Monday, 7 June 2010

Céad Mile Fáilte: romantic myths in an old love song

Behind the low, rubble-stone walls, among the trees and growth in a field outside Bunclody, is the old graveyard and monastic settlement of Kilmyshall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

One sunny morning, I took the road out from Bunclody towards Enniscorthy, to the junction at Clohamon, where a beautiful multi-arched bridge crosses the River Slaney. Turning right, a long, straight road climbs up Ryland Hill to sleepy Kilmyshall. At the crest of the hill, a rusting gate to the right leads into a long sloping field. All that indicates that there is more to see in the clump of trees beyond is a battered cross on top of the gate.

The field is difficult to cross when winter mud sticks to your shoes, and difficult to cross in summer when full of growing crops. But hidden behind the low, rubble-stone walls, in the cluster of trees and growth, is an old disused graveyard, with its graves collected around a holy well and the site of a ruined church and an ancient monastic settlement.

Looking down at the bridge at Clohamon and across the Slaney Valley from the graveyard in Kilmyshall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Here too is the grave of a woman whose love story is said to have inspired one of the great Irish love songs – a song that has given us the much-loved phrase that characterises Irish hospitality: Céad Mille Fáilte.

Ancient monastic site

Saint Colman’s Church of Ireland Parish Church, Templeshanbo … the parish of Templeshanbo included Kilmyshall and Bunclody until the mid-18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The monastic settlement at Kilmyshall probably dates back to the pre-Norman or Celtic church – perhaps as early as the seventh century – and was linked to the neighbouring monastic site of Saint Colman’s in Templeshanbo. The parish of Templeshanbo covered much of north-west Co Wexford, including Kilmyshall and Bunclody, until the mid-18th century, and the Precentor of Ferns Cathedral was the rector.

An unnamed gravestone with an early cross … one of the treasures of Kilmyshall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The rectangular site at Kilmyshall covers about an acre of ground, all within this one large field on the brow of the hill. The ruins of the former church lie near the eastern end of the cemetery. This church was 18 feet wide and 30 feet long, and was still standing in the mid-16th century.

The ancient churchyard was the burial ground of the McMurrough Kavanagh family of nearby Clonmullen Castle. Donal Spaineach (Spanish Donal) Kavanagh of Clonmullen, a leader in the Nine Years’ War in the 1590s, was still regarded as a rebel when he was killed in 1631. In his will, he stipulated that “he be buried in Kilmeashall,” and his grave lies within the ruined church.

Donal Spaineach’s son, Sir Morgan Kavanagh, was a leader in the 1641 Rebellion and was a colonel in the army of the Confederation of Kilkenny when he was killed in the battle of Ballinvegga, near New Ross, on Saint Patrick’s Day 1643. Sir Morgan’s sons, Daniel and Charles, fought for the Confederation in their father’s regiment until they were defeated by Cromwell’s forces.

The Holy Well in Kilmyshall was originally named after Saint Colman of Templeshanbo, but was later rededicated to Saint Mary Magdalene (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Holy Well in the centre of the cemetery is still venerated locally. The well was originally dedicated to Saint Colman of Templeshanbo and Kilmacduagh, but was later rededicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Overlooking it are two splendid Hornbeam or Yoke Elm trees, one of which is over 600 years old.

There are 541 gravestones in Kilmyshall … the grave of Mary Brenan (1709) is the oldest with an inscription (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

There are 541 identified gravestones on the site, of which 246 bear inscriptions. The earliest is the grave of Mary Brenan, dated 14 August 1709. Another early stone marks the grave of Michael Comerford who died in 1719.

The gravestone of Judith Murphy (1788) … a fine example of the crucifixions that are a hallmark of the work of sculptor James Byrne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Three later stones – Judith Murphy (1788) Miles Moor (1791) and Catherine Nowlan (1797) – are fine examples of the work of a local noted sculptor, James Byrne, with striking images of the Crucifixion, some showing Christ triumphant over death, symbolised as a serpent and a skull, and flanked on either side by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. Other symbols on Byrne’s sculptures include a sunburst, a crescent moon and a cherub within a circle.

The grave of Eileen Aroon

The grave said to be the last resting place of Eileen Aroon in Kilmyshall dates from 1717 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The most interesting gravestone in Kilmyshall lies on the edge of the walls of the old church, close to the place where Donal Spaineach was buried. An inscription in capital letters reads: “Hear lieth the body of Elenor Boote als Kavanagh who died the 14th day of June 1717 aged 63 years.”

The grave of Michael Comerford (1719), one of the oldest gravestones in Kilmyshall, is from the same time as the grave of “Eileen Aroon” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Local tradition says this Eleanor was the daughter of Sir Morgan Kavanagh, the last of the Kavanagh chieftains to live in Clonmullen Castle. Legend says she fell in love with a wandering harpist, Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh, while he was visiting her father’s castle near Bunclody. However, the Kavanaghs saw Cearbhaill as a lowly, wandering minstrel, unworthy of their daughter’s hand, and any thoughts of marriage were unacceptable.

He left, promising Eleanor he would return when his circumstances and their attitudes had changed. But while he was away, the Kavanaghs arranged a match between their daughter and William Booth – described in some accounts as a Cromwellian solider based in Enniscorthy, and in other versions as a lieutenant from neighbouring Clonegal and an officer in her father’s regiment.

Despite the turn of events, Eleanor was said to be spirited and determined. She got a message to Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh, who arrived back in Clonmullen Castle on the day the wedding took place. He was so heavily disguised that he was unrecognisable, even by Eleanor. The harpist was invited to play at the wedding banquet, and sang his romantic though simple love song with a haunting melody:

Céad mile fáilte romhat Eibhlín a Rúin,
Céad mile fáilte romhat Eibhlín a Rúin,
Céad mile fáilte is fiche romhat,
Naoi gCéad mile fáilte romhat Eibhlín a Rúin.

A hundred thousand welcomes, Eileen Aroon.
A hundred thousand welcomes, Eileen Aroon.
A hundred thousand welcomes, and twenty more for you,
Nine hundred welcomes for you, my dearest Eileen.


The Dublin Penny Journal claimed in 1832 that this was the first known use of the phrase “Céad Mille Fáilte” – “A hundred thousand welcomes.”

Eleanor realised immediately that her lover’s ardour was undimmed. The two eloped from the castle, unnoticed by the inebriated wedding party. When Cearbhaill died some years later, a broken-hearted Eileen Aroon returned to live in Clonmullen, died in 1717, and was buried in Kilmyshall.

The Comerford family from Bunclody was buried in Kilmyshall from the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Church pews and executions

A less romantic story associated with this old monastic site tells how one of two ash trees that stood near the cemetery was used as a gibbet for the hanging of two local men, Owen Carroll and John Daggan. They were sentenced to death after they were convicted of maiming Mrs Margaret Ralph, who lived nearby in a house then known as The Court.

A dispute arose between two local, respected families over who should sit nearest the altar in the old thatched Roman Catholic chapel at Ballyphilip in Kilmyshall. When the Fitzhenry family erected their own pew, the Ralph family promptly placed a new pew between the Fitzhenry pew and the altar. When the new Ralph pew was broken up and scattered in pieces in the churchyard, it was repaired and returned, but was removed yet again. When it returned once more, Carroll and Daggan – local members of the Whiteboys – were hired to attack Margaret Ralph. Dragging her from her house onto the road one Saturday night, they slit off one of her ears and were about to slice off the other when a crowd arrived to see Daggan’s mask fall from his face.

After their trial in Wexford Town, Carroll and Daggan were brought back to Kilmyshall. Carroll’s father rode all night to Dublin to gain a reprieve, but as he returned up the hill from Clohamon at mid-day on 28 September 1775 he saw the two bodies hanging from the ash tree. There is no record of where they were buried; Margaret Ralph died on 30 September 1794 at the age of 50 and was buried close to the holy well of Kilmyshall, within view of her house, The Court.

The legacy of a song

After the Williamite wars, many of the Kavanaghs of Clonmullen went into exile in France and their estates eventually passed in 1719 to James Barry. He gave his name to Newtownbarry and his grandson, Bishop Henry Maxwell, built Saint Mary’s Church of Ireland parish church in Bunclody in 1766. The thatched chapel in Ballyphilip was the parish church for Roman Catholics in the Bunclody area until 1826, and a new church was built in Kilmyshall in 1831.

All traces of Clonmullen Castle have disappeared and there are no remains today of the home where Eileen Aroon and the Kavanagh family once lived in splendour. It is said that the stones of Clonmullen Castle were used to build The Chase, once home of the Comerford-Lawler family near Bunclody.

A fragment of a doorway in the western gable of the Church of Ireland parish church (rebuilt 1815) is all that remains of Saint Colman’s Monastery in Templeshanbo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

As for Templeshanbo, the village has all but disappeared, apart from the former school, the post office, and Saint Colman’s Church. All that remains of Saint Colman’s Monastery is a fragment of a semi-circular-headed doorway in the western gable of this pretty Church of Ireland parish church, which was rebuilt in 1815.

The village of Templeshanbo has all but disappeared, apart from the former school, the post office and Saint Colman’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Saint Colman was commemorated in Templeshanbo on 27 October and in Kilmyshall on 22 September. But a “patron” held in Kilmyshall on 22 June each year shows that both church and well were rededicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. The local writer, Patrick Kennedy, described those “patrons” as days of “tents and gingerbread stalls and beer barrels” around the well. The revelry and festivity led the local clergy to suppress the “patron” in 1810.

Festivals and songsters

But did Eileen Aroon ever live? Who was her husband? Did she truly love a wandering harpist? If William Booth was a Cromwellian solider in the 1650s, he was at least a generation too old, if not older, to be married to the Eleanor who is buried in Kilmyshall and who was born around 1654. And if she was born in 1654, she was too young to be the daughter of Sir Morgan Kavangh, who died in battle in 1643.

As for the song, the tune Eileen Aroon is much older than the late 17th century. This is one of the oldest tunes in all fiddle literature, and some say it was composed in 1386 by another Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, who died in 1405, a minstrel harper described by old annalists as the “chief composer of Ireland.” Those earlier traditions say Eileen Kavanagh was really from Polmonty Castle, Co Carlow, near New Ross, and that she eloped with the harpist on the eve of her betrothal to a rival lover.

The Eileen Aroon Festival takes place each year in Bunclody in late July and early August (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The “patron” in Kilmyshall may have been suppressed 200 years ago. But the Eileen Aroon Festival takes place each year in Bunclody in late July and early August. Whoever Eileen was, whoever is buried in the grave in Kilmyshall, Eibhlín a Rúin or Eileen Aroon remains a well-loved romantic love song, popularised again in the late 1980s by Bob Dylan. And no matter who wrote the song, even George Frideric Handel once declared that he would rather have written Eileen Aroon than all his other compositions.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the June editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory)