Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea
Daniel O’Donnell with Eddie Rowley. LIVING THE DREAM
O’Brien Press, Dublin 2017. 255 pp.
Daniel O’Donnell is the poster boy for clean-living, Catholic wholesomeness in the world of Irish and international music. A non-smoker and non-drinker, in this book he tells us that during a world cruise in 2016 he attended Mass every morning. The Foreword to this book is written – with little pretence to literary merit, it has to be said – by the original Fr Trendy, the Passionist Brian D’Arcy.
In fact, though the main writer is a Sunday World showbusiness editor with a number of biographies of Irish entertainers to his credit, there is not much to enthuse about the writing in the body of the text either. However, the book succeeds because what it is telling is the story of a young man who has achieved success because he is good at what he does rather than by some accident of serendipity or some piece of manufactured notoriety.
Daniel O’Donnell was born in 1961 in the small town of Kincasslagh on the Wild Atlantic Way in the far north of Donegal. His sister Margaret (Margo) was already successful when Daniel started out and though he toured with her for a few years, he was very much a support act. There does not seem to be any single event which led to his later success, though he speaks a great deal about his determination to succeed.
His initial songs were Irish – ‘Green Glens of Antrim’, ‘My Donegal Shores’, ‘Blue Hills of Breffni’, ‘Any Tipperary Town’ – and he made them popular again, no mean feat in a time when such songs were regarded as corny and associated with people like Sidney McEwan and Joe Lynch in semi-formal situations. He reminded the world – and later the Irish – of the treasures in this music, that there was much more to the songs than the sentimentality of ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’.
In time, his repertoire would go on to include original compositions and country and western favorites, but his popularity is rightly associated with Irish songs. At the end of this book are sixteen closely-packed pages of his discography.
The book is of course for the converted, but there is enough here to convince even the cynics that with Daniel O’Donnell, what you see is what you get – a clean-living, popular singer who is a genuine nice guy with few notions about himself. If the book sends you to You Tube to listen to his clear, mellifluous voice, it will have done you a favour.
Philomena Begley with Emma Hetherington, My Life, My Music, My Memories.
O’Brien Press. Dublin 2017. 228 pp
RRP: €19.95. h/b
There was a time when the singing voice of Philomena Begley was as well known in Ireland as those of Elvis or Abba. She sang country and western songs and if she found one that wasn’t quite in that category, she sang it as if it was. That is not intended as criticism because in her day, she could do nothing wrong. This book is for her fans,
From the village of Pomeroy in Co Tyrone, she came from a background where music was part of her family and her community. She left school at 15 to work in a hat factory and began singing almost by accident. The book chronicles the different ceili and c/w bands of which she was a member just as the dancehall craze began to take hold in Ireland in the 60s and 70s.
Her first big song was ‘Blanket on the Ground’ which won all kinds of awards and sold in large numbers. All the while, she was touring up and down the roads of Ireland, barely noticing, if the book is to be believed, the political and paramilitary troubles of the times. She tells of her success in Britain and America and her recording sessions in Nashville with people like Porter Wagoner. There is no mention of her ever visiting Australia.
Philomena married the leading musician in her first band and they had three children; she writes that, despite their travelling parents, there was always someone at home when they came from school. Today, she says
I hear from each of my children by telephone at least five times a day. They don’t live too far away, but we really like to keep up with each other. The habit probably stems from all the times I was away on the road and I would phone them as often as I could.
Philomena Begley is now aged 75 and still does occasional appearances, mostly for charity.
The book will have little interest for anyone not familiar with or interested in Irish country and western music. There is not much by way of controversy or dispute and the pages are padded towards the end by comments of various friends and fellow singers. The writing is undistinguished and it is tempting to skip over much of it.
Alex Fell. The Wolfe Tones Phenomenon
Choice Publishing, Drogheda 2017. 189 pp.
The Wolfe Tones are a Dublin-based ballad group which have been playing concerts and recording their work for more than half a century. They are best known for the strong nationalist, indeed Republican, component in their work – songs like ‘Ooh ah Up the Ra’, ‘Broad Black Brimmer’, ‘The Men Behind the Wire’, ‘Rock on Rockall’ and ‘The Helicopter Song’. But they also have fine arrangements of songs like ‘Big Strong Man’, ‘Streets of New York’, ‘Sí Beag Sí Mór’ and a particularly beautiful arrangement of the Liam Reilly song ‘Boston Rose’.
One of the reasons that they are not as popular as they might have been is that unlike the Clancy brothers and the Fureys, the names of their members were almost unknown. Even the Dubliners were always happy to put people like Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew as frontmen. But few people knew that the Wolfe Tones were originally set up by Derek and Brian Warfield from Inchicore, with neighbours Noel Nagle and Tommy Byrne. Derek broke from the band – it is not clear when – and there are now two groups which use the name Wolfe Tones.
The title of this book suggests that it is the story of the Wolfe Tones. In fact, it is a different thing altogether, a kind of gallop through Irish history from Strongbow to Conor Cruise O’Brien: there are some chapters where the Dublin balladeers are barely mentioned. There are expositions on the Statutes of Kilkenny, the Famine, the Land War, 1916 and the more recent Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. The chapter on 1916 consists of short biographies of the leaders of the Rising and women like Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and Charlotte Despard.
Alex Fell is described as ‘a former senior forensic psychiatric social worker and human rights lawyer.’ She is at great pains to tell us that being a nationalist is not a sin and that as Irish people, we are within our rights and part of a strong majority if we favour a 32-county republic. It happens that this coincides with a political position found in Wolfe Tones songs, sometimes aggressively so. Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act was used to effectively ban them from RTE, because of perceived support for the Provos, but did not appear to affect the way they were lionised, particularly in America. Fell suggests that they were indirectly responsible for the Good Friday Agreement, concluding “It is difficult to think of greater achievement.”
Her treatment of other aspects of Irish history is eccentric and not always clear or accurate. Here from a chapter headed 1922 Onwards: ‘Meanwhile the Catholic elite stepped in to re create quasi-British institutions such as the legal profession.’ And from a chapter headed The North, ‘Pivotally for modern times, the Republic and the Wolfe Tones, civilians were killed by the army on Bloody Sunday in Donegal in January 1972.’ The location, it should be said, is later corrected.
Neither Irish history as a reasoned narrative nor the Wolfe Tones as a musical group is particularly well served by this book.