The Emigrant’s Letter
By Mattie Lennon
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blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life; its strength;
and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together
with his life." —Joseph Conrad.
It has been said that Ireland has controlled its population growth by
three measures: celibacy, late marriages, and emigration. The first two
were facts of life but not featured much in song. Emigration, on the other
hand, provided a fertile field for the ballad-writer. Peggy Sweeney's latest
CD The Emigrant's Letter (which will also be released on DVD later
in the year) draws from a rich harvest of emigration songs.
"Homeland In Mayo": Singer/songwriter, Patsy McEvoy from Blessington, Co.
Wicklow, has been, for many years, moved and inspired by the ruined cabins
and "famine fields" of rural Ireland. This near obsession has culminated
in a sad and moving ballad. The air was composed by Brian Kilcawley.
"The Emigrant's Letter": "Defend us from the inspiration of the moment"
just doesn't hold water. While Percy French was working as an entertainer
on a cruise ship he heard one passenger say to another, "They're cuttin'
the corn in Creeslough today." He immediately took up his pen to write,
"Dear Danny, I'm taking the pen in my hand……"
"Freemantle Bay": This song, written by Bill Bomer, tells the story of
how, when under the oppressor, a man who stole a trifle to save his family
from death by starvation could be banished to the other side of the world.
"Dear Old Wexford Town": Historic Wexford commemorated in this ballad by
Fr. Kavanagh who died in 1918. In it , the subject wonders if he will ever
be accepted back in the place that he loves.
"Famine Years": Octogenarian song-writer Dan Keane can write about any
subject from a fresh and original angle. This song (air by Brian Burke)
is an example. Written in 1995 it won the New Ballad competition at the
All-Ireland Fleadh Ceol in 1996. And who was singing it?……. You've
guessed….Peggy Sweeney. Like most of Dan's songs "Famine Years" ends on
a note of optimism:
It's hard indeed dear Motherland
Your anger to restrain
But we've survived those many years
And hope has bloomed again.
And to that hope, Oh! holy land
Be evermore resigned,
For the love of God is greater
Than the hate of all mankind.
"My Dear Native Town Town of Dunmore": This song was composed by singer,
broadcaster raconteur and former Garda John Duggan. Mayo man, John, has
penned such favorites a "The Roads of Kildare," The Old Threshing Mill"
and "I Fell in Love With Claremorris," as well as a collection of monologues
including "Old Ignatius" and "The Greatest Game of All."
"On The Banks Of The Foyle": A reminder that lovely Derry is indeed on
"Goodbye, Johnny Dear": "Write a letter now and then and send her all you
can." A refrain often uttered at a railway station or port when the pain
at the departure of an offspring was juxtaposed by the concern for the
welfare of " the helpless ones at home." Written by Johnny Patterson ("The
Rambler from Clare"); a man better known for his comic songs.
"Sliabh Gallion Braes": Another man tells the story of how because
of rents and rates and taxes which he could no longer pay he was forced
to flee from the land that he loved.
"The Rose of Mooncoin": This Kilkenny anthem has been recorded many times,
but not like this.
"Spancil Hill:: No matter what part of the world where I am awakened by
the sound of a vehicle, in the first few seconds I am transported. As far
as I am concerned, it is a Thames van chugging up the Lodge Lane in the
1950s. If you've had a similar experience, you can understand what it's
like to come to your senses and wake up, "…..in California, many mile from
"The Shores of Americay": "It's not for the want of employment I'm going,
o'er the dreary and stormy say….." Love as well as hardship caused people
to leave these shores.
"Limerick Vales": (Scamp Music). Denis Barron, exiled in Birmingham, has
given us this moving ballad of his homeland with music by Jimmy Lennon.
"The Shores of Lough Bran": This song is about a departure from Leitrim;
one of the counties hardest hit by emigration.
"Lovely Deise": Of course you all know why Waterford is known as "The Deise."
That's right. About a millennium and a half ago, a tribe called the Deise
were driven from Tara and conquered the area now known as Waterford (a
Glenmore man has assured me that they are not going to conquer any of Kilkenny)
and so it was originally known as the Deise. I knew you'd know that. Dan
Savage (nicknamed "Cnoc Dubh" ) wrote this beautiful song.
|The Emigrant's Letter is available from Kerry Music, Causeway,
Price; €16,$23 or £13 (Including P&P)