Gerard Curran reviews One Green Hill, Journeys through Irish Songs by John McLaughlin, Beyond the Pale. Price £14.99
The Green Hill in the title of the book is a reference to the name of the author's place of birth and where he lived until the family emigrated to Glasgow. < p>In Glasgow, he became familiar with 'Protestant and Catholic' songs -- more accurately, 'unionist and nationalist' songs -- as a result of the rivalry between the supporters of Celtic and Rangers football clubs. His fascination with songs spread to Scottish, English and American folk music.
However, it was not until his retirement from his job as a librarian that McLaughlin was able to explore and expand his knowledge of Irish songs. The result is the present book -- a song, history and travel book rolled into one.
The travel book element emerges when the author starts his 500-mile car journey round Ireland. It is now the serious detective work begins. Phelim O Grady, 'The bard of Armagh' turns out to be Patrick Donnelly, a priest who later became bishop of Armagh. When on the run from the 'enforcers' of the Penal Laws he took refuge on the slopes of slieve Ben Gullion disguised as an itinerant harper.
Visiting the haunts of Roddy McCorley in Co. Armagh is equally productive and earlier song emerges. The Roddy of the earlier song turns out to be a more complex character.
Another opportunity for tireless research was to be found in exploring the background to 'My Lagan Love', which introduces us to Joseph Campbell, a socialist with Protestant background and the collector of the material for Songs of Uladh. Joseph Campbell's son, Flann, became an editor of the Irish Democrat in the late 1940s.
The song 'Dolly's Brae' recounts a murderous attack, led by Orange Grandmaster Lord Roden under the eyes of police and army, on local Catholics. While exploring the area from which the song originated, the author visited a local museum. When he presented himself as a Catholic, the elderly caretaker commented, "I don't think you'll do me any harm."
Where there was once terror and murder there is now peaceful countryside and a museum full of banners and old weapons. As McLaughlin explains:
"My belated journeys in time and space around the country I was born in were always illuminating and enriching, often pleasurable but far too often painful. The songs that led me there had haunted me for more than forty years. Finally I was able to lay their ghosts to rest."
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2004 Gerard Curran