Voice of the People - Volume 4

Farewell my own dear native land -
songs of exile and emigration

Topic TSCD 654

cover 'The landlords and their agents, the bailiffs and their beagles -
The land of our forefathers we're forced for to give o'er.'

from Craigie Hill, sung by Paddy Tunney.

It is to be expected that the Irish dominate this CD.  If the Irish had the lion's share of emigration songs, they also had the lion's share of emigration.  Statistics tend to be unreliable and hard to come by and even harder to interpret.  However, John Moulden's book, Thousands are Sailing, quotes an estimate of some seven million Irish emigrants for the entire nineteenth century.  To put that that figure into a more meaningful shape; immediately prior to the great famine a combination of social custom and agrarian practice had pushed the Irish population to an all time record level of around eight and a half million.  Despite high population maintenance, the numbers resident in Ireland had dropped to half that figure by the time the century had run its course.  Emigration was not the only cause of the decline, but neither was famine the only cause of emigration.  The miseries of rack renting and absentee landlordism and heartless land agents and forced evictions were perennial and deleterious.  As motives for emigrating, they are both formal and formidable.  What we cannot estimate is the part which substantive reasons might have played.  If economic factors were the primary cause, what about the lure of bright lights and city life?  How much desire was there to escape from claustrophobic kin and communal ties?  Whilst asking such questions, we may also query how much this disc reinforces impressions that the Irish were virtually alone in being forced from their homeland?

In fact there are only two examples of what I would regard as archetypal emigrant songs.  That is, the sort which rehearse the reasons for emigrating and/or the feelings of the emigrant at being torn from his or her native soil.  Of the rest, there are several songs of sundered lovers, one or two where the hero flees the wrath of his girlfriend's parents, and another where the lovesick young man escapes the memory of an unrequited love.  There are a couple of songs of returned Yanks, a Fenian recruiting ballad, a song where the heroine dies in exile, and a seasonal migration or tattie howking song.  There is also a strange offering from Margaret Barry, Eileen McMahon, which turns out to be a recasting of the aisling, Erin's Green Shore.  I had occasion to comment on this song recently, and the frequency with which it turns up in the Southern States of the USA.  As exemplar of the Confederate spirit, as political ballad, or as music hall ditty - The McNulty Family and Packie Dolan both made 78 rpm recordings of it - this must be one of the most adaptable perennials ever to come off a broadside press.  In any event, the song selection chosen here suggests that there was much more to the rationale of the emigrant than purely economic factors.  That is probably true, but we should be wary of reading such a small selection as a literal record.  For instance, the Irish were transported from their land in droves, yet the disc contains no Irish transportation ballads.

Even those two straightforward emigration songs are very different in character and tell us a lot about the ambivalence of feeling which must have surrounded emigration.  Margaret Barry's Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land tells a simple tale of sorrow and regret and was obviously written with the pain of separation uppermost in the poet's mind.  Paddy Tunney's Green Fields of Canada, on the other hand, is upbeat and optimistic.  The song is a great favourite in Irish singing circles and I wish that those who turn it into a dirge would listen more closely to the words, and to the way Tunney sings it.  There is regret certainly, and it may help us to understand the tangle of emotions if we note that the present version is but a fragment of the original ballad.  The broadside texts contain verses which express considerable anger and bitterness at the appalling treatment of the Irish people;

I'm sorry to think on the state of old Erin.
I'm sorry her farmers and tradesmen to view.
The one heavy burdened with tithes and with taxes,
The other oft times without stocking or shoe.
My heart bleeds for them who their fate cannot better,
Who from hardship and poverty can't get away.
But I speak to each man that has nought to detain him.
My curse I would leave unto him that would stay.
Tunney's narrative is considerably stripped down and dwells far more on the positive aspects of emigration than it does on taxes and tithes and cruel landlords.  Yet for all its outgoing evocation, play Sound Clipand the brave face which the fortune seeker shows to the world, there is a strong undercurrent of sadness.  I vividly recall Ewan MacColl's words about Tunney's singing of this song; "not daring to look back for fear his heart would break".  (sound clip)

The exiles of Erin are augmented by a couple of musicians in the forms of Michael Coleman and Michael Grogan.  Both appear on the grounds that their selections include titles with emigration connotations.  It has been observed by many, myself included, that Irish tune titles are largely fortuitous and seldom contain any reflection of melodic content.  That may be so, but quite a number of titles act like a map of Irish social history, recalling the names of political happenings, or rollicking bucks, or fairs, or emigration.  It is likely that they stuck with people precisely because they struck a chord in the collective conscience.  I do not doubt that Farewell to Ireland, the first tune of Michael Coleman's selection, struck a chord with its player.  His emigration to New York in 1914 was not the first time he had bid farewell to Ireland, for he spent some time in Northern England before making the Atlantic crossing.  However, whether through choice or circumstance, New York became his home for the rest of his life.  He never saw his native country again.

This track, made in 1921, almost at the start of Coleman's recording career, is a superlative example of the arts of playing and remastering.  True, it shows the limitations of the acoustical recording process which was then in use and it shows the frailty of the shellac records on which the music was issued.  Also, I presume that Coleman was not playing a fiddle, but a Stroh Viol, a violin neck with a brass horn fastened on top.  The Stroh violin was favoured by recording studios because its loud volume cut a much deeper groove than did a fiddle.  However, the harsh sound destroyed whatever remnant of the fiddle's tone the recording engineers might have been able to pick up.  Yet, even with these restrictions, we have a wonderful example of sound restoration.  The tone is bright and clear as can be expected, with the fiddle projected well forward, and background noise is at an absolute minimum.  As testament to the sound quality of this entire series, try comparing Harry Bradshaw's remastering of the same piece.  It appears on the centennial compilation, Michael Coleman 1891 - 1945, Gael Linn CEFCD 161.  I have no wish to denigrate the earlier issue.  play Sound ClipBradshaw's work with the Coleman legacy is an achievement of the first magnitude, but the present remastering is in a league of its own.  And the record fairly rockets along.  (sound clip)

Incidentally, I keep finding irritating spelling mistakes in these booklets, Altringham instead of Altrincham for instance, and Derrydonnelly instead of Derrygonnelly.  We may have another one here.  Harry Bradshaw's booklet notes to the Coleman compilation, in quoting Reg Hall, gives Blind Tom Healy from Grayfort as "the fountain-head of all Sligo music".  Reg Hall's notes to this disc however, give the progenitor as blind Tom Haley of Greyfort.  I know not which is right, or whether the inconsistency should be laid at the door of Gael Linn or Topic Records.

Michael Grogan is a much less remembered name than Michael Coleman.  To some extent that may be because he never went to America.  All the same he broadcasted from time to time and made a fair number records.  Moreover, so Reg's notes tell us, he was in his day regarded as a major influence among younger accordeon players.  A pity that his influence does not seem to have endured.  If I found the vamping chords somewhat monotonous, his solid rhythm and unconvoluted fingering make him far preferable to some modern players of the instrument.

There are four English singers on this disc, but only three English songs, Mary Ann Haynes' contribution being the famous Erin's Lovely Homes.  They are even less of a representative sample than the Irish selection, but it is significant that all three deal with transportation, rather than emigration.  Of these, one concerns a young sailor who is sold as a transport by an outraged father, while another relates to a highwayman who is shipped to Australia for his crimes.  Surprisingly enough, only one of these songs concerns the much more common transportation crime of poaching.  play Sound ClipThis is the celebrated Van Dieman's Land, sung by the estimable Walter Pardon.  Whatever circumstances may be responsible for such a slender representation of the English, I am glad at least that Walter Pardon is among the company.  (sound clip)  Incidentally, I find Reg Hall's comment that highway robbers "might not have evoked much sympathy among country singers" rather curious.  We are dealing with an age where the Gentry robbed huge numbers of their fellow human beings of what little liberty they possessed.  They shipped them abroad in the harshest of conditions, for the most trivial of crimes, and with scant regard for morality or justice.  If those same gentry could not travel abroad for fear of themselves being robbed, might country singers not have regarded it as poetic justice?

I have before now puzzled over the reasons why English songs dealing with emigration somewhat resemble the hen's non-existent teeth.  I have come to no firm conclusions, but offer the following ideas to fellow cogitators.  First of all, I don't think we are dealing with a simple matter of statistics.  If it were, the numbers of English emigration songs would be a straight proportion of the numbers of people who left England, compared with those who left Ireland.  As with figures for Irish emigration, those relating to English expatriation are unreliable and difficult to come by and may not lend themselves to making the sort of analysis we are looking for.  That is to say, Irish emigrants derived largely from the rural populace, and Irish emigration was an ongoing phenomenon of the nineteenth century.  I could be completely off beam here, but I have the feeling that many English emigrants were from urban backgrounds, and may have left so late in the century that songmakers and broadside presses had virtually creaked to a halt.  Also, we should consider the psychological impressions which emigration causes.  A trickle of emigrants may scarcely occasion a ballad writer's attention.  A flood of emigrants could well create the feeling that the whole country is deserting the ark, and produce a similar flood of ballads.  However, even with these reservations in mind, the passing of the New Poor Law in 1834 resulted in a burgeoning of assisted passage schemes among the English, similar to those which were applied in Ireland, and with the same intention.  They were a mechanism for reducing the numbers of paupers and thus reducing the burden of the poor rates.  It is from such a class of paupers that we might have expected songs of emigration to emanate, if they were going to emanate from anywhere.

If demographics and class and statistics cannot provide satisfactory answers, what other factors should we look for?  England is, and was then, a more individualistic society than Ireland and logic suggests that it was the individualistic elements who left.  Irish emigration songs often speak with longing and regret about the tearing of family and communal ties and about leaving the land behind and much less do they mention the opportunities to be exploited in the New World.  In other words they reverse the very feelings which English emigrants might have expressed.  At the root of this lies the differing economic structures of England and Ireland.  The term peasant has acquired pejorative connotations and many Irish people are understandably averse to being labelled as such.  Nevertheless, by any workable definition that I know of, the nineteenth century Irish rural economy was to a very large extent, peasant based.  That is to say, it consisted primarily of people who produced for need rather than profit, who tenanted the land which they worked and to which they had formal rights of occupation, even though they did not own that land and paid rent to a proprietor.  In peasant societies land is an immensely important commodity.  It is the sole source of sustenance and well being.  It is the unifying factor around which family ties are built and it is the basis of communal connections and reciprocal obligations.  Because of these factors, peasants attach enormous sentiment to their land and they do not like to leave it.  The English rural labourer, on the other hand, does not fit the definition of a peasant.  He worked for a wage, and the land which earned him that wage he neither owned nor occupied.  He had no vested interest in it and therefore had fewer ties of sentiment.  His family was not organised around landholdings, neither were his ties to the community.  For an Englishman to leave the land of his forefathers, therefore was, in all probability, nothing like as great a wrench as it would have been for his Irish counterpart.

Yet the English were tied to the land in a different way.  It will help us to understand how if we isolate a common feature of nineteenth century Irish life, and one which emigration songs make much of; being forced off the land by grasping rapacious landlords, and foreign landlords at that.  English poaching and transportation songs say something very similar, although in a less articulated, and possibly a less politically conscious way.  It is a long while since I studied any economic history and I cannot claim to be abreast of current thinking.  At that time the jury was out concerning the effects, on lower class living standards, of the enclosure of common land.  I doubt that it has returned.  My feeling is that whatever long term benefits enclosure may have produced - lower food prices, improved employment opportunities or whatever - forcing the labouring poor off the common lands must have placed them at a severe economic disadvantage.  The labouring poor were dependent on the commons for a substantial part of their well being.  They grazed them, they grew crops on them and they foraged them for game.  Termination of this element of their economy would have impacted badly on living standards, just as the operation of rack rent did in Ireland.  Small wonder then if poaching became both a necessary part of sustenance, and a symbol of defiance.  The Irish do not have a huge number of poaching songs, that is because enclosure was never the problem in Ireland that it became in England.  Instead their miseries were expressed mainly in anti landlord ballads and emigration songs.  The miseries of English lower class oppression, meanwhile, were vented through songs about poaching and transportation.

If the English are underrepresented on this disc, the Scots are even more so.  There are in fact just two Scottish items; Leaving St Kilda, from Pipe Major Willie Ross, and You Boys of Callieburn from Willie Scott.  The former is a slow air memorializing the evacuation of that island in 1930.  I wonder, if I had not seen the title, whether I'd have heard quite so much of the Atlantic's roar and screaming seagulls in the cadence of notes.  Willie Scott's performances were a byword for quiet, measured dignity and that is just the way of it here.  The words of the song do not impress me, for on the page they look pure doggerel.  All I can say is that the singing utterly transcends the material and I found it quite the most moving piece on the entire disc.  I was unable to locate Callieburn on the map, but the text places it near to Machrihanish on the Kintyre peninsula.  There is a preponderance of Gaelic place names around that area, leading me to think that Gaelic must have been a living language there until fairly recently.  If so, I'm wondering whether this song might be a not very skillful translation from that language.  I am also wondering - my linguistic abilities being so painfully slender - play Sound Clipwhether Machrihanish might be an Anglicised form of Scots for a desolate plain.  If so, the nature of the terrain and the difficulties of exacting a living would be eminently understandable reasons for leaving.  (sound clip)

I suspect that this volume will eventually be my favourite of the entire series.  If the line up of performers held few surprises, there were even fewer disappointments.  I was delighted to hear Paddy Tunney's Craigie Hill again after all these years.  It is an extremely well crafted song and the words roll off the tongue, just like the speech of Irish country people.  If I was less satisfied with Geordie Hanna's Brockagh Brae, then I remind myself that the coat has to fit the cloth.  Geordie was a great singer of big dramatic songs - he is at his exultant best singing Young Edmund in the Lowlands Low on Volume 3 - and this tender hearted love song is better suited to his sister, Sarah Anne O'Neill.  If only Topic could have accessed an appropriate recording!  In the finish, I had only two real reservations.  The first concerns the sombre note on which the disc ends.  Paddy Breen's Sweet Inishcara is a fine song, although I have heard it sung better.  Some may argue that this dismal tale, of a wanderer returning to find his home in ruins and his people gone, brings the emigration story full circle.  That may be, but I doubt if every exile had such a cheerless homecoming.  In any case, the performance is shorn of a final verse, which I am fairly certain Paddy Breen knew, and which neatly consummates the poet's musings.  My only other quibble lies with the aforementioned ethnic under-representation.  The problem there is addressed by others in the series, in particular by 'To Catch A Fine Buck Was My Delight'.  But that is volume eighteen and that is another story.

Fred McCormick - 29.1.99

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