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Last modified: Thursday, March 23, 2006

Professor feels obliged to keep alive traditions and lore of Northern Irish village of Ballymenone

March 23, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The world Henry Glassie entered 34 years ago, as he walked through the County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland from the town of Enniskillen to the tiny village of Ballymenone, no longer exists.

Glassie Book

Photo by: Chris Meyer

Print-Quality Photo

One can find Ballymenone on maps today, though it barely gets mentioned on local tourism Web sites. But not the place Glassie first encountered in 1972, which had no electricity, running water, central plumbing or telephone service. People generally walked or got around on bicycles. Few people had cars. Such essentials had been denied because of politics and economics.

It was 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles -- an era of violent conflict in Northern Ireland -- and armored cars would move swiftly past Glassie during his walks to Ballymenone, a largely Catholic community in generally Protestant Northern Ireland. The people there were aware of the big world, just not a part of it.

"Even at that time, friends in Ireland and other scholars in Ireland thought I was almost making it up. They didn't think it was possible that there was a community like that left," said Glassie, College Professor of Folklore at Indiana University Bloomington. "There was a community like that left, and it was because of political reasons right from the modern world.

"What was interesting to me ultimately was to understand the world the way they saw it. That's what I was after -- this tiny little cramped place was for them splendid and rich. That was a mystery in a sense," he added.

Glassie has written five books about Irish culture, including Passing the Time in Ballymenone (Indiana University Press, 1995), in which he presented a comprehensive review of folklife in the Ulster community. It won the Chicago Folklore Prize and the Haney Prize in the Social Sciences, and it was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times.

Throughout his career, Glassie has studied the cultures of traditional communities around the world. He has documented his fieldwork in award-winning books on life in rural Virginia, Turkey and Bangladesh. For his new book, The Stars of Ballymenone (Indiana University Press, 2006), Glassie decided to focus on the people seen by the village's residents as their "stars -- those rare individuals who put pricks of brightness into the midst of that dark, stormy background."

"Effectively, what I have done with the new book is to talk about them the way they talked about other people," he said. "They made their little poor forgotten world very rich by talking about not the general picture -- which I did in Passing the Time in Ballymenone -- but by pulling out those stars and celebrating them."

Henry Glassie2

Indiana University professor Henry Glassie, author of The Stars of Ballymenone.

Print-Quality Photo

Among them was Hugh Nolan, a poor farmer and the village's historian, who lived in a bleak two-room black house with a hearth where Glassie and others would come to learn the community's history. "He had spent his entire life carefully gathering the facts of his place and telling in great richness the events that happened in the 16th century, events that happened in the sixth century. He had the community's history in his mind," Glassie said.

"He always saw me as being to him as he was as a young man to another old man named Hugh McGiveney. McGiveney gave him the oral history of the community, most of which wasn't in any book. Just like that, when I came to his hearth, he was excited because here's another young man who at last wants to know this stuff."

Another was Peter Flanagan, who is pictured on the book's cover, a musician and storyteller who was the first person Glassie met upon arriving at Ballymenone. Flanagan and his brother, Joseph, eventually would invite Glassie to extended stays at their home. Cathal McConnell, a member of The Boys of the Lough, called Peter Flanagan "my first teacher." Flanagan is featured on a CD that accompanies the book.

Glassie dedicated a chapter to Ellen Cutler, one of the village's few Protestants, who helped him gain access to that group in a suspicious time.

"I was an outsider, and outsiders would have to be viewed with suspicion. You would think it would be hard to enter a community. This was a community of both Catholics and Protestants. This was a community only six miles north of the border of Ireland. This was a place in which the young men belonged to the Irish Republican Army. This was a place of violence," Glassie recalled.

"You would think it would be hard to get into such a place. However, they had as a result of their religious faith an obligation to hospitality," he explained. "They had to let me in. Their style was the door was open -- literally open. Their custom was that you couldn't stop at the threshold. You had to walk into the house without greeting and literally sit down at the hearth, and it was only then, after feeding you, that people were allowed to ask your name."

On many occasions, British soldiers with their knapsacks and guns would be invited to come in to drink tea and were forced into a hospitable relationship.

"We think about ourselves as being imperiled because there are terrorists on the other side of the world, but this is a situation where the terrorists are there. And yet still at the same time, in an amazing discord with that reality, they had this very powerful custom of hospitality," he said.

Electricity finally came to Ballymenone in 1976. The roads have been paved. Every home that Glassie first visited three decades ago is now gone and often replaced by something more prosperous. Everyone there is living essentially the same kind of life enjoyed by people across Ireland and here in America.

Surprisingly, genealogies haven't changed. The prosperity of the place has in fact kept the families on their land. However, it has eliminated the need for the evening gatherings of people in the pubs, where they sang the old songs and listened to their historians.

"The disconnect is absolutely clear and complete. The old culture has just been sealed over -- it's now archaeological," Glassie said. "The truth is that kind of poverty caused their children and grandchildren to simply hate everything that was connected to their old life. There are not young people interested in these things.

"However, they've got these books, and young people have said to me that they consider it one of the luckiest things in their lives that I was there when I was their age and that I was recording these stories, because, they say, 'We've got them in books now.'"

Originally, Glassie was resolved that he would continue to return to Ballymenone as long as any of the people whom he wrote about were still alive. He held the last of them, Peter Flanagan, when he died in 1991. But Glassie -- who has watched three generations come and go -- continues to return and will do so this summer when he takes copies of his new book to descendants of the village's "stars."

"I go back because I have an obligation to the older people who are now dead to speak the truth as I understand it," he said. "I have an obligation to the next generation to make sure that they have access to this information as well."

EDITORS: "College Professor" is part of Glassie's faculty title. For interviews with him, contact George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or For review copies of The Stars of Ballymenone, contact Kim Johnson at 812-855-5429 or

To listen to selections from the CD accompanying Glassie's book, go to the following Web links. The links require RealPlayer, which is available for free at

"The Duke of Leinster," John Joe Maguire --

"The Wild Repparee," Patricia Rooney --

"The Battleship Sinn Fein," Owney McBrien --

"If I Was a Blackbird," Peter Flanagan --