In The Mountain Country
On the trail of "Jacko" Moeran

Kenmare Bay and Pier

At the beginning of October, 2001, I was able to make a short, flying visit to the town of Kenmare, Co Kerry, looking for remaining evidence of Jack Moeran's long association with the area. This is my account:

The main road that runs out of Cork towards Killarney is like too many major roads in Ireland - slow, single carriageway, prone to unannounced sharp bends, deep pot-holes, and slow lorries stuck behind tractors. Driving through alternating bright sunshine and heavy showers, there is little opportunity to take in the lush green rolling countryside of County Cork, as I keep both eyes firmly fixed on the perils of the road ahead. Having been a victim of a particularly vicious pothole just outside Killarney before, which was taking out a car every three or four minutes during a torrential downpour, I was eager not to repeat the experience.

And then, suddenly, you enter Kerry. The change is immediate - as you cross the county boundary suddenly there you are, in the mountain country. Gone is verdant Cork, replaced by the rugged rock faces, autumnal rusty browns and deep, dark greens of Kerry, stretching over vast expanses of steep hillside. The great towering peaks seem to rise out of nowhere, and within minutes the entire landscape has changed. It is this majestic beauty of the Kerry mountains which brought Jack Moeran back here time and time again to write his music. This is his muse, his inspiration.

Finally we reach a long stretch of good, wide road, soaring upwards into the hills, where lumbering lorries can be safely passed and left long behind, and there's a little extra feeling of freedom and space. Soon though we turn off onto the Kenmare road itself, cutting a narrow winding path through the valleys southwest towards the town, twenty miles of near empty mountainscapes.

The old cemetery is one of the first landmarks as you enter Kenmare from this direction. An ancient church, its roof and windows long since abandoned to the elements, stands guard at the entrance, and a brown tourist trail sign points the way to my first rendezvous. It states simply: Ernest John Moeran, Composer (1894-1950), and points into the general vicinity of the middle of the graveyard.

HeadstoneOnce inside it is just about impossible to follow its direction precisely, and I stumble over dilapidated tombstones and overgrown graves in my efforts. I'd seen Moeran's final resting place before, in the 1971 RTE film and in photos, and with these images in mind it was not hard to find him. He lies now under a thick lawn of long grass, with a small vase sitting over his head, long dead flowers drooping forlorn over the side.

His view is superb, a panorama down to the water, and across to the other side, more hills climbing up into the clouds. It's hard to imagine a more suitable resting place for a man who loved this area so much:

Jack's View

We'd reserved a room at the Lansdowne Arms, where Jack usually stayed on his visits to Kenmare. Lansdowne ArmsThe hotel bar has since been renamed Moeran's Pub, but apart from the name and a large, hand-tinted photograph hanging on the wall, there is little of him here any more. The previous hotel owner was reputed to have some sort of Moeran archive, though this was disputed in a conversation I had later that day. Anyway, he's no longer here, and nor is his memorabilia. Moeran is mentioned in the hotel brochure, but this is short and misleading, referring to his "great association with Kenmare [which] occurred in the early thirties when he came to stay at the Lansdowne Arms Hotel". No mention of his living there often during the 1940's, or about his demise in 1950.

After a pint and sandwich we decided to take a walk down to the pier where, on that fateful day, he met his end. It was not initially the easiest place to find, somehow escaping the signs and "You Are Here" tourist maps despite its proximity to the centre of what is a very small town.

The sun was shining brightly over the water, but a strong wind and some ominous-looking clouds suggested the weather might be prone to change very quickly. As I walked to the end of the pier, which creates a kind of harbour to shelter boats inland, I could not help but speculate - did he fall, or did he jump? Was he already dead when he hit the water or was it a deliberate act of suicide from a very deeply depressed man? The strong wind was whipping up choppy waves - it's an exposed point which must get the worst of any winds funneling up the valley across the water. They call it a river, but it has the unmistakable taste of the sea about it.

I took a few photos and then walked around to the other side of the pier, looking for the backdrop which would fix the location of a photograph taken by an unknown local in the late 1940's, trying to match up the distinctive unchanging outlines of hilltops. I thought I'd found it, but later I looked at the photo again, and was less sure.

We chewed it over as we strolled back into the town. It seemed too incredible that a man bent on taking his own life would choose this particular spot and method, if only because of the inherent unreliability of any attempt. Frankly, unless you were unable to swim (and Jack was a strong swimmer) the worst you might expect would be a rather cold soaking. As you climbed back up the steps onto the pier you might expect to feel rather foolish, damp, shivering with cold and very miserable, but not dead.

RainbowAs we came over the crest of the hill and the centre of Kenmare came into view a fantastic rainbow appeared overhead, seemingly curving down into the town centre. In it I could clearly see the sheets of rain teeming down and I realised we had seconds to spare. Dashing down the road we just made it into the Post Office as the heavy downpour began, and I was able to take the opportunity to use one of their Internet PCs to fire off a dispatch to the Moeran mailing list on my thoughts thus far.

So was that it? We'd been to the hotel and pub, visited the grave, looked over the end of the pier. Surely though Kenmare might offer up a little more, surely Moeran's imprint might still be found even 51 years after his death.

The final leg of the trail proved a little more elusive. The local tourist office had an exhibition of local history which briefly mentioned Moeran, above notice of Margaret Thatcher's claimed connections to the town(!), but they had no literature or other material. Instead I was directed to the Kenmare Bookshop, situated opposite Moeran's Pub. Here I could have purchased a copy of Lionel Hill's account of his memories of Jack, Lonely Waters, and a photographic history of Kenmare which includes the single photo of Moeran I referred to earlier, but beyond that there was nothing...

...Nothing but a small lead. "You might want to talk to Mrs O'Shea - she knew him. She's still around in the town." I'd heard the name before, one of Barry Marsh's many sources for his long-awaited biography. And where might I find her? The directions were a little unusual - a bar behind an antique shop on Henry Street. She was sure to be there. "Just ask for Mrs O'Shea."

O'Shea's Bar, KenmareEntering O'Shea's B&B and Bar was initially rather confusing, as I walked into a corridor which led to an unlit bar room, with stairs leading off to one side and the appearance of entering someone's house. It was her daughter who found me lingering there, wondering quite what to do, and sure enough Mrs O'Shea herself was found. She asked me my business and how I'd come by her.

We talked briefly as I offered my credentials, and soon she offered to meet me, after nine o'clock, in the bar. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she left me with a parting comment, the bait that would ensure my return: "He should never have married that Peers, you know. He knew it, and he told me so." I knew I would be back.

I never fully worked out the layout of O'Shea's. The bar to which I returned has probably changed little since the mid-fifties, when the place was purchased. A row of beer taps dispenses Guinness and lager to the rear, underneath the rows of spirits. The bar top and stools are of a certain vintage. A small transistor radio chatters away at the back, relaying the odd snippet of information interesting enough to merit a momentary increase of volume. Somewhere beyond this bar there appeared to be another, referred to as 'below', where a serious bridge tournament was apparently taking place - serious enough anyway to banish smokers to a short break between rubbers in our bar.

Maureen O'Shea

Maureen O'Shea (above) was standing behind the bar, serving and passing comment as I arrived, and she insisted on standing my first pint. There were two others in the bar as the froth settled on the black liquid, and as the evening wore on these were replaced by a handful of others, the hard-core being four men well into their retirement years. One of these appeared to be Mr O'Shea, referred to as Jim, there was a slightly younger man, Jack, a taciturn man of few words whose name I missed, and a final entry who had probably stopped off elsewhere on his way to O'Shea's and whose entry was barely noted. They all had known the man they called "Jacko".

The evening was convivial, and our conversation drifted on and off the subject of Moeran. A small nugget of information would arise, and then things would switch to current events - politics, terrorists, Osama Bin Laden.

Pier stepsSome topics were difficult to broach - clearly Jacko was held in considerable affection, and awkward questions of drink and death had to be circled around somewhat before they could be addressed head on. Maureen told me how she had been in the hairdressers when her mother came running in, distraught, with the bad news. There was no doubt in the minds of the assembled company that he died before he fell into the water - the body had floated, there was no water inside him. We moved onto the funeral - most small Irish towns even today turn out well for a good funeral, but this was different: Jack's brother, Graham, a Protestant vicar, had come over to take charge of proceedings and insisted on a Protestant burial well away from the catholic cemetery. The threat of eternal damnation for Catholics attending a Protestant funeral would have hung over the townspeople. But "everyone knew him", and they all chose to ignore the risks and wrath of the local priest in order to pay their last respects to Jacko.

But of course there were other, happier memories, of long games of billiards between Moeran and Bax, who received news of his knighthood whilst staying with Jack in Kenmare; of singing along (to Moeran's accompaniment) his arrangements of what Jim called his "Irish Airs" - I was unable to ascertain whether or not this referred to his Songs from County Kerry. Again and again the pride felt in the association between Moeran and Kenmare was voiced - the youngest of our group, also called Jack, recalled how he, as a schoolboy, attended a concert of orchestral music shortly after Moeran's death. In his introduction to one piece, the grand conductor stood up and announced the work by Moeran, "who had a great connection with the town of Killarney."

Immediately a boy jumped up and retorted "No he didn't it was Kenmare. He never even went to Killarney!" I don't think I'd choose to believe the latter point, but the lad would surely have risked a swift clip round the ear from his schoolmaster for his insolence in claiming the connection for Kenmare. However, the conductor graciously acknowledged his error and the concert continued.

I was surprised to hear of the number of friends Moeran invited to join him in Kenmare. Not only Bax, whose love of Ireland is well documented, but also memories of various members of the Hallé Orchestra, including of course Pat Ryan, the clarinetist who appears in the 1971 RTE film and who developed a great love for the area. Moeran was even able to entice Sir John Barbirolli to join him in Kerry, and no doubt other names could be conjured up with a little more meticulous research.

One guest who was less welcomed was Peers Coetmore. It soon became clear that she was held in rather low esteem by the locals, and she was roundly condemned for removing his piano and shipping it back to England, with the suggestion that this might have actually hastened Jack's decline. At least when he had his music he spent a little less time in the pub, or so the argument went.

I was interested to hear about his accommodation. Moeran's letters from Kenmare were always headed The Lodge, rather than The Lansdowne Arms. The lodge belonged to the hotel, across the road from the main building, and here the long term residents lived, coming over to take their meals in the hotel restaurant. The lodge was later demolished, so one can only imagine from Maureen O'Shea's description the room he used, his upright Bechstein in the corner, five large windows allowing daylight to flood into a room "as big as this bar - very large it was." Here he would work away at his music while the hotel fended off telephone calls demanding updates on his Second Symphony. How Moeran struggled with that work in Kenmare - "I can't just turn it on like a tap," he would say as another impatient call was deflected. How they searched his room after his death for evidence of this elusive work, but to no avail.

And yet through all of this a fuller picture of Jack Moeran only fitfully emerges, more a piecing together of fragments, echoes from the past. He was "a rogue", but "always a gentleman", no matter what his state. He certainly liked a drink, but "it never changed him, though you knew when he'd had one". (A question about alcoholism was neatly side-stepped and the conversation moved on...) He got on well with the people of Kenmare - "everyone knew Jacko", but his walks around the town, which would take him into any number of pubs, have a sad side to them. Far from him being led into bad habits by others, he would often move from bar to bar sitting alone, smoking his pipe and drinking his pint, a solitary figure lost in his own thoughts, someone who stood somewhat apart from the townsfolk. As much as he loved them, and they him, he was not one of them - they still do an amusing impersonation of his rather plummy accent, so different from the thick, rolling brogue of the area.

Kenmare PierAnd of those final six months in Kenmare? Certainly he had changed, not quite the Jacko of old, his mind befuddled and confused; he was clearly not a well man. And when he finally did meet his end there was real shock and grief. Nobody thought he had taken his own life, indeed nobody thought it unusual for him to be out walking at that time of day in that weather - "sure, it was a bit windy" sounds less like a major storm and more like the kind of weather Kenmare gets on a regular basis at that time of year, though the pier would have been one of the more windswept points.

These people, who were the teenagers and young men of the town in the 1940's, still carry with them a strong collective memory of Jacko Moeran. My stay was too short, I was not equipped with notepad or tape recorder, and as the evening wore on the focus became more hazy, the conversation more easy-going and informal. A great way to do research, as long as you don't need to remember any precise details the following morning! Clearly there is a treasure of memories to be mined, and to find a group together, firing off each others' recollections, bringing out small, apparently unimportant nuggets which might otherwise have gone unsaid, things perhaps thought unimportant in a more formal setting, is fantastically rewarding.

The following morning I walked back to the pier. The weather was much calmer, yet out at that exposed point the wind was still brisk. I looked again over the spot where Moeran died, and recalled the conversation of the previous evening, noting the nearby houses from where someone had been looking out when he went in. The only conclusion I could reach was to agree again with the inquest verdict: this is not a suicide spot, no Beachy Head. Surely he was out on an afternoon walk to try and clear his head - if he was on the cusp of death he would have been feeling pretty unwell, and if it was a brain haemorrhage he might well have had a splitting headache, the sort of thing a good blow of fresh air might help. The end of the pier is an obvious point to end up at if you're heading that way, to look out and get the freshest air, somewhere I'd probably head myself in similar circumstances.

I turned back into the town, located a florist, and bought Jacko some flowers to lie under. As I laid them on his grave I could only reflect on the aptness of the inscription on his headstone - "HE RESTS IN THE MOUNTAIN COUNTRY HE LOVED SO WELL" - and believe that here he truly rests, in peace.

Moeran's grave

©Andrew Rose
October 2001

 

©2011 The Worldwide Moeran Database

 

 

Surely though Kenmare might offer up a little more, surely Moeran's imprint might still be found even 51 years after his death...

 

See also:

Photo Gallery - Kenmare Page

A Potted Biography of E J Moeran

Life Behind a Watery Death

Maps of Kenmare and area on local website

Notes

Moeran was a regular visitor to Kenmare and the county of Kerry in the 1930's and 40's, and died there in unusual circumstances which have been debated ever since.

He had been living 'quietly', and apparently soberly, in Kenmare for some six months prior to his death, very well aware of his failing mental health - he'd written to his mother two weeks before his death saying he was afraid of being certified insane.

At around 4pm on 1st December 1950 he was seen to fall from the end of the pier into the water, and was quickly pulled out. The inquest verdict states that he "came by his death from natural causes, namely cerebral haemorrhage, and fell into the water at Kenmare Pier on December 1st." Since then it has often been suggested that he committed suicide.