A Glimpse of Ireland Past
Sharon Ni Chonchuir discovers that 'Romantic Ireland' is still alive
Awkwardly, I try to do as I’m told but the sound that emerges is neither rhythmic nor musical. “Don’t worry,” David reassures me. “Everyone finds it difficult at the beginning.”
He then takes the bones and starts to play. He clicks in time to each note and soon the rhythmic clicks are echoing off the kitchen walls and I can’t help but tap my feet.
I’ve only recently heard of bone playing, an ancient Irish tradition now only to be found in small pockets of North Kerry and West Limerick. Here, bone players join music sessions in the pubs and compete in the annual All Ireland Bone Playing Championship in Abbeyfeale.
David Murphy first became interested in the bones when he was twelve. “A friend of mine invited me to a session in Abbeyfeale where I saw Patrick Sport Murphy playing the bones,” he says. “He’s a local man whom I still consider to be the best player I’ve ever heard. We were both so impressed we got our own bones the following day.”
David was determined to master the bones and spent every spare moment practicing. When Patrick – who lived down the road – heard of his enthusiasm, he offered to give him lessons.
“There’s a lot you can figure out for yourself but it’s good to be shown some techniques,” says David. “Patrick had wonderful moves and shapes when playing. I was lucky to learn from him.”
David eventually improved so much that he went on to win the All Ireland Championship in 2007 and 2009, just as Patrick had done before him.
These days, he no longer has as much time to practice. “I work. I farm part time and I’ve got two children,” he says. “It’s hard to find time for the bones.”
He has started to teach his young children to play. He hopes they will continue the tradition but is doubtful.
“It’s not cool as it was when I was young,” he says. “But if I teach them to play now, they might come back to it in the future.”
Irish dance, music, songs and stories are popular with audiences all over the world. With the success of Riverdance and The Chieftains, it’s hard to imagine there once was a time when people feared they might be lost forever.
In the early 1970s, Fr. Pat Ahern founded Siamsa Tíre (pronounced She-am-sa Tee-ra), the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, with the aim of keeping Irish performing arts alive and bringing them to new audiences.
“He wanted children to be immersed in the old traditions,” says Jonathan Kelliher, the current Artistic Director of Siamsa Tíre. “He wanted to ensure the traditions carried on into the future.”
To make this happen, he set up two training centers in tradition-rich parts of rural County Kerry. Jonathan grew up four miles away from the centre in North Kerry.
“My brother and sister went there to learn music, song and dance, and when I was seven, I started to go there too,” he recalls. “I spent the next three years attending classes there once a week.”
That was more than 30 years ago and children still attend the centers today. Auditions are held annually to spot children with talent, and approximately 20 children join each center each year. They are then taught music, song and dance on a weekly basis for the next three years.
Those students who show significant promise then graduate to advanced classes in Tralee, where they work with Siamsa Tíre’s permanent performance troupe.
This is what Jonathan did. “I trained with Siamsa Tíre to the end of my teens and developed a huge interest in traditional performing arts, especially in dance,” he says. “I became a professional performer and continued performing with Siamsa Tíre until I became Artistic Director four years ago.”
Siamsa Tíre employs five professional performers and they are kept very busy. Not only do they teach youngsters coming up through the ranks but they also create shows which run at the theater and others which tour nationally and internationally.
The shows are popular. “There’s a huge interest from audiences,” says Jonathan. “Last summer, tourism numbers were down in Ireland overall but ours were up. We had 122 performances with more than 85 percent occupancy.”
The young people of Kerry seem to be just as interested in learning traditional music, song and dance too, although their focus often changes.
“Five years ago, the success of Riverdance meant there was a renewed interest in dancing,” says Jonathan. “It’s music that’s popular at the moment. It really varies with trends and fashions.”
Whatever the changing fashion, Siamsa Tíre will continue to celebrate the richness of Irish dance, music and song.
“We want to bring our old traditions to new audiences in fresh ways,” says Jonathan. “We’ll never let them become stale.”
Massachusetts-born Beth Moran is not someone you’d expect to be a flag bearer for traditional Irish weavers. But since arriving in Ireland 29 years ago, this is what she has become.
“I was a photographer then,” she says. “I came to the west taking pictures and as soon as I set foot on Clare Island off the coast of Mayo, I knew I would never leave.”
This decision caused her to abandon her photography. “There wasn’t any water or electricity where I was staying so photography was impossible,” says Beth, laughing.
She decided to try weaving instead. “It seemed obvious,” she says. “There were sheep whose wool I could spin. There were natural dyes. And when a woman came from the mainland to teach the locals how to weave, I grabbed my chance.”
Almost three decades later, Beth is married to one of the island’s sheep farmers. She has raised a family. And she has her own cottage industry – The Ballytoughey Loom – creating natural woven products which she spins, dyes and weaves by hand.
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