All text (c) Ita Kelly 2008
‘The Irish Scattering’ is a remarkable new DVD and CD from singer and multi-instrumentalist Seán Keane. It’s fifteen years since Seán embarked on his solo career and for his eighth album release he has turned his attention to the theme of emigration tracking the progress of the Irish nation on its travels around the world. ‘The Irish Scattering’ was recorded live over two nights at concerts performed in ‘The Black Box’ Theatre Galway in March of this year. A strong cast, some 24 musicians, dancers and singers joined Seán on stage to perform a diverse range of music and song, charting the various eras in emigration and the events that sparked that movement.
The project is one that could have surfaced at any time during Seán’s career. It developed out of an interest in the stories behind the songs. Seán who has been singing all his life, grew up listening to these stories and in turn he has told them to his own audiences. ‘The Irish Scattering’ pieces the stories together to present a tableau of Irish history. Since the days when Ireland was known as the Island of Saints and Scholars, Irish people have moved abroad for one reason or another.
While ‘The Irish Scattering’ is a two and a half hour long show on DVD, Seán acknowledges that it could be twice or three times that long were all the possible songs and stories included. “I think its going to be more of a life long project than just the project it is” he says. “It’s only the tip of the iceberg compared to what could be done”.
Since starting this project, Seán has been digging deeper into the background to the songs, and researching the stories. “Like Mother Jones” he says, “the great union leader in America about whom ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’ was written. She spent all her life working on behalf of the miners, organising, marching to get their rights.” Mother Jones is just one example of the influence that Irish people have had all over the world and her story is one of many fascinating stories that are told in a book that Sean’s wife Virginia has written on the subject. In fact her research was one of the reasons this project came about. Almost nearing completion, they hope it will be published in about a year’s time. The extensive sleeve notes that accompany ‘The Irish Scattering’ are a great read and give a sample of what is to come in the book. They comprehensively chart the travels of Irish people over the last 1500 years, explaining the significance of all the songs, stories and tunes.
History, economics and our rich culture have shaped that Irish influence and the Irish psyche – some 70 million people world wide are aware they have an Irish ancestor. That’s a considerable influence considering at its peak Ireland’s population was 8 million and at its lowest ebb some 2.5 million.
Seán himself was one of those people who when young left home and travelled to England in search of adventure. “Going to England was like going to Galway” he laughs. “You were never regarded as an emigrant when you went to England, I think that’s because it was always and ever going on.” He worked on the building sites and at night played with the group Shegui, the first band he toured with. “That time in London you could go to a session seven nights a week if you wanted to” he remembers. “It was a great time to be there, work was plentiful, the atmosphere was good. There was great opportunity to play in London; it was just buzzing with music at the time.”
Sadly those good times came to an end and when the tide began to change Seán returned home. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible for many others who were destined to stay there and while many thrived, many fell into poverty. ‘The Irish Scattering’ is the story of emigration the world over, good times and hard times. Irish people settled in parts of the United States, Canada, the West Indies and Australia, and behind each country are the reasons why, the stories of those first pioneers.
“We tried to represent the different periods and hopefully we have done that reasonably successfully” says Seán. The DVD opens with the sound of ancient horns, the instruments of pre history we are told in the sleeve notes. Then by way of introduction Seán sings a few verses of ‘The Dear Little Isle’. This is followed by Máirtín O’Connor playing his composition ‘Saints and Scholars’. From then on the show takes shape around the songs interspersed with stories, starkly told by Máirtín Jamsie Ó Flathartha, and with music and dance. Creative lighting and a backdrop of projected images and sequences add to the visual impact.
‘Farethee well Enniskillen’, an Ulster Scots song is one that Seán dedicates to all the soldiers that left Ireland down through history. Each song receives it’s own delicate treatment and arrangement in the hands of the expert musicians on stage. ‘Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore’ describes the gruelling experience of travel for emigrants on land and sea. ‘Far Away in Australia’ is a well known modern song on emigration to Australia, and ‘Van Diemen’s land’ recalls all those who were deported for petty crimes to the southern hemisphere. In recent times many more have voluntarily emigrated there.
The bleakest time in Irish history was during the famine years. ‘Grosse Ile’ recalls this terrible time when thousands arrived at the small island that served as the screening point for immigrants to Canada. Many of them were hungry, diseased or dying and thousands are buried there and in the nearby cities of Toronto and Montreal.
‘Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears’ is a more hopeful story about 15 year old Annie Moore the first person to pass through the screening centre in Ellis Island New York in 1892. Times were a little better then and those who left Ireland, supported those at home, subsidised the travel of other family members and became strong citizens of their new homelands.
Today, while Irish people still travel abroad to live, work and settle down, the tables are reversed in many ways and Ireland welcomes immigrants to her shores. ‘The Crossing’ is a song of hope written by Johnny Clegg who lived all his life in South Africa. It has verses in English and chorus in Zulu and Seán enlisted the help of some immigrants to Ireland in recording it. “I did it for the Ireland of today” he explains, “which has changed and we have people from all over the globe coming to live and work in Ireland. They are going through some of the things in their own countries that the Irish people were going through here.”
‘The Shipyards and Gdansk’ is a new song from Irish man James Goram who sent it to Seán when he became aware of ‘The Scattering’ project. “It’s about a Polish man here in Ireland” explains Seán, “reminiscing about going home to Gdansk where his father used to work in the shipyards. I liked the song and the sentiment and so I recorded it as an extra track.”
The Cunningham family provide high stepping dancing in the show, another great expression of our Irish-ness, and Spanish dancer Fatima Alverez Fernandez reminds us of the strong historical connection we have with Spain.
Lifting the spirits, as music and dance always did for the emigrant, when there wasn’t an instrument around, people lilted or dyddled tunes. Seán Regan, has devised his own style of mouth music called ‘clicking’ and with Seán Keane lilting along they perform a set of tunes in this most unique way, a joy to watch.
The concert progresses through some twenty eight tracks to the finale ‘Home Away from Home’ followed by a rousing set of reels involving everybody on stage.
Seán is touring ‘The Irish Scattering’ with a full supporting cast of musicians, dancers and singers in October and will be visiting Belfast, Enniscorthy, Dublin, Limerick and Galway.
“It’s only a tangent compared to how deep you could go” says Seán. “I think its going to be an ongoing project and it’s something I’d like to do again very soon.”
Concert venues in October
• October 18- Whitla Hall, Belfast
• October 19- Riverside, Enniscorthy.
• Oct 23- Helix, Dublin
• Oct 24- Helix, Dublin
• Oct 25- UCL, Limerick
• Oct 30- Town Hall, Galway
• Oct 31- Town Hall, Galway
• Nov 1- Town Hall, Galway