Kilkelly is notable due to the song “Kilkelly, Ireland”, written by American song writer Peter Jones, who discovered a series of letters to his Irish immigrant ancestor by that ancestor’s father, mother and siblings with one of the letters written by a schoolmaster in Kilkell
The “Kilkelly Ireland Song” now a famous ballad, draws its inspiration from a series of ten surviving letters written on behalf of Byran and Elizabeth Hunt by the local school master to their emigrant son in America. John Hunt emigrated to the States in 1855 from Kilkelly, County Mayo and the letters written to him by his parents were re-discovered in an attic in Bethesda Maryland by his American descendants the Jones family. Some 120 years after they were written, Peter Jones a great, great grandson of John Hunt composed the ballad based on the contents of the letters.
County Mayo, which is located on the west coast of Ireland in the province of Connacht, had a population at the time of the Great Famine of almost half a million. Early in the nineteenth century, there were a number of famines in Ireland, culminating in the Great Famine of 1845 – ’49, when about a million people died and a further million went into exile. Most of the impoverished population depended on the potato as their staple food product. Disaster struck in August 1845, when a killer fungus (later diagnosed as Phytophthora infestans ) started to destroy the potato crop.
The catastrophe was particularly bad in County Mayo, where nearly ninety per cent of the population were dependent on the potato. By 1848, Mayo was a county of total misery and despair, with any attempts at alleviating measures in complete disarray. People were dying and emigrating in their thousands. There was a tendency for emigrants from Mayo to settle amongst Mayo emigrants already settled in the US and UK. By the end of the 19th century the US cities of New York, Jersey City, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago received the bulk of Mayo emigrants.
The Kilkelly letters tell of family news, births, death, sales of land and bad harvests, They remind the son, that he is loved, missed and remembered by his family in Ireland, The final letter informs him that his father, whom he has not seen for 30 years, has died, the last link with home is broken. These letters were written to relatives who had emigrated to the United States, the letters very eloquently and poignantly illuminated the despair and loneliness of being apart from loved ones and family. Peter Jones fashioned the letters into a song which cuts to the heart of the experience of the separated families, he called this song Kilkelly.
It is a poignant song dealing with the effects of Famine, poverty and emigration in one Irish family. However its universal appeal comes from the fact that this could be the saga of countless thousands of other families in the latter part of the 19th century.
The old cemetery mentioned in the song has been renovated and restored, and a picnic area has been developed close by on the banks of the Trimogue Well, here is something amazing: you can now read the actual nineteenth century letters, from which that song was created: “Letters written to John Hunt by Patrick McNamara, school master in Tavrane School, Kilkelly, County Mayo.” Simply visit the Kilkelly, County Mayo site and you’ll find a host of information on the song, Jones, McNamara, the Hunts, and full transcriptions of the letters.
The Jones brothers based the song on letters from their great-great-grandfather, Brian Hunt, to his son John, their great-grandfather. As Brian was illiterate, the letters were actually written by dictation to the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, who had been a friend of John’s. The letters continued from 1860 until the old man’s death in 1892. The “trouble” in verse two is probably the Fenian rising of 1867.
Lyrics to Kilkelly Ireland
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and sixty, my dear and lovin’ son John
Your good friend the Schoolmaster Pat McNamara, so good as to write these words down.
Your brothers have all gone to find work in England, the house is so empty and sad,
The crop of potatoes is sorely affected, a third to a half of them bad.
And your sister Bridget and Patrick O’Donnell, are goin’ to be married in June,
Your mother says not to work on the railroad, and be sure to come on home soon.
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and seventy, my dear and lovin’ son John
Hello to your missus and to your four children, that they may grow healthy and strong
Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble, I suppose he never will learn
Because of the dampness there’s no turf to speak of and now we have nothing to burn.
And Bridget is happy you named the child for her, although she’s got six of her own
You say you’ve found work, but you don’t say what kind, or when you’ll be comin’ home.
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and eighty, dear Michael and John my sons
I’m sorry to give you the very sad news that your dear old mother has gone.
We buried her down at the church in Kilkelly, your brothers and Bridget were there,
You don’t have to worry, she died very quickly, remember her in your prayers.
And it’s so good to hear that Michael’s returning with money he’s sure to buy land
For the crop has been poor and the people are selling, for any price that they can.
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and ninety, my dear and lovin’ son John
I suppose that I must be close on eighty, it’s thirty years since you’ve gone
Because of all of the money you sent me, I’m still living’ out of my own
Michael has built himself a fine house, and Bridget’s daughters have grown
And thank you for sendin’ your family picture, they’re lovely young women and men
You say you might even come for a visit, what a joy to see you again.
Kilkelly Ireland, eighteen and ninety two, my dear brother John,
I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner, to tell you that father has gone.
He was living with Brigid, she said he was cheerful and healthy right down to the end
And you should have seen him play with the grandchildren, of Pat McNamara your friend.
And we buried him alongside of mother, down at Kilkelly churchyard
He was a strong and a feisty old man, considering that life is so hard.
And it’s funny the way he kept talkin’ about you, he called for you at the end
And why don’t you think about comin’ to visit, we’d all love to see you again.
It has been covered by many artists, including Robbie O’Connell, Atwater-Donnelly, The Dubliners, Mick Moloney, Seán Keane, Ciara Considine, Jim Brannigan, and David Gans (with Eric Rawlins).
Celtic Folk Entertainer Jim Brannigan has been playing to North American audiences for more than 20 years. Jim has been described as a master of his craft, a modern day bard and a troubadour with a voice of pure silver. He accompanies himself on Tenor Guitar, Tenor Banjo and Irish Bouzouki and draws from a huge repertoire of Irish and Scottish folk songs. His soft brogue and sweet singing voice make him a favourite wherever he goes and no opportunity to hear a live performance should ever be missed. He sings a masterfull version of Kilkelly that will bring tears to your eyes!
Source backgroundmusic (Boulavogue):
Lesley Nelson Folk Music Site.
Source picture: Wikipedia. This file (The Rolling Stones)is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Author: Commons is a freely licensed media file repository.
Video: Kilkelly, Ireland by Jim Brannigan.