Saving our oral folk culture
The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin, Irish Traditional Singer
Edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
Four Courts Press
Over a period of a few short years in the 1940s and 1950s, a handful of collectors travelled Ireland and saved from complete extinction a wealth of songs, music and stories in Irish and English. Ironically the new recording technology which made it possible to capture these traditional art forms was itself a part of the massive social change which obliterated the context in which this culture had thrived for countless generations.
The term folk culture has gone out of fashion but it describes traditional, popular and predominantly rural life throughout the world, a life that remains only in isolated and threatened communities. The heart of this culture was the oral tradition by which the accumulated unwritten lore of centuries was passed on. Ireland was fortunate in that much of that
tradition survived to be recorded and preserved and to provide inspiration and a rich vein of material for those later in the 20th century who revived the music and song.
It could not have been done without collectors such as the great Seamus Ennis, and without the generosity of people like Bess Cronin of Baile Mhúirne, West Cork. Like so many of the singers and musicians recorded at that time, Bess emphasised that the scores of songs she had were but a fraction of what her elders had known. The collectors were conscious of their responsibility to save what remained. Their achievement and that of the people they recorded is in the living tradition of today and in publications such as this.
This is a superb collection of over 80 songs recorded from Bess Cronin. They are presented in two CDs and in a beautifully arranged and scholarly book with all the song words and music and copious notes. While Bess has been a source of songs for many contemporary singers and her reputation has become legendary, the recordings were never before available to the general public. Here they are now and all credit to Bess?s grandson Dáibhí Ó Cróinín for this excellent production.
I can't finish this review without quoting from Bold Jack Donohue, both a `United man' and a `Fenian Boy' in Bess's version:
`To resign to you, you cowardly dog, is something I ne'er shall do!
I'd rather fight with all my might!' said famed Jack Donohue;
`I'll range those woods and valleys like a wolf or a kangaroo,
Before I'd work for governments!' said famed Jack Donohue.
BY MÍCHEÁL MacDONNCHA
A rich and engrossing tale
The Faloorie Man - A Novel
By Eugene McEldowney
New Island Books 1999
Billed as a novel, this gem from Eugene McEldowney is clearly partly autobiographical in that the central character, Martin McBride, is a Belfast Catholic of McEldowney's generation who also becomes an Irish Times journalist.
The finely observed minutiae of working class life from that late 1940s and 1950s childhood reminded me of the community that Gerry Adams' Falls Memories reminisced about.
Book One deals with Martin's early childhood and he's the happiest wee spud - the son of Sarah and Isaac. He wants a wee brother though, but can't understand why his mammy and daddy can't get him one. He then ventures into the world, where his pals become divided into boys and girls.
He dismisses as nonsense Bobby McAllister's contention that girls have no mickies. An investigative journalist in the making, he carries out the appropriate research with Eileen Toner in an air raid shelter. She duly obliges by taking down her knickers to show him the awful truth. Wee Martin brings up the subject at dinner with Ma and Da.
He is satisfied when Isaac tells him that girls do have mickies, Bobby McAllister was making that up and poor Eileen Toner's micky was cut off when she got knocked over with the ragman's cart. His wee world is settled again.
This safe cocoon ends when he overhears a conversation that he is adopted. He knows what that is - one of his pals at school is adopted and Martin feels sorry for him.
Like any of us hearing bad news, young Martin goes into denial. Though he knows the reality, he pushes it away for years.
With this terrible possibility that Sarah and Isaac might not be his Ma and Da, we enter Martin's adolescence.
There he discovers the mysteries of girls who definitely have no mickies and the fact that he is a Taig and what that means for his life chances in Belfast and for his life in general.
Born in 1945, he is the Troubles generation.
The skill of McEldowney is that this isn't a book about Belfast per se, but it's always in the background, and not just as wallpaper. It doesnt deflect from the story of the central character, as he finds his way as a man, as a Belfast Catholic and as a child who doesn't know who his biological parents are.
I won't go any further in the life story of Martin McBride. You'll want to find out for yourselves. Believe me.
BY MICK DERRIG
Facile loyalist race myth
By W. A. Hanna
The Columba press
This book is part of an ongoing search for the unionist people to establish a satisfactory identity for themselves on this island. In that, it is a worthwhile exercise.
Since the outbreak of the conflict, unionism, assailed by republicans, derided by their British overlords and rightly condemned by world opinion, has attempted to create an identity for itself that is not Irish.
identity, moreover, not dependent upon the connection to Westminster or the British crown. Their recent history couldn't allow them to be what they had always said was beneath them - Irish. However, the British connection was becoming attenuated with every IRA bomb, every outburst by Paisley.
Ian Adamson's ``The Identify of Ulster'' (1974) started what became known in Irish historiography as the ``Cruithin myth/controversy''. It was seized upon by loyalists who wanted their own Serbian blood and soil race myth for the Shankhill.
It was also food and drink to revisionists, who wanted to counter the view that Ireland had been an occupied country and had ejected the colonialist from most of the national land area in 1922.
The nonsense that the people of the Shankhill were racially different from their neighbours on the Falls was seized upon by loyalist leaders like John McMichael. Loyalism then started to produce propaganda that developed the idea of the Shankhill Picts versus the Falls Irish. You would laugh if you could forget that the Shankhill Butchers actually believed this stuff.
Loyalism then adopted the Gaelic hero Cu Chulainn as the first loyalist defending Ulster from Southern Irish expansionist aggression.
Hanna is not a historian - he admits this - and it shows.
This book attempts to deal with these ancient links between the two islands at their closest point, NorthEast Ireland to SouthWest Scotland. The Ulster Scots story then goes to America, where they were driven by religious persecution of the English government. Hanna, without a hint of irony, sketches the contribution of the ``Scotch-Irish'' in the fight against the British to establish a democratic republic in North America.
This book is nothing less than an attempt to justify the Plantation. The upshot of pretending that Sammy on the Shankill is an ancient P-Celt is that the Plantation is then spun as a homecoming to Ulster of an exiled people.
There are many links between Ireland, all of it, and Scotland. Those links should be researched, respected and, where relevant to both nations, strengthened and celebrated.
There are many benefits to both nations in doing this and republicans should be to the fore in recognising the huge commonality between both Éirinn and Alba.
However, giving Sammy a race myth for not engaging with his neighbours in the Six Counties and pretending that another country starts after Newry isn't one of them.
Quite frankly, the average Orangeman's head contains quite enough battered crap without putting any more in.
BY MICK DERRIG