by Seán McElwain
Running from Clogher, county Tyrone to Clones, county Monaghan, the Sliabh Beagh hills straddle the border between the Rep. of Ireland and Northern Ireland, linking counties Monaghan, Fermanagh and Tyrone. Consisting of a number of communities gathered around the base of these hills, the region is informed by a rich heritage of folklore, folk traditions and customs. Fitting perhaps that one explanation for the mountain’s name should be based in folklore and mythology. While Sliabh Beagh may be translated from the Irish ‘Sliabh Beithe’, as the ‘Mountain of the Beech tree’ a name reflecting the topology of the region, it has also been translated as ‘The Mountain of Bith’. According to the 17th century compendium Annuals of the Four Masters, during the time of the Great Flood, Caesair, the grand-daughter of Noah, arrived in Ireland with a retinue of fifty girls and three men; Bith, Ladhra and Fintan. Of these, legend dictates that Bith died at Sliabh Beagh and was interred in the carn of Sliabh Beatha, and from him the mountain is named.
Given the region’s relative remoteness and its position throughout history as an area of resistance, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Sliabh Beagh region retained many elements of its traditional heritage into recent times. While studies undertaken by former Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald (2003) concerning the Irish language abilities of those aged sixty or older in the 1911 census, highlight the late survival of the Irish language in the Sliabh Beagh region, Hayward (1957) also suggested that the English dialect in the region was similarly “sprinkled with a multitude of both Gaelic and Tudor English survivals.” Providing a number of examples, Hayward (1957) writes:
“I have this sentence gathered long ago in these parts:’If you have a fatigued suit of clothes you would bestow on a body I would redd your bit of a garden for you and bring my own diet.’ And I have this too: ‘She took out a trinnell of bread and buttered me a whang of it, and she gave me a noggin of bunya-rowar to kitchen it.’ ‘Kitchen’ is the common Irish word for anything supplementary to main meal … and ‘bunya-rowar’ is almost perfect Irish for thickened milk.”
The persistence of such culture, of which music was an important element, was similarly noted by historian Fr. Peadar Livingston. Speaking on an RTÉ programme during the 1970s entitled On Roslea’s Pad, Livingston suggested that in a part of Ireland where a large measure of Anglicisation was to be expected, the area remained “fundamentally Irish, more tenacious in fact of old traditions, customs and culture, than maybe geographapically comparable areas.” Despite the incongruous presence of a border through its midst, here the people “spoke the same language, shared the same culture and traditions and enjoyed the same pastimes.” (Livingston 1969)
The inter-connectivity of the region was similarly recognised some decades previously by the Boundary Commission, which had been established under Article XII of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. Tasked with determining “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions the boundaries between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland,” many believed the Commission’s report would act as the salvation for northern nationalists; recommending the transfer of very substantial areas of Northern Ireland to the Free State. In the Fermanagh portion of Sliabh Beagh, the nationalist inhabitants of the Roslea area made no secret of their preferred outcome from the Commission’s deliberation, stating explicitly at a meeting held in 1925, that they:
“favoured inclusion in the Free State, not only on the obvious ground of nationalist identification with the South, but on the geographic and ecomomic grounds specified in Article 12. It was pointed out that the district was economically and geographically dependent on Clones, Smithboro and Monaghan town.” (Clogher Record 2004, pp. 192-193)
However the much anticipated Commission’s report never officially arrived. Leaked findings published in the English newspaper the Morning Post on November 7th 1925, fell well short of nationalist expectations. Suggesting only slight variations along the border, rather than the wholesale transference that had been initially anticipated, the leaked report was greeted with shock and anger by the nationalist population, provoking a political crisis in the Irish Free State which placed the incumbent Cumann na nGaedhal Free State government in jeopardy. Emphasis in the Free State, according to Hand (1969) was put on “the possibility of loss, rather than the inadequacy of the gains.” (p.xx) In a Monaghan context, the Commission’s recommendation that a small portion of the county along the Armagh border be transferred to the Northern State horrified Monaghan nationalists. The possibility of such an occurrence provoked strong public opinion from Monaghan nationalists, who were determined to safeguard their county’s territory. (Dooley, 2000, p.57) Interesingly however, the Commission, highlighting the interconnectivity of the area, suggested that a large portion of the Sliabh Beagh region in Fermanagh be transfered to the Irish Free State (see Figure 8). Indeed, Livingston (1980) has suggested that had the recommendations of the Boundary Commission been implemented, Monaghan and its natural hinterland may have been spared from the economic difficulties which ensued following partition.
Unfortunately the Commission’s report was suppressed, reflecting the opinion of Taoiseach W.T. Cosgrave who believed that it would be preferable “in the interests of Irish peace that the Report be burned or buried.” (Rankin, 1996) It was superceded instead, by a tripartite inter-governmental settlement, which in return for the waiving of the Free State debt liabilities under Article 5 of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, saw an acceptance by the Free State of the existing border.
Impact of the Border
While initially the border made little difference to life in the neighbouring counties, over time it became a source of great inconvenience, distorting and destroying family, social and economic links and interconnections which previously traversed the border. Faced with the inevitable decline in economic activity caused by the dissection of a natural region, Co. Monaghan, according to Duffy (1993) became a “cul-de-sac” of the Irish Free State, with Fermanagh likewise marginalised in the new northern state. To further emphasis the point, Monaghan was officially declared a disadvantaged area in 1952. Unsurprisingly given these regional economic difficulties, between the years 1911 and 1966, the population of Monaghan declined from 71,400 to an all-time low of 45,700 and Fermanagh from 61,800 to 49,800. According to Duffy (1993):
“While the physical and economic structure of the south Ulster region, which resembles in many ways the west of Ireland, helps to explain the continuous pattern of rural population decline in the twentieth century, the establishment of the border with Northern Ireland exacerbated the situtation for the borderland counties.”
Difficulties in Regional Music practice
Musician and cultural activist Eamonn Murray (picture left) provided an interesting insight into Sliabh Beagh’s musical practices in the decades following partition in newspaper articles contributed to The Northern Standard newspaper during the 1930s and 1940s. Depicting for his readers a ‘hidden Monaghan,’ located in the Sliabh Beagh hills, Murray articles drew attention to regional cultural and musical practices which were quickly slipping into the past.
Murray was convinced of the existence of a distinct Sliabh Beagh traditional musical repertoire unreflected in other major Irish music publications of the period. Acknowledging the music collections of Captain O’Neill’s as being “easily the best in our collection”, Murray (1936) also suggested that he “could name a full three score tunes that have no place in his pages”. Acknowledging the intense economic, political and social pressures faced by the region, he noted the aging of the region’s musical custodians and the consequences for transmission of regional musical traditions
“Each passing year sees another and yet another of the old folk to the grave, and in nine instances out of ten, they bring with them to the chill confines of the clay, a tune, and maybe more than one, of which they had sole custody.” (1935)
With the increased availability and influence of the media in the region, Murray also believed that appreciation of traditional music and song within the region had changed. Now, he noted “Old tales are no longer told, old tunes but seldom played, and the old songs are dying. These have no place in our daily lives, are not sufficiently cosmopolitan for our liking.” (1934d, p.7). The impact of these factors was apparent to Murray:
I am watching the death of Irish music in our mountains, and I know not how to check its passing. And, with the music, is passing into oblivion all our beautiful old beliefs and customs, and we are left with the gramophone and the “Radio”, the latter being easily the greatest enemy our Gaelic traditions has ever known. (Murray 1947)
While the influence of media and gramophone records on regional traditions has been noted by many commentators, included Feldman (1979) in The Northern Fiddler, in Sliabh Beagh, these pressure were similarly exacerbated by the presence and enforcement of a national border. A further consequence of this border, however, according to Livingstone (1969), was that “people living at a distance from the Border began to think of it as a great dividing line.” (p.337). In this regard, the Sliabh Beagh region has remained off the musical radar. This project, however hopes to once again raise awareness of the region’s rich musical heritage.