Documentary Discs: Farewell to Ireland

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Documentary Discs: Farewell to Ireland

 

The Irish who immigrated to the Upper Midwest during the “potato famine” years of the mid-19th century included many traditional singers and musicians. Settling on small farms and in urban enclaves, or moving seasonally as railroad laborers, harvest hands, sailors on Great Lakes vessels, lumberjacks, and river drivers, they found time to make and perform evocative ballads, to play the pipes, to fiddle, and to jig. In Chicago, Francis O’Neill—police captain, devotee of the uilleann pipes, and unsurpassed collector of Irish tunes—was the driving force in an extraordinary Irish American musical scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1920s, when America’s commercial record companies began seeking performers who might appeal to members of the nation’s various ethnic groups, they found Irish musicians aplenty in the Windy City. Forgotten and unheard by all but a few, their experiences and performances are once again accessible thanks to a series of fine CD reissues produced in the 1990s.

Farewell to Ireland is the richest and most economical compilation (Proper Box 3). Accompanied by compiler Ron Kavana’s illustrated 32 page booklet, this 4-CD production includes 11 stellar performances by Chicago’s Irish musicians amidst its 80 tracks. We are treated to reels, jigs, slip jigs, and hornpipes by fiddler Michael J. Cashin, piper Tom Ennis, the pipe-fiddle duo of Edward Mullaney and Patrick Stack, pianist Eleanor Kane, Pat Roche’s Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, and Maurice McSweeney’s Stars of Munster. The rhythmic footwork of step-dancer Pat Roche, featured midway through a hornpipe medley, “Boys of Bluehill/Stack of Wheat,” reminds us that Michael Flatley, international star of Riverdance, got his start in Chicago. Meanwhile the full dance band sound of the Stars of Munster—with its driving interplay of button accordion, fiddle, four-string banjo, piano, and drums—anticipates the late 20th century “pub rock” innovations of groups like the Pogues. Pat White, the lone Chicago vocalist, more than holds his own. A former railroad worker and medicine show veteran whose charming vocal style cannot be replicated nowadays, White was in his 70s when he recorded a comic Irish American ballad, “The Same Old Shillelagh,” concerning an heirloom cudgel, and “I’m Leaving Tipperary,” a classic emigrant’s song: “Goodbye Mike, goodbye Pat, goodbye Kate and Mary/The anchor’s away, the gangplank’s up, I’m leaving Tipperary.”

In 1978, Lawrence McCullough, Mick Moloney, and Myles Krassen, the leading scholar-advocates in the late-20th century revitalization of Irish American traditional music, produced the documentary LP Traditional Irish Music in America: Chicago, based on field recordings and research from 1975-1976. Recently reissued on CD (Rounder 6006), this production includes 19 tracks showcasing the continuous yet evolving Chicago Irish musical scene. A 36 page booklet offers the original notes and photographs, together with updates on particular performers and Irish music in Chicago generally. Fiddling by the young Liz Carroll, recorded shortly after she won her first All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Competition, is a particular highlight.

Elsewhere in the Upper Midwest, Irish musical scenes have flowed, ebbed, and flowed again, especially in urban centers like Madison, Milwaukee, and Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Historic recordings and superbly documented compilations, of the sort focusing on Chicago, are unfortunately lacking for those communities. Even so, The Last Bar: Irish Music from Minnesota (IMDA 001) is well worth a listen and a look. Produced in 2000 by the Twin Cities’ Irish Music and Dance Association, this production features notes on and performances by 16 groups, native Minnesotans and a few Irish émigrés, whose varied styles—plaintive ballads, rollicking pub rock, contemporary pan-Celtic compositions, archaic harp plucking, and more—aptly represent the span and vigor of Irish music in the Upper Midwest of today.

Jim Leary, a folklore and Scandinavian studies professor at UW–Madison, is co-director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.




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