Declan McGrath’s stunning film of Alan Lomax’s Irish adventure
One of the first things that strikes you about Declan McGrath’s beautifully constructed film about the song collector, Alan Lomax, and his pivotal journey around Ireland is the amazing quality of the soundtrack.
While it would be de rigueur for music recorded today, Lomax in Éirinn provides richness and clarity to music recorded over eighty years ago in the case of the American material and almost seventy years ago in the case of Lomax’s recordings in Ireland.
In part this is a testimony to the care Alan Lomax and his father, John, took in making the original tapes: but it is also to the credit of the team behind this film, including sound editor, John Brennan, that they have been committed to representing Alan Lomax’s legacy – from America and from Ireland – in the best way.
While Pól Brennan from the Gaoth Dobhair family at the heart of Clannad is central to the exposition of the narrative, the telling of the story is shared by a wonderful array of performers and researchers who recount events and impart insights on Lomax’s work in not only documenting Irish traditional music but restoring its prestige within Ireland as well as presenting it to the world.
Among the impressive cast of contributors to the film are Lomax’s daughter, Anna; his biographer, John Szwed; traditional music historian, Dr. Deirdre Ní Chonghaile; singers, Iarla Ó Lionáird, John Spillane and Brian Mullen: Irish Traditional Music Archive alumni, Nicholas Carolan, Grace Toland and Danny Diamond; and Todd Harvey, archivist at the Library of Congress in Washington.
The film demonstrates a strong sense of the ebb and flow of musical forms between Ireland and America – as Lomax quickly began to realise that many of the dance tunes he had recorded in the Appalachians were remarkably similar to the tunes he was now hearing in Ireland.
Through the recording of his conversation with fiddler, Agnes White of the Ballinakill Céilí Band, we discover that Miss McLeod’s Reel was known as Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe? in Virginia where Lomax recorded it. And to emphasise its enduring quality, Declan McGrath shows us the Tulla Céilí Band playing the same tune at a neighbourhood dance.
An even more unexpected twist in the narrative comes with a song crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction. Goodnight Irene – one of the songs Alan Lomax had originally recorded Lead Belly singing in the 1930s – was also recorded by Lomax in Gaoth Dobhair in the Donegal Gaeltacht in 1951 sung in Irish by Cití Ni Gallchóir – who was a neighbour during Pól Brennan’s childhood.
Altogether, Lomax made over 200 recordings during his two months in Ireland – a remarkable level of productivity only made possible by the pioneering work of Séamus Ennis who had been recording singers and musicians for the Irish Folklore Commission on wax cylinders and manuscripts.
Ennis led Lomax directly to the sources of the music which were available at the time. Lomax eventually selected 34 tracks to appear on the Irish LP which was released by Columbia in 1955. On the disc label, Ennis’s name precedes that of Lomax – acknowledging the Dubliner’s pivotal role in the project.
The significance of their collaboration cannot be overstated. With state-of-the-art technology both to record the music and to distribute it – through the new LP format – Lomax not only brought Irish traditional music to the world – but reaffirmed its status as a prestigious art-form in Ireland.
At one point in the film, Iarla Ó Lionáird compares the experience of listening to the voices of 1951 to a form of time travel – especially poignant in his case because he was listening to the voice of his grand-aunt, Elizabeth Cronin, the Muskerry Queen of Song, recorded in 1951 by Alan Lomax
But in terms of the structure of the film, we are invited to go time travelling: while the main thread of the narrative follows the chronology of Lomax’s field work in the southern States of America, followed by his period in New York, leading on to his arrival in Ireland – we are constantly being reminded of the enduring quality of his legacy by the inclusion of present-day singers and musicians performing the songs Lomax collected – as concrete examples of a legacy that is alive.
They also help to contribute to turning a potential difficulty in the availability of source material for the film into a golden opportunity to add value to the viewer’s overall experience.
While there is no shortage of archive film footage and still images to populate the first half of the film covering Lomax’s back story in America, there is relatively little archive imagery – still or moving – to accompany the narrative of his Irish adventure. But director, Declan McGrath, takes an inspired approach to the problem by considering what visual imagery remains today from 1951 – the landscapes.
So the episodes that make up the second half of the film are threaded together with shots of a 1950s vintage car travelling across sweeping vistas. So we not only see stunning visuals but we are also being asked to consider how the music recorded by Lomax and sustained by current artists – is grounded in these rugged landscapes. The wide expanses of Irish countryside also contrast visually with the intimate close-ups of many of the contributors balancing light with shade, trom agus éadrom.
Among the modern renditions of old material recorded by Lomax are special performances by Steve Earle of Woody Guthrie’s New York Town and Nell Ní Chróinin with An Cailín Aerach – originally sung by Máire Ní Shuilleabháin in 1951.
The film also benefits from some glorious moments of wonder, poignancy and maybe even a little serendipity.
The film begins in Gaoth Dobhair where Alan Lomax recorded young Cití Ni Gallchóir singing in 1951. So it reaches a natural conclusion with a recital in Gaoth Dobhair by Clannad of Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene in Irish as Cití had done. Not only had the song been translated by Aodh Ó Dúgain – the grandfather of Pól and Moya Brennan – but there in the audience listening to Clannad is Cití Ní Gallchóir.
A final postscript is the Gloaming’s recording of Cucanandy from their second album – one of the songs that Alan Lomax originally recorded in 1951 being sung by Iarla Ó Lionáird’s grand-aunt, Elizabeth Cronin.
But one of the most poignant moments in the film is Pól Brennan’s interview with Máire Ní Cheocháin – another of the sean nós singers from Muskerry originally recorded by Alan Lomax in 1951. As she recalls singing for the man from Texas, she wonders what became of the recording. She is astonished when Pól tells her that her singing can be heard in the Library of Congress in Washington and by the whole world over the internet. The legacy of Alan Lomax is encapsulated in this moving encounter!
Declan McGrath: Film Maker
With a well established reputation as a film editor and more recently as a director, Declan McGrath from Belfast has had a lifelong interest in music – describing it as one of the oldest art forms.
He points out that songs pre-date written language – a phenomenon that is also evident in much of the music that Lomax collected from people who were unable to read or write.
While he previously worked as editor on the film, Martin Hayes: Natural Grace, Lomax in Éirinn offered his first opportunity to immerse himself fully in a music film project.