While the included videos here are basically the primer for Irish folk and pop music, there’s one guy discretely missing here that ties them all together—Tom Munnelly. Back in the 40s, Munnelly went to a scout camp and fell in love with folk tunes, so much so that he spent the rest of his life walking around Ireland with a tape recorder, asking locals like John “Jacko” Reilly to sing their songs. Planxty, The Bothy Band, Dolores Keane, Sinead O’Connor, and virtually every Irish band to perform have covered at least one song originally recorded by Munnelly.
It wasn’t that no one had ever heard these songs before Munnelly recorded them, but it was more that his recorded allowed for these tunes to be easily distributed throughout all parts of Ireland, and in many cases, the songs were already being sung on both coasts, albeit, under completely different names. A popular one Munnelly recorded that Planxty picked up was called “The Well Below The Valley,” but when he played it for people in the East, they identified it as one of their favorites, “The Maid and the Palmer.” But it doesn’t really matter to anyone what exactly is a name of a song. “The Pigeon on the Gate” has no less than 25 other names.
Singer Tom Lenihan, whom Munnelly recorded and who was first and foremost a farmer, talks about the importance of the narrative in Irish music, saying it’s important “to fit the tune to the words, not to make the words fit the tune.” When Lenihan found what would go on to be called “Paddy’s Panacea” in an American songbook called 617 Irish Songs and Ballads, he’d ignored the suggested tune of “Ireland So Frisky” and fitted it instead to “Larry O’Gaff,” which caused him to lop off an entire stanza that wouldn’t have sounded right with that particular tune. It’s not unheard of for an Irish artist to change a few words to fit a particular meaning, as well. “Have You Been at Carrick?” seems to have been adapted several times so that the man in the story isn’t pining for a woman, but pining for the Catholic Church. A line in Lenihan’s “Paddy’s Panacea” often gets changed for contemporary singers so that the narrative doesn’t take a dark turn to talk about pulmonary disease, and everyone’s pretty okay with that.
It’s interesting to note that what Irish folk music fans seem to appreciate is not this idea of inventiveness. It’s not like American audiences looking for the next big thing after vocoders to revolutionize music, because the Irish seem to know it’s actually impossible to revolutionize music. (It is.) The artistry comes almost solely from skill and interpretation in this music. You’ve got Dolores Keane singing one of the most well known Irish folk songs, and yet it’s her voice and her skill that really kills that recording. Even The Bothy Band and Planxty, who kind of introduced their own “vocoder” by bringing in a traditionally Greek bouzouki, relied heavily on skill and interpretation, rather than on completely original compositions. They went for a more rock sound, borrowing from American tradition that Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Emmylou Harris loved and incorporated into their own music. But all of it—no matter the interpretation—is totally built from Celtic songbooks way older than Munnelly’s first recordings. Oh, and from their love of the drink.
When people talk about Irish drinkers, their assumptions are based in large part on truth, and not just because the Irish love to drink (who doesn’t?!), but because drinking for the Irish was seen as a kind of rebellion against the British at one time. Lenihan’s “Paddy’s Panacea” is only one of hundreds of odes to Irish-made whiskey in the Celtic songbook. “Cratur” or “Poteen” are just a bunch of words that mean “illegal whiskey,” and illegal whiskey at that time was any whiskey that wasn’t made and sold by the British. British whiskey—seen as inferior and probably was—was called “Parliament Whiskey.” In the States, we protested British taxes with a tea rebellion, but the Irish did it with their distilleries, which seems a far better idea. How many American folk songs do we sing about tea, guys?
Now, the Irish music legacy in the US lay mostly in the hands of The Chieftans, The Pogues, and Celtic Woman Christmas recordings (depending on your St. Paddy’s Day tastes), which are also derived from the same songbooks. Still, in a way, it seems a watered-down version of the masterful instrumentation and vocal work that was produced in the 50s–70s, when Irish folk music finally got some recordings and felt a boom from international interest. In the future, it’d be nice to see another boom like that from traditional Irish artists, though it’s unclear how many Mumford and Sons something like that could spawn in the US, and I just don’t think I can take any more of those.