The Digger celebrates the life and legacy of a local singer
0N Wednesday 5th June 1968 news was filtering through of the shooting of Robert F. Kennedy in the United States. It was a topic of conversation amongst a group of people who had gathered in the graveyard of St Joseph's, Ballymacricket, Glenavy to pay their respects to a well-known and well-respected gentleman, Robert Cinnamond, who had passed away on the 3rd June 1968 aged 84 years.
Robert had spent several years in the United States himself and the Kennedy dynasty and the American culture would have been a familiar way of life to him. Indeed there was a further irony in the fact that Robert's daughter Vera had taken the Kennedy surname through marriage.
The Cinnamond surname was synonymous with the Ballinderry, Glenavy and Aghalee districts. Today it is visible on headstones in local burial grounds.
The Montgomery Manuscripts make reference to the fact that the surname was amongst those names of English and Welsh settlers within the district in the 17th century. That is supported by the fact the name appears in many of the local townlands, mainly in the Ballinderry area during the 19th century. The Hertford Estate ledger in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland show Cinnamonds in the townland of Loughrelisk from at least 1798 and also in the town land of Moneycromog.
At the beginning of the 20th century William Cinnamond and his wife Sarah Ann (nee Branagh), who had been married in about 1866, were residing in the town land of Tullyballydonnell in a thatched cottage they rented off Jane Reford. The Reford family resided in a substantial property in that townland once known as Thomas Vale. Today the area is known as Magee's Road, adjoined by Reford's Lane, between Upper and Lower Ballinderry.
William may well have been working as a farmhand to the Refords at that time. He was the father of seven children, five of whom had survived ten years later according to the 1911 census.
Their son Robert Cinnamond was born on the 18th May 1884. He, together with his brothers and sisters, attended the nearby school located at the front of St. Mary's chapel, Tullyballydonnell. Although a predominantly Catholic school, it was used by both denominations. The school and schoolmaster's residence are no longer in existence. According to the school registers Robert started school on 6th April 1889 aged four. His name was struck off that register on 20th June 1896 when he was 12. In the 1911 census the Cinnamond family are to be found residing in the nearby town land of Ballymaclose in a house owned by William Rice.
William John married Mary Hamill in 1913 at Aghagallon. An older sister, Ann Jane also resided with the family. Their sister Letitia married Thomas Barbour on 31 January 1891 and resided in the Aghalee area. Isabella, another sister, was working as a cook in the Holywood area of County Down.
In later life, Robert Cinnamond was interviewed by radio presenters and recordings were made, capturing the sounds and songs of the past for future generations. In a typical interview with RTE Robert recalled his childhood and remembered the home they lived in containing the traditional four looms. He also tried his hand at weaving.
The song of a weaver often accompanied the rattling and 'clattering' of the looms. Many of those involved in this industry would have been illiterate, having received very little education and therefore the songs and ballads would have seldom been written down. The next generation had to have an attentive ear and retentive memory if they were to survive.
Fortunately Robert Cinnamond had a keen ear. He recalled during an RTE interview that he had learnt songs from his father, who in turn had picked them up from listening to his mother. Robert described his father as a "great singer" who sang in the local pub, at dances and parties.
He related the story of his father who had travelled with a fellow worker called Roddy into Lisburn to the fair to sell cattle. They had spent most of their profit in a local hostelry and as they left the premises met a man selling ballad sheets in the street. Roddy gave the man several pence for an armful of the sheets. They made their way to another part of Lisburn town and Robert's father began to sing the songs to passers-by from the ballad sheets as Roddy sold them. Robert recalls "they made a hatful of money" and as a result of their efforts later enjoyed further celebrations before returning home. In 1913 Robert married Elizabeth Murphy, a daughter of a farmer from the Cloghogue area of Newry. It is believed Elizabeth was working as a domestic maid in some of the local farms. They eventually settled in a labourer's cottage at Aghadolgan outside Glenavy and close to what was then known as Frank Collins's public house, now The Silver Eel. Robert and Elizabeth planted a cherry tree in the garden of their new home marking their arrival. Robert was a keen gardener, a pastime maintained for the rest of his life.
Tragedy struck the family on the 27th October, 1936, when his wife Elizabeth died at the age of 42 whilst giving birth to their ninth child. Robert was left to carry on and dedicated his life to the raising his young family by himself. Both Robert and his older brother William John were employed as basket makers. Robert earned money making potato baskets for the Mulhollands in the area.
He also helped out pulling flax in McCorry's fields close to his home in Aghadolgan. The family have affectionate memories of him as a very quiet, reserved individual who enjoyed the company of several of his close friends.
The country had been an integral part of his childhood and it was a way of life he enjoyed. He could often be heard singing whilst out in the garden digging, attending to his vegetables, Victoria Plum tree, apple trees and damsons. It was not unusual for him to pay a visit to Sam Buchanan's store at Roses Lane Ends for his seed and fertiliser, often travelling by bicycle and visiting other members of the extended family in Aghagallon. They looked forward to his visits.
Robert was a member of the local Hibernian lodge and a founding chairman of St. Joseph's Gaelic Football club.
Music would always be close to his heart. He played a fiddle, although not as well as his friend Felix McGarry. Members of the family relate how Robert and Felix enjoyed each other's conversation and had "many a nights craic around the fireside" on a Sunday evening.
Later in life Robert was visited by people involved in the folk music scene. They became interested in Robert and quickly recognised his vocal talents and the wealth of material that he possessed. It was not long before Robert was being interviewed by BBC and RTE. He could recite many hundreds of ballads from a large repertoire. Fortunately some have been recorded on the Topic record label. His favourite song, according to family members, was 'My Lagan Love.
Thanks to Vera Kennedy, and members of the Murnaghan family for sharing their memories with us.
Thanks also to RTE for permission to quote from archive material.
The Digger can be contacted via email email@example.com or by contacting the Ulster Star office.