HOME to John Beag Ó Flatharta is Lettermullen among the islands in south west Connemara. First thing you notice as he speaks is the soft lilting tone. It’s an accent tuned to the music of the sea. It’s probably that same timbre and his easy listening style that has endeared him to audiences since he first took to the stage.
With his band, ‘Na hAncairí’, he developed a unique style of singing. He blends English ballads with the Connemara sean-nós and tints songs composed in the Irish language with a rich dollop of the rhythm found in American country music straight from the sidewalks of Nashville.
The influence for his lyrics is local also. The jist of the story is based mainly on events in his own place; be it emigration songs like “Deoraí Thír an Fhia” or “The Town of Carraroe” or celebrating the beauty of the region in “Lettermullen is a Famous Island.”
But it was an account of a fishing expedition that has now linked John Beag to a particular song forever more. Composed by Eddie Ó Connaighle, “The Nazarene”, tells the story of a night in 1980 when he and Bartley Casey battled with a raging ocean on a stretch of water off the Carna Coast known locally as “The Gates of Hell.”
The song is now to John Beag O’Flatharta what “San Quentin” is to Johnny Cash or “Muirsheen Durkin” to Johnny McEvoy. It’s worn to a thread with all the airplays on various stations and it became Mid West Radio’s most popular song. Chances are even the girl reading the death and funeral notices received a few requests to play it such is its appeal.
When John Beag is not playing music on the local circuit he’s ‘pleasantly busy’ as he describes it, rearing his young son. When they lived in America, John Beag’s wife Anne died at a young age. Anne was of Mayo lineage as her father William Hargraves came from Fallaugh in Barnatra.
There’s no major promotional machine or any stage gimmicks behind John Beag Ó Flatharta. It’s a simple formula. A troubadour with his guitar and his ballad sheets and crowded venues wherever he plays. And that’s how it was when SOTB met up with him in The Larches Bar in Finney last Saturday night.
Set on the shore of Lough Nafooey, on the foothills of Bencorragh in a place of natural beauty, The Larches Bar is the only hub of social life in this bailiwick. Rural pubs are struggling to survive and mainly because of the fear of driving, there’s a culture of drinking at home now.
In order to corner a niche of the market for the off-licence business, some marketing guru even came up with an old cliché that “staying in is the new going out.” It shouldn’t be.
There are major social issues associated with that trend also, and slowly but surely the monster it’s creating is starting to emerge. But this column is not a lecturing pulpit on communal matters so we’ll go back to The Larches.
The Larches is a world away from Copperface Jack’s and Lillie’s Bordello and it operates in a region plagued by all the depressing problems of recession and emigration. That it’s surviving so well is a credit to Brid and John Joe Hopkins and bar staff like Catriona Egan and Teresa Keane. It’s the ordinary things like the few words of welcome and a little exchange of social dialogue with Teresa on arrival before there’s even an order tendered that makes The Larches what it is.
Last Saturday night The Larches Bar in Finney was a gentle reminder of what the country pub was all about. And Ireland needs that again because it provided a service too. It was a few parishes of neighbours out socialising together in a relaxed atmosphere and the dance and bit of chat. It was the young (or those that are still left) and the old mingling together and enjoying the music of “The Nazarene”.
It was good to go back.