Tracing the beginnings of traditional song in Ireland is a hazardous journey through rolling mists of conjecture with few reliable landmarks. Certainly a good deal is known about the bardic poetry of a millennium ago and much has survived on manuscript from this and later periods, but to call this 'folk song' is drawing a very long bow, rather it was a highly developed formal art provided for the nobility and those chieftains who could retain a file (poet or scribe) who wrote this - frequently panegyric - poetry, the reacaire who chanted it for the assembly and who was in turn accompanied by a harper. The form of the reacaire's musical performance or that of his harper remains a mystery as it was never documented.
In 1603 a proclamation was issued for the extermination of "all manner of bands, harpers, etc.", and Elizabeth 1 ordered Lord Barrimore "to hang harpers wherever found." In the mid seventeenth century came the final decline of the native Irish aristocracy which culminated in the Flight of the Earls after the siege of Limerick. The subsequent arrival of Oliver Cromwell did little to encourage indigenous art forms. It thus happened that these chroniclers of the nobility were without patrons and had to adapt their art to suit tastes of lower social levels if they wished to eat. A few, like Carolan (1670 - 1738), managed to keep up the tradition of playing in the great houses, but by then, he was very much a rarity playing to a much altered peerage. And though he is commonly referred to as "the last of the bards", the graceful music of Carolan owes as much to European influences as it does Irish.
Prior to the fading of bardic poetry very little note had been taken of a humbler verse form known as the amhrain (today this means 'song' but in earlier times it could also mean recited poetry)' but it is by no means peculiar to Ireland that little notice was taken of the effusions of the humbler folk by those capable of writing who were of course mainly aristocrats.
When notice was taken it was seldom complimentary. As far back as the 14th century we find disgruntled Giolla na Naomh O'hUigin complaining about kings (who were his meal-ticket) who preferred amhrain to the poetry of file. Amhrain he refers to contemptuously as songs composed by; "women and long-haired rustics". By the 18th century poets were much more "of the people" than above them. Poets like Aodhagan O'Rathaille were being listened to, and their work memorised, by greater - if poorer - audiences. But even in his time the memories of faded glories were still vivid enough to prompt a contemporary to remark acidly that Aodhagan was "openly and unashamedly" writing songs which would have been beneath a file in earlier times.
The fact that we do not have early documentation of our folk songs should not automatically lead us to believe that the songs of the file were not affected by the amhrain and with the decline of the file's social status his poetry was certainly an influence on the more ordinary folk. The formal poet would modify his rather high flown verse to suit the taste of the folk and the folk would benefit by the introduction of new rhythms and metres not previously employed at a popular level. If you read Robin Flower's introduction to Tomas O'Rathille's Danta Gradha you will become aware of much that is similar in formal poetry and folksong which is as yet extant.
As you would expect, the Irish language is the main vehicle for the amhrain, and if you would find these songs today you must follow them to the seaboards of Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Cork and Waterford. With a couple of exceptions, it is only on these desolate coastal areas that the native language and its inherent songlore survives, battered by the ocean on one side and 20th century media on the other. To attempt to describe this intricate and delicate style fleuri form of unaccompanied singing on paper is as pointless an exercise as trying to describe a rainbow to a blind man. Should you be unfamiliar with this singing style and unable to visit the areas where the tradition is still alive you may still be able to get an idea of its sound by listening to commercially available recordings of such fine singers as Sean Mac Donnachadha, Maire Aine Ni Donnachadha or Seosamh O'hEanai (Joe Heaney). If you are to inquire about this singing style it may be useful to know that it is often refereed to nowadays as sean nos (literally; "Old Style") a term which originally - and properly - refereed to all older ways of singing rather than a particular florid style.
The introduction of songs in the English language is a centuries old process not always the result of colonising troops but also the result of normal settlement and commercial intercourse between Britain and Ireland. Ballads, that is, narrative songs, are particularly rare in Gaelic tradition for the Gaelic singer much prefers lyrical songs where he can dwell on the melody, improvising and decorating to his heart's content. Such concentration on the individual verse unit is not suited for the ballad form where the singer must 'get on' with telling the story. It is somewhat ironic that the older ballads which may no longer be found in Britain may be heard on the lips of Irish traditional singers. Such a case is The Well Below The Valley, a mediaeval ballad which was long considered to be extinct orally but turned up in the repertoire of a travelling man in Boyle, Co. Roscommon. This traveller - John Reilly - who died in 1969, was also the source for more of Christy Moore's songs such as The Raggle Taggle Gypsy, Tippin' It Up to Nancy, Lord Bateman, and What Put The Blood. Irish Travellers with such repertoires as John are not numerous but recent collecting in this country has made it obvious that the well springs of folksong among them is as deep as that already demonstrated by Scots travellers as a result of the work of Hamish Henderson. Of course Irish travellers travelled in Britain and vice versa and the importance of this musical cross fertilization is just coming to light.
Planxty perform at Nyon Folk Festival 1980
Andy Irvine's travels to places like Israel, Bulgaria and Romania resulted in his returning with the somewhat exotic tunes included in Planxty's repertoire. He is not without precedent and one is reminded of the account given by the collector Bunting, of the uilleann piper who was invited by an Indian prince to Calcutta. Unfortunately this piper brought back neither tune or song as he developed a fondness for the local hooch and having taken a bit too much of it one day fell overboard from the prince's pleasure barge and disappeared - pipes and all - into the Ganges! The travels of our native folk singers tended to be a little more mundane but extremely important nevertheless in the introduction of new songs into local repertoires. Particularly important were the seasonal migrations when thousands would leave to go harvesting in Britain. A look at any of the major Scottish collections such as Ord's "Bothy Songs & Ballads" will show clear evidence as to how many Irish songs were left behind and further perusal of the contents will show you how many native Scots songs are now traditional in this country, particularly in Ulster. Moving down to the South-West of England, authorities from Cecil Sharp to A.L. Lloyd have pointed out the debt singers there owe to Ireland in evolving their melodic style.
Hardships were many and the conditions these migrant workers toiled in were often atrocious. Nevertheless it would come to an end with the harvest, and the workers could return home so there is a great deal of forbearance and frequent humour in the songs which came across the Irish Sea. More traumatic was the passage to Americay for it was all too often a one-way journey. It was a countrywide custom to hold a party on the night before sailing to ease the pain of parting. These parties were known as "American Wakes" for it was felt that undertaking such a journey was as irreversible as death itself. Often the parting was just as final. This feeling is well reflected in such songs as The Green Fields of Canada. Needless to say the odd emigrant did return and brought back songs like The Lake of Ponchartrain with him.
The Lake of Ponchartrain was circulated over here in broadsheet form, for as people were becoming more literate the ballad seller became a more prominent figure at fairs and markets hawking his ballad slips and walking the country roads selling them (and other small knick-knacks) as well as bringing news of the outside world. As in all parts of the English speaking world ballads on murder were perhaps the most sought after, and the more sensational the better. Unlike most parts however, ballad sheets continued to be sold in the streets of Dublin and elsewhere until as recently as the late 50's.
Even allowing for the considerable amount of external sources and influences the great majority of the songs to be found traditionally in Ireland are products of the native soil itself. This is self-evident for the Gaelic songs, but it is not often appreciated that the English language song corpus is as rich as it actually is. That this is the case would become apparent if you had time to peruse the thousands upon thousands of songs collected from traditional informants and lodged in the manuscript collections of the Dept. of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin. But such a task is daunting. More easily assimilated are the collections of Robin Morton and the soon to be published book by Dr. Hugh Shields dealing with the songs of Derry. Easily available is Songs of the People edited by John Moulden from the collection of the late Sam Henry. A comprehensive introduction to Anglo-Irish song still remains to be written; it is not a work to be undertaken lightly as there are as many song types as there are types of people; sad, happy, funny, cynical, sensational, beautiful, bawdy, pious, long, short, good, bad and indifferent. Many of the older songs employ Gaelic rhyming systems which have happily crossed the language barrier. And some have adapted essentially English song forms and imbued them with a breath-taking and crystalline Hibernian beauty, (for example the lovely Fermanagh song 'As I Roved Out' which Andy sings).
For as long as the Irish have been making songs they have been making political songs. By their nature some of them have been offensive - depending on whether you were on the singing or receiving end of the song, but then, many political songs are meant to be offensive. On looking up Planxty's repertoire alone on disc, you will see that their political songs cover a wide spectrum, from Follow Me Up to Carlow written about a battle in 1580 to Only Our Rivers Run Free written only yesterday about the northern troubles which remain unresolved even yet. If one is to suggest a linking factor it might be worth considering a thoughtful mood as that factor. Conviction without vindictiveness. This makes a refreshing difference to those "folk groups" who cynically capitalize on the current troubles by playing to the basest sides of human nature. This form of scavenging has been aptly described by the musician Tony McMahon as "carrion music". In a word, the element separating Planxty's performance of political songs from that of most other groups is simple: good taste.
Finally, the nature of Irish traditional song is such that melodies are often impossible to bar, as they are so fluid and inconsistent in their rhythm. Accompanied singing in either Irish or English is practically unknown and is certainly not a normal traditional custom in any part of Ireland. So what of Planxty's accompaniments? As they are based in Dublin rather than Rome they do not claim infallibility and looking back, not all of their arrangements have worked as well as they might have. But the group's respect for the integrity of the music and song usually makes the metamorphosis from a traditional to a non-traditional norm seem like a natural evolution. (Which it may well be). How is it done? Outside of their ubiquitous instrumental and vocal ability plus musical imagination we seem to be back to that word again: taste.
Tom Munnelly - July 18th 1980