Why the song of the emigrant still strikes a chord today

From persecution in 18th century Ulster to the Famine and beyond, there’s a story to tell


The story of Irish migration down through the centuries has always been told in song. As long as Irish people have left this island, they have brought songs with them to tell the story of why they’ve left and what - and who - they’re missing. It’s a rich and emotional swathe of song, but one which you realise is as different and varied as the people who wrote it the more you prod and poke it.

Danny Diamond is a fiddle player, composer and former researcher with the Irish Traditional Music Archive. For him, the Famine was when emigrant songs came into being in a big way. 

“So many of them are tied into that era, both songs written around the time dealing with the actuality of what happened and ones written after the event. In the course of my work in the archive and as a personal interest as a performer, you can see that the Famine goes so deep and has had such an impact that it’s hugely formative on what we have now.

“Before that in the 1700s and earlier, you’d a much different tradition which was kind of dying out and the Famine came at this key time and changed the nature fundamentally of what was happening.”

That earlier tradition also has a very important story to tell in terms of roots and routes, as writer and producer Nuala O’Connor points out. “There’s a whole slew of emigration songs with a very different perspective on emigration from a very different class of emigrant from before the Famine. The person who brought all these songs out and recorded them and talked about them was Andy Irvine.

“The very first big tranche of emigration songs relate to the experience of 18th century anti-tithe, dissenting Presbyterian and Protestant Scots-Irish from Ulster who found it impossible to pay rack rents and tithes and were persecuted on religious grounds. They emigrated to rural Appalachia and became part of the gene pool there. The songs they brought with them set down the foundations for the American folk song traditions because they were largely English speakers.”

The stories within all these songs are also important to note. On the one hand, as director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive Grace Toland notes, it was first and foremost about self-expression. “When people left Ireland, they were singing and thinking about it because the songs were a way of self-expression for ordinary people. The Pogues are just as much an example of this resonance as any nineteenth-century song. It all makes sense to Irish people because of our experience.”

Yet within the songs, different narratives come to the surface.

Diamond points to “patriotic songs” with a nationalist agenda which were in vogue in the early years of the 20th century. “We came across a lot of songs in the archive which were in support of the IRA of the day and maybe they couldn’t put them out in the Ireland of the time because of the political climate of the Free State of the 1920s.

“A lot of people who left because they were on that Republican side in the civil war found they were free to make music and perform songs in the States and contributed to a lot of the commercial music which was recorded and made its way back home and informed the course of Irish music from thereon.”

Older songs, O’Connor finds, had a much different story to tell.

“The songs like Slieve Galleon Braes were quite political: “the rent were getting higher and I could no longer pay so farewell unto you bonny, bonny, Slieve Galleon Braes”. Some very typical Irish things are going on there. You’ve the naming of the loved landscape in the song, the beautiful place we could no longer live in because of an injustice and a cruel system.

Dolores Keane: Slieve Gallion Braes

The London Lasses: A Stor Mo Chroi

The Johnstons: Tunnel Tigers

The Dubliners: McAlpine's Fusiliers

The Saw Doctors: N17

“I read somewhere that those migrants did not have any notion of emigrating to get rich or to be different. They were after treatment that was fair and decent and equitable. A classic emigration narrative is to go and become the best you can become in the new land. It’s rampant individualism, but this was not that. These were from the stock who contributed to the 1798 Rebellion and the thinking of Enlightenment and that’s where this was coming from.”

Fast-forward to more recent times and, as broadcaster and producer Philip King notes, you’ve a much different underlying narrative again in the work of Dominic Behan, Ewan McColl and others. “These were hard, flinty songs about migrant workers of that later generation living in very difficult dormitory conditions in a city like London, lonesome and drinking heavily. I have a recollection of filming Bringing It All Back Home in The Crown in Cricklewood 25 years ago and the look of loss and anger in people’s faces was remarkable.

“The songs like Tunnel Tigers or McAlpine’s Fusiliers or Paddy Works On the Railway are eloquent and I remember Norma Waterson saying that these are our oral history. Emigration songs are like first person, emotional, eyewitness accounts shot through with love, loss and longing. The effect of a great emigration song is to compound the sense of loss and collapse the distance between the place you’re in now and the place you’ve left behind.”

Toland says perspectives changed when these emigrant songs first came face to face with the early commercial recording industry. “It goes all the way from the very real and very poignant right through to the whimsical three verse and chorus songs on a 78. Some are very reflective and you start to hear vestiges of what really happened, as opposed to the pure commercial ones which were tapping into that clichéd maudlin Paddy-and-Johnny way.”

The commercial side of things is something which Diamond expands on. “There weren’t commercial recordings in Ireland on any major scale until the 1950s because there wasn’t the economy to set up a studio. It was all coming back from the US and whether it was music about emigration or music made by emigrants, it became the driver of stylistic change in Irish music at home.

“They were making music over there which was commercial, while the music at home was more social so when it came back here, people were hearing music which was being made for dancehalls in a great melting pot like New York of that era.

“Some of the more sentimental ballads have become part of the American songbook like Danny Boy and Toora Loora Loora, which you’d have Bing Cosby and Frank Sinatra singing. You still have that today with migrants sentimentalising where they came from and having a different view of where they came from.

“Ballads like that would have great currency in Irish America because they’d have first-hand experience of the preferences and tastes for Irish folk and traditional music over there which were so divergent to here. A lot of them would be more into songs about the Famine whereas back here, it would be the last thing you’d want to listen to when you’re trying to make the best of things. When you’re away, you’re more prone to sentiment.”

This change is something which Nuala O’Connor also references. “There was a very large, homogenous Irish-American community who identified with creating a narrative about Ireland that got mixed into the stew about this imagined homeplace. A song like Slieve Galleon Braes is absolutely honed out of the experience of those people. But if you look at that song A Little Bit Of Heaven, with the line “a little bit of heaven dropped in the sea one day and it was called Ireland”, what the hell is that about?”

O’Connor is also fascinated by the way in which songs show up different narratives about migration. “If you look at a song like A Stór Mo Croí, that was written by an early 20th-century nationalist priest, but it looked back to an earlier migration from the perspective of a Catholic nationalist.

“The idea was that emigration is a forced exile, forced upon good Irish Catholics by a cruel imperialist power who had dispossessed them and so on. That’s quite different from the other radical collectivist narrative of the 18th century. They don’t fit together. On the other hand, it’s a priest writing a song and not a scholar. He’s not self-conscious, he’s writing about the culture he’s in, it’s matched up with the nationalist notion of emigration being perceived as exile. That narrative just doesn’t fit in with the other narrative with emigration as a betrayal of your country

She also points to a difference in how migration was viewed at home depending on whether America or England was the final destination. “If you move it on a notch to post-independence Ireland, emigration to England was regarded as a sell-out. John McGahern refers to a group of Irish emigrants in London and some old navvy he knew reading the paper about terrible bad weather in Ireland and this man says I hope it pisses on them forever or words to that effect. They were regarded as losers, these people who ran off to Perfidious Albion, a place where you’d lose your morals, lose your religion and become completely culturally adulterated.”

O’Connor also finds it striking that the Famine is rarely referenced directly. “There are almost no songs written directly about the Famine, any more than there are songs written about the Holocaust. There are so few songs written about the Famine because it is the unmentionable. It signified so much that was beyond everything; beyond language, beyond song, beyond music.

“It was like the epitome of negation of the soul and culture. The big book about culture in Ireland after the Famine is called The Great Silence and that’s what it was. You have deep hurt, deep physic pain and all the rest of it which is either translated into schmaltzy stuff like that song about Ireland dropping from heaven or stereotypical, fantastical Galway Bay material or else very, very bitter songs like Skibereen.”

While all those songs and movements reference past migrations, it’s a different story with the migrants of today. What songs will they be singing and writing?

Grace Toland believes it takes time for songs to surface within a tradition. “You don’t know what might be coming through. There could be a slight disconnect as a lot of singers are not writing their own material for the communities they are part of and that may be down to the time or their age. But I’d say they’re still picking up on things that reflect in a more historical than contemporary way. People are quite happy to use something traditional to reflect a contemporary feeling.

“Obviously the circumstances of leaving and the experience have changed. Using songs to talk about people’s experience is a bit like archaeology – you have to start digging and looking for earlier versions of things. Songs get mollified and sweetened as the stories go along and rose-tinted glasses come out.

“But the psychological thing of having to leave somewhere not out of choice is the same then as it was now. Going on a Famine ship is not the same as taking a Ryanair flight, but the parallels come with the sentiment behind leaving. It’s about the loneliness of being somewhere you haven’t chosen to be and being somewhere and thinking of somewhere else.”

After all, citing her own background in Inishowen, she says migration is part and parcel of our story no matter how you look at it. “The biggest employer in Inishowen is emigration. It’s built in and it’s in your head. You know you’re going to go away to school and to work and you might come back or you might not come back so singing about those things is normal. It’s as much about singing about being in love or history or politics or any of the other great things we sing about. You can be funny about or you can lament it or you can report it, but you do it.”

Philip King too believes the experience of moving away will still be covered by songwriters, musicians and singers. “Songs will remain a great source of succor and a very eloquent requiem for a loneliness. It’s important to think about what the song can now do in a world which has become virtual. It can collapse that distance in a way which is very human and tactile and emotional. What I hear in the brilliance of the Irish community that produced the Morrisseys, the Johnny Marrs, the John Lennons, the Gallaghers is all of that. I think what makes their songs absolutely stunningly engaging is that shot of lonesomeness.”

What will change, King believes, is what this experience now is. “We need to view tradition as an accelerator and not a brake. You need to go back and rethink the sum of all that we are. My daughter Molly now lives in London and she, for example, speaks Irish, plays the concertina, loves Joey Bada$$ and Kendrick Lamar and Planxty. All of that will now manifest itself in new songs which are engaging, powerful and will be social documents of the times we live in. It will still be hugely important when someone opens their mouth to sing us the news now about lonesomeness and sorrow and parting in a bar-room or backroom or front-room.”

Supported by the Global Irish Media Fund

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