Friday, February 05, 2010


The Izibongo of Blackeen Barna

I read in one sitting recently the political/historical book Invictus by John Carlin, republished under this name to tie in with the film based on the book starring Morgan Freeman but previously published under the title Playing with the Enemy. The last book I read in one sitting was also coincidently set in Africa. It was Blood River by Tim Butcher, a harrowing travelogue that retraced Stanley’s mapping of the Congo River in 1874. Both books have in common the fact that their authors were seasoned journalists; Butcher the Daily Telegraph’s East African and Carlin the Independent’s South African correspondents respectively. Whereas Blood River left you with the taste of all that was evil in the world, Invictus is a homage to all that is possibly great, in the shape of Nelson Mandela.

I heard a radio interview with Carlin and he said that he has been accused of ignoring his journalistic instincts and writing a hagiography of Mandela, a biography of sainthood as it were. He went on to say that he makes no apologies for this and that Mandela was the only person in his experience deserving of such an accolade.

Having read the book I disagree somewhat. It is not a hagiography ( a very Byzantine invention) but an izibongo, a very African praise song for Nelson Mandela. Izibongo praise poetry is generally perceived as being part of the Zulu tradition but equally they form part of the Xhosa tradition, from which Mandela springs in the Madiba clan. The main difference, according to Oppert, is that Xhosa poets are prepared to improvise whereas Zulu poets are rigid in their formulaic rendition.

This also sums up the character of Nelson Mandela who was prepared to both improvise and compromise, for the sake of a peaceful transition to a new South Africa.

These musings on ‘praise songs’ transported me back a few years to a temporary South African phase of my own when I conducted research on one Osman Tisani, known in this area where I live as Blackeen Barna, with a view to writing a play.

The play was to be called the Izibongo of Blackeen Barna.

Why the interest?

Well there are a number of strands of research, all of which were equally fascinating to me and probably interfered with the discipline of distilling a play from it, which are worth explaining a little.

Osman Tisani a Zulu boy arrived in Galway docks from South Africa about 1903 ( the first scene of the play was having him sitting in the docks on top of his luggage waiting) and was taken into the home of Marcus Lynch in Barna House.

Marcus Lynch was the scion of a branch of one of the most famous tribes of Galway, the Lynches. The Lynches were of Anglo-Norman stock and were established in Galway since 1226. Where Barna House is now was originally an O’Halloran castle. The O’Halloran clan (from Ó’ hAllmhuráin, the stranger from beyond the sea), a subordinate clan of the O’Flahertys who had been pushed across the Corrib by the Norman de Burgos, had taken the land around Barna from the O’Heynes and held it until November 1628 when the Lynches obtained it in settlement of a debt.

The senior male Lynches of Barna House were called in successive generations Nicholas or Marcus. Marcus Lynch appears on the title deed of my own house. He was born in 1839 and married Blanche, daughter of Count Julius Marylski of Leuczyca, Poland in1867. The couple first met at the races in Longchamp, France. Indeed Marcus must have been a serious gambler on the horses as at one point the deeds of the land where our house stands comes into the ownership of the bank run by the 1st Baron Rothschild in Paris. Anyway to return to the story they were to have five children. The firstborn Nicholas was born in April 1868 and then there were three girls who all subsequently became nuns, and another boy who died in infancy.

Nicholas Lynch was educated at Clongowes College and then joined the Army. He served as a Captain in the West African Frontier Force, patrolling in the Muri Mountains in 1898 before leaving with General Woodgate for South Africa and becoming part of his command, as a Captain in the South Lancashire Regiment. The first action they encountered was the disastrous attempt to take Spion Kop (Spy Hill). Although the South Lancashire’s only supplied two companies to that action they lost a disproportionate amount of officers and men.

Another digression. In that same action Nicholas Lynch of Barna would have been in the company of fellow tribesmen from the Connaught Rangers; opposing him, fighting with the Boers, were a number of members of MacBride’s Irish Brigade: waiting at the bottom of the Kop with stretchers to carry away the wounded, having been given permission for the first time to function under fire, was Mhatma Ghandi and his Indian Ambulance Corps and he would have encountered, acting as the courier from the battle to headquarters, Winston Churchill.

The Dead at Spion Kop

The action at Spion Kop was to reverberate down to this day. In the memory of the steep banked summit packed with dying men the equally steep spectator terracing at one end of many football grounds, most famously at Liverpool’s Anfield, are known as the Kop.

Anyway Nicholas Lynch was to survive Spion Kop only to die of enteric fever in the No 4. Hospital on the Mooi River on 13 November 1900. Well not quite the main field hospital, as the officers had appropriated a local hotel and turned it into their own infirmary separate from the ranks. The British forces lost more men to disease than gunfire in the Boer Wars.

Three years later Nicholas’ native servant or ‘boy’ was, for whatever reason, to turn up in Galway docks.

Why I wondered? I needed to know.

The Lynch lands around Barna had been divided up, following Marcus’ death – there is a photograph of him being waked on the front steps of the house, sitting ‘dead-still’ with his sister at his shoulder. People obviously came up the driveway, paid their respects to the sitting but deceased Marcus and walked on! This was going to be another scene in the play – by the Land Commissioners.

I travelled up all the boreens of Barna to talk to some of the older farmers on these plots of allocated land. These men would have been the sons of those who got the land from the Land Commissioners. Some were helpful but some were highly suspicious of my enquiries into Osman Tisani.

Lynch Mausoleum
Barna Church, Co. Galway.

I learnt from these contacts that Osman was 14 when he arrived in Galway; when he was brought by Marcus for his first day at school all the other children jumped out the window at seeing a black man; he was small but had a skill as a thatcher but had to be taught how to thatch the Connemara way; he became a good handballer and Marcus Lynch erected the handball alley that still stands across from Barna Church for him; he had a terrible temper and one farmer remembered his own father lifting the angry Osman and sitting him down on the hot range to shut him up; in later years he wore dapper white suits and fell in love with a local girl who promptly emigrated to Canada… and so on.

They all could recount these stories but no one could tell me how he suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth!

Some say he went mad. Fully expecting to inherit the Barna House on the death of Marcus this ambition was blocked by the remainder of the family. Some say he ended up in either Ballinasloe or Loughrea asylums. I checked. There are no records available. The mass graves that most inmates are buried in are unmarked. The end went dead.

Was he killed I wondered?
Why did he expect to inherit Barna?
Why did he come to Galway at all?

The 1911 census provided a clue. Osman is listed along with Marcus, his sister Margaret and four others as being residents in Barna House. He is recorded as being able to read and write in English. His place of birth is recorded as …..Tim Buc Too. This was hardly a mistake of information. Marcus Lynch was a justice of the peace and an exact man. Timbuckto is in Mali, not Natal in South Africa. Osman Tisani was not a Zulu!

The only explanation I could think of, was that Osman Tisani was rescued as a child from slavers operating from the interior near Timbuckto across Nigeria and the Gold Coast by Nicholas Lynch when serving in the West African Frontier Force. When Nicholas Lynch died at the Mooi River Tisani had no place to return to, just to Nicholas’ home in Barna and that these arrangements must have been put in place before he died.

This discovery interrupted the plan of my play. An Izibongo for Blackeen Barna, would be pointless if his spirit would not understand its nature. The final act of the play was to be in the asylum with Tisani dying from TB. I had commissioned a lovely lady called Nompumelole to write the izibongo for me. He would be looking out the window and this song would filter through, African drums, then silence.

Here is the Izibongo Praisesong for Osman Tisani, the lost boy of this parish:



Tiso, Mshengu ka Shabalala.
Ludonga luka Mavuso.
Sidwaba sithi singabangcwaba,
Size nomlandakazi.
Size nomlandakazi.

Tiso, Mshengu – mfo ka Shabalala.
Son of Afrika!
Son of um-Afrika.
Phantsi lee kwa – Zulu Natala.
From the land of Senangakhona ka Jamba.
The Land of Shaka ka Senzangakhona.
And the land of Mzilikazi and Cetshwayo.
A son from the land of the brave.
A son from the land of the brave.

Many amongst your people may not have known you.
And many may not have heard about you.
But to us, you are a true warrior of a different hew.
Uyilembe elenga amanye amalembe ngokukhalipha.
Ulibhubesi elabhodla obala,
Kwafa izitsha, zaba wubuchobololo.
Kwafa izitsha, zaba wubuchobololo

Tiso, mfana ka Shabalala.
Nogalela angadinwa.
Nkonyana yangakithi, eyagibela.
Imbhongolo ilibangise e-Irelanda.

I hear the Roar of an African Lion!
I hear an African Warrior shouting!
Coming right from the land of the Irish.
Calling to mother Afrika.
To welcome him home.
To welcome him home.

Awu!, ahamba amabhungu
Kwasala izalukazi.
Mhlaba ndini uyafihla!
Mhlaba ndini awudeli!
Mhlaba ndini awusuthi!
Mhlaba ndini awusuthi!

Young men have died,
Leaving behind old sickly women.
Earth you swallow!
Earth you are never satisfied!
Earth you are never full!
Earth you are never full.

Tiso, mfana wangakithi.
Uyohala unathi njalo.
Nakuso sona les’sigaba,
Sokuvuselelwa kwe-Afrika.
Size sibonane futhi!
Size sibonane futhi!

Interestingly there is also an izibongo for the Lynches of Barna written during famine times

Loinseach Bhearna / Lynch of Barna

Déanfar droichead óir ar Pholl na hOistre fós
Le h-airgead as pócaí an mháistir,
Beidh arm seasta i gcóir ag tíocht ag déanamh spóirt
Ag amharc ar an óigfhear álainn.

Ó fíon is puins go leor bhéas againn ansiúd ar bórd,
Seo sláinte fear dhá ól trí ráithe;
Seod séan ar an oighre óg nach scarfaidh leis go deo,
Mar beidh buaidh Chonnachta ag Loinseach Bhearnan.

Ó tá loingis ag an Loinseach a rinneadh ins an tír seo
As fíor-scoth na gcrainnte a d’fhás dhó;
Réiteófar an cabhlach cruinn i bhfoirm cheart ‘s i gcaoi –
Is beidh a ngunnaí ar a dtaobh ag lámhach.

Ó, nach mór an spóirt sa tír nuair a bhéas an cabhaltach linn,
Barr a gcuid seolta faoi shíoda geala bána,
Agus tiocfaidh anall an rí nuair a bhéas an cabhlach cruinn
‘S beidh sonas agus aoibhneas i mBeárnain.

Ach céard a dhéanfas muid ansiúd, má théann sé choíche anonn?
Titfidh an dúiche uilig faoi smúit mar gheall air;
Gabhfaidh na meacha féin ó dhiúl a gcuid meala le teann cumhaidh,
Is na héanlaith – titfidh a gclúmhach le fánaidh.

Ó, tá iníon Rí na Gréige ag fáil bháis le cumha ina dhéidh,
Is níor chodail a súil néal le ráithe
Is gurb éard dúirt briathra a béil gurb aingeal é féin
A bhí i gcomhluadar Mhic Dé na nGrásta.

Ó, Loingseach álainn óg a bhfuil diamonds ós do chomhair,
Go bhfuil iasc ar chuile chuan mar gheall tú.
Ó, is ghlaise liom do shúil ná an drúcht ar maidin chiúin
‘Sé do shamhail bláth na n-úll sa ngáirdin.

A bridge of gold will be built across Poll na hOistre yet, with silver from the master’s pockets; a standing force, ready for sport, will be gazing on the beautiful young man.

With plenty of wine and punch on board – here’s a health to the drinkers! May it be a good omen for the young heir, and Connacht’s victory belong to Lynch of Barna.

Lynch has ships that were made in this country out of the very best timber that ever grew. The fleet will be assembled in good order, with guns firing from their flanks.

Oh, won’t it be great sport for the country when the ships are here, with topsails of bright white silk! The king himself will come when the fleet is gathered together, and it will be a time of happiness and beauty in Barna.

But what will we do if he ever leaves us? The whole district will fall under a dark cloud. Under the weight of sorrow even the bees will cease making honey, and the birds will cast their feathers in the wind.

The King of Greece’s daughter is dying with longing for him, and she hasn’t slept a wink for three months. She said he was an angel who was keeping company with the Son of the God of Graces.

Oh, fabulous young man, celebrated with diamonds, there are fish in every harbour as you promised. Your eye is as clear as the dew on a quiet morning, you are like the apple-blossom in the garden.

Size Sibonnane futhi!

Until we meet each other again.


angella said...

Hi. This was very interesting to me. I vaguely remember my grandmother mentioning a black man in Barna. Her mother was a servant in Barna house so she would have had first hand knowledge of him. Her uncle was one of the farmers to get a land commission plot beside Barna Gardens. I wonder did you get some of your information from his son, her cousin? My grandmother unfortunately moved away from Barna and never told us anything about family history.

jabez said...

In 1908 Osman served 7 days in Galway Gaol for assisting ‘one John [or perhaps Tom] Caine to desert from the 88th Connaught Rangers.’ According to the prison records he was born in 1885 (not 1889 as per the 1911 census) at 'Tumtutu [sic] / French coast Africa.' The records list his next of kin as his father 'Achubu Tissanne [sic] / North Africa.' I think it's fairly certainly he wasn't Zulu. Nicholas Lynch probably began employing him as his 'native boy'' while he was serving in the Muri Mountains in West Africa. According to Wikipedia 'he died on 2 June 1920, in the Ballinasloe Asylum, of pulmonary congestion,' which is fairly specific but no source is given. The Irish Civil Deaths Index does however confirm the death of Osman Joseph Tissani, aged 33 (born 1887), at Ballinasloe in the last quarter of 1920. (If the Wiki date is right the death ought to have been recorded in the second quarter of the year).