Monthly Archives: June 2017

Tom Carmody – Home in a box.

I first met Kerry accordion player Danny O’Mahony in Birmingham in 2016 at a Festival, where he surprised with an amazing set in concert with renowned fiddler, Liz Kane. I then heard him again more recently at Ballyferriter in West Kerry. It was here he played his mighty Tom Carmody accordion. It was hard not to notice it. As dazzling as his playing.


Intrigued, I chatted to him afterwards about this instrument, and my interest was piqued so we agreed to meet at the Rowan Tree Café in Ennis for a chat. I want to write here about the story that unfolded. It is a story of a tradition that spans time and continents. Of happenstance and passion. Of connections and stewardship. And of rescue and revitalisation.


I have to start somewhere so who was Tom Carmody? Danny explains. Tom is not well known today but he was a master accordion player born in 1893 in Dromlought near Listowel in Kerry and emigrated to New York in 1925. He immediately made an impact and during the Irish recording boom of the 1930s appeared on many 78s with James Morrison.  New York was a melting pot of Irish melodies; and new tunes and new influences made for a vibrant scene. Indeed, Danny says that Tom introduced James to the tune “Stick across the Hob” which was to become the famous ‘Morrison’s Jig’. One can only assume Tom was in much demand as he became the first to play Irish music at the Waldorf Astoria and was employed to organise music there.

Flashy players required a flashy instrument. And Tom had the flashiest. He commissioned an Italian maker in New York, F Iorio, to make this instrument for him. It was loud and brash as was its exterior. Gaudily decorated with the Irish and American flags and detailed inlays in mother of pearl on the fingerboard incorporating a harp and shamrocks. The name TOM CARMODY is boldy emblazoned across the instrument where it will have maximum exposure. It is a work or art. But the story behind it is just as interesting. It was nearly lost.


Tom returned to Kerry in the 1970s and died in 1986. This was the year Danny started to play the accordion. Danny grew up with no knowledge of this Kerry man, despite the fact he was a distant relative. He is a grand nephew. Growing up, Danny tells, his father was an accordion player with a overriding passion for the instrument. There were three gods in his house. As in most Irish homes silence was demanded for the Angelus when it came on the radio but in the O’Mahony home, silence was also demanded if there was a tune from Joe Burke or Tony McMahon.

Twenty years later Danny discovered the legacy of Tom Carmody and in 2006 he found the location of the Tom Carmody box. Following the death of Tom’s wife in the 90s it had passed to Denis Moran, her nephew. Denis did not play and it lay forgotten in a shed behind his cottage.

Danny approached Dennis to ask if he could borrow it with a view to photographing it. What he discovered was the accordion in its original case in a very sad state. It was all there but held together with binding twine and caked in dust and grime and a home for live insects.

It was almost too late. Its fate was somewhat ironic. From what we know about Tom and from contemporary photos he was a very dapper and meticuluous man, always well presented and his instrument always in immaculate condition. No doubt he would not have been pleased to see it now.

Denis agreed to let Danny take it away. It was cleaned it up and this revealed it to be in marvellous condition externally but totally seized up. Seeing it now Danny, was desperate to get it back to playable condition. Further negotiation ensued and with some trepidation it was agreed to let Danny take it for two weeks to see what he could do. With the help of accordion guru from East Clare, Charlie Harris, they feverishly went to work and brought it back to life, carefully cleaning and tuning the original reeds which were underneath it all in perfect condition. The only part that needed replacing was the left hand leather strap!

It must have been a remarkable experience to hear that box sing again just as it did in the 1930s.

Danny was concerned that it would continue do deteriorate if kept under the same conditions. He broached this with Denis asking him if he, Denis, could keep it in his bedroom with him so it was not subject to extreme temperature variation. The answer was “Oh no, I couldn’t do that”.  But Denis had done his homework and was happy that Danny would be a suitable custodian of the instrument and gave it to his care.

Danny also obtained valuable material on Tom including photos and all his recordings so since then he has researched his legacy and Tom’s tunes on Tom’s box are a feature of some of his concerts. The work of this forgotten box player lives on.


I love stories like this. But it could have been very different but for Danny’s persistence and a little bit of luck. If you get the chance to hear him, go listen.  You might be lucky and hear him play the Tom Carmody.

Meanwhile you can check out his website at


Categories: Real Ireland, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beach at Allihies, Co. Cork. A Beautiful Legacy of Ignorance and Indifference.

Allihies is a very photogenic village near the tip of the Beara Peninsula. I have blogged on it before (click here).   There I gave an overview of the whole Beara Peninsula as well as highlighting the extensive history of copper mining in the area,  but I didn’t mention the pretty beach near Allihies, which I didn’t visit last time.


The beach at Allihies

Back in the Beara recently, I had a bit more time and found myself on the strand during a break in the bleak weather.  This beautiful place has a very interesting back story and an unexpected connection to the mining operations located high up in the hills above the village.

The beach is a surprise.  It seems like it shouldn’t be there. The whole coastline here is rugged and rocky and apparently too wild for sand to accumulate.  And yet there it is, an extensive thick accumulation of golden sand in a protected inlet.


The inlet at Ballydonegan with the Allihies Beach, the village in the background and the Caha Mountains


A glorious setting and safe.


Sand, water, rocks and sky

A close look however shows all is not what it seems.

The sand is very coarse.  It is also very uniform in size and it only comprises fragments of quartz and shale.  There are no organic bits or shell fragments as you would expect.  In fact is unlike any beach sand I have seen.  There are no dunes; just a thick deposit of banded unconsolidated coarse sand.  And due to the lack of fines, it is not compacted as might be expected. It is very hard to walk on and especially hard to climb its slopes.


Coarse sand.  Lots of quartz and rock fragments


Thick banded sand.

So where did it come from?

This is where the mining comes in.  Copper mining took place at Allihies for over 70 years starting in 1813.  In its day it was the largest copper production centre in Europe.   Allihies was remote and there were no environmental or safety controls and the Mine Captains pretty much did what they liked.  So rather than build an expensive dam to contain the tailings they were pumped into the local rivers that eventually found their way to the coast at Ballydonegan.  Standard practice then.  Environmental vandalism today.


Tailings sand deposited among the rocks near the mouth of the river


The mouth of the river.  Some unusual giant ripples.

So what are tailings?  In hard rock mining the rock containing copper minerals is brought to the surface for processing.  The total percentage of copper minerals may only be about 2-5% so over 95% of the rock mined must be disposed of.  It is crushed and then the copper minerals are separated with the remainder of the rock disposed of.   It was lucky that the processing this time didn’t involve toxic chemicals so the tailings was reasonably clean.   It accumulated at the mouth of the river and eventually the Atlantic Ocean converted it into a beach.  The vast majority of visitors are probably totally unaware that it is man-made.

It is a pretty place.  A great safe swimming beach and stunning views.  It is ironic though that in the 21st century it is one of the attractions of the area whereas two centuries ago it would have been a major blight on the landscape and that a place of such beauty exists because of man’s indifference and ignorance.


Tranquil and empty.  Mid June.


Not quite empty.  Holiday makers from the popular adjacent caravan park


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The Vandeleur Walled Garden, Kilrush. Of Fragrance and Famine.



The Vandeleur Walled Garden is located near Kilrush in the south western corner of Clare. I visited it in the middle of Spring when it was at its charming best. It is a formal garden space within high walls and is now a place of calm, peace and reflection. Especially reflection.

Historically it was the private garden of the Vandeleurs, who were the largest landowners in the area. It is completely surrounded by enormous stone walls and was located close to the family home, which was destroyed by fire in the 1890s and demolished in the 1970s and is now a car park.  The rectangular design was oriented to catch maximum sun so today Mediterranean plants thrive.

The original garden design was simple and functional as it was mainly used for produce, fruit and supplies for the household. It also included a large greenhouse. All that is gone and the garden lay forgotten for decades. Restoration commenced in 1997 and it was opened in 2000.   It has been redesigned as a recreational space with lawns, an horizontal maze, an hedge maze, plantings of exotics and an arboretum. It is a lovely space. There is a red theme throughout with furniture and installations matching some of the plantings.


Remnants of the supports for the roof of the greenhouse



Lawns and plantings cut by gravel paths



Mediterranean plants thrive.



Vigorous growth under the high walls



The Garden has a red theme


Red theme reflected in plantings.

But despite all this beauty as I stroll around my mind remained troubled.

Near the entrance is a small plaque.  It says “Dedicated to the memory of the people evicted from the Estate of Landlord Hector Stewart Vandeleur. July August 1888”. The effect is somewhat diminished though with the tag “Erected by the Kilrush Tidy Towns committee April 2010”


Memorial plaque near entrance to Garden

I suspect most people just walk by and give only a passing thought to this hint of the awful history that accompanies the family responsible for this garden. I   wonder further how many people actually are aware of what happened in this place during the 1800s, as their children skip and play on the lawns and chase each other through the hedge maze or as they wander along gravel paths and admire the plantings from all over the world.


skip and play


Children take a short cut across the Horizontal Maze

There is no information provided so I too was in the dark. My interest piqued though I explored further a little later.

So who were the The Vandeleurs? Descended from Dutch merchants, they settled in county Clare at Sixmilebridge in the early 17th Century.  In 1712 the Earl of Thomond leased the Kilrush estate to the family who eventually purchased it in 1749,   The lands amounted to almost 20,000 acres spread over a very wide area of West Clare.  John Ormsby Vandeleur played a major role in the development of the town of Kilrush in the early 19th century and built Kilrush House (to which the garden was attached) in 1808. Later the Vandeleurs gave land for the building of the Catholic Church, convent, a fever hospital and, ironically, the workhouse.

The family however is remember more for the large number of evictions that took place in the famine years and then again some forty years later.

As I said the brochures you collect at the entrance make only passing reference to these events with the words that “history must never be repeated”.  But behind this is a painful picture of despair, cruelty and terrible injustice.  I am sure all my readers will be well aware of the Famine. An event that killed one million people and forced another million to flee to other lands. But as I dug deeper the sense of injustice increased and I think it is worth retelling the story at least as it impacts the Vandeleurs.

As the Famine took hold in 1847 and tenants were unable to pay rent mass evictions began. Not just by the Vandeleurs but by landowners all over the country.

County Clare however had the highest level of evictions, relative to its population, of any county in Ireland and Kilrush Poor Law Union had the highest level of mass evictions in Clare. So the Vandeleurs were right in the centre of it.

We are lucky that the records of Captain Kennedy who was the administrator for the Kilrush Union are available and they make extraordinary reading. Captain Kennedy was extremely disturbed by what was going on and though he was diligent in administering the regulations he did what he could to alleviate the plight of those affected and destined for starvation, disease and the workhouse.

A quick word on Kennedy.  He was a good man caught in terrible times.  He later went on to be Governor of Western Australia but he never forgot Kilrush and regularly sent money back there.

In early 1848 he observed in one of his regular Reports.

“I scrutinized a list of 575 families here, and saw each individual; On one estate alone, little short of 200 houses have been ‘tumbled’ within three months, and 120 of this number, I believe, within three weeks! The wretched, houseless, helpless inmates, for the most part an amphibious race of fishermen and farmers, scattering disease, destitution, and dismay in every direction. Their lamentable state of filth, ignorance, destitution, and disease, must be seen to be comprehended.”

In July of that year things were desperate:

“Twenty thousand, or one-fourth of the population, are now in receipt of daily food, either in or out of the workhouse.

“I may state in general terms, that about 900 houses, containing probably 4,000 occupants, have been levelled in this Union since last November. The wretchedness, ignorance, and helplessness of the poor on the western coast of this Union prevent them seeking a shelter elsewhere; and to use their own phrase, they “don’t know where to face;” they linger about the localities for weeks or months, burrowing behind the ditches, under a few broken rafters of their former dwelling, refusing to enter the workhouse till the parents are broken down and the children half starved, when they come into the workhouse to swell the mortality, one by one. It is not an unusual occurrence to see 40 or 50 houses levelled in one day, and orders given that no remaining tenant or occupier should give them even a night’s shelter.

“I have known some ruthless acts committed by drivers and sub-agents, but no doubt according to law, however repulsive to humanity; wretched hovels pulled down, where the inmates were in a helpless state of fever and nakedness, and left by the road side for days.

“As many as 300 souls, creatures of the most helpless class, have been left houseless in one day, and the suffering and misery resulting therefrom attributed to insufficient relief or mal-administration of the law: “

I could go on. In total there were close to 7,000 evictions. The event, of course, changed the nation. It was surely inconceivable that it could happen again. But extraordinarily it did; and the Vandeleurs were in the forefront.

A series of bad harvests plagued the country from 1870. This had led to a movement in the next decade for tenants’ rights and land reform with the foundation by William O’Brien of the National Land League.   The ‘land question’ caused major upheaval in the county and people flocked to Ennis in 1880 to hear Charles Stuart Parnell make his famous “Boycott” speech.


Irish Land League poster from the 1880s

By1885, bad weather, poor harvests, falling prices and declining markets had again taken their toll, and thousands of tenants, especially in the western parts of the county, found themselves unable to pay rents.

The National League introduced the Plan of Campaign in 1886. This was adopted by many tenants who got into trouble. Where a landlord refused to lower his rents voluntarily to an acceptable level the tenants were to combine to offer him reduced rents. If he refused to accept these, they were to pay him no rent at all, but instead contribute to an “estate fund”.

Vandeleur’s tenants adopted this strategy, which was summarily rejected and negotiations went nowhere. And after a long stand off the evictions commenced in October 1887. But the main evictions of the Vandeleur tenants were not until July 1888. It was a massive operation. A procession moved from house to house that comprised hundreds of men and was 1¼ mile in length.  It included detachments of police, hussars, government representatives, the landowners, Emergency men, Infantry, cart loads of observers, visitors and a massive battering ram. It is estimated that up to 10,000 people were there on some days.


The Irish Collection

23144955540_e65c53e0ef_hThe mob was resolute in its intent and ruthless in its implementation. Here is a description of the demolition of the house of Michael Cleary, near Moneypoint.

Cleary had strongly barricaded the house and was clearly prepared to resist. First of all cordon of police and soldiers were drawn up about the house, but at some distance. Smoke was coming from the chimney – and the first action taken was to block the chimney with straw. Possession was then demanded and the only reply heard was a laugh from some girls inside. The police were now ordered to fix their bayonets, while the bailiffs got to work with crowbars and hatchets, but to little effect. An attack on the door moved it only slightly and hot water was thrown out. The tripod and battering ram were then brought up – and after a long time eventually made a breach in the wall. A shower of hot water was thrown out through the breach.

Finally, a large section of the wall crashed down to a cheer from the Emergency men. Two girls and their two brothers who were in the house were seized by the police The house was then knocked to the ground.

The eviction of Mathaiass Macgrath from Moyasta a week later received the most attention as he resisted strongly and was brutally beaten. His mother, watching this, collapsed and died that night. The evictions ended two days later.


These Vandeleur evictions were on a much smaller scale than those in the Famine years. only 22 houses were destroyed compared to the many thousands previously. However, Because the event was so well documented and photographed and because of the resistance of the tenants it received wide publicity. This was a factor in reaching a settlement which led to the tenants being able to resume their land a year later.

The photographs above and many others were taken by Robert French and are now in the collection of the National Library in Dublin. They were a major factor in changing perceptions. Maybe more would have been done if the public had been better appraised of what was happening during the earlier evictions.

So back to the garden. Earlier I commented that there was no informaton on these events. But I am now in two minds. Perhaps we don’t need an Interpretive Centre to tell us of these terrible events.  Perhaps it is a place for people to enjoy in their own way.   For some just to walk and contemplate and for others to run and play.

And for others it is a place to honour and respect an extraordinary formative time in Irish history. To reflect on inhumanity and injustice. To ponder on the harm man can do to their own. To contemplate and to evince hope for the future.


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