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Travels with the last real balladeers

COUNTRY MATTERS JOE KENNEDY THOSE of us oldies with fond memories of enjoyable fireside evenings in pub and hotel in the company of three remarkable men, recently in the news pages, have had one somewhat tattered cliche to utter - you won't see their likes again. It is true.

Sean Mac Reamoinn and Benedict Kiely have departed to resume their balladry and storytelling in another dimension. Ciaran Mac Mathuna is still with us like an amiable rock, rolling gently along, still picking up some moss and morsels of music that he may have missed.

All three were bottomless wells of tales and songs, adventures of the well-known and the unknown, snatches of life, lore and literature in at least two languages with a smattering from Italy, Spain and France dropped into the simmering pot.

Over many years I made sideline appearances with Ciaran and Sean on radio and TV programmes. Ciaran broke his own rules of content once by talking about and playing Bob Dylan for me on a radio programme in a studio on the top of the GPO. Yes, it was that long ago.

Mac Reamoinn wrote brilliant sleeve notes for O Riada's recordings as well as much more scholarly material for other folkloric projects.

But how many remember him as a ballad singer? Well, sort of, more or less.

Ciaran recorded him singing/reciting the immortal The Two Travellers, an epic penned by C J Boland, scribe and higher civil servant in the early years of the last century. Boland's parents were the master and matron of Clonmel workhouse in the 1880s and Boland himself became Commissioner of Valuations in Dublin. He died in 1918.

Old colleagues, the late Tommy Cleary of Clonmel, and Martin MacCormaic, were the first people I heard reciting the Travellers verses. A London-based reader once informed me that he had learned the ballad from "one Bobby Donnelly who travelled in Munster for lavatory seats and steel wool".

The Two Travellers are one boastful fellow and a local neighbour who was bent on putting him in his place. This takes about seven verses which may be found in the endnotes of one of the volumes of Colm O Lochlainn's Irish Street Ballads (air: Hannigan's Aunt: P French).

Here are a few snatches: "I've lived in the land where tobacco is grown/ In the suburbs of Santiago/ And I've spent two years in Sierra Leone/ And in Terra del Fuego.

"I walked across Panama all in a day/ Ah me, but the road was rocky/ The other replied 'would you kindly say/ Were you ever at Horse and Jockey?'" And to wrap up: "And I'd rather be strolling along the quay/ And watching the river flow/ Than growing tea with the cute Chinese/ Or mining in Mexico.

"And I wouldn't much care for Sierra Leone/ If I hadn't seen Killenaule/ And the man that never saw Mullinahone/ Shouldn't say he had travelled at all."

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You may find all this on the internet but also there may well be some old boy in a quiet pub corner with a welcome fireplace who knows it all - and other stuff too. And Ciaran, no doubt, will stillbe finding them and recording them.

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