Frank Harte and Dónal Lunny
My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte: Traditional Songs on Napoleon Bonaparte
Hummingbird HBCD0027; 109 minutes; 2001
If you just want to read the brief review of the CDs themselves, click here.
There was a time when the sleeves of singer Frank Harte's albums (such as and Listen to My Song or Daybreak and a Candle-End) paid tribute to the songsheets which first inspired his interest in song collecting. These releases from the mid-1980s marked both a mid-point and a break in Harte's recording career, which had commenced in the previous decade with two albums of Dublin street songs for the Topic label. The songs on both and Listen and Daybreak were very much a personal choice and Frank used the sleevenotes of the latter to explain the attraction of certain songs:
It is still the story in the song that attracts me, if it has a beautiful air and I am able to sing it, that is all the better. These songs carry stories that are particularly important, as they give us an insight into the feelings of the people who went before us, an insight that cannot be obtained from history books.
Additionally, his notes to and Listen were forthright in condemning the downgrading of Irish songs in English compared to those in Irish:
... as if somehow there was a conflict between them or that they came from a different race of people and were not created out of the same hardship, injustice, joy and sorrow. I hold that in the tradition, the song of the Orangeman is as valid as that of the Fenian or that the song from the streets of Dublin has its place alongside the song from the wilds of Connemara.
Both of these quotations are worth remembering in the light of Harte's return to recording in the late 1990s. For, as more recent sleevenotes remind us, 'Frank Harte is an architect who was reared in Dublin...' and not a social or other category of historian by professional qualification. Yet, when he went back to the studio, it was to compile a bicentennial celebration of the failed 1798 Irish rebellion, 1798 the first year of liberty: Irish Traditional Songs of the rebellion of 1798.
Comparisons with the younger Harte's recorded output were startling. The front cover of the CD's 32-page booklet bore a montage of Delacroix's Liberty Guiding the People (which, while appropriate to the recording, was not actually painted until 1831) and a statue of a patriot clutching a pike (both of these are unaccredited, so forgive my ignorance in only recognising the former). Inside the booklet lies a nine-page essay by Harte on the Rebellion followed by the lyrics and detailed comments on each of the seventeen songs which include a notable juxtaposition of the Orange song Croppies Lie Down and Croppy Boy. While the latter recounts the tale of a young rebel Wexford boy's court-martial, the former's triumphalism is hardly a fitting example of Harte's own oft-repeated aphorism (which he quotes twice in the booklet) 'Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs'. The booklet concludes with a page of credits, including a detailed bibliography.
Now, the importance of all of the foregoing comes into focus with the recent release of the subject of this review, My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte: Traditional Songs on Napoleon Bonaparte, for Frank has obviously not wavered from what he or Hummingbird must consider to be a successful formula. As ever (for the fourth consecutive album) Dónal Lunny is his accompanist. This time, the front of its 56-page booklet (the reason for the increase will become clear in a moment) carries a neo-Classically glamorous portrait of Bonaparte astride a rampant charger. Again, the singer includes a historical essay alongside copious accounts of the twenty-six songs and their lyrics and, again, concludes with a bibliography. The format and typography are essentially identical to its predecessor.
In other words, Frank Harte has now firmly established that a buyer of his records gets not only Frank Harte the singer (and in this case for almost two hours spread across two compact discs!) and Frank Harte the song collector/annotator, but also Frank Harte the historian. Some might say that his singing is paramount; and this is indeed the case here since, though the CDs are worthy of repeated listening, nobody is likely to return regularly to Frank's historical assessment of the period. However, this is premature, since the point that must be made is that any review of Frank's output must consider everything that he lays before us.
Bearing this in mind, it is time for an author's apology. When your editor asked whether I would be interested in writing this review I naturally replied affirmatively. However, I had not at that point seen a copy of the album and its extensive sleevenotes - which I discovered, upon subsequent reading, contained so many factual errors and infeasible conjectures as to make a simple review impossible. I was also appalled to read one review of the album which described these notes as 'a complete history lesson' and another which avowed that they were 'extraordinarily thorough' . They are not. They are inaccurate, tendentious, chronologically confused and confusing, poorly edited, repetitive and littered with typographical errors.
Since such notes have a tendency to enter the canon, it became necessary to challenge their contents. Readers who simply wish to read my review of the CDs themselves should scroll rapidly down to that section. The more inquisitive should read on.
1) 'The History'
Let us begin by examining Harte's introductory essay which is divided into two sections, 'The History' and 'Napoleon and the Irish'. It begins with a series of bland statements so beloved by people who actually have not delved very deeply below the surface of their subject or fear to do so:
For the people of Europe the eighteenth century was a period of great change. It was not only an age of wealth and prosperity but it was also an age of new ideas. People were now living longer, literacy was increasing, books were more available and as a consequence the new ideas about the relevance of man in society, the rights of man, and the God given right of kings, were all being questioned.
Apart from sounding like the introduction to one of those diabolical Time-Life or National Geographical revisionist filmed versions of history, virtually all of the above is sheer bunkum. If my point is unclear, put yourself in the position of the overwhelming majority of the population of eighteenth century Europe. I doubt very much whether the peasantry (the major component of Europe's people) or labourers of the few developing industrialized nations would empathize with any of the above. If you need further convincing, the average male life expectancy at birth of a British male in 1810 was 38.7 years - little more than it had been 150 years previously - and literacy was the exception rather than the norm. More crucially, Frank's paragraph above simply does not apply to his own country. Here is how Peter Berresford Ellis describes Ireland in the eighteenth century:
The population had risen, standards of living had dropped and competition for property had put up rents to impossible figures. Trade restrictions, lack of mineral wealth, capitalists investing their money in more favourable enterprises, condemned the Irish people to live on what little they could grow in what land they could obtain. The potato, introduced in Ireland in the 16th century, now became the only source of sustenance for the people, while to own a pig was wealth indeed.
The Irish social system was now dead and the people were sinking into an abyss of ignorance, a poverty of mind as well as body. (The History of the Irish Working Class, Pluto Press, 1996, p.57).
Harte rightly then goes on to refer to the importance of both the Enlightenment and the American Declaration of Independence on literary society (oddly forgetting the influence of Thomas Paine - though reference to his The Rights of Man does appear later) before launching into a description of the French Revolution - which strangely ignores any account of its causes - before we get onto a glorified account of Napoleon Bonaparte's life and career.
In his book Revolutionary Europe 1783-1815, George Rudé wrote of Bonaparte:
...he was a man of strange paradoxes and contradictions: a modern romantic hero cast in the mould of a Cæsar or an Alexander; a man of action and rapid decision, yet a poet and dreamer of world conquest; a supreme political realist, yet a vulgar adventurer who gambled for high stakes; the enemy of privilege who boasted of his "uncle" Louis XVI and aspired to found new dynasties of Kings; an organizer and statesman of genius, and yet as much concerned to feather the nests of the Bonaparte clan as to promote the fortunes or greater glory of France; a product of the Enlightenment who distrusted ideas and despised intellectuals and "systems"; a lucid intellect with a vast thirst and capacity for knowledge, yet strangely impervious to forces that he had himself helped to unleash. And greatest paradox of all: the upstart "soldier of the Revolution" who carried the "principles of 1789" to half the countries of Europe, and who yet was driven by personal ambition and contempt for his fellow-men to build a new despotism and new aristocracy on the ashes of the old. (Collins; 1964; pp. 223-224).
Peruse this section of Frank Harte's account and the nearest the reader gets to any kind of political assessment of Bonaparte is: 'From his earliest years he was a Corsican nationalist, and wished to see his native Corsica freed from French rule'. This is rather an understatement since he attempted to organize a revolution in Corsica in 1792. Equally, all we get of Napoleon's lifelong political manoeuvring is a very brief reference to his role in the downfall of the Directory, which had come to power in 1795, and his subsequent appointment, first as one of a triumvirate of Consuls, before assuming sole power as Emperor of France in 1804.
While Frank's summary of Napoleon's governmental and social reforms is effective, the remaining three pages of this potted biography continues to verge on hagiography. So we get a largely Boy's Own war story where Bonaparte 'covered himself in glory at Marengo' and in which 'he defeated a superior force of Austrians and Russians' at Austerlitz. As further evidence, take this remarkable couple of sentences:
In his efforts to conquer Europe, he found himself constantly having to deal with the intrigues of Britain, which held out against him until the very end. Britain was constantly encouraging his enemies in Europe to wage war against him; and though he would have liked to invade England, he knew that there was no chance of succeeding in this venture as long as the British navy controlled the seas.
It is tempting to remark "Well, naughty old Britain, then" and, of course, the British had colonial interests of their own. However, the peace between Britain and France concluded by the 1802 Treaty of Amiens was broken by Napoleon's continued policy of expansionism during which he was elected President of a newly-formed Italian Republic, forced a new constitution on Switzerland, bought Louisiana from Spain, and was believed to be about to mount renewed efforts to conquer Egypt and India. When Britain refused to yield Malta - its Mediterranean naval base - as decreed by the treaty, war broke out again. Since Britain feared invasion by Napoleon, it would have been sheer madness not to seek allegiances elsewhere or encourage insurrection, including a French Royalist assassination plot against Napoleon (unmentioned by Harte).
Triteness continues as Napoleon divorced Josephine because 'even though she was loved by the people, she had not given him the heir which was essential to the country to ensure the succession' and 'sought and gained the hand of Marie Louise, the daughter of the Emperor of Austria' whom he married in 1810. Frank fails to mention that this followed the defeat of the Austrians at Austerlitz the previous year, and that Marie Louise was a mere eighteen years old, or that there were political gains to be made from marrying into the Hapsburg dynasty.
So next we move onto Napoleon's 'Continental Blockade', which actually began in 1806 (so Frank's lost track of time here) seeking to cut off Britain's trade links. According to Harte, 'Somewhat surprisingly Britain's old enemy Spain, along with Portugal' did not comply with his diktat. Well, this might just have been because Portugal was Britain's oldest trading ally and because the French had had to invade Spain to get at the Portuguese, sparking the Peninsular War, while Napoleon's decision to appoint his brother, Joseph, to the Spanish throne resulted in insurrection in that country. Meanwhile, the Austrians were considering taking advantage of the transfer of Bonaparte's Grand Army to Spain. As Rudé writes, '...the Spanish revolt continued, the English were in Portugal, the Russians could not be relied upon; and, in Paris on his return, he found new royalist and Jacobin plots and treason in high places: Fouché and Talleyrand were conspiring to overthrow him.' (ibid, pp.268-269)
But we learn none of this in Frank's account. Instead, we leap forward to 1812 and the Russian campaign. Frank's version of the cause of this is that the 'Tsar of Russia, Alexander I, refused to cooperate and continued to trade with Britain.' This ignores the fact that a rift between France and Russia had been growing ever since Napoleon's interest in marrying Alexander's sister, Catherine, had not proved popular in Moscow (and he turned his attention to Marie Louise instead). However, of more immediate importance was Russia's timber trade, one of whose most significant customers was Britain.
So, Napoleon 'assembled the greatest army the world had ever seen' and marches to the Russian capital where, finally, 'sitting in Moscow all on his own and with the city blazing around him and winter closing in, Napoleon had no alternative but to retreat'. Ah, poor mite! I wonder who set fire to the city - it wasn't perhaps ordered by Moscow's governor was it?
While Napoleon sought to negotiate with the Tsar, he failed to consider the one act which might have ensured his success - the liberation of the Russian peasantry from serfdom. You won't find this is in Frank's tale, nor the fact that, while exposure to the cold and pursuing Cossack troops killed a substantial number of Bonaparte's army, thousands were slaughtered by vengeful peasants, miffed at their treatment as his army had first advanced.
Now we move onto his defeat and exile in Elba, an island from which, oddly, Frank tells us that Bonaparte 'escaped'. Since Napoleon had been granted sovereignty of the island under the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, along with a substantial pension for himself and family and the Duchy of Parma for Marie Louise, he could hardly be said to have 'escaped' from his own island! So, we come to Waterloo, where Frank not only loses the Prussian commander, Blücher's, umlaut, but Napoleon's own Marshal Grouchy 'lost his way' and failed to prevent the Prussian troops combining with the allied forces under Wellington. The general view is that Grouchy 'lost his way' because of confused orders from the Emperor, but no matter.
So, the defeated Napoleon returns to France where (Frank fails to tell us) he was forced to abdicate after the country's Chamber refused his plea to raise another army. Nor does Frank mention that Bonaparte subsequently surrendered to the British, hoping to receive asylum, and it was they who packed him off in real captivity to St Helena. Nor does Frank note that the 1815 Treaty of Paris pushed back France's borders to those of pre-Napoleonic 1790 and that the country itself was placed under military occupation. He also forgets that the same year's earlier Treaty of Vienna completely redrew the map of Europe by creating new states (such as the Kingdom of the Netherlands, consisting of Holland and Belgium) or transferring dominion over existing ones (Finland to Russia and Norway to Sweden) or that Britain enlarged its imperial powers by gaining control of a whole slew of new colonies (including Ceylon) or, most significantly of all, that the crowned heads of Europe pursued Bonaparte to the bitter end because they believed that, despite his upstart despotism, he still embodied the principles of the French Revolution.
2) 'Napoleon and the Irish'
The second section of Frank Harte's essay on Napoleon is a marked improvement on its predecessor, undoubtedly because its author has moved on to areas with which he is deeply familiar: Irish ballads and Ireland. Indeed his excellent opening paragraph not only establishes that the 'Bonaparte of history...and the Napoleon in the Irish ballads are not necessarily the same person' and that the images of the Emperor in these songs are related closely to the interests of the Irish in seeking liberation from British rule. Additionally, its closing sentence contains his first criticism of Bonaparte's reign: '...the idea that we might only be exchanging one tyranny for another never entered the equation.'
Harte next succinctly considers the impact of centuries of repression upon the Irish people, referring to confiscation of land, the removal of individual liberty via the Penal Laws, before turning back to record the failure of various rebellions culminating in the Flight of the Earls in 1607.
However, it is now that the reader reaches the crassest sentence in this whole essay. Stark in its simplicity, bereft of all explanation, it stands as follows: 'After the death of King Charles, the English parliament became more Puritan.' Even if a GCSE examiner set a question such as 'Explain the English revolution in one sentence', s/he would be expecting something a little more astute than Frank's eleven words of summation which ignores the following: the roots of the revolution, bourgeois though it might eventually be, and the development of radical ideas in England; the general dissatisfaction with the monarchy which instigated the revolution; the two Civil Wars of the 1640s; most astonishingly of all, the Irish rebellion of 1641; and the execution of Charles himself. As Christopher Hill has written: 'A victory for Charles I and his gang could only have meant the economic stagnation of England; the stabilisation of a backward feudal society in a commercial age, and have necessitated an even bloodier struggle for liberation later.' (The English Revolution 1640, Lawrence and Wishart, 1940, p.43).
Frank next tells us that parliament 'became more zealously anti-Catholic, and in 1649 Ireland was to suffer the visitation of Oliver Cromwell.' While the latter is, of course, fact, there is no evidence for any increase in parliamentary intolerance of Catholicism, though there were riots against Catholics in London and elsewhere organised by various Puritan religious sects. Where anti-Catholicism was in fact rife was in Cromwell's army, where religious sloganeering was used to spur on the troops during the invasion of 1649.
Moving on, Frank rightly condemns the barbarism and iniquities of Cromwell's invasion of Ireland, though strangely omits that Cromwell's justification for the horrific onslaught on Drogheda was that the town's garrison was comprised of Royalist sympathizers. More alarmingly, however, no explanation is provided for Cromwell's motives in invading Ireland other than 'as accomplishing God's work by avenging the previous atrocities of the native Irish' since there were equally forceful economic reasons which led to the incorporation of Ireland within the English economic system via the Navigation Act of 1851 - not that this in any way exonerates the brutal enormities incurred by the Irish.
This economic equivalence was dismantled following the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, whose parliaments, for example, forbade the import of Irish sheep and cattle into England in 1667, followed in 1681 by similar bans on Irish butter and cheese. So, when Frank writes that 'the native Irish hoped for the restoration of their lands and rights by Charles II, but Charles II was not prepared to alienate the Protestants who had given him back his throne', there's a little bit more to it than that!
On we go then to 1688 (and bear in mind that this section is called 'Napoleon and the Irish'!) and Frank provides a long and largely accurate paragraph describing the use of Ireland as a battlefield between two foreign kings (James VII of Scotland a.k.a. James II of England, born in London, and his nephew by the marriage of his Protestant daughter Mary, William, Prince of Orange, born in The Hague). There are two major errors here. The first is the failure to mention that William was actually supported by the Pope and most of the Catholic rulers of Europe - with the exception of Louis XIV of France. The second is the reference to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 as being 'the decisive battle of the campaign'. Decisive it may have been, but only in Loyalist mythology (and even Frank then writes that the 'Williamite-Jacobite war dragged on until the signing of the treaty of Limerick in October 1691'), but it was the subsequent battle of Aughrim and the ending of the second siege of Limerick which would see James's armies finally defeated.
Now Frank's narrative takes us rapidly through the eighteenth century, returning to the Penal Laws, before taking us once again to the American Declaration of Independence (although this time, for some reason, it appears in single quotation marks - did it not really happen then?), extracting part of the same quotation from the Declaration which he has already used earlier, before moving on to the French Revolution (again in single quotation marks, why?) and noting once more the influence these two events had upon the United Irishmen (again!). In a booklet of this length there really is no need for such repetition, but its readers will discover that repetition is one of its most prominent features.
However, Frank's interpretation of the effect of the Penal Laws is inadequate. He describes these as 'a system of discriminatory anti-Catholic laws and qualifying oaths, which in effect excluded Catholics from holding any government office, entering the legal profession or holding commissions in the army or navy'. All well and good - but Irish Presbyterians suffered equal exclusion. Presbyterians who had fought for William in the hope of overthrowing popery (despite the Prince of Orange having part of his army's arms and equipment being paid for by Pope Innocent XI) and securing religious freedom, subsequently found their church outlawed and their ministers threatened with jail for preaching. The 1704 Test Act excluded Presbyterians from the armed forces, legal profession, customs and excise and municipal employment. In 1713 Presbyterian schoolmasters were banned from teaching, intermarriage between Presbyterians and members of the established Episcopalian (i.e. Anglican) church was declared illegal and, in the same year, four Presbyterians were jailed for daring to hold a prayer meeting. Forced to work in feudal conditions, approximately a quarter of a million Presbyterians migrated (mainly from the Ulster province) to the USA between 1717 and 1776. Frank's thesis ignores this at its peril, principally because it was some of these émigrés who went on to play a significant part in the American revolution and others, who remained in Ireland, who became leading lights in the United Irishmen.
Finally, we arrive back with Napoleon and his preference for invading Egypt rather than Ireland. In Harte's words, 'His strategy was simply to maintain the threat of a possible invasion of Ireland and thereby force the British to keep as many soldiers as possible stationed there.' He also recounts how Wolfe Tone had met Napoleon and been 'singularly unimpressed by his knowledge of Irish affairs', though he does not explain here that Tone had formed an allegiance with another French general, Lazare Hoche. More pointedly, as Frank does note, it was two thousand of the defeated Wexford rebels who enlisted in the British army and were part of the force under Abercrombie which defeated Napoleon's army in Egypt.
All this leaves our author with the major problem of how to explain why a man who might have been an enthusiastic supporter of an Irish rebellion as a tactical device for diverting the British, but played no part in assisting the Irish, became such an idealized figure in Irish ballads (or, of course, the similar subject of songs sung in England and Scotland, a point which Harte thoroughly ignores in this essay, though does consider later). Furthermore, this is where Frank's story becomes very convoluted indeed.
After citing examples of the replacement of Bonnie Prince Charlie (the 'Royal Blackbird') by Napoleon (the 'Green Linnet') in various ballads and explaining the very nature of the aisling or dream/vision poem in Gaelic verse (which he will repeat later), we encounter perhaps the most bizarre paragraph in this whole treatise:
The other great event in Irish history at this time, which focussed attention on Napoleon, was the organisation of the United Irishman. They would make every effort through their emissary, Theobald Wolfe Tone, to enlist the aid of France in the Rebellion of 1798. It was the hope of the Irish that their new found hero would not only play his part in helping to free them from English rule, but that he would also transform the lot of the people living on the land. Those people who had no choice but to endure the injustice of the landlord class... (a quotation from a song then follows).
Yet Frank has adduced not a single reason to support this argument. In fact, he has done exactly the opposite! There is absolutely no evidence in Harte's writing to show that either in 1796 (the year of Hoche's failed invasion and a time when Napoleon was actually commander in chief of the French army in Italy) or in 1798 (a year in which Napoleon set sail for Egypt in May, two months after Fitzgerald, one of the leaders of the United Irishmen was captured by the British) that the Irish believed then that Bonaparte himself was about to be their liberator. Indeed, what they actually believed was that the French army would be their saviours.
Moreover, Frank ignores a widespread suspicion about Bonaparte's motives which surfaced once he had assumed the imperial throne in 1804. As E P Thompson wrote, 'No true follower of Paine could stomach this. The hardened Jacobin was cut as deeply by this as more moderate reformers had been dismayed by Robespierre.' (The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, 1968, p.495) Thompson goes on to explain exactly why the new Bonaparte and liberty were not suitable dancing partners: 'The Rights of Man had been most passionate in its indictment of thrones, Gothic institutions, hereditary distinctions: as the war proceeded, Napoleon's accommodation with the Vatican, his king-making and his elevation of a new hereditary nobility, stripped France of its last revolutionary magnetism.' (ibid) Indeed the Irish playwright Sheridan is reported to have declared 'Jacobinism is killed and gone. And by whom? By him who can no longer be called the child and champion of Jacobinism; by Buonoparté.' (Cynics might note that Sheridan spent some time as a British government minister - but he was also a noted defender of the ideals of the French Revolution.) Now, obviously, Thompson was writing about England, but it is extremely unlikely that survivors of the 1798 Rebellion would not share the views of the English Jacobins regarding the despotic Bonaparte once his intentions became fully clear post-1804, and might additionally feel some resentment about his failure to provide assistance to their own efforts.
Ultimately, however, there can be no denying that Napoleon did assume a status as 'False Messiah' within the Irish ballad-making tradition, but whether Frank's hope that his 'brief introduction will add to your understanding and enjoyment of the sounds of our history' is seriously damaged by his own account, and receives further wounding as we progress onwards to his song notes, I leave the reader to decide.
The Notes on the Songs
Forty-two pages of the sleevenotes are devoted to descriptions of the songs Frank has selected and their lyrics.
1 The Isle of St Helena
Oddly, in the light of the singer's thesis regarding Bonaparte's function within Ireland's song tradition, he has chosen to begin with The Isle of St Helena which hardly reflects his mythological role. Here Frank refers to Napoleon's death and the subsequent autopsy which found that he had died of cancer. Annoyingly, he then employs an unaccredited quotation which claims that analyses of Bonaparte's hair have found high levels of arsenic, indicating that Napoleon may have been murdered. Even more irksome, however, is that Frank fails to point out that, if Napoleon was murdered (and it is a contentious issue), then the prime suspect, according the Napoleonic expert Dr David Chandler, is actually Count Charles Tristan de Montholon, who was blackmailed to commit the murder by the brother of Louis XVIII (who had resumed the throne after Bonaparte's forced abdication). The general tenor of Frank's account leads to the presumption by the reader that the murder, if so it be, was committed under the orders of the Governor of Saint Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, and, therefore, the British.
Elsewhere, however, Frank's explanation of some of the song's references (and their rectitude) is extremely cogent.
In order to lay the ground for a point I'll make later, I am now going to introduce a running score, based upon the relevance of the songs to the subject of the CDs. This will be shown as: 'Traditional Songs on Napoleon Bonaparte' (TSoNB) and The Rest (TR), so here goes.
TSoNB 1 TR 0
2 The Nightingale
Taken from the Sam Henry collection, this song derives from Peggy McGarry of Ballycastle, Co Antrim, who was born in 1824 about whom Harte makes the astonishing and unsubstantiated claim that 'it is most likely that she would have heard many of the songs on this disc being sung locally when she was a young girl'! This is a song about the activities of the Press Gang, and Frank wrongly suggests that its name derived from 'pressing' men into the navy, in the sense of 'forcing'. In fact, it comes from the word 'prest', the money received on enlisting (and the naval equivalent of the army's King's Shilling).
The major problem with this song's inclusion, however, is that the activities of the Press Gang began during the eighteenth century to meet the manpower needs of Britain's imperial ambitions (both economic and not just martial needs) and continued until 1830. While the song's lyrics do refer to its subject being pressed into service 'to fight for England's king' and there is a further reference to the Bay of Biscay, it is rather stretching a point to suggest that this is a song about the Napoleonic Wars.
TSoNB 1 TR 1
3 The Bonny Light Horseman
One of the best-known songs referring to Bonaparte, this was again collected by Sam Henry, but the version Frank sings was learned from Mary Ann Carolan. A lament for lost love, this song concludes with the following verse:
Oh, Napoleon Bonaparte I have done you no harm,
So, why, tell me why, have you caused this alarm?
We were happy together, my true love and me,
But now you have stretched him in death over the sea.
The reason for my quotation is straightforward, since nowhere in his introductory essay does Frank suggest that there might have been people in Ireland who resented Bonaparte's actions nor, on an unrelated point, does he mention that the song was extremely popular (for obvious reasons) in England and appeared there on broadsides printed in London, Birmingham and Preston during the 1790s.
TSoNB 2 TR 1
4 Sweet Laurel Hill
Frank's version of Sweet Laurel Hill combines verses and the tune learned from Eddie Butcher together with additional lines from the Henry collection. As he notes, while being a song about the reuniting of parted lovers as a soldier returns home to Coleraine, this actually includes lines in praise of Wellington. Frank claims that the Iron Duke was 'not a great advocate of the rights of Catholics' - which is a bizarre description of a man whose support of these very rights actually led to him fighting a bloodless duel with the Earl of Winchelsea. Harte alleges that Wellington pushed 'through the 'Catholic Emancipation Act for Ireland' in 1829, in the face of intense parliamentary opposition' when in actuality, he (though it was mainly the Home Secretary, Peel) steered the Catholic Emancipation Bill (which covered all the British Isles) through Parliament against opposition from his own Tory party. Ironically, of course, Tory derives from the Irish toiridhe, meaning 'pursuer', and was a term originally applied to Irish people dispossessed by Cromwell who turned to guerrilla activities against newly-arrived colonists. In the light of the party's current plight its hard to resist this quotation: 'In 1695 the authorities granted free pardon to any Tory who killed two fellow Tories...' (Berresford Ellis, op. cit. p.47). But back to the show.... again this is not a 'song on Napoleon Bonaparte'.
TSoNB 2 TR 2
5 My Son Tim
As Frank writes, 'This song is just another of the songs which deplore the conscription of young Irishmen into the English Army…', though he also notes that 'a shorter version of the song is sung to this air by Timothy Walsh from Devon...' As such, it is hardly a song about Bonaparte, although both he and the Queen of Spain get a mention, but more about the horrors of war, especially as the song's focal point is the loss of both of Tim's legs.
TSoNB 2 TR 3
6 Napoleon's Farewell to Paris
This ballad provides the source for the album's title (My name is Napoleon Bonaparte, I'm the conqueror of all nations...) - though Frank has wisely chosen to omit the line's second part. It is a typically glamorised and romanticised account of Bonaparte's career (including appropriate imperial imagery) which Frank counterpoints via the revelation that the Emperor was rather a libidinous chap, 'having had two sons by two of his former mistresses' and readers should note the implication, unexplored by Frank, that there may have been more of the latter.
TSoNB 3 TR 3
7 The King's Shilling
Frank justifiably uses this story of the death in warfare of enlisted men to attack the generals who 'lived out their lives comfortably on their vast estates, and died at ease in their beds'. Yet, despite telling us that Napoleon's campaigns led to the deaths of 'approximately 3,000,000 soldiers' (and many civilians in addition), he fails to apply similar criticism to the cause of all these casualties - the 'little corporal' himself. Furthermore, there is nothing in the lyrics of this song to suggest any connection with Bonaparte at all, nor does Frank tell us when it was written (by Ian Sinclair), though the implication of its style is that it is a relatively recent creation.
TSoNB 3 TR 4
8 The Bonny Bunch of Roses
As Frank rightly states, this is 'probably the best known and most widely sung of all the songs connected with Napoleon Bonaparte'. Frank mentions that he sings the ballad to an air learned from the piping of Séamus Ennis, A Little Bunch of Rushes though, perversely, he omits to add that Ennis's own sung version is one of the most widely known. Indeed, while Frank acknowledges that 'there are several versions of both the words and the air', the version he has chosen is almost identical in both tune and text to the one which appears on Ennis's album of the same name! Intriguingly, Ennis's own notes on the song offer a brief, yet more incisive account of the song than Harte's own, arguing that 'It displays a sympathy which indicates the regard in which Napoleon was held by the people of the British Isles who viewed him as a possible liberator from misery.'
Frank instead chooses to dwell upon the fate of the one of the song's conversants, François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the son of Napoleon by Marie Louise (the other half of the conversation) who, as the last verse makes clear, is lying on his deathbed about to die (in Harte's terms) 'in very suspicious circumstances'. Well, if death from tuberculosis equates to a suspicious circumstance then the Police in London in early decades of the twentieth century must have been kept very busy! Frank has chosen not to recount some of the interesting details of the young Napoleon II's short life. He was declared King of Rome upon his birth in 1811 and lived at the Austrian court from 1814 until his death, being created Duke of Reichstadt in 1818 by his grandfather, Francis I. Moreover, for the purposes of Frank's main subject; Napoleon Bonaparte first abdicated in favour of his son who then reigned for a mere five days before being deposed himself (not bad for a four year old at the time).
TSoNB 4 TR 4
9 The Eighteenth of June
This English ballad, collected from the singing of Sussex shoemaker Henry Burstow (and passed on to Frank by our own editor, Rod Stradling), offers Frank the opportunity to explore pro-Bonaparte sentiment in England, but his attempt to do so has the consistency of a parson's egg. As he rightly states, the British government did produce propaganda geared towards arousing anti-Napoleonic sentiment, but it is not wholly accurate to add that 'These pamphlets were often accompanied by illustrations drawn by partisan illustrators such as Gillray and George Cruickshank, the same George Cruickshank who created the simian images of the Irish rebels who fought in the 1798 Rebellion in County Wexford.'
Firstly, James Gillray could never be described as 'partisan' since his caricatures also satirised (most famously) George III and leading politicians and also poked fun at contemporary social mores. Indeed, Gillray's targets were so broad that, if he was alive today, he would most probably have been employed by Private Eye. Secondly, Cruickshank (sometimes Cruikshank), though eventually more of an establishment figure than Gillray, was first and foremost a political caricaturist who certainly did not initially have anti-Irish feelings. As E P Thompson records: 'Radical publicists also kept alive memories of the savage repression of 1798, and Hone, Cruikshank and Wooler pursued Castlereagh ... without mercy for his complicity in the tortures and floggings.' (op. cit. p.481) His work on magazines such as The Scourge and The Meteor and collaborations with William Hone on political lampoons such as The Political House That Jack Built were the products of a prodigious talent.
Thirdly, it was not Cruickshank who created 'the simian images' of United Irishmen, but Gillray (who also portrayed French revolutionaries eating babies), though Cruickshank's own etchings, published in 1845, draw substantially upon Gillray's work. Indeed, it is arguable that the real 'simian images' did not really begin to appear until quasi-scientific theories about race took a hold in the second half of the nineteenth century. Matt Morgan's The Irish Frankenstein, which appeared in Punch in 1869, showing a chimp-faced prisoner wearing a vest emblazoned with 'Fenianism' is probably the best-known and typical of contemporary anti-Irish racism. (For a detailed account of this see Liz Curtis's Nothing But the Same Old Story: The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism, Information on Ireland, 1984.)
Of course, England is not Frank's subject, so while noting that 'a more benevolent attitude' to Napoleon appeared in many of the country's songs of that time, he moves quickly on. Well, this is absolutely the case, but there is no doubt that by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the influence of Jacobinism on English popular political ideas had dwindled to the extent that during its early years the war with France saw a increased popular patriotic sentiment. While Bonaparte appeared in many songs, it was often as a victim of Nelson with the Battle of Trafalgar becoming the subject of many ballads. Perhaps the most telling aspect of all this is the fact that, a hundred or so years later, it was particularly those songs having a more benevolent attitude to Napoleon which had been retained in the repertoires of English country singers.
TSoNB 5 TR 4
10 The Grand Conversation on Napoleon
Frank's notes to this mighty ballad mark some of his best writing and most interesting material in the booklet and the simple reason is that he knows his subjects well: singers (in this case Tom Phaidín Tom Costello, the source); songs and the way lines change during the course of oral transmission from one singer to another; song forms (the aisling); and comparisons with other material (a proximity to My Emmet's No More). If only the rest were like this… but then poor editing allows Frank to restate information about the lack of any marker on Napoleon's grave which has already appeared in virtually identical form in his notes to The Isle of Saint Helena.
TSoNB 6 TR 4
11 Lonely Waterloo
Poor editing also mars the opening sentence of Frank's notes here – 'Little more can be said about this song that I have not already said about The Plains of Waterloo.' - since the latter song is number eighteen in this collection! The song comes from Dáithí Sproule (nowadays of Altan, although he is misspelt here as 'Dathi') who found it in a collection of songs from Newfoundland and added his own tune. However, although the song's title and its repeated recurrence (in lines such as 'Since my William lies with sightless eyes, on lonely Waterloo') might suggest a link with Bonaparte, this is but a flimsy connection. As Frank notes, the song actually combines various themes recurrent in traditional song, such as the description of the lamenting lady's lost love (apologies for the alliteration) by 'the colour and type of the clothes he wore'. In the end, it is arguable that 'lonely Waterloo' is little more than a device, perhaps even opening the opportunity for others to join in the singing of each verse's last line.
TSoNB 6 TR 5
12 The Green Linnet
Frank commences by exploring the Irish attribution of 'the names of animals, and of birds in particular, to their various leaders', citing examples such as Daniel O'Connell (the 'Kerry Eagle') and Charles Stewart Parnell (the 'Blackbird of Avondale') without next explaining exactly why Bonaparte was alluded to as the 'Green Linnet'. The song begins with these lines:
Curiosity led a young exile from Erin,
For to view the gay banks of the Rhine,
Where an Empress he saw and the robes she was wearing,
All over with diamonds did shine.
According to Frank, this is most probably a reference to 'the Empress Marie-Louise, although she could equally represent the personification of Ireland' - in which case she'd hardly be covered in diamonds! Whatever the case, the song is an idealistic vision of the Empress who grieved so much for Napoleon that within a year of his death she contracted a morganatic (a word I've always wanted to use) marriage with Count von Neipperg, and had also previously resisted all attempts to drag her to Elba.
TSoNB 7 TR 5
13 The Wounded Hussar
At the beginning of his notes to this song, Frank tells us that he first heard Séamus Ennis playing this air at the 1969 'Tinol of Na Piobairí Uilleann' and not again until 'another Tinol' in 1972. Fine, but even considering the vagaries of the Irish language, the word is actually Tionól. I've been trying to avoid commenting on the sheer number of typographical errors in this booklet since these things can happen, but another appears shortly afterwards when we find 'Padraig O'Keefe' (actually Pádraig O'Keeffe) and, a little further on, 'Tony McMahon' (actually Mac Mahon). The fada (the accent, written as acute, which lengthens vowels) is notably absent throughout the booklet.
Frank returns to steadier ground when he discusses the song's author, the Scotsman, Thomas Campbell, who also wrote the well-known The Exile of Erin, and the actual event which inspired this song (an incident during one of the battles on the Danube during Napoleon's campaigns in 1796-1797). Intriguingly, as Frank records, Campbell came to detest The Wounded Hussar and forbade his friends to mention its name in his presence. We also learn that the song was often presented with Captain O'Kane, an air of Carolan's and published in this form in 1825 in Smith's Irish Minstrel which wrongly claimed that O'Kane had died on the Danube, whereas, in reality, as Frank recounts, Carolan (who died in 1738, not 1734, as Frank writes here) had written the tune in honour of a prominent Antrim family. Now this is gripping stuff and it is a great shame that much of the rest of this booklet does not match Frank's standards here.
TSoNB 8 TR 5
14 The Mantle of Green
A classic ballad, often associated with both Margaret Barry and Robert Cinnamond, this shares thematic similarities to Lonely Waterloo and again, as such, is not specifically about either Napoleon or the battle Waterloo where the lamented 'Willie O'Reilly' fell, but is a tale of lost love.
TSoNB 8 TR 6
15 The Love Token
Another supposed battle casualty appears in this ballad, though of the spiteful sort who gallivants around Europe for several years before returning to test his lover's fidelity. Frank learned the song from John Kennedy, but he is finding new powers of elasticity in suggesting that it has anything at all to do with the Napoleonic Wars. The only possible reference is contained in this couplet:
Well your love and I fought, under the one commander,
We were fighting for George, like the great Alexander,
TSoNB 8 TR 7
16 My Love at Waterloo
It is lucky that I still have plenty of hair as "here is yet another love song from the battle of Waterloo" (in the singer's own words). Frank then goes on to attempt to provide an answer as to why so many of these songs have survived compared to few penned about the victors. His own conclusions are based on the theory that both Irish troops, despite fighting in for the British against Napoleon, and ballad singers, harboured nationalistic desires for Ireland's liberation by the Emperor. While this may be true, an alternative possibility encompasses the idea that songs celebrating great victories actually decline in interest as time goes by while, as long as nations fight each other, the themes of death in warfare or the futility of war itself remain a constant inspiration to songwriters. As such, Waterloo is simply a motif:
Through lonely roads and shady groves o'er hills and valley's too,
I'll wander far since my love was slain on the plains of Waterloo.
Another, and far more flippant explanation, might be that the word Waterloo itself offers far more opportunities for rhymes!
However, as Frank points out, this song is an oddity since, for once, the soldier has actually enlisted with Napoleon and does have a nationalist component - but one swallow does not a summer make:
When Ireland fell and tyrants rose his rambles first began,
To Bonaparte he proved faithful and he wore the soldier's blue,
TSoNB 9 TR 7
17 Armagh Volunteer
This is a song of many titles which Frank learned from Len Graham and John Kennedy and Frank here combines their versions and tells the story of a volunteer 'forced to take the bounty and then to sail awa'. Frank then tells us that 'Armagh has always been an area of resistance to English rule in Ireland' - which must be interesting news for Portadown's Loyalists and the population of Loughall where the first Orange Order was formed - though he does note that the area 'suffered sorely by the actions of the Orange yeomanry'. 'South Armagh' would have been more appropriate, as he goes on to verify with a description of the heinous actions in the area of troops led by Lord Blaney.
However, yet again this is not a song about Napoleon and it is questionable in itself whether its lyrics even support Frank's thesis that this song could be about 'Irishmen fighting on the opposite side with Napoleon, some of whom would have been 'United Irishmen' who escaped to France after the 1798 Rebellion.' It is equally possible that the song's reference to 'bounty' could be about the volunteer taking the King's Shilling. The song does tell of a 'bold militia man', but its lyrics provide no indication of which militia this might be, although the man's name, Jamie, provides a clue.
TSoNB 9 TR 8
18 The Plains of Waterloo
At last our Napoleonic tour reaches the oft-mentioned plains and yet again Frank tells us about the many Irishmen who served in the British army and that they fought to stave off hunger and unemployment… Editor, where are you? We are back once more on familiar territory, as Willie Reilly takes his last dance at Waterloo and this time old Boney does actually get a mention, but it is still not really a 'song on Napoleon Bonaparte', so it only gets half a point.
TSoNB 9½ TR 8½
19 Dearthairin O Mo Chroi
Frank tells us that the title means 'Little Brother of My Heart', in which case it should be Deartháirín Ó mo Chroí, but what's a fada or two between friends? For some peculiar reason this section appears partly in italics, but the appearance of an Irish title does raise a question which Frank has not even raised, let alone answered. Are there no surviving songs about Bonaparte or even slightly related to him sung in Irish? This is again a song about death, but, since Boney gets one mention, here's another half point.
TSoNB 10 TR 9
20 Napoleon's Lamentation
Clumsy history rears its ugly head once more as Frank writes:
The crowned heads of Europe had always hated Napoleon, not least because they were forced to deal with one who was not of noble birth. He in turn knew that had he been born a King he would have held his position by right of birth irrespective of whether he won his battles.
While there might be some justice in the first sentence, though the Austrian Emperor seemed eager to play a duplicitous game, Napoleon's memory would not have been so short that he would have forgotten the execution of his own "uncle" Louis XVI in 1793 and the suspected death by poisoning of his successor, Louis XVII, two years later. If Frank is actually saying that Napoleon believed in the divine right of kings, then he should say so directly.
But, hang on what's this about 'not of noble birth'? Here is what Norman Hampson has to say on the matter:
Napoleon himself, like his namesake in George Orwell's parable about another revolution, became increasingly indistinguishable from the kings and emperors whom he was fighting. He was, of course, by birth a noble, even if only a Corsican one. Once established in power..... Napoleon's own rule became increasingly autocratic and monarchical. After his Habsburg marriage the servility and ceremonial of the Imperial Court rivalled any in Europe. Even after his overthrow the Powers treated the defeated Emperor as something more than a successful revolutionary. (The Enlightenment, Penguin, 1968, p.262)
Moreover, Napoleon's father, Charles was appointed Louis XVI's royal counsellor and assessor in 1773, four years after Bonaparte's birth. Indeed, Bonaparte's love of the royal role saw him give away his sister Caroline in marriage to Joachim Murat, King of first the Two Sicilies and later of Naples, appoint his own older brother, Joseph, as both King of Naples (before Murat annexed it) and later King of Spain, enthrone his younger brother, Jérome, as King of Westphalia, assign the Duchy of Tuscany to another sister Elisa, and appoint another brother, Louis, as King of Holland. Yet another brother, Lucien, was appointed Prince of Canino by the Pope.
The notes themselves focus first on the song's cataloguing of Bonaparte's campaigns before turning to Josephine, a figure who previously has only made fleeting appearances in Frank's text. Here he concentrates on Bonaparte's undying affection for her while noting the song's unusual reference to her as 'my royal whore'. The major omission here is, that while Josephine may not have been popular with Bonaparte's family, she was no minor character in the drama. There are several salient points to make. Firstly, the Empress (née Marie Josephine Rose Tascher de la Pagerie) was six years older than Napoleon, which might have had some bearing on her inability to have children in later life since, by the time of the dissolution of their marriage, she was 45 or 46. Frank does not tell us that she was born in Martinique where she married the Viscomte de Beauharnais, the son of the island's governor, nor that de Beuaharnais, after serving in Louis XVI's army in the American War of Independence, turned revolutionary himself and was president of the Paris Constituent Assembly in 1791 before leading the army of the Rhine in 1793. Shortly afterwards de Beuaharnais was alleged to have aristocratic sympathies and guillotined, though this did not stop his son (and Josephine's!), Eugène, playing a considerable role in Napoleon's subsequent campaigns, serving in Italy and France and being appointed both a prince of France and Viceroy of India. Even more staggeringly absent from Frank's account is that Bonaparte formally adopted Eugène in 1806, while his sister maintained the familial link by marrying Napoleon's brother Louis, thus becoming Queen of Holland.
So, Josephine was not some minor figure, libidinous or otherwise, in the Bonaparte saga. Furthermore, it was her courting of the cream of French society, first at Malmaison and subsequently at the imperial palace, which played a significant part in establishing Napoleon's own credentials.
TSoNB 11 TR 9
21 Welcome Napoleon to Erin the Green
It's all there in the title of this song, which Frank learned from Paddy Tunney, though it is not as straightforward as he might suggest. While this really does fit his thesis about Napoleon and Ireland, Frank ignores the four lines quoted below, which suggests that support for Bonaparte might not always have been wholehearted.
We fought well at Antrim and likewise at Gorey,
We waited in vain for the French to arrive,
But Boney set sail with his army for Egypt,
And never a thought for the croppies he gave.
TSoNB 12 TR 9
Frank notes the common synonymous representation of Granuaile (the Irish version of the name of the sixteenth century 'seafaring ruler', Grace O'Malley) for Ireland, before telling us all about an aisling yet again. However, what he significantly fails to mention is that there is not a single reference to anything even remotely Napoleonic in the lyrics of the song itself. The only contemporary reference lies in these lines:
For six hundred years the briny tears have flowed down from my eyes,
I curse the day that Henry made me proud Albion's prize,
Six hundred years after Henry II's assumption of powers over Ireland in 1171 would place this towards the latter end of the eighteenth century, while its line There's no brave lord to wave his sword in my defence - not one indicates no Napoleonic sympathies. I am left to ask simply why this song has been included.
TSoNB 12 TR 10
23 You Sons of Old Ireland
One of the most intriguing songs on the second CD comes from the P W Joyce collection and is a retrospective view of the way in which the landed gentry flourished in Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars thanks to the conflict stimulating major rises in prices for grain and other produce. Yet the song is not just a simple plea for a return to good living, as this verse records:
Our gentry who fed upon turtle and wine,
Must now on wet lumpers and salt herrings dine,
Their bellies that swelled with Napoleon's renown,
Grow flat as old air bags, since Boney went down.
Frank does not consider this sardonic touch worthy of note, but manages instead to throw up yet another historical canard by confusing 'the repeal of the Corn Laws' in 1846 with their actual imposition in 1815. The repeal did mean 'cheaper food for the inhabitants of England's industrial cities', but it had taken thirty years of political agitation to achieve. It was the Laws' enactment, not repeal, which forbade the importation of wheat from abroad which 'dealt a serious blow to agriculture in Ireland'. While rightly recounting the disastrous effects this had on the Irish economy and its people, aggravated by successive potato crop failures, he dismisses the reaction within Britain to a simple tale of soldiers returning from the wars to face hunger and poverty. So we get no mention of parliament having to be defended from demonstrators, nor that 'NO CORN LAWS was prominent among the banners at Peterloo' (Thompson, op.cit. p.348) nor that 'this policy of protectionism bitterly alienated the urban and industrial interest and strained British politics, almost to snapping point, between 1815 and 1846' (E J Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, Penguin, 1969, p.100).
Instead we get a reference to Napoleon appearing in English ballads as 'even a possible liberator of the working classes, or 'the lower orders', to use the term by which they are often referred to in England.' Excuse me, but by whom?
TSoNB 13 TR 10
24 Napoleon Bonaparte
Robert Cinnamond recorded this song and so did Frank previously (on and Listen to My Song) and he notes about Napoleon that 'it was not uncommon to find ballads being sung in his praise in both Scotland and England.' Whether the song's reference to the Emperor's behaviour at Waterloo as being 'Like a bullock sold in Smithfield' is entirely indicative of such commendation is open to conjecture, but the song's general tenor is very sympathetic, though more in terms of Bonaparte's bravery than any other reason.
Yet wait, for Frank provides this telling insight into his own views on Napoleon:
I remember as a student paying homage to 'L'Empereur' and being very much aware that I was in the presence of one of the greatest figures in history, as I stood beside the imposing sarcophagus which contains his ashes. It lies beneath the golden dome of 'Les Invalides' in Paris.
This is verging on sheer idolatry and indicative of the largely uncritical view of Bonaparte Frank seems to espouse.
TSoNB 14 TR 10
25 Whiskey in the Jar and 26 The Saxon's Shilling
Frank places these two songs together and it is logical to consider them in this way, since both return to the subject of Irish enlistment. The very well-known former is set in the Peninsular War (Come brave boys we're off to marching, off to Portugal or Spain) while the latter was written by Kevin T Buggy and first appeared in print in 1842 (in the sonorously titled Belfast Vindicator). Despite being 'written just twenty-one years after the death of Napoleon', as Frank notes, this is a plainly a general anti-recruitment song and, like Whiskey in the Jar, has nothing to do with Bonaparte.
TSoNB 14 TR 12
Back in the nineteen seventies progressive rock bands saw the double album has the opportunity to parade their overblown fantasies often in the format of the dreaded concept album. Some, of course, saw four sides of vinyl as restrictive and released extended drivel over three or four albums. The double album has really never since lost the stigma, to the extent that even now the appearance of a double CD stimulates a wonder as to whether a pint is slopping around in a quart pot.
In the case of My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte this issue is resolved easily since almost half of the tracks included are simply not 'Traditional Songs on Napoleon Bonaparte' and those that are would be sufficient to make just a single album.
Additionally, Frank writes in the concluding part of his introductory essay, 'The study of history with all its scholarship has always lacked the one essential element which is contained in the songs; and that is the living sound of the times.' The 'times' here are so scattered as to undermine this attempt with mortal certainty. Perhaps, most damningly, the reason for this is that Frank's organisation of the songs seems to lack any kind of logic, so the listener leaps around historically, or sometimes finds her/himself hearing two or three similar songs in a row (e.g. tracks 14 to 16, the first three songs on the second disc). The albums lack the cohesion of, say, Na Casaidigh's 1691 which attempts, with some degree of success, to follow events as the action of the Williamite-Jacobite struggle unfolded.
Nevertheless, despite the huge number of misgivings about Frank Harte's abilities as a historian, there is no doubting the essential quality of his singing nor the understated accompaniment of his regular collaborator, Dónal Lunny on bouzouki and guitar. For those who remember the raucous levity of Frank's singing of Dublin street songs (especially his take on Cockles and Mussels), his voice has a focused mellowness entirely suited to much of this collection's material, particularly on the songs of lost love, such as The Bonny Light Horseman. His diction is both precise yet exceptionally melodic - tunes are never lost, the tempo always retained, inflexions often subtle and mood maintained throughout. Sometimes, though, he does not quite catch the humourous elements in some of the songs.
Ultimately, however, while Frank has to be congratulated for such a prodigious effort, there are just too many problems with this package to make it palatable… and not least the fact that its subject might just not have been the great hero Frank supposes.
This review by Geoff Wallis was originally written for Musical Traditions – www.mustrad.org.uk.
For more information about Hummingbird Records – www.hummingbirdrecords.com.