“THE story of Edward Bransfield is, amongst many other things, a tale of triumph over adversity,” says Ciarán Ruby, of traditional folk music trio, The Diviners, and the writer of their latest single, ‘The Man Bransfield’. Ruby is reflecting on events in the early 1800s that inspired his song, and on Edward Bransfield himself, and how Bransfield’s life can be projected onto modern times and the coronavirus lockdown.
“It could be seen as a simile, as the story of Bransfield is very similar to what’s happening now. The phrase over the course of this lockdown has absolutely been, ‘we are now entering uncharted waters’, right? And that is so much in keeping with what Bransfield did: He set sail into the Southern Ocean and it literally wasn’t charted! It was sailing into the unknown then, and that’s what we’re doing now. In one sense, we see his story, his amazing achievements, as a kind of testament to the resilience of the human spirit. We adapt, we travel in general, and we do as best we can,” Ruby says.
Bransfield was forced into the Royal Navy in 1803, at the age of 18, and by 1820 had been chosen as captain of a vessel to investigate the Antarctic mainland. He is credited as being the first person to have seen the Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic, and “such was the discovery of Antarctica”, wrote Bransfield’s biographer, Roland Huntford. Indeed, a mountain that Bransfield made note of in his journal was subsequently named Mount Bransfield.
Ruby was introduced to the story of Bransfield on a much less treacherous trek.
“Back in October, I was driving and turned on the radio, and this is where it all began for me and The Diviners with Bransfield: I heard this Corkman telling the story of a man who discovered Antarctica — a local man, from just up the road from me, in Ballinacurra! — and who had subsequently been forgotten by history. The man on the radio turned out to be Jim Wilson, an Antarctic guide, author, and broadcaster, and instrumental in bringing the story of Bransfield back,” Ruby says.
“I was just listening and thinking, ‘that’s absolutely fascinating and it’s a story that nobody knows, a story The Diviners could, and should, make music about’. It all sat in the back of my head for a while and then I wrote the song over a couple of nights in December, and approached Jim Wilson to see what he thought of it and it turned out to be quite timely. He is also the chairman of the Remembering Edward Bransfield committee and they were unveiling a monument on January 25, the world’s first monument to him, and in his home village, as a testament and a public recognition for his feats,” Ruby says.
How Bransfield has been forgotten irks Ruby, and it is one of the driving elements of the song.
“It’s these little nuggets of stories within communities that tend to be forgotten. He was an amazing man. His story is fascinating and yet he died in obscurity, after discovering Antarctica. He died in Britain, forgotten, uncelebrated, and essentially written out of history, really. I mean, he was press-ganged off the deck of his father’s fishing boat in Cork Harbour by the British navy and, against all odds, he rose through the ranks. And he went on to be the first person to discover Antarctica, in 1820. I mean, that’s crazy. And it’s up the road from me. It’s community, but it’s still of international relevance. What a huge story,” Ruby says.
Accompanying ‘The Man Bransfield’s’ release is a video, which is helping the song ‘to travel’ while the band can’t tour. The choice to direct the video was obvious: “The video was actually shot by Jim Wilson and his son, Barry. We thought it would be cyclical, because Jim is also a filmmaker and he’d heard the early drafts of the song, so he knew the piece very well. We shot it in the Lantern Room of Roches Point Lighthouse. We were helped by James Power, the last lighthouse keeper of Roches Point. It was a wonderful experience. Obviously, there were some practical reasons, like needing somewhere picturesque, but if it was raining, we’d need to be covered and we’d also need lots of light… so the location was ideal, practically, but also, thematically, it’s perfect, too. It’s right in the mouth of Cork Harbour; you can see Cork from all points of the compass,” Ruby says.
“It may not have been that far from where Bransfield was kidnapped, as such. So we sat up there, playing the tune, and it was amazing, because it was like we could feel the presence of Bransfield within the room, sharing the space with ourselves. It was the last point he would have seen as he was taken across the Irish Sea. Now, we know the lighthouse wasn’t there then, but it was wonderful to sing the song high above the waves and imagine Bransfield and the life that was to be spread out before him,” Ruby says.
Ruby sees why folk music remains as important as ever.
“Folk music seeks the darkness and fears as much as it approaches the light and hope. I think it speaks to that part of us, as human beings, as people who come from community; it speaks of what we want to share. The world has gotten bigger, because of this lockdown, but communities have come together moreso through sharing, and folk and traditional music is about that sort of shared experience,” Ruby says. “I think it speaks to our commonality and humanity. Pop music is too fragmented, I think: It’s not about community. Pop can’t bind things together anything like folk can.”
- To hear more of The Diviners and their latest single, ‘The Man Bransfield’, you can check out www.the-diviners.com.