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Joan Crowley

At home with Mrs Crowley.
(Photo: James Fennell)

Vanishing Ireland
JOAN CROWLEY
PUBLICAN & FIDDLER
Bridge Street, Kenmare
Born: March 1922
Crowley’s Bar on Henry Street is considered one of the finest traditional pubs in the Kingdom of Kerry. It was a vital sanctuary for Irish music when that genre became endangered in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘We were the first that I remember to have traditional music here’, says Mrs Crowley, who ran the bar with her late husband Con for many decades. ‘It used to be that nearly every house in the town was a pub then, but they didn’t have music. It wasn’t allowed in the old days. They didn’t want people singing in the pubs’.

But when rock n’ roll and ‘loud pop music’ began seducing the youth of Kerry, the Crowley’s were to the fore in the promotion of traditional music. It wasn’t all about the music, mind you. ‘I thought it was a great help for the business and it was a fine attraction for tourists’. By the 1980s, men and women were coming in from miles around to ‘sing songs and play a few tunes’ upon the Crowley’s chairs and stools. ‘They were real musicians- they’d hear a tune and pick it up’. A fiddle was kept behind the bar for anyone who wanted to have a go. And, if you were lucky, you might even hear the Crowley’s play. Con Crowley was highly accomplished on the accordion and his wife was as swift as an otter on the fiddle.

‘I haven’t opened it for a long time’, she says, fiddling with the clasps that hold her fiddle in its case. On account of two arthritic fingers, she laid her fiddle down some years ago. But the all-powerful omega oils have been at work on her bones, and now her fingers reach out for the bow. ‘I’m not a traditional musician at all’, she laughs. ‘I was taught how to read it’. In the early days she and Con often practiced together at home. That became trickier with the pub as one or other of them would always be working behind the bar. But some nights, the Crowleys would play the crowd. They followed the graceful Sliabh Luachra style, popularized by Kerry fiddlers such as Julia Clifford, her brother Denis Murphy and the mighty fiddle-master, Padraig O’Keefe.

Joan Crowley was born in Kenmare in March 1922. Her only sister, Mary, was born nearly three years earlier in Boston. Their father Tom Lovett was raised on a mountain farm at Gortnaboul, near Kenmare, but emigrated to America on the eve of the Great War. He found work as a janitor in Boston and found a wife in Mary O’Connor, a farmers’ daughter from Killorglin in North Kerry. In 1921, when Mary was pregnant with Joan, the Crowley’s sailed back across the Atlantic and began farming in Templenoe.

Young Joan walked to school in Templenoe until she was 8 years old. She then headed into Kenmare to spend close on a decade at the Poor Clare Sister’s Convent, once famous for its Kenmare Lace. At the age of 18, she left the convent, tried to get a job in the civil service and fetched up as the accountant in Halissey’s General Store on the Square. Meanwhile, her sister Mary married upholsterer Bill Brannigan and settled in Dublin’s Artane where they raised five children. Joan still sees her sister regularly. ‘She comes down a bit and I go up. She’s older than I am and she’s able to drive a car’.

Joan stayed at Halissey’s, totting up the figures, until her first child was born. ‘Married women weren’t encouraged to work at that time’, she explains. ‘You were expected to stay at home’.

To look at Mrs Crowley, you could not imagine that this slight, self-effacing, defiantly girlish octogenarian has begotten and raised a dozen children. But when she pulls the photograph down from the sill and names each child, there can be no doubting she’s the mother.

Joan was ‘just 22’ when she met Con Crowley and ‘nearly 23’ when she married him. It was January 1945 and the war was still raging in Europe. She talks a little of each child and explains how two of her daughters have since passed away, one from cancer, the other, a fall. ‘So that’s two of them gone – but the rest of them are all here’. The hurting briefly fills the room but she’s quick to rise to it.

Understandably, she has lost count of her grandchildren. She does her best to remember their names. ‘In my day, everyone was called Paddy or Dan or Mick. Now my grandchildren have names like Enda and Mark and Ross and names you never heard of.’

Today, Mrs Crowley lives in a simple terraced house between Kenmare’s main square and the pretty Finnighy River that runs through it. Pope Benedict and St Charles of Mount Argus gaze benevolently from the mantelpiece. Mrs Crowley often sits here by the stove, talking with visitors and reading novels from her well-stocked bookcase. The living space is all open-plan and big windows to compensate for all the time she spent in the cramped confines of the pub. ‘I was indoors most of my life because of the bar. You don’t get the sun so, or the weather. And it’s the sun what gives the farmers the country look’.

Mrs Crowley’s son Peter, who now owns and runs the bar, maintains its musical theme, hosting sessions on Monday and Tuesday evenings, with impromptu sessions apt to kick off any other night of the week.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.