Notes from the Island
October 1995


Fifteen years ago I wrote a song called "Kilkelly", which was based on letters that my great-great-great grandfather in Ireland wrote to his son John who had emigrated to America. My brother Steve and I recorded it and so did others. Probably the best known version was done by Robbie O'Connell (a nephew of the Clancy Brothers) and Mick Moloney, who performed it on a BBC special, which was later edited for the Disney Channel.

Three months ago I received a phone call from Sean O'Tarpaigh, who was calling from Kilkelly. He invited me to come to their annual fair at the beginning of August and offered to pay my expenses. I accepted and went with Steve, my mother Jinny and my sister Emily. Sean and two others met us at the Shannon Airport holding a large Irish flag, with "Kilkelly, Ireland" emblazoned across it.

Sean, a Kilkelly native, is a professional actor and the artistic director for An Taibhdhearc, the Irish language theatre in Galway. He and others had written a pageant based on my song, which dramatized the history of Kilkelly and emigration out of Ireland. Fifty of the townspeople acted in the pageant in the town square in front of a thousand spectators. A local singer sang the song and I had a small part reading from John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech.

Over four or five days we participated in a number of festivities and I'm not sure I can do justice to the whirlwind of activity. Some of the high points included singing the song during a mass at the old churchyard, staying up late singing in the pubs, watching a ceili dance at night in the square, cutting the ribbon on the new art exhibit at the courthouse, singing the song on the local radio, and competing with my brother in the potato picking contest.

Our ancestors are actually from Urlaur, a small village outside of Kilkelly. We were lucky to be there for the "pattern", an annual festival which involves mass in the abbey ruins, followed by music, dancing and races. This pattern has been going on for centuries and is mentioned in the old family letters. It is also the time when people who have moved away come back to see friends and relatives and we met several distant cousins, many of whom now live in England and other parts of Ireland.

We had a wonderful time in Ireland because everyone was so gracious and welcoming. It was moving for us to be given such a warm reception and I think it was moving for others to meet a person from Washington, D.C. who had written a song about their town and about emigration, which still touches all of their lives.

-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker