How it’s New York: This list was sparked by a discussion in Catskills Irish Arts Week.imwildandbeautiful
How it’s Irish: It focuses on Irish(and Scottish, and English) traditional music.

In the Catskills last week, Paul De Grae and Marta Cook led a discussion about Irish music and authenticity. (The discussion had some other name but this is what it became). Why do people make albums? Should they?  James Keane was eloquent in his feelings about how “traditional” is sometimes applied to things that aren’t, such as Riverdance. Michael Tubridy was a little more forgiving, pointing out that the show was about dance, and that Japanese people came to a Miltown Malbey Willie Clancy week to learn the tradition after having been exposed to it. This was an in-the-round discussion, with voices from students as well as from teachers. Jane Kelton said that as a woman with a Scottish name, she sometimes had faced skepticism when she was learning …

This is all by way of introduction to say that in my turn I said with a laugh that I was Jewish. Willie Clancy, a fellow Jerseyan whom Keane had praised, still came from an Irish family and had been exposed to the music. But I, a little Jewish girl from New Jersey, would never have heard it at all had my brother Stephen Orel not come home from Cornell one summer with a stack of albums. Up to then, the only Irish music I’d ever heard had been the jingle on the Lucky Charms commercial, some operatic tenor stuff they played on TV on St. Patrick’s Day, maybe the score to “The Quiet Man.” Oh, and that character Finnegan who beat up Kirk in “Shore Leave” on Star Trek, they played a jig (Irish Washerwoman?) under that.

Nothing, in short.

These albums changed.



If I’d heard them five years earlier, I’d have been ditching youth symphony for a fiddle class somewhere. I’d have pestered my parents until they found me someone to work with (I’m studying with Brian Conway now, because, better late than never! And along the way have had classes with James Malcolm, Caitlin Warbelow at Irish Arts Center, and Amy Beshara).

I’d have been at fleadhs. Just the right amount of competition for me (not the ulcer-inducing challenges at Interlochen though).

So I said, G-d bless albums. And I listed what the albums were.

Here they are. At Stanford a few years later I shoved them into my backpack to host my radio show, “Wild and Beautiful” because  KZSU did not own them. I rushed out and bought a lot more, marking the second wave of albums, but that’s for another post.

Here they are. What are the ones you heard first? Do you remember? Was it always in your life? Was there a special tune?

planxtyblack1. Planxty Black.

“Sweet Thames Flow Softly” was one of the most beautiful love songs I’d ever heard. That it was original and connected to “Romeo and Juliet” only made it better.

2. Planxty, “After the Break.”

I loved “The Good Ship Kangaroo” and also a jig set, “East of Glendart/Brian O’Lynn/Pay the Reckoning.” When it goes from the tension of Brian O’Lynn into Pay the Reckoning you just have to smile!


3. Silly Wizard, “Wild and Beautiful.”

This setting of “If I Was a Blackbird” is haunting and unforgettable.

4. Silly Wizard, “So Many Partings.”imsomanypartings

“Donald MacGillivray” with Andy M. Stewart’s subtle but impassioned vocals and the late Johnny Cunningham’s fierce fiddling makes me want to go fight someone.

Years later, “The Valley of Strathmore” was in my head after 9/11. “If Time was a thing man could buy …”

5. Silly Wizard, “Caledonia’s Hardy Sons.”

How I loved “The Broom o’the Cowdenknowes.” My favorite book at the time was Dorothy Dunnett’s “The Game of Kings” which I gave to said brother Stephen to read. He still has not, just has started to lie about it frequently. There’s a story that “The Broom o’the Cowdenknowes” was written for Mary, queen of Scots, by her lover David Rizzio, later murdered.

imcaledonia“The Game of Kings” is set in the 16th century, before unification, with Scottish and English border fights. I was so out of it at first I didn’t even know Scotland and England were fighting each other. Long cast of characters, complex, witty anti-hero, and the romance is not at all what you expect. I fell in love with Francis Crawford of Lymond, and these Silly Wizard albums were the soundtrack in my mind. I dreamed of someday producing this as a miniseries for television, which now that HBO is doing this kind of thing… hello, Phil? you listening? I met up with Johnny C. not long before he died at the 11th Street Bar and he said out of the blue, “Have you ever read any Dorothy Dunnett?”

So… Phil? What do you think? You do the soundtrack, I’ll adapt the script and help with casting. Let’s pitch it!

6.. Andy M. Stewart, “By the Hush.”

I thought “Haud Yer Tongue Dear Sally” about a girl who disdains the love of a sincere older man and marries a young one who kills her little dog and smashes her china was the saddest thing I’d ever heard.

And of course, there’s Andy’s “Rambling Rover.” An original song that has become an anthem. The Rovers still exist as an email list; we all flew to New York to see Johnny and Phil play together in 2000, throwing socks at the stage (Johnny never has enough on tour) and getting a puzzled mention in The New York Times.

6. The Tannahill Weavers

This one Stephen got while in Law School, he thinks he heard them at the Cherry Tree. He writes:

I remember playing the LP and then checking to see if I  had set it to 45 instead of 33. I had never heard the pipes played like that. Still haven’t.

I may be fudging because Battlefield Band was in here somewhere too… “There’s a Buzz,” especially “Green Plaid” still a favorite, but I think that was the next summer.

7. The Best of the Bothy Band

I fell in love with the sauciness of songs like “Pretty Peg” and with Triona’s quaveery, rare voice, as well as with her keyboards. And I still can’t listen to “The Death of Queen Jane” without crying. It’s on my “Very sad” playlist, to be brought out only rarely, because the feels.

“The Maids of Mitchelstoun” with their setting made me fall in love with modal music. I put it on my “music for a rainy day” tape. Yes, cassette tapes, because old.

8. Promenade, from Micheall O’Domhnaill and Kevin Burke

Kevin’s sharp fiddling, and then the lovely vocals on “Lord Franklin,” from the late Micheall (like Johnny, he left us much too soon),  another song that makes me cry.

 9. Portland, from Michaell O’Domhnaill and Kevin Burkeimportland

“Breton Gavottes” and their “Rolling Waves” set are some of my favorite tunes of all time.

10. De Dannan, Star-Spangled Molly

The whole album is wonderful, of course, but I was very taken with Maura O’Connell’s rendition of “Maggie.” Gorgeous.

 11. Clannad in Concert

imclannadThe album had a lovely pullout. Most of it is in Irish. Their version of “The Sally Gardens” as never been topped, and that “Nil Se’n La” that goes on forever, with its jazz riffs. is wonderful.

12. Nic Jones, Penguin Eggs

I  adore his rhythmic guitar, and the English vocals that have a kind of laugh in them. His open picking had a huge influence on a lot of guitarists, including John Doyle. Sadly, Jones was in a horrific car accident in 1982 that caused him permanent injury and he was unable to play guitar or fiddle again. Howeveer, in 2010 he returned to the stage. Here he is, accompanied by his son, singing to a thrilled crowd one of his signature songs.

13. Martin Carthy, Crown of Horn

Another English singer (we’re in the English part of the stack now). My favorite was the “Bonnie Lass of Anglesey” about a foolish king and a very good dancer. He also uses that strong rhythmic guitar playing that just makes me want to dance. “Willie’s Lady” about a jealous mother who is defeated in the end ( witchcraft!) also a fave.

14. The Watersons, For Pence and Spicy Aleimwatersons

Had never heard anything like this, emphasis on the vocals, the a capella harmonies. Good stuff.

So, there you have it. Never looked back. never wanted to.


That summer I also (bonus) heard “Geordie” by Maddy Prior and June Tabor at Cornell when I was going to summer school and it’s still one of my favorites of all time.

Stephen says to say he also bought Graham Parker, Al Stewart and Brinsley Schwarz, which is true, and since they are English I guess it’s fair to list them.

What was your first Irish or Scottish tune? Tell me!



Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.