Monthly Archives: April 2015

Man of Aran

What is it about islands? Why do they have such appeal to us? All around the world they are treasured as special. Sometimes the residents are fiercely protective. In Australia we have many that hold a singular place and I was lucky enough to live on one such of these – Magnetic Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. There are others though; Rottnest Island, where you can’t live but it is still very dear to the heart of Perth people, or Kangaroo Island off South Australia, or the beautiful Lord Howe Island among them. Ireland has a few too, such as Tory, Achill, Skellig and of course the Aran Islands.

Mention the Aran Islands and you immediately have my attention. The place has a mysterious lure. Despite knowing little about it (except that it is where the Clancy Brothers got their jumpers from and one of the most omnipresent tunes in sessions around the world is named after one of the Islands) it was a place I felt I must visit. I have been on two separate occasions. First, on a freezing summer’s day in July 2014, to Inisheer for an overnight stay; and more recently over three glorious sunny, warm days in April 2015. That’s Irish weather for you – freezing in Summer and hot in Spring!

The Islands are accessed either from Galway or Doolin, in my case for both trips I took the boat from Doolin, half an hour from my home in Caherush. My first visit was a spontaneous decision based on the fact there was blue sky in the morning. Of course by the time the boat left the weather had turned and the squally rain and howling wind off the Atlantic made for a very rough half hour crossing which took over an hour as we were buffeted by giant waves. At one point we stopped in the middle of the ocean in a futile attempt to retrieve a feral buoy. This was in contrast to my trip to Inis Mór when the sea was mirror calm with not a ripple. So I saw the islands in its various moods.

Ferry to Inisheer.  Rough seas with Cliffs of Moher in the background Arriving Inis Mor

Inisheer SunriseHarbour at Kilronan.  Inis Mor

Inisheer Inisheer.  Early morning sky

Technically the islands are part of Galway, but geographically, geologically and culturally they belong to Clare as the three Aran Islands are an extension of the Burren.  They all have that wild inspiring landscape that I found so enriching in north Clare and that I have blogged about before.

All the features of the Burren are there. Sometimes better exposed than on the mainland: clints, grykes, rillenkarren, dolines, kamenitzas, glacial erratics, fossil shells and corals, limestone pavements, but with the ever present Atlantic around almost every corner.

So back to my first question. With the Aran Islands, is it that inconvenience mixed with expectation that getting there involves that makes it attractive to visitors? Or that feeling that once there you are completely cut off (well maybe not now with smartphones).   Or the slower pace? How would it be to actually live there?

Of course many do and Melissa and Johnny Gillan and their five children are among them.  Melissa is from Maine and married an Irishman from Aran who after their second child convinced her to leave the States and start a new life on Inis Mór. Melissa tells the story way better than I could on her blog (which is how we met)  I have never seen anyone happier. She now has five kids and an enviable lifestyle where she has created a paradise – a garden that sustains her family within this harsh environment and is moving towards her dream of starting a business based on this. The whole family is involved, with the kids nurturing the garden and animals with a sense of pride. Her philosophy is captured by the layout of the garden beds which spell the word LOVE and which was revealed with delight by her kids after an enthusiastic guided tour. I was invited to dinner there one night, which comprised razor clams gathered on the shore, a tuna steak from a fish caught by Johnny’s brother off the coast, potatoes, carrots, kale, rhubarb crumble and a parsnip cake. All from the garden and made with skill and affection. The kids embrace the lifestyle. I was reminded a little of the zest for living my own kids had on Magnetic Island for the three years we lived there. Melissa and Johnny may not be your typical Aran family, I don’t know, but I also met Cóil and Grainne, both young islanders who gave up their day to show me around their island with an obvious pride. I was greeted with nothing but warmth and hospitality.

Melissa Gillan's grarden Inis MorThe Gillan family.  Inis Mor

Both the Islands I visited seem to have somewhat different characters. Inis Mór (the Big Island) has sweeping landscapes with hardly a tree; massive limestone pavements and steep cliffs. It doesn’t seem heavily populated but there are about 900 people spread across the entire island. Inis Oírr is smaller with about a third of that but the houses are more concentrated around the main settlement of Inveragh and the fields as defined by the stone walls seem smaller. Both have the same sparse pasture, lush in places barren in others.  Inis Mór has more tourists and a lot more bicycles but it is easy to avoid the day trippers by starting early. The evenings everywhere are gloriously empty of people except for the inevitable craic behind the walls of Ti Whatty or Rory’s.

Inisheer.  Stone fields

Inisheer. Stone walls and fields


Inisheer. Drystone walls and one room cottage


Inisheer in the morning light




Inisheer.  Off to fiddle lesson?

Inis Mor. Coping with the elements

Inis Mor. Coping with the elements

Inis Mor.

Inis Mor.

Inis MOr

Inis Mor.


Inis Mor

There is plenty for the tourist. On Inis Mór, bike hire is popular and the circuit to the Dún Aonghasa fort is a well-worn trail. But off the beaten track are some amazing sites such as the Black Fort, the Seven Churches and Teampull Bheanáin, reputedly the smallest church in the world measuring around 3m x 2m.  This unusual church can be seen from all around the island and was the best location I found for viewing the unique Burren flora.  Then there is the spectacular Worm Hole or Poll na bPeist. It is a hole in the rock platform that looks like it has been sliced out by the hand of Fin McCool himself. There is a more prosaic explanation that relates to erosion along mutually orthogonal jointing but let’s stick with Fin McCool, I think! Connected with this is a blow hole where the back pressure from the hole causes the sea to shoot up periodically  higher than the cliff.  This is an awe-inspiring place that has been put on the tourist map by the Red Bull people who have filmed one of their diving videos here.

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

The Islands, and in particular Inis Mór is well known for the excellent preservation of their megalithic circle forts. Dún Aonghasa gets the most attention, but others such as Black Fort are just as interesting and much quieter. These forts are fascinating and here on Aran occupy a coastal positon where the cliffs are used as one line of defence and a semicircular stone rampart as the other enclosing a headland within which was a settlement. There were also a number of outer walls in some cases and unique and spectacularly well preserved examples of chevaux de frise. These are fields of sharp limestone lugged into place and designed to make cavalry or foot progress difficult and retreat impossible. They were placed about 30m away from the wall as this was the range of hand thrown projectiles of the time. The original structures at Dún Aonghasa appear to date from around 1000 BC which places them near the end of the Bronze Age. The famous portal tomb at Poulnabrone on the mainland is much older (3,800BC) as are other tombs on Aran which date to 1850 BC.  This first period of settlement at Dún Aonghasa ended about 700BC but then the site was added to and inhabited during medieval times and later. I spent hours at these forts mesmerised by the ambience and the anicientness (if that is a word!)

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor.  Rock platform Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Rock platform Dun Aengus fort


Inis Mor. Inside the inner wall Dun Aengas

Inis Mor. Inner wall. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Inner wall. Dun Aengus fort, showing remarkable stone work

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Stone was quarried from the steep face near the wall.  Note the crack!

Inis Mor.  Black Fort. Cheval de frise with glacial erratic

Inis Mor. Black Fort. Cheval de frise with glacial erratic

Inis Mor.  Black Fort showing walls of medieval houses

Inis Mor. Black Fort showing walls of medieval houses

Inis Mor.  Black Fort

Inis Mor. Black Fort from inside the enclosure

Inis Mor.  Black Fort and cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Black Fort and cheval de fries

The landscape helps make this a unique world. I have talked here and elsewhere about the typical Burren landforms, but I should mention the widespread glacial erratics, dropped by melting glaciers. Well that is the scientific explanation. Local legend has it that they were left by giants who were throwing stones at each other (Fin McCool again!) Doesn’t this make sense? How else could boulders of granite from Connemara get onto the Aran Islands? The Burren is known world wide for its flora with its rare combination of alpine and Mediterranean plants.  Spring is the best time to see it and in the three days I was on Inis Mor I witnessed an explosion of life with the spring gentians and orchids bursting into flower. The wildlife does not disappoint either with seals, water birds, birds of prey and dolphins all on show at various times.

Inis Mor.  Glacial erratics near Black Fort

Inis Mor. Glacial erratics near Black Fort

Limeston Pavement Inis Mor

Limestone Pavement Inis Mor

Inis Mor.  Burren landscape

Inis Mor. Burren landscape

Inis Mor

Inis Mor. Typical Burren stone wall. How does it stay up?

Inis Mor.  Near Black Fort

Inis Mor. Near Black Fort. Crumbling coastline

Beach near Kilronan.  Inis Mor

Beach near Kilronan. Inis Mor

Inis Mor Inis Mor. View from Black Fort Inis Mor. Burren landscape.

Inisheer.  The Burren limestone Inis Mor. Inis Mor. Inis Mor. Seal colony Inis Mor. Seal colony Inis Mor. Wild duck's nest Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin.  Spring gentian Inis Mor.  Spring in the Burren


On each of my visits to Aran I was resigned to having nights without music but on each occasion I discovered the craic. On Inis Oírr I met Mícheál O’hÁlmháin, the leading musical identity on the Island and members of his family and we played in the hotel until the small hours and on Inis Mór I met three French guys, Alex, Mathieu and Victor who turned out to be amazing guitarists and with Michelle, Lea and Rom from Switzerland we had two nights of Celtic meets Gypsy Jazz meets 70s rock meets Europop!  On Inis Oírr I also stumbled onto an Irish language summer camp. It was held in the hall and I was drawn by the distinctive sound of irish dancing. The front door was open but what I saw was not what I expected. It was full with teenagers maybe 150 of them having the time of their lives. They were playing a game of musical statues to the recorded music of a ceili band. I stayed and watched as they threw themselves into a succession of musical and dance numbers including a country and western song about Connemara in Irish, some updated versions of set dances, line dancing and some pop songs. I was impressed that here was a camp dedicated to preserving the Irish language and culture but prepared to do it in a modern way that was relevant to today’s youth but still respectful of the heritage.  And then to top all that while on Inis Mór  and thanks to an invitation from Melissa I played with the local Island kids at the regular Comhaltas gathering with Galway Bay as a backdrop.

Inis Mor.  For the craic.IMG_7588

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Inis Mor.  A regular gathering of the local Comhaltas group.

There is a lot more I could say about these Islands but by now I think I have probably lost all my readers (If you have read this far please let me know – it would be nice to know if anyone reads beyond the first paragraph!), so I will let the pictures talk from here.  Just a few more images that give a taste of these islands that I am sure I will return to regularly.

Inisheer.  Fisherman returns escorted by dolphin


Inisheer Inisheer.  Wreck of the Plassey Inisheer.  Wreck of the Plassey Abandoned house InisheerInis Mor.  Atlantic on a calm day Rusted bikes, Inisheer Inisheer Inisheer.  Fining pots Inisheer.  Limestone outcrops glowing in the morning sun Inisheer.  Curragh and ruins Inis Mor. Goat farm Inis Mor. Goat farm Inis Mor. Abandoned house

Inis Mor.  Site where Curragh was re-tarred

Inis Mor.  Stairway to Heaven?

Inis Mor. Stairway to Heaven?

Categories: Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Off to Offaly. What’s it Offer Me?

The Midlands of Ireland gets a bad rap. It comprises the counties of Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath. Major towns are Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore.  The whole Midlands is unfairly seen as a cultural backwater, dreary and nothing but boring bog land.  Author and Irish Times columnist Michael Viney has described the Midlands as “a wearily protracted obstacle between Dublin and the west … a slow ticking-off of dull little towns on a lot of flattish land drained by sluggish rivers”.

At the invitation of a friend, Christina,  who owns a B&B in Kinnitty,  Co. Offaly.  I spent a few days seeing for myself.

And I say this characterisation is unfair. Yes there is plenty of bog land but in my four days, mainly in Offaly,  I found music every night, discovered the Slieve Bloom Mountains, enjoyed a fine meal at Castle Kinnitty, absorbed the Georgian architecture in Birr and walked through a sculpture park in Lough Boora. I met plenty of lovely people as I have everywhere in Ireland.  Offaly had plenty to offer me!

I stayed at beautiful Ardmore House.  This elegant grand house, now a B&B, was built in 1840 by the Bernards who lived in the nearby Kinnity Castle. More on that later.  It was used as a doctors’ surgery and residence until the 1970s.  It had various owners after that and was bought in a run-down state over 20 years ago by Christina who has restored it in a  labour of love.  Set in lovely formal grounds and with huge bedrooms fitted with period furniture.  There is a wonderful ambience about the place and views from every window over the rolling hills on the edge of town and beyond to the Slieve Blooms.

This was my base from which to explore Offaly. And I didn’t have to go far.  Across the road near the Church is a stone pyramid, a mausoleum for members of the Bernard Family.  It was built in 1834 and houses the remains of six people including one bitten by a rabid dog.  The stone work is wonderful with blocks laid at an angle to get the pyramid shape.  The  mortar pattern is etched through the steel door which gives a great senses of unity.  The last internment was in 1905.

Ardmore House, Kinnity

Ardmore House, Kinnity

Elegant Georgian architecture.  Ardmore House, Kinnity

Elegant Georgian architecture. Ardmore House, Kinnity

Bernard's Pyramid, Kinnitty.

Bernard’s Pyramid, Kinnitty.

Bernard's Pyramid, Kinnitty

Bernard’s Pyramid, Kinnitty

Anyway I digress. The main reason I came of course was to play music.  Wednesday nights sees a regular session in this part of the county.  It is led by the talented Kinsella family and rotates between four pubs in surrounding villages.  This night saw the music at Bergin’s at Killoyn (pronunced ‘Killine’).  Other nights are at the Slieve Bloom in Kinnitty, Burton’s at Ballybritt and Dempsey’s at Cadamstown.

This is one of those sessions that exists soley for the community.  The pub was packed with regulars who were there just for the music. If there are tourists then they either come by accident or they are directed here by their hosts.  I am told that on other nights this pub is nearly empty.  This is a clear sign that the music is strong here and that people are into it.  While the quality of the music may be better in Clare you can’t argue with the enthusiastic way it is played and the reception it receives.   There were about fifteen musicians of all ages but as the night wore on many more singers were coaxed from the crowd. The tunes were well led by gifted box player Padraig Kinsella, and members of his family.  It is worth commenting here that the perception that Offaly is a backwater is belied by its successes in the All Ireland Fleadhs.  Players from Offaly including Padraig have won the All Ireland for button accordion eleven times, significantly more than from any other county.  I certainly didn’t appreciate this.  There was a lot of singing but no shortage of tunes and even after most of the musicians had packed up soon after midnight more singers came out of the crowd and we left at 2am with the session still in full swing.

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As my readers would know I attempt to play music every night.  So when we discovered there was a session in Eugene Kelly’s on Thursday off we went.  What I had forgotten, until I got there, was that this was the first place I had played music in Ireland, when I had arrived in May 2014.  I remembered meeting concertina player, Aoife Greene (another All Ireland winner) there that night and she was here again.  She recognised me even though I now have a beard and long hair.  Some great tunes followed and plenty of songs though the session was somewhat throttled by one member of the audience who insisted on sitting in the circle and making her presence well and truly felt.  Though in fairness she could sing.

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On the last night Christina had organised a house session at Ardmore. Some of the musicians who I had met at Bergin’s were there and others, friends of Christina, had come from as far away as Westport in Mayo as well as some locals.  It was a privilege to be part of this.  Great tunes and songs, excellent food, fine whiskey and a turf fire. Only thing missing was some dancing and you could have been at a house session a hundred years ago.

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In between these sessions I got out and about.  The weather was stunning.  Clear blue skies and around 18 degrees.  County Offaly has the earliest evidence of human habitation in Ireland dating from 6500 BC at Lough Boora just down the road. There would have been lakes there then, long since turned into bogs and subsequently mined out by Bord na Móna (the company created in 1946 to exploit bogs mainly in the Midlands)  Here at Lough Boora however it is now returned to lakes and a nature reserve.  I visited there and took a short walk was through a sculpture park.  All the installations were inspired by the unique land and the bog and its history of mining.  I was very impressed.  Great opportunity for some photos a little different from what I was used to.  I really enjoyed trying my hand at something different.


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There was also the Slieve Bloom Mountain range.  More low hills actually but there were expansive views of the countryside .  It is renowned as the birthplace and early home of legendary Finn MacCool but I was more taken with the forests of pine and beech, just breaking out with the spring growth.  It was at that wonderful point where the trees still have that winter nakedness but there is a tinge of bright green from the new shoots.

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Kinnitty Castle has had a chequered history.  It’s current predicament is at least as bad as anything it has faced since the site was first settled.  It is worth relating briefly as reflects a lot of the story of Ireland.

The site was known to be an ancient druid ceremonial ground; it was a monastery in the 6th century with links to Clonmacnoise along with which it was a major learning centre in Europe at the time.  It was raided by the Vikings and then rebuilt by the Normans with a castle and Abbey.  It became the stronghold of the O’Carrolls around the 11th Century through to the 17th century.  A new castle was built by the O’Carrolls in 1630 and confiscated by the English in 1641.  In 1664 it was granted to an English officer Thomas Winter. It was sold by the Winter family to the Bernards family in 1764 and became known as Castle Bernard.  The current look of the castle was a result of work commissioned in 1811.  The work was carried out by the Pain Brothers who built Dromoland and is a wonderful example of neo gothic architecture.

In 1922, the Castle was burned down by the Republican forces.  Rebuilt in 1928 by the Bernard family who lived there until 1946 when it was sold to Lord Decies who in turn sold it to the State in 1951. It became run down but was purchased by the Ryan family in 1994 and renovated and transformed into a luxurious 37 bedroom hotel.

The castle was forced into receivership by the KBC Ireland Bank and despite a number of attempts to sell it is still being run by the receivers as a going concern.  It is popular for weddings, understandably, and I have to say the steak was delicious.  The hotel is full of amazing period furniture, most of it huge and befitting the grand proportions of the house.  The bank seized all this along with the hotel but the Ryans claim that the effects are their own personal assets.  It is all very messy with legal action and accusations flying everywhere and as of now you could buy this special castle for a mere seven million euros and make the bank go away.



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The English heritage is apparent in nearby Birr also.  Birr also has a magnificent castle which is the family home of the current Earle of Rosse, but goes back to the O’Carrrols again who had one of their castles there in the 15th Century.  In 1620 it was granted to a Sir Laurence Parsons in the course of the Stuart plantation, c. 1620. Sir Laurence Parsons built most of the structure of the present castle. But this was not the main attraction for me.

The town is well regarded for the excellence of the preservation of the Georgian architecture.  A walk down the main thoroughfare of Emmett Street (formerly Cumberland Street) and the Oxmantown Mall and St John’s Mall give ample evidence of this.  I was taken with the elegance of the buildings and the unity of streetscape which was a defining characteristic of Georgian city planning There were simple family homes and there were clearly more ornate, but still conforming to the same simple elegant ethos, homes of the wealthy.  I loved the arched door treatments, the fanlights above the doors, the beautifully proportioned multi-paned windows and some of the less noticeable details such as the cast iron gate handles.

I was walking down Oxmantown Mall photographing the front of a blue doored two story mansion when the owner came out.  We got chatting and retired vet, Sam Glendinning took me through the archway which accessed the back and showed me his formal walled garden.  He was in the process of renewing it as it had become overgrown but there was enough to see what a marvelous space it was. A magnolia in flower was a feature with a central lawn and garden beds and trees around the boundary.  It was so quite; not a noise though we were right in the middle of town.  I was entranced.  Sam said it may be for sale if he could convince his wife to move into something smaller but he wouldn’t name a price.  Out of my league I would think.

Other claims to fame of this town are the largest telescope in the world built by the then Earl of Rosse in 1845.  (Why build a telescope in Ireland where there averages up to 225 days of rain a year?), the world’s first auto fatality when Mary Wood was thrown out of the steam car she was a passenger in as it rounded a corner on Cumberland Street and an Australian connection where Dame Nellie Melba sang from the balcony of Hotel Dooley, an event remembered today with Melba’s Nightclub


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I left Offaly on the Saturday and as if to say goodbye the weather broke.  I enjoyed my time there and thanks Christina for your hospitality.  It didn’t take long though and Saturday night I was back in the swing of things with tunes at Friels in Miltown with Yvonne Casey, Josephine Marsh and John Joe Tuttle.

Categories: My Journey, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Jim O’ the Mills, Upperchurch, 1916 and Other Things.

I first heard of this pub during the Russell weekend in Doolin last month. ‘Jim O’ the Mills’.  Well that’s not strictly true. In fact I recall being told during my first week in Ennis back in May 2014 about a pub that only opens sometimes in a remote village in North Tipperary. It had slipped my mind until Cáit Ryan, whose father happens to be Jim of ‘Jim of the Mills’ told me about it. I determined to visit it at the next opportunity.

So on the Thursday before Easter I headed out there. As it happens the pub only opens on Thursdays so given that the next day was a holiday a big night was expected. Although only less than two hours’ drive from home I figured I would stay in a B&B as I didn’t fancy a long drive back in the small hours, but the nearest with spare rooms was at Nenagh about 45 minutes away. This turned out to be the best B&B I have come across in Ireland but more on that another time.

I really had no idea where the pub was so I got to the village of Upperchurch before dark to give myself a better chance of finding it. The regulation three pubs were all closed but I eventually found a man wandering the deserted streets (or should I say ‘street’) who gave the very clear directions of “turn left and left again and you can’t miss it”. He was right. But I needn’t have worried because when I returned an hour and a half later the parked cars on the main road well and truly gave it away.

Jim O' the Mills,  Upperchurch, Tipperary

Jim O’ the Mills, Upperchurch, Tipperary

With some time to kill I went back to Upperchurch and by this time Paddy Kinnane’s pub was open. I stepped into a dimly lit empty room and a request for food was met with “I don’t think so you have to order ahead“ from the young lass behind the bar. A little nonplussed (who plans the day before to go to Upperchurch?) but I was rescued by the manager, Jim Butler, who after checking with the kitchen told me “You can have steak or salmon.” Salmon it was, washed down with a Guinness, and it was quite magnificent. With beautiful fresh vegetables. The pub was a genuine traditional Irish Pub.  Nothing ‘Plastic Paddy’ here – this was ‘Stone and Wood Paddy’. By the time I had finished my meal there were four punters at the bar.  I was amused, this being Easter Thursday, that they managed to keep up a conversation for about fifteen minutes about the Mass which had just finished.  Only Ireland!  The walls were adorned with photographs and memorabilia with more than a Republican slant. Jim who was married to Paddy Kinnane’s sister, proceeded to fill me in on Upperchurch’s role in the 1916 Rebellion and the subsequent Civil War, and Paddy in particular. This prompted me to do a bit of research of my own so if you’ll bear with me I’ll divert for a while.

Paddy Kinnane's Pub, Upperchurch

Paddy Kinnane’s Pub, Upperchurch

Paddy Kinnane's.

Paddy Kinnane’s.

Dinner, Paddy Kinnane's

Dinner, Paddy Kinnane’s

Paddy Kinnane's

Paddy Kinnane’s

The eponymous Paddy O’Cuinneain (Paddy Kinnane) who opened the Pub in 1927 had joined the Irish Volunteers at the age of 22 in 1914 but this had disbanded soon after. Following the Rising in Easter 1916 he was involved on the fringes eventually joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He saw little action though but spent seven days in jail for refusing on principle to pay a fine of 2/6 for not having a light on his bicycle at night. He saw this as a political statement. Love it! In 1917, branches of the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein were formed in Upperchurch (the Upperchurch Volunteers).   Paddy was involved in August 1917 in a raid on a hardware shop in Thurles where a hundredweight of explosives was captured. The company at this time had one rifle which Paddy had stolen from a British officer.

The Upperchurch Volunteers joined with some of the other local units to become the 3rd Tipperary Brigade and Paddy became the Commandant in 1918. From 1919 he was a wanted man and went on the run and never slept at home until 1924. In 1919 he was involved in a plot to assassinate an Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). In the 1920s he was involved in a number of failed attempts to destroy RIC barracks in particular at Drombane and Doon.

Jim Butler told me had been a hunger striker but I am not clear whether this was in the 1920s or later. People think Bobby Sands and 1981 when ‘Hunger Strike’ is mentioned, but it has been used a lot in Ireland historically to push a political point and in particular by the Republicans – for example 8,000 internees went on a hunger strike protesting their detention in 1923. He remained active after the war and he was a colleague of fellow republican Sean MacBride (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize) and they were both elected to the Dáil Éireann in 1947, Paddy representing Tipperary.

Quite a history. Here is a photo of Paddy with Sean which is hanging on the pub wall.

Paddy Kinnane and Sean MacBride

Paddy Kinnane and Sean MacBride

But it was time to visit Jim of the Mills. First the name – an obvious homage to Ned of the Hills. This is a famous Irish song celebrating Tipperary man Edmund O’Ryan who led a gang of bandits in the 17th Century in the style of Robin Hood.

It was explained to me by Jim Butler that because there are so many Ryans in this part of Tipperary they are all distinguished by nicknames. Ryan the Giant, Ryan Sean Og and of course Jim of the Mills.

I thought I had plenty of time. Irish sessions always start late don’t they? So I arrived at 9:30 and the place was already packed. Not what I expected at all. Outwardly there was no hint of activity (except for the cars). No sign saying Heineken or Guinness. No blackboard saying “Trad Music tonight”. It just looked like a family home.  The Ryans have been living here since 1990 but the house dates back to 1800.  From1815 it was used as a mill (Jim of the Mills!)  But since 1982 there have been regular sessions here.  Cáit Ryan told me it started with 5 or 6 people only.

On going through the red half door I walked into an Ireland that was of another time.  Like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But here it was for real. I turned left and into the room which is called the ‘kitchen’ because that’s what it once was, packed with musicians all lined up in chairs facing the enormous fire place. I was taken through to the new ’kitchen’ and immediately pounced upon and introduced to Kae Ryan, Jim’s wife and a host of others. I was offered a cup of tea, the first of about half a dozen during the night. There were only a few seats left back in the session room so I got my fiddle out, found a spot and was immediately swept up by the non-stop music. As if by way of welcome for me the first tunes were a set known as the “Upperchurch Polkas”. I’ll definitely have them learnt for next time. There were no stars here and no egos it was music from the heart. We heard a beautiful song from Ella Stapleton, who had just won a prestigious singing competition and from Bridie Ryan (yes another Ryan but not related), who seemed to be MC’ing and a host of others whose names I didn’t know or don’t remember. There were all ages playing and singing and I love that there were plenty of local songs as well as the old standards. I even got to sing an old favourite of mine ‘Jim Jones’.

A lovely touch was the plates of bread and black and white pudding which came out during the night and disappeared with alarming speed. Did some come just for the pudding?

I caught up during the night with Jim, the host who sings and plays fiddle, and met three of Cáit’s sisters, Greta, Roisin and Erin, all steeped in the music.  There is another sister Aine who is an actor and playwright. I have been to hundreds of sessions in Ireland now. Perhaps 700, but this was truly a unique experience. It had the feel of a giant house party. We were in the Ryan family home, but for one night a week it becomes the centre of the world. Four rooms are taken over by music lovers and lovers of the craic. It was absolutely ‘chockers’ as we say back home. There were little sessions going on all over the place. In the new ‘kitchen’ I was treated to unaccompanied songs from a number of home grown talents including Jim himself and then there was another small room where I joined Cáit and her sister Greta and their friends in belting out songs and tunes. Some decidedly untraditional!  The noise was deafening, but somehow it seemed right.  Then there was the bar which was jammed. A trip to the toilet took ten minutes and you made lots of friends on the way!

I was told there would be heaps of tourists but the people I spoke to were all regulars and from neighbouring villages. Maybe the tourists haven’t reached the Midlands yet.

I left around 4am but Cáit told me that she finished up at 5:30 and the music was still going.

This is certainly not the place to go to if you want to play quiet tunes in the corner and maybe for many of the tradheads there would be too much singing but wow, for a taste of the real Irish craic and an unforgettable experience and to meet a genuine, warm, Irish family steeped in the local history and tradition and with music coming out of the walls you really must find your way to Upperchurch in North Tipperary on a Thursday.

Thanks Cáit for inviting me and to Jim and Kae and everyone else for making me feel so welcome. Special thanks to Greta for grabbing my camera and taking some amazing shots. See you all again for sure…….

Session at Jim O' the Mills

Session at Jim O’ the Mills

Session at Jim O' the Mills

Session at Jim O’ the Mills

Session at Jim O' the Mills.  Songs from all ages

Session at Jim O’ the Mills. Songs from all ages

Session at Jim O' the Mills.  Bridie.

Session at Jim O’ the Mills. Bridie Ryan.

Session at Jim O' the Mills.  Time for black pudding

Session at Jim O’ the Mills. Time for black pudding

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Jim O’ the Mills. Ella Stapleton


Jim Ryan


In the kitchen at Jim O’ the Mills.


Me at Jim O’ the Mills getting into a song. Photo Greta Ryan


Jim O’ the Mills. Enjoying the craic.


Jim O’ the Mills. Cáit Ryan


Jim O’ the Mills. Me and Cáit Ryan. Photo Greta Ryan


Jim O’ the Mills. Photo Greta Ryan


Jim O’ the Mills. Jim Ryan


Jim O’ the Mills.

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