Caitríona O'Leary: Strange Wonders: The Wexford Carols Vol II. © 2021 Heresy Records

CD Spotlight

Expertly Crafted

KEITH BRAMICH listens to Caitríona O'Leary's Christmas album, 'Strange Wonders'

'... the performances are empowered by their simplicity and directness.'


If you're familiar with the Christmas carol Good people all, this Christmas time, then it's likely to be because of the work of Irish author, composer, historian, musicologist and organist William Henry Grattan Flood (1859-1928). Whilst musical director and organist at St Aidan's Cathedral in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Flood transcribed this carol from a local singer, and the result appeared in The Oxford Book of Carols. It was recorded, famously, by Julie Andrews in 1966, and other recordings include those by Loreena McKennitt (1987), Alison Krauss (2008, with Yo-Yo Ma), Michael MacDonald and Amy Holland (2009), the vocal group Libera (2013) and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (2016).

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending His beloved Son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born.

Listen — traditional, arranged by Caitríona O'Leary: The Enniscorthy Christmas Carol
(track 11, 0:00-0:47) ℗ 2021 Heresy Records :

In the light of research by Irish singer, composer and musicologist Caitríona O'Leary, it's really necessary to refer to this carol not as The Wexford Carol but as The Enniscorthy Carol, because, as O'Leary explains in the booklet for the CD under review here, there are collections of Wexford carols by Bishop Luke Waddinge (A Smale Garland of Pious & Godly Songs, 1684) and Father William Devereux (A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas, 1728). These collections provide over twenty carols, many of which have been passed through the generations orally, and six of the original tunes are still sung at Christmas in the Wexford parish of Kilmore.

Caitríona O'Leary has been fascinated by the Wexford carols for at least twenty years, and in 2014 she issued an album called The Wexford Carols on which, with several guest singers, she performed many of these songs. The Devereux collection doesn't indicate the tunes, so O'Leary matched surviving folk tunes to the texts so that she could sing them.

O'Leary explains that the carols on the 2014 album tell the familiar Christmas story, and that the selection of carols on this new album, Strange Wonders - The Wexford Carols Vol II, consists of 'meditations on the mystical and spiritually wondrous aspects of the story'. There are strangely familiar aspects to some of these items, as some of the lyrics have also appeared elsewhere in different forms.

And how on Earth can man be sad?
The Redeemer has come to make them glad.
From sin and hell to set them free
And buy their Liberty.

Listen — traditional, arranged by Caitríona O'Leary:
On Christmas Night all Christians Sing
(track 4, 1:38-2:19) ℗ 2021 Heresy Records :

The 2014 album also featured Tom Jones, Rosanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens. This new selection widens the net somewhat, with guest artists including the choir Stile Antico, the renaissance guitar of Simone Collavecchi and Olov Johansson playing nyckelharpa. The opening track, Ye Sons of Men, from Devereux's New Garland, is still sung in Kilmore to the simple tune used here, and presents a selection of the twenty-eight original verses.

She in pain was forced to hie
Unto a stable that was nigh,
Where of a Son she delivered was
Between an ox and lowly ass.

After nine verses, trumpeter Alison Balsom, who also appears on two other carol settings here, reprises the tune.

Listen — traditional, arranged by Caitríona O'Leary: Ye Sons of Men
(track 1, 3:56-4:30) ℗ 2021 Heresy Records :

Caitríona O'Leary sings on every track, and has made almost all of these imaginative arrangements herself. At the start of Saint Stephen Had an Angel's Face, for example, in which Waddinge's words are set to reworking of music by Henry Lawes, she's accompanied by just John Hearne's solo bassoon. Devereux's The Darkest Midnight in December begins simply too, with just harmonium drone and percussion, before voices and other instruments are added. O'Leary is joined, vocally, on this CD, by Clara Sanabras, John Smith and Seth Lakeman, who all play other instruments - guitars, violin and viola - as well as singing.

Listen — traditional, arranged by Caitríona O'Leary: The Darkest Midnight in December
(track 2, 3:01-3:56) ℗ 2021 Heresy Records :

Somehow these expertly crafted arrangements manage to sound old and yet modern and folky at the same time, and the performances are empowered by their simplicity and directness.

Copyright © 23 December 2021 Keith Bramich,
Worcestershire, UK








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