Catherine Ann Cullen on the songscape of a Dublin childhood
This post takes its title from “Family Crest”, a tongue-in-cheek poem in my collection The Other Now (Dedalus 2016) that uses as a central motif the coat of arms of my family. On the crest is a mermaid combing her hair and, in the poem, I imagine the siren luring men to their deaths, and reflect on how ‘singing without ceasing’ has been a feature of my own life. I’ve referenced many ballads below, and used the Child and Roud ballad numbers to identify each one; if anyone would like to look at the words of the songs, see HERE (Child) or HERE (Roud).
I recently completed a PhD in which I interrogated my own work and its sources, teasing out, in the process, the strands of folk music that created the soundscape of my childhood. I examined the influence on my poetry, children’s books and broadcasting of the work of song-collectors such as Frank Harte and my uncle Gerry Cullen, who popularised a respect for what singer and researcher Padraigín Ní Uallacháin, in her book, A Hidden Ulster: People, songs and traditions of Oriel (Four Courts Press, 2003), has called ‘the men and women who lived here the day before yesterday … who held fast to their individual and collective voice through song’.
My study located both myself and my work in the aural landscape of childhood, which informed my emerging identity as a repository for the family’s songs, stories and piseoga (superstitions) as well as my passions in literature, children’s literature, music and folklore.
The PhD was prompted by a range of coinciding circumstances. One was my growing awareness of, and research into, my immersion in folksong in childhood. Another was an increasing interest in Ireland in local versions of the ballads annotated by American collector Francis Child (1825-1896) from manuscripts and sources in England and Scotland – an increase exemplified by a recent Arts Council-funded project by researchers Michael Fortune and Aileen Lambert, which brought Irish singers together in a series of events including at the National Library of Ireland, to speak about and sing their favourite versions of ballads collected by Child. (The collector did not include Ireland in his seminal work on ballad versions, published in five volumes from 1882-1898, but many of the songs he collected had been sung in Ireland, with local variations, before, during and after his time.) A third was the return to primacy of performance poetry, which places the art back in the oral, performed and often sung tradition where its origins in largely pre-literate societies lie; and a fourth, my desire to systematise my knowledge of ballads and folksong and to critically evaluate my past practice and writings, to the benefit of future work.
The Singing House
I was blessed to be the first grandchild of my father’s mother, Kitty Cullen née Hand. Dad was the eldest of her sixteen children, two of whom died shortly after they were born. She was a warm and gentle woman who had left school by the time she was 12 and was conscious of her lack of learning. If we asked her anything to do with schoolwork, she would say, “Sure, I only met the scholars coming home,” or, “I only got to first book,” that last word pronounced ‘buke’ in her broad Drogheda accent.
She loved walking the country lanes around Drogheda, and my memories of walking with her are of picking blackberries and wild flowers, each of us holding a branch above our heads to keep off the flies. I liked her names for plants, ‘poor man’s bread’ (young hawthorn leaves), ‘piss-the-bed’ (dandelions) and ‘sour-belly’ (wood sorrel).
In her small house, she fed not only her own large family, but many visitors who called or stayed. Although the house was full of music as I was growing up, mainly my uncles and their friends with guitars, I rarely heard her sing anything except one of Moore’s Melodies as she worked in the kitchen, perhaps “Oft in the Stilly Night” [Roud V931], or the popular Irish dandling song, “Dilín Ó Damhas”:
Caithfimid suas is suas
Caithfimid suas an pháiste
Caithfimid suas is suas
Is tiocfaidh sí ‘nuas amárach
(We’ll toss her up and up
We’ll toss up the baby
We’ll toss her up and up
And she’ll come down tomorrow)
I’d heard my maternal grandmother singing a similar song in English –
We’ll throw her up, up, up,
We’ll throw her up so high,
We’ll throw her up, up, up,
And she’ll come down by and by.
She didn’t dance at all,
She didn’t dance today.
She didn’t dance at all,
Today nor yesterday.
It was not so much a dandling as a bouncing song, a song for throwing the giggling child in the air as high as one dared or the child tolerated, before catching them again.
There were other, wordless tunes that were used to dandle children on the knee, and were associated with Irish dancing – when we didn’t have a musician to hand, it was common to both my paternal and maternal grandparents and their siblings to make the dance music themselves with the nonsense words ‘tralala, tralalal’ or ‘rowtilty, dowdilty, dowdility dow’. The latter tune I later identified as “The Frost is All Over”, a tune passed on orally in many families throughout the country.
The only other song I remember my grandmother singing regularly was on those country walks when we would see lambs in a field, and she would stop and break into a tune that I have tried to trace for years. There are two verses, of which this is the first. I have never heard it sung except by the Cullens:
In the meadow green, I saw a lamb
And he lay beside his ma,
When I said to the lamb, what is your name?
He only answered, ‘baa!’
So skip, skip, my lambkin, skip, skip, away,
For you have nothing to do today
But to frolic in the fields, while the birdies in the trees
Sing a sweet little song to you.
Although my memories of my grandmother’s songs are few, I remember her welcoming presence as one that encouraged a flowering of community and music in her home. That home – a small terraced house that was always full of people – is at the centre of my passion for songs.
Seven Sources of Song
Many elements combined to create the rich songscape of my childhood, but seven critical sources are outlined here.
- Songs from my mother’s home in Tralee, County Kerry, where English was liberally sprinkled with Irish words and idioms, a language I have tried to capture in a poem in The Other Now, “Inheritance”. My mother, Mary Roche, attended Coláiste Íde, the Irish-language boarding school and preparatory college in Dingle, and spoke and sang fluently in Irish. My maternal grandmother died when I was eight years old, but up until then and for several years afterwards I spent summers in Kerry, between Tralee and the Gaeltacht area around Dingle, where my mother’s sister lived. Her husband and some of my cousins were accomplished traditional musicians, playing the box accordion among other instruments, and speaking fluent Irish. This contrasted with our time in my grandmother’s home in Tralee, where she and her sisters spoke and sang in English. Their chosen songs were a combination of Moore’s Melodies such as “Believe Me, if all Those Endearing Young Charms”; popular songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, and Irish emigrant ballads such as “The Wild Colonial Boy” [Roud 677] or “The Boston Burglar” [Roud 261], and at every session, someone sang “The Rose of Tralee” [Roud 1978]. The romantic phrases in some of these songs piqued my early interest in poetry: the ending of “Believe Me…” – ‘and around the dear ruin, each wish of my heart would entwine itself verdantly still’ – I found especially beautiful, and being an occasionally wild and wayward child myself, I took satisfaction in the fact that the wild colonial boy, a Robin Hood figure who ‘was born and bred… in Castlemaine’, about ten miles from Tralee, was ‘a credit to his parents’, despite his disreputable ways. Often in the evenings, my great-aunt Maria would start several songs in her quavering voice, forget the words and break off with a ‘wait a while now, lads….’ In the end, she would begin a rummaging search for what she called ‘The Song Book’, which to my mind was an important family treasure. My father especially enjoyed and encouraged this comic ritual.
- Songs from my father, Jack Cullen, who grew up in Drogheda, within what my mother immediately recognised as the thoroughly anglicised ‘Pale’ when she moved there to teach in the village of Tullyallen at the age of twenty. Dad had learnt Irish at school, was passionate about the language, and encouraged my mother to sing in the tongue she had come to hold in scant regard. He was also an accomplished amateur singer and guitarist, who transcribed old and new ballads into a series of notebooks – a tradition I copied in childhood and have continued ever since. His repertoire ranged from songs in Irish to folksongs and American country blues. For most of his life he worked with chemicals in the laboratory of the Electricity Supply Board, and he developed severe contact dermatitis which curtailed his pastimes of processing his own photographs and playing the guitar. By the time I was about 12, he was no longer able to play for hours for his own enjoyment. He confined his sessions to our ‘under the tree’ Christmas carol singing (where he would hand his guitar to me when his hands got too sore), and the occasional extended Cullen family sing-song, when he would invariably sing “On Raglan Road”, Patrick Kavanagh’s romantic poem set to the Irish tune “Fáinne Geal an Lae”, literally ‘The Bright Ring of the Day’ but usually translated as “The Dawning of the Day” [Roud 370].
Kavanagh’s poem includes the line, ‘Let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day’, a line so synonymous with my father that it was the quotation we chose to put on his gravestone. The stonecutter told me that he had never been asked to carve the words before. At the end of “On Raglan Road”, my father always sang the opening verse of the original Irish song. The mouth music of its internal rhymes was pleasing to my ear for years before I understood its meaning, and the song was my introduction to the phrase ‘an chúilfhionn’, literally ‘the fair-backed one’, which would become central to a story for children, Sea Change, that I would write decades later as a commission for RTÉ Radio 1:
Cé gheobhainn le m’ais ach an chúilfhionn deas,
Le fáinne geal an lae.
(Who found I there but the fair-haired maid
At the bright ring of the day?)
- Songs collected and sung in Drogheda, which was becoming a centre of ballad-sourcing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mainly of English-language songs. Thanks to collector and singer Seán Corcoran and to my uncle Gerry Cullen, a respected arranger and singer, many rare local songs are back in the repertoire of traditional musicians. Gerry is a member of The Voice Squad, a trio whose style is inspired by the Northern Irish tradition of unaccompanied solo singing, and by English groups who sang in harmony, such as The Copper Family from East Sussex and the Watersons from Hull in Yorkshire. On the sleeve notes for their 2014 album, Concerning of Three Young Men, Colm Tóibín wrote of the group:They approach each song… not as a way of displaying the singer’s personality but as a way of exploring and evoking and finding the actual song’s inner core, the song’s most hidden truth… For anyone working as an artist – whether musician or writer or painter – they offer a nourishing example because of their sheer attention to detail and their sonorous mastery of form.
Gerry’s respect for songs has been a persistent influence on my interest in ballads and indeed on my writing. During the regular singing sessions at my father’s childhood home, we children were always encouraged to perform our party pieces alongside the adults. We visited the house almost every Sunday for decades, and there was a palpable interest in any new song, especially any folk song, that we brought. For years, one of my songs was “The Handsome Butcher”, a Hungarian ballad I learned at school at the age of seven. Years later, I discovered that it had been collected and translated by the English folklorist A.L. Lloyd. It was one of many songs that my siblings and I were coaxed to sing each week in Drogheda. All our relatives knew the words, although they usually allowed us to sing them on our own, perhaps joining in the chorus. Special respect was afforded to Gerry’s songs, those which were part of local tradition and occasionally those he had written himself. Though shy of performing his own work outside of the family circle, he has penned hundreds of songs, some of them for family weddings and occasions. He also writes poetry, and when I was eight years old, I was deeply impressed when he had a poem, “Triptych”, published on the front page of the Irish Press. Gerry has always been generous to me, not only in sharing his art and his knowledge of songs. Once, when I was a young teenager, I admired a zither that was leaning against the wall of his tiny bedroom in Drogheda. He insisted on giving it to me and it remains one of my treasures, a slim, harp-like instrument, painted with a gypsy rose, that featured in a radio essay I wrote for RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany programme about music and dreams.
- A few songs from my paternal grandfather’s childhood home on a tiny and impoverished hill-farm in Tyrone, where the fire in the hearth (it was said) had not gone out in three hundred years. My grandfather, Joe Cullen, had a nonsense song for soothing children to sleep – ‘Eee-Aw-Bo’ – which worked its charm on his grandchildren and has continued into several generations. ‘I was singing Eee-Aw-Bo for an hour’ was often heard from an exhausted parent. It was only years later I discovered the source of the song in a late 19th century music hall song called ‘Little Annie Rooney’ [Roud 4822], whose chorus went:
She’s my sweetheart, I’m her beau,
She’s my Annie, I’m her Joe,
Soon we’ll marry, never to part,
For little Annie Rooney is my sweetheart.
Because my grandfather’s name was Joe, I suspect he enjoyed singing the song, and can only speculate that some lisping Cullen child many years ago, who did not know the words, imitated the vowel sounds of the first two lines and turned it into a nonsense, ‘lulling’ song which went into the family repertoire as
Eee-aw, eee-aw, eee-aw-bo,
Eee-aw (insert first name of child), eee-aw-i-bo,
Soon we’ll marry, never to part,
For little (insert full name of child) is my sweetheart.
Joe had a version of “The Old Woman from Wexford” [Roud 183], a comic ballad about a woman who gets a recipe from her doctor ‘to make her old man blind’. The husband tricks her into believing the recipe has worked and tells her that he would drown himself ‘if he could find the stream’. She obligingly offers to push him in – but he steps aside and she plunges in instead. It was years before I realised that Joe had a unique variant of the song – when the wife calls for help, the husband ‘took out his kibblin’ stick/And he kibbled her further in.’
There are countless versions of this ballad – over fifty are referenced in the massive collection by Coleraine man Sam Henry which was published as Sam Henry’s Songs of the People (University of Georgia Press, 1990) edited by Lani Herrmann, Gale Huntington and John Moulden. In some, the husband uses ‘a barge pole’, in some ‘a (big) long pole’, and in some ‘a churnstaff’ to push his wife, but in none of them have I found my grandfather’s ‘kibblin’ stick’. It appears as ‘kibbling, n. Also kibblin, kibling: A thick, rough stick, a cudgel’, in The Dictionary of the Scots Language, (online here: www.dsl.ac.uk) and the three examples given of the word’s usage are from the 1820s. Northern Ireland and Scotland share many dialect words, and perhaps ‘kibbling’ was once among them. It is one of the ‘lost words’ preserved only in song, a theme I write about in my poem, “In Memory of Frank Harte”. In the case of ‘kibbling’, perhaps that lost stick was preserved in our family alone, but I hold out hope that I will one evening find myself at a singing session where someone else will sing the song using my grandfather’s word.
Joe also sang ‘The Mountains of Pomeroy’, a song based in the hills near his tiny homestead in the townland of Turnabarson – a townland that features in my poems, “The Shoe-Box Coffin” and “Always Not There”. The song was one of several written by Dr George Sigerson (1836-1925), a leading light in the Irish Literary Revival, and its combination of an outlaw hiding in the mountains, and the doomed young woman who goes to meet him through a terrible storm, was thrilling to my childhood mind:
But the mist came down and the tempest roared,
And did all around destroy;
And a pale, drowned bride met Renardine,
On the mountains of Pomeroy.
That mountain tryst, and the ‘pale drowned bride’, were strong influences on one of my first attempts at ballad-writing at the age of 12, an unintentionally comic maudlin song called ‘Corinna’ about ‘a lame mountain goatherd’ and ‘a maiden so pretty and sweet’, which ended with ‘Johann’ falling in the snow and dying outside his lover’s cabin.
The way the songs of my paternal grandparents were passed to me is an example of the wonderful Irish term for oral folklore, béaloideas, literally ‘mouth knowledge’. Songs that I’ve never seen written down, and variations on songs that I have heard or read, have found their way into my consciousness orally and aurally, and I am determined to pass them on to my daughter and the wider family.
I also learned from Joe’s singing, and from that of my maternal grandmother, that local songs had an important resonance. People from Tyrone sang Tyrone songs, people from Kerry sang Kerry songs, and as a child in Dublin, I should sing Dublin songs.
5. Local songs and street games from my own city of Dublin, especially those sung by collector Frank Harte who was for some time a neighbour. I learned beloved songs from him and his daughter, Sinéad, and continued to follow Harte’s journey throughout his life. Sinéad was a classmate in my early years of school, and the first song I heard her sing, “Henry, My Son”, a Dublin version of the classic “Lord Randall” [Child 12, Roud 10], has continued to influence my writing, including a song I wrote and performed last year for Eastrogen Rising: A Rebel Cabaret. The colloquial tone of “Henry, My Son”, with its ‘make my bed, I’ve a pain in my head’, contrasts with the more formal and old-fashioned words of the English original,
….. mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied with hunting, and fain would lie down.
The song’s imitation of the Dublin accent is another characteristic I have adopted. When Henry is asked ‘what will you leave your father?’ his reply is ‘a blue su-et’, drawing out the syllable of ‘suit’ into two, in the Dublin style. In the same way, I injected an extra syllable into my song, “The Rebel Sisterhood”, (The Other Now) using the extended word ‘undergarmament’ to rhyme with ‘armament’ for comic effect.
“Henry, My Son” was among the songs that caused me to have a kind of epiphany at the age of five or six. My father had copied half a dozen versions of the related “Lord Randall” into his notebooks, and a songbook we had from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival had another ballad that caught my eye, called “Snow White Shirt” [Child 13, Roud 200]. I read these song books as if they were story books, and indeed the ballads did tell stories. “Snow White Shirt” began, ‘How came the spots on your snow white shirt? Oh son, come tell to me.’ In this song, the young man is the murderer rather than the victim, but his mother draws him out with a series of questions in the same way that the mother does in “Lord Randall”. As a child, my mother had performed in a local concert with a neighbour, singing a humorous music-hall song that mimicked this question and answer format, “Where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?” [Roud 326] – and as I grouped these songs together in my mind, I heard my Dad sing Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic, “It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, which begins, ‘Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?’
I remember feeling highly excited about the connections between these songs. It seemed to me that, like people, songs had histories and relationships. Some strongly resembled their parents, and some had only a feature here or there that revealed their heritage. This sense of excitement at hearing a variation on a familiar song has never left me, and the way the elements of those different songs, old and more modern, rare and popular, were bound in my mind by one strong thread, is probably the reason I remain untroubled by whether or not a song is a ‘genuine’ ballad or folksong, or a modern reworking of one, a preoccupation that is identified by two of the foremost ballad scholars today, David Atkinson and Steve Roud, in their Street Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America (Ashgate 2014):
One can almost hear the sigh of relief when a folk song scholar finds a second or third reference to a particular song being sung in a ‘traditional’ manner or context, so that it can be stamped ‘genuine’.
Along with the Dublin songs that filled my head were the skipping, ball-bouncing and street rhymes that were still the stuff of daily play when I was a child. Games that centred on songs that told stories – “The Farmer Wants a Wife” [Roud 6306] or “We’re the Gypsies Riding” [Roud 730] – became an unconscious guide for me when I came to write verse-stories for children.
- Hymns from my Catholic childhood which coincided with Vatican II and a shift from Latin Mass and sung Benediction to English- and Irish-language masses and hymns. The archaic words and the religious fervour of the hymns and chants fascinated me. Their influences on my work are two-fold. Principally, they prompted me to pitch some elements of my poetry against their conservative content, in poems such as ‘The Ballad of Síle na Gig’ or ‘Queen of the May’, (The Other Now) but they also inspired me to look at unusual words, and occasionally to create my own, as I did in my children’s book, The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat.
- Songs from the folk revival in America and across Europe which coincided with my early childhood. Events such as the Newport Folk Festival (founded in 1959) brought Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Ewan MacColl, the Clancy brothers and many others interested in song traditions to homes all over Ireland, through song books, records and television appearances. This revival in turn inspired Irish musicians such as my uncle Gerry to look more closely at the traditional repertoire of their own areas. I still have two books from the festivals, passed on by my father, which are full of love for and history of the songs, along with their lyrics and music.
This combination of songs from four counties of Ireland, and those from the wider world, along with my direct experience of the growth of song-collecting, piqued my childhood interest in the way folksongs make present the past and ‘cut straight to the heart of life’ to quote Vincent Woods in his essay, “A World of Thirteen Acres: Folklore as Source and Inspiration”, in Folklore and Modern Irish Writing, ed. Anne Markey and Anne O’Connor (Irish Academic Press, 2014).
The Murmur of Voices
I worked for seven years as a radio producer for RTÉ Radio 1, and for four years before that as a radio researcher, and ‘talk radio’ is still a constant backdrop to my world. When I can’t sleep, I turn the radio on low and find the barely-audible voices soothing. As a small child, I loved listening to my parents and their friends singing at night after I’d gone to bed. When their voices dropped to speak, I would often get out of bed and lie on the floor to hear them better, and occasionally I tottered downstairs and sat outside the kitchen door listening until I fell asleep. Unsuspecting guests were likely to trip over my two- or three-year-old form when they opened the door to go home. That comfort of distant voices murmuring or singing was something I used in my story “Sea Change”, when after his father’s funeral, Conor is sent to sleep:
When I went to bed that night the house was still full of people, drinking and playing music and singing… The same picture came before my eyes all the time… Dad had untied the boat and was starting to drift away… I drifted with him in my mind, with the music coming up through the bedroom floor, and Mad Myles’s words echoing in my head: for everything the sea takes away, it brings something back.
While researching my PhD Context Statement last year, it became clear to me that I was alone among my siblings in experiencing and pressing my ears to much of the family music. Although there is less than a decade between my youngest sibling and myself, those years saw the crucial loss of our paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, and a consequent weakening of tangible traditions. At some level, as the oldest child, the oldest grandchild on my father’s side and the oldest granddaughter on my mother’s, I had always been conscious of my responsibility to be an ethnographer of my own folk and their ‘mouth knowledge’, interpreting and preserving the songs and folklore of my family and environment, but I had not fully realised the extent to which I was carrying out this work in my writing across many genres, for my siblings as well as for the next generation.
In fact, all of the elements outlined above synthesised into a songscape which was to shape, at first unconsciously and later more consciously, almost everything that I would write. Such use of ballads is related to the use of folklore by other living Irish writers – as Éilís Ni Dhuibhne says in her essay, ‘“Some Hardcore Storytelling”: Uses of Folklore by Contemporary Irish Writers’, in Markey and O’Connor’s book, ‘their rich images and symbols enhance and deepen the texture of my stories of contemporary life’. That songscape fostered an interest in those ballads which Child himself said in his introduction to his song collection were ‘founded on what is permanent and universal in the heart of man’, and which continue to inform and to permeate my work.
(This essay is adapted from the introduction to my thesis or ‘context statement’, A City Out of Old Songs: the influence of ballads, hymns and children’s songs on an Irish writer and broadcaster, for which I was awarded a PhD in Published Works (Creative Writing) from Middlesex University earlier this year – CAC)
Catherine Ann Cullen’s The Other Now is published by Dedalus Press (October 2016) and available HERE.