There’s much that baffles me about the way North Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Like green beer. Why would anyone wish to drink something that looked like a moldy Budweiser? Why do people drink Guinness for that matter? There are dozens of Irish beers that are far superior. But no matter--let’s talk music.
This is the week that people think they ought to grab some “Irish” music for their St. Pat’s parties. Alas, most people buy anything that has a shamrock or a name that begins with O and is followed by an apostrophe. Barring that, they scarf up something they’ve heard of: the Riverdance soundtrack, Celtic Woman, The Chieftains, The Irish Rovers, The Clancy Brothers…. Let me help you out.
First rule of Irish music: If it’s been on PBS, don’t buy it. Projects such as Riverdance, Celtic Woman, The Irish Tenors, and The High Kings are abominations on par with green beer, plastic shamrocks, and Oliver Cromwell. They are as traditional as tomorrow’s newspaper, as fake as a starlet’s bust line, and as generic as a cookie-cutter suburb. This stuff is vile. Stay away. Second rule: Steer clear of any album that glorifies the I.R.A. Yes, the Provos are equally awful and, yes, the Brits have bad history with the Irish, but the only difference between the IRA and al-Qaida is the brogue. Don't fall for romantic nonsense; there's nothing heroic about murder.
How about the old stuff? I have tremendous respect for what the classic groups meant to Irish music. The late Tommy Makem of The Clancy Brothers was as fine a gent as ever walked the planet. I still enjoy The Clancys, The Irish Rovers, and The Chieftains, but you need to be a student or reviewer of the music such as I to appreciate more than small doses. The truth is, this music sounds awfully dated now. If you buy it, you’ll play it for the party and not again until next March 17. Even the next generation--such as De Dannan and The Boys of the Lough--can be a bit tame for modern ears. So let’s turn to stuff you’re likely to keep in circulation.
If you wanted to point to a single band that changed the way people think of Irish music, it would not be The Chieftains, rather The Bothy Band. The Bothies haven’t toured since 1978, but I defy you to pick up one of their recordings and call it “outdated.” Their 1979 release After Hours: Live in Paris is the gold standard to which bands continue to aspire. Bothy Band alums went on to great things as well, especially fiddler Kevin Burke. Kevin’s solo projects are sublime, as his work with Patrick Street, Celtic Fiddle Festival, and other ensembles. Another key album in the Irish repertoire is one Burke made with fellow Bothy Band member Micheál Ó Domhnaill (R.I.P.) shortly after each moved to the United States, Portland (1982).
One person profoundly influenced by The Bothies when she was a kid was Chicagoan Liz Carroll, and she is now one of the very best Irish fiddlers on the planet. Her work is fiery, passionate, and exciting--plus Liz is a total sweetheart as a human being. I can’t recommend her work strongly enough, especially in tandem with guitarist John Doyle, who gets my nod for the best Irish-style fret work. Another fiddler to investigate is Martin Hayes, whose work is akin to being crushed by pillows. Hayes never hurries a piece; he just lets it unfold until you’re breathless and have no idea how you got that way.
If you prefer ensemble bands, there are several from which to choose: Danú and Dervish will dispense pleasure. The American band Solas is much beloved, but I’d caution to look for their earlier recordings. Make sure that Karan Casey is the lead vocalist as Solas has gone through quite a few since she and not all have been worthy. Two groups with which you cannot go wrong are Lúnasa and Altan. Lúnasa is an all-instrumental band and the closest thing to The Bothy Band that currently exists. They have eight albums and every one of them is wonderful. You will be astonished by the levels of musicianship. Ditto Altan, which has more than a dozen recordings. Altan’s lead vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh has a light, fragile-sounding voice that is a thing of beauty. Any record would do, but my favorites are Harvest Storm (1991), Blackwater (1996), and The Blue Idol (2002).
If you want to hear a very promising new band, check out Slide. Prefer Irish rock? Moving Hearts has never been topped. Some Irish punk? The Pogues. A bit of ambience? Clannad set the standard for Celtic New Age sounds and Dúlamán (1976) was the path-breaking release. (Lead vocalist Moya Brennan’s sister is 1990s pop sensation Enya.) If you feel absolutely compelled to mix irish music with classical, do it right and buy the recordings of composer Shaun Davey. His Granuaile (1985) tells the story of 16th century female pirate Gráinne O’Malley, and his 1983 The Brendan Voyages of the man the Irish claim was the first European to see North America.
Now put away that awful green beer, put on some decent tunes, and have some good craic this St. Paddy’s Day. [Craic is pronounced “crack” and is Gaelic for “fun!”]