Michael McDonagh on last Friday night’s Imagining Ireland at the Royal Festival Hall
Imagining Ireland, ‘a musical conversation between Ireland and England, through the songs of the last hundred years’, was introduced respectfully and with a droll sense of humour by RTE’s John Kelly, who got the tone right from the very start.
He told us of his joyful surprise in learning many great British performers he had loved for years and watched, as a schoolboy, on Top of the Pops, were actually Irish: Dusty Springfield, Elvis Costello, The Beatles, Kate Bush, Shane McGowan, Sex Pistols’ John Lydon – all four of the Smiths, Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce – Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
It was fitting that it opened with a moving solo from renowned Irish classical pianist Barry Douglas. Kelly was quite rightly very proud of the hand picked house band of celebrated Irish and English musicians.
It was a great virtuoso ensemble and included: the two sons of English folk songwriter Ewan MacColl, Calum and Neil on guitars; two fine musicians from Van Morrison’s bands, Liam Bradley on drums and Kate St John, who was musical director for the concert, on oboe, cor anglais and saxophone; Roger Eno on piano, Ben Nicholas on bass and Jack Pinter on clarinet, saxophone and flute.
The first half of the concert established the serious historical relationship between the two nations as Paul Brady sang lengthy ancient ballad The Shamrock Shore, written in the 1840s, and which Paul described as “an objective, hard and astute commentary on the state of the nation during the first 50 years of the last century. It ends with a plea to Irishmen to settle their differences for the common good”.
— emile holba (@emileholba) April 30, 2016
Moving on several decades Camille O’Sullivan performed Macushla, made famous by John McCormack, and which my own father would sing to me to get me to sleep as a child, nearly 70 years ago now, conducting with the red glow of a cigarette in the dark as he backed out of the room.
— Cáit O’Riordan (@rockyoriordan) May 2, 2016
Before that Camille gave an emotional version of Róisín Dubh. Cait O’Riordan, the original bass player with the Pogues and Cathal Coughlan from the Fatima Mansions proved the spirit of punk rock is alive and well with stunning, energetic, and bravura musical performances.
The legendary multi instrumentalist Andy Irvine, born in St John’s Wood, who was once with Planxty brought us back to 1916 with the song James Connolly. Irvine, when he started out as a folk musician would hang out in the London folk club run by Ewan MacColl.
On Friday we had Ewan’s two sons Callum and Neil, performing a song that the audience was informed everybody thinks is Irish but was actually written by their dad. No, it wasn’t Dirty Old Town, which is actually about Salford, which many of us expected, but his song about Irishmen digging the Blackwall Tunnel, Tunnel Tigers. Cavan-born Lisa O’Neil sang in her very distinctive, sean nos-style voice, England Has My Man.
Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ (now Dexy’s) Kevin Rowland and Sean Read almost stole the show with their sung rendition of The Curragh Of Kildare. Later that night Rowland gave what will probably be hailed as the definitive and best ever performance of Carrickfergus.
Classical and traditional music merged in a performance by Barry Douglas with fiddler extraordinaire Martin Hayes followed by fast rising superstar James Vincent McMorrow at piano, and then guitar, and his astonishing voice, performing three of his own songs, including We Don’t Eat.
McMorrow’s international success and appeal since 2010 is such that one of his songs was used for the long-awaited new season trailer for Game of Thrones earlier this year.
The English folk tradition was represented by one of its true superstars, Martin Carthy MBE, who gave a traditional folk club interpretation of Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s Nothing Rhymes followed by Row In The Town about 1916 followed by more from Camille O’Sullivan.
Cathal Coughlan took no prisoners, so to speak, with his anger-fuelled, subversive – and possibly self-indulgent – version of All Things Bright and Beautiful.
When he left the stage Cait O’Riordan stormed back on laughing and saying he had just hissed at her in the wings ‘Follow That! Bitch’ then adding that she was only joking and that he had not said that at all but was probably thinking it anyway.
She said was now going to bring the tone down to her level. She did just the opposite and gave us a storming and entirely pertinent version of Shane MacGowan’s Dark Streets of London.
Paul Brady apologised for being the one to sing about the bad times when he sang his great song from the eighties about being Irish in London Nothing But The Same Old Story. He confided to the audience that when he performed it at the Irish State Visit concert at the Royal Albert Hall two years ago his mortified daughter – who lives here – told him ‘Dad, it’s not like that any more.’
He heartily agreed with her and thought that was certainly cause for celebration. Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill gave us more of their traditional fiddle and guitar, which melded trad, classical and jazz into one ethereal sound.
Then Paul Brady was back on with Martin Carthy and Andy Irvine to take the mood back up to Cait’s level with a rousing version of construction workers’ ballad McAlpine’s Fusiliers. The evening ended with Lisa O’Neil’s stunning rendition of the very appropriate The Foggy Dew.