At an Irish song class on 1 May 2015, I heard a story from a local fella about the Isle of Man. We were in Annalong, in the Mourne mountains. Sean-nós singer Doimnic Mhic Giolla Bhríde was teaching us a song (“Pádraig Mac Ruairí”). The lyrics prompted manys a story that evening. This was one of them.
The Isle of Man gets its name from the Celtic sea god, Manannán Mac Lir. He is associated with the Tuatha Dé Dannan and the Fomorians – both mythological Irish civilisations. When it’s a clear day, you can see the whole island. However, on an ordinary day, when the mist would lift, the island appeared as if as a giant’s head and shoulders, peering above the surface.
The locals said that it was Manannán Mac Lir coming up to survey his kingdom. When the mist did clear, he had disappeared below again. Another man in the class informed us that, if you can see the Isle of Man from Glasdrumman coast, it’s a sign of incoming rain.
Another story was told about the smuggling that went on from the Mourne coast to the Isle of Man. Since the Isle of Man has forever been a tax haven, the people of the south Down hills would take their boats out the 20 miles to the island. “The gentlemen”, as these smugglers were known, would bring back alcohol and other essentials. Apparently, this is the reason Hilltown has the most pubs per capita than anywhere else in Ireland. It was the distribution base for the region.
This class certainly got me thinking about local folklore and later that evening, Doimnic asked me where I was from myself.
Rinn Mhic Giolla Rua, a dúirt mé.
This translates as The Point of the Red-Haired Servant. But there are many names, to be honest. MacIlroy’s Point is one. In 1834, the place was called Pointe an Bháirínigh by local Irish speakers and was recorded in the 1851 census as Warren’s Point. At the beginning of the 20th century, Gaelgóirí in Omeath referred to it as An Púinte or An Pointe and An Pointe.
The town’s now called Warrenpoint, or simply ‘The Point’. Up Jenny Black’s Hill where I grew up (just outside Warrenpoint on the way to Burren village) is still called Ringmacilroy. So who was the son of the red-haired servant? I don’t know. Looks like I’ve more research to do. Wonder if there's a song about him...
As I was driving through the Mournes on the first evening of May, I turned on the car radio. The first thing I heard was Iarla Ó'Lionáird talking about the power of singing. It took me a few seconds to recognise his Cork accent, but I got it before long. I glanced down to see which station was playing. RTÉ Lyric FM. Should've guessed. I listened on.
In the show entitled "Vocal Chords", Iarla and his guests spoke about the power of song "to emotionally change us more than words alone" and the feelings of connection brought on by group singing. A woman spoke about the instinctiveness of song, and the fact that you can tell whether a singer is happy or sad.
Christy Moore mentions the "magic thread" between the singer and the audience. This is a metaphor I'm very familiar with, as it's one employed by Anúna singers in rehearsals; specifically by Sara Di Bella and Michael McGlynn. This connection is direct and abstract.
Iarla explains that singers inhabit the silence before sound, the presence of breath. Someone speaks about the tension and release of singing. "It's enthralling." Nóirín Ní Riain refers to the silent moment before the song as "the realm of the underworld".
It's coincidence that I switched on the car radio that evening, as I was on my way to meet sean-nós singer Doimnic Mhic Giolla Bhríde. I learned a song from him that night. Hopefully I'll have it learned before long...
You can listen to Iarla Ó'Lionáird's "Vocal Chords" series via the RTÉ Player here. I highly recommend it.