200 Feet of Posterity
A Profile of Tom Munnelly
“Your immortality is assured,” wrote B.H. Bronson to Tom Munnelly upon the inclusion of another of Tom’s finds in Bronson’s Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. Tom’s comment: “I still can’t afford a copy of the damn thing.”
Tom Munnelly is employed by the Irish Department of Education as a folk song collector. He is the only fulltime collector working in the Republic. He is a short, fair, teddy-bearish young man with radical opinions, a ginger beard and a slowly-dwindling stock of corduroy in his wardrobe. He is one of the earnest, rumpled pint-drinkers with hair that looked long in 1960, who made up the backbone of the late folk revival. These people differed from previous generations of enthusiasts in their general preference for beer to sherry, their frank and humorous acceptance of bawdry, and an easy and un-patronising intercourse with the folk themselves. Tom is unique among the breed however. He approaches what is a pastime and an amusement to many with a quietly devotional passion that is distinctly vocational. Many of the young people who came into contact with various forms of ethnic music during the boom period of the ‘50s and ‘60s became conversant with this or that aspect of a given tradition, but few have pursued wider knowledge and deeper understanding of source, variant and innovation with Tom Munnelly’s Holy Grail spirit.
For some years Tom worked at two fulltime jobs: one, of irksome drudgery in a knitting factory in order to support his family, and the other an exhaustive and apparently gratuitous apprenticeship in folklore generally and Anglo-Irish balladry in particular. It is virtually impossible for a Dublin working-class person, with minimal formal education and no saleable talent as a performer, to try making a living out of folksong scholarship. However, Tom’s reputation, even as an amateur collector, was such that when, in September 1971, after several years of bureaucratic wheeling and dealing, financial provision for the employment of a fulltime field collector was finally pushed through the Department of Education budget, Tom was offered the post.
On the last day of April, 1973 I set off to accompany Tom on a week of collecting in North Kerry. “We’re very scientific in the Department and the pin stuck in Castleisland,” said Tom as he drove his Renault 4L van out of Dublin and along the main Dublin-Limerick road.
At Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, in a dingy back street public house that served even dingier beer, Tom enquired for a settled traveller named Paddy Quilligan, from whom he had previously recorded successfully; getting, among other songs, a good version of Lord Bateman. It transpired that the whole Quilligan clan had been barred from the premises for being too uproarious in their relaxations.
There was laundry boiling on a rusty iron stove and grimy blonde child asleep on a lopsided settee in Paddy Quilligan’s side alley cottage. Mrs. Quilligan, a large, knobbly-faced, matriarchal-looking woman, said that her husband was away selling a horse in Castleisland and wouldn’t be back until evening. As Castleisiand was to be the base for the week, Tom decided to press on to there directly.
“I can almost always count on getting something from the tinkers, except for some of the nouveau-riche ones with Ford Capris,” said Tom as we headed out on the Abbeyfeale road. And, in fact, he does get a good deal of material from travelling people; both settled and still on the road. What first brought Tom’s work to the attention of international ethnomusicologists was his discovery of a version of The Maid and the Palmer (Child #21), a song that had not been recorded in oral tradition since 1801. This version, called The Well Below the Valley, can be heard on the Planxty LP of the same name, and the tune is used by Bronson. The singer from whom Tom collected this and many other valuable songs – his most satisfactory informant yet in fact – was the tragic John Reilly. This man was a settled traveller living an outcast and hermit-like life in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, when Tom found him. He was a fine and sensitive singer, and Tom estimates his probable repertoire at between two and three hundred songs, mainly ballads. Tom had recorded him quite extensively, getting about 40 songs, and was returning for a further session accompanied by the American folklorist D.K. Wilgus, only to find Mr. Reilly very ill. The two collectors rushed him to hospital where this shy and gifted man died, more or less of old age. He was 43.
From the top of a rise of ground near Gloonsharoon Hill, one can look down on almost the whole of Kerry spreading out below. The view stretches beyond Killarney and Tralee to Dingle and the Atlantic. It is a fine sight. From this point the road sidles downhill and becomes a side-street feeding into the main street of the Kerry market town of Castleisland. Prendeville, McCarthy, Tangney and O’Connor are some of the common names of the area, reflected on the shop and pub fronts that line a long, broad central thoroughfare that divides at its southern end into the main Killarney and Tralee roads. At the start of the Killarney fork is Hussy’s public house, where Tom decided to stop and enquire after Paddy Quilligan. Mr. Patrick Hussy, the publican, is a sprightly, balding man of 57 with a stray eye. He can vault his own bar with ease and subsists mainly on his sisters’ homemade bread. Mr. Hussy and his pub and his sisters and their bread are all so congenial and hospitable that the house became an office, rendezvous and local-away-from-home during the stay in Castleisland. When told that Tom was in the area to collect old songs, Mr. Hussy immediately asked – as people all over Ireland do when the subject comes up – did we know Seamus Ennis? Of course, we did, and after recalling with relish the great musician-collector’s visits to the neighbourhood (particularly in connection with the legendary fiddle-master, Padraic O’Keefe, a name that we would hear constantly during the week) Mr. Hussy suggested a caravan site a bit out on the Killarney road where Tom might ask for Paddy Quilligan. He further recommended contacting a man name Con Houlihan, who, although he didn’t sing himself, knew everyone in the locality who did and who was, in any case, a scholarly and knowledgeable character in every way.
At the caravan site Tom was told that no one there knew Paddy Quilligan, but that if he called to another caravan on the Scartaglen road they might know him there. At this caravan Paddy Quilligan was known but his whereabouts were not. Tom, they said, could try a house near the Pitch and Putt Club where cousins of Quilligan’s lived. Here there was no one at home. At each of the locations Tom asked if there were any singers in the family, of if anyone knew of any in the neighbourhood. He received a couple of names and noted them.
“Sometimes I’ll go through this sort of thing for two solid days and wind up with some ould one singing I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” observed Tom.
After checking into Castleisland’s only hotel, and fighting the first skirmish in a week-long losing battle with the local cuisine, we went to call on Con Houlihan. He greeted us, a large-featured man of six-foot four or five, with long, grey, haystack hair, wearing wellingtons, cords and a holey yellow gansey. The parlour, dim in the gathering dusk, lit only by a small turf fire, was very mellow and restful after the long drive and the legwork of the afternoon. Con, a great mass of tics and erudition, speaking like a mellifluous machine gun, proved to be a silo of local lore. After an hour of most entertaining chat, Con said that he would ponder awhile and come to meet us later in Hussy’s and furnish Tom with the names of some possible informants. He duly arrived and after a space indicated that he was ready and began to rattle off names and addresses; his huge right hand stroking up and down from mouth to nose to eyes and back again, his Kerry accent becoming beautifully incomprehensible in the pronunciation of the local townlands and the incidental biographical information supplied with each name. Eventually a more than adequate list was compiled and we settled down to listen to Con’s tales of his work as a turf-cutter, as tutor giving ‘grinds’ in Latin and maths to Leaving Certificate students, and in journalism, and drank enough of Paddy Hussy’s excellent beer, both bottled and draught, to be going along with.
The next day was a fine first of May. After an extraordinary breakfast that was rendered edible by the device of placing a folded napkin under one side of the plate so that the watery grease could collect in one place and thus be segregated from the food, and during which Tom speculated on the possible survival of May Day customs in the area, we started off in search of one of the names collected during the previous afternoon’s round of caravans. Having drawn a blank, we drove toward Headley’s Bridge, about nine miles away, in search of a man named Jacky Griffin, highly recommended by Con Houlihan as a good singer with many songs. Moynihan’s pub is the only one among the cluster of buildings near a lovely mossy bridge that gives the village its name. It was then a small, dim, single-roomed country pub, with imitation knotty-pine Contac on the walls. A fiddle-case hung behind the counter amid an array of bar-humour placards. A television sat at one end of the bar with a raffish-looking melodeon perched on top of it. There were eight or ten stools along the bar standing on an old, ragged Double Diamond darts mat. In the corner under the only window were three steel-framed benches with black leatherette padding that looked softer than it was. The pub does a steady local trade that used to be augmented by farmers calling to a creamery in the village. This had closed down some time previously and a large bar extension was in the process of being built in the hope of developing a roadhouse trade among motorists on their way to the resort towns of Kerry and Cork. Tom glanced at the clock, shuddered at the hour, and ordered pints of Smithwick’s, inquiring of the woman of the house if she knew Jacky Griffin. She did, and hearing Tom’s business, observed that while it was true that Mr. Griffin had many songs, she felt that his voice had seen better days. Tom indicated that this didn’t matter especially as the songs were the important thing and then asked if the woman knew any other singers round about. She said that there was a man lived nearby named Jack Horan who had a good few songs, but that he was over 80 and his voice also wasn’t what it had been. The woman’s directions to both men’s houses were typically vague and two more people had to be consulted before we finally fetched up at a pale blue and pink cottage, roofed half with thatch and half with corrugated iron. A passerby told us that that was Jacky Griffin’s house all right and that, no, he was not Jacky Griffin. Having found the door locked and no one at home, Tom asked did the man know where Jack Horan lived? He nodded and pointed to a house a distance away down the gently sloping vale below the main road. To reach this it was necessary to double back through Headley’s Bridge, and we weren’t quite sure when we got down to the general area which house the man had meant. The one we called to was a grey, square, two-storey dilapidation at the end of an overgrown path lined with fir trees. The doors and window frames were newly and sketchily painted bright red. Knocking at what appeared to be the front door produced no response. Just as we were about to move off some movement was seen inside the house and six mongrel dogs came tearing around the corner, yelping riotously. We went round to the back of the house and looked into a room that was a midden of rough furniture, old farm implements and chipped, rusty cooking utensils. In the middle of the room was a man of indeterminate age. He was unshaven and had grizzled hair that looked as though he had cut it himself while in a bad temper. He had a squint, a huge goitre on his neck, seemed slightly drunk, a bit manic and, as he stood holding a large saucepan that contained what might have been either a stew or his spare trousers, he was quite fairly gothic looking. When asked, the man said he was not Jack Horan and waved his pot at a clump of bushes, indicating that somewhere beyond them Jack Horan might be found. He didn’t seem surprised at Tom’s business or particularly interested and, with another wave of his pot, said, “Songs? Jack Horan? Over beyond.” Tom thanked him and, as we went, the man told the dogs to give over their row and repeated, “Songs? Over beyond.”
There were two dwellings in the general direction of ‘over beyond’, on opposite sides of a crossroad. One was empty. The other was a small, crumbling stone shed, partitioned with pieces of torn plasterboard. The dim figure who had been sitting motionlessly gazing out of a polythene-sheeted window came to the door in answer to Tom’s “Hello”. He was a small, wizened image, wearing a venerable dark suit that had safety-pins doing point duty at strategic places. He also wore a soiled, striped shirt with no collar and the inevitable flat cap. He had gnarled hands that were disproportionately large and no teeth. Tom asked if he was John Horan and the man said he was.
“My name is Tom Munnelly. I’m from the Department of Education and I’m in the area collecting old songs and I was told that you were a man who had a few.”
“I have a mill’n,” said the old man.
Mr. Horan readily agreed to Tom’s invitation to go up to Moynihan’s and sing some of his songs for the tape recorder. On the way to the pub Tom delivered the more or less set patter that gives to most of his prospective informants. He points out how the old songs are disappearing quickly, instancing the number that have gone in the singer’s own lifetime. He assures them that the songs are not intended for broadcast or publication, and they remain the singer’s property and will never be reproduced without permission. Tom is not happy about referring to the songs as property, but he has been unable to come up with a better formula. In any case, he finds that singers are quite possessive about their songs. Generally among Irish traditional musicians a song or a tune is ‘had’ rather than known, as it is ‘put together’ rather than remembered, and is always ‘made’ not written or composed. Mr. Horan took no interest whatsoever in what happened to his songs after he sang them.
The handful of customers in Moynihan’s greeted Mr. Horan warmly, and he included them all in a vague general salutation. Tom bought a round, and kept up a stream of unspecific rabbit, assuring Mr. Horan that there was no hurry and that he should relax himself. A friend of the old man’s who was sitting at the table became included in the conversation. He was a well-kept man in his 60s, of the type known in Ireland as a “returned Yank”. A native of Headley’s Bridge, he had spent 40 years in New York and had come home to spend his retirement. His accent was quietly Brooklynized, and his spectacles, windbreaker and cap were obviously American. He was not weather-beaten, as were most of the other drinkers, but his features were of an unmistakably Irish cast to be seen around Gaelic Park in the Bronx, and among older New York City police and firemen. He had a managing way with him, and was anxious for Mr. Horan to show up to his best advantage, but when he perceived that Tom was not especially interested in post-1922 rebel songs or drawing room ballads, he was most helpful and sympathetic.
Toward the bottom of the first pints, Tom asked if Mr. Horan was in humour to sing and the old man said he certainly was. At this, Tom slipped out to the van and returned with the Uher portable tape recorder that is the main tool of his trade, and a briefcase filled with five-inch reels of BASF standard play recording tape. Tom records at 7-1/2ips on one side of each reel and gets about ten minutes per tape. Having decided that the noise of the lounge construction would not interfere with his recording, Tom was testing for a sound level when the old man started singing and he had to cut him short in order to get the machine running properly and to observe some preliminaries. When the tape was going the singer, in answer to Tom’s questions, said that his name was John Horan; that he was a retired farm labourer; and lived at Knockeencrean, Headley’s Bridge, Co. Kerry. He declined to give his age, but later Mrs. Moynihan reckoned it to be 84, and the ‘Yank’ agreed he must be well over 80. Mr. Horan then recommenced The Maid of Rooska Hill, a pleasant but undistinguished song by a local balladeer named Jim Griffin, who, Mr. Horan said, had been dead this long time and was not, as far as he knew, related to Jacky Griffin. The men at the bar were taking a jokey but respectful interest in the proceedings and one of them asked Mr. Horan to sing a song, the title of which sounded to non-Kerry ears like The Yat. This song had been mentioned in passing the night before and appeared to be a local favourite. It turned out to be a mildly amusing satiric ditty about a broken-down old scow called The Mary Jane, its actual title being The Yacht. Two more Jim Griffin songs followed: Julie Roone and The Boys of ’23 (What a Promise Can Do). Neither had much to recommend it. While putting on a new tape Tom tried to probe for ritual or seasonal songs, using the fact of its being May Day as a starting point. The only thing this produced was a fragment of the traditional Kerry song The Dingle Puck Goat. This was followed by a version, also incomplete, of The Palmerstown Fleas, one of the family of songs about filthy lodgings that includes The Kilkenny Lousehouse and Rothsea-o.
Between songs Mr. Horan applied himself to his pints with greedless concentration and occasionally shaved slivers off a half-ounce of Black Condor, rubbing the rough tobacco between his yellow palms and packing it into his small corn-cob, the brass-bound mouthpiece coming and going from his stubbly, lipless mouth as he answered Tom’s questions about the origins of his songs as well as his memory allowed. Most of the songs up to this point had been fragmentary or garbled and none had been of much interest, but, in response to a direct request from the ‘Yank’, Mr. Horan settled into a fine, full version of The Dawning of the Day. Tom perked up visibly and, after complimenting Mr. Horan on his rendering, observed that young people today didn’t seem willing to take the trouble to learn a song of such length, despite its beauty. They only wanted a song they could learn in five minutes and sing in three. Mr. Horan agreed, his manner indicating that he took little interest in young people today, and none in what they sang.
Following a fragment of a song called The Tanyard Side, Tom asked if Mr. Horan knew any songs about murders or executions. When the singer grasped what Tom meant, he shook his head, saying no, he’d nothing of that sort. On being prompted by the ‘Yank’, however, he sang a garbled portion of song called P.J. Allman, which had points of interest as an example of the doomed rebel ballad, but was not what Tom had in mind. Another garbled fragment, The Fair at Abbeyfeale, and a comic song, Like a Frog in a Garden, emerged after much patient but discouraging digging during which the old man’s concentration seemed to be straying. However, Tom persevered, feeling that somewhere under this mishmash of local banalities and well-worn commonplaces there might be something really worthwhile. For despite the fact that the singer had but the shadow of a style left, and sang each song to what was essentially the same air, altering only in tempo and metre, there was in the old man’s cracked and incohesive singing the remains of a real musical sensibility. Tom decided to try one more standard ploy and asked Mr. Horan if he sang Barbara Allen. This is, of course, the most widely sung of all the classic ballads and if a singer has any he will usually have this. Mr. Horan did have the song and was three verses through a rather pedestrian version called Barby Ellen when an odd thing happened. Some strange unconscious association – apparently caused by the similarity of name sounds – transported the singer from Barby Ellen into the totally different ballad of Lord Thomas and Fair Elinor. He sang through an outstanding and complete version of the song – possibly broadsheet in origin and featuring an unusual amount of detail in the dialogue between Fair Elinor and the Brown Girl – and then switched back and finished Barby Ellen, seemingly unaware that he had sung two different songs.
It is a recognized technique of folk song collecting to probe an informant’s repertoire in terms of the key lines and verses that recur in most versions of a given song, rather than with titles, which vary enormously. A single phrase can often trigger off a singer’s recollection of an entire song, but the phenomenon of a singer doing it to himself unconsciously is unique in Tom’s experience. At the time he didn’t – and still doesn’t – feel that the facts of Mr. Horan’s age, uncertain memory or comparative insobriety explain the mystery away entirely.
Tom tried to follow the lead of this tandem ballad but the lode seemed to be exhausted. The singer rambled through a nonsense song called Tralee Jail’d Kill the Devil, an incomplete version of There Was A Lady in Her Father’s Garden and finally an incoherent fragment of Morrissey and the Russian Sailor. Mr. Horan’s mind appeared to move further and further from the songs and the company around him. Presently he excused himself, saying he would be back shortly, and went off toward the Gents. A few moments later Tom looked out the window and saw the old man ambling away down the road towards his hovel. He said a word in passing to the workmen on the road, sucked away at his cramped old pipe and was gone, having said everything he had to say for that day.
While Tom packed up his machine and made sure that the five tapes were correctly numbered and labelled, we became more aware of the men at the bar. They were of varying sizes, but all of them wore muddy dark suits, wellingtons and flat caps. They had close-cropped black, grey or sandy hair, and necks like dried-up creek beds. They drank pints or large bottles of Guinness, and smoked straight or roll-up cigarettes, holding them between index and middle-fingers, butt outwards and flicking at the ash with their thumbs. Their conversation was practical and philosophical.
“Can ‘oo tell me,” asked a slight man who the ‘Yank’ called Mickey Mouse, “why it is that a rooster has no hands?”
“I cannot, John Joe. Why is that?” said a man who looked like Wallace Berry’s older brother.
“Because a hen has no knickers.”
This observation began a discussion of poultry, underwear, love and the mysteries of Providence, during which we left.
“You know,” said Tom as we got into the van, “that ballad has never been collected from oral tradition in Ireland before. There was a manuscript version turned up in Cork in 1928, but aside from that, no evidence that the song existed in this country.”
We were now heading off towards Knocknagashal, a small town about five miles away up the Glanaruddery Mountains in search of a publican named Neilus O’Connor, another of Con Houlihan’s recommendations. On the way we called at Jacky Griffin’s house, as we did on the way back to Castleisland after finding that Mr. O’Connor was away for the day. Mr. Griffin was not at home on either occasion.
We arrived back at the dreaded hour when it became necessary to eat. Following another wrestle with the ubiquitous shrunken sausage, peas and chips and a rest for digestion and paperwork, we wandered down to Hussy’s to spend the evening recounting the day’s adventures, and in turn, listening to Con relate the history of the local paper he had edited until it had been put out of business by a successful lawsuit. We could well believe this, Con being no particular respecter of persons. He remarked ruefully that The Kerryman , for which he now writes a weekly column, is insured against such contingencies. Ten minutes before closing time this extraordinary man hustled us out and down to the Pitch and Putt Club, where the bar was open late. The woman at the door remonstrated mildly with Con, saying he never came near the place, bar to drink after hours, which sounded plausible as Con is not such a man as you would suspect of golf. However, he blustered in, saying that it was a special occasion as he had a visiting professor from Harvard University with him who required entertainment. The supposed academic was the present writer, a professional high school dropout who has never been anywhere near Harvard University in his life.
So, two days in the life of a folk song collector. Not exactly average, for even Tom does not discover an unrecorded Child Ballad every day. And no matter what line of work you’re in you don’t encounter characters like Con Houlihan or the Man-in-the-Grey House very often. But while travelling with Tom during the rest of the week I saw him encounter the same kinds of satisfactions and frustrations, and deal with them using the same combination of expertise, energetic patience and amazingly chameleon accent. The next day took us to Killarney where Tom recorded a portly young publican named Jimmy O’Brien: a man with all the reserved geniality of his trade, and an expert singer with a fine repertoire of songs, many of them local and many learned from his uncle, Patrick Coakley, himself a fine singer and a man of great natural dignity. From Mr. Coakley Tom recorded a first-rate, if slightly lurid, version of the ballad known variously as Bruton Town, The Pot of Basil, &c, and in his version as The Steward in the Laurel Tree. In the afternoon, after recording Mr. O’Brien and prior to going to Mr. Coakley’s house, Tom taped a strange, haunting and highly detailed version of Blackwater Side from an old travelling woman near Fossa who had the heartbreaking remnant of what once must have been a beautiful voice. The day after that found Tom recording Sheila Tangney, a young matron of Gurteen, near Scartaglen, who sang while she baked bread and her mother quieted the baby. Later, in an immaculate farmhouse kitchen, we listened to Dan Casey sing comic songs to the boundless amusement of himself and his wife, and also heard some of the family’s collection of American-made Irish race records. We finished the day in Lyracrompane, between Castleisland and Listowel, listening to an extraordinarily self-possessed seventeen year-old schoolgirl named Peg Sweeney practising to become a legend. On the Friday I found that a week of enforced (and unenforced) conviviality and dire food had taken its toll, but Tom spent the morning recording two settled travellers in Listowel before beginning the 127 mile drive back to Dublin, where he would spend the next week transcribing and indexing the 71 songs that he had collected during the week.
It will have become apparent from this narrative that there is one central dilemma with which Tom has constantly to deal: quantity versus depth. His brief from the Department of Education is to create an archive of Anglo-Irish folk songs, and they think he ought to be able to do it in five years. This is idiotic on the face of it, but civil servants are like that. Having spent five days collecting within a seventeen mile radius of Castleisland, Tom knows that he could spend six months there and not begin to exhaust the material that survives in the area. But he is the only full-time collector in the country and the singers are dying and the songs die with them. Tom reflects wistfully on the fact that Seamus Ennis, while working variously for the Irish Folklore Commission, RTE and the BBC, could spend two months at a stretch with someone like Padraic O’Keefe, taking down songs, tunes, tales and sayings, as well as finding out the kind of things about the man that might explain to Tom why a John Horan should move without thought from Barbara Allen to Lord Thomas and Fair Elinor and back, and why he sang either song in the first place.
Tom sometimes feels that he is somehow stealing something when he takes a song with no reference to the personality of the singer, but he consoles himself with the thought that every song he records gives the singer about 200 feet of posterity.
Note: I was greatly saddened when I learned of Tom Munnelly’s death in August 2007. Not only had I deeply admired him and his work, he was also a good friend who I had known since my early days in Dublin, circa 1965. The last time I saw him was in the summer of 1981 when my wife and I were taking a holiday in West Cork. Tom, then living in Milltown Malbay, said he’d go a bit of the road south if we’d go a bit of the road north and we met with him, his wife Annette and a child or three for a pleasant al fresco visit somewhere between Adare and Abbeyfeale in Co. Limerick.
The trip described in the foregoing profile took place in 1973 and the piece was published the following year in the magazine Folk Review, then edited by Fred Woods and long-since gone under the wire. It was also shown by Joseph Mitchell to an editor at The New Yorker who wrote me the most complimentary and sympathetic rejection letter I’ve ever received. I still have it. Some of the observations I made during the trip were later useful in the writing of Scattering Day, a BBC Radio 4 play of mine first broadcast in 1991.