Junior Brother: The Great Irish Famine — Kerry songwriter stands out from the pack

Ronan Kealy’s second album hits triumphant marks

The Great Irish Famine
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Artist: Junior Brother
Genre: Alt.folk
Label: Strange Brew

Just over three years ago, Junior Brother (Ronan Kealy) released his debut album, Pull the Right Rope, to an audience that comprised more ardent followers than casual attendees. In fairness, the album posed a few serious questions, not least being: how in the name of St Brigid had he been able to corral the sweetness of Nick Drake and John Martyn and tether them to the twin musical mysteries of Ivor Cutler and Captain Beefheart?

The obvious descriptions of his music (”idiosyncratic” and less polite varieties) arrived thick and fast, but the quality of the album rose above such signifiers. The truth is that Kealy is something of a one-off; if the debut album presented that to anyone who cared to listen, then his belated follow-up will only further consolidate his singular status.

The songs follow, pretty much, similar paths as those on his debut, but the narrative focus is more intense. “I was very conscious to bring each element of the debut into this follow-up,” Kealy writes in the accompanying press release, “but dramatically dig 10 times deeper and stretch 10 times further down into each avenue”. This ambitious approach doesn’t always bear fruit (Landlord’s Hum is too self-consciously dissonant but at least it’s gone in 60 seconds), yet when it does Kealy proves how strong a storyteller he is. It helps that he can be as self-reflectively amusing as serious.

On This Is My Body, he bemoans what seems certain to be the pandemic’s fostering of comfort eating (”This is my body now, like it or not, the price of exercise when the exercising stops. She said she’d love me with a body or without. I find that hard to believe when I look down and I can’t see my feet ... How can she love a human potato?”).


On the album’s central eight-minute-plus track, King Jessup’s Nine Trials, Kealy plays a blinder as he delves, surreally at times, into the past and the crucial role it can play in shaping the present day. It meanders as only a good long story should, with lyrics such as “self-flagellation, the wasps are stinging themselves dry” bolstering a hypnotic stream of consciousness that makes mincemeat out of every other structured Irish songwriter you can think of. It isn’t that Kealy is miles better than them (as a singer he is comparatively unsophisticated), but he thinks in ways that not only make him extraordinarily different but also virtually everything on The Great Irish Famine remarkable.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture