The Kilmore Traditional Singers from County Wexford in the south-east corner
of Ireland have rarely sung outside their village since their tradition was
first recorded over 250 years ago. It was therefore a great honour for the
Festival of Village Carols to host the six singers singers from Kilmore as
special guests for the 2006 Festival.
The Kilmore carols are not set to
the rumbustious type of fuguing tunes associated with the traditions around
Sheffield, but rayher they are more ethereal and mystical in character. In
predating the Yorkshire and Derbyshire traditions, the KIlmore tradition
provides a glimpse into an earlier form of carolling, characterised by a
single melody line, which is ornamented, free flowing and unhurried, often
modal in character, and performed by male voice in unison. It is not unusual
for a carol to last more than ten minutes.
The current group of singers is led by Liam Sheil, who has been singing
these carols for over forty years.Other members of the group, who all come
from local families, are Liam's son, Jimmy Sheil; Robbie Whelan; pat bates
and his brother Martin Bates; and Dixie Devereux (pronounced 'Dev-rix').
Their backgrounds are in fishing, farming and haulage, and each is a fine
singer in his own right.
The carols are not performed as a set on certain auspicious days, as is
the pattern in England, but rather one carol is sung for each day of the
twelve days of Christmas. Nor are (or were) the carols sung as part of an
itinerant house-visiting tradition, but solely within the context of the
celebration of the Mass, whilst Communion is being taken, at the Catholic
Parish Church of St Mary's in Kilmore. Whereas in the nineteenth century
other villages in Wexford had closely related traditions, these had
disappeared before the First World War, so that Kilmore is nw the only
village in Ireland to uphold such a tradition.
The Original Carol Collections
The origins of the Wexford carolling are closely associated with two
collections, which took the form of "garlands". The first is of considerable
age, being compiled and very probably written by Luke Waddinge, the Roman
Catholic Bishop of Ferns (the Diocese which included Wexford), and published
in Ghent in France in 1684. - A Smale Garland of Pious and Godly Songs, Composed by a devout Man, for the Solace of his Freinds and neighbours in
their afflictions. The title page includes a verse (a 'posy'):
The sweet and the sower
The nettle and the flower
The Thorne and the Rose
This Garland Compose.
The garland, which was published in the aftermath of severe Catholic
repression in Ireland, comprises several religious verses together with
poems written for the disinherited gentry of County Wexford, and others
relating to the Popish Plat. Significantly, it also contains eleven
Christmas songs, two of which are sung to this day in Kilmore ('St Stephen's
Day Carol' and 'Song for New Year's Day'), whilst a third, 'On Christmass
Night all Christians sing' is the earliest text for the carol known as 'The
Sussex Carol'. These carols proved to be very popular and the Smale
Garland was reprinted in London in 1728, and again in Drogheda in 1731.
The second collection. which dates from 1728, is A New Garland,
containing Songs for Christmas, which was compiled by Rev'd William
Devereux (1696-1771), who was born in Ring, Tacumshane. He later became the
Parish Priest of Drinagh )now Piercetown); having no chapel, he said Mass in
a sheltered corner of a field. He had a 'rich voice' and entertained friends
with songs from Spain, which he had learned whilst studying for the
priesthood in Salamanca.
The New Garland contained three of the
carols from the Smale Garland, two of which are the ones noted above
as being part of the Kilmore tradition. The other 'Kilmore' carols which
Devereux included are
'The Darkest Midnight',
'Christmas Day Is Come',
'Song for St John's Day',
'Song for the Holy Innocents',
'St Sylvester's Day;,
'Song of Jerusalem', and
'Song for Twelfth Night'.
Another inclusion which the Kilmore carollers
sing, though it is not considered to be exclusive to their village, is 'The
Enniscorthy Carol' - 'Good people all this Christmas time'.
is no known copy of Devereux's original New Garland extant, several
versions of it survive, copied into later manuscripts. There are also
records of carol singing in Wexford dating from this time in Killane,
Mayglass (Ballymore), lady's Island (Tacumshane), and Rathangan. The carols
were introduced into Kilmore parish from 1751 onwards by Father Peter
Devereux, and remarkably members of the Devereux family have been closely
associated with the carols ever since. The voice of Liam Sheil's uncle, Jack
Devreux (1910-1999), former leader of the carollers who sang for more than
sixty years, is to be heard in a talk recorded and broadcast by RTE in 1982
(which we listened to). Liam's grandfather, also Jack devereux, sang for
over fifty years.
Planning the Visit
Last January, Jerry O'Reilly and Ian Russell visited St Mary's Church,
Kilmore, to hear the last two carols being sung and to meet the singers. It
was a wonderful encounter and grateful thanks are due to Father Denis Doyle,
the Parish Priest, for his kind and generous welcome. They also met the lads
in the more secular surroundings of Quigley's Bar, across the road from the
church, and it was from there that the trip to Sheffield was planned.