Football, hunting and other traditional songs from around Lough Erne's shore
Musical Traditions MTCD329-0
In his introduction to this collection of songs from South Ulster Keith Summers remarks: ‘In the mid 70’s, Fermanagh was not the safest place to be in the British Isles.’ I do not know whether this is intended irony or one of the greatest understatements ever made. It is certainly not a description I would have applied in my limited familiarity with the area which he traversed from 1977 to 1983, working as an accountant for a picture framing company. I was interrupted in doing some work around there on one occasion some years previously by the massacre of some people attending a service in a church hall. On another occasion I arrived at a scene near Rosslea where, shortly before, two British soldiers had walked on a claymore mine buried beneath the road. There was not a lot left of them. I hightailed it back across the border to Clones because I did not fancy trying to convince nervous members of the Royal Irish Constabulary or the British Army in my Dublin accent that all I was doing in the area was collecting songs for the Government of the Free State. Well, would you have believed me?
Later on he tells us: ‘When it was discovered back at head office (in Southend) that I had been out in some of the most dangerous countryside in these islands, alone, recording in pubs, the reaction, I have to say, was not good.’ I can’t imagine why they were so unreasonable. Maybe they were aware (and Keith had surely heard) of Robert Nairac who disappeared from the Three Steps Bar in Dromintee, not a thousand miles away, in 1977. He was thought to be working under cover for British intelligence. His cover included singing rebel songs and recounting his deep interest in Irish traditional music. He was never found, but it is generally believed that he was processed through the mincer of a dog-food plant in Dundalk.
I also recall the nervousness I felt when I was stopped at a random checkpoint on a lonely rural road by two uniformed Gardai on border duty. I explained what I was doing in the area. When they finally believed me they did a most remarkable thing: they said they knew a singer, but he lived on the Northern side of the border. I asked for directions, but they assured me that I would never be able to find the house. So they took their Stop! sign from the centre of the road, hid it in a ditch, and got into my car. With their guidance I soon found the house and we all went in, were welcomed, and given tea. I did not prolong this initial visit as I was aware that driving in another jurisdiction with the uniformed representatives of a foreign force could cost my over-obliging friends their jobs, their lives, or create a bloody diplomatic incident. But then, we devoted collectors are totally selfless. I offer as proof of my martyrdom the recollection of the time I was working across the border, but staying in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan. The friendly folk in whose B&B house I was staying suggested I go with them to the opening of a new pub in town that night. I agreed and we walked down the town following a crowd of people all heading for The Log Cabin. I should have seen the danger. Certainly the alarm bells started ringing in my mind as soon as I saw that the highlight of the décor were walls covered in plastic logs. Then, to my horror, we were given a night’s entertainment by the man I discovered to be the new proprietor of the pub and his band, Big Tom and the Mainliners! Had the SAS arrived I would have been ready to confess to anything after five minutes.
These are the type of dangers which surrounded Keith Summers when he undertook his work. Maybe he was foolhardy. Whether he was or not, we certainly have reason to be grateful that he did the work, for if one was to approach the same area today, it is doubtful if the quantity and quality of song here given as an integral part of everyday social life is currently to be found. That seems to be the feeling of Keith’s friend who still lives in the area, Michael Hicks of Maguiresbridge, in his contribution to the notes for the CD, and he was writing as recently as March 2004. Nevertheless there are still some fine practitioners of traditional singing active today. Two of the better known singers from the area nowadays would be Cathal McConnell and Rosie Stewart. The latter’s father, Packie McKeaney, is in fact featured in this collection.
Using common sense and an obvious ability to integrate and convince the people he met of his interest in the songlore of the area, Summers seems to have been accepted into the pubs and hearths of his newfound work area. Certainly a map would have been a helpful addition to those not familiar with the region encompassed. Roughly speaking, it is South Fermanagh, running along the Cavan border. Fortunately its importance as a wonderful area for song with a great deal of rural lore has been documented in some depth in such studies as Robin Morton’s study of John Maguire, Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday1 and Henry Glassie's superlative Passing the Time in Ballymenone2.
It was Summers’ familiarity with the wonderful singing of The Auld Beggarman by Maggie and Sarah Chambers which had appeared on the LP series The Folksongs of Britain3 which first motivated him to go searching for the source. (Well, sort of, for he relates that he actually went looking for a pub with a TV so that he could watch a football match and when he found himself in Tempo, he recalled that this was the village where the recording was made.) It was not without some difficulty he located her, for she was now Maggie Murphy and Sarah was deceased. When he did find her and expressed his admiration for her recording he discovered that it was news to her, for it seemed that nice Mr Kennedy had omitted to inform her that the LP had ever been published. (Fill in your own comment!) Maggie agreed to sing in exchange for a lift to the local bingo hall. He adds: ‘This pleasant arrangement was to become a regular routine over the years.’
It was an auspicious beginning for his Irish collecting, with echoes of the events in the vicarage garden in Hambridge in 1903. I have always thought how very appropriate that Sharp should achieve his apotheosis by being inspired by the singing of a man named John England. There is something similarly apposite in Summers induction into singing in Ireland on meeting Maggie Murphy in Rose Cottage in a village named Tempo. You couldn't make up a scene like that!
Maggie is still singing like a linnet and is the core of many sessions throughout Ulster and further afield, if she can be persuaded to travel. Outside of her magnificent singing and her formidable (and most definitely eclectic) repertoire there is another factor which is captured well in these recordings; her sheer good humour. Though a tiny woman, she has the power to light up a room when she enters it4. There can be no doubt that Summers’ affiliation with Maggie acted as an entrée to other practitioners in the local fellowship of song. Actually, not a great deal of the recordings were made by Keith on his own, as he preferred to travel with the people who knew the singers already. This process not only saves time, it also helps to put the singers at their ease. This is obviously helpful in a place and at a time where strangers are understandably viewed with apprehension until their bona fides have been verified. In his notes to the songs he always lists the presence of those with local knowledge, such as Jenny and Michael Hicks, James Halpin, etc., and credits them as co-collectors. This good-mannered recognition of help given is altogether far too rare among collectors nowadays.
Such acknowledgement of help received is indicative of a mindset which is more likely to consider the singers as individuals rather than merely as conduits of a musical tradition. This attitude in turn helps the collector to integrate with the people s/he is working with and without which s/he is unlikely to penetrate beyond the most superficial levels. Almost everywhere throughout The Hardy Sons of Dan one has the feeling of relaxed intimacy which Summers has achieved with his informants. This is not to say that each singer’s rendition of their songs here are, in all cases, the best they have ever done, but they are far more likely to represent the traditional norm than those recorded in the sterile atmosphere of a studio.
What we have here are field recordings made on a portable reel to reel Uher. They are done in homes, bars, or wherever the opportunity arose. If you choose to record in the field, you gain authenticity of location and ambience, but to a large degree you lose control of the finer points of recording. Birdsong and grandfather clocks may be all very well, but barking dogs, crying children, drunks and passing tractors add little to a recording you may want to listen to repeatedly. The advantages and disadvantages are evident throughout both CDs, and I for one can empathise with the exasperation implicit in his recollection that the decision to record James McDermott in a pub rather than at home as his children showed precious little interest in his singing. Another time when the pub chosen for recording proved too noisy he decided to set up in a nearby tin hut - at which several young lads from the town decided to throw stones. The resulting horrendous racket he remarks (with the same unbelievable level of understatement): ‘caused some consternation among the singers!’
Although the CD’s subtitle tells us that it is a collection of ‘Football, hunting and other traditional songs from around Lough Erne’s shore’ they in fact take up less than a sixth of the thirty seven songs featured, including the eponymous song about a football match played in 1889 and sung charmingly by Red Mick McDermott. Such songs are usually of very local interest and are a badge of local identity and association can often be extremely tedious to those not familiar with the dramatis personae. For some reason songs on hunting seem to travel a little better. For no particular reason that I can discern there are two versions of The Huntsman’s Horn, one sung by Big John Maguire and the other by James and Paddy Halpin. The latter duo is described by Summers as Fermanagh’s answer to Steptoe and son . Whereas Maguire’s version makes good listening, the Halpin recording is boozy and noisy and does them or the CD little service. It is no good telling the listener “You had to have been there.” Here, and in a couple of other instances, it came to my mind that, though Summers disclaims any great knowledge of traditional singing in Ireland, his taste is generally good. Unfortunately those on whom he relied for ‘invaluable critical judgement’ have not always been as dependable. This is not a minor point when one considers that Summers states that ‘it was never my intention for these recordings to be made available to the public, commercially or otherwise.’ So, to be fair to all the singers, a few dodgy tracks could have been dropped and still have left a more than adequate quantity of good singing on the compilation.
And good singing there is aplenty in the style(s) of the area which favour fairly strong rhythmical lines with a comparatively minimalist use of melasmatic ornamentation. As well as local effusions, the older songs from the broadside presses from both sides of the Irish sea dominate the collection. Songs of murder and love abound, side by side with those praising the locality, and others describing the grief engendered when forced emigration caused the sons and daughters of the area to leave their homes behind. Surprisingly, as Summers notes, there is a dearth of comic songs. He also points out that ‘What I recorded was what was sung for me. I made very few suggestions and basically left it up to them.’ Odd then that so few comic songs came to the surface, particularly as the pub and jovial company was the setting for so many of the recordings. More predictable, given that the recorder was an Englishman and a stranger, is the scarcity of political (or as he calls them, Republican ) songs. He tells us: ‘Now, it's interesting that when I did not have the tape-recorder with me but singing took place, these types of songs were very common amongst the local singers. However, when I was recording, whether it was out of deference to myself or to Jenny, (Hicks, also English) these were very seldom sung.’
Among the tracks which I enjoyed greatly was James Halpin’s contemplative but maledictive lament for the plight of the farm worker Bad Luck Attend the Old Farmer (sound clip). Big John Maguire, contributes many fine songs, and we are told he was so named to distinguish him from his neighbour, John Maguire, the subject of Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday. I particularly liked the way he paces and maintains the tension in the drowning song, Lough Ooney which, not surprisingly, was also in the repertoire of his neighbour. Big John also sings The Town I Loved So Well. (I hope the writer, Phil Coulter, is getting his royalties, for it surely would be an awful thing if he was ripped off.) Mary Ann Connolly has a lovely relaxed lyrical style which give a pleasant Lurgan Stream (sound clip, right), and practically anything that Maggie Murphy does is a joy (sound clip, left - Molly Bawn). And this includes The Wild Side of Life (Honkey Tonk Angels). No, I don’t include it among the aforementioned dodgy tracks. Yes, I know it is not a traditional song, but I feel Maggie would be happy with the recording, and it fulfils a purpose in that it helps to fill in a more complete cross section of the time window which Summers has allowed us to look through. It would be tedious to go through all 37 tracks, for, allowing for the caveat entered above, most are well worth the listening. I make no claim that it is the best track in the collection, but the song I have listened to more often than any other is Packie McKeaney’s Bonny Wood Green (sound clip). You will probably find your own favourite track, and maybe even learn to sing it.
Finally, the booklet is informative and witty, and mirabile dictu, the transcription of the texts is accurate to a degree which could well be emulated by those producing such booklets in the future. There’s plenty more, and I’ve made a lot more notes, but I’d better conclude with one final comment: I did not know Keith Summers, and word of his death reached me after I had received The Hardy Sons of Dan for review. The sad news has not made me alter my comments in any way, for I consider it only fair to him, and to those who would buy the CDs, that the review remains objective. The faults I have perceived are piffling in the overall scheme of things. All in all, this production has enhanced the corpus of available folksong from the Ulster tradition and will enrich those who listen to it from wherever they hail. Not a bad legacy. Thank you, Mr Summers. That you may be finding more song wherever you are.
Tom Munnelly - 15.4.04
 Robin Morton, Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1973. It is a crying shame that the accompanying LP of the same name (Leader LEE 4062) has never been re-released on CD. Are we to assume that this is part of the hoard that Mr Bulmer continues to sit on?
 Henry Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Folklore and History of an Ulster Community, The O’Brien Press, Dublin, 1982.
 Caedmon TC 1146 / Topic 12T161
 For a CD devoted to Maggie's singing see John Howson's Veteran VT 134 CD Linkin' o'er the Lea.