Ómós: Mick Moloney

The world of traditional music was shocked at the sudden death of one of its most devoted exponents, Mick Moloney, who, as performer, researcher and promoter, has inspired audiences, artists and academics internationally to engage with the music, the dance and the lore that accompanies it.

Born in November, 1944, in Limerick, Mick began playing tenor banjo aged 16. As a teenager, he listened to American folk singers and especially Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Burl Ives. As there was a dearth of traditional instrumental music being played in Limerick at that time, he used to go to Ennis to listen to and record music in the pubs.

With his growing repertoire of traditional songs and his facility on guitar and mandolin as well as tenor banjo, he became a member of the Emmet Folk Group, with Brian Bolger and Dónal Lunny. Entering the Wexford Ballad Contest in 1966, the Emmets came second behind a band from Meath called the Johnstons. Within a year, Mick had joined the Johnstons while his former band-mates had merged with the Spiceland Folk Group to form Emmet Spiceland. The Johnstons were sisters, Adrienne and Lucy Johnston, and brother, Michael, who was subsequently replaced by Paul Brady. For the next five years Mick toured and recorded with the Johnstons – releasing six albums and two further anthologies.

In 1973, when the Johnstons played the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Moloney met the American folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein, one of the organizers of the festival who was also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Moloney decided to stay in America to study folklore at the University of Pennsylvania with Goldstein as his adviser.

While studying for his PhD, Moloney gained a reputation as one of the leading performers on the Irish music scene in America, as well as one of its most prominent researchers.

The Johnstons Reunion 2011: (from left) Mick Moloney, Michael Johnston, Niamh Parsons (guest), Lucy Johnston and Paul Brady.

In 1976, he was one of the fieldworkers for a special bicentennial edition of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, while in 1977 he worked for the American Folklife Center on its first field project – the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project – which led him to make some of the earliest field recordings of Liz Carroll and Michael Flatley, among others.

He eventually earned a PhD in folklore and folklife. His doctoral dissertation formed the basis for his book, Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish American History through Song, published in 2002, with an accompanying album on Shanachie Records. Moloney was also interested in the intersections of Irish folk music with Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, which led to several research projects, including If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews, which Moloney spoke about at the Library of Congress in 2009 and also provided the material for another album. Mick taught ethnomusicology, folklore and Irish studies courses at the University of Pennsylvania and at Georgetown, Villanova and New York Universities.

In parallel with his academic pursuits, Moloney became a driving force in Irish music in the United States. Much of the national exposure received by traditional Irish artists, such as Martin Mulvihill, Donny Golden, and Jack Coen — all earning recognition as National Heritage Fellows — was the result of Moloney’s work as mentor, producer, performer and scholar. Through his passion and scholarship, he was highly influential in bringing Irish music out of the back rooms of pubs and parlours and presenting it on festival stages and in concert halls.

As a performer and a producer/arranger, Mick was involved in over a hundred albums of traditional music. Among them were three solo albums, as well as numerous recordings in partnership with other Irish musicians, including Derry fiddler Eugene O’Donnell, button accordionist James Keane, and singer-guitarist Robbie O’Connell. He also recorded two as a member of The Green Fields of America, the touring ensemble he co-founded in 1977. Mick also supplied comprehensive sleeve notes to nineteen more albums including recordings by the Chieftains and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

Mick was ahead of his time in promoting female musicians. In 1985, he championed a concert series in New York showcasing female musicians.

Among them was the all-female band, Cherish the Ladies, whose leader Joanie Madden received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA in 2021.

His role in supporting the creation of Cherish the Ladies, is told by Joanie Madden (see Joanies tribute below). He went on to produce two albums for the band.

Cherish The Ladies

He also produced an album for Eileen Ivers and supplied sleeve notes for two more. Other female artists he collaborated with in the recording studio included Liz Carroll, Betsy McGovern, Sue Mogan-Mattison and Liz Hanley along with Louise and Michelle of the Mulcahy Family.

He was closely involved in a number of other pivotal recordings – including Paddy Tunney’s acclaimed 1982 album, Stone Fiddle, as producer and engineer; Brendan Mulvihill’s Flax in Bloom album in 1979 as producer and musician; Terry Teahan and Gene Kelly’s 1997 Topic album, Old Time Irish Music in America as producer; and Hamish Imlach’s 1998 album, The Definitive Transatlantic Collection as producer and background vocalist.

Moloney established the Irish Week at the Augusta Heritage Center’s summer music camp, founded the Philadelphia Ceili Group, and acted as advisor for scores of festivals and concerts all over America. He served as the artistic director for several major arts tours including The Green Fields of America, an ensemble of Irish musicians, singers and dancers which toured across the United States on several occasions and was scheduled to appear at this year’s Frank Harte Festival in Dublin in September.

The Green Fields was never intended to have a permanent line-up that would perform and tour in a conventional way. Many individual members of the group at any given time had regular jobs outside music and were unable to tour full time and often, younger members of the group went on to develop their own separate full-time careers in music. However, scores of the finest Irish artists in America have performed with the group throughout its history and many, including Séamus Egan, Joanie Madden, Eileen Ivers, Karan Casey and John Doyle have gone on to achieve international stardom. Six Green Fields members, Liz Carroll, Jack Coen, Michael Flatley, Donny Golden, Mike Rafferty, and Mick Moloney, have been awarded the National Heritage Award – the highest honour an American folk artist can achieve. As fewer than fifteen awards are handed out annually, it is astonishing that five members of the same musical culture, let alone the same musical group, should receive this award.

The Green Fields of America in one of its many iterations

He hosted three major series of folk music on American Public Television; was a consultant, performer and interviewee on the acclaimed television documentary series, Bringing It All Back Home; a participant, consultant and music arranger of the  documentary film Out of Ireland; and a performer on the PBS special The Irish in America: Long Journey Home.

In 1999 he was awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts — the highest official accolade for a traditional artist in the United States, while in Ireland he received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award from President Michael D. Higgins in November of 2013, followed in 2014 by the TG4 Gradam Ceoil for Special Contribution which recognises individuals or organisations who have worked to ensure the preservation and development of traditional music.

Throughout his career, Moloney was remarkably generous with his time in supporting other musicians and other researchers – but also in terms of his social activism through his involvement in numerous benefit concerts and his support for a charity home and school for poor children in Thailand where he lived part-time in recent years.

Mick Moloney making a donation of material relating to The Johnstons for the Irish Traditional Music Archive at a function at Slane Castle in Co. Meath, in May 2022 (Photo: ITMA)

Tributes and Memories

As President of Ireland, may I say it is with deep sadness that I have learnt of the death of musician and scholar, Dr. Mick Moloney… His passing is a loss to the musical heritage of Ireland, to Irish America and to Irish music worldwide… Mick made his love of music an integral part of his life’s work and his generosity of spirit in sharing his talents and passion for Irish music and culture will live on as part of his deep legacy.
Michael D. Higgins
President of Ireland
Mick receives the Presidential Distinguished Service Award from President Michael D. Higgins in 2013 (Photo: Áras and Uachtaráin)
I’ve known Mick since I was 12 years old. He was the reason I wanted to play the banjo. He taught me how to play triplets properly, how not to play too loud, how to listen to others. He taught me the difference between playing and performing. He taught me that it was about more than just the music. He introduced me to all the musicians I’d only known from listening to their albums. I sat in his front room in Philadelphia and played tunes with so many of them, my musical heroes. He made that possible. He brought me on stage with him. He brought me on my first tour of America…
  So much of what I came to know was because of him. He taught me that I was part of a long story, one that was being told well before I came along and that would continue long after I was gone. Well, Mick has left the story now. It is an enormous loss but with the many chapters he has written we all have so much to be thankful for.
  As the years went by there would be long stretches where we might not be in touch with one another. But I always took great comfort knowing he was out there somewhere, playing in some distant land, singing his songs and telling his stories. I knew I’d hear all about it when we would meet up again. It would be as if no time had passed at all. He’s away again but this will take some getting used to.
Séamus Egan
Solas
Mick literally changed the lives of countless Irish musicians, singers and dancers in America and I am one of those very lucky and thankful recipients.
  He was a champion of all things Irish and did more for the progression of Irish music, song and dance in America than anyone I know. Through his many ideas and collaborations, he brought us all to the major folk festivals around the nation and introduced me to so many artists who became my life long friends in music and dance.
  I first met Mick down at the Philadelphia Irish Folk Festival when I was 16 when he interviewed my father for one of his field recordings where he was capturing the stories of musicians who emigrated to the USA - but It was the phone call in September of 1983 that I received from Mick that would change my life forever.
  Mick called to congratulate me on my successes at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil music competitions… he was completely astonished at the number of young women who traveled back to Ireland from America and had returned with gold medals in various instruments. He wanted to celebrate this change in the tide of women and advancement in Irish music with a series of concerts to be held in New York City.
  He applied for a grant and in partnership with the Ethnic Folk Arts Center he made it all happen. He reached out to me to help him put the concerts together and told this young 18 year old girl that she would be MC'ing the concerts. Let me tell you I hadn't the foggiest clue of how to mc a concert (and probably still don't), but I accepted the challenge and suggested the title of the Irish traditional jig, Cherish the Ladies, as the name of the series and he thought it was a great idea, and so we began.
  When the series was over with every concert sold out, he brought us all together again this time in the recording studio to record an album entitled Cherish the Ladies, and we were all amazed when the album was chosen as one of the best folk albums of the year by the Library of Congress.
  Mick wasn't done yet, as he applied for another grant to the National Endowment for the Arts for us to perform a nationwide tour and Mick came on the road with us, mentoring and guiding us all. He helped us put the show together and critiqued us after each gig with gentle instruction of what worked and what didn't. He then gave me the ball and told me to run with it.
  In the 38 years since we performed that first concert, I have never forgotten to give him thanks at each and every one of the 4000+ stages we have since performed on - and I want you all to know that we would not be here if it wasn't for the great Mick Moloney.
  It was just a month ago that Mick came to visit me at my house in Miltown Malbay in County Clare and we had a fantastic visit. We laughed, reminisced and planned some new collaborations for next year. He told me wherever and whenever he was coming on the next cruise and was excited for some new projects that he was putting together. He was always plotting and planning and always had 10 tongs in the fire.
  He was a mighty man, a great friend and I will miss our frequent chats as we had so many great times over the years. The saying, "The likes of him we will never see again," is a catch phrase you often hear, but when it comes to the life of Dr. Mick Moloney it is so true – the likes of him we will never see again as Mick was literally one in a million.
Joanie Madden
Cherish The Ladies
Joanie Madden celebrates Mick's TG4 Gradam Ceoil for Special Contribution in 2014 (Photo: TG4)
I cannot recall exactly when it was I first saw Mick Moloney, sometime in the early 1970s I think… Liam, my older brother, told me to go up to Debbie McClatchy's folk club on Manhattan's Upper West Side. What struck me immediately was the way Mick Moloney and Eugene O'Donnell were able to work together making songs and tunes equally important... a new concept. Margaret Barry was the one who told me about The Johnstons. She was very fond of 'Michael,' as she called him.
   Mick ran a few extravaganzas at the University of Pennsylvania and my group, The Flying Cloud, took part. That was in the mid 1970s. I invited him to the Eagle Tavern on a night when it rained cats and dogs and bicycles. It rained like hell but still they came... a full house... absolutely amazing!
   Mick very kindly volunteered to join me on two of my CDs: Irish Ballads & Songs of the Sea and Irish Pirate Ballads, which had a host of great players and singers including Joanie Madden and Gabriel Donahue. I joined him in the NYU Washington Harp & Shamrock Orchestra along with Don Meade and Dan Neely. What a lot of fun we had thanks to Mick's inclusionary ideals and kindness.
   One thing about life is that it holds few certainties. Mick, we would have loved you until you were a hundred but we were lucky to have you for so long.
Dan Milner
Much will be written about Mick Moloney. I firmly believe that no person other than maybe Captain Francis O’Neill has had the greatest influence and impact on Irish music here other than the bold Mick. I know that I would not be playing professionally today had it not been for Mick – and there are many others that gathered under the mighty umbrella of music which Mick held high to welcome us all in…
  If there was a catch phrase for Mick, it would be his own “The Best Ever” description whether he’d be talking about a meal, a tune, a drink (back in those days), a song, a book, a friend, his son Fintan, or the weather (yes, even in rainy Limerick)... But the one true Best Ever was himself.
Jimmy Keane
Mick (centre) with Robbie O'Connell and Jimmy Keane (right)
Irish musicians and music lovers, the whole world over, are mourning the loss of that extraordinary man, Mick Moloney. He was a singer, instrumentalist, mentor, ethnomusicologist, scholar, teacher, consultant, tour leader, festival organizer, writer, producer and above all a great friend to so many of us. My condolences to his son Fintan and his brother, sisters and friends everywhere.
   Mick’s amazing energy and vitality never flagged. He did so much work to promote traditional music, organizing concerts and festivals and encouraging budding musicians. It is impossible to gauge the extent of his influence but I can safely say Irish music would not be in the great state it is in now were it not for Mick.
   He was also a consummate performer. He could hold his own on any stage, anywhere in the world. His eloquence was as renowned as his musicianship and scholarship. He toured every state in the US as well as in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia bringing Irish music to countless people who might never have heard it otherwise. His ensemble group, The Green Fields of America, was like a graduating class for countless musicians, singers and dancers. He brought older musicians into the limelight and gave younger ones a chance to shine. The list of Green Fields alumni reads like a Who’s Who of the traditional Irish music scene.
   Before I got to know Mick, I was a huge fan of his work with the Johnstons and of his early solo albums. Button accordion wizard James Keane from Dublin introduced me to Mick at the Eagle Tavern in New York when I sat in with them on a gig there. Later, piano accordion player extraordinaire, Jimmy Keane and I toured and recorded with Mick for several years.
   In the 1980s, Mick was the music director of the Irish Week at the Augusta Heritage Arts festival in Elkins, WV. For a week every July, it became a Mecca for Irish musicians, singers and dancers, from all over the US. Many of the similar summer schools in operation today were modeled on those classes.
   Mick also did an enormous amount of charity work. His annual concerts in Camden, NJ and his work for the Mercy Center in Bangkok are only part of that story. Over the years, he organized numerous benefit concerts for various charities and always delivered spectacular shows. When he lived in Germantown, PA, his old Victorian house on Harvey Street was alike a hotel for traveling musicians and he, and his wife Phil, were the most hospitable people you could ever meet. Just about every musician I know stayed there at one time or other. For years it was like my second home since it was there that we rehearsed for tours and recordings. Many a legendary session took place in that house or front yard.
   I didn’t see as much of Mick since I moved back to Ireland in 2019 but we were in touch frequently by phone or text. Luckily, he and his girlfriend, Bee, visited here just a few weeks ago. We had a great time singing a few songs together in Ring at the after party for Michelle Mulcahy’s wedding. He was planning another visit in the fall. We often hear the expression, “We will never see his likes again,” but in Mick’s case it couldn’t be more true. His loss leaves a vacuum that can never be filled.
Robbie O'Connell
Devastated to hear of the passing of our wonderful friend Mick Moloney… The Best in the World and a huge part of our family, life and music..
Louise Mulcahy
Heartbroken and shaken by the loss of a great legend and my dear friend Mick Moloney. Forever grateful and utterly honored to have been mentored by such a powerful force in our beautiful community of music makers. It would be impossible to number the people whose lives were enriched by Mick’s songs and stories. There will never be another quite the same.
   Thank you for absolutely everything, Mick. You truly showed me the world
Haley Richardson
Haley Richardson with Mick (Photo: Haley Richardson)
What few people know is that Mick Moloney spent years of his life in Thailand. He was a patron and fierce advocate of the Mercy Centre, a home and school for Bangkok’s least-considered children—the offspring of prostitutes, dealers, and others on the edges of society. Some of these sweet children have HIV/AIDS. Run by a kind and dedicated priest named Father Joe Maier, the Mercy Centre of Khlong Toey was thriving when I had the chance to visit it in the heart of the Bangkok slums a few years ago. It was unforgettable at least partly because the Centre houses, feeds, clothes, and cares for these kids; but it also trains them in Thai classical music and dance. Mick was a champion of the Centre. I knew Mick for thirty years because our paths always intersected in Irish music and all our mutual Irish friendships and Irish music scholarship, but please know that he was deeply committed to supporting the forgotten children of Bangkok too. May he rest in peace.
Sean Williams
Mick led an amazingly fruitful life that was grounded in a deep love of humanity. The Kilfenora has always felt a wonderful connection with Mick, not least because of his role as producer of the band's 1974 album on the Transatlantic label. We had the great pleasure of inviting Mick as guest of honour to perform with us during our Fleadh Nua concert in glór in May 2014. We will always treasure that memory.
Kilfenora Céilí Band
Mick sits in with the Kilfenora Céilí Band in 2014.
(Photo: Kilfenora Céilí Band)
RIP Mick Moloney. A monumental figure who has left a profound legacy for all who love Irish traditional music!
Jack Talty
Mick was a massive figure when I was starting to get into Irish music as a teenager, as he was for countless others. He always made a point of being encouraging to the young generations getting into the music, and would always bring them up on stage with him. I think the first paid gig I ever had was when he asked me, Caitlin Finley, and Tim Hill to open for him at a gig in Philly. There was nobody who could introduce a set of tunes or a song better than he could; he could give a 10 minute lecture on a 2 minute song, and it was always worth it. So long, and thanks for the tunes.
Conal O'Kane
Without doubt Mick Moloney led truly a consequential life that impacted the world of Irish music hugely, especially in the US. He was much more than just a musician, he connected people, he nurtured young musicians, he brought them out to the world and brought thousands of listeners into the world of this music. He remembered the older and sometimes forgotten marginalized musicians. He celebrated the generations of musicians past, keeping the memory of many forgotten immigrant musicians alive while at the same time introducing this music the thousands of new listeners.
  His loss to the world of traditional music is immense but for me the loss also feels personal. For many touring musicians our musical friendships are scattered across the world and we rarely get to spend enough time in each other’s company and I didn’t ever get to spend nearly as much time in Mick’s company as I wanted. The depth of friendship for me, however, is measured not in the amount of time spent together but rather in the depth and quality of that time. He loved people in a very transparent way, just in his attitude, in his smile and body language, I’d fell it whenever I was around him.
  Just knowing that I was going to run into him at some event or festival was a cause for delight in itself. He was the best conversationalist ever, but not just that, it was also coupled with his natural charm and genuine warmth. He was a curious, enthusiastic and intellectually brilliant man who was almost always smiling. I still see his smile and that glint in his eye, he was totally engaging, I just loved meeting him. I can’t believe that I will no longer have the pleasure of meeting him in my musical travels. He left this world as a very loved man,
Martin Hayes
Mick Moloney was one of the leading figures in Irish music on both sides of the Atlantic, and his death is an incalculable loss to the fields of Irish music and folklore.
American Folklife Center
The Irish World Academy of Music and Dance is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Mick Moloney in New York. Mick was one of the Academy’s longest and most loyal friends. He was particularly influential in the development of the Academy’s traditional music programmes since its inception in 1994.
  The embodiment of an artist-scholar, he was equally charismatic as a lecturer and a musician. His relationship with the Academy embraced many roles including consultant, external examiner and most recently, adjunct professor. He played an important part in many performance events at UL, most notably in his curation of the Banjaxed concert in 2007, featuring all the leading Irish banjo players of the day. He was also central to the development of the University of Limerick’s unique relationship with the Music Department, New York University, from where he shone a light on the music of Irish America and more.
  Mick’s passion for Irish traditional music was only rivalled by his commitment to justice, equality and fairness in this world, recently exemplified by his work with the Mercy Centre in Bangkok. Mick was a proud Limerick man, but a global citizen. He revelled in the fact that traditional music programmes came out of the university that sprung from his birthplace in Castletroy. Above all else, his was a creativity marked by generosity to his students, other musicians, and the causes he believed in. He will be sadly missed by all of us in the Academy and we extend our sympathies to his family and wide circle of friends.
Irish World Academy of Music and Dance
University of Limerick
People all over the world are sharing their memories, mostly talking about what he did for them. Because that's what he was all about: opening doors for people and boy did he open doors for me.
   I didn’t know him half as long as a lot of ye musicians out there. I met him in Bangkok in the early 2000s. I was a regular in Thailand at the time, sometimes spending six months a year there. It was my sister Emily Castles that first ran into him on a trip there and had a tune with him. My father's a banjo player and Strings Attached was a staple in our house growing up. My parents were massive Johnstons fans too. So the next time I passed through Bangkok I made sure to look him up and had a few tunes with him in Finnegan’s. At the time I was trying to make my way home from Asia over land and I was writing a regular group email (before blogs) about my travels. I put his email address in the group and that’s how we stayed in touch.
   He invited me to New York a few years later and then helped me get the first of many visas that led to me spending more and more time in the States. He encouraged me to sing more frequently, and I just loved singing harmonies on his songs. I have plenty of emails still to go through with songs or tunes attached that he thought might suit me. We had just worked out an arrangement for The Diamantina Drover that he loved. I’ll never get to sing it with him.
   He brought me out to play in Bangkok several times, Vietnam, Scotland, France and all over America. I’m so grateful I got to spend four weeks of the last two months in his company in Ireland, Portugal, Asturias, Galicia and New York. He was in the best form ever over those last weeks. We were to meet in NYC on Monday but there was a storm, and I was running late and so we agreed to talk on Tuesday but he didn’t pick up. I guess he was already gone.
   He was 77 but to me it feels like a much younger person has died. He had an abundance of energy and was working on a million things. We had so much coming up, so many plans all the way into next year…
   He taught me so much in the years I knew him - both musically and in life in general. We were cut from the same cloth when it came to travel and adventure but I learned a lot from him about people and stagecraft and attitude and so much more. I wouldn't know half the great people I know if it weren't for Mick.
Brenda Castles
My heart is broken since I learned of his death some days ago. He was like a brother to me in America and to many more. Mick spent hours with me once at Philadelphia train station when I really needed a friend and I'll never forget the support and council he gave me. I shall always hear his raucous, fraternal guffaw in the echo chambers of my soul as he quipped or slagged about hurling or the road. Mick was a beautiful natural, warm ballad singer and a fine accomplished player of stringed instruments. The craic we had together was boyish, beautiful and branded! He kept me going with decent work in America, introducing me to festival and Summer School curators and good people in the academic community. I’m delighted he saw Limerick win the Three-in-a-Row. Things won’t be the same in the Three Continents without his wonderful spirit.
Jimmy Crowley
We lost a giant in Irish music yesterday. Rest in peace Mick Moloney. He was a friend and mentor to so many. We got up to many adventures...a privilege to have been part of Mick's Green Fields of America and his brainchild, Cherish the Ladies. In later years I was a part of Riverdance and will never forget first seeing their Eurovision performance with Jean Butler and Michael Flatley. I recall not being surprised with the impact of incredible dance and music sharing the stage...as Mick had always incorporated that wonderful dance element through the years. A visionary, a one-in-a-million force of nature, a friend...thank you Mick.
Eileen Ivers
I first met my dear friend Mick Moloney at a session in the Commodore Barry Club in Philadelphia circa 1982; I can not believe that I first met Mick over forty years ago! I was immediately impressed with his mastery of the tenor banjo and his familiarity with piping tunes and style. It was apparent that Mick had learned much from pipers and fiddlers in his days in Co. Clare in the 1960s and early 1970s.
  In my opinion, Mick was the man responsible for taking master musicians such as Jack and Charlie Coen, Mike Rafferty, Eugene O'Donnell, etc. and making it possible for them to perform in venues that musicians of that caliber truly deserved; Mick made Traditional Irish Music at home in Arts Centers, Concert Halls, and Academia. This was a groundbreaking development, looking back!
  Mick was generous and selfless, and I fondly look back to a visit to Limerick in the early 1980s at which I met Mick's parents, his aunt Buzz, and his brothers and sisters. All the Moloneys were cut from the same cloth as Mick: intelligent, witty, and welcoming.
  I personally owe Mick a huge debt for his inclusion of myself on myriad performances with The Green Fields of America. He was also responsible for my first solo album, The Invasion, being recorded. Through Mick, I met and performed with many wonderful musicians at first class venues. There are many other ways in which Mick helped me, and I realize that my experience was shared by many others. I will dearly miss my old friend. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.
Jerry O'Sullivan
My mentor, my hero, my friend is gone. Irish traditional music in America has lost its greatest champion, a Renaissance man in every meaning of the term. I can't begin to describe the impact of his life and work. Mick Moloney was a giant and there is no possible replacement. Our musical world is a smaller and lonelier place now.
Don Meade
Mick (Photo: Tom Pich)
A whirlwind of a man… his loss in incalculable to the Irish music and academic community. His fierce and fearless sense of justice and commitment to a better world have been most inspiring. He had a penchant for what truly mattered. His mad blue eyes flashing at injustice, his piercing commentary through song and their introductions on racism, colonialism, immigration, poverty, ‘Poverty is the greatest injustice of all’ he would say.
  I first met Mick when he gave Solas one of our first gigs in Georgetown University. He was tearing around the place organising everything. There were over 400 people there. I nearly died of fright. "It’s alright," he said on stage, "two or three of you are experts but the rest of you know nothing!" The whole audience roared laughing.
  Mesmerised is the word I would use mostly when it came to Mick. His passion for living, his joie de vivre, his organising another benefit, from Camden to N.Y. to the orphanage in Bangkok, his constant evolution politically, his veganism, his going to the gym at 70, his constant bringing together of musicians, and often of disparate and marginalised people, his acute and unnerving intuition, his never plámásing you, his saying the hard thing in the room and urging gently when to shape up, his consistent answering of calls and emails and texts and WhatsApping so many people, his giving and giving. His loss in incalculable.
  His measured reasoning as to what mattered, his management and encouragement behind the various summer schools, the bus tours, finding a good song for people, tailored to the needs and persuasions of the singer, passing on the lore of the songs, his in-depth scrutiny of the thinking behind a chapter in your PhD. And his enriched style of teaching… when I would despair and say I’m after reading this chapter seven or eight times Mick and I still don’t get it. His answer that himself and Nancy Groce had come to the conclusion in their research days “that if you read something twice and you still don’t understand it, that’s not your fault” was so comforting and true.
  One of his more infamous lines I am remembering and even managing to smile about and among the ones I can write here today is “Fuck Foucault, write what you know”. A particular favourite of mine. (I still don’t know!). The best thing that I have learned from Mick’s teaching and guidance is that he wanted his students to pass him out. He was never happier than when he would see people doing well, especially younger people, not in the sense of being famous or any of that nonsense but in enjoying and living a deeper life through music and learning, his lifelong passions.
  Mick was also my road back to Frank Harte, myself and Mick were staying with Frank in Dublin in the late 90s and I woke up on the couch to hear them arguing over the rashers, whether to fry them or grill them. Ye can imagine.
  I could go on but O how I shall miss him. How not being able to pick up the phone will be desperately lonely for so many of us. How not feeling his extraordinary presence in the room will feel like a massive void for some time to come. But Mick gave us so much, so many tunes on that banjo, so many songs, so much impassioned singing, so many lines remembered by heart, so much wisdom in his advice giving centre of a heart, so much growing up for us all, so much love for books, so many albums, recordings, academic articles, teachings, videos, classes, so much tender guidance to those of us off the drink or trying to stay off it, and so much more in his lending a kind ear to all our woes and joys, so much thinking in the back of that mad head of his behind those blazing blue piercing eyes, all done for no personal gain, so much for love. My deepest condolences to Mick’s family and friends. May Mick Moloney rest in peace.
Karan Casey
So much has already been said about the great Dr. Mick Moloney that I can only add how I sad I am we will never meet again…. I first met Mick when I was about 8, when the Johnstons played in the Old Shieling, and was introduced to the band by our fifth class teacher, who was Mick's aunt. My sister, Anne, has autographs (about '66). As a family, we were very fond of Mick, and he always had time for my parents when they met at various fleadhs.
  When I started my career in the '90s, we ended up sharing a big stage in Philadelphia, and since then, he'd call me up if he was around in Ireland, inviting me to sing to his visiting groups all over Ireland. He also invited me to sing with him and his band at the various festivals we were both involved in, he was so generous with his own stage time. And then when he chose me to sing with my childhood heroes, The Johnstons, in 2011, I was overjoyed at his confidence in me as a singer.
  Just a few weeks ago, we met in Slane, and there he was, onstage, including us all in the musical journey. Afterwards, he invited me back to the USA, and said he’d arrange visas etc. As mentioned elsewhere he was always championing the young musicians/singers, and the older musicians/singers.
Niamh Parsons
We were very shocked and saddened to wake up this morning to the news of the passing of Mick Moloney. He was a huge figure in Irish music both In Ireland and especially America where he helped to promote and shape the course and popularity of Irish music for generations to come.
Dervish
Life is different today without Mick Moloney in it. Yet his spirit lives on in the incredible, worldwide community he fostered and nourished his whole life. All who knew him, felt his incredible power to connect, inspire and to shed light on injustice. He never wavered in his dedication to human rights, equality and building community... whether it was regular phone calls to check on friends, publishing letters and articles in support of justice, or honoring the many in our community who would otherwise never had had a stage from which to shine... Mick was always working to build us up, to encourage, to support, to make new connections, build bridges and deepen connections with those he loved.
  Mick was my mentor, my collaborator, my dear friend and my musical partner for over 20 years. When we played together, there was another force that took hold of my bow, it often surprised me and I was always aware it was special and so much greater than me or him alone. I am so grateful to have had the privilege to walk in his aura on so many adventures, and our musical connection brought a joy to my heart I will treasure forever.
Athena Tergis
Green Fields of America
Athena Tergis with Mick (Photo: Green Fields of America)
Devastated to hear of the sudden death of a dear and true friend and a friend to so many in the Irish music world… We had planned gigs together in New York, New Jersey and Philly in October. It's hard to take it in… Goodbye old friend.
Tommy Sands
Mick Moloney passed away a couple of weeks ago, and the idea that he’s no longer in the world, singing and playing with The Greenfields of America, or teaching about the history and beauty of Irish music, or encouraging me and my fellow musicians to strive and get out there and make our mark, is still hard to believe.
  It was always a joy to meet Mick (he more often than not greeted me with, “Elizabeth!”) He was always delighted to talk about old times, going back to the 70s – Greenfields tours, 1976 in D.C., Milwaukee Irish Fest, Eugene, Hamper, the West Africa tour (Ouagadougou!), Cherish the Ladies, Fathers and Daughters, Philly, and his love of so so many places and people. I’ll miss the reminiscing, the moments on stage (not the rehearsals), and the great fellowship of Irish and Irish-Americans that permeated everything he touched.
  Thank you for everything, and God speed, Mick – you were our leader and we were happy followers.
Liz Carroll
ITMA joins with the traditional music community across the world and especially our friends and colleagues in the United States in mourning the loss of the legendary Mick Moloney (1944–2022). Originally from Limerick Mick Moloney's involvement and impact on traditional music and song was prolific, international and spread across a myriad of platforms, as a solo and group performer, recording artist, lecturer, researcher, writer, teacher, broadcaster and advocate.
  In his lifetime he was awarded accolades for all aspects of his contribution in Ireland and in the United States… The ties that bind the traditional music community in Ireland and the United States were most firmly strengthened and enriched by his life's work.
Irish Traditional Music Archive

In April 2021, Mick Moloney contributed to a Zoom session hosted by Dublin’s Clé Club. The theme of the session was the musical links between Ireland and the US. So Mick was an obvious choice as a guest. He is joined on the performance pieces by Brenda Castles (concertina and vocals), Haley Richardson (fiddle), Lucy Johnston (vocals) and Jimmy Keane (accordion).

Ballad maker, John Sheil, remembered in Drogheda

The Drogheda-based ballad maker, John Sheil, was celebrated by local singers on a special walking tour, on July 6 led by community historian, Brendan Matthews (pictured above), to mark the 150th anniversary of the writer’s death in July 1872.

Among the local singers who took part in the event were Gerry Cullen, Pat Carolan, Stuart Carolan, Ruth Campbell and David O’Connor along with Seán Faulkner. Sheil’s songs – which range from the parochial – Sweet Dooley Gate, The Rose of Ardee, Sweet Baltray, Hannah Healy the Pride of Howth – through the romantic and the satirical to the overtly political – The Rights of Man and Sweet Liberty – are still heard at singing sessions around Ireland to this day.

In particular, Sheil is credited with playing a pivotal role in the transition between Gaelic song and Hiberno-English song during the nineteenth century, in which the melodies and sound-patterns of Gaelic song were frequently imprinted onto the new songs appearing in the English language. Sheil’s prolific output provide a number of examples of this development.

Born in 1784 possibly in or near Lurgan in Co. Armagh, Sheil spent most of his life in Drogheda – a weaver by trade who supplemented his earnings by his facility with words. At a time when the creation and sale of ballad sheets was a thriving trade, Sheil was commissioned to write ballads by local printer, Patrick Kelly of West Street, who later went on to establish the Drogheda Argus newspaper.

The ballad sheets were then distributed to ballad-mongers or sellers who would tour the country seeking any large gatherings like fairs or sporting events where there might be an audience for the songs. Sheil was advised in advance of the target markets of the balladmongers and therefore, often wrote songs to order with references to specific places or indeed events. In this sense, he could be described as a commercial songwriter.

The trade in ballad sheets proved to be very lucrative for the ballad-mongers, who, it is claimed, had incomes ten times the average agricultural wage – assuming, of course, they managaed to avoid having their earnings and ballad sheets confiscated by the constabulary.  One such ballad-monger George Faulkner from Ardee, who, being blind, was escorted on his travels by his wife, seems to have been arrested many times in various parts of the country for singing seditious songs. The ensuing police reports along with the confiscated ballad sheets were forwarded to Dublin Castle).

As well as wiritng for ballad sheets, Sheil also arranged for collections of his compositions to be printed in song books like Sheil’s Love Songs and Sheil’s Shamrock – an anthology of patriotic and political songs.

Pat Carolan

Radical in his politics, it is believed that Sheil’s father was active in the Society of United Irishmen at the time of the 1798 rebellion and that the young Sheil accaompanied his father to Killala in Co. Mayo where he may have witnessed the French landing. He was present at Daniel O’Connell’s Monster Meeting in Tara in 1843 having travelled with the Drogheda Harp Society and many other organisations and individuals from Drogheda marching behind their resplendent banners,

He is also reported extensively in a local newspaper as the spokesperson for the weavers of Drogheda at a political meeting in the Linen Hall in Drogheda in 1847 to consider the forthcoming Parliamentary election.

Following his death in 1872, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Drogheda’s Cord Road cemetery. Sheil had written his own epitaph – which, in the absence of a definitive grave, was finally placed at the entrance to the cemetery in 2018 following a joint initiative by the Louth Archaeological Society and the Old Drogheda Society – and unveiled by the late Seán Corcoran – singer, musician, song collector and researecher – and the then Mayor of Drogheda, Frank Godfrey.

Gerry Cullen (All images: Eileen Grace)

Ómós: Norma Waterson

Norma Christine Waterson (15 August 1939 – 30 January 2022)

Norma Waterson died at the age of 82 last Sunday. Although Norma had recently been hospitalised with pneumonia, her passing was nevertheless a shock. Her daughter, Eliza Carthy, confirmed the grim news on Facebook: “Not much to say about such monumental sadness, but mam passed away yesterday afternoon, January 30th 2022.”

One of the towering figures of the British folk revival, Norma was held in the highest esteem by traditional singers , musicians and fans across the generations ever since her emergence alongside her siblings, Mike and Elaine (‘Lal ‘) and cousin John Harrison as The Watersons, in the 1960s.

Born in Hull, in East Yorkshire in 1939, Norma was the oldest of the three siblings, followed by Mike in 1941 and Lal in 1943. Orphaned at an early age, the siblings were raised by their grandmother. According to the sleeve notes of the Topic compilation album, Mighty River of Song:

“On their father’s side, they were Huguenot stock. The family had fled religious persecution and settled in Northern Ireland before moving to South Shields. On their mother’s side, they were of Southern Irish, Roman Catholic stock. A measure of Gypsy blood had been poured in, too. The three siblings were orphaned young and raised by their maternal grandmother, Eliza Ward, and a close-knit circle of family and friends.”

In an interview with FolkRadio UK in 2018, Norma explained the influence of her grandmother on the siblings’ musical formation: “My grandmother, who brought us up, was half Irish and a travelling lady, and she was very eclectic in her musical tastes. She was a lovely singer and knew a lot of parlour ballads and musical songs she had learned from her childhood, and we all used to sing them. We also had an uncle who played lead cornet as a young man in the pit bands in the early days of sound cinema. I had another uncle who played the banjo and organ and my dad played guitar and banjo. Most of them liked different things, so we had a very eclectic musical upbringing and there was no music we weren’t allowed to listen to. It wasn’t like ‘oh no you don’t want to listen to the Beatles or Elvis Presley!’ My grandmother didn’t care, she said ‘if it’s a good tune and a good song, then it’s a good tune and a good song. It’s better to let children choose what they listen to, because in the end, they will choose the good stuff.’”

Originally a skiffle band called the Mariners, the group turned to traditional music adopting the name, The Folksons, before reverting to the family name around 1963 – apparently at the suggestion of Lou Killen, who performed at the trio’s folk club, Folk Union One in Hull, which also hosted performers like Matt McGinn and Norma’s future husband, Martin Carthy.

In an interview quoted in The Guardian newspaper in 2011, Mike Waterson relived a pivotal first meeting with the renowned folk song collector, A.L. Lloyd, in the band’s early days:

“He asked us to sing a song once, which we did, and then he asked us to sing it again,” he said. “When he asked us to do it yet again, we said, ‘Are we doing it wrong?’ He said: ‘No, it’s pure indulgence because it’s giving me so much enjoyment.’ ”

The Watersons’ first recording was for the Topic sampler New Voices in 1965. This was followed in the same year by their debut album, Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ceremonial Folk Songs, selected as Album of the Year by Melody Maker. Two more classic albums followed in 1966: The Watersons and A Yorkshire Garland.  The band broke up temporarily in 1968 – when Norma moved to the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean to work as a DJ on Radio Antilles.

The Watersons 2.1: (from left) Martin Carthy, Norma, Lal and Mike Waterson (Photo: Keith Morris/Redferns)

When the band reformed in 1972, John Harrison was initially replaced by Bernie Vickers before the arrival of another emerging talent on the British folk scene, Martin Carthy, who married Norma in the same year. With this line-up, the band  recorded For Pence and Spicy Ale (1975), Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy (1977), and Green Fields (1981). Lal and Mike also produced original compositions which were showcased in 1972 on the groundbreaking album, Bright Phoebus, on which Norma also appeared. Lal and Norma also recorded as a duo on A True Hearted Girl (1977) while Mike released a solo album, Mike Waterson.

While the Watersons continued to perform throughout the 1980s, ill-health limited Lal’s appearances – leading to fluctuating line-ups involving Mike Waterson’s daughter, Rachel; Mike’s wife, Anne; Norma’s daughter, Eliza; Lal’s daughter, Maria Gilhooley; and close friend, Jill Pidd from Hull. In 1987, the Watersons collaborated with members of Swan Arcade under the name, Blue Murder, to play occasional gigs and record from time to time (including No One Stands Alone in 2002). In 1988, the thirteen-year-old, Eliza, put together an informal line-up known as the Waterdaughters, in which she was joined by Norma, Lal and Maria (Marry).

Perhaps in part a reflection of her own Irish traveller roots, Norma acknowledged the great Irish singer, Margaret Barry, as a major source of inspiration for her singing. Another Irish tradition bearer beloved of Norma and her siblings was Mary Ann Carolan from the Hill of Rath just outside Drogheda. Mary Ann was a living repository for many traditional songs sung around Britain as well as Ireland – some of which had almost disappeared. Her son, Pat, and grandson, Stuart, continue to draw from Mary Ann’s repertoire.

Coal not Dole

Among the many songs that became part of the Watersons’ repertoire was the topical ballad, Coal not Dole. Originally a poem by Kay Sutcliffe from Aylesham in the Kent coalfields, written following the Miners’ Strike of 1984, it had been set to music by Paul Abrahams. The song became a feature of the Watersons’ stage performances in the late 1980s. A solo performance by Norma in 1991– which had been recorded for posterity – was released as a single in April 2013 after the death of Margaret Thatcher.

Norma also guested on several recordings by other artists before eventually undertaking a new family project in the mid 1990s, Waterson:Carthy, with husband, Martin, and daughter, Eliza. The trio released seven albums: Waterson:Carthy (1994), Common Tongue (1996), Broken Ground (1999), A Dark Light (2002), Fishes and Fine Yellow Sand (2004), The Definitive Collection (2005) and Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (2006).

Norma also released three solo albums in the late 1990s and early 2000s – including her eponymous debut album, Norma Waterson, in 1996  – which included collaborations with Eliza, Martin and other members of the Watersons, along with Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson and Roger Swallow. The critically acclaimed album was nominated for the Mercury prize. In 1999, the follow-up The Very Thought of You once again featured Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson, Eliza and Martin. The album was dedicated to Lal who had died in 1998 and included Lal’s Reply to Joe Haines, triggered by the columnist’s appalling commentary on Freddie Mercury’s disclosure of his HIV status.

In 2001, Norma released her first solo traditional album, Bright Shiny Morning, while in 2010 she collaborated with daughter, Eliza, on the acclaimed album, Gift, which won two BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2011 – Best Album and Best Traditional Track. These two prizes were added to Norma’s earlier awards for Best Group for Waterson-Carthy in 2000, Best Traditional Track for Waterson-Carthy in 2000 and Folk Singer of the Year in 2001.  A sixth award followed for Norma in 2016 for Lifetime Achievement. (Incidentally, husband Martin was named Folk Singer of the Year in 2002 and 2005 while daughter Eliza took the honour in 2003.)

In 2010, Norma suffered a major health setback when a serious illness left her in a coma. As part of the recovery process, she had to learn to walk and talk again. In 2011 her brother, Mike, died leaving Norma as the only surviving Waterson sibling. However, she returned to the recording studio for another collaborative project with Eliza: the album, Anchor, released in 2018 to critical and popular acclaim.

Although continuing health issues curtailed Norma’s capacity for further recordings and performance, she took great delight last year when Eliza was named as the successor to Shirley Collins as President of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. However, the two-year moratorium on touring opportunities for Martin and Eliza caused by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 caused real financial difficulties for the family prompting Eliza to launch a crowdfunding appeal to cover Norma’s care and to provide support for Martin. The appeal is still open at www.ko-Fi.com/elizacarthy

 

Eliza and Norma pictured on the cover of their duo album, Anchor.

Among the torrent of tributes that followed the announcement of Norma’s passing came these words from England’s other great family of traditional singing, The Coppers, who said: “Over the years we enjoyed her company along with that of her husband Martin Carthy and daughter Eliza at festivals and gigs. Norma was a consummate performer and true bearer of English traditional song and always presented her work with passion and dignity. We shall miss you Norma, and our condolences go to Martin, Eliza and the rest of the family.”

We have lost a matriarch, a statuesque, dignified magnificent singer. She had a incomparable trove of songs and stories in her life’s treasure chest and she opened it for decades for all to share. She was my friend. Our friend. A rock to lean upon and fearless onstage. She was one of those that you thought incapable of dying, one of the ones we will now pack into our tour-bags and take through our remaining days on and offstage. As the old adage goes, She’s not gone. Only gone before. Bon voyage, Norma. Have a safe onward journey and I'll catch you up down the road." – Peggy Seeger

For some, like British folk luminary, Martin Simpson, feelings were difficult to articulate: “There is nothing I can say that expresses the importance of Norma Waterson and her family in my musical and personal life over the last 50 plus years. We have lost so much.”

Award-winning singer Kate Rusby said: “I’m so sad and sorry to hear of Norma Waterson’s passing – the end of an era. She was a proper legend.”

Her voice was a thing of dazzling brilliance like no other I've ever heard like some wondrous mystical mythical bird of fabulous legend and her heart and mind were equally brilliant, kind and very very wise...she'd always blow my mind with her thoughts and knowledge! I've enjoyed Norma's friendship for many years and enjoyed making her laugh. She had a wonderful sense of humour and laughter was never far away in her company." – Sheffield singer-songwriter, Richard Hawley, who performed on the Bright Phoebus Revisited tour in 2013.

Another singer-songwriter, Billy Bragg, said: “Very sorry to hear that Norma Waterson, the last of the singing Watersons from Hull, has passed away. She started out as a skiffler and went on to become one of the defining voices of English traditional music. My thoughts are with Martin and Eliza and the rest of the family.”

On this side of the Irish Sea, singer Niamh Parsons who has shared stages with Norma, Martin and Eliza on many occasions, led the tributes to her friend: “So very, very sad at the news that the great Norma Waterson has left us…I loved Norma and remember great times singing and hanging out with the family in Canada, England, Ireland, Denmark and USA. RIP.”

An Góilín Traditional Singers in Dublin said: “Deepest sympathies from all at An Góilín to the Waterson/Carthy family on the sad death of Norma. A lovely person and a wonderful singer. RIP.”

Dervish added: “We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing yesterday of legendary folk singer Norma Waterson. Our sympathies go to Martin, Eliza and all her family and friends at this sad time.”

Portrrait of Norma by Ken Wilson
Norma singing with the family at a concert in Barry's Hotel, Dublin, organised by An Góilín Traditional Singers in 1986 (Photo: Colm Keating)
The Waterson Family at the Góilín concert in Barry's Hotel, Dublin: (from left) Norma, Martin, Rachel, Mike and Lal (Photo: Colm Keating).

Ómós: Seán Corcoran

Seán Corcoran

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.

From these initial encounters, Seán became a major figure in modern folklore fieldwork in Ireland, beginning with a collection of the songs of Louth in the 1970s and subsequently documenting song, music and dance traditions all over Ireland on behalf of agencies like the Irish Folklore Commission, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Ulster Folk Museum and the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

 

Mary Ann Carolan
The Press Gang (from left) Seán Corcoran, Niall Fennell, Dave Smith and Tom Crean

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).

Cran: (from left) Ronan Browne, Desi Wilkinson and Seán Corcoran (Photo: Fonn)</

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.