15 years in the making, Declan O’Rourke’s epic song cycle, The Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine (voted Irish Album of the Year 2017 by the Irish Mail on Sunday, and Album of the Year 2017 by Marty Whelan on Lyric FM) combines the best of traditional Irish music and superb modern song-writing, to present a series of extraordinary tales from this most dynamic period in Ireland’s history. He brings the live concert experience to Skibbereen Town Hall on Tuesday, July 31st as part of the 2018 Skibbereen Arts Festival.
Speaking to The Southern Star, Declan explained his motivation to take on such a difficult subject.
‘The trigger for my interest, was I found out some years ago that my grandad was born in a workhouse. Now that was long after the Famine, but I had no idea that they had anything to do with it. I didn’t know what a workhouse was. Very shortly after that, I stumbled across a book by John O’Connor called The Workhouses of Ireland. It told the story of the Buckley family from Macroom. It described a man who carried his wife home from the workhouse, mile after weary mile, back to their little cottage, and was found the next morning, dead, with his wife’s feet held to his chest as if he had been trying to warm them.
‘Reading that became a life-changing experience for me, in that it diverted my course as an artist. I found it very moving, it made the hair stand up on my neck and I thought it was a very human story, a universal story and it could be anyone at any time. There are people experiencing situations like that all over the world right now. It just awoke something in me and it really pulled at my empathy.’
‘There’s only a veil of time between now and then. It’s so recent, relatively speaking. I find that so powerful. I love history anyway, but the fact that it’s our history, our truth and our identity – it’s a very defining thing in the psyche of Ireland. Yet we know so little about it.’
Skibbereen itself was one of the worst hit areas during the Famine, so the significance of this upcoming concert is not lost on him. ‘I feel it’s really fertile ground to be honest. In fact, one of the songs was practically born out of Skibbereen after I went to visit the Famine cemetery just outside the town. It’s a very evocative place. I think Skibbereen is a great place to play this material and there’ll be plenty to talk about. It’s wonderful that the exhibition (‘Coming Home; Ireland & The Great Hunger’ at Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre) is going to be on at the same time.’
‘It was a distillation process,’ Declan explains, in terms of the writing of this album. ‘I had to read and read and soak up as much information as I could over a long period of time. I needed to find a group of stories that went well together and gave good contrast. It had to have a lot of diversity, because if you’re going to sing for an hour on any one subject, but especially something so dark, you need to introduce humour and violence and all kinds of things to make sure that it was a journey – a bit of a rollercoaster.’
Speaking about the concert, Declan said: ‘People can expect a night of incredible music. There’s six of us onstage (John Sheahan of The Dubliners, Michael McGoldrick, Floriane Blancke, Jack Maher & Chris Herzberger). It’ll be theatrical, but also loose in that there’s a bit of banter and a bit of craic.
‘We don’t take it too seriously – the songs do enough of that. Anybody who thinks it’s going to be too dark or too deep – they should come along and be proven wrong.’
For booking information, or to find out more about Skibbereen Arts Festival (July 27th to August 5th) go to www.skibbereenartsfestival.com