‘.. Every night their mouths filled with Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars and exhausted birds. And only when the danger was plain in the music could you know their true measure of rejoicing in finding a voice where they found a vision.’ (Eavan Boland)
‘As long as Dolores Keane is walking around this earth, I won’t call myself a singer. I think she’s the voice of Ireland.’ (Nanci Griffith)
To my mind the besetting malady of modern life is atomisation.
Meagre lives lived in migraine-fraught locked and barred isolation.
When I seek a musical antidote to my despair about this situation I turn most often to a singer, Dolores Keane, whose every breath embodies not atomisation but connection.
Dolores had the immense good fortune to be born, in 1953, into a family who were keepers of the flame of Irish Traditional Music in a time when the deep treasures of the tradition were at risk of being swept aside by the glittering lures of commercial modernity.
From the age of four Dolores lived in Caherlistrane, County Galway, with her aunts Rita and Sarah.
The Keane sisters played accordion and fiddle but their greatest accomplishment was their heart stopping prowess as duet singers of ballads in the Sean-nos or old style.
Literally growing up at their feet Dolores imbibed their mastery through every pore of her being. In the kitchen and in the parlour songs sounding the depths of human experience were sung with full hearted candour and artistic delicacy.
Dolores, as a child, was exposed, initiated, into the, ‘Big Music’. Later, while still a young woman she was able to give life to the Big Music herself.
Knowing, in her heart and bones, where she was from set her free to voyage out into the wider world armed with a sense of inner poise.
The golden lesson Dolores learned from Rita and Sarah was that a singer’s duty was to devote all the emotional and technical resources in their gift in service of the song.
To bring a song to quickening life required discipline, engagement and above all attention. Attention to lyric, story and melody.
Attention to breath and pace.
Artistic, emotional and spiritual attention. Dolores listened with rapt attention to the artistry of her aunts. The proof of how diligently she attended can be heard through every moment of her sublime performance of, ‘The May Morning Dew’ from her debut solo record, ‘There Was A Maid’.
There can be no such thing as the definitive performance of such a song.
Traditional singers taking on the challenge are in pursuit of a wild hare which will always eludes capture.
There is always, always, more singing in the song.
Yet we can say that it is hard to imagine that anyone has ever engaged in a more thrilling pursuit than Dolores.
She inhabits, ‘The May Morning Dew’ so intensely that we feel connected to a complete world.
Connected to a living hospitable community.
Connected to the trees and the sky, the flowers in the valley, the calling of the small birds and the farmyard dogs.
Connected to the sound of the kettle boiling on the hob as neighbours converse on matters of great local import under the sky blue and clear.
Feeling the tender warmth of such a world we must feel too the chill and the pang of knowing that all things must pass, all things must pass.
So the beloved house will become but a stone on a stone and the lovingly tended garden a a riot of weeds.
And, like the red rose our parents, our friends and relations and, we cannot deny it ourselves, will perish in the May morning dew.
Dolores’ singing arrests time and allows us, each in our own way, according to our history, to contemplate and perhaps come to terms with the timeless truths of the song.
Next a contemporary song, ‘Never Be The Sun’ written by Donagh Long.
Every listener to this song will recall the one, who for them, will always be the light. Always be the light.
I have never listened to this performance without salt tears cascading down my face.
I really have no words to express how magnificent Dolores singing is here except to say that as she sings I leave the dusty Earth behind as she sets the very sun, the deepest ocean, the moon and the stars in sway.
Listening to Dolores singing epic ballads from the treasury of folk music history has convinced me that very few modern songwriters have works to compete with that great writer, ‘Trad’.
Still, we can all allow that Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson have added mighty stones to the cairn of the song hoard.
And, it is certain that the late Guy Clark, supreme craftsman of the narrative ballad, has too.
The pain and the promise of emigration seems to be always present in Ireland’s history and culture. As such it has proved a rich seam for songwriters to mine.
With, ‘Emigrant Eyes’ Guy Clark, with typical skill, yokes the sweep of history with the hope and the blood and the tears of generations to make a song crying out for a singer who can hold all these in balance.
A singer who can span oceans and centuries and set the heart and imagination ablaze.
In Dolores Keane he finds that singer.
I will leave you with a privileged glimpse into the roots of Dolores Keane’s art.
Together with her beloved Aunts Rita and Sarah she sings, ‘Once I Loved’ .
As they sing they evoke for me all time and no time.
History and pre-history.
Fairy forts and ancient barrows.
Passage graves, beehive chapels and high crosses.
Healing wells and hedge school philosophy.
Blind Harpers and hermit Saints.
The flight of the Heron and the Curlew.
The rush of the wind over the reeds.
The mysterious music of the constant moon and the day-blind stars.
Dolores Keane, while gifting us untold riches, has come through well documented struggles with depression, alcohol and cancer.
She is a singer of the stature of Bessie Smith, Umm Kulthum and Aretha Franklin.
She has sung herself, and us as listeners, back to where the singing comes from.
I wish her health and peace and songs to sing whenever she chooses to sing them.
Notes: Dolores Keane has an extensive catalogue.
Every record she has ever made is worth of your attention.
My personal favourites are:
‘There Was A Maid’
‘Solid Ground’ ‘
Broken Hearted I’ll Wander’ & ‘Farewell To Eirinn’ (With John Faulkner)
‘De Dannan’ & ‘Ballroom’ (from her time with the group De Dannan)
Rita & Sarah Keane’s mesmeric singing can be found on, ‘Once I Loved’ & ‘At The Setting Of the Sun’.
There is a heart wrenching documentary, ‘A Storm in the Heart’ on Dolores’ life by Liam McGrath.
The best book on Traditional Music I have ever read is Ciaran Carson’s, ‘Last Night’s Fun’.
A fascinating insight into Caherlistrane where Dolores grew up can be found in the history/memoir, ‘Caherlistrane’ by Mary J Murphy – available online from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway.