Maire Reilly and Maura Mulligan.
By Maura Mulligan
The recent Bergen County Irish festival featured pipe bands, step dancers, food, and a pub area as well as an evening céilí with top musicians Margie Mulvihill, John Reynolds, John Nolan and Dan Gibney. The main stage featured bands “Celtic Cross”, “Nine Mile House,” and “The Narrowbacks.”
With entertainment like that in the same general area as the literature tent, we who presented readings were mightily pleased to have an audience all afternoon. It was a rich reminder that Irish people have a special grá for words.
The literature program had a dramatic start with the Irish Reperatory Theater’s co-founder Ciarán O’ Reilly reciting five poems by Yeats. The talented actor took it all in stride in spite of technical distractions in in the middle of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” By the time Angus started his wandering, the microphone was fully operating and we all breathed a sigh of joyous relief.
Next up was the legendary Carmel Quinn who not only sang beautifully, but also made us laugh when she drew our attention to a passing ambulance announcing that she was alright, that it wasn’t time for her to be taken away yet. Then she belted out “The Gipsy Rover” and the audience joined in the chorus.
Ciarán and Carmel were hard acts to follow. Still, you could tell we managed to keep the momentum going because as soon as someone got up to get a cup of tea, a standee grabbed the vacant seat. Soon extra chairs were added and everyone settled in for an afternoon of stories and poetry in the rain.
Several literature tent presenters paid tribute to the 150th birthday of Yeats and the forthcoming anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Michael O’Malley spoke elegantly about the dreams of Yeats and Pearse and the Éirí Amach na Cásca, or Easter Rising. The scholarly Pat Schuber spoke of the Fenian Movement and how John O’Mahony went to America in 1853 and tried to gain support for another uprising from those who had left Ireland during the Great Hunger.
“Women of the Easter Rebellion” was Hank McNally’s topic, discussing Countess Markievez, and others not so well known or remembered. Mr. McNally reminded his listeners that the last to leave the GPO were members of Cumann na mBan. These included Winnie Carney, Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell.
The theme of the Easter Rising and tribute to Yeats continued with the melodic voice of Ryan Cahill singing “The Foggy Dew” and “Down by the Sally Gardens.”
Yeats wasn’t the only poet presented. Séamus Heaney’s beautiful poem, “Sunlight,” was read by Maura Quinn and poetry of Bobby Sands came alive in the voice of Dick Moloney. A living poet, Tim Dwyer shared poems from his own collection: “Smithy Of Our Longings: Poems From The Irish Diaspora.” These included a moving poem inspired by the 2013 drama film “Philomena.”
There was no lack of prose either. Gary Cahill brought Colum McCann’s writing to life when he shared a passage from “Let The Great World Spin,” which won the 2009 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary award. Cahill also read an interesting passage from his own work. “For Richer, for Poorer.”
McCann’s wasn’t the only world spinning at this festival. John Kearns, the emcee at the Irish American Writers & Artists salon shared a scene from his own novel-in-progress “The World.”
In it, Janey Logan sends her young son, Paul, to get a jar of mayonnaise at the local A&P. When Paul returns saying that the single paper bag the cashier had given him had broken in the rain, Janey goes to the store to cause a scene. She walks out with a free jar. “Paul felt his mother could have gotten a whole order of groceries for free if she had wanted to. But she had fought like a lioness for only a jar of mayonnaise.
“And she didn’t even like mayonnaise.”
Speaking of rain, you could say we used it to our advantage in the literature tent. At one point the side of the tent blew down giving us a mighty splash of rainwater. That turned out to be an appropriate, albeit accidental introduction to the seanachai Marianne McShane’s presentation of “Dermot In The Land-Under-Wave.” A great storyteller Marianne brought the audience along with her under the magical wave.
Poetry, prose, history and magic made way for personal accounts when memoir took its place at this feast of words. Joan Comiskey read from her lovely book, “Ballylinn,” about growing up near her grandmother’s pub/grocery in a small rural village in Ireland of the 1930s. Joan’s light-hearted, voice and entertaining manner kept us glued to her words. She shared a passage about a woman who always wore her hat in the house so that whenever someone she didn’t want to entertain came to the door she could simply say, “Oh, I was just on my way out.”
Music enhanced words when the talented fiddler Longford native Marie Reilly played the haunting tune “The Lark in the Clear Air” as an introduction to my own contribution from my memoir, “Call of the Lark.” I was glad the audience liked my scéal about the local Schoolmaster and his wielding cane. It will be an honor to present this and other stories from “Call of the Lark” at the biggest festival of them all – the Flead Cheoil in Sligo on Aug. 13 when Marie Reilly will again join me in an hour-long presentation.
Congratulations to fellow IAW&A member and festival committee organizer Sean Hickey for including the literature tent. Likewise, much credit is due to Marie Morris and her team for their warm introductions and for doing their best to keep the literature tent out of earshot of the music performances.
Maura Mulligan is the author of a memoir, “Call of the Lark.”
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.
Jimmy Crowley began writing the “Songs of Cork” column in Evening Echo in 2002.
By Daniel Neely
I imagine there isn’t a music lover from Ireland who doesn’t recognize the name of the great Corkman Jimmy Crowley. From his work with Stokers Lodge to his own solo projects, Crowley has forged a reputation over the past 50 or so years as one of the legendary balladeers. Earlier this year he launched “Songs for the Beautiful City: The Cork Urban Ballads,” a magnum opus that contains nearly 150 songs and tells an unparalleled story of place and history. Thoroughly researched and brilliantly realized, it’s a collection for the ages.
This book has been years in the making. A student of song his whole life, Crowley has shared his vast knowledge publicly since 2002 when he first began writing the “Songs Of Cork” column published in Cork’s Evening Echo newspaper. All of the songs that appear in this new book were carefully curated from Crowley’s Echo column and together form a select group that thoroughly represents the humanity of the Cork people. There are age-old ballads, songs of more recent vintage, songs to which Crowley given a melody, and a small number of Crowley originals (including his beautiful “Queen of the White Star Line,” which is a personal favorite) – it’s a stunning selection. This is a work that stands in the grand tradition of books like “Songs of the People,” the seminal collection Sam Henry put together for his own weekly newspaper column in Coleraine’s the Northern Constitution newspaper, 1923-1939, and is a wonderful parallel.
The songs here are arranged in a series of categories organized by theme. These include “Calendar Feasts and Urban Occasions,” “Children’s Songs, Skipping Songs and Some Cork Cants,” “Skipping Songs,” “The Comic Muse,” “Cork Harbour, The Lee and Beyond,” “Early Songs,” “Emigration and Urban Attachments,” “Love Songs,” “Nationalist, Subaltern and Didactic Songs,” “Parallel Ballads,” “Portraits,” “The Sound of History,” and “The Sporting Muse.” Each of these sections is led by a short essay which includes basic information about the song type as well as a small bit of lead commentary about the songs contained therein.
The songs are presented on facing pages to allow easy reading and include basic notation (without harmony), lyrics, commentary and in some cases, photographs. The songs themselves are truly wonderful. Crowley’s notes about each one are romantic and engaged, communicate his deeply felt passion for the subject matter, present little bits of Cork-specific folklore and tale, and signal his deep historical understanding of their cultural context. There is a wonderful ease in Crowley’s prose that communicates his wit and humor, and which makes the commentary that accompanies the songs come alive.
Don’t read music? Not a problem. Included in the book’s purchase is the “balladcard,” which is stuck inside its front cover with a bit of sticky rubber. The balladcard looks like a credit card, carries a unique download code and includes instructions on how to download the tracks directly to your computer. The download itself consists of Crowley singing each song once though without accompaniment or ornamentation – strictly the bare bones. These tracks have the feel of old field recordings, but Crowley’s voice is magical and helps make them easy to listen to and learn from. It’s a wonderful addition and should be a standard approach for any songbook like this.
Crowley has done something remarkable here. “Songs for the Beautiful City” is a brilliant collection and a must have not only for singers but for any person who has an affinity toward or a nostalgia for Cork. Given the scope of its contents and the years of research it represents, this book is an indispensable scholarly document and will certainly go down as one of the classic song collections. However, it’s also full of soul. Crowley is an engaging writer and the songs and stories he tells here are the sort that reach people in visceral ways. I can’t recommended this one highly enough. Visit www.jimmycrowley.com for information about purchasing.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music for the Irish Echo each week. His website is www.danieltneely.com.