Wade Tarzia


Both the archaeologist and the folklorist deal with the present. An ancient monument or an ancient manuscript created in the past can be manipulated for present purposes, as can more recent artifacts, printed texts, and spoken words. The monument I want to discuss is a folly, or a construction built by a wealthy landowner for any number of aesthetic, practical, or charitable reasons; in this case it is a ruined tower-house in Ireland called Fleming’s Folly. (Click here for description and location of the tower.) The text is a local ballad about this tower and the plantation-era landlord who built it. The spoken words are the conversational folklore from a few people living within the gaze of the tower.

What interests me are the varying meanings the tower holds for the local people, whatever its original purpose was (and little is known of its builder’s intentions). The tower is from a historical period (the 19th century) of elite (large-estate owner) hegemony over the rural population. The ballad is, like the tower, somewhat protected from change by its ‘mortar’ of poetic form and the existence of that form as set in memory and published from time to time in the local newspaper. Both tower and song form a central point of reference in the local historical tradition. In addition, both tend toward political neutrality -- the tower is silent, and the song’s comment on culture history is mild, such that most people in the community, of whatever religious or social background, would find little to disagree about in the song.

In contrast, the conversational folklore boils with activity and comment. It represents an ever formative web of communication. The lore is partly constrained by what has come before -- history, tower, and song – but is also free to affirm tradition, comment on history, or challenge that comment. This process is a reminder of the part that ‘things’ in the archaeological record play in the living verbal world of folklore. That which is ruined or abandoned finds, paradoxically, continually changing ‘life’ as a community represents itself in tradition – uses what is handed down in order to make sense of the present, which is one of the processes of tradition (Glassie 1995).

This article is a progress report in a slowly proceeding study of the Folly and its lore. I present the ballad and the conversational folklore relating to the tower in the form of a narrative of my collecting experience. My aim here is to situate the folklore in a chronological and personal context so that readers can have some insight as to how the data were affected by the collection circumstances (cp. Aunger 1995:100). Then I choose two features in the ballad for analysis to suggest a function of social commentary and pride of place: the motif of blood-slaked mortar and the theme of place-lore. Finally, I discuss the relation of what is stable (the song) and what is fluid and negotiable (the emergent conversational folklore).


The ballad and local lore were collected in the neighbouring villages of Ballinagh and Carrickaboy, Co. Cavan, Ireland, both of which are predominantly farming communities, about seven kilometers south of Cavan town. Of interest in this study is that Co. Cavan has been considered to be a dynamic ‘border’ county forming an area of contact between the medieval provinces of Ulster, Leinster, and Connacht, whose border wars and heroes are featured in medieval Irish saga literature. (Parker 1995 discusses Cavan in medieval times and sees not one but several borders at issue.) As well, Cavan has been and still is involved in more recent political changes relating to the partition of Ireland into British-ruled Northern Ireland and what would become the Republic of Ireland. Click here for a short review of some relevant Irish history.

Cavan arose as a relatively recent administrative division, incorporating the medieval territorial division of Breifne and other land, during the English-Scottish plantation of Ulster that started in the 17th century (Gillespie 1995:10). Cavan was considered intractable, socially and geographically. One historian writing around 1830 described Co. Cavan as “celebrated in the history of the wars in Ireland for the fastnesses formed by its woods, lakes, and bogs, which long secured the independence of its native possessors” (Lewis 1837/1984:314). Topography and position at the far edge of the Ulster plantation seems to have complicated efforts of the Cavan plantation (Duffy 1995:18-19). Still, by 1861, twenty percent of the population comprised Protestants, generally inhabiting the best farmlands (Duffy 1995:32-33). Although historically part of the province of Ulster, Cavan remained after the 1921 partition with the Irish Free State and later the Republic.

Thus Cavan forms a true case of a border region with the inhabitants situated on cultural borders since the early medieval period and, thus, involved in the encounters of different groups. The ballad and folklore discussed here can be understood as types of texts framed against this historical background. (A comparison with Buchan’s [1972] analysis of Scottish border ballads is tempting although these ballads and border history have different characteristics and expression compared to the Folly ballad and Co. Cavan.) Still, the reader is warned not to conceive of Cavan as seething in conflicts. It is too easy to find conflicts and miss the routine constructive interaction between farming neighbours that is the norm, no matter what the creed or ideology of the neighbours (see Glassie 1982a: 290-305, on neighbourliness in a Northern Irish community).


I collected the ballad and conversational folklore during both planned and chance meetings with people in two villages, Carrickaboy and Ballinagh. Carrickaboy is about 5.5 kilometers east of Ballinagh, on the upland of Ardkill Mountain (268 meters) from which the Folly is barely visible on Belville Hill (171 meters) in Ballinagh. The people of Carrickaboy refer as readily to the Folly as do those of Ballinagh, so the tradition easily crosses the town boundaries. I protect the identity of my informants by using the initial letter of their first names. When I do not supply identification, my contact was brief, having been made by chance.

I first arrived in Co. Cavan in September 1980 via bicycle and carrying camping gear, new to fieldwork in a foreign country. I was generally acquainting myself with the folklore of archaeological sites (the type well-documented in Britain by Grinsell [1976]) prefatory to graduate study. I met two senior farmers passing the time on the road on the western slope of Ardkill Mountain in Carrickaboy. To my delight, they immediately offered information about several local legends, among the first being that of Fleming’s Folly, visible as a small nub on a hill several kilometers northwest from where we stood. Mr. J1 and Mr. B1 told me that a rich man built the tower so that his sailor-son could see it when he came back to port in Ireland. Howley (1993:111-112) also heard this explanation when researching his book on Irish follies, as quoted above.

I spent that day and part of the next checking into various local legends, when I was flagged down by Mr. T passing by in his car. He described himself as a plumber with an interest in history, and he had heard of my interests and wanted to chat, which we did for an hour by the roadside. The topic of the Folly arose, and he said his mother, born in Ballinagh, had passed down to him that Fleming’s Folly was built by using bullocks’ blood to harden its mortar.

That evening I was invited to supper by a family who had watched over me during my stay. Mrs. K suddenly produced her hand-written transcription of a ballad about the Folly. She had copied it from a clipping from the Cavan newspaper, The Anglo-Celt. (After I revisited the area in 1985, Mrs. K sent me an undated newspaper clipping with the ballad printed on it, with the author noted as Patsy Gaffney of Ballinagh.)

We would like to know more about the author of the ballad and the date of its composition, but this information eludes me at the time of this writing. Although Mr. T told my colleague (introduced below) that the tower was made in the 1800s, I have not been able to date the tower or ballad by other sources. Mrs. K’s 1980 ballad transcript (shown below) says the tower was built in “twenty three,” whereas the newspaper clipping sent to me in 1985 records “eighty three.” A date for the tower in the 19th century seems likely. Consider also the song’s line, “Now that the landlord days are over,” which could well refer to the formation of the Free State in 1921, or even earlier to the turn of the century, at which a culmination of a series of governmental acts completed the movement of land from the great estates of the landlords into the ownership of their former tenants.

I did not hear the ballad sung except for a verse in 1980 by Mrs. K’s husband, J2, and a stanza in 1988 by Mr. B2 in the nearby town of Ballinagh. I do not know if these men did not recall the remainder or were not inclined to perform it in that context. My goal is to collect a sung version and to seek other variants and related folklore in future work, if circumstances permit. Here is the ballad-text from 1980 (the numbers are keyed to an annotation in hypertext, which includes notes on the ballad genre in Ireland.).

Fleming's Folly on Belville Mountain Hill by Patsy Gaffney

Four Irish miles from Cavan
Overlooking Ballinagh Town,
There stands an old gazebo
Both historic and renowned.
Now this old ancient structure
It remains intact there still
And they call it "Fleming's Folly"
On Belville Mountain Hill.
– see Annotation, note 1

It was built by Captain Fleming
Way back in ‘Twenty Three’
When he thought to see them sailing
The big ships on the sea.
It was just a rich man’s folly
’Cos if he were building still
He'd never see the ocean
note 2
From Belville Mountain Hill.

Now this old moss grown landmark
Way down the years has stood:
'Twas built of stone and mortar
And mixed with bullocks blood
When you climb its spiral stairway
And at the top stand still
You can see the whole of Breffney
note 3
From Belville Mountain Hill.

You can see the County Longford
And Leitrim, Sligo too
Then Old West Meath and Royal Meath
They all come into view.
note 4
You can see the lakes and rivers
The wood and mountain hills
When you stand on Fleming's Folly
On Belville Mountain Hill.

There are many sons of Breffney
Way beyond the raging main
That would give the world to stand on
This rocky tower again
And a word to every tourist
Who's here in search of thrills
Come stand on Fleming's Folly
On Belville Mountain Hill.

Now that Fleming's estate's divided
And the landlord days are over
And the men who built the folly they
Are gone for ever more.
But here's to Captain Fleming.
Though his wish was never fulfilled
His name will live forever
'Round Belville Mountain Hill.

I did not visit the Folly in 1980, my folklore survey being nomadic with a self-imposed schedule taking me elsewhere. Mrs. K and I have maintained contact from time to time through letters up to the present. However, Richard J. Senghas, a friend with folklore interests, in June 1984 performed a survey of archaeological-site folklore similar to mine, visiting the Carrickaboy-Ballinagh area as a favour to follow up on some of the items I collected (which he did, besides collecting new ones). He was hosted by the family of Mrs. K during his five days of work in the area. Mr. T brought him to many local sites of legend; the Folly was included, and Mr. T told him that the tower was built by Fleming in the 1800s to see ocean-going ships. He also related that the structure does not have a lot of “binding” stones, so it could not have been built very tall (Senghas 1984).

In 1985 my wife and I did a week’s driving tour of Ireland, and we visited the area for a social call, when I finally saw the Folly in the company of Mrs. K and one of her teenage sons. In June 1988 I returned again, this time fortuitously sent there on a business trip to Dublin, which I preceded with four-days of folklore collection in Ballinagh and Carrickaboy. I roomed in Ballinagh where I met Mrs. A, a senior resident and proprietress of a guest house referred to me by Mrs. K and living near the foot of Belville Hill on which the Folly sits. Mrs. A related folklore indirectly about Fleming’s Folly. I asked her generally about the tower, and she affirmed the blood-in-mortar motif but said it was dragon’s blood. More interesting to me were the narratives she immediately told in association with my Folly inquiry (these narratives followed in quick succession, making me confident that she strongly associated the Folly and these items): (1) A landlord in the area was known to have come to a bad end (she did not elaborate). (2) Protestants in the area got the best land in the days of the landlords (note that the Folly ballad concerns a landlord), but now their families had all died out or were reduced. (That Protestants got the best land during the plantation is borne out historically; beginning in the 17th century, Protestant colonizers took the most productive land, displacing Catholics to the poorer [Duffy 1995:32]). (3) There was a priest who was vexed continually by a Protestant. One day the priest said the man would rot alive, and the man eventually “got maggots and died.”

For the remainder of the day I sought variants of other legends I had collected in 1980 before walking to Ballinagh centre trying to engage chance passers-by in conversation that might lead to the topic of the Folly. I was given only various sets of directions to the tower and soon was hiking at dusk through fields thick with heather with the dual purpose of climbing the tower and staving off jet-lag-induced sleep. On the way up I met a young man rooking hay in a field. I confirmed my directions to the tower then asked him about its history. His response was that Fleming had built the tower and stopped when someone fell off the top and died.

At the hill top I explored around, climbed the tower, and took photos. Soon I saw a man walking up the western side of the hill accompanied by several cavorting greyhounds. In response to my general questions, he told me that Fleming had paid the people a penny per day to build the tower when work was idle. (It is safe to assume that he believed Fleming had commissioned the tower as a famine-relief project, which was the origin of some Irish ‘folly’ structures [Howley 1993:2].) He affirmed the motifs of the bullocks’ blood being mixed in the mortar and the fact that Fleming built his tower to see the ships at sea, after I mentioned them when he seemed to have exhausted his comment, although he added a new detail to the viewing motif: Fleming wanted to see the ships in Dundalk harbour. He pointed out a roomy two-storey stone farmhouse at the foot of the hill where, he said, Fleming had lived. This kind of house would have been rated superior to at least 80 percent of the housing in the region (predominantly two or three room cottages of stone or clay), according to a mid-1800s census (Crawford 1995:141-142).

On the way back down the hill in the dusk, I met again with the young man, now joined by an older man at the rooking. When the conversation did not lead to further details about the Folly, I resorted to prompts. Both of them agreed with that Fleming built his tower to see the ships in Dundalk harbour. One of the men said Fleming was a sailor; the other said Fleming had a son who was a sailor. When I mentioned the belief of the man with the hounds (i.e., the jobless being paid to build the tower), the older farmer replied that Fleming did pay the tenants a penny per day to build the tower, but then raised the rent to pay for the building (spoken humourously). Both men affirmed, when asked at last, the bullock’s blood motif.

The next day I visited Mr. B2, purportedly the area’s oldest resident, but beyond a recited verse about the Folly (unfortunately lost in my memory before I could write some notes two hours later) he would tell me little else about it. Later I sought information at a few of modern cottages lying closest to the tower on the west side, with no one providing information. I did meet two farmers passing the time, one of whom said the tower had been used for looking out for horse thieves. Here note that the place-name for Ballinagh means “ford-mouth of the horses” (Baile-an Each) (Room 1986:27), from which I can draw no strong conclusions. The men also pointed to a nearby, two-storey, stone farm house and attached outbuildings (the same one identified by the man with the hounds) that they said had been part of Fleming’s estate.

On the evening of the second day Mrs. A suggested I visit her immediate neighbour. He was not extremely communicative but affirmed, after I prompted, the general information I had collected about the Folly. Then he added a new element: the tower was used to watch the hunting hounds. (Note that a rich man's sport is collocated with the rich man's tower. Note as well, a similar belief reported about Lloyd’s Tower in Kells, Co. Meath: “The tower has been described as an inland lighthouse and it is thought it was used as a coordination point for returning huntsmen.” [Howley 1993:51].) The informant’s wife, suddenly speaking out from behind his shoulder, then added that Fleming had fallen off the tower and died. Although I had two more days of collecting before me, the remainder of the folklore did not relate directly to the Folly.

On to Part 2

© Wade Tarzia 1997


© assemblage 1997