Far From the Shamrock Shore
by Mick Moloney
Shanachie and Crown Publishers
Singer, songwriter, and song collector Frank Harte has said that, “Those in power write the history while those who suffer write the songs.” That has certainly been true for generations of Irish men and women, both in their own country and here in their adopted homeland of “Amerikay.” In these two projects with the same title, a book and CD set from Crown Publishers and a different CD from Shanachie, Irish emigrant and U.S. National Heritage Fellowship winner Mick Moloney tells the story of the Irish experience in America through song.
Having recorded and produced more than forty albums of traditional music, hosted three folk music series on PBS, and earned a Ph.D. in folklore and folk life, Moloney is one of the foremost living chroniclers and standard-bearers of the Irish-American musical tradition. I’ve been lucky enough to see him perform live several times, including with his “supergroup” Green Fields of America, which is composed of a shifting cast of always excellent traditional musicians. He has a great sense of humor, as well as a deep knowledge of Irish history and music. He’s also a fine singer, whose warm, rich voice has just a hint of an old-timey nasal twang, and he is an excellent banjo and mandolin player.
Let’s start with the CD-only version of Far From the Shamrock Shore from Shanachie, which costs about half as much as the book and CD set from Crown, and so might be within more folks’ financial reach. It has 17 songs — better than an hour’s worth of music — and extensive liner notes giving the historical background for each song (drawn from the text in the book). A number of guest musicians lend their considerable talents to the recording. John Doyle, former guitarist for Solas (who recently released a beautiful solo album called Evening Comes Early), plays guitar and bouzouki, and sings harmony vocals on many of the songs; he also coproduced the album with Moloney. Jimmy Keane offers his poignant piano accordion on a number of cuts, Eileen Ivers contributes some fine fiddle, and John Williams sometimes steals the show with his incredibly sensitive concertina (also showcased recently on his second solo album, Steam).
The CD will please fans of old-time American folk music, as well as those who enjoy Irish traditional or popular songs. I’m not a huge fan of the “Irish tenor” style of singing myself, so the sometimes almost treacly delivery of a few songs, such as “Paddy Works on the Railway” and “The Mulligan Guard,” got to me a bit. But overall, this is a very well-chosen, well-performed selection of songs chronicling the often hard lives and times of the Irish in America, from the thousands of Irishmen who fought in the U.S. Civil War (usually on the side of the North) to the thousands of others who worked on America’s canals and railways, and in her coal mines, well-to-do homes (as domestic servants), and vaudeville stages.
One of my favorites from the CD was “Skibereen,” about a town in West Cork in which over 80% of the inhabitants died in the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 (which killed 1.5 million Irish men, women, and children, and sent at least a million more off to America). The song is slow and sad; Moloney’s singing is heartrending, Doyle’s backing vocals achingly sweet, and Williams’s concertina accompaniment amazes me with the incredible depth and emotional complexity he conveys with just a few notes. For something completely different, the rousing “Clancy’s Wooden Wedding,” a song that was immensely popular in the early twentieth century, tells the rollicking, if stereotypical, story of fun-loving, good-natured Irishmen who get into one heck of a fight during an anniversary party, dozens of them ending up in jail; Moloney really has fun singing this one. Even when I didn’t necessarily love the lyrics of the songs, some of the arrangements bowled me over; on both “Me Uncle Dan McCann” and “The Kellys” Moloney’s banjo just smokes, and blends perfectly with the fiddle (played, respectively, by Marie Reilly and Sean Cleland; Cleland used to be in the Chicago-based Irish rock group The Drovers, and in recent years has been doing some fine work in the Irish traditional group Bohola).
The Crown book comes with a CD that has most, but not all, of the songs on the Shanachie CD. It also contains three songs not found on the Shanachie CD — the bittersweet classic of Irish immigration, “The Green Fields of America”; “Muldoon the Solid Man”; and “Erin’s Lovely Lee.” So, Moloney fans and anyone with a keen interest in Irish-Americans will want to have both the book/CD set and the other CD. (Songs found on the Shanachie CD but not the book/CD set are “The Boatman’s Dance,” “Green Grows the Laurel,” “My Uncle Dan McCann,” and “Sweet King Williamstown.”)
The book is rather thin (just forty pages) but large-format — shaped like an old LP record sleeve, for those who remember such things — and lavishly illustrated with archival photographs. Moloney packs a tremendous amount of history into those forty pages; just about anyone, from longtime wearers of the green to new fans turned onto Irish music by Riverdance, will find something of interest in this vividly written and lovingly detailed text. Moloney organizes each chapter around one of the songs on the accompanying CD, carrying us from the first Irish emigrations to America in the 1600s up through their eventual acceptance into the American fold in the early twentieth century. Along the way we learn about how British oppression forced millions of Irish men and women to emigrate to America, the crucial role that Irish-American workers played in building the canals and railroads on which America’s nineteenth-century industry traveled, how vaudeville and dancehall entertainers helped improve the image of the Irish in America, and much, much more. Sidebars throughout the book give brief introductions and full lyrics for each of the songs on the CD.
Songs and the oral tradition have been used to hand down the true history and culture of Ireland from generation to generation since the time of the ancient Celts. With Far from the Shamrock Shore, Mick Moloney has made a moving and distinguished contribution to that grand old Irish tradition.