Dublin's secret cell of singers

If you were to wander unwittingly into the Goilin traditional singing club one of these nights, you'd be forgiven for thinking…

If you were to wander unwittingly into the Goilin traditional singing club one of these nights, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled in on the last surviving cell of United Irishmen and women, who had kept the flame of liberty alive ever since the hanging of bould Robert Emmet.

The Goilin runs religiously every Friday night from the first week in September to the eve of the Willy Clancy week in July. The club's regular venue, the long room upstairs at the Trinity Inn on Pearse Street, looks as if it hasn't seen a lick of paint in a while, but there's always 50 or 60 people there and, around 10 o'clock, by some invisible cue, the place hushes and someone leads off into a song.

The tragic indignation of our down-trodden native land often raises a general hum behind the oft-beautiful lines of the choruses ("where our young eagles soar, at the dawning of the day"). Then there's a warm burst of applause, the odd "maith an cailin" or whatever, and someone else erupts into the next soulful puckering of collective memory.

The beauty of the Goilin is the utter heads-down, funeralMass respect for both song and singer - as long as you fit into the vibe and tradition, of course. Drunken hecklers or "Auld Trianglers" are hushed or steered gently towards the door, and one woman I know remains miffed at the response she got when she tried to sing Sinatra.


If you frequent the Goilin, you begin to recognise key singers: Jerry O'Reilly, a frequent fear an ti and corpo worker, and a stout rescuer of songs; the well-tailored union man, Manus O'Riordan, whom I mistook for a senior barrister; or Antoine O Farachain, a huge, mischievous Connemara singer, tragically separated from his fishing boats by forced economic migration (or so I thought, until I learned he was born and reared in Kickham Road, Kilmainham).

You hear all sorts of voices down the long room, like Nellie Weldon singing My Love is a Well, written for her by her late, great singer husband Liam, who learned his music from the Travellers that camped in his backyard in the Liberties. And talking of Travellers, Johnny Collins, father of actor Michael, with a crease in his trousers you could cut your finger on, commands respect with his hoarse, powerful, plaintive singing, setting his own melody to a recitation about the blind piper Caoch O'Leary and his little dog.

But if the main Goilin fare these nights is war and rebellion, it's probably because of the new book the club has just brought out with Lilliput, The Age of Revolution in the Irish Song Tradition, an illustrated compendium of 209 songs and settings collected by Terry Moylan.

It was a Goilin night par excellence. Harte delivered himself of Dunlavin Green. Sean Mone sang his unprintable cult ballad about the "bright big orange pimple" on David Trimble's bum ("harmless as a dimple, till the marching season comes"), while Moylan himself sang Savourneen Deelish.

Moylan is a modest, quiet-spoken Dublin bank manager who, in the evenings, changes into an intellectual bat-costume as a piper, collector of Irish traditional material and set-dance teacher with Brooke's Academy, which he and his wife, Kay (with Goilin stalwarts Jerry O'Reilly and his wife, Anne), set up in 1982.

The songs in his new book, in their subject-matter, pertain to the four turbulent decades from the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, through the 1798 and 1803 rebellions, to Napoleon's Waterloo in 1815.

The stirring melodrama of the ballads forms an ornately blurred folk memory of a brutal period. There is party propaganda from both nationalist and loyalist/Orange perspectives; bloodthirsty satire (Fireball MacNamara's Address to his Pistols); or lampoons like Jemmy O'Brien's Minuet from the Paddy's Resource ballad book.

There are big '98 songs, with background information: The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Rising of the Moon, P.J. McCall's Boolavogue or Father Murphy, a proclamatory song in circulation shortly after the Rebellion; various Croppy Boys and Sliabh na mBans; songs attributed to Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken; even Moore's three laments for Robert Emmet (Moylan's aunt used to recite Emmet's speech from the dock as a party piece).

Then there is the great love affair with Napoleon Bonaparte in the Irish - and indeed English - folk song tradition. Some of it is achingly beautiful (The Green Linnet), some as subtle as a blacksmith's fist (Napoleon is the Boy for Kicking Up a Row).

It's a great general resource for someone who likes a sturdy singsong, and the Goilin has financially supported its publication by Lilliput, which also published Moylan's previous labour of love - a collection of over 350 tunes from the incorrigible Sliabh Luachra accordionist, Johnny O Leary.

After a nomadic existence for many years, the Goilin has been in the Trinity since 1993, but the pub recently changed hands and a major renovation is due, so the club may shift, temporarily at least, to the Teachers' Club in Parnell Square.

However, the club is unlikely to evaporate as long as it can boast such a dedicated regular as Cheallaigh, Tim Dennehy, Josie Sheain Jeaic, Johnny Mhairtin Learai, Eoin Maidhci O Suilleabhain from Chuil Aodha, Dan McGonagle from Donegal, or Micil Ned Quinn from Mullaghbane in County Armagh. ????????????such as Luke Cheevers, a well-known Ringsend window-cleaner and singer, known for his renditions of Robert Service songs (old Yukon mining songs like The Cremation of Sam McGee) and Dublin standards like The Charlady's Ball and The Monto.

Along with a large Brooke's Academy contingent, Cheevers was among a Goilin brigade of 37 which went to France last year. Says Cheevers: "We made a great Napoleonic weekend of it. Standing there in front of his casket, we sang The Bonny Light Horseman. People were standing around with their mouths hanging open in consternation, but we just had to do it, like."

The Age of Revolution in the Irish Song Tradition 1776-1815, edited by Terry Moylan, is published by Lilliput Press, priced £15.99.