Alison O’Donnell continues to sing for all with album launch in Belfast

IT’S fair to say that Irish singer-songwriter Alison O’Donnell’s world grew during the lockdown. The folk and traditional singer met many new singers as well as club promoters from around the world, leading to the launch of her album Hark The Voice That Sings For All at the Sunflower bar in Belfast this month.

The Union Street Historic Site, which has housed a public house for over 100 years, is the perfect location for an album recounting Ireland’s complex history over three centuries.

Before discussing that, Alison explains how the closure led to a connection to the Sunflower and other folk clubs.

“I made the most of that opportunity and made a lot of new friends around the world. With Sunflower, two of the co-organizers came to Dublin and we put together this event,” he says.

It will be a chilling experience for the audience to hear songs like The Birds of Belfast Lough in such an intimate space.

“I have this other band, United Bible Studies, and one of the founders lives in Belfast,” O’Donnell tells me.

“He told me nobody writes songs about Belfast anymore. I said ok, I’m going to write this for him. I did a lot of research on the birds and insects that visit the loch. I also visited the nature reserve.

“There’s a bit about Henry Joy McCracken and Cave Hill in there, I wanted to mention a few things that have to do with the history of Belfast. It’s a lively, upbeat track, and I’ve been doing it live.”

Hark, the singing voice for all, tackles a wide range of topics including Irish wrestlers, cheating wives, animal cruelty, the Irish Rebellion and the famine ship The Jeanie Johnston. It all helps to create a dazzling collection written in the traditional language.

Among them Four Fine Females “celebrates four brave women in Irish history who were champions of women’s rights,” explains O’Donnell.

“Peg Plunkett ran a brothel and stood up to male domination and the gangs that assaulted her. Rosie Hackett was involved in the Dublin lockout in 1913 and the Easter Rising; there is a bridge named after her in Dublin.

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“Countess Markievicz was a leader in the Easter Rising and [investigative journalist] Veronica Guerin was another brave newer trailblazer who paid with her life when she took on an Irish cartel just 26 years ago.”

As O’Donnell suggests, some might take offense to the inclusion of Countess Markievicz.

“She is a symbol of the Rising: she shot and killed a policeman and that is a terrible thing, but within the act and theater of war it is fair game. She was not executed, she survived.”

One man who was executed was Edinburgh-born James Connolly, who performs on The Man Who Taught The Nation one of the most haunting songs in the collection.

“The lyrics are very passionate: it’s about Patrick Pearse, and Connolly is mentioned in the last verse. With many Protestant heroes and Connolly hailing from Edinburgh, no one flinched despite their country of origin or religion.

“He is remembered weekly by club singers here and he is very important in our country. It is a bit strange that there is only one plaque for him in Edinburgh.”

“The Kilmainham Gaol tour is one of the most interesting tourist attractions. I also have a lot of English blood and I cringed when I stood where they were executed.”

O’Donnell has a fascinating family history which is featured in the BBC television series Family Ties. Winifred O’Donnell, his beloved grandmother, had kept a secret that was revealed long after her death.

“My Scottish family descends from her first husband; she had to keep her first marriage a secret, which is why she came to Ireland in 1946,” explains O’Donnell.

“She had to move away from her past in Britain. Winifred married into a musical family and managed to keep her first husband and two children a secret. He was Chinese and that was a problem.” [in those days].”

Had the news broken, it would have been a national scandal: Winifred’s second husband, Major Percival O’Donnell, was part of a triumvirate of military musicians who traveled the world with his two brothers.

“They were very famous conductors and composers in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s and they were very sporty, and one of my great-uncles played football for Fulham FC for a while. Another played at the Potsdam Conference where Churchill and Stalin attended, They toured the world with kings, princes and generals”.

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It has been 50 years since Alison O’Donnell released her first album as part of Mellow Candle. Ella’s cult record Swaddling Songs has found a new generation of fans despite a lukewarm response when the record was first released on Decca Records in 1972.

The young Irish band used the same studios as David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Clodagh [Simonds, co-founder of the band] he remembers Marc Bolan coming out of the elevator.

“I remember Suzi Quatro holding us back when we were scheduled to use a rehearsal room. She was very rude to us.”

O’Donnell suggests that the band was perceived as “too rock for folk clubs and too folk for rock clubs; we fell between two stools. One of the reasons we feel so down is the fact that we didn’t we could play enough.” We played all the major venues and festivals, but it just wasn’t enough.”

She recorded Swaddling Songs with Mellow Candle while still in her teens, moving in the same circles as Clannad, Thin Lizzy and The Dubliners, playing venues like Slattery’s Bar.

“Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny used to host recurring residencies [The Mug’s Gig] and they often asked us,” recalls O’Donnell.

“We were playing one night and Luke Kelly came in and checked us out – he was noticed lounging behind a pillar listening to himself.”

Wider recognition for Mellow Candle was better late than never.

“It’s nice. I heard there were kids in Philly in the late 1980s putting the album on cassette tape, it started to take hold in the folk community and it’s had a second wave with much younger people, which gave me the impetus to move forward with my new material.

:: Alison O’Donnell will launch Hark The Voice That Sings For All at Sunflower, Union Street, Belfast on September 15th. Hark The Voice That Sings For All is now available online.

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