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Album: It Was Mighty!: The Early Days Of Irish Music In London
Label: Topic
Tracks: 35+35+37

This handsome three-CD set is the first of two companion volumes, these representing the latest issues in the long-running Voice Of The People series which the Topic label launched back in 1998. Together these two volumes explore in depth the music-making of the London-Irish community from the 1950s through to the present day, by turning the focus on a magnificent treasure-trove of rare archive recordings of the musicians who made up that community. The mass of emigrant Irish workers who were drawn to London in the 1950s in search of work included among their ranks some of the most talented young traditional musicians from rural Ireland. Away from home, working on the buildings and in heavy construction, they built a vibrant musical community, which necessarily developed its own values and practices while adapting to new affluent conditions, in the inner city boroughs of Camden and Fulham especially. Music was played extensively (if you knew where to look - for information was disseminated solely by word of mouth amongst the community itself), both in pubs and dance halls and through the establishment of ceili- and step-dancing clubs and the like; and the establishment of the British branch of the Irish Musicians' Association (CCE) was key to the spread of the culture at least through till the late 1960s. But since Irish music-making in London was a "cultural underground", on the fringe of society, there was little or no recognition from the mainstream or the media, and consequently almost no official recordings (an HMV studio track by fiddler Martin Wynne, which dating from around 1948 is the earliest item on this set, forming the exception). The extensive field-recorded contributions of Peter Kennedy, Ewan MacColl, and later (with the advent of Topic) Bill Leader, many of which have been drawn on for this set, can be heard to more than compensate for the almost complete lack of documentation of this sphere of musical activity.

So Dr. Reg Hall, academician and acknowledged, pre-eminent expert in the field of Irish traditional music (he was active as a musician within the London-Irish community himself from 1956), was the natural choice to compile and research this pair of volumes for Topic, and the level of research undertaken, and the resultant detail unearthed and presented in the voluminous and encyclopaedic 100-page accompanying booklet, is staggering, while at the same time remaining marvellously informative and readable. It's indicative that, while I'd not consider myself a specialist in Irish traditional music, a good number of the musicians captured on this set playing in pubs, flats and houses were nonetheless familiar names to me; and yet I still learnt a great deal from the mine of information contained in the notes which both amplified, and gave illuminating perspective and context to, the recordings. I wasn't expecting to spend a large part of my weekend completely engrossed in this set, immersing myself in the music and the text without a moment of ennui. Listening to all three discs, each in one sitting, proved intensely more-ish! And moreover, the sound quality of the recordings is remarkably good for the most part; this bearing in mind that just a handful of selections were recorded outside of the disc's immediate (50s to mid-60s) time-frame, though with musicians like Tommy McCarthy and Joe Ryan who'd been active during that period.

It would undoubtedly be both a thankless task and an over-use of valuable column-inches to attempt to cherrypick from the delights on parade here, so a partial roll-call will have to suffice: there's fiddlers including Michael Gorman and his nephew Mick, Jimmy Power, Martin Byrnes and Bobby Casey (the latter's playing possessing a devilish, swooping joyous swing that must've inspired Swarb); uilleann pipers Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy; flute players including Paddy Taylor and Danny McNiff; melodeonist Nan Landers; the flageolet of Paddy Breen; accordionists including Raymond and Oliver Roland; banjoists Margaret Barry, Liam Farrell and Jimmy Cleary; the multi-skilled Tommy McCarthy; and the Hibernian Ceili Band. Inevitably there's some duplication of tunes, but it's instructive to compare and get to discern, different playing styles. In short, an abundance of life and vibrancy, warmth and humanity resides in these recordings, with in many of them a real feeling that they're playing in your own parlour or in the snug of your local. After all, it may not have been quite so great an over-statement to opine that there was better, and/or more, Irish music to be heard in London than in Ireland itself during the 1950s and '60s. As a comprehensive representation of Irish traditional music in London during those decades, I honestly can't imagine this compendium ever being surpassed. For mighty it was, sure - and it still is, as Volume 2 of this set will demonstrate in due course (see review below)…

David Kidman