Songs as a commentary on contemporary events - the concept is as old as singing itself. Folk music everywhere has often drawn on historical themes and, as often, reworked them to suit present-day tastes, interests and perspectives. The British folk tradition in particular is rich in such material. In fact, the so-called "broadside ballads" of the 17th century could be regarded as the roots of today's pop music, with songwriters commenting on the trials and tribulations of their day - public executions, for instance - printing up their efforts on cheap paper and selling them to the public.
The "Bring Your Own Hammer" project, initiated by the Irish historians Richard McMahon and Niall Whelehan, brings an entirely new perspective to the idea of songs inspired by history. In the course of his research work, explains McMahon, a specialist in Irish 19th century history, he frequently came across material full of poignant details about everyday life in the past which, as part of an academic study, would make a footnote at best. "As historians, we are careful to approach our work in a rather sober manner", he explains. "Emotional aspects tend to get lost in the process." Perhaps, he thought, the emotional power of letters, diaries and other historical documents could be better harnessed in song. "Bring Your Own Hammer" brings this thought to thrilling fruition.
The project has already yielded a full album, to be released later this year. So far, we've had three tasters: "Old Oak Road" by Mike Smalle featuring Cathal Coughal and Jah Wobble, "Golden Streets, Bitter Tears" by Adrian Crowley featuring Brigid Mae Power, and "The Cunard Line" by Adrian Crowley. All three are beautiful, and the project itself is, to my mind, totally brilliant.
Here's the interview I conducted via Zoom with Richard McMahon in November 2022 for a story published on 6 January 2023 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
First off, Richard, where do you teach?
Richard McMahon: I teach 19th century history, mainly Irish history, the history of law, at the Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.
How did the idea for “Bring Your Own Hammer” arise?
R: Going back, there was always bits and pieces I came across in my research that I thought were great pieces of evidence, great stories, really intriguing, but they didn’t fit into conventional academic books or articles I was writing, so they were often kind of interesting but not relevant to what I was working on, so they were edited out, or relegated to the footnotes. I was very conscious that someone could take them and maybe develop something more creative from that.
I’d been a big fan of Cathal Coughlan’s work for a long time, from the late 80s, early 90s. I have a memory of seeing them on Irish TV as a kid, the tail end of Microdisney probably. But then the Fatima Mansions were a big deal for me. Later also his solo work. An album like Black River Falls, the songs on that I thought were really perceptive, almost like a historian would write a song if he could. It was engaged with the history of the 20th century, a song like Dark Parlour for instance. So took it upon myself to contact him.
How did he react?
R: To my surprise, he got back very quickly. He was very enthusiastic. That was I think as far back as 2015. Originally, we discussed the idea of Cathal doing an album by himself, looking at Irish migrant communities, and sources relating to violence and law. We thought it was a great idea, and then: how can we do it? And that’s when it became more complicated. What would you find? What sources? What kind of themes would you focus on? How to fund it? How to record it? All the practicalities initially went against us. Also, Cathal had various performances to think about and other projects, and I was involved in the normal research-based things, too.
It took a year or two to begin to develop properly. And it only began to develop properly when we began to talk of getting other people involved, making it a much broader selection of themes, sources, different people coming in and contributing in different ways. That’s when we started to think that it might actually work, rather than putting the pressure all on one person. So, it was 2018/19 before it began to take off.
And in lockdown everyone had time to sit down and think about it properly?
R: Yeah! That was very much it. And after a while people got more comfortable with the idea. They realised they didn’t have to worry about what was expected. At the start, musically they could come up with things, but lyrically, they had to make a bit of a leap, how to write a song like a historian.
The three tracks I’ve heard so far, are very different from each other.
R: Yes, they are all quite different. “Old Oak Road” is rooted in a paragraph in a statement made by a woman who was suspected of killing her baby to the New York police in 1881. It’s very specific. For “Golden Streets, Bitter Tears” and the “Cunard Line”, Adrian went off and did his own research. We pointed him in different directions, letters, on-line resources, diaries, and he just dug around himself and found lots of good material and pulled it together that way. Adrian in particular worked very independently of the historians. At other times we were working closely with the composers. There is no set way. No formula.
How many historians are involved?
R: Just myself and Niall Whelehan who’s at the University of Strathclyde. He’s an expert on the Irish diaspora. At the start we sent people quite a lot of material. In some cases, a document with 3000 pages. Another song we have from Cathal which will be on the album, is based on one sentence. It’s about a sailor who returns to Ireland from the sea after a long time and finds his family has disappeared, and he’s going blind. There’s a lot in that one sentence. From that he was able to extrapolate. We learned a lot in the early stages. We’d send out a lot of material and then we wouldn’t hear an awful lot back. People would often say: this looks really interesting, but then they’d get stuck. At times we had to get more involved than we thought we should or might be, and we had to make suggestions. How if we take a bit of source material and develop the story a bit more for you? In the initial stages it was sometimes necessary to make people feel more comfortable around their material, of breaking down the mystique around historical research, to convince them that it shouldn’t just be the preserve of professional historians.
This approach has such a long tradition! Half of Irish folk music is inspired by historical events.
R: Yeah, exactly. Well, it’s probably the oldest form of history. The oldest form of historical expression. Our work is not novel in that sense. It’s a re-invigoration, I suppose. But once you get professional historians involved in the process, maybe it reshapes peoples’ expectations how it should be done. We were keen to assure people we’d be very open to them trying what ever they were comfortable with. We’d give them feedback. We do tell them if we think something’s off, if it doesn’t work. But this very rarely happened. We didn’t say you can’t do that. We’d say: this is what we think. We’d just offer feedback if we thought it worked historically or not.
How did the various musicians come together? It’s a very varied bunch!
R: Cathal was the lynchpin of the whole thing to some degree. He brought in Adrian Crowley, Eileen Gogan, Michael J. Sheehy, and he made the initial contact with Dimple Discs, and of course Dimple Discs knew people like Jah Wobble. So, there was that London-Irish network between Dimple and Cathal, and their connections to Irish artists. Mike Smalle, I suppose I’d have known him from living in Galway, and him being part of the local art scene. And he knew people like Linda Buckley. The degrees of separation weren’t that great. It grew organically.
Almost all seem to have strong Ireland connection. But then there’s two who stand out. There’s Wally Nkikita from the Demoractic Republic of Congo, and Agu, who has Czech and Polish roots.
R: One of the priorities was that we’d offer a fairly expansive definition of Irishness. We thought that was very important. Particularly when we were going to be talking about Irish migrants in the 19th century who migrated to Britain and North America. We wanted to involve people who were new migrants into Ireland to be involved in the process of that interpretation. So, Wally Nkikita came to Ireland as a refugee, he came into what’s called “direct provision”, the processing application for asylum. I think he was in that for seven years and had his asylum application finally granted two or three years ago. We thought he’d be an interesting voice. The same for Agu. She brings a different voice to the record, a really beautiful song about migration, leaving on a boat and going to a new country. She worked on that with Tony Higgins, another composer from Galway where Agu now lives.
How many pieces have you recorded so far?
R: I think we have the first album. There are a few technicalities to sort out, fitting it all on vinyl and things like that. The theme of the album is the sea, sea journeys, lives at sea. We hope that’ll be the first of at least three albums in the project. A separate one, probably an EP, will be of shipwrecks. A third will be related to themes of law and order. That’s the way we’re hoping it will develop. We’re working on a very limited budget. We have enough funds for the first record, and then we’re hoping to become self-sustaining. Both mine and Niall’s institutions are very supportive. It’s limited funding, but enough to get project up and running, website going, get first record out.
Of course, with so much material to pick from, the series could go on for ever!
R: That’s the great thing about history, there’s loads of it! The potential is certainly there. We could even go outside the bounds of Irish history. You could extend the story to North America, Canada, USA, Australia, parts of Africa, it’s kind of global. There’s some great songwriters in Australia and New Zealand we’d like to work with. Another idea I really like is selections of songs about certain cities, New York, Sydney, London, smaller cities, Dundee, places like Pennsylvania, you could focus on places off the beaten track in a series of songs, Paris, Berlin…
I’ve recently read “The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845 – 1849” by Cecil Woodham-Smith. How is it possible to study Irish history in the 19th century without getting really angry?
R: Ha! Well, I mean – “The Great Hunger” there are huge debates around that book and about the different interpretations of the famine period in particular. And some of the sources are horrific. One of the themes we’ve been developing – not on this record – is poverty. Looking at workhouse conditions during the famine. Some of the sources are absolutely horrific. There is anger in some of the song material generated through that. And there is a sadness. I think it’s sadness more than anger that comes through. I think where Irish historical studies are at, and Irish culture in general, there’s more a sense of reflection than palpable anger. Whether that’s the right approach or not, it’s perhaps the approach that seems more fitting to the tradition of professional historical writing which is supposed to be less bound to the emotional aspect of history. I suppose the music project allows for more expression of the anger and the emotional aspect of history. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t find myself getting angry about it. I find myself getting more concerned with understanding it, why it happened the way it does. There’s scope in that to be angry, to be emotive about it. But it can’t simply be that. If that’s your response you’re in the wrong business. What you’re fundamentally trying to do is trying to understand why it evolves and happens the way it does. Maybe there’s a slow-burning anger that comes with that, rather than a visceral angry response in the moment. The historian’s instincts are more reflective, attempting to understand things. But you’ve touched on something very important. Maybe the project will allow for more of the emotional dimensions of these stories to come out. And to allow people to engage in history or with history in a more emotive way that is grounded to some degree in a historical understanding.