Niamh Parsons has come to be known as one of the most distinctive voices in Irish music. Her voice has drawn comparisons to such venerated singers as Dolores Keane, June Tabor and Sandy Denny. The great Scottish balladeer Archie Fisher said of Niamh, “a songstress like her comes along once or twice in a generation.”
I grew up in Dublin in the sixties and songs were part of my life from an early age. My father was a Dubliner, and Dubliners love songs and singing – from the popular songs to the more obscure songs. As a child the radio would be playing in the kitchen and on Saturday at dinner time, which was always in the middle of the day, we would listen to the Walton’s sponsored program, where they played a variety of Irish songs from Delia Murphy to Noel Purcell and Joe Lynch.
This was where I also heard Emmet Spiceland, The Johnstons and Paul Brady, Sweeney’s Men and many more. We lived close to a Hotel called ‘The Old Sheiling’, which where a folk club was held. My parents attended this folk club and usually brought my older sister and myself, instead of getting a babysitter. So I saw and heard some wonderful music and singers. I didn’t realize it then but this was to be a lasting influence on me.
My dad had a wonderful tenor voice and on our long drives to my mother’s native Co. Clare for our holidays, Daddy would teach myself and my sister songs. I learnt ‘Curragh of Kildare’ while driving through the Curragh of Kildare. We would also sing in 3 part harmony, and I don’t ever remember learning it, we could just DO it. Daddy had a whole collection of silly songs, like…… Maresey dotes and dozy dotes and little lambs eat ivy – kids’ll eat ivy too wouldn’t you…..’ and lots of other songs.
While down in Co. Clare, we would be brought to music sessions, although we were always quite bored, and after 3 weeks we were thoroughly fed up of ‘minerals’ (orange juice or lemonade), which was what we had to drink while the rest were drinking pints. But we would have listened to some fantastic music, fiddles, pipes, flutes, bodhráns and of course, songs. I remember my sister and I sitting on the top step of the stairs, which led down to the front room in Friels pub in Miltown Malbay, listening to a wonderful session below, with some members of the Liverpool Ceili Band (which was co-founded by a cousin of ours from Liverpool, Sean McNamara). During the evening we would be asked to sing by Willie Clancy the piper and we would give our rendition of one of the Johnston’s songs, Mary from Dungloe or some other song. We even won a competition in Kilmihil for our singing – I think we won a packet of crisps and a can of Fanta! By the age of 8, I was singing big songs like ‘The Boys of Barr na Sraide’ and ‘The Banks of the Lee’ and continued learning those type of songs throughout my life.
But my sister and myself were the only people we knew who listened or sang these songs or who listened to traditional Irish music. In our lives it was more a ‘Co. Clare’ thing or a ‘Parsons family’ thing. Throughout my teens though, I discovered that Irish people in general don’t really like Irish music and I think that’s generally still the case. Country and Western (or Country and Irish) music is much more popular here than our traditional music. Eventually during my teens I turned away from this music myself, mostly because I had no friends involved in it, my friends would go to discos, and listen to ‘70s music. I was still too young to go to the pub and was not really aware of the thriving scene that was happening in Dublin.
But by the time I was of drinking age, ‘Planxty’ happened. It was glorious to hear these same songs I knew on the radio again. There were cool gigs to go to, great songs to learn. I continued on my never-ending quest for new ‘old’ material. I learnt the guitar a bit, and accompanied myself. I was still one of very few people who followed this music but I was making friends and learning stuff. I started going to sessions in the city and met like-minded people. I remember being so excited when each album came out, learning songs like ‘As I roved out’ by Andy Irvine, or ‘Little Musgrave’ and actually throughout the 1980s I plunged into this ‘scene’ so deep that I was unaware of almost all popular music. Set-dancing had also become very popular, and having danced as a child, it was natural that I become a teacher of the dancing too. I would go to pubs like ‘The Brazen Head’, ‘The Four Seasons’, O’Donoghues’ and sing, dance and play the nights away – wouldn’t have the energy for all that now.
Now, being a little older I find myself choosing sessions carefully. I try to go to the Goilin singers club as often as I can www.goilin.com – this club started over 30 years ago, and I have been going for about 28 of those years. I also visit the Howth singers Club near me, and go to the Cle Club when I can. These singing clubs keep my ‘feet on the ground’ regarding songs and singing and I pick up a lot of songs too.
Although I accidentally fell into a career of singing traditional songs, I would probably be singing anyway as a hobby – I feel very lucky to live in Dublin and to have found myself with a career in this music. I continue to search out songs, new or old and I’d say I’ll be still singing on my deathbed!