Farewell, Once Dear and Happy Country

Dennis Gormley and Kathy DeAngelo ... with a portrait of Ed McDermott. He's always just over their shoulder.

Dennis Gormley and Kathy DeAngelo … with a portrait of Ed McDermott. He’s always just over their shoulder.

Isle of hope, isle of tears, isle of freedom, isle of fears, but it’s not the isle you left behind. That isle of hunger, isle of pain, isle you’ll never see again, but the isle of home is always on your mind.

—”Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears,” Brendan Graham

It’s called “Bound for Amerikay: The Irish Emigrant Experience: Coming to America as Told Through Music, Song & Story,” a new CD from McDermott’s Handy—also known as Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley. And it’s been a long time coming. A really long time.

“This CD has been a work in progress for many years,” Kathy explains over cups of Barry’s tea in the kitchen of the couple’s Voorhees home, the family parakeet Daisy chirping away in a nearby cage.

“Decades,” Dennis chimes in, in the manner of one who long ago learned to complete his wife’s thoughts.

By “decades,” you could also interpret that to mean the inspiration for the CD, which is the often painful, but perhaps equally hopeful history of Irish emigres who made their way to America. It’s a theme that has always resonated with Dennis and Kathy, and a particularly popular one, even among audience members who have no Irish roots.

The most immediate inspiration would be County Leitrim fiddler Ed McDermott, who left Ireland a year before the Easter Rising of 1916. He came to America, and settled down in New York, where he played for ceili bands in the 1940s. He laid down his fiddle for a number of years, until he was rediscovered during the folk revival of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Kathy came to know him at a “sing” in Middletown, N.J., in 1971, when she was playing guitar. She eventually performed with him for several years.

“Any time we play, even at a session,” that connection isn’t very far from our brains,” says Kathy. “Any time I’m teaching, I’m thinking of that. But for this person, I wouldn’t be doing this. I almost feel like I’m standing in an old person’s shoes.”

Dennis lends his own perspective. “We learned our music from Ed McDermott, who learned his music from his father. We can turn around and look over our shoulders back to the mid-18oos. That’s quite a time span.”

It was with that thought in mind, the sense of standing on the shoulders of giants, that Kathy and Dennis approached “Bound for Amerikay,” recorded and mixed in the couple’s basement studio, Kathy singing melody and playing fiddle and harp, Dennis on guitar, flute and whistle, and singing harmonies. It’s something of a departure from their first CD, “Come Take the Byroads,” when, Dennis says, “we made a concerted effort to pick songs that no one had heard of.”

But even then, he adds, “one of the things we dug up was “McDermott’s Farewell.” It was a big, long song about leaving Ireland, and what it meant to leave Ireland. That’s the kind of song we gravitated to.”

Twas on the quay of Limerick City, there I heard a young man say
“Farewell dear unhappy country, now I’m bound for Amerikay.
Doomed in a foreign land to wander, strangers faces for to see
Farewell, once dear and happy country, Ireland now, farewell to thee.

All of which led up to the most recent project, in which Dennis and Kathy draw heavily from their concert material. Many of the songs they sing recall, in a deeply emotional way, the story of Irish immigration.

One of those tunes, for example, is “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears,” penned by Brendan Gallagher, documenting the experience of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. The first time she heard it sung, Kathy recalls, “I was just bawling my eyes out.” The two chose songs like that one “because they had this emotional impact.” Other tunes, she adds, such as “Thousands Are Sailing,” performed by Planxty, strike the same emotional chord. Both tunes are on the CD.

One of the most compelling aspects of “leaving Ireland” songs, Dennis says, is their broad appeal. In America, the immigrant experience is far from limited to the Irish. The story is still being played out.

“One of the things that comes home for us is that, for most ethnic groups who make up the tapestry of the American population, even though we’re saying this is what the Irish experienced, it’s directly applicable to other ethic groups, even up to today,” says Dennis. “We once played a concert in a library in Parsippany. Many in the audience were Southeast Asians, many of whom were first generation. They had come over so their children could have a better life than they would have on the Indian subcontinent, and they were very moved by those songs.”

In the end, it just wouldn’t be a McDermott’s Handy concert without such powerful stories and songs. “Any time we do a concert, that’s really one of the main focuses for our programs,” Kathy says. “That’s an indelible part of our music.”

You can listen to sound samples and purchase the new CD here.

And here’s the track listing:

  1. Rambling Irishman
  2. Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore
  3. Nuair a Bhi Mise Og (When I Was Young)
  4. McDermott’s Handy (Reels)
  5. Star of the County Down
  6. Spancil Hill / Off to California
  7. Cad E Sin Don Te Sin? (What’s It to You?)
  8. Samhradh, Samhradh (Summer, Summer)
  9. Isle of Hope
  10. The Christmas Letter
  11. Gallagher’s Frolics / The Nightingale
  12. When I Was a Fair Maid
  13. Mo Ghile Mear (My Gallant Darling)
  14. Thousands Are Sailing
  15. Jenny Picking Cockles / My Love Is in America / Green Fields of America (Reels)

And if you want to celebrate the release, make your way to their CD release party Sunday, August 18, from 2 to 5 p.m., concert at 3 p.m., at the Center for the Arts in Southern New Jersey, Marlton. Details here.

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