Now here’s an album which my inner folk purist can enjoy, free of guilt. It was recorded by the Chieftains, heavyweights of the Celtic revival from the 1960s on, master instrumentalists of traditional Irish folk. The only stain on its purity is that it was not actually manufactured in Dublin – this is an Australian pressing.
Bonaparte’s Retreat is a concept album, no less. The theme is Ireland and its ambivalent relationship with the French Revolution and later Napoleon. Exiled Irish soldiers, the “Wild Geese”, fought for Napoleon. Lots of Irishmen fought against him. Some nationalists hoped a French victory would help them win independence, which it may have done. Just as likely, though, that Napoleon would have installed one his cousins in Dublin Castle as a despot.
Like anything to do with Ireland, it is all tangled-up and confused and sad. That is just how they roll in the Emerald Isle. But they make lovely music about it, and this album is a good example.
Most of it is instrumental, though the centrepiece, the 14-minute title track, has some short, well-chosen selections from old songs. Dolores Keane sings a beautiful lament:
Did he die in Waterloo or on the banks of the Rhine
Or did he die on St Helena’s bleak shore?
The track I have chosen to play is shorter and cheerier. It is a hornpipe, dedicated to Thomas Paine and his defence of the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man. The sleeve notes explain: “The tune reflects the respect felt by defeated Ireland for the aspirations to freedom embodied in Paine’s treatise,” but in case that is too positive add, “aspirations not to be realised in Ireland for another 120 years”.
Ah, but without centuries of tangled-up, confused, sad history, what would we write music about?
- Artist: The Chieftains
- LP Title: Bonaparte’s Retreat
- Track: Side 2, Track 4: “The Rights of Man”
- Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
- Label: Interfusion L 36025
- Manufactured in: Australia
- Year: 1976
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