The small village of Menlo sits by the River Corrib a few miles north of Galway city. Nearby is the scene of the boat tragedy that gave us that haunting lament Anach Chuain. The last village east of the river to give up speaking the Irish language, within a 20-mile radius lie the birthplaces of piper Patsy Touhey, singer Delores Keane and fiddler Frankie Gavin. From it Menlo Park in California gets its name.
Two events, so small as to be completely off the radar, in that village, back in 1915, have been drifting around my imagination since I read about them a few years back while thumbing through a book of memories taken down in Irish from a Menlo man, Tomás Laighléis, and published in 1977*.
The young men of the village were in the habit of congregating in the shelter of the castle walls by the gatehouse on sleepy Sunday afternoons in summertime, talking about stuff. Some would play pitch and toss.
Around five o’clock this day they suddenly heard the sound of music. Young and old jumped to their feet. A boat appeared rounding the corner full of uilleann pipers. The pipers joined them ashore and played for them such music, according to Tomás, that was never heard in the village before, or since, or as long as leaves will grow on trees. Those old folk who could walk came down from their houses. Villagers and musicians swapped songs and stories.
The sun was low in the sky by the time the pipers set off in their boat back to the city, but not before one of them gave a rousing talk, quoting a poem by An Craobhinn Aoibheann, aka Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland. According to Tomás, he got a cheer that was louder than when the first stone that was ever smashed in Menlo, noted for its limestone quarries.
Some days later, a group of the King’s Highlanders arrived from the Renmore garrison in the city and took up a position overlooking the village. All bagpipers. It was midweek and the village men, small tenant farmers, continued working in their fields. No group of people gathered around the musicians. They played their music, ate their provisions and marched back to barracks.
Small ripples, admittedly, but part of a huge wave that would in time bring down a mighty empire.
Tomás never saw the men who entertained them that Sunday afternoon again but heard that many of them were to take part in the Easter Rising the following year, some losing their lives. I can’t help speculating whether one of them was Eamonn Ceannt, signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, Commander of the South Dublin Union during the Rising, founder of the Dublin Pipers’ Club, uileann piper, executed. Born in the east of the county, the railway station in Galway is today named after him.
As I am writing this, I break off to watch a concert from Hyde Park, London, on telly celebrating the upcoming 90th birthday of another patriot, Nelson Mandela. I have never been a fan of Freddie Mercury or Queen, but like millions sat in awe at their stunning 1984 Live Aid performance. Only a few months earlier, as Mandela languished in prison cell 46664, Queen had earned their way on to a United Nations name-and-shame list after their concert performances in Sun City, apartheid South Africa’s answer to Vegas, in defiance of the expressed wishes of the ANC. “The band is not political,” guitarist Brian May explained.
At the Hyde Park London concert, who should I see coming on stage to perform in honour of the great man but – Brian May and Queen (with Paul Rodgers in for Freddie Mercury).
Happy birthday, Mr Mandela. In Menlo you’d know where you stood.
*Seanchas Thomáis Laighléis, by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. An Clóchomhar Tta., 1977.