[from 'Irish Minstrels and Musicians', Capt. Francis O'Neill, Chicago, Regan Printing House, 1913.]
OLD TIMES IN WEXFORD AND HER FAMOUS MUSICIANS
AT the eleventh hour, so to weak, there came to hand more than half a hun- dred pages ot manuscript, from the facile pen of our tireless contributor, Mr. Patrick Whelan of Searawalsh, County Wexford. The subject would make an interesting booklet in itself, for not only does it portray certain features of social life in that and contiguous counties in days gone by, but it has rescued from oblivion the names of many whose talents and idiosyncrasies left an impress on local history not yet wholly obliterated. From its contents we gladly glean much that is suitable to our purpose.
The fair ot Scarawalsh comes down from the past as a time-honored institution, and tradition holds that it had its origin in a “patron” because the indications – stieli as a spring well, monastic ruins, and a graveyard found in the vicinity – all point that way.
As the festivities lasted two days -- “Lady Day,” the fifteenth of August, and the day following, which was the fair day - an event so notable attracted a large attendance. Including of course a goodly number of those peculiar types who look to such gatherings for their chief source of income. Although this once celebrated fair went out of existence over fifty years ago, there be those yet among the living who have not forgotten it, even though the mental picture is becoming blurred as it recedes into the mists of time.
First in the list of famous musicians who thronged to this once popular resort stands the name of
who for many years of his life was saddled with the offensive nickname of “Sent” Byrne as distinguished from another piper of the same patronymie from Glen~ cree. County Wicklow. Gossip is not agreed as to the origin of the sobriquet.
One story is to the effect that he demeaned himself and insulted the sentiment of his people by playing party tunes. Such as “Croppy Lie Down.” at the orgies of the yeomen subsequent to the Rebellion of ‘98. In extenuation of his alleged offense, it is claimed that mutilation or death would have been the penalty of his refusal. In another account, tradition has it that a parish priest of Ballon, County Carlow. Whilst engaged in a militant warfare against the cross-roads dances and other peasant amusements, took occasion to remark in the course of an address to his congregation on the iniquity of dancing and kindred practices: “How dare this `Sent, come into my parish with his bagpipes to corrupt and demoralize my Rock in defiance of my expressed wish ?,’
Although little of this piper’s early life history has been transmitted to pos- terity. And few incidents of his career recorded, we may safely assume that he was in his day a performer of good repute. From the fact that his fame has survived his death so far, by at least three quarters of a century, while the name of who- ever was responsible for his opprobrious nickname is utterly forgotten.
“Old Jemmy Byrne” had three sons – pipers of varying degrees of merit – who also played at the fair of Scarawalsh as long as they lived or remained in the country. In the order of seniority they were Thomas, James, and John, but the sequence was reversed as far as musical ‘efficiency was concerned.
Few men in the community were as presentable as John Byrne. Handsome and erect, his splendid physical proportions were set off to advantage by a broadcloth suit, beaver hat, and a pair of top boots then much in vogue with people of wealth and fashion. A man of intelligence, his address and conversational powers were quite in keeping with his appearance. As if to preserve a due sense of proportion, his set of Union pipes was of the largest size manufactured by Maurice Coyne of Dublin. The wood was ebony with massive ivory mountings, and the brass keys of the regulators, always highly burnished, Hashed the reflected rays of the sun like a mirror, under his rapid manipulation, while the green velvet covering of the bag, with tinseled fringe, enhanced the general effect of the whole picture.
Though but a piper dependant on public patronage, John Byrne’s exalted ideals and polished manners would honor a prince, and if he could not be classed as a “gentleman piper” in the accepted sense of the phrase, he was endowed liberally with the qualities of head and heart which ranked him as one of “nature’s noblemen.”
He traveled into Munster periodically and enjoyed an exceptional patronage for obvious reasons. Concerning his musical attainments, Michael Doyle, the most celebrated dancing master in the province, said: “There is something in his playing to commend him to the dancer, which I cannot find in any other man. His brother James is also gifted in this way but John is decidedly the better.” As might be expected from a piper of his reputation, his circuit was less con- fined than that of the late lamented “Jem” Cash, who was best known in his native county, so that his attendance at the fair of Scarawalsh was not habitual.
Like all traveling minstrels he had his favorite haunts; the choice in that neighbor- hood being the home of Mr. William Murphy, an extensive farmer of Craanrue, udio was a flute player of good local repute. Byrne’s visits were always hailed with delight, and the news of his arrival which spread quickly brought the youth of the countryside for miles around to the scene. Some of the more joyous spirits came provided with cordials, and perchance something more exhilarating, and we can well believe that the outbuilding in which they congregated to hold the dance never had a dull moment while the festivities lasted.
Such visits, usually of about a week’s duration, were regarded by this exem- plary piper as a time of relaxation or holiday making, and we get a clearer insight to a character so unique by his refusal to accept any monetary consideration for his music on those occasions. Competitive dancing was one of the principal features of the merrymaking incidental to B}~rne’s sojourn at Craanrue. Need it be said that his fame and popularity were no less pronounced in his day than what “Jem” Cash enjoyed at a later period?
Good pipers found the Curragh of Kildare a profitable field for their pro- fession, and no point in his peregrinations Was so favored by John Byrne as that celebrated centre of sport and gayety. And if tradition can be relied on, he received a weekly stipend of thirty shillings from the military stationed there, to play for their entertainment.
This paragon of pipers emigrated to America about the year 1860-just before the beginning of the Civil war-but no authentic information concerning his history thereafter reached his friends and admirers in his native country.
Next in order of musical merit comes James, an elder brother of John, and whose name tradition links inseparably with the long extinct fair of Scarawalsh.
All the crack dancers of the three parishes – and they were by no means few – and many more from far beyond thronged to that fair. The two Coopers, “Dick” and “”ill”, “Lawrence Piper,” “Matty” Tobin, and several other disciples of Terpsichore of less renown, would be holding high heads for days in happy anticipation of “Jemmy” Byrnes arrival, for simultaneous with that event might be expected another of scarcely less moment – the appearance of Michael Doyle, the dancing master.
All the celebrities met at the widow Piper’s farmstead, and thrifty and accommodating individual that she was, she secured a limited license for the occasion,
and we may be certain that the attractions of piping and dancing to be enjoyed on the premises assured her a liberal patronage. Besides, her oldest son Lawrence was Doyles best pupil, at least in Wexford, for as Mr. Whelan says: “You would have to cross the granite ridge of Mount Leinster, and go out into the County of Carlow, where there lived another of Doyle’s pupils named James O’Neill, before you would meet any who could compete with a tolerable chance of coming out even.”
Be it understood that the fair of Scarawalsh, held annually on the sixteenth day of August, came in the middle of the harvest season, which may be early or late according to climatic conditions. Now it so happened at one time that the piper and dancing master were on hand a few days before that date, and the widow had a held of oats `rotten ripe’, which must be reaped before the fair, or it would not be cut until “God knows when,” or perhaps altogether lost. Now here was a predicament in earnest. The day before the fair being “Lady Day” there remained but one working day in which to get it done. True, there was but little more than a day’s work in it under normal conditions for the three men available-her son and the two Coopers – but unfortunately they were undergoing a course of training for the dancing contests.
A “plan of campaign” formulated by the widow’s resourceful son Lawrence which met with favor was promptly put into execution. “Jemmy” Byrne With his pipes and a chair; Michael Doyle, the dancing master, with a door, and Lawrence Piper and the two Coopers. Armed with reaping hooks, hastened to the field early in the morning. Two of the reapers slashed away at the oats; the third mounted the prostrate door and took his dancing lesson under the supervision of Doyle, while Byrne seated in his chair close by supplied the enlivening music. Each dancer’s term of practice lasted while one swath was being reaped across the held; and thus the trio danced and reaped alternately throughout the livelong day except when food or refreshments were partaken. The result was most gratifying, for not only was the work of three men done by two, but each dancer had also his full meed of practice into the bargain.
During the holiday afternoon and the entire day of the fair, dancing would be at a premium. “Jemmy” Byrne was usually to be found “discoursing sweet music” on the widow Piper’s premises, while his father and brothers were located among the tents.
Occasionally the music, dancing, and associated eonvivialities would be interrupted abruptly by the breaking out of a fight in which the tents would be dismantled and the wattled framework broken up into convenient lengths to supply the gladiators with munitions of war.
In those days the tunes now termed “single jigs” were known as “jigs” without any qualifying word. The other varieties were called “doubles” and “hop jigs.” With jigs and reels alternating, there was no “let up” to the dancing in the tents favored with music.
Sometimes a young man or woman of exceptional repute appeared, and such was the desire to witness their exhibition of skill, that all other forms of entertainment would be suspended for the time being. Should the “star’, happen to be one of` the fair Sex, a suitable partner was pressed into service; if a young man, and no partner was forthcoming, instead of dancing a “double” according to custom, he not infrequently “took the door” provided for such contingencies all by himself and danced a “naked step” - usually some favorite hornpipe.
The tent which harbored the best piper was certain to have the largest patron- age, and naturally the most skillful dancers. Of all the trim eolleens who ever graced the green when the fair of Searawalsh was the event of the year in that territory, the name of Katie Morgan – the late Mrs. Ward – stands pre-eminent A match any day for “Larry” Piper, her preferred partner, in exhibition dances; her blandishnlents were irresistible in coaxing the coin from the pockets of the most penurious, in exchange for her stock of fruits, candies and confeetions.
“Jemmy” Byrne was her favorite piper – and who so keen to appreciate a good piper as a good dancer – but she married John Ward, an excellent performer on the flute and dulcimer. Wealthy at one time, the enforced change in social life and customs ruined her business and brought her to the verge of want in later years. Yet such was her spirit even in old age, that she Would lay down her basket and dance with surprising agility on hearing any of her favorite tunes played by some wandering minstrel.
Compared with his father and younger hrothers, Thomas Byrne was incon~ spicuous. Even so, he was a fairly good piper of wandering habits, and followed the fairs and festivals while capable ot traveling. He survived his brother James, but when or where he died remains an unsolved problem. The fact that he had some professional intercourse With John Rowsonle and George Carroll, within the period of their activity as pipers, affords plausible grounds for believing that he was among the living up to 1880 and perhaps a few years later.
Collectively the Byrnes belonged to Shangarry, in County Carlow, from whence they radiated to the “patrons,” fairs, and races in that and neighboring counties, returning again at stated intervals to enjoy a season of domestic reunion on their replenished purses.
After the death of “Old Jemmy” Byrne sixty years or so ago, and the subse- quent emigration of John to America, the home at Shangarry was broken up.
“Young Jemmy,’ emigrated to the vicinity of Ballyearney, where he lived with a man named “Matty” Rigley, whose brother Ben was a good amateur piper. While at Mr. Rigley’s he was frequently visited by John Cash and Samuel Rowsome.
Who became noted pipers themselves.
Here we have a musical chain the most complete of any which has come to our attention. “Old Jemmy”, Byrne, the Carlow piper, and his three sons all professionals, of whom young “Jemmy” communicated his art to Samuel Rowsome of Ballintore, County Wexford, who in turn transmitted it to his three sons.
The art is still further perpetuated in his grandson, Samuel Rowsome, Jr., of Dublin, who recently gained distinction as a prize winner at the age of sixteen, being the fifth generation of pipers of note. ‘Twas in the blood of the Byrnes and the Rowsonies, though in the latter family music was a pleasure rather than a profession.
When Mr. Rigley removed from Ballycarney to Knockinarshal near Enniscorthy, seven miles from the former home, “Jemmy” Byrne accompanied the family with whom he lived to the end of his days. His death, which was rather sudden, occurred about the year 1867 and before he had rounded out three score years.
For many a year at Shrove-tide, he made a trip to his native Carlow to play at the weddings, for it appears that the music of the Union pipes retained its hold on popular sentiment more tenaciously in that county than in Wexford.
Michael Brandy of Ballycarney, a veteran of seventy-four, to whom Mr. Whelan, our correspondent, is indebted for not a little of his information, relates that once when Byrne was about to start on one of his annual expeditions, finding that his funds were exhausted, asked for a loan of five shillings until his return. Brandy being then young and unmarried was glad of the opportunity to oblige such a friend with twice that amount. A month or so later the piper returned. Repaid the ten shillings, “treated” his generous friend to all he cared to drink, and still had left a balance of six pounds in his pocket.
Another lrish piper of local fame who frequented the fair of Scarawalsh was Henry Roberts of Bunclody. He was best remembered by his rendering of the “Fox Chase”, in which the cry of the hounds, the sound of the horns, the tallyho of the huntsnien, the galloping of the horses, and the shouts and cheers of the enthusiastic votaries of the chase, and even the agonizing wail of the gamey fox, as he yielded up his life in the last struggle against overwhelming odds, were all reproduced with startling vividness.
In those days of unrestrained merriment, when custom gave license to the many to “let their bursting spirits out,” often at the expense of the unwary pleasure seeker, some practical jokes bordering on criminality were liable to be perpetrated. Even the piper it seems was not exempt from being victimized. One fine day Roberts was playing away contentedly while seated in a car unyoked for the purpose on the sloping sward of the fair green, in close proximity to the brink of the river Slaney. Taking in the situation at a glance, a villianous wight noted for misconduct, and who years afterwards perished by violence, seized the shafts and swinging the car free of its fastenings let it roll into the river. Before the astonished piper could realize his danger he was plunged headlong into a deep pool while his instrument with drones still humming from the air in the inflated bag floated away on the current. Eager hands promptly came to his rescue, and saved both himself and his pipes, but his earning capacity for the rest of that day at least was ruined beyond repair.
And so ends our chronicle of the days of “Old Lang Syne,” as condensed and abbreviated from the correspondence of our indefatigable friend, Mr. Patrick Whelan. Many and interesting accounts of the pipers, fiddlers and fluters of more recent times will be found elsewhere under their proper headings.