History always remembers the big events and the important names, but the stories of the bit players should not be forgotten. This viewpoint was the starting point of the debut album by John Colbert and Jimmy Sheeran, aka Black Bank Folk.
In Rising, the Dubliners have come up with a novel way to commemorate the events of 1916: by unearthing the lesser- known stories and setting them to music.
What makes their approach all the more unusual is the fact that Colbert is the grandnephew of one of the 1916 leaders, Con Colbert, who was executed at Kilmainham Gaol aged 27. That blood line didn’t stop him from circumnavigating his famous ancestor’s story in favour of those that hadn’t been as publicly told. Or, as they put it, “the human stories” of the rebellion.
“It would have been driven by my love of history,” says Colbert when we meet in a Dublin bar on a rainy afternoon. “Because of the family connection, 1916 always seemed like this huge mythical thing for me. I suppose it was glorified, as it was for most people, with heroes and poets and writers and trade unionists all coming together.
“I always had a love for that, so this project just gave us the perfect vehicle to express that.”
Rising was three years in the making, but Colbert and Sheeran go back a lot further. They grew up in close proximity in Raheny, north Dublin. Both dabbled in music and played covers sets in pubs for the past six or seven years.
The seeds for Rising were sown three years ago, when they wrote their first song. Brother was about Patrick Pearse's brother Willie, who was executed because of his family connection.
“There’s a story that says Willie never held a gun the whole week, and he was just executed by association,” says Sheeran. “I have a brother, John has two brothers; a story like that is going to affect you no matter who you are or what you believe. So we just wanted to look at things in a different way. You don’t have to listen to the song in a historical aspect.”
Colbert’s family background lent itself to an interest in 1916, but the pair delved deep when researching the lesser-known stories.
“We were reading general books about the Rising, but there’s so much stuff online in terms of the Euro military histories,” Sheeran says. “You have the accounts of people who were actually there at the time, who knew the main players.
“Some of the most interesting accounts aren’t about the leaders or the big events; they’re about how somebody felt about surrendering their gun, or something you would think is insignificant but was a huge event in this person’s life.
“We were lucky John’s family had a lot of stuff other people might not have had access to: old books, letters from Kilmainham, that sort of thing. So you get a little bit of insight into how they were feeling, rather than just the big sentiments.”
Other songs tell similar stories. If Only is from a British soldier's perspective and Messenger Boy from the point of view of children.
"We basically took the time to map out the album," says Colbert. "We wanted to do it chronologically, and there were certain aspects of the story we wanted to cover: the start of the Rising, through the fighting, the surrender, the desperation, the executions, then a kind of triumphant end. The Luke Kelly cover [The Sons of Róisín] at the very end was like an overview; it was a perfect one to bookend the album."
When it came to finding other musicians and guest vocalists, the duo drew on Colbert's musical contacts. As a full-time member of Jerry Fish and Damien Dempsey's bands, Colbert jokes that he "basically stole" Dempsey's crew for the project, which Sheeran says is more than just a trad throwback.
“The songs are all quite different,” he says, nodding. “There are elements of country and folk, and little bits of indie. We didn’t want it to be overly trad, but just to give it an Irish flavour.”
Damien Dempsey’s great-aunt
Dempsey played a larger part in
than was originally anticipated, and ended up writing a song –
Aunt Jennie (And the Warrior Queens of ’16
– for the album.
"He'd always been a fan of the project and was very encouraging," Colbert says, "but we wanted to steer away from him singing one of the songs we'd already written, because Jim had already done a great job on the lyrics. We had written an instrumental piece, so we sent him that and he said, 'Look, I'm after finding out that my greataunt Jennie Shanahan fought at City Hall, and I'd love to write it about her'.
“It worked out perfectly for us because we wanted to have one song about women’s role in 1916. So Damien wrote it about her and the women in general. It worked out great because he had the passion of his own family connection behind it.”
The personal connection is crucial to the entire project, says Sheeran. Rising is not so much about staunch, flag-waving patriotism as a way of telling the human stories.
“It was the personal stuff that interested both of us,” Sheeran says, “rather than the ‘God save Ireland, save the heroes’ sort of stuff. We wanted it to be a folk storytelling sort of thing – and to tell everybody’s side, whether it was women’s part in the Rising, or children’s, or the British perspective.
“All we want people to do is just look at it, listen to it, think about it and make their own judgments,” Sheeran adds. “We don’t want to be ramming our opinions down people’s throats. ‘This is what we think, and you should think it, too.’ It’s not for us to say what was right or wrong – we’re just saying ‘This is what happened, and maybe this is how people were feeling at the time’.
“You can read history and get caught up in the grand events, but it was more instructional for us to look at the emotions of everything, and try to imagine it from that end.”
He and Colbert will continue as Black Bank Folk once Rising has reached its natural end, although they are unsure what direction their songwriting will take.
“What’s the next big historical event? Or what about ‘Historicalsongs.com’ by Black Bank Folk – we can set your family tree to music,” Colbert jokes. “People might be cynical if we kept doing more and more historical songs, but never say never. There are so many great stories and little anecdotes to be told that aren’t in the history books.
“Rather than doing something for the sake of it, you’re doing it because you love it. We’re proud of what we’ve done with this one.”
Rising is out now on FFS Records. blackbankfolk.com