Songbirds - the First Ladies of Irish Song
In this RTE TV series from 2006, Fil Campbell presents
the songs, life and times of
Delia Murphy, Margaret Barry, Bridie Gallagher,
Mary O’Hara and Ruby Murray
To view the series go to the Video tab on the website here.
Shortly after returning from our first trip to America, where several people were asking for old Irish songs, I decided to record an album of songs I'd learned as a child. AS it turned out, most of those songs had first been put on record by Delia Murphy and later by Bridie Gallagher - where I grew up in the West these were the songs I was hearing on Radio Eireann and on my grandfather's gramophone player.
We had such a positive response to the songs when we played them on stage, both at home and on the Continent, that we approached RTE to see if they'd be interested in a documentary about Delia's life ... And the project just took off.
I went on to write and present a 6 part documentary series for RTE television revisiting the songs that formed the backdrop to the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s for many people - throughout Ireland and the worldwide Irish community and paying tribute to the women who had made them popular.
The series of documentaries – Songbirds – the First Ladies of Irish Song - went on to chart the lives and music of 5 influential female singers from the middle of the 20th century - Bridie Gallagher, Delia Murphy, Margaret Barry, Mary O’Hara and Ruby Murray became household names on radio and record and from 5 different angles recorded a plethora of what were indigenous folksongs that had largely been overlooked in the struggle to preserve the traditional songs of the country.
I was honoured to be joined in the TV show by such luminaries of Irish folk music as Finbar Furey, John Sheehan from the Dubliners and singers Tommy Sands and Sean Keane to perform these timeless classics.
“Delia Murphy was without doubt the single most influential singer to have recorded traditional songs in Ireland. Hers was the first voice heard on national radio singing the songs that everybody grew up with. In the late 1930s, all through the war years, and for many years afterwards, she had the nation singing along with her in songs like The Spinning Wheel, The Connemara Cradle Song and If I Were A Blackbird. Delia influenced generations of singers that followed her including me” says Fil.
“Some of these songs had completely disappeared from the folk repertoire and I really wanted to take these wonderful songs back to their rightful pace at the centre of the Irish Folk Tradition.”
The 6 TV programmes were broadcast on Irish TV (RTE) in November and December 2005 to an average audience of 250,000 viewers per week and have since been broadcast twice more. Fil and her band have subsequently toured the show in Irish theatres and in theatres and clubs across Europe and the UK where audiences have enthusiastically joined in with the songs.
Each programme is based around 3 songs which were newly recorded for the series. A guest musician joins Fil for each programme. The guest musicians are Tommy Sands who duets with Fil on "What Would You Do Love?"; Sean Keane (duet on Love's Old Sweet Song); Finbar Furey (pipes), Steve Cooney (guitar), Laoise Kelly (harp) and John Sheahan (fiddle player with the Dubliners)
5 programmes tell the life story of one of the women – through interviews with family members, the singer herself if still alive (Mary O’Hara and Bridie Gallagher are both still alive), musicians and music commentators. Some guest contributors include Phil Coulter, Mick Moloney & Daniel O'Donnell as well as contributions from the musicians mentioned above.
The 6th programme looks at their connections to each other, to Fil and to subsequent generations of singers.
In the following years, I recorded two more albums of these lovely old songs which are still a delight to me to include in my set.
These were the singers that had the earliest influences on me and whose songs were the first I learned - from my mother as a toddler, later at school and later still while following the path of a travelling folk singer and songwriter, and I am hugely indebted to them.
The music for the programmes was recorded and produced by Tom McFarland.
"The series has been a resounding success for RTE Television" Irish Mirror.
"This series takes an in depth look at world famous Irish female singers who where recording in and around the 1950s." Irish Independent - Pick of the Day.
"RTE have a real winner on their hands with the new Songbirds series." Irish Mirror.
"Campbell's warm lulling voice is eminently suited to old fashioned gems like 'Love's Old Sweet song' and “The Homes of Donegal”, and the musicianship is top notch". Evening Herald, Dublin
Delia Murphy (1902 - 1971) was born and raised in Co. Mayo, and made her first recordings in 1938 - The Spinning Wheel and 3 Lovely Lasses from Bannion coming from the earliest batch. She became Ireland's first and arguably greatest musical ambassador and her contribution to the folk revival of the 50s and 60s was immeasurable. Her simple ballad style and endearing presentation on stage made her an almost overnight success on radio. Married to diplomat Tom Kiernan, Delia travelled the world, finally settling in Canada, only returning to live in Ireland in 1969.
There is an excellent biography of Delia available, called "I'll LIve Til I Die".. It is a wonderful account of an extraordinary woman written by the broadcaster Aidan O'Hara. It can be purchased at www.drumlinpublications.com
And Delia's website is maintained by her grandson, the uilleann piper Ronan Browne. www.deliamurphy.com
Bridie Gallagher was born in 1924 in the North of Donegal and began her singing career singing at local dances and concerts. Her first single record "A Mother's Love's A Blessing" was released in 1956, becoming an immediate success in Ireland and Britain and leading to her first LP - "The Girl from Donegal" - which quickly became the name that Bridie would be known by for the rest of her life. This included her most famous recording, "The Boys from the Co. Armagh". Bridie has sold millions of records in a career that spanned the entire second half of the 20th century and has influenced generations of country and Irish stars including Daniel O'Donnell. Bridie retired from performing in 2000.
Mary O'Hara is a singer and harpist with an instantly recognizable, pure soprano voice, who achieved fame both sides of the Atlantic in the late 50s and early 1960s and influenced a generation of Irish female singers in the 70s . Born in Sligo in 1935, she married the American poet Richard Selig at the age of 21 and moved to America with him where her star continued to grow. Sadly, Richard died only 15 months after their marriage, and while she continued to tour and record for nearly 4 years Mary eventually joined an English monastery in 1962 where she lived for 12 years. Returning to performance in 1974 Mary's initial speedy rise to fame was repeated and in a matter of months she become one of the biggest international stars ever to come out of Ireland.
Mary's autobiography "The Scent of the Roses" is still available.
And there is an excellent new website with lots of her music - www.maryohara.co.uk
Margaret Barry (1917-1989) was a colourful, larger than life character who is fondly remembered by anyone who ever heard her unique style of street singing. Born in Cork, Margaret's family were travellers who had settled in the city. Self taught on the banjo, she played the length and breadth of Ireland from a very young age. She was discovered and recorded by song collector Peter Kennedy in 1951 singing in Dundalk Market and was eventually brought to England by the American song collector Alan Lomax. Maggie teamed up with Sligo fiddle player Michael Gorman with whom she made several recordings. IN later life she returned to live in Ireland where she continued to busk and perform in concerts. Her many recordings have left a wonderful legacy of both well known come-all-yes and traditional songs.
Ruby Murray (1935-1996), from Belfast, went into the record books in 1955 for having 5 songs in the Top Twenty in the same week - "Heartbeat", "Softly, Softly", "Let Me Go Lover", "Happy Days and Lonely Nights", and "If Anyone Finds This I Love You "- a record which has never been, and probably never will be, surpassed. Ruby is dearly loved by fans and is remembered for her humour and beautiful voice. The excellent website www.rubymurray.org has lots more information about her life.
Check out more about Ruby at www.rubymurray.org