Tuesday 15 October 2019

TV review: Ireland's favourite folk song - questions and answers

Ireland's Favourite Folk Song (RTE1)

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Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

One of the joys of Ireland's Favourite Folk Song is that it generates plenty of discussion and debate, at the end of which I usually emerge as the winner.

I have no argument with the presenter Mary Black, who is perfect for this role, given her stature as a singer of Irish folk music, but also a kind of self-effacement which drains any sense of pomposity out of the exercise.

Mary is not up for discussion, unlike other aspects of Ireland's Favourite Folk Song, most notably the 'Favourite' part but also the 'Folk Song' part. And, of course, the argument about what constitutes 'Ireland' for these purposes is always with us, but we'll leave that one aside on this outing.

The 'Favourite' will be decided by public vote, and it will, of course, be Raglan Road, which featured in the first programme of the series. Each programme is a pleasure in itself, a deep investigation of the provenance and the prestige of each of the 10 songs selected, but Eurovision teaches us that the public vote is not necessarily the best way to be judging any song contest.

Ideally they would just ask me what I think, and then they would declare that the winner - it would be simpler all round, and it would probably yield a better outcome, with the slight complication that my choice would not be Danny Boy or The Town I Loved So Well or The Green Fields of France or The Rocky Road to Dublin or even The Parting Glass, but Arthur McBride by Paul Brady, which is not one of the 10 shortlisted.

Somehow the jurors who whittled down the multitude of candidates did not include this which was, incidentally, chosen by the great actor Mark Rylance as one of his Desert Island Discs.

And I could doubtless think of 10 more by former members of Planxty alone, that were wrongly excluded. But if I were forced to pick a winner from the 10 official candidates, I would probably go with A Rainy Night In Soho, or perhaps A Woman's Heart, not just for their obvious merit, but because they help to start another argument about what, exactly, is a folk song?

It is not unreasonable to suggest that Irish pop music and Irish rock 'n' roll and amplified music in general have as much right to be called 'folk music' as anything on this list - that the music of, say, Thin Lizzy can be regarded as part of our "folk" tradition, regardless of the fact that it involved the use of a lot more electricity than, say, Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile.

Indeed, Irish people have proven themselves to be so adept at the arts of rock 'n' roll, it seems morally wrong to leave all that out of our "folk" tradition, when there are songs here that aren't even original.

I mean, the melody of Raglan Road may have been original once, but when I was a lad, it was speeded up and called Fainne Geal an Lae, and it was usually the first tune taught to any class of accordion players - which means that it has been the main ingredient of some of the most disturbing performances in human history.

And last week we learned that The Foggy Dew was originally The Moorlough Shore. I'm sorry, but if you're going to make the cut for the Greatest Of All Time, the least you can offer is music and lyrics that were composed as part of the one piece, neither of which had been composed before by someone else, and one more thing: any song such as The Foggy Dew which can conceivably be sung in a full-blooded style by any current or former member of the IRA, must automatically be declared null and void.

So, yes, I would argue that a few tweaks might be appropriate, for this otherwise excellent series -tweaks such as the creation of a new top 10 which doesn't include most of the ones already there, tweaks such as a complete re-imagining of what folk music is, and, of course, a different voting system.

You're welcome.

Sunday Independent

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