An Ownerless Corner of Earth: songs to lift the spirits

Mike Mecham introduces a double CD of songs by Francis Devine, a published Irish labour historian, poet, singer and songwriter from Howth, County Dublin. A former President, and now Honorary President, of the Irish Labour History Society and editor of its journal Saothar, Francis Devine remains actively involved in the labour movement

An Ownerless Corner of Earth is the second offering from Howth based singer Francis Devine. His first was the much praised My Father Told Me released in 2014. This latest set might be seen by some as somewhat ambitious, with two CDs containing twenty-six tracks. While the project might indeed have been an ambitious one, for the listener it represents an act of generosity. Others might have kept half the tracks in the can for a third quality release. But not this singer. In one go he has given us a wonderful tapestry of song and verse.

Francis Devine is remarkable in so many ways. He is not only a fine singer but also a songwriter, a published poet, an author, an immensely knowledgeable observer of the natural world (take a look at his Facebook page), an educator, campaigner for the rights of his fellow humans, and a labour activist both in terms of organising and knowledge. All of these qualities should be acknowledged because they infuse the tracks with meaning on this wonderful collection.

In the superb booklet that accompanies the CDs, of which more later, Francis Devine says that there is no obvious theme. But I think there is, and it would be a deep sense of humanity throughout. From Jim Connell’s ‘socialist bones’ of the opening track (the first of three pieces, the others being My Nellie and The Miners Song, by the composer of The Red Flag), whose first line gives the album its title; to the uplifting and rousing Sae Will We Yet which ends the collection with words by the 19th century weaver Walter Watson. In these difficult times which we all share, the playing on that track alone is guaranteed to lift the spirits.

But the collection is more than a gathering of memorable songs and poems, though they are certainly that. They are a journey through the rich heritage of our islands and the voices of its peoples; and, one might also suggest, a glimpse into the world of the performer himself. He is a man who knows our islands well through birth, upbringing, education, place and exploration. Someone also with a love of football and especially Peterborough United FC. This is reflected in the collection by Peter Goulding’s poem, which Francy has set to music. Called The Ballad of Brendan Bradley, it tells of the legendary goal scorer from Donegal’s Premier Division club the Finn Harps. This typifies much of what Francis Devine so often sings and writes about, the lesser known and sometimes overlooked people who in their different ways made a difference to the lives of others, including our own.

The collection is also richly packaged. From the beautifully designed casing, fronted by Steve Rennie’s ghost-like photographic image of a Mountain Hare, to the booklet of notes and sources. The lyrics of each song can be found on the Bandcamp website. They are worth looking up. The booklet itself is a treasure trove, a virtual tutorial that reflects the educator in the singer and draws the reader into wanting to know more. It brings to life wordsmiths and communities from the far reaches of the islands. What they reveal are tales of love, struggle and sometimes anger. As the singer says in his notes, they also evoke memories.

Each track is sensitively performed, supported and enhanced by a group of friends who add sympathetic instrumentation and subtle vocal accompaniment. (Give a particular listen to the fine ensemble renderings on a stirring The Labour League and The Miners’ Song). While too many to list in this review, though mention should be made of Graham Dunne’s delicate guitar support on several tracks, it would be remiss not highlight the presence of the singer’s two longstanding collaborators: master fiddler Paul Anderson and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Steve Byrne. And it was once again the latter who produced and helped in the arrangements of the collection.

In a collection of such range and beauty there is sadly insufficient space in this review to assess each performance. I leave the listener with some pleasurable work to do. I will give focus instead on some of the tracks where the singer has made a particular input to their composition or arrangement. Listen for instance to Francy’s reading of his own poem Gazing at Lochnagar in which he invokes the beautiful Scottish air, ‘Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife’. ‘Through shut eyes’, the poet says, ‘I saw everything’, at which point Paul Anderson’s fiddle enters quietly to play the play the lament and carry us away. Then there is Liam O’Connor’s viola and fiddle which give such meaning to Francy’s poem of memory and friendship, When Abdul Moneim Khalifa Met Darach Ó Catháin. Lastly, Aoife and John Kelly add a subtle but emotional edge on concertina and fiddle to the reading of Scattery Island, a poem of remembrances, both personal and political.

The control and sensitivity that Francy Devine brings to his own voice are exemplified in the largely unaccompanied songs of rare quality, including the aforementioned Brendan Bradley. But at the beginning of the collection is the Ulster hunting song where the hare reappears On Yonder Hill. While it is about further hill that Francy gives another powerful lone voice performance recalling Daniel O’Connell’s massed meetings demanding Catholic Emancipation, the largest of which was The Tara Monster Meeting. Included as well is the evocative Where Oh Where Is Our James Connolly? which I witnessed Francy singing in 2018 in front of the Connolly Memorial Statue, opposite Liberty Hall in Dublin, when he was accompanied, as here, by Noel Kelly on the Highland Pipes. Is there a more heartfelt and moving remembrance of Connolly than here?

There is a special treat in the duet with Dave McCraken, accompanied by Andrew Watchorn on Northumbrian pipes, on the late Terry Conway’s moving composition of parting and friendship, Fare Thee Weel Regality. The group adds a new dimension to a song widely performed by the Northumbrian sister duo, The Unthanks, and others. While on the tender The Banks of Inverurie there is another subtle duet, this time with Shona Donaldson.

But it is to Francis Devine’s own compositional skills that I will finish. In the collection they can be found early on with his tender song of love and loss, Dark and Tender Boy, whose death causes his love to leave Ireland where ‘From Derry quay she sailed away … to seek my life’s sad fortune’ while ‘no man more shall know me.’ Yet for me perhaps there is one song that draws the collection together. It is Francy’s own composition Magaidh Ruaidh, to which he added music drawing on Kathleen MacInnnes’s beautiful Gaelic rendering, ‘Ceud Failt Air Gach Gleann’, which must also be heard. Francy’s song is perfectly augmented by Steve Byrne on guitar and harmonium and movingly by Fin Moore on pipes. It is a song of loss and evocation, the memories the singer talks of in his notes. It might easily be sang across our islands whenever people have left home for what they hope will be a better life. Its sentiments are universal whether for the migrant or refugee. It sums up that sense of humanity which I spoke about at the beginning.

But there is so much more in the collection which must surely be widely listened to. There is another homage to the influential Ewan MacColl in The Shellback, Eddie Butcher’s unique Alexander, fresh insights into standards such as The Lowlands o Holland and Tramps and Hawkers; and others besides. In these times of some isolation, and not a little fear, the whole collection can be guaranteed to help lift the spirits of the listener.

Dr Mike Mecham is a member of the SSLH executive committee, Visiting Fellow at St Mary’s University, London and a specialist in Irish labour history

This article was first published in the May 2020 issue of The Sweet Nightingale, the magazine of the Howth Singing Circle.