One Song Leads to Another

By Séamus Mac Mathúna

My love affair with traditional singing began just over fifty years ago in 1950, when at my aunt’s house in Leitrim (Cree) in West Clare I first heard Joe Cooney singing his many songs in his lovely old style. I was a ‘garsún’ of eleven years of age at the time and already had a few favourite songs, which I regularly sang when going on the ‘wren’ or at informal sessions at home.

Of these, that splendid song ‘The Valley of Knockanure’ with its story of three young Kerrymen slain in the war of independence was my pride and joy. It is still one of my favourites. But Joe Cooneys’ singing had a special quality, a special sound; there was a lively lilt to his humorous songs and a sense of feeling to the serious ones. It was several years later before I heard this peculiar quality being referred to as the ‘nyéa’ but whatever it was I had heard it and I was hooked.

Joe had a fine selection of songs, any or all or which he was prepared to sing for anyone who wished to hear. In those pre-television and, indeed largely pre-radio times, a night of singing was a very attractive idea, so my brother Martin and I, aided and abetted by several friends and neighbours, conspired to make Joe’s weekly visit to our house a night of singing with Joe contributing the greater part of the songs each night.

It was from Joe Cooney I learned ‘Fare thee well lovely Mary’, ‘The Guilty Fisherman’, ‘The Fairy Child’, ‘The Manchester Martyrs’, (It was in November I well remember), ‘The Tanyard Side’, ‘The sons of an Irishman’s Home’, ‘The Day that I met with my Darling’, and of course Paddy MacTigue’s ‘Beef’ and several others. Within a short time I was singing several of Joe’s songs as close to Joe’s style as I could manage.

During those years (the early fifties) the Lenten season was a time of year when local or visiting groups put on shows in the local school or hall. The night’s entertainment would include a play, some traditional music and some songs.

It was at these concerts that I heard such songs as ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’, ‘The Flower of Sweet Strabane’, ‘Lovely Old Milltown’, ‘The Lonely Woods of Upton’, and that hilarious ditty ‘The Digs in Birmingham’.

Hearing and taking a fancy to a song was one thing but getting the words and tune often entailed months or even years of waiting, enquiry and pursuit until the song was committed to memory. Those were the days when radios were still a rarity and the tape recorder was still a few years down the road.

The mid-fifties saw a few notable developments; the arrival of rural electrification in my native parish of Cooraclare meant that just about every house could suddenly boast a radio. This gave us access to programmes such as Ciarán Mac Mathúna’s ‘Job of Journeywork’ and, of particular interest to singer, ‘The Ballad Maker’s Saturday Night’. The ballad programme was researched by the wonderful Bryan McMahon of Listowel and is still fondly remembered by thousands who tuned in faithfully each Saturday night.

It was on this programme that I first heard Seán Ó Síocháin sing his monumental version of ‘When the Boys of Barr na Sráide went Hunting for the Wren’.

The town it climbs the mountain and looks upon the sea, And waking time or sleeping ‘tis there I long to be To roam again those kindly streets the place my life began With the boys of Barr na Sráide, who hunted for the Wren.

Hunting for the Wren remains to this day one of my favourite songs, a song that seldom fails to move an audience, when sung with the feeling and passion it deserves.

Meanwhile, the work of Comhaltas was going ahead throughout the land and we heard, on radio, the songs of Angela Mulkere of Crusheen and Margaret O’Reilly of Cavan as recorded by Ciarán Mac Mathúna at those early Fleadhanna.

Then in 1956 the Fleadh came to Ennis and Robbie McMahon of Spancilhill, having seen and enjoyed it all, penned and sang his great song of ‘The Fleadh down in Ennis’. His verses captured magical moments, which are re-lived again whenever we hear the song:

Mrs Crotty she came all the way from Kilrush She took a high note for ‘The Bird on the Bush’ She played all the day and she never did blush Twas ‘good girl yourself Mrs Crotty’ From Galway they came every man and his wife With Eddie Moloney who played on the fife And young Kieran Collins would make the dead rise When he played us ‘The Lark in the Morning’.

I took up employment in Ennis in 1957 and soon encountered the same Robbie, from whom I quickly learned songs such as ‘Caroline of Edinburgh Town’, ‘The Martyrs of Killaloe’ and of course Robbie’s version of ‘Spancilhill’, beside which version (eleven verses sung at a lility lively pace) all other versions pale to insignificance. He had a hundred more; including many he had composed to celebrate weddings, hooleys, hurling matches and so on.

It was about this time too that I encountered the bard of Kilmihil, Paddy Breen who could encompass singing, lilting, flute playing and whistle playing in one four-minute solo performance. From him I learned the ‘Cliffs of Dooneen’ and ‘Farewell to Lissycasey’. Paddy’s irrepressible enthusiasm for song, gaeity and music endeared him to traditional fans wherever he went and his tragic death in London in December 1972 was felt as a grievous personal loss by thousands in London and Clare and elsewhere.

From another very lovable character Micky Hanrahan of Kilmaley, a founder member of Comhaltas in Clare, I got ‘After Aughrim’s Great Disaster’ which still remains one of my firm favourites more than forty years later.

Before I leave the singers of Clare I would like to recall one monumental singing session at the Fleadh Nua in Ennis in the mid-seventies. Amongst those who took part were Tom Lenihan and Mike Flynn of Miltown Malbay, Michael Flanagan of Inagh, Siney Crotty from Kilbaha and inevitably Robbie McMahon.

All were in great form and what was to have been a two-hour workshop became a five-hour plus ‘tour-de-force’.

But to return to those earlier years. As we inched our way into the ’60s I was beginning to meet and fraternise with other great figures of the traditional scene.

On occasional weekend visits to Dublin I would inevitably take in the Pipers’ Club session at 14 Thomas Street where I met and heard singers such as Frank Mulcahy, Jim Christle, Mick McGuane of Kilmihil, Joan Murphy of Kerry, Séamus Ó Dufaigh of Mayo, Sarah and Rita Keane of Caherlistrane and the man of songs himself, the incredible Paddy Tunney, from whom singers of my generation and indeed younger singers also have learned such splendid songs as ‘The Mountain Streams where the Moorcocks Crow’, ‘The Green Fields of Canada’, ‘Moorlough Mary’, ‘Craigue Hill’, ‘Easter Snow’, ‘Lough Erne Shore’, and many other songs.

There were exciting times ahead, great singers to be met and songs to be learned. The great ballad boom of the sixties was to come and go. Peerless troubadours such as Paddy Berry, Peter Nolan, Frank Harte, John Connell, Josie McDermott, Siney Crotty, Sarah Anne O’Neill, Seán Mac Donncha, John Kennedy, Geordie Hanna, singers who in the immortal works of geordie ‘shook the ground they walked on’, were all out there waiting to be heard.

A whole new generation of singers, including Cathal McConnell, Len Graham, Anne Mulqueen, Rita Gallagher, Garry McMahon, Nora Butler, Kevin Mitchell, Pauline Hanley and so forth were already on their way to swell the ranks of the singing fraternity. Within a short time also the spell of ‘sean nós’ singing was to entice me to seek out the treasures of our older Gaelic Heritage.

But that first decade of traditional song still brings back wonderful memories more than forty years on.