For the past 15 years, while releasing award-winning albums and sharing stages with everyone from Planxty to Snow Patrol, Irish singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke has been nurturing a project close to his heart, finally releasing Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine last autumn.
Declan O’Rourke, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh ***
Following a genially mellow set of acoustic guitar folk from Rory Butler and Mark Heavenor, O’Rourke was accompanied by a quartet including uilleann piper Michael McGoldrick (also on whistles and electric bass) and fiddler Chris Herzberger. The mood was inevitably doleful, as the long shadow of the workhouse loomed, and the singer-guitarist’s warm, throaty baritone at times sank to a didgeridoo-like rumble in his grim, impassioned if at times ponderous pageant of what was not so much famine as starvation calculatedly driven by market forces.
The proceedings could have been tightened up: the otherwise heart-breaking Silken Brown Hair seemed unnecessarily drawn out, for instance, and O’Rourke really needs to trim his meandering spoken intros. But as well as the stolid jig-time of Laissez Faire and the stark incantation of Rattle My Bones, there were episodes of real poignancy, such as Buried in the Deep and the plaintive Mary Kate, featuring Floriane Blancke on harp,
O’Rourke’s humanity and righteous outrage were palpable, and as he closed with The Great Saint Lawrence River, his narrative of the “coffin ships” sailing from Dublin to the infamous quarantine station and mass grave of Canada’s Grosse Isle, his terminal anguished howl, over keening pipes, said it all.