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Séamus Ennis in County Clare: Collecting Music in the 1940s
by Angela Bourke

Seamus Ennis in the 1950s

Seamus Ennis in the 1950s.
Detail from a photo from the Alan Lomax collection of the United
States Library of Congress.
  Séamus Ennis spent long periods in rural Ireland during the Second World War. He was in his twenties and was employed as a collector of traditional music and song by the Irish Folklore Commission. There was no petrol for private cars so he traveled by train and bus and bicycle and for most of his time with the Commission he had no recording equipment other than his ears and his notebook. After leaving school in 1938 he worked for publisher Colm Ó Lochlainn at The Sign of the Three Candles, but wartime shortages meant that in 1942 there was no further work for him there. He had learnt from Ó Lochlainn, however, to transcribe slow airs, and his father had taught him to write dance music. He was also a fluent speaker of Irish, so Ó Lochlainn introduced him to Séamus Delargy, founder and director of the Irish Folklore Commission. Ennis had been on the point of going to England to join the R.A.F., but found himself instead employed to collect songs. He was twenty three.

He was ideally qualified as a collector: he was a musician and singer, and as Seán Ó Súilleabháin once said, ‘not hampered by false modesty’. He worked for the Commission from 1942 – 1947, traveling mostly to Connemara, Donegal and West Cork, and returning to Dublin to write up his notes, transcribe music, and prepare his material for the archive. He did his work lovingly and meticulously, and the archive of the Department of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin contains several manuscript volumes in his clear elegant handwriting.

Séamus Ennis often referred nostalgically to his time as a collector. When playing the pipes in public or supplying information for record sleeve notes he would mention how he had first heard tunes sung by some of his great informants, people like Mrs. Elizabeth Cronin of Ballymakeery, Co. Cork, and Colm Keane of Carna, Co. Galway. In September 1981, a year before his death, Proinsias MacAonghusa asked him in a television interview on R.T.É., what, of all his work with music now gave him most satisfaction. He answered that it was the archive music which he had assembled from people now dead. Asked what, if anything, he most regretted not having done, he said that he would like to have written a book, quite a large one, about his life as a collector for the Folklore Commission and later for Radió Éireann and the B.B.C.

It would certainly have been a fascinating book. Séamus Ennis’s diaries give us a sample of his writing: full of keen observation, vivid description and wry humour. He tells of the slow business of tracking down singers, cycling miles to find them not at home, or following local schoolteachers on foot down dark roads to isolated houses. He describes great hospitality, and nights full of music and singing and invitations to come again soon. He also describes rain, damp beds, colds, ‘flu and indigestion, and the peculiar difficulty of keeping a bicycle roadworthy in wartime Ireland. It was a time of postal orders and telegrams, and parcels of laundry sent by post to the nearest big town.

Collecting in North Clare
According to his diary, Séamus Ennis made just two visits to Co. Clare in the course of his work for the Irish Folklore Commission. In September 1945 he spent three weeks in Lahinch and Doolin, and in November of the same year he went to Ennis for two days, to collect songs from Martin MacNamara of Croisín [Crusheen], who was in the County Home. Four years later, in 1949, he made another working visit to Co. Clare, this time as a mobile recording officer for Radió Éireann. The R.T.É. sound archive contains seventy two minutes of recordings made on 5th November, 1949, from Bobby Casey, Willie Clancy, and Martin Talty and many others, including some of the people he had met in 1945.

It is perhaps surprising to find so little information in Ennis’s diaries on a county to which he was such a frequent visitor, but the work of the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1940s was very heavily concentrated on the Gaeltacht. Ennis was young and very conscientious. Having been paid to collect material, for instance, he did not feel himself at liberty to keep copies of it; and his brief was to collect songs, not tunes alone, but tunes with words to them, and preferably words in Irish. It seems that when he took the bus from Galway to Lahinch on Friday, 7th September, 1945, he saw himself as traveling not so much to the centre of a vigorous tradition of music and dancing, as to the vanishing Gaeltacht of West Clare. His diary for this period is in Irish. It was his habit to write in the language in which he was working and thinking: English in English-speaking areas, Irish (Donegal Irish, Connemara Irish etc., as appropriate), when in the Gaeltacht. In September 1945 he had just come from the Aran Islands via Carna, Co. Galway, stopping in Galway long enough to have a haircut, have his shoes and his watch mended, and see some friends.

On arrival in Co. Clare he was advised that Lisdoonvarna would be very expensive until the visitors left, and so stayed in Lahinch with a Mrs. O’Sullivan, who had a shop:

Chuireas fúm le bean de Shúilleabhánach & is beag nach rabh orm dul go dtí ceann go na hotels le luch golf & airgid na tire! Ní fheilfeadh sé sin dom. (I.F.C. 1297: 91-2)

He stayed a week there, contacting people who had been recommended to him and trying to find musicians and singers. In the Glenbourne Hotel, Lisdoonvarna, he was told of ‘Baser’ Conlon from Ballinalackan, who had been entertaining visitors in the hotel for several evenings by singing and playing the fiddle, (sometimes simultaneously). The nickname, at first mysterious, turned out to have been derived from his bass fiddle. Ennis finally succeeded in meeting him, in Keane’s in Lisdoonvarna, on the evening he moved from Lahinch to Doolin, Monday, 17th September. He describes how he first saw him:

Isteach linn & bhí an Baser romham ‘n-a shuidhe ar chathaoir a’ góil fhuinn is a’ stracadh ceóil ar bheidhlín in éindigh leis an órán. Fear mór beathuighthe é, & dhá phluic mhóra air is é ‘na mhaoilín, gan hata gan tada & píopa créafóige sáithte ‘n-a bheal. (I.F.C. 1297: 108)

Baser Conlon sang fragments of The humours of Glin, Eochaill, Bhí bean uasal seal dá luadh liom, Tailliúir an Mhagaidh and other songs. He also gave an imitation of Count John McCormack, who had died a few days previously. Ennis had to leave, as his landlady was expecting him in Doolin, and he did not succeed in writing down any of Baser’s music, but in 1949, when he returned to Co. Clare, he recorded a short interview and some music from him for Radió Éireann.

When he left Keane’s that night he went out to Ballaghaline Point, Doolin, to Miss Murphy’s house, where he had arranged to stay for the following two weeks. His diary describes his arrival and his first day there:

Luan 17.9.1945
… bhuail mise bothar amach go Duibhlinn mar a bhfuair mé Miss Murphy romham is í a’ tosuighe a’ baint súil díom – 10.20. Rinne mé píosa comhrádh léi cois teine & chuadhas a chodladh, tuirseach go leor.

Máirt 18.9.1945
D’éiríos ar a 9.30. Bricfásta ar a deich – chonnaic mé an ronnach a’ tíocht ó’n gcéabh faoi’n teach & b’é bhí milis. Na h-iascairí amuigh ‘n-a gcuid currachaí indiu do’n chéad lá seachtmhain, mar bhí an fharraige an- tóigthe ó Mháirt. Chuas a’ suibhlóid tamaillín & rinneas seáirse beag snámha & chuas i gcoinn an phinn gur scríobhas dhá leitir & gur bhreacas dialann ó Shatharn go dtí seo, roimh an dinnéar.

Bhuaileas síos ‘un na céabhach taréis mo dhinnéir, a’ comhrádh le roinnt leaids, eidir sean is óg, a bhí a’ pléidhe le h-iasc is le báid ann. Bhí seanfhear amháin ann ‘The Cuckoo’ (Pat O’Brien), a ra’ togha na Gaedhilge aige & ó bhí an dinnéar mall agam chaith mé an tráthnóna leis go dtí a sé a’chlog a’ comhrádh. Faoi Arainn is na báid & tíreolas na h-aite seo & faoi Chonamara a bhí ár gcomhrádh. Bhí sé féin & leaid eile seachtmhain tigh Sheáin Tom ‘sa Tráigh Bháin & ba mhór an cur síos a bhí againn air sin. Chuaidh muid a’ cainnt ar óráin ‘sa deire & cé go gcuala mé go bhfuil siad aige, ní ghéillfit sé go rabh – creidim uaidh nach bhfuil, mar ní fear é, déarfainn, a shéanfadh iad. Bhíodar ag a athaír, duairt sé ach níor thóig seisean iad.

’N-ár suidhe i gcurrach canbháis ar an gcuan a bhí muid & eisean a’ faire ar lucht snáimh ó Liosdún Bhearna – tháinic scór carr cliathánach amach go dtí Miss Murphy chun tae & ceathrar ar ‘chaon charr & chuaidh a bhfurmhór a’ snámh – faitchíos go dtarlóchadh aon tímpist báidhte dhóibh. Tá sé ‘na Life-saver annseo. (I.F.C. 1297: 110-2)

Tuesday 18.9.1945
Got up 9.30. Breakfast at ten – I saw the mackerel being brought from the pier below the house, and it was certainly sweet. The fishermen were out in their currachs today for the first time in a week, for the sea was very rough from Tuesday on. Went for a walk and a bit of a swim and wrote for a while: wrote two letters and the diary from Saturday until today, before dinner.

We went down to the pier after dinner, talking to some lads, old and young, who were working there with fish and with boats. There was one old man, ‘The Cuckoo’ (Pat O’Brien), who spoke fine Irish, and since I had had dinner late I spent the afternoon talking to him, until six o’clock. We talked about Aran and boats and Connemara. He and another lad spent a week in Seán Tom’s in An Trá Bhán and we had a good chat about that. We started talking about songs eventually, and although I had heard that he knew songs, he wouldn’t admit that he did – I believe him, because I don’t think he’s a man who would deny them if he had them. His father had songs, he said, but he himself never learnt them. We were sitting in a canvas currach in the bay and he was watching the swimmers from Lisdoonvarna in case of a drowning accident – twenty side cars came out to Miss Murphy’s for tea, with four people each, and most of them went swimming. He is the Life-saver here.

Ten days later Ennis accompanied ‘Cuckoo’ in his currach on an intrepid search for wrack: bales which had been washed ashore and which were worth £10 each. They had no success, but Ennis described the adventure in detail in his diary (I.F.C. 1297: 128-30), and recalled the incident when he interviewed ‘Cuckoo’ for radio in 1949.

Later on that first Tuesday evening, 18th September, Ennis visited Peaitsín (Mhurty) Ó Flannagáin, aged 84, who lived near the castle. They swapped funny stories, and Peaitsín sang a few songs, including a fine version of Seán MacUidhir (or MacDuibhir) an Ghleanna. Ennis described him as a big, well-built, quite thin man, dressed in a dark suit and a shop cap, and said he must have been a fine singer in his day, but was now very old and had no teeth. Only one fragment of verse from Peaitsín Ó Flannagháin appears in Ennis’s collection, four lines of the jig Páidín Ó Raifearta:

D’éala’ Peig Bhán le Páidín Ó Raifearta’
Síos ar a gcé’ is amach ar a‘ bhfarraige.
D’éala’ sí ‘rist le píobaire i Sasana,
‘S chac a chearc bhán ar Páidín Ó Raifearta.

(I.F.C. 1282: 395)

According to his diary, Ennis didn’t write anything down on that first visit, but arranged to go back the following day. On the next day, however, he succeeded only in seeing Peaitsín’s collection of cuttings and items copied from newspapers, and for three days after that he was confirmed to bed: he had caught a bad chest cold. The next two and a half pages of the diary (I.F.C. 1279: 119-21), are devoted to a description of damage to his bicycle and the difficulty of repairing it. A pedal had come loose from the crank and the screw thread was gone, so he needed two new pedals, a crank and a crank wheel, none of which were available nearer than Ennis or Limerick. It was by this time 12th September. He decided to stay in Doolin till the end of the month and do all he could on foot, then return to Dublin to write up his notes and visit Co. Clare another time.

The rest of that week was spent walking about the district, contacting people who knew songs, or who knew people who knew songs. Without his bicycle, however, he could not go to visit Jack Karley of Mairiúch, Fanore, or Nance Tierney (Mrs. Nance Neelan), of Inagh, so his diary records only their names and his frustration.

On Friday, 28th September he spent some time with Peaitsín Ó Flannagáin, and wrote down from him a religious version of Seán MacDhuibhir an Gleanna. So far, however, I have not succeeded in tracing this text, or any of the music transcribed in Co. Clare, in the manuscripts of the Irish Folklore Collection. As he was walking along the road that evening, a man of about seventy walked in front of him, pretending not to notice him, and humming Cailín deas crúite na mbó. This turned out to be Micheál Ó Donnachú, known as ‘Styke’, who came along to Muldowney’s later and sang Mairnéalach luinge mé. Ennis wrote down seven verses of this song (I.F.C. 1282: 393), and some verses which ‘Styke’ sang to dance tunes, including these four lines to the tune The frieze britches:

Céad slán don uair a bhí bean agam,
Minic a bhuail mé flíp de bhat’ oirthe,
Luach na mbróga bhíodh i dtaisce ‘ci,
‘S chaithfinn’s é fháil ar an nóimint.

(I.F.C. 1282: 394)

The dance tunes were played on the tin whistle by a young man of about twenty four. This was Séamus Ennis’s first meeting with Pakie Russell of Doolin. He next met Pakie Russell two days later, on Sunday 30th, September his last day in County Clare.

An mhaidin go breagh ciúin grianmhar bog. Chuas ‘un an Aifreann ar rothar McGrath & chuas a’ snámh ar báll beag nuair a thainig roinnt taoille faoin gcéibh. Bhuail mé amach ar an mballa in ndia’ an dinnéir & chuala mé an ceól bog mín & chonnaic mé cúigear nó seisear lads ‘na luighe ar a-mbolg ar dhíon na mboscaí fasgaidh atá ann do lucht snámha. Shín mé leó & bhí beirt thíos fúinn i gceann de na mboscaí & feadógaí stáin ghá seinm acu chomh binn is d’iarrthá a chloisteáil. Pat Russell (c 24) a bhí ar dhuine acu – an fear céadna a ra’ an fhídeog aige tigh Mhuldhomhna’ oidhche Aoine. Is gearr go rabh’s aige go ra’ mise ann & hiarradh anuas mé ag casadh. A caithe’ mo phíopa bhíos & b’fhearr liom ag éisteacht go fóilleach & mar sin d’iarr mé orthab a bheith a’ casadh go fóill. Chasadar port deas annsin ná ra’ agam & bhí mé thíos leó ar a’ bpoínnte ghá a scríobhadh a uathab. Scríobhas suas le sé chinn uathab creidim as sin go ceann dhá uair ceóil & duairt Pat liom gur ‘n-a bpoirt béil ag mháthair a chuala sé iad. Seo aríst mé a’ fáilt na dtuairiscí is suimiúla an lá bhfuil mé ag imtheacht as an áit! Ach níl neart air, mar níl sé de triáil agam í fheiceáil an chuaird seo … d’íoc mé bhille Mrs (sic) Murphy & bhuail mé bothar le tuitim na hoidhche go Lios Dúin Bhearna …
(I.F.C. 1297: 135)

The morning was lovely, quiet, sunny and warm. Went to Mass on McGrath’s bike, and went swimming later when the tide rose high enough at the pier. Went out to the wall after dinner and heard soft clear music and saw five or six lads lying on their stomachs on the roof of the changing booths that are there for swimmers. I stretched out with them; there were two people down below us in one of the booths, playing tin whistles as sweetly as you could wish to hear. Pat Russell (c 24) was one of them – the same man who had the whistle in Muldowney’s on Friday night. It wasn’t long until he knew I was there and I was asked to go down and play. I was smoking my pipe though and I preferred to listen for a while, so I asked them to go on playing. They played a nice jig then, that I didn’t know, and I went straight down to transcribe it. I wrote about six tunes from them, I think, over the next two hours, and Pat told me that he had heard them from his mother as mouth music. Here I am again, getting the most interesting information on the day I’m leaving! But it can’t be helped, because I can’t see her this time … paid my bill to Mrs. (sic) Murphy and headed for Lisdoonvarna at nightfall.

Collecting from Martin MacNamara
So ended Séamus Ennis’s first working visit to County Clare. Seven weeks later he was back, this time to Ennis, for a brief visit to one man, Martin MacNamara of Croisín in the County Home. His diary for this journey is in English, and I quote it at length, for it is typical of his descriptions of his work. He starts out with only a name, and the task of introducing himself to a stranger. The prose is slightly stilted and officious, though always clear and fluent. Then, as he gets to know his informant, his enthusiasm and excitement break through:

Thursday, 21st November, 1945:
On arrival in Ennis I dropped my bags at the Queen’s Hotel and repaired to the County Home where I was to see a man named Martin MacNamara from Croisín, Co. Clare. Conchubhar Ó Coileáin, secretary of the Gaelic League, had advised us that this man had a store of old songs in Irish worth writing from him.

After a long search amongst halls and grounds he was located for me. An elderly lady who had searched him out for me then allowed her curiosity to create an awkward situation for I said nothing until finally it dawned upon her that the silence was due to the fact that she wanted to hear what business I had of MacNamara. I gained points in his estimation over this as he was apparently at war with her and would not like her to know any of his business! I asked him would he come for a short walk in the grounds as I wanted to talk to him, and he conceded me so much, albeit reluctantly.

When I had put my case before him his chant was that I should have written to him to tell him I was coming, and that he was upset by the suddenness of my visit and he was neither well nor happy ‘in this prison’ and 101 other grumbles. He kept saying ‘We will have to move on from here as I’m not supposed to be out here.’ And looking around corners to see if anyone was listening.

In the end I said I was wasting my time and told him I would call for him at 10.30 tomorrow and bring him down to the hotel with me and give him a good day of it if he would come and do his best to oblige me, and he could think out the songs overnight. He said he might and I left him at 6 o’clock. I had put in as trying an hour as ever I had done in an endeavour to have him allow me to write some songs from him, to no avail, maybe.

I then saw the matron, who told me that I could have a pass-out for him tomorrow but that she would like to have him back by nightfall. I undertook to comply with her wish in that respect. I arrived at the hotel at 7.00 o’clock and after my tea I treated myself to a picture at the Ennis ‘Gaiety’.

Friday, 22nd November, 1945:
The rest was easy. I had MacNamara at my hotel by 11 o’clock and after treating him to a drink or two (the morning was cold and foggy and the poor old fellow had no overcoat with him), he turned out to be a fine decent skin and gave me all the assistance he could. He was a very, very good singer, and even at his age (c 69), was still able to do the fine ornamentations and grace notes peculiar to his style of singing. He says he learnt his songs (and singing) from his father in his youth, and won prizes at the old Oireachtas festivals in Dublin. He was away in America for 34 years, he said, and lost his fluency of speech in Irish there.

He had one peculiar point in his singing – what he called the ‘old cry’ his father used put in the verse, which consisted of holding a note and singing an intricate run of notes after it on the same syllable. I have transcribed this as he sang it in any song in which it occurred. I wrote six songs from him as he sang them, and he failed to think of any more of them for me then, though he says he has more if he could think of them.

He enjoyed his day well as I gave him good entertainment and allowed him 2 hours at lunch time to roam the town and see some friends of his own. I brought him up to the Home at 7.00 p.m. as it was cold and foggy and I hesitated to keep him late. Also he was somewhat tired of the work by then. The poor old fellow insisted on my coming in with him on the way up in order that he might stand me a drink. I did not deprive him of what he thought such a privilege. We parted the best of friends and I told him I hoped to see him next summer on my way around Clare. He says he expects to be home in Croisín by then.

The songs Ennis wrote from Martin MacNamara were An Sceilpín droighneach, An Raibh tú ag an gcarraig?, Tráthnóinín déanach, A Chórsain, éistigi, Bríd Thomáis Mh’rucha and Éamonn a’ chnuic. Like the other songs mentioned in this article, they are to be found in Manuscript volume No. 1281 (pp. 396-401), of the Irish Folklore Collection (I.F.C.), kept in the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4. The songs, An Raibh Tú ag an gcarraig? and Éamonn an Chnoic, as well as An Mairnéalach Loinge, as sung by ‘Styke’ have been published by Marion Gunn in A Chomharsain éistigí, agus amhráin eile as Co. an Chláir (B.Á.C., An Clóchomhar Teo, 1984). Séamus Ennis’s diaries are the Ms volumes I.F.C. 1295-1297.

I am very grateful for the help given in the preparation of this article by Cathal Goan, R.T.É., and by Ríonach Uí Ógáin and Jackie Small and the staff of the Department of Irish Folklore, U.C.D.
Angela Bourke


This article was first published in Dal gCais vol. 8, 1986, pp 53-56. Clare County Library is grateful to Angela Bourke for permission to reproduce this article.