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EMIGRANT SONGS OLD AND NEW
By Mattie Lennon
"Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life; its strength; and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life." Joseph Conrad.
The temperature in Listowel's historic square was one degree above freezing. Inside Saint John's Theatre there was the warmth of friendship, the heat of anticipation and the glow of appreciation.
Storytellers, musicians, radio personalities, an Elvis impersonator straight from the BBC, singers and songwriters entertained a packed house.
A Liverpudlien played reels on the piccolo and an Ulsterman sang about John B.Keane. Saint John's was formerly a Church of Ireland church and Pope could have been writing about the aforementioned assembly when he said;
"As some to Church repair
Not for Doctrine but the music there".
The occasion was the launch of Peggy Sweeney's DVD (her third).
It has been said that Ireland has controlled its population growth by three measures: celibacy, late marriages, and emigration. The first two were facts of life but not featured much in song. Emigration, on the other hand, provided a fertile field for the ballad-writer. Peggy Sweeney's latest DVD "The Emigrant's Letter" draws from a rich harvest of emigration songs.
Homeland In Mayo: Singer/songwriter, Patsy McEvoy from Blessington, Co.Wicklow, has been for many years moved and inspired by the ruined cabins and "famine fields" of rural Ireland. This near obsession has culminated in a sad and moving ballad. The air was composed by Brian Kilcawley.
The Emigrant's Letter: "Defend us from the inspiration of the moment" just doesn't hold water. While Percy French was working as an entertainer on a Cruise-ship he heard one passenger say to another, "They're cuttin' the corn in Creeslough today". He immediately took up his pen to write, "Dear Danny I'm taking the pen in my hand ... "
Freemantle Bay: This song, written by Bill Bomer, tells the story of how, when under the oppressor, a man who stole a trifle to save his family from death by starvation could be banished to the other side of the world.
Dear Old Wexford Town: Historic Wexford is commemorated in this ballad by Father Kavanagh who died in 1918. In it the subject wonders if he will ever be accepted back in the place that he loves.
Famine Years: Octogenarian song-writer Dan Keane can write about any subject from a fresh and original angle. This song (air by Brian Burke) is an example. Written in 1995 it won the New Ballad competition at the All-Ireland Fleadh Ceol in 1996. And who was singing it? ... .You've guessed .Peggy Sweeney. Like most of Dan's songs "Famine Years" ends on a note of optimism:
It's hard indeed dear Motherland
Your anger to restrain
But we've survived those many years
And hope has bloomed again. John Duggan
And to that hope, Oh! holy land
Be evermore resigned,
For the love of God is greater
Than the hate of all mankind.
My Dear Native Town Town of Dunmore: This song was composed by singer, broadcaster raconteur and former Garda John Duggan. John, has penned such favourites a "The Roads of Kildare", The Old Threshing Mill" and "I Fell in Love With Claremorris", as well as a collection of monologues including "Old Ignatius" and "The Greatest Game of All".
On The Banks Of The Foyle: A reminder that lovely Derry is indeed on "Irish soil".
Goodbye Johnny Dear: "Write a letter now and then and send her all you can". A refrain often uttered at a railway station or port when the pain at the departure of an offspring was juxtaposed by the concern for the welfare of " the helpless ones at home". Written by Johnny Patterson ("The Rambler from Clare"); a man better known for his comic songs.
He says, “I now must leave you and cross the ocean wide,
But if ever I return again will you promise to be my bride”?
Sometimes the sadness of parting was tempered with hope. There were times, however, when it had a terrible and definite finality.
I saw an old grey mother as she bade her son goodbye.
The look of care all on her face as the tears rolled from her eyes.
She says, “Goodbye, God bless you,
Will I never see you more?
And you’re leaving me here with a broken heart
By the dear old Shannon shore”.
Outside the Chapel Gates at Cooraclare:
Frank O ‘Brien was held in high esteem in his native Cooraclare. One of the seven children of the local tailor, he immortalised many of the colourful characters of the village and it’s environs, in his poems and songs, as well as playing an active role in the sporting and social life of the village. For many years he worked as a Postman in Cooraclare until, at a fairly advanced age, with his sister Lena, he went to join his siblings in Chicago.
His feelings about his exile are summed up in the final lines of what has become the anthem of Cooraclare people;
But I’m growing old and weary in this land so far away,
But I’ll return to Ireland yet if God will spare,
And when all is done they’ll lay me at the closing of my day,
Inside the chapel gates in Cooraclare.
Things didn’t work out like that. Frank O’Brien died and is buried in Chicago.
The Kerry Coast: You didn't think she would record an album and leave out the Kingdom, did you?
Sliabh Gallion Braes: Another man tells the story of how because of rents and rates and taxes which he could no longer pay he was forced to flee from the land that he loved.
Skibbereen: Hunger, eviction and oppression could not break the Irish. " ... Father dear the day will come when in answer to the call Each Irishman with feelings stern will rally one and all ... "
The Rose of Mooncoin: This Kilkenny anthem has been recorded many times, but not like this.
Spancil Hill: No matter what part of the world I am awoken by the sound of a vehicle in the first few seconds of wakefulness I am transported. As far as I am concerned it is a Thames van chugging up the Lodge Lane in the 1950's. If you've had a similar experience you can understand what it's like to come to your senses and wake up, " ... in California, many mile from Spancil Hill."
The Shores of Americay: "It's not for the want of employment I'm going, o'er the dreary and stormy sayä.." Love as well as hardship caused people to leave these shores.
Limerick Vales: Denis Barron, exiled in Birmingham, has given us this moving ballad of his homeland.
Lovely Deise: Of course you all know why Waterford is known as the Deise. That's right. About a millennium and a half ago a tribe called the Deise were driven from Tara and they conquered the area now known as Waterford (a Glenmore man has assured me that they are not going to conquer any of Kilkenny) and it was originally known as the Deise. I knew you'd know that. Dan Savage (nicknamed "Cnoc Dubh" ) wrote this beautiful song.
Pat's Tracks camera crew filmed, on location, for each song featured. Every syllable is accompanied by appropriate footage. The viewer is taken from the swaying deck of the Jeannie Johnston, in Waterford harbour, to Doe Castle in Donegal. The town of Dunmore is shown in all its glory and the Scelligs rock (the last sight of Irish soil for many a departing exile) rises majestically from the surf in virtual reality. The poignant story of anni Moore, the first of 12 million immigrants to land on Ellis Island on January 01st 1892,is told through images and captions.
"An Emigrant's Letter" is available from:
Price; €20 (Including P&P)
You can write to Peggy Sweeney at;
|Review written by: Mattie Lennon -- firstname.lastname@example.org|