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 three–part 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.
“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 twenty–one 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