Musical Families in Fermanagh: The McGraths

Jenny Cathcart considers the colourful past of Ben 'Sketch' McGrath and family

Bernard Anthony McGrath, alias Ben, alias 'Sketch' McGrath, born in Cullen near Monea in Co Fermanagh in 1911, was an all round entertainer, singer, dancer, prankster, storyteller and songwriter.

Growing up, Ben sang in the choir at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Monea and led the Monea Accordion Band as band leader. He 'chorused', singing in unison with his sisters Alice and Jane. He joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1933 serving in the Sudan, Shanghai, China, Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore.

In 1938 on the eve of war, Ben bought the last gold wedding ring in Derry city and married Sheila McGarvey who sent him off to the trenches with garten clay from Glencolumkille, allegedly blessed by St Colum, to guarantee his safe return. Ben truly had nine lives. Serving in France he was wounded at Dunkirk in 1940.  He was back on the front lines in North Africa in 1942 but was wounded again in Italy.

Conditions for front line troops were truly horrendous and it took unimaginable bravery, faith and courage to survive. Officers recognised that Ben's charismatic wit and natural abilities as an entertainer helped maintain morale among the men and his comrades nicknamed him 'sketch' because of his natural wit and the stories he told. For the homesick, he would sing songs like The Groves of Boho, Lovely Lough Erne or Willie Rambler and to remind his comrades of their proud traditions he penned lyrics like these:

The war drums had sounded their clarion call
Three brave Irish regiments were there on the ball
Defenders of Ulster right down through the years
Were the Rifles, the Skins and the bold Fusiliers.

They landed in Africa to clash with the Hun
You can bet your last bob they missed none of the fun
They jumped into action with three hearty cheers
Did the Rifles, the Skins and the bold Fusiliers......

The 'Skins' were the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 'Rifles', the London Irish Regiment and the 'Fusiliers' the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Ben was in the ranks when the Inniskilling Fusiliers liberated Rome and he visited the Vatican when General Alexander brought the entire regiment to meet the Pope. Near Rome he met some Irish nuns at an orphanage who asked him for carbolic soap which he procured. In gratitude the nuns gave Ben a crucifix.

Returning to camp Ben promised the boys some female company that evening and organised an impromptu party. Imagine the soldiers' dismay when the nuns arrived! But Ben kept that crucifix in his breast pocket right next to his heart and it saved his life once again when a bullet ricocheted twice off the metal figure of Christ. On another occasion, he was drinking tea when a shot blew away his cup leaving the handle in his hand and a comrade lay dead beside him.

On liberation day the troops put Ben on a donkey to lead them into a small village in Austria. In 1947, Ben settled back into civilian life in a soldier's cottage in Monea, working at Springfield creamery to support his growing family.

By night he continued to be a raconteur, singer and dancer, performing popular songs like The Auld Yellow Cow, Johnny McAdoo and Springfield and Co at parish events, soirees in the townhall in Enniskillen or concerts in the British Legion hall. Audiences loved the way the names of local people would pop up unexpectedly in Ben's songs and anyone could be the butt of his jokes. To the delight of his audience, Ben might break spontaneously into a dance at the end of a song. His posture erect, his gestures graceful, he was fleet of foot, he was poetry in motion. Such was Ben`s charisma.

Of his seven children, Jim the youngest, was destined to take over the mantle of entertainer. He accompanied his father when Monea Accordion band played at local venues and this was to prove a determining influence, for the accordion became Jim`s first instrument and music his full time occupation. At home in Cullen, the McGrath family owned a portable gramophone and a collection of 78rpm records to animate musical evenings in the house. Recordings by  Jimmy Shand, the Scottish accordion virtuoso, strongly influenced Jim`s own musical compositions.

Nowadays, Jim appears in a regular Friday night slot at Blakes pub in Enniskillen and with his own group he has a full schedule of bookings for weddings, concerts and set dance sessions not only in Fermanagh but all over the north of Ireland, in Europe and in the US.

Set dances were mostly introduced to Ireland by the British Army before Partition and when the most recent set dancing revival took place both north and south of the border in the early 1980s, Jim emerged as a specialist in set dance music, counting often complex rounds of figures and bars. The Ballyvourney Jig set has a total of 552 bars in Slide figures.The Mazurka Set is made up entirely of reels. The Fermanagh Quadrilles are a combination of reels and jigs while the Valentia Island Set is a combination of Polkas.

A keen collector of ballad sheets, local songs and tunes, Jim's repertoire is vast. Fellow musicians are astonished by his retentive memory and his unfailing generosity in sharing traditional tunes. In 1998 Jim contributed to a collaborative album entitled Erne.

In 2005 he released his first solo album, Melodious Accord which displays his skills not only as a player but as a composer. Various dance styles are represented including a Cajun style reel, jigs, hornpipes, flings, slides, barn dances, a foxtrot and a slow air. All of the tunes are original compositions which by their eclectic nature reflect both the Scottish and Irish musical traditions in Fermanagh.

Scottish pipes and snare drums are as much in keeping with the overall style as the Irish bodhran. Even though all of the tracks are instrumental, the compositions have been inspired by local places and characters - Monea Castle, The Boys of Bellanaleck a tribute to the musical prowess of the McConnell family or the Prince of Distillers a nickname given to Gerard Howden a poteen maker from Knockmore.  Jim also has a particular talent for waltz tunes for he was inspired by some of his father's favourite songs in waltz time like the Beauty of Limerick or the Boys of South Armagh.

Jim and his wife Margaret have been particularly supportive of children with musical talent in their community and this includes their own. In 2005 son Sean, won the junior Ulster bodhran title.

Like father like son.