An Irishwoman's Diary


FROG’s bones. Apple peel. Ashes. A gander’s poo. Whoever thought love was something spontaneous had no idea of the manipulations once employed in making matches.

Even when unions weren’t arranged, people often took the word of a snail before the “cries of their own heart”, according to Kerstin Meirke and Bridgette Rowland. Not only did snails have to shoulder shells; they were also responsible for the propagation of the human race.

Frogs didn’t escape lightly either. Real passion – or obsession – would drive the strongest woman with the weakest stomach to catch one, bury it, pick its carcase, and discreetly insert one bone into a “victim’s” clothing. The only known antidote to such a spell was to cut a lock of hair of same female, burn it, and stir the ashes in tea for the lovestruck young lad.

There was a darker side to the superstitions and traditions and godless machinations of not so long ago. Each year, single people were “branded like sheep” with white stripes on their clothing during what was known as Chalk Sunday. Down south, those who weren’t married by Shrove Tuesday found themselves in boats bound for Kerry’s Skellig Michael to be rid of their single state.

Mayo-born Bridgette Rowland was in a similar carefree state when she and Kerstin Meirke wrote Would You Like to be Buried with My People? several years ago. The book, named after that most romantic Irish way of proposing, is an anthology of wedding traditions dating back to Brehon times and further. Coincidentally, when the diary phoned her recently, Rowland was at her own “hen”, having succumbed to one of the many charms or “divinations” which she and Meirke recorded.

She laughed as she admitted that she is now reading the text with a very different eye. “I didn’t realise it would come in quite so handy!” she said. Before her big day, however, she’s got another date, or two, in the diary. She’s involved in organising one of the most magical events on the west coast arts calendar. It’s not on any Fáilte Ireland fest-list, doesn’t get a cent in State funding, but the Summer Classics in St Mary’s Church, Bofeenaun, is one remarkable community affair.

Now in its ninth year, it started, as these things often do, with a family chat. Bridgette’s aunt, Joan is married to celebrated Scottish violinist Iain King, who has played with the English Chamber, London Philharmonic and many prestigious orchestras across Europe. Bridgette’s dad, Thomas, wondered if Iain and friends might dedicate a night to a parish fundraiser.

Bridgette remembers there was a little scepticism at the time. Bofeenaun is a hamlet tucked under the Nephin Beg range, and named after the “both” or hut of St Finaun. It has a church, a hall, a school, no pub, and only one road sign to it in the entire county. So although the French marched through en route to the 1798 “races” of Castlebar, would there be any guarantee that anyone else would find their way there? But they did, and still do, coming from Germany, Spain, Britain and the four corners of this island. The once-off concert became a two-night event, run by an energetic parish committee. Bofeenaun postmaster Thomas Rowland plays down his own role, but the Leonard Cohen-loving parish priest Fr James Cribbin has already dubbed him mid-Mayo’s answer to “Ticketmaster”.

King, who began playing the violin at the age of seven, is central to the success. Living outside Ballina with Joan and their daughter, Catherine, he gathers musicians together for the performance in the church. It can vary from year to year, depending on availability. Glaswegian Robert Irvine, who has been principal cellist with the Academy of St Martin-in-the- Fields and with Scottish Opera, has been a serial performer.

Similarly, Katie Clemmow, pianist and oboist with the London Symphony, Philharmonia and the London Mozart Players, has also travelled frequently to Nephin country. Last year, celebrated Korean cellist Su-A Lee, who has performed in Japanese temples, circus tents and under waterfalls, added Bofeenaun to her eclectic list. She is returning this year, complete with her musical saw.

Rowland is already taking bookings for this year’s season, being July 14th and July 16th. The €20 a-head includes wine, cheese, and tea, provided by the parish. Watch out for merlins as you drive through the wondrous Windy Gap. Cushions essential, Rowland reminds visitors, and he can be contacted at 096-51006.

LEO HALLISSEY is a man after Rowland’s heart; sponsors and spinmeisters may not be queuing up to support his annual bog week, and his sea week, and what he describes as Ireland’s longest-running environmental school. However, the Department of Education does recognise his Inishbofin event as approved in-service training for teachers.

Mary Swander, poet laureate for the north American state of Iowa, geologist Eoin McGrath, marine biologist Dave McGrath, ecologist Eugenie Regan, archaeologist Michael Gibbons, zoologist Stephen McCormack, scientist Cillian Roden and birdwatcher and artist Gordon D’Arcy are among Hallissey’s panel for this year’s Conamara Summer School on the island. D’Arcy, author and artist, recently published a manual for primary school teachers, entitled Narture, combining both art and nature in one.

Open to everyone, the Conamara Summer School runs on Inishbofin from July 2nd to 6th this year, with traditional music and a “blast” of sean-nós dancing “thrown in for good measure”, he says. For details, contact him at 085 1154629 or; or see website

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