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Terry McDonagh – The Piper of Treenabontry

Profile Terry McDonagh LE Mag September 2019

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The Piper of Treenabontry by Terry McDonagh

Terry McDonagh, poet and dramatist, taught creative writing at Hamburg University and was Drama Director at the International School Hamburg. He’s published ten poetry collections as well as letters, drama, prose and poetry for young people. His work has been translated into German and Indonesian. 2016: poetry collection, Lady Cassie Peregrina – Arlen House. 2017: included in Fire and Ice 2, Gill Education for Junior Cycle. 2017: poem, UCG by Degrees, included in Galway Poetry Trail on Galway University Campus. 2017: Director of WestWords, Irish literature festival in Hamburg. 2018: latest poetry collection, Fourth Floor Flat – 44 Cantos, published autumn 2018 by Arlen House.


This poem, The Piper of Treenabontry, came about after several encouraging conversations with musician, radio presenter and historian, Joe Byrne who had been researching Irish musical heritage in Chicago – the home of the legendary uilleann piper, Joe Shannon.

Joe Shannon, my mother’s cousin, emigrated to Chicago with his family in 1929 and died there in 2004. In later years he was, frequently, invited to return to Ireland to share his talents and to be conferred with numerous accolades. His Taylor Pipes are unique and remain with his family in Chicago.

This poem attempts to outline the story of his life from his boyhood home – among fairies and music in rural Ireland – to his work, music and, in later years, his special relationship with nature and bird-life in his back garden.

Also, thanks to Joe Byrne, I met Jerry O’Sullivan, the well-known uilleann piper from New York – with relatives in County Mayo – who composed this piece of music in response to my poem.

Music on the Uilleann Pipes: by Jerry O’Sullivan.


The Piper of Treenabontry

in memoriam: piper, Joe Shannon, Chicago.

They took their tunes with them
but the music refused to budge.
In Treenabontry I taste and smell
wind on the path the fairies crafted
when they chopped a corner off
Brennan’s house – it had stood
on the track they’d worn to a frazzle
when transporting the music
and memory of the Shannon family
into posterity.

Before they’d left, melody tangled
about the house or hung carelessly
on hawthorn and briar – spirits danced
in moonlit splashes and stowed
treasured tunes in wistful wind,
dozing bog and landscape crannies.

Only those little people have
the language to tell us
where a musical note comes from,
how it lodges in the land,
in the heart of a departed family,
in a memory of a house.

Joe Shannon played the uilleann pipes
in Chicago. This was real – big
untainted sound – visible in loneliness,
choking fears, loss or in the smiles
it cloaked and covered up. It was
the stuff that held imagined fields,
fences, happiness and tears together.

The spirits of skinny streams
and tossing air knew this.
They held on to mossy paths,
untamed bushes, mists and forts
where they stashed away tunes
for home fires in strange places.

And when the new generation
learned a different way of talking,
old language lived on in melody.

I can see the thatched cottage,
wordless at first light. A mother
whispers to God at the cart-shed door.
The anxious dog whimpers. Mist
falls on a bucket of hot coals
handed to a neighbour to conserve
the hope-giving fire for their return.

I see the loaded cart getting smaller
with every step of the old horse, Doll.
My mother stands weeping as her
cousins disappear into myth and legend.

Threenabontry, Kiltimagh, train, Cobh,
America robbing a townland of a widow,
Ellen Shannon and her young sons.
Only music dug in its heels and
refused to budge. It cut holes in hedges,
buried itself in watery rocks, wakes,
dewy rose bushes and railway tracks.

Joe had the gift
in the rough and tumble suburbs of Chicago:
a piper, baseball player and fireman.
His uilleann pipes –
imitating rhythms
of blackberry clusters
of fire-department sirens
of domestic sounds
of birds in the back garden
of being finally alone –
came to him by fate
like a harmonious fragment
when Patrick Hennelly – piper
and pipe maker from Mayo
gave him his gift of pipes.
There were drones to be mastered,
children to be fed. His arms
would have been exhausted
from gathering food. Even
Odysseus in times of myth
must have cried out in frustration:
what are the kids up to, now, Penelope?
I can hear nothing in this light.

Francis O’Neill sang accolades
to his playing at The World Fair in 1934.
Joe tuned into the piping of
another left-handed piper, Patsy Touhy
and off he went like a poet
trying to find rhythm in a poem – like
a mother building hope into
a prayer for a special intention.

John McFadden, the fiddler from Newport
composed The Pleasures of Hope
before Joe’s time. Eddy Mullaney
handed him a set of Taylor Pipes
in the sixties. They unlocked squeals
of delight in Joe. He didn’t ask who
he could play with. He just did.
Fiddler, Johnny McGreevy lifted
his spirits. Defiant as robins in frost
they battered aside new waves
in their euphoria of reels and jigs.
They heard the far-off cuckoo
and the corncrake in the long meadow
in their country of home-from-home.

Music had found its mark. Pilgrims
descended on his kitchen. Joe
and Johnny recorded Noonday Feast
over cups of tea – word was out.
The young came running.
Piper, Jim McGuire, Box player, John Williams
and Liz Carroll, the fiddler
threw their hats into the ring – Joe
gave them hope on nothing stronger than tea.

The Chieftains came and laid out a carpet,
They played with the big man and
acknowledged the *duine uasal in him.
Willie Clancy School and Cork University
turned out like new brooches
with awards and garlands – quiet as
his mother Ellen, he took it in his stride.

In later years – alone, he’d whistle
with birds in his back garden. They
responded. He took a pair of
Cardinal birds into his home and
refused to bury them when they died.
They came to light in his basement.

Joe Shannon
left as a boy
in 1929
to answer
the call to life
in Chicago
and he went
to the homeland
of the dead
in 2004.

The ghost in his pipes says it all.

 

*Duine Uasal = Unique person


© Terry McDonagh