I was asked to write a review on the latest offering by Larry Kirwan, "A History of Irish Music." As a scholar of Celtic music, I looked forward to reading his take on Irish music. I will say that what I expected to read and what I read, whilst they meshed on some levels, were two very different species.
Larry Kirwan crafted his story within the history of the evolving yet sometimes destructuring Irish music of modern times. He gives us an insight into not only the Irish genre that we most recognize -- Makem, Clancy, and Molloy -- but also an insider’s view of how that dovetails with other genres to become today’s Irish rock -- Black 47, Dropkick Murphys, Saw Doctors et al.
Along the way, we are given an insight into how a young boy from Wexford grew into his voice as the front man for Black 47. Each chapter begins and ends with snippets of lyrics, those he penned himself and songs we label as “traditional”, which are guaranteed to have the jukebox in your brain short-circuiting and running in a continuous loop. Patriot Game, The Island, Wexford Town, Whistles the Wind and others that he mentions throughout the book now flit in and out of my day like faeries on the wind. I find myself humming a tune and realizing that it is one of those he had mentioned.
As he introduces us to the musicians and their music, he is also introducing us to his own family, the Wexford of his childhood, his teen years and the Wexford of today. A nod to how well his writing draws a picture, I could “hear” the people as I read -- Miss Codd, his grandfather, uncle Paddy and the cadre of musicians, too long a list to name here.
Perhaps it is because I have spoken with some of the musicians of whom he writes, I find myself nodding in agreement with his statements of them. I found myself wishing that I could’ve been in the shadows of places like O’Donoghue’s, the Coffee Kitchen or the Universal experiencing first hand all of the music that reverberated off the walls.
In Hhs writing, Larry speaks of groups like Emmet-Spiceland and I have a need to know more about them. He talks of their harmonies and I want to HEAR those harmonies for myself. Thankfully, through the modern gift/curse that is YouTube, I can.
It is in his off stage encounters with the likes of performers such as Rory Gallagher and Ronnie Drew, that he provides a human quality. He speaks of Van Morrison and I recall an encounter with Van on a quiet, grey day near Grey Abbey. He isn’t a man of many words. As we crossed paths, I said “Hello” and he smiled. I said that he reminded me of Van Morrison and he replied, “I am he,” and strolled on without so much as another word or backwards glance. I was also there one night to witness him walk offstage shortly into his performance because someone in the audience wouldn’t quit talking. They are not gods but humans, with all the hungers, foibles and quirks that we all have. Larry reminds of this often throughout his writings.
He speaks of how the Irish carried their music with them, a tangible reminder of home. Here, I find common ground as this is a point that I make in my Celtic–Cowboy music lectures. Music not only gives you wings it also roots you to a place and gives you a sense of belonging, He speaks of his own returns back home to Wexford after emigrating to New York, and I hear echoes of others who, having left, come home to see things through a different eye.
Even though Irish music today is an amalgam of many other genres, it has never lost sight of its heart, its roots. It has stretched the boundaries, stomped along the razor edge in worker boots and spikes but it still returns to the phrasing and rhythms that identifies it as Irish.
In this book, Larry carries us along that edge, sometimes at the leisure pace of a bicycle ride down a small boreen and at other times breakneck.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone who is a consummate fan of Irish music and those who wish to become fans. Along the way, you will also become a fan of the one and only Larry Kirwan, himself a prolific writer of stories and song.