The Leitrim Equation solves a few musical mysteries

Among the gems uncovered in this show on Leitrim’s music heritage are a song from Turlough O’Carolan and a forgotten star of the New York stage

 

When poet Vincent Woods and singer Eleanor Shanley were growing up, St Columba’s Hospital in Sligo, a local psychiatric facility, was widely known as “the Leitrim Hotel”, because so many from their county were resident there.

Woods is from Tarmon, a short distance from the Arigna coal mines, and has spent years telling the stories of Leitrim generations past and present in his work - where possible using music to colour the narrative.

“I don’t play myself, I cannot even sing in tune, but I love music,” says the writer. As a teenager, he revelled in listening to flute players Packie Duignan and Tom Mulligan in Paddy Mac’s bar in Drumshanbo. He later wrote an award-winning radio play The Leitrim Hotel, and the story of the unfortunate souls who spent their lives locked away in the “asylum” is among several revisited in The Leitrim Equation.

The show is a celebration of about 300 years of music from the county, which resulted from an 18-month research project. In it, poet Vincent Woods and former De Danann vocalist Eleanor Shanley are collaborating with musicians Donal Lunny, John McCartin (guitarist, business man and the Fine Gael chairman of Leitrim county council), Dave Sheridan, Padraig McGovern, sean nos dancer Edwina Guckian and Leitrim-based film maker Johnny Gogan.

After trawling through archives, manuscripts and old recordings, including several made in New York in the 1920s , the group have created a show that is a tribute to a diverse cast, ranging from blind harper Turlough O’Carolan to Nan Fitzpatrick, who was born in Aughavas, Co Leitrim in 1909. After emigrating to New York as a 19-year-old, she became one of the first women to record there.

“I interviewed Nan shortly before she died in 1989,” says Eleanor Shanley, who grew up in Keshcarrigan, a few miles from Nan’s birthplace. “She was a big star in New York but then she came home for the Eucharistic Congress in 1932. She met a man in Ballinamore so she married and never went back.”

Nan Fitzpatrick told Shanley that no one at home knew she could sing. But some of her children will be at the Leitrim Equation show on Friday night in the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Trinity College, which will feature a crackly old recording of Fitzpatrick singing The Faerie Child, a song about a mother losing a child.

Fr John Quinn, the parish priest of Gortletteragh, gave the group access to his unique collection of music and song dating back to the 1600s for the project. They found O’Carolan tunes such as Si Beag Si Mor written in 1693, when the composer was just 21, and Planxty Reynolds, a tribute to his patron George Reynolds, which has not been performed in public for 200 years.

Another Vincent Woods poem that is included is Famine Pit, which was inspired by a horrific local story about a man who threw three of his step children into a mine shaft during the Famine, in order to ensure that his own offspring had a better chance of survival.

The Leitrim Equation is at Samuel Beckett Theatre, TCD on Friday and the Dock Arts Centre, Carrick on Shannon, on February 17 and 18.

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