Saving childhood's songs

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After its superb CAD of children's songs in Irish, Gael Linn has produced a collection of children's songs in English from the four corners of Ireland.

CHILDREN'S SONGS gathered from around the four provinces and from all traditions are featured on a superb new CD, When I Was Young, just produced by Gael Linn. Among the 28 songs are As I Roved out, Henry My Son, I Once Had A Granny, Fair Rosa, The Field Mouse's Ball and The Frog's Wedding.

It's the second album of children's songs - a much neglected area of traditional music - from Gael Linn and the first all English album the Irish language organisation has produced. A new label, Fonn, was established to produce it.

"We don't normally do English albums," Michael Ward of Gael Linn says, "but we decided to make an exception for this one because after the last album, A Stoir 's A Stoirin, a lot of people were looking for children's songs in English. We're getting a great reaction, especially from schools."

Many of the songs are sung by Padraigin Ni Uallachain, one of our finest traditional singers, who grew up in Mayo and Donegal, but who is now based in Co Armagh. Others are performed by the internationally known singer, Len Graham. Guest musicians include Mairtin O'Connor, Nollaig Casey, Ronan Browne and Tommy Hayes. The album is produced by Garry O Briain, one of the country's most accomplished arrangers and a multi instrumentalist.

Apart from the songs themselves, which come with extremely good notes, the collection helps to introduce children to the dance music of the country - a number of songs are set to jigs, reels, polkas, waltzes and marches. The backing music is wonderful, using deceptively simple, classical treatments.

The album grew out of reminiscences shared around the fire in Len and Padraigin's home in Mullaghabawn, Co Armagh, during one of Garry's frequent musical visits to the area. Ni Uallachain remembers that all three were lamenting the fact that the songs they knew and loved in their childhood learned from the old people, were so seldom to be heard. This was as true of Northern Ireland as the Republic.

In the course of his work for the Arts Council and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland Len Graham found teachers from all sections of the community asking him to record traditional children's songs for them.

Padraigin Ni Uallachain, now a teacher in Gaelscoil Dhun Dealgan in Co Louth, had found a similar situation in the Republic and says that, where the songs are still sung, it's nearly always due to the efforts of a single teacher who has an interest in or can sing the songs for pupils.

Singer Paul Brady, in his introduction to the album, says: "Children's songs, addressed as they are to humans for whom the mysteries and terrors of existence are very real and not yet sublimated as they are in adult life, are often the most direct utterances from this underworld of the subconscious. Children, hearing them sung, understand instinctively what they mean without needing them to be explained by adults.

"Children's songs had a key role in comforting and easing humans through the earlier stages of life. They are equally needed today. Play this record to your children often and when this world seems yet again to be an impenetrable maze, sit down, and let its magic work on you.

Ni Uallachain formerly worked in RTE's traditional music department as a researcher and broadcaster with Ciaran Mac Mathuna. In 1993 and 1994 she was among the award winners in the newly composed airs category in the Oireachtas and was recently commissioned to compose and sing the theme song of the feature film, Branwen.

Her latest project is the production of a CD of traditional, classical and liturgical music - the first ever to be produced by a primary school - which will be made by parents, teachers, pupils and past pupils of her gaelscoil to celebrate the opening of their new school building in Dundalk this spring.

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