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Songs from the sea

Éilís Kennedy told David Hennessy about her maritime themed fourth album So Ends This Day which marks her out as a songwriter and includes the story of the rescue of six fenians from prison in Western Australia and one of her late father’s poems set to music. 

Although known as a singer, Éilís Kennedy from West Kerry has announced herself as a songwriter with her latest album, writing five of the nine songs on So Ends this Day. Recorded with Gerry O’Beirne, the title of the record comes from how a captain would sign off his log. The record has a maritime theme with many songs being concerned with 19th century whalers and the women they left behind for much of the year.

“I kind of went down a rabbit hole,” she told The Irish World. “It wasn’t really meant to be all about the sea. It was more these are stories that I’m interested in and they happen to be about people involved in the sea in various ways.

The Catalpa Rescue, 1876 tells the incredible story of the daring rescue of six fenians from a jail in Fremantle, Western Australia. Flying the American flag, the whaling ship defied the British navy and despite having no weapons on board, got Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson successfully back to America.

“I thought loads of people knew that story but it turns out that a lot of people don’t know that story. I kind of knew it because my dad used to have a book about it when we were young and then I got to actually find out a lot about it way back in the mid ‘80s. I worked in the National Museum in Dublin and actually was restoring a flag and it was belonging to that ship so I went down an awful rabbit hole that time as well trying to figure out what was the story with the ship and what happened. 

“It’s a mad story really when you think about it. It was absolutely bananas the fact that they actually more or less crowdfunded to buy a whaler and then to just pretend they were going whaling. Can you imagine just going, no arms on board or anything? It was mad altogether but they actually carried it off by hook or by crook. It’s a crazy tale but it’s a brilliant seafaring story and if it wasn’t true, you really would think it was nonsense because it seems so unbelievable. 

“I really loved the fact that I was able to read the log book of the ship, the actual log book. Just to hold that book in your hands, you’re thinking, ‘Janey Mac. This is great’.

 “The captain of that ship was called Captain George Anthony. He was from Massachusetts and he had retired. His young wife says, ‘You’re staying at home now. No more whaling’. 

“And he went and did one last job when he was asked to do this. Fair play to him really. It was crazy really but he was a brilliant, brilliant mind and he was a great seafarer obviously.”

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It was this captain who gave Éilís the title of her album.

“Most of the days when he was signing off, he would write So Ends This Day so I thought, ‘That’s a nice phrase.  Kind of old fashioned’.”

Another story that fascinated Éilís was the story of Martha Smith who went around the world on the whaling ship Lucy-Ann in the 1840s. This story features in the song Petticoat Whalers.

“That was a real-life tale as well. She married this guy. He was a whaling captain and after they got married and had a child, he was going to sea again and he asked her to go with him. It was uncommon but it’s not that it never happened. She went off for four years with him. I wrote a song based on her journals. I just thought to myself, ‘You wouldn’t have thought women would have done that in the 1800s…’ but they did. 

“I was very interested in reading about how the women fared when the husbands went off to sea because they went away for so long. It’s so bananas to think today with Twitter and FaceTime and all this kind of stuff that then if you write a letter, the person might not even get it for six months.  

“They were just very stoic. They just accepted that’s the way things were and if you married into that life, you would know. They were together a lot less than they were apart. Some people would say, ‘That’s a great recipe for marriage’. Other people might say, ‘That’s kind of tough’. It’s funny to think of it now because obviously now people don’t spend that much time away from each other unless of course there’s a global pandemic and they can’t see that person that they love.”

Kennedy also includes Ciúmhas Carrig Aonair which is a poem written her own late father Caoimhín Ó Cinnéide which was set to music by Shaun Davey years ago.

Dad wrote that poem way back. He wouldn’t have called himself a poet but he wrote a lot of poems. It was after he died that we actually published them and Shaun Davey really liked the poems so we did a big project. He beautifully constructed songs around the poems. I thought one of them would be suitable for this album. On the spur of the moment in the studio, I said to Gerry, ‘Will we do this one?’ And he went, ‘Yeah, no bother’.

“I’m glad I put it on.”

Does it mean a lot to have her father, who died in 1985, feature on the record? “Of course it does. I think he would be quite amused. I think he would find it hilarious altogether that I would be singing a song he wrote 30 years later.

“My sister is a poet and my father wrote a lot of poems, that kind of encouraged me as well to put things in a lyrical way, to write them down and put them into songs. It turns out it’s not as easy as I thought it would be. 

“I’m really proud of the way those songs turned out. I think they all have something different to say. I’d love if other people sang them of course. That would be the real pleasure for me.

 “What I’m struck by is what people are struck by. For example they say things like, ‘That song really transported me off somewhere when I was listening to it’. That’s a lovely thing to hear.

I thought to myself, I should have done this years ago. 

“If I was to be prolific as a songwriter, I would want to write a bit faster but I was happy just to get the stories into some sort of shape. A lot of people encouraged me. Maybe they were pulling my leg.”

So Ends This Day by Éilís Kennedy is available from Copperplate or from Éilís’ own website

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