Black Bank Folk from Ireland Talk About Their RISING
“Rising” by the Dublin, Ireland band Black Bank Folk is the most melodically entrancing, historically astute–and heartbreaking–album of Irish “rebel music” I have ever heard. I am a long time fan of The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Maken, The Wolfe Tones, The Battering Ram and other militant Irish balladeers. Yet, this album of songs is very different.
“No promise for the future/We can’t see beyond tonight/Let’s listen to the music and dance together through the night.”
Black Bank Folk eschew the bluster, blarney, cant, rhetoric and cornball nostalgia that infest so many Irish and Irish- American ” rousing” “political” songs and albums. No “Hoo-hah” bar-room- patriot calls- to- arms. And not a hint of “drunken, fighting paddy” pointless menace. Nor do these musicians lapse into Bono- style smug pacifism or religiousity. This music, composed and performed a full century after the events sung about, feels very much present, alive and grimly realistic in tone and delivery. In that sense, Black Bank Folk are much closer in attitude, historical awareness and depth of feeling to that long running Irish-American rock band, Black 47 (now sadly defunct but living on in the solo performances of lead songwriter Larry Kirwan.)
“Aunt Jenny they never told me/Of your fight in 1916/Of the jails and the combat you seen.”
Black Bank Folk keep it real by focusing on individual narrative stories, all based in historical research, on this stunningly-well-produced album of original songs focused on the failed Easter Monday Rising of 1916. In that military encounter, a rough coalition of armed Irish- nationalist patriots, gun-toting feminists and strike-hardened revolutionary socialists publicly and dramatically declared the birth of an Irish Republic free of British colonial rule. They seized control of several public buildings in Dublin, most prominently the General Post Office (GPO), hauled down the Union Jacks, ran up Irish Tricolour and Starry Plough flags and engaged British police and troops in pitched battle.
This was during the darkest days of World War I and the British government and military, which still ruled all of Ireland at the time, took a very dim view of such rebellion, which they declared to be treason during wartime. British warships bombarded Dublin as artillery and machine guns blasted the beseiged rebels, who found that the Irish populace–both in Dublin and in the countryside– did not respond as well as had been hoped. After a few days, white flags went up and the rebels were arrested and marched off to jail while crowds of Dublin’s unconvinced and uninspired citizens jeered and spat at them. Many of their leaders soon were executed as traitors by British firing squads.
“They told us the country was behind us/But now it seems we’re standing on our own/Above these barrack walls the people that we fought for/Only show contempt for us and I feel so alone.”
Of course, that was not the end of the story of Ireland’s struggle for political independence and some measure of social justice. The disastrous 1916 Rising, and the brutal executions and repression which followed it, did eventually spark an island-wide rebellion, once World War I had concluded.
The Irish , after a determined war of secession from the British Empire and a savage Civil War, did achieve a large measure of independence. Full sovereignty did not come for several decades, though the six counties of Northern Ireland remain to this day under British control. Ireland, north and south of the Border, continues to suffer grave social inequalities and economic injustices.
Surprisingly, while the songs on “Rising” tell tales of battle, defeat and death, they also lift the spirit with deftly encouraging lyrics–hope in the teeth of despair– and downright danceable tunes. A rare accomplishment indeed. This album rewards many repeated listenings.
Ironically, as Irish political and economic refugees swarmed to the US and Canada over the decades, a rich trans-Atlantic musical culture evolved–the Irish strain in what has come to be called “Americana music”. Likewise, as is evident on many cuts on this album, American musical styles influenced modern Irish music itself.
Black Bank Folk is John Colbert and James Sheeran, both vocalists and songwriters and each playing both acoustic and electric guitars, joined on “Rising” by Sean McKeown on uillean pipes, fiddler Sean Regan, Eamonn de Barra on whistles, John McLoughlin playing mandolin, and Mark Colbert on drums. Also on some songs, Gavin Glass plays piano and harmonium, Scott Halliday adds percussion and Damien Dempsey and Luke Kelly and Grace O’Malley contribute guest vocals.
I had the chance to talk via email with John Colbert and James Sheeran of Black Bank Folk about the making of “Rising” and their ongoing plans for more musical adventures. Following is our interview- conversation.