Performed by Andrew McKenna.
One of my ancestors – Connor McKenna – married a merrow queen in County Monaghan in the 17th century, and madness, hallucinations and storytelling have been in the family ever since.
When Andrew McKenna performed in Ireland he discovered his ancestors, their history and their mythology.
Well in the Woods uncovers a bloody history and tells an unbelievable love story. At times funny and tender, at others raw and savage, the tale explores what our roots offer us, asks what it means to recover the past, and considers the meaning of the stories we tell ourselves.
A feast of stories
I come from a long, broken, line of Irish storytellers.
To the Celts stories were a way of life. Stories fixed them in time and place, they educated, they taught cultural mores and codes of behaviour. They were far more than a way to shorten the night or the journey, they were exchanged as part of the Celtic tradition of giving shelter to strangers. They were part of the ‘Irish dreamtime’, explaining physical and cultural phenomena.
So many stories
The McKenna clan ruled over a few thousand acres in north Monaghan, sandwiched between the powerful O’Neill clan to the north, the McMahons to the south, and the Maguires out west.
In the eighth century Hugh McKenna, a chief from Kells, hunted a stag, galloping over the hills of Meath, his mount foaming under him.
After two days and two nights pursuit he crosses a ford in the river called Scairbh na gCaorach, crossing of the sheep, and on into the Green Woods of Truagh. Under the golden arc of a beech tree he plunges his dirk into the stag’s exhausted heart.
The place is now called Liskenna, the place of the dirk, or long knife. Hugh stayed at Scairbh na gCaorach and married a local chieftain’s daughter. It’s now Emyvale, north Monaghan, in the heart of the clan’s homeland.
My ancestors go back a lot further than Hugh, of course. I trace them to the legendary king Niall Nogíallach, Niall of the Nine Hostages. Niall has been called Niall Mór, the Alexander the Great of Irish history, which may be an exaggeration. On the other hand, if you feel the urge to curtsy or bow in the presence of royalty, please feel free.
My ancestors huddled around their fires in the night and drew their steel against the other clans or made shaky peace with them in a shifting network of alliance and counter alliance.
In 1508 the McKenna chieftain is saying prayers in Donagh Church on St Patrick’s Day with Phillip Maguire, when Redmond Oge McMahon and his men surround the church and set fire to the four corners of the thatched roof. McKenna and Maguire burst out bellowing, swords unsheathed, and lay a bloody slaughter upon Redmond Oge and his foster brother – or so the story goes.
The blind storyteller and seer Niall McKenna no doubt passed on the McKenna clan lore as well as the tales of the great Ulster Cycle, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, Cú Chulainn, Deirdre of the Sorrows, The Story of Mac Dathó’s Pig, and on and on.
In one magnificent story, Connor McArt McKenna Dhu, the head of the clan, falls in love with the Merrow Queen by the shores of Emy Lough. His clan flourishes, but everything falls apart when he is tricked by the Maguires into saying sweet words of love to another woman.
Invasion, occupation and dispossession
Perhaps Niall, or another like him, accompanied the clan under the chieftainship of William McKenna to the Siege of Kinsale, buoying the troops with stories of epic victories from the mythic past and retreating in defeat only to have their homes burned and ransacked by Lord Mountjoy.
Cromwell wrought his worst. Phelemy McKenna paid cash for debentures from Cromwell’s soldiers, but that didn’t stop them from murdering him and four of his sons in 1666. They’re buried in Donagh Old Graveyard.
By 1688 James II was trying to restore Catholicism in Ireland, and was appointing Catholics to the highest positions. Sean MacPhelim McKenna, the fifth son who was spared Cromwell’s steel, was appointed High Sherriff of Monaghan, and the Protestants immediately objected. They issued a warrant for his arrest, but a warrant could only be imposed by the Sheriff.
There was an uneasy standoff. The Protestants retreated to Drumbanagher, and the Catholic forces followed. The battle that followed has three names, and at least as many versions. It is called the Battle of Drumbanagher, or “The Opening Shots of the Williamite Wars”, and it’s also called “McKenna’s Last Stand”, so you get the idea it wasn’t a roaring success. The Protestants delivered Sean MacPhelim’s head to his wife.
Some of my ancestors fled with the Wild Geese and fought with Napoleon and Napper Tandy, to South America, led rebel armies, helped overthrow the Spanish and were shot dead in duels in Buenos Aires.
When the Great Hunger came, they fled again, this time from Donnegal, first to Madras in India, where my great grandfather was born, then to Melbourne on a hot December day in 1868.
In Melbourne my ancestors huddled around their smoky fires in their Emerald Hill and Footscray kitchens, and maybe some stories resurfaced, maybe they were lost. Maybe they told the stories of the comical, bog-silly Irishman, repeating the prevalent ruling class myth of the times.
Growing up, I frequently heard the term ‘bog Irish’ as a term of derision.
But the stories and the epics are still there, and they are ours. They are the heart beating underneath our thin veneer of sophistication and electronic gadgetry.
They are ours to reclaim, to learn from, be touched by, and to shorten the night.