Irish folk songs are Brian O’Rourke’s hobby, but were
a natural extension of his professional career. Brian lectured in Irish Studies
at GMIT for over forty years.
In the early 1980ies, Brien (seen performing in the photo above at a singing session in Kinvara, County Galway in September 2013) started attending singing
sessions. Back then, he would sing mostly Irish language songs,
having fallen in love with the beauty of Irish poetry and compositions. Sean
nós especially had won Brian's heart.
Let us introduce you to Brian with video recordings of his
This is our dear friend Brian O'Rourke seen here holding our daughter Tara.
As a labour of love Brian published two song collections
of Irish songs with recordings sung by recognised Sean nos singers. The
collections also included the songs in print, translations and commentaries. It
was a comprehensive and novel project, which brought Irish folk songs to
many lovers of Irish culture living abroad. The titles of the collections
Meala (A sip from the Honey-pot) and An Dubh ina Bhán (Pale
As a traditional singer, Brian says, it took him a long time to appreciate the English language songs which are generally thought of as being of lower quality both poetically and musically. In one of life's unpredictable twists and turns however, Brian one day found himself writing songs in the traditional style, in English.
This was not something he had been planning to do, but
rather something that just poured out of him. Having written them at a
time when life was quite difficult, he was also surprised to find these were comedy
songs. Some grew out of personal experiences. Audiences all over loved
them, so he continued writing. By 1992 he had enough material for an album
entitled ‘When I grow up'. In 2009 the album appeared as a CD with the
new title 'Chantal de Champignon'.
‘Chantal...’ is one of Brian’s best known songs. Based on a
personal experience, it is a 15 minute comedy song in the style of a ballad
lamenting love gone wrong. The beloved was a young French lady, on holidays
When the song was only a couple of years old, Brian
discovered that it was being adopted and sung by others as is typical
with traditional Irish folk songs.
“It was men of a certain age who could identify with the
theme. A man from Carlow, Damien Brett, eventually advertised to see how many
men he could find who could sing the song, and he got about forty! Club Chantal
was born and met regularly for some years.”
Brian’s 'Carnations' song which you can listen to
here, is also based on a personal story. Says Brian:
“The song arose from the mistake I made on Valentine’s
Day 1996 presenting my girlfriend with the wrong flowers. The song is a mix
of realism, drama, and imagination. It is also a parody of a sentimental
Cork song 'The Banks of the Lee' to the tune of which it is sung.”
Different types of traditional song explained
The history of Irish traditonal songs
The etiquette at singing sessions of Traditional songs
Examples of pub songs and our story of filming them
The lyrics of Amhrán Mhuinghnise
About his choice of subject matter Brian says:
“Dozens of people have said to me in relation to certain events, 'There is a
song in that.' There may be, but rarely for me. Usually I have to wait until I
am forcefully struck by an image, by something 'different', quirky even. A goat
becoming a Bodhran drum, a diary washed ashore from the sea, or a cow surviving
half a year without food.”
The main traditional technique Brian employs is internal
rhyming as can be found in Irish language songs. Brian thinks that in
English, this works better in comedy songs than in a serious context. The
melodies of his own contemporary Irish folk songs come to him usually once
he has started to write the words. The tunes are those of traditional songs
that he has absorbed since childhood.
Sometimes, he says, he doesn’t recognise them at first, and
flatters himself, thinking he composed an original song. (Note the understatement
and the slightly self-deprecating Irish sense of humour.) The adoption of
familiar tunes is a traditional technique also. There are many such
songs where the same melody is used with two entirely different sets of words
or vice versa.
Brian thinks that the least traditional part of
his work is the way he performs his songs. He will often act the part, when
there is something comical about the persona in the song, where traditional
sean nós singers keep their voice the same independent of whether they are
singing ballads or comical songs.
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Many thanks from Colm and Susanna
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