By Daniel Neely
A couple summers ago I was visiting Kerry and spent some time near Dingle where I was fortunate to catch Seamus Begley with Donogh Hennessy performing at the Siopa Ceoil in town. The shop puts on great little shows several times a week, and Begley and Hennesy, just one of several different acts that appear there, delighted the small audience of tourists. Afterward, the session was at O'Sullivan's Courthouse Pub, where Begley’s daughter Méabh and guitarist Matt Griffin played for an audience that had a more even Kerry folk-to-tourist ratio. Although Begley was there to support his daughter, he shed the restraint he’d displayed at the Siopa Ceoil and really “became” the craic, much to everyone’s delight. It was mighty.
Begley is one of those singers who needs little introduction. For the unacquainted, his parents owned a dancehall, both were singers (his father also played melodeon) and together had nine children who grew up steeped in music. Several of them (including Máire, Breandán, Eibhlín, and Seosaimbhín) grew up to be noted singers and musicians. Now there’s a new generation of even younger Begleys who keep the flame lit. It’s a very rich family tradition in music.
His recordings are the stuff of legend. Begley’s “Meitheal” album with guitarist Stephen Cooney is widely considered one of the music’s great works and his work with guitarist Jim Murray is wonderful. And while his most recent work with Téada and Oisín Mac Diarmada is also outstanding, there he’s very much a team player sharing the spotlight. Begley’s fans now have reason to rejoice, though, as he’s just released a great new solo CD. “The Bold Kerryman.” It is perhaps the most aptly named album ever, and the music it contains will absolutely delight.
People who love singing will love this album. It frames Begley’s cherubic but impish voice sweetly, and presents it in a way that is easy to sink into. Although the guitar is the most frequently used support instrument, producer John Reynolds has brought some of the modernity that fans of “Meitheal” would be familiar with. This, however, takes a definitive backseat to Begley’s voice and is used to enhance and accent the album’s tone, rather than be the focus of the listener’s attention.
This approach yields some truly lovely tracks. Perhaps the best is “The Banks of the Sweet Primroses,” a song the liner notes explain Begley learned from the singing of Luke Kelly. This version clearly pays great respect to Kelly’s, but the bold Kerryman is joined here by Damien Dempsey. The two play off each other really beautifully, culminating in some breathtaking harmony at track’s end. Simply fantastic.
“Táimse Im Chodladh,” the album’s opener, is lovely as well. It’s sung in a sean-nós style as Gaeilge and is given sparse accompaniment. While Begley’s rendering of the melody is, of course, brilliant, it’s the way he delivers the song’s words that stands out to me. Even if you don’t understand what he’s singing, you can feel the poetry in the way he sings.
Another track I’m quite taken by is “Portland Town.” Begley got the song from the singer Jim McCann in the 1960s, but here it’s been given a haunting, very modern sounding arrangement that comes in nice contrast to the rest of the album. The track is driven by Tim Edey’s driving, percussive guitar, over which Meabh Begley’s background lyrics provide angelic texture. These elements lift up the imagery of the song’s story in an effective and beguiling way – great stuff.
“The Bold Kerryman” is a brilliant album of accompanied sean-nós singing, delivered by one of the best to do it. Sensitive listeners will hear the detail and depth of Kerry’s landscape in Begley’s voice and sense how the arrangements channel his energy in a very effective way. Fans of Begley’s music will welcome this new release with open arms, but I think it will also appeal to people beyond the world of traditional music because the music is not only beautiful and accessible, but a bit openly wild in spirit, a precious commodity found in the best traditional music. Definitely recommended. “The Bold Kerryman” is available on iTunes and through irl.bigcartel.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.