Rita Gallagher: The Linnet beyond the Bluestacks

Rita Gallagher at the Morning Star in Tullyallen during the Drogheda Tradtional Singing Weekend (Photo: Colm Keating)

Though widely acclaimed as one of Ireland’s leading traditional singers, Rita Gallagher has never been tempted to make a full-time career out of her undoubted gift. The reason is quite simple, singing is her passion – not her profession.

Rather like Frank Harte who spurned the call of a professional recording career because of the likely commercial pressures that would accompany it, Rita has always kept her working life and her singing life separate for fear that if music became the job, it would no longer provide the same joy.

Even though she regularly shares stages with professional artists from Ireland and elsewhere, Rita enjoys the freedom of singing (or not, as the case may be) whenever she chooses. “I would hate to have to perform because my livelihood depended on it,” she says. “I think I would lose a lot of the pleasure I get from singing.”

Of course, this distinction between work and play has not been without its complications. As a three times All-Ireland senior female champion (singing in English), Rita was in great demand for Comhaltas tours to Britain and the USA. So she was required to take unpaid leave from work to do so. Even though she was a public servant – working for Donegal County Council – it wasn’t the simple matter you might expect. Apparently the Donegal County Manager did not have sufficient authority to sanction her leave of absence, the matter had to be passed up to the Department of Local Government in Dublin for final approval!

Rita Gallagher, surrounded by silverware
in the early 1980s

She was, by her own admission, fairly late to traditional singing – only beginning in her early 20s. However, she was clearly attentive and talented enough to secure her first All-Ireland title at the age of 23 at the 1979 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann on familiar territory in Buncrana. Rita’s success followed a hat-trick of All-Ireland victories for her fellow county-woman, Pauline Sweeney (who by co-incidence had also won her first title in Buncrana in 1976). Rita went on to finish second in 1980 before reclaiming the top spot in 1981 and 1982.

While there was music in her childhood home in Ballymacahill near Frosses, it was by no means exclusively traditional. There were singers on both sides of her family and Rita’s parents were both singers, though not in the traditional style. But they encouraged the young Rita’s interest in music. As well as singing, Rita began to play the guitar, the mouth organ and the tin whistle. “I suppose I always sang, but I was in my early 20s before I got interested in traditional singing when I attended a Donegal County Fleadh in 1978.”

“Pauline Sweeney and Brídín Doherty were my initial sources of songs, when we were members of Donegal Seisiún Group. I began listening to and recording other singers. Since then I’ve collected a number of songs from many sources. I find that the older I get, the more interested I become in the songs, and how complex and diverse the songs and singers are.”

And what a singer she has become with her distinctive rich voice, her remarkable range, her effortless delivery and her intuitive capacity for sensitive emotional connection – all the more moving because it is judiciously measured rather than histrionic or maudlin. Like the finest traditional singers, Rita shows great discernment both in how she sings and in the songs she chooses to sing.

Sisters in Song: Rita Gallagher, Niamh Parsons and Rosie Stewart

While many All-Ireland champions in various disciplines have leveraged their success into some form of professional career – as a performer or a teacher or more likely combining the two – Rita has never really entertained the notion of becoming a teacher. While she has given once-off workshops as part of music festivals, she has not undertaken any intensive coaching of a ‘stable’ of singing students. “I think students would expect a level of analysis of their technique – which I would not feel able to give.”

While she is happy to provide advice and to explain her own approach to a particular song, she believes that ultimately singers have to find a way to make each song their own – drawing on elements from their own life experience to give their performance integrity. Although songs should not change out of all recognition, she is adamant that you shouldn’t sing it exactly the way you heard it. “Traditional music would lose most of its appeal if it were played without interpretation, and the stamp of the individual musician or singer.”

There are echoes here of Daoirí Farrell’s process in ‘getting to a know a song.’ Daoirí can spend months working with a song until he feels comfortable with it and how he might interpret it. But occasionally he has to concede that the relationship is just not going to work and, with regret, put the song aside.

The Comhaltas Ceannródaithe for 2017: (from left) front: Rita Gallagher,
Maura Walsh; back: Patsy Moloney, Brian MacNamara, Mick Mulcahy
and Vincent Griffin

 As for Rita’s own ‘process,’ it is the air – rather than the words – of a song that first attracts her. “I am fascinated by the airs initially, and the potential to interpret them, to ornament, emphasise, inflect, and generally mould the song to suit my voice and how it affects me and appeals to me.” Once she makes a connection with the air, she moves on to consider the lyrics which can then add another dimension to the interpretation.

Just as she has no ambition to become a singing teacher, she does not envy the judges who adjudicate at fleadhanna today. “The standard is so high now among the younger singers that it must often be very difficult to decide between one singer and another. Even though there are specific criteria used to assess singers, I could imagine that two singers could be so close that the decision might just be down to the personal taste of the adjudicator.”

Rita Gallagher with the TG4 Gradam Ceoil
trophy for Singer of the Year in 2017.

So even though there may be an element of luck involved in winning a singing competition, winning it three times suggests that something more is going on. And, of course, the judgement of the fleadh adjudicators around forty years ago has been more than confirmed by Rita’s subsequent career in music and song – and indeed by the many prestigious accolades that have followed including the TG4 Gradam Cheoil for Singer of the Year and Gradam na Fleidhe Nua in 2017, and the Ceannródaí (Bardic Award) from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 2017.

The Gradam for Singer of the Year was particularly meaningful for Rita as someone who sings primarily in English. “I was thrilled to get it. I think it’s fantastic that they give recognition to people who sing in English as well as those who sing in Irish.”

But perhaps her most prized accolade has not been a title or an award but the special praise of one of her singing idols, Paddy Tunney, who dubbed Rita the ‘Linnet of the Bluestacks’ – acknowledging her origins close to Donegal town in the south of the county.

Paddy Tunney

Known as ‘The Man of Songs,’ Paddy was a singer, songwriter, song collector and a triple All-Ireland champion lilter. At the core of his repertoire were the songs he learned from his mother, Brigid. So Paddy and his family became a virtual mother-lode of traditional songs for collectors like Peter Kennedy and Seán O’Boyle, who traversed the highways and byways of Ulster in the 1950s and 1960s for the the BBC Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme.

Paddy also became a much sought after performer in the emerging British folk club scene in the 1960s. Many of his family’s songs have become well established in the canon of singing clubs throughout Ireland and beyond including The Mountain Streams where the Moorcocks Crow, The Green Fields of Canada, Moorlough Mary, Craigie Hill, Lough Erne Shore and Easter Snow.

Easter Snow is the title of Rita’s first solo album – released on cassette in 1997 – on which she sings fourteen songs unaccompanied. She had previously recorded individual tracks for two Comhaltas compilation albums, The Green Groves and A Bar of a Song. Rita’s second album, The May Morning Dew – engineered by Terry McGinty in Ballybofey and released in 2010 – takes its name from another song collected by Paddy Tunney from Mandy Gallagher, of Tullagh in Inishowen. The album contains a total of twenty songs – again unaccompanied (apart from a touch of bodhrán from Brian Duffy on one track) – along with all of the tracks contained on the earlier album, Easter Snow.

On the sleeve notes to what is in effect a double-album, singer, flute player and former chair of Comhaltas, Séamus Mac Mathúna, suggests that “it will be a valued source and inspiration for singers of all ages.” Referencing Rita’s willingness to take on the exacting vocal task of performing so many songs widely acknowledged to be among the most difficult in the traditional canon, Séamus adds: “Only a singer of exceptional ability would have the courage to take on the challenge of maintaining momentum, tuning and concentration through the four, five or six demanding verses of so many songs. Rita Gallagher has done it in great style, and these recordings will stand as a testament to her ability.”

Rita Gallagher with Séamus Mac Mathúna (left) and Frank Kelly at CCÉ Headquarters in Monkstown.

Though released in 2010, the album was eventually named as the record of the year from a female singer in 2014 by the international online radio station, liveireland.com – because it had only come to their attention at that time. In announcing the accolade, the station said: “This Donegal talent is unsurpassed in her grasp of sean nós singing – she is a master of the form…. She is everything Irish singing should be.”

In 2016 Rita returned to the studio to record her third album, The Heathery Hills – a critically acclaimed collection of twelve more unaccompanied songs. As well as the title track sourced from Brigid Tunney, the album also includes classics like The Lowlands of Holland, The Yellow Bittern, Lament To The Moon from Donegal’s Packie Manus Byrne and The Hero From Bonny Carlow from Paddy Berry of Wexford.

Although all three albums include a number of songs from Donegal, reflecting Rita’s pride in her roots, her recorded repertoire (see below) reflects the broader Ulster tradition. Her current home at Crossroads, Killygordon near Ballybofey – which she shares with renowned fiddler, Frank Kelly (who also won an All-Ireland senior title in 1979) – is only a few miles from the Tyrone border. Rita has often performed at local festivals alongside Frank and his son, Bernard, a talented box player, with her whistle playing adding an extra dimension to the soundscape of the dance tunes.

Rita Gallagher (Photo: Martin Connolly)

Aside from Paddy Tunney, the other major influence on Rita’s singing has been the inspirational Dolores Keane – who has, incidentally, also made an acclaimed recording of the song, The May Morning Dew. Rather like Rita, herself, Dolores has been celebrated as possessing all the attributes of a great singer – wonderful tone, sensitive interpretation and excellent song choices, both in terms of repertoire and in terms of the stylised variations with which she has imprinted herself on the songs. With two powerful tradition bearers, like Paddy Tunney and Dolores Keane, so influential in Rita’s own formation as a singer, it is hardly surprising that Rita has emerged as one of the foremost traditional singers of her generation.

While the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has restricted the opportunities for live in-person performances, Rita has adapted to the new online reality of singing via Zoom and remains a most welcome guest at many of the remote sessions that now bring singers, storytellers and listeners together virtually. Her recent appearance at the Séamus Ennis Arts Centre online singing session in November was a considerable tour de force.

The presence in the virtual audience of a number of very fine singers (including at least two more All-Ireland champions and a former winner of the Gradam for Singer of the Year) was a testament to the high esteem for Rita that exists within the traditional music and singing community. She may not consider herself to be a teacher in the conventional sense – but for all of the singers and aspiring singers listening to her, it was not just a highly entertaining song recital: it was a complete masterclass.


Easter Snow (1997)

Track Listing:

  1. Going to Mass Last Sunday
  2. John Adair
  3. Old Arboe
  4. Sweet Inniscarra
  5. Easter Snow
  6. Lurgy Stream
  7. Edward on Lough Erne’s Shore
  8. Sheephaven Bay
  9. The Blackbird
  10. When My Love and I Parted
  11. Blackwater Side
  12. Highland Mary
  13. Dark is the Colour
  14. The Mountain Streams

The May Morning Dew (2010)
Track Listing:

  1. Craigie Hill
  2. Bonnie Light Horseman
  3. Bonny Bunch of Roses O
  4. The Banks of the Clyde
  5. The Flower of Magherally
  6. Lovely Willie
  7. Lough Erne’s Shore
  8. The May Morning Dew
  9. Rambling Irishman
  10. The Wounded Hussar
  11. The Shores of Lough Brann
  12. Out of the Window
  13. Oh The Marriage
  14. You Rambling Boys of Pleasure
  15. The Mermaid
  16. Rushes Green
  17. Wee Weaver
  18. The Nightingale
  19. What’s Keeping My True Love
  20. The Mountain Streams

The Heathery Hills (2016)
Track Listing:

  1. Lone Shanakyle
  2. The Lowlands of Holland
  3. An Bunan Buí (The Yellow Bittern)
  4. Erin’s Green Shore
  5. The Bay of Biscay/Sweet William’s Ghost
  6. The Hero from Bonny Carlow
  7. Early Early/The Croppy Boy
  8. On The Banks of the River
  9. Lament to the Moon
  10. The Heathery Hills
  11. Molly Ban A Stor
  12. The Buachaill Roe
TG4 Gradam Ceoil winners 2017: (from left) Liam O’Brien. Dónal Lunny, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Michael Rooney, Rita Gallagher and Mick O’Connor (Photo: TG4).

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