Album features songs handed down through generations

LETTERKENNY native John Tunney recently released an album – The Immigrant: A Stone on the Cairn of Tradition.
As well as some classic traditional songs, handed down from his father and others, there are some wonderful original songs, including one of his own which won the All-Ireland Fleadh competition. He is joined on various tracks by his three brothers Paddy, Cathal and Michael, two sisters Maura and Brigid and his son Conall while there’s also some poetry for good measure.
The album is dedicated to the memory of young Letterkenny man Conor O’Donnell, a former student of John’s in GMIT.
“Conor died tragically a few years ago and I asked his mother if I could dedicate the album to his memory. He was great craic and a great lover of the tradition, especially my father’s singing. There’s a certain type of Letterkenny wit that is super droll and Conor had that. He was a great guy,” John said.
Any profits that may accrue from The Immigrant will go to the mental health charity AWARE.
Speaking to the Donegal News, John explained that the songs represent six generations of family singing and range from some which date back a few hundred years to one which was only set to music in the last couple of years.
Originally from Letterkenny, John has been living in Ennis for the past twenty years and lectures in heritage at GMIT. He’s the son of the famous Paddy and grandson of the famous Brigid. He did a Masters on Donegal Protestants, and more recently a PhD on songs with Dr Mark McCarthy and Prof. Lillis Ó Laoire (singer, originally from McFadden’s Hotel, Gortahork).
“I haven’t been able to launch the album yet. I had plans for launches in Letterkenny, Ennis, Galway and Dublin – places where people know me as a singer – but Covid has put that on hold,” he said.
“I’ve dragged all my siblings in to help so it’s a real family affair. It’s how we sing at home whenever we meet at family events and I wanted to share that and keep that tone to it. A lot of CDs are very polished, surgical even, but I wanted this to feel almost like a live album,” he added.
John Tunney celebrates his 60th birthday later this year and, as the album suggests, this is his chance to place a stone on the cairn of that family singing tradition.
“There’s a lot of singers in my family and this is my little contribution. I like some of the newly composed songs of mine and my father and I feel that it’s important they get out there,” he said.
The title track, The Immigrant, is about the most recent Balkan War and the 1995 massacre at Screbrenica and he has drawn on the real experiences of a number of students that he taught in GMIT.
“It’s the first song in the traditional style where the hero is a Muslim immigrant and is based on people I taught who have come through terrible experiences abroad which led them to Ireland. It’s the story of half a dozen people and how they ended up in Ireland, often against their will, as they fled terrible events at home,” he said.
Hybrassil (or for Sheila) is a poem that John’s father Paddy wrote for his mother Sheila.
“That poem, which I put to music, was one that dad wrote about mum in his 80th year. It’s a beautiful love poem and one that any young fella would have been delighted with. They were 46 years married at the time.
“I could hear it being sung to a particular melody and I put it to the words of the poem. I sang it up here (Ennis) in a pub last summer and young people on their way to a night out all sat around and listened. It struck me there and then that old, unaccompanied, ballads in the right setting and right context can still reach out to young people and after all love is love,” he said
‘The Hills of Glenswilly’ and ‘Drinking Strong Whiskey’ are songs which date back many generations while ‘Remember Doolagh’, written in 1988, won the Men’s Ballad competition at Fleadh Cheoil na h-Eireann a number of years ago.
“My sister Brigid was responsible for me writing this song. They had organised a famine walk in Mayo and she asked me to compose something for the event. The eight verses came to me during a train journey the day before the event,” he recalled.
The beautifully produced CD contains notes about each recording which are intended to be read and listened to hand-in-hand.
“The old songs always had a context and a story behind them. It cost additional money to get the extra pages printed but nevertheless I felt it was still worth doing.
“The notes provide not just provenance but also added context and extra layers of meaning to each individual song, my quest to learn or write it, and sometimes the ins and outs of its performance,” he said.
Copies of ‘The Immigrant: A Stone on the Cairn of Tradition’ can be ordered at

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