Such beautiful darkness, Declan O’Rourke’s musical re-telling of the Irish famine is hauntingly pretty on so many occasions, as with penultimate track The Great Saint Lawrence River that tells the tale of a passage of escape full of death and despair – in their thousands they will perish there as well as they are more like ghosts than living things just before the song comes to an end in a howl with violin. But this is also performed throughout in the most luscious of Irish folk tropes.
Inspired by John O’Conner’s book The Workhouse of Ireland, this album has been fifteen years in its full creation. Opener Clogmen’s Glen presents a time of hardship before the famine where a pastoral scene is set to signal a harsh but beautiful life lived nonetheless – do you remember when my love, do you remember when we were young and life was hard but beautiful in Clogman’s Glen, the lamenting violin as poignantly emotive as a musical instrument can possibly be. The next track Along the Western Seaboard is immediately into the horrific history of the famine, a desperate prayer about starvation and disease and death where Britannia rules the roost with an iron hand – an unanswered plea to the Lord they have no one now but you. Fourth track Poor Boy’s Shoes is a love story, initially more upbeat musically, but it too is a narrative of young hope turned to disaster because of the hunger and starvation, the song slowing to its close as it recounts the death of the couple’s two children and the third’s disability with the final line of poor boy’s shoes unashamedly shrouding us in the despair of a father and child’s demise.
When Leonard Cohen asserted on his last you want it darker he presented a more visceral version of a horrible world in one sense, but O’Rourke’s is no less caustic though it is often wrapped in such sweet music.