It being on a mild September morn, the weather it being warm,
It was my lot to stray along the bay of sweet Glenarm,
The yellow corn was waving ripe the fields were looking gay,
And the blue sea washed the pebbles white, along Glenarm Bay.
This is a song that takes me back to my earliest recollections in Glenarm of my maternal grandmother Ellen Robinson (née McClure) and my mother Eveline singing of their native village.
The fire at the end of November 2020 at one of the old buildings down at the Glenarm harbour brought me back to my first public performance. It was in the canteen of the Rosehip Syrup Factory at the harbour sometime in the early 1950s. My uncle Willie’s wife Pearl had organised a concert with local musicians and singers, which included my mother and myself singing in duet a song which my mother had taught me – Soldier, Soldier
‘Oh, soldier, soldier won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum,’
‘Oh, no fair maid I cannot marry you,
For I have no socks to put on.’
So up she went to her grandfather’s chest,
And she got him a pair of the very, very best,
And the soldier put them on.
Then the soldier (me) asks for shoes, pants, shirt and coat –
‘Oh, soldier, soldier won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum.’
Oh, no fair maid I cannot marry you,
For I have a wife of my own!’
One of the musicians playing at the Rosehip Syrup Factory concert was local man John Rea playing the hammered-dulcimer who was a far-out relative – John’s mother and my grandmother were cousins and my mother, as a child in the 1920s, used to visit the neighbouring Rea household at Town Parks with her mother. She recalled that the Rea household was a jolly one with music-making, song and dance a daily occurrence. John’s father and some of his brothers played various instruments including fiddle and melodeon and my mother said John as a wee boy would stand on an up-turned butter box, and play the hammered-dulcimer which was set on the kitchen table beside his mother as she worked dancing from the bake-board to the table!
My grandfather’s blacksmith forge was located beside St Patrick’s CoI Parish Church, but by the 1950s it was becoming less active with the arrival in the village of Co. Down man Harry Ferguson’s wee grey Fergie T20 tractors. The forge was eventually dismantled in the early 1960s and rebuilt with the old original cut white limestones from the forge incorporated into a new public convenience. There were five girls and one boy in my mother’s family – Mary, Bessie, Eveline, Margaret, Anna and Willie. Willie was the eldest and he was quite a character who had a nickname around the Glens of Antrim and was known as Willie ‘The Cat’. My mother told me that this nickname was due to the nocturnal lifestyle he led before he got married. I however heard at a later date from another source that it was nothing of the sort and that it went back to his youth when he played the part of the cat in the local production of the pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat! Uncle Willie’s popularity was evident with the huge turn-out for his funeral in 1974. After the burial family and friends all congregated in Jim McMullan’s Pub in Toberwine Street, Glenarm, and many anecdotes were exchanged on his colourful life and exploits in and around the Glens of Antrim in the early years of the twentieth century. The fiddle player and poitín maker, Mickey McIlhatton, known as the King of the Glens, came over to me and regaled me with some of his personal memories of Willie ‘The Cat.’ He then produced from his pocket a strange metal contraption and asked me. ‘Do you know what these are Leonard?’ I said that I didn’t have a clue what they were, and he explained. ‘They’re spurs for game cocks and your grandfather Johnny Robinson made them for me some fifty years ago. Johnny was the best blacksmith in the Glens of Antrim and beyond. I could have sold them spurs a hundred times over, but I wouldn’t part with them – they’re tempered steel and you know they’re as light as a feather!’ Mickey was finally caught and prosecuted in 1968 and he spent four months in Crumlin Road Jail, Belfast for making poitín. When he was released from prison Mickey received a hero’s welcome on his arrival at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil in Clones, Co. Monaghan. Mickey surprised us all in the late 1960s, shortly before his seventieth birthday, when he married Mary McDonnell, a local woman a few years his junior. My uncle ‘Willie the Cat’ met Mickey in Waterfoot not long after the wedding. ‘Congratulations and long life to you Mickey and your new wife,’ says my uncle, ‘Thanks very much Willie,’ says Mickey, ‘I’m just in the village fixing up my house down here – it’s a bit remote up at Skerry West and we want to be near the school-house when the children come along!’ Joe Holmes from near Ballymoney my old friend and singing partner and I spent many happy times along with Mickey in his home at Skerry West as well as at the regular musical gatherings with the Antrim and Derry Fiddlers and Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann. Mickey would often ask Joe and myself to sing for him his favourite song – The Son of a Gamble-eer
Oh, I am a rambling Irishman from town to town, I steer,
Like many another young man I like my bottle of beer,
Like many an honest young man I like my whiskey clear,
You would think that I was some lord or duke, the son of a gamble-er.
Back to John Rea again – the next time I appeared on the stage with John was in 1979 at a big festival organised in London called The Sense of Ireland and John and I were asked over and we spent a wonderful week together sharing a room in the Tara Hotel. One of the concerts was in the Royal Albert Hall and we were performing along with other musicians and singers from all over Ireland, providing support for the head-line band The Chieftains. The hall was filled to capacity with some 6,000 people in the audience. When John and I came off the stage after our performance, Donncha Ó Dúlaing from RTE Radio was backstage with a microphone and tape recorder and he asked John, ‘Were you not nervous John, playing your dulcimer in front of all those people?’ ‘Nervous?’ says John, ‘Damn the fear – I wouldn’t give a damn if thr Queen of England, de Valera or the Pope in Rome was in the audience – I just play tunes on my wee dulcimer!’
Well there you have some of my many happy memories of times spent with family and friends so now to a more recent occasion when my good friend Liz Weir invited me to spend a weekend at her Ballyemon Barn to sing and conduct a singing workshop. After I spent a wonderful time enjoying Liz’s warm hospitality, where many songs were sung, stories were told and music played among old friends and some new ones. Then on Sunday it was time to head home and I decided to go south via Glenarm and when I arrived I did a tour of the village and was delighted to find it looking really good with flower beds and boxes with fresh paint work on most of the village property. I then entered the old N.S. Presbyterian Churchyard and paid respects to my parents and other family members buried there. Just then Adrian Morrow, the church secretary came out of the church, ‘Ah, Leonard good to see you,’ says Adrian, ‘I was given a lovely painting from my father and it was painted by Lady Antrim. The picture features Lord Antrim, ‘The Cat’ and my father.’ ‘Oh, Adrian,’ says I, ‘I would love to see that.’ Adrian smiled and responds, ‘Ah, but Leonard, ‘The Cat’ was Lord Antrim’s prize Aberdeen Angus bull which he had just aquired shortly after your uncle’s death and Lord Antrim decided in memory of Willie to call his new bull ‘The Cat!’
I will finish as I started so here now is the last verse of Glenarm Bay with its reference to – ‘my locks are turning grey’ although alas my locks have now turned white!
She says, ‘My dear if you’re sincere, your flattery I won’t protest,
If you but knew the love that’s true, flows through my burning breast,
And when old age comes creeping on and my locks are turning grey.
We both will mind the harvest morn, we met along the bay, And the blue sea washed the pebbles white, along Glenarm Bay.
Len Graham, December 2020