Inside the Songs: John Doyle and the Irish Experience
Irish guitarist, singer, and songwriter John Doyle is one of the foremost traditional musicians of his generation. He first made his name as the guitarist for the much-loved ensemble Solas, where his particularly percussive style of guitar became one of the prime inspirations for other Irish guitarists, and gave rise to many imitators. He’s also known for his work with Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll; their duo album, Double Play, was justly nominated for a Grammy in 2010. Recently he’s been showing himself as a deft interpreter of Irish songs and a soloist of great note. With his new album, Shadow and Light, Doyle is also proving himself as a songwriter. He’s usually been content to plumb the depths of the Irish tradition for material, but most of the songs on Shadow and Light are ones he’s written. And these songs reach into his life and history for their inspiration. “Little Sparrow” is a crowd favorite song he wrote to his daughter, and it’s great to have it recorded finally. It’s a softly sweet ode to childhood that should lend itself well to being covered (*hint to folk singers looking for new material).
What I found most interesting about Doyle’s album were the songs about the Irish experience in America. Of course, emigration to America (or Canada for that matter) has always been one of the main topics in Irish traditional song, and Doyle includes some fascinating variations on these songs. In fact, I found his liner notes about these songs to be compelling enough that I got permission to share them online in this edition of Inside the Songs. The first song (co-written with his wife Cathy), “Liberty’s Sweet Shore,” deals with the most-known Irish emigration, that of the Great Famine, but from the lesser known perspective of Irish immigration to Québec, the second-most important port after New York for Irish fleeing starvation and depredation in the mid-19th century. The second song, “The Arabic,” shines a light on Doyle’s own history and the later (attempted) emigration of his grandfather during WWI.
Liberty’s Sweet Shore
“Gross Île, a way station close to Québec, has a mass grave of over thirty thousand victims of the famine and the brutal voyage over from Ireland. In the height of the Famine in 1847/48 certain landlords paid for their tenants to emigrate as it was the most financially expedient thing to do. Their tenants were starving to death and could not work nor pay their rents. Buying the cheapest passage for two pounds a head, men women and children, most in dire condition clothed in rags, no money nor food found their way on board. Some were luck and had a quick voyage over, a good captain and a ship’s surgeon, but others had rancid meat, meager hard tack, if any, and a lack of drinking water. Many were infected with typhus or Cholera and were either thrown overboard or kept in Gross Île until their ultimate demise. Still, the overall outlook was hope as they were going to a different country and perhaps a life free from starvation, privation and domination.”
John Doyle: Liberty’s Sweet Shore
“In August of 1916 Martin Lohan, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, decided to join his brother and immigrate to the United States. He walked from Baile na Hamhna, close to Creggs, Lisduff in Co. Roscommon, to Cobh in County Cork, which was then called Queenstown, and embarked on the S.S. Arabic to New York. They were 50 miles south of Kinsale when U24, a German U-boat on maneuvers, discovered the ship and fired two torpedoes into The Arabic. The ship went down in ten minutes killing 44 people. Martin was one of the lucky ones who survived. He jumped into the sea shortly before the ship sunk and swam to a life raft, but was beaten away with oars by the men on board as they were afraid he would topple the small raft. Luckily for him (and for my grandfather, Mother and I) the hand of providence came in the form of a woman who grabbed him before he sank and hauled him into the life raft. He spent a few months in an infirmary on Spike Island and eventually walked back to Roscommon. Apparently the only words he mentioned of the event for many years was ‘Ah sure, I wasn’t meant to go to America.'”
John Doyle: The Arabic
Other songs on the album also deal with Irish and Irish-American history through the poetic lens of Doyle’s songwriting. “Farewell to That” examines the bitter disappointment of Irish fighting for England in WWI, torn between the home hatred of the British and their hopes that their service would help gain Home Rule (it didn’t). “Bound for Botany Bay” looks at an Irishman bound for the Australian penal colony following the 1798 Rebellion. “Clear the Way” documents the Irish Volunteers, a regiment in the American Civil War. It’s a fascinating journey through Doyle’s clear love of Irish history, and through the mind of a songwriter who recognizes the impact history has on us today. Buy the album and discover Doyle’s songwriting for yourself!
PS: If you need more convincing, check out the lineup of guest musicians on the album: Tim O’Brien (vocals, mandolin), Alison Brown (banjo), Kenny Malone (percussion), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Todd Phillips (bass), John Williams (accordion), Pete Grant (lap steel) and Michael McGoldrick (uillean pipes and flute).
Thanks to John Doyle and Compass Records for permission to stream his songs and post the liner notes!