The joys of Wexford for Aileen Lambert

Aileen Lambert


Aileen Lambert is very well known in singing circles throughout Ireland – both as an engaging performer, a diligent researcher and collector of songs, and as an effective facilitator of singing workshops in schools. Aileen also has a strong sense of place – having absorbed the local customs and traditions of her native county of Wexford, as exemplified in her most recent singing project, By Land and Sea, showcasing the songs of the village of Blackwater and its environs.

Aileen’s new album, The Wexford Lovers, features eleven tracks – seven with strong Wexford associations, three with references to Newfoundland and one, the title track, which connects both. Singing completely unaccompanied throughout, Aileen opens with My Hero from Bonny Carlow – one of many songs set against the backdrop of the Peninsular War between Britain and Napoleon’s France. While a version of the song was collected in Newfoundland and Aileen credits another great Wexford singer, Paddy Berry, as her immediate source, the song is generally attributed to the prolific nineteenth-century ballad-maker, John Sheil of Drogheda.

The Wexford Lovers – whose words were collected in New Ross in 1938 – tells the story of love transcending religious differences and parental disapproval. Aileen discovered the air during a visit to Newfoundland where she found the song being sung under the title, Willie Reilly. A poem by Winifred Letts, inspired by the Wexford coast, provides the lyrics for The Harbour to which Aileen has provided the music. The irregular metre of the poetry means that its adaptation as a song is challenging. Although the task may have been made easier with an instrumental accompaniment, Aileen’s commitment to the a capella form produces a song that, is slightly more demanding of the listener but certainly more melodic than the recitatives that frequently grace the Wexford Opera Festival.

Jimmy Whalen – which was collected in Newfoundland – is a young woman’s lament for her drowned lover. Aileen’s beautiful rendition does justice to the poignant ballad. It is followed by the first of three songs written by Aileen’s husband, the folklorist Michael Fortune. The Maid of Glascarrig is inspired by the Roney Rock nearby with its association with the mythical sea creature, the selkie.

Commodore Barry, written by Irish-American poet, William Collins, to celebrate the Wexford-born “Father of the American Navy” was published in Songs of the Wexford Coast in 1948 without an accompanying tune. So Paddy Berry set it to the tune of The Belfast Shoemaker – which not only sounds like a natural fit but is also very well sung by Aileen Lambert.

The March to the North, written by Michael Fortune to a traditional air, commemorates the aftermath of the Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1798 when thousands of men and women from Wexford and Wicklow embarked on a perilous journey northwards to try to link up with United Irishmen in Antrim and Down. Once again Aileen delivers a peerless performance.

Another song from Newfoundland with an emigration theme, The Green Shores of Fogo, is said to have been composed by a sailor but as Aileen points out in the detailed liner notes that accompany the CD, the lyrics are very reminiscent of the Irish song, The Country I’m Leaving Behind.

The third Fortune composition, At the Back of the Hill, could have been inspired by MeToo or FairPlé, It is a ballad in the traditional form but with lyrics highlighting the virtues of a strong and independent woman with a cautionary refrain for all chauvinists in training: Let all you young men take a warning for you won’t be needed some day.

The final two songs, The Bold Sailor Boy, and The Bannow Mother’s Lament, return to two themes established earlier on the album: death at sea and emigration respectively. The Bold Sailor Boy is a variant of the song My Boy Willie, a recording of which, made in Newfoundland, is available in the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Aileen’s source for the song is the redoubtable Paddy Berry – who also supplied The Bannow Mother’s Lament, written by his grand uncle and first performed in 1916 during his play, The Hook in the Harvest.

The album succeeds -– not only as a valuable collection of lyrical artifacts of social history but also as an excellent showcase of a series of highly entertaining and well considered performances.

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