Andreas Schulz Inishowen Song Project

COVID-19 has accelerated our relationship with the digital world with unimaginable speed. Online sessions and performances are becoming a daily feature of our lives. But a landmark digital project launched way back in 2013 by ITMA and the Inishowen Traditional Singers' Circle has had and continues to have a profound influence on many singers, none other than Berlin-based singer Andreas Schulz. 

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Inishowen Singers Corney McDaid, Maggie McGee & Roseanne McGonigle, 1991 / Jimmy McBride

It was on a cold winter’s Friday night almost a decade ago that I first opened the door to the North Pole Bar. Little did I know, or even suspect, where that evening in the old Drumfries Railway Station House on the Island of Eoghan would lead.

But first things first ...

North Pole Bar Inishowen Donegal
The North Pole Bar, Drumfries, Inishowen, Co. Donegal

My interest in Irish traditional singing had become increasingly more serious some twelve years ago. As I live in Germany I was relying on the internet and commercial recordings to find song material. 

After a while, I stumbled on the singing of Paddy Tunney, Rita Gallagher and Len Graham. What a difference to what generally passes for Irish music and song in the land of sausages and beer! I was delighted. 

And when I discovered that Len Graham was to give a singing workshop in a place called Inishowen, after a local singing session the previous evening, a trip to Ireland’s largest peninsula began to look like a good idea. 

Of course, at that stage, I had no idea where Inishowen was, or that it was even a peninsula. With the help of a search engine that shall remain nameless, I quickly came upon the Inishowen Traditional Singers’ Circle (ITSC). and from there the threshold to the Inishowen Song Project (ISP).

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Castle Gardens, song / Charlie McGonigle (James Eoghain), singing in English

Christmas had come early, all of them, all at the one time. The wealth of some 500 songs sung by over 150 singers had me clicking like a madman. I had never heard anything like it. There was no sense of “performing” a song, just the tangible atmosphere of beautiful, straightforward singing with tremendous gusto and joy, in a room full of fellow singers and listeners.
Andreas Schulz

At the time I was completely ignorant of the concept of field recordings, let alone the existence of singing sessions. ‘Gobsmacked’ is perhaps the most appropriate term to describe the next five or six hours I spent on the website, utterly oblivious to the day’s chores. What is that? How can such a thing be? Who are these people?   

Andreas Schulz Itsc Correspondence 2011
Andreas Schulz/ITSC Email Correspondence 2011

I contacted the Inishowen Traditional Singers’ Circle to see if the session and workshop were still on for January. Upon confirmation I immediately booked my tickets and 3 weeks, 11 hours and 1,550 kilometers later I walked through the door of the North Pole Bar. And there it all was: the warmth, encouragement, support, fervour and humour that I had listened to in the recordings on the Inishowen Song Project website.

Grace Toland, Kevin McGonigle, Brian Doyle and everyone else I met that night made me feel very welcome and invited me to join this unforgettable session. Ever since I travel to Inishowen as often as possible, maybe five or six times a year, not only to take part in the annual Inishowen International Folk Song & Ballad Seminar at the end of March, but also to catch up with friends and to enjoy the regular local monthly singing sessions – any excuse will do.

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Kevin McGonigle, ITSC Chairperson, singing in the Irish Embassy Berlin, 2015

This enduring friendship saw 25 singers from Inishowen as well as Derry, Armagh, Drogheda and Dublin visit Berlin in May 2015. We had the opportunity to present the Inishowen Song Project to a very receptive audience of more than 80 Berliners at the International Cultural Centre ufaFabrik as well as an official reception in the Embassy of Ireland and sessions in the Blarney Pub. There were poignant moments at the Lautarchiv (Sound Archive) at Berlin’s Humboldt University when we listened and sang along with the voices of Irish soldiers, from recordings made one hundred years ago during the First World War. The story of these recordings is told by Derek Scally and Ronan McGreevy in an article 'Soldiers' Songs' in the Irish Times. 

To this day people keep asking when the Inishowen singers will be back.

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Armagh singer and story teller Micil Quinn at the Rusty Nail Bar, Inishowen / John Baker, photographer

The ISP recordings offer a vast variety of songs and singers from Inishowen and beyond. The majority of songs are sung in the English language but you will also discover some in Irish, such as Jimmy McBride’s own composition Caoineadh an Dálaigh or Grace Toland singing An cailín Gaelach.

What I find astonishing is the abundance of local songs and therefore local knowledge. Mary Ann Canny’s rendition of The Flower of Dunaff Hill, Colm Toland sharing the story of The Wreck of the Gallant Cambria or Jim McGonigle singing a family song The Evergreen (in the recording Jimmy McBride talks with brothers Jim and Charlie McGonigle (James Eoghain) about the origins of the song) - these are just a few examples of the interlacing of connections between song, place and singer that happens so naturally in Inishowen.

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ITSC Mincer Song Tour 2016 Brochure and Map / Andreas Schulz, designer

One of these songs, The Mincer sung by Corney McDaid, tells the adventures of a local man who buys a cow that had seen better days and then meanders all over the peninsula in his effort to sell ‘auld Judy’, stopping at various pubs on the way. 

In 2016 a group of some 30 brave explorers took it upon themselves to travel the route of this song and to visit all the pubs it mentions – for research purposes only, you understand!

The Mincer, song / Corney McDaid, singing in English

The project website also offers audio and video playlists including Annie Hirrell’s (née McGonigle (James Eoghain)) The Tinker’s Poteen. This is the 11th most-watched video of all videos in the ITMA YouTube Channel and the most-watched song video, with nearly 36,000 views (and climbing!).

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The Tinker's Poteen, song / Annie Hirrell (née McGonigle (James Eoghain)), singing in English

There are also a number of digitised song publications available for download or reading online. One of these is the song book My Parents Reared Me Tenderly, which was first published in 1985. I was delighted to be involved with the ITSC team to revise and re-publish the book in March 2019 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Inishowen International Folk Song & Ballad Seminar, the annual festival.

This revised edition contains the texts of 60 songs with music notation, images and a sampler CD of 14 selected songs.

It is difficult to express how happy and privileged I feel to be able to contribute to the ongoing singing tradition in Inishowen, not only by learning and singing songs, but also to be involved in various ITSC digital and publishing projects.

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My Parents Reared Me Tenderly, revised edition (ITSC, 2019)
And now to conclude and to finish my story    

I’d like to mention a song from the Inishowen Song Project that never ceases to impress and move me. I first heard The Folks Long Ago sung by Mícheál Quinn of Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh in the North Pole Bar. The song was sung in the presence of the bard himself, the late Paddy Collins. Mícheál had got the song directly from Paddy some five years earlier, and had never sung it in public before. 

Paddy lived in Derry and was a regular at Inishowen sessions. He was originally from Fermanagh and mostly sang songs learned from his father Hugh Collins also known as Hugh the Poet. Paddy was a fine composer of songs himself and examples of his creations are available in the Song Project. 

Now we’re spoiling the earth for all we are worth 
Our progress is causing pollution 
We need so slow down in both country and town 
Maybe then we’ll come on a solution. 

                                               The Folks Long Ago / composed by Paddy Collins

Immediately struck by the ever growing contemporary relevance of the song and the air, I instantly looked it up on the ISP when I returned to Berlin. Thankfully it had been recorded by Jimmy McBride in 1991. I bookmarked the link and learned it, feeling ever grateful that these gems are so easily accessible online for anyone and everyone.

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Singer Paddy Collins / Dan Milner, photographer

There are times when I find myself wishing I had had the good fortune to have come across the Inishowen Traditional Singers’ Circle a little earlier in life, that I could have met some of the old singers whose recordings I so enjoy, and to have shared some songs with them in person. 

But through ITMA’s continuous effort, care and dedication the Inishowen Song Project is a unique and exciting source of material and inspiration. It is truly alive and as close as you can get to spending time with these wonderful singers – now and from your home.

I could go on and on, because there is so much to say about the Inishowen Song Project and the Inishowen Traditional Singers’ Circle. But rather than me describing it all to you, why not visit the ISP online, or pack your bags, put on your travelling boots and make your way to Ireland’s most northerly shores – once the pandemic has loosened its grip. 

I’d like to express my deep gratitude to all the singers and everyone at ITMA, but especially to Jimmy McBride and Jim MacFarland, without whom the Inishowen Song Project would not be what it is today – it most likely wouldn’t be at all. Or as my dear wife puts it: 

Those two have a lot to answer for ...

                                                                                                 Janine Schulz

This blog was written by Andreas Schulz and presented by Grace Toland.

April 2020

The Irish Traditional Music Archive and ITSC did not feel this blog was complete without a song from the writer himself.

Recorded in the Ballyliffin Hotel at the Inishowen International Folk Song & Ballad Seminar 2019, Andreas Schulz singing a song he learned from the Inishowen Song Project, Ballyliffin Town.

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Ballyliffin Town, song / Andreas Schulz, singing in English