"Sean and his Wife Elizabeth with BBC Presenter Gerry Anderson"
'' Sean Donnelly's singing of '' THE HOMES OF DONEGAL '' is without
doubt the definitive version of this famous old song ''
" Sean Donnelly, the unmistakable voice of
northern Irish Folk singing presents his fine
collection of songs performed with love and
care. This is as real as it gets! "
" Sean Donnelly has matured as an accomplished
singer and entertainer. He performs his songs
a style that is distinctive, unaffected and
appropiate. His reputation as a folk singer
real talent and a true
voice is well deserved "
" We responded to his masterful tugging at our
dour Glasgow Heart Strings. Don't miss
city hall tonight "
... Edward Chisnall, Glasgow Herald
" A singer for when the tourists have gone home ... this quiet man of Folk music must be heard "
... Neil Johnston, Belfast Telegraph
" There is a gentleness in the mans voice and a kindness in the guitar that unwrinkles the mind
and body and you are glad you came along "
" Sean Donnelly's easy and relaxed style lends
an extra dimension, and transforms his songs
into something special "
... Pedar O'Ruairc, Irish News
'' Sean Donnelly's quiet storytellers voice and delicate guitar style
combine to make his songs memorable ''
By John O'Regan
Sean Donnelly knows a good song when he hears one. He knows how to
pick them, choose them, interpret them, write them and integrate them
into his vast repertoire. Anyone familiar with his recorded work in
Ireland and abroad will know this fact and verify it. However anyone
approaching a Sean Donnelly recording for the first time, the welcome
mat is out and a trusted ally is waiting in the wings for your
A native of Tyrone Sean Donnelly emigrated first to Belfast and then
to Newcastle in Co. Down where he has been resident for the past two
decades or more. He has the Co. Down passport to prove it!.
"The Winding Banks of Erne" this latest recording from Sean Donnelly
is a typical combination of assured interpretation and carefully
chosen material. Again the traditional wells of Ulster song are
consulted and acknowledged with ''I Wish my Love Was a Red Red Rose''
learned from no less than Mrs. Sarah Makem mother of the legendary
Tommy Makem (RIP) it is appropriate to mention that the late David
Hammond also had a version of this song. Sean's revisiting of it
comes two decades after he first recorded it on his debut album “One
Day We Saw the Sun” issued in 1987. The Winding Banks of Erne itself
is a William Allinghams poem set to music by Sean ''The Star of Logy
Bay'' a Newfoundland song which sounds intrinsically Irish has been
recorded by Sliabh Notes, Corrib Folk and is remembered particularly
from Dennis Ryan of Ryan's Fancy. ''Come o'er the Mountain'' comes
from the singing of Len Graham ''Johnny Lovely Johnny'' is another
from the Ulster song cycle awaiting reinvention with its Tyrone
connections keeping the home fires burning as it were.
Interestingly enough Sean's sole original composition ''I'm A stranger
Here'' recalls his return to his home village “where I was raised as a
child only to discover that I knew no one there now and no one knew
me!". "The Mountains of Mourne'' is recorded in response to requests
from The Gerry Anderson Show on BBC Radio Ulster. Sean also adds some
marvellously understated readings of songs by his Northern neighbours
Co. Antrim's Martin Donnelly (no relation!) ''Now the Swallows are
Away'' Eamon Friel's ''Hard Town” and Gerry O'Beirne'' truck driving
anthem "Western Highway''.
The most surprising inclusion of all is ''The Ballad of Amelia
Erhard'' a crossover from the folk/country songbook. This is a story
song in the ballad tradition which tells the true story of the lost
aviation pioneer Amelia Erhard and adds a fittingly diverse conclusion
to Sean Donnelly's latest recorded odyssey.
Sean handles the songs with his customary care and ease. The backings
are suitably restrained and the whole collection breathes with both
sincerity and poise.
If you are familiar with Sean Donnelly's work to
date, this note is a reminder of the gems in store, if you are
encountering Sean Donnelly for the first time as I did in 1987, you
will discover one of Ireland's best kept secrets. "The Winding Banks
of Erne" adds another excellent page to Sean Donnelly's recorded
order this album now
By John Paddy Browne
You know what to expect when you get a new Sean Donnelly CD. There will be a selection of unpretentious, straightforward songs, some of them traditional, some of them of Ulster lineage, most of them Irish. There will be a small band of musicians playing unobtrusively but with mesmerising effect behind the singer. And there will be the singer himself with his distinctly north of Ireland enunciation, quiet, unshowy, almost diffident. He uses an open-tuned guitar, which means that his accompaniment forms a lacework pattern of arpeggios, accented and held together by the rich bass of the bottom string as it keeps time. I don't know anyone else in folk music who uses a guitar so delicately.
Returning to form after a lengthy hiatus from the recording studio and from personal appearances following the tragic death of his son Michael in a freak accident in 1998, Sean Donnelly has put together a characteristic dozen tracks of mixed vintage. There are a couple of old-time songs, Carrickdown and My Own Gweebarra Bay; a ballad about the loss of Lord Franklin on his voyage to find a passage through the Hudson Bay; a former pop-song, The Isle of Innisfree, and a couple of his own songs and those of his contemporaries.
He slips seamlessly from one song to the next, imbuing each with the illusion of antiquity, as though the entire repertoire had come down to us from the mouths of old singers passing down an ancient heritage.
In a lesser singer this might give rise to a charge of reducing everything to a common level; but what Donnelly does is to bring a freshness to songs that we may have discarded because of over-familiarity or because the songs may have suffered from such a flaw as sentimentality -no longer an attraction to modern audiences. Hence, a song like The Isle of Innisfree, once ingratiatingly crooned by Bing Crosby (and enormously popular, it must be said) now takes on the mantle of a true folk song, and anyone who had never heard the commercial version back in the 1950s might easily mistake it for an old come-all-ye as Sean Donnelly breathes new life into it. The sentiment is there but not the sentimentality.
At the other end of the folk spectrum would be the more substantial Lord Franklin, with its much-used tune (The Croppy Boy, The Newry Highwayman, etc). Usually performed as a full-blooded panegyric on a heroic venture gone wrong, Donnelly delivers it as though he were reporting a piece of bad news, stripped of the mode of the epic ballad, and rendered as a come-all-ye. Placing My Own Gweebara Bay (a real come-all-ye which is still well known in Donegal) right after Franklin shows up some of the limitations of the come-all-ye style: the two tunes and the rhythms are very similar, and are reminiscent of dozens of other songs in that particular genus.
And, as though to consolidate the argument he follows Gweebarra Bay with a touching little song called Sweet King Williams Town, relating the story of a man who survived the Titanic disaster only to be killed as an American soldier in World War One.
Denny Lane's 19th century soliloquy on the 17th century "Flight of the Earls'' is a
lyrical song beloved by generations of Irish sopranos. Sean Donnelly breaks that particular tradition by singing it, not as an extravagant and florid "big song", but again as a humble come-all-ye through which the heart-breaking lyrics still echo:
Soft April showers and bright May flowers
May bring the summer back again,
But will they bring me back the hours
I spent with my brave Donal then?
And then there are Donnelly's own songs. Here he treads carefully on dangerous ground. Songs about family and friends are notoriously difficult to write without teetering over the brink into sentimentality, but I think that he keeps a couple of feet back from the edge. The song for his lost son is genuinely moving (At the End of the Day) and he avoids those excessive vocalisations that often make such songs so unpalatable. Having said that, I could have done without the spoken lines in an otherwise tender song From Fawney Cross to Picquingny, which relates a journey undertaken by a man visiting a World War One cemetery.
In all of this Sean Donnelly is blessed by a small selection of very able musicians who make their mark on his songs yet keep their distance, so that he is never overshadowed by them. The flute of Brendan Monagan and Plunkett McGartlan's fiddle are particularly sensitive and add greatly to Donnelly's performances. All the musicians in their ways are partly responsible for the almost hypnotic quality of these recordings. Allied to Donnelly's quiet story-teller's voice, they make what looks like a routine dozen-track album anything but routine: they make it memorable.
26 March 2008
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