An extract from Sean Ó Sé’s new book recalls wartime in West Cork and those first steps towards a life in music.
EVEN before I started school, I knew that there was fighting going on between England and Germany. I knew that it was called the Second World War and that thousands of people were being killed every day in places far away from where we lived.
As well as that, I knew that we had a scarcity of butter and that tea and sugar were rationed because of the war. Sometimes, my mother showed me pictures of bananas and promised me that she would get me one when the war ended.
The use of private cars was restricted too, with most cars being put off the road, apart from those driven by the doctor, the parish priest, the school inspector, the Local Defence Forces officer and some taxi drivers. Newspapers had only one sheet and no photos.
During the war, our main source of entertainment was the radio, which was powered by a wet and a dry battery. We treasured that radio like nothing else we owned and used it sparingly, mainly for news, football and hurling matches and a Saturday night programme on Radio Éireann called Around the Fire, which featured the singing of Seán Ó Síocháin, Martin Dempsey, Nellie Walsh, Joe Lynch and Art Sinnott, who was the best man ever to sing the rebel song ‘Boolavogue’.
My mother had a republican, anti-British streak in her and loved tuning in to Lord Haw-Haw, an Irish-American fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster whose real name was William Joyce. In his nightly news bulletins, he spread German propaganda and listed all the British casualties of the day. I know that at the time my mother was not aware of the awful and heinous war crimes of Hitler and the Nazi regime.
As well as tuning in to the radio, we also made our own entertainment, especially on dark winter nights. My sister, Máirín, and I would settle ourselves, sitting snugly on my father’s lap by the fireside listening to his many stories. He triggered our imagination with riveting tales about Celtic heroes, such as Cúchulainn, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Oisín, and moved us to tears with stories about St Patrick being enslaved on Sliabh Mish.
He sang to us too and had a huge range of Scottish songs, including a fishing song called ‘Caller Herrin’, ‘Flora MacDonald’ and ‘I Belong to Glasgow’. He was a big fan of the songs of Harry Lauder. Most nights, he finished off with a stirring rebel song, such as ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’ or ‘The West Awake’. Whenever my father sang, Maureen and I joined in too if we knew the words. When he sang a new song, we always picked up the chorus fairly quickly and learned the rest bit by bit.
My parents knew I had a good voice, which was a good boy soprano, pure and clear. Both of them encouraged me to sing and my father always warned me to watch out for when my voice would break, as it was important to stop singing while the new voice developed. But it all happened so gradually that I never even noticed the change.
In our house, we all loved singing and music so much that whenever a concert was held in Bantry, Co Cork, we always went along. One evening, when I was about eight years of age, we headed off to an open-air concert, known as Aeríocht, in the grounds of Bantry House. Among those taking part was probably the greatest sean-nós singer of all time, Cáit Ní Mhuineacháin from Ballingeary.
During the interval, my father whisked me off to the courtyard of Bantry House and showed me the mangled wreckage of a German fighter plane that had crashed in nearby Kilcrohane. The sight and size of it filled me with awe. As we walked all around it, my father said that when the plane crashed, a girl from Kilcrohane by the name of Shanahan came along and pulled out one of the Germans trapped inside. Some time later, she was invited to the German Embassy in Dublin and awarded the Iron Cross for her bravery. I was very impressed that we had such a heroine in the locality.
During the war, most local adult men joined one or other of the reserve forces in the Irish army, such as: the LDF, which was the local defence force and somewhat like today’s FCA; the LSF, which was the local security force and aided An Garda Síochána; or An Slú Muirí, which was the naval reserve.
All the forces carried out regular drills and manoeuvres around the area. One Sunday evening, I got the surprise of my life when eight LDF members took over our house and started a mock shooting drill with more LDF men who had planted themselves in the nearby woods and tried to capture our house.
But the biggest day of all was yet to come. On another Sunday, all the reserve forces joined together for a trooping of the colours ceremony in the square in Bantry. The atmosphere was electric and I nearly jumped out of my skin with excitement as I watched the forces proudly parade around the square, all in perfect step, to the rousing sound of a marching military band.
Their uniforms impressed me too as all the troops were dressed to perfection, with their buttons and shoes gleaming and not a hair out of place. There was one exception though, my uncle Mort who was in the LSF. His beret was turned back to front and as he marched directly in front of me I shouted at him, ‘Uncle Mort! Your cap is on back to front!’ The faintest suggestion of a smile crossed his face. I went home on a high and made up my mind that I was definitely going to be a soldier when I grew up.
Every day from then on, I put on a beret belonging to my father and marched around the house like a sergeant major, holding erect a sweeping brush with a yellow duster on top and singing ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’ at the top of my voice.
But I had another uncle involved too. On Bere Island, my uncle Paddy O’Shea, who lived in Castletownbere, Co Cork served as a civilian with the Irish army. Every night, when the army shone a huge search light over Bantry Bay, I thought of Uncle Paddy and took great pride in the fact that he was working with the military and I was sure he was the man in charge of the gigantic searchlight. Who else but my dear Uncle Paddy.
While the war continued, a hundred soldiers from the Second Cycling Squadron billeted in Bantry House. Sometimes, they came free-wheeling down the slope outside our house and made a funny swishing sound as they whizzed by.
On the first Friday of every month, which was a Fair Day in Bantry (when people traded their goods and animals), a recruitment officer from the British army came to the square. Later in the day, it was a common sight to see bicycles left abandoned at the railway station by local lads who had signed up with the British army.
One morning in 1946, as the war drew to a close, I was cycling to school with my father when one of the local gentry, Colonel Haskard, happened to come along on his bike. In a very superior tone of voice, he said to my father, ‘O’Shea, we won the war.’ ‘Ye did indeed,’ my father replied, and kept on cycling.
After the war, our lives changed rapidly. The rationing of food ended and my mother treated Maureen and me to our first banana and orange. Private cars took to the roads again and people began to travel more outside of their own locality.
After the war, too, people began to enjoy all sorts of entertainment. In our house, going to the cinema on a Friday night became a tradition. I laughed my head off watching Laurel and Hardy films, the Three Stooges and Old Mother Riley, and I became a big fan of Bing Crosby after seeing him take the lead role in Going My Way and The Bells of St Mary’s.
We went to live shows in Bantry too, put on in the Old Town Hall or the Stella Cinema by travelling theatrical companies. We saw full-length plays such as Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Death of a Salesman, all staged by the famous Anew McMaster theatrical companies that toured the towns and villages of Ireland for nearly thirty-five years.
McMaster was an extraordinary actor himself and his wife Marjorie, who was the sister of Micheál Mac Liammóir, also acted with the company. Later, many of the company’s actors became internationally famous, among them, believe it or not, Harold Pinter.
We enjoyed the fit-ups travelling variety shows also. Usually, they
started with a variety show of singing, dancing and music, lasting about an hour. They followed that with a short version of a melodrama, like Jane Eyre, and ended with a funny sketch.
Watching the performers on stage enthralled me, especially as I was still very shy. Sometimes, people who are shy take refuge in performing. Somewhere deep inside, they may have a burning desire to perform themselves and for me that yearning was awakened by the fit-ups. When I’d go to bed after seeing one of their shows, I’d dream about what the tenor had done on stage. I could almost visualise myself doing it.
But, talent wasn’t confined only to the members of the touring companies, as we had much local talent too. In 1947, a world-renowned Irish traditional singer and piper, Séamus Ennis, drove into our yard in a black Ford Prefect to record my father and two other singers — the teacher and sean-nós singer Marcella Hurley and a wonderful, traditional, young singer named Mary O’Sullivan. Later, the BBC aired the recording on a radio show called Turkey in the Straw.
Years afterwards, when I was recording at the BBC myself, I mentioned the 1947 recording to Brian George, a Donegal man, who was one of the top men there. Within minutes, he had dug out the recording and handed me a copy to keep of my father’s soundtrack of a song called ‘The Outlaw of the Hill’.
By 1949, it looked as if my enjoyment of all that Ballylickey and Bantry had to offer was about to come to an end, as I was due to start secondary school. At the time, Bantry had no secondary school for boys and my parents decided that I should try to become a boarder at Coláiste Íosagáin, which was run by the De La Salle order in the Gaeltacht village of Ballyvourney, Co Cork, and was located about 30 miles from home.
My friend Eddie Bracken had already started there. By then, my notions of becoming a soldier had gone out the window and my parents assumed that I would follow in their footsteps and become a teacher. Along with other colleges, such as Coláiste na Mumhan in Mallow, Coláiste Íosagáin served as a preparatory college for teaching.
BUT, I had one big hurdle to climb, as I had to do an entrance exam in Irish, English, maths, history, geography and singing, the test for which included an ear test and a sight test.
With the help of my father I worked hard to prepare for the exam. It was held at Easter time in the convent school in Bantry. On the morning of the test, my father said to me, “Bring home the test papers, Seán. Write down the answers you get to all your sums and I’ll check to see if they’re right”.
After sitting the exam, I was happy enough, even with the maths test, which had three hard sums and six easy ones. But, when my father checked my answers, he found that I hadn’t got one single sum right. And so we decided that my chances of getting into Coláiste Íosagáin were nil.
Without wasting any time, my father made up his mind to uproot the whole family and move to Cork so that I could attend secondary school there. He applied for a job as a teaching assistant in the city and got it. During the summer months, he accepted the post and agreed to start the following August, even though he probably knew that he would be a total misfit in a city school.
Shortly after doing the exam, a cousin of mine named Seán O’Shea was due to be ordained as a priest. For the occasion, my father promised me my first long pants. But then, because I had failed my exam, he bought me a short one instead and a jacket to match.
In early August, I was kicking a football against the back of the house when my father appeared before me, beaming from ear to ear and waving a letter in his hand. “Seán, you got Coláiste Íosagáin,” he said excitedly and threw his two arms around me. I said: “I couldn’t have.” He said: “You did. You must have got the method of the sums right.” I could scarcely believe it. Indeed, it was the biggest surprise of my life and lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. And so my father never took up his new post in the city, where he was due to start in only a few weeks time.
On the following morning, he took me into Cullinane’s shop in Bantry and said to Willie Cotter the draper: “I want a suit for this man with long pants.” Willie stood back, looked at him in wonder and asked: “But didn’t you buy a suit for him some time ago?” Then, he said: “There was a long pants going with it. I’ll give you that.” And so I got my first long pants.
From then on, I was the centre of attention, with everyone congratulating me on my achievement, wishing me all the best for the future and my mother fussing over me, buying me a new pyjamas and suitcase and making sure that I had all my school books.
One Tuesday in early September, my parents came home early from school. I put my suitcase in my father’s black Ford Prefect and all four of us headed for Coláiste Íosagáin.
As we drove on towards Ballyvourney, I was still delighted with myself and still on a high at having passed the exam. Yet, as we neared the college, I began to realise that I had no idea what lay ahead.
Reality kicked in and all of a sudden I was filled with a terrible sense of apprehension.
An extract from An Poc Ar Buile, The Life and Times of Seán Ó Sé, written with Patricia Ahern.
Seán Ó Sé’s book is officially launched this week as part of Cork Folk Festival. He will be singing at Cork Opera House on Thursday with Peadar Ó Riada and Cór Chúil Aodha for the Mo Ghille Mear concert.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved