This started out to be a piece on some of my favorite Irish music. It very quickly turned into something else. Like me, my wife was of both Scottish and Irish heritage. She was a true Celtic princess, proud of her ancestry leading back to kings and queens in both countries. She loved to listen to music and would often have me play video tunes for her, as we would sit here by my desk holding hands. I am going to play some of her favorite Irish melodies for you this St. Patrick’s Day. I hope these beautiful, and in some cases ancient, melodies speak to you. Not too surprisingly, some are love songs. We were married 55 years, and I miss her terribly.
Sometimes, music helps.
First, I want to share a bit of my own family history. On my maternal grandparents’ side, my grandmother’s family brought the family china from Ireland when they came to the Colonies. It is some of the first Staffordshire made by William Adams, and has been in the family since about 1770. This tea set is what remains of the original set.
Although made in England, it was purchased in Ireland and has been in our possession for more than 240 years.
Follow me over the orange swirl for more…..
This is for Letha, my Celtic princess. Descended from both Scottish and Irish Kings. Letha is the Gaelic word for Brittany. It is a name that has been passed down in her family for centuries.
Here are two details from her stone:
Percy French wrote the Mountains of Mourne in 1896 in collaboration with his partner, Dr. W. Houston Collisson. French wrote the words one day when the Mountains were visible from the Hill of Howth, near Dublin. He sent the poem to Dr. Collisson and the song was born. This is Don McLean:
The Fields of Athenry is an Irish folk ballad. The setting is the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850. The words are those of a man named Michael from near Athenry in County Galway. He was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, Australia. His crime? He stole some corn to feed his starving family. The English regarded sentencing to transportation only about one step lower than execution. The poor convicted wretch is torn from his family and sent by prison ship halfway around the world to a colony, never to return. Michael had been sentenced for, “stealing Trevelyan’s corn.” This is a reference to Charles Edward Trevelyan, a senior British civil servant in the administration of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Trevelyan believed the starving Irish could subsist on maize. Maize was a grain they had no knowledge of, and did not even know how to prepare it for cooking. One of Letha's favorite Irish tenors was Daniel O'Donnell. This beautiful and haunting ballad is one of his best:
The Isle of Innisfree is a song composed by Irish poet and composer Dick Farrelly, who wrote both the music and lyrics. Dick said he got the inspiration for Isle of Innisfree while taking a bus trip to Dublin from his native Kells, in County Meath. The song is often confused with Yeat’s poem, Lake Isle of Innisfree, but that poem is completely different from Farrelly’s lovely song. She loved Charlie Landsborough and we often sat and listened to him sing one of the great all time love songs, I Will Love You All My Life. Here he sings the haunting The Isle of Innisfree:
Thomas Moore wrote The Minstrel Boy in the late 1700’s. It was piped for my ggg-grandfather’s service at the National Cemetery. He had no tombstone, and we did not know the exact location of his burial, so he became eligible for a memorial stone in the National Cemetery. He is the only Revolutionary Soldier to have a stone at the Mountain Home National Cemetery. We wanted to use a song he would likely have known during his lifetime, or even sung while marching or around the campfire. He was a ‘minstrel boy” himself, having joined the militia as a fife player at the age of thirteen. By the time he was sixteen, he was a battle-tested soldier, having fought at King’s Mountain, the Cowpens, Beattie’s Creek and Cowan’s Ford. Barely past his seventeenth birthday, he fought with Washington’s troops at Yorktown. This song has special meaning for us at our house. A third verse was added about the time of the American Civil War, but it does not seem to fit the song very well and I do not care for it. The third verse is not in this original version sung by John McDermott. Moore’s lyrics were set to the music of The Moreen, an old Irish air; hence, those Revolutionary War soldiers would have known the tune even before Moore wrote his lyrics. This old Irish tune of rebellion was heard in an episode of Star Trek as well as the closing credits of Blackhawk Down.
St. Patrick in the Spirit on His Way to Confront King Leary. He preached to King Leary at Tara. John Doan tells the story and plays his composition on a rare harp guitar on location at the Hill of Slane. It was on the Hill of Slane, where John Doan is seated in this video, that St. Patrick started his four mile march to Tara to preach to King Leary and his advisers on Easter in the year 433 AD, the four-hundredth anniversary of he Crucifixion. John Doan tells the story at the historic place where it all started:
The traditional Irish drum is the bodhran. It is a hand drum of ancient origin. John Joe Kelly is the acknowledged master of the bodhran. There are many jokes about bodhrans and bodhran players, but to call John Joe Kelly just a bodhran player is about like saying Sir Edmund Hillary liked to hike the outdoors. Kelly played with the band Flook for some time before they broke up. Here is John Joe Kelly with a virtuoso solo performance:
We cannot leave this without at least one piece sung in authentic Gaelic. This is Mo Ghile Mear, which can be translated as My Hero, My Dashing Darling, a paean to Bonnie Prince Charlie, but was written by an Irishman. Mo Ghile Mear was written by Seán Clárach Mac Dhomhnaill (1691-1757). There is a version of this tune by The Chieftains, with some vocals by Sting. That version is a mixture of English and Gaelic and, IMHO is sung badly, since Sting is not a Gaelic speaker and had to learn the lyrics phonetically.
In closing, this is not an Irish tune, but is about Ireland by a famous Celtic-American, Johnny Cash. Forty Shades of Green.
There are far too many great Irish songs and performers to even begin to list them all here. I hope this short list of tunes brings you some songs that have not been over-played to death, and with which you may not have been familiar.
Go raibh tú daibhir i mí-áidh
Agus saibhir i mbeannachtaí
Go mall ag déanamh namhaid, go luath a déanamh carad,
Ach saibhir nó daibhir, go mall nó go luath,
Nach raibh ach áthas agat
Ón lá seo amach.
May you be poor in misfortune,
Rich in blessings,
Slow to make enemies,
quick to make friends,
But rich or poor, quick or slow,
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward.