Carna, Iorras Aithneach and Conamara

By Virginia Blankenhorn

Conamara is in the west of Ireland, in the west of County Galway, on more or less the same latitude as Dublin. A more precise location, however, can be elusive, because ‘Conamara’ has come to mean different things to different groups of people. To many, it means the Gaeltacht — the area in which the Irish (Gaelic) language, An Ghaeilge, is the native tongue of most of the inhabitants — including the villages along the north coast of Galway Bay ‘from Bearna to Carna’. To others, it means the northwestern part of the county, the area that runs from Killary fjord south to Roundstone and Cashel — an area from which the Irish language has largely, if relatively recently, died out. Still others include all the territory — and it’s a lot of territory — west of Lough Corrib, whether Irish-speaking or not.

Historically, the name Conamara derives from the name of the hereditary chieftains — the Conmhaicne Mara — who held sway in the western part of what is now Co. Galway until the thirteenth century. Today, Conamara includes coastal settlements from Killary in the northwest to Ros an Mhíl in the south, as well as all of the inland territory south of the Mayo border and west of Maam Cross. Linguistically, it comprises areas where Irish is spoken by a majority of the local people — taking in An Spidéal and Ros an Mhíl and the islands west to the district around Carna — as well as Clifden, Roundstone, and other areas in the northwest, in which English has been the predominant since the late nineteenth century. These days, the coastal region between Bearna and Indreabhán along the north side of Galway Bay is known as Cois Fharraige (the sea coast), and is not considered — by geographers and historians at any rate — to be part of Conamara. Cois Fharraige, while still boasting a healthy percentage of native Irish-speakers, has been heavily colonised in recent years by English-speakers commuting to work in Galway City.

Most of this discussion relates to the part of Conamara known as Iorras Aithneach, the peninsula bounded by Cuan Chill Chiaráin (Kilkerrin Bay) on the east and Cuan na Beirtrí Buí (Bertraghboy Bay) on the west that includes Carna and the surrounding townlands. For an instant overview of the area online, a search of Google Maps for ‘Carna, County Galway, Ireland’ will help to place Joe Heaney’s home in the wider geographical context.

The history, geology, geography and archaeology of Conamara are fascinating. A good starting-point for those wishing to explore further would be the works of Roundstone-based mathematician, historian, cartographer and writer Tim Robinson, whose books and maps of the area have won international acclaim; see the folding landscapes website.

From the Conmhaicne Mara to Cromwell

Joe Heaney’s enthusiasm for Irish history informed his presentations to students, and his understanding of historical events was woven into the explanations and stories with which he prefaced many of his songs. For this reason, a brief historical review may be useful.

The Flahertys

Liam Mac Con Iomaire, Joe Heaney’s biographer, discovered that people with Joe’s surname were local chieftains in northwest Conamara over seven centuries ago[1]. Their fall from power likely coincided with the arrival in Conamara of the O’Flahertys, who replaced the previous hereditary chieftains, the Conmhaicne Mara, in the thirteenth century and remained in power until Cromwell’s forces overthrew them in the mid-seventeenth century. The O’Flahertys gained a reputation as ruthless tyrants, and Joe was fond of telling how the last of them — Tadhg na Buile Ó Flathartaigh — at last got his comeuppance at the hands of an angry tenant. The ruins of Tadhg’s sixteenth-century dwelling remain in Aird Thoir (Ard East), the village where Joe Heaney grew up, which is also known as Aird an Chaisleáin (Ardcastle).

Although it has a long and complex history, impossible to detail fully here, the relationship between hereditary Gaelic chieftains and their people was changed forever during the Tudor dynasty, when the chieftains were required to cede their lands to the crown and accept them back on a feudal basis, in a maneuver known to historians as ‘Surrender and Regrant’. No longer would the chieftains hold power at the behest of those they led, but rather at the will of the English monarch. As a result, the hereditary contractual responsibility of chieftains for the wellbeing of their people was undermined by their need to maintain favour with the sovereign, and they acquired the habit of extorting rents and other support from their tenants in order to support what they considered a suitable style of life for that purpose. The English class system had, in this fashion, come to Ireland.

The Cromwellian Plantation in the seventeenth century brought fresh miseries, with the division of Conamara among Cromwell’s Protestant supporters and a number of Catholic families who had been dispossessed of richer lands further east. The ‘ferocious O’Flahertys’ were replaced by the Blakes, ffrenches, Lynches and Martins. Of these, the Martins became the most powerful, owning some 200,000 acres between Oughterard and Ballinahinch — territory that included Iorras Aithneach. Although Joe Heaney told audiences that his own people were among the families banished ‘to Hell or Connaught’ by Cromwell’s forces, his paternal line at least appears to have lived in Conamara for centuries by that time.

The Great Famine

By far the most traumatic historical event — one which influenced Joe’s choice of repertoire and many of his attitudes — was the Great Famine of 1845-50. This disaster, and the upheaval of land clearances, emigration, religious turmoil, anti-landlord agitation and other ills which flowed from it, was within the living memories of many in the community when Joe Heaney was growing up. His own grandparents were famine survivors. In light of this fact, it may be useful to spend a few minutes considering what Joe himself said about the Famine.

Because the Famine held considerable fascination for his audiences abroad, Joe developed an account that sought to satisfy their curiosity without going into disturbing detail[2]. He told his audiences that the Famine was not as deadly in Conamara as it was elsewhere in the country, because the proximity of the sea meant that the people were not totally dependent upon the potato crop for sustenance, but also had fish and shellfish to eat. This account — which circulated not only in Conamara but in other western parts of Ireland — should probably be taken with a grain of salt[3].

Conamara historian and archaeologist Michael Gibbons believes that the first thing people would have done when the potato crop failed was to sell their tools, hoping the money they got from the sale would have seen them through until the harvest the following year. If this is correct, it’s likely that many would have parted with whatever fishing equipment they possessed at this time. Secondly, Gibbons argues that the supply of shore-based shellfish — winkles and such — would not have lasted very long, given the numbers of people who would have been gathering them; and in any case, that the energy needed to collect such food would have exceeded the calories it provided. Finally, he points out that the famine years directly coincided with the harshest winters on record for the whole of the nineteenth century. As a result, the herring stocks — the only fish normally present in any quantity inshore during the winter months — would have sought deeper waters. So even if someone possessed a boat, and even if he were willing to brave the awful weather, his chances of catching anything would have been slim[4].

In fact, it is generally accepted that the effects of the Famine were most keenly felt in the Irish-speaking west and south of Ireland, areas in which poverty and a limited diet made the people especially vulnerable to starvation and disease. Whatever the truth of the matter as regards starvation, the documented presence of fever hospitals at Cill Chiaráin and elswhere attests to the fact that many Conamara people died of cholera and typhus during these years. A doctor working in the area during the Famine wrote that in Carna and Cill Chiaráin there were fever,

dysentery and dropsy, evidently caused by want of food… No description could give an idea of the extreme wretchedness of these people… In some houses every member of the family was ill. The same state of wretchedness and of disease is said to prevail in the islands and in the coast part of the district, which for want of roads I did not visit[5].

The harrowing reality of the Famine was attested to by a young Scotsman, Thomas Colville Scott, who came to Conamara in 1853 to survey the Martins’ vast estate for possible sale. He wrote[6]:

In going and returning from Roundstone, I looked at many of the rude graves in the Bogs, Quarry holes and even on the ditches, into which the unfortunate people were flung in the time of the famine of ’47. The very dogs which had lost their masters or were driven by want from their homes, became roving denizens of this district & lived on the unburied or partially buried corpses of their late owners and others, and there was no possible help for it, as all were prostrate alike, the territory so extensive, and the people so secluded and unknown. The luxurient tufts of grass and heath shew the spots where they lie…

It is intriguing to speculate as to the reasons why oral tradition sought to play down the hardships of the Famine in some areas. Perhaps the event was simply too horrible to dwell upon. It has been remarked that, with a very few exceptions — Johnny Seoighe, Na Prataí Dubha, — almost no songs have emerged from the Famine period. Instead of wondering at this fact, we should perhaps ask ourselves: Who sings when he is starving to death? We should also remember that the oral accounts and memories passed down in families and gathered by the Irish Folklore Commission are the stories of the survivors. Surviving such an event undoubtedly took ingenuity and a competitive spirit, and very probably involved many people in activities that they and their descendents might not have been proud of. As far too many terrible events have shown, people in exigent circumstances will do whatever is necessary in order to survive, even if doing so may disadvantage someone else. Finally, we should surely consider the impact on these oral memories of survivor syndrome in which people question why they should have survived, when so many others perished; this phenomenon is now recognized as an element of post-traumatic stress disorder. If we can get our heads around the thought of an entire country suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we may be able to understand why oral accounts of this traumatic event do not dwell overmuch on the gruesome details.

After the Famine

The years following the Famine brought additional disasters, both social and economic. In religious terms, there were a number of English Protestants who saw the Famine as evidence of the Lord’s displeasure at the Irish people’s continuing adherence to the Roman Catholic Church. The Irish Church Missions Society, founded in England in 1849, seized upon the idea of using charity to encourage conversions among the destitute and hungry people of Conamara — an effort in which they were assisted by a number of local landlords. The Rev. Alexander Dallas founded a number of schools for children orphaned by the Famine, including one in Dumhaigh Ithir (Dooyeher), a few miles west of Joe Heaney’s birthplace. Eventually, opposition to the Rev. Dallas and his followers prevailed, but their activities caused a great deal of sectarian strife and bad feeling between these two groups of Christians at a time when things were bad enough already. A song that speaks to the determination of Catholics to resist all worldly temptations and remain loyal to the faith of their fathers is Amhrán Shéamais Uí Chonchúir, said to have been composed during the Famine by an Aran Islander who had been offered a plot of land if he would turn away from Rome and compose a song in praise of the protestant faith.

At the same time, many of the landowners — the Martins among them — had themselves been bankrupted by the Famine. Unable to collect rents and clear their own debts, they were forced to put their estates on the market. In some cases it took years to find a buyer. In the meantime, they resumed efforts to collect rent from their tenants. As the century wore on, however, resistance grew to the system that vested ownership of the land in the hands of so few people. The Land League, founded in Co. Mayo by Michael Davitt in 1879, supported tenants’ rights during a turbulent decade which finally brought an end to the system of landlordism. Joe’s song The Wife of the Bold Tenant Farmer reflects this period in Irish history, and illustrates the Irish people’s willingness to show solidarity in bringing their case against the landlords.


As a result of these upheavals, the post-Famine period was in many ways as difficult a time as the Famine itself. Through all of these years, increasing numbers of people simply left the country. Before the Famine, most emigrants had been skilled people who went from the north and east of Ireland to work in England. Afterwards, however, most emigrants came from the Irish-speaking west and south of the country — the areas hardest hit by the disaster — and the majority of those headed further west, to North America. The tide of emigration, which began during the Famine itself, continued to swell throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century and up to the First World War. Many of Joe Heaney’s songs — too many — deal with this sad theme, among them Skibbereen, A Stór mo Chroí, and The Bogs of Shanaheever, which deal with pain of leaving and the reasons for doing so, as well as O’Brien from Tipperary and Seven Young Irishmen, which focus on the often life-threatening challenges facing Irish people in the new world.

The twentieth century

In 1921, nearly eight centuries of English cultural and political interference in Ireland came to an end with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which granted the Irish Free State status as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Unfortunately, the terms of the treaty — which granted the six unionist counties of Northern Ireland the right, which they exercised, to opt out of the Free State — caused a split between political factions that led directly to the Irish Civil War (1922-3) and ultimately to The Troubles — the guerilla warfare between Irish republicans, protestant paramilitaries and the British Army — that began in 1969 and started to approach resolution with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The political descendents of the two sides in the Civil War now constitute the Republic of Ireland’s two main political parties, Fine Gael (whose founders supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty) and Fianna Fáil (whose founders, including Éamonn de Valera, opposed the Treaty because of its provision for the partition of Ireland into North and South).

Born during the Irish War of Independence (1919–21), Joe Heaney must have been aware of the political attitudes of his time. One of the martyrs of the Easter Rising of 1916, Pádraig Pearse, had owned a home in Ros Muc, a few miles to the east of Carna. Carna itself was a Fine Gael stronghold, with many of Ireland’s most prominent politicians spending holidays and holding gatherings at Mongan’s Hotel (now Tigh Mheaic) during the early days of independence. In later life, Joe would give a nuanced reply to people who asked him to sing rebel songs, referring to himself as a patriot rather than a rebel. While his performance of songs like Skibbereen, John Mitchel, and The Glen of Aherlow left no doubt how he felt about the unjust treatment of Irish people at the hands of imperial authorities, his awareness of the ongoing Troubles made him reluctant to throw petrol on fires that were burning hot enough already, and he purposly avoided singing the rabble-rousers that many — particularly in America — requested. As regards the English themselves, Joe put it this way in a conversation with Mick Moloney in 1981[7]:

I worked in England for years and I never found a bad Englishman. I’m not saying the laws were good, but I found the English very nice people and I sang in English folk-clubs all around the country and I was treated as something authentic… I like to respect an audience; without them you wouldn’t be there.

The Irish language

An important element in the fight for an independent Ireland was the Irish Language Revival movement, which sought to reverse the decline of the Irish language that, although it had been underway for centuries, had accelerated greatly in the years following the Famine. By the end of the nineteenth century a growing number of people were becoming concerned about this decline, and sought to do something about it. As a consequence, the founding of the Irish Free State brought a measure of support for language revival efforts as well as official status for the Irish language in the country’s affairs.

Despite these efforts, however, it became clear that the vision of a fully Irish-speaking nation would be difficult to realise. Too much idealism, combined with too little practicality and substantive planning, was probably to blame. Nonetheless the decline of the Irish-speaking districts was slowed, even if it was not reversed. The fact that Irish now enjoyed official status encouraged people in the Gaeltacht to realize that their language was a thing of positive value, rather than an unfortunate economic encumbrance. With the help of Gaeltacht scholarships, many Irish-speakers obtained professional qualifications through the system of training colleges that prepared native speakers to be primary schoolteachers — something that would have been impossible without the official support that the language now enjoyed — and thanks to these teachers many people throughout the island and beyond have learned the language of their ancestors. In the Gaeltacht itself, the Summer Colleges have in later years brought much needed income into many households when other sources of employment have been scarce.

Such developments enabled thousands of people — including non-Irish people — to learn Irish as a second language during the twentieth century. Today Modern Irish is studied as a spoken language in many universities overseas as well as in Ireland. Some 70,000 Irish people speak the language every day outside the classroom, and many others have some fluency and speak it when the occasion offers. While the numbers might be lower than the early twentieth-century founders of the Irish language revival movement would have liked, there is no doubt that the country’s Irish-speakers constitute a significant portion of the population. They are well organized and determined to achieve their linguistic rights, and with the enactment of the Official Languages Act of 2003 their cause has been recognized.

Economic realities

Conamara’s geographic isolation and geologic heritage have governed its economic and political fortunes for hundreds of years. A world away from Erin the Green, the southern reaches of Conamara are an uncompromising landscape dominated by granite outcrops and peat bogs. Vegetation grows low to the ground, where it can find sufficient soil to grow at all. Dry-stone walls divide the landscape into tiny plots which today may provide pasture for a couple of cows, or a donkey, or enough space to plant a few ridges of potatoes. With the exception of a few sandy beaches, the shoreline is rock-bound and challenging to navigate.

Until quite recently, the people relied for survival upon the fish they caught and the food they were able to grow for themselves. The poverty of the soil and the harshness of the environment — not to mention the brutality of landlords and other human scourges —condemned many generations of its inhabitants to a subsistence economy. As Séamas Mac Con Iomaire described their lot in 1938[8]:

These people don’t have much, only struggling with the hardships of life. In summer and autumn they can earn a little, but the rest of the year is difficult. Bad laws and tyrrany — their lot for centuries — have left them badly off.

Rent and taxes were bad enough, but hardly bear comparison to the worst afflictions. As happened in many other parts of Ireland, the land was cleared. The people were banished from their small-holdings and their houses demolished. They endured punishment and torture from landlords’ bailiffs and their crowbar-wielding minions, whose handiwork is still to be seen: bare, lonely old walls with ivy and moss growing outside and nettles within…

During a trip home to Ireland in 1979, Joe Heaney was interviewed on Raidió na Gaeltachta by Maidhc P. Ó Conaola:

[My father] used to spend a day fishing, and another day working for somebody, and he would plant a couple ridges of land. That’s all. There wasn’t much there. He didn’t do much fishing, but what he did helped a bit… When I was growing up in Carna — myself and the ones I was at school with — we didn’t have the price of a pair of shoes or anything. We went barefoot, summer, winter and autumn. And after school maybe we’d have to go to work for somebody to get a few pence for the house. You know yourself, the people were poor… They were slaves. A dozen lobsters, you’d get a crown for them, for thirteen of them. Thank God, they’re alright now, but that time there wasn’t anything. I’m talking about up to 1930 and after that, up to 1945 — there wasn’t much there[9].

Well-known singer Josie Sheáin Jeaic Mac Donncha from Aird Thiar, whose family were neighbours of the Heaneys, described the traditional way of life to Joe’s biographer, Liam Mac Con Iomaire[10]:

There was a season for everything. Seaweed for the potatoes was cut during a couple of spring tides in January and February. It would be spread on the ridges, and they’d start planting the potatoes in March. There would be potato-sets or seed potatoes to be cut up and scattered on the ridges, and the eyeless bits would be eaten or given to the animals. Seaweed and fertilizer would be put on the potatoes around here; manure wasn’t normally used, as it was in other parts of Conamara. Every house had a dung-heap, of course, but in these villages the manure would be saved for the vegetables — turnips, mangles, onions and carrots — or scattered on the hay meadows.

An awful lot of potatoes used to be sown at that time, for they were the mainstay of the people’s diet, often with fresh or salt fish as flavouring. Three or four men would be planting potatoes for four or five weeks to ensure that there would be enough in the house for man and beast until the the next crop would be harvested in the autumn. When the tops of the plants appeared they had to be cultivated, and later sprayed to prevent blight. Wherever potatoes were planted in one year, oats would be planted the following year. Oats were wanted for the hens and the horse, and the straw for thatching the houses and stables. Most houses were still thatched at that time, apart from the slate-roofed houses put up by the Congested Districts Board[11] here and there. Although booleying[12] was a thing of the past, the cattle would be put out on Cnoc Buí in the summertime in order to give the hay-meadows a chance to grow.

Late in May the turf would be cut, and it would be brought home around St Kieran’s Day, the ninth of September. It would be brought home with a horse and cart, or with donkeys and creels, which allowed it to be brought to the end of the house; there were no tractors or lorries yet. Most houses had a donkey and creels, with a horse and cart here and there. When the hay and oats had been gathered into the haggard, the rick of turf built at the end of house, and the potatoes harvested, you could say that that the year’s main work was at an end. But there was always some sort of job to be done, and children weren’t left out. There were cows to milk, calves to feed, hay to be pulled for the cattle, the stable to be cleared out, and cattle to be driven and herded. The hens had to be shut up at night and prevented from wandering into the house during the day; the dog had to be fed and the cat given a saucer of milk; and a thousand other odd things, not to mention drawing water from the well, and ordinary housework.

In a wide-ranging interview with Jill Linzee, one of his graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle, Joe Heaney shared his own memories of life at home, including the various ways in which his parents tried to make ends meet. During Joe’s childhood, his father spent months at a time working in Scotland, entrusting the outdoor work of the farm to Joe’s older brothers. His mother — in addition to supervising her seven children, caring for the house, and manufacturing much of the family’s clothing — occasionally earned a bit extra by packing dried carrageen moss for sale in shops across the country. As a child, Joe was expected to help with chores before and after school, as well as lend a hand to a neighbour when requested.

In addition to the farm work, those houses that possessed a boat — usually a currach, a sturdy wooden rowing boat — would take to the sea. In a 1978 conversation with Esther Warkov and Cynthia Thiessen at the University of Washington, Joe tells of being sent out in his family’s currach to lift lobster-pots, about the different sorts of nets used to catch herring, mackerel, and pollock, and the practical purpose behind the different patterns knitted into the sweaters worn by sailors.

In spite of all this hard labour, money remained scarce. Remittances from relatives abroad, or the pension allowance of an older family member, helped to provide for the basic needs of growing families. Above all, emigration — temporary or permanent — remained a fact of life. Throughout his time abroad, Joe took pains to describe this legacy of want to his students and audiences, most of whom were strangers to such hardship. In many cases, he introduced this topic by singing one of his favourite songs — The Rocks of Bawn.

Carna and Iorras Aithneach today

Today, conditions have greatly changed. Fewer people bother growing their own potatoes, never mind oats. Cattle, horses, donkeys and sheep are still visible, but their numbers are decreasing, and since the advent of tractors, the horses and donkeys don’t have much work to do. Currachs and other boats still fish for lobster (the market is now in France), although many currachs are now equipped with outboard motors. The Galway hookers — the wooden sailboats that used to haul turf and other commodities up and down Galway Bay and as far as the Channel Islands and beyond — have undergone a revival and are now an important tourist attraction during the summer months, when regattas are organized. Turf-cutting and hay-making continue — in a dry year such as 2010, everybody seems to be at it — and the art of constructing a handsome rick of turf has not died out.

There are two main towns in Iorras Aithneach, Carna and Cill Chiaráin (Kilkerrin). The area as a whole boasts a total of six shops (one with petrol pumps), six bars (two of which are in hotels), six primary schools, one secondary school, two churches, two hotels, two post offices, a nursing home, a doctor’s surgery, a pharmacy, a garage-cum-hackney service, a GAA pitch, a Garda station, and numerous bed-and-breakfast establishments. Cill Chiaráin employs a number of people in fish- and seaweed-processing facilities. The townland of Roisín na Mainíoch, just east of Carna village, boasts an abandoned convent and a largely-vacant industrial estate occupied only by the offices of FÁS, the Irish National Training and Employment Authority. Across the road is Áras Shorcha Ní Ghuairim, a former technical school now operated by Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge. Part of the National University of Ireland, Galway, the Acadamh provides diploma and adult education courses in computing and in traditional culture under the auspices of NUIG. The Áras also houses the tapes, sent from the University of Washington, that form the basis of the Joe Heaney Archives, which are maintained and updated from there.

Apart from work in the few small businesses located there, sources of employment for people in Iorras Aithneach now include tourism, the provision of lodgings for visiting school-children learning Irish during the summer, and the fish- and seaweed-processing factories in Cill Chiaráin. During the years of the Celtic Tiger, building jobs were in good supply, with returned or vacationing immigrants seeking to build houses and holiday cottages in their native place. Because of its distance from Galway City and the inadequacy of its roads, Carna has yet to become part of the commuter-belt that has transformed Cois Fharraige in recent years; and the 50 kilometers of twisting road that prevents that transformation also keeps all but a few residents from taking jobs in town. For many, the only source of regular income is the dole.

During the period between 1911 and 1981 — roughly the period of Joe’s lifetime — Census records show that the population of Iorras Aithneach declined by over 40 percent, from 3,519 to 2,086. By 2005, the population had fallen to 1,813, for a loss of a further 8.5 percent. In other words, nearly half the population of Iorras Aithneach has disappeared in the past hundred years. As a consequence, the number of children attending the area’s six primary schools fell by nearly 49 percent — from 333 to 171 — during the fifteen years between 1990 and 2005.

Carna and its cultural legacy

At the western end of the Conamara Gaeltacht, Carna and the surrounding district have long been regarded as one of the richest areas of native Irish culture in the whole of Ireland. Professor James Delargy, one of the founders of the Irish Folklore Commission — now the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin — was of the opinion that the depth and richness of the folklore in this one parish were without equal in Western Europe. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, collectors from the Irish Folklore Commission gathered an extraordinary amount of songs, tales, and traditional lore from people living as their forbears had done for generations.

In the first half of the twentieth century, some forty storytellers were active in the community, men who could recite the tales of adventure and of Fionn Mac Cumhaill — some of which could be many hours in the telling — as well as the shorter stories meant to amuse, or to illustrate a moral precept[13]. Alongside the storytellers were the seanchaithe or shanachies, local historians and repositories of lore, who could recite their genealogies back seven or eight generations, or tell of the time that a ship from the Spanish Armada was wrecked off Mace Head, or recount the terrible deeds of Tadhg na Buile O’Flaherty, or retail the adventures of smugglers and poteen-makers along the tortuous coastline of Iorras Aithneach. Women told stories of the otherworld folk who were ready to steal a child who didn’t behave, and they could recite the old prayers and religious stories.

As for songs, Carna was justly famous. There have been more Oireachtas prize-winners from the Carna district than from any other part of the country. Local poets seized every opportunity to compose humorous verses poking fun at the foibles of their neighbours; some of these songs can still stir passions, as Joe Heaney himself discovered[14]. Women extemporised lúibíní and other verses as they worked at gathering carrageen moss, or carding wool, or — as Joe told Esther Warkov in Seattle in 1978 — washing clothes by the side of a stream. The large repertoire of songs in Irish included songs whose themes can be traced back to the middle ages; love songs that recall the medieval traditions of courtly love; songs of heroism on land and sea; religious songs that reveal the depth of the people’s faith; and above all songs of lamentation and loss that reflect the hardships of life and the constancy of themes like injustice, danger, and emigration. In addition, songs from the English ballad tradition were also popular; Joe’s father Pádraig Éinniú had a great store of these, and passed his love for them on to his family.

The riches of the cultural legacy inherited by Joe Heaney and his contemporaries are what we explore in these Archives.


1. Liam Mac Con Iomaire, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí: Nár fhágha mé bás choíche, Cló Iar-Chonnachta (2007), 27–8. Mac Con Iomaire’s biography of Joe Heaney, written in Irish, has been an invaluable resource in the preparation of this article. Those unable to read Irish may still enjoy the many passages quoted from interviews conducted in English; and the list of sources (pp. 473–6) provides a useful starting point for further study.

2. For a thorough examination of Joe Heaney’s account of the Famine, see Lillis Ó Laoire and Sean Williams, Singing the Famine: Joe Heaney, Johnny Seoighe and the Poetics of Performance in A. Clune, Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly. Miltown Malbay 2007, 229–247.

3. In 1945, to mark the centenary of the onset of the Famine, the Irish Folklore Commission undertook a nationwide survey of the Irish people to discover what they knew of the Famine’s events and its aftermath. One of those responding to this survey was Joe Heaney’s second cousin, Colm Ó Caodháin, whose detailed account is held in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin (NFC 1009:72–87). His story echoes Joe’s assertion that fewer people died of starvation in Conamara than in other parts of the country, because they were able to fish; more, he said, died of cholera which spread west from Galway. Colm Ó Caodháin’s contributions to the NFC — including some 212 songs collected from him by Séamus Ennis — are currently being edited for publication by its Director, Ríonach uí Ógáin.

4. Michael Gibbons shared his insights in a conversation with the author.

5. Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, Patient Endurance: The Great Famine in Conamara (Dublin, 1977), 90.

6. Thomas Colville Scott, Conamara After the Famine, ed. Tim Robinson (Dublin, 1995), 10.

7. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 362.

8. Cladaí Chonamara (Dublin, 1938), 2–5. Translated from Irish. Passages originally in Irish are given in the Irish-language version of this article; English translations (as here) are by the author.

9. Mac Con Iomaire, Op. cit., 62.

10. Ibid., 83–4.

11. The CDB (1891–1923) was founded with a view to relieving poverty and reducing emigration by supporting such public works as the construction of small piers and factories. A number of slate-roofed houses — including the one in which Joe Heaney was born and raised — were built by the CDB in the Carna area.

12. Transhumance

13. This and the following paragraph summarize points made in an article by Mairéad Nic Dhonnchadha, Seáirse Siar Carna — mar a bhí in Conamara: Journal of the Clifden and Conamara Heritage Group, 2/1 (1995). The author was a sister of famed singer Johnny Joe Phaitsín ‘ac Dhonncha and grew up in Aird Thiar (Ard West), Carna, a stone’s throw from Joe Heaney’s home in Aird Thoir (Ard East).

14. Joe admitted to his student James Cowdery that he regretted that his performance of Is measa liom Bródach Uí Ghaora had appeared on a commercial recording, as there were people in the community who still regarded it as a slur upon their family. Similar reluctance may explain why Joe never publicly sang — or even admitted to knowing — the Famine-era song from Carna, Johnny Seoighe.