The Wilsons Take Howth By Storm

The WIlson Family at the Howth Singing Circle's 21st Anniversary Concert in the Abbey Tavern

The determination of the Howth Singing Circle to mark its twenty-first anniversary with a celebratory concert, despite the lingering concerns around the pandemic was rewarded in a special evening of music and song of the highest calibre in the Abbey Tavern. The Wilson Family from Teeside in England first appeared in Howth in the early days of the Singing Circle in the Pier House [now O’Connell’s] and so were an obvious choice as the principal guests. Unfortunately, Tom tested positive for Covid the day before and could not travel. So brother Ken stepped in to join his siblings, Chris, Steve and Mike, for a truly remarkable night, as Francy Devine explains:

“They were simultaneously powerful, melodic, harmonic, passionate, funny and constantly compelling. They delivered two tremendous sets. The late Graeme Miles – an old friend of theirs – provided songs like Farndale Daffodils, an appropriately seasonal song while they opened with the English/Scots folk classic John Barleycorn. Gateshead’s Alex Glasgow’s Close the Coalhouse Door – originally in the play by Glasgow and Alan Plater – was delivered with great poignancy and appropriate anger. After the Aberfan disaster in 1966, a verse was added: Close the coalhouse door, lad. There’s bairns inside, / Bairns that had no time to hide, / Bairns who saw the blackness slide, / Oh, there’s bairns beneath the mountainside./ Close the coalhouse door, lad. There’s bairns inside. / Close the coalhouse door, lad, and stay outside.’ Mines closures and deindustrialisation were themes of the brothers’ material, thought-provoking and illustrative of their class background and Teeside culture, urban and rural.

Throughout, the brothers paid tribute to those who had influenced them, like Peter Bellamy whose re-working of Rudyard Kipling’s Big Steamers continued the working theme. The Peat Bog Soldiers (Die Moorsoldaten) probably stirred ghosts – not just of those socialist/communist prisoners in Nazi labour camps in Lower Saxony in the 1930s who wrote the song – but also of Luke Kelly and The Dubliners who were performing it in the Abbey Tavern fifty years before. Young Banker was one of many songs that raised the audience’s voices high. A tribute to The Waterson’s, the song’s familiar chorus echoed down the Howth years – ‘Young banker he had such a handsome face / And all around his hat he wore a band of lace / Besides such an handsome head of hair / For my young banker I will go there’.

“Steve Wilson’s re-worked Byker Hill, Graeme Miles’ The Running Fox and the Copper Family’s Thousands Or More kept the songs flowing, filling the room with warmth and camaraderie. The boys concluded with a trio of songs that reflected the mining traditions of their native North East. Graeme Miles’ Sea Coal with its evocative call was followed by Ed Pickford’s stirring I Am Coal – ‘I am coal / I am coal / Progress and destruction in my soul / The lepidodendron tree died and them gave birth to me / I trade for blood for energy / I am coal.’

“Professor Ken explained that the lepidodendron was ‘an extinct genus of primitive vascular, scale tree’ and was ‘part of the coal forest flora’. Chris repeatedly blew his tuner, Steve said they would ‘get through a lot of songs tonight’ and Mike asked Ken ‘was he absolutely sure about that?’ Either way, the song was performed with great style. They concluded with The Miners’ Lifeguard – ‘Union miners stand together / Victory for you’ll prevail / Keep your hands upon wages / And Your Eyes Upon the Scale.’  It lifted the roof, with many in the hall recalling our support efforts for Welsh miners in 1984-1985.

“The evening had begun with the Howth Singing Circle’s own singers – with the benefit of some coaching by renowned Scottish guest singer, Shona Donaldson Anderson, in a magical rendering of Burns’ White Cockade, the threepart harmonies not only astounding the audience but also many of the singers, themselves! They also began the second half with the shanty Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her.

“Shona also delivered two peerless solo sets – with the “voice of a bell” as Niamh Parsons observed. The hall joined in the chorus with her on Sands o’ the Shore before the moving ballad The Unquiet Grave produced an absolute hush. Her Green Grow the Laurels and Mary o’ Argyll are Howth favourites as Shona has been a regular guest, particularly at Burns Nichts. She concluded with a Burns set, Rattlin Roarin Willie, Robin Shure in Hairst and Hey Ca Thro, reminding us that ‘Burns is no jist fae January but fae life!’. In her two sets, she also sang I’ll Be Mairret and, acknowledging her parents Matt and Grace in the crowd, In Praise o’ Huntly, her hame toon.


Shona Donaldson Anderson

“The Howth Single Circle’s former Young Singer/Musician in Residence, Cathal Caulfield, provided an excellent musical foil to the singing. Partnered by Catriona Kennedy, they began with the classic Planxty Davis and continued with three polkas, The Gullane, The Palestine’s Daughter and The Lakes of Sligo, the latter featuring Cathal’s unique vocal style and spreading smiles across the room. An air and mazurka followed: Myth Island and, reflecting Catriona’s Donegal roots The Kilcar Mazurka – before they concluded with three rousing reels – O’Donnell’s Sligo Mad, Around the World for Sport and The Derrylee.

One of the unsung stars of the evening was undoubtedly sound engineer, Chris Boland, whose technical skill ensured that both audience and artists enjoyed a perfect sonic ambience.

“The hall stood to sing The Parting Glass remembering those who had passed during the club’s twentyone years, particularly Brendan ‘Bull’ Moore in whose memory it began and two late HSC Presidents, Willy O’Connor and Diarmuid Ó Cathasaigh.”

While there remains an understandable reluctance on the part of many to attend in-person events in the present climate, the Howth Singing Circle is to be commended for its efforts to celebrate its legacy with such a remarkable event.

All photographs: Francy Devine, Howth Singing Circle

Howth Singing Circle Singers with Shona Donaldson Anderson
Catriona Kennedy (left) and Cathal Caulfield

Róisín Reimagined – Muireann Acclaimed

The remarkable voice of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is perfectly cradled by the Irish Chamber Orchestra in this wonderful presentation of twelve classic songs as Gaeilge.

Both in its unique timbre and its extraordinary range, Nic Amhlaoibh’s natural instrument is perfect for this very sensitive collaboration between singer and ensemble as they revitalise songs from the sean nós canon.

This imaginative and epic project was undoubtedly one of the musical triumphs of a lockdown-affected 2021 when the programme was performed in front of a restricted audience at the Kilkenny Arts Festival last August (and streamed online) and again in November in the University Concert Hall in Limerick, the ICO’s home auditorium. It was subsequently televised on TG4 last Christmas.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh with the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Kilkenny Cathedfral
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh with the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Kilkenny Cathedfral

While Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice is undoubtedly pivotal in the whole enterprise, it is sympathetically supported by the orchestra performing new arrangements of the material by six leading Irish composers – Linda Buckley, Paul Campbell, Michael Keeney, Cormac McCarthy, Sam Perkin and Niamh Varian-Barry.

Together they have provided the imagination reflected in the project’s title. The rich tones and subtle colours which characterise the new settings add further depth to Nic Amhlaoibh’s impeccable vocals.

Fusing the artistic and the technical together in synchronicity is the project’s producer, Dónal O’Connor – who seems to be at the centre of many of the most exciting musical projects that have happened recently on disc, on stream or on screen.
Even though the level of exposure for this ambitious venture has been somewhat  constrained by the pandemic, whenever it has been able to fund an audience, it has received an overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic response. The imminent release of the album in the run-up to the St. Patrick’s Festival should consolidate that response.
While many album reviewers often highlight a stand-out track for the attention of their readers, the quality throughout the album is so high that it is difficult to elevate one above all the others. The limited airplay that has followed the project to date has tended to focus on the opening track, Róisín Dúbh, referenced in the title, which is, of course, also the key motif of Ó Ríada’s Mise Éire, which was in its time hugely influential in persuading many that Irish music deserved to be treated with the same artistic respect as European classical music. So it is appropriate given these associations that the same beautiful air should lead off a project that once again over sixty years later seeks to consider the interplay between classical and traditional music.
Nevertheless, having set the bar at the highest level with the opening track, the album maintains that standard throughout with a succession of wonderful performances – executed with exquisite technique and wonderful feeling by a remarkable singer at the height of her powers, exemplified by her stunning rendition of An Chuilfhionn.
As the pandemic restrictions begin to ease, perhaps we may now look forward to more live performances of the programme, when the logistics of assembling singer, orchestra and, of course, audience should not be so problematic. It deserves to be heard as widely as possible in person. This year’s edition of the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August – which should the return of full live audiences  – is expected to provide the first such opportunity. In the meantime, this fine recording will suffice. The album us available for pre-order at:
Track Listing:
  1. Róisín Dúbh
  2. An Rabhais ar an gCarraig
  3. Mollaí San Seoirse
  4. Bruach na Carraige Báine
  5. Cailín na nÚrla Donn
  6. ‘S ar Maidin Moch is mé ar mo Leapain Bhoig
  7. Tá mo Mhadra Medley
  8. Táím Sínte ar do Thuama
  9. Sliabh Geal gCua
  10. An tSeanbhean Bhocht
  11. Slán le Máigh
  12. An Chúilfhionn