I owe many of the songs in this book to the Hession family. It is famous in Irish speaking circles. It consists of a father, mother and nine children, all equally proficient in song and story.
Bean Ui Coisdealbha “Amrain Muige Seola” 1919
Stephen and Ellen Hession raised nine children in a modest thatched cottage in Ballydotia, Belclare Co Galway; All nine participated in the local and national competition’s organised by the Gaelic League; Their four sons, Thomas, Martin, Stephen and Micheal, but particularly their daughters Annie, Maggie, Maire, Ellen and Bridget, were celebrated singers and active participants in the Gaelic Revival in the early years of the 20th Century.
When I came to live in Tuam, some fifteen years ago, I had already formed the acquaintance of the Hession family of Belclare (beside Tuam) at different Feisanna, had admired the beauty of their singing, and I regarded myself as fortunate in being brought into such close proximity with them.
Bean Ui Coisdealbha “Amrain Muige Seola” 1919
Ellen and Stephen
According to family tradition Ellen (nee Reaney) was the driving force behind her childrens’ education; Stephen Hession being of a more “philosophical disposition”. The granddaughter of a celebrated singer, and herself a talented singer, she taught them the songs that first gave them notoriety. Her obituary celebrated her singing; “As an Irish Speaker and as a traditional singer here was not her equal in Ireland” but it also underlined her private nature; “during her life she showed that a women’s place on the hearth is a noble one, and that good and lasting work for Ireland may be done in the light of the turf fire and by the side of the cradle” (Connaught Tribune 11 July 1925). Whatever the truth of that assertion, she encouraged her childrens’ performance, and her daughters did not entirely follow her supposed example.
All Ellen’s daughters were singers and performers
- Annie, at times Áine at others Eithne, (the Hession children went by various Gaelic synonyms) was a teacher and the first singing star;
- Maggie (more often Maighread), followed in her footsteps as singer certainly, but later an educational and language activist; She was a major contributor to Bean Ui Coisdeabha’s book.
- Mary (most often Maire but later Marie) was a translator but also a significant actress in the Irish Language Theatre of the 20s and 30s, working in the Abbey and Gate Theatres.
- Ellen (sometimes Eileen, others Eibhlín) was also a singer, having according to one report appeared at all the major concert venues in Britain.
- Bridget also sang in local feiseanna
Annie and Maggie married early and had several children; Annie married a local farmer John Keane (Sean Ó Cathain), and Maggie, a well known Doctor, Sean McCann (Sean McCana). Bridget also married, a Mr Wright, and immigrated to the USA. Maire and Ellen (Eileen) in contrast did not marry; Maire is buried with the McCann’s in Terenure, Co Dublin, Ellen with her parents in Belclare.
The boys though they also sang and performed in the early competition are perhaps less colourful. All married and had children; Tommy stayed at home and managed the farm; Martin became an Agricultural Instructor in Co Sligo. Stephen (or Stiofán) became a teacher like his sisters. He was for a time headmaster of Rosmuc School Co Galway, and featured in broadcasts from the school in the 1930s. Michael became a handyman and also celebrated traditional musician in Galway, the father of Carl and Celine Hession who continue the musical tradition there.
According to the 1901 Census, the cottage at Belclare was one of three inhabited dwellings, had stone walls, was thatched, consisted of 2-4 rooms, and had 3 windows at the front. If the house was small it had numerous outhouses; 2 Stables, 1 Cowhouse, 1 Barn and 1 Cart House.
In 1901 Stephen was said to be 41 and Ellen 35. They already had eight children, Thomas 12, Anne 11, Margaret 9, Martin 7, Ellen 5, Mary 3, Bridget 2 and a newborn Stephen.
By the 1911 Census Stephen and Ellen had mysteriously aged some 14-15 years at 55 and 50 respectively. Thomas was now a rather more mathematical 23, Mary 14, Bridget 11 and Stephen 10. They had been joined by Michael already aged 10.
Four children had by now flown the nest, but can be traced in the Census; Annie, now 21, a teacher in Tyrone, was lodging in Trillick with Patrick McSorley, a School Teacher, and his family (1911 Census); Margaret, 19, also teacher was lodging at the Mercy Convent Castlebar (1911 Census); Martin, 18 ,was studying at the Agricultural College in Athenry (Census 1911). Ellen, 15, was, most probably, a student at the prestigious St Louis Convent in Co. Monaghan (1911 Census).
“Amrhain Mhuige Seola”, Mrs Eileen Costello (Eibhlín Bean Mhic Choisdealbha), Irish Folk Song Society, London 1919 , Dublin, Talbot Press 1923.
Ellen Hession’s Obituary – Connaught Tribune 11 July 1925 – Accessed Irish News Archive Online