Tom Munnelly

Irish folk music and folklore collector, singer and social historian

Born: 25 May, 1944, in Dublin.

Died: 30 August, 2007, in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, aged 63.

IN 1978, London-based Topic Records issued the Dublin-born collector Tom Munnelly's first commercial release. Sung by the Co. Leitram-born John Reilly, an Irish tinker - pedlar in old Scots officialese - from Co. Roscommon, The Bonny Green Tree - Songs of an Irish Traveller was revelatory. Through Reilly, Munnelly captured a repertoire of utmost influence. Over the course of his life, Munnelly, a world authority on his homeland's folkways, would gather the largest collection of Ireland's traditional song amassed by one individual. Munnelly was a man made for the word "eminent".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

By the time it appeared, Reilly was years dead at the age of 44. Yet the energy in those songs still ripples outwards. Reilly's sexual blustering in Rozzin Box and the One Morning I Rambled From Glasgow (describing, Munnelly said, "the conflict of Catholic seasonal workers from Ireland with non-Catholics in Scotland and elsewhere") had their impact.

What really shone were Reilly's brooding, ancient ballads such as Lord Baker; that most harrowing tale of incest and hellfire The Well Below The Valley; and the more joyful account of the perils of gypsy seduction, The Raggle Taggle Gypsy. All three informed the repertoires of Ireland's notable folk band Planxty and the singer who eventually became so charismatic, Christy Moore. And through Moore, Sinad O'Connor, who recorded Lord Baker.

In 1972 Munnelly had played Moore his then-private tapes of Reilly. Moore connected instantly. "I believe that when Tom Munnelly presented his recording of John Reilly singing The Well Below The Valley to British folklorists they wouldn't accept that it was genuine," he told me in a detailed biography-through-song in the magazine Swing 51. "They reckoned it was a put-up and they couldn't accept this song had appeared in the west of Ireland, because it had never appeared there."

A Dubliner, Munnelly grew up in Crumlin at a time when hooley sing-alongs were part of community singing practice and after he joined the Rambling Association, camp-fire and hostel sing-alongs reinforced his interest in folk song.

On leaving school he worked in the textile industry - knitwear - in various capacities, but had begun making field-recordings of traditional song as early as 1964.

It is illustrative of the promise he showed and respect he engendered that he was encouraged by the best, by people a generation older than himself. He gained further experience assisting UCLA's professor of English and Anglo-American Folksong DK Wilgus, their introduction effected by the English folklorist Bert Lloyd. The Irish Uilleann pipe player, storyteller and folklorist Samus Ennis shared experiences and tips about collecting in the field. He corresponded with the Scots folklorist Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies. Those were circles not lightly entered into.

Their faith in him was well placed. In 1970 he co-founded Cumann Cheoil Tre ireann (the Folk Music Society of Ireland) with Seirse Bodley, Breandn Breathnach and Hugh Shields. The following year he began as a professional collector with the Department of Education under Breandn Breathnach. After that project merged with the Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin in 1975, he continued collecting and lecturing while the next year he oversaw the selection and recruitment of performers for the republic's contribution at the bicentennial celebrations in the US.

Long based in Dublin, in 1978 he relocated to Co. Clare. It ushered in a new chapter in his folkloristic activities. That same year Topic released his Paddy's Panacea - a collection of performances from the singer Tom Lenihan, another Miltown Malbay local, and another great repository of traditional material, with whom Munnelly's name was instantly linked. Mount Callan Garland (1995) advanced Lenihan's legacy enormously. Munnelly also chaired the File Amhrnaochta an Chlir (Clare Festival of Traditional Singing).

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In 2007 Dear Far-voiced Veteran: Essays in Honour of Tom Munnelly - a Festschrift in his honour - was published, containing contributions in English and Irish Gaelic on a range of subjects from Irish famine songs and the iconic Irish composer Sen Riada to the Norfolk singer Walter Pardon and comparisons of traditional singing in north India and Ireland.

Munnelly's contributions to today's understanding and appreciation of Irish folklore and folk music are beyond tally. He contributed immensely to the literature, aural and printed. This June the National University of Ireland at Galway made him an honorary doctor of literature for his services to Irish traditional music. It wasn't so much a breath of overdue recognition, more a sigh of relief that he had fitted the DLitt ceremony into his workload.

Tom Munnelly is survived by his wife, Annette, his sons Colm and Tara and daughter adaoin.