I Pray You Pay Attention

More traditional songs from around Lough Erne's shore

Musical Traditions Records MTCD367-8

CD One:   CD Two:
I Pray You Pay Attention
The Bright Silvery Light of the Moon
The Crockery Ware
Bundoran
From Sweet Tralee
Everyone's Done It But You
My Love, he is a Miner
Paddy and the Donkey
Gentle Mother
The Sprig of Irish Heather
Caroline and Her Sailor Bold
McCafferty
The Heather where the Moorcock Crows
The Irish Soldier
The Hills above Drumquin
My Tackle A Honie
The White Hare of Golan
Erin's Lovely Home
The Bonny Labouring Boy
The Tyrone Tailor
The Moon behind the Hill
The Galway Shawl
My Mother's Last Goodbye
The Little Old Mud Cabin
The Factory Girl
The Lovely River Finn
That Little Thatched Cottage
Packie Cunningham
Unidentified singer
Maggie Murphy
Packie Cunningham
Francie Little
Packie Cunningham
Paddy & Jimmy Halpin
Unidentified singer
Eugene Ward McElroy
Packie Cunningham
Maggie Murphy
Tommy Connelly
Packie Cunningham
Patsy Flynn
Packie Cunningham
Eddie Coyle
Maggie Murphy
Packie Cunningham
Tommy Connelly
Francie Little
James McDermott
Eugene Ward McElroy
James McDermott
James McDermott
Packie Cunningham
Jimmy Halpin
John Maguire
    Mr Bradley's Ball
A Bonny Leitrim Boy
The Granemore Hare
The Banks of the Silvery Tide
The Piley Cock
The Killyfole Boasters
Harper The Pride of Tyrone
Matt Hyland
My Charming Edward Boyle
Mr Macadam & Co
Boys and Girls Courting
The Kilmuckridge Hunt
The Mourne Still
Clinkin' o'er the lea
Keady Town
The Banks of the Lee
The Titanic
The Roslea Hunt
Stock or Wall
The Nobleman's Wedding
Spancil Hill
Blow The Candle Out
Here's A Health to the Company
Maggie Murphy
Jimmy Halpin
Francie Scott
Maggie Murphy
Jimmy Halpin
Red Mick McDermott
Jack Hobson
Peggy MacDonagh
Francie Little
Brian Tumilty
Maggie Murphy
Brian Tumilty
Brian Tumilty
Maggie Murphy
Francie Scott
Francie Scott
Tommy Tinneny
Jimmy Halpin
Maggie Murphy
James McDermott
Patsy Flynn
James McDermott
James McDermott

This is another treasure trove of field recordings of Irish unaccompanied vernacular singers made by the late Keith Summers in the area of County Fermanagh north of Upper Lough Erne at various times between 1977 and 1983.  Like its predecessor from the same source, the widely-acclaimed The Hardy Sons of Dan (Musical Traditions, 2004, MTCD329-0), it comes in the form of a two-CD pack with a 44-page highly detailed booklet, with text transcriptions, background notes on the songs and singers and fascinatingly, the story of how this genial Essex accountant ended up recording Irish country singers in the back roads of this border area during some of the most troubled times of 'The Troubles'.  There are a total of 50 tracks here sung by 19 singers only 2 of whom are female.  The women singers share 9 tracks but 8 of these are by the great Maggie Murphy (née Chambers) of Tempo, who was first recorded in a remarkable performance in a BBC documentary in 1952 and was 'rediscovered' by Keith.  The focal point of the collection is the border area around Newtownbutler, County Fermanagh and extends up through Donagh, Lisnaskea, Maguiresbridge, Brookeborough, Lisbellaw and Tempo.  The lion's share of tracks by a male singer - 8 songs - goes to Packie Cunningham, who, judging by his accent and repertoire probably came from West Tyrone.

This second dip into Keith's Fermanagh archive is issued to commemorate him 10 years after his death in 2004 and the production notes indicate that the selection of songs on this issue are intended to complement the range of genres in The Hardy Sons of Dan by here including 'local ditties, funny songs and 'popular' songs'.  Keith always asserted that he was not a 'folksong collector' and for this we should be thankful, as it is clear from these recordings that he himself was very much a participant in these events and not an outside observer, and that his motivation in documenting these songs was the same as the motivation that the singers had in singing them … because they liked them!  This is an important point since folklorists - 'academic' and otherwise - maintain a (false) sense of aesthetic neutrality and would give the impression that the whole point of vernacular performance is to produce 'objects' for the future 'scholarly' scrutiny of 'folkloristics'!  The fact that the main point of vernacular performance is to produce aesthetic value is totally ignored and the retrieved song texts are subjected to the appallingly pedantic scrutiny which passes for 'scholarship' in this field.  This usually involves checking that the song falls within a pre-conceived canon (a canon, of course, set by the folklorists) followed by a bit of motif-spotting and possibly a detailed discourse on some aspect of social history which may relate to a passing reference in the text.  All of this is, of course, totally irrelevant to the main reason for the singers singing - i.e., the social production of aesthetic value.  And note that I specify song texts.  Folklorists seem to be embarrassed that a song is a sonic object and seem to have no idea what to do with song melodies.

To get a sense of how irrelevant this folkloristic approach is, it is always useful to compare approaches in other art forms - opera perhaps.  One could only imagine the hoots of derision if a review of Wagner's Das Rhinegold totally ignored the aesthetic quality of the performance or the music and concentrated instead on spotting motifs in the story line and then went into a long diatribe on Medieval River Traffic or Northern European Gold Production!  Keith Summer's recordings capture the liveliness and the reality of the rough-and-tumble of vernacular culture and focuses on the sheer enjoyment involved in these performances.  These are not dry documents from the past but a record of joyous and at times almost riotous social occasions, often in bar rooms with all the attendant noises of carousing and excited chatter.

And here is a major problem in presenting a collection of songs which are an integral part of a vernacular social happening and not a set of isolated examples of folkloric ideology mounted like dead butterflies in a glass wall-case … because the songs lose much of their aesthetic impact when isolated from their normal social context, and in most parts of Ireland - but particularly in Fermanagh - there is a vernacular word for the very powerful concept of this context and it is often spelt 'kayley'.  It is spelt in this way mainly by outside commentators and travellers since, like most dialect words which exist only in oral form, 'there is no spelling for it!'  Directly borrowed from the Irish word céilí, its usual dictionary definition is of an evening domestic visit for socialising and entertainment but in the vernacular lexicon it has generated a forceful semantic field denoting social pleasure and a wide range of informal open-ended aesthetic creativity involving the possibility of all the vernacular performance genres - speech, song, instrumental music and dance.  For hundreds of years it has been the main site of production of the many thousands of pieces (speech, song and music) collected by researchers in Ireland and its main attraction for the participants is its evading of the purview of the dominant hegemonic 'official' culture, whether colonial or nationalist.  (The Gaelic League used the céilí term for their newly-devised ballroom dance events in the early 20th century with their newly-invented canon of 'Irish' social dances - 'céilí dances' - but these are totally different creatures.)  The domestic céilí has been remarkably ignored by Irish folklorists who concentrate more on the product (i.e., relatively fixed 'texts') than on the process of production, and it took an American folklorist, Henry Glassie, to realise the importance of the vernacular céilí and to write about it eloquently in his Passing the Time in Ballymenone (1982).  (Interestingly, Glassie was carrying out the fieldwork which led to his understanding of the céilí, also in County Fermanagh, just across the Upper Lough Erne from where Keith was recording at around the same time.)

To be present at a good domestic céilí is an incredibly exciting experience but since it is informal and undirected (you never know what's going to happen next) the whole event only assumes a unity and coherence in retrospect.  Whether dominated by song, music or dance, the entire happening is speech-saturated … with banter, stories, cracks, shouts of encouragement and comments … and it is very difficult if nigh impossible to reproduce all of these elements in a collection of recorded songs.  If a céilí is like a currant cake and the songs are the currants, it is like presenting the currants without the cake.  Or think of the speeches from Shakespeare's plays if all the plays themselves were lost … they would still be wonderful pieces in their own right but would have lost a huge amount of their aesthetic impact by being separated from their context.

The implications of this for this collection is that while run-of-the-mill performances of well-known songs may be fine as part of the immediacy of an informal céilí, as stand-alone recordings they fail to hold interest, and there's quite a bit of that here - Spancil Hill, Gentle Mother, Moon Behind the Hill, Galway Shawl, Mother's Last Goodbye, Little Old Mud Cabin

However there are also many gems here.  Everything Maggie Murphy puts her voice to is worth a listen; Francie Little sings a sly and mischievous version of The Wee Tailor from Tyrone; the great Jimmy Halpin makes a heroic saga out of a wee local hunt song and 'choruses' with his father, Paddy, on My Love He Is a Miner.  ('Chorusing' … singing in rough unison - or heterophony as the musicologists call it - is a usual feature of vernacular singing in the Northern part of the island of Ireland and is much more common than the impression given by published recordings.)  It is good to see a large number of local and ephemeral songs included - producers are usually reluctant to publish them because of their limited relevance.  The making of songs or verses on highly localised events has always been (and still is!) widely practised all over Ireland and these songs carry a high prestige among the vernacular singers themselves.  Folklorists however pay little heed to them, perhaps because, as one singer said to me, "They don't know what tae say about them!" (my emphasis).  Since the songs are once-offs they stand alone and therefore do not pop up as variants throughout published collections and archives so the task of the folklorist is entirely redundant.  They are however gold-mines for the student of vernacular aesthetics1.  Vernacular culture is anarchic, highly inventive, full of lateral thinking, often surreal and quite often mischievous and the 'local' and ephemeral songs display these traits admirably.  They are also the most anti-traditional songs in a culture that is essentially anti-traditional.  By this I mean they are not intended for handing on (Latin tradere = 'to hand down') but are designed for the immediate pleasure and entertainment of a small group of people.  (One of the most inventive and well-made songs I ever recorded was designed to be comprehensible only to two neighbouring families up on Knockmore in County Fermanagh - a total of 14 people!)

Despite their deliberately limited field of reference these songs are often incredibly well-crafted, with striking and unique imagery in the text and subtle adaptations of existing song airs.  They are still the main vehicle for the Hiberno-English song style with its use of underlying templates of Gaelic song prosodic features (internal and cross-rhyming etc.) and of words mainly chosen for their sound quality with total disregard for the niceties of Proper English register.  It may be this latter feature which makes Anglophone folklorists nervous of the genre which they often refer to as 'hedge schoolmaster' songs, perhaps being unaware of the historically derogatory nature of the term.  Gaelic language scholars are equally dismissive of the style and the famous Irish writer Frank O'Connor referred to it as 'Babu English' - a very revealing insight as this was the term used by English colonialists in India during the 19th century for the forms of English developed by Hindu speakers in a similar social configuration.  However Irish vernacular singers love it and rate it very highly.  Maggie Murphy gives us a typical example of the genre here with Mr Bradley's Ball sung to a resounding version of Irish Molly O! (better known nowadays as the air to the Orange anthem, The Sash My Father Wore).  'Ball' here simply means a house-dance and there were thousands of these songs created all over Ireland (and probably Britain as well) replete with references totally incomprehensible to the 'outsider'.  Maggie seems to slip a reference to herself and her sister or cousin in with the wonderful lines:

The most humdrum of these songs often contain the most extraordinary imagery.  A call goes up in mock announcement of the arrival of two black-haired young local lads all dolled-up for the occasion: There are also quite a few songs here on the activity of hare hunting on foot with a pack of beagles which is popular in the area.  Once again, these are songs are designed to be ephemeral and they tend to be of varying quality.  The totally illegal activity of cock-fighting is still also very popular in the border area and Jimmy Halpin here gives a song of his own making on one of his own 'champions', The Piley Cock.  (I also recorded this song from Jimmy in a large lounge in Newtownbutler on a hot summer's afternoon and when he came to the final verse in which he praises the 'trainer' of the cock, the man in question - whom I did not know - stepped out from behind a pillar and jokingly scattered a handful of small black chicken feathers over us all, to my great alarm and the delight of the assembled company.)

A word should be said on the question of 'political' song in the published collections from this area since it has been brought up in the past in previous reviews of Keith Summers' The Hardy Sons of Dan and also in relation to other publications, including my own collection from around the Derrygonnelly area of County Fermanagh, Here Is a Health.2  Keith explicitly refers to this in his notes to The Hardy Sons and says that, while what he terms as 'Republican' songs were widely sung in the area, the singers he recorded never offered one of these songs and he thinks this was due to a wish not to give offence to him as an Englishman.  There is widespread confusion regarding the occurrence of political song in the field of vernacular culture on the island of Ireland and this is due mainly to the designation (by the 'commentariat' and various other 'ideology grinders') of what is basically a political conflict as a cultural conflict.  The upshot of this is the depiction of all 'Irish Music' as Nationalist/Catholic while the only 'culture' the unfortunate Protestant population are allowed is the Lambeg drum and the Orange march through Catholic areas!  On the level of vernacular culture this is, of course, total nonsense - but unfortunately very dangerous nonsense.

In my own very detailed ethnography of vernacular song performance in Fermanagh I estimated that political song constituted about one percent of the total regional repertoire (on both 'sides' of the present conflict).  But these are vernacular political songs and not the populist Nationalist or Loyalist songs of the day.  Vernacular singers are very well aware of the full range of song genres available to the public from all sources - media, the commercial music industry, the school, the church, official authority etc. - and they know the words and can sing many of them but they evaluate them quite differently to their own vernacular repertoire.  As Keith Summers found in Fermanagh, he did not need a torturous academic definition of 'folksong' to convey to his singers what kind of music he was interested in.  There are quite a few vernacular political songs from this area, most strikingly a genre referred to in the vernacular classificatory lexicon as 'Fight Songs' - e.g., The Mackan Fight from a 'Catholic' perspective or The Fighting Fair of Derrygonnelly from a 'Protestant' one - songs detailing local 19th century sectarian affrays … incredibly well-made and terrifyingly but poetically sectarian.  These are never sung in pubs (and even seldom enough in the domestic céilí) so Keith would never have come across them.  At the infamous Enniskillen Conference3 organised by 'Co-operation North' in 1991 it became clear that the chattering classes and commentariat could not be dissuaded from their steadfast belief that all unaccompanied singers in Ireland were constantly singing 'rebel' songs and that 'Protestant' culture consisted of marching bands.  It did not help that their delusions were strongly supported by professional anthropologists and 'ethnomusicologists' present who insisted that all these musics were displays of 'identity'!

The booklet accompanying the 2 CDs is a wonderful production with interviews with Keith Summers himself and also with Jenny Hicks, Peta Webb and Attracta McGrath (of McGrath's Pub in Brookeborough) with their memories of Keith's collecting exploits in Fermanagh.  Also, an excellent interview with Dermot O'Reilly about the local hunting traditions.  I never met Keith but he comes across in his interview as a warm and convivial character with a huge curiosity and a penchant for friendship.  It is clear that the singers of Fermanagh took to him in a big way and his description of his relationship with the extraordinary Jimmy Halpin is hilarious:

Keith Summers is yet another Englander to whom we in Ireland owe a great debt for the huge efforts he made in documenting - entirely at his own expense - a rich and almost hidden tradition.  The two sets now issued by Musical Traditions covering Keith's work in Fermanagh constitute one of the major published documentations of Irish vernacular song and the production team of Paul Marsh and Rod Stradling should be justly proud of their wonderful achievement.

Seán Corcoran - 8.7.14

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