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The Wexford Carols
1. Tell Shepherds [6:31]
2. An Angel This Night [7:08]
3. Jerusalem Our Happy Home [5:03]
4. This Is Our Christmas Day [4:17]
5. Now To Conclude Our Christmas Mirth [5:15]
6. The Darkest Midnight In December [3:42]
7. An Angel This Bright Midnight [4:36]
8. Behould Three Kings [3:22]
9. An Angell Said To Joseph Mild [4:06]
10. A Virgin Queen In Bethlehem [5:24]
11. Christmas Day Is Come [5:05]
12. The Enniscorthy Christmas Carol [5:38]
Singers: Caitríona O’Leary, Tom Jones (3, 5, 9, 12), Rhiannon Giddens (3, 5, 9, 11, 12), Rosanne Cash (7, 8, 9, 12)
Rhiannon Giddens (fiddle, minstrel banjo), Dónal Lunny (bouzouki), John Smith (guitar, mandola, backing vocals), Adrian Hart (fiddle), Éamonn de Barra (flute, whistle), Kate Ellis (cello), Greg Cohen (double bass), Mel Mercier (bodhrán, bones), Graham Hopkins (drums, backing vocals)
rec. Grouse Lodge Recording Studios, Co. Westmeath, Ireland, 21-25 July 2014.
HERESY RECORDS 016 [60:07]

This disc makes a pleasant change from the endless reissues of traditional carols that we are all used to at this time of year. These are based upon A Smale Garland of Pious & Godly Songs published in Ghent in 1684 by Luke Waddinge the Catholic Bishop of Ferns, Co. Wexford, Ireland. Waddinge had been banished to the west of Ireland after the confiscation of his lands. The intention was to offer solace to the Irish Catholic gentry like him who had been disinherited following the appalling treatment of the Irish Catholics by Cromwell during his conquest of Ireland. In 1649 Wexford was sacked, many of its citizens were butchered and the city burned; by 1685 its population had dropped from 2,000 to 400. It is small wonder then that these simple songs have had such resonance for its people ever since. Then in 1728 the carols were added to by Fr. William Devereux who composed A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas and together with the famous Enniscorthy Carol they formed the core of the tradition of carol singing in Wexford. Originally comprising 22 carols, only 12 remain in constant use being sung over the 12 days of Christmas in the parish of Kilmore. They are sung to traditional folk tunes and for this disc some of those needed reconstructing.

There is protest as well as simple beauty in some of these carols; we find telling words that bemoan the fact that Catholics suffered repression to the extent that they could not practise the most important of their rituals: mass. The carol This Is Our Christmas Day recounts:

“This is our Christmass day,
The day of Christ’s birth
Yet we are far from Joy
And far from Christmass mirth
On Christmass to have no masse
Is our great discontent
That without masse this day should pass
Doth cause us to lament”

The carols are attractive not least because the music is so different from what we are used. Traditional Irish folk instruments like fiddle, flute and bodhrán are used and lift them into a different league. However, I do have some reservations. They would be of interest at any time of year for historical reasons as much as any others. They are full of delightful moments and the music is very lovely but all are very slow in tempo with no upbeat moments, save Christmas Day Is Come which has a slightly faster tune. They are not the kind of carols to imbue your house with lively Christmas spirit.

From the very first notes of the first carol, a truly beautiful one that stays in the mind long after, I was very struck by the purity of Caitríona O’Leary’s voice. It has crystal clear bell-like clarity and is the gel which holds the collection together. However, I am a little unsure about the wisdom of inviting Tom Jones to join the singers as his voice has quite a different quality and delivery that seems at odds with the simplicity of Caitríona O’Leary’s voice. Dare I say it, his once powerful voice is finally on the wane and seems to struggle at certain moments. There is no such problem with Johnny Cash’s eldest daughter Rosanne Cash whose country music ways work well in the context; this despite a hint of American accent. The same goes for American country singer Rhiannon Giddens, a founding member of the Grammy-winning country, blues and old-time music band Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Finally, the packaging is really good with full texts, stiff covers and a slide-in pocket to hold the CD. However, I take issue with the staged photos of people dressed as angels complete with massive wings which introduces a kitsch element that dumbs down a generally excellent product.

Steve Arloff