Acoustic Music, Saturday Soundtrack
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Carrying Irish history with them

In anticipation of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day weekend, we’ll highlight the music of one of Ireland’s best-known folk groups, Dervish. The band came together in 1989 when four of the founding members met while playing informal sessions in the pubs of Sligo: Shane Mitchell (accordion), Liam Kelly (flute/whistle), Brian McDonagh (mandola/mandolin) and Michael Holmes (bouzouki). They were soon joined by Roscommon-born singer and bodhran (drum) player Cathy Jordan, and later by all Ireland Fiddle Champion Tom Morrow in 1998.

Through the years the band has played around the world, “carrying Irish history with them,” as one reviewer wrote.

At the end of 2019 Dervish received a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the BBC, a fitting tribute to the band after over 30 years of recording and performing all over the world. Described by the BBC as “an icon of Irish music”, the band have played at festivals from Rio de janeiro to Glastonbury. They accompanied the Irish President on state visits to Latvia and Lithuania and Prime Minister of Ireland on a trade mission to China as Cultural Ambassadors taking time out to play an impromptu session on the Great Wall of China. Dervish have a line-up which includes some of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians, fronted by one of the country’s best-known singers, Cathy Jordan.

I Courted a Wee Girl features the original Dervish lineup and comes from the 1996 album The End of the Day. The band noted that this was …

The first song we heard from the singing of the late Mrs. Sarah Makem from Keady, County Armagh. We incorporated a piece of music into the song called ‘Josefin’s Waltz’ which we got from the Swedish group Väsen. The idea of blending the two together came about in a dressing room in Stockholm! The story of the man being rejected by the woman in favour of a richer husband is very similar to another song – “The Lambs on the Green Hills'” in Colm O’ Lochlainn’s book Irish Street Ballads.

It remains a fan favorite and may bring tears to your eyes.

The raucous Jim Coleman’s Set comes from the band’s earlier days, and it was included on the 2001 retrospective album Decade. Here is the tune as performed on the Live in Palma album from 1997.

Fair Haired Boy, written by songwriter Brendan Graham, is from A Healing Heart, the much quieter 2005 album “released in response to a demand for the more plaintive and relaxed Dervish tracks.”

The Swallow’s Tail, shown here with the band in performance live from Dublin in 2010, displays the group’s amazing musicianship.

Dónal Óg is surely one of the most moving Irish love songs. A song of betrayal, obsession and grief – a young girl’s cry of desolation left pregnant and abandoned by her lover Dónal. There are many versions of this song written originally in Gaelic but this one was translated by Frank O’Connor.

Just before the pandemic hit in 2020, Dervish was joined for the Celtic Connections concert in Glasgow by guests including Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Heidi Talbot and Brian Kennedy. The group played The Galway Shawl, which requires audience participation in the chorus … and those in attendance played their role with gusto!

I’ll end this celebration of Dervish and St. Patrick’s Day with two tunes featuring the band and another of my favorite roots musicians, singer Kate Rusby. The first is from the 2010 Celtic Connections concert and is titled As I Roved Out, while the second, Down by the Salley Garden, probably dating from roughly the same period, is from The Late, Late Show. Both are beautiful, with the Salley Garden ending spinning off into a wonderful minute-long bit to get the feet tapping.

Give a listen, perhaps over a pint of the black stuff, and enjoy!

More to come…


Photo of Dervish by Collin+Gillen+1 credit

This entry was posted in: Acoustic Music, Saturday Soundtrack


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: March observations | More to Come...

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