Irish songs of Yeats and Joyce by Fran O’Rourke

The songs of the people were very important for both Yeats and Joyce. For Yeats they were the distillation of the folk tradition, the channel through which the ancient Celtic spirit survived. One might even say that his approach to song was more theoretical. For Joyce they had a more vibrant function as part of everyday life. It is said that Yeats was tone deaf; what counted for him was the rhythm. Joyce had a fine tenor voice.

One of Joyce’s favourite songs was Yeats’ ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, which the poet had modeled on an older folk song. Joyce sang it in concert and even made a gift of the poem to Nora Barnacle, the newly found love of his life, shortly after they first met. John Feeley and I will do a lesser known version of ‘Salley Gardens’ – possibly the air that Joyce sang.

Joyce’s interest in classical music, especially opera, is well documented; less well known are the very many allusions throughout his writings to songs from the Irish tradition. John Feeley and I try to show that Joyce was just as interested in the songs of the people; he was very democratic in all of his interests, particularly music and song. Joyce’s work is inconceivable without such songs as ‘Lass of Aughrim’, ‘Last Rose of Summer’, and ‘Croppy Boy’. These and other popular songs of the tradition are included in our programme. Also included are lesser known songs of significance such as ‘Who Goes With Fergus?’ and the forgotten air to which Joyce may have sung Yeats’ poem ‘Salley Gardens’. 

I’ve known John Feeley for about twenty years, but was familiar with his first recordings. I loved his very sensitive arrangements of Irish airs and was delighted when he agreed to accompany me for the Irish songs of Joyce. It is a real pleasure; our rehearsals are often private solo recitals! We are both from County Galway in the west of Ireland and have a lot in common besides music. 

We have just published the CD of a live recording of our concert in Monaco on St Patrick’s Day. This CD includes nine songs with a connection to James Joyce:  Cruiscín Lán, Éamonn a’Chnoic, Lass of Aughrim, Brian O’Linn, Last Rose of Summer, Croppy Boy, Rocky Road to Dublin, Down by the Salley Gardens, Slán le Máigh / A Long Farewell, and Siúil A Rún. There are also three instrumental pieces, including a recording on James Joyce’s own guitar that was restored in 2012.

In our concert for Solas Nua we will sing all of the songs that are on the CD, as well as a few that we’ve added, that have a joint Yeatsian and Joycean link. These include the Irish versions of ‘Twisting of the Rope’ and ‘Paisteen Fionn’. Both of these are referred to by both writers. We will perform ‘Who Goes with Fergus’, which Yeats included in the first version of Countess Cathleen; Joyce heard it on the stage and later sang it for his sick brother and dying mother. There is a poignant reference to it in Ulysses. We will do musical settings of some Yeats poems: Lake Isle of Inisfree, Had I the Heavens’ Embroidered Cloths and possibly one or two more.

Purchase tickets here.