THE VOICE OF TRADITION
by John Brophy
Sent to me by Brenda Houghton
The parlour ballad has a long and distinguished history in Irish music, Tom
Moore used it for overtly political means and it became a vehicle for
Nationalist sentiment during the nineteenth century. John Brophy discusses
the legacies and the future of the great Irish ballad with Anthony Kearns.
"We've come from zero to Madison Square Gardens in seventeen months;
that's fair acceleration." So speaks Anthony Kearns, who as one of the Irish
Tenors has done a huge bit of motoring. Frankly, he admits, they don't know
what's hit them: they're bigger than Boyzone and could well be in line for a
This is surely impressive for three lads who, each in his own way,
started from a low base. John McDermott is the most typical story: as the
ninth of twelve children he moved to Canada in the mid-60's, and was working
as circulation manager for a Toronto newspaper when, just like Elvis, he did
a recording for his parents' golden wedding. And in like manner, a record
company picked up the demo, so that at the age of 40 he found himself with a
new career direction.
Ronan Tynan's story is well known: He's from Johnstown in Co. Kilkenny,
and at the age of 21 he was forced to have both legs amputated. As a
disabled athlete he won gold in several international events, and went on to
qualify as a medical doctor. In 1994, he won the talent competition run
jointly by RTE and BBC, Go For It. By 1998 he had done a tribute to Mario
Lanza and launched his own solo CD.
RTE did a special documentary programme on him called "Dr. Courageous".
About a year ago he was involved in an accident with a horse-he is a skilled
equestrian-which upset the singing for a little while. He appeared to be
opting for a career in medicine, but obviously the runaway sucess has left
the whole thing open to question again.
Anthony is from the great rival county, a Wexfordian to the core. There
was probably a good centre half-back lost in him, but nowadays his exploits
on the hurllng field are confined to All-Ireland final day, when he sang,
backed by the Artane Boys' Band, in front of the 70,000 fans present. He's
from Kiltealy near Bunclody, in the shadow of Mt. Leinster. The sturdiness
and determination that were shown in the '98 rising are still there in
plenty; there is a strong sense of place anfd identity, and an inherited
wisdom from a very accurate folk memory.
He can trace his ancestry back to the family of Fr. Mogue Kearns, who fought
along with the two Fr. Murphy's in 1798. He knows the Sinnott family in
Boolavogue, who themselves released a CD of songs for the bicentenary. It is
a deep tradition.
It was in this tradition, too, that Anthony started. He's one of a family
of six, two boys and four girls, all musical. He played button accordian,
mouth organ, and the spoons, which gave him, he says, his great sense of
rhythm. Other family members played accordian, banjo, flute and whistle, and
they had an informal ceili band. He didn't have just a keen sense of rhythm:
he had a good ear too and could learn nearly any tune after hearing it just
twice. He also learned a fair few songs in Irish and sang in sean-nos
competions at festivals like Scor na nog, Ceol an Gheimhridh and at the
Fleadhs. From the age of four, he says, "I knew I wanted to sing. I'd look
at people on television, singing and being applauded, and I knew this was
what I wanted."
So what did he sing? "Just about everything." Once he left school he was
working as a barman, in a hotel in Co. Wicklow, but every chance he got he
sang. At weddings, the bands knew that he would respond to the noble call,
and there are now people who can say, "sure he sang for nothing at my
He was also taking part regularly in various competitions: popular
classics, even country and western song contests, and he got to the stage
that he knew he would win at least a third place any time he entered, though
getting time off at weekends was difficult. It was shortly after moving from
catering into sales and marketing that the break came. He was sitting alone
in the office one morning, and on the radio there came an announcement, on
the Gay Byrne show, of the Search for a Tenor.
If there had been anyone else present, he might have been too shy to
bother, but he phoned the show got through and sang down the phone line.
They obviously liked what they heard, and he was told to report to North Earl
St. in Dublin near the statue of James Joyce, himself a tenor and Feis Ceoil
medal-winner (he came third to John McCormack).
The competition was to be an open-air gig with broadcaster Joe Duffy
holding the mike. This was in October 1993 and he hitch-hiked on a crisp
frosty morning the fifty-odd miles from Arklow to get to Dublin for 9 a.m.
When he arrived he found lots of other hopefuls, many of them serious singing
students, doing vocal warm-ups in the porches of shops. Intimidating stuff,
but he went on and sang To Dream the Impossible Dream from the Man of La
Mancha, and he duly won the competition.
The main prize was a series of lessons with Dr. Veronica Dunne, and for
six months he travelled every Saturday for his lesson until one day she told
him: if you're serious about this, you've got to drop everything and go for
it. So he quit his job and got work in the bar of the National Concert Hall
to survive. He was barely six months in formal training before competing in
the Feis Ceoil, and by 1995 he was working in Bunratty Castle, speaking as
well as singing and perfecting his ability to handle an audience. This was
the home crowd, listening to material they knew, and like politics, the adage
is that if you can get past your own crowd, you can get past anyone.
So there he is, working in Bunratty and gets a phone call: there has been
an illness in the show called Ring Up The Curtain in the Logan Hall in
London, presented by Richard Baker of Classic FM would he like to come over?
Huge rush, learning the music at the airport and on the plane, but a very
satisfactory result which led to him working with Richard Baker on the P&O
Line's Classical Cruises-hasn't Wexford got a proud maritime tradition.
It was in the National Concert Hall on January 28 last, when I heard
Antony sing in the ESB Veronica Dunne International Singing competition.
This was a special challenge, since he was dog-sick with flu for five days
beforehand, and relying on the medical guidance of Ronan Tynan. Veronica
Dunne was there with customary encouragement: "Now, lovey, go out there and
bring home the bacon!" Which he did by winning the 1,000 pound third prize
and also the special prize of 5,000 pounds presented by AIB Capital Markets
for the best Irish singer, plus a special trophy in memory of Dermot Troy.
Since then, he's been on the trail of The Irish Tenors, and they've gone
so big that he's achieved sex-symbol status; there are Americans here in
Ireland pointing him out on Grafton St. Next step is the world of the
dark-glass limousine...well, hopefully not too soon. On that US tour he had
several Irish songs: Boolavogue, naturally, She Moved Through the Fair, and
what he calls the parlour song medley, little songs like Kitty of Coleraine
and Percy French numbers. Some time, he might like to do some of Tom Moore's
melodies, that's the Tom who was friend of Robert Emmet just 200 years ago.
He agrees with me that Moore was the best poet ever to write English words
for singing. And Moore's in-laws were the Codds of Wexford town.
Is this not just reincarnating John McCormack? "McCormack was savage big
in the States," he says, and the songs he sang helped people keep their
identity as much as any other kind of music. "They are great songs, as fine
as anything in the European main tradition. We should be proud of them and
they deserve better treatment than being wailed in the back room of some
smoky pub with the aid of a badly tuned guitar."
On the US tours of both East and West coasts, with big venues in LA, San
Francisco and Las Vegas, what was noticeble was the international mix of the
audiences. There were even Chinese Americans lining up for autographs. "Our
songs speak an international language, and there's a whole new generation now
ready to discover them." He's planning a CD for release on St. Valentine's
Day, and it will have classic songs on it, like Avondale (about Parnell)
Moore's She is far from the land, Wallace's There is a Flower that bloometh,
Droimeann Donn Dilis, Macushla, and the Coolin with Moore's words, The Last
Glimpse of Erin.
Maybe even there could be Eibhlin a Run. The original Eibhlin is buried
close to his home at Ryland Hill near Clomahon, Bunclody. So Anthony tells
me: with the tradition you learn something new most days. The song itself is
pure drop. Bunting, in the 1840 collection, says "it was sung by an Italian
named Leoni in Dublin, about sixty years ago with the Irish words commencing
Ducca tu non vanatu Eibhlin a Ruin, in which setting the music was altered to
suit the taste of the Italian singer."
It's high time we got our own back. We have the lads to do it.