Briseann an Dúchas
Cló Iar-Chonnachta CICD 147
If I ever drew up an employment contract for the post of traditional singer, I would have some difficulty formulating a watertight job description. I would need a clause about inherited tradition, obviously, although that seems less important nowadays than it used to be. Also, that clause would be contingent upon various conditions relating to style and delivery, and these would in turn be shot through with ethereal concepts like nyaah and conyach and soul and duende. In other words, the contract would recognise inheritance purely as the starting point. That is because, as a practising pragmatist, I am less concerned with acquisition than with performance. Over and above that, in the kind of society which nurtures healthy folk traditions, it is the singer’s immediate social culture which moulds their outlook, and channels their expressive orientation. Therefore, style is not a random variable. It is a hallmark of genuine tradition.
Having said that, the parameters of traditional style are too varied to establish prescriptive models. Rather, the practised ear comes to identify the idiom by experience and by comparison. One learns to expect a roughness of tone, a free use of rhythm, and perhaps a tendency to play about with the melody. In some parts of the globe we also encounter an elaborate use of ornamentation. As far as Ireland is concerned, however, ornamentation frequently resembles reports of the death of Mark Twain - its existence is grossly exaggerated. We can also expect an emotional involvement; a feeling that, if the singer has not actually been there, they have been somewhere very like it. Maybe, as certain detractors have pointed out, perception of emotion is more in the mind of the listener than in the deliverer. There may be something in that, but if I don’t hear it and it doesn’t move me, then it doesn’t interest me. This record does not move me.
Allow me to explain why. Allow me to critique. Musical Traditions exists to satisfy a particular cadre of readership, and many MT readers will have come into their music by much the same route I took. If you developed an appetite for Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, or for Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie, before seeking spiritual sustenance in Belle Stewart, Harry Cox and Joe Heaney, you may find the present fare decidedly insipid.
Indeed, those who know the ground will concur that the singing on this disc sounds nothing like any traditional singer they ever heard. It does not sound remotely like Sarah Makem or Margaret Barry or Brigid Tunney or Elizabeth Cronin. It does not sound like Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha or Róise Bean Mhic Ghrianna or Máire Ní Cheocáin. That would not necessarily be a cause for condemnation. Béla Bartók, Alfred Deller and The Incredible String Band all took folksongs and transmogrified them into non-folk idioms. Sometimes I have found the results commendable. Sometimes I have not. But there has never been any doubt that the transmogrifications belong to one idiom, while the source material belongs to another. The difference is that Ann Mulqueen comes wrapped in the mantle of a traditional singer. She does so because she has been given the stamp of authority by the worthies of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Among many strands of the Irish musical establishment, Ann Mulqueen is big news indeed. (sound clip - Éiníní)
I do not believe that mantle is justified. Indeed, I contend that the Ann Mulqueen phenomenon is a function of that which historians and folklorists call invented tradition.1 That also appears to apply to her daughters, Odharnait and Sorcha ní Chéilleachair, who share equal billing on this disc. I was unable to locate the word briseann, in my foclóir, except that it is possibly related to a cluster of words meaning to break or discontinue. However, dúchas means native or heritage and is often used to signify authenticity in Irish tradition. I would guess therefore, that the title indicates a continuation of the Irish song tradition within the Mulqueen clan. Family traditions are one thing. However, if the title also implies a continuing validity within the wider world of Irish folksong, then I am afraid I disagree.
As far as any worthies who might purchase the record are concerned, they will find fourteen tracks, all but three of them in Irish. The English songs are all sung by Ann Mulqueen, who also contributes a solo in Gaelic, and joins her daughters in a number of ensemble vocals. If the English songs are too sentimental for my taste, I found some of the Gaelic texts extremely interesting. I was particularly taken with of all things, an aisling in praise of Napoleon! For that matter, I found the solo performances as Gaeilge slightly less nauseous than Mrs Mulqueen’s efforts in English, but that is only a question of degree. In Ann Mulqueen’s case it probably arises because singing in Irish post-dates her reputation as a singer of English language ballads. It is something which came about as the result of her marriage and consequent move to the Waterford Gaeltacht of An Rinne. Ann Mulqueen is originally from Castleconell in Co Limerick. It is an area not noted for great traditional singing, although I do gather that there was some tradition in her family. Her daughters, on the other hand, were born and reared in An Rinne, and presumably qualify as native Gaelic speakers. All three therefore had the opportunity to learn from some of the older singers of the district, including the legendary Nioclás Tóibín. Even so, these performances, Gaeilge, as well as Bearla, are woefully bereft of the touch of the master’s hand.
Several of the songs here are associated with various members of the Tóibín family. One such is Na Connerys, an angry tale of transportation to “the New South Wales”. It has a magisterial tune, absolutely typical of the Tóibín repertoire. Unfortunately, when given the Mulqueen family treatment, the whole motley tale ends up sunk beneath a sea of solo and choral saccharine. If you disagree, listen to this (sound clip - Na Connerys, verse 4). Then go out and buy Cló Iar-Chonnachta CICD 104; Nioclás Tóibín, and hear how the grand master tackled it.
To make things worse, many of the songs have been fitted out with accompaniments as gooey as the singing. That surprises me, for the chief accompanist turns out to be none other than Garry O’Briain. If I have an inbuilt prejudice against fretted instruments, keyboards and percussion, at least as far as Irish music is concerned, I have to admit that Mr O’ Briain turned in some very tasty work with the group, Skylark. It is a pity that he could not have stuck to his guns here. (sound clip - The Wind that Blows o’er the Wild Moor)
So I didn’t like the sounds. What about the package? Well, the booklet is quite attractive. It contains a set of Gaelic texts, together with English translations. There are also notes to the songs, but these are too brief to be of any use whatsoever. This is the one which accompanies The Ambush at Rossmore:
“This song is about an ambush that took place in Rossmore, Co Tipperary. Rossmore is situated between Thurles and Nenagh. I got this ballad from Teddy Barry of Bunmahon, Co Waterford.”Similar examples of disinformation can be found throughout the booklet. By modern standards that is abysmal and inexcusable. It may be unduly harsh of me to expect Ann Mulqueen, or her daughters, to know anything about the songs they sing; although that leaves me wondering why on earth they sing them. Certainly, this apparent lack of knowledge contrasts oddly with Joe Heaney’s expressed need to understand a song’s subject matter before he could sing it.2 Moreover, there is an issue of value for money. This is a full price CD and the purchaser should be able to expect comprehensive and informative booklet notes. If nobody in the Mulqueen family was prepared to look out the historical facts, Cló Iar-Chonnachta should have appointed someone else to do the job.
Let me talk about the translations, and the one good thing I can say about the whole package. Seamus Heaney once observed that there are two ways in which a poem can be translated. One can transpose word for word, thereby ensuring a degree of accuracy sufficient to satisfy the most miserable pedant. The problem with that approach is that, if the pedant is devoid of soul, so too are the translator’s efforts. Alternatively, one can grasp the sense of whatever the poet was on about, and render the life blood of his or her artistry into English or Transylvanian or whatever. To be frank, my knowledge of Gaelic is insufficient to say whether the pedant inside me could have been satisfied, but the poet certainly was. Consider this verse from Inion an Fhaoit’ ón nGleann (White’s Daughter of the Glen), a famous and beautiful song of the Waterford Gaeltacht.
I am full of shame nowWonderful stuff! Punctuation is as it appears in the booklet - which means it could have done with some. Otherwise, the texts are generally magnificent and I extend my compliments to the anonymous translator.
For all the deeds I have carried out
For I was once a daring lad
Until I lost my mind
I’ll not see season nor month out
If you don’t kiss and love me dear'
And leave me lie by your sweet side,
White’s daughter of the glen.
These translations ought to have been the icing on the cake. The fact that they are the only commendable ingredient brings me back to the question I opened with. Why is this singing passed off as authentic Irish tradition? What it reminds me of, and maybe this is why it stuck so deeply in my gullet, are those frightfully upper class vocalists who used to infest the BBC in the days before World War Two; the ones who came trailing clouds of rounded dulcet tones, and singing of doves and nightingales and spring and lilacs. The world these people inhabited bore absolutely no resemblance to the world of terraced houses and tin baths, and dole and means tests, which were the inescapable lot of the British working class. By the same token, the present singing is far too comfortable to bear any relationship to the harsh realities of rural Ireland. It would be instructive to ask why.
I have never heard the two daughters before, and know nothing more about them than is given in the booklet. I propose therefore to restrict my remarks to Ann Mulqueen. Ann Mulqueen goes back a surprisingly long way. The Companion To Irish Traditional Music3 tells us that she won the Senior All Ireland at Thurles, in 1959. The All Ireland was certainly at Thurles that year. Nevertheless, I find the claim difficult to credit, since she would have been about thirteen at the time.4 However, the Companion also tells us that she used to sing in the Bunratty Castle Cabaret, and that I can believe. Moreover, she appears on an LP which Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann published in 1967, and must have been well established in Comhaltas circles by then.5 To some extent therefore, her singing style may be attributable to a general lack of knowledge, as to what constituted traditional singing, in the early days of that organisation. Comhaltas was founded only in 1951, at a time when the Anglo-Irish song tradition was dying out over huge segments of the country. From the beginning, the organisation - whose name means Irish Musicians Association - concentrated its resources on instrumental music. The powers that be were aware of an Anglo-Irish ballad tradition, and I suspect that official attitudes were tempered by the fact that these songs were in the language of the vile oppressor. Even so, they felt that the tradition should be encouraged, although they knew nothing about it and understood even less. In the land which produced Robert Cinnamond, John Reilly, Tom Lenihan, Eddie Butcher, Tom Moran and shoals of singers like them, they thought they were dealing with a ‘highly ornamented’ vocal tradition. At fleadh competitions the highest marks were, and still are, given out for ‘style and ornamentation’.
However, if Comhaltas is responsible for great swathes of flowery ornamentation, that can only be part of the story. As most of the singers of Conamara can testify, masses of ornamentation do not necessarily conflict with the other elements of traditional singing style. However, consider the social atmosphere in Ireland during the early years of Comhaltas. Despite propaganda to the contrary, Comhaltas did not revive a music which was on the verge of extinction. Over large parts of Ireland, including its capitol city, traditional music was in a comparatively healthy state. Among wide sections of the populace, however, it had a very low profile indeed. In the same way that many Black people today regard the blues as an intrinsic consequence of the oppression of the Negro, many Irish people regarded their music as the product of a backward, economically oppressed Ireland. They thought it was ignorant. Comhaltas must take a large share of the credit for reversing that point of view.
Raising the profile of the music was comparatively straightforward. There were plenty of models around to demonstrate what it should sound like, and in what form it should be passed on to future generations. But what do you with a ballad tradition which is downtrodden, undervalued, in the wrong language, and deemed by those who know nothing about it to be ignorant and illiterate?6 The answer, for those who seek assurance via the competition platform, is that you do not sing in a manner which can be considered coarse or backward. You adopt a refined vocal tone, and a mode of delivery, which has more in common with the European drawing room than the Irish potato field. A lot of water has flown under the Carlisle bridge since the early days of Comhaltas and there has been a lot of change, and a lot of it has been for the good. To some extent, this can be attributed to the work of singers like Paddy Tunney, Len Graham and Frank Harte, and to the fact that we know a lot more about traditional singing now than we did then. More crucially, the past four decades have seen a gradual amelioration of the social repression which accompanied the establishment of the Irish Free State. That in turn has led to a marked improvement in the status of women. One effect of this is that a number of women singers have come to the fore, who are not afraid to stand up and tell the world what they feel. I cannot find any grounds for recommending this disc, but I unreservedly draw your attention to singers like Róisín White or Rosie Stewart or Pat Flynn or Rita Gallagher or Carmel Gunning. If there is such a thing as a traditional women's voice of contemporary Ireland, singers such as these are its exemplification.
Fred McCormick - 6.6.01
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