Monday 12 November 2012

A Brief History of Donal Maguire

Donal Maguire was born in 1948 in Drogheda, County Louth, and, in his own word, “interned” in Berkshire in 1963. Paradoxically, the move awakened awareness of his Irish heritage. In the early seventies, he bumped into Ewan MacColl and was part of the radical theatre group Combine, formed by disaffected members of the Critics Group. His first recording was made in Paris in 1977 - he contributed ‘The Bold Tenant Farmer’ to Folk Pirate Bis (ES54), for the French label Expression Spontanée.  

His debut album, The Star of Sunday’s Well (MUS 001) was released on his own label, Rossendale Records in the same year. It sets the template for future releases: stirring ballads and rattling reels. It’s successor, The Clergy’s Lamentation (Rossendale, MUSCD005) from 1980, added some beautiful Carolan tunes, with harp promoted to dominant instrument. 

Then came Gilded Chains & Sordid Affluence (Rossendale, MUSCD006) from 2001, and this might be my favourite, in terms of choice of material and feel. But it’s not for the purist. Maguire enlists the support of jazz guitarist Mike Walker. This, more by propinquity than grand design: Walker happened to move across the road from Donal’s place in Haslingden. The guitarist brought his saxophonist buddy Iain Dixon to the sessions and they play reels with a freedom that is utterly exhilarating. 

In 2006 Michael Davitt - The Forgotten Hero? gathered several songs with a connection to the Irish nationalist hero. It can be warmly recommended for both seriousness of purpose and ease of execution. About a third of the songs are sung unaccompanied in the traditional, timeless style. 

“The crucial note is that I’m a revival singer. Therefore, I couldn’t get up and sing songs from Connemara all night. Actually singers from Connemara never sang songs from Connemara all night,” Donal told me.  

“ I’m taking it from Darach Ó Catháin. He was born in Connemara but he worked in Leeds for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years. He died in the eighties, not that old. Darach was the greatest singer I’ve never heard in the flesh. I knew that he existed and he knew that I existed but unfortunately we never met, which was a great tragedy. 

“But I don’t want to be a Darach Ó Catháin tribute band. After a few renditions Donal Maguire will take over, I hope.”

I tried some names on him, wishing to benefit from his expertise and experience.  On Tom Lenihan: “A great singer from Clare, yeah.” He offered another Tom by way of response: Tom Costello, a singer from Connemara. “I sat at his feet in a metaphorical sort of way. His timing was wonderful.” 

To bring it all home, his latest is a pure expression of Irish traditional singing - Louth Mouths From Drogheda (Rossendale, MUSCD009) - being Donal and two old friends, Sean Corcoran and Gerry Cullen, swapping songs and singing unaccompanied. It’s at once casual - nothing could be simpler than letting rip with the bare voice - and a labour of love. Corcoran collected some of the songs first-hand. Donal is in fine form, and Gerry Cullen likewise impresses. It’s a disc that combines vitality - reflecting the excitement of the revival as it gained a foothold in County Louth in the sixties - with integrity. 

This brings us up to date, except that one disc has gone unmentioned. By The Hush (Rossendale, MUS003), from 1981, captures a cross-section of singers and musicians from North West England performing Irish music. “I lost my shirt on it,” Donal says, in a manner that pre-empts further discussion.

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