The Broken Pledge a reminder of why we should support Irish music now more than ever

The coronavirus has put paid to touring but that's no reason not to support Irish music and musicians, The Bonny Men, whose latest album is the wonderful The Broken Pledge, being a case in point

The Bonny Men – as with many bands, plans to tour their great new album have been put on hold
The Bonny Men – as with many bands, plans to tour their great new album have been put on hold

SPEAKING on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this week, fiddler/composer Colm Mac an Iomaire accurately but without any sense of self-pity, described the financial meltdown facing musicians in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

But the decline started long before Covid-19 with the fragmentation of the music industry brought about by new ways we listen to our favourite artists. Colm pointed out that, for every 1,000 streams an artist will get €7 from Apple Music, €3 from Spotify while it’s 58 cents on YouTube for 1,000 downloads.

You have to ask whether it is sustainable to have a music industry at all if creative people are being paid such pitiful sums.

Mac an Iomaire, formerly of The Frames, said he was not too badly off as he is a composer and records his own music so he can work from home but some bands who might be on the crest of a wave can suddenly find that the tide has gone out and they are stranded.

Just this week, I was listening to the fabulous The Bonny Men, a group of still-young musicians – they started off nine years ago – who released a new album, The Broken Pledge, in January this year.

With the winds of a new album in their sails, they surely must have expected plain sailing as they took their sublime musicianship to the four corners of the globe. Then came SRS-CoV-2, aka the new coronavirus, and gigs have been cancelled, travel has been put on hold and the seven members of the band are confined to barracks like most of humanity, it seems.

How are the Bonny Men (and the one Bonny Lass) coping, I asked the band’s piper Maitiú Ó Casaide.

“Well, it came as a bit of a shock, really, as things started closing down,” said the former TG4 Young Musician of the Year. “We had just finished the album at the end of January and for the first time ever, we had put together the semblance of a tour where we could fill a poster with a list of gigs across the country and we had a couple of lovely gigs including one in the Duncairn Arts Centre in Belfast. But then all of a a sudden everything got cancelled. It was all very disappointing."

The band are now housebound in various parts of the country but at least all of them have jobs outside of music – four or five are teachers – so they aren’t too badly off.

The band consists of Turlough Chambers, Natalie Ní Chasaide, Conor Lyons, Moss Landman, Adam Whelan, Maitiú Ó Casaide and Barry Lyons. And if you want to know what each of them do, go to the Bonny Men Facebook page to see and hear each of them in action.

And with so much doom and gloom around, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that The Broken Pledge is a great, great album.

Being together for nine years has meant that The Bonny Men are as tight an ensemble as you could hope to hear while individually their musicianship has developed and matured and their skill at coming up with inventive arrangements to draw their individual talents together is a joy to listen to.

The album title comes from one the tracks therein, a reel, which just stuck out as a name. And although the 10 tracks are as contemporary as pure trad music gets, there is a historical theme running throughout, arising mainly from two shows the band did n the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire, commissioned by the Genealogical Society of Ireland.

“They first came to us in 2014 and asked us to do a show based on the history of Ireland through music,” explained Maitiú. “We looked at different periods of history, did a lot of research and came up with tunes that represented the period.

"It turned out to be a great success so they asked us to do another one to coincide with the 1916 centenary commemorations. We called it 1616-1916: The Road to the Rising because 1616 was when Hugh O’Neill died in Rome, his death bringing to an end the ancient Irish order and heralding in a period of Penal Laws, the Willamette wars, the Famine and emigration. But then immigrants to America popularised Irish culture over there and Irish music recorded in the US boomeranged back to Ireland where Irish-American musicians had a huge effect on people back home.”

Some of the music from those two shows has made its way onto The Broken Pledge but the title also has a more immediate ring to it insofar as so many Irish people believe that they are victims of so many broken pledges over the years.

“We’ve seen so many – the failure of governments to look after its people, the unemployment, the housing crisis and homelessness, forced emigration – there just seems to be a never-ending stream of broken promises,” says Maitiú.

The songs in particular reflect this. Ian Campbell’s The Sun is Burning, for example, made famous by the legendary Dublin ballad singer Luke Kelly, tells of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, a crime against humanity and therefore a broken pledge to anyone who believes that “all men are created equal".

But don’t take the impression from this that The Broken Pledge is like a Sunday sermon. The Bonny Men have long been compared to The Bothy Band and there are enough great tunes on the album to lift the spirits and set the pulse racing.

One doesn’t often hear the didgeridoo on an album of traditional Irish music but the first note we hear on The Broken Pledge is the sonorous sound of the Aboriginal wind instrument before Amities’ pipes join the fray on Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie while Rodney’s Glory illustrates that Irish trait where even our happy tunes are laced with melancholy.

All in all, it is the kind of album where you keep hearing something new and daring each time you play it. It's a right bonny album.