‘Everything Begins with the Human Voice’.

While in Dublin recently, I was warmly welcomed and thrilled to take part in a regular Friday night gathering of the An Góilín Traditional Singers’ Club in the large lounge-room of a club in Parnell Square. About 50-60 people attended, most prepared and eager to sing, with not one instrument in the room. Many sang in Gaelic, some in the ornamented séan nos style, heartfelt songs such as My Little Grey Home in the West (a tenor’s tribute), A Blacksmith Courted Me, The Salley Gardens, Northwest Passage (by Stan Rogers), Bold Fenian Men, and many associated with particular counties such as The Boys of Fair Hill (one of the best-known of songs from County Cork).

The contribution of Kris Drever, recently-awarded BBC Folksinger of the Year (who sang ‘Everyone’s Playing Pool’) was no more greatly appreciated than less-well-known voices singing occasionally out-of-tune; the respect of everyone in the room for all the singers and the songs was palpable and made for a thoroughly satisfying (if, unsurprisingly, very late) night.

A week later the Willie Clancy Summer Festival (Scoil Samhraidh) was in full swing at Milltown Malbay, where thousands thronged the narrow streets of the small town. There was an air of anticipation inside the dilapidated Community Centre which was filling fast before the Traditional Singers’ Concert on Friday afternoon. All were introduced, in Gaelic as were many of their songs, as being from their particular home county (e.g. Tipperary, Mayo or Clare); some of the singers offered an explanation in English as well. The MC acknowledged that ‘everything begins with the human voice’ and we heard a fine range of the best singers of Irish songs to be found in the country.

Some were elderly men with lifelong reputations as fine singers, others the typical Irish tenor or women with strong, tuneful voices, although I noticed that many sang with mouths almost closed and tight, throaty projection. Most sang solemn, even sad songs, about the beauty of the various counties of Eireann, and of emigration to ‘Amerikay’; few, such as a parody of music hall ditties (themselves parodies) called In Praise of Mullingar, had the audience laughing instead of crying.

One young man from a Gaeltacht (where Gaelic is strongly maintained as the first language) sang beautifully but with his eyes closed because he doesn’t enjoy ‘watching people suffer’ although to hear him was a pleasure, and the lone Scot, Sandra Robertson, sang puirt-a-beul (mouth music) from the highlands or islands, which was similarly well received. In every case, respect for the singer and appreciation of their songs was the unified response and created a wonderful atmosphere. And not once did we hear O Danny Boy!

Marie Goldsworthy

Thanks, Marie, for this report.

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