Féile Róise Rua, a magical weekend of song on Arranmore

‘Will we get a song out of you?’ we are asked. ‘The problem is stopping us,’ answers Patrick Freyne

Róise Rua or Róise na nAmhrán was a renowned folk singer from Arranmore who was recorded by Seán Ó hEochaidh for the Folklore Commission in the 1950s. For the last few years Arranmore residents have run Féile Róise Rua in her honour.

Brían MacGloinn from the band Ye Vagabonds suggests I attend because I’ve told him how much I like singing, and Féile Róise Rua is all about singing. The MacGloinn family are heavily involved in the festival. So my wife, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and I drive from Dublin to Burtonport to catch the ferry to Arranmore. The weather is windy but clear. “We had dolphins booked for ye but they didn’t turn up,” says a local, as the boat navigates its way around Rutland island.

On our return journey another man points out a row of terraced houses on Rutland that I somehow missed on the way over. It was built for the many people who once lived there servicing a thriving herring trade. It was called “Duke Street”, he says, but the locals couldn’t pronounce it so they called it “Duck Street”.

Once we’re passed Rutland, the east coast of Arranmore comes into view, looking like a special effect against the blue sky. I see the houses and sheep and roads crisscrossing the hills, and moments later we’re driving on one of those roads, winding up to the house where we’re staying. There’s a meadow-like garden frequented by goldfinches and a perfect view of the sea. We drop our luggage and walk to Early’s Bar where there’s a concert tonight, a Róise Rua Festival livestream in association with Other Voices.

At the door we’re greeted by Diarmuid MacGloinn, Brían’s brother and bandmate in Ye Vagabonds. “Will we get a song out of you this weekend?” he asks. “The problem will be stopping us,” I warn him. For a decade my wife, sister-in-law and I have been going to an annual singing workshop in the north of England, and we’re now fiends for singing in pubs.

Moments later we meet Brían, who is performing tonight. He’s chatting with Altan fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. She’s telling him that when she was young her father would bring her here and he would spend the evening talking with Brían’s grandfather about music. She tells me she lives so close to Donegal Airport that they ring her when she’s late to say “Mairéad, your flight’s here.”

“Will we get a song out of you?” Brían asks me.

“The problem will be stopping us,” I say, again. I can’t stress this enough.

The musicians take their places. They sit in a circle, encircled further by a watching audience and roaming camerafolk. Brían begins by singing Máire Bhán, a song from the island, in his soft baritone.

As the musicians play, others say “hup” and “maith thú”. Brían reads comments from people watching all over the world. Half of the between-song banter is in Irish and I’m ashamed to say my Irish skills are too poor to recount any of it. But there are bits I do understand.

“You’re getting better with age,” says the singer Jimmy Cannavan, after Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh plays a fiddle piece accompanied by Brían on bazouki.

“I’m like a good whiskey,” says Mairéad.

Helen Diamond sings, in a clear, high voice, about a woman led astray by man named False Lover John. “I often wonder why she went away with a fella if his name was False Lover John,” says Brían afterwards.

There’s further singing and piano-playing from Saileog Ní Cheannabháin and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill. Seosamh Ó Neachtain dances percussively on a board. Padraic Keane wrangles eerie tones from his uilleann pipes. It’s powerful stuff. After the official livestream ends an army of musicians gather for an impromptu session as the camera crew dismantle their equipment.

On the walk home that night we hear a corncrake which causes me great excitement. I know the sound of a corncrake because I have a friend nicknamed “Corncrake”, so I looked it up. It sounds like someone running their nail along a comb. It’s a sound that was once common across the Irish countryside, but now corncrakes are almost extinct everywhere except for remote areas like Arranmore.

“It’s just a clothesline hitting that wire,” says my wife, and the others agree. Later I find a recording of a corncrake online and make everyone apologise.

The next day we visit the western coast of the island. On route there’s a lake with a monument to the hundreds of Arranmore families who migrated to Beaver Island on the Great Lakes in America. We walk the cliff edge and look at daredevil sheep perching on ledges. At one point there’s a small streaming waterfall that’s so buffeted by wind that occasionally it seems to stop falling in mid-air, and the spray is pushed upwards over the edge of the cliff. Near the lighthouse we climb down a set of stone steps that run all the way down the cliffside to the turbulent sea.

That evening, after a lovely dinner at Early’s Bar, we walk up the road to the Glen Hotel where people are singing unaccompanied. I don’t recognise all the songs but each singer has their own texture and style. There’s a big contingent from Inishowen (the next day Grace Toland from the Irish Traditional Music Archive talks about how they’ve preserved the traditions there). A young woman named Alice sings a song in Irish, which I’m told is rare for songs from Inishowen. A Donegal blow-in named Mary sings a song about a mill girl. She’s a weaver, and as a child she’d watch her father weave in a shed in their garden in Marino in Dublin. A man named Bob sings a song called Caroline of Edinburgh Town. “I learned it because I thought my granny was Scottish,” he tells me afterwards. “Turns out she’s not!”

There are, in fact, a lot of Donegal songs that share elements with Scottish songs because migrant workers were constantly moving back and forth bringing music with them. One of the interesting things about folk music is how it makes a nonsense of borders.

At around midnight a fresh batch of singers arrive in at the conclusion of a céilí that’s been running up the road. There was breakdancing, they tell us, and a “sexy” version of the highland fling. My wife is fierce jealous not to have been part of this.

A man from Inishowen sings a song about naming a fat baby. My wife, sister-in-law and I sing a song about sheep-tending. Brían MacGloinn sings a beautiful song he calls Meeting is a Pleasure but which is also known as Going to Mass Last Sunday. Folk songs have legacies. People get them from other people and sometimes they piece them together from different sources. Brían got a particular twist in this melody from a well-respected Inishown singer named Charles James Eoghan McGonigle, and he’s very aware that Charles’s brother Michael is sitting by the bar. “I got a good smile and a nod from him,” he tells me later.

That night as we walk back we hear the corncrake again, at the same bend in the road. Moments later we hear another corncrake singing in another field. Further on the road we hear a third.

“Listen to his sexy song,” says my sister-in-law.

“They used to be heard everywhere,” I say.

“In fairness it’d get a bit wearing if they were everywhere,” says my brother-in-law.

The next morning we go a singing workshop run by Saileog Ní Cheannabháin. We’re not modest people, so when signing up we each write “experienced” in the box asking for our “ability level”. When we figure out they were talking about Irish language level, we have to cross out “experienced” and put in “beginner”, which is a bit embarrassing. But Saileog makes it all very easy. She normally sings with a beautifully ornamented Connacht style, but she forgoes the ornamentation when teaching us the tunes. “There wouldn’t be as much ornamentation in Donegal would there be?” she asks Donegal man Dónall Mac Ruairí.

“No, they sing it straighter here,” he says.

From time-to-time Saileog and Dónall discuss differences in Connacht and Ulster Irish in so far as it affects the rhyming scheme. A lot of people start learning Irish purely because of the music. “It’s because you need to have a context for it,” says Saileog.

Up the road at the village hall everyone gathers for a hearty buffet lunch. Two men play the accordion and the cajon drum, and an old lady with a walking stick dances to the music to great applause. Later Padraic Keane plays a powerful piece of descriptive pipe music called Máirseáil Alasdruim about a battle in 1647. It was first recorded on wax cylinder in 1898. and when it was played back to the piper, Mickey O’Suilleabhain, he started hitting the machine in horror.

A man named Hugh Nancy takes to the stage to welcome us. The day before I got a bit lost, and Hugh stopped and gave me a lift. A manager of country bands, he’s a dab hand at officiating things. Earlier in the day he gave people a guided tour of the island. “If you helped us repopulate the island we’d be delighted,” he tells the crowd with a wink. The island has a population of around 500 permanent residents and they’re in the market for more.

A group of local children sing songs once sung by Róise Rua as Brían accompanies them on guitar. It’s moving evidence of an old tradition being kept alive. It’s followed by a discussion with 90-year-old Johnny Duffy, a retired doctor and a repository of local musical knowledge. Johnny is joined on the panel by Alan Woods and Grace Toland from the Irish Traditional Music Archive. All Johnny needs is one question and he’s away joining the dots between musicians, places and songs.

He talks about house parties and parish dances. He occasionally illustrates things with a few bars of lilting. He mentions a travelling workman named John Martin who came to Arranmore each year selling ballads and singing through the horn of a gramophone. “He would sing here and you could hear in him in Ballintra.” (This is grist to Alan Woods’s mill because he has audio of John Martin singing over cows at a fair).

Johnny recalls how, when the fiddler Néillidh Boyle played an intricate piece about a hunt, “you could hear the riders and the horn and the fox”. He discusses an island piper known as “an Piobaire” who would retreat behind a door to tune his pipes and then forget to come out. “A rather eccentric man. I think all these great musicians are.” He pauses for comic effect and gestures at Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh in the audience. “Like Mairead.”

Aoife Ní Ghloinn speaks about their family’s close friend, the late Andrew Early, who, like Johnny, knew Róise Rua. Brían MacGloinn wrote the Ye Vagabonds’ song Blue is the Eye about him. A recording of Andrew is played, preceded by some tributes from young islanders. His son Jerry says a few words of thanks for keeping his memory alive.

Later on we walk up to Neily’s bar where we listen to a session featuring fiddlers, banjo pickers, squeeze box players and flautists, while feeding pizza to a little dog who has adopted us. We wander downhill to Phil Bán’s pub where a singing session is in full flight. Someone sings a song about losing their girl to a lambeg drummer. Annie, a clear-voiced Dublin singer, sings about a sexually disappointing husband. A young man named Naoise sings an Irish song from Tory Island with such deep rich overtones, he sounds almost like a piper.

We drop into Early’s and watch a few minutes of another musical session before walking up the hill to the Glen Hotel. I’m standing at the door when a happy looking couple wander in. “Our first Róise Rua engagement,” says Brían. “He proposed to her on the cliff steps.”

In the Glen we hear songs about navvies working on Britain’s motorways, lost loves and missed homelands. It feels good for us. My wife sings a song about meeting Death on the road. My sister-in-law sings a song about chemical workers that she heard from some Australian singers at an Andy Irvine gig. Someone tells her it’s in a book of socialist folk songs called The Red Songbook. I sing a song myself (like I said to the MacGloinn brothers, we can’t be stopped).

At two in the morning, as we’re going home in the darkness, we meet Helen Diamond walking with a fiddle on her back. It’s like something from a folksong, except that she’s walking by the light of her phone. We’re all heading to bed but Helen doesn’t sound so sure. She’s just been at Neily’s bar and she’s heard they might still playing music at the Glen.