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An Irishwoman's Diary

© 2002 The Irish Times. By Mary Maher

There is some evidence that Eric the Red, the great Norse chieftain and explorer, having “visited” Ireland, took two Irishmen with him when he undertook a later voyage to North America, thus foreshadowing a tradition of westward immigration that was to become an integral part of Irish heritage, writes Mary Maher

There is no record of what the pair were thinking as they disembarked, but Mick Moloney’s theory is probably a fair shot. “Wherever we have landed,” he writes in Far From the Shamrock Shore, “a significant portion of people with Irish ancestry simply continue to do what we have done for centuries — we speak of our personal lives and our history as a people through song and music.”

A native of Limerick, Mick Moloney was a prominent figure on the Irish music scene during the 1960s, playing with Donal Lunny in a series of small folk bands, and later with Paul Brady in The Johnsons. He too then followed the call of the United States, and added an academic career to his musical pursuits.

He has recorded and produced more than 40 albums of traditional music, holds a Ph.D. in folklore and folk life, and has served as artistic director on a number of major tours.

In 1999, he was awarded the highest honour the US accords a traditional artist, the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award, not least for his distinguished work on Irish-American music.

Background music

That is the subject of this beautiful book. It is a triumph of matchmaking, telling the story of Irish-American immigrants to the background music which they and their descendants created. The text is compact but comprehensive, richly trimmed with photographs and illustrations. But the impact is in the linking companion-piece, a 16-track CD that provides the live session.

Moloney leads a fine band in music spanning several centuries, representing the different styles and stories of each era. From the haunting “Erin’s Green Shore” — an aisling lament, sung in harmony, with the sparse accompaniment of Bruce Molsky’s Donegal-style fiddle — he moves through the 19th century of Irish railway workers and coal-miners, and the 200,000 Irish who fought in the American Civil War with “The Irish Volunteers” and “Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade”.

To pull together such a diverse collection on one CD is a considerable feat. The downside, of course, is that many listeners will think of a few other songs that should be added in each section, but for that you need the week-long fleadh. Moloney offsets this problem somewhat by quoting extensively from many other songs throughout the book, which might prompt you to embark on a session of your own.

The first great wave of Irish emigration to America in 1600 was led by Irish Catholic single men, and was followed a century later by the Scotch-Irish, who, although they had immigrated to Ireland only a few generations before from the Scottish lowlands and the North of England, considered themselves Irish. They settled in Appalachia, and began the music tradition that developed into bluegrass and country music.

Common themes

The themes common to the earliest ballads of farewell are there in “The Green Fields of America”:

But I mind the time when old
Ireland was flourishing,
When most of our tradesmen
did work for good pay,
But since our manufacturies
have crossed the Atlantic,
It’s now we must follow
unto America.

One million Famine immigrants sang songs of a deeper and more bitter pain. The best-known of them, “Skibereen”, is on the CD, and a verse from “The Great Irish Famine” echoes the same anger:

Sad is my fate in this dreary
Dark are the storm clouds
o’er lone Shanakyle,
Where the murdered sleep
silently pile upon pile,
In the coffinless graves
of poor Erin.

When the newcomers found they were less than welcome in their new home, their music often turned to defiance — the jaunty “No Irish Need Apply” on the CD, and “Do Me Justice” a Donegal song recorded again a few years ago by Len Graham, in the book.

Irish participation in the American Civil War of the 1860s quelled a great deal of prejudice, and opened the ascent to political power and prominence which marked the last century. And as successive generations moved confidently into the mainstream, so too did the music, shifting to the popular styles of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, as in “Daisy Bell”.

But it is also obvious on the CD that the vitality of Irish music is due in great part to the ready way Irish musicians have not only adapted to circumstances, but assimilated other cultures. Modern Irish music is unimaginable without the fiddle, introduced from Italy in the early 17th century, and the banjo, introduced courtesy of the blackface minstrels who toured Ireland in the early 19th century.

Banjo and bouzouki

The latter was, of course, adapted from the instrument played on America’s cotton plantations by slaves; the diaries of Richard Jobson, who explored the Gambra River in Africa in 1620, mention an instrument “made of a great gourd and a neck, thereunto was fastened strings”. Even the bouzouki, which made its Dublin appearance in the 1960s when Donal Lunny brought it back from Greece, has its place now, and the Australian didgeridoo, very similar to one of the earliest recorded Irish instruments, seems lately to be making a home for itself.

All of which suggests that the 1990s influx of immigrants to Ireland from diverse cultures indicates marvellous possibilities ahead for traditional music. If we’re very lucky, Mick Moloney might be persuaded to come back long enough to do a sequel here on the shamrock shore.

Far From The Shamrock Shore, The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song, by Mick Moloney, is published by Collins Press at €25.



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