Declan O’Rourke at the Queen’s Hall Edinburgh tonight was one of those special evenings that you don’t expect to happen, but do. The reason - Declan O’Rourke departing from his usual live show and songs to play in its entirety his new (released October 2017) and epic song cycle album “Chronicles of The Great Irish Famine”. Fifteen years in the making (there has been other work and projects though) is a long development time for any artist to spend on any project, but the results here are something very special, and although BBC 2 Folk Awards 2018 have nominated it for best album and best song, I hope that this work does not get pigeon-holed as a folk album as its scope is epic and the work deserves far wider recognition than this.
The British government bears many a stain upon its soul, but to anyone Scottish or Irish, two in particular still stand out for very different reasons - The Highland Clearances and The Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. Two very different situations, the first the cause of direct actions and the second not caused by, but certainly prolonged unnecessarily by a refusal to take any meaningful actions to offer aid of any kind. To some, these are simply dull historical dates, but to others they are events burnt into the psyche of collective memories. The many events leading up to and including the Great Famine (there had been many smaller ones before) plus the many consequences during and after are examined through song as natural, social, economic, political and religious forces beyond the control of those affected took their terrible toll with roughly a quarter of the Irish population (2 million out of 8 million) dying of hunger and disease. The scope of this epic work of course has created a few songs in the cycle not directly about the famine itself, but everything fits in as an historical picture of the times and how events interweave into one another.
Declan perhaps at times thought that he was talking a little too long about some of the songs tonight (we did over-run on time here), but this album is from the very heart of Declan O’Rourke and that personal insight and feeling as we were introduced to the history behind these songs brought them even more to life on stage. Songs like “Poor Boy's Shoes”, “Mary Kate” and “Along The Western Seaboard” are hauntingly beautiful, but at the same time terrifying in the stories that they tell of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, woman and child. Even when someone does try to help they can end up not helping and “The Connaught Orphan “ is a powerful story in itself but one with a very dark twist to the thin line between being fed and not being fed.
You do not have to be Irish to understand or have empathy for the song cycle that is “Chronicles of The Great Irish Famine”, but perhaps the stories in the songs being part of your family collective consciousness give them extra meaning. I sometimes think that events of this scale leave their mark on the world in strange ways and that perhaps the voices of those who survived or did not survive these terrible events are still out there whispering their stories on the winds waiting for someone like Declan O’Rourke to hear them and give them voices and form once again. Stories like this are not told out of any hatred (perhaps a little anger still) but as a warning that we can never let the circumstances that led to these events be allowed to happen again.
“Chronicles of The Great Irish Famine” is an epic story which lends itself to adaptation in so many different performance genres and as I said at the beginning, it is NOT a folk album, it is much more than just a niche music style release. If this album had been made by someone with the status of Bob Dylan it would be getting universal praise, and Declan O’ Rourke deserves no less here.
Opening the show tonight were special guests Rory Butler and Mark Heavenor, two young musicians at the early stages of their musical careers and the start of their musical journey as songwriters. With roots firmly in artists like Jackson Browne, it is going to be interesting to see where this songwriting partnership takes them, as a few songs in this set from their not yet released debut album show a lot of promise.
There are not only well crafted lyrics here but also some inventive uses of different guitar tunings to create unique songs. Some songs at this early stage may show where some influences may or may not come from, but the only thing that these two musicians/songwriters lack at the moment is to me a solid belief in the quality of their own writing talents. Writing any song is always going to be a voyage of discovery, particularly when you take that brave step to present it to the public (and particularly when live and not in a studio), and Rory Butler and Mark Heavenor simply need time together to develop as they naturally go together as musicians and songwriters.
Review by Tom King