Ireland to North America in Music: Eileen Ivers

mayo  ireland

County Mayo, in the west of Ireland, is a rural place. People lived there five thousand years ago at Ceide Fields. There is the legend and story of the time Saint Patrick spent praying on the mountain of Croagh Patrick. Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley was born in Mayo in 1530. There’s the story of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary at at Knock in 1879. John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara came to Mayo too, while they were filming The Quiet Man in 1951.

With all that, Mayo really is a rural county still. Down the long and winding roads you may often come upon the stone ruins of a building that was family home before the Great Hunger. Mayo, and the whole of Ireland, has been subject to waves of people leaving across the centuries since that famine took the land. In the 1950s, jobs were hard to come by and many Irish people left. John Thomas Ivers took the long road from his small village near Kiltimagh. Years later, his younger daughter would come back to build a house there herself, and to write tunes inspired by landscape and family in Mayo.

Living in the Bronx in New York, County Mayo was still part of the life of the Ivers family. As with so many immigrant folk, parents would take their children back, every summer if they could, building ties to family and place that bound the next generations back to Ireland.

“Having Irish born parents, like so many they wanted their kids to learn something Irish, whether it be in music or dance, or a sport like hurling, you know. I started out with dance and lasted two very long weeks, didn’t take to that at all, “ Eileen Ivers recalls. “But the music was definitely something. I sort of bothered my mother to rent me a fiddle, though she kinda wanted me to play piano. I had a really great teacher when I was a kid, Martin Mulvihill — he was just such a great gentleman and loved the music so much. That’s how I got into playing — never, never dreamed to have the sort of career as we do now.”

It is a career, certainly. Ivers won nine All Ireland championships on the fiddle and went on to be a founding member of the top Irish American group Cherish the Ladies, to be a featured artist with Riverdance, and to appear with rock, folk and classical musicians on stage and on record. She carved out a recording career of her own along the way, often blending and melding her Irish fiddle chops with world and rock music. For the last several years she’s had another project in mind, though, one that stemmed from those roots back in the west of Ireland. The result would be her recording Beyond the Bog Road.

“it’s been a lifelong research project for me, really,” Ivers reflects. Her playing has always been grounded in the music of Ireland and at the same time influenced by her upbringing in America and traveling the world as a musician. “I learned to accept that I don’t have to be confined by this wonderful tradition that I would never want to dilute,” she says, “but I also learned that you have to follow your heart. I wanted to create a dream project where I could try to connect all the dots.”

Beyond the Bog Road connects many stories. from those grounded in the tradition of the winding roads of the west of Ireland to newly composed pieces which draw on that same landscape. Cajun, jazz, blues, bluegrass, Galician and French Canadian meetings with the music of Ireland also take place in the music Ivers offers.

There are immigration songs from Irish tradition, including a version of Green Fields of America in which the voices of Irish singer Niamh Parons and bluegrass singer Tim Shelton are framed in fiddle melody. There’s a tune Ivers wrote when she was inspired by seeing a donkey at play one morning in County Mayo. The song Walk On mixes in bluegrass, Cajun, and Irish music in a story paying respect to resilience in hard times. There is a set which includes a tune drawn from her experience looking at the skies over the wild western part of Mayo that is her mother’s native place. It is joined up with a strathspey drawn from time Ivers spent in Nova Scotia, and tune she composed while waiting for the arrival of her new son.

Eileen Ivers Irish fiddle

Linin’ Track pairs the beat and ideas of two railroad tunes, the title piece from African American tradition and the Irish jig Paddy on the Railway, giving a nod to the people of both backgrounds who built railways across their new continent. Railroad songs “have also been recognized as a major influence on blues music,” Ivers points out. Dance music forms a big part of the history of both African American and Irish music, too. One of the ways Ivers takes note of that is with her arrangement of a little known Louis Armstrong song called Irish Black Bottom which in the early years of the twentieth century worked its way up from New Orleans (the title refers to the muddy Mississippi delta) to New York’s jazz clubs.

road Mayo Ireland

Beyond the Bog Road began for Ivers as an overview of the music of the Irish immigrant experience. During the time of recording the album she and her husband had the joy of welcoming a new son and the sadness of the death of parents. She found that these personal events of joy and sorrow resonated in a deeper way with the joy and sorrow which runs through the music tradition of Ireland which she has always known. “It was a joyful, then somber, surreal time. I had all these history points I wanted to hit. Then these life events took hold… all of these things began coming out in what I was writing and how I was playing,” Ivers says.

It is music that speaks of quiet rural roads of County Mayo and lively intersections of Irish immigrant life with the varied cultures and traditions of North America. With Beyond the Bog Road Eileen Ivers offers offers a road map sure to invite exploration of both music and landscape.

Photographs by Pamela Norrington, Oliver Dixon, and
John Kuczala. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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