Farewell to Ireland
Proper PROPERBOX 3; 4 CDs; 249 minutes; 1999
The Irish Music Anthology: 40 Classic Songs, Jigs and Reels
Proper/Retro R2CD; 2 CDs; 121 minutes; 2000
In one sense both these budget-priced collections, assembled by Ron Kavana, represent excellent value for money. However, equally, both epitomize missed opportunities.
Much the grander and far more lavishly presented than its stable mate, Farewell to Ireland focuses upon the music of Irish emigrants to the USA recorded during the first half of the twentieth century. Its eighty tracks include more than a few that have appeared on previous collections (and, unfortunately, the accompanying thirty-two page booklet fails to identify which these are nor offers a proper acknowledgment to those who had previously remastered the original 78s – and details of recording dates are notably absent). That being said, it’s hard to quibble about any collection which includes Michael Coleman, Patsy Touhey, John McKenna, The Flanagan Brothers, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran, Packie Dolan, Hugh Gillespie and Ed Reavy, but quibble one must.
The compiler states that:
The choice of tracks and their running order on these four CDs have been so selected to provide a balanced and entertaining programme for the listener which is an accurate representation of a cross-section of the recordings of this genre and period.
The assumption that there is only one genre present here is incorrect and contradicts Ron Kavana’s own notes since not only does the collection include many ‘pure drop’ recordings, but plenty of vaudeville and variety acts too. Furthermore, the claim of balance seems unjustified when, for instance, CD number three commences with four tracks by John McGettigan and His Irish Minstrels and concludes with a trio from Frank Quinn while, bang in the middle, are two by Maurice McSweeney’s Stars of Munster (to whom I shall return later). None of the other three discs follows a similar format, each scattering its twenty tracks in some kind of higgledy-piggledy formation. This simply begs the question as to why Ron Kavana did not consider organising the four discs by themes. For instance, those of us who find some of the vaudeville songs mawkish and too stage ‘Oirish’ for comfort would probably have preferred a separate disc devoted in its entirety to this genre. Equally, those devoted to Paddy McGinty’s Goat and Molly Durkin would probably be happier too!
The Irish Music Anthology is somewhat less than half the price of Farewell to Ireland and certainly would have benefited from more resources being devoted to it by the record company. This time the focus is much looser and consists mainly of recordings that were popular in Ireland from the 1920s to the 1940s. As a consequence, this engenders some strange bedfellows with, for instance, Margaret Burke-Sheridan’s very strait-laced (and probably most well-known) version of Danny Boy being juxtaposed against Neillidh Boyle’s The Harvest Home/The Green Mountain or there’s the Kincora Céilí Band hammering out a set of reels, closely followed by Angela Murphy’s The Dacent Irish Boy (the spelling of ‘decent’ resolutely gives the game away about the song’s nature). And what Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran might think about sandwiching a song called The Tipperary Christening by The Thunder Brothers and Albert Healy just beggars belief!
So, it’s a very mixed bag on offer here and sadly marred by a failure to acknowledge any of the sources of these remastered 78s, atrocious design (virtually the whole contents of the eight-page liner booklet are in capital letters), a somewhat cod history of emigration which fails to even mention poverty and unemployment as causes, and absolutely terrible proof-reading.
The last named produces such delights as ‘Eamonn de Valera’, and ‘Frank Lee’s Tara Cleilidh Band’ and ‘Ed Reevy’, but also such garbled beauties as a song sung by Barbara Mullen called ‘The Garden Mother’s Lullaby’ (it should be ‘Gartan’), and, the undoubted best of all, a Paddy Killoran tune apparently entitled ‘The Grease in the Bog’! (I don’t even want to think about that one.) Now I know Ron Kavana (again the compiler) has been associated with some stinkers in the past (the picture of the wrong Favourite pub on the cover of In the Smoke and another Globestyle compilation called The Coolin’) but ‘The Grease in the Bog’ tops them all and offers a possibility for a new Irish traditional version of the game of Mondegreens. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is derived from a mishearing of an old folk song as ‘They had slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen’ or, alternatively, I once met someone who believed that Dylan sang ‘The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind’.
There’s no question that there’s plenty of enthralling music in both these collections, but The Irish Music Anthology is really only for those desperate to replace their original 78 version of The Bold Thady Quill.
However, one final point needs to be addressed concerning Maurice McSweeney’s Stars of Munster or should the band really (and fittingly) be called Alias Ron Kavana? Let’s take a look at Maurice’s biography, as set down on page 26 of the Farewell to Ireland liner booklet:
Born in 1895 at Kilworth near Fermoy, Co. Cork into a family of musicians who worked as salmon gillies on the River Blackwater, Maurice had mastered the melodeon and two-row button accordion by his teens. He married a concertina player Bridget Della Kelly from Galbally, Co. Tipperary. They emigrated to Chicago in the 20s where Maurice ran a successful tea store. He played dances and broadcast regularly with two line-ups: The Blackwater Boys (a quartet) and the Stars of Munster (a dancehall band including piano and drums which varied in size between six and eight pieces). Following the example of Tom Ennis, he made and marketed his own recordings on his independent Avondhu label which he then sold through his tea store. In the early 1930s he was forced to move to Tucson, Arizona for health reasons and died there in 1936. Following his burial in Chicago, his wife and three children returned to Ireland where she ran a pub which was known as a great music house, but she never played the accordion again after his death.
To bolster this account a photograph of McSweeny [sic] and his daughter Dolores has been provided, while the liner insert for CD 3 in the boxed set features another picture showing Maurice on the right playing an instrument of a suitable vintage. However, those notes copied above include a number of strange points which might lead the reader to question whether Maurice McSweeney and his Stars of Munster ever existed.
Firstly, there is a place called Kilworth and it is near the Blackwater river which is renowned for its fishing opportunities, as Ron Kavana well knows since he actually comes from Fermoy. However, Galbally is in County Limerick, not Tipperary, and there is something rather odd about his wife’s middle name – Della is decidedly un-Irish. Then ask whether anyone really ran ‘a successful tea store’ in Chicago and is there not something slightly strange about the title Maurice chose for his label? Perhaps not, because I am reliably informed that Avondhu is a corruption of ‘abhann dubh’ (‘black river’) which takes us neatly back to the Blackwater again.
While Tucson’s mild winters do attract many senior citizens to the area, it is hard to imagine that the baking hot summers would lead to anybody moving there on health grounds. More relevantly, perhaps, readers of the liner will note that the identity of that ‘great music house’ run by the widowed Bridget Della McSweeney has not been revealed. However, take a very close look at the picture of the band above. The accordionist is not the same person as the man leaning against the car (the hair, nose shape and physique are markedly different). I would suggest that the first photograph is real (though the actual identity of its subjects is open to question) and that the second has been deliberately staged. Indeed, I would not mind guessing the identity of the man on the far left.
If this is beginning to all seem a little fishy, well, take a listen to those two tracks featuring the Stars of Munster: Bank of Ireland/Wind That Shakes the Barley; and, Martin Wynne’s/Craig’s Pipes. On first hearing they do seem authentic, but then it begins to dawn that they really do not sound like 78s even if someone has thoughtfully added a touch of pop and crackle to the mix. The real telling point is revealed by Craig’s Pipes (sometimes known as Cregg’s Pipes) when the drummer breaks into a few rock riffs, but hang on a minute, what about Martin Wynne’s? McSweeney’s ‘biography’ implies that these recordings were made at the very latest in the early 1930s, by which time the actual Martin Wynne (born in 1916) would have been in his mid-teens. Wynne departed from Sligo for England in 1937 and his entry in The Companion to Irish Music tells us that he composed the three reels bearing his name in the 1930s before he left home. It is hardly likely that any of these were known in Chicago in the early years of that decade and doubtful whether those reels would gain any currency in the USA until Martin arrived there in 1948. Indeed, according to a notable collector, the first ever recording of any of the reels to bear Martin’s name was made by Paddy Killoran in 1950.
I doubt whether a search of the Irish Traditional Music Archive would reveal any other releases by Maurice McSweeney (or indeed any other information about the man) so the conclusion must be that Maurice McSweeney and the Stars of Munster are, quite simply, a deliberate hoax!
This is an original review for TIMR by Geoff Wallis.
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