locate themselves in time. That grassy bump, the site of a kiln, rouses memories of wet clay slapped into a wooden mold, of the sound of a fiddle on the night air. Then past and present lock into contrastive relation-today there is no work so festive, no labor so cruel-and memories become general, cultural, when they register in an account that balances loss against gain. Deftly meshing knowledge of the place where they live with knowledge of the work they must do, people come to understanding. They understand the drift of history, the surge and seethe of time-the ebb of sociability and the flow of ease-and aware of their course, protected from the delusions of nostalgia or progress, they are thrust into life, knowing, as Hugh Nolan put it, that the two things happen at the one time:
Things get better.
And they get worse.
Brick-making is integral to Ballymenone s historical consciousness. The work is gone, but its signs remain in the staple-shaped stands of old kilns, and in the houses made of brick.
When the best old houses, like Mrs. Cutler s, were built of stone, most people lived in mud-walled cabins. Then in the days of the bricking, late in the nineteenth century, the small houses of the district were rebuilt in brick. After every burning, reject brick were cast aside, free for the taking, and workers in the industry knew how to strip the earth, dig the clay, and make brick for themselves. Rose Murphy s great-grandfather walked the site, his son and grandson made the brick, and Rose lives in a solid, lovely home.
From mud walls to brick: the shift to permanence marks a distinct stage in architectural history. In Ireland, as in Virginia, or England, or Turkey, or India, rebuilding old forms in permanent materials would be followed by new designs that boxed the house in comfort, and the cause of the change lay in an increase in security of tenure on the land. The cause of the cause, the reason for security, varies from place to place, but in Ballymenone it is clear. In days gone by, they labored on the estate of the Schoolands and twice a year paid rent to a despicable agent in Ballyconnell. Then, in the year after its founding, the district s farmers joined the Land League; they rallied and marched, forcing the enactment of a series of revolutionary land laws between 1881 and 1903. The landlords were dispossessed. The farmers were renters no more. They owned the land they worked, and, proprietors, secure in possession, they built permanently upon it. New houses of brick confirmed their victory.
On the northern bank of the Arney, at the Ford of Biscuits, where the chiefs of Ulster defeated the English in 1594, the fields, once soaked in blood, are called the Red Meadows. Beyond the meadows, the land lifts slowly, and on that slope in 1880, the farmers massed to hear the word of the Land League, learning of their rights as tenants to fair rents, fixity of tenure, and free sale. There and then, they began to move toward the victory that the old men, their descendants, consistently call Ireland s greatest.

Linked households.
Some customary patterns of ceiliing and shared labor

Our district of the country.
The dotted line is the northern limit of normal communal interaction.
In the time of revolution and rebuilding, our district of the country settled into its twentieth-century shape. While winning Ireland s greatest victory and taking the land that was theirs by right, the farmers of the old Schoolands experienced political oneness, preparing for conflicts to come and intensifying the social connections developed in turf-cutting and brick-making. Work at the bricking had reoriented the pattern of association, uniting the farmers who lived along the Arney in a common enterprise, interlinking the townlands that followed the seam of blue clay, from Rossdoney to Derryhowlaght West. Stands of kilns and houses of brick subtly distinguish their corner of Ireland (where rural houses are generally built of stone), marking the territory over which the network of community is draped.
Three square miles, forty-two households: this is the place of the Owens clan of Sessiagh and the Corrigans of Rossdoney, of the Boyles and Lunnys and Armstrongs, of Rose and Joe Murphy, of Paddy and Mary McBrien, of Peter and Joseph Flanagan, of Michael Boyle, Ellen Cutler, Hugh Nolan, and their neighbors who work together in the wind and rain, who sit together in the long blackness of winter, trading tea and talk in ceilis.
When he was collecting information to guide the inscription of lines and words on the map of Ireland in 1835, the famed antiquarian John O Donovan discovered that a name, Baile Bun Abhann, recorded for the year 1512 by the Four Masters, was still used for a district lying west of Upper Lough Erne. Though found on no map, and transformed by the local dialect, the old name, he wrote, exists in the Country, but not as a Townland or Parish name, but as a natural division. That old name, Ballymenone, was still known in my day, so let us use it for the community that makes its place north of the Arney and west of the Lough. Through this unremarkable landscape of whitewashed brick houses and soft green hills, roads cut, heading north to the town of Enniskillen, south to the border that breaks Ireland.

Cleenish Parish Church
3
Fermanagh
S EVEN MILES NORTH of the border, the Derrylin Road crosses the Arney on its way to Enniskillen, the county town of Fermanagh. Peter Flanagan lives off to the right, Ellen Cutler to the left, and then the road bends through Bellanaleck, passing the Cleenish Parish Church. Named for an island in the Lough, where Saint Sinell made his monastery in the sixth century, Cleenish Parish swings toward the mountains, the Arney along the south, Ballymenone within its domain. The parish, a religious division, sets the next ring in the widening circles of space: my home is in some townland, townlands combine in our district, the district sits within Cleenish Parish.
Picture the stone tower of the parish church at the center of an English village, or the minaret spiring above the farmhouses on a mountainside in Pakistan, or the sweeping peak of a Buddhist temple looming over the lesser rooftops in Japan: typically-in faith and ritual-religion provides the main pulse for cohesion in rural communities. Here, though, nothing is simple.
Ballymenone s people live in the lower-eastern-end of Cleenish Parish, but the gray Georgian church at Bellanaleck serves only the Protestants among them. West along the Chapel Road, before the Arney Cross with its pair of public houses, stands the church for Catholics. In fact, both are Catholic churches, one Anglican, one Roman. The message of redemption and the commandment to love are the same. But the churches are two, symbolizing differences of history and political aspiration.
Rehearsed again, the old story goes like this. The English invasion of Ireland began in the South and faltered along the western border of the northern province of Ulster. In time, the territory under English control contracted into the Pale around Dublin, leaving the wild North to the warplay of its native chiefs, until, in the era of Reformation, Henry the Eighth was proclaimed the king of all Ireland, and Ulster was drawn into engagement. At first, the chiefs of Ulster acquiesced to English rule, accepting the title of earl. Then, with nationalistic purpose in the ambit of militant imperialism, and religious purpose in the international spirit of Counter-Reformation, the warrior-princes of the northwest-Hugh Maguire of Fermanagh, Hugh O Donnell of Donegal, and Hugh O Neill of Tyrone-leagued to mount (in the words of the English historian of the time) Ireland s last, worst, most men-devowringe and treasure-consuminge rebellion.
Praised by his court poet as the man who could unite Ireland, Hugh Maguire was first in the field, the Alpha of Rebellion. Soon the English broke into Fermanagh, scorching the earth of Maguire s country, and, in October 1593, they laid siege to his castle at Enniskillen-a lime-white, fairy palace, the poets called it, the splendid dwelling of the lion of the Erne. Enniskillen fell in the winter, but by the summer, the withering English garrison within the walls had been reduced to eating cats and rats. Around the castle camped the armies of Hugh Maguire and Red Hugh O Donnell, three thousand strong. Sir Henry Duke, with six hundred foot, forty-six horse, and provisions to revictual the exhausted garrison, was marching north from Cavan.
In August of 1594, young Hugh Maguire led the men of Ulster south through the shadowy forests, and waited in ambush on the northern banks of the Arney River. Duke s troops formed upon the southern bank, and attempting to force a crossing at a ford, they were slaughtered in the water. Their supplies of hard bread drifted with the current, giving the place its name, the Ford of Biscuits.
Defeature to the English, the Battle of the Ford of Biscuits was termed a great victory by the Four Masters. For a giddy instant it seemed that Patrick s island would be saved for Patrick s faith. The chiefs of Ulster galloped the length of Ireland. Then, Hugh Maguire was killed in a raid at Cork, Hugh O Donnell was poisoned in Spain after defeat at Kinsale, and Hugh O Neill, old man among the rebels, survived to surrender in 1603. The Irish earls took flight. The North was planted with new men.
Having been the Nursery of all Rebellion, truculent Ulster, broken in defeat, was surveyed in 1609, and parceled into portions. From Scotland and England, men of the new creed came to claim the good farming land. The mere Irish, beaten in defense of the old faith, huddled onto marginal allotments, sodden and sloped, unfit to the plow.
With the Plantation of Ulster, the population divided. Today in Fermanagh, as in the other counties of the North, some are descended from Scottish and English settlers, others from the natives whose land it was before 1609. What should they be called, the people-different in origin-who build together the community of Ballymenone? Avoiding religion and politics, writers in Ulster sometimes distance division into the past, saying Planter and Gael. American historians comparably skirt religion and use the terms Scotch-Irish and Irish, though the Scotch-Irish, who left Ulster after a century and advanced the American frontier, included English and Irish people, as well as Scots, and called themselves Irish. They are all Irish. The Planters have been in Ireland for as long as the English have been in America; it is too late to call them foreign. In exchange, constrained by the same environmental forces, Planter and Gael have shaped one culture, a culture deepened by the perduring conflict they share.
The words used on the ground in Ulster today absorb the past into the present, labeling people with political or religious names. Some are called Loyalists, or Unionists, implying they want Ulster to maintain its alliance with Britain. Others are called Nationalists, Republicans, or Fenians, assuming they want the North to unite with the South, the State, the Republic of Ireland. But, clear in public, political opinion clouds and complicates in individual conscience. What people say most often is Our Side and the Other Side, suggesting but not quite defining affinities, leaving some scope for interpretation in the moment. The only workable words are Protestant and Catholic.
All are one or the other, for a man must follow his father and be what he was born. In a joke that made the rounds during the Troubles of the seventies, a man applying for a civil-service position enters Atheist in the slot for religion on the official form, only to be told that it is all very well for him to be an atheist, but he must specify whether he is a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist. It has little to do with religion, with belief or theology. The terms enfold history and signal irreconcilable difference. There are two words, two churches, no escape.
It is in the nature of communities to contain division, and these are the facts for Ballymenone. It was, in 1972, a farming community, but two of the forty-two households derived no income from working the land. Four of the farms were locally classed as big, five as middling, the rest as small, twelve to fourteen acres being the norm. Less than half of the houses sheltered married couples. Among the one hundred and twenty-nine souls, there were more men than women, more elderly people than young, more poor people than rich. But the fact that matters most is this: nine of the households were Protestant, thirty-three were Catholic.
Ballymenone, with its largely Catholic population, is not unique. In Northern Ireland, in the six counties of Ulster that remain within the United Kingdom, Protestants dominate, but in passages along the border, in Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone, and Derry, Catholics make the majority.
The pattern was set during the Plantation. Ballymenone lies in the old Barony of Clanawley. When Clanawley was surveyed in 1609, only 6,000 of its 75,469 acres were adjudged suitable for successful agriculture. Because its land was hilly, boggy, and rough, Clanawley became one of the two baronies in Maguire s old country of Fermanagh that were given in part to Irish grantees. A reservation for the natives, our area became what it remains: Catholic and poor.
I chose for beauty, for care and commitment, for tidy fields and trim thatched roofs, but when I described my place of study to colleagues in Dublin and Belfast, they thought me daft, adrift in a dreamy past. The Ireland they knew did not match my words. But there was a place, and I lived there, where electricity was yet to come and old men still told stories by the fireside. Isolation was not the cause. Big roads linked the place to the big world. It was not remote. It was poor. Poor because the bad bits of land granted to the beaten rebels in the seventeenth century could not be forced to yield a good profit. Poor and lacking in modern amenities because the people of the local majority, following the faith of their fathers and drawing the few Protestants among their neighbors into their plight, were ill-served in the twentieth century by the government run by men of the Other Side. Their old-fashioned way of going on, of cooperative work in the bog and cordial chat in the ceili, did not come of infixed conservatism. It was the adaptive response to economic and political conditions. And those conditions, to borrow Peter Flanagan s words, kept the people split apart and fighting.
On a windy, wet Twelfth of August, the men of the Royal Black Institution had marched through Enniskillen. Once their pipes and drums had stilled, they abandoned the chilly streets for the warm interiors of public houses. In one of them I sat with an old man, a Catholic small farmer from Ballymenone, who had come to take a deck at the parade. His verb, borrowed from Hindi or Bengali and brought into English by the soldiers of the Raj, recalled the miseries of colonialism shared by Ireland and India. Across the shop, men in black suits, black bowlers, and black collarettes, crowded loudly at the bar, and he explained that they were not the Protestants he lived among. His neighbors belong to an Orange Lodge, not a Black Preceptory. An Orange Hall stands at Bellanaleck, near the Cleenish Parish Church, and in the past the Lodge met in Mrs. Cutler s house. The Orangemen, he said, were like himself, members of the three-fifths, the working majority. He enjoyed taking a drink with them in the pubs at Arney. But these gentlemen, lookin so fine in their gloves and hard hats, represent the Protestant elite that runs Ulster.
As we drain another stout into ourselves, and they thicken happily in black along the counter, he turns sad eyes from them to me and says, I d like to take a gun and shoot the bloody shit out of every one of them.
He does not stop: They are the Planters. And this is our country. They came into it, drivin us into the hills and the hollows, lettin us live as we could. In the hills and in the valleys. On the bad land.
They depressed us. It was depressin.
His mind turns to history, to the cruelty of the landlords who seized the land and squeezed rent from the people who worked it. Then, in the manner of the local teller of tales, he expresses the general through the particular, speaking, as many of his neighbors do, about Mrs. Timoney, a widow who lived in Rossdoney. She did the hard work of a man in the fields, and she did the hard work of a woman at the hearth. She raised her family, and, with her shoes over her shoulder, she walked all the way to Ballyconnell in Cavan, twice a year, to pay the rent for her scrap of bad land.
It makes your blood boil, so it does.
There was no Republican thoughts them days, do ye see, and the greatest victory for Ireland was getting the Tenant Right.
But things are not improved. Oh no. When they say things are the best, I say they are not, and it s still depressin.
He points to a man at the bar. Drink is in, wit is out, the body staggers.
If that man goes out of here drunk, he will go on. But let one of our side show a drop of drink on him, and he ll be taken down the street. Oh aye. He ll be taken to the depot.
It s depressin. And that s what they re fightin for now.
For too long they have been walked on.
But now they re standin up.
His eyes move off, then lower to the table. He tilts the bottle and black stout rises under its buff head. A laugh cracks among the clink and chatter at the bar. He lifts his glass in a work-hardened hand and says, not quietly, Up our side.
The people of his side were pressed to the edge during the Plantation. They suffered under the landlords, then followed the Land Leauge to a victory that remains incomplete. His people are Catholics, doomed to penury by historical injustice, treated inequitably by the agents of contemporary power. His people are the three-fifths, Catholics and Protestants alike, who work the small farms on the small hills. He speaks for his region. A place of Catholics, of farmers, of furious unresolution, his region is the southwestern arc of County Fermanagh, into which Ballymenone fits, a sample in extremity.
Across the island of Ireland, a swag of drumlins, of low round hills, sets the natural, southern frontier of the northern province of Ulster, a line partially fortified in ancient days by the Black Pig s Dyke. The long drumlin zone segments by county, from Down to Donegal, and the section lying west of Upper Lough Erne in the County Fermanagh makes the region of the mind in which Ballymenone s people position their community.
When I plotted the place names from Ballymenone s history, from the stories told by Hugh Nolan and Michael Boyle, by Hugh Patrick Owens, James Owens, and Peter Flanagan, they made a neat pattern on the map. The stories tell of the saints who emplaced Christianity and charged humanity with the obligation to love. They tell of war, of the ceaseless conflict between Irish and English, Catholic and Protestant people. Religion and war, love and hate: this is the tale of their place. Events in other places belong to other historians. Ballymenone s historians restrict their responsibility to the region between Lough Erne and the mountainy border; they call it South Fermanagh.
One night in the border town of Swanlinbar, Martin Crudden stood out of the crowd in a public house to sing a new song:
Good people all on you I call, and this song I will sing to you.
Twas written with a loving hand, each word is fond and true.
It s all about Fermanagh, and the first thing I will do
Is take you to the Hangin Rock near the village of Belcoo.
There s lovely Devenish Island with its tower so tall and grand,
Its lovely lapping waters and its stretch of deep brown sand.
The lovely hills of Knockninny have a beauty rich and rare,
Where as a child I roamed for miles without worry or without care.
When tourists visit our country, sure, the first place that they seek
Is our world famous pottery and its china that s unique.
For we that are familiar, sure, there s no need for to speak,
For when you mention pottery you can only mean Belleek.

Annie Bridget and Martin Crudden, Kinawley, 2000

South Fermanagh.
The double line is the border. The dashed lines link the places at the edges of Ballymenone s history. The dotted lines link the places in The Fermanagh Song.
Of all Fermanagh s beauty spots, I can only mention some,
And one of them must surely be the castle down at Crom.
There s lovely Enniskillen and likewise dear Lisnaskea,
And when you visit Fermanagh all these places you will see.
And if you come along with me, it is proudly we will march
By the winding roads through Florencecourt to the lovely Marble Arch.
And it will be my pleasure for to show you all these and more
When you come to visit Fermanagh on Lough Erne s lovely shore.
Marty s song was a hit. He got a good clap, and the musicians in the shop, Peter Flanagan and John Joe Maguire, rushed to congratulate him for his singing and song. It was written, I was told, to win a contest for an original song that could attract tourists to Fermanagh. Whether or not a tourist ever heard it, Fermanagh men requested it constantly from Mr. Crudden, Kinawley s finest singer, from that night, August 20, 1972, onward. Cataloging the sites and sights of the county, the song holds the local opinion of the locality; the word lovely appears six times in twenty lines.
First I heard that The Fermanagh Song was written about 1968 by Bryan Gallagher, headmaster of St. Aidan s High School in Derrylin, and set to music by the fiddler John Maguire. Later I would hear that it was composed about 1974 by the schoolteacher Valerie Browne who married Big John of the great musical family of McManus of Knockninny. In answer to my letter of inquiry, Bryan Gallagher wrote that the song has been attributed to many people in the locality and many people have claimed authorship of the words and music. The only thing I know for sure is that I did not compose either. Bryan concluded, However, the song has, as you state, entered the local musical tradition.
On internal evidence, it seems to have been composed at Knockninny, south along the Lough shore from Ballymenone. The song bespeaks its region. Plot the names of its places on a map, and they do not spread evenly over the county. They concentrate in the area of Ballymenone s history, in South Fermanagh.
As historians, South Fermanagh s people turn their eyes from the horizon and focus on the tales attached to their place, its rivers and fords, its islands and hills and forths, its broken stone monuments. As farmers, they look beyond, locating their region by agricultural contrast. To the east, they say, the weather is milder, the black frost rarely bites, but the turf is worse; in some places men have to mold fuel out of bog mud instead of cutting it underfoot with a spade. In the mountains of Donegal to the west, the seasons come later, the soil is thick and rocky; a heavy loy, not a long spade, is the farmer s weapon. The hay must be stacked around poles to keep it from blowing away. The turf makes a dull blaze. To the north, on the broad fields of Tyrone, farmers must sow seed for grass. In South Fermanagh, the grass springs unbidden, though not so opulently as it does farther south, in Cavan and Roscommon. In Roscommon, Joe Flanagan said, you throw down a stick the night, and it s covered with grass be mornin.

Enniskillen

Saint Macartin s Cathedral

East Bridge, Orange Hall, War Memorial
Theirs is the middle terrain-historic, lovely, and just right for their pastoral and horticultural tradition. They know their place by work, by listening to the talk of historians and traveling men, by watching the landscape glide away on their journeys.
Of the six counties in the North, five descend to circle Lough Neagh. The sixth, Fermanagh, stands alone, enveloping its own lake. In the days before the Erne drainage scheme, it was said that sometimes Lough Erne was in Fermanagh and sometimes Fermanagh was in Lough Erne. Bisecting the county, the lake flows to the northwest where the River Erne runs to the sea. Our territory lies to the west and drifts to the south. Centered on Ballymenone, it is anchored on the north at Enniskillen, on the south at Swanlinbar.
Enniskillen, a trim town, urban in feel, occupies an island between Upper and Lower Lough Erne. Its long main street crosses the bridge by the Orange Hall, curves at the Court House, rises to the Town Hall, lowers and lifts past church and cathedral, then descends to exit over the western bridge between the clean neoclassical mass of the old barracks and the towered gray wall of the Water Gate. Once the seat of the Maguires, the lords of Fermanagh, Enniskillen is the administrative center of the county. With its shops, pubs, and cattle mart, it serves the countryside and marks the northern limit of common travel for the people of Ballymenone.
Their southern destination is Swanlinbar, past Kinawley, just over the border in County Cavan. The town is a strip of pleasant public houses where Fermanagh men assemble on Sunday nights. In his essay of 1728, On Barbarous Denominations in Ireland, Dean Swift spelled it Swandlingbar and explained it as the witty conceit of four gentlemen who blended letters from their surnames into a new word. The farming men who get there once a week for legal drink, bitter rhetoric, and political song, call it Swad.
Space spreads. Ballymenone lies in Cleenish Parish, in the Barony of Clanawley, in the region of South Fermanagh. County Fermanagh lies in Northern Ireland. And Northern Ireland is geographically a part of Ireland, politically a part of the United Kingdom.

The Bogside, Derry: the site of Bloody Sunday
4
Northern Ireland
I RELAND S GREATEST VICTORY , our old man says, was not enough. The farmers owned the land. Britain ruled the land. When Charles Stewart Parnell, the first president of the Land League, came to Fermanagh in 1880, his mission was agrarian reform. Protestants and Catholics rallied to his cause. Then as the militant farmers continued their march to victory, Parnell shifted his attention to constitutional politics, returning to his campaign for legislative independence. He allied with the Liberal Gladstone who offered Parliament the first Home Rule bill in 1886. It would have granted control over internal affairs to Ireland, while leaving the island within the Empire. Resistance developed immediately in the Protestant northeast, and Ireland began to crack apart, pulled in one direction by the proponents of Home Rule, in another by supporters of the old Union of Ireland and England, forged in 1800.
Home Rule went down to defeat. Parnell s love for Mrs. O Shea became public. Gladstone abandoned him, the bishops vilified him, and soon Ireland s uncrowned king was dead. Gladstone offered a second Home Rule bill for defeat, and then he was dead. When a third Home Rule bill was presented in 1912, the composition of Parliament ensured its passage. In open defiance of English law, Sir Edward Carson declared, We will not have Home Rule. The Ulster Volunteer Force formed and armed in the North, and Carson proposed an amendment that would exclude all of Ulster from Home Rule. In 1913, in response, the Irish Volunteers formed in the South, and quickly their leadership was infiltrated, their direction was set by the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Then war broke loose in Europe, Home Rule was suspended, and the fine young men of Ulster were sent to slaughter at Gallipoli and the Somme. While Britain bled and grieved, the Irish Republican Brotherhood seized the General Post Office in Dublin on Easter Monday in 1916 and proclaimed an Irish Republic. Mrs. Norway, the wife of the Secretary for the Post Office in Ireland, described the scene in letters for home-the snipers on the rooftops, the looting in the streets, the Sinn Feiners entrenched on Stephen s Green. The burned buildings she likened to the gaunt ruins in photographs from Belgium and France. The violence she likened to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the first armed action on the road to freedom for India. Dublin, she wrote, was reaping the whirlwind sown in Ulster. When she published her letters in 1916, Mrs. Norway appended a Manifesto written by Patrick Henry Pearse, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Irish Republic and President of the Provisional Government. In it, Pearse, poet, playwright, and leader in the Gaelic League, praised the socialist James Connolly who, though wounded, remained the guiding brain of our resistance. The rebels, Pearse said, had fought for four days while singing in the intervals songs of the freedom of Ireland. That night, raked by machine gun fire and shelled by artillery, the G.P.O. burned. On the next day, Pearse and Connolly surrendered, and on the last day, the commanders of the outposts in the city followed them into captivity.
With the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the rebels held in trust the old tradition of nationhood, bequeathed to them by dead generations. In his Manifesto, Pearse declared that the rebels would win their fight, although they may win it in death. While Mrs. Norway was sifting through the ashes at the Post Office, searching for her jewelry, the executions began. Irish general opinion had been confused, indifferent, even hostile, at first, and then, one by one, the rebels were taken out and shot: Pearse, MacDonagh, Clarke, Plunkett . . . fifteen in all, and as the song still sung in anger says, when they murdered James Connolly, the Irish rebelled. There had been no hope for martial victory, blood sacrifice was the aim. The unconquerable dead would win.
The demand for independence surged, spurred by fears that Ireland would be split, surrendering Ulster s counties with Protestant majorities to Britain, driven by hopes that Ireland would become, beyond the legal reach of Home Rule, a nation once again. In deference to American opinion, since American military aid was needed in Europe, Eamon de Valera, born in the States, was the only commander to be spared, and the interned rebels were released, some at Christmas, more in the summer of 1917. De Valera returned from prison to lead Sinn Fein, becoming its president and then president of the Irish Volunteers, bringing the political and military forces of resistance into union. Directed by the veterans of insurrection, their ranks bulging with new recruits, the Volunteers reorganized and drilled under arms. The Great War ended in Europe, and the killing began again in Ireland when two policemen were shot down in Tipperary in January of 1919.
In May of that year, when the American Commission on Irish Independence came to Ireland, they found 100,000 British troops, equipped with all the engines of war lately employed against the Central Powers. They found political prisoners held in miserable conditions, and 200,000 Volunteers, poorly equipped, well officered, and ready to fight and die for the right of self-determination. They found guerilla warfare in progress and predicted the bloody revolution that came. The old Irish Volunteers became the new Irish Republican Army, the British retaliated with vengeful vets in khaki and black, and the IRA and the Black and Tans fought beyond political control, waging a war of ambush, assassination, and fiery reprisal-the vicious war caught in the great terror-shot verse of W. B. Yeats.
The killings stilled with the Treaty of 1921. It established the Irish Free State as a dominion within the British Empire, its status like Canada s. Confirming a proposal of 1916, codified in the Government of Ireland Bill of 1920, the Treaty guaranteed the right of secession to the six counties of Ulster with large Protestant populations, and it promised a new border, drawn to divide the Free State from Northern Ireland. When the Treaty narrowly passed in Dublin, de Valera resigned his presidency, the IRA split, and during the civil war that followed the powers of the new Free State dealt as brutally with the rebels as the British had. In 1923, de Valera declared a ceasefire, his men put down their arms.
The new order was set. The North again stood alone. Once the only part of Ireland that lay beyond English dominion, Ulster, reduced by a third, became Ireland s only province set firmly within the British Empire. The promised new border might have cut away the city of Derry and much of Tyrone and Fermanagh, but, as it was drawn, it merely tidily excised peripheral places with clear Catholic majorities. The Irish Free State gained little, Protestant leaders in the North threatened armed action, and enthusiasm was muted among Catholics because, with southern Armagh, southwestern Fermanagh, and western Tyrone gone, the Catholics trapped in the North, in areas like Ballymenone, surrounded by Protestants, would have been reduced to a vulnerable minority. The Boundary Commission did its work, and the idea was abandoned in 1925. The old county lines became the new line of partition.

Northern Ireland.
The double lines are the border. The dotted lines are the adjustments to the border proposed by the Boundary Commission.
Peace seemed possible. It had been a long, bad time, 1912 to 1925: the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers, World War, revolution and civil war, partition. At last the demon of discord released the men and women of Ireland. They returned, whipped and relieved, to the comfort of old routines, to ceiliing by night and digging by day, while government officials got down to the business of constructing national order. In 1926, Eamon de Valera returned to politics, to the realm of words, drawing most of the IRA behind him. The few who hung back, opposed to both of the new states, North and South, claimed to be the legitimate heirs to revolution, but they remained at history s edge, lacking a focus for action until de Valera s new constitution of 1937 set the reunification of Ireland as a goal. Then, slowly, new men took up the old cause and moved their operations northward.
They mounted a muddled campaign in the forties, then regrouped, and after the State became the Republic in 1949, free and independent, they began to move again. During the Border Campaign of the fifties, the IRA attacked the police barracks at Brookeborough in Fermanagh. Our chaps did a good job, Sir Basil Brooke said at the time. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, he had advised his fellow Protestants to do as he had done and hire no Catholic laborers. The attack, Brooke said, was intended as a kick in the seat of the pants for me, but it turned into a kick in the seat of the pants for them. The two who died on the first day of 1957, Sean South and Feargal O Hanlon, were commemorated in songs that united them with the slain heroes of 1916.
The Border Campaign faltered in 1962. Then after the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, energies rose again and attention turned to discrimination, in public housing especially. Late in the sixties, Catholics in the North marched to protest inequities, singing the songs of the American civil rights movement. Riots erupted in Derry and Belfast. British troops came to restore order in 1969. Disorder increased. The IRA split once more, the militant Provos taking the lead. Bombs blew through the night, dangerous men were trapped, interned, and tortured, and then on Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, British troops fired upon a civil rights demonstration in Derry, murdering thirteen-a butcher s dozen in the outraged words of the poet Thomas Kinsella. Fifteen in 1916, thirteen in 1972: the Troubles were back, a new era of terror came upon Ulster.
Haughty, greedy, and brave in expansion, colonial power is haughty and expedient in retreat. As their Empire continued its collapse, the British would do in India as they had done in Ireland. Territories integrated by millennia of development were abruptly subdivided to erect new political entities of supposed homogeneity. In the way that Ulster was divided between Catholics and Protestants-three counties for the South, six for the North-Bengal and the Punjab were split, the Hindu parts for India, the Muslim for Pakistan. The result has been unceasing unrest, for national homogeneity is an illusion, and the illusion of homogeneity begets ignorance, prejudice, and death.
Within the partitioned states and along their borders, violence flares up and fades away, only to flame again, since violence has no natural end when purity is the goal and impurity is the reality. As I write, big guns thunder again along the northwestern border of India. Northern Ireland seems calm, the result of disastrous bombs in Enniskillen and Omagh and heroic efforts at making peace. But thirty years ago, when one in the series of Indo-Pak wars had ended and the new nation of Bangladesh was recovering from the massacre of three million citizens, Northern Ireland trembled in distress.
Sitting in the dark at the silent hearth, you could hear the bombs echo across the waters of the Lough. Walking the sunny country lanes, you would meet wary patrols in camouflaged fatigues, machine guns at the ready. A swinging light on a road at night meant you would be stopped and discourteously interrogated by boys dressed as soldiers. If your daughter took lessons in Irish dance, you could expect a midnight raid, your clothing and books thrown into a heap on the street. Were you a policeman on duty, walking with your mate through the fog, every sound behind you became an assassin in the mind.
In those days, they said, if you did not adjust to the times that were in it, you would go mad, and if you did adjust, you were mad.
In a rural hotel owned by an Englishman, the man in the ski mask announces that ten minutes remain, but adds that his colleagues are not professionals. The timing device could be faulty. Farming men in their black Sunday suits crowd to the bar, filling their glasses before filing out to the hillside where they stand to watch the roof of the hotel lift and descend, to hear the mighty explosion.
Clever young men rig a bomb to the ignition of a car owned by a bitter devil of the other side. The night is cold. He lends his keys to two friends so they can idle the engine and sit in the warmth. The key turns. The steamy square of the window releases into a million splinters that spatter across the floor and scatter, sparkling down the polished bar. The man beside me estimates the size of the bomb, and lifts his beer. Outside, all that remains on the street is the rear axle.
A parcel is sent to an old man who lives alone by the bog. The postman who must deliver the package belongs to a paramilitary order. He takes sick, and his job passes to a harmless wee man who drives the red van to the end of the lane and carries the package to the door. He knocks. There is no answer. He opens the door to be gunned down by the boys who put the parcel in the mail. The old man of the house, tied to a chair, waits with the bloody body until nightfall when a neighbor happens by.
The post lies ahead in the dark, sandbagged and circled with coils of barbed wire. The youth at the wheel steps on the gas, and when the old Morris hits a bump, his mate fires once. Banking off the side of a narrow slot, the bullet passes efficiently through the head of a Lancashire lad. With a wild shot in the night, one poor farm boy has killed another poor farm boy on the border.
You feel it first at the base of your spine, then it blows out of the center of your skull to rattle the windows and crack the black beams above. Thunder, says Peter. Aye, says Joseph. The silence reassembles, the turf fire glows at our feet. I would say, now, that was thunder over the Lough, P says. Aye, replies Joe, and I agree, knowing as well as they that the radio will soon tell us who the cunning thunder blew away. Tomorrow in the town workmen will be filling windows with sheets of shiny glass and smoothing new plaster over the pitted walls.
They speak of the Troubles as a climate. The violence was here before they came, will continue after they have gone. Like the weather, it is beyond their control, something to endure.
It s a world of troubles at the present time, Hugh Nolan said, and not a solution for them. That is how it is, so what must we do?
Be brave, Peter said, carry on. Continuous troubles threaten death to the spirit, but, Peter Flanagan told me, There s always some consolation for hardship. He used his house as his example. It is smoky, cold, and dark. People in the town, he said, have more comfort. They have electricity, running water, and central heat-and the tumultuous racket of cars and lorries in the street. In me own wee house, Peter continued, I have the consolation of quiet. He rises in the morning and stands in the fields, letting the music of the birds fill his ears.
In his dark house, I sit with him, feeling the miraculous silence around us: no electric hum, no creaking pipes, no whining engines in the distance. I think back to our first day together, four years earlier, remembering when Peter tossed breadcrumbs across the floor to a tiny brown bird who had hopped over the threshold on long thin legs. Early this morning, as we sat with our breakfast tea, a plump hen, a Blue Andalusian, had paused in the doorway, gray, with the gray of the house before her, the gray day behind. She stood in motionless tension, one foot put forward on the concrete floor, her head cocked in front of a dull, colorless sky, while her comb gathered and transmitted pure ruby light. A point of red brilliance burned within the wide grayness, and I felt a rush of understanding: a scarlet speck on a field of gray, the hearth s sparkle in a dark interior, a fiddle tune drifting into the night air. A moment of pleasure amid ceaseless toil: hope within hardship. Consolation. It is our choice to concentrate on the point of brightness or abandon ourselves to darkness.
Life is hard, Peter says, but if people lose the will to discover consolations, if they can no longer see the flash against the black, they will lose God into the vastness of the unknown. They will despair. Above all things, Peter tells me, it is our duty to prevent that from happening. You can t let yourself think that God doesn t love you. Then you are lost. You become lost, he explains, when you have lost contact with the law, by which he means God s law, the cosmic order. Losing connection to the center of the law-God s particular love for them-people disconnect from nature and their fellow creatures, sinking into stillness. Hardship, Peter says, drives us toward despair. He understands why other old men surrender, finding it hard to get out of bed, but hiding is not the answer, suicide is no option. We must be brave. We must endure.
If you struggle to endure, Peter says, with the house black around us, God will reward your courage. Even if you are a bad sinner. Despair is the worst, the very worst.
New terrors gather beyond the horizon, memories of past failures gnaw at the brain, and Peter concludes, Life is hard, but it must be lived. We must carry on. God knows life s hardships. He understands the temptation to despair, but He knows the gallant effort to keep going.
We must carry on.
5
Carrying On
C OME AGAIN TO Ballymenone, to the white houses on the low green hills north of the Arney. The environment is made of wind and rain and bombs in the night. The place-as befits the convoluted logic of the land of The Book of Kells and Finnegans Wake -is located seven miles north of the border. And nine miles east of the border. And twenty miles west of the border. And, preposterously, twenty-four miles south of the tortured border that separates the North from the South. Ballymenone s position in the southwestern corner of the North sets its human dilemma. The people are, inevitably, Catholics or Protestants. Living in Northern Ireland, they belong (in the loose language of the journalist) to different communities, opposed in politics, locked in hostility. Living in Ballymenone, they belong to one community, unified by work and built on the commandment to love.
Their lives are sprung with tension. No final release, short of death, seems possible; all resolution is momentary, situational. Away from home in public (where journalists find them), they align with their side, marching on the Glorious Twelfth, singing the pained anthems of rebellion. At home in private, their opinions differ as they do. Some are entrenched, unconditionally committed, bitter. Others are tolerant, ambivalent, and sad. In quiet talk, they pity the dead, condemn the killers, and shift positions. A Loyalist will blame the British and wish for a united Ireland. A Republican will praise the social services available in the North and fault the boys of the IRA, the lads who play in the game at the risk of their souls . . . and yet, they say, as long as the invader remains, so long as British helicopters pound in the Irish skies and British soldiers patrol the Irish country lanes, the Troubles will go on.
Between the public life of the town and the private life of the mind, most of life transpires in communal space, among the neighbors who acknowledge difference and work for oneness-not because they can imagine no alternative (indeed, they must resist the alternatives toward which their political leaders push them), but because they need each other in the fields, because they share a set of Christian admonitions, because they are good people.
The Lunnys are good neighbors, Mrs. Cutler said. They re the best, now.
Tommy s mother often sent up a lump of butter, nice and sweet and good.
And I seen John James, Tommy s brother (he s dead now), comin up the lane with a whole cart of praties and puttin them in the shed at the back. For some reason, there was none here. The crop was bad. And they brought many s the pratie here for us.
And you daren t offer them anything.
Billy and Johnny gave them a big hedge for firin, and they never forgot.
Tommy does come by and borrow the ladder to thatch his pecks of hay. And he always stops to see is there any wee thing I need. Ah, they re the best.
Tommy s father used to come to ceili with Billy. Billy had a pipe, and they d sit at the fire there, passin it back and forth.
Tommy Lunny comes up the hill, bringing Mrs. Cutler gifts of fruit, picked from his trees. She gives him a seat by the fire to warm his stiff knees, and a cup of tea, rich with sugar and cream, when he comes to call. Tommy Lunny is a Catholic. Ellen Cutler is a Protestant. They are neighbors, and they use neighborly gifts to counter difference and affirm community.
Bobbie Thornton marches through Enniskillen at the head of his Lodge on the Twelfth of July. Between performances, the splendid banner of his Loyal Orange Lodge is furled for storage in his home. Mr. Thornton is one of the district s few big farmers. His Catholic laborers praise the meals they receive in his kitchen when he hires their help. In the days when he owned one of the few automobiles in the countryside, they could count on him during emergencies. He would rise from his warm bed and speed through the night to get the wife of one of his farmhands to the hospital, so that another Catholic child could come healthily into the world.
At once a country of community and a realm of division-that is how the great poet Seamus Heaney characterized his corner of the North. If community is to exist within the realm of division, it depends on acts of conscience, on neighborly trades of aid, on small gifts and polite gestures made from one side to the other. In Ballymenone, during the Troubles of the seventies, there was nothing more, nothing institutional, no collective movement on behalf of the communal good, only the little doings of lone people acting decently on their own.
The children grew rigid in the winds of division. But the old people remembered better times, times not drained of hope.
When Peter Flanagan and Michael Boyle were young, James Owens and Peter Cassidy called the Catholic boys of Ballymenone into assembly. It was about 1928. Rebellion and civil war lay in the past, and Northern Ireland was drifting into a new social order, its religious and political differences deepened, hardened, sharpened by conflict. Peaceful coexistence seemed possible, but community is another matter. Community is more than coexistence, more than tolerance and acceptance; it is interactive, cooperative, united in destiny. Community was the question, and the answer of the old men, of Owens and Cassidy, was to give the young men the Mummers Rule and teach them the rhymes of a comical drama of death and resurrection.
Their mummers play had a history going back, at least, to the seventeenth century in Ireland. Cognate dramas, diverse in detail but consonant in narrative line, were once performed throughout Britain and across Europe to the Middle East. The wide distribution suggests great age, but however ancient its unknowable origin, Ballymenone s mumming-a testament to the wisdom of old men and the flexibility of tradition-was adapted deftly to fit its time and place.
The boys gathered in a country house to rehearse their lines and make their costumes. Girls helped them stitch simple tunics, and the boys made their own hats. It s very easy makin a mummer s hat, Peter Flanagan said, and one afternoon he showed me how it was done. You bind a sally rod into a hoop, bend straw over the hoop, plait it as though you were braiding long hair, and tie the plat with twine. Like that you make a dozen or so, then you lift the plats in four bunches, bending and binding them into a crown at the top with green ribbon. The ring rested on the shoulders, the plats rose into a tall hood, and the hats united the mummers and hid their identities. They were a squad, alike and strange.
By the Mummers Rule, the lads were obliged to act decorously and visit every house in the vicinity, Catholic or Protestant, rich or poor, friendly or not. Their Captain knocked at the door, courteously requesting admittance. It was Christmas time, when nights are long and cold. The mummers huddled on the street, in the deep dark and icy winds, deciding whether to compress their performance into a wee quickie or drive it to the limit and go in with a vengeance.
The Captain went in first. Room, room, gallant boys, give us room to rhyme. . . . Captain Mummer circled the floor, the ashplant in his hand, promising diversion in a play, the like of which was never acted on stage. Then, one by one-uniformed in tunics, masked by tall straw hats, casting monstrous shadows through the kitchen-each man passed through the door, identifying himself in cadenced lines. After the Captain, came Beelzebub:
Here comes I, Beelzebub,
And over me shoulder I carry a club,
And in my hand a dripping pan,
And I think meself a jolly old man.
And if you don t believe in what I say,
Come in Oliver Cromwell and clear the way.
Reciting his rhyme at a high, steady pitch, each man entered, displaying his weapons or boasting his powers. Oliver Cromwell, conqueror of nations, had fought in France and fought in Spain, and he was back in Ireland to fight again. Each man called in the next, clearing the way for Prince George, a famous champion from merry England: Here comes I, Prince George, with me armor shining bright. . . . Next came Saint Patrick:
Here comes I, Saint Patrick,
And the reason I came,
I m in search of that bully,
Prince George is his name.
And if I do find him,
I ll tell you no lie,
I ll hack him to pieces as small as a fly,
And throw im to the Devil for a Christmas pie.
The inevitable fight ensued. Prince George-not Saint George, England s patron and the logical opponent for Saint Patrick, but a prince, a knight, an embodiment of worldly might-Prince George, a royal Englishman, calls Ireland s saint a liar and commands him to pull out his purse and pay. Patrick resists, George insists, and Patrick, stabbed like Christ in the side, falls with a groan. In the struggle over truth and wealth, invader and native meet, symbolically reenacting the recent war, and sacred Ireland is slain by secular England. Saint Patrick lies dead on the floor.
But all hope is not lost. A general cry is raised for a Doctor. The first to come not garbed in the outlandish getup of a mummer, but wearing a black suit and carrying a black bag like any doctor, he enters, saying he will revive the slain champion for forty guineas. Promised his astonishing fee, paid to bring Ireland to life again, the Doctor submits to interrogation, describing his fantastic practice in answer to Captain Mummer s questions. The Doctor s was the fullest, funniest role, and Michael Boyle played it with panache. The Captain asks what medicine he uses, and Michael replies:
The filliciefee of a bumbee,
And the thunder nouns of a creepie stool,
All boiled up in a woodenleatheriron pot.
Let that be given to him fourteen fortnights before day,
And if that doesn t cure im, I ll ask no pay.
The Captain asks what ills he can cure, and the Doctor says:
I can cure the pain within, the pain without,
The little pain,
The big pain,
The crippin and the palsey and the gout.
And I have a wee bottle here
in the waistband of me trousers.
They call it:
Hokey, pokey
Halicumpain.
Rise up dead man and fight again.
The Doctor s crazy old cure cancels murder, death is undone, and the dead man rises like Lazarus. George and Patrick-England and Ireland, soldier and saint-stand alive, side by side. Peace seems possible. At this point of hope, the play s first phase has ended, the next begins.
Every performance differed. It depended on the number of mummers who showed up to go out, and it depended on the houses they entered. In the homes of generous men and pretty girls, the drama expanded and grew uproarious. Then, it contracted and calmed in miserly houses, and took on a gentle, jokey tone when children were present. The opening procession began with a devil, went forward with warriors, and ended in combat, but it could be shortened. Oliver Cromwell might not appear, and in the quickest performances Prince George was also omitted, leaving Beelzebub to fight it out with Saint Patrick. Meanings shifted and simplified, but the deep structure of significance held as Beelzebub, the prince of demons, Satan s agent, assumed George s role and killed Saint Patrick, God s envoy to Ireland.
The opening procession leads through a demand for money to a fight and it ends at death, displaying the community s potential for conflict. The closing procession, the one following the Doctor s cure, leads through a demand for money to the second in a series of dances, displaying the community s potential for harmony. It has two ways to advance, one long and bellicose, one brief and benign. Stretched, it will balance the first with boastful warriors, with Homer s Hector, an eater of dogs and fighter of men, with Jack Straw, the stick in his hand, ready to draw, and it will echo the menacing aggression of the first procession when a devil, dressed like a lady and wielding a broom, makes the mummers motives plain:
Here comes I, Little Devil Doubt.
If I don t get money, I ll sweep yez all out.
Money I want.
Money I crave.
And if I don t get money,
I ll sweep yez all to your grave.
But more often the mood shifts with the miracle of resurrection, and the play, mixed in the beginning of humor and dread, is purified toward the comic and urged toward peace. No more masked men will threaten the house and terrify the children at the hearth. Vaunting and violence now lie in the past, just as the militant rhetoric of the Home Rule debate and the bloodshed of rebellion lie in the past. The Doctor skips the devil and the fighting men and calls straightaway for a musician:
Here comes I, Big Head and Little Wit.
The more me head s big, me body s small,
But I ll play a tune to please yous all.
Big Head tunes the fiddle or lifts the flute, and two of the mummers step out on the floor to dance a reel. Not devils or warriors, but united in the likeness of their abstract attire, they move to one melody, an emblem of accord.
Peter Flanagan came last. Like the Doctor, he was dressed like a person of the world, a member of the community, and not like a mummer. Like the Doctor, he carried a bag. Like the Doctor, he asked for money. Disguised in women s clothing, Peter entered to lift the donations, saying:
Here comes I, Miss Funny,
With me big long bag to carry the money.
All silver and no brass,
If you don t give me money,
I ll steal your ass.
That was the mummers last threat and request. When Saint Patrick refused to pay, he was killed. When the Doctor was paid, he brought the dead to life. Now Miss Funny opens her bag, hoping for shillings, not pennies. Refuse her request, and she will take the donkey needed for work on the farm. Pay her, it seems, and she will do as the Doctor has done. Ireland lies, broken by war. Armed men in masks crowd the kitchen. What the future holds, God alone knows. The man of the house pulls out his purse and pays.
In fair exchange, the mummers have given their play, the householders have given their pay. The collection is done, and the performance has accomplished its mission: the distance between the masked mummers and the people of the house, between different segments of the community, has dissolved in music and motion. The mummers had danced, and now the man of the house whirls the floor, waltzing with Miss Funny.
At the end, there is unity. In the beginning, division was complete. The mummers were tramping the muddy lanes. The family was sitting in the small light of a turf fire, in a lonely house on a hill. There was only the sound of the wind.
A knock comes to the door. Neighbors do not knock. It must be some stranger. Memories rise of gunmen in the night. At the crack of the door, a masked man requests entry. Turned away, the boys will leave politely, blessing the house, but this is Christmas and these are mummers. The door swings open.
Slowly the kitchen fills with men, made strange and tall by conical hoods plaited of straw. Their rhymes are amusing, their threats are not. Their play-stark and bizarre-is, like the classic fairytale, double-coded: funny for adults, frightening for children. Adults chuckle, children cower, as each man calls in another and a demand for money leads to death. The next demand for money brings life. The last brings connection, when a man dressed as a woman-a witty incarnation of integration-receives cash and dances with the man of the house.
With Miss Funny, the performance shifts from spectacle to exchange. Contact was made during the collection and dance. Now contact increases, distance vanishes. In chaste flirtation, with grins and stifled giggles, the girls at the hearth guess the names of the boys in disguise. Prince George is Benny Quigley. Saint Patrick is Paddy McBrien. Neighbor lads, they remove their hats, receive tea from the lady of the house, and, in courtly reciprocity, they fill requests for tunes and songs. At the time, the most frequent request was for Kevin Barry, the ballad of a rebel s hanging in 1920. The chorus began:
Another martyr for old Ireland,
Another murder for the crown.
Brutal laws may crush the Irish,
But cannot break their spirits down.
Mumming and song both turn on a murder by the crown. The rebel boy is dead, but his song promises that lads like Barry will free Ireland, and Ireland s saint has risen from the floor, ready to fight again. The spirit is high.
The strange has yielded to the familiar: the mummers weird play has permuted into an unusually crowded example of the usual hospitable event of a winter s evening, a ceili with its blend of entertainment at the fireside. Hats off, tea taken, songs sung, relaxed and chatting, the boys of the mumming squad join with the people of the house, swinging a single ring of neighbors around the kitchen-an intimate instance of unity, a momentary realization of the hope for community. And then, wishing luck to the house, the mummers are gone into the night.
But before they would go, Ellen Cutler remembered, if they could see a cake of bread on the table or any eatables, you wouldn t have them long; they d have them with them. I d say, The best of luck to yez. And away they d go.
As promised, they brought diversion, a gift of rare value during the long nights of winter, and Mrs. Cutler did not begrudge them their petty thefts: I loved to see the mummers come, so I did.
Raucous boys, eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, their purloined cakes were their recompense, fuel for the long march from house to house. The cash they collected was not theirs. It was taken to finance the Mummers Ball that ended their winter s work.
The Mummers Ball was the only event to which everyone in the community was invited. The mummers used their costumes and play to gain admittance to houses they had not entered, houses of the other side, even the mansion of the Protestant rector, the Reverend Mr. Lapham, its floors spread with luxurious carpets. While making her collection, Miss Funny extended a formal invitation, and the money she got was a donation, a subscription to the Ball. And then she danced with the man of the house, prefiguring the pleasures of the party where all would gather to dance again.
After doing Ballymenone, the mummers ranged through South Fermanagh, going east across the Lough to Inishmore, south toward Derrylin where they had to parley with another squad over territory, and then north to the town of Enniskillen. The cash gathered from afar increased the wealth they used to buy tea and drink and tobacco for their own community s Ball.
When the Ball was over and spring had come, the mummers held a small party of their own near Saint Patrick s Day. They built a fire and ceremonially burned their old straw hats. One cycle had ended. The next would begin with the making of new hats in the following winter.
Within the realm of division, the mummers were put on the road to create community, and it worked, I was told. The days of the mummers were good days, the old people said. The boys rooted people out of their solitary dwellings and pulled them to a party where all were welcome. Protestants and Catholics could chat together at ceilis, but the Ball was the only chance they had to dance together, and Rose Murphy said that when Protestants and Catholics danced, when they embraced in mixed couples and moved to one rhythm, tensions diminished, peace prevailed.
At his hearth, one calm day, I told Peter Flanagan about the theories advanced to explain the persistence of mumming. By the survivalists theory, the mummers unwittingly enacted an ancient ritual, marking the death of the old year, the birth of the new. Peter found the notion absurd. His religion s doctrine of free will taught him that individuals are responsible, morally accountable for their actions. How could a man do something, he asked, and him not know what he was doin? Silly. The functionalists argued that traditional performances like mumming served to bring society into coherence. Learning from me about A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, an early English proponent of functionalism, Peter declared, That Radcliffe-Brown was a power of a man. The functionalists, he said, were right. Yes: mumming s purpose was to bring unity to a divided community.
Positive or negative responses to the ethnographer s explanations prove nothing, but when they spark expansion, it is likely that a good path to interpretation has been found, and Peter expanded:
Aye surely. It was to bring unity amongst them, and to show the opposite number that there was no harm in them.
We would go to the houses of the people of Protestant persuasion, and they were delighted. Often and often, they would give more than what the Catholic people would.
Some of the Protestants were confined like. They were a kind of strict, and they loved to see a bit of entertainment like that. And when they would see the mummers, well, they were delighted with them, you know, and it changed their attitude altogether.
Some of them would go to the Ball, and they had a great time. Surely.
It broke down a lot of barriers. It changed public opinion altogether.
If the mummin had spread-if people had become more mixed-it really wouldn t have developed as it has at the present time.
I really think that.
Mumming worked, worked for a while, and then it was gone. It had been gone for thirty years when I appeared in Ballymenone. Then twenty more years passed, and it was back in a new guise, antic and institutional. With the book I wrote out of the old mummers memories as his inspiration, Master Bryan Gallagher got the students at St. Aidan s High School in Derrylin to put a play together, and stimulated by his success, mumming has been revived throughout Fermanagh. During the 1990s, the County Council organized festivals of mumming at Enniskillen, and a dozen teams, with Ederney, Belcoo, and Aughakillymaude in the lead, brought mumming into the public, amusing new audiences while raising funds for charitable causes. Driven by the enthusiastic Jim Ledwith, the Aughakillymaude mummers are building, as I write, an addition to their community center at Knockninny, where life-sized effigies, in the manner of Duane Hanson, will portray the drama s characters. Mumming is back in Fermanagh. From other places, it never left.
One night in 1976, after an interview about the book was broadcast on Ulster Television, I chanced to be in a bar in Omagh, where I was recognized with excitement and told to wait. A couple of drinks later, men from the west of the County Tyrone sat with me, running through the rhymes of the mumming they performed every Christmas. Since then, in the midst of a sterling piece of ethnographic research, my dear friend Ray Cashman has gone mumming in West Tyrone-marginal Catholic country like South Fermanagh-and he has written richly about the business from the angle of a participant.
It continued in West Tyrone, but in my days in Ballymenone, mumming lived only in the mind (where, like slapbrick, it conditioned the attitudes and deeds of a generation). The old play belonged to the past. It had disappeared before, during the era of the Easter Rising and the World War. Then James Owens taught the boys the rhymes he remembered from his youth in the nineteenth century, and Ballymenone s mummers rambled the cold countryside for twelve nights during the Christmas season from about 1928 to 1942, when other squads were mumming east of the Lough and along an arc, swinging from Derrylin to the south, through Kinawley and Killesher to Florencecourt on the west. Then it died out again. John McBrien, the Captain, married and put boyish things behind him. His old comrades turned to their farmwork, and the next generation took no interest in mumming, Hugh Nolan said, because they lacked the old communal spirit and had new ways to make cash. But the ancient play did not simply fade away, sliding into oblivion as people matured and died. It was a casualty of resurgent strife. With the Troubles rising, the police could no longer abide troops of masked youths roaming through the blackness on the border. Mumming was outlawed, and when the prohibition relaxed, they had to go to the station and apply for a license to perform, and that, Peter Flanagan said, knocked the heart out of the job altogether.
Mumming was gone, and what remained were the small acts of good neighbors, help in the fields, gifts of tea at the hearth. It was, then, like this:
Because the farms were small, the houses, though set apart, stood in view of one another. Low hills afforded wide prospects over the land. The neighbors were watching, gathering data for gossip, and they rallied swiftly in times of disaster, but disasters were rare, work was lonely.
It took two to manage the homeplace. The work was split between them, but since women escaped Ballymenone more often than the men who owned title to the land, and men outnumbered women, the tasks were not always divided along gendered lines. The couple of the house might be husband and wife, or brother and sister, or mother and son, or two elderly brothers. One person stayed home, minding the finicky fire, battling at the hearth with black iron pots and sooty chairs, scrubbing the floors that were muddied at every meal, and brewing tea for every visitor. The boss was off in the fields, following the damned old cows to make sure they ate the grass of one field before sneaking into another, weeding the spuds and warring with the crows in the garden, going down to the bog, a burlap bag over his shoulders so the rain would not soak his ruined black jacket, and returning uphill with a plastic sack packed with turf to feed the flame on the hearth.
Their reward was to sit, when the sun at last sank, holding a mug of tea to warm the cracked hands and sweeten the sour gut, waiting to see who would come to ceili. And they would come, tired too, for there was nothing else to do. Crossing the floor and taking a seat without a word, Tommy accepts tea and answers, Not a haet, when asked, What news?
His would have been news of the neighbors, of sick people in need, of fights over drains and straying cattle, of raids made by the men of war. No news is good for the community, but bad news is good for the ceili: a problem and pleasure for the brain, stimulating analysis and demanding plans, it would get the talk going.
The weather, perhaps. Among farmers whose fortunes depend on an accurate reading of nature s signs, it is no trivial topic. Cold the day, our visitor says.
Och, aye.
That s the way, now.
Aye, indeed.
Turf smolders, and Tommy watches the smoke rise, whistling a reel under his breath. Another arrives and shifts to his seat. How s Packie? is the question. The best is the answer, for what s the use in complainin? Packie takes his tea, squints through the steam, and observes that the weather is cold. No one disagrees.
Agreement is the desired end of the ceili s conversations. Quiet words of affirmation, revolving in repetition, mean there is no dispute among us. The harmony of night talk confirms community; we remain ready to act as one when daylight strikes. Nothing is more important, but the hope is for something more: for entertainment, for a topic that will lift the talk to chat, for a play of wit that will lift the chat to crack and pass the time.
Clocks tick on the dresser behind us, each reporting its version of the time that must pass. There is not enough work to force an early rising. As they say, The man made time, made plenty. A long night unwinds before us.
If not the weather, then what of the big world? Clicked on at news time exactly, the little radio, powered by costly batteries, crackles with its tales of local violence and foreign intrigue. Regional murders prompt pity- Ah, the creature -and an irrelevant event in faraway Spain dusts up a flurry of words that settles, soon enough, into the ticking of the clocks, the snap and collapse of the fire at our feet.
In a stuttery silence that beckons through brooding to despair, we sit, sip, agree in words, and watch the fire, waiting for the one who can take a grip on some petty matter and mold it into a form to fill the mind. Then we can nestle into the role of the follower, joining the chorus of conventional comment- Man, dear. That s a sight. Boys-a-boys. That s a terror -to help our leader gain pace and confidence while swinging the talk toward a tale to please us all. The ones who can perform such satisfying and useful verbal feats, the ones who can put an uncommon word on a common thing, who can take a fix on the daily travail and extend it hyperbolically until it wrenches a laugh from the depths, making a joke out of misery-such country cousins of Samuel Beckett and Flann O Brien, they call stars.

Peter Flanagan, 1978
6
Stars in the Dark
T HE STAR GLITTERS within the dichotomous discourse by which Ballymenone s people make sense of things. Things are rough. The lanes are muddy and rutted. The pastures grow clatty with rushes. Iron rusts, clothes wrinkle, the chin bristles with whiskers. Things are rough, inevitably, and they are dull. Gleaming glass films with smoke. Buffed brass loses its luster. Colors fade, linens turn gray, whitewash streaks with green and black dampness. In smoothing the rough and brightening the dull-in trimming the wild hedges and washing the delph of the dresser-people assert the will, winning instants of victory within the tremendous dominion of the rough and dull.
As it is with the world, so it is with most people. Their ways are rough, their talk is dull. Their minds cloud and drift, their words come tumbling, mumbled without elegance or order, sharpness or spark. The star is the one who shines in the social scene, speaking smoothly and brightly, glittering against the engulfing darkness as the stars above interrupt the night sky with pricks of brilliance.
And yet, in Ballymenone, nothing brings censure more swiftly than an effort to make oneself seem bright. A desire to rise above the crowd, to stand aside in splendid isolation, is more than arrogant. It violates the social compact, rupturing the order delicately contrived by people who must live and work together. But here there is no paradox. The one who strives to seem bright will be brought down with hard words, while the one who is bright by nature is a consolation, a treasure to society. The star s brightness, it is the theory, inheres in the genetic makeup: fated, inescapable, it is a gift from God to be nurtured by the one so blessed, returned generously to the world, and appreciated by those at toil among things that are rough and dull.
The Star of Ballymenone
God s light bathes the land when the storm has passed, and God s light shines in beauty. A clutch of Northern songs praise the bright, particular beauty of fair Irish women: The Star of Donegal, The Star of Moville, The Star of Glenamoyle, The Star of Benbradden, The Star of Slane, The Bright Star of Derry, The Blooming Star of Eglintown, The Blazing Star of Drung. One of them, The Star of the County Down, has escaped Ulster to join the international repertory of traditional song: Van Morrison sings it with the Chieftains on Irish Heartbeat; the melody is hauntingly performed on Yo-Yo Ma s Appalachia Waltz . And, after apologizing for the imperfections of recall, Michael Boyle recited for me the song that celebrated a fine-lookin girl, Maggie Barclay, The Star of Ballymenone :
As I rambled out one evening,
it being in the summertime,
To view the pleasant Arney brooks
that do like silver shine,
As I walked along the Arney Road,
I thought the country grand,
With long brick hacks and big turf stacks,
all through The Holy Land.
Tonyloman looked so gay,
with its hills of shamrock green,
And many breeds of wild fowl
fly up from Inishkeen.
The wild goose and the mighty swan
and other birds are known;
It was a glorious sight to see their flight
over the hills of Ballymenone.
As I followed on the wild birds flight
right to Lough Erne s shore,
And to the strand of an island,
they call it Inishmore,
While walking down long Polly s Brae,
a young couple there did roam,
And the fair one s name was Maggie,
the Star of Ballymenone.
They both were of an equal stamp;
she held tight by the hand.
No wonder why his darting eye
might well entice
the Star of Ballymenone.
This couple fair, they did compare
about a song to sing:
I will my Jim, she did begin,
with heart so keen,
The Maids That Wore the Green.
And she says, My Jim, I must go home.
He gave consent, and home he went
with the Star of Ballymenone.
To all entrusted true lovers,
this couple I ll recommend.
My advice to you, young Jim McHugh,
is never for to roam,
But for your bride, take by your side,
she s the Star of Ballymenone.
A hymn to its place, the song sweeps clockwise to encompass the territory of the community at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Holy Land is the secret name of Sessiagh, the big townland on the west, holy because no Protestants live there. Tonyloman is the townland east of Gortdonaghy, where the Back Road begins its run to the southeast, going through Lower Ballymenone, past Polly s Brae, to the shores of Upper Lough Erne. Inishkeen lies in the Lough to the north, beyond Cleenish, toward Enniskillen, and Inishmore lies to the east, across from the mouth of the Arney. Green and grand, Ballymenone is lovely for nature, for silvery waters and flights of wild fowl, and lovely for culture, for thatched stacks of turf and long hacks of slapped brick, piled to dry in the sun.
The poet walks the low hills beneath the gray sky, visualizing a space too wide for the eye, sketching out of his mind a luminous setting for the handsome couple, as though land and lovers radiated and reflected one light, and then he counsels their union. Michael Boyle knew that Miss Barclay and Mr. McHugh married later in the States, and he knew that Jim McHugh joined the American army and was killed in the First World War. But he did not know who the poet was. It happened before his time, and the local muse so often turned to satire that this love song to a place and its people was misconstrued as malicious.
Well, the composer was unknown, Mr. Boyle said. It never was known right who made it. Because I think it caused a wee bit of bad humor like. I think it did, as far as I heard. So the composer was kind of unknown; it never was known who made it anyway.
Hugh McGiveney is my guess. The lofty diction and internal rhymes sound like McGiveney, and he was Ballymenone s foremost poet at the time. Along with Mickey McCourt and Mick Maguire, he was one of the authors of Maxwell s Ball, a song satirizing a dandy s jealous rage at a spree on Inishmore. McGiveney composed three comical songs featuring donkeys, two songs on the old Ballymenone marching band, and a famed ballad on the Battle at the Ford of Biscuits. Michael Boyle said:
Hughie McGiveney made songs, you know, for a bit of sport for himself.
He was that kind, do ye see: think of a song and make it, you know. Oh, he could make them very quick.
Oh, he was a great character, this Hugh McGiveney.
A poor farmer and notorious wit, who lived with his wife and cats in the Hollow near Hugh Nolan, Hugh McGiveney was, when Michael and Hugh were boys, a great star, their star of Ballymenone.
These are the ones who brighten a dull life. Beautiful young women and creative old men are both called stars.
Poetry
God s light shines in beauty, and God s light shines in wit: it burns in the mind of the rare poet. Now here is where the problem of brightness arises. The beautiful woman stands and glows, but the poet s is an inner light. His gift must be ordered in lines, set to a tune, and sung in public. The poet shines in the singing. But, said the singer Peter Flanagan, Let a man be brilliant and show his intelligence, his neighbors will talk about him and try to bring him down. Wit and will bind in tension. The solution-with firm precedent in the bardic practice of the Middle Ages-is to divide the tasks: one to compose, one to sing.
The poet sings, but sings modestly as an invitation to another who will take up the song and bring it forth robustly, advocating its excellence without restraint, for it is not, after all, his. In full committed performance, the song testifies to the natural gift of the poet in its rhymed and rhythmic words, and to the natural gift of the singer in its commanding sound, its musical presence.
Hugh McGiveney s songs were sung by Terry Maguire, a young man famed for playing the flute. He practiced for hours each day, Michael Boyle said, and he was a great fluter, lively; if you had a foot atall under ye, you d shake it. Terry The Cat Maguire was a renowned musician, but no one followed him as a singer. McGiveney s songs were remembered but not performed in my day. Charlie Farmer s luck was better. He farmed in the townland of Tiravally, southwest of Ballymenone, between Mackan and Kinawley on the way to the border. Michael Boyle remembered him as a small man and a great poet. Peter Flanagan, who lived near him as a boy, knew Charlie Farmer well:
You wouldn t think-if you seen him, and he was a very unsignified-lookin type of person. The modestest wee fellow, and he had a wee beard comin down like a wee nib of a pen, you know.
He was the nice tiny wee fellow. And every word you d ask him, he d say, Aye.
That s a good day, Charlie.
Aye.
You would think that he knew nothing-that type of person. But if he got into talk, he could use the best grammar ever you heard. And I really don t know where he got his education. Really. Sure, I was stupid, and, of course, when you re young like that you don t look at the full details of history.
An old man in a bar told me that Charlie Farmer was the more remarkable because he could not even sign his own name, but Peter remembered him puttin on the wee glasses with the wee bright rims and readin the paper as well as any professor. He committed his compositions to writing, in texts called scripts, and though he was a rough country man, Peter said, Farmer was the last word in poetry. He was. He was a wonderful man. He belonged in the company of the celebrated masters of the old national culture :
If Charlie Farmer had been alive now, he d have featured amongst the greatest of our Irish poets. That s namely Thomas Moore and James Clarence Mangan, and all of them; you ve heard tell of them all. Ethna Carbery. Charles Kickham that sings, I live beside the Anner.
Well, Charlie Farmer was as good as any of them. Oh, he went very deep into-very deep-meanin songs.
He composed, in fact-ah, I didn t hear the half of them. I believe he had a stack of songs, and then the people that got his wee place at his death, they didn t know the treasure, nor the value; they burned stacks and stacks and stacks of his good poetry.
Well, he has died now without any recognition.
Farmer s poetry was silent solace for a hard, lonely life. He lacked ambition, Peter said, and since he was void of an air, Johnny McCaffrey, a young man who lived beside him, put the tunes to Farmer s compositions and became his singer in public. When McCaffrey went away to Scotland, Farmer s songs would have been lost had it not been for Joe Neal. An old soldier, a laborer and drifter, Neal was a powerful singer, and Peter often heard him singing through the long nights at ceilis in country houses:
You wouldn t be tired listenin to him.
He didn t make any songs himself, but he was well educated, you know, and he learned all these songs. He pursued that.
He had all Charlie Farmer s songs.
Charlie Farmer s poems became known as Joe Neal songs. But Neal is dead, McCaffrey is dead, Farmer is dead, and all of his songs were lost, Peter said, except the ones that I know. We know Charlie Farmer s poetry through the singing of Peter Flanagan.
Peter divided Farmer s oeuvre into two great classes: comical and political. In his comical songs, the humble poet derides pride. In one, John Greene, an old man, makes a fool of himself by competing with the boys in a donkey race. Another mocks an aging policeman named Reilly who fancied himself a delight to the ladies. In Oliver s Harvest Home, another old man, Willie Oliver, tries to charm two young women with his singing. But, Peter said, as a singer he was Ireland s worst. He was a kind of chain-singer, and, ah the creature, you wouldn t be bothered listenin to him. You d go outside in the snow and sleet till you d be frozen to death before you d listen to him.
Och, you d rather hear a bull roarin in the bog.
Through rollicking hyperbole, Peter Flanagan joins in the spirit of Charlie Farmer s verse and Joe Neal s singing. Funny in the moment, Farmer s satirical songs move from the particular instance toward general human failings, becoming contributions to a comprehensive typology of vanity. They record the various ways that people, in attempting to make themselves seem bright, end up making themselves idiots in the eyes of their neighbors.
The comical and political-the satirical and patriotic-mix in Farmer s songs that deploy humor to attack the opposition. He made one on the Molly Maguires, the conservative Catholics who fought at country fairs with the radicals of Sinn Fein during the era of revolution, when, following the paths blazed during brick-making and the Land League agitation, Fenian alliances reordered the community of Ballymenone. In another, Farmer played on the name of Mr. Trimble, the editor of the Impartial Reporter , Enniskillen s Protestant newspaper, who trembled and trembled when he heard of Sinn Fein. A third lampoons Mr. Cooper, the Crown Solicitor, who spoke to the hosted Orange Lodges, threatening to marshal the alphabetical militia against the idea of redrawing Northern Ireland s border to exclude southwestern Fermanagh. The song s moment lies between 1920, when the A, B, and C Special Constabulary units were recruited from among Ulster s Loyalists to oppose the IRA, and 1925, when the notion of a new boundary faded away and Ireland was divided along its old county lines. Set to a jaunty tune akin to The Limerick Rake, lilting and tough, The Bloody Campaign on the Border is one of Peter Flanagan s favorite pieces for public performance and a fair sample of Charlie Farmer s satirical twist:
The great League of Nations is now in despair,
And war it is looming again in the air,
And an order has come from Belfast to prepare
For a bloody campaign on the border.
We thought when the rule of the Kaiser had ceased
That Europe was in for the blessing of peace,
But a hero named Cooper has taken his place,
And he threatens to march on the border.
The law and the Treaty, this hero defies
In a speech that he made on the Twelfth of July.
He shouts, No surrender, we ll conquer or die
In a bloody campaign on the border.
His army composed of the A, B, and C,
Old men and cubs not the height of your knee.
It would be well worth your while for to go there and see
This rebel brigade on the border.
I would advise Mister Cooper at home for to stop,
For to stay at his desk or remain in the shop,
For some of these snipers this hero might pop,
And the battle would be lost at the border.
When he goes to the border to make his attack,
I would venture to say he would never come back,
Except his remains be sent home in a sack,
To be buried away from the border.
A ripe sense of humor and a taste for the absurd, a liking for poetry and a fondness for one s place and people-these cross the divide in South Fermanagh where sectarian strife roils above deep cultural unity. When Cooper heard the song sung be one of his own side, Peter said, he found it very amusin, so he did.
Of all Farmer s songs, Come to Kinawley, a member of the political class, is the most widely known. A young Catholic woman teased Ellen Cutler by singing bits of it when they were in the hospital together. Hugh Nolan remembered a piece of a parody, a sure sign of popularity. When space opened for Peter Flanagan to sing in the public houses of Swanlinbar, the Kinawley men around him regularly requested Kinawley. It is a long old song, Peter told me, with its second stanza repeated as a chorus, and the words ever varied as memory met the moment in the heat of performance. The stirring melody-martial, yet melancholy-reminds me of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, though it was taken, P said, from an old sentimental song called Erin, I Adore. Here is the full text as Peter gave it to the crowd in a rackety pub, one night in 1979:
Come to Kinawley, that historic place,
That once has been the pride and the home of our race,
Before the invader he dared show his face
In our sanctified home in Kinawley.
Come to Kinawley and there take your stand.
In the struggle for freedom, we ll join heart and hand.
An Irish Republic is all we demand,
And we ll have nothing less in Kinawley.
Our own saintly curate we ll greet with a smile.
He loves every inch of our beautiful isle.
He talks with his people, the same as a child,
And he s loved by us all in Kinawley.
Our priest and our people together they ll stand,
With their backs to the wall, and they ll fight for our land.
In liberty s cause they will join in the band,
And they ll drive out the foes from Kinawley.
Come to Kinawley and there you will see
The flag of a nation, it floats from a tree.
Stand under its folds if you want to be free,
And shout up Sinn Fein in Kinawley.
Come to Kinawley and pray at the shrine,
As of holy Saint Naile, it s in olden time,
Before the Normans and Saxons committed the crime
For to plunder our old homes in Kinawley.
While begging from England we were but old fools,
While trusting their statesmen, they made us ould tools,
But now we are out for to kill British rule,
And to bury their old corpse in Kinawley.
Kinawley, the home and pride of our race, is a point where roads collide, just north of the border in Fermanagh. Here, in the sixth century Saint Naile made his cell, and Naile s well glows still, below the ruined fifteenth-century church in the cemetery where Peter Flanagan s father is buried. We paused there on our trips to Swad so Peter could kneel on the sod in prayer.
Charlie Farmer s song is a relic of high local value, and Martin Crudden, Kinawley s chief of singers, fears for its survival because, though everyone knows of it, only Peter Flanagan has all of the words. Composed to draw the crowd to a massive Sinn Fein meeting at Kinawley in 1916, when a Republican tricolor was hoisted into a lofty tree, too high to take down, Kinawley exemplifies one of the two types of political song: songs to rally our side in the present. But sung long past its time, it drifts toward the other category of political song: songs of commemoration. It preserves the mood of the era of the Easter Rising, and, in particular, it recalls Father Patrick McPhillips, the Fenian Priest, the saintly curate who joined with his people in liberty s cause.
Commemorative songs dominate the political class. Unlike the steely, austere ballads of the Scots border, they do not tighten along the narrative line. In an Irish manner, they surrender to the lyrical impulse and swell with a rhetoric of feeling. Less telling stories than referring to events, they exist interdependently with historical knowledge, evoking past happenings to shape opinion in present. The language is often the language of the toast or ceremonial oration, of people joined in celebratory accord. Memories consolidate into commemoration, and the poet looks backward to look forward, imagining the completion in the future of work unfinished in the past. Commemorative songs take a stand, remembering defeat and dreaming of victory. Like talk in the ceili, they ready us to receive the call in times of trouble or chance.
Ireland s prime song on the failed rebellion of 1798, The Rising of the Moon, which Joe Flanagan sings shyly when his turn comes in the ceili, begins like a rallying song, but it was composed commemoratively by John Keegan Casey in 1860 when he was fifteen. To mark the centennial of the rebellion, W. B. Yeats led the movement to raise a monument in Dublin, and Charlie Farmer wrote the greatest of his commemorative songs, The Men of Ninety-Eight. Since emotion, not narrative, is the point, Peter Flanagan shuffled the stanzas in different singings, though the second of them consistently served as a chorus. This is how it came out on a soft evening at his hearth in 1972:
A hundred years has passed and gone since Irish men they stood
On the green hillside of Erin and for freedom shed their blood.
The Irish race is called upon for to commemorate
Those brave United Irishmen who died in Ninety-Eight.
Then: hurray for the flag, the dear old flag of green.
And hurray for the men who beneath its folds is seen.
Hurray for those heroes we now commemorate:
Those brave United Irishmen who died in Ninety-Eight.
Tyrannical oppression reigned supreme throughout our land,
And trampled on the people s rights till they could no longer stand.
Our gallant soldiers, up they sprung against Saxon s crown and hate,
And swore they d save their land or die, the men of Ninety-Eight.
The standard of the green unfurled, while cheers does blend the air,
That waved now proudly over the men of Wexford and Kildare.
And Father Murphy blessed our arms and bravely led us on.
We ll ne er forget old Suchatharoon. Hurray for Father John.
They fought and died for Ireland, oh how they died in vain.
Are we content to live as slaves beneath a tyrant s chain?
Ah no, my boys, while Irish blood through Irish veins does flow,
We re ever ready at the call to strike another blow.
Peter Flanagan has saved for us a historical treasure. From him we learn the scope and style of a country poet who flourished a century ago. The information has come to us along a delicate chain of transmission-Farmer to McCaffrey to Neal to Flanagan-a chain easily snapped, information usually lost. In Ballymenone, the case is the more vexed because of the fragility of the first link. The poet, modest as he should be, cannot champion his own creations. He depends on another, as Farmer did McCaffrey, as McGiveney did Maguire, who will make his work public, and if no singer accepts that task, the poet gains a hard measure of the limits of his gift, while the songs he sings are heard and then forgotten.
Paddy McBrien and Peter Flanagan both told me that Hugh Nolan was a poet. Paddy remembered Hugh in the quick of inspiration ripping open a brown paper bag and writing a poem on it. One of his songs satirized Major Lee of the B-Specials, others described the old Rossdoney school and the slapbrick industry, but when I asked Mr. Nolan about his poems, he remembered them less well than his neighbors, and, using the old word ramas, he dismissed them as youthful foolishness:
Oh aye, there was a time I could make up rhymes.
They were just about happenins about. I never kept any of them in writing. And I didn t rehearse them.
Och, they were just a kind of ramas. They amused young people, do ye see. You ll not be able for to gather them up.
They re all gone.
History
No one became Hugh Nolan s singer. His poems are gone, but if he failed as a poet, he succeeded as a historian. His neighbors accept his judgment in arguments over mearns and passes, boundaries and rights of access, and his is the final authority on the facts of the past. Mr. Nolan, an old man in a smoke-blackened house, has been granted the high name of historian. He and Michael Boyle hold the history of Ballymenone. In the generation before them, it was Richard Corrigan, Peter Cassidy, and Hugh McGiveney-Hugh McGiveney: the old poet was a historian too. Peter Flanagan represented Charlie Farmer as a poet, but when I was trying to understand stardom, seven years after I first heard of Farmer, I asked Peter, and he said, yes: Charlie Farmer was a historian as well as a poet. He was both.
Poet and historian: Aye, them jobs go together, Hugh Nolan said. Poems and historical narratives expose different facets of the star s gift. Wit-creative intelligence-is double, a matter of both imagination and memory. Hugh Nolan and Peter Flanagan agreed that, while the poet lets the imagination fly, the historian must avoid the imaginative, making sure that memory masters fancy. And yet, the poet exploits history, notably in commemorative songs, and the historian must, like the poet, arrange the mind s capture for artful presence.
History takes more than memory. The historian, said the historian Hugh Nolan, does not repeat old stories. He seeks different tellers and tellings, gathering the facts, weighing them critically, and synthesizing a personal account that is full and true. For Hugh Nolan, as for the professors in the academy, the first commitment is to the truth. It is truth that makes historians, but Mr. Nolan knows the truth is elusive. The truth he defines as what you are willin to live by. Today s truth might be overturned by tomorrow s facts, but truth is more than the best that can be managed in the moment: it is what you possess in the depths and believe so completely that you will let it guide your life.
Uneasy with writing, Hugh Nolan makes a mental note of apposite matters and rehearses his accounts, repeating them inwardly between performances. In rehearsal, he commits to memory the structure of events and the speech of the actors, keeping them fresh. True in their memorized, non-negotiable essence, his narratives yet vary in verbal detail, in informational asides and situational reference. Professional folklorists have come to understand what Mr. Nolan knows by self-reflection: the storyteller does not have texts in the head. His mind grips the materials-the episodic sequences and reported quotations of history, the syntactic strategies and poetic tactics of his rhetorical tradition-out of which, using discourse of his own, his words, his sentences, Mr. Nolan composes stories to meet the fleeting scene. I recorded those stories and transcribed them into the texts that bind me with my reader in the covenant of truth. He put it like this:
Well, of course, the discourse in every story would be more or less different, do ye see. In tellin a story, you often have to use words of your own, words of your own.
When you re not just able for one sentence to follow another, do ye know, it leaves no good in a story.
There wants to be a connecting link from one sentence to another, do ye see.
In casting memory for presence in speech, the historian is, of necessity, a teller of tales. Few people can tell a story well. Oh now, I have came across alot of people, Mr. Nolan said, that would not be able to rehearse a story that they heard.
They d go a wee bit and-Och, I forget, do ye know-and they d drop it at that; they weren t able for to mind the whole story.
Ballymenone s historians are men. This old history is men s work, Ellen Cutler said. Michael Boyle called it a man s job too. Historians are male and they are elderly. In generation after generation, men who listened to the old people as boys take up the errand of history as the end approaches. In life s twilight, the stars of Ballymenone shift roles. Leaving poetry to the young, letting others sing or forget their songs, they become historians, tasked to preserve the past of their place and tell the stories their neighbors must hear. While developing narratives, using words of their own, linking sentences into order, and telling the whole tale, they put their old love of language to a new use.
Hugh McGiveney, Charlie Farmer, Hugh Nolan-all were poets when young, historians when old. In both roles they served their community in creations that balance in contrast. Poems spring out of narrative order. Historical stories run the narrative line, pausing in dialogue and explanation, rushing forward in action, sharing a parsimonious artfulness with the great ballads of Britain. Poems skitter past the truth in partisan enthusiasm. Historical stories put songs into context by telling the whole tale, by containing truths that inspire patriotism and truths that check patriotic excess. Messages mix in the mind. Skills blend in the arts of the stars. In rehearsal, the historian holds to the sheer facts. In performance, though constrained by the facts, willingly confined, the historian exhibits the poet s gift.
Hugh Nolan sits at home. Our tea is done. The fire darkens, the clock ticks, the recorder is going. I ask him to tell me the story of the Battle of the Ford of Biscuits, which I have heard but not gotten on tape. My practice is to hear stories as they come, allowing the event to unfold without mechanical intrusion, later to return for recording. One person or ten at the hearth, it makes little difference to Hugh. His first contract is with the truth. He has reassembled the past with care, and he yields it up completely.
Stories are speech, neither prose exactly, nor poetry exactly. When I transcribed Mr. Nolan s battle tale, listening to the tape over and over, guided by his pacing and leaving white space to indicate silence, some of the text came out like prose. In the prosy bits, he sets the scene and expands in explanation. Other passages, where there is action, took on the look of free verse. No more than he, can I escape the conventions of my culture. Here, then, is a characteristic historical narrative. This is how he filled the tale, line by line, using words of his own to answer my request:
Well.
I have heard a gooddeal about the Ford of Biscuits battle.
Do ye see: at that time there was no town in Enniskillen. There was only a fort.

Two things like round towers: the seventeenth-century Water Gate, Enniskillen
Do you know, when you d stand there in Henry Street, and look across the Lough, you see two things like round towers. Well, that was a fort on the edge of the lake, in the middle of the sixteenth century; that d be somewhere in the fifteen-hundreds. Aye.
Well, there was an English garrison.
Do you see, the Plantation of Ulster, it took place in the early part of the seventeenth century. That would be very early, about sixteen hundred and nine.
It was after the Flight of the Earls. They were Irish gentry that had position and owned the property, the land like, in this country. So then, they lost in the wars with the British, and they had to leave Ireland.
And then, James the First was the king at that time. And he brought over a very large contingent. And he gave them the lands that these earls owned, do ye know. So that was what they called the Plantation of Ulster.
Well then, there was a garrison here at Enniskillen in days before that, while the O Neills and the O Donnells was in prominence.
There was an English garrison here on the island of Enniskillen.
So this garrison was attacked be Red Hugh O Donnell; he was a Donegal chief.
They were attacked.
And nothing could get in or out,
because there was an army surrounded the castle.
So finally, in the long run, there was a soldier got out.
And he got into a boat.
And he rowed the boat from Enniskillen to Belturbet,
up Lough Erne.
Well, do ye see, the way it was at that time, the southern part of the country was in English hands, but the North wasn t, because these earls that I have told you about, they held Ulster.
And it was only an odd place that the English could get in-like gettin in on this island in Lough Erne, Enniskillen .
So, he got to Belturbet anyway, and he got word sent to Dublin, about this attack on Enniskillen castle .
And it was ten weeks from the castle was attacked till the Chief Secretary got the word about it in Dublin.
So anyway, when he heard the news, he formed a powerful great army, all over the other three provinces .
There was Irish men on it too from Ulster, that started marchin for Enniskillen.
So then, O Donnell then, he raised an army in the North here, for to intercept the Lord Lieutenant s army.
So, they came on out through this country, O Donnell s army.
And they took up their positions,
along the banks of the Arney River,
from Drumane all up to Arney.
So, they waited there for their opponents.
And there went a man on a horse, on as far up as Belturbet, for to see was there any signs of the Lord Lieutenant s army comin.
And he came back,
and there was a song about it,
and his answer was put in verse .
He told O Donnell-there was a general the name of Duke, and he was leadin the Lord Lieutenant s forces, do ye see-so he told him:
I saw the plumes of Duke s dragoons ,
south of Belturbet town.
So anyway, they remained here through this country, and all along the banks of the Arney River.
And finally, the Lord Lieutenant s army arrived on the other side .
That would be from Derryhowlaght down to Clontymullan, and all along there.
And they wanted to get across the Arney River, and get on to Enniskillen.
So, the other ones gave them battle there.
And the battle,
it was a runnin fight,
along the banks of both sides.
The English forces couldn t get across the river because it was all fords; there was no bridges, do ye see, in them days.
It was all fords .
Every ford that they came to, they were guarded, do ye see, and they couldn t get across .
So, there was one ford there in particular. It d be a wee piece up from Drumane Bridge. Accordin to tradition, the battle finished up there.
It s called the Biscuit Ford.
The English had all sorts of food with them, do ye know, includin a terrible go of biscuits.
So, the battle finished up there.
And the English was beaten back.
And alot of provisions that they had with them went into the river.
So that s known to this day as the Biscuit Ford.
Aye.
Mr. Nolan is finished, but I am not. I need to know the battle s spatial and temporal coordinates in his mind. In answer to my questions, he disagrees with the men of Sessiagh who locate the site of the fight on the farm of James Owens, and pulls it eastward along the Arney toward his home in Rossdoney, and he places the battle in the sixteenth century, knowing it preceded the Plantation of Ulster in 1609.
Now I am done. While he relaxes and cracks a light for his pipe, I garland him with compliments. A small smile sneaks into the shadows beneath his cap, and he stops my blather with a concise recapitulation:
Aye, well.
How the thing started was: O Donnell sieged Enniskillen.
Enniskillen was a British garrison.
He sieged the garrison, and finally this soldier, British soldier-they weren t styled British in them days; it was English they were called-he got out and got to Belturbet, in a boat.
And surely that was an ordeal.
And he communicated with the Chief Secretary of the Lord Lieutenant. And they raised this army for to come to Enniskillen and put O Donnell s men from about it .
And, in the meantime, O Donnell raised his army here in Ulster, and marched on out till he came to this country, and took up his positions along the banks of the Arney River.
And the way it was: when the English forces, when they d be beat back at one ford, do ye see, they d run to another .
Well then, the Irish was there too.
So finally, they were worn out .
And there was a battle, or a scrimmage, at this particular ford, and there was alot of them killed, and their whole provisions was all destroyed.
And they had to retreat back.
And that s what happened.
Mr. Nolan s synopsis is the sort of thing that passes for legend in collections of folktales. It is oral, narrative, and historical, but it is a plot summary, not a story. There is no informative introduction, no chronological context, no mention of native rule or the Plantation of Ulster. Generalized away from topographical precision, it lacks the place-naming conclusion. Though efficient in sequence and segmentation, it exhibits little of the embellishment that signals the investment of an ego in its telling. That does not leave it without value. Quite the reverse. Stripped to the narrative line, it is the first step in a structural analysis of story form. Mr. Nolan s abstract represents his conception of events; it is his silent rehearsal spoken aloud, the matrix of truth out of which he created his story.
His story is dramatically different. In it we feel the poet s presence. The tale is enriched most conspicuously when he quotes from Hugh McGiveney s song, but subtle ornamentation is constant. There is an internal repetition of sound (rowed the boat, all along, beaten back), alliterative end stops (one series ends: attacked, out, castle, out, boat, Belturbet), and even rhyme (a set of sentences ends: army, army, Arney). Overall the mood changes from strength to weakness, firmness to fluidity, will to fate, as dominant sounds shift from sharp and percussive at the start (attack, castle, Enniskillen, Belturbet) to flowing and hissing at the close (across, along, banks, Arney).
Like rain on lake waters, repeated words pelt over the surface, lending radiance and coherence to the tale as a whole. As the introduction breaks into narration, the story cracks with sudden power as these words appear rapidly in this order: garrison, Enniskillen, garrison, Enniskillen, garrison, attacked, attacked. Place names are driven throughout-Enniskillen, Dublin, Belturbet, Arney-nailing the tale together and into the land. In one early section, lines conclude: Belturbet, Erne, Ulster, Enniskillen, castle, Dublin, provinces, Enniskillen. The four lines in the battle section ending there stop motion-Michael Boyle repeated the same word in the same place in his rendition-while repetitious phrases slow the narrative for its conclusion, playing the desperate acts of men off history s inevitable shape: along the banks, all along the banks, all along there, get across, along the banks, get across, all fords, all fords, get across, one ford, the battle finished up there, the battle finished up there.
Repetition of sound, of word, of phrase, gives the story unity and pulse and the sparkle of art. Hugh Nolan called Hugh McGiveney an artist. I call Hugh Nolan an artist. During performance, memory transforms into poetic narrative, and the historian becomes one of life s stars, a bringer of entertainment, a bearer of truths his neighbors need to consider.
Bids
Glowing gently, flickering softly in the old man s historical story, burning more brightly in the poem, the star s genius flares up for an instant in the verbal flash of the bid. A spontaneous play in the conversational game, like the bids made at cards, the bid was defined by James Boyle as a quick offer of wit. Hugh McGiveney, the old poet and historian, was also a master of the bid. In Michael Boyle s description, Hugh McGiveney sounds like Peter Flanagan s Charlie Farmer, a small, nice, articulate, poor farming man:
Ah, I mind Hughie well.
He was a small-sized man, and he had a kind of a crouch. He walked with a kind of a crouch, with his two hands behind his back.
And he was a nice man, a nice-discoursed man, you know. Aye, a great wit. In fact, he was the wit of the whole country, Old Hughie.
Oh, he was a great man.
He had an old donkey; he called it Fanny Ann.
Fanny Ann.
And he used to go to the bog for a load of turf, two creels, do ye see. Straddle and mats. There was a pin stickin up out of the straddle, do ye see, and a creel fixed on every pin. And he used to go off to the bog every day, him and Fanny Ann, for two creels of turf, a load of turf.
I remember McGiveney.
He used to go to all haystacks.
They used to put hay in big ricks before the haysheds was built.
He went to all haystacks, you know, and there used to be great bids with him. It was a great day at a hay stack longgo. There d be a jar of porter and a good big feed, and then the ould boys would get a mug or two of porter to put them in humor.
And it would be the greatest fun ever you seen, with these old boys.
It would be great entertainment.
He was a great man at dressin one of these big ricks of hay, do ye see, keepin it in order. A funny man.
Ah, he was a great lad, a great wit.
Oh, he was a terrible wit.
Oh, he made several poems, you know, about things. He was a great wit, do ye see. He made several bits of songs about things that happened.
Ah, he was a great lad, Hughie McGiveney. He was a great wit, you know, terrible clever man, do ye see.
We ll say that it was nowadays, that the same facilities was in education. If he had the same facilities in them days as there is today, he d have been a counsel. Oh yes. He was as quick as lightnin in his answers, do ye see. He had two brothers in America. I never met them of course (they were gone before my day), but they turned out great men in the States.
There was one of them a John McGiveney, another one Owen. They turned out great, great men in the States.
Charlie Farmer was a great man, Peter Flanagan said, the equal of the renowned bards of Ireland. But he was a person like every other country person that didn t get a chance. He lived and died in poverty. Hugh McGiveney was a great man, Michael Boyle said. He loved animals and gave them fanciful names: Fanny Ann the donkey, the cats Yibbity-Gay and Willie the Wisp, the old bitch Granny. He wove creels out of willows, and farmed a wee small bit of land that yielded him little. Michael Boyle concludes:
He would have been a great man if he had of got the chances that there is now. He was terrible quick. He wouldn t have to mass a thing until he d have the answer out, do ye see. Great bids in him, do ye see.
He was a great character.
Ah, he was a great star.
He was a great star.
Hugh McGiveney, poet, historian, and wit, was a rare star, and yet he was a star among stars, one in a constellation. In McGiveney s day, John Brodison, George Armstrong, James Quigley, John Williamson, James Maguire, Mick Maguire, Hugh Mackan, Francis Keenan, Charlie Flynn, John McGrath, and Tommy Martin shared the task of brightening their dear, dull place. Together, they prompted Hugh Nolan to proclaim his Ballymenone a territory of wits. Together, they formed a splendid, memorable generation.
The era of Hugh McGiveney, John Brodison, and George Armstrong, of James Quigley and Mick Maguire, was also the era of W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Lady Gregory, of James Joyce and Sean O Casey. Theirs was the time of the Land League, Home Rule, and the Easter Rising. And it was the time of the Russian Revolution, the First World War, and the Turkish War for Independence, of the telephone, automobile, airplane, and radio, of Kandinsky and Klee, Picasso and Braque, Stravinsky and Bart k, Le Corbusier, Wright, and Gropius, Duchamp, Hamada, Proust, Kafka, Gide, Lawrence, Pound, Eliot, Tagore, Boas, Saussure, Weber, Freud, Wittgenstein, Einstein-the time of those who got to work before the First World War, and set the agenda we continue to follow in tinkering and revision. To me it seems that genius is spread through every generation, but some people are favored by extraordinary conditions. They mature in tense moments of fear and exhilaration, when one cultural order mutates into another, paradigms shift, and individual creativity, a human constant, becomes capable of greatness. So it was when Michelangelo, Sinan, and Shakespeare walked the earth. But that is not the view from Ballymenone, where individuals are particularly blessed, and exceptional creativity is not the consequence of conditions; it is an accident of nature, a coincidence of the flowering of lone genius within the chancy, ineffable design of time.
It s a pity, Peter Flanagan said. All the good funny people is gone. Then, looking back, he mused aloud on the old men of his youth, on the grand generation of revolution:
I think, like everything else, that generation comes up once in a while. It s not just a general thing that people would be born talented in one generation after another generation. That s my opinion.
I think it s like that. It s like the good year comin in farmin. And there s more bad years than there is good ones. This country has seen a lot of bad, and yet, at that time, a good one comes. And it s the same, I think, applies to men of talent and smartness. They come up once every hundred years or once in fifty years.
I think that s the story about these people.
That inventive generation gave the next generation its stories. Some contextualized a quick offer of wit, setting a bid in its social scene. Here is Hugh Nolan on Hugh McGiveney:
There was one day he was in Enniskillen.
And he met with a neighbor man; he was a schoolteacher. It twas of a fair day, and it happened to be a Saturday. This man was free for the day, do ye see.
They went into a public house.
And there was another man, a neighbor too, in.
And he was a heavy drinker. But what was he drinkin this day, only a bottle of soda water.
So, do ye see, soda water-if you re drinkin heavy, because I had a proof of it meself, if you re drinkin heavy there, and back and forward take an odd bottle of soda water, you ll never get real drunk. That s a fact.
But anyway, this schoolteacher says to Hughie, Isn t it strange for to see Terry drinkin soda water? (This was the boozin man.)
So, Oh, says Hughie, That s
a sensible stein of invisible stout .
Aye, aye.
Aye.
Mr. Nolan smiled as he came to Hugh McGiveney s bid, chuckled at its end, and the repeated Ayes of his conclusion got swallowed in laughter. I heard the story several times, told by different people. The scene shifted-once it was Arney, not Enniskillen, and Old Hughie was the one drinking water because of a Lenten vow-but the bid was the same. If I heard it more than once, Hugh Nolan heard it, and told it, a hundred times; still, its humor remained fresh for him. It is a simple, but perfect instance of the wit of the great generation.
The story displays the star s style. Common people, Hugh Nolan said, answer blandly-Och, aye, they would say, Terry is drinking soda water-but the star elaborates: it is a sensible stein of invisible stout. Verbal elaboration, lexically rich and playfully clever, smooth and quick, signals wit. Elaboration is first, poetic formation is the second trait. In this story, it is a lone alliterative line, though elaboration and poetic reach often merge in an impromptu rhymed couplet. A competitive spirit is the third trait. Implicit in this story-it is not the educated schoolteacher but the poor farmer who says the witty thing-competition becomes the crux of the usual tale of the bid. In it, expectations are reversed, the hierarchy of power is upended. If two local men meet and exchange bids, it is the star of lesser magnitude-John McGrath, not John Brodison-who speaks last and best, who wins. If a local man, a man like us, confronts a figure of authority from the big world, if John Brodison meets a policeman, or Martin McConnell meets the tax collector, or Tommy Martin meets the priest, then-as when the black slave confronts his white master in the stories of the southern United States-it is always the poor man who wins, proving that his poverty tells nothing about his intelligence: he is smarter, inherently more powerful than the one who is, by the big world s standards, his superior. By God s blessing of intelligence, the impecunious farmer with his old donkey knows consoling moments of triumph on his trip through difficulty.
When people talk about people in Ballymenone, they string stories together, using different anecdotes to highlight different aspects of an individual s character. Then, turning to another person who is comparable in type, they work toward a general idea, defining through linked examples one dimension of human nature. When they tell stories of wit, first about one person, then another, they come to a celebration of brilliance that balances the critique of vanity contained in satirical song. Take the genres together, treat stories and songs as parts of a master system of creative expression, and a full idea of humanity emerges in the district s art.
Visiting hours at the Erne Hospital in Enniskillen: brisk nurses swish in and out on squeaky shoes, and Michael Boyle is telling me about the funny old men of his youth. John Brodison, then James Quigley: outrageous stories follow, one after another. Then, speaking quickly, hurrying to fill the tape before the bell that will brutally end our time together, he introduces a new star, Mick Maguire who was called the Yellow Master. Mr. Boyle locates him: He wasn t a native of our country, do ye see. He lived up the Kinawley way. He characterizes him: He was an able man. He could make up a poem in a second. And then he breaks into story:
So, he was goin to Mass in Kinawley Chapel.
And this man was goin too.
So, this man, he was the name of Pat Murphy. He lived in the townland of Clonliff. There s a grandson of his, I think, livin there still.
And the Yellow Master was goin there too, and he says:
Here comes Pat Murphy, slow and stiff,
From the townland of Clonliff.
So, Pat answered him back, Aye:
And Pat Murphy could walk a whole lot faster,
Only waitin for the Yellow Master.
He said it was the best answer ever he got. Aye, that was the best answer ever he got.
Mr. Boyle s story (which I also heard from P Flanagan) illustrates the first principle of competition. At home, the star is beaten at his own game by a man of no fame. Graciously, Master Maguire acknowledges defeat, and Michael Boyle continues, telling me that Maguire taught school at Graffy Kesh, which, in the manner of Ballymenone s historians, he locates precisely in space and describes in detail, before swinging again into story. This one illustrates the second principle of competition. Away from home, the man of our side wins:
He was Mick Maguire, Noble Mick. Oh, he was a funny man. He made songs, but I never could get anyone to tell me any of them, but I hear tell that he was a poet, like.
I heared bids about him.
You often heard tell of the Wesleyan religion.
Well, how it got its name: he was a man the name of John Wesley that came to preach in here and about Enniskillen, do ye see.
So, he heard tell of this Noble Mick, Mick Maguire, the teacher; the Yellow Master they called him.
So, he said he d like to run across him, have a yarn, have a chat with him. He thought he d convert him, I think.
They met in Enniskillen one day.
So, Wesley says, You re a teacher.
I am, says he. And you re the Divil s preacher.
Aye.
Aye: and you re the Divil s preacher.
Michael Boyle laughs as he repeats Maguire s reply and goes on quickly. His story-local Catholic outwits famous Protestant from Britain-tolerates a little anachronism. John Wesley, the Methodist preacher, visited Enniskillen in 1762 and 1769, and Mick Maguire was still alive at the end of the nineteenth century when the Donegal writer Seumas MacManus happened into Kinawley. It is a rare thing when the local oral history aligns with the documentary record. The great battle tales, like Hugh Nolan s Ford of Biscuits, have their parallels in print, but in The Rocky Road to Dublin , MacManus s autobiography, we find a corroborative account of one of South Fermanagh s stars. Mickey Maguire, he wrote, was witty, wrote songs for the countryside, expressed himself in words that dazzled, was fond of his ease, a glass of whiskey, and glad company.
Master Maguire collaborated with Hugh McGiveney and Mickey McCourt in the composition of Maxwell s Ball at a party on Inishmore, and, in Ballymenone, he is credited with two great songs-one on the Mackan Fight, a bloody battle between Catholics and Protestants in 1829, the other commemorating a victory in 1869, when the Catholic populace assembled to prevent the demolition of the Catholic chapel at Swanlinbar. But Seumas MacManus mentions no songs. By his time, it seems, the old master had traded poetry for the history he taught in his tumble-down school. The loss of that school, Maguire s dismissal for late rising and general unpunctuality, is the story MacManus tells, and in it he reports a poetic retort, a written rejoinder addressed through his students to an officious policeman.
That is the story Mr. Boyle turns to next. Seumas MacManus played it for laughs. Michael Boyle does not. Closing the frame around the bid, saying at the end, as he did at the beginning, that he has been unable to collect any of Maguire s songs, Mr. Boyle reverses to the topic of the school, completing his description of the Yellow Master with the tale of his firing:
And he made up some poetry, I think, and I inquired one time could anyone tell me any of Maguire s songs, but there was no one had them.
The scholars used to go in the mornin, and rise him up out of his bed, and make breakfast for him, and bring him to the school.
And this day, anyway, they forgot to go for him.
And the inspector came, and he wasn t in the school.
And the school was closed, and the inspector tossed him out, put him out.
See, the school was closed, and it shouldn t have been. The scholars forgot to go for him that day, do ye see, or didn t go.
And he lost the school. He was dismissed.
Of course, do ye see, the pay wasn t much anyway. See, they had to pay him themselves, so much a quarter. The teachers weren t paid thattime by the government; it was the scholars, do ye see.
Oh, aye.
Michael Boyle is done. No bell has rung. He finished the historian s chore neatly in a swift stream of information about a man now dead. Ordering what he knew about Mick Maguire, attending to space more than time, character more than biographical facts, Mr. Boyle set three stories in the flow, two poetic bids and a brief historical narrative that provides another instance of the injustice local people must bear as they carry on.
A sudden eruption, the bid marks the star, but it belongs to its moment, gone in a blink. Its creator cannot repeat it, Hugh Nolan said, for that would be to praise the self, and it is proverbial that self-praise is no recommendation. Once uttered, he said, the bid becomes the property of the eyewitnesses, who preserve it in stories of their own, also called bids. It is no problem for Ballymenone s tellers that the play of wit and the story that puts it in context go by the same name.
Pants
The bid is one narrative genre the historian employs in praise of the star. The pant is the other. Also called yarns and rigamaroles and lies and fibs and blunders and packets and phrases and passages and jokes, pants are fantastic tales of the self. Funny like bids, pants elaborate the bid s wit into narration, shaking free of the demand for spontaneity. Pants are thought through and made up like poems, but in them the poet s imagination soars without the restraint of meter and rhyme. They are shaped out of stored experience like stories of history, but they are-sometimes subtly, more often extravagantly-untrue. Pants are comical fictions.
The way it is, Hugh Nolan said, the greatest stories, sure, they re all composed; they re all fiction.
Somebody made them up.
And isn t it a very smart person, man or woman, that can frame a tale? It s wonderful, you know.
It s wonderful talent to be able to picture a long hot one, and then fill it up, line by line. Oh now, it s wonderful.
Well, do ye see, the way it is, it takes a person to be gifted in that line to do that. There s a gift attached to it, do ye see.
Well, they re the same type of people as these authors that can compile a story there that you read out of a storybook, or out of a newspaper, do ye see.
These ones that can compile these short funny stories, they d be the same type.
Well, do ye see, an educated person with that gift, they could write away without ever-they d be writin out of their head, do ye see-aye, whatever was in their head. But the other man that would tell these jokes and short stories, they mightn t have the education for to write, but they had the gift at the same time. The same gift. Aye.
Well, it s hard to explain how that gift comes about. But there s alot of people endowed with it, both educated and uneducated people.
And, whatever, it s surely a gift, because the uneducated man or woman, if they re given to that, they could come out with the same discourse, durin the telling of this, as what one of these writers would.
And, they mightn t know themselves the meanin of the words that they were usin, but they knew that they fitted in this tale that they were tellin.
You see, the way it is with a lot of these ones-the George Armstrong, John Brodison, or Hugh McGiveney type-they d think of makin a poem or makin up a story. Well, they d take a lock, first and foremost, at a certain group of words, and if it was a poem that they were goin to make, they d judge, could you put that into verse. Well then, it would be the same with a story: they d just judge, would this go well for the listener, would I be fit for to make this that it would carry away the listener, or that there d be a joke in it for them, do ye know. Aye.
Ballymenone s composers of pants, Mr. Nolan contends, are one in gift with the writers of books. In speaking of Charlie Farmer, Peter Flanagan boldly equated the obscure country poet with the anthologized masters of verse. Rural opinion is aggressively democratic. It is not inherent quality, not genius, that separates farming men from men of letters, but conditions, luck in life, mere money and schooling and fame.
Consistently and accurately, Hugh Nolan uses compile and compose as his verbs. The stars did not simply tell stories, artfully repeating what they had heard. Like famed writers, they composed them, shaping them out of their heads. Stories, for Hugh Nolan, do not emerge from the onflow of tradition or the interplay of social energies; they are the original compositions of gifted individuals who claim authorship and hold the right to perform them for the length of their lives. Others might tell them in their absence, Mr. Nolan said, but they would take care to credit the author, deflecting brightness from themselves, reflecting the light of another. Then, once the composer is gone, his stories become the responsibility of the historian, as the poet s songs belong to the singer. As the singer sings, the historian tells bids and pants to entertain the company. As the singer honors the poet by memorizing his words, the historian does not take stories over, assimilating them and recasting them in the first person, but, rehearsing them inwardly and using words of his own in the telling, he protects the narrative essence, preserving evidence of the brilliance of a darkened star. My texts, then, are doubly embedded, being my representation of another s representation of yet another s creation.
Early on my first visit, when I had been in Ballymenone for only four months and the system of creation I am sketching was wholly unknown to me, Hugh Nolan was teaching me about Hugh McGiveney. First he told me his favorite of Old Hughie s bids, the one about the invisible stout, and then he told me a pant, the most affectionately remembered of McGiveney s creations. Michael Boyle told it too. I published Mr. Boyle s version in Irish Folktales , and a writer named Malachy Doyle converted it into a pleasant book for children, Sleepy Pendoodle . Here, again, is Hugh Nolan on Hugh McGiveney:
And he used to tell about:
There was one time, and he had a bitch, and she had one pup this time.
And, do ye see, there s at a certain time-the more that I reared a lot of pups in me day, I just never took particular notice of at what time that their eyes ll open; after kittens or pups comes along, there bes a length of time that their eyes bes closed, do ye know.
So then, after a certain number of days, they used to open.
But anyway, this pup s eyes wasn t openin.
And he was beginnin to think that it was goin to be blind, do ye know; there bes often animals, do ye see, born, and they be blind from birth, even cattle.
So anyway, he was greatly annoyed about this; it was a very nice pup. But the eyes was givin no sign of openin.
So he was in town this day anyway, and he was in this pub, and he got into chat with some men that was in the pub about dogs.
And he started tellin them about this pup that he had.
And there was some man listenin, do ye know, that wasn t in the conversation.
And he listened on till he heared what this man s trouble was.
So anyway, he come over to him, and he says, I have a charm, he says, that will open that pup s eyes.
But, he says, it s just a chance will you be fit for to keep the words that I tell ye, to keep them in your head till you go home . Because if I write them down, he says, it spoils the charm.
So what you have to do, he says, when you go home is: lift up the pup, and say to it:
Open your eyes, Sleepy Pendoodle.
Say that three times, he says. But, he says, I know, owin to the age of a man that you are, he says, I know, he says, you ll never be fit, he says, to mind it.
They had a few drinks, and he took a notion that he d start for home before he d take any more drink, for fear that he might forget what the man had told him.
And so he started out, walkin out of Enniskillen. And walkin to it was a very common thing in them days , you know.
So he started out, and he took all the near cuts, byroads, and pad roads, and any way that he could, the way that he d be home sooner.
And he got this length anyway.
And he was still sayin to him self:
Open your eyes, Sleepy Pendoodle.
Open your eyes, Sleepy Pendoodle.
So, my father, God be good to him, he was out on the road here, and he seen Hughie comin. And as a general rule when one would be in the town that way, if you were at home , do ye know, there d be a chat, and he d be tellin ye about who he seen in town that day, who he was talkin to, do ye know, and everything-little things like that, you know. So anyway, when he come the length of me father, God be good to the both of them, me father says:
Anything strange in town today, Hughie?
Ah, nothing, nothing, nothing, Sleepy Pendoodle, Sleepy Pendoodle, Sleepy Pendoodle, Sleepy Pendoodle.
So anyway, he got down to the house down there in the Hollow where Johnny Boyle s livin, and there was no one there but the wife. They had no family or nobody, only them two selves.
And he says to her:
Where s the pup? Where s the pup? Where s the pup?
Ah, the pup. Hell . If I had a got anyone when you were away that would have brought her to the Lough, it would be in the bottom of the Lough now.
Oh, Sleepy Pendoodle, Sleepy Pendoodle.
So, she thought that he was gone mad, you know.
So anyway, he starts out, and he got the pup anyway, and he held the pup up. And he says:
Open your eyes, Sleepy Pendoodle.
Open your eyes, Sleepy Pendoodle.
Open your eyes, Sleepy Pendoodle.
And the pup s eyes started to open just,
bit be bit and bit be bit and bit be bit,
and it twas no time until they were wide open.
Aye, indeed.
The laughter, stifled unsuccessfully as he spoke, was a sure clue to comical fiction, but his style was the historian s, alternating between lines of action and spreads of information. As events unfold, Mr. Nolan distracts us with facts about puppies and kittens and rural etiquette. In a telling five years later, he fastidiously paused to specify the scene the pant shared with the bid of the invisible stout; it was not any public house in Enniskillen, but Blake s, not Blake s at the Diamond, in the middle of town, but Blake s in the Hollow, just down from the Cathedral. Historians are exact about geography. Coming home along Rossdoney Lane, McGiveney would first pass Francis Keenan s, a long brick house, once the home of the landlord s despised bailiff and now a ruin rich in weeds. Keenan was standing by the roadside, Michael Boyle said:
And Hughie came on running.
And he says, Anything wrong, Hughie?

Blake s of the Hollow, Enniskillen

Francis Keenan s, Rossdoney Lane
Oh, not a damned haet wrong, he says, not a damned haet wrong. Pendoodle, Pendoodle, Pendoodle, Pendoodle, he says.
My God, says Francis, he s gone mad. He s gone straight for a madman.
Hurrying on, McGiveney would pass Nolan s by the roadside, and Mr. Boyle, like Mr. Nolan, reports the exchange with Hugh s father, James, before getting Old Hughie to his home in the Hollow toward the Lough, where his wife- an old grumbling creature, Michael Boyle called her-sat in mute fury while Hughie took his drink in the town.
The pant s humor comes from placing a wild fiction in a setting of fact. Fiction is here, clearly, fact is there, but the line dividing them is smudged. The efficacious charm is fiction, a mockery of folk belief, but Hugh McGiveney did own an old she-dog called Granny, and there might have been a pup whose eyes opened slowly, perhaps named Pendoodle. Innocently, I ask Mr. Nolan if he ever saw the pup. Aw, no, he replies, disappointed by my credulity. There wasn t a haet about it-aw, not a haet about it. The whole thing was a fiction, made up from beginning to end. Hugh McGiveney composed it. Hugh Nolan and Michael Boyle told it. Children, especially, found it a delight.
The one who moves in the hazy, dangerous space between the true and the false, twisting the quotidian into humor, the prime figure and central character of the tale is its author. A story of the self, the pant seems poised to break the rule prohibiting self-praise.
One solution is the poet s: to tell the tale and abandon it to others. The only composer of pants alive in my day did just that. When I asked John O Prey about his stories, he said he had forgotten them all. They were gone with his youth. A tall, quiet man, Mr. O Prey hails from Swanlinbar. With his son-in-law, Gabriel Coyle, he works a farm on Drumbargy Brae, bequeathed to his wife by her aunt. I got a glimpse of his spirit one evening when he and his neighbor Peter Flanagan wound up a mechanical tin chicken, a toy of his grandson s, and set it to hopping along the kitchen table and off the edge, again and again, laughing each time it tottered witlessly to its doom. John O Prey was happy to sing for me in a cracked old voice, but no amount of gentle cajolery could get him to tell his own stories. Tending to violence and precariously surreal, comic and dark, John O Prey s stories had become Hugh Nolan s, and Hugh told two of them often.
In my day, Ballymenone s acknowledged tellers of tales were historians. They were, like classical pianists or Shakespearean actors, performers of other men s inventions. It was not always like that. Once, Hugh Nolan tells us, the stars held tournaments of pants:
It was the usual thing that used to happen by the fireside, the ceilis that used to be longgo: one man would tell somethin, then another man would tell something forenent that, and it would go around, and that s what they d spend their night at. And then there d be a discussion on whose pant was the best one.
Well, the people used to come along for to get a number of these stories, for to judge which one of them would be the best to tell if they were in some company.
They used to analyze it from beginning to end and judge for themselves which story was the best, do ye see.
Someone would propose this round of storytellin. Then if there happened to come strangers along, the natives would be watchin to see what stories that these men would give.
But that has died away altogether in this country. The younger generations are not interested in it-from the radio and television came along.
So, there is the pant: a tale of the self, funny, fictional, and competitive-competitive like the bid, but, unlike the bid, repeated by its creator to please the ceili s company, to give them a laugh and carry them away. What, then, of the problem of self-praise, of brightness? The answer lies in Hugh Nolan s critical disquisition on storytelling:
Well, there was some men and their stories just-they weren t as humorous as the stories of other men, do ye see.
They d amuse some, but they wouldn t amuse others. But everybody that would be listenin to one of these men, do ye know, they were all inclined for to enjoy it, do ye see.
There bes a class of men, and they d go in for tellin stories, but there bes a kind of blow-they make themselves very bright, do ye know, without anyone waitin for to pass that judgment; you know what I mean? That they come out bright . Och, they re always the winner in these stories.
Anybody that was always talkin on their own, their own abilities or their own smartness, do ye know, they were looked on-there was a word: that man would be a bum . He was always braggin of himself, do ye know.
He wasn t well thought of: the man that come out bright in all, in every transaction. The man that would get into where he failed himself, that man was thought the honestest man and the best company. Aye. There was give and take in that man.
He s the victim. He s the sufferer. He s the victim of the whole-the man that ll risk criticism, he ll come out with the best story.
The answer was to divide the roles within the self. The Hughie in the story is humble, simple, a sufferer like us all. The Hughie who performed his own compositions was canny and quick, a brilliant entertainer, blessed with extraordinary talent and intelligence, a radical star. Such splitting is a deft literary trick. Chaucer the pious pilgrim is offended by the creations of Chaucer the writer. Dante, the character, commiserates tenderly with the damned shades whom Dante, the author, ruthlessly cast into Hell.
When its humor works by hyperbole, as generally it does, the pant converges with what Americans call tall tales. Brags about superabundant hunts and monumental pumpkins befit the ring-tailed bravado of the frontier, the boom town, the mining camp, the cattle range, incarnating the vast scale and wild wonder of the forests and plains and towering peaks of the West. The tall tale seems a peculiarly American genre, but it came with the rifle and axe in the equipment of immigrants from Europe.
In Ireland, comic exaggeration dates back to the Tain , the ancient epic rendered marvelously for our age by Thomas Kinsella. Among twentieth-century writers, Flann O Brien-a Tyrone man named O Nolan whose hard fate it was to be Ireland s third-best novelist-used the moves of the tall tale to hilarious effect; check out the small and ever smaller boxes crafted by MacCruiskeen in The Third Policeman , or the gravid water in The Hard Life , or the underwater interview with Saint Augustine in The Dalkey Archive , or the revenge of the characters upon the author in At Swim-Two-Birds , or the folklorist from Dublin who recorded Gaelic antiquities from a rambling pig in The Poor Mouth .
Modern collectors have found tall tales throughout the country. One of them, Michael J. Murphy, the Irish Folklore Commission s fieldworker in Ulster, told me he won American contests for whoppers by mailing Irish stories across the ocean. The stars of Ballymenone told versions of the fanciful lies I heard in the high mountain coves of North Carolina, but in the old ones they reshaped, and more in the new ones they invented, they turned away from the expansive optimism of the New World, and settled down, sinking with a laugh into the suffering and defeat that, according to Hugh Nolan, make for the best stories.
As Hugh Nolan and Michael Boyle both told it, John Brodison found a big spud in his garden, so big it spread from one side of the ridge to the other. In America, perhaps, it would be a sign of grace abounding. For John it meant nothing more than more of the work he did every day. Struggling, he hoked it slowly out of the earth until it tipped and toppled downhill, blocking the road. All night, John and the wife sawed it into planks and hauled them home.

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