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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 17, 2000. All rights reserved.
Voyage of Robbie O’Connell: Blame the Titanic
If that doomed marvel of modern engineering, the Titanic,
had not met its watery fate in 1912, Robbie O’Connell’s maternal grandfather
would have surely embarked, a few months later, on his scheduled emigration
to America. As it was, Robert Clancy read the terrible news, stayed
safely in Ireland, and wrote to his fiancee, who had preceded him
to Massachusetts, to come on home. They married and raised a family
of nine in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary.
But for the encounter between the iceberg and the great canoe, their
son, singer Tom Clancy, used to say, "I’d be mayor of Boston by
now." And it’s safe to say that if Tom’s sister’s son, Robbie
O’Connell, had been born in New England, he would not have become
one of the great songwriters and performers in modern Irish folk music.
Robbie O’Connell returns to the area for the first time in several
years on Friday, May 19, when he performs for the Princeton Folk Music
Society. His interest in music goes back to the days when his parents
ran a small hotel outside Carrick-on-Suir.
"Any Sunday night," recalls O’Connell, now 50, "when the
locals gathered, you’d have a big fire going. There was no such thing
as a TV in the bar or anything that would destroy conversation. Everyone
was expected to do something — if you couldn’t sing, you could
do a recitation. The regulars all had their party pieces that they’d
do. That was so common when I was growing up. There was definitely
a sense in rural Ireland that the people entertained themselves."
No one would have thought back then that these informal get-togethers
could ever lead to a music career. The first inkling came when three
of Robbie’s uncles — Paddy, Tom and Liam Clancy, together with
their friend Tommy Makem — came to New York in the ’50s and started
earning extra money singing the songs they grew up with in small clubs
in Greenwich Village, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Before the Clancys, the Irish music section of an American record
store consisted of Bing Crosby singing "Too-Roo-Loo-Roo-Loo-Ral"
and Dennis Day warbling "MacNamara’s Band." And Ireland, too,
had turned its back on the old tunes. With their enthusiasm, their
vast store of songs, and their Irish sweaters, the Clancy Brothers
and Tommy Makem changed all that. An appearance on the Ed Sullivan
Show, coinciding with the folk revival in the United Sates in the
late ’50s, turned them into international stars. When Tommy Makem
left the group after some years, another brother, Bobby Clancy, joined
"When I was about 13, Bobby came back from America with a spare
guitar," O’Connell reminisces. "I remember one of the first
songs I ever learned was `The Ballad of Jesse James.’ I don’t know
what possessed me — one day I started to play a few chords and
once I could play a few songs, I was hooked."
Robbie devoured the music that his uncles brought home
from America: old traditional songs, contemporary songwriters like
Tom Paxton, top folk groups like the Weavers and the Kingston Trio.
And the Clancy Brothers, of course. Robbie feels that the Clancys’
impact cannot be overemphasized. "They were a huge influence,
not just on me, but on just about every musician in Ireland. Suddenly
around 1962, there were all these groups that sprang up, four guys
in Aran sweaters, and it sort of opened the door for Irish people
to take a look at the songs they had dismissed in a kind of post-colonial
It also opened the door for the young Robbie and his friends to play.
"We’d just find a place," he remembers, "a pub outside
of town, say, and have a couple of drinks, and ask if they minded
if we played. Usually, the answer was, `Ah, no, we’d be delighted.’"
Truth be told, informal pub concerts were not Robbie’s first brush
with professional musicianship. When he was about eight, the Clancys
decided to make an album featuring their nieces and nephews singing
children’s folk songs. All went well in rehearsal, but when it came
time to record, Robbie confesses, "I took a notion and went up
a tree and wouldn’t come down. I just found the whole thing embarrassing.
It’s ironic now that I’m the one of them all that’s making my living
Robbie came to the United States during his college years and discovered
he could make a decent livelihood in the New England bar scene, although
audiences still weren’t as hip to Irish music as they are today. One
of his most requested songs, "You’re Not Irish", is a humorous
look at all the times his early audiences called for the hoary "When
Irish Eyes are Smiling" or "Danny Boy." When he recorded
his 1989 collection of originals, "The Love of the Land,"
Robbie noted defiantly, "Just for the record, I still don’t know
Robbie has maintained a many-faceted career in his 30 years of performing,
and the names that crossed his path evoke a history of Irish music
of the past quarter-century. He had a group, the Bread and Beer Band,
in Ireland when he was in his 20s. He toured with friends Mick Moloney
and Jimmy Keane in the early ’70s. He joined his uncles Tom, Bobby,
and Paddy in 1977 and recorded three albums with them, playing in
the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary show at Madison Square Garden, "chatting
with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones", he notes with evident
amusement. Later he, uncle Liam Clancy, and Liam’s son Donal formed
Clancy, O’Connell, and Clancy for two acclaimed albums. And earlier
Robbie had headed the group Green Fields of America with Eileen Ivers
and Seamas Egan.
Just how intertwined is Irish music? Currently Donal Clancy plays
guitar with Eileen Ivers, who used to play fiddle with Cherish the
Ladies, which included at various times Seamas Egan’s sister Siobhan
and Bobby Clancy’s daughter Aoife. And if that isn’t enough, Robbie’s
son Owen, 17, the youngest of his five children, has played some gigs
with his dad.
These days, Robbie is as well-known as a songwriter as a performer,
which pleases him. With his five solo albums, his audience can be
counted on to call for certain songs, the poignant "Two Nations,"
about the differences separating the Irish and Irish-Americans, and
"The Winning Side," and Robbie’s comic songs — almost
singlehandedly, Robbie brought humor back to Irish music. Then there’s
"Kilkelly," written by Peter Jones, and definitively performed
by Robbie. Jones came across family letters from the mid-19th century
and formed a lovely, sad song about emigration, loneliness, and heartbreak.
"Never a month goes by that I don’t get an E-mail or a call about
that song," says Robbie.
Of course, emigration ain’t what it used to be. With the Irish economy
in the best shape in hundreds of years, people are going back and
forth to the old country regularly. Robbie, who lives in Massachusetts,
jumps regularly across that puddle his grandfather was so reluctant
to cross in 1912.
Ireland has been rediscovered by Europeans," explains
Robbie, who, with his wife, Roxanne, hosts an annual "Heart of
Ireland" tour, a week of sightseeing by day, music by night. "Ireland
is now a hip place. The writers, poets, filmmakers, and musicians
all feed off each other. Thirty years ago, nobody would have imagined
that a group like the Chieftains would be playing with rock-and-rollers.
And the standard of musicianship in traditional music in Ireland right
now is incredible. You have 17 and 18-year-old kids playing like virtuosos.
It’s the technology: they’ve been able to listen — over and over
— to all the great masters that have ever been recorded. In the
old days, you went to a fair, you heard a song once, and you went
home and made up what you couldn’t remember."
And if the music changes a bit with all this hybrid activity, that’s
alright with Robbie. "I get really upset with these so-called
purists who arbitrarily pick a point in time, like 1850, and say this
is how it should be done. Music is a living thing, a living tradition.
If you treat it like a museum piece, it may have some interest, but
it has no life, no vibrancy."
And the more music changes, the more lasting its legacy. A case in
point: Years ago, Robbie heard a song called "Flower of Kilkenny"
sung by an old lady named Elizabeth Cronin. "I’d never heard it
before. I reworked it, wrote another verse, for it was a bit short.
I was singing it one night a few years ago, and Paddy Clancy said
‘What’s that song? You know that was your great-grandfather’s favorite
song; he used to sing it all the time.’"
And so the wheel turns full circle for the boy who once shinnied up
a tree-trunk rather than face a microphone. The self-confessed "not
a natural extrovert," has come to enjoy performing, but admits
that, "Liam still teases me. If I get at all introverted, he’ll
say to me, `You looking for a tree?’"
— David McDonough
Christ Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944.
$12 at the door. Friday, May 19, 8:15 p.m.
or log onto www.heartsofireland tour. For more on O’Connell, visit
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