A Dublin Trad Band's Tribute to a Forgotten Irish Poet

“There’s praise for the shearers, for the wind in a sail, the joys of a thatcher and a mad woman’s tale,” sings Sean Fitzgerald over the bellow of an accordion played by Ben McKenzie.

The pair are two members of the Irish trad four-piece The Deadlians.

The lyrics tell what stories lie ahead in their debut album The Connacht Peep Show.

“For such be me rhyming. My trumpet I blow. Now step up kind friends to The Connacht Peep Show,” Fitzgerald sings in the opening track “Grey Ranns of the Sídhbh”.

The idea for this album started in 2018 on the 100th year anniversary of the poet Seumas O’Kelly’s death. Fitzgerald was at a meeting in the Lord Edward pub on Wood Quay celebrating the life and work of the poet and journalist.

“O’Kelly would have been involved in the more cultural wing of the IRA during the revolutionary period,” Fitzgerald says.

With the live music scene on its knees as a result of the pandemic, Fitzgerald and his bandmates decided to bring their creativity into the recording studio and set O’Kelly’s poems to melodies.

Underground Fiddles

Fitzgerald grew up in Dublin. His parents, though, came from Connemara and West Kerry. His singing voice reflects this — there’s a hard Dublin accent, mixed with a rich country brogue.

McKenzie, the other artist on the album, grew up in Toronto. He wasn’t raised on trad music but there are some similar music scenes in Canada, he says. “But a bit more diluted.”

“The first thing I heard as a teenager that turned me onto that sort of music would have been The Pogues. From there it went to the Dubliners and to Ewan MacColl,” he says.

Five years ago McKenzie moved to Dublin. It was here that he met Fitzgerald in the underground Dublin folk scene, he says.

“We were both playing the fiddle. People would often associate the two of us together. We were told to get together and swap tunes” McKenzie says.

The Deadlians started in 2017, Fitzgerald says. The band doesn’t have an exact sound, he says. “It’s a lot of different styles.”

In July, Fitzgerald and McKenzie began working on The Connacht Peep Show. The album shares the same name as O’Kelly’s book of ballads and poems.

Putting the melody to O’Kelly’s poems was an unstructured process, Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald would read the poems aloud. Then he would gradually start singing a melody that came to mind as he read.

“There is a certain metre in the writing where you get a bit of an idea of the rhythm,” he says.

Meanwhile, McKenzie sat with Fitzgerald and worked out the chords to the melodies.

“Working with Sean is like trying to catch smoke in a bottle,” McKenzie says.

Then on one single day in October, they recorded the album from start to finish. It’s not standard practice to bash out an album in one day, McKenzie says.

Seumas O’Kelly, A Forgotten Poet

O’Kelly started his life as a journalist and later went on to become the editor of a strong of newspapers, including the Southern Star, the Leinster Leader, and Nationality.

O’Kelly took over the editorship of Nationality in 1918 following the arrest of its previous editor, Arthur Griffith, during what’s known as the German Plot, where key members of Sinn Féin were arrested on suspicion of collusion with the German government.

O’Kelly died at 38 after British soldiers shot up the newspaper’s office, Fitzgerald says.

“O’Kelly was in there at the time and he died of a heart attack the next morning. He always had a weak heart,” Fitzgerald says.

“His poems are a bit melancholic but there is a bit of humor in them,” he says.

“Ballad of the Twelve Marys” is a poem that stands out for Fitzgerald. “It’s an epic,” he says.

The poem is about a man who wronged a woman, Mary.

He was cursed by an old woman because of this. The poem follows him trying to undo this curse, Fitzgerald says.

This often happened in Irish folklore when women were wronged by men, Fitzgerald says.

“The women would get together. They would get an old woman or a spinster to put a curse on him,” Fitzgerald says.

O’Kelly wrote at the same time as the likes of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, he says.

“There is this weird period between Joyce and [Brendan] Behan where a lot of really good writers got forgotten,” Fitzgerald says.

Thriving Trad

The trad scene in Ireland is incredibly vibrant at the moment, McKenzie says.

“Somebody like myself who is just a total blow-in and a musician, I was absolutely astounded and fascinated by the scene,” he says.

McKenzie has travelled around Ireland, he says. “Any town that I go to I meet musicians that are absolutely mind-boggling.”

The trad scene is where the most fun is, he says, with artists such as Lankum, Junior Brother, and The Mary Wallopers.

The Mary Wallopers, a trad trio from Dundalk, are creating a good buzz around ballad singing at the moment, Fitzgerald says. “They’ve made it hip again. It’s cool to see.”

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Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

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