Raised on songs and stories

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MUSICAL MEMORIES Peter Masterson, John Hoban and John Masterson playing in the old Gillespie homestead in Kildun, Ballycroy, where dances took place over 80 years ago.

A musical gathering in Ballycroy evokes the past

Edwin McGreal

A Monday afternoon in the old Gillespie homestead on the very edge of Ireland, and the sound of music echoes back through the generations.
Brothers Peter and John Masterson are here in the old home of their grandparents, Peter and Nora Ann Gillespie, in Kildun, Ballycroy. Accompanying them is legendary Castlebar musician and troubadour John Hoban. They’re here to pay homage to the past and the music of old.
In Kildun, with the Atlantic a mere stone’s throw away, it could just as easily be 1922 as 2022. The Gillespies frequently hosted dances here, and the three music men are honouring those who came before them by entertaining Peter and Nora’s descendants with a poignant and evocative céilí.
The old house is now a barn at the back of the Masterson family home, but a century ago it was a hive of activity, attracting people from surrounding villages, as was the practice of the time in the pre-dancehall era.
“This was one of the finest houses for dancing in the area. There would be up to ten dances held here every winter,” explains Peter Masterson, who organised the get together.
That the dances were held in the winter tells us something about the era too. The long days of summer were too busy for small farmers of the time to do anything outside of work. Instead, the dances took place in dark winter evenings, starting at 6pm or so and wrapping up by midnight.
The story of this dancing house is similar to so many all around the country, just as Peter and Nora Ann Gillespie’s own stories were very much of their time too.
Between the music, Peter Masterson gives a captivating family history, reflecting on many of the life circumstances that bring people together, the kindling that sparks the generations that follow.

From Nephin to Ballycroy
Born in 1868, Peter Gillespie was from near Bellacorrick. He met Ballycroy woman Nora Ann Calvey, some 17 years his junior, when he was visiting his cousins in her native Tallagh. “Whether it was a match made by man or heaven, they seemed to get on very well,” says Peter Masterson.
In the first five years of married life, Peter Gillespie – or Peter Gill, as he was known – worked as a stockman in Altnabrocky Lodge in the Nephin mountains.
Perhaps a longing for Ballycroy brought Nora home, and the Gillespies moved to Kildun in 1914, where Peter took up work as a stockman for the Corrigan family, landlords in the area. The family there before them mostly succumbed to TB and those who survived emigrated to the USA.
The deal was that the Gillespies got the house in Kildun, two or three acres, and could graze ten sheep, two cows ‘and their following’ and got £12 a year. Peter Gilliespie also repaired shoes and was a master distiller of poitín. Nevertheless, it was, one can imagine, a marginal existence.
According to Peter, dances started almost as soon as the family moved in and the last dance here was likely in 1937. The Land Commission had taken over from the landlords and Peter Gillespie received 76 acres, a sizeable improvement.
“It had 50 yards of road frontage but a mile of sea frontage,” said Peter Masterson.

Jig, polka and waltz
Peter Masterson was nine when his grandfather died, but his grandfather’s presence can be seen in the generations that followed, particularly his love of music – he was a great player of the ordinary ten-key melodeon, which is what would have drawn people to the dances in Kildun.
And it was the music that was the cornerstone of the recent gathering in Kildun. Peter and John Masterson were not the only decendants – some great-grandchildren of Peter and Nora Gillespie were also present, as was one great-great-grandchild. The gathering was hosted by Phyllis Masterson, wife of Peter and John’s late brother Noel, and her three children Cathal, Karen and Joanne.
Peter Masterson himself was born in 1940 and was the last child born in the house, with the family moving a few yards ‘up the way’ to a new house in 1942. His older sister Ambrose is the only person alive who would have been in the old house when a dance was on.
Peter’s father, John, married Peter and Nora Gillespie’s daughter Nora and moved the short distance from Lettra.
“What would my grandparents and those who were here at dances back then think of us here today?” wonders Peter. “Two of their grandsons and one of the finest musicians in Mayo playing here. Would they think we were any better or any worse?
“I’m sure the music played then was sets, Irish dancing. So you’d have a jig, a polka and a reel or a waltz. We’ll play them now.”
And off they go, playing two jigs, The Irish Washerwoman and Fr O’Flynn; two polkas, All the Way to Galway and The Recruiting Sergeant; and two waltzes, Danny Boy and Moonlight in Mayo.
An old dresser in pristine condition stands behind them, as it did back in the time of the dancing house.
With the music playing, it feels like you are being transported back through time. It is traditional Irish music in the most traditional of settings. Swallows nesting in the roof go silent for the performance, as captivated as all those present.
Your mind’s eye can visualise people walking and cycling to the house, walking in the door and filling up this small room. Space was so tight back then that there was a man in charge of telling people when it was their turn to dance.
As now, music was a means of escape, and while we might think it was needed more in the hard times that the Gillespies lived in, we cannot assume they were unhappy with their lot either.
Peter Gillespie lived to his 81st year, while Nora died at a great age of 93. In the memories and the music of their descendants, their legacy lives on.

 

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