There is a certain irony in the idea of traditional singer, Macdara Yeates, curating a…
Seán Corcoran, a great man of song from Drogheda, passed away on Monday, May 3, after a protracted illness. Seán was born into a family with a rich musical heritage: his paternal grandmother was a fiddler and concertina-player and his maternal grandfather, “an old salt who had swallyed the anchor” was a shanty-singer. Seán began singing in feiseanna as a boy and while still at school began to seek out local traditional singers. He did not have to look far: his class-mates in St. Joseph’s CBS, Drogheda included Gerry Cullen (later of The Voice Squad), Nicholas Carolan (later Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive), and Eamonn Campbell (later of The Dubliners) while another of Seán’s contemporaries in the St Peter’s Church Choir was Dónal Maguire (who was to become a successful traditional singer in Britain)
But among the older singers he uncovered, was Mary Ann Carolan in 1966, now regarded as one of the most important singers of her generation for having preserved a number of songs she learned from her father, Pat Usher (including some previously thought to have been lost). Mary Ann became his “grandmother in song.” He later recorded an album of her singing at her home in the Hill of Rath in 1976 which was released seven years later by Topic Records.
As well as becoming a regular face at the weekly singing session in Carbery’s in Drogheda, Seán became a popular figure at the Listener’s Club and the renowned Tradition Club in Dublin – where on the opening night, Seán Corcoran performed with Tom Crehan, Niall Fennell and Dave Smith as The Press Gang. The band pioneered the English tradition of a capella part-singing to wider Irish audiences with a repertoire drawn from the singing of the Copper Family and the Watersons, as well as the Irish traditional canon. The quartet released an album entitled The Press Gang on Hawk Records in 1975.
During the 1970s Seán played a central role in the organisation of Féile na Boinne – which brought many of the country’s leading musicians and singers to Drogheda including Liam O’Flynn, Eddie Butcher, John Tunney, Joe Holmes and Len Graham and, of course, The Press Gang.
After the band broke up, Seán continued as a solo performer, recording a number of tracks for a compilation album entitled Sailing Into Walpole’s Marsh along with Eddie Clarke, Maeve Donnelly and Mairead Ní Dhomhnaill in 1977. He appeared on stages all over Europe, North America (including the Smithsonian Festival) and Japan and at many major festivals – as well as continuing as a collector and researcher, lecturing at third-level institutions, carrying out fieldwork projects, and recording for radio, television and film documentaries – including an innovative radio drama-documentary on the Drogheda weaver-poet and ballad-maker, John Sheil.
During this period, Seán played with many leading artists including Paul Brady, Dónal Lunny, Christy Moore, Mick Moloney and Kevin Conneff. The fruits of his labours also appear on the sleeve notes of many albums of traditional songs during this period – either as the author of the notes or as an authority on the pedigree of a song or indeed as its collector.
As a champion of local history as well as traditional singing, Seán was part of the effort by the Old Drogheda Society to memorialise John Sheil in the Cord Road Cemetery in Drogheda. Although his precise resting place within the cemetery remains unknown, a memorial was recently erected at the gates – incorporating the inscription that Sheil had himself written before his death (pictured right).
In the 1990s, Seán on mandocello and bouzouki teamed up with fellow Drogheda man, Desi Wilkinson on flute, and Dubliner, Ronan Browne on pipes, whistle and flute to form the highly successful trio Cran in which all three shared vocal duties.
The band released its first album in 1995, The Crooked Stair, which was followed by Black Black Black in 1998, Lover’s Ghost in 2000 and Music from the Edge of the World in 2002.
The band made use of Séan’s almost encyclopaedic knowledge of traditional song to bring a number of previously unrecorded songs to public attention.
Belfast flute player, Harry Ó Brolcháin, who occasionally played with Cran as a “casual member” noted that Seán “studied and worked here in Belfast as a music academic and later as Arts Council Traditional Arts Officer during the years of conflict. A committed socialist, he brought his knowledge of the song and music together with a deep understanding of the value in our common traditional music culture for challenging the sectarian narratives of the dominant political establishments. His vision was of the music, open to all, building inclusion and social justice and respect.” In summary, said Ó Brolcháin, Seán was “a great humanist and an inherently decent man, always full of ideas, deep perceptions and enlightened thoughts.”
While Cran had played together sporadically in recent years, they reunited in 2018 for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann came to Drogheda – with a highly accomplished set in St. Peter’s Church. That evening, Cran shared the stage with another traditional singer from Oriel, Padraigín Ní Uallacháin, who was in touch with him in February of this year as he began his chemo. Padraigín described him as “a great positive force in Ulster song and in focusing attention on the Oriel tradition in both languages, especially of Co. Louth,” adding “we will miss him greatly.”
Francy Devine from the Howth Singing Circle recalled many happy hours spent in Seán’s company in Carbery’s of Drogheda along with many other fine local singers over the years. “Seán had driving energy, endless ideas and inventive plans, an originality in his interpretation of songs and music and a strong desire to recover each item’s provenance, understand and respect it. His contribution in so many areas was immense and his death will be widely mourned.”
A fine singer and accomplished musician, Séan Corcoran moved seamlessly between the stage and academia – driven by a passionate understanding that the traditional arts were not museum pieces or quaint relics of the past but an organic expression of popular culture with a vibrant legacy to be enjoyed and explored both in the present and into the future.