THE PIPER OF TREENABONTRY, BOHOLA PARISH.
This poem, requested by Joe Byrne of Midwest Radio, attempts to outline the journey of the unique piper, Joe Shannon who emigrated to Chicago in 1929 and who died in 2004. As a little girl, my mother, Úna McDongh (Harrington) and Joe’s first cousin, lived in Treenabontry with the Shannon family for a number of years before the Shannon family emigrated.
The Piper of Treenabontry
in memoriam: piper, Joe Shannon, Chicago
They took their tunes with them
but the music refused to budge.
In Treenabontry I can taste
and smell the wind on
the path the fairies crafted
when they chopped a corner
off Brennan’s house – it had
stood on the track they’d worn
to a frazzle when transporting
the music and memory of the
Shannon family – into posterity.
Before they’d left, melody was
tangled about the house or
it hung carelessly on hawthorn
and briar – spirits danced
in moonlit splashes and
stowed away treasured tunes
in wistful wind, dozing bog
and landscape crannies.
Only those little people have
the language to tell us where
a musical note comes from – how
it lodges in the land,
in the heart of a departed family,
in a memory of a house.
Joe Shannon played the uilleann pipes
in Chicago. This was real – big
untainted sound – visible in
loneliness, choking fears and loss
or in the smiles it cloaked
and covered up. It was the stuff
that held imagined fields, fences,
happiness and tears – together.
The spirits of skinny streams
and tossing air knew this.
They held on to mossy paths,
untamed bushes, mists and
forts where they stashed tunes
for home fires in strange places.
And when the new generation
learned a different way of talking,
old language lived on in melody.
I can see the thatched cottage,
wordless at first light. A mother
whispers to God at the cart-shed door.
The anxious dog whimpers. Mist
falls on a bucket of hot coals
handed to a neighbour to preserve
the hope-giving fire for their return.
I see the loaded cart getting smaller
with every step of the old horse, Doll.
My mother stands weeping as her
cousins disappear into myth and legend.
Threenabontry, Kiltimagh, train, Cobh,
America robbing a townland of a widow,
Ellen Shannon and her young sons.
Only music dug in its heels and refused
to budge. It cut holes in hedges,
buried itself in watery rocks, wakes,
dewey rose bushes and railway tracks.
Joe had the gift in the rough and tumble
suburbs of Chicago: a piper, baseball player
and fireman. His uileann pipes – imitating rhythms
of blackberry clusters
of fire-department sirens
of domestic sounds
of birds in the back garden
of being finally alone – came to him
by fate – like a harmonious fragment
when Patrick Hennelly – piper and
pipe maker from Mayo gave him
his gift of pipes. There were drones
to be mastered, children to be fed.
His arms would have been
exhausted from gathering food.
Even Odysseus in times of myth
must have cried out in frustration:
what are the kids up to, now, Penelope?
I can hear nothing in this light.
Francis O’Neill sang accolades
to his playing at The World Fair in 1934.
Joe tuned into the piping of
another left-handed piper, Patsy Touhy
and off he went like a poet
trying to find rhythm in a poem – like
a mother building hope into
a prayer for a special intention.
John McFadden, the fiddler from Newport
composed The Pleasures of Hope
before Joe’s time. Eddy Mullaney
handed him a set of Taylor Pipes
in the sixties. They unlocked squeals
of delight in Joe. He didn’t ask who
he could play with. He just did.
Fiddler, Johnny McGreevy lifted
his spirits. Defiant as robins in frost
they battered aside new waves
in their euphoria of reels and jigs.
They heard the far-off cuckoo
and the corncrake in the long meadow
in their country of home-from-home.
Music had found its mark. Pilgrims
descended on his kitchen. Joe
and Johnny recorded Noonday Feast
over cups of tea – word was out.
The young came running.
Piper, Jim McGuire, Box player John Williams
and Liz Carroll, the fiddler
threw their hats into the ring – Joe
gave them hope on nothing stronger than tea.
The Chieftains came and laid out a carpet,
They played with the big man and
acknowledged the duine uasal in him.
Willie Clancy School and Cork University
turned out like new brooches
with awards and garlands – quiet as
his mother Ellen, he took it in his stride.
In later years – alone, he’d whistle
with birds in his back garden. They
responded. He took a pair of
Cardinal birds into his home and
refused to bury them when they died.
They came to light in his basement.
left as a boy
the call to life
and he went
to the homeland
of the dead
The ghost in his pipes says it all.