Elizabeth (Bess) Cronin, ‘The Queen of Irish Song’

To mark the publication of the second edition of 'The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin Traditional Irish Singer', editor and grandson of Bess Cronin, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, shares insights into the life and legacy of the iconic singer.

Bess Cronin Blog 2021 1 Bess Cronin Colorized 800
Bess in 1951. Photograph by Robin Roberts, coloured by John Breslin, NUI Galway.

Elizabeth (Bess) Cronin, ‘The Queen of Irish Song’ as Séamus Ennis called her, was probably the best-known Irish female traditional singer of her time. Collectors came from far and near to hear and record her singing. Séamus Ennis collected her songs for the Irish Folklore Commission in the mid-1940s, and again, with Brian George, for the BBC in the early 1950s. American collectors also recorded her: Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1951, Jean Ritchie and George Pickow in 1952, and Diane Hamilton in 1956.

Bess, who was my grandmother, was born on 30 May 1879, the eldest of five children of Seán ‘Máistir’ Ó hIarlaithe and Maighréad Ní Thuama. Her father was headmaster in the school of Barr d’Ínse (hence the epithet ‘Máistir’, schoolmaster), in the Fuithirí (Fuhirees) area of West Cork, near the Cork-Kerry border. Bess had four sisters and one brother, as well as two half-brothers by the Master’s first marriage. In her mid-teens, however, Bess was sent to help out on the farm of her uncle, Tomás Ó hIarfhlaithe (Tomás Bheity), and his wife, who were childless. It was during those formative years, first with her parents, then with her uncle and aunt, that she acquired most of her songs.

In a recorded interview with Alan Lomax, Bess recalled how she had learned most of her songs:

Well, I learned a lot of them from my mother; and then I learned more of them from … We had … Well, we used to have lots of servants, you know. There’d be servants at the time. You’d have one now for, say, five or six months, and so on; and maybe that one would leave and another one would come. There’d be some new person always coming or going. Or a girl, cousins and friends, coming along like that and all, you know anyway?

Níl mo Shláinte ar Fónamh / Elizabeth Cronin, singing in Irish

On another occasion, Bess recorded how she first came to learn the song called Mo Mhúirnín Bán.

She was asleep in bed one night when she was woken by a strange noise, which she thought at first was the sound of ghosts! She hid under the bedclothes but poked her head out after a while and listened: the sound was that of the women below churning butter! Her mother had to attend a funeral the next day, and had to have the butter churned and ready for collection before she left the house. An elderly neighbour had come to the house that evening (unknownst to Bess) and she and the other women spent the night sewing and then churning, with the old woman singing songs all the time. Bess heard her singing:

Ní sa chnoc is aoirde a bhíonn mo bhuíon-sa
Ach i ngleanntán aoibhinn abhfad ó láimh;
Mar a labhrann a’ chuach faoi chuan san oíche ann …

She jumped out of bed, ran downstairs, and told the startled women what had been going through her head upstairs in the bed. She then insisted that the old woman teach her the song, which she duly did, there and then,

... since there’s no better time for you to learn it [the old woman remarked] than right now, because it’s said that a person will learn something better before breakfast than at any other time!

The old woman recited the song three or four times, and Bess had it before the breakfast, along with many more (d’fhoghlamaíos seó acu uaithe an uair chéanna), but some of these she later forgot (do chailleas ’na dhiaidh san cuid acu).

In 1946, Séamus Ó Duilearga (James Hamilton Delargy), Director of the Irish Folklore Commission, conceived a plan to send collectors to the various Gaeltacht areas of the country, in order to record (in written form and in sound) samples of the story-telling and folklore of those areas, in particular, where the Irish language was felt to be in danger. Beginning in 1947, under the supervision of Seamus Ennis, the first field trips for song-recording were undertaken. The pioneering nature of this scheme deserves to be emphasised: the BBC, for example, did not undertake extensive field operations until the advent of portable tape recorders in the early 1950s.

The 1947 ‘expedition’, however, had been undertaken in cooperation with the BBC, whose Director of Recorded Programmes, R.V.A. (Brian) George — himself a Donegal-man and a singer — ‘was largely responsible for persuading the BBC to take the initiative’ of establishing its own archive of folksongs and folkmusic. The results of the Irish trip were sufficiently successful to convince the authorities in London that much material still remained to be recorded and the result was a five-year project for systematic field recording throughout Britain and Ireland, which was undertaken between 1952 (when Seamus Ennis was recruited from Radio Éireann) and 1957. (Seamus was with the Commission from 1 June 1942 until 1 August 1947, when he went to Radio Éireann, where he was Outside Broadcast Officer.)

These CBÉ and BBC field trips recorded songs from Bess Cronin in May and August 1947 and at various dates subsequently, up to August, September and November 1952. Something of the excitement of these recording sessions can be felt in the descriptions of them that Bess included in the letters she wrote to my father at the time:

‘The Old Plantation’, Tuesday, 25th Nov., 1949.

… We were watching and waiting all the week, and no one coming. We were nearly after forgetting about them. We heard Seamus came to Macroom on Wednesday: tomorrow week. Mick was in town, and Johnny was gone with them, and the old Mrs Lynch came down with Jocey (as Seamus calls her). He couldn’t ask questions, but they said the party were gone out to Keeffe’s place. We were waiting on.
At about 8:30 last night the noise came. John Twomey and Frank were sitting here talking; Mick was gone. You wouldn’t half see the two making for the front door, as the van and car went up the yard! In they came: Seamus, Jim Mahon, and Johnny. All the hurry started then, to go and pick up John Connell from his own house and Mick from Dan’s. The stranger stayed with me … He drives the van and manages the recording. When things would go any bit slow, he’d speak from the van to hurry up. He told me while they were out that Seamus slept the day, and himself went rabbiting, for want of anything to do …He didn’t leave here until after 1 o’clock.
Seamus and John Connell and Johnny stayed for a long time after. I thought, as they were out there, that they had Keeffe and Murphy done, but they hadn’t. ‘Tis some others they were after. Some Art O’Keeffe played a fife with Murphy, and they didn’t meet the other Keeffe at all. But they met Ned Buckley. He is a fairly old man, having a shop in Knocknagree, a great poet —he recited a lot of his work, but he can’t sing it. Some of his poetry and song are in print now. Seamus got some from him. Johnny thinks he is a gifted man. They got songs from others too.
Seamus wanted to know then would we allow him to bring Keeffe and Murphy down here, or could we keep them for a night, if it was wanted. We said yes, of course, and welcome. He was very pleased then. He fixed on Thursday night — he said they would come some part of the night, as there is to be a dance or a wedding in the vicinity, and he should round them up after a few hours and try and bring Keeffe … So he settled on that, but we don’t believe, as before, that he will turn up punctual — but they’ll come sometime!
John Connell sang four songs, and well too. Mick sang some, and I a few verses — it was too late by right when they started, and with the tea and tack, etc., it ran up very late …

In 1951 the great American folksong collector, Alan Lomax, began the collecting that was to result in the publication of the Irish volume in his Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music (New York, 1955), which contained songs recorded from Bess, amongst many others. Lomax had been introduced to Bess by Séamus Ennis and he recorded songs from her in both English and Irish. He also had interesting conversations with her, snatches of which are reproduced on the recording. When asked, for example, where and when she sang, Bess replied:

I sang here, there and everywhere: at weddings and parties and at home, and milking the cows in the stall, and washing the clothes, and sweeping the house, and stripping the cabbage for the cattle, and sticking the sciollán’s [seed potatoes] abroad in the field, and doing everything.

Elizabeth Cronin / George Pickow
Bess singing at the fireside in Lios Buí, 1952. Photo by George Pickow.

It is interesting to note, however, that not every song appealed to her, and in fact she surprised one BBC collector (Marie Slocombe) by singing the opening verse of Lord Randal and no more. When asked if she had the rest of the song, the following conversation ensued:

MS — ‘Do you remember any more, what happened (in the song)?’
BC — ‘No, no, no, I don’t. I often heard it. I often heard it.’
MS — ‘Where?’
BC — ‘I often heard it.’
MS — ‘You haven’t heard it all.’
BC — ‘I often heard it, but I never learned it, no. I don’t know, I didn’t care for it, or something. I didn’t bother about learning it, but just that I had that much, now.’

In addition to these other collectors, of course, there was also the material collected by my father, Donncha Ó Cróinín, on his regular visits home from teacher-training college in Dublin, and by my uncle Seán Ó Cróinín, who, from 1939 to the year of his death, in 1965 (with a break during the War), was full-time collector for the Irish Folklore Commission in Co. Cork.

Girleen Don't Be Idle, song / Elizabeth Cronin, singing in Irish, Singing in English

The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin

‘Tis twenty long years since this book first appeared’ could be the opening line of a Bess Cronin song (perhaps sung to the air of ‘Tis ten weary years since I left Ireland’s shore’). It is hard to believe that two decades and more have passed since The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin was first published, but although the original edition went through two print runs, it sold out quickly and is now exceedingly hard to find, either in the second-hand bookstores or online.

A steady stream of inquiries, however, has served to remind me, from time to time, of the widespread interest that still exists in Bess’s songs and so, at last, I have decided to ‘return to the well’, so to speak, and produce a second, revised and slightly enlarged edition, published by Four Courts Press.
Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, 2021

The first edition contained everything relating to the songs that I was able to find among the surviving paper and printed records, from family memorabilia and from sources such as the Irish Folklore Commission archives (now the Department of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin) and the recordings of her singing made by the IFC, the BBC and by various American collectors. The two CDs of Bess’s songs, both in Irish and in English, that accompanied the book offered a representative selection of her song repertoire and of her singing style. The intention was to offer the interested reader — as distinct from those who simply wanted to hear Bess’s singing, without regard to anything that might have to do with her own family background or the origins of her songs — something approximating to a complete dossier of information concerning the surviving parallel written tradition of the songs that she herself had picked up by ear from the singing of her family, friends and neighbours.

I first became involved in the production of the book and the accompanying CDs after my father Donncha passed away in 1990. Among his surviving papers were transcripts (some hand-written, some typed) of various songs, mostly in Irish, which he had made from the recordings that he had to hand in the years before his death. (He was, for whatever reason, never aware of the treasury of recordings that Jean Ritchie and George Pickow had made.) According to a letter that he wrote to me (dated 2 June 1989), most of these recordings had been put together for him in the 1950s and ’60s, by Leo Corduff, then technical assistant in the Irish Folklore Commission, from original IFC acetate disks or from whatever BBC recordings were to hand. These originally acetate or reel-to-reel recordings were subsequently transferred to miniature cassette tapes, with a corresponding further decline in their audio quality.

The most significant modern advance on all previous efforts to put together a collection of Bess Cronin songs was represented by the decision to acquire the services of Harry Bradshaw (then working in Radio Teilifís Éireann) to re-master all the recordings chosen for inclusion in the publication, and to recruit the expertise of Nicholas Carolan (then director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive) and his young colleague, Glenn Cumiskey, in order to put together a representative selection of the re-mastered recordings and arrange them in the two accompanying CDs.

At the end of one of the several launches that took place to mark the original publication of The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin (this time in Cúil Aodha, near Bess’s home place), I was approached by a man who identified himself as Seán Ó Muimhneacháin, of Cúil a’ Bhuacaigh (parish of Kilnamartra, Co. Cork). He produced a small brown envelope that contained an old school copybook, the last few pages of which were filled with handwritten songs by Bess Cronin. Seán explained that the copybook had been borrowed many years previously by Bess’s good friend, John O’Connell, but was forgotten and never returned. It had come down, however, through the hands of a distant relative. Now, through Seán’s generosity, the copybook that had somehow survived all those years was finally returned, and from it I have been able to add six more items to the original collection of 196 songs, four of them different versions of songs that were already in the collection, while in the case of two songs the texts are appearing for the first time.

The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin Traditional Irish Singer. 2nd rev. ed. (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2021) with 2 accompanying CDs is now available to purchase online from ITMA or in person at 73 Merrion Square, Dublin 2.

ITMA would like to thank Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Sam Tranum and the staff at Four Courts Press for their assistance in preparing this blog.

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