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Essay – ‘Lament for Absent Landscapes’, in Mark Garry, Songs and the Soil (TU Dublin, March 2020).

March 23, 2020

I know a small lake that sails the palest shadows,
Trailing their frail keels along its waveless sand;
And when isles of grey turf are sunning in its shallows
The far hill is a blue ghost on that land

Nowhere is the relationship between landscape and song more keenly preserved than in the music of the Irish diaspora. Emerging out of Ireland’s rich Bardic and Seanachaí traditions and incorporating the melodic freedom of Sean-nós singing, Irish emigrant songs often took the form of Caoineadh – musical laments expressing pain and sorrow, while channelling the mournful potency of traditional funerary and keening practices. In lamenting that which has been lost through forced emigration, Caoineadh often asserted the abiding hope of such things being reclaimed in the future. Idealised images of loved ones and the homeland were a defining characteristic, with such imagery helping to construct a shared identity based on notions of exile, across multiple generations.

On wings of fancy let me stray

To summer shores again.

Once more the fresh Atlantic breeze

Its friendly greeting cries;

Afar across the azure seas

The cliffs of Achill rise [ii]

Though physically displaced from the homeland, the songs of the Irish diaspora conjure a ‘landscape of the mind’, at once asserting a sense of place and belonging, while also highlighting the ideological complexities of the exilic condition. These devotional emigration ballads participate in a kind of re-enactment, through a constant re-inscription of the homeland. They project a fantastical time before the moment of departure, yet the lyrics are emotionally charged with the meaning of this loss.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice – and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words

This longing and desire for connection points to the erotics of place – a sensate world, primarily felt at the level of the body. As an experience of the body, singing is a means of producing and reproducing the person and society as a whole. Coordinated unison singing, as an antidote to homesickness, is not only integral to social life; it plays a crucial, generative role in expressions of nationhood, central to the emigrant experience.

a hand ceaselessly
combing and stroking
the landscape, till
the valley gleams 
like the pile upon
a mountain pony’s coat

As a social process, the songs of the Irish diaspora articulate the experiences and achievements of collected life (from the mundane to the exalted), while also helping to construct social and conceptual relationships, bringing about personal, historic and symbolic transformations. Performed by and for emigrants, there was habitually a strong emphasis on the Irish vernacular. Without a widespread written tradition, songs more than 200 years old tended to only exist in Gaelic, while later songs incorporated a strong sense of linguistic variation, in terms of structure, timbre, ornamentation and style, as well as nuances in regional dialect, terminology and slang. Given Ireland’s neutrality, its landscape was not decimated during the world wars, therefore, a rich topographic document remains, often untouched in many parts since the Neolithic age. References in song lyrics to geographic features, flora and fauna were widely understood by Irish audiences, as were allusions to the folklore, superstitious practices and mystical belief systems embedded in the native landscape.

I hurtled and hurled myself madly following after
Over keshes and marshes and mosses and treacherous moors
And arrived at that stronghold unsure about how I had got there,
That earthwork of earth the orders of magic once reared

Within these songs were frequently recorded the names of Irish villages and towns, rivers and mountains, conjuring a remote and lyrical psychogeography. By recounting these names during the physical communion of song, the singer aimed to transcend earthly limits, thus planting their feet firmly on home soil. Also common during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the transfer of Irish place names onto the world map, signalling the dispersal of Irish nomenclature across foreign landscapes. Examples include American towns and cities being named after Bantry, Armagh or Donegal, often sharing strong conceptual ties with the original.  

So loved the Western sea and no tree’s green
Fulfilled him like these contours of Slievemore
Menaun and Croghaun and the bogs between

Due to late industrialisation, Ireland did not have a strong tradition of work song, or music intended to synchronise the rhythms of manual labour. However, a robust musical canon chronicles the harsh conditions of nineteenth and twentieth-century labouring life, particularly those of emigrant labourers who travelled to Britain and America to work on building sites, railroads, mines and canals, during periods of economic hardship in rural Ireland.

I’m the bold English navvy
Who worked on the line,
And worked there for weeks
And worked overtime.
And when my work was over
And night coming on,
I strolled to the roads
With my navvy shoes on

Many of these songs took the form of comic verse set to traditional airs and were widely preserved by a handful of dedicated Irish music collectors. Other songs were written by musicians and commentators (rather than the labourers themselves), later morphing into anthemic pub ballads, such as The Rocky Road to Dublin and McAlpine’s Fusiliers, recounting the plight of Irish Navvies abroad. As a living artform, Irish music was subject to evolution, travelling with the Irish diaspora and coming back in a different form. Musical change cannot take place in a social vacuum; change happens as a result of the environment in which music is performed, and as the culture of other countries is interpreted.

We built a hundred airfields
in the snow, and wind, and rain
built atomic power stations
more dams than I can name
we’ve ploughed through rock and swampland
moved mountains by the load
now we’re going nice and steady boys
diggin’ up the road

Just as Irish music changed by being performed abroad, so too it influenced the music of host countries. One example is Old Time music, a cultural fusion emerging out of the Irish tradition. Played on acoustic instruments like fiddle and banjo, Old Time incorporated melodic phrases akin to the call-and-response format of ‘field holler’ or slave music, which in turn influenced the emergence of African American blues. During the 1920s and 30s, as the Irish diaspora merged with American culture and taste, emigrant musicians and music collectors energised and influenced the genre, sending home blues and jazz music on phonograph or gramophone records. Following the revival of the Fleadh Cheoil during the 1950s, the sentimental style of Irish music gave way to the showband era. Contemporary folk revivals in Britain and America during the 1960s and 70s forged strong ties between protest music, labour campaigns and civil rights movements in both countries.

Did you work upon the railroad
Did you rid the streets of crime
Were your dollars from the white house
Were they from the five and dime

Did the old songs taunt or cheer you
And did they still make you cry
Did you count the months and years
Or did your teardrops quickly dry


[i] Frederick Robert Higgins, Muineen Water (1940)

[ii] Percy French, In Exile (c.1880)

[iii] Joseph Mary Plunkett, I See His Blood Upon the Rose (1911)

[iv] John Montague, Windharp for Patrick Collins (2012)

[v] Seamus Heaney, The Glamoured (1998) – Heaney’s translation of Aodhgan O’Rathaille’s early eighteenth-century poem, Gile na Gile (Brightness of Brightness).

[vi] Louis MacNeice, The Strand (1949)

[vii] Mary Delaney, Navvy Shoes – recorded by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie, as part of their research on Irish Travellers in England (1973 to 1985). This rendition features on the album, Puck to Appleby, Songs and stories (2003).

[viii] Ewan MacColl, The Driver’s Song Lyrics (1983)

[ix] The Pogues, Thousands Are Sailing (1988)

[Featured Image: Mark Garry, Songs and the Soil, installation view, The MAC, Belfast; photograph by Simon Mills, courtesy the artist and The MAC]

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