Ceili at the crossroads sparks memories

By Danny Morrison

Coming up to 2pm -- the starting time advertised -- things did not look too promising. The small marquee to provide shade for the Trasna Ceili Band was only being erected. The only crowd that had gathered was a demoralised one across the road -- the overspill from McEnaney’s pub, where on television Rangers was giving Celtic a drubbing.

What is it about us that we cannot start on time? The Easter Sunday 1916 Rising started on a Monday. During the four years I was in Tyrone as an MLA, eight o’clock evening meetings started at 11. Bloody hell! People in Carrickmore didn’t even head out to dances in Omagh until one in the morning.

From where did we get this manana attitude of “what’s the hurry? It’ll do tomorrow (or later still)”? Eight hundred years of waiting for a turnaround in fortune? Do Protestants with their different history really have a healthier work ethic?

By 20 past two, there were three dogs, two kids on mountain bikes and a couple of men and women with prams and infants standing on the empty site formerly occupied for generations by the RIC/RUC/PSNI/British army at the Y-junction, close to west Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery, where the Falls ends and the district of Andersonstown begins.

But a blink of the eye later and there were hundreds gathered -- men, women and children of all ages, ready to ceili swing, to reel, jig, march and do a polka.

It was a wonderful sight, an inspired idea from Gearoid O Caireallain, this “dancing at the crossroads”.

There were times when a ceili was considered by the Northern state to be something akin to subversion (and I suppose they sometimes were a bit when organised by Jimmy Steele).

You could see among the older generation those familiar with the steps and who had the definite skills -- those who were veterans of Belfast’s Ardscoil, Cluain Ard and the parish hall, before rock ‘n’ roll, pop and disco invaded. But also the youngest adapted quickly to the directions from the bean an ti, Maire Ui Bhruadair, and you could see that here was a part of our culture ripe for popularising once again, with all due credit to those aficionados who have kept the ceili tradition alive.

A woman from the Springfield Road said to me: “Remember us dancing to this in St Paul’s Hall?” I had long forgotten. I smiled back -- another fond memory to bank, a cheque that I didn’t know I had, though suddenly I also remembered my successful rival Bobby, who danced like he was in leg irons but still got the girl.

I sat with my mother, Susan, whom I had taken out of Grovetree Home for the day, and Georgette Gartner from France (who visits her daughter every year). They are both in their 80s. Due to a brain haemorrhage almost 25 years ago, my mother lives in her own quiet world but sometimes old memories stir and she becomes animated.

Here, this Saturday, she was foot-tapping to the drum beat and humming along with the tune.

Many of my maternal uncles were musicians -- encouraged by my Granda White -- and my Uncle Seamus White had his own ceili band, which sometimes included my Uncle George.

It is perhaps a blessing that my mother is unaware that all of her brothers and sisters, apart from Seamus, are dead. When she enjoys herself, her soul lights up and charms everyone around her.

I thought to myself: Where would you get it? Over there, doing The Waves of Tory is sprightly 84-year-old Eddie Keenan, who as a young man of 20 escaped with four others from Crumlin Road jail in May 1941. Next to him is a young Basque woman, domiciled in Belfast, part of a small but thriving emigre Basque community, twirling her Irish-born infant to the sound of an accordion. Next to her is Annie Cahill, widow of Joe Cahill, who certainly knows her steps. And next to her is Mrs Moya Cooney, surrounded by members of her family.

As The Sweets of May was being played, I went over to speak to the widow of my old music teacher Tommy ‘Chanter’ Cooney. I wanted to tell her a small story about her husband that I had recorded on RTE and also published in a book. Tommy taught me at Glen Road Christian Brothers School and St Mary’s Grammar.

He taught music because he loved it. It was his life. He had begun his musical career as a teenager in the Northern Ireland Symphony Orchestra, where he played under such famous conductors as Edward Elgar, Henry Wood and John Barbirolli. In school, he carried a strap that he never used, thus he had no authority and everybody took advantage of him. One day in late November 1969, he came into class. Everyone was misbehaving and Tommy tried to impose some order.

“Right, I want you to listen to a piece of music.”

“Oh no,” was the general groan. Not another bit of ancient din that we have to analyse. He put on an LP. Crisp sunshine. Blue skies.

“Dee, de, dee, deee... I feel that ice is slowly melting.”

It was Here Comes the Sun from the Beatles’ Abbey Road LP, which had just been released. Everyone went quiet. Tommy lifted the stylus and played it again, analysing the melody and harmony, praising the way it had been composed. He then went on to compare Because with the second movement of Vivaldi’s Autumn.

We were all spellbound. We all thought he was great. He was so taken by our response, by the questions, by our interest, that by the end of the class he had the biggest smile on his face that I had ever seen in all the years he had been teaching us.

To be remembered, to be spoken about fondly, is a fine tribute to one’s character and stamp on this earth.

Looking about me, I thought: What a great community this is -- vibrant, diverse, hospitable and each individual life full of wonderful stories. Look what we have come through. We had seen the peelers and the military off and now Andersonstown barracks is no more and in its place is a welcome, wide open space that lets the air and light in and is a little oasis of peace.

It’s unclear what is going to happen to the property. It is being administered by the titular office of the First and Deputy First Ministers and there has been talk of it being handed over to the community as part of a peace dividend. Coiste na nIarchimi (an ex-prisoners’ organisation) and the West Belfast Partnership Board have suggested a residence for international visitors and students studying conflict resolution, akin to the Farset International on the Springfield Road.

Looking at the grand vista the flattened barracks now offers of the Glen and Andersonstown roads, one former IRA volunteer said: “Half of us wouldn’t have been arrested if we could have seen this far up Andytown!”

I like the idea of nothing happening to the site. Or the idea of the occasional dance at the crossroads or perhaps a market there of a Saturday morning where you could buy second-hand books or old vinyl records, eat some Arab food, drink some Turkish coffee, and meet the world.

A taxi driver said he would like to see just a palm tree planted on the site.

Why’s that? he was asked.

Just so as I can look at it, he said.

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© 2005 Irish Republican News