‘It’s a bright world covered by darkness, but a dark world can be covered by brightness.’
Jimmy Fanning is in philosophical form. During our two-hour encounter, I count twenty-one pearls of wisdom that drop from his lips, without a hint of pretence.
Most appear to be his own invention. ‘Money is not everything but tis a lot,’ he says during a conversation about the fall of the Celtic tigers. ‘Like the fellow with the ha’penny, it might not be much to have, but it might be a lot to want.’
Or recalling the tale of a man lured to his doom by a woman, ‘a spoonful of honey is better than a ton of vinegar but perhaps the honey is too sweet to be wholesome – beware of the way the honey is meant.’
Some were imparted by a wise uncle, a prison inspector in England. ‘Travel the world and keep a civil tongue, because remember there could be a better man around the corner.’ And on a similar vein, ‘don’t ever mind your own capability but mind the capability of others.’ Or, perhaps ‘don’t ever keep your two eyes closed; keep one three-quarter open.’
Others are vaguely familiar and slightly skew-whiff. Benjamin Franklin, ‘those that have them self as a teacher have a fool for a master.’ Willy Wonka, ‘a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men’, but still, adds Jimmy, ‘it might be too much for some and not enough for others.’ The skew-whiffery matters not. Jimmy likes to play around, to mash the lines so that, for instance, Shakespeare meets Yeats to ‘Cast a cold eye on dead horseman pass by, for all that glistens is not gold.’
On the subject of Irish politics, he counsels, ‘there are three things in this world to beware of - the heels of a horse, the horns of a bull and the smile of an Englishman.’ And then, smiling broad, he adds ‘tis all over and done with now but when I see the Dail and the Irish Parliamentations today, I think that - as bad as the English were –our Irish is far worse. A Fianna Fail minister retired last Christmas and they gave him €150,000 a year on top of his pension. They’re bigger fuckers than the Tans ever was.’[i]
Between the lines, Jimmy recounts the story of his life from his birth in the midst of the Second World War. His father Ambrose ‘Amby’ Fanning was a popular figure, a well-known fiddler in the lands through which the River Nore flows.[ii] He was born in Fulham, London, but came to Ireland at eleven years of age, ‘on account of a bad chest.’
Amby first learned the fiddle from a big-fisted man called Sonny MacDonald ‘who used to throw a 56 pound weight like Big Tom Roche’ When Sonny placed his fingers on the bow, it covered the whole thing, so ‘it took my father a long time to figure out what he was doing.’ He later trained with a fiddler from Inistioge called Davey Gore who instructed him in ‘the very same style’ as Shaun Maguire, the Belfast-born All-Ireland fiddle champion famous for “The Mason’s Apron”. ‘The way to learn’, advises Jimmy, ‘is to have somebody with you when you play.’[iii]
On the wall of Jimmy’s home hang two photos of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, side by side. ‘Twas as Dan Breen said, “We have men to fight but when Collins got shot, the brains is gone.” What a loss. O Christ, t’was more than living words can ever, ever express.’ And then, pointing at Kitty, ‘that’s the lady he was courting’.
Amby was a Collins man. They met occasionally ‘above in Dublin’ and perhaps knew one another in London. In 1932, Amby joined the Blueshirts and marched against de Valera’s new Fianna Fail government and its economic policies. When Irish cattle prices subsequently collapsed, the government began distributing ‘free beef’ to the poor, sending the hides to the tanneries. For the cattle farmers it was a disastrous policy. When Amby learned that a ‘free beef’ auction was to be held nearby, he felled some trees across the road and erected a blockade. The Gardai duly arrested him - on Christmas Eve, while he was plucking a turkey - and brought him into the barracks for questioning. Amby refused to talk. ‘They threatened him with everything’, says Jimmy with veneration. ‘But not an inch would he give. Then they knew they were dealing with a man.’[iv]
Jimmy’s maternal grandfather and uncle were prison inspectors; ‘they said I was awful like them’, he chuckles. Their sister was a grandmother to the Irish dancer Michael Flatley.[v] ‘There isn’t a drop of American blood in him, only he was born over there,’ says Jimmy loyally. Mr. Flatley and Jimmy are mutual cousins of a Bishop of whom, at a family wedding, Jimmy once enquired, ‘would you like to go to Heaven, being a Bishop and that?’ His Excellency deftly replied ‘sure everyone wants to go to Heaven’. Sometime later, while the two men watched Amby Fanning perform on his fiddle, Jimmy leaned over and asked, ‘and would you like to die?’ ‘Jimmy, no one likes to die’, replied the Bishop. ‘And says I to him ‘‘and yet, your lordship, you told me you’d like to go to Heaven.” ’ Jimmy does not expect a laugh at this punch-line. He just tilts his head in a contemplative manner.[vi] Some time later, he exclaims, ‘we have plenty of religion but god damn little Christianity.’
Amby Fanning farmed forty acres in a few fields above where Jimmy lives today.[vii] They were a small family, just two sons, Jimmy and John Christopher. A baby sister died at birth. Jimmy went to school nearby and enjoyed it. However, when he was sixteen, his mother was stricken with multiple sclerosis and he left school to help her. ‘The teacher said tis a pity you have to leave us. I never accounted myself really, but she said it was a pity. I would like to have stayed. By all means, yes. But I stayed with my beloved mother, God rest her.’ There is also mention of a young nurse who wanted him to travel to London with her. But tempted as he may have been, he stayed. [viii]
‘We only have one genuine person in this world’, he explains. ‘Leave the house be full or leave the mother be gone, tis empty, and very much empty. What is home without a mother?’
Jimmy’s mother passed away in 1958 and he spent the next few years farming the land with Amby and John Christopher, ploughing the fields with horses. In 1964, Amby sold the farm and, together with John Christopher, he sailed for London. John Christopher joined the police.[ix]
It was Jimmy’s intention to join his family. Indeed, the 22-year-old was headed out the door, destination London, when the man who bought the farm asked him to stay. Jimmy had already been helping him cut the harvest. ‘What would the conditions be?’, asked Jimmy.
‘And he said ‘I’ll give you a pound a day and your grub and a room to stay’ and by God I‘m here from that day to this – the house I was born in - until I got my own house and now I have the pension! Maybe I did the right thing and maybe I did the wrong thing but anyhow, now you have the full detail!’[x]
Amby Fanning died in 1976 aged 76. ‘He was a lovely fiddler’, says Jimmy. ‘He played the hornpipe too’. At which point Jimmy starts simulating a hornpipe with his lips. He soon has a nimble whispery tune called ‘Dunphy’s Hornpipe’ echoing around the room. ‘Variations’, he says with a wink when he’s finished. ‘Variations, oh God, you can be sure of it’.
Jimmy can expertly simulate the hornpipe despite the loss of several teeth which occurred while he was ‘testing cattle above in Cummins’s’. ‘I reached down to grab the animal by the nose and the beast lifted its head and struck my chin.’ And then, feeling his scalp, ‘Jesus I had a grand head of hair too and now it is gone as well.’
Traditional music is what delights him most. Amby used to say there must be something wrong with anyone who doesn’t like music. ‘A bitter heart hath no melody’, opines Jimmy. Like Amby, he is a whizz on the fiddle, performing on a rickety fiddle he inherited from an aged relative’. ‘I hear tunes and I come on then and I play them by ear’, he says simply. ‘My father and brother used to do the same, God rest them’.[xi] On his lonesome, he frequently plays tapes of fiddlers past, or tunes into Radio na Gaeltacht. ‘I am a great lover of Shaun Maguire’, he says.[xii] He frequently plays at Spider O’Brien’s in New Ross and O’Donnell’s’ in Inisitioge.
And does he ever sing? Abruptly, he transforms himself into a tenor and launches into a full croon about courting a rose-cheeked young girl ‘on the banks of the Foyle’.[xiii] He can’t help but think of his schoolteacher who was from Derry when he sings the song. But he keeps it humorous too. ‘I worked hard for a living’, he warbles, then whispers ‘which I didn’t’.
‘You can make life very miserable,’ he suggests. ‘Or you can make it very good. Tis up to yourself, but you never miss the water till the well goes dry.’ [xiv] Jimmy continued to work on the land his father owned until the day he retired. He never married. ‘I went for a lot of ladies’, he says soberly. ‘And respected them but I never got married still.’[xv]But, as he says himself, ‘you never know who you’d meet anywhere; tis a thing accidental and you may yet get the biggest surprise.’
Jimmy is a wonderful man, honest, kind, gracious, immediately intimate, eyeball to eyeball, no agendas.[xvi] Mere seconds will pass before he is straight into a chat with a stranger about local names, local places and the feisty fiddlers that slalom through them all. There is much eyebrow wobbling, chin stroking and cheery whistling in between. He delivers his lines with heartfelt panache, leaving one to ponder all the cryptic riddles contained within. ‘Tis a bright world but we’re still walking in the dark.’
With thanks to Emma Jeffcock.
1. It’s a bright world covered by darkness but a dark world can be covered by brightness.
2. We only have one genuine person in this world and that is your mother. Leave the house be full or leave the mother be gone, tis empty, and very much empty.
3. There are three things in this world to beware of. The heels of a horse, the horns of a bull and the smile of an Englishman.
4. Drink is made for company and relaxation. But it is a bad yoke to drink on your own.
5. A bitter heart have no melody.
6. A spoonful of honey is better than a ton of vinegar but perhaps the honey is too sweet to be wholesome – beware of the way the honey is meant.
7. Cast a cold eye on dead horseman pass by, all that glistens is not gold.
8. You never know who you’d meet anywhere. Tis a thing accidental and you can get the biggest surprise ever.
9. Travel the world and keep a civil tongue because remember there could be a better man around the corner.’
10. Those that have themself as a teacher have a fool for a master.
11. Don’t ever mind your own capability but mind the capability of others.
12. Don’t ever mind what you can do; it’s what you can’t do that you want to mind.
13. Tisn’t what you know but what you don’t know.
14. Money is not everything but, like I said to a person, tis a lot. Like the fellow with the ha’penny, it might not be much to have but it might be a lot to want’.
15. You never miss the water till the well go dry.
16. We have plenty of religion but god damn little Christianity. ‘The trouble is that the taste of the grass makes a rogue of the beast.
17. Don’t ever keep your two eyes closed: keep one three quarter open.
18. I am bred with experience. You can make nothing up, only what you haven’t.
19. You can make life very miserable. And you can make it very good. Tis up to yourself, once you have your health and strength.
20. You never know where a clever fellow might be. Keep me enemies near but me friends nearer.
21. A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men. But it might be too much for some and not enough for others.
There, now you have the full detail.
[i] 'Wasn’t [the Civil War] the biggest mistake ever made – they weren’t going to get any more out of the Treaty – anybody who ever went around with an English Parliamentarian never got it all. There are three things in this world to beware of. The heels of a horse, the horns of a bull and the smile of an Englishman. But tis all over and done with now. But now when I see the Dail and the Irish Parliamentations, I think that as bad as the English were, I think our Irish is far worse. An old age pensioner is living on a starvation wage and yet they take a bonus from him at Christmas. And when a minister retired at Christmas they gave him €150,000 a year on top of his pension. They’re bigger fuckers than the Tans ever was. They’re putting the bums and the bullets in the wrong place. You wonder what that man there died for. Drink up now and we’ll have a little drop of stuff.’
[ii] An Ambrose Fanning was born in Dublin on 4 June 1869, son of Michael Thomas Fanning and Elizabeth Thomas. It's not clear how he was related but he would have been 82 at the time of Jimmy’s birth.
[iii] ‘There was a man called Sonny MacDonald who used to throw a 56 pound weight like Big Tom Roche. Sonny McDonald trained him. And you see Sonny was such a big strong man that when he put down the finger on the finger bow, didn’t he cover the whole thing. It took me father a long time to figure out what he was doing. After a certain length of time – the time my father was courting my mother – there was a fiddle player down in Inistioge, Davey Gore, he was on the very same style as Shaun Maguire, and my father leanred a good bit off him. But the way to play is to have somebody with you. John McCormack would never have been a tenor but for somebody heard him singing in a church. Himself and the great broadcaster Michael O’Hehir were picked up at the same time. And I tell you of a man who would make a great broadcaster and he’s a priest in a Mullinavat – Father Liam Barron. Did you remark his voice? He had a powerful voice, the very same as Michael O’Hehir and I’m repeating meself’.
In July 2015 I was contacted by Richard E. McDonald who wrote: 'I believe that I am the grandson of the 'Big Fisted' Sonny McDonald that Jimmy refers to in your article . My grandfather was known to be +6'6". He was a fiddler and an accomplished track and field man. He held All Irish Records for Hammer throw and discs. He had 4 boys and a daughter. Emigrated to Regina Canada to avoid capture from the British.
His son, my father, Dick McDonald held pole vault provincial championships in Saskatchewan Canada for a number of years. I myself played international volleyball for Canada at the World championships and Pan American Games level. I would very much like to connect with some of Sonny McDonald's history in Ireland. Any back story would be great!'
[iv] ‘My father wouldn’t have anything said again Michael Collins. Where did they meet? Above in Dublin. Collins walked through London and brought inside information out of all the English intelligence. Twas as Dan Breen said. “We have men to fight but when Collins got shot, the brains is gone.” Amby was in the Blueshirts and got his head split on the way to Kilkenny. They blocked the road against de Valera at the time of the free beef. My father cut trees across the road to stop the auctions. Anyhow, he cut them down with some friends. He used to do a bit of fouling with Dr. FitzGerald and a couple of Guards and one of the Guards came to him and said ‘now Amby, I must arrest you for cutting trees across the road’. My father said he didn’t do it. He was arrested in the house I was born in on Christmas Eve while he was plucking the turkey. (Jesus there wasn’t a word about me at the time, for goodness sake, I’m not that auld!) They brought him to the barrack and asked him to admit it. He said no. So then they bought the fellows who was with him and they all admitted that they did but my father wouldn’t give in one inch. They said if you don’t admit, we’ll lock you in the black hole below in Waterford. My father said lock me wherever you like but I didn’t. He wouldn’t give in. And so coming on to the break of day in the morning, the Super sent in the guard to me father that they wanted him. The Super gave him a mug of tea and said ‘here Ambrose, drink that and the next tree you’re going to cut, leave the rotten eggs after you.’ (ie: the one’s who confessed) They threatened him with everything but not an inch would he give in. Then they knew they were dealing with a man.’
Amby Fanning had great handwriting too. ‘He was a great man to state a letter. He had his own style.’
[v] Michael Flatley’s ‘dearly beloved mother’ is Jimmy’s first cousin. Mr. Flatley’s grandmother was a Lannigan who ‘went out from Inistioge’ to the USA and taught Irish dancing. She married Paddy Ryan of Dranagh, St. Mullins, Co. Carlow. They had a son who died at birth and a daughter who survive and married a Sligo man, Michael Flately’s father. So there isn’t a drop of American blood in him, only he was born over there. They worked in Ford Motor Works in Detroit.’
‘My first cousin was a principal schoolteacher in North Harrow, Middlesex, London.’ This man’s father – Jimmy’ uncle, maternal or paternal unknown - wrote for Ireland’s Own and was a traveller for Wills’ tobacco. One day we’d be having a few drinks of one thing or another. And says he: ‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men’ (Roald Dahl). So how much is a little, a person asked him. He said ‘It depends, it might be too much for some and not enough for others’.
[vi] ‘I’m a second cousin of Bishop Knox and he’s the same to Michael Flately. I met him in 1968 and I asked him ‘would you like to go to Heaven, being a Bishop and that?’ and he said ‘sure everyone wants to go to Heaven’. Another part of the night my father had a fiddle and a few tunes playing and I said to him ‘would you like to die?’ and he said ‘Jimmy, no one likes to die’ and says I to him ‘and yet your lordship you told me you’d like to go to Heaven’.’
[vii] ‘I had a farm of land once upon a time. My mother died of multiple sclerosis and the place had to be sold. I was sixteen. I’m 68 now. On the job. Proper order.’
[viii] His teacher was from lovely Derry – Peggy Murphy was her name. ‘She was years and years before her time’ and ‘she is still alive and very much so!’
[ix] ‘Now I wouldn’t be a lover of police, whatever the case may be, good, bad or indifferent, but no matter, as they said to me they were only doing a job’. John Christopher Fanning later got MS and went into decline.
[x] ‘Anyhow, make a long story short. He gave me the harvester and told me to cut the corn and off I went with it. 1964. So then I was going out the door to London and he said to me: ‘would you ever stay with me?’ and I said ‘What would the conditions be?’ because at that time the place was sold, he had it bought, and we had a month to have all our things gathered and gone.’
[xi] ‘ I had a brother in London – he’s dead now, God rest him – and any instrument he took up, he played, no difference.’ He’s not yet been to Clare though he knows all about the great rivalry between the Tulla and the Kilfenora Ceili Bands. He says the South Wexford style of playing is as close to the west of Ireland style as you get.
[xii] He is also a fan of Clon Carty, and also 'curly haired Frankie Gavin.’
[xiii] ‘I sung a few hymns in the chapel over Christmas, he admits. ‘It’s a nice thing to be able to do. Apart from your own entertainment, you’re entertaining everyone else.’
[xiv] ‘I know money is not everything but like I said to a person, tis a lot. Like the fellow with the ha’penny, it might not be much to have but it might be a lot to want. Now I haven’t any money. I have the pension which gets you a few jars and one thing or another. But do you know the top of a sack that you spare from? Wouldn’t you spare from the top because once you’ve gone to middle ways, you have nothing?’
[xv] ‘Tisn’t good for man to live alone,’ he added. ‘Not whatsoever.’
[xvi] We sit in the grey, two-room portacabin which has been his home since about 1996. It is a cold and frosty morning. The sun glints through the windows, rebounding off trees, and bathing the Blackstairs mountains in light. An umbrella pokes out of the ground outside to advise motorists where his land starts during the snowy spells. ‘Tis better to be safe than sorry’. ‘You’re very welcome’, he says as we settled. ‘What part are you from, do you mind me asking?’ For yes, he says ‘By all means’ or ‘certainly’. When he asks me if I would like a glass of wine at 11:30am, I decline and urge him onwards. He says ‘I never drink on my own’. I yield and say I’ll join him and he says ‘That’ll do nicely’ and outs with a cheeky Chilean red. A half pint of the stuff is thrust into my hand. ‘Sit down and make yourself at home’, says he. Later he says, ‘Drink is made for company and relaxation. But I made mistakes myself at weddings with it. It is a bad yoke to drink on my own.’
‘They maintain that Michelangelo was the only one who could make a proper circle without a compass. He painted the Sistine on his back. A genius.’
He has not travelled. ‘County Kerry, here and there. I warn’t out of Ireland’.
You never know where a clever fellow might be. Keep me enemies near but me friends nearer.
When he gives directions, he speaks like this: ‘I’d be right-handed down here … now left-handed.’
‘I would have great admiration for the Church of Ireland and the reason for that is they have their wife. They don’t stand up on a pulpit and preach one thing and practice another. A chap I went to school with who had brains to burn went in the priesthood, said his first mass in Tullahought in 1971, stayed a number of years – he was a good hurler – and one particular day he took off the vestments and handed them in and said he was going to change his life and that was genuine. I had great time for him’.