Since he first came to the U.S. in 1972, Robbie O'Connell has established himself as one of the best solo performers and most genial personalities on the Irish music circuit in America. Although he grew up in a household alive with Irish music and tradition, his first serious involvement was with American folk music, and it wasn't until he left Ireland that he became conscious of his real heritage. When he took up the guitar at age thirteen, encouraged by his sister Alice, the songs he learned were mostly American folk songs. A few years later, he says, "I got all caught up in Paul Simon and James Taylor. But after coming to America, I started to feel very uncomfortable singing American songs. I thought, 'Wait a minute — I'm from Tipperary.' I began to realize that if I'm going to do something worthwhile, it's got to come from what I really am."
Close to the Bone, his first LP, is a summation of the music O'Connell has played and composed over the last ten years or so. "I'm always on the lookout for something I can write a song about," he says, and of the three original songs on this record, Ham Sunday stands out as a potential classic. Inspired in part by the repertoire of the well-known Dublin singer Frank Harte (and in particular by Harte's attraction to such mock-heroic songs as The Traveler All Over the World), Ham Sunday exposes the danger of overblown expectations. The tune is also original, a two-part jig loosely based on Tatter Jack Walsh. The structure, air, and internal rhyming of Ham Sunday make O'Connell's attempt to create a song "in the tradition of 19th-Century Anglo-Irish folk music" a striking success.
O'Connell remembers "one night after I had written Ham Sunday, I was in a small town in County Kilkenny in a little bar and grocery store, a great place to go for a session, with lovely, down-to-earth people. I sang the song without saying I'd written it and most of the people there knew of the incident in the song and remembered it. They were tickled by it and were hanging on every line. When I finished, they started saying, that was great! Where did you get that one?' I was thrilled. I think it was the highlight of my career. I felt I'd finally written a folk song."
Folk music to O'Connell is not a dead art form, but very much "an ongoing process." Working in America has taught him the necessity of connecting with people. "There's a lot of cultism about traditional music in which it's taken deadly seriously. The music isn't meant to be that way — it's meant to be fun." That lighthearted spirit infects much of this recording. Bobby's Britches and Ham Sunday are both humorous songs based on incidents that took place in his hometown, although The Ferrybank Piper, another O'Connell original, which was provoked by one of his father's early memories, reveals a more nostalgic element in his music. None of this is to suggest that the range of material on this recording is limited to the light or humorous, or even to the strictly Irish. William Hollander, The Earl of Murray (a Child ballad), and O'Connell's stunning version of A Week Before Easter lend depth to this album and help balance out the lighter selections.
Most of the material on this LP, O'Connell says, "is from my own part of Ireland: Waterford and Carrick-on-Suir." He was born in December 1950 in Waterford, the only son of Cait Clancy and Seán O'Connell. His sister Alice preceded him into the world by four and a half years. When he was seven, the family moved to nearby Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary, his mother's hometown. When O'Connell talks of coming to Irish music through "the roundabout route" of American folk music, he is overstating the case. His mother Cait was a sister of the legendary Clancy Brothers who, along with Tommy Makem, helped create an international audience for Irish music in the '50s and '60s, and O'Connell spent much of his childhood surrounded by many of the great singers and musicians who emerged during that ground-breaking era. Although his uncles had left Ireland for the U.S. when O'Connell was still very young, their fame attracted many summer visitors to the guest house operated by O'Connell's parents in Carrick-on-Suir. He remembers such people as Seamus Ennis, Joe Heaney, and Paddy Tunney, as well as Americans like Tom Paley and Jean Ritchie visiting the house.
But O'Connell recalls that whenever his mother would try to get him to sing for visitors and relatives, "I would cooperate only while hiding under a table. I was at that stage," he says, "when every time there was a session in the house, I would climb up a tree and wait till it was all over. I don't know whether it was shyness or just plain orneriness."
His decision to come to America in 1972, after dropping out of University College Dublin in his final year, seems to have played a part in O'Connell's successful battle against shyness and orneriness. Soon after his arrival in America he met Roxanne Vigeant (who can also be heard on this LP) and they were married in 1974. They live in Massachusetts and have three children — Paul, Catherine, and Declan. The 3,000 miles between New England and Tipperary helped O'Connell to realize his own musical identity by creating some real and emotional distance between his music and the diverse musical influences of his past.
After his mother's death in 1976, O'Connell took his wife and kids back to Ireland to help run the family business in Carrick-on-Suir. During his last year in Ireland, before returning to the U.S. in 1979, he formed a group called The Bread and Beer Band with his friends, Martin Murray, Paul Grant, and Tommy Keane (the piper who is prominently featured on this LP). "That band was a real turning point for me," O'Connell says. "It opened up a new world of possibilities. I got a taste of what it was like to work with other musicians, and my head was bursting with ideas."
Since his return to the States, O'Connell has worked full time as a musician. As a solo act, he travels for about two or three weeks at a time, "doing mostly bar work plus a few small concerts here and there." And in the last few years, he has joined his uncles Tom, Pat, and Bobby Clancy as a full-fledged member of The Clancy Brothers, touring with them several times a year.
Robbie O'Connell is a perceptive and articulate musician with a highly-evolved awareness of the growing sophistication of Irish music over the last ten years, a period in which the complex instrumental arrangements of groups like The Chieftains, The Bothy Band, and Planxty have given to the music a new and dynamic inventiveness. He greatly admires the work of Joe Heaney, Nioclas Toibin, and other Sean-nós singers, although his affinities are more with contemporaries such as Mick Hanly, Andy Irvine, and Dolores Keane. "It's only in the past few years," he says, "that people have begun to explore the use of harmonies in Irish music, and that's given the music a whole different sound."
Close to the Bone is an exciting record from an artist whose energy, warmth, and imagination make this collection one of the more significant debuts in Irish music in quite some time.
THE GAY OLD HAG — I first heard this sung by Paddy Tunney, but the arrangement here comes from The Bread and Beer Band, a group that Tommy and I belonged to in Ireland a few years ago.
WILLIAM HOLLANDER — Also known as The Flying Cloud, this song is a great favourite of Bobby Clancy, from whom I've heard it many times. In other versions the hero is often known as Edward Hallahan or Robert Anderson. The song paints a vivid picture of the slave trade in the 1820s.
A WEEK BEFORE EASTER — An English version of The Lambs on the Green Hills (Irish) and I Once Loved A Lass (Scottish). As far as I know this was collected by Seamus Ennis in the 1950s. Tommy heard Roxanne and myself sing this as a duet and added a bass harmony.
THE EARL OF MURRAY (Child No. 181) — In February of 1592, the Earl of Huntly was sent by King James VI of Scotland to apprehend the Earl of Murray whom he suspected of treasonable dealings with his cousin, the Earl of Bothwell. Murray, an avowed enemy of Huntly, refused to be taken by him and was killed in the ensuing conflict.
THE WATERFORD WALTZ — Another tune from the repertoire of The Bread and Beer Band. Tommy learned it from Micheál O'Suilleabhain and can also be heard playing it on the album Oro Damhnaigh (Gael-Linn). The tune is attributed to William O'Farrell who published it in his Pocket Companion for the Irish or Union Pipes, London (1801-1810).
WITH KITTY I'LL GO FOR A RAMBLE — Jean Ritchie came across this song in Ireland in 1952 and, as far as I know, added the second verse.
THE TORN PETTICOAT & THE RAMBLING PITCHFORK — Another song I heard from Paddy Tunney. The last verse is one of many found in the Waterford area, although usually in a more bawdy form. I got it from Mick Forrestal of Slieve Rue, Co. Kilkenny. The jig that follows is one that Tommy learned from Waterford piper, Tommy Kearney.
I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING — An old song that over the years has been sung by many people. A few years ago, I heard my cousin Declan O'Connell's arrangement of it and was surprised at how fresh it sounded. Roxanne sings with me on the chorus.
BOBBY'S BRITCHES — One of Bobby Clancy's exploits as a child, many of which have gone down in the family's annals. The phrase "Bobby's britches gone off in the tide" is still occasionally used to taunt him. I thought it would make a good chorus.
SLIABH na mBAN — Many songs have been written about the 1798 rebellion in Ireland although not very many in the native language. The melody is often played as a slow air and the words which were written by Micheál O'Longain have been translated into English by Seamus Ennis. I sing only two verses here, but the complete song has been recorded by Nioclas Toibin, with whom the song is most often associated.
I grieve my saying that that day's slaying
Should have dawned on Gaels in their hundreds dead,
Because the stranger is making game of us
Saving pikes for them hold fear nor dread.
Our major came not in time at daybreak.
We weren't prepared with our pikes as one
But as wild sheep nearing a shepherd shearing
On the sunny side slopes of Sliabh na mBan.
New Ross, 'tis known, was what beat us woefully
And left a horde of us stretched and weak
And babes unclothed as cinders smoldering
And those who bore it lying by ditch and dike.
I have it sworn though, that he who lowered us
We'll be before him with pikes, each man,
And teach the yeoman to fear the foeman
When we pay the score to them on Sliabh na mBan.
— A translation by Seamus Ennis
FERRYBANK PIPER — One winter's night, my father was reminiscing about the old days in Waterford. His description of this piper on a summer afternoon stayed in my mind and finally emerged as this song.
HAM SUNDAY — Growing up in Carrick-on-Suir, I often heard people talk about Ham Sunday, but I was never quite sure what it was all about. When I returned to Carrick a few years ago, I started asking questions and got the whole story. In the local area the expression "Ham Sunday" has become synonymous with unrealized expectations.
Tommy Keane, a native of Waterford, Ireland, began playing the uilleann pipes under the tutelage of Tommy Kearney, a well-known piper in the South East. He also studied at the Willie Clancy Summer School. In 1977 he recorded with Micheál O'Suilleabhain on Gael-Linn Records. Apart from the uilleann pipes, flute, and whistle, Tommy also plays bouzouki, mandolin, and tenor banjo. He presently resides in London.