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Rita Keane

Traditional Irish music's bright future

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Rita Keane

“All songs are living Ghosts

And long for a living voice”

-- Brendan Kennelly

I thought of the verse above when recalling the fourth anniversary of the Dublin song collector Frank Harte’s passing on June 27, 2005 after putting the finishing touches on his last recording “There’s Gangs of Them Digging,” a collection of Irish working songs released by Hummingbird Records in 2007. 

On Monday, June 29, Rita Keane of Caherlistrane, County Galway passed away at age 86 in a Galway hospital.

Before leaving this earth, however, the pair left a rich legacy for others to emulate and to keep the songs of Ireland inhabited by generations of singers who they touched with their own authentic voices and styles.

Harte was the more well-known and traveled singer and song collector said to have compiled over 15,000 songs in a database for his own and eventually an historical archive accessible for others to delve into and keep those songs alive.

The quality of his voice, while distinctive, was not what drove people to seek him out in teaching workshops, festivals, concerts or any of his six recordings over the years. 

Harte grasped the essence of a song and the historical context which gave it greater resonance no matter whether it was political, swashbuckling, romantic, humorous or tragic, and he felt that was more important to convey than a catchy melody or air which could detract from the overall message contained in the words.

He preferred to sing without accompaniment, save for the last part of his life when his last four CD’s were produced and deftly accompanied by Donal Lunny for Hummingbird Records. 

His impact on many of the major Irish singers today like Paul Brady, Mary Black, Niamh Parsons, Karan Casey and the Goilin Singing Club can still be very much recognized in their music with or without accompaniment or acknowledgment.

Rita Keane was a sister of Sarah Keane from Galway in the Conamara region near Headford. The Keane family has been one of Ireland’s foremost families in Irish traditional music, going back over six decades first with a ceili band and then as one of the leading forces in traditional singing. 

Rita and Sarah made two albums displaying their unique -- for Ireland anyway -- singing in unison style which reflected the heartfelt way they collected and preserved songs around their part of the world. 

The first was called “Once I Loved” and the second was “At the Setting of the Sun” which was recorded 20 years after the first one.  

Many singers all over Ireland were influenced by their honest, authentic voices, but none more so than their niece Delores Keane and nephews Sean and Matt Keane who went on to have great careers in Irish music, having been reared around their two aunts Rita and Sarah and steeped in the tradition they espoused so fiercely. 

The Keane family being musicians had an added advantage in approaching songs, and their locality and fluency in the Irish language provided for more ornamentation in their singing and more of the sean nos aspects that could not be said of Frank Harte.

Three years ago in 2006 Rita and Sarah Keane were recognized by TG4 for a Lifetime Achievement in Irish Traditional Music, and Harte won their acclaim as Singer of the Year in 2003.

It is important to note the above because singers are very important people when evaluating how our Irish heritage gets passed along from one generation to another. As Harte was famous for saying, “Those in power write the history while those who suffer write the songs and we Irish have an awful lot of songs.”

Not everyone can play the jigs and reels, and singers of every stripe and influence can bear witness to how broad and insightful our culture can be through the world of song.

Like all things traditional, singing must be cared for and tended to and continue to prosper in the right hands, and I am glad to say that there are many great singers out there upholding the tradition. 

At the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival when Northern Ireland was recognized as a region of influence on America, there was an outstanding array of singers as part of a 160 strong compliment of artists and crafts people.  

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