Musical musings on Irish history and culture
by Rob Fairmichael
|An edited version of
the written paper presented (along with the music) to the War
Resisters’ International Triennial Conference, Dublin, August 2002,
on ‘Stories and strategies – nonviolent
resistance and social change’
This paper, and the music played, are intended to both convey something of Irish history and culture in an entertaining way and to introduce people to a range of Irish musicians, singers and groups. It was designed for the 2002 War Resisters’ International Triennial Conference to be presented in a couple of hours, and the content partly reflects the context – an international event of an antimilitarist organisation.
The format below is as follows: After the number, the title lists the performer and the name of the track. This is followed by historical and cultural comment and then information about the performer, including any website information, the name of the album the track comes from, and any comments on availability. A couple of books are mentioned but this is primarily about music rather than literature. Some other musicians to watch out for in the music stores are mentioned at the end or underlined under other entries.
1. Horslips – Ferdia’s Song and Cu Chulainn’s Lament(from ‘The Táin’)
Ireland has a rich culture or rather cultures stretching back literally thousands of years. Many of the early tales which have come down to us are warrior sagas which would have echoes or parallels in other ancient European cultures. The most famous of these early sagas is the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley – a peninsula near Dundalk) the story tells of Queen Mebd (Maeve) trying to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley and what follows.
But Irish prehistory is not all violent - see the reference to the Céide Fields in the ‘Nonviolence in Irish history – a quiz’ which also features on the INNATE website.
The early ‘folk rock’ band Horslips, from the 1970s, produced an album telling the story of the Táin. The two tracks played from this album tells of the scene just before the killing of one friend by another in battle (Ferdia killed by Cu Chulainn); the deed is portrayed as tragic, and the second track is Cu Chulainn’s lament at his friend’s death.
Horslips, ‘The Táin’ album 1973, the album should be available on CD.www.horslips.com
An English translation of the Táin is available in an attractive English language translation by Thomas Kinsella, with brush drawings by Louis le Brocquy. Oxford Paperbacks, ISBN 0-19-281090-1.
2. Enya – The Celts theme
Enya (real name Eithne Ní Bhraonáin) is Ireland’s most successful female artist if you define that in terms of international profile and financial rewards; she is from a Donegal family which also produced the fine traditional group Clannad. We don’t know what kind of music the ancient Celts had but internationally the modern ‘Celtic sound’ has become particularly associated with the ethereal, syncopated sound made by Enya (she never plays live because she can’t replicate the many-layered sounds of her music on a stage). The Celts theme is an early track by Enya (1983) made for a television series about the Celts. It’s on ‘The Celts’ album (1987), also ‘Best of Enya’ (1997).www.enya.com is the official website, there are a number of others which a web search for ‘enya’ will reveal, none of which are particularly informative.
3. Christy Moore – St Brendan
A beautiful musical telling of the story of St Brendan’s travels is Shaun Davey’s orchestral suite ‘The Brendan Voyage’, an atmospheric rendering of the story which I would recommend.
However the piece played here is sung by Christy Moore who is one of Ireland’s greatest ballad singers. His interpretation of songs is first class and he has always been unafraid to be ‘political’ – over nuclear power, the North, or other issues. The track is off the ‘Ordinary Man’ album (1985).
Christy Moore has written a fascinating biography, "One voice – my life in song" (Hodder and Stoughton/Lir, 2000) which gives the lyrics to many of his songs and he tells what the song meant to him and experiences he identifies with.
This comic song is one of my favourites. Saint Brendan wanders about the world in his boat with only an albatross for company;
Rejected by the women, St Brendan heads back out in his boat and meets his old friend the albatross who says –
4. The Chieftains – Lily Bolero and The White Cockade
Interestingly, Irish music was very popular at the court of Queen Elizabeth 1 at the end of the 16th century despite the fact that her armies were trying to defeat the Irish! So Irish music was popular outside Ireland even then.
The Chieftains are one of the most acclaimed, accomplished and long-lived of Irish traditional groups with a long line of albums and many collaborations with musicians from abroad. The two tunes played are ones associated with two sides in the wars of the 17th century and are taken from ‘Chieftains – an Irish evening’ album.
The web address is complicated so just search for ‘the chieftains music’.
5. Bobby Hanvey and Houl Yer Whist – On Boyne’s Red Shore
Bobby Hanvey is a well-known storyteller and personality in Northern Ireland. The song played is about the battle itself and is taken from an album which is a non-sectarian rendering of a number of Orange songs. The album was originally entitled ‘On Boyne’s Red Shore’ and then relabelled ‘Historical folk songs of Ulster’.
6. Gráinne Yeats – Sí Bheag is Sí Mhór
The harp had become a symbol of Ireland by the early 16th century; it was King Henry VIII of England who first placed it on Irish coins – and there is still a harp on Irish Euro coins today nearly five hundred years later.
Some of the greatest melodies of the time are compositions of the blind harper Turlough Carolan (1670 – 1738). The song played here is from an album which includes some of the music of the Belfast 1792 harp festival (from ‘Belfast Harpers’ Festival 1792’ by Gráinne Yeats). It tells of the battle (!) between two groups of fairies (‘Sí’ is ‘fairies’) and is reputedly the first song Carolan composed.
7. Míceál O’Rourke – Nocturne No.7 in C major (‘Rêverie’)
Irish man John Field, who developed the musical form known as a nocturne, lived in Moscow most of his life where he died relatively early, in 1837, partly of the booze. Those who were beside him at his death bed wanted to know if he wanted a priest and what religious denomination he was; he replied "I am a pianist!’.
While Ireland is known more for musical forms other than the classical, John Field is arguably Ireland’s finest classical musician/composer. The track is from ‘John field – The complete nocturnes’ played by Míceál O’Rourke on piano (CHAN 8719/20)
8. Jimmy Crowley and Stokers Lodge – Bantry Girls’ Lament
This song is my favourite Irish lament, sung by the Cork singer Jimmy Crowley. It tells of the death of a young man from Bantry, in the British forces during the Peninsular/Napoleonic wars:
The ‘’for freedom’s sake’’ may be a dirty lie but the song itself is full of humanity and loss. It’s from a 1979 album ‘Camp House Ballads’ (also on 1998 CD ‘Jimmy Crowley Uncorked’).
9. Sinéad O’Connor – There was no famine
It is only in recent years that the Great Famine of 1846 could be rationally dealt with; (WRI Triennial sponsor) AFrI/Action from Ireland played a very significant part in helping people commemorate the Great Famine coming up to the 150th anniversary and linking the causes of the Irish famine with the causes of starvation in the poor world today (i.e. peasants having to grow cash crops to pay rent and being unable to keep food they needed for themselves). The Famine is still controversial; between those who blame British policies for allowing a million people to starve to death and ‘revisionist’ historians who say Britain did as much as it could in the context of the times to help people.
Sinéad O’Connor has been one of Ireland’s more controversial – and at times anguished – performers. Nevertheless a gutsy, intelligent and brave performer and songwriter. This rap (which doesn’t necessarily do justice to her unique singing voice) says there was no ‘famine’ – there was food available but the peasants who were starving couldn’t afford it or had to pay their rent with it. It’s from her ‘Universal Mother’ album.www.sineadoconnor.net
10. Paddy Reilly – The Fields of Athenry
Athenry is in Co Galway. This song can be read in different ways – as a sentimental song about an imprisoned man being sent thousands of miles away from his family and loved ones, and/or as a song blaming the British for the Famine. As with many such songs, the bits don’t necessarily add up – if he ‘stole Trevelyan’s corn so the young might see the morn’ – that they were literally at the point of death from starvation – where does the energy come from to advise his wife to ‘raise the child with dignity’? But for all that, it is a powerful song. Although the music and this version of the lyrics are by Pete St John, it is based on an 1880s ballad; it’s on Paddy Reilly’s "The Fields of Athenry" album (among others).
This song is at one end (the pretty benign) of a spectrum of songs which might be considered ‘anti-British’ or critical of Britain’s involvement in Ireland (the two things are not necessarily the same). A group like the Wolfe Tones specialised in republican and anti-British songs as well as other Irish ballads, sometimes whipping audiences up into a nationalistic fervour. If Sinn Féin’s strategy in the early 1980s was ‘the armalite and the ballot box’ (‘armalite’ is a rifle, ‘ballot’ is to do with voting), then the Wolfe Tones might be described as ‘the armalite and the ballad’.
11. De Danann – I’m leaving Tipperary
In the period 1851 – 1911, over 4 million people emigrated from Ireland – nearly as many as lived on the whole island at the latter date (4,390,219 in 1911). In 1901, 64% of Irish emigrants lived in the USA, 25% in Britain, 7% in Australia and 4% in Canada.
De Danann, another renowned Irish traditional group (named after the Tuatha De Danann, an ancient mythological people in Ireland, the ‘People of the goddess Danu’) play something which is very unusual – a happy emigration song! It’s off the album ‘Star Spangled Molly’ (1981).
12. Dermot O’Brien – Off to Dublin in the Green
This song, one of the best known republican songs, fits into the heroic militarist tradition;
This song is sung by Dermot O’Brien and it is off a compilation album ‘Songs of Ireland’s 1916’.
13. Donaghadee Fusiliers Flute Band –
The marching Orange Order exists in Northern Ireland to promote Protestantism and unionism; it is pro-British or pro-loyalist and often anti-Catholic, but as with any group contains the good and the bad and the middling. Some bands that would accompany loyalist marching are known as ‘blood and thunder’ or ‘kick the Pope’ bands (recognised genres). ‘The sash my father wore’ is the archetypal loyalist song in Northern Ireland, to be heard sung around many bonfires on the evening of 11th July or played loudly on the ‘Twelfth’ and around the streets at other times;
[battle sites of the 17th century]
My father wore it as a youth,
In bygone days of yore
And it’s on the 12th [July, anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne] I love to wear
The Sash my father wore.
Strictly speaking it’s a collarette rather than a sash (worn down the front looped over the head, rather than to the side as a sash). This version is an instrumental one (no words), along with another well known loyalist tune.
Stories can be changed; the tune of ‘The Sash’ was well known around Europe and before the words of the ‘The sash’ were put to it, there was another song, a love song which lamented division between people; this song (‘Irish Molly-O’) was rediscovered and is sung by Tommy Sands. Instead of ‘it was old and it was beautiful’ the words were ‘she was young and she was beautiful’.
14. Joni Mitchell and the Chieftains – The Magdalene Laundries
This song tells of some of the women in ‘the Magdalene Laundry’. It’s from the Chieftains’ ‘Tears of Stone’ album and sung by North American singer Joni Mitchell.
15. Saw Doctors – I used to love her
The Saw Doctors are an enjoyable ‘country and rock’ band from the west (Tuam, Co Galway) who sing about many different aspects of life (including country town life and unemployment). This must be the first song ever in Ireland to rhyme ‘mass’ and ‘ass’;
Depending on your interpretation, this may be sexist or just forthright but certainly indicative of a sea change in Irish culture. This song became a youth anthem for a period. It’s off the Saw Doctors’ first album ‘If this is Rock and Roll, I want my old job back’.
16. Paddy Reilly - The crack was ninety in the Isle of Man
Written by Barney Rushe, this is sung here by Paddy Reilly (the Dubliners and others have also recorded it) off his album ‘The fields of Athenry’.
17. Dubliners – The Irish navy
This is a gentle satire on the Irish navy, naming the naval vessels that existed and saying that at the end of the day’s work everyone went home for their tea! The Dubliners – believe it or not from Dublin – are one of the original ‘sixties folk acts – with a great repertoire of ballads and songs over the years. The song is from the 1968 album ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ (also on the 1969 album ‘A drop of the Dubliners’ and a couple of compilation albums) but may be difficult to get.
http://imol.vub.ac.be/Dubliners/ is an unofficial website which will link you to others.
18. Tommy Sands – There were roses
Tommy Sands here sings what is for me the most poignant song to come out of the recent Troubles in the North. It tells of two friends who were killed, a Catholic who is shot dead in retaliation for the death of a Protestant;
For me, Tommy Sands is the finest songwriter to come from the ‘Thirty Years war’ in the North (he played at the closing evening of the WRI Triennial in Dublin, August 2002). This song first appeared on ‘Singing of the Times’ (1985).www.tommysands.com Also look out for albums by Colum Sands, a brother of Tommy’s.
19. Alanna O’Kelly – One breath
20. Dolores Keane - The Island
For Dolores Keane, use ‘search’ for the website. The song is off her ‘Lion in a cage’ album.
21. Christy Moore – The Siren’s Song
This song, sung by Christy Moore, contrasts the old images of Ireland, ‘land of saints and scholars, a hundred thousand welcomes’ with current realities, ‘céad míle fáilte my arse’, when someone from Somalia does respond to ‘’The Siren’s Song’’ about how great Ireland is. It’s off the ‘Traveller’ album.
22. Tommy Sands – Daughters and Sons
23. Pogues – Broad Majestic Shannon
Some* other Irish musicians to look out for;
*there are many others! A useful website for information on ‘Celtic musicians’ iswww.ceolas.org
Frances Black http://house-of-music.com/frances/
Frances and Mary Black are solo performing sisters, playing mainly contemporary folk.
Boomtown Rats and Bob Geldof; Geldof fronted this 70s/80s group who didn’t like Mondays.www.boomtownrats.com
Mary Coughlan; This lady sings the blues. Not a huge amount on the web, use ‘search’.
Rory Gallagher, acclaimed Irish rock star who died in 1995.
Phil Coulter; Singer/songwriter best known now for orchestral arrangements of Irish (and other melodies), guaranteed to help sooth and de-stress you. One album that has a bit more ‘story’ to it is ‘Lake of Shadows’, about Lough Swilly in the north of County Donegal: the album is a mixture of geography, history and family tragedy.www.philcoulter.com
Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy; intelligent lyrics with a number of albums available.www.thedivinecomedy.com
Seán Keane: If you’re looking for a sexy Irish male voice singing in more traditional/folk style, this is your man, e.g. ‘No Stranger’ (1998).www.seankeane.com
Van Morrison (first name shortened from ‘Ivan’) is Ireland’s grand old man of rock/R&B who has literally dozens of albums to his credit. A web search will throw up plenty.
Nóirín Ní Riain has a beautiful voice for old Irish and traditional religious and other songs; she has a number of albums including ‘Caoineadh na Maighdine’ sung with the monks of Glenstal Abbey.
Mícheál Ó Suilleabhán – excellent contemporary orchestral composer. Use ‘search’ on the web. Try, for example, ‘Gaiseadh/Flowing’ or ‘Between two worlds’.
Thin Lizzie (with Phil Lynott), 1970s rock band, with whiskey in the jar.
Juliet Turner; an intelligent contemporary singer/songwriter.www.julietturner.com
U2 Nothing compares to U2 as a worldwide rock phenomenon emanating from Ireland, with Bono having a high profile on the world stage. Available everywhere in the known universe.www.u2.com will give you the (official site) works.
Thanks to the Music Library and librarians at the Central Library in Belfast without whose services over the years this would have been a very small selection indeed.
Rob Fairmichael, August 2002.