Interview

Black Bank Folk from Ireland Talk About Their RISING

Black Bank Folk

"Rising" by the Dublin, Ireland band Black Bank Folk is the most melodically entrancing, historically astute--and heartbreaking--album of Irish "rebel music" I have ever heard. I am a long time fan of The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Maken, The Wolfe Tones, The Battering Ram and other militant Irish balladeers. Yet, this album of songs is very different. 

"No promise for the future/We can't see beyond tonight/Let's listen to the music and dance together through the night."

https://soundcloud.com/blackbankfolk

 

Black Bank Folk eschew the bluster, blarney, cant, rhetoric and cornball nostalgia that infest so many Irish and Irish- American " rousing" "political" songs and albums. No "Hoo-hah" bar-room- patriot calls- to- arms. And not a hint of "drunken, fighting paddy" pointless menace. Nor do these musicians lapse into Bono- style smug pacifism or religiousity. This music, composed and performed a full century after the events sung about, feels very much present, alive and grimly realistic in tone and delivery. In that sense, Black Bank Folk are much closer in attitude, historical awareness and depth of feeling to that long running Irish-American rock band, Black 47 (now sadly defunct but living on in the solo performances of lead songwriter Larry Kirwan.)

"Aunt Jenny they never told me/Of your fight in 1916/Of the jails and the combat you seen."

Black Bank Folk keep it real by focusing on individual narrative stories, all based in historical research, on this stunningly-well-produced album of original songs focused on the failed Easter Monday Rising of 1916. In that military encounter, a rough coalition of armed Irish- nationalist patriots, gun-toting feminists and strike-hardened revolutionary socialists publicly and dramatically declared the birth of an Irish Republic free of British colonial rule. They seized control of several public buildings in Dublin, most prominently the General Post Office (GPO), hauled down the Union Jacks, ran up Irish Tricolour and Starry Plough flags and engaged British police and troops in pitched battle. 

This was during the darkest days of World War I and the British government and military, which still ruled all of Ireland at the time, took a very dim view of such rebellion, which they declared to be treason during wartime. British warships bombarded Dublin as artillery and machine guns blasted the beseiged rebels, who found that the Irish populace--both in Dublin and in the countryside-- did not respond as well as had been hoped. After a few days, white flags went up and the rebels were arrested and marched off to jail while crowds of Dublin's unconvinced and uninspired citizens jeered and spat at them.  Many of their leaders soon were executed as traitors by British firing squads.

"They told us the country was behind us/But now it seems we're standing on our own/Above these barrack walls the people that we fought for/Only show contempt for us and I feel so alone."

Of course, that was not the end of the story of Ireland's struggle for political independence and some measure of social justice. The disastrous 1916 Rising, and the brutal executions and repression which followed it, did eventually spark an island-wide rebellion, once World War I had concluded.

The Irish , after a determined war of secession from the British Empire and a savage Civil War, did achieve a large measure of independence. Full sovereignty did not come for several decades, though the six counties of Northern Ireland remain to this day under British control. Ireland, north and south of the Border, continues to suffer grave social inequalities and economic injustices. 

Surprisingly, while the songs on "Rising" tell tales of battle, defeat and death, they also lift the spirit with deftly encouraging lyrics--hope in the teeth of despair-- and downright danceable tunes. A rare accomplishment indeed. This album rewards many repeated listenings.

Ironically, as Irish political and economic refugees swarmed to the US and Canada over the decades, a rich trans-Atlantic musical culture evolved--the Irish strain in what has come to be called "Americana music". Likewise, as is evident on many cuts on this album, American musical styles influenced modern Irish music itself.

Black Bank Folk is John Colbert and James Sheeran, both vocalists and songwriters and each playing both acoustic and electric guitars, joined on "Rising" by Sean McKeown on uillean pipes, fiddler Sean Regan, Eamonn de Barra on whistles, John McLoughlin playing mandolin, and Mark Colbert on drums. Also on some songs, Gavin Glass plays piano and harmonium, Scott Halliday adds percussion and Damien Dempsey and Luke Kelly and Grace O'Malley contribute guest vocals. 

I had the chance to talk via email with John Colbert and James Sheeran of Black Bank Folk about the making of "Rising" and their ongoing plans for more musical adventures. Following is our interview- conversation.

BN: The 1916 Rising happened a century ago. Can you explain to interested Americans why it is so significant? 

 

 John Colbert:  1916 Rising has always been a subject that I have been passionate about due to the fact that my grand uncle Con Colbert was one of the 16 men executed after the Rising. I’ve always looked on that period with rather rose tinted glasses and saw the sacrifice of the men and women that took part as noble and just. A small nation fighting against the might of the British Empire. The leaders were made up of poets, teachers, socialists and seasoned rebels and this, and the manner in which they were executed, made martyrs of them all. But we wanted to make an album that looked at all sides regardless of their allegiance and see the human stories behind the history. Although there had been many rebellions before, 1916 marked, what most Irish people see, as the first steps to becoming a republic. In the years leading up to the Rising the majority of Irish people just wanted to have a say in how Ireland was run. The Irish Parliamentary Party had succeeded in getting a Home Rule Bill passed in the British Parliament in 1914, but with the outbreak of the First World War, it’s enactment was postponed. The leader of the Party John Redmond then encouraged thousands of Irish men to fight for the British in the War. A small group of nationalists opposed the idea of Home Rule and of the Irish participation in the war, so set about planning a rebellion while British soldiers were preoccupied with the war in France. There are many other factors that all came together at the right time.

 

 BN:  I understand that you have a family connection the 1916 events. 

 

 John Colbert: My grand uncle Con Colbert was involved in the training of Na Fianna (an organisation set up to encourage boys to study their Irish heritage and culture thus developing their sense of nationalism and independence.)They were taught military drills and tactics and many went on to fight in the Rising or were the messengers carrying notes from garrison to garrison during the fighting. He achieved the rank of captain and was in charge of a small area of Dublin during the Rising. He was executed on the 8th May 1916 for his part in the build up and during the fighting. His story was always an inspiration and probably the corner stone for the album. Myself and Jim Sheeran (the other creative half of Black Bank Folk) both had a keen interest in history and Irish music, so this seemed like the perfect way to combine our mutual interests and provide a tribute to the men and women of 1916.

 

 BN: The album is beautifully emotional, although it deals with harsh historical facts. There is sadness and joy, sometimes in the same song, as in the song about a dance being organized while the rebels are on the barricades (a dance that never actually happened).  Or the stories of combat deaths and of executions, including that of the man who dies in Damien's Aunt Jenny's arms, the execution of Padraig Pearse's brother Willie, or the death of your own great uncle, etc.    How did you come upon these stories and this emotionally impactful way of viewing history?

 

 John: Well, we had done a good bit of research over the course of writing the album, there is a wealth of material on the subject. But we were also conscious that in the centenary year the familiar stories of the Rising would be revisited over and over again. We wanted to add some thing new to the narrative, to position the listener in a few fresh vantage posts. Looking at the stories of regular people involved on all sides seemed a good way to do it. Its hard for us as people in in Ireland in the 21st century to imagine the realities of war but we thought we could connect to the emotions at play and use those emotions as a way of connecting the listener to people caught up in the events. Everyone experiences the power of love, loss, disappointment, frustration, fear, elation and so on at various times in their lives so we can all relate on some level. 

 

 BN: Can you tell us some more about the history of the rebel groups, including the IRA, the Volunteers, the Cumann na Ban, and very significantly the Irish Citizen Army, that fought in 1916--and how you were inspired to include them in your songs?

 

 

 

James Sheeran: Ireland and Europe in general was in a time of flux and the start of the 20th century. Struggles for power and rights were rife and the various factions grew out of various concerns; the rights of workers, of women, the rebirth and growth of Irish culture, Nationalist and socialist ideals. There was a real melting pot and a real desire for change. People saw the possibility that could grow out of in the terrible events in Europe and many of the causes unified under a wider idea for freedom. To fight for a new nation that could represent all the ideals of its people. There has been much debate in recent years as to whether that has been successful 100 years on.

 

  BN: Who is in Black Bank Folk and how did you get together for this album and then live shows?

 

 

 

James Sheeran: Myself (Jim) and John have been friends for a long long time and when John started talking about this band and album I jumped at the chance. It took us a good few years to get everything as we’d like it but by the time we hit the studio we were confident we had something powerful. We were blessed to be joined by some of the countries best musicians. Eamon De Barra, Sean McKeon, John McLoughlin, Sean Regan and Mark Colbert all made the record and following live shows magical. I can't fully explain the vibe that’s there when everyone plays these tunes. It’s a thrill.

 

 BN: How did Damien Dempsey and other famed artists get involved in your Rising project? 

 

James Sheeran: Well John and the lads have been playing with Damien for years and he was always supportive of the project and enjoyed the different demos as he heard them. He kindly said he wanted to be involved and had an idea to write a song for his Great Aunt Jennie Shanahan who had fought in Dublin City Hall. Women played a massive part in the struggle for Irish independence and this song is a tribute to that. Damien’s involvement and support brought the project to a larger audience and also gave us the encouragement that we were on the right track! Other musical friends, Paddy Casey and Jem Mitchell very kindly joined us on a couple of tracks and the wonderful Grace O’ Malley co wrote and sang on Lullabye, a sad but powerful love song about the short lived marriage of Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett. Its one of the great joys of music to be able to play with people you admire and love, the whole recording was amazing for us from that perspective.

 

 BN: How would you describe the musical style or approach of Rising? It seems to go beyond just "trad" and well beyond the "classic" rebel songs that many Americans know. 

 

James Sheeran: There are plenty of different sounds and influences throughout the album but were very conscious that we wanted a distinctly Irish feel to permeate all the tracks, to tie the whole thing together. The lads are such amazing musicians that when they came in and did their thing the songs really came to life. With the help of our producer Gavin Glass I think we achieved what we were after and we are delighted with how it turned out. It’s a story tellers album with bits of folk, Americana, country and indie and the Trad really ties it all together and lifts the whole thing to a great place. 

 

 BN: What are your future plans? 

 

James Sheeran:  We’ve a single on the way in early December https://soundcloud.com/blackbankfolk/a-familiar-cheer and we’ve started recording album 2. All the songs are there its just the old battle of money and time versus the real world! We’re excited about next year, cant wait to get the new songs out there and see what people think. We’re really happy with them, we may be slightly biased though!

 

  BN: Any plans to perform in North America? (Any plans to come visit us in New Mexico, a lovely corner of the USA?

 

 John Colbert: That would be a dream, but that’s what it is at the moment. When the next album comes out we are going to try and twist a few arms to get the money together to get over there. Unless you’ve any rich benefactors who read this and fancy helping the cause along!! 

 

BN: Anything else you would like to tell us? 

 

James Sheeran: Just that people can find us on Facebook and Twitter and the album is available at www.blackbankfolk.com and the usual streaming sites. If people like what they hear, let us know, and then let other people know!! Oh and watch out for our song “A Familiar Cheer” before Christmas[EF1] ,  we think you’re gonna love it…