Songs of Laughter and Forgetting – An Irishman’s Diary about the emigrant music of Mick Moloney

Except that both events involve music, it's probably safe to say there will little comparison between next week's Eurovision Song Contest and a concert in Dublin Castle later this month. But there is at least one other coincidence, in that the latter will involve a man who, more than 40 years ago now, helped launch Michael Flatley on the world.

Not everybody today would thank Mick Moloney for this achievement, which is harsh.

Flatley was surely bound for fame one way or another.

Moloney merely assisted the first phase of his take-off. It wasn’t until the 1994 Eurovision that the dancer’s stardom achieved full escape velocity, propelling him beyond the stratosphere to a place where gravity could not longer restrict his outsized personality. But in any case, the earlier, launchpad chapter of the story began one day in 1974 when Limerick-born Moloney was sitting in a dormitory in Pennsylvania, absent-mindedly playing reels on a banjo.

Suddenly he realised that someone else was accompanying him, with all the correct chords, on guitar.

This American stranger could match Moloney, Irish tune by tune, and only after a prolonged musical exchange did the Limerick man learn (via a third party) that it was Ralph Rinzler, founder of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which attracts a million visitors to Washington every July.

Soon afterwards, Rinzler invited Moloney to the event.

And in advance of the 1976 bicentennial edition, he asked him to round up some Irish-American musicians and dancers who were (a) good and (b) traditional. Moloney duly compiled a list of 26, including the 17-year-old Flatley, fresh out of Chicago.

Amusingly, inclusion of the future “Feet of Flames” at first caused Rinzler to reach for the extinguisher. This was not for personal reasons – he just thought Irish step-dancing had been elevated from folk to high art by formal schooling, and so was disqualified. But Moloney insisted and Rinzler gave in: “Okay, have your step dancer.”

Out of that, eventually, emerged The Green Fields of America, a music and dance ensemble involving Moloney, Flatley, and others, which first toured the US in 1978. The group has now lasted 40 years, with at least 40 different members. But Moloney remains a constant presence, and will lead the latest formation in the concert at Dublin Castle’s Printworks Building on May 21st.

Ralph Rinzler is long lost to musicology. He died in 1994 (soon after the Riverdance premiere, although I'm not suggesting a connection). But in the years since they met, Moloney too has earned renown as a music scholar. Hence his latest Irish appearance. Dublin Castle is currently also the venue of a touring exhibition from "Ireland's Great Hunger Museum", permanently based in Quinnipiac University, Connecticut. To coincide with its "Coming Home" event, Moloney was commissioned to produce a book and CD of related songs. The concert stems from that.

One of the points Moloney makes in the book is that there are very few songs that deal directly with the Famine. The subject was too overwhelming for music. So as his subtitle – "Songs of Leaving and Arriving" – suggests, the collection is dominated instead by emigration. Researching the subject, he writes, helped him understand why emigrants to the US repressed Famine memories, preferring "the Tin Pan Alley songs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with their invention of an Ireland in which everything was wholesome and good".

Those too have been among Moloney’s past subjects.

Indeed, it's only through him I became aware of a song called McNally's Row of Flats: the title-track on his 2006 album, inspired by Irish-American music hall. It was originally the work of comic song-writing duo Harrigan & Hart, and was a big hit circa 1882, although whether it represented anything wholesome about Ireland is questionable.

The McNally was Timothy McNally, a New York politician.

He was no relation of the diarist. In fact, I suspect he was fictional, and that his surname recommended itself mainly for rhyming with “Alley”: in this case “Bottle Alley”, a once infamous part of Manhattan’s slum-infested Five Points, where the song is set. Suffice to say, the eponymous “flats” matched the area’s reputation.

I don’t know if that tune will feature in the upcoming concert. If it did, it might not be entirely inapt. The Dublin Castle Printworks is an unusual venue for music. But satires about low standards in urban planning are not new there.

The Printworks also once hosted a show called the Flood Tribunal, which was enormously popular, and ran for almost as long as Riverdance.