John Arnold: Saluting our pipers of the past — like the blind widow Nance

Nance forged a tradition that lives on today in the skill and talent of so many pipers in the Bride and Blackwater area, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: Saluting our pipers of the past — like the blind widow Nance

TRADITION DOWN THE AGES: A female piper performing at a Feis at the Mardyke, Cork, in July, 1926

JOHN Smithwick Wayland may not be a household name in the Cork area these days, yet this man played a massive role in the preservation and development of a unique form of musicianship.

Born in Co Tipperary, his father Palliser Wayland was a farmer of Church of Ireland stock. Palliser married Martha Rebecca Smithwick Manning and John, the youngest of their family, took his name from both parents.

Whilst working as a clerk in Cork, John got involved with Conradh na Gaeilge. In his youth in Tipperary he had met many traditional uileann pipers and developed a great grá for piping. He is credited with founding, in March, 1898, the Cork Pipers Club — regarded as the oldest pipers club in the world. I must admit that until a few short weeks ago I had never heard of ‘Mr Wayland’, as he was commonly known.

There’s an old Irish séan-fhocail, ‘Is ait an mac an saol’, which basically means ‘Life is strange’ and, sure, no doubt there’s truth in what they say!

Well, a few of us were discussing the tourism potential of the Bride Valley lately. We were listing traditions, folklore, history, famous people, castles, fairy stories, battles, sporting feats and the like. It was a kind of brain-storming session to see if we could, in the future, build or create a tourist product that might bring more visitors to our region.

That’s when I first came across a character called ‘Nance the Piper’ from the Castlelyons area. I use the word ‘character’ to describe her because, by all accounts, that’s just what she was! A widow with the added affliction of blindness, she overcame this condition to become a renowned musician.

Francis O’Neill, the famous, Bantry-born music collector and Chief of Police in Chicago from 1901 to 1905, wrote about Nance as follows: “A character so quaint and unique as this blind woman piper should have been immortalised in Irish literature.”

Despite O’Neill’s assertion, Nance has been largely forgotten — I have yet to ascertain what her surname was! What we can be certain of, though, is that Nance might have been erased completely from all records, oral and written, were it not for another piper, Jimmy Barry. This left-handed player of the uileann pipes was said to have attended the first meeting of the Cork Pipers Club. He must have been a larger than life character, described as ‘not a teetotaller’.

Mr Wayland said Barry “would burst forth into song so loud and voluble as to render the music of his pipes inaudible, anon raising the chanter almost over his shoulder and in other ways displaying the exuberance of his spirits”!

Whether Barry had any connection with Castlelyons (ancestral seat of the Barrymores) or north-east Cork is not known but ‘twas he regaled the Pipers Club with the story of Nance, the blind Piper from Castlelyons.

His description of the blind female musician reached the ears of O’Neill in Chicago and he mentioned her in his 1913 publication Irish Minstrels and Musicians. Barry maintained that Nance became a travelling piper after her husband’s death — there was no widow’s pension in the late 1800s, so she had to earn a crust in some manner.

More than likely, her husband had been a piper also and she had learned to play the instrument during his lifetime. All those who wrote of her agreed that only the best pipers were capable of playing for the dancers who gathered on stage or at cross-roads platforms. Without a blink of light in her eyes, she was able to discern each step-dancer by the sound of his or her feet.

No-one is certain exactly where in Castlelyons Nance was from, but as a piper she travelled far and wide. In olden times, when the Gaelic Families held sway in Ireland, the wandering minstrels, poets and musicians were highly regarded in Irish society.

They were welcomed and treated as valued guests, well ‘fed and watered’. With the Penal Laws the old order changed — the poem Cill Cais reflects the awful new reality;

Now as the height of the bad news

the prince of the Gaels went overseas,

Over there with the maiden whose mildness

was honoured in France and Spain.

Now her company laments,

they who received yellow money and white;

it is she who would not take the people’s possessions,

but was a friend to the genuinely poor.

The glory days for Irish culture were over, but still, even in the mid to late 1800s, the piper and poet were yet respected and highly thought of by Bride and Blackwater.

Near Mohera in Castlelyons there once stood a ‘Piper’s Bush’. Local lore had it that once upon a time the Canon of Coole, or maybe the Bishop of Cloyne, whilst walking barefoot in the area, had a rest under the bush and played a tune or two there!

This was centuries before the bould Nance was on the scene, but perhaps the tradition lingered. In recalling his memories of Nance, Jimmy Barry lauded her ability, not alone as a musician, but as an ‘MC’, raconteur, social commentator and latter-day impresario.

Her close connections with the Castlelyons area can be garnered from the local name dropping. It was as if she knew the seed, breed and generation of all the dancers she was playing for — though she could see none!

“Not the least entertaining part of the performance was the fusillade of comments she kept up all the time, such as: “Wisha, darlin, to ye, Patsy Magner.” “Yerra, I wouldn’t doubt your father’s son.” “Wire into ’em, Mickey Joe Sullivan”, “there is not the batings of ye anywhere for a gorsoon”. “Faith, ‘tis little boastin’ the Mulcahey’s of Grange will have whin ye are a year or two oldher.” “Now, Darby Tom, don’t ye let it go with ’em.” “Ah, ‘twas kind father for you to be handy with your fut, me bouchal.”

Her words of encouragement were like the modern ‘Up ya boy ya’ and of course Grange is a local townland and the surnames Magner, Mulcahy and Sullivan are still to be found in the area.

When Francis O’Neill was urging immortality in the pages of Irish literature for Nance, he added ‘if Jimmy Barry’s story be true’, so he perhaps thought that Barry was open to a degree of exaggeration! Maybe he was, but one way or another Nance the Blind Piper of Castlelyons deserves to be remembered and honoured.

People such as her never reached national fame, but they coloured the mundane lives of so many of our ancestors. Truly, they were part of what we are today.

Nance forged a tradition that lives on today in the skill and talent of so many pipers in the Bride and Blackwater area, who are master uileann pipers in their own right at this present time.

John Smithwick Wayland, Jimmy Barry, Francis O’Neill and Nance the Piper — all parts of a story — to be continued.

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