By Marilyn Lester
The Irish Arts Center has very recently begun a delightful new series, curated by Irish musician, musicologist and teacher Mick Moloney, of stories, songs and tunes from Ireland and Irish America. For anyone who’s interested in, or loves Irish traditional music, these 15 weeks are a mini-course in Irish history and culture, told in bite-size chunks packed with charm, fascinating information and, of course, splendid music.
In the series, Moloney, who has a doctorate in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, and who is the author of Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish American History Through Song, explores 15 musical themes, contextualizing the meaning of each. As a musician, he’s probably best known to American audiences for his work with The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, although his credits over the years in the Irish trad scene are voluminous.
Irish traditional music includes many kinds of songs: ballads, laments, drinking songs, political songs and more, mostly dating from the 18th century to modern times. Their purpose is narrative, with lyric having as much, if not more, weight as the melody. Singers of Irish folk tunes will often use a certain amount of melodic freedom and vocal embellishments to tell the story. It’s a distinctive style, generally communicated with intense feeling to the accompaniment of small groups of musicians playing a variety of traditional instruments.
Episode 1: “Joseph Baker”
This introduction to the series features a primer to Moloney and his background, especially his early days in the 1960s English folk club scene. As to “Joseph Baker,” it was written by the modern Irish singer-songwriter, Pete Coe, in the traditional style. It tells the story of Joseph Baker, a notable runner in the late 19th century, who would be forgotten if not for this legacy in song. Listeners will learn the fascinating tale of who Baker was, a famous race, and how, in a typical Irish nod to the supernatural, his ghost continues to run to this day. Moloney (taping from Bangkok), on acoustic guitar, is joined by Brenda Castles (in Dublin) performing on the concertina.
Episode 2: “By Memory Inspired”
The beginning of the vast repertoire of Irish political and resistance songs is addressed in this episode. Foreign threats were not new for the Irish. The Vikings had raided the island almost continuously from 795 through 1014. But it was famously British rule that had the greatest effect on the Irish in various forms of governance over hundreds of years. It was in the late 1700s that Irish rebellion strengthened and became a serious, ongoing bane for the British. “By Memory Inspired,” by poet and literary giant Padraic Colum (1881-1972), commemorates the fallen soldiers of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Moloney, playing the octave mandolin, is joined by Green Fields of America bandmates Athena Tergis (in Italy) on viola and Billy McComiskey (in Baltimore) on the button accordion.
Episode 3: “You Lovers All”
You don’t have to be Irish to have heard of the devastating Great Famine––also called the Great Hunger or Great Starvation–– of 1845 to 1849. Not only did this event lead to significant changes in Ireland’s political landscape, but demographically, the population decreased by roughly a quarter due to death and emigration. Many of these emigrees were women who sought independence, from necessity, and who believed their chances for love and prosperity were greater in “Americay.” Maloney on octave mandolin, with violinist Haley Richardson (in North Carolina) sing of the diaspora of women in North America.
(Note: we’ll be checking back on Mick Maloney’s Songbook from time to time for future installments on the series.)