Dolores Keane : Voice and Vision from Ireland

‘.. 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.

Maura O’Connell – Silence and Stories: Maggie, Down By The Salley Gardens

Posts for Paddy’s Day 1

Christmas. New Years Day. Spring Solstice. Easter. Midsummer Day. First leaf fall. First fall of snow.

Way markers of the passing year. Each new feast chiming with all those that have gone before in the quickening parade of our lives.

And, if you are Irish, or of Irish stock, St Patrick’s Day.

On my twitter account (@thomhickey55 – sign up now if you’re not signed up already!) I describe myself, among other things, as, ‘Almost Irish’. That’s because though I was not born in Ireland both my parents and all my forebears were.

So, I unhesitatingly believe that whatever literary or rhetorical gifts I possess are drawn from a deep Celtic well. My mother told me a million stories and taught me how to tell them too. My Dad taught me how to listen to the important things that are always said in silences.

Stories and silences. Silences and stories. Of such things are true songs and poems made. By singers and poets who have listened, learned and dwelt in the silences surrounding the stories they offer up to us.

So, for the week that’s in it, I’m going to feature on The Immortal Jukebox some of the Irish singers, musicians and poets who have told the stories, sung the songs and made the poems that have touched my heart and lifted the spirits as the parade of my own life has passed by.

There are many stars in the firmament of Irish roots/traditional music and the nation has been particularly blessed by a generation of luminously talented women singers including Dolores Keane and Mary Black.

But, for me, the singer who has always shone the brightest and heartrendingly illuminated the miraculous combination of power, poetry, joy and tragedy contained within a really great song is Maura O’ Connell.

Some mysterious quality in her voice, which frequently brings me to tears, seems to bring out the truth that, ‘behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain’. I can’t think of another singer who marries the story and the silence with such delicate grace as Maura O’Connell.

Her ability to find and reveal the beating heart of a song after searching within herself for the truest way to offer up its gifts, without histrionics or affectation, is achingly exemplified in, ‘When You and I Were Young Maggie’.

There is no grandstanding when Maura O’Connell sings. She once said that, ‘My intention was to just sing the song clearly. I just wanted to be there to serve the song, rather than to show off a particular vocal style’.

She seems to me to have perfected the art of sifting a song for the precious metal at its core. Through instinct and craft she finds the stillness and silence within a song. Then, with respect, discretion and measured emotion using all the resources of her vocal talent and personal presence; the very essence of her being – she sings. And we encounter a true artist.

Maura O’Connell knows that a true song though anchored in the time and culture of its creation will, if performed with a true heart and true art, live on into the future and speak to peoples never imagined by its author.

In W. B Yeats, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ Maura found such a song. Though thousands of singers have sung this song it’s Maura O’Connell who sounds the deepest depths of Yeats’ incantatory cadences. Surrender, with gratitude, to the spell she and Yeats have cast.

Now a poem from a true inheritor of Yeats’ bardic role in the life of Ireland and the life of poetry, Seamus Heaney. The sudden manner of his death was a profound shock for Ireland and the world wide poetic community. Yet, while acknowledging our grief we draw sustenance from the poems which will surely continue to speak of the human condition down the ages as do the poems of Homer, Virgil and Yeats.

In his wonderfully vigorous poetry we are brought into imaginative contact with earthed lightning. And, sometimes we are guided to a realm that is usually just out of our vision, though always there.

Flaggy Shore 2

A place where known and strange things pass right in front of us and the world is made anew. Seamus Heaney made poetry which caught our hearts off guard and blew them open.

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

Dedicated to Peg Brosnan, Mikey Brosnan (RIP) and Kevin and Nora McElligott (RIP).

Thanks to Catherine Dunne for the haunting image