Memories & melodies
EVERY Sunday night Mildred Beirne’s voice resonates across the mid-west region. On MWR’s traditional music programme “Fleadh Cheoil” presented by Seámus Duffy, Mildred gives details of every upcoming céilí around the province. She’s been commanding this weekly diary slot for over 15 years. Mildred Beirne is ever passionate about the topic. It couldn’t be any other way. Her life has been governed by music, song and dance.
Loughglynn is the place she calls home. The village on the Mayo/Roscommon border, celebrated in song through the famous ballad ‘The Woodlands Of Loughglynn’ has other strings to its historical bow. Not far from the renowned plantation is the man-made artificial lake constructed in the early nineteenth century by Charles Strickland. Strickland, who lived at Loughglynn House, was a land agent for absent landlord Viscount Dillon.
Charles’s wife Maria was away for a few weeks and due to return to her Loughglynn dwelling on her birthday. By way of a surprise for her Charles enlisted the help of the local tenants for Loughglynn’s biggest dig. When Maria returned the vista of a beautiful lake awaited her. Today the fruits of their labours still enhance the village.
Loughglynn House was subsequently acquired by the diocese of Elphin and opened as a convent by The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in 1903. They taught home economics, established a dairy and Loughglynn butter and cheese became famous all over Ireland.
Home from home
It was to this demesne Mildred Regan from Carracastle came to live in 1966 following her marriage to renowned music teacher Leo Beirne. The convent was next door to Leo and Mildred’s home. The nuns were her neighbours. Mildred Byrne made daily visits to the convent and they called regularly to her. The last remaining nuns departed Loughglynn in 2003 and the building was acquired for development as a lakeside hotel.
Today the convent lies derelict. Steel panels fixed on every window and padlocked gates. A poignant reminder at the end of a Roscommon cul-de-sac. A hidden remnant of a building boom and a false economy that crash landed.
Mildred Beirne becomes emotional when she peers through the tubular steel gates.
“I clearly remember when this place was a hive of activity,” she said. “I’d come up here every day for dairy produce. I wasn’t too fond of the cheese. It was a French-based recipe and when the nuns left they sold the formula to Mitchelstown Creameries. They were great neighbours and we did things together. To me it was more than a convent. It was a home from home.
“If the convent car was gone somewhere and the nuns needed to go down to the village shop or somewhere else they’d call on me to bring them and likewise if I needed something all I had to do was ask. They were women way ahead of their time.”
Dancing and music dominated Mildred Beirne’s life. They still do, and her enthusiasm is as keen today as it was when the young girl from Carracastle replied to an advertisement placed by Leo Beirne for a singer in his band.
Along with Stephanie O’Connor, Kathleen Maxwell, Mary and Catherine Morris and Ann Cafferkey, they formed Leo’s all girl troupe - The Arcadia Band. With them she travelled all over Ireland. For Mildred and Leo music became the food of love – ergo a courtship and their marriage in 1966. Panic within the ranks ensued as Mildred explains. “When the girls in the band heard we got engaged they made me swear that I wouldn’t tell Leo they smoked, and I never did.”
Ann Cafferkey is now Ann Coleman. She runs the post office in Loughglynn. On every visit Mildred and Ann’s conversation revolves around music and dancing.
After the arrival of their children Leo Junior and Maria, Mildred Beirne put her musical career on hold. Leo continued teaching music and carved a reputation for himself as an excellent music teacher. He also pushed back the boundaries of conventional music. Long before such experimenting was vogue Leo introduced the saxophone to traditional music. Weekends were spent travelling to different venues around the province conducting classes.
Through his tutelage many young musicians from the region got airtime on Radio Éireann’s “Children at the Microphone” programme. He was Sligo VEC’s first full-time music teacher.
In 1987 Leo Beirne passed away after a long illness.
The baton fell to Mildred then and circumstances opted her no other choice but to run with it. “It was a matter of survival. Leo had taught music in Loughglynn School and the first day I went down I sat outside lacking the courage to go in. But the principal, Mrs Bruen, came out and grabbed me by the arm and told me to get in there and teach them music. I did and to this day I’ve never looked back.”
With MWR she has travelled to America, Spain and Portugal and other places teaching set dancing. She’s grateful for the opportunity the station affords her. For 18 months Mildred went to England on a weekly basis teaching line dancing with her daughter Maria. Maria lives in Ballycastle on the north Mayo coastline. Apples don’t fall far from trees. Maria also teaches music and dancing.
Mildred Beirne routinely travels the highways and byways teaching set dancing. Her home is adorned, museum-like, with photos of people from the world of stage and the political arena she’s encountered along her journey. Choreographing a group of actors in a shed in Mayo Abbey through the intricate moves of the Cashel Set during the filming of “Amongst Women” ranks highest among her career highlights.
Labour of love
This week, Mildred jets off to America with the Castlerea Brass and Reed Band for a series of engagements. It’s a trip the band makes every three years as part of St Patrick’s Day celebrations. On alternative years they travel to cities like Manchester and Birmingham
She still misses the neighbourly nuns she befriended when she came to Loughglynn’s woodlands. She keeps their memory alive in the whisperings of the trees through her reminiscing. A handmaid at Knock Shrine, she also does volunteer work one day each week at Mayo General Hospital.
But teaching music and dance is what busies her most.
The trail she blazes took its first steps to the beat of necessity. She quickly found here feet. Dancing is her everlasting labour of love.
“It’s the nicest thing anyone could get involved in and you meet the most genuine of people wherever you go. I wish more young people would take it up because it needs an injection of youth”
“Adults now come up to me and say Leo Beirne taught them music when they were kids and their only regret is not having made more of the opportunity put in front of them And I’d love young people learning now to heed that, because music opens up so many doors and leads to lovely happenings.”
“I was in the kitchen making a cup of tea and when I heard the music I ran back into the living room immediately. I stood in front of the television spellbound. It was probably the finest exhibition of dancing I’ve ever seen. And sure Flatley is one of our own. His people are from down the road here.”