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The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin
Irish Traditional Singer

'The music and texts are beautifully annotated with full scholarly comment ... it will be a source of wonder to anyone who has heard the few examples of her singing that have been hitherto available. It is a beautiful collection of incredible importance' Finbar Boyle, Claddagh Records.

'It gives a picture of an extraordinary woman, a wonderful singer and an illustration of the full range of her repertory' John Moulden, Ulstersongs.

'Piper and broadcaster Séamus Ennis called her the "Queen of Irish Song," and this 332-page trade paperback, in which two compact disks of her singing have been inserted, stands as a towering testament to her importance within Ireland's long vocal tradition. Compiled and edited by her grandson, the book offers a 21-page biography of Elizabeth "Bess" Cronin (1879-1956), followed by 196 songs she sang whose verses have been set down and annotated, often with melodies transcribed beside them. The two CD's contain 59 songs sung by the Macroom, West Cork, vocalist from 1947 to 1955 that were taken from public and private recordings made by Séamus Ennis, Alan Lomax, Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, and Diane Hamilton, among others. This is Irish traditional singing at its most unvarnished and vital' Earle Hitchner III, Irish Echo, New York.

Irish Music
'Folk song collectors are usually easily pleased, and even one 'gem of a song from a singer will leave them feeling happy enough; but being only human, they live in hope of 'striking gold' some time, and of finding a singer who has a whole store of songs - the collectors' equivalent of winning the Lotto. This was certainly the case with Elizabeth 'Bess' Cronin of Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, who left not just one, but several collectors feeling they were in 'seventh heaven', so happy they were with breadth and depth of her huge repertoire of songs in Gaelic and English.

"In 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'.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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."

Bess 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.

The 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.

Séamus 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 their patience”.

Aidan O’Hara, Irish Music

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