Date: Tue, 12 Sep
1995 17:40:49 -0400
Finally have a chance to *think* about those ten days.
To back up a bit, as some of you know, about 15 years ago my son Peter wrote a song called "Kilkelly". It was based on letters sent by my great- great-grandfather in Ireland to his son John who had emigrated to America. Most of the letters were actually written by the village school-master, who had been John's classmate and friend. Peter and his brother Steve recorded the song, and so did others. One of the more recent versions was done by Robbie O'Connell and Mick Moloney. That version was featured in a 5-part series on emigration from Ireland done by the BBC, and on an edited portion which was shown here on the Disney Channel.
The sound track of the BBC special, called "Bringing It All Back Home" is available on CD, and is still in the Top 40 in Ireland. Then last year, one of the contestants in the "Rose of Tralee" contest (a beauty pageant? I don't know) sang the song on TV, which gave it an even larger audience.
A representative of the community council got in touch with Peter earlier this year and offered to pay his expenses to attend their annual fair in the beginning of August. He was reluctant to accept, because his vacation plans had already been made, but his friends and family prevailed on him to go, and his sister Emily and I went with him, and Steve came a few days later.
We were met at Shannon by Sean O'Tarpaigh, a Kilkelly native who is artistic director for the Irish language theatre in Galway, an actress named Margaret Nyland, and Joe Finnegan, the proprietor of one of Kilkelly's eleven pubs. We got an idea of the scope of this fair, and the part Peter was expected to play in it. Margaret and Sean had used the song as the framework for a pageant which dramatized the history of Kilkelly and emigration from Ireland.
We had barely got settled in our B&B when they took Peter off to be interviewed on the local radio station. We had a chance to see the town, which is really mostly a crossroads and a town square. I was told the population was about 400, but I'm not sure how large an area that includes.
My ancestors were actually from Urlaur, an even smaller village not far away. We attended the "pattern" at Urlaur, an annual festival which involves Mass in the abbey ruins, followed by music, dancing and foot races. This pattern has been going on for centuries, and is mentioned in the letters. Emily conjectured that it was originally a pagan festival. It is a time when those who have moved away come back to see friends and relatives. We met several cousins, some of whom now live in England and other parts of Ireland.
That evening Peter was asked to cut the ribbon opening an art exhibit at the community center. We marched there from the square, following a band of Irish pipers. Later there was a bonfire and party in the square.
The next day was billed as "Heritage Day." People wore old-fashioned clothing, and there were demonstrations by a tinsmith, a turf-cutter, and various cooks and craftspersons. Margaret, in her character of an old woman, sat crouched in a hovel that actually was used to house a goat, and told fortunes. That evening there was Mass in the "new" church (which I skipped in favor of a nap), more music in the square, and lots of activity in the pubs.
Sunday was the day of the big pageant, preceded by Mass in the old Kilkelly churchyard, where the foundations of the original church made a natural stage. The weather was gorgeous, as it was, indeed throughout our stay. People had been hard at work, constructing a cottage at one side of the square, and the thatcher was still working on the roof. On the other side there was a representation of the Statue of Liberty, but they hadn't got around to finishing her head (and in fact, never did--but that just gave it a surrealistic touch). There were thirty scenes, with some fifty actors, including children, and you can imagine the difficulty of trying to rehearse entrances, etc. It was a splendid effort, with scenes from Ireland before the famine, John's departure, Ellis Island, clashes with landlords, tenant evictions, a funeral, reading of the 1916 Proclamation, and much more.
There was singing and dancing in Joe's pub until all hours. We went home at four.
The last day of the fair was the traditional fair day, when in the past farmers brought their cattle to market. There was a vintage car rally, a potato-picking contest, more music and dancing. People wanted to tell Peter where they were when they first heard his song, and how affected they were by it. Emigration clearly has affected most families in the area. One man said the only time he had seen his father cry was when he heard the song. Little kids asked for his autograph (on the back of betting slips!) and others wanted pictures taken with him. He really is quite a modest fellow, and I think was somewaht embarrassed by all this, but I thought it was great!
We spent another day visiting with the relatives who still live there, then drove back through the western part of Mayo, to Connemara and Galway and finally Shannon.
We really had a wonderful time--everyone was so gracious and welcoming. I'd like to go back again next year, this time with Phil. He and Peter had just returned from mountain-climbing in Colorado when we left this year, and he needed a breather.