Liam Nolan pays tribute to a master balladeer forever remembered for his beautiful rendition of ‘Grace’ and who sadly left us too soon, in March 2015.
“He enriched my life, I will never forget him” – Ralph McTell
“One of the last great balladeers” – Phil Coulter
“Where in God’s name are you taking me?” my eldest sister Norma said, looking out at the unfamiliar area we were driving through.
“Hold your horses, Norm, we’re nearly there,” I said.
I knew we weren’t far from The Embankment, Mick McCarthy’s iconic live music venue on the Blessington Road. The Embankment was then a place of entertainment, of chicken-in-the rough and whatever-you’re-havin’-yourself when it came to liquid libations.
Mick, a bricklayer and trade unionist from County Kerry, had acquired Kate Kennedy’s Embankment, a country pub six kilometres outside Tallaght village, and turned it into a “the-joint-is-jumpin” place. Everyone from Micheál Mac Liammóir to Bob Dylan, and from Beatrice Behan and her son Dominic, to Ulick O’Connor talking about Brendan, passed through the portals. I wanted Norma to see and hear a round-faced, curly-headed ballad singer I was very taken by – Jim McCann.
I got the usual loud, hearty greeting from Mick on the way in. “How’s it goin’ Liam?” he said.
“Fine, thank you. Nice to see you, Mick… You’ve met my wife Oonagh before,” (he nodded and smiled at her), “this is my sister, Norma. We’ve come to see Jim McCann.”
He shook Norma’s hand and said, “You’re welcome, you’re welcome, Norma. Ah, Jim’s great, great. Ye’ll enjoy him. A really, really nice fella, and so talented.”
With that he was gone, to sort out some seating problem.
When Jim McCann was introduced, he came on, round face, mop of dark curly hair, beard and moustache, and wide, wide smile. He welcomed everyone, cracked a few quips, working the room, and then began to sing.
He started with Go, Lassie, Go which, he said, was a Scottish folk song also known as The Wild Mountain Thyme. Everyone knew the chorus and sang along with Jim. He told us we were the best choir he’d heard all day. Laughter all round.
He said he was going to sing a slower song now – Boolavogue – a County Wexford ballad about Father John Murphy, and 1798, and Vinegar Hill. I never knew, till Jim told us, that Boolavogue was a small town or village north of Enniscorthy.
When the applause died down, McCann asked if there were any Americans or returned Irish in the audience. There were – some of each. He said he’d asked because his next song, Spancil Hill was about poor Irish emigrants in the States, longing for home.
After that came The Leaving of Liverpool, which the Clancys had had a huge hit with in 1964. I knew it as a sea shanty. I’d learned it from my Grandad. The audience in The Embankment joined in singing the refrain:
So fare the well my own true love
When I return united we will be
It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me
But my darling when I think of thee
Norma, like the rest of us, sang out loud and strong.
I kept shooting sideways glances at her to gauge her reactions. All through Jim McCann’s performance she sat smiling, eyes fixed on him, listening intently, captivated by a consummate performance. Sadly neither she nor Jim McCann is still alive. Jim passed away in 2015, Norma just over a year ago. May they rest in peace, two exceptional people.