Singer Dolly MacMahon’s eponymous album is being rereleased next month more than 50 years after its debut.
We’ve been in her sitting room talking for about two hours, when Dolly MacMahon, looks over at me and says with a twinkle in her eye: “I don’t really like talking about myself.”
That has been quite obvious for some time, although she disguised it well, pouring out stories and anecdotes featuring a fair cross section of Irish icons, from now-famous traditional musicians to wayward aristocrats and wily politicians.
Most people with an interest in Irish music know Dolly MacMahon as an authentic voice of traditional singing. Her songs, like Lord Gregory, Eighteen Years Old, The Green Linnet and many more, were collected from her father, from neighbours and from the Gaelic-speaking potato pickers from Connemara who came as seasonal workers to her family’s farm in Ardrahan in east Galway.
“The title of ‘traditional artist’ is frequently given nowadays to singers and musicians, but rarely does one find art and tradition so perfectly matched and blended as Dolly MacMahon. Hers is the tradition of the south Galway countryside,” wrote Mac Réamoinn.
During her career she performed widely, including to a full house at the Albert Hall during a Chieftains concert, but says she was “frightened out of my life” by the experience.
“I never wanted to be singing on stage. I wanted to sing my songs to people sitting close to me. I get a feeling of what they are feeling. I am telling a story, but I am singing instead of talking.”
Now she is surrounded by memories of that era, a portrait of Seán Ó Riada, an Edward Maguire painting of her husband Ciarán, a bust of The Tailor of Tailor and Ansty fame by the sculptor Seamus Murphy, a Queen Maeve bronze by John Behan, and other memories from the years when traditional music became a cultural phenomenon.
She knew the composers, musicians and singers, the painters and sculptors, and they knew her. She was at the centre of events, even when she didn’t want to be centre stage.
Christened Delia, she grew up on the farm in Ardrahan at a time when old songs were handed down in the oral tradition. Her father had an interest in such things and Professor Tomás de Bhaldraithe of the Folklore Commission was a frequent caller to the house. It was he who introduced Ciarán Mac Mathúna, as both of them were from Limerick, to the family.
She was 17 when they first met and they married in 1955 when she was 19. “He was great, he was so easygoing, trying to understand me,” she says of her husband. “We were totally incompatible,” and she laughs, so that you don’t quite know whether it is said in jest or in irony.
Dolly has a great way of telling stories, with a memory as sharp as a tack.
She describes going out by boat from Dunquin to see Charlie Haughey on, Inishvickillane, with Garech Browne dressed in woollen trousers and an Aran sweater and his wife Princess Purna in her flowing Indian robes.
“CJ was waiting to meet us at the top of the island, the tide was in and the princess’s clothes were blowing everywhere. I said to him, ‘You are not supposed to be looking at her like that.’” And she laughs, because she knew that Charlie’s eyes were zoned in on the princess’s breasts. She recalls clearly the lavish meal of smoked salmon, steaks and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and them all getting into the boat and sailing back to Dingle to continue the party.
These anecdotes are so detailed and vivid it is as if they were only yesterday and her colourful descriptions transport you to times past.
Garech Browne, she recalls, wore a jacket from 1888, to (piper) Liam O’Flynn’s wedding. “It was his grandfather’s grey morning suit and he got very annoyed that day, because he lost one of the buttons.
"We all had to spend ages looking for it, but we never found it.
“He would gossip to me for hours — sometimes on the phone I’d be listening to him and making the dinner or washing the dishes. He had great regard for Ciarán’s intellect. Ciarán would advise him and there was a great bond between them socially. He was very impressed with Ciarán’s opinions.”
Like others she tried without success to get the wealthy Guinness heir, who had homes in Wicklow, London, Paris and India, to give up the drink.
That triggers a memory of listening to Sarah and Rita Keane singing in their home in Caherlistrane, near Tuam, Co Galway: “They would sit either side of the fire in this beautiful little house; there would be cooked chicken and poteen — there was no such thing as red wine in those days. One would start and the other would follow on. There was a culture then of sitting by the fire and singing songs and being happy. Heavens, Garech had experienced nothing like that,” she says.
“Oonagh, his mother Lady Oranmore and Browne, married a Cuban gangster. When I was about 24, she brought me with her to New York. We stayed at the Drake Hotel and we were driven around the city in a Rolls Royce, to parties and the theatre. That was their life, meeting all these aristocrats. I experienced it, but I rang Ciarán and told him I wanted to come home, I couldn’t cope with it.
“I knew Garech for 50 years. We became very close and he would ring me when he was sad, lonely, depressed and everyone had left the house and he was on his own. He was extremely generous, loveable and lonely. He was also gentle, and highly intelligent. You couldn’t put him into any category.”
It isn’t false modesty, but Dolly MacMahon seems slightly perplexed that after all these years her album is being rereleased by Claddagh Records. But ask anybody who has more than a cursory knowledge of traditional Irish music and they will know who Dolly MacMahon is, such was her influence.
“When it was released in 1967 it was never meant to be a commercial success. It was a museum piece. Very few people know my songs,” she says.
She can recall recording it in a studio on St Stephen’s Green in a couple of days. Garech Browne and his fellow directors of Claddagh, the poet John Montague and psychiatrist Ivor Browne, “hadn’t a clue about business” she says, with a laugh.
But that wasn’t the point, they knew enough to know that hers was a voice which had to be preserved for posterity.
The music that she loved has also passed down through the family.
Her son Padraic, a retired professor of gastroenterology, is a piper and plays a historic set of pipes made in the 1830s by Coyne’s and passed down to him through Seamus Ennis and Liam O’Flynn. Her daughter Deirdre has recently retired as a teacher in Muckross Park and her youngest son Ciarán is an architect.
“I was at the beginning of that time when well-known ballads were becoming popular again. I just happened to be there,” she tells me, as I’m about to leave.
“And I’m still singing.”