The Stars of Ballymenone

Charismatic anthropologist Henry Glassie returns to the County Fermanagh village where he made his name

In 1972, on the advice of Professor Estyn Evans, head of the geography department at Queen’s University Belfast, a 30-year-old anthropologist and folklorist from Virginia headed east to County Fermanagh to take a long, careful look at a remote rural community in a time of Trouble.

From Enniskillen, Henry Glassie walked south along what is now the main Dublin Road towards the border with the Irish Republic. Some six miles on, he turned left at Rossdoney and found himself in an area of small fields and modest hills where farmers tended their land with a craftsman’s care. It was a place he came to love almost as much as its inhabitants did.

Traversed by the Arney river, the townlands of Ballymenone were inhabited by nine Protestant and 33 Catholic families. They were mostly farmers and labourers who, whatever their differences, were good neighbours.

Glassie, whose business is to understand the world as it is understood by others, lived among them, participated in their daily tasks, and without asking too many questions took time to listen.

His field work over seven years produced five books including All Silver and No Brass and Passing the Time in Ballymenone, which garnered enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Now Emeritus college professor at Indiana University, Glassie is recognised as the finest folklorist of his generation for his contributions to the study of vernacular architecture, folk art and song, and for his acute observations of daily life not only in Ballymenone but in the USA, Turkey and Bangladesh.

Invited by the Fermanagh local history group, Battles, Bricks and Bridges, the professor – a tall figure with kindly eyes, a shock of white hair and a distinguished moustache – arrives at the Millennium Hall in Arney escorted by the Aughakillymaude mummers, and is introduced to the assembled audience by author Seamus MacAnnaidh.

A relaxed and fluent speaker, Glassie begins by describing how he was accepted by the good people of Ballymenone. Though he was a stranger and could have been taken in those times for a spy, they trusted his sincerity and allowed him to take photographs of them and the landscape, and to make drawings of their houses.

He joined them in their kitchen ceilis, at sessions in the pub or their 12th of July parades. He recorded their songs, their fairy stories and tales of ghosts, country cures and 6th century saints like Patrick, who came as far as Inishmore island on the opposite shore of Lough Erne.

He heard about local battles such as the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuit (1594), when local chief Hugh Maguire routed the English army whose rations then floated down the Arney river, or the Mackan Fight between Protestants and Catholics, which took place in 1829.

In Ballymenone, Glassie met his number one teacher, the man he always addressed as Mr Nolan and whom he came to regard as a modern saint. Community historian, storyteller and wise man, Hugh Nolan spoke clearly and to the point while telling his truth, and refused to say ill of his neighbours.

Throughout his career, Glassie reckons he has met three true artists each with a God given gift, each self taught and each with a style all of his own. He names Ahmet Sahin, a Turkish ceramicist and Haripada Pall, a sculptor of Hindu images from Bangladesh – but the first was from Ballymenone.

Born in 1906, Philip Flanagan was a musician son of a musician, who sang and played the flute and the violin. He worked as a farm labourer during the day but at night he and his brother Joe, bachelors both, hosted the best ceilis in the area.

Philip was a compact, handsome man who, when Glassie first met him, was wearing a black suit and holding a rosary in both hands. He believed in God and loved his neighbour and his art. He would say, 'If you haven’t music in you in this world, you have nothing.' Flanagan graces the cover of Glassie's book, The Stars of Ballymenone.

In Ballymenone, Glassie found examples of Irish folk art, notably the assembly of plates on Ellen Cutler’s kitchen dresser. Handed down by family members or offered by her friends, the delph had sentimental value. Culter would never use them, of course. 'Rather,' observes Glassie, 'she washed them in a bowl like a baby, treating them as a curator would Renaissance art.'

At Christmas, Cutler would decorate her kitchen with bells and the mummers would come. These local entertainers visited every single house before inviting all and sundry to their Mummers Ball.

In the days before electricity, which arrived in 1976, there were other notable ‘stars’ in Ballymenone who shone by their wit and wiles. 'They were smart,' says Glassie. 'They took this little place where every lane and townland had a name and pumped it up with genius so it became as big as the universe.'

Take that great wit, Hughie McGeveny. 'He would have been drinking in Blakes of the Hollow in Enniskillen while Samuel Beckett was at Portora,' Glassie reveals. 'I like to imagine that it was McGeveney who taught Beckett the proposition of dark hyperbole.'

Like the Ballymenone farmers, Beckett’s Didi and Gogo (‘Waiting for Godot’) display endurance and hold boredom at bay, telling old tales and sticking together while the outside world, the world of Lucky and his master, degenerates into madness.

Nolan perceived that as life gets better in material terms it gets worse in social terms. He foresaw that the old style ceili would cease to exist once television and the Internet arrived. And that is why, for Glassie, the ceili was so central to Ballymenone life and culture. Ceiliers gathered around the hearth as equals bent on the truth, creating connections between themselves and with God.

Glassie, who generously rewarded his stars of Ballymenone with a share in his book royalties, returned regularly to his old haunt, noting the changes that progress had made. Off went the thatch and on went the tin roof. New porches inhibited entry that was once as simple as lifting the latch.

Kitchen ranges and built-in cupboards replaced the crook on the fire and the decorative dresser. Today, Glassie is pleased to note that even though the older cottages have not been preserved, it is mostly the same families who live on the farms and the farmland is still beautiful.

Glassie has a strong affection for his fellow human beings, and this was surely the secret of his success in Ballymenone. In Arney hall he looks as though he would be happy to chat for hours, but he finishes by telling the audience that they should be proud of their area.

Touched by his charisma and his humanity, many queue to get his autograph or just to shake his hand – they know they are in the presence of a special person who found their part of the world special.