Eddi Reader’s grandmother was packed off from Tralee to Glasgow after suffering sexual abuse by the Black and Tans. Such strong links to Ireland are woven into her musical thinking, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
“THEY may take my taxes, but they’ll never take my independence, as Mel Gibson should have said,” chuckles Scottish folk singer Eddi Reader.
Reader is talking UK political climate: Brexit, Scottish independence and immigration. Like many Scottish and Irish people, the 60-year-old singer has been following the unfolding Brexit saga with the absorption of someone with skin in the game.
When a slim majority of Scots voted against independence in 2014’s referendum, many cited fears that the historic split could endanger Scotland’s EU membership.
Now, amidst the Brexit backlash, it seems the inverse is true and that it’s a continued union with Britain that could jeopardise EU membership. A drive is afoot for a second “Indyref” and Reader and other pro-independence Scots hope a post-Brexit outcome could be a very different affair.
“Ok, in the first referendum a slight majority decided to stay, but we were promised the moon,” she says.
The former Fairground Attraction singer (she did the vocals on their 1988 smash hit ‘Perfect’) is a keen an observer of unfolding events, and says she often switches off current affairs to take refuge in music; she’s just released a double album, Cavalier, her first studio album in four years.
“There’s a lot of harshness on TV and sometimes you need a bit of beauty to balance it,” Reader says.
The album is, she says, an assertion of creative freedom to transcend genres: “It’s freedom from all labels: I sing folk, jazz, pop.”
“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song,” jazz king Louis Armstrong once said; all things being equal, Reader has to admit that the draw of folk, and specifically her roots in the folk clubs of Glasgow and Irvine as a young woman are woven deep into her music and her thinking.
Several songs on Cavalier are from a historical hoard she unearthed while clearing out the Dublin house of her Irish grandfather, Seamus Reader: as well as diaries and personal accounts of the Dublin lockouts and figures like Countess Markiewicz and James Connolly in the hand of her great-uncle, Reader unearthed collections of Scottish and Irish folk songs dating from between 480AD and the 1890s.
One song on the album forges a particularly strong Irish-Scottish link: ‘Deirdre’s Farewell to Scotland’. Reader was unaware of the mythic origins of the song until Cork troubadour John Spillane explained that the Irish legend of Chlann Uisneach featured Deirdre, who escaped the clutches of a jealous king with her lover, Naoise, and sought refuge in Scotland. In the era of heightened British antagonism towards immigrants, Reader felt it was a modern tale as well as an ancient one.
“Deirdre’s voice was the voice of a refugee for me,” Reader says. “What I wanted to capture was empathy for a refugee, just at the time when there was all this news of people drowning while trying to cross the sea to find sanctuary. I thought it might soften a few hearts.”
Raised the daughter of Labour- voting Elvis Presley fans in Glasgow’s tenements, Reader says her keen sense of social justice pre-dated her interest in folk music, but that in folk she found unwritten fragments of shared memories, oral traditions that should be kept alive for future generations.
Memories are sometimes occluded because they’re painful. Reader’s Irish grandmother, from Tralee, was packed off to Glasgow by her father having suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the Black and Tans,
Reader first started busking 40 years ago and enjoyed her first chart success 30 years ago. These days, she says, she’s “not so keen to go out singing on every street corner, but I’d still tell younger people to do it.”
“The truth is fearful to people. The amount of people who still want you to shut up is amazing. But people need to know all angles. You can’t deny the truth just for loyalty to a pope or a queen.”
Eddie Reader’s Irish tour dates begin at the Everyman in Cork on Thursday (Feb 14), with other dates including Tralee, Galway and Dublin. Info: www.eddireader.co.uk