Trad/Roots: Singing the Great Irish Songbook

Ahead of a performance of The Great Irish Songbook as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, Dervish's Cathy Jordan tells Scene about what makes a song ‘great'

Dervish bring their Great Irish Songbook show - along with a cast of special guests - to the Grand Opera House next week for the Belfast International Arts Festival
Robert McMillen

THE launch of the Belfast International Arts Festival will stay with me for a long while.

Although the introductory speeches were fine, the event at the Lyric Theatre took on a life of its own whenever Dervish started gently to play and Cathy Jordan started to sing.

"At Oranmore, in the County Galway. One pleasant evening in the month of May..." it was as if we were physically transported from Belfast to a hearth in the west of Ireland.

Those who knew The Galway Shawl sang along, those who didn't found their shoulders swaying or their feet rolling.

Dervish were at the launch to publicise the show they are doing as part of the festival when they pay homage to The Great Irish Songbook - also the title of their 2019 album - at the Grand Opera House on Thursday October 21 with special guests Cara Dillon, Brian Kennedy, Karen Matheson, Eddi Reader and the Open Arts Community Choir from Belfast. What a night it promises to be.

The concert of course begs the question what qualities does a song require to be considered for inclusion in the Great Irish Songbook - and who better to ask than Cathy Jordan herself.

"Well, I think it's a song that resonates with people," she tells me.

"I mean, I've often wondered this myself, will the songs that people are writing now still be sung in a couple of centuries from now? And that's a big question because there's many factors involved and the world is changing and so forth.

"But the songs from the era of the Galway Shawl, they certainly resonated with people down through the generations because it's in their houses that these songs were sung so we connect them to our parents, our grandparents or our youthful happy times.

"They became part of our DNA, if you like. Every time you heard them, you were reminded of sing-songs in your house or who sang them and you were brought back, you're given a vivid memory of maybe the Stanley cooker and what was cooking on the top of it, or it might have puffed out smoke, or maybe the clothes people wore or the wallpaper or people smoking fags and all of that, those are memories that songs can conjure up in your mind."

But it's not all about nostalgia, of course. Some songs have stunning melodies to carry the words into our hearts while there are songs which the Irish diaspora took with them.

To say that Irish people are fond of a song is an understatement, a fact illustrated by an interview which Cathy thought was fantastic.

"I heard a beautiful interview recently with Steve Cooney and he was saying about the first time he came to Ireland," she recalls.

"He saw a sign up in the bar that warning 'No singing' and first of all, I was like, "Oh, isn't that awful.'

"But Steve said, 'I thought it was fantastic. People actually had to be told to stop singing'.

"Isn't that fantastic that he saw it that way and it's beautiful to think that we have to be told to stop singing."

You would have had a job getting young Cathy Jordan to stop singing back in Scramóg in Co Roscommon where she was born into what seems an idyllic setting.

"It was really fantastic because our playground was huge and we were a great family," she recalls.

"I was the youngest of seven and there was lots of music in the house and singing was our major pastime

"So everyone sang and had performance pieces and party pieces and whatnot. It was a great place to grow up. I have very, very fond memories of it."

Cathy, of course, was destined for bigger and better things. After singing in school musicals - via Zoom, she and I sang a few lines of Wouldn't It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady, a career highlight for me - three decades ago Cathy agreed to join Dervish.

Did she know right away that this is what she wanted to do?

"Well, I did," she says.

"When we played our first major gig in at the Ballyshannon Folk Festival, it was the first proper venue with a crowd who were listening and hanging onto every syllable of every song, and all of a sudden, it dawned on me this these old songs and tunes had an audience that really respects and loves them and it cleared the path I wanted to go down.

"But I guess at that time, I did know that I'd still be in Dervish 30 years later, I certainly didn't know that."

A lot of our favourite songs have a geographical bias - The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee, The Green Glens of Antrim, Star of the County Down and so on because, as Cathy says, we're all proud of our county.

"I want to sing Roscommon songs - I'm a very proud Roscommon woman so where possible I dig up Percy French songs or Úna Bhán or Old Ballymoe.

"I guess those songs that are mentioned with counties kind of live on a bit longer than the ones that don't because of this patriotism to your own county, you know," says Cathy.


CARA Dillon is joining Dervish for the Great Irish Song Book Show.

This is her take on what makes a great song.

"Having been a singer of other people's songs for as long as I can remember, I've definitely sung my fair share of classics and to my eyes (or ears) they all share something in common," she says.

"They manage to successfully push a very large button and evoke a powerful emotional response in the majority of people who hear them - that button might be the lyrics, the sentiment, melody, arrangement or a combination of all of them.

"Sometimes it's even a particular artist's rendition that elevates a song into a different realm. When I sing classic songs like The Parting Glass, There Were Roses or She Moved Through The Fair over and over again, it's interesting how little I get tired of them compared to other songs."

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