Songs of Ulster, Episode 1 now available to stream

Marty Cullen begins a song-filled odyssey around Ulster in his home county of Armagh, where he meets fellow emerging traditional singers with a passion for the ballads of their county.

The new six-part series, Songs of Ulster, started on Sunday 14 May on BBC Radio Ulster at 12.30pm

Armagh has a rich history of unaccompanied traditional singing, especially around its southern border. Among pockets of this community: come all ye's, laments and ditties remain a firm part of a tradition as strong as anywhere else on the island, both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland.

Presenter Marty Cullen says: “Traditional songs breathe life in the physical world. Songs were written for walking to work. Songs were written to plough the fields, milk the cows or to weave at the loom. Songs were written to mourn the losses of a community and to help struggle against life's foul misfortunes. Although they were written to be sung unaccompanied, they were never written to be alone. Be it the birds in the bushes. Be it the factory's bell. Be it the rains bashing off a winter's window, the songs were not accompanied by strings but by life.”

From the lofty hills of Granemore to the cattle-crammed marts of Camlough, the singers in this series step outside the studio and sing to their hearts' content sing to their heart’s content in a place that brings new life to their song, enabling listeners to hear music performed naturally in the world, away from microphones and sound mixers.

Taking part in programme one will be Sinéad Murphy, Pearse McMahon and Eileen McKee.

Sinéad Murphy grew up amongst an esteemed musical family in the hills of Granemore itself. She has an eclectic taste in music but fell in love with traditional singing at a very young age. Taking the plunge and putting her talents to disc, she has just released her debut album of traditional songs 'No Better Time'. 'The Granemore Hare' is a rite of passage for singers in the locality; it is a song that has spread across the globe with Steeleye Span and Dick Gaughan amongst the names to chant its air.

Marty Cullen says: “Pearse McMahon performs ‘Mabel’s Ass’ on the programme. He is a man who breathes Irish traditional music. If you ever go to his house, don't be surprised if he is cooking his breakfast with a bouzouki in his arms or trying to teach his kids a song as they brush their teeth. His passion is unrivalled and it is well Crossmaglen has him in their clutches, for there is no better man to pass the tradition on. He is one of the finest teachers of song in Armagh and among his pupils was Marty Cullen himself. As for 'Mabel’s Ass', it is a song that brings out the bawdy side of the tradition and comes with a warning for the faint of heart. In the past it was sung by master storyteller John Campbell and it is a lesson in wordplay and Irish humour.”

Eileen McKee joins forces with Marty to perform ‘In the Month of January’. Eileen is a teacher from Tullysaran. If you have a close look at the cup presented for traditional singer of the weekend at the Armagh fleadh, you will see her name dominating the honours, with Marty trying his best to keep up. Eileen was the first young traditional singer he met upon entering the scene and was schooled by her technical abilities. 'In the Month of January' was a song collected from Sarah Makem, perhaps her most prized gem. It is a haunting song of a young mother cast into the January snow.

Listen to Episode 1 here

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