Robbie’s ears may be suspect but he has the lungs of a 30year old.
He sings Spancilhill from beginning to end with a clarity and strength that belies his age. His wife, Maureen, prompts from the wings at the beginning of each verse. It’s humbling to be in the presence of such a gift that is so willingly shared.
Spancilhill is hugely popular song in Ireland. This is largely due to the fact that Christy Moore, recognising a classic when he hears one, recorded it with the nascent Planxty in 1970. The background to this wonderful song is as follows. I quote from Robbie’s sleeve notes.
‘The song was written by Michael Considine. Michael himself was a great musician. He used to play the melodeon and the fiddle and he used to cater for all the American wakes and the Fair at Spancilhill. He was great with this Mary Mac….Mac the ranger’s daughter. Her house was across the road and he went off to America to make some money and to bring her out. He went to Boston for two and a half years and then down to California, where he went to night school and became an accountant. He wrote the song in poem form and sent it home to his six- year old nephew…a man I often walked to mass with. He was an old man and I was a young fellow. Michael Considine died before he reached twenty-three. I got the song from Marie Keenan, who got it from the nephew of the composer’
Michael seems to have crammed a lot into his twenty-three years on earth and I have to say I’m astonished at the richness and maturity of the lyric, and the idea that he would send such a poem to his six-year-old nephew.
This is the lyric as Robbie sang it:
Last night as I dreaming of the pleasant days gone by
My mind being bent on rambling (and) to Erin’s Isle I did fly
I stepped on board a vision I sailed out with a will
And I quickly came to anchor at my home in Spancilhill.
Enchanted with the novelty delighted with the scenes
Wherein my early childhood I often times have been
I thought I heard a murmur I think I hear it still
‘Tis that little stream of water at the cross of Spancilhill.
And to amuse my fancy I lay upon the ground
Where all my school companions in crowds assemble round
Some have grown to manhood while more their graves did fill
Oh I thought we were all young again at the cross of Spancilhill.
It being on a Sabbath morning I thought I heard a bell
O’er hills and valleys sounded in notes that seemed to tell
That Father Dan was coming his duty to fulfil
At the parish church of Clooney just one mile from Spancilhill.
And when the sermon ended we all knelt down in prayer
In hopes for to be ready to climb the golden stairs
And when back home returning we danced with right good will
To Martin Moylan’s music at the cross of Spancilhill.
It being on the 23rd of June the day before the Fair
Sure Erin’s sons and daughters they all assembled there
The young, the old, the stout, and the bold came there to sport and kill
What a curious combination at the Fair of Spancilhill
I went into my old home as every stone can tell
The old boreen was just the same and the apple tree over the well
I missed my sister Ellen and my brothers Pat and Bill
And I only met strange faces at my home in Spancilhill.
I called to see the neighbours to see what they might say
The old were getting feeble and the young ones turning grey
I met with Tailor Quigley he’s as brave as ever still
Shure he used to mend my britches when I lived in Spancilhill.
I paid a flying visit to my first and only love
She’s as pure as any lily and as gentle as a dove
She threw her arms around me saying Mike I love you still
She’s Mac the ranger’s daughter the pride of Spancilhill.
I thought I stooped to kiss her as I did in days of yore
Says he Mike you’re only joking as you often were before
The cock flew on the roost again he flew both loud and shrill
And I woke in California far far from Spancilhill.
But when my vision faded the tears came in my eyes
In hopes to see that dear old spot someday before I die
May the almighty king of angels his choicest blessings spill
On that glorious spot of nature the cross of Spancilhill
I forego the chat with the historian, as my knee is giving me serious pain, and I also need a nap.
We decide to split the gig in two and let the local youngsters play for the interval. They are being shepherded by Carol O’Neill and we share the “dressing room”. They play their version of the London Lasses for me, and I, at Jack’s behest (Jack is Carol’s five year old son) deliver a verse of Whiskey In the Jar. There are three young girls playing concertinas, two lads on banjos, and another girl on the tin whistle. Happily, there isn’t a bodhrán or guitar in sight.
I recall when I first became aware of Irish Traditional music the concertina was a rare sight indeed. Pakie Russell was the first concertina player, that I’d seen play live. Ciarán MacMahuna introduced him at a workshop he was conducting at the Merriman School in Kilkee, and later on he and his brother Micho were part of a session in the Hydro Hotel. Later still, colleagues removed Pakie from the playing field. He looked like a corner back, whose two legs had been broken by the opposition.