Still singing: folksinger and friend of Thoor Mary McPartlan dies

Yesterday we heard the sad news of the death of Mary McPartlan. Leitrim-born McPartlan was a singer, actor, director, promotor and well-known cultural activist for music and the arts in Galway and nationally. She was also a force of nature: despite spending significant energy over a number of years battling with cancer, she always came back stronger, full of new ideas and collaborations; and still singing.

Throughout a varied career, Mary McPartlan worked with Druid theatre, TG4, and RTÉ, as well as helping to found Galway theatre company Skehana, the Galway singers club Riabhóg, the Galway Youth Theatre and Glór, the national Irish music centre in Ennis. With TG4 she founded the thriving Gradam Ceoil National Traditional Music Awards and produced and presented the music show FLOSC.

Working at the National University of Ireland Galway she set up Arts in Action sparking new art projects and bringing together artists, musicians, actors, writers and performers from around the world. Even in these restricted times the series continues to find an audience online.

Her first love though was music. She founded folk duo Calypso in the 1970s, and more recently she received a Fulbright award for her work collecting and editing folksong from Ireland and Scotland to America and beyond. Her debut album The Holland Handkerchief (2004) was heralded as folk album of the year by MOJO Magazine, follow-up Petticoat Loose (2008) featured more of her award-winning solo singing, and she continued to record and tour.

As a longstanding friend of Thoor Ballylee she took a leading role in the last concert held here in October 2019.

Mary McP

As tributes came in from around the world, from RTÉ, Breakingnews.ie and the Irish Times, President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins released a statement:

“It is with deep sadness that Sabina and I have heard of the death of a dear friend, Mary McPartlan, musical director, broadcaster, and one of Ireland’s great folk singers.

She leaves a legacy of achievement for the arts that will endure. […]

Her invocation of place, history and feeling was unique. Sabina and I were among the many who were privileged to call her our friend, and we will all miss her so much.

For myself, I will always hold wonderful memories of being on tour with her and of her singing her tribute to Victor Jara at those five gigs we did together in 2011 in Leitrim, Donegal, Wicklow and Kerry; the wonderful company she was; and later I often admired how brave she was, indomitable, transcending loss and adversity with a nobility of heart and a powerful reach of humanity that was of course always there in her singing and in her life.”

Mary McParlan is featured in many fine performances and live recordings, too many to name here. Her solo version of ‘Lord Gregory’ (also known as ‘The Lass of Aughrim’) from The Holland Handkerchief expresses the strange grief that so inspired James Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, where a rendition of the song ‘in the old Irish tonality’, ‘made plaintive by distance’ reminds Gretta Conroy of her Galway youth and precipitates the story’s climax.

Mary McPartlan is survived by her husband, Paddy, and daughters Mairéad and Meabh. All at Thoor Ballylee remember well her courage, vivacity and spirit, which continues wherever music is played in Galway.

 

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

It is eighty years, a lifetime and no time at all, since W.B. Yeats died and was laid to rest at Roquebrune in the south of France. Far from home, friends and energies surrounded him, and he left life still busy working and thinking: “I know for certain my time will not be long. I have put away everything that can be put away that I may speak what I have to speak, & I find my expression is a part of study […]. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it’. I must embody it in the completion of my life.”

France, Var, Roquebrune sur Argens, snow in winter on the cliffs of the Rocher de Roquebrune

When his death was announced, the wires hummed with tributes from around the world. Most interesting perhaps were responses from his younger contemporaries, Louis MacNeice and W.H. Auden. They had differed politically from Yeats in the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s, and yet both were moved to respond handsomely. Louis MacNeice would write a one of the earliest and finest books of criticism about the poet, published in 1941, and W.H. Auden wrote several essays and a poem among the finest in the language.

Thoor Ballylee, Galway, March 2018 (from Connacht Tribune)

Auden’s poem is sombre, strangely moral, and reflective, as he works out a strong sense of difference amidst his admiration (in its final version below, the poem was revised to leave out any need for forgiveness: ‘Time […] pardons him for writing well’). It records the effect of the poet’s death on the world, but the world’s impress on all he left behind, including those last to know about his passing, his poems. Yeats had been seeking warm weather for his health, but through Auden’s eyes it was marked indelibly by a symbolically cold winter: ‘What instruments we have agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day.’ With the current cold snap across these islands and in North America it is hard not to recall the words of this probing, bracing tribute, first published later in 1939 as the flames of World War Two were rising.

Chicago and Lake Minnesota, January 2019

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

I
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

III
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by the Estate of W. H. Auden.

 

Ben Bulben, Sligo, January 2018