Micheal McKiernan (c1844–1935) of Kinune in Glendun,
and later of Straid, Knocknacarry
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According to the information recorded on the Doegen speaker questionnaire in September 1931, Michael McKiernan was a farmer, and was aged 84. He gave Irish and English as his mother languages. He could read and write English but not Irish. It was commented by the organising secretary that he had a "clear resonant voice", but had "long been out of the habit of speaking Irish". His address was elsewhere recorded as Straid, Knocknacarry.
The lecturer in Celtic at Queen's University at the time, Micheál A Ó Briain, is reported (Irish Press 27/10/1931, 4) as saying that McKiernan knew the words of the song "Árd a' Chumhaing" from memory, but otherwise "had not a word of Irish". However, the interview with his granddaughter (Mary) on the website of the Glens Historical Society shows that, according to family tradition at least, his Antrim Irish enabled him to converse in Gaelic with his daughter-in-law from Lochaber!
Gaelic scholars who consulted Michael McKiernan seem to have come away with only this song. It had been written down from his recitation by Éamonn Ó Tuathail as early as December 1929 — McKiernan's age is given as 86 at the time (Ó Tuathail in Féil-sgríbhinn Eóin Mhic Néill (1940) pp 138–40; also Seosamh Watson in ZCP 40 (1984) pp 77, 94 and ZCP 42 (1987) p 218; and Watson in Éigse 20 (1984) pp 197, 203).
The Rev. Cosslett Ó Cuinn visited Michael around Easter 1931, and learned to recite the song in the same pronunciation as used by Michael himself (The Irish Language and the Unionist Tradition (1994) p 27; Risteárd Ó Glaisne, Cosslett Ó Cuinn (1996) pp 38, 376). Sam Henry published a version of the song, including a tune, in the Northern Constitution newspaper (Coleraine, 5 August 1939: No 819 in the Songs of the People series), with the comment "I heard it sung in Gaelic by Michael McKernan, of Straid, Knocknacarry, the last native Gaelic singer in the Glens, when in his 90th year."
Rev Cosslett Ó Cuinn recites the song in his home in Carryduff on 7 March 1994 (to Ciarán Ó Duibhín).
The McKiernan family are not to be found in the census of Ireland for 1901 or 1911. However, there is in the Public Records Office in Belfast an RIC "census" of the area from 1881 (PRONI T/3507/1), and here we find, in the townland of Kinune in Glendun, Michael McKiernan, aged 40, farmer; his wife Ellen aged 35; and his son Michael aged 2. Cushendun parish records (PRONI MIC/1D/68–69) yield the information that Michael McKernan and Ellen McGarry married on 11 April 1877, and their son Michael was baptised on 19 September 1878 (though his mother's name is wrongly given as Mary).
A generation earlier, the parish records for Culfeightrin (from which Cushendun was not divided until April 1848) contain several baptisms — Mary 1834, John 1835, Daniel 1846 — to Thomas McKernan and Jane McCambridge. Although Michael (senior) is not among them, Thomas and Jane were undoubtedly his parents. Thomas McKiernan appeared in the Griffith valuation of Kinune (1859), and his property, which included a forge, passed to Michael in 1871, and to Catherine McCambridge in 1886. Malachy McSparran, in The Glynns (2001), page 23, mentions Thomas McKiernan and says that he moved his blacksmith operations to Craigagh Wood while the Coast Road was being built. In 1851 his sons Michael and Thomas enrolled in the newly-opened Knocknacarry National School.
The civil registry records the death of Jane McKiernan in 1865, aged 65; and of Thomas McKiernan in 1870, aged 70; both at Kinune. We find the marriage of Michael (son of Thomas McKiernan) to Ellen McGarry in 1877 and a series of births to the young couple, all at Kinune: Michael in 1878, twins Ellen Jane and Thomas in 1883, and Daniel in 1885. It was in 1886, apparently, that the family moved to Ardrossan — Michael (junior) was struck off the register of Glendun School in June of that year (PRONI SCH/1070/1/1).
The Scottish censuses of 1891 and 1901 and 1911 show the family in Ardrossan. Another child, Mary, was born about 1888, and died in Ardrossan in 1922. Yet another, Margaret Anne, was born in Ardrossan in 1889 but died in 1890. Three of the family married in the Ardrossan area: Michael to Mary Margaret Cunningham in 1904; Ellen Jane to Patrick O'Driscoll in 1915; and Daniel to Hughina Mary McDonald in 1921. The remaining member of the family, Thomas, a grocer's assistant, emigrated to America, arriving at Ellis Island on 13 April 1906 aboard the Astoria from Glasgow, accompanied by three other young people from Ardrossan, all four bound for San Francisco. Thomas' destination was the home of his aunt, Mrs McDonald, at 741 Ashbury Street, San Francisco. According to Daniel's daughter, Mary, it was Daniel who was to go to America, but his mother persuaded him to stay at home and let Thomas take his place.
As to the subsequent fortunes of the family, I have no further information about Thomas. Ellen Jane lost her husband in a railway accident in 1927. Michael and Mary Margaret Cunningham had a large family, and their descendants are to be found in Ardrossan to the present day. I visited two of their grand-daughters — Helen McKernon and Theresa Young — in March 2003, and was graciously allowed to copy a photograph showing four generations of the name Michael McKiernan pictured together: the speaker on the record, his son, grandson and greatgrandson.
Daniel McKiernan was a carpenter by trade, although I have also heard that he played professional football in Scotland. As we have seen, he married Hughina Mary ("Ina") McDonald in 1921. She was born in 1887, to John McDonald (a farmer) and Mary Campbell, of the village or clachan of Murlaggan, just east of Roy Bridge in Lochaber, in the civil parish of Kilmonivaig and in the region known as Keppoch. Ina was the second youngest of the family, who were native speakers of Gaelic. John's parents were Angus McDonald and Margaret McIntosh, from the nearby village of Bohuntin, in Glenroy. Mary's parents were John Campbell and Janet McDonald, from Bohenie, also in Glenroy.
Ina's sisters, Jessie and Mary, were housekeeper and cook to Fr Bernard Lynch in Ardrossan, while Ina herself was training to be a tailoress in Glasgow. The complete list of children, as revealed by the censuses of 1881, 1891 and 1901, was: Mary, Dugald, Margaret, Angus, John, Donald, Jessie, Hughina, Alexander. The parents John (died 1909 aged 74) and Mary (died 1936 aged 88), together with their children Angus (1945), Margaret (1959), Jessie (1964) and Mary (1964), are buried in the spectacular hilltop graveyard of Cille Choirill, which also holds the bones of the bard Iain Lom of Keppoch.
Shortly after his marriage, Daniel brought his wife and his parents to live in the Glens, in Straid, Knocknacarry. The parents, Michael and Ellen, appeared on the electoral register in 1923, where they were joined by Daniel and Ina in 1925. Only one of the children of Daniel and Ina, Mary Theresa, survived into adulthood; she was two and a half when they moved from Ardrossan to Straid. In the above-mentioned interview on the Glens Historical Society website, she describes (among many other things) how the house in Straid came to be purchased.
Ellen McKiernan died in 1927 aged 79. Michael's unmarried sister, Grace McKiernan, died at Straid in 1929 aged 92. And thus we arrive at the year 1931, when the scheme for recording spoken Gaelic in Ulster was being carried out. If any one of many things in the above account had happened differently — for example, if Daniel had gone to America as he originally planned to do — Michael McKiernan might not have been living in the Glens of Antrim in 1931, and we would not have today the invaluable sound recording of "Áird a' Chumhaing", spoken in the authentic pronunciation of the Glens.
Michael McKiernan died in 1935 aged 91. Around 1960, Daniel and Ina, with Mary, moved from Straid to 33 Somerton Road, Belfast. Ina died in 1971 aged 84, and Daniel in 1982 aged 96. Mary returned to the Cushendun area around 1996, and died in 1999. Many of the family are represented on a headstone in Cushendun cemetery.
Recent references to Michael McKiernan include:
Colm J O'Boyle, Phonetic texts of East Ulster Irish, MA thesis QUB, 1962, pp 5–6, 48–9, 55–60, 214.
Seosamh Watson, "Séamus Ó Duilearga's Antrim Notebooks", Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 40, 1984, pp 74–117 and ibid 42 (1987) 138–218;
id, "Séamus Ó Duilearga's Co. Antrim Notebooks," Éigse 20, 1984, pp 187–211.
Brian Mac Lochlainn and Sorcha Nic Lochlainn, "The Gaelic language in North Antrim and Rathlin Island", A wheen o' things that used to be, no date, pp 127–57 at 133–4.
Róise Ní Bhaoill, Ulster Gaelic Voices, 2010, at pp 280–5.
My thanks are offered to the McKernon family, Ardrossan, for generously sharing information and for the photograph; and to Séamus and Caitlín McElheran of Ranaghan for showing me around the locations near Cushendun connected with the McKiernan family.
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