Among renditions of ‘Mo Ghile Mear’ and ‘Cath Chéim an Fhia’ there exists a less-publicised but quietly thriving tradition of singing in English.
A fine singer is a fine singer in any language, and indeed macaronic songs such as ‘My Pup Came Home From Claodach’ and ‘An Hide and Go Seek’, which alternate between the two tongues, are a local speciality.
That the traditions of both languages survive in a largely harmonious relationship is evidenced by the fact that the latest to commit both English and Irish songs of the area to CD is a member of one of Múscraí’s most highly regarded sean-nós singing families, Danny Maidhcí Ó Súilleabháin.
His double album of 38 recordings, Buail do Phuc is Liúigh, is a musical journey through his 71 years, from Cúil Aodha and back to Cork, via a period living and working in Dublin.
It was this sojourn in the capital that Danny credits with opening his eyes to the value of songs from his native place. “I worked in Dublin in the late ’60s and I used to sing with the folk singer Liam Weldon. They used to be mad for the old West Cork rabhcáins [songs] up there. It’s when you go outside your local area that you appreciate what you had yourself,” he says.
The oldest brother in a family of seven, what hammered home that appreciation to Danny in tragic manner was the death of his brother Diarmuid in a car accident in 1991.
Diarmuid, in whose honour the singing festival Éigse Dhiarmuid Uí Shúilleabháin is held in Baile Mhúirne each December, was a radio broadcaster and singer of renown, yet amid the grief at his passing came the realisation that all too little of his work had been officially recorded.
“Diarmuidín was at the forefront of the family of singers but he never made a tape,” says Danny, recalling that the posthumous gathering of Diarmuid’s work led to the recording of his own first collection, Carraig Aonair, more than 20 years ago.
“After he died people were putting me under pressure to record and ’twas then that I made that cassette.”
Danny didn’t record another solo CD for two decades, but the song ‘Carraig Aonair’ is still a staple of his repertoire and appears on Buail do Phuc is Liúigh, which roughly translates as strike your blow and shout.
The album is dominated, though, by songs in English, many handed down in the oral tradition from neighbours and local singers and poets, the likes of George Curtin and Danny Tom Lehane from Baile Mhúirne, and Johnny Nóra Aodha Ó Tuama of Inchees, Kilgarvan.
“Danny Tom Lehane — the Poet from Kippaghs, they called him — was the real spailpín fánach and he’d go down to Kilgarvan and Barradubh working as a labourer. You couldn’t scratch your arse but he’d make a song about it,” says Danny.
“Danny Tom Lehane’s songs were never written down. People had them in their heads, but most of them were lost over time.”
He adds: “Johnny Nóra Aodha composed some very good songs — ‘Budoram’s Ball’ and ‘Marysheen went to Bonane’ — there was a rake of songs and some have disappeared.”
Local characters were the usual subject for such songs, many uncomplimentary to the extent that, decades later, Danny is still wary of causing offence by singing them. “We’d be dealing with a lawsuit. The official secrets act is still in force here,” he says.