Music Archives – Irish America Irish America Magazine Thu, 18 Jul 2019 14:56:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 A Southern CelticChristmas Concert Sat, 22 Dec 2018 08:16:59 +0000 Read more..]]> The sudden death five years ago of the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) evoked an unprecedented outpouring of grief around the world. Generally acknowledged as the greatest poet of the age, Seamus (as he was known to everyone) was beloved as much for his down to earth humanity as for the wisdom, honesty and lyrical beauty of his work. A rare interview with Heaney is one of the many features of the TV special, “A Southern Celtic Christmas Concert”, now being broadcast on PBS for the sixth year in succession.

The Heaney section is filmed in Glendalough, the hauntingly beautiful monastic site that inspired “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” Heaney’s poem based on the fable of the sixth century Irish monk. The presence of Heaney suddenly appearing amidst the ancient gravestones of Glendalough has a startling power. Equally powerful, in a different way, is the moment when Heaney playfully climbs into the cell once occupied by the saint to show how he might have enticed a bird to settle in his outstretched palm, nesting there long enough for its young to grow up and fly on their own.

The musician John Doyle, one of many performers taking part in the concert.

In his 1995 Nobel Address, Heaney spoke of “love’s deep river” as the meditative state to which contemplative prayer has led Kevin, suggesting that it is only love that can transcend the artificial boundaries that divide people from one another in our increasingly barbaric world. James Flannery, the host, director, and executive producer of “A Southern Celtic Christmas Concert,” interviewed Heaney for the show. He recently spoke to Irish America editor-in-chief Patricia Harty, saying that St. Kevin’s message of love is emulated by our current pope. “It would seem that Pope Francis is challenging us to embrace a similar unity founded on ‘the miracle of love,’ a love which has no limit, natural or supernatural, thus establishing a universal brotherhood of souls,” he said.

Flannery further noted how children have a special identification with the poem. “My six year old grandson even wants me to take him to Ireland so he can see where the miracle took place some fifteen hundred years ago,” he said. “It strikes me that this realization of the deeply spiritual side of Ireland is what has attracted people to the national broadcast over the past six years.”

Produced in Ireland, in the mountains of Appalachia, and on the stage of the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University, “A Southern Celtic Christmas” celebrates in music, dance, poetry, song and story the high spirits and mystical beauty of the Christmas traditions of the Celtic lands and their connection with similar traditions of the American South.

Highlights of the show are performances by a number of world-class artists, including Moya Brennan, Alison Brown, John Doyle, Joe Craven, “Riverdance” composer Bill Whelan, and the soulful gospel harmonies of Rising Appalachia. – M.E.  ♦

A Southern Celtic Christmas Concert is available on DVD from Compass Records for $16.95.

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The Sacred Text of Rock ‘n’ Roll Thu, 01 Nov 2018 07:50:19 +0000 Read more..]]> The birth, re-birth, and enduring legacy of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.


In 1968, Van Morrison was on the lam from the mob and hiding in Boston. Author Ryan Walsh takes Van’s frantic story of “another time, another place” and folds it into the radical zeitgeist of Boston Cambridge in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. Walsh argues that Boston, usually associated with prudery, academia, and beans, had, in 1968, just as much sex, drugs and Rock n’ Roll as anywhere else during that fevered year. The book goes on tangents, both amusing and scary, featuring Timothy Leary, Mel Lyman’s commune, the Boston Strangler, astral projection, Viet Nam, Harvard, Ram Das, a bank robbery and LSD all over the place. And, there’s something else: Boston was the birthplace of a record, ignored when released, but now considered one of the greatest in music, always on the list of All Time Top 10 Record Albums, the “sacred text of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “the mystical document,” Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.

Van, a singer/songwriter from East Belfast and his band, Them, attracted the attention of Bang Records in New York where Van, barely out of his teens, recorded his songs, “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Gloria,” two hits that set of the phenomena of Celtic Rock and garage bands. When he signed with Bang Records he obsessed about having his “vision” realized but barely looked over his unfair contract. As a result, he was never paid royalties for “Brown-Eyed Girl,” a song still a staple on supermarket playlists, the omission still galling the skinflintish singer.

He battled with his producer and Bang co-founder Bert Berns. After the two had a vicious phone call, Bert dropped dead, the widow blamed Van and she made sure his contract fell into the hands of the equally hot-headed Carmine “Wassel” De Noia. “Wassel,” a mobster not inclined to take any guff from an East Belfast corner boy, made his point early in the relationship by smashing a guitar over the singer’s head. Even Van got the message and as his immigration status was as precarious as his career and life, married his American girlfriend Janet Planet (neé Risbee), and bolted to Boston. He was 23-years-old and totally broke.

In Boston, the couple laid low, starving. Soon Van emerged to perform in sleazy clubs, roller rinks and high school gyms and after some scattershot soliciting, put together a band, the Van Morrison Controversy. John Payne, Harvard student and flute player, was recruited on a wharf and later that night found himself sitting in with the band. Only when the Controversy broke into “Brown Eyed Girl,” a song Payne loved listening to on the juke box, did he realize that he was playing with the artist who wrote and sang it. As the Van Morrison Controversy became one of the hottest acts in town, Van kept writing the songs that would be Astral Weeks. The melodies and lyrics came to him in his dream as did the dictate to lay off the electric and make the album acoustic.

<em>Cover of Ryan Walsh's </em>Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.

Cover of Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.

When word of Van and his success in Boston reached Warner Brothers, they sent producer Lewis Merenstein to check out his new material. Merenstein showed up at a rehearsal space expecting a raucous electric jam with songs akin to “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Gloria.” Instead Van showed up alone, carrying an acoustic guitar and proceeded to sing the album’s title track, “Astral Weeks.”

If I ventured in the slipstream

Between the viaducts of your dream

Where immobile steel rims crack

And the ditch in the back roads stop

Could you find me?

It took only moments for Merenstein to break down, “He vibrated in my soul…I got the distinct feeling he was going back in time to be born again.” He said to Van, “Let’s make a record.”

Sometime soon afterwards, somewhere on New York’s 9th Avenue, someone with $20,000 in a paper bag paid off the mob and Van got his Warner’s deal. But the label demanded he record Astral Weeks with New York studio musicians. But Van, usually not given to sentiment or spurts of conscience, felt loyal to his Boston guys. Perhaps that explains why he confined himself to the vocal booth, snubbing musicians, most of whom had played with legends of jazz. Van didn’t introduce himself to the players or provide them with charts, he only played the tunes on his guitar and instructed, “Follow me and don’t get in the way.”

Richard Davies, the genius of double bass picked up the groove from Van’s acoustic guitar track and after only three sessions, it was a wrap. What emerged was a new sound, a fusion of jazz, blues, soul and folk, seemingly born in a pastoral dream. It was a victory of poetry over electronics, a “song cycle” with no beginning or end, explained by Van as “mythical musings channeled from my imagination.”

The big question is: How was a vulgar, contentious alcoholic able to create Astral Weeks, a work steeped in spirituality? Was Van truly a “dweller on the threshold,” a receptacle of visions and voices, tuned into the music of the spheres? He said that, even as a child, he could leave his body and as an adult he immersed himself in the esoteric. Was he like his countryman, W.B. Yeats, another poet of Celtic mysticism?

<em>Cover of the Van Morrison album </em>Astral Weeks.<em> The copyright is believed to belong to the label, Warner Bros., or the graphic artist(s).</em>

Cover of the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. The copyright is believed to belong to the label, Warner Bros., or the graphic artist(s).

When Astral Weeks was released, Warner Brothers, not hearing about any Glorias or brown-eyed girls, refused to promote it and the album fell into obscurity. Van became a star with his next album, Moondance (1968), and went on to be Van the Man, one of the hardest working men in show business, firing agents, managers and producers along the way. His output, not including performances, was prodigious – 39 studio albums, 6 live albums and 71 singles. He and Janet Planet divorced in 1973 and in 2000 he married (and recently divorced) a former Miss Ireland. He’s in every Hall of Fame, received every music award and, by way of being a citizen of Northern Ireland, is now Sir George Ivan Morrison. And, Mirabile Dictu!, Van has gone on the natch, even forbidding alcohol being served at any of his gigs.

Just as the theme of Astral Weeks is rebirth, the album, too, was reborn. In the 50 years following its flop, it’s taken on a life of its own, appearing in all-time best album polls worldwide and in 2015, was back on the charts. Bruce Springsteen, the Counting Crows, Ed Sheehan, Elton John all cite it as an influence and inspiration.

On the 50th anniversary of Astral Weeks, critic Jeff Melnick wrote:

“If rock has a canon, Van Morrison’s 1968 LP Astral Weeks contributes its gnostic gospels…a journey into the mystic that has scores of devoted fans, but virtually no artistic heirs. Two generations of rock critics and fans have enshrined Astral Weeks as a sui generis work of wonder and borderline madness.”


 W.B. Yeats, like Van Morrison was a student of Irish mythology, folklore and the occult who mined his unconscious to create art. Yeats, born 80 years earlier, was the elegant force behind Ireland’s 20th century literary revival, a senator, and the first Irishman to receive the Nobel Prize. Van, a stubby fireplug in a porkpie hat, usually with a snootful, would stop a performance to get into a fistfight with a club manager over money. Or, just because he felt like it, would finish his set by lying on the floor hanging on to his microphone. In short, he was, as Yeats would put it, “A drunken, vainglorious lout.” Yeats, with the help of his wife, the medium Georgia Hyde-Lees, engaged in automatic writing, the process of writing while channeling the supernatural, spirits from another world including dead ancestors. It was during this period that Yeats, arguably, created his greatest works. Van Morrison, too, credits automatic script to the creation of his work. What else could explain the transcendence and sense of the divine that permeates Astral Weeks? Even the singer doesn’t know as he admitted to Rolling Stone, “There are times when I’m mystified. I look at some of the stuff that comes out, y’know. And like, there it is and it feels right, but I can’t say for sure what it means.” ♦


Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 By Ryan Walsh Penguin Press, 2018


Rosemary Rogers co-authored, with Sean Kelly, the best-selling humor / reference book Saints Preserve Us! Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need (Random House, 1993), currently in its 18th international printing. The duo collaborated on four other books for Random House and calendars for Barnes & Noble. Rogers co-wrote two info / entertainment books for St. Martin’s Press. She is currently co- writing a book on empires for City Light Publishing.

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Collins & Stills: Together Again Thu, 01 Nov 2018 07:24:30 +0000 Read more..]]> Judy Collins and Stephen Stills, two American singer-songwriters celebrated the golden anniversary of their formative time together in the 1970s, when Stills penned “Judy Blue Eyes” and other songs about the couple’s two year relationship, with a series of sold out concerts across the U.S. Irish America’s Patricia Harty and her family caught up with Judy and Stephen in Santa Rosa, California, this past summer. On the night both musician drew from their vast repertoire, and Collins’ stirringly A capella “Maria,” an anthem for Dreamers now on the Billboard charts, brought the house down. ♦

For more on the Collins & Stills tour see:

For more coverage on Judy Collins check out an episode of our podcast, The Story in which Editor-in-Chief Patricia Harty interviews Collins. If podcasts aren’t your game, you can read an interview here

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Los Gatos Irish Celebrate Thu, 01 Nov 2018 07:23:51 +0000 Read more..]]> Showcasing the best in contemporary Irish arts and literature


he Irish Arts & Writers’ Festival brought together Irish writers and audiences in the historic and intimate town of Los Gatos, CA (an hour south of San Francisco), on October 12-14, 2018. Additional events in 2018 are scheduled for Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.

Christine Kinealy, who has a new book out on abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was politicized by his trip to Ireland in the 1840s, and poet of world-renown, Paul Muldoon.

Founded and directed by Dubliner Catherine Barry, the Irish Arts & Writers’ Festival is a project of Irish Culture Bay Area. The inaugural Los Gatos Irish Writers’ Festival took place in October 2016. Los Gatos was chosen as a location due to its 23-year-old sister city relationship with Listowel, Ireland, where the internationally acclaimed Writers’ Week has been held for the past 40 years. The charming town lends itself to an intimate festival. Proximity of venues and availability of accommodation at a festival discount make it an ideal getaway weekend for the literary and arts minded. ♦

Shana Morrison, Van Morrison’s daughter with Janet Planet, began performing with her group Caledonia in San Francisco in 1996. Her style has been called pop with a side of blues and rock. She’s also known to throw in some country, R&B and jazz into the mix. Since 2002, the band has been busy with tours across the U.S.



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U.S. Pipe Band WinAll-Ireland Title Sat, 01 Sep 2018 06:31:53 +0000 Read more..]]> The St. Columcille United Gaelic Pipe Band from the Scots-Irish stronghold of Kearny, New Jersey made history when they became the first band outside of Ireland or the U.K. to win an All-Ireland Pipe Band Championship. In early July, the band competed in New Ross, County Wexford, against the best of the best in the 73rd annual All- Ireland Pipe Band Championship, and won out in multiple divisions.

The 40-member band earned two first places in piping, a first in ensemble, and a fourth place finish in drumming, as well as ending the championship as first-time All-Ireland winners. ♦ Dave Lewis 

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Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Sat, 01 Sep 2018 06:29:18 +0000 Read more..]]> For 10 days in July, the New York Public Library (N.Y.P.L.) partnered with choreographer and original Riverdance star dancer Jean Butler to lead a workshop celebrating the history and variety of Irish dance. Titled “Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy,” the program took the form of live discussion and performance, and was filmed in what will be the first of four installments in a documentary series named The Stepping Fields. The series will explore the lineage of teachers and influencers and the evolution of Irish dance in the U.S. and around the world.

Butler, a dedicated scholar of Irish dance for over four decades, spearheaded the project to preserve the tradition of Irish dance in a visual medium. The final product, which will be released in 2020, will be accompanied by an oral history of Irish dance in the U.S. descending from the McNiff dancers of the 1950s-60s to the work of Butler herself. Archivists Cori Olinghouse, Siobhan Burke, and Kristyn Fontanella worked with Butler on the progam, which was sponsored by N.Y.U.’s Glucksman Ireland House, University College Dublin, the N.Y.P.L., and the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, who embraced the venture with enthusiasm. “Jean Butler is one of the most accomplished Irish dance artists of the last century and a pioneer in the field, expanding and re-imagining the vocabulary and boundaries of Irish step dance,” said Linda Murray, curator of the Dance Division. “We were honored to serve as partners on this project.” Contact for more information. To donate to the cause, go to ♦

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Poets-PatriotsConcert Now on CD Sat, 01 Sep 2018 06:27:05 +0000 Read more..]]> San Francisco-based DW Productions is releasing a 2-CD set of Ireland’s Poet-Patriots, A Musical History, commemorating the 1916 rebellion, which was recorded live in concert at the Washington National Cathedral late last year. Conductor Scott Tucker helmed the production that combined classical and traditional Irish music. Irish and Irish-American leaders also acted as narrators including Ambassador Dan Mulhall, Chris Matthews, and Irish America editor Patricia Harty. These narrators and musicians brought new life to the words of Ireland’s patriot poets, including Padraig Pearse, Robert Emmet, and more.

The two-disc set will not only feature the performance in its entirety but it will also include a 12-page booklet that consists of composer and writer, Richard B. Evans’ complete libretto fully stocked with all of the poems, writings, and narration as well as information on the concert itself, and six additional musical tracks not heard at the concert. To order a copy of this two-disc set, please email or go to the website, ♦

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Wild Irish Women: Touched by Fire Sat, 01 Sep 2018 06:22:25 +0000 Read more..]]> Sinéad rose to fame in the late 1980s with her debut album The Lion and the Cobra. She will release a new album under a new name, Magda Davitt, in 2019. In between she has battled mental illness and controversy – she was one of the first to speak out about the abuses by the Catholic Church – but hers remains one of the purest voices in music.


Whenever her name comes up these days, a momentary panic sets in: she must be dead, she must have committed the suicide she’s been threatening for years. Relief comes with the realization Sinéad O’Connor is still alive. Alive, but in pain so palpable it seems to echo the suffering of the Sacred Heart tattooed across her chest. The Sinéad O’Connor deathwatch then resumes.

Behind the Music: Sinead O’Connor (VH1)

She flew too close to the sun until she flamed out in a most public and notorious way, especially as her downward spiral collided with social media. Her 2017 Facebook rant posted from a $75-a-night Travelodge in the “arse-end of New Jersey” showed a woman who bore little resemblance to the waifish vision of 1992. The singer who “didn’t want to be pretty” has finally gotten her wish – her beauty is destroyed. But even as the now-bloated tattooed matron cries into her iPad about her suicide attempts, divorces, lost children, and mental illness, the fire and fury that made her a transcendent artist are still there.

When Sinéad O’Connor first came on the scene in 1987, bald women were objects of pity (and often revulsion), assumed to be tragic victims of cancer or some other horrid disease. Sinéad, in a business where everyone does their best to look their best, was the first singer to perform with a shaved head because she didn’t want to be defined by her looks. Her rebellion backfired. Sinéad’s outré look set off an eerie loveliness and complemented her voice, a perfect instrument – both powerful and hypnotic that could range from a whisper to a frightening roar, a “banshee howl.” A gifted songwriter, song interpreter, producer, guitarist, and bassist, she could even act, once doing a turn as the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Born in 1966, in Dublin, her family was musical and creative but tumultuous, especially after the parents separated. The father, knowing the mother to be unstable, alcoholic, and addicted to drugs, tried to get custody of the five children but failed. Life became a nightmare for the O’Connor kids who suffered under a mother daily assaulting them with brooms and hockey sticks while spewing curses. The eldest child, Joseph O’Connor, an award-winning novelist and Ireland’s Literary Ambassador, confirmed their mother, who died in a car crash in 1985, was indeed violent, but defended the father. Joseph insisted Sinéad has always had the support of her siblings and asks privacy for the O’Connor family, something impossible given his sister’s compulsion to broadcast everything, private or not.

By the age of 14 Sinéad was a truant, troublemaker, and deft shoplifter, a skill she learned from her mother who would “go to hospitals and nick the crucifixes off the wall.” After running afoul of the Gardai too many times, Social Services sent her to a Magdalene Asylum run by the local church. Although charged with washing priests’ underpants, the stint put her in contact with a nun who changed her life – for the better. So moved by her singing, the nun bought Sinéad her first guitar, an instrument she learned instinctively. Once released, the teen landed a gig delivering Kiss-o-Grams, then began busking on the streets of Dublin looking to join a band.

Sinead O’Connor (circa early 90s)

After forming a group, Ton Ton Macoute, she secured a record contract and a manager; by the time she was 20, Sinéad was a new mother writing songs with U2’s The Edge. The following year her first album, one that she produced alone, The Lion and the Cobra, was released. Record executives took her to lunch to mandate a new image: she needed to “sex up,” wear tight jeans, short skirts, high-heeled boots and let her mid-length hair grow long. The defiant singer saw it as an attempt to “make me look like their mistresses.” Midway through lunch, without saying a word, she walked out and went straight to the local barbershop, demanding her head be shaved. The barber complied, crying the entire time.

1987’s The Lion and the Cobra introduced Sinéad O’Connor, an indie singer before there was indie rock; the record got lot of play on alternative stations and college campuses. She followed with 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, a breakout hit, selling five million records, winning three MTV video awards, four Grammy nominations and sweeping the Rolling Stone Readers and Critics Polls. She was an instant icon, an artist described by Rolling Stone as “a mystic, writing songs about desire, God, history, loss, revolt, damnation, and independence, all with equal passion.”

On I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got she mastered musical genres from hip hop to Irish folk to punk and it was a song from this album, Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (one that Prince had not yet recorded) that rose to the top of the charts and stayed there. The emotion she delivered in the song and the one perfect tear she shed in the video made her an international star. She was 21 and had the #1 song in the world.

Sinead O’Connor (1990)

Immediately after this success, the icon turned into an iconoclast who spouted abrasive and uninformed opinions, making enemies along the way. Her first career-busting move was refusing to accept her Grammy award for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a statement against “materialism in the music industry.” Gangsta rappers NWA, the “World’s Most Dangerous Group,” joined her boycott and she, in turn, wore their logo on her shaved head. She outraged Frank Sinatra by refusing to sing the U.S. National Anthem at a concert, withdrew from her first Saturday Night Live appearance since misogynist Andrew Dice Clay was host, got into a fist fight with Prince because he objected to her language. She even made Mr. Blackwell’s worst-dressed list.

It was her second appearance on SNL in 1992 that gave her the notoriety that shot around the world, a performance that will undoubtedly be the first line in her obituary. After singing Bob Marley’s “War,” she protested the sexual and physical abuse of children by clergymen and shredded a picture of Pope John Paul II, shouting, “Fight the real enemy.” The audience froze, unable to clap or boo. Another O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, was horrified, seeing voodoo and Satan behind the gesture, NBC banned her for life, and Madonna, an unlikely figure of righteous fury, announced she was shocked, shocked by Sinéad’s behavior. It should be mentioned that Madonna had recently posed naked, saving some elaborate bondage gear, to promote her new album Erotica and book Sex. A pop-up anti-Sinéad movement declared the USA a “Sinéad-O’Connor-free zone.”

Sinéad O’Connor ripping up a photograph of the Pope on SNL in 1992.

Today, what’s notable about this act of career suicide was how prophetic she was, the first celebrity to openly denounce pedophilia in the Catholic Church. When the floodgates finally opened, stories of the sexual abuse of children by priests were everywhere and billions paid to survivors. Years later, Sinéad said that night was “her proudest night ever, an artistic gesture made by an Irish female Catholic survivor of child abuse.”

Not long after the SNL incident, she was a guest at a Madison Square Garden concert honoring Bob Dylan and his 30 years of protest music. Kris Kristofferson introduced Sinéad, saying, “Her name has become synonymous with courage and integrity,” but ironically, the audience of aging protestors and hippies booed her off the stage. Kristofferson went to hug her, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Her response was instant, “I’m not down.” And she wasn’t. She had, as Joan Baez put it, “the courage to screw up.”

After spending nine years dividing her time between London and Los Angeles, Sinéad returned to Dublin in 1992 to be with her son, Jake. But as her mental illness took on a life of its own, her personal life proved as shambolic as her professional. There were three more children, three more failed marriages, albums that performed poorly, and multiple suicide attempts. At different intervals she would announce a bipolar diagnosis (later redacted), PTSD, ADHD, homosexuality (later redacted), fibromyalgia, kidney stones, and had a devastating hysterectomy. It was getting exhausting reading about her and uncomfortable just looking at her. She continued to rail against the Catholic Church and the control it had over her country but, seemingly overnight, she forgave her childhood religion. In 1999, affirming her belief in the Holy Spirit, she became a Roman Catholic priest, ordained by Bishop Michael Cox, leader of the dissident Catholic Latin Tridentine Church. Her name was now Mother Bernadette Maria and she climbed up the church’s tiny ranks to become an Archdeacon. But she left the priesthood after declaring herself a Rasta. This, as it turned out, was a bad fit: Rastafarianism demand members let their hair grow long forever, no baldies need apply. They ban tattoos too, so even the large Lion of Judah on her arm was forbidden.

As Sinéad kept spinning, the tabloids kept feasting. She began sporting a grey crewcut, branded the letters “B” and “Q” on her face, and had the effrontery to get fat. Her lawsuits were legion,as were open feuds with ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends, and ex-managers. She managed to resurrect Arsenio Hall, claiming he fed drugs to Prince. She sparred with Miley Cyrus, accusing the singer of debasing her music with overt sexuality. She immersed herself in social media, not a good move for one so disturbed and so devoid of filters. She announced on Twitter, Facebook, and her website that she was looking for a “sweet sex-starved man,” who, among the specs, had to be employed, hairy and not named Nigel. One tweet brought forth Husband #4, Barry Herridge, a Vegas marriage, divorce after 16 days, and another breakdown.

Sinéad O’Connor, November 7, 2014, in Lugano, Switzerland

The ongoing Sinéad spectacle eclipsed the memory of her genius until 2014 and a successful album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, with great songs and Sinéad’s new and, yes, sexy look. One song about her flirtation with suicide, “Eight Good Reasons,” has these painful and autographical lyrics,

You know I’m not from this place

I’m from a different time, different space

And it’s real uncomfortable

To be stuck somewhere you don’t belong.

The comeback didn’t last. A series of surgeries, including one in California when her liver was accidently sliced, left her in continual pain. Suicidal and very alone, she somehow arrived at the New Jersey Travelodge, iPad in hand, to post the infamous video on August 8, 2017. It’s heartbreaking to watch, as tearful Sinéad admits, “My entire life revolves around just not dying and that’s not living.” The video went viral and overnight, she became a symbol for the many millions who suffer from mental illness, “the most vulnerable people on Earth,” deserted by society and family. Her cry, “You’ve got to take care of us…we’re not like everyone else,” inspired fans and fellow artists to offer her love and support.

She was heard, too, by America’s avuncular shrink, Dr. Phil McGraw, who put her on his talk show in September 2017. On Dr. Phil she blamed much of her sickness on her mother who ran a “torture chamber” at home, refused to wash, and “smelled of evil.” Dr. Phil sent her to his rehab, a hospital she first raved about but, after 23 days, ranted against (“lax suicide watch”), both reviews landing, of course, on Facebook.

What’s important to note about her psychotic episodes is that they weren’t fueled by drink (“I’m allergic to alcohol”), or drugs. Whether she was “born that way” – inheritor of her mother’s insanity – or irrevocably damaged by her mother’s abuse, is almost irrelevant. She is a great artist, a profound spirit, whose survival seems doubtful. Stephen Spender’s lines in “The Truly Great” seem to be written about her,

Born of the sun,

they travelled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

By way of a new start, she changed her name, “Sinéad is dead…free of the patriarchal slave names. Free of the parental curses.” Her new name, Magda Davitt, is heavy with biblical references. Magda is the German form of Magdalene and Davitt derived from the Irish Gaelic “meaning son of David.” This is the name she will use to tour, the name she will use to advocate for the mentally ill, the name she will use to destigmatize the disease. Let’s hope this crusade will be her legacy, not her decades of bizarre behavior. Let’s hope Magda Davitt finds the peace Sinéad O’Connor could not. ♦

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Turlough O’Carolan: The Irish Vivaldi Sat, 01 Sep 2018 06:19:05 +0000 Read more..]]> In 1691, a poor, blind, twenty-one year old son of a blacksmith and his guide set out on a journey from a backwater estate, Alderford, near the town of Balyfarnon, County Roscommon, hoping to make a living as an itinerant harper. He seemed an unlikely figure to leave a lasting stamp on Ireland’s musical culture, yet Turlough O’Carolan would become a great composer, creating some of the most hauntingly melodies that ever came out of Ireland. His music is even said to have inspired the “Star Spangled Banner.”

O’Carolan’s achievements are even more amazing when you consider the backstory. Born in 1670 on a farm in Nobber, County Meath, at a time when Ireland was still suffering the reverberations of Oliver Cromwell’s “To Hell or Connaught” land confiscations, the family moved, first to Carrig-on-Shannon in County Leitrim, and then, in 1684, to Ballyfarnon, a village in what is now Northern Roscommon. His father, Hugh, found employment on the estate of the McDermott Roes, a leading Irish family of the old Gaelic order who, despite being Catholic, had managed to retain substantial landholding.

The lady of the house, Mary McDermott Roe, took a liking to 14-year-old Turlough, and saw to it  that he got some schooling. He proved himself adept at poetry and verse, yet any dreams he may have had of scholarly pursuits were not to be. The plan was that he would follow his father into the blacksmithing trade but fate intervened. At 18, O’Carolan was stricken with smallpox and nearly died. He survived,  but the disease left him permanently blind.

Again, Mrs. McDermott Roe rose to the occasion,  arranging for Turlough to have lessons on the harp. In those days, music was often the only possible livelihood for the blind. It was learned by repetition and transmitted from teacher to student orally.  Also, for centuries, the harper, like the poets enjoyed an elevated social position in Ireland, and were welcomed in the houses of wealthy landowners, in exchange for  compositions and verse that praised their hosts. The harp was a symbol of Irish nationalism, and harpists were often the political commentators of the day, feared for their satirical verses. So much so, that during Cromwell’s invasion of  Ireland, harpists were hunted down and killed, their instruments destroyed.By 1691, the courts of Irish chieftains who had once patronized the harpists were long gone. Nonetheless, there were still, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, enough Irish families with the means to support O’Carolan in his travels as an itinerant musician. There were also the more recently arrived Protestant gentry who, curious about the ancient folk culture of the land they dominated, welcomed O’Carolan into their homes as a living vestige of Gaelic Ireland.

O’Carolan’s harp, Clonalis House, Castlerea, County Roscommon

O’Carolan’s First Disappointing Gig

O’Carolan’s first stop on his journey away from the McDermott Roe estate was at the landed property of Squire George Reynolds. Legend has it that the squire, who was himself a harpist and a poet, did not think much of the young harpist’s talent.  “You might make a better hand of your tongue than of your fingers,” the Squire is reputed to have said. He suggested that O’Carolan compose a tune about a legendary battle between the fairies that took place in the nearby hills. O’Carolan complied and his “Sheebeg” is still played today.

O’Carolan had found a niche. He would match the music he played and wrote to the taste of his hosts. He might play traditional Gaelic airs for one patron, and an Italian-influenced melody for another. He typically came up with the tune first, riding on horseback while composing. He then added words to the melody. Often his tunes were joyful “planxties” – a word that he is said to have invented. They were akin to jigs for the harp.

The blind bard toured Ireland for more than four decades. As his fame spread weddings, even funerals, were sometimes delayed until he arrived to perform.

Unlike many tormented musical geniuses who lived on the fringes, O’Carolan’s music gained him entrée into the most elite circles of Irish society. He dined at the tables of lords, high churchmen and university professors.

At the homes of the elite, O’Carolan discovered the Italian Baroque style of Corelli, Vivaldi, and Geminiani, whom he greatly admired. He began incorporating Baroque elements into his own music, skillfully weaving continental rhythms into a distinctively Gaelic musical language. He incorporated Italian concerto and giga, the French menuette and gigue, the Renaissance branle and the medieval estampie, combining them with subtly irregular phrase lengths, which are a distinctive feature of his compositions.

One of his patrons, perhaps the greatest Irish genius of the age, was Dean Jonathon Swift. Legend has it that O’Carolan met up with a group of Italian musicians at a party in Swift’s home and challenged the violinist and music teacher Francesco Geminiani to a test of musical skill. The Italian accepted and played from Vivaldi’s Fifth Violin Concerto. Hoping to have some fun at O’Carolan’s expense, he made deliberate mistakes. The bard was not to be fooled.“It limps and stumbles,” O’Carolan exclaimed in Irish, when Geminiani finished. He then played the same piece  on his harp, without error. The amazed Italians declared him a musical genius. He followed this with the first performance of “Mrs. Powers,” known now as “O’Carolan’s Concerto.” A marriage of the Irish tradition with the Baroque, the concerto was said to be a favorite of all his compositions. He fashioned it in honor of Elizabeth Keating, a patron, who became Mrs. Power of Coorheen, County Galway.

O’Carolan’s Loves 

O’Carolan’s first great love was a girl who lived near his birthplace in Nobber, County Meath. As a boy, he attended a school that was run by a wealthy landowning family and fell in love with the daughter of the house, Bridget Cruise. Bridget’s parents would never have allowed a romance between their daughter and a peasant like O’Carolan to blossom. And in any case, Turlough’s family were uprooted when he was 14 and he left Nobber. Still, his affection for Bridget remained lifelong, and he composed four airs in her honor. Legend has it that after many years had passed, the blind bard went on a pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s purgatory in Lough Derg, County Donegal. Returning to the shore, O’Carolan began assisting his fellow pilgrims out of the boat. Upon taking the hand one woman, he is said to have exclaimed in a loud voice, “This is the hand of Bridget Cruise,” and it was.

O’Carolan did marry, but not to Bridget. He married Mary Maguire, who is said to have been from  County Fermanagh, and of higher birth than the harpist. There is some disagreement about the year of their marriage; some records state it was in 1720 when O’Carolan was 50 years old, others say he married younger. The couple had seven children, six girls and a boy. They lived on a farm in Mohill, County Leitrim until Mary’s death in 1733.

O’Carolan’s Grave in County Roscommon

We know far too little about Turlough O’Carolan, but much of the lore around the great harpist relates to his love of drinking. It’s said that a doctor advised him to abstain for the good of his health, and he did, but as a result, he became depressed and his harp lay “neglected and unstrung.” Another physician, Dr. John Stafford of Elphin, County Roscommon, who happened to be a friend, convinced the bard to take up the drink again. He immediately felt better and composed a stanza in Irish that comes down to us as:

He’s a fool who gives up the liquor, 

It softens the skinflint at once,

It urges the slow coach on quicker;

Gives spirit and brains to the dunce.

The man who is dumb as a rule

Discovers a great deal to say,

While he who is bashful since Yule

Will talk in an amorous way.

It’s drink that uplifts the coward

To give battle in France and in Spain,

Now here is an end of my turn 

And fill me that bumper again!


O’Carolan drank freely after that, his depression lifted, and to thank his doctor friend, he composed a celebratory tune, ever after known as “Carolan’s Receipt to Stafford.” In 1738, at the age of 68, O’Carolan sensed that the end was nigh.  He made his way back to the home of Mrs. McDermott Roe, and wrote these touching lines in praise of his patroness who had changed his life:

Mary Fitzgerald, dear heart, 

Love of my breast and my friend, 

Alas, that I am parting from you,

O Lady who succored me at every stage.

In his final days, O’Carolan requested his harp and played  the hauntingly beautiful “Farewell to Music,” a tune in the old Gaelic tradition. His remains were laid out in the greatest style and news of his death spread across the country.He was waked for four days and buried on the fifth  in the MacDermott Roe family crypt in Kilronan graveyard near Ballyfarnon, County Roscommon. Ten harpers attended night and day. They followed the funeral procession and played a dirge over his grave. His great friend and fellow harper, Charles MacCabe, however, was absent from the funeral and distraught to have missed it, he wrote the most beautiful elegy to O’Carolan in Gaelic about visiting the bard’s grave, that in part reads:

Alas, that I am not buried along with Turlough!

O tombstone, what joy it were to be laid with him, 

With the world’s music to be with one for company.

Mohill, Co. Leitrim: Sculpture of O’Carolan by the Irish artist Oisin Kelly

O’Carolan left some two hundred tunes. Most of his compositions were not published or even written down in his lifetime. They survived in the repertoires of fiddlers, pipers, and the last of the old Irish harper/singers. They were collected and published during the late 18th century and beyond, largely beginning with the work of Edward Bunting and his assistants in 1792.  For many years, though his music was not widely known, even in Ireland. In 1967, Seán O’Riada helped revive  the music of O’Carolan with his solo recordings and his  recordings with Ceoltóirí Chualann  of  O’Carolan’s Concerto, which  was recorded on the disc Ceol na Nuasal. Much of the popularity of O’Carolan’s music is thanks to Derek Bell of the Chieftains who helped present it to a worldwide audience. The annual O’Carolan Harp Festival and Summer School commemorates his life and work in Keadue, County Roscommon.
Geoffrey Cobb is writing a performance piece on the life and music of O’Carolan. ♦


Geoffrey Cobb is writing a performance piece on the life and music of O’Carolan

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Sláinte! Music: The Food of Love Wed, 09 May 2018 05:20:48 +0000 Read more..]]> With Father’s Day in mind, our columnist writes about her own dad, “a true Irish bard.”


I live with a disc jockey. No, not like one you’d find in a dance club, not at all. My jock lives in my head. His repertoire is wide and deep, it ranges through all music genres, and I never know what tune he’s going to spin next.

Some days his pick is my first waking thought. Other times it’s inspired by one word that relates to something I’m doing, like “June Is Busting Out All Over,” the rollicking ode to the joys of early summer from Rogers & Hammerstein’s Broadway classic Carousel that started playing when I began writing this piece. I can make requests, but often he pre-empts me with his own choice, sometimes on a loop so it plays over and over again, until it makes me crazy.

This is not a new phenomena. My disc jockey has been serenading me all my life. I suspect that my parents’ love of music started it all. Both Mom and Dad sang, not professionally, nor for any recognition of any sort from anyone. They simply had “song” in their hearts. Mom’s melodies were mostly popular hits from the ’30s and ’40s, with now and then a nod to Gilbert & Sullivan. Dad, on the other hand, was a true Irish bard. While his catalogue ranged from Latin hymns chanted during a Catholic Mass and folk songs he’d learned from his Irish mother to ditties he’d picked up during his WWII Air Force service in Australia, Dad often told me that he especially loved music that told a story.

In old Ireland, the exploits of both mythical heroes and actual kings were all preserved for future generations through oral history. This was the realm of two highly respected personages: the seanchaís and the bards.

In the days of the High Kings, every clan had its resident seanchaí whose job it was to recount the group’s history, recite the Brehon Laws, and entertain gatherings with spellbinding performances of the old myths and legends. While most seanchaís were part of a chieftain’s inner circle, some traveled from village to village trading their services for food and shelter. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, William Butler Yeats, Lady

Gregory, and Padraic Colum, among other literary notables, spearheaded the Celtic Revival that reawakened interest in the seanchaís’ oral history tradition. Thanks to their dedication and perseverance, many of the old tales were written down, published and distributed globally so that Irish emigrants who had fled their homeland during the Great Hunger would not lose touch with their heritage.

George Francis Burns, the author’s father.

These days, numerous Irish storytelling festivals celebrate the seanchaís’ time-honored craft, with the most famous being the Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival (

Situated eight miles off the coast of west Cork, Cape Clear is Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island and its unique scenery is a stunning backdrop for one of the most renowned storytelling festivals in the world. Since 1994, would-be seanchaís have attended the festival’s storytelling workshops and guest international storytellers have enchanted audiences with their tales and diverse oratory styles. The 2018 event is scheduled for August 31 to September 2, so there’s still time to make arrangements to attend!

In pre-Christian Ireland, even before seanchaís came on the scene, Ireland’s past was kept alive by the bards. Those who aspired to that exalted profession attended colleges in Clogher, Armagh, Lismore, and Tamar where the highest level of achievement was to become an ollamh, who toiled for 12 years, memorizing more than 300 heroic sagas and poems, 250 primary legends, and 100 secondary stories, learning how to compose heraldic poetry, and mastering the art of playing the harp. When his studies were complete, the bard was awarded a symbolic cloak of crimson feathers and went out into the world singing the histories in his own way, adding to and shaping old tales in his own style, creating new mesmerizing poems and stories as the spirit moved him, and always accompanying his performances with the music of his harp.

Imagine what it must have been like to witness a masterful bard play the harp and sing in a great hall illuminated only by flickering candlelight or under the night sky on the edge of a battlefield beside a glowing campfire. The sound of his voice and music must have been hypnotic. It is told that by the power of his song, a bard could encourage warriors to win battles or cause crops to wither and die. Some, who fell into trances when singing, are said to have predicted future events. A bard’s praise was coveted and wooed with lavish largesse. Only a foolhardy chieftain would ever insult or ridicule a bard, as the transgressor’s payback would be the poet’s scathing satire that would spread through the region as fast as wagging tongues could carry it. So respected were these encyclopedic minstrels of Irish history, laws, myths, heroic sagas, and poetry that they were exempt from prosecution of all crimes except treason and murder. Only the High Kings were more revered.

The genius harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1763) is considered by many to have been Ireland’s last bard and by some to have been Erin’s greatest composer. Blinded by smallpox at the age of 18, he devoted himself to creating music on his beloved harp. During life, O’Carolan journeyed all over

Ireland, and by the time he died, he had composed more than 200 melodies, many of which are still played by Ireland’s modern musicians.

When I was a child, my family owned a television and several radios, but we didn’t have a stereo system. Then one Christmas morning I discovered Santa had left a little RCA 45 rpm record player under the tree for me! Another package tagged “Love from Mom & Dad” contained a petite six-record set of classical music: Rimsky Korsakov’s magnificent Scheherazade symphonic suite. In retrospect I’ll bet it was Mom who made sure my first recorded music was a classical masterpiece, and Dad who chose one that told a story. There were no words, but like O’Carolan’s mystical melodies that could evoke visions of fairies and fabled heroes, the music carried me away to Scheherazade’s tales of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights imagining Sinbad sailing tempestuous seas and Aladdin soaring through the sky on his magic carpet. Proving to me for all time that music is best when it marries story, just like Dad always said. Sláinte!


Shakespeare called music “the food of love,” I know it’s true because every time I hear one of Dad’s favorite tunes, I remember how happy we both were when he shared each one with me. I hope you will enjoy this little “concert” featuring just a few of the many songs I grew up with.

Children’s Medley

The Clancy Brothers

This group of children’s songs was recorded at a Clancy Brothers concert Dad and I attended more than 50 years ago. From that night on, we called him “Shally” (after the snail in song #2) because all the ladies loved him.

The Wild Colonial Boy

The Clancy Brothers

The Clancy Brothers were Dad’s favorite Irish performers and he was delighted when they made their American debut singing his favorite ballad of an Irish immigrant who became Australia’s Robin Hood.

O’Carolan Medley

The Chieftains

Dad always said there was no sound sweeter than the Irish harp.

Barney Mc Shane

Irish Folk Song

Dad sang this often and never failed to give me a wink when he reached the line ‘“it’s not the tea from China but the real old mountain dew.”

Waltzing Matilda

Unofficial Australian National Anthem

Dad learned this tune when he was stationed in Australia during WWII. It and the U.S. Air Force Anthem “Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder” were the first songs I learned.

Abdul Abulbul Amir

Sung by Brendan O’Dowda

I always thought Dad made this song up until I researched this article and discovered it was penned in 1877 by the Irish songwriter Percy French to commemorate the Russo-Turkish War.

The Black Velvet Band

Sung by the legendary Luke Kelly

While Dad loved singing this 19th century ballad, he also loved reciting its epic 20th century American derivative, The Blue Velvet Band.

The Raggle Taggle Gypsies

Irish Folk Song

With his coal black hair, twinkling blue eyes and ability to tell fortunes with a deck of cards, Dad might easily have had some Irish gypsy blood running through his veins.


One tune Dad sang often, especially when we went crabbing at the crack of dawn on the Jersey shore, was “Molly Malone” (here sung by The Dubliners). While cockles aren’t easily found, mussels are… and this is THE best way to prepare them!

Steamed Mussels 

(personal recipe)

5          pounds black mussels (preferably from Prince Edward Island, Canada)

1          large onion, chopped

4          stalks celery, chopped

2          garlic clove, minced

1⁄2       cup olive oil

1          tbsp minced parsley

1          tbsp minced fresh basil

Fresh ground black pepper

1⁄2       cup white wine

2          cups canned tomatoes, chopped but not drained

Clean mussels under running water and tear off their “beards” (the black strings by which they attach themselves to their anchorages in the ocean). Discard any mussels that are broken, cracked, open, or don’t close when tapped. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot and add the onions, celery, garlic, herbs, and a few grindings of black pepper. Cover and cook over medium heat until the veggies are somewhat soft. Pour in the wine, raise the heat and boil until the wine is reduced by half. Stir in the chopped tomatoes with their juice, reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Add the mussels, cover the pot again, and cook over high heat for 10-15 minutes until all the mussels have opened, stirring occasionally to make sure each one contacts the broth.

Serve in big bowls accompanied by crusty bread for dunking. Serves 4-6.


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