Thomas Davitt – The Forgotten Hero
(Click on the album title to head straight to the relevant review)
Rossendale Records MUSCD 002; 58 minutes; 2000
Dónal Maguire is a singer, mandolin and tenor banjo player who originates from Drogheda, Co. Louth, but has lived in England ever since emigrating at the age of fifteen. Influenced at first by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and The Dubliners' Luke Kelly, Dónal subsequently fell under the spell of the 'high' style of traditional singing exemplified by Joe Heaney, Elizabeth Cronin and Paddy Tunney. In London he attended singing workshops and became a resident at the renowned Singers Club, subsequently helping to form The Knave of Clubs along with John Faulkner, Sandra Kerr and Terry Yarnell as part of the agitprop group Combine (Dolores Keane was later to join the group after arriving from Ireland).
In 1976, Dónal moved to Lancashire, where he has been based ever since, forming an enduring partnership with button accordionist Liam Webster, while remaining one of Ireland's foremost émigré unaccompanied singers. His first album, The Star of Sunday's Well, appeared in 1979, harnessing both his vocal and musical talents and the original version of The Clergy's Lamentation followed a year later. Over the subsequent two decades Dónal's musical career remained, in his own words, more off than on, but the new century saw his determination to focus his energies, touring, rather than just playing the odd gig, and reissuing his first two albums on CD.
The Clergy's Lamentation includes three tracks which did not appear on the original album, though the notes do not indicate whether these were recorded at the time same time or subsequently. The undoubted highlights are the unaccompanied songs, though several of these are more familiar now than they were when Dónal first recorded them (for example, Roger the Miller and The Shamrock Shore). The quality and emotional impact of Maguire's voice are startling and no better heard than on the Donegal song The Generous Lover which he learned originally from a 1960s A.L. Lloyd recording. A couple of songs came from visits to Tom Phaidín Tom Costello in Spiddal (not 'Spiddle', Dónal!) in the early 1970s and include Paddy and the Ass and The Grand Conversation on Napoleon (coincidentally, Frank Harte also acquired the song from Tom).
Elsewhere, there's a mixed bag of instrumental pieces, the best of which, Mazurka du Morvan, features the hurdy-gurdy of the late Pete Yates, while John Murphy provides fine uilleann piping on a number of tracks.
Rossendale Records MUSCD 005; 48 minutes; 2001
In contrast to the above, Gilded Chains and Sordid Affluence is Dónal's latest album and, therefore, the first fruits of his own personal revival. While his voice seems to have lost none of its intensity, the new album includes a number of recently written songs, some of dubious quality (though none by Maguire) and a noticeable, somewhat sultry jazz influence. The latter is immediately evident on the first track, a mournful rendition of the Percy French song Little Bridget Flynn, which plucks the heartstrings more readily than the author's more renowned 'Stage Oirishness' might suggest, an impact intensified by the subtle wailing of Iain Dixon's soprano saxophone.
Such atmospherics are also enhanced by the appearance of John Murphy's uilleann pipes on An Druimfhionn Donn Dólis ("The Sweet Brown Cow") where Maguire sings to a simple droned backing. However, this powerful effect is immediately undermined by a track which simply should not have been allowed out the studio, a dreadful, meandering, ham-fisted rendition of the reels The Gooseberry Bush and Finbar Dwyer's (poor old Finbarr, misspelt again). Firstly, the mix is unbalanced with Mike Walker's guitar much too prominent. Secondly, Walker is clearly not versed in reel accompaniment while, thirdly, Dónal's banjo often seems to have lost both the tune and the plot and offers some severely bum notes.
Dónal follows this with two modern ballads, one a peculiarly mawkish affair penned by the lead singer of the Canadian band Crash Test Dummies and the other, Let Me Go, penned by Carol Elizabeth Jones from Tennessee which is so hackneyed that even Dolly Parton would probably reach for the sick bag.
Another set follows, this time of jigs, which is again undermined by inappropriate accompaniment from Walker. However, matters improve dramatically in the shape of an unaccompanied solo rendition of the song O'Reilly from the County Leitrim, ensued by two more fine songs, John Pole's The Lily and the far better known The Wheels of the World. Dónal's notes for the latter state that this broadside ballad "was published in Belfast in 1801", yet the version he sings includes reference to the Battle of Trafalgar which took place in 1805 and, more revealing, to John Mitchel who was not born until 1815, to the Battle of Waterloo (also 1815) and Castlereagh's suicide which took place in 1822.
To conclude, Gilded Chains is almost on a par to its predecessors, but suffers severely through the inclusion of two poor instrumental tracks and two even worse songs.
Thomas Davitt – The Forgotten Hero?
Rossendale Records MUSCD 007; 71 minutes; 2006
Undoubtedly Dónal Maguire’s most ambitious project to date, doesn’t so much attempt to recount the life and times of the founder-member and leader of the Land League, but set a context for
These original reviews were written by Geoff Wallis for The Irish Music Review.
For more information about Dónal visit www.donalmaguire.co.uk.