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Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song isn’t a competition. It’s far better than that

We learn more than whether The Green Fields of France is better than On Raglan Road

Mary Black, contestant and presenter

At one point in the brisk first episode of Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song (RTÉ One, Sunday, 7.30pm), George Furey considers The Green Fields of France, as though it belonged neither to The Furey Brothers, or its writer, Eric Bogle, but to its audience. “The minute you start it up, they all take over.”

That’s the trouble with folk songs: they belong to the people. They lose their origins and gather in legend across long parties, campfires and lock-ins. One tribute to Bogle’s famous anti-war song added that its writer had died tragically in the first World War. This came as some news to Bogle, who wrote the song in 1976 and is still very much alive.

This excellent show is much more careful about attributing ownership of the songs considered, without restricting their interpretations.

Most people will know that the first song featured, On Raglan Road, was written by Patrick Kavanagh as a poem and immortalised by Luke Kelly as a song. But not everyone will know whom it immortalises – namely Hilda Moriarty, Kavanagh’s unrequited love, nicely represented here by her son, Daragh O’Malley.

“Paddy took it very badly,” he says, diplomatically, about the end of what sounds like a one-side obsession.

“William McBride is not a person, he’s a symbol,” argues historian Caitriona Crowe later, which might surprise his nephew Joe McBride, a farmer and now blood relative to a metaphor.

Still, even the glimpse he provides into his uncle’s life doesn’t contradict Crowe’s point: Willie McBride can be both. As with Hilda Moriarty, meeting these muses can be quite stirring; lyrics made flesh.

It’s a mark of director and producer Deborah Spillane’s enlivening approach that the songs are also made respectfully new, given stately unadorned versions delivered next to familiar recordings.

Conor O’Brien of Villagers covers On Raglan Road as an intimate whisper, for instance, a nice counterbalance to Luke Kelly’s impassioned belting.

Like Niamh Farrell and Neil Hanna’s delicate cover of The Green Fields of France, neither versions are heard in full which makes an elegant point: folk songs ought to be available to interpretation.

In that regard, the programme’s contributors offer acumen and pith. Songwriter Ruthanne, for instance, can talk about both musical structure and emotional feeling when it comes to On Raglan Road. The frank and personal insights of rapper Temper-Mental MissElayneous help crack open the complexity of The Green Fields of France, reappraising something she once considered a kind of rebel ballad, as the plea for peace it was intended to be.

Presented by Mary Black, whose indelible version of Eleanor McEvoy’s A Woman’s Heart is one of the 10 songs shortlisted, this is a show made by people who clearly know their stuff and wear their expertise lightly.

Online voting will give the folk their say, of course, but the competition is almost beside the point. This is a generous and subtle feat of arts criticism. It delicately takes apart familiar works to point out the beauty of their components, the marvels of their circumstances.

Thanks to its efforts you may hear the songs with fresh clarity. The folk should be pleased.