The mountainy area along the Cork/Kerry border is known as Sliabh Luachra and was the uninhabited wet, marshy, rushy, mountain area of the old Kingdom of Luachra first noted in the “Annals of Inisfallen” in 534 when the King of Luacar won a battle against Tuathal Moel nGarb and again in 741 with the death of Cuaine, Abbot of Ferna and Flan Feórna, son of Cormac King of Luachra.
An Cathair Chraobhdhearg (The City) which was the first place in Ireland to be populated, is considered the centre of Sliabh Luachra, it is at the base of the twin mountains “An Dá Chich Dannan” the breasts of Danú (The Paps) and was the base of An Tuaithe De Dannan, who were an aristocracy of poets, artists, and musicians, who came to Ireland from Boeotia in Greece. It is the oldest centre of worship in the Western World. Danú was the Goddess of an Tuaithe De Dannan, she was daughter of Dagda who according to legend at the battle of Magh Tuireadh, which was fought between the Tuatha De Danann and the piratical Fomorians, saw his Harper Uaithne being taken away by the retreating pirates. He perused the fleeing group to their retreat and on recovering the harp he played the most ancient form of Irish music starting with the goltrai until the women wept, he played the geantrai until they all burst out in laugher and then he played the suantrai until they all fell asleep, after which he released his Harper and brought him back. A settled population did not populate the remaining thousand square miles of Sliabh Luachra until the Desmond rebellion, which ended with the death of Gerald Fitzgerald the 15th Earl Of Desmond in 1583. His last hiding place “Teach an Iarla” can still be seen cut into a glen in the heart of the Sliabh Luachra mountains near the source of the river Backwater. The rebellion resulted in the scorched earth policy of Queen Elizabeth’s army, which devastated much of Munster with men women and children put to the sword, land and crops burned resulting in a great famine. The song of the thrush or the lo of an animal was not to be heard from Ventry to Cashel. The poet Edmond Spenser who was Secretary to Lord Grey, commander of the Elizabethan army, best describes the plight of the early people of Sliabh Luachra .
The Plantation of Munster
Following this the plantation of Munster began with a half a million acres being declared Crown property and distributed among English landlords with the old population being ordered to Hell or to Connaught. Some of the dispossessed and thus poverty stricken people of Munster took refuge in Sliabh Luachra which was also Crown property with much of it recorded as mountain pastures but the authorities had despite their many efforts failed to get any landlord to take any of it
The survivors of the defeated confederate army later added to this group after the Battles of Knocknanuss, and Knockbrack. The battle of Knocknanuss took place on The 13th November 1647, this battle, was fought between the Confederate army and the army of the Parliament. The confederate army were led by Lord Taffe, who was assisted by a Scottish General and swordsman named Allister McDonnell who was known as Allistrim and was killed in the battle, he is still remembered in “Allistrims March” which was composed for the battle by the Sliabh Luachra poets and musicians, and the Allistrim Jig to which his wife danced on a half door at his grave in Clonmeen graveyard, and also the Slow Air “Gol na mBan san Ár” which is reputed to have been composed by his mother, foster mother, wife, and daughter. The army of the Parliament were led by Lord Inchaquin (O Brien of the burnings). The army of the Parliament won the battle which lasted for 4 hours with 4000 dead. The Battle of Knockbrack took place in 1651 where Lord Broghill led the army of the Parliament
With the army of the Confederation led by Lord Muskerry, again the army of the Parliament won the battle. Traditional Gaelic Ireland, which barely survived after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, reached its end after of these two battles, but in its defeat started the flowering of the old Gaelic Traditional culture in Sliabh Luachra.
The survivors of the defeated confederate armies from both battles took refuge in the Sliabh Luachra area, which was then a very inhospitable place with marshes, scrub woodland, wet rushy ground, no roads, fences, drainage, or services, but at least any authorities did not disturb them. Despite their poverty they lived reasonably happy lives, cultivating some of the wet mountain by hand to make land, to grow very basic vegetables and feed the few cattle. Their children getting a high level of education in the hedge schools around the area with many being fluent in Irish, English, Latin, and Greek. They provided their own entertainment by getting immersed in the old music, dance, poetry, and story telling, of Sliabh Luachra, which indeed became the property of the dispossessed.
Outlaws, Rebels and Raperees
This area remained undisturbed and unaccounted for, until the agrarian disturbances of the Rockite movement in the 1820s. The Rockite movement began in West Limerick in the summer of 1821. In the region around Newcastlewest a conflict between the land agent of The Courtenay estates Alexander Hoskins and the tenants led to the assassination of Hoskins son in July 1821. This conflict had been provoked by Hoskins harsh treatment of the tenants of the estate. His conduct had been criticised by many, including the under-secretary in Dublin Castle, William Gregory who had remarked that nothing could be more oppressive than the conduct of Lord Courtenays agent. Although this disturbance was the only instance of agrarian unrest in Munster at that time five regiments of troops were sent to quell it. The disturbance from this conflict spread into Sliabh Luachra. The first leader of the Rockite movement known as “Captain Rock” was a Patrick Dillane who may have come from the Sliabh Luachra area. Many of the leaders of the movement taking up hiding in Sliabh Luachra, led the then British Government becoming concerned about this area of about 960 square miles from which they were getting no return, and which they stated was a haven for outlaws, rebels, and rapperees, and since there were no roads or communications into the area it was impossible to control it.
Arising from this disturbance the Commissioners of his Majesties Treasurery had the area surveyed by Richard Griffith surveyor of the Department of Woods and Forestry, and James Weale Officer of the Revenue Department. In 1830 they produced the
“Report, on the Crown Lands of County Cork” (see report made by James Weale) which was debated in the House of Commons It pointed out the disadvantages of the area, that the people were rebellious, and that their wickedness went unpunished as the authorities could not get into them. It was also pointed out that farmers from North Kerry and parts of West Limerick would in the summer time take butter on a mountain path through the Rockchapel area on horse back, two firkins per horse to Newmarket where it was transferred to horse carts carrying 24 firkins and send on to the largest butter market in the world in Cork City. In 1830, these farmers send 30000 firkins valued at £52000, with much of it passing through the Rockchapel mountain path.
As a result of this report many roads were built in the area, including the road from Castleisland to Clonbanin, from Ballydesmond to Newmarket, and the new line road, along the Feale valley from Feales Bridge through Rockchapel to Newmarket The engineering work on these roads and bridges was done by Richard Griffith who later became well known in Ireland through his Griffith valuations of 1852. The village of Kingwilliamstown (Ballydesmond) was also built as a result of the report as was a model farm at Glencollins near Ballydesmond where it was demonstrated that good grass could be grown on peaty soil by the use of burnt lime. As a result many limekilns were also built round the Sliabh Luachra area. The new line road and the building of a church in 1833 and a school in 1847 started the formation of a community and village in Rockchapel.
Sliabh Luachra Music & Poetry
Today Sliabh Luachra is recognised as the bedrock of traditional Irish music, song, dance, and poetry. The area has produced some of Irelands greatest poets including Geoffrey Fionn Ó Dalaigh who died in 1387, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille (1670 – 1720) The charismatic Gaelic poet Eoghán Ruá Ó Suilleabháin (1748 – 1784) whose many exploits live on in the folk memory as do his his poetry and “Ashlings” and the solo set dance “Rodneys Glory” which was composed in 1783 following his exploits after being forced to join the British Navy. Sliabh Luachra was also the birthplace the folklorist, poet, and translator Edward Walsh (1805 – 1850), An tAthar Padraig Ó Duinnin who compiled “Dineens Dictionary” which is to this day the bible of the Irish Language, and An Bráthair Tomás Ó Rathaille, Superior General of the Presentation Brothers 1905-1925 who wrote two books of Irish poetry “An Spideog” and “An Cuaicin Draoideachta.” This tradition of poetry continues to the present time with Bernard O' Donoghue now a lecturer in Oxford University winning the prestigious Whitbread prize for a collection of poems in 1993/94. Little wonder that Professor Daniel Corkery author of “The Hidden Ireland” wrote that Sliabh Luachra was the literary capital of Ireland.
The area had a wealth of traditional fiddle masters whose names are legendary and who gave the music, a draiocht and a feeling that it came from the soul of the people, expressing their views hopes and fears. Much of the traditional music and dance of Ireland during troubled times was used as a voiceless expression of the views of the Irish people, which was well understood by them, but meaningless to their oppressors. Much of this draoicht and deep meaning is lost today in the mad rush to modernise and standardise our music and dance, and reduce one of the oldest musical traditions in Europe to the level of a mass culture in an effort to win competitions, or meet the perceived demands of an uninformed market, rather than preserving our old traditions
Old Dances of Ireland
Many of our old dances such as The Bridge of Athlone, The Bonfire, The Waves of Tory. An Rince Mór, and An Rince Fada, that were danced at the fair of Carman in the year 1200, and were always part of the old Celtic Bealtaine celebrations, and ceremonial occasions such as the arrival of an honoured guest, for example an Rince fada was danced to welcome James 11 on his arrival in Kinsale in March 1698. These dances are regrettably no longer centre stage in Ireland. This is also the case with our solo set dances, such as The Garden of Daisies, The Job of Journeywork, Youghal Harbour, and the dances that were composed to celebrate The Napoleon and Jackobite wars when it was felt these wars might in some way result in gaining the freedom of Ireland. A whole range of these dances connected to historic events in Ireland are being lost, and are replaced by contemporary, make up as you go along dances, often added to by hard shoes, silly uniforms some with nonsensical designs, silly girdles, and hair styles, and is unrecognisable from what was performed in the homesteads and Crossroads of Ireland down the centuries. Its only relationship to tradition is that it is danced to traditional music.
A dancing master named Donchada Ó Morá who was known as 'Mooreen' brought many the old traditional dances to North Kerry, and Sliabh Luachra. He came to Listowel with a circus in the early 17 hundreds and stayed on and travelled about teaching traditional step dancing, he taught many in Sliabh Luachra who then went on to being dancing masters themselves. He also became acquainted with the poetry music and activities of Eoghán Rua Ó Suilleabhaín and composed the dance “Rodney’s Glory” after Eoghán Ruá had composed the poem and tune in 1783. Mooreen is buried in An Teampaillin Ban graveyard near Listowel
Longevity in Sliabh Luachra
Sliabh Luachra hit the headlines in the 1960s for reasons other than its music and culture. An eminent Irish-American Pathologist Dr Albert E. Casey discovered that the people of Sliabh Luachra have a longer lifespan than any other in Ireland if not in the world, and the men had a longer lifespan than the women, this despite having a diet that consisted of plenty milk, fat bacon, eggs, and the men folk drinking many pints of porter. In a paper to the learned International Academy of Pathology in
San Francisco Dr Casey concluded that the reason for their long lifespan was peace of mind, no stress, helped by fresh air, the closeness of the bogs, which are noted for the preservative power.
While there was a decline in Irish traditional music in the first part of the 20th century, this decline did not effect Sliabh Luachra and the old authentic music, traditions, and culture, of the area with their cultural roots in our remote past, continued to be passed down as it was over the centuries, and we must ensure that that link is not broken and that the living traditions are passed on intact and unchanged to future generations.