Donegal native Rita, though possessor of three All Ireland singing titles between 1979 and 1982, has only rarely appeared on record, which I find puzzling, especially considering the extent of her repertoire. Both of her previous releases – the cassette Easter Snow (1997) and CD The May Morning Dew (2010) – provided a persuasive demonstration of Rita’s special way with a song, so I was doubly delighted to receive this new collection. The Heathery Hills is beautifully packaged, as befits the quality to be found within, and presents a dozen songs from Rita’s ever-expanding repertoire, with no instrumental accompaniment. Not that any is needed.
Rita’s voice is not one that deliberately calls attention to itself per se, ostentatiously either through over-personification or through overt display of technique. However, the listener will quickly fall under the spell of the distinctive internal rhythm of her singing style, which is allied to her remarkably natural use of controlled ornamentation in the unconstrained and highly individual delivery of a melodic line. Interestingly, it’s for this reason (or maybe in spite of it) that the tune element is often first to make an impression, its contours drawing the listener in to the story being told. Rita has herself said that “in about 90% of all cases, the tune of a song is what attracts me to it initially”, which may sound something of a paradox when, after all, the words of a song are judged its raison-d’être. Yet it’s almost certainly the ornate beauty of the tune, and Rita’s wonderful way with it, that first draws you in. Take The Lowlands Of Holland for instance, a song we all know, but one which here doesn’t provoke the “not again!” reaction, simply because Rita makes it so much her own with her thrilling and understanding delivery and her telling incorporation of variant components (all such matters being explained in the excellent booklet notes). It’s a good example of the care Rita takes with the songs, to present them at their best and most persuasive in her role as song carrier.
The Heathery Hills focuses to a lesser extent than its predecessors on songs learnt from the Tunney Family, although Brigid Tunney (Paddy’s mother) is the source for the title song, and her granddaughter Brigid Tunney is the source for both The Buachaill Roe and Early, Early (a version of The Croppy Boy). Coincidentally, two of the standout renditions on this disc are of songs which Rita learned from Sean Cannon: The Bay Of Biscay and The Yellow Bittern. The gorgeous Lament To The Moon comes from Packie Byrne, while the plaintive The Hero From Bonny Carlow (from Paddy Berry) is unaccountably less well-known. But whatever the sources, this is another grand collection of songs. The steadfast, serene consistency of Rita’s singing style, which in a lesser singer might be counted a drawback, is here a distinct advantage, a shining example of Rita’s artistry in bringing the songs to life in her own inimitable way. This is a tremendously satisfying, and most treasurable, CD.