Tuesday 15 October 2019

Tales of curses, shifting, Bertie and Bush in the Banner County

In his new series about exciting places outside Dublin, Barry Egan visits Clare to feel the magic of its music and people

Up the Banner: Barry Egan (centre) with from left Jackie Whelan of West Clare Railway; Stephen McDermot, Clare FM; Timmy Dooley TD; Roisin McMahon, Clare camogie; Mark Nolan, general manager Dromoland; Miss Clare Elaine Galvin; Pat Breen TD; Mikey O’Loughlin, RSVP; Cllr Gabriel Keating; Johnny Hassett, Ballyhannon House; Deirdre Keating, Dromoland, at Dromoland Castle, Co Clare
Up the Banner: Barry Egan (centre) with from left Jackie Whelan of West Clare Railway; Stephen McDermot, Clare FM; Timmy Dooley TD; Roisin McMahon, Clare camogie; Mark Nolan, general manager Dromoland; Miss Clare Elaine Galvin; Pat Breen TD; Mikey O’Loughlin, RSVP; Cllr Gabriel Keating; Johnny Hassett, Ballyhannon House; Deirdre Keating, Dromoland, at Dromoland Castle, Co Clare
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

The omens - if not for the Kerry team - were good. I stopped off at Matt The Thresher in Birdhill in Tipperary late last Sunday afternoon to grab a quick bite and catch the end of the match. Kay, Matt The Thresher's lovely co-owner, when I informed her of my destination, proclaimed thus: "Clare is absolutely fantastic and Dromoland Castle is always great craic."

So it proved. At 9pm in the opulent drawing room of the world famous castle overlooking the lake and 450 acres in Newmarket-on-Fergus, there is a crowd of bona fide characters reminiscing poetically about the present and the past and the future of County Clare - chief among them is Jackie Whelan of the West Clare Railway, who has a beard and cap that are almost as colourful as his stories.

Glass of whiskey in his hand, Jackie, who was born in 1939 and has eight children, smiles like he has seen it all before.

And he probably has.

"I started going to dances in 1952," Jackie begins like a seanchaí with bells on. "I remember being put out of a hall in Mullock because I wasn't able to dance the Mullock set. We were above in the middle of dance land, I can tell you.

"Previous to that, there were country house dances. They were called sixpenny hops. You paid six pence at the door. That six pence would be often used by people to send someone to America or someplace - help someone to get out. I suppose the priests were looking at the bit of money then and they set up the parochial halls.

"The bands were brought into the halls and there was a bit of control over your activities. They would decide when the dance started and when it finished. A lot of places have their own type of dances."

Fianna Fáil local legend Timmy Dooley - who had regaled me earlier with talk of a curse by herbalist Biddy Early on the Clare hurling team that stopped them winning the All-Ireland for 80 years - interjects to say: "I notice Jackie is not saying why he was put out of the hall: was it that he wasn't able to dance the Mullock set or for uncontrolled activity?"

The laughter from the group could be heard right through the halls of the castle.

"When I went to school you had the priest, the teacher and the guard," laughs Jackie himself by way of an answer, "and you daren't open your mouth to any of the three of them".

"There were seven boys in our family. My parents were both American citizens. They left in 1920 and came back in 1937."

I ask Jackie what did his parents tell him Clare was like in 1937.

"When they left here, there was nothing there," he says, "and when they arrived in America, there was nothing there."

Jackie takes another sip of his whiskey as we all lean in to catch his every word. "My mother didn't get paid for two years in a household at that time," he goes on.

"There were 17 servants. She was the only one that was kept because she was the cook. And the reason that she got that job was she was working for an ambassador in Dublin. She was right lucky.

"My father was a mechanic, working for the gas company. He had a good job, too, but his job was very troublesome. They were going around shutting off gas in the houses. People were committing suicide.

"My parents came home in 1937 because my father's mother wrote to him and said, 'If you don't come home from America and take over the farm, your sister is going to get it.' I'd have been a Yank if they'd have stayed where they were!"

"You'd have been President of America now, Jackie" laughs Timmy Dooley.

Mark Nolan, the GM of Dromoland Castle for the last 25 years, recalls an actual American President in his midst, when George Bush stayed in the hotel in June 2004.

Mark and his team were saying their goodbyes in the front lobby when he was advised by security that a protest had arrived and the departure would be delayed. He was tasked with bringing Bertie Ahern and George Bush to the drawing room (where we are all sitting now) to hold George and Bertie for 30 minutes while the protest passed.

It was one of those awkward situations, he remembers, "where none of the three of us talked until I started talking about Clare hurling to break the silence.

"Then Bertie got animated about Dublin football, which ended in a great conversation about Irish sport which George Bush seemed to be very well versed in."

Mark expands on the complex, sometimes comic, security arrangements in advance of Bush's visit to Clare 11 years ago - the Garda sub-aqua team were busy scanning the lake, the equestrian division just as busy trekking through the woods, to say nothing of security personnel interviewing employees and surrounding neighbours.

"Transport divisions were organising and issuing passes for people from car parks outside Dromoland, to use buses to get through the well secured entrances," he recalls.

"Everybody was issued with lanyards with photo ID, which caused a great stir in our house of four small children, the youngest of whom wore his to bed," Mark says, referring to Marcus, who is now 18.

"There was a strong garda presence in the air. The local schoolchildren were so excited at the thought of singing and doing an Irish dance for first lady Laura Bush."

When the big day arrived, Mark took his allocated transport through the gates, letting his family know that President Bush had left Shannon Airport.

"They ran out and waved from the garden and then made their way into Dromoland. What a surprise I got to see my wife Maria and my children outside in the car having blagged their way through several checkpoints! Everybody is disarmed by children, apparently!"

Pat Breen Fine Gael TD, and chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade's memories as a kid were not of visiting heads of states.

"One of my earliest childhood memories of growing up in County Clare were of the travelling people," he says. "They were really decent and mingled well with the farming community. One of these was Martin Faulkner - he travelled the length and breadth of the county by foot or hitching a lift. He would from time to time stay in the hay barn on our farm where my father and mother would always give him breakfast in the morning".

"There was one occasion when he was sneezing in the morning and my father asked him if he had a cold and his reply was that 'I left the gate open a few nights ago in the field that I slept in.'

"He was always in great form despite the life of hardship. He was just one of many that called around either selling 'tin-cans' or looking for odd jobs around the farm. That welcome was always afforded to people like Martin and others and they respected each other.

"My other great memories were the annual holidays to Kilkee with my mother Johanna and three sisters, Mary, Joan and Susan. The first movie I saw was in Kilkee. The Music Man at the Hydro. And when I hear the song 76 Trombones from the movie today on the radio, it takes me right back to those early days."

Fine Gael councillor Gabriel Keating is as fascinating a character as you could hope to spend a few hours with, in a castle drawing room or anywhere. He waxed long and lyrically about the wonder of Clare, its music, his beloved Loophead lighthouse ("Enda came down - because his grandfather (James) was a lighthouse keeper - in July and he stayed for the weekend and went out for walks in his tracksuit and he was a great man for meeting people)" and going to the festival in Lisdoonvarna every year.

"I started off playing in Lisdoonvarna, God!" piped up singer Kate Purcell whose album Independent Soul is out now.

"We used to do three sessions a day. We'd play from 12 to 2pm, 4pm to 7pm and then 9.30pm to finish, which could be 2am or 3am. The barmen were on 24-hour shifts!"

Was there a lot of shifting going on?

"Oh, lots of it!" laughs Kate.

"You'd get a shift in the morning," jokes Gabriel with a riotous laugh, "and a shift in the afternoon and then you'd be shifting home!"

"If you didn't get a shift in Lisdoonvarna, you might as well give it up!" laughs Johnny Hassett of Ballyhannon House in Quin. ("Horse whispering, conscious communication," says the card Johnny gave me.)

I ask some of the women what Clare men are like.

Tess Purcell, who is a bit of a fashion guru in County Clare (not least because she is the organiser of Ennis Fashion Week), says: "It's impossible to generalise but I do think that Clare men have a great respect for their womenfolk. Young Clare guys tend to hunt in packs. I suppose this is because living in rural areas people have to relay on transport to socialise in towns and cities, so you will always have groups of young lads from villages out together."

Roisin McMahon, who plays camogie for Clare and is a primary school teacher in St Conaires in Shannon, says: "I can't speak for all of them but the majority of Clare men have a great sense of humour, always up for a laugh.

"You would be hard pushed to understand some of the older men as they speak so quickly in our 'culchie' Clare accent.

"You often find yourself saying, 'Could you say that again, please' and when you finally do hear what they say its usually a gem of a story or a witty comment."

"It's a great part of Ireland and the world," says Stephen McDermot of Clare FM, "to live in."

Adds Roisin: "As the song goes, 'You'll never beat the Banner'. The people have a genuine interest in finding out who you are and trying to make any possible connections."

"In terms of the community and camaraderie," begins 22-year-old Mikie O'Loughlin, a rising star of RSVP Magazine, "my sister passed away when I was 14, a month before my Junior Cert... and it was the community effect that really helped my family and me through it.

"Everybody in the community of Ennis rallied around us and it was something that I will never forget. It was seven and-a-half years ago now, so it is all a bit blurry for me but one moment that I remember clearly was a friend's parent giving me phone credit to call my friends - a big deal back then.

"Without the kindness, sympathy and caring nature of neighbours, family and friends, the time would have been even more difficult. That it not something that you would get in a big city."

"Her name is Enid," adds Mikie. "It is actually her birthday on Saturday. She would have been 27."

Be you in Clare or New York - raise a glass to the memory of Enid.

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