all my experience of folk-music collecting, I must say that
I have never found greater satisfaction, nor such wide variety,"
Brian George of the BBC said of Bess Cronin; Brian was chief
collector for the BBC series, 'As I Roved Out'.
Songs of Elizabeth Cronin, Irish Traditional Singer,
published by Four Courts Press, is a collection of some
two hundred songs and song fragments with words, staff notation,
plus detailed and informative notes on the songs; and as
if that isn't enough to whet the appetite, the 332-page
volume comes with two compact discs containing 59 examples
of Bess Cronin's singing, selected from some 130 recordings
known to exist. There are several illustrations, including
photos of Bess being recorded by the BBC, c.1950,
and reproductions of the words of songs in Bess's own handwriting.
At twenty-five Irish pounds for the book and CDs, that has
to he the bargain of the year.
volume's editor is Dáibhi Ó Cróinín,
grandson of Bess Cronin, and the publication's strengths
on several levels owe much to his in-depth knowledge of
family matters and his academic background (he lectures
in history at the National University of Ireland in Galway).
His writing in the Irish and English languages is full of
scholarship and insight, and is a joy to read. His prodigious
efforts in compiling this new publication is a saga in itself,
and lovers of folk song will treasure it for the monumental
work it is.
his biographical essay on Bess, Dáibhí tells
us that she was born on 30 May 1879, the eldest of five
children of Seán 'Máistir' Ó hIarlaithe
and Maighréad Ní Thuama. Her father was headmaster
in the school of Barr na hÍnse (hence the epithet
'Máistir', choolmaster), in the Fuithrí
(Fuhirees) area of West Cork, near the Cork-Kerry border.
In her mid-teens Bess was sent to help out on the farm of
her uncle, Tomás Ó hIarfhlaithe (Tomás
Bheity), and his wife, who were childless. "It was during
those formative years, first with her parents, then with
her uncle and aunt, that she acquired most of her songs."
was first recorded in a joint Irish Folklore Commission/BBC
field trip scheme, which began in 1947 and continued until
1952. The IFC's supervisor was Séamus Ennis, himself
a singer, storyteller, uilleann piper, and broadcaster,
and for the BBC, Brian George, a Donegal man, also a singer.
Dáibhi O Cróinín points out that song
collectors had been working in West Cork from very early
in the 1900s, beginning with Seán Ó Cuill
(1882-1958) whose collection of 120 local songs, Músgraidhe
Fileata, was awarded first prize in the Oireachtas in 1901.
His and the collections of seven or eight others who followed
in his footsteps, in places like Ballyvourney and Coolea,
have left us a treasure-trove of traditional songs and airs.
book contains everything Dáibhi Ó Cróinín
was able to recover of his grandmother's repertoire, and
it is his hope, he says, that "by making this material accessible
once again, the unique voice and style that were the hallmarks
of her singing will inspire present-day singers and lovers
of Irish songs and ballads..." He adds that some of the
songs in the collection such as the old songs Siúl,
a rúin and Lord Gregory will be familiar
to many people. Bess is featured on recordings made by two
American folksong collectors: Alan Lomax's Columbia World
Library of Folk and Primitive Music (1955), and Jean Ritchie's
Field Trip (1955) and As 1 Roved Out (1960), and on various
recordings made by the BBC and reproduced in the thematic
collections of the Caedmon/Topic series in the 1960s.
Ennis called Bess 'The Queen of Irish Song', and the remastered
recordings from public and private collections illustrate
the wide range of her repertoire, which included Child Ballads,
lullabies, dandling songs, and humorous songs. The book’s
editor acknowledges in particular the efforts of Harry Bradshaw,
RTÉ, who expertly transferred the original recordings
to CD, and the Traditional Music Archive, Dublin (Glenn
Cumiskey who compiled the CDs, and the Archive Director,
Nicholas Carolan who edited and produced the CDs). Dáibhí’s
final word of thanks is for Michael Adams of Four Courts
Press and Sarah Faulkner, BBC Enterprises, London, “for
O’Hara, Irish Music