The Same Square

  By: Gerald O’Callaghan

I recently travelled to Finuge in County Kerry and for a very good reason. I wrote a ballad that reached the finals of the Sean McCarthy Ballad Competition. The song is entitled ‘There’s a Folk Wind Blowing`a tribute to Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, the great Irish balladeers.

Peggie O’Connell, who has been organising this competition since it began 13 years ago, informed me that my CD had reached the final 12 and that I would be singing in Teach Siamsa, Finuge, which is about a mile and a half from Listowel.

The great ballad writer and singer, Sean McCarthy who passed on in 1990, came from Finuge and I had the pleasure of shaking his hand many years ago in Listowel at Writers’ Week. 

Sean has written over 160 ballads and Shanagolden ‘Red-haired Mary’ ‘Some say the Devil is dead and ‘Step it out, Mary’ are just a few from his wide repertoire. 

So, my wife Carmel and I headed off on the Saturday afternoon and when we reached Listowel, we put down temporary roots in a house on Church Street, called McMahon House. This was the former residence of the great writer, Bryan McMahon. 

Didn’t it turn out that our bed was situated where Bryan’s fireside used to be and where he regularly wrote many of his stories and plays. 

The afternoon in Finuge I began with a powerful concert of traditional music and song from Frankie Gavin and De Danann, in McCarthy’s Bar. This whetted our appetite and relaxed me for the fray that was to come later that evening, when I’d be performing my new song.

So, we’ll fast forward to the Ballad Competition in Teach Siamsa, just across the road from McCarthy’s which turned out to be a great night. However for those of us in the competition, it was also rather nerve wrecking, and I was the last name on the list. 

I eventually got to sing my song and there was nothing for it now, but to wait for the result.suffice it to say that I didn’t end up on the podium, but I did bring home a finalist’s medal, which I’ll certainly treasure. Maybe next year will be my year - who knows? 

So farewell to Finuge for another year and back to Listowel where we decided to stop at John B. Keane’s for a few drinks and some interesting company. As expected, we weren’t disappointed on either count.

I hadn’t been to Listowel at Writers’ Week for many years, but as soon as I Stepped inside the door, I felt as though I was coming home. Billy Keane asked me how I was getting on and he said it as though I had been in the bar the previous night. He’s definitely his father’s son! 

I later met his mother Mary and such a warm person you wouldn’t meet if you travelled the country. We shared memories and I reminded her of the times when a few of us called in during Writers’ Week and she’d often say: “You’ll eat a bit of stew - there’s plenty there?’ 

She’d then come out with bowls of hot stew and you’d be right for the day after it.  

Anyway, as closing time came, we promised to call again soon and stay around a little longer the next time. How could you beat it - staying in Bryan’s house and having mighty craic in John B’s house? ‘Tis like something you’d see in a play!

Of course, we’ll also pay another visit to Finuge and talk about Sean McCarthy and maybe hear some of his many songs and stories sung and told by his own people. As Sean said long ago on the radio, with regard to a question about inspiration for a writer: 

Get a pencil and paper, and put your arse on a chair and if it’s inside of you ‘twill come out!” 

All over this part of North Kerry there’s a “draiocht” in the air and it’s great to relax in the conversation and taste the hospitality where writers abound and where eccentricity is not only accepted, but is feted by all of the people all of the time. 

The following day, we said goodbye to Bryan McMahon and promised to be back soon. John B. waved to us on the Square and I could swear he winked. At that moment I remembered a time when both John B. and Bryan were on the Late, Late Show with Gay Byrne. 

During the show, Gay asked them about their relationship from day-to-day around Listowel. With a sly grin, John B. replied: 

Well Gay, I’ll put it to you this way - Bryan and I live in the same Square, but we move in different circles?’ 

That epitomised for me the two giants, both born with the writing gene but living different lives under the same North Kerry sky and whose writing touched the lives of people all over the world.