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TIM DENNEHY "A Thimbleful of Song" Sceilig Records SRCD001

Here, at long last, is the welcome re-release of Tim Dennehy's first album, which (it is to be hoped) will now reach a much wider audience than was the case when it first appeared, on cassette only, back in 1989. Since then Tim's name has become better known to the world at large, principally through his authorship of "Farewell to Pripyat", his moving song about the tragic human aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, covered by Christy Moore on his "Voyage" LP.

The Pripyat song is featured on Tim's second album, "A Winter's Tear" (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 1993); but, unlike that record, "A Thimbleful of Song" is almost entirely unaccompanied, and this is undoubtedly the milieu in which his manifest talents are heard to best advantage. The sheer diversity of the material is impressive indeed: as well as three very of Tim's own songs, there are renditions of other people's compositions; there are traditional songs, in English and Irish, and from both his native Kerry and his adoptive Clare. And then there is Sigerson Clifford.

Tim has long been a tireless propagandist for the writings of Clifford, the Kerryman in exile in Dublin who died in 1985, and who is best known (including by many who would not recognize his name) for "The Boys of Barr na Sraide", heard nowadays in sessions the world over. A native, like Clifford, of Cahirciveen, he has put music on many of Clifford's lyrics, though none quite so effectively as the one featured in this collection, "The Ballad of the Tinker's Daughter". The performance of this song is a showcase for all that makes Tim the outstanding singer that he is: knowing (unlike many a lesser singer) that feeling is not directly proportional to volume, he delivers his rendition of it, as is his wont, in a tone scarcely louder than that of normal speech. And yet the feeling, expressed through a superb mastery of timing, breath and pitch, is so palpable that the listener is cast under the spell of the story even after repeated listenings, long after any element of surprise has gone and the tragic plot (and it is very much a tragedy, in the classical sense) is well known. The telling of the tale takes a full nine minutes, and yet the figure is meaningless; for (just as, say, when John Burgess plays a piobaireachd), time hangs suspended and one is transported to a place outside the world of mundane cares.

Though that one song alone would make this an outstanding record, the others are all well-deserving of mention. Tim's feel for the area where he now lives is well to the fore in his rendering of "Mac and Shanahan", in a way the archetypal West Clare song; and, staying in the area, it is good to know that somebody (especially someone of his calibre) is still singing "The Famous Faha Sports" by the late Miko Guthrie, which I heard sung many years ago by its author in Maisie O'Friel's bar in Miltown Malbay. Miko was a local eccentric, philosopher and bard, who once memorably told me that his basic principle was that a man should be "irresponsible for his own actions" - a tenet which he certainly lived up to when he penned the piece of racy silliness in question!

There's one other "crack" song in this anthology, "Paddy's Walk to China" by Brendan Phelan, which achieves the unlikely feat of finding something to laugh about in the grim business of transportation Down Under. There's a poignant rendition of "Once I Loved", forever linked with the names of Rita and Sarah Keane. Of the two songs in Irish, one is the relatively well-known "Amhrán na Páise", a song of Christ's Passion, and the other is "Dónall Binn", an inspiring song from Kerry in praise of Daniel O Connell, which deserves to be better known. Of Tim's own compositions there are three, which hold their own with all the other fine songs featured here: one, perhaps inevitably, is "Sigerson", an elegy for his hero; another, "Sceilig Mhichíl", muses upon the history and significance of the awesome crag which erupts from the Atlantic off the coast of Kerry (and whose picture adorns the back cover); but the one which will probably strike a resonance in most breasts is the concluding "Keep in Touch", a wistful yet hopeful expression of the pain felt by those sundered by distance from their loved ones. That, God knows, is something that we Gaels know more about than most.

If your local emporium doesn't stock "Thimbleful", it's available by mail order from Tim himself in Mullach, Co. Clare. Whatever way you come by a copy, it's an indispensable addition to the collection of anyone who appreciates the true craft of the traditional singer and songwriter.

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 24 of The Living Tradition magazine.