Five Questions With Niamh Parsons
Niamh Parsons, one of the first ladies of Irish music, is a bit pressed for time. She soon has to head out the door for the Howth Singers Circle. There are sandwiches to be made, too.
Happily, there is just enough time for Parsons to answer an email from Philadelphia.
The reason for our curiosity is that Parsons and partner Graham Dunne are coming to Philadelphia for a concert at the Irish Center on Saturday, June 16, at 8 p.m. The concert is sponsored by the Philadelphia Ceili Group. Of course, we’ll seize any opportunity to have a conversation, albeit by email, with Niamh Parsons, but we were also curious about the theme of her concert—the music of Ireland’s West, a major emphasis for the Ceili Group this year.
Here’s what she had to say about her life, her music, and the music of the West.
Q. You’re from Dublin, but you’re presenting music from the West of Ireland. What’s the connection?
A. Well yes, there is a connection. My mother comes from West Clare, a little place called Cahermurphy in Castlepark, which is a townland near Kilmihil. And although my personal collection of songs come from all over Ireland and beyond, my earliest influences came from west Clare. People like Michael Conway and his brother Ollie, both exceptional singers (and dancers). Also people like the Dick brothers, whistle players and singers, Mico Dick, Dick Dick … (Don’t ask!) These were the first singers I heard (apart from my Dublin-born father), and both he and I were fascinated with the collection of songs they had, songs which were not necessarily local, but essentially Irish. So songs “from the West of Ireland” could be any Irish songs, really, as people from the West sang all sorts, learnt at gatherings, from traveling musicians, and of course the radio, which was very popular.
Q. What appeals to you about music from this place, and how might it be different from tunes from anywhere else in Ireland?
A. The music that moves me most is that of West Clare… the slow, drawn-out tempo, the gentle lilt, the comedic aspect of players like Mico Russell, or Junior Crehan … it’s the music I grew up with.
Q. Do you have any favorites, of songs from the West? Or are you like a mom who loves all her kids equally?
A. No, no favourites, and yes, like a bom who loves all her songs equally. However, there are some particular songs I love very much. For example, “Sweet Inniscarra.” Now, that’s a Cork song, but I learnt it from Sean Keane, who learnt it from Dessie O’Halloran, and Ollie Conway used to sing it too, he always said I “had it wrong” but I just have a slight variation on the air, which makes the song for me. One of my all time favourites is Andy Irvine’s “West Coast of Clare” because I love the sentiment, the sense of loss, and of course I know all the places he mentions.
Q. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that there is, or could be, a yawning gap between singing in the car or down at the pub, and making a lifelong career out of singing. A lot of people want to do it, but it’s the rare few who make it that far. How did you make that transition? Is it just something you always knew you wanted to do?
A. Oh, no … I didn’t know if I ever wanted to be a “singer on the stage” at all. It was accidental, really. A man wanted to marry me and put me on the stage. I was in love, so I went along with it. He left. I stayed. The rest is history. I’m aware I was lucky at the time. Mary Black, Maura O’Connell and Dolores Keane were the singers making waves at the time when I started singing in pubs. I remember the barman in the Brazen Head wouldn’t give me a drink until I sang, and he always called me “Niamh Black.” Well, I resented that because, although I was a big fan of Mary’s, I had already started my own collection, and continued to collect songs that weren’t recorded by the Irish female singers. When I went to record my first album way back in ‘92 (Loosely Connected, Greentrax 1992) I was the fourth Irish singer to record. After that I joined Arcady, and Green Linnet picked up my solo CD. They helped me on the way to making a career out of singing. (Not easy these days!)
Q. Tell me about this musical relationship between yourself and Graham Dunne? You’ve described it as “spiritual.” How did you guys come together musically?
A. Well, we’re not just together musically. We formed a partnership in 1999. I had made “Blackbirds & Thrushes” when my husband left me (taking the band with him) so I needed a guitar player for a few gigs coming up. Graham and myself knew each other for a year or two before that, and I knew he was a great guitar player. I invited him for a rehearsal, and discovered that he had learnt every song I had every recorded, and then some! On our second rehearsal, we got together as a couple, and have been together ever since. His sensitivity as a musician is incredible, and he loves my songs, and helps me express the songs the way I want to. So we’re musically, emotionally, spiritually connected, yes.
We found a great little video of Niamh in concert. Check it out, above.
For more details about the concert, visit the Philadelphia Ceili Group website.