The Genius of Munnelly


Bridging the gap between Ireland’s great musical and literary genius is the wealth of historic, poignant and even ordinary songs in the folk tradition that paint powerful word images in their verses.

They don’t often get the respect and attention they deserve, even inside the tradition where singers often have to segregate themselves to get a proper listen from an audience, but one can always hope that a singing revival sprouts up like we have seen with set dancing and sean nos dancing most recently.

If it does emerge, one of the pillars upon which it will be built will be extensive song collections and recordings from folklorists like the late Tom Munnelly, who toiled for decades for the Irish Folklore Commission later under the auspices of UCD’s Department of Irish Folklore.

Munnelly, a Dublin native from Crumlin, passed away in August of 2007 in his adopted home of Miltown Malbay where he moved in 1978 because he was spending so much time in the west of Ireland and Co. Clare collecting material.

Over three decades he proved the right man for the job of seeking out singers and stories about the songs and transcribing them for archival and entertainment sake, a enjoyable occupation for a man with an outsized personality and wit which was invaluable in ingratiating himself with his “clientele.”

It was written at the time of his death that he would have gathered 20,000 songs and more importantly given them voice through vehicles like the Willie Clancy Summer School where he was an important committee member for a number of years, and the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin established by the Arts Council in 1985 where he served as chairman for five years.

In 1976 he curated the Irish task force for the Smithsonian Bicentennial Folklife Festival.

Through many singing weekends throughout the country, recordings and his own writings he was acknowledged for the massive contribution he was making to the realm of Irish song and its preservation for future generations.

Shortly before he died at the age of 63, much of his amazing work was detailed in a book, Dear Far-Voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly, followed by the presentation of an honorary doctorate in literature from NUI-Galway in June.

In those months before his passing he was interviewed by Paula Carroll, an independent producer who also produces the West Wind Wednesday night trad show on Clare FM.

That interview forms the basis for a two-part documentary presented this week and next on Clare FM (June 23 and June 30) as part of Carroll’s weekly presentation (in the 8 o’clock hour of the 7-9 p.m. broadcast of West Wind also available on archive for a week or as a podcast at www.clarefm.ie).

Even in the Banner County where traditional music is paramount, the emphasis on the singing tradition could use a boost, and the voices of legendary singers like Tom Lenihan of Miltown Malbay and Michael “Straighty” Flanagan of Inagh will rise again to audiences who may not have heard them before.

Readers of this column may remember past mention of Carroll’s Rag and Bone Productions for the popular Clare FM series The Kitchen Sessions that ran a few years back (www.ragandbone.ie).

It was radio programming at its best, capturing the atmosphere and craic of country house night in talent-laden communities around Clare and even included a couple of excursions to the Boston kitchen of Gerry Dunleavy and New Jersey hearth of Siobhan and Willie Kelly.

Ms. Carroll, who lives in Scariff, also produced another radio documentary presented by Michael Collins called the Blue Tar Road which updates us on the traveler singing tradition and whether it still exists or not.

This show airs on Lyric FM on Saturday, June 26 at 7p.m. where it also will reside for a week at www.rte.ie/lyricfm/features.

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