Blog Post · My Own Music

Return to Tipperary

In the absence of comprehensive liner notes for this album, I’m compiling some commentary on each of the tracks in this post. The album results from my attendance at the ‘Return to Tipperary’ weekend at St Clements Retreat in Galong, New South Wales in November 2022. I provided some music during the event and the collected songs here relate in some way to the talks given, discussions I had over the weekend and subsequent research about the connection between Ireland, Australia and the Catholic Church. One of the attendees from the event, Michelle Rainger, put together this report.

There are a few songs that I performed over the weekend that are not on the album due to copyright challenges, including ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, ‘Raglan Road’, and ‘John O’ Dreams’. I have found that most folk writers are happy to approve published covers, but once they pass on and the large rights agencies get involved, the money they ask for a single song is more than I’ll ever recover from album sales.

1. Shores of Botany Bay

This song wasn’t performed over the weekend, but tells the emigration story of an Irishman to Australia. The author is unknown, though Duke Tritton did claim to add an additional verse. There are some indications that the destination was originally ‘Amerikay’. More detail about the song’s history here.

2. A Long Way to Tipperary

I had not really listened to this song’s lyrics before trying to do a recording for this album. I had put it in the general basket of twee condescending English songs about Irish people. On a more detailed listen, the lyrics are quite racist. For the album I have re-written the lyrics and put the song to a new minor key melody.

3. Battle of the Dardanelles

One of the great things about conferences attended by people passionate about the topic is the conversations held during the breaks and over meal times. One of the attendees mentioned to me that a song had been known in her family and sung by her father, but that no members knew the full lyrics. With a bit of selective searching on Trove, I was able to track down the song as published in 1915 and solve the family mystery for her. The song is also known as The Dying Solider and Banks of the Murray.

4. The Answer’s Ireland

Having attended the online memorial for John Dengate for the past three years, I was very happy to hear that past events of this type at St Clements (under the title ‘Shamrock in the Bush’) had John Dengate in attendance as bard. I sang this song on the last day of the conference and am very appreciative of Dale Dengate’s approval to put my recording of this song by John on the album.

5. The Gallway Shawl

This was one of the first Irish ‘standards’ that I committed to memory and it is frequently part of my sets at folk festivals. Sadly the author of this fine ballad is unknown.

6. Ned Ryan’s Castle

Ned Ryan is the whole reason for the existence of the St Clements Retreat in Galong (established by the Redemptorists in 1918) and also the reason that a conference on Irish history is so suitably held there. Ned was a convict, deported in 1816 for his part in a minor act of vandalism against the English in Clonoulty. After serving his time as a convict, he established himself and a large family in Galong. On the passing of his last descendent, John Nagle Ryan, the land (and his castle) was bequeathed to the Catholic Church.

7. Antiphon for Psalm 89

This Antiphon (short introduction to a Psalm) originated in Bangor, County Down, Ireland around 700 A.D. I thought my simple setting was suitable to include on the album given the strong Irish Catholic thread that is woven through the history of the Irish in Australia.

8. Ned Kelly’s Armour

One of the most fascinating presentations given over the weekend was Dr. Richard Reid’s discussion of his role in curating the ‘Not Just Ned’ exhibition at the Australian National Gallery in 2011. Getting several suits of Kelly armour in one place was no easy exercise! I wrote this song in response to repeated attacks on me and others by a handful of zealots who wish to paint a ‘black and white’ view of the history of Irish persecution in Australia.

9. On Carden’s Wild Domain

Having both His Excellency Tim Mawe, Ambassador of Ireland to Australia, and his wife Patricia McCarthy with us over the whole weekend was a fantastic surprise. During his stirring speech at the conference dinner on Saturday night, Tim recited this poem by Reverend Timothy Corcoran. He also generously reminded me which poem it was several months later when I asked him via Twitter because I had forgotten. The poem had come from an effort by the Irish government in the 1930s to collect songs and stories from school children. The broader story of John Rutter ‘Woodcock’ Carden’s abduction of Eleanor Arbuthnot in 1854 could warrant a whole album on its own.

10. The Kelly Gang

I discovered this song in Trove while researching the other Ned Kelly song on the album. It only appears in print because the author of the 1898 article is attacking the quality of Australian ‘bush poets’. I guess that backfired for him.

11. The Vow of Tipperary

I found this song by Thomas Osborne Davis while looking for the origins of the well known song Silevenamon. Rather than re-record the very well known Tipperary song, I went for this one by Davis, which seemed to have been lost to history.

12. The Second Coming

I had recorded this poem by William Butler Yeats some months before this album was envisaged, but as I was doing an album focused on Ireland, I had to include something from my favourite Irish poet. I had discussed the ideas in this poem in a previous post.

13. The Parting Glass

While the origins of this parting song appear to be Scottish, it has been well and truly adopted by the Irish. It was also popular (and out of copyright) long before Ed Sheeran sang it.

In conclusion, I want to express my thanks to all of the attendees and organizers of the event at Galong. Especially to Cheryl Mongan and Dr. Richard Reid for inviting me to provide music for the event.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

That’s Women’s Work!

I have been listening to Alistair Hulett’s version of The Weaver and the Factory Maid since purchasing the album In Sleepy Scotland from the UK back in 2010. I always thought of it as an upstairs/downstairs style of love story between a wealthy man and the woman forced into his embrace through her station. A bit of knowledge has caused me to re-think the meaning of the song, and wonder about the way that a little bit of context can change the meaning of a folk song so much.

You can listen to my own recording here, or the Steelye Span version here. It is a great disappointment that there is no version of Alistair’s up on YouTube.

Recently I was sent a book about the history of the linen trade in Ireland. I come from a branch of the Clark family that has been manufacturing linen in the Upperlands area of Northern Ireland since the mid 1700s. The book, Linen on the Green, was written by Wallace Clark (my great-great-uncle) and first published in 1983. Reading this book and doing a bit of research on weaving has given me cause to rethink my understanding of the song.

The song is written from the perspective of a hand-weaver and speaks of his love for a factory girl. If you are already familiar with hand weaving and the various technological advances that started in 1733 with the invention (or maybe just patenting of an Asian invention dating back 500 years) of the flying shuttle by John Kay, then these next paragraphs will be a bit dull.

The handloom appeared in Europe in the 11th century and by the likely time of this song (the 1800s), there were around 250,000 hand-weavers in the UK [1], from a population of around 10 million[2]. Hand weaving was a skilled task and a good weaver could make a reasonable living for themselves. These hand-weavers would most likely have been young men (25-35), and the male subject of our song was probably one of them.

Industrialisation of the loom meant that the skills of the hand-weaver were no longer required and a young, unskilled, girl or woman could now do seven times the work for lower pay in a factory with steam driven looms.

One of the perks of being a hand-weaver was that young male weavers would travel from farm to farm with their loom to weave the flax or cotton thread spun by local farmers. This would give the weaver easy access to many a young lass, being the daughters of the farmer or land owner (the Jolly Beggar comes to mind). A young weaver who had a regular seasonal trip between farms could have had the weaver’s equivalent of a sailor’s girl in every port.

With the advent of the factory, these women now went to work early in the morning for their own money and had no time or need of a hand-weaver. This might account for the verse where the protagonist goes to the girl’s bedroom door but cannot find his way into her pleasant bed, without a job he would have had no access to the property.

I should add that it wasn’t all money and status for the women in the factories. With the guaranteed deafness, loss of finger in machinery and eyes from loose shuttles it was a miserable life. Carcinogenic chemicals on the cotton that they would thread after wetting in their mouth meant and early grave for the factory workers.

So is this song really a lament for a firm breasted young girl, or a lament for the job and the status that the hand-weaver had before the arrival of the factory? Or is the author instead longing to be let into the factory and continue to ply his trade, is his actual lament for the loom and her charms?

I may be drawing a long bow with the last suggestion, but I know I will never think of the song in the same way given this small amount of context. I wonder how many other songs are similarly misunderstood for want of a little knowledge?

[1] Guest, R, 1823, A Compendious History of Cotton-Manufacture.