November 29, 2011

The Best Version Ever of 'Star of the County Down'? You Be the Judge


What do you get when you take the most famous Irish traditional music group in the world, The Chieftains; add legendary Northern Irish singer/songwriter, Van Morrison ('Brown Eyed Girl,' 'Moondance,' 'Wild Night'); and task them with performing one of the most popular Celtic music tunes of all time, 'Star of the County Down'?

Click play to hear the answer:

There's something captivating about the arrangement... the whistles, the piano, the Northumbrian bagpipes and -- of course -- Van Morrison's distinctive voice. Unlike The Irish Rovers and The High Kings, who speed through their respective renditions of 'Star,' The Chieftains and Van Morrison let the song unfold organically, at a relatively slow (but steady) pace, like moss growing on an old stone wall in the Irish countryside.

A Little Bit of History

The melody of 'Star of the County Down' has English origins and dates back to at least the 1700s. It first appeared as 'Gilderoy' in Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge the Melancholy III (1707), but became more 'Star'-like in the 1726 version of 'Gilderoy' that appeared in Musick for Allan Ramsay's Collection of Scots Songs by Alexander Stuart.

The 'Star'/'Gilderoy' melody has been used as a basis for numerous songs, including 'Dives and Lazarus,' 'Claudy Banks,' 'The Murder of Maria Martin,' and 'My Love Nell.' However, it was Cathal McGarvey (1866-1927) of Ramelton, County Donegal, who penned the 'Star of the County Down' lyrics that we know and love today.

Your Thoughts

So, what do you think of The Chieftains'/Van Morrison's rendition of 'Star'? Do you know of a better version? Leave a comment below!

Further Reading: Star of the County Down
Wolfgang David: Star of the County Down
'Star of the County Down' Chords & Lyrics

If you liked this post, you might also want to check out:
Can't Believe I Never Heard This Before Today: The Chieftains and Ziggy Marley Play 'Redemption Song'

November 28, 2011

Inspiration for the Work Week: Top 5 Henry David Thoreau Quotes


5.  "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor."

4.  "If you can speak what you will never hear, if you can write what you will never read, you have done rare things."

3.  "Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

2.  "Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something."

1.   "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined."

If you liked this post, you might also want to check out:

November 23, 2011

5 Little-Known Facts About the First Thanksgiving

Courtesy of

1. The first Thanksgiving almost happened in New York

When The Mayflower took off with 101 men, women and children on its 66-day trip across the Atlantic, the ship's ultimate destination was the land where New York City is located today. Due to some unanticipated heavy winds, the Pilgrims had to settle for settling in what would later become Massachusetts. 

2. The Native Americans didn't join the Pilgrims out of sympathy

On an early autumn day in 1621, four Pilgrims headed out into the woods, muskets-on-shoulders, in search of some food for a harvest celebration. When members of the Wampanoag tribe heard gunshots, they alerted Massasoit -- their leader -- who promptly gathered 90 warriors to go see if the Pilgrims were preparing for war. As we now know, it was a false alarm, and the Wampanoags joined the Pilgrims for their harvest celebration.

Courtesy of
3. There was no turkey at the first Thanksgiving

Most of the food that we today associate with Thanksgiving was not available back in 1621. Instead of eating turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, the Pilgrims and Native Americans ate shellfish, corn and roasted deer meat.
4. The Pilgrims didn't wear buckles at the first Thanksgiving  

The Pilgrims didn't wear silver buckles on their shoes and hats, nor did they dress in black, somber attire at the first Thanksgiving. Instead, they dressed in bright colors. Furthermore, despite popular depictions, the Native Americans didn't wear extravagant feathered headdresses or woven blankets at the first Thanksgiving.

5. The Pilgrims didn't call it 'Thanksgiving'

While the Pilgrims did offer thanks to God at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, they didn't call the event 'Thanksgiving.' It wouldn't be until 1623 that the first religious 'Day of Thanksgiving' would be recorded. This first Thanksgiving, however, was held in response to rainfall, not the fall harvest. Overtime, the Pilgrims' harvest celebration and 'Day of Thanksgiving' evolved into a single event. Abraham Lincoln kicked off the American tradition of an annual, national Thanksgiving in 1863.

Further Reading:

If you liked this post, you might also like Who Was Paul Revere? Four Little-Known Facts About Boston’s Favorite Patriot.

November 22, 2011

A Celtic Sojourn Radio: Boston's Best Source for Free Streaming Celtic Music

If you haven't already noticed, there is a deplorable lack of Celtic music on Boston-area radio stations. Country music gets its own station (Country 102.5), rap/hip-hop gets its own station (Jam'n 94.5), and before Santa Claus's recent hijacking of 105.7 WROR for the holiday season, Boston had two radio stations dedicated to classic rock (the other being 100.7 WZLX).

So, as a Bostonian, where do you turn when your ears are craving some Dubliners, some Clancy Brothers, some Christy Moore, some Andy Irvine and perhaps a bit of raucous crooning from The Pogues' former front man, Shane MacGowan? The answer: A Celtic Sojourn.

Each week on WGBH Boston, A Celtic Sojourn host Brian O'Donovan exposes listeners to both traditional and contemporary music from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and elsewhere in the Celtic world. A native of Clonakilty in West Cork, Ireland, O'Donovan has lived in Boston for 30 years.

Apart from the great music and O'Donovan's incredible cultural insights, the best aspect of A Celtic Sojourn is that you can listen to it continuously, 24/7, on WGBH'S Celtic music stream: A Celtic Sojourn Radio. The stream provides a continuous set of recently broadcast Celtic Sojourn programs. In addition to listening to the stream via a web browser, you can find it through iTunes Radio under the International / World subheading.


November 21, 2011

My Twitter Handle (and Blog Title) Explained: What Is a Bard?

Courtesy of
The Bard of Boston is not a reference to Red Sox pitcher Daniel Bard; it is not a reference to Shakespeare performances going on in and around the Boston area; and it is not a reference to the culinary practice of covering meat with bacon prior to roasting (a second meaning of bard)... although that does sound delicious.

Apart from being a big fan of flaunting the phonetic fun of alliteration, I chose bard to precede Boston in my blog title and Twitter handle (@BardOfBoston) because the term uniquely encapsulates several of the qualities that pertain to my interests, hobbies, career and ancestral past.
  • Celtic: The term bard has its roots in the Celtic linguistic/cultural tradition, a tradition that today applies to persons of Irish, Highland Scottish, Manx, Welsh and Cornish descent. As an Irish American, the Celtic term bard seemed fitting, especially in light of its definition(s).
  • Writer: According to, a bard is "one of an ancient Celtic order of composers and reciters of poetry." Although I don't compose poetry to pay the bills, I do compose copy and web content. Furthermore, songwriting is a hobby of mine, which ties in with the next bullet point.
  • Musician: Another definition of bard from is as follows: "(formerly) a person who composed and recited epic or heroic poems, often while playing the harp, lyre, or the like." In my spare time, I play Celtic music; and back in my Montreal days, I even had a Celtic/folk band (Devaney's Goat). But what ties into this definition of bard even more specifically is that I play the Irish bouzouki, which is not too different from a lyre.
  • Historian: Merriam-Webster defines bard as "a tribal poet-singer skilled in composing and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds." In addition, clarifies in a later definition that bards "recited verses about the exploits, often legendary, of their tribes." As an amateur historian who is striving to keep stories from New England's past alive, I feel that I am performing the equivalent of reciting verses about the legendary exploits of my tribe.

November 18, 2011

Can't Believe I Never Heard This Before Today: The Chieftains and Ziggy Marley Play 'Redemption Song'

Celtic music and reggae music: I would never have thought the two genres could be successfully intertwined before I listened to this collaborative effort from The Chieftains and Ziggy Marley.

But then again, if you had to choose a reggae song that already had some Celtic undertones, Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" would be a natural choice: it's driven by acoustic guitar, it has melodic qualities that are reminiscent of an Irish ballad and it lacks that classic reggae tempo that is characteristic of songs like "Buffalo Soldier" and "Jammin'." And of course, The Chieftains are some of the best musicians and collaborators in the world. If any band can make Celtic/reggae work, it's The Chieftains.

The Chieftains and Ziggy Marley recorded their rendition of "Redemption Song" for the The Chieftains' 2002 album, The Wide World Over. The album also features collaborations with The Rolling Stones, Sinéad O' Connor,  Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Sting.

November 17, 2011

'Irish Central' Names the Most Irish Town in America... and It Isn't Woburn?

The popular New York-based online publication, Irish Central, recently reported that the seaside town of Scituate, Massachusetts is the most Irish town in the United States. Census data indicate that nearly 50 percent of Scituate residents are of Irish descent.

But Scituate isn't the only community south of Boston with a plethora of Irish Americans. In Avon, Braintree, Hull, Marshfield, Milton and Pembroke, at least 44 percent of residents claim Irish ancestory.

These recent findings show that my hometown (or more accurately, homecity) of Woburn, MA is not as uniquely Irish as I had once thought: only 36 percent of Woburn residents are of Irish descent.

However, for the sake of being stubborn, I must point out that Woburn, which is about 10 miles north of Boston, has been home to a strong Irish population for considerably longer than the above-mentioned South Shore communities.

The majority of Irish families now living in the South Shore originally immigrated to Boston. It was only at the end of World War II that they began migrating from Boston to their current homes.

In contrast, Irish families began pouring into Woburn during the mid-19th century. Between 1864 and 1865, 110 of the 181 children born in Woburn had fathers who were born in Ireland.

Of course, Irish Americanism isn't a competition: this isn't Christmas at the Dwyers' house, where your 300-pound, college football-playing cousin asks you to "step outside" following a debate over the rules of a board game.

But if Irish Americanism were a competition, Scituate would win the numbers game, but I readily contend that Woburn would win the history game.

November 16, 2011

Meet Poitín: A Killer Celtic Trad Band from the Czech Republic

In addition to being an incredibly strong distilled Irish beverage, Poitín is an incredibly talented traditional Celtic band from Pizen, Czech Republic.

After finding them on Twitter (@Poitincz) a few weeks back, I headed over to their ReverbNation page to check out their tunes. I was thinking to myself, "what does a Celtic trad band from the Czech Republic sound like?"

The answer: they sound traditional. And I mean that in the best way possible. While they do experiment with didgeridoos and saxophones, Poitín readily admits that they are "firmly grounded in the pub session tradition" and like nothing better than sitting round a table in the corner of a cozy pub, bashing out old favorites about "tarry sailors, merry maids and drunken nights."

The six-person band features guitar, fiddle, banjo, bodhran and tin whistle, and is it just me, or does their lead singer sound a bit like Andy Irvine? Listen to their version of "Calton Weaver" and let me know.

November 15, 2011

The Book Every New Englander Should Read: Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks

There's more to New England's history than lazy Pilgrims, famous Revolutionary War battles and John F. Kennedy. Seriously folks, there's a lot more.

New Englanders of ole were a spirited, stouthearted and -- at times -- crazy bunch, who spent their days evading bloodthirsty pirates, running from massive floods of molasses and engaging mountain lions in hand-to-paw combat. Or at least that's part of the picture Matthew P. Mayo paints in his book, Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of Hardscrabble New England.

Mayo, who spent the first decade of his life in Rhode Island before moving to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, has succeeded where many traditional grade school textbooks have failed: he's made the history of New England engaging, exciting and -- for those who equate historical study with root canals -- approachable.

Instead of laying out a broad narrative that painstakingly documents each decade, Mayo selected 50 moments from New England's past and wrote them up as if each were a short story. Where historical records of conversations were absent, Mayo invented witty, relevant dialogue for adding depth and personality to characters.

My favorite story from Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks: "Rocket Ride." It chronicles the fateful journey of two young men who build illegal slideboards  (which are essentially old-school luges that operate on tracks) and ride down Mount Washington's Cog Railway.

Spoiler alert: the two Granite State daredevils never put breaks on their slideboards and their descent quickly turns into a ride from hell.