Caherlistrane, Co Galway: why all things lofty reside in the local

Writing a book about my homeplace and its abundant creativity drew on long-hoarded flotsam and jetsam about the parish, as well as actor Eilish O’Carroll, singer Seán Keane and his family, and US actor Vivian Nesbitt

Mam died shortly after Caherlistrane was launched in our eponymously named village in north Co Galway recently. A few days later the writer and actor Eilish O'Carroll, who launched the book for us and who is the daughter of Maureen O'Carroll TD (and brother of the actor and writer Brendan), rang and told me that I should count myself lucky. "You were with her when she died, Mary. Not everybody is that lucky. I wasn't. She held your book in her hands and hung on long enough for you to finish it. Remember that."

Michael McHugh, Maureen O’Carroll’s father and a journalist, Gaelic Leaguer, IRB member, Volunteer and documented combatant in the Rising in Dublin (North King Street), was born in Caherlistrane in 1874. That’s the link here. That’s why Eilish collaborated on the project, and it’s why she wrote the foreword in the book. All during her childhood, Maureen O’Carroll had told Eilish about this quasi-mythical placed called Caherlistrane, where her father had come from and where she had spent her holidays in the 1920s. A learned, extraordinary man who instilled in Maureen the importance of education and of independent thinking, Michael was the biggest influence by far in the life of that dynamic, fiercely determined politician and mother of 10.

Eilish, blessed with the same intelligence and energy levels as her mother, is one of the three legs upon which rests the tripod of this Caherlistrane exploration. It’s where we live and it’s the place that has fascinated me more than any other for nearly25 years. It has an astounding richness of myth and legend whose roots are buried deep inside the faery hill of Knockma, and an abundance too, an almost bottomless well, of musical, literary and artistic creativity.

Mam had heard me speak of my fancy to write a book about the place for years but life kept getting in the way until one glory-day when Eilish O’Carroll got in touch a few years ago. She met Mam in our house subsequently, some months after Mam had absorbed the fact that cancerous cells had established base camp in her left lung. They got on like a house on fire. Eilish, you see, had captured one of my emails that had been flung out of space, only to land in her inbox, perky as you like, and tagged Caherlistrane. To catch her eye. It was mere serendipity that message coincided precisely with her avowed determination to finally – finally – explore the mysterious Shangri-La of her childhood, Caherlistrane. We hooked up, we hit it off and the book is the result.


Eilish, an actor and a deliciously sultry singer who can "out-Eartha" Eartha Kitt any day, has written her own solo show (Live, Love, Laugh), as have, coincidentally, the other two tripod "legs" involved in this saga – Seán Keane (brother of Dolores), who penned Granny's Suitcase, based on the song collection memorabilia of his grandmother, and Vivian Nesbitt. Vivian is an American writer, actor (Breaking Bad) and National Public Radio (NPR) presenter, whose New York award-winning play, The Bark and The Tree, revolves around the life of her poet great-great-grandmother, Eva of The Nation, the fiery muse of the Young Irelanders, who lived in Caherlistrane. Nesbitt performs The Bark and The Tree in Los Angeles on March 26th as part of the LA Theatre Women's Festival. Eilish O'Carroll is in John Murphy's exuberant musical, Elvis Is My Daddy, in the Olympia Theatre from May 11th.

Nesbit is a singer too, in Albuquerque, where she lives with her husband, John Dillon. They sing in the El Dorito Rythym Section, and they also run the Sol Acting Academy. Dillon is the only person I've ever met who was actually in Woodstock. He co-presents The Art of The Song on NPR with Nesbitt, and he also makes and repairs guitars for startlingly famous people. So. Three famous people, all three of them artists, all three writers, and all three creators of solo shows, and one small parish – what are the odds?

The contents of Caherlistrane, a mish-mash of flotsam and jetsam with only the tenuous link of parish to bind such an incongruous concoction together, were hoarded with affection, and serious intent, for over two decades. Seamus Heaney makes an appearance, through the auspices of his dear friend, the poet, writer and our local parish priest, Fr Pat O Brien, as do, briefly and tangentially, Mary Costello, Emily Lawless, Anne Enright and Michael Harding. Of the Caherlistrane book Pat (our friend too, for 30 years and more) says: "the chapters about the Keanes succeed utterly in living out the words of Seamus Heaney, which I quoted at Rita Keane's funeral, 'sing yourself back to where the singing comes from', and it happens to be Caherlistrane, for which we must all be eternally grateful. All of the people in the web the Keanes created are mentioned here and so this book now takes its rightful place in that group and that's saying something very high indeed."

And it gets better. How Mam would love this bit. Mary Costello, author of the shudderingly sad Academy Street, says Caherlistrane has "a touch of magic about it", asserting it's the "confluence of extraordinary coincidences and events and Mary's gift of sensing the serendipity of it all that gives the book its grace and hypnotic charm. Through her eyes" – and this is the bull's eye – "we see that all things lofty really do reside in the local". A response as replete with acuity as that (for that is precisely what the book attempts to do, to show the lofty is the local, always) is what makes years of research, and the drudgery of endless editing, worthwhile.

Enter next, stage left, Anne Enright, who when reviewing Costello's accomplished The China Factory, remarked that her (Costello's) writing was wary of what Enright described as the "landscape solution" in Irish fiction. Enright, who finally bowed to the lure of the (Burren) landscape herself in the majestic The Green Road, is included in the lofty/local mix specifically because of the works of the poet, Emily Lawless, quoted in it. Because guess what? Emily Lawless's mother was a Kirwan from Castlehackett House – in Caherlistrane. The poet spent chunks of her childhood there. Indeed Knockma, mere yards from that house, is mentioned in her 1896 book, the modestly titled The Story of Ireland. And Michael Harding ? Well, this is tremendously cheeky, but nevertheless there is a genuine, if wispy Caherlistrane connection there too, via Fr Pat. He conducted Harding's marriage ceremony fadó fadó, when he was a priest in Skehana in east Galway.

Over the years work on this modest little book, Caherlistrane, has stolen my heart, and it has consumed stolen minutes and hours too, snatched from under the noses of our three small children and all that goes with that. It has spanned an arch under which we have buried a tiny little baby boy, then my father and now my mother, but the beauty of it is that all three live on forever. They are present between each page, every line, and most of all present in between all of the spaces where there is nothing at all.

Caherlistrane by Mary J Murphy (Knockma Publishing) is available from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Galway. Email: