Remembering Garrett Barry: The Blind Piper of Inagh

Out of Darkness tells the story of a great nineteenth-century musician, singer and storyteller from Co Clare

Sruthannakit, the Stream of Cats, runs below the hills of Coore in west Clare. One of the tunes associated with Garrett Barry, the blind piper, carries the same curious name. Its origins derive from a local legend involving the hero Diarmuid, his lover Grainne and a shape-shifting warlock called Gatach.

While written history did not notice Barry he is still remembered today as a great musician, singer and storyteller within his local tradition. He was born into the midst of the catastrophe of the Great Famine and lost his sight in infancy through disease. However, blindness would serve to enhance both his memory and his hearing. Travelling his community of west Clare, as it gradually recovered, he gathered much of the aural culture that it still retained. He came to know intimately the land and its people, claiming that his music was “not for the feet but for the soul”. His commitment would drive his mission and his talents would ensure his reputation.

Administrative records from the times during and in the aftermath of the Famine are pitifully and understandably sparse. It would seem, therefore, extremely difficult to piece together a biography of a poor, blind musician living in such a devastated society. But that is to underestimate the power of the collective memory in this part of the world. Some people hold the contribution of this one man to their own culture in such high esteem that, even after almost five generations, there are still those in west Clare with stories and information about “the blind piper of Inagh”.

While Out of Darkness inevitably contains some social and political history as the changing background to Garrett Barry’s story, this is not written as an academic study. However, within the narrative of his life, clear effort has been made to analyse the development of the various Irish traditions as Barry would have found them. At the same time, I have sought to offer vivid and imaginative details of life as they affected the practicalities of his experience.

Through the stories and anecdotes surrounding his life, something of Garrett’s character does begin to emerge. We are introduced to those who knew Barry as well as those who have carried his memory, ensuring that his rich contribution to local culture resonates still in the music of his homeland. He was passionate, for example, about political issues. It has been said that “his music was his nationalism” and there are claims that he was introduced to and even played for Charles Stewart Parnell on one of his campaigning visits to County Clare. There are also tales that show how Barry, as an iconic figure in his community, became adopted into local folklore. The implication must be that he had become a very familiar and popular figure and had entered the collective unconscious of local people. The involvement of a real-life, historical figure in folklore is always a sign of their full recognition and significance within their native culture.

Garrett Barry features in some of the folklore of west Clare. Several stories involve him encountering fairy changelings after he is asked to baby-sit for hosting families.

Eventually, the lifestyle of an itinerant musician took its toll. Towards the end of 1896, Garrett Barry was admitted into the Ennistymon Infirmary, then part of the Poor Law Union workhouse, where he died right at the threshold of the twentieth century. But the story does not end there. Wider observations are made on the way that aural idioms have fared in the aftermath of Garrett’s death. The influence of the Gaelic League is examined as well as the challenges that have faced linguistic and musical traditions into the modern era.

I have tried to describe a relatively recent and recognisable society that still relied almost exclusively on oral culture and its resultant heritage – one in which someone like Barry could flourish. That heritage, as personified by Barry, had both vigour and breadth, despite the many adverse conditions. Ireland has been exceptional in the modern world in preserving much of the integrity of its own means of expression. Today, for example, Irish music is still admired and enjoyed by people in many parts of the world.

In 2016, the centenary year of the Easter Rising, it seems an appropriate time to take stock of some of the idealism born of that era. A century ago, one of the signatories to the Proclamation of Independence, Éamonn Ceant, was not only a co-founder of the Irish Volunteers but also, in 1900, of the Dublin Piper’s Club. Another was Thomas MacDonagh, a poet and playwright. Such men have earned their place in history. Others, like Barry, have played a more unassuming role but, in the words of the late Breandán Breathnach, another piper and scholar:

The modest and the humble,

if faithful to themselves and their traditions,

can add a page to the history of their people

and earn the benediction of generations yet to come

This is a wide-ranging, in-depth study of the life and times of a cultural hero. His story represents another example of the strength and generosity of the human spirit. Illustrated with over 100 new and archive photographs, Out of Darkness guides us through a world that retained abiding traditions in poetry, folklore, music, dance and song.

The book was launched in Inagh at the Garrett Barry Community Hall during the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil, which was held this year in Co Clare.

Out of Darkness: The Blind Piper of Inagh is available now at Hodges Figgis, 56-58, Dawson Street, Dublin 2, as well as the Winding Stair Bookshop at 40, Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1. Other outlets are listed on the publisher’s website: www.cottierpress.com

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