Heading into history for songs of substance
Percolation: a process that requires time and patience, both of which are commodities that come in short supply when it comes to the delicate art of planning a music career.
Recently, he’s written full orchestral arrangements for many of his songs, and performed them live with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. It was an experience O’Rourke describes as akin to “having a huge palette of colours to play with”.
Aside from all that, he’s shared stages with Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas, recently duetted with English folk’s Kate Rusby and shared more than a song or two with The Dubliners, but O’Rourke’s headline concert at this year’s Temple Bar Tradfest will see him occupy an altogether different space, where he’ll premiere a suite of songs he’s written over the past decade on the subject of the Irish Famine.
The germ that spawned this particular writing theme was O’Rourke’s discovery that his grandfather was born in a workhouse in Kinvara, Co Galway. Although he had only visited Kinvara once during his childhood, paintings by his grandfather of the local castle, which hung in the homes of many of his relatives, seeped so deeply beneath his skin that he felt what he describes as “a real spiritual connection” to the place. O’Rourke eventually moved to Kinvara, where he’s lived for the past six years. After picking up a book on the workhouses of Ireland, there was no turning away from a subject that’s preoccupied him ever since.
“That book had a big impact on me straight away,” he says. “And it was the personal stories that got me.” One story in particular, of a family from Macroom, struck O’Rourke with its stark and poignant juxtaposition of love and death.
“This man took his family into a workhouse, and all his children died very quickly,” he says. “So he brought his wife home, and, as she was dying, she was very cold, so he got down beside her and took her feet up on to his chest, under his shirt, and that’s where they both died, and that’s how they were both found.
“I was instantly taken by that image, and separate to my own emotional reaction, as a writer, that part of my brain was going ‘alert, alert, alert’. I was just instantly drawn to it, and had to write a song about it.”
The more he read, the more O’Rourke realised that one song could barely scratch the surface of a subject that he believes has been too often excised from our consciousness.