Traditional Irish songs seem mostly to focus upon one or more of four main themes – the land, love, drink and death. The most memorable seem to combine at least two and, as anyone who knows the whole song will tell you, the ballad Carrickfergus includes all four.
The relationship with the land is powerful, the attachment to particular places something that cannot be fully articulated. John B Keane’s 1965 play The Field explores some of the depths of that attachment, but Bull McCabe’s behaviour in the play has some rational basis. Often bitter disputes arose that lasted years and benefited no-one but lawyers.
Going through old family correspondence, there was a letter in which even the solicitor in south Co Down is driven to exasperation by a family dispute that had lasted for years:
I acted as solicitor for the McCullough family for a great number of years and prepared different Wills. I also advanced money and fought a Probate Action, which was successful, for my client.
A Mortgage was given to me in respect of debts due and it was only given after the debt was going out-of-date.
I took Chancery proceedings and have again and again allowed the matter to be adjourned, with the object of having a settlement between Mr W.J. McCullough on the one side and his sister, Miss Annie McCullough and his brother Mr James McCullough on the other side
I have had numerous interviews; provisional agreements have been arrived at and clearly Miss Annie McCullough and her brother, Mr James McCullough have certainly some interest or rights in the property. Provisional agreements have been arranged between the present Plaintiff and Defendants, but the stumbling-block is the wife of the Plaintiff.
Their clergyman , the Rev. Mr. Slipper has assisted in every possible way. I have had interviews with the respective Solicitors. Finally, on to-day, I am satisfied that Mr. W.J. McCullough cannot agree owing to the attitude of his wife. I have accordingly told them that I will take an Order in the Chancery Division on the 25th day of this month and will take up possession of all the lands, ejecting everybody on them, including the present Plaintiff and Defendant.
I very respectfully say that it would be most harsh, oppressing and inequitable to put Miss McCullough and her brother James out. I have told them if the case is adjourned to the next Assizes I will again do my best to have an amicable settlement arrived at, and as far as I am concerned, give time to pay any money due to me.
I most respectfully urge therefore that the Appeal should be adjourned to the next Assizes and I promise, with the assistance of Mr. Slipper to do my best in the meantime.
All the parties know that I wish to help them in every possible way.
Eighty years on, and every bit of the land has long gone and none of the family remain. There are solicitors’ letters telling of disputes and debts stretching over decades; the land that might have been a blessing became a curse.
Perhaps the songs should be rewritten to tell things as they were, maybe “The Ballad of the Appeal at the County Assizes” would be more truthful.