Ceili Houses

Hugh A Murphy fondly remembers stories told around the fire

Let me say first of all that the term 'céilí house' had nothing to do with dancing. The term comes from the more basic meaning of the word céilí, i.e. a social gathering. And this is exactly what it was.

During the long winter months, at a time when there was no electricity, television, or even radio, the men used go three or four nights per week 'on their céilí' to various neighbouring houses and while away the hours chatting and conversing.

As far back as I can remember, our house was a céilí house. At that time there was no such thing as locked doors, or invitations required, or even the necessity to knock. The men just walked straight in and took their place with the rest around the open fire. I can’t recall a time when there was ever a lock, or even a bar, on our own front door.

The céilí house was an integral part of the way of life in the rural society of south Armagh, almost its backbone. It acted almost like a local news media where reports of all the important events occurring in the area, particularly an illness or a death, spread swiftly throughout the whole neighbourhood.

In addition to this, the topics discussed in the céilí house were wide-ranging, covering all the pressing matters of the day, especially the current state of the harvesting, the forthcoming weather, the rising or falling prices of pigs, horses, calves, and, at Christmas time, turkeys. The latter was of crucial interest to the women, as virtually every housewife would have a brood of turkeys raised and fattened for the Christmas market. On this she depended heavily for the provision of the Christmas fare for the family.

The repertoire of the céilí house also, of course, included stories, the thing in which we delighted most as children, especially stories about events that had been witnessed first hand by the teller and had a clear ring of authenticity about them.

Such stories included, for example, the blow by blow account of how Mick McGinnis, by then an elderly man who lived a short distance up the road from us, had single handedly beaten three men who had attacked him in a pub in Liverpool when he was in his prime, and he with only the use of one arm, the other one having been broken in a previous fight.

Or the story of Pete Kearney’s father carrying five hundred weight of seed corn, a two hundred weight bag on each shoulder and a hundred weight under his arm, from the top of Sturgan brae to Campbell’s bridge, a distance of approximately a quarter of a mile. He did this so as not to disturb the work going on preparing a field for sowing at the bridge by having to loose the horse out of the harrow.

Or the tale of the widow Flanagan burning stones on Hannigan’s hill, an ancient druidic ritual, to curse the local money lender. Or the story told by Pat O’Brien, who could never be beaten for the extravagance of his tales, no matter how big a lie anyone told to try to outstrip him, of how, while working as a navvy in London during the war, he took down a German fighter plane with his shovel!

In addition to these, there would be many stories told about matchmaking. Such a one concerned a local, fairly naïve man, called Michael Atkinson, and the time that he was keenly in the market for a woman. Some of the 'wise boys' took him up to Kate Boyle’s house where there were twelve daughters. They told him, since the choice was so wide, that he should be able to get at least one of them.

When they arrived outside the house they told Michael, who was clutching the obligatory bottle of whiskey, to wait outside the door until they went inside to 'square things up' with Kate and let her know that he was coming. They went around the side of the house, jumped over the ditch, nipped across the upper field and back out on the road again above where Michael was positioned. They turned their coats inside out and, pulling their caps down well over their eyes, they came sauntering down the road.

They asked Michael in a gruff accent what he was doing and when he told them they launched into him with a volley of verbal abuse asking him who did he think he was coming up to their country to steal the women off them! They took the bottle of whiskey from him, gave him a couple of good scuffs around the lugs and sent him on his way back home. They then went into Kate Boyle’s where they had a great night's céilíng on the bottle of whiskey!

It is interesting to note that this man managed to find a wife a number of years later. A more reliable matchmaker brought him to a house where there were two daughters. The elder of the two was very plain and quite staid, but the younger one was the complete opposite. She was beautiful and vivacious. Michael, of course, tried for 'the young one' and he couldn’t believe his luck when he managed to make the match.

The date was fixed for the wedding and Michael went home on cloud nine. During the next couple of weeks he could scarcely contain himself, counting the very hours to the big event. When the day finally arrived and the bride walked up the aisle to join Michael at the altar rails he chanced a sidelong glance at her and his heart missed a beat.

He leaned over to the best man, who happened to be the bride’s brother and over six foot tall, and whispered to him, 'This is not the one I picked!' The best man bent down and hissed in his ear, 'Shut your mouth or I’ll break your gob!' The wedding went ahead and, as it happened, Michael spent just over twenty-five years of very happy married life with the 'plain one', until she unfortunately died.

On the occasions when stories were told, they wouldn’t normally start until later on in the night after all other business had been covered, by which time we would have already been packed off to bed in the upper room which led off from the kitchen. However, the seating arrangements in the kitchen were such that a large armchair with a high back was positioned across at an angle to the open door of the bedroom. This meant that we could slip out of bed and crawl along the floor unnoticed and curl up behind the chair. Here we spent many long hours captivated by the stories.

Storytelling was a two-way event in which the audience was expected to play its part. At critical points in the story when the storyteller would pause, the audience was expected to ask the appropriate question to further the action. 'And what did you do, Peter, to get out of such an awful fix?', or 'And who was responsible, Peter? Did they ever catch him?'

And Peter would reply, 'Well, I’ll tell you that just right now.' He would then proceed to stretch out towards the open fire with a piece of paper in his hand and start to light his pipe, leaving everyone suspended on the edge of expectation. It was only when the pipe would be fully operational, which required a considerable amount of effort and time, that he would continue.

There was one man in the area who had the distinction of going on his céilí twice a day, first in the morning and again later on in the evening. His name was Mickey Murphy, or the Coinne as he was always called. Most of the people in the district had a nickname, especially the Murphys and the McParlands because they were so numerous. It was a practical way of distinguishing between them. Nearly all the nicknames had their origin in Irish, Mickey’s coming from the Irish word 'coinín' meaning 'a rabbit', most likely from his agility, especially in hopping over ditches. His house stood on an elevated site across the valley from us and we had a clear view of him as he headed off on his first tour.

The Coinne was one of the most delightful people who ever came into our house. He was never ever in bad form and always had a smile on his face. He had an airy, carefree manner which was immediately infectious. Any troubles you might have had were forgotten as soon as he came in through the door.

During the morning round we would be sitting, or eating, in the back kitchen which had an open fire and a pair of bellows, one of the most effective heating systems ever devised. The Coinne would get seated in the corner and start blowing the bellows until the fire would be roaring up the chimney. This first visit was more of a courtesy call and never involved any in-depth discussion. That would come later in the evening together with the stories.

At this stage he dealt with lighter subjects. He would often speak jokingly of the various women he could get if he went to the trouble of asking them, bursting into spasms of song as he went. There was one particular woman whom he really did seem to have a notion of and her name would be mentioned often, with my mother constantly urging him to go and ask her. His reply would always be the same, that he would be doing the asking 'any of these days'. During the latter part of his life he would talk wistfully, with a sparkle in his eye, of all the women he could have got if he had really wanted them.

The Coinne’s life seemed to be an idyllic one. He very seldom had any work to do. In the spring he would buy cattle and fatten them on his hill farm during the summer. As he had only himself to keep this was quite sufficient. Not for him ploughing or cropping or threshing. We often used to say to him that he was the only 'gentleman farmer' in Lislea, something with which he would readily agree with a hearty laugh.

Someone once told Mickey that the view alone from his house was worth a thousand pounds. That was at a time when a thousand pounds was more like a million today. This gave him a great deal of pride and often when he would be leaving from his morning round he would stand at our door looking up at his house, rolling the words around in his mouth as he spoke, almost tasting them, 'The view alone is worth a thousand pounds!', and with that he would be off down the road lilting a song, a man without a trouble in the world.

Hugh A Murphy, reproduced by kind permission of RoSA. All rights reservedMickey

You’d see him coming down
The fields,
Feet kissing stone ditches
Hand pressing their spine
As he headed for
Or Pat O’Brien’s
On his daily rounds.
No man ever cultivated the art
Of wasting time
With such devotion.
Bulldozing gloom
With iron wit
Sharp to the touch
The house rang with his presence.


When our turn came
Late in the evening
We’d slip from the room
Breath bated
Behind the chair
Embezzling moments
Of sheer joy
From the day’s takings
To be spent later
As our father squared his position
On the torn couch
To receive the deluge
Of his recent humour.
When the ditches revolted
And gaps were broken
In their bony ridges
To let him through
I knew Mickey
With the felon truth
Of adult knowledge,
His hoped body
Wrung by the twist
Of his many sorrows;
And I played his game
In earnest
Fellow conspirator
In his life’s lie
As I drank his face
And hooked nose
And eyes sparkling
To a background
Of barren hills
And an empty house
Whitewashed against gloom.

And I know his truth now
More real
From a distance
Of many miles
By the bright courage of his smile.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation