Joe Heaney,
The Road from Connemara
(Topic, 2000)

To review The Road from Connemara I need only one word -- magic.

Opening this double CD was like stepping into an Aladdin's Cave of traditional Irish music. In a hefty box it contains all that makes folk music great and accessible. In addition to two CDs there is a well-written, 60-page booklet giving the words and a commentary on the contents of the CDs.

The album is based on a series of interviews with Heaney conducted by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger back in 1964, and as such they are in essence a history of the folk tradition of Connemara and in particular the sean-nos genre. Here you will find not only a wide array of songs ranging from the familiar to the unknown, but also the background to some of the tracks in Joe Heaney's own words. As the notes say, he had a vast repertoire of songs and a "perspective on life shaped by poverty and hard living, folk and National School memories of Cromwell, the Famine, Landlordism and the Black & Tans."

In all there are 39 tracks included and each one is like a chapter in social history.

"The Old Woman of Wexford" will be familiar to most listeners, although the county is often changed. It is a comic-tragic tale of unhappy marriage, murder and misfortune told with humour. "Skibbereen" is an epic told in song but with poetic lines like "she never rose but passed away from life to mortal dream" to depict even death.

"The Song of the Drowning" is yet another story-song, this time based on a true tale of three brothers who drowned while fishing. Heaney dates it to 1910 and written by a sister of the men who died. The old McPeake Family favourite "The Jug of Punch" gets the Heaney treatment here also. Other well-known tunes featured include "Barbary Ellen," "Banks of Claudy" and "Cunnla."

"My Boy Willie" is a version of "The Croppy Boy" that I had not heard before but I enjoyed hearing a new take on the old story. "Patsy McCann" is another song new to me but with an old refrain. As Heaney introduces it as being "about a desperate man who had a big fat daughter he wanted to get married off" -- it is another tragic-comic song.

Anyone who went to school in Ireland in the mid-20th century will know a number of these songs by heart, especially "Beidh Aonach Amarach," which was a staple of classroom singing.

This CD is one that must be experienced. Its sum is far greater than its parts. You could hear and enjoy any one of these tracks but to hear Joe Heaney explain the background and to read the life story and the translated lyrics of the Gaelic songs you must buy the CD.

This will appeal to anyone interested in folk music, Ireland, social history, good lyrics or owning a piece of history.

[ by Nicky Rossiter ]
Rambles: 27 July 2002

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