Seamus Heaney was an original member of the Belfast Group organized at Queen’s University from 1963. He is pictured near his home in Dublin in 1995 after it was announced that he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature. PHOTOCALL
By Maureen McGavin
A new website called Belfast Group Poetry Networks will make it easier to understand the connections between Irish writers, particularly members of the mid-1960s Belfast Group, using open-source software created by the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS).
Belfast Group Poetry Networks (http://belfastgroup.digitalscholarship.emory.edu), which launched last Tuesday, provides an interactive way to explore the poets’ literary and social networks, based on correspondence, shared poems at workshops, and mentions of names and places in poems and throughout their personal papers. The new site builds on and extends the previous Belfast Group webpage, created in 2000 by the Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections (now part of ECDS), as well as EmoryFindingAids, a repository of collection descriptions for MARBL manuscript collections.
Belfast Group primer
Organized by Philip Hobsbaum, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, the Belfast Group was a writers’ workshop that met from 1963 until 1972, when it disbanded due to political turmoil in Ireland and the rising literary careers of many of its participants. Members would bring Group sheets – typed copies of their drafts – to the weekly meetings to distribute to fellow Group members for feedback. (Since these are drafts, some of the poems differ from their published versions, adding another layer of interest for researchers.)
Original Group members included Seamus Heaney and Marie Devlin (who later married), Edna Broderick, Bernard MacLaverty, Stewart Parker, James Simmons and Arthur Terry. Heaney and other members took over running the Group when Hobsbaum moved to Glasgow in 1966. Over the years, the Group counted Ciaran Carson, Brendan Kennelly, Michael Longley (who married Edna Broderick), Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon among its members.
The new website
The project for the Beck Center’s original Belfast Group website began in the mid-1990s, when a small number of poets whose papers are held by MARBL gave permission for their Group sheets to be digitized to create an electronic poetry collection.
The updated site features the Group sheets of poets who gave permission, which include Heaney, Muldoon, Michael Longley, Hobsbaum, Carson, Simmons, and Kennelly. The papers of one poet often contain Group sheets written by other poets.
“In our Muldoon collection, we have Heaney’s Group sheets because Muldoon was there when Heaney read, and in Simmons’ papers, we have Longley’s Group sheets,” says ECDS digital humanities strategist Brian Croxall, who served as deputy project leader and project manager.
Other features of the website include biographies of several Belfast Group members, generated from the MARBL finding aids (if MARBL doesn’t have the poet’s papers, the software will pull in the biography from Wikipedia); network graphs of the authors’ connections to the Belfast Group and to other writers; maps of places connected to people associated with the Belfast Group; and essays about both archival biases and women in the Belfast Group.
The road to networking the Belfast Group
The idea to update the Belfast Group site started with senior software engineer and project lead Rebecca Sutton Koeser, who completed a majority of the software development. She wanted to provide a new way to visualize some of the information found in the finding aids, which list the contents of poets’ papers and archives. Online finding aids are constructed more for humans to read rather than computers, Croxall says, even though there is data embedded.
“There’s so much work that archivists do when they process a collection and describe the material, and they put a lot of that information into the finding aids,” says Koeser. “This is a way to use more of that data.”
Koeser proposed the “Networking the Belfast Group” project to ECDS in 2012, but she first started experimenting with the idea in 2010, when members of her team were given time to explore new technologies and possible projects.
She noticed that four Irish collections held by MARBL have an index of correspondence, and she began harvesting the names to map the connections. “It’s really kind of extraordinary; they have a list, person by person, of what letters are in the collection,” she says. “But I would say maybe fewer than 10 collections in MARBL have this type of index, because it’s so time-intensive for archivists to do.”
The team went through the finding aids, tagging the names of poets, their places of birth and residence, locations mentioned in their poems, and organizations. The software Koeser wrote allowed team members to complete this process more easily, and it also communicates with an international cataloging system that assigns a permanent ID tag to each poet and author. Even abbreviations of names could be tagged, so if Seamus Heaney was referred to as S.H. or SH, those abbreviations could be identified as Heaney – something that is obvious in context to a human, but not obvious to a computer, Koeser says.
Once those tags were in place, Koeser then wrote software that could infer relationships among them from the data in the finding aid, which was then output in RDF, a linked data format.
“For example, Seamus Heaney marries Marie Devlin. She is his spouse, and the software recognizes that relationship,” Croxall says. “We can then essentially start to make a Facebook for these people – that’s one way to think of it.”
Open-source software and open data
The software Koeser developed is open-source and can be used by other archives to show similar connections among their collections. Anne Donlon, a CLIR postdoctoral fellow in MARBL and ECDS, is using the software for preliminary work with MARBL’s African American collections to connect the writers who wrote, owned, or inscribed books to each other, Koeser says.
“It’s a quicker way to find connections among our collections, and it really gives a sense of what the library has and how collections relate to each other,” Croxall says. “That opens up a lot of possibilities for research.”
In addition to Croxall and Koeser, team members included digital text specialist and original Belfast Group website manager Alice Hickcox, digital archivist Elizabeth Russey Roke, and senior software manager Kevin Glover.
The team also plans to publish the data from the site in Emory’s Dataverse Network and on Figshare, for others to use in their research.
Derry’s Bridie Monds-Watson, aka SOAK,
is currently on a United States tour.
By Colleen Taylor
Bridie Monds-Watson never goes anywhere without her notebook. At the young age of 19, Monds-Watson, or SOAK as she’s more commonly known in the artistic world, has traveled all over the world sharing her idiosyncratic music—the fruits of those well-traveled notebooks. SOAK’s creative process is never put on pause. Even when she’s busy touring, she’s always processing, creating, writing. “Now that I’m on the road all the time, I’ll write on my phone and draw and do things like that all the time,” Monds-Watson explained. With such consistent productivity, it’s no surprise that at 19, the young Derry native already has three critically-acclaimed EPs, several single releases, and most recently, the culmination of all her hard work, her first full-length album, “Before We Forgot How to Dream.” The album has already been tagged by many as yet another bullseye for the young artist. Everyone seems to be in agreement: SOAK has done it again. In the following weeks, SOAK will be sharing her album with American audiences as part of her international summer tour.
You might remember SOAK from my previous praise in this column. Her early work in the EPs “Sea Creatures” and “Blud” blew me away with their unique identity, their freshness. From the first time I heard Monds-Watson, she struck me as the antithetical teen star. Her music is subtle, tragic, raw and stylistically exploratory. “Before We Forgot How to Dream” is no exception. It troubles the status quo—topically and musically.
Monds-Watson describes her album like a diary: “It’s a collection of songs I wrote since I was 14,” she said. “When I felt like I needed to talk about something, I’d go into my bedroom and I’d write down everything I was singing, everything I was trying to work out.” It’s fitting then, that SOAK’s vocals are noticeably young in sound, while being paired with sophisticated melodies and beats, not to mention smart, mature lyrics about the hardships of adolescence. The album signifies the apotheosis of three years of careful work while still reflecting that self-identified status of a teenage diary. The 14 tracks are both youthful and wise simultaneously. She sounds like a young girl singing the music of a well-rehearsed artist at the peak of his or her career—which, in a way, describes just what SOAK is.
SOAK is known for her quiet, acoustic songs, but some of my favorites on “Before We Forgot How to Dream” are the ones with a strong beat. “Garden” is likely the most upbeat on the album, and I’d say one of the best too. It shows the other side of SOAK’s theatrical mask, and it suits her. “Reckless Behaviour” is another standout not only for the fact that it’s a great alt-folk song in and of itself but also because it reveals the audible evolution of Monds-Watson’s artistic formation. Her voice reflects growth here, a mix of smoky verses, high notes and beats. But don’t let me misguide you—there’s unavoidable darkness in these songs. For instance, “Reckless Behavior” offers the following haunting metaphor to illustrate the turnover from youth to adulthood: “We are reckless, ready for apocalypse. / We are golden, until the very last falls.” “B a noBody,” the keynote lament of the album, seems to be a fan favorite. It’s vulnerable, ghostly—audible pain and confusion. It’s exquisite, if scary. The song, between its dual, echoy choruses and its high and low notes, encompasses—for listener and singer alike—all the pain we associate with the confusion of teenage trials.
You can’t quite say SOAK is “beyond her years” because she writes so poignantly about her specific point in life. And yet, her musical intelligence would match that of someone three times her age. As “Before We Forgot How To Dream” evinces, SOAK holds a special, if paradoxical, place in the music industry. Behind the mic, Monds-Watson is of, as well as far beyond, her age group.
SOAK is currently busy promoting her transatlantic album release. I spoke with her while she was on the road to her next gig in the UK, and she was—unlike her music—reserved, guarded. Luckily I’ve watched enough interviews with the young singer not to take this personally. After all, to get at the depth of this young woman’s complex artistry, one should turn to the music itself, where she is in her element. Nonetheless, she gave me a bit of insight into SOAK on a day-to-day basis. Monds-Watson loves to keep in touch with her fans via social media. She says it’s a way to “make sure people know you’re there.” Her fans are very important to Monds-Watson, and she makes a point of going out after her gigs to meet everyone. She remembered her previous gigs in the U.S. fondly and found her New York audience to be a friendly one. Any time off she gets (which is little these days), she spends with her family or friends, or, as she told me, “in her room,” her original recording studio.
I think SOAK is rather excited about her American tour, despite her cool and calm exterior. “It’s weird to think your name has gotten all the way to America,” she said. The idea is not so strange for the music critic, however, of which there are many singing her praises across the pond and here in the States as well. No doubt after her North American tour, there will be even more to praise.
SOAK will be hitting both East and West coasts on her tour, and stopping by all the major Eastern cities. She will be in Boston on tomorrow night, Friday, July 10, Philadelphia on the 11th, D.C. on the 12th, and finally, at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC on Tuesday, July 14. Check out “Before We Forgot How to Dream” and get tickets for the tour at: soakmusic.co.uk
Barry Ward as the activist James Gralton in a scene from the
County Leitrim-set “Jimmy’s Hall.” SONY PICTURE CLASSICS
By Karen Butler
Irish actor Barry Ward says the notion of working with Ken Loach was a lifelong dream that ultimately came true when he was cast in the British filmmaker’s latest period drama, “Jimmy’s Hall.”
“Even though I kind of adored him and worshipped him, I had underestimated him. I had undervalued him,” Ward told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview. “When I met him then, I thought, ‘Wow!’ I had no idea just how good he is – as both a man and a director.’”
Ward said he was a young teen when a friend introduced him to Loach’s brand of social realism, urging him to watch the auteur’s 1969 picture, “Kes.”
“I never thought movies were made about people like me, so when I saw ‘Kes,’ I was kind of going: ‘Wow! This is incredible that there’s somebody out there, making movies about people I can relate to.’ So, it really opened up a new world to me,” Ward noted.
Inspired by a true story, “Jimmy’s Hall” is about Jimmy Gralton’s return to County Leitrim after the Great Depression ends his decade-long exile in the United States. Gralton was run out of his rural Irish town in the 1920s by the parish priest and politicians who feared his Pearse-Connolly Hall — a community center he opened for those seeking education, entertainment and intellectual discussion – had become a breeding ground for social and political activism. Gralton arrives back home years later with the intention of caring for his elderly mother, working on the family farm and living a quiet life. However, it isn’t long before his neighbors convince him to re-open his hall, a move seen by the local authorities as an open act of rebellion.
“It’s a story of Irish history that was unknown to me, or Ireland at large, so I was thinking, if anyone was going to unearth it and give it a fair hearing, it was Loach and [screenwriter Paul] Laverty,” Ward explained. “I agree with their politics. I think their movies [such as ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ and ‘Bread and Roses’] are always politically sound, though, my main concern wasn’t the politics, to be honest. I wanted to just be sure we were making a good movie and, in that regard, I was absolutely confident from the get-go because of having seen their previous work. There is never a bad performance in a Ken Loach movie, so I really thought, as soon as I got the job, you know, ‘This is a winner.’”
“Jimmy’s Hall,” which is imbued with warmth and humor, addresses Irish politics and history without ever losing sight of the people at the center of its story. Ward said that sense of comradery amongst the characters was evident even as he and his co-stars – including Simone Kirby, Jim Norton and Brian F. O’Byrne – were rehearsing for the film.
“There is a great sense of community and heart and I was aware of that whilst rehearsing because, at that stage, we still hadn’t a script, so I didn’t really know the story or what we were getting in for. But [Loach] creates that working environment, so we were all rehearsing together, dancing together and just hanging out, and it was wonderful because we had all of these kids who had never acted before and they were so enthusiastic about it and just really gave it their all and they kind of looked up to me as an older actor, who had some experience. That dynamic you see in the film, Ken Loach created that behind the scenes, so we were living that every day,” he revealed.
Ward also said Loach hired locals whenever possible and met with numerous actors for the role of Jimmy, trying to quickly determine where they were from and what class they were to see if they were right for the part.
“When I went in to meet him, I knew well that he would be sussing out my working-class credentials, which wasn’t a hard sell because that’s the truth of it,” emphasized the actor, who was born and raised in the Dublin suburb of Blanchardstown. “So, we kind of talked about everything other than acting, really. He asks you about your life and what you do and what your parents do or what they did and their background. And my dad happened to be born in the year that Jimmy Gralton was deported, about 20 miles away, in the same town in the same part in the west of Ireland, so there was that connection to that place and that part of the world, so I was trying to sell him my working-class credentials and my connection to the countryside.”
After a successful run on the film-festival circuit where it earned stellar reviews from critics, “Jimmy’s Hall” is to open in U.S. theaters July 3. It co-stars Andrew Scott, Francis Magee, Aileen Henry, Stella McGirl, Sorcha Fox, Martin Lucey, Mikel Murfi and Shane O’Brien.
Pierce Turner will play at the Harp
Raw Bar & Grill on July 12, 19 and 26.
By Peter McDermott
People don’t associate Pierce Turner with summertime in New York.
“I’m usually in Ireland, anyway,” he said. “That’s been the pattern for quite some time.”’
But he has just returned from touring there and a vacation in Europe, and he’s ready to take the Manhattan stage again at Harp Raw Bar & Grill (Third Avenue, between 45th and 46th Streets) this Sunday evening at 6 p.m., as well as on the 19th and 26th.
Some acts have traditionally steered clear of the summer gig, working under the assumption, Turner said, that “people leave on the weekends.”
The Wexford-born singer-songwriter said: “It’s questionable if that’s the case anymore. The recession is supposed to be over, but people can’t afford to go the Hamptons or Fire Island.”
Turner promises “to brush off some summer classics” for the Harp event. “Summer in the City,” with the venue’s open roof, will be different to the show he staged in April at the Irish Arts Center.
“It will be less theatrical — looser and more spontaneous. More of a fun event, but it’s always fun,” he said.
If some of the songs are deep, the important thing is to send them home smiling, Turner said, “or they won’t come back.”
There will, of course, be storytelling. “[The story] is big part of it. And bigger with time,” he said.
On his website, there’s a clip of Turner telling composer Philip Glass — who produced his first solo album and with whom he’s worked occasionally since – the background to “Yogi With a Broken Heart.”
“Some songwriters don’t like explaining lyrics, but I don’t mind, if it helps,” Turner told the Echo. “And people want to know.”
They certainly do in Ireland. He reported that his recent tour there was “incredibly good,” though one event was rained out.
The singer-songwriter said he turned down some events, preferring quality over quantity. Besides, his fans there seem to be a “bit casual,” preferring to buy tickets very close to the day or just to turn up on the night – and that has its anxiety-inducing aspect.
“If I drive to Mullingar,” Turner said, “will there be anybody there?”
But even if a gig is full and a big success, it being Ireland, there will be always those fans who’ll seek him out afterwards to offer their unvarnished critique.
“They don’t bullshit you,” Turner said with a laugh.
“Summer in the City” with Pierce Turner will take place at the Harp Raw Bar & Grill, 729 Third Ave, on Sunday, July 12, 19 and 26. Doors open at 5 p.m.; show is at 6 p.m. He will also perform at An Beal Bocht Café, 445 West 238th St., in the Bronx, on Saturday, Aug 1 at 7 p.m. For more information, go to: www.pierceturner.com
The emphasis is Scottish on Will Woodson
and Eric McDonald’s CD “The Sunny Hills.”
By Daniel Neely
It was only a few years back that Will Woodson was living here in New York City, and working in Brooklyn as an apprentice to the well-established Scottish bellows pipe maker Nate Banton by day (elbowmusic.com) and playing tunes by night. (The nights he wasn’t busy locked away working in the pipes shop, that is.) It was always a pleasure to see him come into a session because in addition to being a friendly, gregarious guy, Will is an excellent player with a bag of unusual and interesting tunes.
Next thing you know, Banton’s off to Maine, moving his shop away from the increasingly untenable Brooklyn rents, and Will’s followed, chasing his passion for music and pipe making. It was a smart move for Will, but unfortunate because for those of us living in New York it meant that no longer would it be so easy to hear him play.
Or so we thought. Earlier this year Will released “The Sunny Hills” with Eric McDonald, a lovely album of Scottish music which features Woodson on the border pipes and flute (willwoodsonmusic.com) and McDonald singing and playing guitar and mandolin. It’s an album lovers of Scottish music will want to check out.
Woodson is a compelling musician. In addition to playing and making pipes, he holds a master’s degree in Scottish music performance from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, is a well regarded teacher and even helped set up the Scottish Iona session in Brooklyn, which has yielded the “Iona Session” album, a CD I have in hand I look forward to discussing here some time in the future.
He gives a strong show of it on this album. Take “Willie Murray’s / …,” “Chloe’s Passion /…,” and “Bundle and Go / …,” three tracks that each gives a very good overview of Woodson’s piping abilities. All of these tracks are lovely and show a piper who plays with great character. And indeed, the tone of his pipes is stellar and a very good advertisement for the work he and Banton are doing together. (Incidentally, anyone interested in knowing more about these pipes is encouraged to visit Banton’s website, elbowmusic.com.)
Woodson’s flute playing is similarly engaging. His style is restrained and relatively unadorned, allowing the rhythms of the melody to do the work. I particularly like what he does on “Cameron’s Got His Wife Again / Donald Blue / A Dhòmhnuill, A Dhòmhnuill,” a strathspey and two reels, on which he articulates the rhythmic nuances of the different tunes nicely.
This album also has McDonald showing some lovely flashes on the mandolin. Take, for example, his playing on the waltz “Drunk in the Night, Dry in the Morning.” The two musicians, mandolin and flute, play together brilliantly and the resulting music is sweet and confident, captured with an intimacy that draws the ear. The mandolin playing on “The Garden of Skye / Lime Hill / Captain Byng,” (march/strathspey/reel) is also lovely. With Woodson on pipes McDonald provides both harmonic and melodic support that alternately drives the melody and gives it depth.
McDonald also contributes three songs, “Caledonia,” “Charlie, Oh Charlie,” and “Dark Lowers the Night.” McDonald’s voice is light and easy and he delivers the songs well. “Caledonia” is a slow song of longing, learned from Tony Cuffe, that comes from Cape Breton Island. “Chairlie” gives it a nice contrast. In a minor key, it has a brooding, snarly character that in combination with the pipe’s drone conveys the song’s darkness well. However, I find “Dark Lowers” the best of the three. McDonald’s voice has a fairly lonesome quality to it that adds the song’s feel, and Woodson’s flute backing sounds great with McDonald’s mandolin playing. It’s a standout track.
Ultimately, “The Sunny Hills” is a lovely album of Scottish music by two young musicians who have a special affinity for the tradition. If Scottish music is your thing, this is an album you’ll definitely want to check out for yourself, but it’s an easy listener for anyone interested in traditional music of any stripe. For more information about the album and artists, visit www.willandericmusic.com.
Marian Toal will celebrate her 105th birthday on July 4.
By Peter McDermott
You can find Tyrone’s Marian Toal in the Census of Ireland, 1911.
And you can also find her at the United Hebrew home in New Rochelle, N.Y., where she is a resident.
“She’s very sharp,” said Belfast native Joe Kennedy, who volunteers there. “I’m surprised. She seems to be doing remarkably well.”
Surprised maybe because Toal will turn 105 on Saturday.
She has no age listed for the Census taken on “the night of SUNDAY, the 2nd of APRIL,” for she’d only been born on July 4, 1910.
Then she was Mary Ann Early. Whether the enumerator or her parents decided that was how her name was spelled, it’s not clear. Whatever the case, the future Marian Toal arrived in New York in October 1929, a couple of weeks before the Wall Street Crash.
“She shouldn’t be blamed,” quipped her son Terence Toal Jr. to the Echo on the occasion of her 100th birthday.
In 1935, the farmer’s daughter from Rock married Terry Toal, a native of Carrickmore, who was involved with the New York City medallion taxicab industry. The family continued to be closely connected with that business and the Yonkers bar and restaurant trade, too.
“Until quite recently, she was active in a lot of organizations in the community,” said Kennedy, a past grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City.
Toal, who was widowed in 1967, was still living independently in her own apartment at age 100 and residing part of the year in Boynton Beach, Fla. “She gets around,” her son said in 2010.
In more recent times, the centenarian had been confined mostly to a wheelchair, though Kennedy reported that she takes a walk around twice a day at United Hebrew with staff assistance.
“They look after the residents extremely well,” he said, adding that Toal’s son and her friends are regular visitors.
“To think that she came over to this country and did so well and survived is incredible,” Kennedy said about the grandmother to eight and great-grandmother to 12. “She is a fine example of the kind of woman Ireland produced and still does.”
Niall O’Leary, on right of picture, celebrated
five years of Irish Cultural Night last week.
By Sean Devlin
As the clock slowly wears towards 10:30 p.m., the musicians trickle in towards the stage in the back right corner of the front room. It’s Thursday evening, and tonight is Irish Cultural Night at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar on 29th Street and 2nd Avenue. The show takes place the same night at the same time every week, but the last Thursday in June is a special occasion. For Niall O’Leary, the show’s leader, is celebrating five years of Irish traditional music and dance at the venue.
Since 2010, O’Leary has striven to bring together the most talented and passionate traditional musicians each week in an open session that focuses on a shared love of Irish music. This session, however, has a unique element. It’s one of the only traditional sessions that places a specific emphasis on dance.
At the outset of the show, O’Leary pulls his dancing shoes out of his black backpack. “This is really the session with the difference. There’s a percussive element to the show, and that imbues the music with extra meaning.”
The founder of Niall O’Leary’s School of Irish Dance wanted to make his show stand out from the dozens that take place every week in New York City.
As he reflects on the past five years, he points to a nondescript box in front to the stage, littered with scuffmarks. “The box! That’s a huge part of this whole experience,” he says. “When we started this show five years back, we decided to install the box so the sound of the shoes would be amplified with the rest of the instruments. It helps our show stand alone, and it’s gotten a great reception.”
Matthew Mancuso, a fiddle player from Brooklyn, echoes the sentiments O’Leary espouses about Irish Culture Night. When asked about his history in traditional music, he shares a unique story. “I’ve been playing the fiddle for years. When other people were learning the other instruments, my dad made me stick with it when I was a kid. I’ve been here at Paddy Reilly’s for the past 15 years, and it’s honestly one of the best traditional shows I’ve ever played in.”
Button accordionist Christy McNamara, a musician from Dublin, agrees that evenings like Irish Culture Night are important to maintain a sense of Irish identity. “Things like this are important. I’ve been playing since I was a small child, and a big part of the reason I came here was to connect with the diaspora. My family came from a big musical background and even cut their own records. I like being able to reconnect with my roots at events such as this.”
The crowd seemed equally as enthusiastic about the evening as the musicians. Danny Larkin, 30, came to Paddy Reilly’s with a group of friends to celebrate his birthday. When asked about his plans for the evening, he mentioned that he made a specific point to attend Irish Culture Night. “My brother and I are seeing Irish music shows every night that we’re here in New York, and I heard this was one of the best,” says Larkin says.
“Since we’ve started, I’ve had some really great collaborators here, “ O’Leary says. “Some of the best traditional musicians in the world have played here; I’m fortunate to have been able to share the stage with them.”
When asked about the future of Irish Culture Night, O’Leary says. “The Irish music scene is really thriving. The groups of traditional musicians in New York are truly great. The more you’re exposed to this sort of music, the better it gets. It’s a bit like radiation — it gets in your system without you realizing.
“When people ask me how things are going here, I can only say, it’s never been better,” O’Leary says.
Niamh Crowther is influenced by her parents’
1960s and ‘70s classic rock collection.
By Colleen Taylor
When Niamh Crowther’s friends come to her gigs, they all get ID’d. “It’s a bit strange,” the singer reflected with a laugh. Strange it may be, but Irish bouncers are doing their job well: at 18 years of age, Crowther is only just past legal adulthood. You wouldn’t know it based on her songs, lyrics, or artistic success thus far. In less than one year, and with only three single releases, Crowther has made her voice and name known across Ireland. This quick fame was well earned: the young singer-songwriter exudes pure natural talent, charm, and maturity. I met Niamh at Whelan’s in Dublin last week before the official launch of her new single, “Little By Little,” and I can say with complete confidence that this girl is on the way up.
Crowther seems surprised by her success, charmingly unaware of the fact she’s one of the special ones. “I don’t see anything too special about it, I just love it,” she said of her music career. She is all humility and told me over and over again how thankful she is to her fans, how lucky she feels to have had such positive response to her music. She remains particularly flabbergasted by the response to her latest track, “Little By Little.” The song already has over 55,000 streams on Spotify. What’s more, it reached the number 10 spot on iTunes’s Singer-Songwriter list the very same day it was released. Hotpress Magazine was absolutely right when they recently named her one to watch.
Her hometown is in County Meath, but she considers herself a Dub too. When she’s not dazzling fans across Ireland or writing songs, Crowther is at St. Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, where she’s studying to be a primary-school teacher. While music is undoubtedly her passion, and she’s thrilled that the dream of making it a career has come true, Crowther looks forward to a dual-professional future. She plans to bring her musical skills into the classroom one day. The 18-year-old recently did a dress rehearsal for her own future classroom environment when she sang “Under the Sea” for a junior infant class a couple months back. If she can balance music with teaching, Crowther definitely plans to keep a piano in her classroom.
I resist the inclination to compare Niamh’s voice to another singer because I think such an equation would undermine her unique vocal quality. Her voice is distinctive, a trademark. Still, her various musical influences lend themselves to her sophisticated, informed vocal styling. It was her parents’ classic rock collection of the ‘60s and ‘70s that started it off for Crowther. Her fate was sealed when her parents got her a guitar at age 7 and signed her up for piano lessons at age 8. The likes of Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles, and U2 remain some of her biggest influences today.
Recently, Crowther has been inspired by Villagers, Hozier, and Glen Hansard. She loves Irish indie music and listens to a good bit of trad as well. “I’m a very proud Irish person,” Niamh told me with a smile, “I love my country—the culture, the music, the language.” I predict Niamh’s career will take her to various spots across the globe in the coming years, but she is adamant that Ireland will always be her home. “I want to come back to my origins,” Crowther said after relating an anecdote of a recent Irish road trip and how struck she was by the beauty of the Waterford countryside. Although she’s not a traditional folk artist, her country and culture provide a crucial source for her creativity and define her artistic identity. Ireland will not only remain her home base, it will always be the singer’s main stage.
Niamh is two persons onstage. She is a down-to-earth, witty teenager – one who falls back on awkward humor — as well as a poised, emotionally adept performer. When the first piano chord sounds, or the first strum of a guitar chord strikes, Crowther goes into a trance. Her ability to move an audience, to make beauty out of the simple pairing of voice and piano—an arguably dying art—is the skill of someone well beyond her years. The same can be said of her songwriting. Each of her three recordings, “Bullets,” “Origins,” and “Little By Little,” display lyrical sophistication. The words are carefully, metaphorically crafted. “Origins” in particular, is peppered with smartly arranged analogies.
But Niamh still has growing to do. I don’t think she’s fully realized her vocal potential yet. The audience at Whelan’s got a glimpse of the profound heights her future music might reach when Crowther sang the Joni Mitchell song, “River.” Her voice really stood out on that song and broke from the more rehearsed patterns of her original works. It was a preview of great things to come from this artist.
I asked Crowther what her plans were next, if she had international aspirations for her music. She looked baffled. “I’ve never thought about [international] markets. I just write songs and sing them.” She takes every day as it comes, lets her songs come to her spontaneously, naturally. The humble singer may not realize it yet, but there’s no doubt in my mind. Her musical prowess will naturally lead her across the Atlantic.
Check out Niamh Crowther on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Her latest single, “Little By Little” is now available on iTunes. You can also catch up with the rest of young Ireland and memorize the lyrics to her other singles, “Origins” and “Bullets,” on Spotify. Finally, visit niamhcrowther.com.
For upcoming New York gigs this month, check out country rock-blues act The Danny Burns Band at City Winery on July 15.
Barry Ward and Simone Kirby in a scene from “Jimmy’s Hall.”
By Frances Scanlon
If you go to “Jimmy’s Hall,” which opens in theatres on Friday, be prepared to shake a lot of leg, and to hear the glorious sounds of liver-than-live Irish music, with a jazz kick-back and bluesy spell. You are on your way to a place that you may think is decades ago, but it’s not: it’s right here and now, where and who you are. Dancers never leave the ballroom.
Of course, not everyone is happy with all that dancing in the film from British director Ken Loach, a flashback to early 1930s County Leitrim, which enjoyed Official Selection status at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and a North American premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Father Sheridan is certainly not.
At a recent Tribeca press conference, Jim Norton said that his Father Sheridan “is very rigid in his beliefs, but he is, I think, essentially a good man. He’s doing the best he can from what he knows. He’s following the dictates of the Catholic Church at that time, which were very tough and obsessed with controlling the moral life of the people in the community.”
Diametrically opposed to every word the parish priest speaks, the Dublin-born Broadway star Norton longs for the day when Ireland can relinquish itself from a few remaining vestiges of that period, which he called “hangovers.”
One that isn’t still around, thankfully, is the belief that communist insurrection can being channeled by a devil’s music-playing gramophone brought back from the United States.
This might be outlandish except that the central character, Jimmy Gralton, was a real historical figure and a real communist, with a history of activism in New York and Leitrim.
The backdrop is post-Civil War Ireland and the election of the first Fianna Fáil government in February 1932. The jet-stream of hope, progress and political freedom galvanizes Jimmy and he decides to go home to his native county.
He even joins Fianna Fáil, in an apparent effort to get some investment into the area. Jimmy, though, becomes the embodiment of all that might be and all that is not, especially for the local youngsters who beseech him to re-open the village hall. ‘
Ask Barry Ward, who plays Jimmy, about the dancing, as I did during the press briefing at Tribeca, and he’ll laugh uproariously at both the delight and the challenge presented. Ward described his dancing skills as “passable,” although after four weeks of extensive pre-production rehearsals in London, he is totally captivating and fleet of foot as Gralton, ably demonstrating the creative output of thrice-weekly dance classes and even a ballroom visit prior to the barely 30-plus days’ sequential shooting schedule in Leitrim.
Brought in for a 10-minute meet-and-greet chat with the director, Ward’s audition entailed improvisations about subject matters, scenarios and scenes that had nothing to do with the film.
Simone Kirby, who wows as Oonagh, Gralton’s love interest, was sent by her London agent to meet with the director for a five-minute chat, which was followed up a couple of weeks later with a request to do some improvisations.
She was intrigued by the possibility of a narrative set in the 1930s. “My grandmother’s times, so that interests me,” she said. “It’s lovely to do a costume thing.”
Kirby, originally from Ennis, Co. Clare, moved to Galway when she was 17 to do youth theatre. She then trained more formally in Dublin, before moving to London, where she is based, though her impressive resume includes work at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.
She had not read the full script, which she found “really liberating, actually.”
Kirby explained: “I’m not playing for something that I know is going to happen to her in the future. I can only play what I know now. It makes total sense to me; just play what you know. Even though we try and do that anyway as actors, it’s a bit of a gift to genuinely not know what’s round the corner.”
And finally, a spoiler alert might be appropriate for some future fans of “Jimmy’s Hall.” Stop reading now, if you’re likely to want to stay in the 1930s moment. But others can hop on the No. 4 train to the last stop, whence they can quickly find the majestic Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which is the final resting place of Jimmy Gralton. He is at Plot Summit, Range 30, Grave 39, and has been since Dec. 29, 1945, and his bride, Bessie (nee Cronogue, Drumsna, County Leitrim), there since Oct. 6, 1975. Although once you step into “Jimmy’s Hall,” you will be hard-pressed to suspend disbelief that he really has a final resting place.
Karen Butler will interview Barry Ward next week, while Michael Gray will be review “Jimmy’s Hall” later in the month.
The multiple-awarding winning novelist Anne Enright was named in January to the new official position of laureate for Irish fiction. PHOTO: HUGH CHALONER
By Orla O’Sullivan
“You’re a different person every time you sit down to write,” said Anne Enright, Ireland’s first laureate for Irish fiction. “It’s always about, ‘What’s life asking me now?’”
The question behind her latest novel, “The Green Road,” is “Why are selfish people unhappy?” said the author known to many for “The Gathering,” her sixth novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.
It is subtly posed in a story that starts and effectively ends in West Clare, when Rosaleen Madigan summons her far-flung adult children to announce that she is selling the family home. The four have little in common besides an understanding of how impossible their mother is. One chapter opens: “Rosaleen told [daughter] Constance she did not want a [Christmas] present this year. She said it in a faint voice, meaning she would be dead soon so what was the point?”
No, Rosaleen isn’t an archetypal Irish mother—the martyr sitting in the dark, Enright said, adding with a reference to Dublin’s largest maternity hospital, “There isn’t a mind-melding machine in Holles Street to become an Irish mammy.”
The questions that seem of least interest to Enright are those from journalists, on whom she passed several comments during our meeting in a Dublin cafe. Between the new book and the laureate role she has been doing many interviews and giving many speeches, she said, adding that she has learned to ad lib, instead of spending three days writing each speech.
Yes, it’s true that she began writing after a nervous breakdown in her late 20s, said Enright, now 52, “… but if I knew I was going to be talking to so many journalists I wouldn’t have mentioned it. I’m just really bored with it.”
So what is her most hated question? “It isn’t so much a hated question but I’m intrigued at how interested the media is in general with success and failure. Or if you base your fiction on real people.”
The laureate appointment was announced by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at an Arts Council ceremony in January. He said: “Anne Enright’s eloquent and powerful writing, fiercely individual voice and unyielding commitment to her craft combined to make her the pre-eminent choice.
The novelist herself has described the role as “half a job, half an honor.” She will serve for three years and receive an annual stipend of €50,000 from the Art Council.
“Enda Kenny said it’s an ambassadorial role,” Enright said, adding, however, that “Irish writers are not expected to be well behaved or to perform.”
Irish readers, meanwhile, she said, are both proud of Irish writers and have “a complicated relationship” with them. “They say, ‘I knew your sister,’ or ‘I wish you’d stop writing about this and write about that.’” (Her former local paper the Bray People, once ran a sweetly proprietorial headline that said merely “Anne shortlisted for Man Booker Prize.”)
Ireland’s literary ambassador is concerned about digital publishing, particularly diminishing concentration spans. “The number of people who’ve told me ‘Oh, I have your book on my nightstand.’ I know what that means, they’re on their iPhones.”
In accepting the laureate title, Enright said it was about future writers, “who will each play a briefly emblematic role in the history of Irish letters.” Just she and her family knew last Christmas that she would be Ireland’s first laureate for fiction, which made, she said, for “a very nice Christmas. It’s nice to be first.”
Enright is married to a theatre director, Martin Murphy, and has two children, one of whom was sitting the Junior Cert exams the week we met. She herself is the youngest of five and grew up in Terenure, in South Dublin, believing from early on that she would be a writer.
“I forgot you have to actually write a book,” Enright said, adding that she was not prepared for how hard it would be. She wrote her first, a collection of short stories called “The Portable Virgin,” on weekends while working weekdays as a television producer. She was then producing children’s television for RTE, where she had previously produced an experimental arts/comedy show called “Nighthawks.”
Motherhood made writing easier, Enright said, allowing her to go from being “hugely anxious” about writing to now finding it a “source of great pleasure.” Any tendency to be precious was offset by “bills to pay” and the fact that “Books aren’t the most important thing anymore; the most important thing is right there in front of you.
“As a writer you just make things up. I sort of know now that I can make it up.”
The creation of one of characters in “The Green Road” seems prescient in that he is a gay Irish man getting married—and the book came out in May, the month that Ireland made history by becoming the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by referendum.
Enright began creating him three years ago. Dan abandoned the priesthood for New York’s East Village–very convincingly rendered although Enright has never lived in New York.
She will be in the Village next spring to teach at New York University as part of her laureate brief. “I’m trying to sort out where we’re going to live and where the kids will go to school. You have to sign your lease and then apply for schools,” she said.
Improvising is surely second nature for someone who says she starts novels without a structure in mind. And the conversation detours into perhaps a preview of her course at NYU while Enright generously offers advice: “What’s your problem with structure? If you’ve a problem with structure you write and you revise. When Beethoven sat down to write his Fifth Symphony he didn’t have it all in his head. The only thing that matters is the sentence on the page.”