Darkness and light - Declan O'Rourke's fascination with the Great Famine
A night spent in a workhouse with his dad sparked a fascination with the Great Famine that led Declan O'Rourke to write an album entirely focused on a black period in our history that few people like to talk about, he tells our music critic
Declan O'Rourke flashes a rueful grin. "It is a difficult subject to get people interested in," he says. "Some just don't want to know and others will say, 'There's no way I'm going to listen to that'."
He is talking about the Great Irish Famine - that devastating national crisis that hit the country in the 1840s and changed its complexion forever after - and his latest album is entirely centred on the so-called 'Black Forties'.
It's a subject that has long fascinated him, not least from the time he spent a night with his father in a former workhouse.
"It had been modernised but you could get a sense of what life was like for people here and I've always been interested in our history and the stories that people tell. And my grandfather was born in a workhouse in Gort [Co Galway]."
An obsession with a book by John O'Connor, The Workhouses of Ireland, ensured that O'Rourke would make the project happen - especially when he read an account of an ailing man who tried to keep his severely ill wife alive by carrying her home with her feet tucked up to his chest for warmth and who were found dead in that position the following day.
"Stories like that really compel me to write, to try to give a sense of that particular time." The album didn't come quickly, however, and he admits that it was something he was tapping away at in the background while delivering more conventional songs.
Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine may make for a dark listen in places, but it's not entirely depressing, not least because O'Rourke sings of great resilience and of people who make huge sacrifices in order to save others. It's an album that will reward the listener willing to be challenged a little.
It might just be his best album yet, although it's hard to imagine it enjoying the sort of success he had with his breakthrough Since Kyabram. With playing from such stalwarts as Dubliners veteran John Sheahan, O'Rourke's spirited songs give life to a part of our history that many of us should, perhaps, be more mindful of.
"I'm not sure why there's a reluctance to talk about it more," he says.
"Maybe it's still too recent for us because when you think of it, it's not that many generations ago. But you go abroad and it's a very different story. People will talk openly to you about it and have a great interest in what happened and what legacy it had."
That's especially the case among the large Irish-American community and O'Rourke is there right among them now, playing a series of shows on the east coast. We meet during a short stint back in Ireland following a month-long tour of Australia and New Zealand, much of it dovetailing with Michael D Higgins's Antipodean visit. His path crossed with the President 'Down Under', hardly surprising considering the cultural bent of Higgins's itinerary.
"It was 29 events in 28 days," he says. "Seventeen gigs and about 10 radio shows and a couple of other things. A lot of moving and a lot of travel - flying every day when I was in Australia."
He's happy with how it went.
"They're really interested in the Famine there," he adds, noting that many people in both countries are descended from people who fled the country in the 1840s in search of a better life. "And they were the lucky ones," he says. "When you read about how many died of starvation in those years, it really brings home the scale of what happened."
O'Rourke also believes that remnants of the Famine are more pronounced in certain parts of the country than others. He has lived near Kinvara in Galway for the past decade and says he is always struck by the county's celebrated dry stone walls, which were indicative of a time where farm sizes became ever smaller and families struggled to survive.
"It really annoys me when it's called the 'Potato Famine'," he says, "as if that's all it was. People had been oppressed for centuries and their ability to be self-sufficient was taken away from them. They were ground down by poverty and the reason so many died due to the potato blight was because it was the only food they had."
The Dubliner has been drawn to other historical events. He was especially moved by the story of the innocent children who died in the bloody days of the 1916 Rising, a cause championed by fellow Ballyfermot native Joe Duffy. 'Children of '16' was the resulting song and O'Rourke played it live at several events in last year's centenary celebrations including a special show on O'Connell Street.
"Looking back, I think we marked 1916 well," he says. "It wasn't jingoistic or triumphalist and it looked at how the impact of the Rising impacted on all sides. There's nothing simplistic about history and 1916 really demonstrates that."
Like his contemporary Damien Dempsey, O'Rourke appears to have little interest in writing songs that might be seen to be radio-friendly or Spotify-honed. "First of all, that's not such an easy thing to do," he says with a laugh, "but I'm someone whose work is motivated by things that aren't necessarily common themes for songwriters."
The Dubliner has tasted chart success and a handful of his songs would be certainties on any contemporary Great Irish Songbook. Few, though, could have anticipated that a song about the Italian astronomer and philosopher, Galileo Galilei, would become so emblematic of his work - including O'Rourke himself.
"I had no sense that it ['Galileo (Someone Like You)'] would be loved by people that much," he says. "I guess it's an old-fashioned song and there's a sort of crooning quality to it and I've long been drawn to that kind of singing.
"But," he adds, "I think I've written better songs than it."
Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine is out now. Declan O'Rourke's nationwide tour starts at Black Box, Galway, on December 2
Whelan's in Dublin, November 7
One of the finest of the young breed of American folk singers at work today, the Vermont native has sought out left-of-centre collaborators over the course of his career. He's worked with The Gloaming member Thomas Bartlett, the avant-garde composer Nico Muhly and English troubadour (and his wife) Beth Orton.
His latest album, The Following Mountain, was released to excellent reviews during the summer and features nine original tracks. It's something of a departure for a singer-songwriter who has hitherto focused on adapting old standards and obscure traditional songs.