The Muskerry Queen of Song


The inspirational recordings of the Ballyvourney singer Elizabeth "Bess" Cronin (1879-1956) have long been available in the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. However, the world had evidently been waiting for a purchasable collection on CD, judging by the response to an exhaustive collection of her words and music compiled by her grandson, Daibhi O Croin in, a professor of early mediaeval history at UCG. It is also accompanied by the first representative sample of her recordings, which have electrified singers from Christy Moore to the NI Dhomhnaills: songs like The Good Ship Kangaroo, Siuil a Ruin, her stark Lord Gregory, indeed The Bonnie Blue-Eyed Lassie - songs which many people believe Bess rescued from extinction, certainly in the oral tradition.

The two CDs contain 59 songs and song-fragments (of some 130 known recordings), digitally remastered by RTE's Harry Bradshaw. Meanwhile, the book includes text and music for nearly 200 songs, drawn primarily from family papers and memorabilia. It completes a life's work begun by O Croinin's late father Donncha. Many of the song-texts were hand-written by Bess herself, while others were taken down by her sons Donncha and Sean, Seamus Ennis or other collectors.

The first CD is compiled from acetate recordings made by the Folklore Comission in 1947 and 1951, and the BBC between 1947 and 1954; the second from tape recordings by folk-collectors Alan Lomax, Jean Ritchie and George Pickow in 1952, and the late Diane Hamilton in 1955, just months before Bess's death. O Croinin maintains that Bess only wrote songs down when she was pestered by his father, and probably carried about 250 or more around in her head. Certainly, there's an extraordinary range of material here, and apart from the songs already mentioned, a lot of today's repertoire clicks into place as you listen into these home-recorded, almost confessional performances.

She had an extraordinary, measured quietude to her singing; with her deeply layered, understated, rhythmic and melodic ornament. The moods span the spectrum: from the piper's rejoinder to the priest, Nil Mo Shlainte ar Fonamh, to the melancholic tinge to her drinking song Nil Se 'na La; from lullabies like Cuir a Chodladh an Seanduine to the keening of Sweet Boney, or the probing melodic lines of Cois Abhainn na Sead. aim Cortha o Bheith im' Aonar im' Lui, or An Binsin Luachra which nearly plaits two entirely different songs together.

In the later recordings, she is very weakened, ill as she was with the disease that killed her. But throughout, there is great energy and warmth - from the bounce of Uncle Rat to dandling songs like Cuckanandy; or Nice Little Jenny from Ballinasloe - to a tune I had thought was unique to Sean Tyrrell's superb setting of Charles Lever's poem, Bad Luck to This Marching.

Bess remains an influential singer, because she was her own connoisseur. She didn't care to remember more than a verse of Lord Randal, but she got a life-affirming whack out of songs she liked. As she said to the rangy Seamus Ennis, with whom she evidently got along famously: "I sang here, there and everywhere: at weddings and parties and at home, and milking the cows in the stall, and washing the clothes, and sweeping the house, and stripping the cabbage for the cattle, and sticking the sciollan's (seed potatoes) abroad in the field, and doing everything."

O Croinin's biographical introduction makes much of the local Ballyvourney intelligentsia around the time of the Gaelic League and the early Oireachtas competitions at the turn of the last century, which galvanised the Irish language-speaking areas along the Cork/Kerry border, inflating the local identity with a mythos the general Muskerry area still enjoys as "Priomh-Chathair na Gaeltachta".

Mind you, a lot of Bess's songs were in English - certainly, all the songs she wrote out in her own hand are in English because, not having been taught Irish in school, she could only write a kind of phonetic Gaelic. Still, Irish-speaking collectors like Ennis or those from the Folklore Commission collected an equal measure of Irish and English songs from her.

It's intriguing to look into the old family photographs, pictures like that of "young Bess" standing, as though locked in, behind a gate; or outdoors behind a big BBC mike. You wonder what her life was like, farmed out to her uncle as a teenager (when she learnt many songs and stories from her uncle and aunt, as well as servants and "poor people going the roads"); before being married into "the Plantation", as the Cronin farm was known.

There may well be a second edition of the book, because, as O Croinin says, "more of her songs could pop up again at any stage". (The work is not definitive: since Fred McCormick posted up an over-the-top 19-page review on the Musical Traditions website criticising the work for a series of minor inconsistencies, a controversy has been humming away among hard-core Croninologists.)

O Croinin also hopes to compile a second volume featuring Bess's storytelling and lore. Certainly there is great humour in the letters she wrote about collectors coming to the "Plantation"; or the tardiness of Mr Ennis, after whose arrival, it seems, sessions would go on until six in the morning. Ennis himself described her thus: "She was a stocky little woman who radiated jollity in her face and had a glint of humour in her eyes and sweetness in her mouth as she unhurriedly prepared tea and laid the table for us. The name I had for her after that was `The Muskerry Queen of Song'. There was no limit to the little tunes and big songs she had by heart . . . "

The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin is published by Four Courts Press