The Wexford Carols

This is a collection of songs put together by Caitriona O’Leary and includes the voices of Tom Jones, Roseanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens , three of my favourite singers and very different sounds and styles. I have been interested in it for some time and have finally treated myself to a copy, and it is rather wonderful.

Based on a collection of poems published by Like Waddinge, Bishop of Ferns in County Wexford in 1684, they were “written as solace for people like him, disinherited Irish Catholic gentry, .. set to popular tunes of the day, both Irish and English… The carols became so popular they were reprinted twice in the following half century. … The singing of these semi-illicit carols from the penal times was given further momentum by Fr William Devereux, who, in 1728, composed A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas.” 

So to the annual celebration of Christmas is added a sadness by a community which had been outlawed from their traditions. The songs are a strange listen at first: not quite old, not quite new, and being in English, the language of Cromwell’s army that confiscated land and outlawed Catholicism, seems a little odd, and yet it is a reminder that not all Catholics were Gaelic speakers. Fr Devereaux in 1730 had no chapel for preaching, so he said mass in the corner of a field. I these recordings you can almost hear the wind blowing through the trees, the sheep murmuring in the fields.

The CD comes with a beautifully produced booklet, with images of angels and the holy family which look old and modern at the same time.

This is from ‘Tell the Shepherds’:

“The shepherds went back to Pen-Ader,

The other went back to his stall

To tell you how they behaved after,

In truth I know nothing at all.”

The spelling is at times unusual, but makes sense, as with ‘rejoyce’. ‘Christmass’. The songs themselves are well chosen, and the voices unpredictable. We are used to the form of verse and chorus, but they don’t apply here, nor is the addition of extra voices, as they enter and leave without any clear pattern, which is great. The voices also avoid the modern forms of close harmony. You can hear the different voices weaving round each other, as I can imagine our ancestors, untrained but experienced singers, filled churches and chapels with song each Christmass.

Here’s some more information and interviews about the album:


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