Far From the Shamrock Shore, a book-and-CD combination subtitled "The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song," is a collection of myth and history that beautifully juxtaposes folk art with reality. Both the fabled green hills of Ireland and the Land of Opportunity prove not to live up to their hype in song, yet the documentary of hope and hard work that replaces them offers its own vision of paradise -- a paradise built by the labor and values of people determined to triumph in a New World, even if they had to build much if it themselves.
From the late 17th century to the early parts of the 20th, people streamed from Ireland to North America, fleeing famine and economic devastation, seeking prosperity and freedom. They brought with them a strong tradition of oral history and instrumental music that incorporated flute, fiddle and concertina as well as ancient pipes and whistles. Songs were translated from Gaelic and sung a capella, rewritten, reshaped by the introduction of the accordion and tenor banjo among many other instruments. Over time the music came to reflect both the connection with Irish history and the ingredients appropriated from the legendary American melting pot.
Moloney's history of this evolution presents itself as a deceptively slim volume, well-illustrated -- but don't be fooled into thinking from its relative lack of text that it isn't informative. Many pages fold out to provide sidebars, song lyrics and additional illustrations, and the central narrative is written so clearly and vividly that readers from young adults to graduate students can glean a wealth of knowledge. Lyrics from dozens of songs serve as examples of the archetypal folk songs of the Irish: "The Girl I Left Behind" represents the romantic ballad of the lost homeland, while "Paddy's Lamentation" describes the confusion of recent immigrants drafted to fight in a Civil War to which they felt little personal connection.
Moloney, who was born in Limerick, Ireland, but now lives in the U.S and teaches at several East Coast universities, describes the history of Irish famines and the American mines in brutal, unsparing language. As in his 1995 release Out of Ireland, he traces the path of immigrants from desperate departures and painful voyages through the struggle for economic success and social acceptance. Yet there's no manipulative formula of tragedy and triumph. Moloney doesn't idealize vaudeville or make excuses for blackface minstrel shows, though he discusses them in a chapter that includes an analysis of the "Stage Irishman" portrayed as an apelike, illiterate drunk in need of a master. While describing Irish music and theater as a discrete culture, the author draws many parallels between the Irish experience and those of Jews and blacks in America, always emphasizing the common underlying aspirations.
The CD which accompanies the book seems meant more for representational purposes than to put a new spin on the music. It's not strictly a recording for traditionalists -- there are more strings than flutes, though it's certainly not a New Age Celtic sound, using relatively simple instrumentation and emphasizing memorable lyrics in the singer's clear but not particularly stunning voice. Certainly it's a delightful accompaniment to the text, which might seem expensive for such a slim volume to a reader unaware of how much content has been packed inside. Moloney is a skilled storyteller, and his backup singers add an elegant, affecting quality to songs like "Skibereen," which tells of the malnourishment that eventually starves an entire village.
The aims of Far from the Shamrock Shore somewhat exceed its grasp. Some listeners may be troubled by how American the Irish-American songs sound in terms of music and vocal accents, while some readers might prefer more detailed history or more rigorous musical analysis. For almost anyone who isn't an Irish historian, a folk music obsessive or a musicologist, though, this is a comprehensive and entertaining account with visual and aural appeal as well as accessible, witty content.