This song is on our CD, Saint Bartholemew’s Feast and, though it’s not one we perform a lot, it’s one that I have a great affection for. It’s a Donegal song and it’s one that my father was likely to sing snatches of now and then. The first recording I heard of it was in 1968 by Emmet Spiceland, a trio formed by the amalgamation of two folk groups in 1967 — The Spicelanders and The Emmet Folk Group. The Spicelanders were two brothers, Michael and Brian Byrne and the Emmet Folk Group was Donal Lunney, Brian Bolger (no relation) and Mick Moloney. There were many comings and goings in the band but the line-up that recorded ‘Mary’ was Donal Lunney and the Byrne brothers. The song was written in the mid-1800s by a Donegalman — as both the name of the song and the references to The Rosses and Gweedore will attest — called Pádraig MacCumhall.
The song went to #1 on the Irish charts in February 1968 and the modish Emmet Spiceland were the object of Beatlemania-like adoration from fans. They were young, good-looking and trendy. Their musical style was soft, acoustic with lush harmonies and, later on, light orchestration. Groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio were obvious influences and a savvy management company put its marketing skills to good use, making the band huge in Ireland.
Their fashionable and cool affect did much to make folk music trendy and their arrangements — especially those made later by Donal Lunney — were (and remain) hugely influential. This was all very fashionable and really kind of fleeting but it set the groundwork for what was to follow. Lunney wasn’t in the band for very long and went on to duties in Planxty, Bothy Band and Moving Hearts — all legends in Irish folk music history. Other members went on to music and other careers — Mick Moloney, in particular, found fame in the Johnstons and later as an admired academic in the folklore field.
There were other bands at the time doing similar things, Sweeney’s Men had a grittier sound and a good deal of Americana in their repertoire. Skara Brae had a very jazz-influenced take on old songs in Irish. It was plain, in retrospect, that something was going on as far as Irish folk musicians trying to find a definition of themselves, some coherent identity. And, within a few short years, many of the members of the above groups were founders or members of Planxty, Bothy Band, The Pogues — three different takes on traditional music but all profoundly Irish and all much more muscular than earlier forays into the tradition.
But quite apart from the fact that the recording from Emmet Spiceland was in many ways seminal, their version of Mary from Dungloe was especially nice. The band’s next single was Báidín Fhéilimí, a song sung unapologetically in Irish. This, too, was a big hit. A lot of people were learning about the old tradition and realizing that it wasn’t a drawling miseryfest but a tradition of great beauty and spirit. It wasn’t one of the big songs and is not particularly original but it does have lovely directness, a sorrow in its heart, spoken plainly.
Colcannon hasn’t done anything particularly unusual with the song. It is, like some many songs of the type, best sung straight ahead. There are lines in it that may be found in other songs — the last verse is found in many songs with the girl’s name changed appropriately. There are many versions available online but if you’re looking for it, be sure not to get the song confused with the annual festival of the same name.
So, here’s the version by Emmet Spiceland and here’s one by Colcannon.