28 July 2020

Waiting for the ferry with
memories of Crete and
‘Who pays the Ferryman’

‘Who pays the Ferryman’ was filmed in Elounda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As we have waited patiently on both sides of the Shannon Estuary in recent weeks for the Tarbert-Killimer ferry on many occasions, the conversation has often turned to the theme music for Who pays the Ferryman, and one of us has – inevitably – ended up trying to hum the tune.

I suppose you have to be of a certain age to remember the series, but the tune stays in your memory. And memories of the series linger because it was set in Crete in 1977-1978, just ten years before I first arrived on the island.

Who pays the Ferryman was a BBC series, retelling the story of widower and retired boat builder Alan Haldane (Jack Hedley), a former soldier who had fought in Crete alongside the Greek resistance in World War II, and returns to Crete 30 years later to rediscover a lost sense of belonging.

Of course, his past comes back to haunt the man once known as Leandros and make difficult what he hopes would be a simple life.

The series was filmed in Elounda, near Aghios Nikolaos in Crete. The theme music was composed by Yannis Markopoulos and became an instant hit in Britain, where it is still rated among the best television scores. The music stands out because of its lyricism and its melody and of because it so easily creates memories of the Greek islands.

The eight episodes of Who Pays the Ferryman? were written by Michael J Bird, who drew on his knowledge of the history and folklore of Crete, and the series was filmed on location in and around Elounda.

‘The Lotus Eaters’ was filmed in Aghios Nikolaos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The series followed on the success of Bird’s earlier BBC drama series, The Lotus Eaters, which was filmed in Aghios Nikoloas in 1972-1973. That earlier series deal with the lives of various British ‘expats’ living in Crete, including a married couple, Erik (Ian Hendry) and Ann Shepherd (Wanda Ventham), who ran a taverna called ‘Shepherd’s Bar.’

The Lotus Eaters became the first the Mediterranean-based dramas written by Michael J Bird for the BBC. The others included Who Pays the Ferryman?, also set in Crete, The Aphrodite Inheritance (1978-1979), set in Cyprus, and The Dark Side of the Sun, set in Rhodes.

The theme tune of Who Pays the Ferryman? was composed by Yannis Markopoulos, reached the UK singles charts in late 1977 and early 1978. Yannis (or Giannis) Markopoulos is a well-known and much-loved Greek composer who was born in Iraklion, the capital of Crete, on 18 March 1939.

He comes from an old family in Crete, and spent much of his childhood in the coastal town of Ierapetra. He says the sounds that influenced him during his childhood included the sounds of the Byzantine liturgy, Cretan traditional music, the waves of Crete, and the sound of land-mines being exploded after World War II.

He took his first lessons in music theory and the violin at the local conservatory and played the clarinet in the town band. He moved to Athens in 1956 to study at the Athens Conservatoire with the composer Yiorgos Sklavos and the violin teacher Joseph Bustidui.

As a student, Markopoulos composed music for theatre, cinema and dance performances. At 24, he received the Music Prize at the International Thessaloniki Film Festival for Nikos Koundouros’ film Young Aphrodites.

After the colonels’ coup in Greece in 1967, he left for London, where he composed the secular cantata Ilios o Protos (‘Sun the First’), based on the poetry of Odysseas Elytis, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979.

Markopoulos returned to Athens in 1969, and became involved in the struggle for democracy. In 1976, he composed the popular work The Free Besieged based on the poem by Greece’s national poet Dionysios Solomos.

A small boat outside the harbour in Elounda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He composed the theme music for Who Pays the Ferryman? in 1979, and it became a hit in Britain and brought his work to international attention. He married the singer Vassiliki Lavina in 1980.

He founded the Palintonos Armonia Orchestra in 1980, and has performed and recorded in Greece and abroad since then. He composed The Liturgy of Orpheus in 1994, followed by Re-Naissance: Crete between Venice and Constantinople, a musical journey in four units that strikes a balance between the opera form and that of the oratorio, and the opera Erotokritos and Areti.

As time passes and travel restrictions become difficult to predict, it looks increasingly likely that this could be one of the few years since the mid-1980s that I do not get back to Greece.

I may just have to find some old versions of that BBC series set in Crete and imagine myself on a ferry or as a lotus eater.

Reminders of words and
dictionaries while waiting
for the ferry at Killimer

Two Ogham sculptures with the names of Clare and Kerry at the ferry point in Killimer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

On the way back from Doonbeg to Askeaton on Saturday, two of us stopped for about half an hour at Killimer, Co Clare, enjoying the sculptures overlooking the Shannon Estuary and enjoying ice creams as we waited to cross on the ferry to Tarbert, Co Kerry.

Killimer, on the north bank of the Shannon Estuary, is known for the car ferry service, operated by Shannon Ferries, and for the Moneypoint coal-fired electricity station west of the village, beside the road to Kilrush.

According to the geographer Samuel Lewis, the parish had over 3,000 residents in 1837. Today, about 500 people live in Killimer.

Killimer is one of the smallest parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Killaloe, and is part of the Killimer and Knockerra parish, with two parish churches: Saint Imy in Killimer and Saint Senan in Knockerra. These two saints are said to have been born in the townland of Molougha in the parish.

The Ogham scultptures at the ferry point are reminder of Killimer’s past. Lisroor (Lios Ramhar), a double ringfort in Killimer, is the second largest in Ireland, and another unique fort is at Cathair na gCat.

Peter O’Connell, who was born in Carne or Carradotia near Killimer in 1755, was a schoolteacher and lexicographer and a near contemporary of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) from Lichfield, who published the first standard English dictionary in 1755, the year O’Connell was born.

O’Connell travelled throughout Ireland, Wales, the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides tracing rare and unusual words as he compiled his dictionary. He completed his epic work in 1819, but failed in his attempts to get his dictionary published. His manuscript was pawned in Tralee, and Peter’s nephew, Anthony O’Connell, later sold the unpublished work to James Hardiman, who hired John O’Donovan to copy the manuscript.

Peter O’Connell’s original manuscript was sold to the British Museum by Hardiman and there is a copy in the library of Trinity College Dublin. He died on 24 February 1826 and is buried in the old churchyard at Burrane, near Killimer.

Ellen Hanly, the ‘Colleeen Bawn,’ who was washed ashore at Moneypoint, was buried in the same grave in July 1819.

In the mid-19th century, ferries sailed up and down the Shannon, rather than across the estuary. The writer William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) described his fellow passengers in 1842: ‘There was a piper and a bugler, a hundred of genteel persons coming back from donkey-riding and bathing at Kilkee … a score of women nursing children, and a lobster vendor.’

Moneypoint, with an output of 915 MW, is Ireland’s largest electricity generation station and only coal-fired power station. It was commissioned in 1985-1987, and was built at a cost of more than £700 million, making it one of the largest capital projects in the history of the state.

The station operates largely on coal, making it Ireland’s single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is capable of meeting around 25% of customer demand across the country. The power station chimneys, at 218 metres, are the tallest free-standing structures in Ireland.

The Shannon Ferries crossing – on the Shannon Breeze and the Shannon Dolphin – from Killimer, Co Clare, to Tarbert, Co Kerry, has been operating since 1969. It takes 20 minutes, leaving Killimer every hour on the hour and Tarbert every hour on the half hour, between 7 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. It saves people 137 km and 1½ hours as they drive from Tralee, Dingle or Killarney to Loop Head, the Burren or the Cliffs of Moher along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The Shannon Estuary at Killimer, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)