Wednesday 17 December 2014

A new Christmas world - the Wexford Carols

The Wexford Carols
The Wexford Carols; Caitriona O'Leary, Rosanne Cash, Rhiannon Giddens, Tom Jones; Heresy Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 15 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Irish traditional music singer Catriona O'Leary opens a window on the surviving Christmas carol tradition from Co. Wexford

Christmas carols in England are hardly regarded as political, even earlier ones seem rarely to have ventured into the sort of satirical territory that ballads on broadsheets did. But in 1684, Luke Waddings, Bishop of Fern, Co. Wexford published his collection A Smale Garland of Pious and Godly Songs, written as solace for people like him; disinherited Roman Catholics. The background to these songs is the 1649 Sack of Wexford, one of the more gruesome events in Oliver Cromwell's conquest of Ireland. Large numbers of Roman Catholics were deported and after the Popish Plot of 1678, suppressed completely. The carols have to be understood in this context, and even their texts have hidden resonances. The carols were used illicitly, and added to when Father William Devereux wrote A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas in the early 18th century. These two collections plus the famous Enniscorthy Carol form a significant part of the inheritance of carol singing in Co. Wexford. And the amazing thing is that some of the carols are still in use today.

On this new disc on Heresy Records from Caitriona O'Leary, a singer known for her performances of Irish traditional and Early music, the six carols which survive in use are joined by the Enniscorthy Carol and other of the Wexford carols for which O'Leary has re-discovered tunes. The original publications did not have newly composed tunes but simply used popular tunes of the day (both English and Irish). O'Leary has gathered together a fine group of musicians and singers. She is joined by the singers American singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, the American musician Rhiannon Giddens (a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Tom Jones (yes that Tom Jones), and supported by an eight-piece band to create disc which manages to both a fascinating window into another Christmas world, and a bracingly refreshing alternative to the sentimentality of much contemporary Christmas music.

The songs tell the narrative of the Christmas story, but the texts have clear references to the world of suspicion and persecution in which the Wexford Roman Catholics lived. For some, O'Leary has had to pair the text with a surviving tune which works, for others she has identified the tune which is referred to by name in the original publications, for one she has written her own tune and for some we have the tunes as preserved by tradition. Even in this latter category there is some variation, O'Leary performs some quite plain but in others we hear the traditional sean-nos (old way) style which is rhythmically free and liberally ornamented. Her own performance of The Darkest Midnight in December sung unaccompanied in a highly ornamented version is one of the highlights of the disc.

I have to confess that I found some of arrangements a bit heavy which added to the rather maudlin feel of some of the songs, but many are entrancing. The performers here come from a variety of backgrounds and so we have a variety of approaches, all well supported by the all star band. But what matters is the carols history and their wonderful tradition of performance. Quite a number of the songs on this disc are clearly carols to cherish, and the results are both bracing and entrancing.

This is a disc to explore and treasure. Perhaps one day I may get to the parish of Kilmore, Co. Wexford, where the carols are still sung over the 12 days of Christmas. But until then, this disc opens a new Christmas world.

The Wexford Carols
Arrangements by Caitriona O'Leary, Donal Lunny, Joe Henry, Greg Cohen

Tell Shepherds
An Angel This Night
Jerusalem Our Happy Home
This is Our Chrstmass Day
Now To Conclude Our Christmas Mirth 
The Darkest Midnight In December
An Angel This Bright Midnight (music by Catriona O'Leary)
Behould Three Kings
The Angell Said To Joseph Mild
A Virgin Queen In Bethlehem
Christmas Day Is Come
The Enniscorthy Christmas Carol
Catriona O'Leary (voice)
Tom Jones (voice)
Rosanne Cash (voice)
Rhiannon Giddens (voice, fiddle, minstrel banjo)
Donal Lunny (bouzouki)
John Smith (guitar, mandolin, backing vocals)
Adrian Hart (fiddle)
Eamonn de Barra (fiddle, whistle)
Kate Ellis (cello)
Greg Cohen (double bass)
Mel Mercie (bodhran, bones)
Graham Hopkins (drums, backing vocals)
Recorded at Grouse Lodge Recording Studios, Co. Westmeath, Ireland, 21-25 July 2014
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