More classic folk songs than you can shake a stick at... but Irish no longer get a tune out of Eurovision

In his weekly column John Dolan looks at the recent poll to find Ireland's favourite folk song and also looks ahead to this week's Eurovision
More classic folk songs than you can shake a stick at... but Irish no longer get a tune out of Eurovision
Irish Eurovision Hopefull Sarah McTernan and team Ireland pictured on the Orange Carpet for the opening ceremony of the Eurovision Song Contest Tel Aviv 2019. Picture: Andres Poveda

HOW do you find the favourite Irish folk song of all time? Well, you ask the public, don’t you? Hmm, or do you ask a panel of ‘experts’ instead?

No matter what you do, you will end up causing a rumpus!

The problem with asking the public is that voting these days is usually done electronically and is wide open to abuse.

How else to explain how, in 2002, a BBC poll to find the world’s favourite song was hijacked and topped by the Wolfe Tones’ A Nation Once Again? Or how else to explain why a UK research vessel is currently voyaging the seven seas sporting the name Boaty McBoatface?

Then again, a panel of ‘experts’ will have their own agendas.

The whole thing is utterly subjective — both great fun and infuriating in equal measure.

When RTÉ launched a quest to find Ireland’s favourite folk song, they first invited the public to submit nominations, then asked a panel of eight people with backgrounds in music to come up with the shortlist of ten. The public will now decide on a winner in the ongoing Sunday night TV series.

RTÉ went for the best of both worlds, then... or should that be the worst?!

The announcement of the ten songs was met with emotions ranging from head-scratching to outrage in many quarters.

The inclusion of A Woman’s Heart upset some, who saw it as pandering to political correctness. “It’s not even a folk song,” ranted one online poster. “Expect loads of guff about the election of Mary Robinson and Mna na hEireann when that song is featured on TV.”

Another lamented: “Just picture the PC production meeting when they realised there wasn’t enough female representation in the song list and decided to bung in Only A Woman’s Heart as a token offering.”

Others claimed that The Green Fields Of France and The Parting Glass were actually Scottish.

For my part, Danny Boy is a little too over-wrought for my liking (and was penned by an Englishman, says you).

But it was the songs excluded from the list which caused most furore.

Whither The Fields of Athenry, Fairytale Of New York, Grace and Only Our Rivers Run Free?

What about Ride On? Joxer Goes To Stuttgart? Carrickfergus?

Another online poster wondered why there was only one Irish language song.

Another unpopular element to the top ten list was the choice of acts to represent each song. Thus, we ended up with the sublime On Raglan Road being performed by the Dublin indie band Villagers, when the Luke Kelly version is your only man here. And to select A Rainy Night In Soho and not have The Pogues version is about as sacrilegious as you can get.

Now, I am no expert on Irish folk songs — although my Spotify favourites do include Kelly’s said rendition of On Raglan Road — but I did think The Voyage, as performed by Christy Moore, warranted selection.

As luck would have it, I happened to be in contact with the writer of The Voyage, Johnny Duhan, this week, ahead of his appearance to launch his new book in Waterstones in Cork next Thursday.

Johnny was politeness personified about the exclusion of his classic from the RTÉ top ten list, but did point out: “If you examine the way the list was established, you will see it was the panel and not the RTÉ voters who decided on it, and there seems to have been some dissension among them about what songs were chosen.

“I would have thought The Fields of Athenry and Grace would also have been voted by the general public. But really some of the purest traditional songs also fell by the wayside regarding the list, so it’s not really that important.

“The general point that is being realised is that we have a great wealth of folk and traditional music that has become overshadowed in our time by the predominance of pop culture.”

Well, that last point is true enough. There is such a brilliant canon of folk songs in Ireland dating back centuries, and, as Johnny points out, pop culture has taken over.

But, and I risk causing serious offence to the Irish psyche here, we’re not that great at pop, are we?

Which brings me neatly to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest...

Now, there was a time, in the 1990s, when Ireland couldn’t stop winning the competition — and it was a time when we tapped into that folk song mentality with our winning songs.

Since the turn of the millennium, Eurovision has gone more pop-orientated, and Ireland has abandoned its roots and chased that rainbow... to disastrous effect.

Aside from a few stand-out, folksy contenders, such as Brian Kennedy’s Every Song Is A Cry For Love, which came tenth in 2006, Ireland has proven time and again that its pop is... well, pap.

Yet again in next Thursday’s semi-final in Israel, we will see this truism, when our 2019 entrant, Sarah McTernan, performs her song, aged 22. She is 150-1 to win... and I wouldn’t risk a shilling of your money. I’ll be surprised if she even makes the final.

I asked Johnny Duhan where we were going wrong at Eurovision, and he had a slightly different take.

“Regarding the evolution of the Eurovision song contest, it would seem it has deteriorated over the years through a number of factors,” he said. “The main one now being that neighbouring countries are more and more voting for one another, not on the basis of the quality of the songs (which is often pretty poor) but on the corrupt practise of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

“To be honest, I have little interest in the competition from a musical standpoint, but, given that it’s called the Eurovision (with emphasis on the ‘visual’) I retain a humorous attitude to the wild costumes often worn by some of the outrageous participants.

“And I can’t help reflecting that we Irish helped to bring down the overall tone of the contest by entering a wild turkey puppet at one time to sing one of our most foul/fowl entries (excuse the pun).”

Ah yes, Dustin the Turkey, whose effort, Irelande Douze Pointe, was more pathetic than prophetic.

When it comes to Eurovision, Frank McNamara is another whose opinion holds weight — he was the arranger and producer of two consecutive winners at it.

He is furious that after RTÉ canvassed Irish songwriters to submit songs for Eurovision this year, the broadcaster opted to use a tune from a Dutch team. Frank then slated the entry: “The lyrics are the worst I’ve ever heard, rhyming ‘22’ with ‘you’ and ‘blue’. It’s so basic and inane.”

Oh dear, it looks like another bad week ahead for Ireland at Eurovision. I wonder if Johnny Duhan and Frank McNamara could combine for our 2020 entry.


The top 10 shortlist for Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song:

Only a Woman’s Heart

Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile

Rocky Road to Dublin

The Town I Loved So Well

The Green Fields of France

The Foggy Dew

Danny Boy

A Rainy Night in Soho

On Raglan Road

The Parting Glass

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