Memoir ~ The Road From Castlebarnagh

My musical memoir, THE ROAD FROM CASTLEBARNAGH, has just been released by Orpen Press in Ireland! Still waiting on news of a US distributor; we will keep everyone posted on that front as it develops…

In the meantime, it’s available at Paddy’s Online Shop, and at all good bookstores in Ireland and Britain, as well as through Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com (via various Irish booksellers), and directly from Orpen Press.

THE ROAD FROM CASTLEBARNAGH is also available as an e-book from Orpen Press.

 

Here’s a bit from one of the first chapters:

HAIRPINS AND COMBS

It was early spring in 1953 when I was sent outside in search of sticks or “firan,” as my father would say. This was firewood that had to be gathered and brought home to our kitchen to dry by the fire. Much of it was small twigs, which were very useful for kindling and of enormous help in starting a fire during early morning hours. It was usually my job to keep my father supplied with enough of this “firan” and any neglect meant an uncomfortable scolding.

One afternoon, when returning with an armful of kindling, I spotted a black donkey and cart outside our gate. The cart had no sideboards. A sackful of something lay near its tail-end, and several implements for farm work lay on the floor of the cart—pitchforks, spades, shovels and iron picks with their separate handles made of fresh ash. The man in charge was tying his donkey to our iron gate beside the road. Going back behind his cart, he unloaded a sackful of curios and hoisted it onto his shoulder. As I neared the door of our house, he beat me to it and was already talking to my mother.

“Well, Jim,” she says, “Come in, and let’s see what you have.”

I followed him inside and put my own load in the corner by the fire. He unloaded his sack onto the cement floor and opening its neck, revealed a bunch of articles I recognized as mousetraps, spools of thread, and rat-traps. But when he turned his sack upside down, I was astounded at the extent of his other items: hairpins, brushes, combs, candles, Clark’s tin whistles, rings for ringing the snouts of pigs, rattles for small children, shoelaces and mouth organs. I ran to my mother when I saw the mouth organs. “Mammy, Mammy, get me one, get me one!” I begged. And she did! For one shilling. And so began my musical career.

She bought a few other accoutrements as well, candles and Saint Patrick’s Day badges. When the peddler began his departure, I saw that he was a tall, lanky man with a peaked cap and he was wearing a long gray tweed topcoat. Some of its coat buttons were missing and it was held together at the waist by binding twine instead of a belt. He had a hooked nose and small dark eyes almost like an eel. His Adam’s apple stuck out in his neck and his hands had very long fingernails, which my mother liked, because this suggested he had an even temper. This is considered an old wives’ tale in today’s world and my mother had a store of them. She was later put on the defensive regarding the length of the peddler’s nails after he untied his donkey and climbed onto the front of the cart. With the reins in each hand, he gave them a short tug. “Gid up there, Bosco,” he shouted at the donkey. The donkey stood motionless. The peddler roared and shouted, “Gid up! Gid up!” But Bosco the donkey stood still. Jim the peddler reached back behind and grabbed a pick handle. “Now,” he says, “See what you think of this, you miserable bag of fuckin’ glue!” He began beating the donkey’s rump and was beginning to sweat himself into a frenzy when my mother came running up to the gate.

“Stop! Stop!” she yelled at the peddler. “Jim, I’m surprised at you. This is cruelty. Stop it!” She had a basin full of chopped turnips which she was preparing for dinner. “Let me try a little bit of kindness; it goes a long way.” She stepped outside the gate and pushed the basin of turnips under the donkey’s mouth.

I was standing nearby and began testing the mouth organ, hooting it and running it back and forth against my mouth. Bosco was probing at the turnips but then he turned his head in my direction. His ears stood at attention. In two seconds, he began to plunge forward, and jerking the cart up the small hill, he began running. The peddler’s cap tumbled from his head when he was suddenly pulled forward. I was still puffing at my mouth organ, a ten-year-old boy who didn’t know that his “music” had frightened a dumb animal out of his wits. I continued to blow into my instrument and walking up onto the roadside I was just in time to see the peddler and his donkey and cart disappear around a turn in the road. That was the last I ever saw of them. It was a story that was told over and over in front of many a hearth fire in our locality.

The following winter, we hosted a house dance and invited two accordion players and a fiddler to provide some music. My father said he would beat his tambourine. It was on a Sunday night and with our oil lamp turned up we added a couple of candles to give extra light in the kitchen. Sandwiches were made with sardines and ham. Armfuls of turf were stuffed into a bin and an extra kettle was brought along by one of my aunts. A tall, dark man with a brown hat played a Hohner Black Dot accordion. His name was Paddy McGrath and he was noted as a good player. A second accordion was a C#/D Paolo Soprani, a red-coloured one, played by Mick Hayes. The fiddler was a friend of our family, a very generous man and very shy. He was known to us children as Dinny. His last name was Doyle, and his place of abode was a half-mile north of our house beside the banks of the Grand Canal. I never heard him play by himself and didn’t know about him having a fiddle until that evening.

The three of them began playing together at about eight o’clock. I was sitting in my chosen spot in the corner by the fire. It was a good vantage point and I felt awfully happy as I waited for the proceedings to develop. My sister Moira was sitting near me and I could see her eyes open wider as the music was played. We had never heard musicians playing together like this and were convinced afterwards that it was better than the wireless. There were fourteen people not counting my parents and the three musicians and as the music was played four couples began waltzing around the floor. My sister and I were watching our aunts and their men laughing and joking. Moira and I thought they looked funny on account of not seeing them dance before. Soon other people took to the floor and in a short time the kitchen was crowded with people.

Later on in the evening, tea and sandwiches were provided and this also gave the musicians a break but it didn’t last very long. Then they began again with another waltz and five couples took the floor while others were calling for a half set. Our kitchen was a small space and could only accommodate five or six couples at one time. However everyone had a mighty time and the highlight of the evening were the half sets danced to reels or polkas. These were my favourites because of the tunes and the basket swinging.

Tom Byrne loved to basket swing, which was a group of two fellows and two women, swinging with arms entwined about one another in a tight circle. Tom would propel the swing until it went out of time with the music and one or two people would become dizzy and disconnect from the circle and fall away against the wall. Tom himself lost his balance and fell against the dresser, almost knocking over a number of my mother’s wedding plates. When the music stopped, my father told everyone to keep calm and no unnecessary basket swinging during any of the sets. It was common in those days to remind dancers about unruly basket swinging because it ruined the continuity of the dance. When it got out of hand, it meant that women would scream and lose their feet on the floor and would be lifted and left hanging out of the bunch as it spun around and around. It reminded me of the swinging chairs at a visiting carnival that also produced high-pitched screams from young ladies.

During a break, a few bottles of porter were produced from somewhere. The musicians were the ones to get the first round and it energised them greatly. Paddy McGrath removed his hat because he was sweating. Mick Hayes followed suit and turning towards them I saw the sweat on their faces. Paddy reached over to me and gave me his hat. This made me feel important, and as a kindly gesture, I held his headwear close to the fire for drying. More dancing continued with a highland fling and then another half set. I heard a lot of different tunes that I hadn’t heard before, “The Sally Gardens,” “The Salamanca Reel,” and “The Echo Hornpipe.” An all-time favourite of my father’s was also played with all of its four parts. It was a jig he drummed into my head for years afterwards. The name of “The Lark in the Morning” made me cringe for at least twenty years, until I eventually realized that the tune was a nice piece of music and very well composed.

Our house dance lasted until midnight when everyone began to leave and face the cold night on their bicycles. My sister and I had been escorted to bed an hour or so beforehand. I remember our mother tucking us in and reminding us to go to sleep. Meanwhile, the music carried on, and we could easily hear it through the wall between us and the kitchen. It was long after midnight when we finally fell asleep.

THE ROAD FROM CASTLEBARNAGH was published by Orpen Press in October 2012. 

Book reviewers and media people interested in review copies should get in touch with Paddy directly via e-mail (paddyobrien@qwest.net), or contact publicist Peter O’Connell at:

Peter O’Connell Media
29/30 Dame St, Dublin 2, Ireland

Phone: + 353 (0)87 681 4499

email: peter@peteroconnellmedia.com

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