The job of the journeyman ballad singer in Irish folk music had been revered for a long time and it plays a vital role in Ireland’s literary tradition expressed through the world of song. There have been a number of exceptional singers who have led the field and have iconic status among those who follow the Ballad scene but there are some whose colorful natures and personality stand out all the more.
One of those is a native Fermanagh man from Ballinaleck from a musical and literary family who has been one of the real characters in Irish music for most of his 66 years. We are talking about Cathal McConnell whose legendary prowess in Irish song and music through his flute and whistle playing and storytelling makes him a special artist. And earlier this year a new book and CD encapsulating his song catalog were published called “I Have Travelled This Country” in Ireland and happily I was able to get a copy at the launch at the Cavan Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann.
As one of the founders of the Boys of the Lough and the only remaining member from the original group formed in 1967 by Robin Morton and Tommy Gunn and later to be joined by Ally Bain and Dave Richardson, Cathal McConnell quickly established himself as special voice and tradition bearer for the rich repertoire of songs from the British Isles. Blessed with an impish wit and deliberate comical demeanor, which have added to the charm and depth he brings to his songs and performances. For many decades he has shared a friendship and keen interest in song-collecting with Len Graham as they traipsed around Ireland gathering songs and soaking up the pure drop in the raw bar realm of the tradition along with many cups of tea and other spirits in country homes and sessions throughout the island. His lifelong dedication to song-catching and transference to his audience and a slew of singers-in the making accompanied his exception flute playing that inspired a further examination of music from his own County which was recorded and published as the Hidden Fermanagh project exhibited over here at the Smithsonian Northern Ireland Festival a few years back. In 2010 he was acknowledged with a Gradam Cheoil as Singer of the Year by TG4.
The new book is a collection of 123 songs from a much larger McConnell canon but most of them would be songs that are little known but spared the fate of disappearance because McConnell saw the value in them in depicting some part of the world he relished. It was undertaken by fiddler Gerry O’Connor who along with his late-wife Eithne Ni Uallachain, a noted singer herself visited the McConnell home many years ago and maintained a friendship and professional relationship down through the years. Along with his current wife Sile Boylan, they set out to create an important and living archive of Cathal McConnell’s singing and songs so the interactive book was planned and received support from the Irish Arts Council under its Traditional Arts Officer Paul Flynn. Through brief introductory essays from Len Graham, Dave Richardson and Gerry O’Connor along with a brief biography we know the measure of the man who has devoted his life to preserving and passing on the music he was reared with and fostered throughout his life.
The result is an invaluable book and recording of a living Master of the Tradition that anyone interested in Irish song will want to have for their own. Each of the 123 songs is listed alphabetically with lyrics to accompany the chosen songs. One word of caution for those who are used to hearing Cathal in more animated form but the songs here are sung without any musical accompaniment in spare fashion meant to teach the basic melody and inflection for the verses. For this long-time fan, sadly, it doesn’t include the great humorous and unpredictable banter that Cathal usually weaves into his introductions in live performances. (Never miss a chance to experience that for yourselves however). Still the book is a treasure for anyone appreciating the Irish song tradition and wanting to enhance their own repertoire while saving some great songs from going into the ground with the singers who gave them life above.
The new book and audio DVD can be obtained from OssianUSA (ossianUSA.com or phone 603-783-4303) and also is available in MP3 format from www.cathalmcconnell.com) where it can be purchased as a download. (Fyi his older brother Cormac McConnell has graced the pages of the Irish Voice as a colorful columnist for many years).