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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

Songs My Mother Sang

Peggy Sweeney's Kerry accent shows no traces of Ulster nuances. "And why should it?" you may well ask. Well, her ancestors came from Donegal. It would appear that she is a descendent of Eoghan Og Mac Suibne, who was Taoiseach of Doe Castle, Creeslough, in the final decades of the sixteenth century.

Eoghan Og's advice was much sought after in matters of warfare and clan-fighting but today wherever you find a Sweeney you will find song and music.

Piper Tarlach MacSuibhne won the world title for bagpipe playing at the world's Fair in Chicago in 1885 and the Sweeney name has been cropping up in the lists of winners at Fleadhs and Feisheanna ever since.

True to the family tradition Peggy Sweeney won the All-Ireland, at the 1972, Fleadh Ceol na hEireann, with " Lough Sheelin's Side" which she learned from her mother, Kitty. It is one of the fourteen tracks on her recently released Album "Songs My Mother Sang".

The album (a tribute to her mother, who died in 2001) includes such old favourites as, "Eileen Alanna", "Teddy O'Neill", "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" and "Bunclody". Agus amrain amain as Gailge; "Ar Éireann nin Eosfainn ce hi". "The Quiet Lands of Erin", " The Blackbird of Sweet Avondale" and "The May Morning Dew" also get the full benefit of the singer's emotion and vocal ornamentation.

Peggy Sweeney fans will know that she wouldn't leave a studio without recording a Kerry song and this time it's "My Blue Eyed Mountain Queen", a love song set in the Glenbeigh area. Among the lesser-known tracks is "The Foot Of Slieve Bloom".

She gives a wonderful rendition of, my own favourite, that sad and beautiful ballad "Kilkelly Ireland". The song was written by Peter Jones who found a bundle of letters sent by a man, in Kilkelly, Co. Mayo, to his son, John, in America between 1860 and 1890. The recipient of the letters was Peter Jones's great grandfather. Over a period of 30 years the letters brought news across the Atlantic of Marriages, deaths and births, joy and hardships. Each one reminding the son that he is loved and missed in Kilkelly...
Starting with the first one Peter Jones converted the letters to song:

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 60, my dear and loving son John
Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara's
So good as to write these words down.
Your brothers have all gone to find work in England,
The house is so empty and sad
The crop of potatoes is sorely infected,
A third to a half of them bad.
And your sister Brigid and Patrick O'Donnell
Are going to be married in June.
Your mother says not to work on the railroad
And be sure to come on home soon.

Thirty years later that father, in his final letter, yearns for the joy of seeing his son again.

" Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 90, my dear and loving son John
I guess that I must be close on to eighty,
It's thirty years since you're gone.
Because of all of the money you send me,
I'm still living out on my own.
Michael has built himself a fine house
And Brigid's daughters have grown.
Thank you for sending your family picture,
They're lovely young women and men.
You say that you might even come for a visit,
What joy to see you again."

The next letter was from " the son who stayed at home" telling of the old man's death. In this letter the writer gives a sense of genetic longing for the exile and Peggy sings it with all the feeling of one who has her finger on the pulse of our heritage:

" He was a strong and a feisty old man,
Considering his life was so hard.
And it's funny the way he kept talking about you,
He called for you in the end.
Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit,
We'd all love to see you again."

Like all her previous albums, "Songs My Mother Sang" was recorded at Pats Tracks Studios in Causeway, Co Kerry. It was produced and arranged by Patrick Donegan. Billy Donegan of Pat's Tracks says: "These songs were originally sung sean nós (old method, unaccompanied singing) and while Peggy has maintained the style of singing in that idiom she has added backing instruments to augment the songs...........Some of the songs on this album have been "modernised" over the years most notably "Eileen Alanna" and "The Wind That Shakes The Barley". Peggy performs these songs here in the same way that her mother sang them to her."

The album, on CD and cassette, is now available in the shops or on-line ( Price ? 17;50, inc. P&P) from or from the singer herself (she'll be delighted to hear from you) Peggy Sweeney, Mountcoal, Listowel, Co. Kerry.

Through a legacy of songs from her mother and a voice inherited from her paternal ancestors Peggy Sweeney brings to life an Ireland of love and hardship, of poverty and culture, of hope and of dreams. This Christmas Irish people at home and around the world will be moved by "Songs My Mother Sang".  

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