Declan O’Rourke – Chronicles of The Great Irish Famine
Warner – 27 October 2017
Declan O’Rourke has already garnered a significant reputation as an Irish singer and songwriter, having been feted by, amongst others, Paul Weller and Paul Brady and having had songs recorded by Eddie Reader and by Christy Moore. Declan’s new album, Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine, achieves new heights and should see another step up in his stature.
‘When we need to feed so many, and there’s not even for the few’; ‘Some two million will be dead before we’re through’ Declan sings on Along The Western Seaboard, summing up the essence of the famine. But his explicit intention, and indeed achievement, is to get beyond the famine as ‘a grey chapter of our history to be relegated to the distant past’ to tell of the reality of people’s lives and deaths, the tenacity of those that were lucky enough to survive and the truth of the causes of a famine that took place in the nearby and nearest colony to what was then the world’s richest nation.
Shining a light on our history, often through the telling of individual stories, is one of folk music’s many strengths – think Peter Bellamy’s story of migration told through his folk ballad-opera The Transports or Rhiannon Giddens horrors of slavery and the struggles of the civil rights movement brought into poignant focus on Freedom Highway. On Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine, Declan O’Rourke undertakes a similar musical public service with his songs about the victims of the 19th Century famine in Ireland.
Clogman’s Glen, the first track, opening with a mournful fiddle, looks back to before the famine, to a ‘hard’ but ‘beautiful’ life in a place that subsequently ceased to exist. Poor Boy’s Shoes is the incredibly vivid and tear stirring story of the Buckley family, telling of a man being forced into the workhouse where both his children die, and then carrying his wife back home but realising that she too was dead by the time he got there: ‘And there he tried to warm her cold feet through, And they found him there, in poor boy’s shoes’. The Connaught Orphan tells of a young boy who took his sister to the poor house but was not himself admitted. After walking the ten miles back home he was provided with clothes by Asenath Nicholson, an American Quaker women but he feared a worse fate in decent clothes:
I’ll surely die of hunger now
If they see me with your nice new clothes
They’ll think I’m telling lies, and that
I have a mammy feeds me so
The story of the demise of a cruel landlord from Delvin, Co. Westmeath is told on the upbeat Johnny And The Lantern. Landlords were either absent or noticeably well-fed on the back of the rent from their starving tenants and many took advantage of the famine to carry out widespread violent evictions. The Goya-esque cover depicts the scene where, after the landlord has been shot dead by an unhappy tenant, his body is cut up into pieces by a larger group of equally disgruntled tenants – played by the band in costume out on The Burren in the west of Ireland: ‘And the last thing they buried, Were the hands that took the rent’.
Buried in the Deep, a beautifully sung lament, and the melancholy The Great Saint Lawrence River, tell of the ‘Coffin Ships’ that between 1845 and 1851 transported some 1,500,000 people who emigrated from Ireland. One writer described: ‘Ships sailed that were overcrowded, not provided with the legal quotas of provisions and water, and dangerously antique in construction’. The vessels were also rampant with infectious disease, resulting in many passengers dying before they reached their destination: ‘When I die they’ll put me over’; ‘We’re buried in the deep, Where hunger cannot find us’. In 1847 the U.S introduced restrictions on ships carrying emigrants from Ireland and many ships headed instead for Canada but large numbers of those that survived the journey died after they arrived: ‘In their thousands, they will perish there, Despite all efforts to contain the spread, Of the rampant typhus fever’. A fifteen metre Celtic cross on Grosse Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec marks the largest mass grave of famine victims outside of Ireland.
The declamatory singing and driving rhythm of Indian Meal gives a sense of urgency in a song about an aspect of the inadequate and deeply patronising British Governmental relief efforts. Workers on public works schemes were sometimes paid with Indian Meal, a yellow, almost indigestible, corn-based gruel. The corn was imported while at the same time, as Declan recounts, edible goods were being exported for profit:
There’s ships leaving’ full of pigs, heifer, and lambs
Some transportin’ convicts to Van Diemen’s Land
We’re hemorrhagin’ barrels of butter and grain
And all that comes back in, and all that remains is…
Indian Meal, Indian Meal, Indian Meal
The songwriting style that has furnished Declan O’Rourke’s success since his 2004 debut, Since Kyabram, is still in evidence but for Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine, the range of musical settings are, for the first time for Declan and appropriately for the project, firmly based on traditional Irish music. The stellar band that provides classy, subtle accompaniment throughout the album includes Dermot Byrne on squeezebox, Gino Lupari on bodhran and Mike McGoldrick on pipes, whistle and flute.
Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine took Declan O’Rourke 15 years to put together but the result was more than worth the wait. This is a very rewarding work that is remarkably consistent and coherent both lyrically and musically, and tells stories of the famine that needed to be told in a moving and evocative way, without doubt succeeding in what Declan describes as ‘an attempt to bring fresh air to an unhealed wound, and to remind the Irish people of what we have overcome through an examination of what has lurked just below the surface of collective memory for so long’.
Chronicles of The Great Irish Famine is out now. Order via Amazon