Sunday 20 August 2017

Creative force finds new ways to remember the traditions of our ancestors

Cover of 'The Seeds Were Well Planted' songbook commissioned by Carlow County Council, which features local people singing historical ballads
Cover of 'The Seeds Were Well Planted' songbook commissioned by Carlow County Council, which features local people singing historical ballads

Celine Naughton

Artist in residence Michael Fortune has spent more than 16 years collecting folklore and coming up with creative ways to preserve local traditions, customs and beliefs.

Along the way he's documented rare ballads that might otherwise have been forever lost, and discovered that dressers are more than just old pieces of furniture.

Artist in residence Michael Fortune
Artist in residence Michael Fortune

Commissioned by Carlow County Council, his project 'The Seeds Were Well Planted' is a DVD recording of local people singing 17 historical ballads. Among such well-known laments as 'Boolavogue' and 'Kevin Barry', it includes 'The ­Mullannagaun Massacre', a song he got from a woman in her 90s, Ellie Cummins from Ballymurphy, Co Carlow.

"She remembered the words from her father and brother," says Michael.

"The song recounts the ambush by the Black and Tans of a local IRA company, under the command of Michael Faye, during the War of Independence in April 1921 in the townsland of Mullannagaun in Ballymurphy.

"Faye was a Rathvilly native who fought in the British Army in Flanders and joined the IRA on his return. Four people were killed that day, including two of Ellie's second cousins and an old man called Mike Ryan."

Also supported by the council is his Dresser Project, for which he visited people's homes and captured on film the stories behind their old dressers. His interest stemmed from his own grandmother Jane Fortune's insistence before she died at the age of 103 that her dresser remain intact.

Months before she died, when Jane became too ill to sleep upstairs in her home in Ballygarrett, Co Wexford, a local nurse called to see about moving her bed downstairs. As the kitchen space was small, the nurse asked for the dresser to be removed.

"Like shite, no one's touching my dresser," replied the redoubtable Jane.

"Although she is gone, her dresser and the stories behind it remain," says Michael, who went on to catalogue stories of dressers across four counties.

"These dressers are more than just dry pieces of furniture or relics," he says.

"They are an evolving and ever-changing display reflecting the experiences, lives and values of their keepers, serving as shrines as well as practical pieces of furniture."

Irish Independent

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