In Elizabeth Cronin, mid-20th century Irish
music found a perfectly ordinary woman who, for many, embodied what
traditional singing was all about. So much so that Seamus Ennis (piper,
singer, storyteller,collector and broadcaster) referred to her simply
as The Queen of Irish Song.
Born in the village of Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, Bess Cronin (nee Herlihy) was shaped by cultural changes taking place around her. The Gaelic League was prominent in the area, transforming the West Muskerry region of Co. Cork into a center of Irish language revival. This, in turn, encouraged a revival of older Irish language songs, the composition of new ones, and the presence of collectors, whose interest in the region (and later in Bess) would be significant in her career.
English and Irish language singing was in the air in Ballyvourney and in the Herlihy household. Bess came from a solidly middle class family. Her father, John Herlihy, was a school teacher who made enough to employ household servants. Bess first learned songs from her mother, Maighread Tuomey, and the family servants. In her mid-teens she went to live with her father's brother and his wife who, being childless, needed help with the family farm. This later experience enabled her to add new songs (in Irish and English) to her repertoire from the beggars and travelers put up for the night by her uncle.
Bess' first public appearance is reputed to been at the 1899 Feis in Macroom., where she sang two songs in Irish which were much admired for their beauty and the naive simplicity with which they were rendered. But unlike Joe Heaney, her singing career was not capped with prizes, recording contracts, or visiting professorships. Hers was an ordinary life. Even so, it was a life filled with song. Asked by a later interviewer where and when she sang in her youth, Bess replied: I sang here, there and everywhere: at weddings and parties and at home, and milking the cows in the stall, and washing the clothes, and sweeping the house, and stripping the cabbage for the cattle, and sticking [the seed potatoes] abroad in the field, and doing everything Her neighbors, of course, were aware of her talent. Given the interest of collectors and scholars in the region, it was only a matter of time before they met Bess. Beginning in 1947 and progressing through the 1950s, a number of famous collectors beat a path to her door. These included Seamus Ennis, Brian George, Diane Hamilton, Peter Kennedy, Alan Lomax, Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, and Robin Roberts. Her voice was heard regularly on the BBC radio show, As I Roved Out. Although she never produced a commercial recording, her frequent radio appearances, her lovely voice and phrasings, and the breadth of her repertoire won her many fans. If not for her, many older songs would have been forever lost (including the almost-extinct tune to Lord Gregory and On Board the Kangaroo - later recorded by Christie Moore and Planxty.
Although over eighty of her songs are captured on tape, only a few have ever been available to the public (mostly through anthologies, such as the tape of the BBC radio show, As I Roved Out, available through Ossian USA). The most representative sampling of her work is the book entitled The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin (Dublin: Four Courts Press, c2000), edited by her grandson, Daithi O'Cronin. Included with the book are 2 CDs (containing 59 songs and over 2 hours of music). Still, this is only a small portion of the 200+ songs in her repertoire. Although recorded when Bess was well on in years, singing a cappella into a reel-to-reel tape recorder, one can hear the talent that won her fans who still revere her a generation later.
Griffin is best known as the
producer of such popular game shows as Jeopardy and Wheel
of Fortune. In the 1960s he was the host of his own late afternoon
talk show, always on the lookout for new and interesting guests. One
day when he was vacationing in Ireland, he entered O'Donoghue's Pub in
Dublin and was startled to see a familiar face on the wall. That's
my doorman! the celebrity exclaimed in surprise. That,
said the patient publican to the ignorant Yank, is Ireland's
greatest traditional singer! They were both right. Joe Heaney
(October 1, 1919-May 1, 1984) was acknowledged then (and is still so
regarded) as the greatest exponent of Irish sean nos singing, but
unlike Sarah Makem (see below) he had to leave Ireland to receive the
popular recognition that was his due. The first prize winner at the
Dublin Oireachtas in 1942 and again in 1955, musical partner of Willie
Clancy, Seamus Ennis, and Mick Moloney (among many others), and a
recording artist for Gael Linn records, he was a regular participant in
the traditional music scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Although he also was an important musical source for such famous singers as the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners, it was the popularity of the latter that drove him to New York. In her introduction to Joe's Heaney's posthumous recording, The Road From Connemara, Peggy Seeger (Pete's sister, wife of renowned folk singer Ewan MacColl, and an accomplished performer in her own right) recollects the boorish behavior of an ignorant audience. Speaking of an afternoon concert in Dublin, she says: "The line-up was the Dubliners, Peggy Seeger/Ewan MacColl, and Joe Heaney - Half the audience was sleeping drunk. The other half was rowdy drunk. The concert was broken into two halves, and each of the three acts was to appear in each half. Joe, being the 'less well known' was to open. He was booed off by this despicable crowd after the first two lines of his first song. It is to our eternal disgrace that we other artists went on after he was forced off, almost in tears - I am sure the lack of appreciation in Ireland for Joe Heaney at that time was one of the reasons that he emigrated." (quoted from "Joe Heaney: Assorted Memories," by Peggy Seeger, an introductory essay to the Joe Heaney recording, The Road from Connemara (Topic Records, c2000).
If, as the Bible says, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house," Joe was more warmly received in America. In 1965 he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and the following St. Patrick's Day appeared on Merv Griffin's television show. In 1980 he was appointed an adjunct professor in Irish folklore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and was later appointed to a similar position at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was a regular performer at concerts and festivals across the country. Finally, in July 1982 he was presented with the National Heritage Award for Excellence in Folk Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts. Ever a modest man, Joe never took himself or his art too seriously. "Where I come from," he said, "they all sing like that."
Joe Heaney's discography includes:
Never leaving her home town of Keady, Co. Armagh, Sarah
(1900-1985) is proof of the impact the traditional singer can have,
even while remaining inside the community that formed her. Her father,
Tommy Boyle, was a plumber and tinsmith by trade. Her mother was "one
of the Singing Greenes of Keady, a family famous for its music for
generations" (to quote collector Sean O'Boyle), and it was from her
mother that Sarah learned most of her songs. Her house was full of
music and song, which continued when she married Peter Makem.
Together Peter and Sarah had five children, the most famous of whom was her youngest, Tommy Makem. But it was not through her son alone that Sarah made an impact. As a center of the linen industry and a market town for the small farmers around it, Keady was a community in which Irish, Scots and English songs intermingled. Given this rich musical mixture, Sarah in time acquired a repertoire of over 500 songs from the various traditions, which she sang with a fluent and effortless style. Beyond the odd local social event, she never performed in public and yet her reputation preceded her. She came to world attention in 1950 when folk music collectors came to record her for the BBC. One song from that recording session eventually was used as the title song of the 1950s folk music radio program, As I Roved Out, on which she was a regularly featured performer. In 1968 she recorded her only complete album, Ulster Ballad Singer for Topic Records. From that point on she played host to a generation of aspiring traditional singers and folk music scholars who came to visit Keady to learn from her.
Sarah also is responsible for reviving and popularizing a long forgotten traditional song. Through her plaintive rendition, other singers (among them Geordie Hanna, Tommy Makem, and Paddy Tunney) came to know The Month of January. The song tells the story of a young girl who falls in love with a man far above her socially. Betrayed and abandoned by her lover, the young girl and her baby are cast into the cold and snow by her scandalized parents. Through her masterful editing and her flawless rendition of an otherwise maudlin nineteenth century parlor song, she popularised the song, placing it once again within the traditional repertoire.
Tunney was born January
1921 into a family of traditional singers, including his
mother Bridget, and her brother, Michael Gallagher. Paddy was born in
Glasgow and was raised in Pettigo,Co. Donegal. Later moving to Co.
Fermanagh, he joined the Irish Republican Army. His activities with the
IRA led to a four year sentence. For Paddy, as for later
paramilitaries, the sentence allowed time for the serious study of
Irish language and history, deepening his appreciation for the family
repertoire. Upon his release he trained as a health inspector in
Dublin. Throughout his health service career, he had postings in
Donegal, Kerry, Letterkenny, and finally Galway. His constant
travelling introduced him to new songs and styles, which he in turn
Paddy first came to public attention through the influence of Diane Hamilton and Liam Clancy. The latter figure, the youngest of the singing Clancy Brothers, needs no introduction for Americans interested in Irish music. Ms Hamilton (birth name Diane Guggenheim) was a rich young woman interested in traditional folk music. In August 1955 she appeared at the Clancy family's door to record Liam's mother Joan, renowned locally as a traditional singer. Soon Diane and the teenaged Liam Clancy became good friends, travelling across Ireland in search of traditional musicians. Up to this point Liam had been interested only in American rock and roll, but his exposure to traditional giants such as fiddler Dennis Murphy and singer Paddy Tunney struck a chord in the young Irishman that, in his words,"revived some ancient instinct in me". The result of Hamilton's and Clancy's travels was a recording called The Lark in the Morning (Tradition Records, c1956), which witnessed the first recorded appearance of the young Mr. Clancy, Tommy Makem, and Paddy Tunney (among others).
If Paddy was never as financially successful as the Clancy Brothers, perhaps it was due to the fact that (in Paddy's own words) he was "a dedicated hater of pop and cant and shamrockery, a lover of old ways and rare songs and raving poetry." He did, however, enjoy moderate success as a recording artist, producing in all seven albums:
As a dedicated traditional singer, Paddy was not known for creating
new songs, although on occasion he was known to write new verses for
songs that had lost some over time. His primary contribution to
traditional song is that he preserved many songs otherwise headed for
extinction He was known particularly for highly-decorated renditions of
long and serious songs such as Moorloch Mary, Highland
Mary, and the title track from his album Mountain Streams
Where the Moorcocks Crow. He also preserved schoolmaster songs
(like Sheela Nee Eyre), and songs from the Irish mummer
tradition (like Tam Brown, which the Clancy Brothers later
covered as The Card Song). In addition to the Clancys, he was
a source of songs and a model for traditional singers across the world.
Paddy died in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, December 7, 2002, after a short
illness. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed
through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.
Len Graham (1944- ) and Padraigin Ni Uallachain (1950- )
Traditional singers of all stripes owe an immense debt of gratitude to the collectors who went before, preserving songs for generations of singers thereafter. Such is seen in the life of Padraigin Ni Uallachain. Teacher, singer, composer, broadcaster and collector, Padraigin has done it all and fans of traditional singing are the richer for it.
Born in Co. Louth, she was the daughter of Patrick Weldon, a member of one of the first groups ever to be brought to the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) of Rannafast, Co. Donegal. As a school inspector, Padraigín’s father spent considerable time in Counties Donegal, Dublin, Mayo and Monaghan, exposing his daughter to Irish language songs and folklore. In the late 1960s Padraigín studied sean nós singing in Dublin and in 1973 graduated with a degree in Irish Studies from Coleraine University (Co. Antrim). Between 1979 and 1981, she researched and presented a radio series for RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster) entitled Reels of Memory. Shortly thereafter she became the first woman anchor of the RTE Irish language news broadcast. Today she is a teacher in Gaelscoil Dhún Dealgan, an Irish language school in Co. Armagh.
Best known as a sean nos singer, Padraigín’s recordings include A Stór‘s A Stórín (Gael Linn, c1994 -- a collection of Irish language children’s songs), An Dara Craiceann (Gael Linn, c1995), When I was Young (Fonn, c1996 --an album of traditional English language children’s songs, as well as some of her own composition), An Irish Lullaby (Shanachie, c2000) and An Dealg Óir (Gael Linn, c2002), and most recently Ailleacht (Claddagh, c2006), a collection of traditional songs she has written). Some of her compositions have been commissioned for Irish film and television productions.
As if this were not enough, she researched and authored A Hidden Ulster: People, Songs and Traditions of Oriel (Dublin: Four Courts Press, c2003), the first major study of an historic region that today encompasses parts of Counties Armagh, Cavan, Louth and Monaghan. A Hidden Ulster brings together the long-hidden disparate work of many early twentieth-century collectors and recreates the once vibrant song tradition of the region. It includes 54 song texts in Irish, with English language translations and accompanying music, as well as facsimiles of recently located dance-music manuscripts.
Her husband, Len Graham, has held both his wife and the tradition close to his heart for a very long time.
His father was a fiddler, who brought the young Len to gatherings of the County Antrim Fiddlers’ Association (and its counterpart in Derry), where he picked up a broad range of songs. His mother and grandmother sang Irish language songs acquired from the last Irish speakers in the Antrim Gaeltacht. In his teenage years he began wandering throughout Ireland, where he stayed in local youth hostels. There he encountered an even wider representation of the island’s singing traditions. “All I can ever remember was singing,” he is quoted as saying of this period. “They used to gag me with a scout scarf to keep me from singing!”
During this peripatetic period, he also entered numerous feiseanna across the country, coming in second in his very first contest (1966) and winning first prize as the 1971 All-Ireland Male Traditional Singing Champion at the Fleadh Cheoil in Listowel (Co. Kerry). His musical influences include some of the greatest names in the northern singing tradition: Eddie Butcher; Robert Cinnamond; Annie Gallagher; John Maguire; Sarah Anne O’Neill; Paddy Tunney and John Holmes. The latter became his first musical partner, performing together on two albums demonstrating the northern tradition of unison singing. While most of Len’s recordings have been solo efforts, or at most duets with a current partner, beginning in 1986 and continuing for a decade thereafter he toured with the internationally renowned group Skylark, with which he recorded four albums. To date Len has recorded 17 albums, some of them with his wife.
Pádraigín has observed that they fell in love through singing. She heard him singing one of his standards, 'The Ballyronan Maid,’ at a traditional music festival and was instantly smitten. Beginning with their marriage in 1982, they’ve been musical partners ever since, performing and researching Ireland’s rich heritage of traditional songs. Pádraigín has produced many of his recordings, and the two of them collaborated on Pádraigín recent publication, A Hidden Ulster. In addition Len has collected traditional songs in a series of field recordings called Harvest Home, published by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, for which he received the Sean O’Boyle Cultural Traditions Award in 1992. In 2002 he was also presented with the National Music Award as ‘Traditional Singer of the Year’ by Teilifis Gaelige (the nation’s Irish language television channel). Finally, Len and Pádraigín’s joint contributions to the Irish song tradition were honored in 1997 by a special award presented at the Feakle Traditional Singing Festival. Although they now live in Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh, Len and Pádraigín’s songs are known around the world, having been the source for such famous performers as Altan, De Dannnan, the Chieftains, Cherish the Ladies and Andy Irvine (among others). His contributions to traditional singing exceed anything he could have expected growing up in rural Antrim.
Five samples of Len’s singing can be found at the following address:
Those who wish to purchase his recordings can do so at either of the following sites:
©2014 Christopher Brennan. All rights reserved.