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Review of Across the Great Divide

Ron Duffy
Canadian Folk Music Bulletin

Between 1820 and 1968 4,711,113 Irish people emigrated to the United States. Many more left before 1820. Tradition tells us that the emigration of Irish to America began with the voyage of Saint Brendan in the 6th Century, while history, more conservatively, says the 'great Scots-Irish emigration' began in 1718. The impact of millions of Irish immigrants on the history and culture of the United States - and of many other far-flung regions of the world - is inestimable. No less the impact on the culture and history of Ireland itself. Emigration pervades the Irish mind like the salt tang of the wind off the sea. Love and war and emigration are the three leaves of the shamrock of Irish literature and Irish song.

Emigration darkens the life of Ireland even yet. Indeed they say that more are leaving the country now than did at the height of the Famine years of the late 1840s, when over 200,000 a year were "sailing away from Derry Quay" or "going away to leave the misty mountains in the rain". Among the modern emigrants who left his "home in Dublin for to find and catch a dream" was folksinger and songwriter Brendan Nolan, now resident in Montreal, and habitue of the Old Dublin Pub in University Street, his "home away from home".

Nolan has been blessed with a rich Irish voice and an Irish way with words. For his latest album of songs, Across the Great Divide, he chose "the immigration theme", something that had been playing around in his head for many years. He could have had his choice from a limitless treasure of traditional Irish songs on the age-old theme of leaving home, but instead he chose to add more gems to that wealthy collection, and there they shine no less brightly than other age-polished jewels of the genre. He did pick a few of the traditional emigrant songs: the deservedly well-known "Paddy"s Green Shamrock Shore", "one of the best of the immigrant songs"; "Welcome Paddy Home", an old song of wishful thinking in the emigrant's return; and the lesser-known "No Irish Need Apply", a lively song that Pete Seeger includes in his own apparently limitless repertoire but which Nolan sings just as well, with only his own bodhran beating lightly in accompaniment. In these three songs, all the themes of the emigrant tradition are found: the sailing away "to Americay"; the leaving behind of parents, lovers, "comrade boys", of beloved home town and "sacred ground"; the search for work, for a place to live; the hostility and discrimination: "No, you are a Paddy, and no Irish need apply". And then the longing to return:

If fortune it ever should favour me, or I to have money in store
I'll come back and I'll wed the wee lassie I left on Paddy's green shamrock shore.

These same emigrant/immigrant themes Nolan takes up in the songs in this collection, and, whether they are his own songs or those of other contemporary writers, in his singing and his musical arrangements he helps his listeners to feel the pain, the joy, the humour, the triumph, the sadness, the longing, as deeply as did the old songs of the tradition.

America was, of course, not the only destination of the Irish emigrant, for "we walk the streets of London", or "we're over here in Queensland and in parts of New South Wales", or "within sight of Grosse lle/ we anchored far off shore". The island of Grosse lIe lies downstream from Quebec City in the Saint Lawrence. In 1832 the small deserted island became a quarantine station where 51,146 Irish and English immigrants were examined. In 1847 the Irish famine drove emigrants away by the hundred thousand, despite a typhus epidemic. They endured six to twelve weeks of inhuman conditions in 221 ships to reach Canada. Eight thousand were buried at sea.

Two weeks out at sea, we had lost ten or more as the fever took the strongest of men.
And the holds were battened for days on end to stifle the sickness below,
While the waters of the ocean swallowed our dead, far away from their home.

Nolan's long, slow, sad song, "Far Away From Their Home", with its haunting flute accompaniment by Dave Gossage, describes the terrible conditions on the emigrant ships. This is as much a Canadian folk song as Irish, including one poignant verse in French. Another song, the one from which the album title comes, also has a distinctly Canadian flavour - as well it should: it was written by Stephen Fearing. It's one of the happy, optimistic songs in the collection:

I crossed the Great Divide and now I'm crossing back again,
I'm going to where the sun tempts the gold into the grain
And the fields of waving wheat go on forever.

That's not Irish, though Fearing has woven that into a song about a young man leaving Dublin to cross that other great divide, the one into which thousands of his dead predecessors were sunk. But not this young man. He made it. And he'd "never trade my life for any other".

That brings us to the contemporary emigrants: young, educated, talented but facing a future with no hope. Liam Reilly's song "The Flight of Earls", a reference to the 1607 flight of Irish chieftains to Spain in fear of persecution, tells of the plight of Ireland's youth today:

It's not murder, fear nor famine that makes us leave this time...
We've got brains and we've got vision, we've got education too,
But we just can't throw away these precious years.

But, as in the traditional song, there is always that hope, that longing, to return. "But if we see better days, those big airplanes go both ways, and we'll all be coming back to you again". The old friends will all be there; the girl left behind will still be waiting, forever young and beautiful; only the parents will show the signs of aging while the emigrant was gone.

Across the Great Divide deals not only with Irish emigrants and their longing to escape the grinding hopelessness of a famine-stricken or a jobless home. In this collection Nolan includes a song that he wrote about the Mexicans looking north across the Rio Grande, a barrier to future happiness much narrower and much less hazardous than the treacherous Atlantic. But the goal on the other side is just the same: "As I look from the banks of the Rio Grande, to another life in another land". That's Paddy standing on the shamrock shore looking west across the Atlantic, as Paddy has done for generations, and may go on doing for generations more.

There are musical riches in this well-chosen selection: the gentle, reflective "Curse of the Immigrant", with its self-doubt and loneliness; the forceful, strong ballad of the young, noble "Beresford", fleeing to Canada with the servant girl he loves; the lively dance-time song of "The Devil and the Bailiff" contrasting with the slow-air pace of "The Widow's Walk", with its clever broken-step rhythm of the dead march. Nolan sings with a clear, strong, easy-to-listen-to voice, with -- in most cases -- an appropriate musical accompaniment. Only the piano behind "The Flight of Earls" and the drums -- not the bodhran -- behind "Paddy"s Green Shamrock Shore" are out of place. But that's a personal reaction; others probably won't mind, and indeed, so good are the songs, may not even notice.

This is an album to buy and enjoy.